By: Dennis Reid
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17 New International Version).
Many church leaders today are unwilling to face divisive issues. Perhaps they see it as their way of keeping the peace. Or, perhaps Barry Blood, author of Giving Voice to the Silent Pulpit, is correct when he writes, “it is a matter of self-preservation.1” After all, leaders who stir the pot often find themselves out of a job. Unfortunately, another reason some church leaders choose not to address divisive issues is that they have a very low view of the laity (and perhaps an over-inflated view of their own selves.)
One day, early in my ministry career, I was sitting at a local Applebee’s with a much more seasoned ministry colleague. In our discussion, I was relaying my dissatisfaction of elders who seemed only to want to fight over the particular hot topic of the day with the intent of dividing the church. As I vented my feelings, he stopped me cold in my tracks by saying, “Dennis, never forget, sheep are stupid.” The extremism of his statement shocked me. Finally, gathering my thoughts, I responded with, “Well, if that is true, then whose fault is that?” That question, and the obvious answer started me on a journey.
What I have discovered along the way is that the real issue is not the particular intelligence level of the metaphorical sheep. In fact, most are well-equipped to engage controversial issues and are rather hungry to do so with intellectual integrity. Rather, if I may be so bold, the real issue is that many church leaders do not take the time to feed the sheep. Or, if they do feed the sheep they feed them in a way that is destructive to the entire flock.
This is to say that we have inherited a mindset that simply does not work. It has led to a “win/lose” model of leadership that dates back to the year 325 when the Roman Emperor Constantine called for the First Council of Nicea. His hope was to develop a theological consensus that would unite all the churches of Christendom. The council developed the Nicene Creed, which outlined the official statement on the Trinitarian nature of God. Those who disagreed with the council were banished and a precedent was established that silenced diversity at the insistence of theological purity. Fast forward through church history and you will see that this insistence has led us through the crusades, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, removal of heads, wars, church splits and countless violence directed mostly at those who are genuinely seeking to be faithful to their God.
There are three reasons why this mindset does not work nor will it ever work. First, it is built on human ways rather than the ways of God. In Isaiah, the Lord declares, ““For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”(Isaiah 55:8 NIV). Our ways look like this. First, we label people. Once we have them labeled, we can then go about the destructive work of dividing into “us versus them.” At this point, teachers and leaders rally folks around their particular viewpoint. This gives the leader or teacher power that ultimately feeds the master of human ways, their ego. And God says, “My ways are not your ways.”
The second reason this model is fundamentally flawed is that it neglects to understand that all controversial issues are much more complex than the simple black and white solutions that many leaders and teachers offer. This leads to the third reason this model is flawed. Contrary to what is preached from both the left and the right, there are good and faithful Christians on both the right and the left who seek to “Love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength” (Luke 10:27 NIV).
For these reasons, and perhaps others, it is no wonder that most church leaders or church educators decide that it is just easier to “simply not go there.” They know that the model we have inherited is flawed and that the inevitable conclusion to taking on controversial issues under this model will, at best, alienate good and faithful Christians and, at worst, will split the flock.
Yet, I contend that controversial issues, properly taught, can unite a congregation rather than divide it. The purpose of theological education, after all, should never be to divide the people of God. I also believe that church leadership’s primary responsibility is to feed the sheep by giving them the information to make informed decisions while teaching them how to think rather than focusing on what to think. In the divisive culture that many denominations find themselves today, I am calling for a return to civility and for the church to place, above all else, our commitment to being one unified body of faith, even in the midst of differing opinions. To do this, we need a new mindset.
Every year, one of my favorite Christmas traditions is to watch the claymation cartoon Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer with my son. There is this great scene in which Hermie, the toy making elf who wants to be a dentist, has run away. He is hiding in the snow and Rudolph, having just been ridiculed by the other reindeer, bumps into him. Hermie, explaining his plight to Rudolph, states, “I am independent.” Rudolph responds with what might be the foundational principle of a new mindset for us when he says, “I am independent too. Let’s be independent together!”
An independent/together mindset understands that all of us are on a unique spiritual journey. Along this journey, if we are fed and willing to grow, our opinions and understandings develop and sometimes even change. An independent/together mindset understands that we will never arrive at the point of theological unity because we are all at different places on our own independent journeys.
An independent/together mindset challenges educators to become a chameleon and to go to people wherever they are on their journey. The Apostle Paul says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law” (1 Corinthians 9:20 NIV). Paul is presenting us with a model that says go to the conservative or the progressive with a commitment to walk with them on their unique independent journey, even if that is not where you are on your journey.
At the heart of an independent/together mindset are the educators calling to bring the people of God closer together rather than to divide them into theological camps that are opposed to one another. This requires humility. In humility, we trust that the same Holy Spirit who has guided us will be there to guide them. In humility, we value those with whom we disagree rather than call them weak. In humility, we know that God says, “On the contrary to your opinion, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that you think are less honorable, I treat with special honor” (paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 12:22–23).
My own experience has taught me that this model works. Several years ago I led a sermon series titled Confronting the Controversies2 based on the work of Adam Hamilton. It was a seven-week series that tackled some of the more difficult issues of our day. Instead of taking one side and proclaiming it as the gospel truth, I did the best job I could to present the issues from all sides, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each view. Rarely did I offer my opinion, and if I did, it was at the end of the service during a talk back session.
There are three responses that stand out in my mind. The first was from a woman who said, “Even after hearing all sides, I am still convinced of my position. But, what you gave me was the language to articulate why.” The second response came from an elderly man who said, “While you affirmed everything I have always believed, you challenged me with a deeper understanding and, I can’t believe I am saying this, but I think I have changed my mind.” The very next person in line said, “While I have not changed my mind, I now can respect why people hold the other opinion and I realize that they are being faithful too.”
I have no idea where these three will end up on their independent theological journeys. What I can tell you is that these well fed sheep are secure in Christ’s arms and are as committed as ever to being together as one family of faith.
- 0od, Barry, “Giving Voice to the Silent Pulpit” Resource Publications, 2011, p.12
- Confronting the Controversies is a curriculum created by Adam Hamilton, pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The study dealt with the issues of 1. The Separation of Church and State, 2. Creation and Evolution in the Public Schools, 3. The Death Penalty, 4. Euthanasia, 5. Prayer in Public Schools, 6. Abortion, and 7. Homosexuality. The series was so popular that the next year I was asked to do Confronting the Controversies Part II. In Part II, we covered 1. Stem Cell Research, 2.Gun Control, 3.Palestine/Israel, 4.Immigration, 5.Healthcare Reform and 6.Just War
Dennis Reid is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clearwater, FL. He has a master of divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary and a doctorate of ministry from Graduate Theological Foundation having completed all course work at Oxford University.