How do you balance your moral integrity, intellectual honesty, and sincere curiosity with keeping the peace in your church, home, or family? Have you ever asked a question and was told that “we shouldn’t ask those kinds of questions?” Or perhaps you’ve picked up on the impression that whatever topic, question, passage, or whatever that you’re genuinely curious about is already settled, has already been answered, and there is no more need for further inquiry or discussion, so you might as well keep your mouth shut and listen to the higher authorities.
When you’re in this kind of environment, it is difficult for you to stay honest with yourself and feel free to ask questions that you feel haven’t been sufficiently answered. Ask the wrong question and you may give off the impression that you are doubting the authority of your leaders, the intellectual capabilities of past thinkers in your tribe, or maybe even the Bible itself.
Of course, for you, none of this is true, at least with no malicious intent.
You love your tradition. You love the Bible. You love God. And of course you respect those brilliant men and women upon who’s shoulders you stand. But as you grow as a Christian, you can’t help but feel that some of the answers that you’ve been given don’t line up with what you’ve seen in your own experience, so intellectual honesty demands that you seek out better, more helpful answers.
But there’s a problem. You love your church. You love your friends. You love your family. And when you hear about “false teachers” your whole life who believe the things you’re asking questions about, you know that asking these questions may hurt your relationship with your family or your church because they’ve made it clear that alternative views are not tolerated.
Or you may have heard about specific people or groups of people who asked those questions, and we all know where they ended up! People like Rubel Shelly, Max Lucado, Cousin Cletus, Aunt Sally, or “those liberals” or “those progressives” asked those kinds of questions, and look where they are now.
But you can’t help that you have these questions. And you can’t help that the answers usually given aren’t sufficient for you.
So do you ask the questions and risk making your family, friends, church, youth group, or pastor feel uncomfortable, or worse, risk them labeling you as a liberal or whatever? Or do you put your head down, go through the motions, and hope that someone else will ask those questions for you.
“Well you could find a community that lets you ask those questions.”
Yes, but it’s not that simple. Because, depending on how you were raised, to leave your church would seem like abandoning your fiends and family who attend that church. The spiritual freedom would be refreshing, but the awkward conversations at Thanksgiving, or not even being invited to Thanksgiving, may be pressure you don’t want or need right now, especially if there are children or grandkids involved.
So, what do you do?
Now, lets up the stakes a little. Let’s say you are on staff at a church. Maybe you are a paid minister or a youth group leader or a pastor, or maybe you work as a secretary, worship leader, or even volunteer in different areas. This is more than somewhere you go on Sundays. It is your livelihood, your career, your passion, or your only social group outside of close family and high school friends.
Asking questions in this scenario isn’t just about upsetting family or friends or church leaders; now it is about losing your financial support or a volunteer position you love. For paid staff, this means that the questions you have not only affect your personal relationships, but they also affect the short-term financial wellbeing of your family. Depending on the questions, it may even affect the long-term financial wellbeing of your family if the questions lead you to not only leave your church but also your denomination or network.
So what do we do?
Let me add another layer to all of this.
Let’s say you take the position that the only scenario in which someone can divorce and remarry is if one spouse in unfaithful. In that case, the innocent party can remarry, but the guilty party must remain single for the rest of their life.
This is the commonly held position among the fellowship of the Churches of Christ in which I was raised. Even in situations of abuse, a couple was expected to remain together or stay single if they did separate.
Other churches in the area, though, reach different conclusions. The leaders from the different churches discover these alternative views, and they mark the other churches as unfaithful. Conferences are held, higher authority figures are brought in, and members shuffle between congregations. After the dust settles, one will occasionally hear whispers of what the other churches are doing, but the damage has been done, and one is not allowed to even call one of the other groups “Christians.”
But then something happens. Your aunt is brutally beaten by her husband. He is arrested, they divorce, and your aunt goes through months of much needed therapy. In the process, she relocates to a new town and meets a wonderful new man. They want to get married. He is obviously a great Christian guy, and he loves her very much. She is happy for the first time in a long time, and she sends out wedding invitations to her family and friends. You get one in the mail one day, but there is a problem.
In your opinion, she shouldn’t remarry because her first husband never cheated on her. How can you attend a wedding you see as illegitimate? How can you endorse a relationship you feel is against God’s will?
But then another voice pops into your head: why would a loving God ever demand that this woman, who has been abused and beaten ruthlessly by her husband, return to her abuser or stay single for the rest of her life? This is never a question you had before because the discussion was always about an “issue,” not people, especially not a person you love.
When what you know to be true about the nature of God doesn’t seem to line up with your doctrine, you start asking questions. You start reading other authors. And you begin to realize that this debate was not as settled as you were led to believe. You start meeting people who have been remarried who are happy, actively find ways to serve Jesus, and bear a lot of good fruit.
Suddenly, you find yourself stuck between two options: do I support my aunt and risk expulsion from my community or do I hide my beliefs, support her from a distance, and keep the peace?
You don’t want to cause another church split. You don’t want to be labeled as liberal or as a false teacher by your friends and family. But you also don’t see how you can remain true to yourself and stay silent. After all, isn’t that what a hypocrite is? And we know how bad they are, right?
What do you do when an abstract issue that you could debate at a distance turns into a real person that you respect, love, and care a lot about?
Talking about women’s roles is fun in theory, but what happens when you must choose between affirming a young woman’s right to give a communion talk and offending a large portion of the congregation? Studying the Bible’s teaching on same-sex relationships is fascinating, but what happens when that subject suddenly has a name, a face, and a soul that demands more than an “I don’t know”? Debating the use of instruments in worship can be fun, but what happens when you have a young man who is talented like David and wants to play his instrument to glorify God at your typically a cappella church?
And what do you do when even saying that you are studying a subject like this means risking friendships, relationships, or maybe even a salary? Especially when that subject is considered settled, sufficiently answered, and fully explored (and, of course, the way we always read it was right just as we expected)?
For those of us who have genuine questions about “settled” issues, we find it hard to even voice those questions because of the polarized nature of the topics, especially when they are wrapped up in our dualistic political culture. Whenever someone asks, “So what’s your opinion on [whatever]” and we get the impression that it is not from a place of genuine curiosity but a “choose your side” kind of question, it can cause us to freeze up and just agree with whatever because of the internal struggle we feel.
All this being said, we must be the kind of person our friends can totally unload on with zero judgement. It has to start with me and you. From there, we can influence others to do the same in the hopes that our churches and other communities become safe places to voice any question without fear of judgement or exclusion from the group. This calls for mutual humility, authenticity, and transparency.
Bradley Jersak recently tweeted, “Kenosis is the highest form of deconstruction. Spiritual arson is the lowest.” The word “kenosis” refers to Jesus “emptying” himself on our behalf in Philippians 2. It is the idea of letting go of ourselves so that we can be servants to others. Whatever power, prestige, glory, or honor we may have should be sacrificed for our neighbor. Humbling ourselves in this way makes us safe people to be authentic around, and it leads to God lifting us up in ways we can’t imagine on our own.
May we throw away the idea of taboo questions. May we not invite questions with the subconscious intentions of correcting dissenting opinions, exposing heretics, and isolating others with whom we disagree. May we be the kinds of people others can fully be themselves around. And may we turn our churches into safe havens for people who are growing in their faith. Finally, may we all unite on our mutual love for God and neighbor without the need for uniformity.