Our radically congregational polity is a good place to start when addressing the role of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church.
Disciples congregations have the final call on who to call as their pastors. And any “denominational” statement made by the General Assembly — whatever this amorphous ecclesial blob is — cannot be unequivocally enforced at the congregational level. The General Assembly is not a magisterium. We praise God for that.
So what holds us together? Covenant. Good old-fashioned, un-tyrannical, contra-hierarchical, grace-filled covenant. We pledge to stay together. As I speak with some of my fellow Latino pastors who are not open and affirming, it brings me joy when they say that they will stay with los Discípulos, even if it becomes “officially” open and affirming — as if we can ever be officially anything. Pushing them in conversation, I ask why, and the most frequent answer is simple: Porque somos Discípulos — Because we’re Disciples. They get it!
Unfortunately, there are those among the Discípulos who would leave, were the General Assembly to officially proclaim an open-and-affirming stance — or radical inclusion, or ally, or chillin’ with my gay peeps, or whatever the churchy buzzword is these days. Yet, I challenge my fellow Discípulos on their leaving — mainly because I am, after all, a Discípulo. I remind them of those other points of divergence and dissonance between their perceptions of the larger church and of themselves as individual Discípulos — for example:
• The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)/La Iglesia Cristiana (Discípulos de Cristo) does not hold an official stance on the authority of scripture — maybe, that of scripture as light, if the Affirmation of Faith could be officially affirmed. And yet, even though some of my fellow Discípulos are inerrantists or proponents of the infallibility of scripture, they haven’t left los Discípulos.
• Disciples are not officially a Pentecostal denomination. And yet, even though the charismatically inclined spiritual orientation of some of my fellow Discípulos is probably more suited to the Church of God in Christ, The Vineyard, or the Assemblies of God, they haven’t left los Discípulos.
• Disciples are English-dominant. And yet, even though the world of my fellow Discípulos is Spanish-dominant and there are plenty of small — and Pentecostal-ish — church concilios that are Spanish-dominant (Movimiento Mundial, Movimiento Internacional, Defensores de la Fe, to name a few), they haven’t left los Discípulos.
• Disciples do not hold an official stance on immigration. And yet, even though many of my fellow Discípulos support radical immigration reform or are personally counting on it, they haven’t left los Discípulos.
• The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) still harbors racists and cannot even adequately fund its own Reconciliation Ministries. And yet, even though my fellow Discípulos have experienced racism — or “diet, low-carb” racism like paternalism and condescension — in the church, they haven’t left los Discípulos.
I remind my fellow Discípulos that they are Disciples precisely because they are allowed to disagree without disavowing their identity as Discípulos/Disciples. That is the messiness of our life together.
I wonder if some regional ministers have forgotten this. Not only have their congregations made a covenant with them, regions reciprocally have made a covenant with their congregations. I think regions should empower and support congregations as they freely make decisions about local leadership. Regional ministers should not limit the congregations’ choices of candidates, nor should they prohibit the limits that congregations set for themselves.
It is the congregations themselves — those on the ground, doing the work of the gospel — that should set the parameters and guidelines for who and what they need. If a congregation wants a tongue-speaking liberal, the region should be there to support them. If a congregation wants a gay evangelical, the region should be there to support them. In short, I remind regions and congregations alike that they are Disciples precisely because they are allowed to disagree without disavowing their identity as Discípulos/Disciples. That is the messiness of our life together.
I serve as associate pastor in a wonderful, predominantly Latino, multicultural congregation. And we are happy that our region has supported us in our decisions and moves concerning local leadership. This is a region that gives us the freedom to choose what we want and the freedom to choose what we don’t want. Several years back, our region encouraged all its congregations to go through the Process of Discernment, and so we did. It was a mess, but we did it.
After much prayer, reflection, and study, we decided not to become an open and affirming congregation. In our congregational leadership, we have people who affirm the ordination of gay persons, and we have people who don’t. Yet, despite our disagreements, we have decided this much: We will stay together porque somos Discípulos. For it is our common mission in poverty-stricken Northwest Indiana, and not our common theology, that keeps us together. Ah, the messiness of our life together!
Covenants are messy. We must be open and affirming to this covenantal messiness. The stereotypical Right may think that the Disciples/los Discípulos have gone too far; the stereotypical Left may think that the Disciples/los Discípulos haven’t gone far enough. But the messiness of our togetherness must be protected against monopolizing from any extreme. Hence, I’m not pushing for Disciples to become “open and affirming”; rather, I’m pushing for Disciples to remain Disciples.
With this said, I understand that I’m speaking conveniently and safely as a heterosexual, Latino male. And while I can easily fall back into defensive mode and rant about the injustices faced by mi gente, I know that I am “beyond innocence” (to use Justo González’ phrase) and have benefited from the idolatrous fruits that come with being male and straight. (I would remind white gay folks that they are beyond innocence as well, because of their white privilege.) I thusly recognize that if there is one group that is still deemed unclean by the religious establishment — even though Jesus refused to consider anyone unclean — it is gay folks.
We Disciples/Discípulos have convenanted to stay together, to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. This means that we, as a small part of the body of Christ, have decided (in theory, at least) to carve out a place — a safe place — for all those who confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Living God, and take him to be Savior and Lord of the world — baroque high-liturgists and tambourine-shaking charismatics, tongue speakers and labyrinth walkers, tree huggers and gun owners, emergents and medievalists, low Christologians and high Christologians, higher-critical readers of scripture and historical-grammatical readers of scripture, the substitutionarily atoned and the theocentric, loud mouths and the hearing impaired, neo-orthodox and Tillichians, unitarians and trinitarians, fundamentalists on the Right and fundamentalists on the Left, esoteric pluralists and tract-distributing evangelists, happily married and thrice divorced, urban and rural, liberationists and those who await the Rapture, nerds and geeks, “red and yellow, black and white” and (diet, low-carb) racists, homosexuals and heterosexuals … and (diet, low-carb) homophobes.
We Disciples/Discípulos have convenanted to stay together, to be a reconciling presence in the world. And, yes, this means that amid the messiness, there will be tares aplenty among the wheat. But it’s not our job to tear out the tares. That’s God’s job, at harvest time. Our job is to pray and make sure we’re not a tare.
What a wondrous mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.