Recently, one of my favorite Christian authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, announced that she had divorced her husband of 14 years and is now in a relationship with a woman. This, just a few months after another of my favorite authors made a similar confession after 10 years of marriage. My feelings about this have been mixed and Glennon’s news, in particular, hit me hard. Much harder than I would have expected it to and I’ve spent the last few days trying to figure out why I feel so devastated by the choices and beliefs of those I don’t know personally but have looked up to so sincerely.
It’s not because I’m afraid to change my own beliefs. I’ve spent all my life as a Christian re-evaluating my beliefs on everything from the clothing I wear to the observance of Old Testament commandments. Much of my Christian faith has been built on the pursuit of correct doctrine and I’m not afraid to go against the grain of the mainstream church. It’s also not because I’m afraid of being proven wrong. I don’t think I’m a terribly prideful person… or, at least, my particular struggles with pride don’t usually include a resistance to admitting that I’m wrong (my husband might beg to differ.)
No, I think the problem for me is that I believe they are wrong*, these beautiful, witty, wonderful women who have ministered so strongly to me recently. And the question I ultimately found myself struggling with was: What now? What am I supposed to do as the church moves, ever more rapidly, to embrace a doctrine I feel is incorrect? How am I supposed to respond when those I love, respect and admire, are behaving in ways I feel are wrong? And why is this particular issue such a divisive one? As I look into the heart of my reaction to Glennon’s news, it seems that there are two things that have made this issue, and those like it, unreasonably difficult for me.
First, I think it’s because I’ve seen it as my job as a Christian to fight the “culture wars.” I feel an urgency to determine the “right” stance on issues such as abortion and gay marriage so that I can vote and champion laws correctly and change the opinions of others. But I’m beginning to understand that it’s not my job to convince anyone of what’s “right.” Certainly, I believe we’re called to share our views, correct and encourage one another, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t support worthy causes, but when I look at the life of Jesus I can’t help but notice that He didn’t spend a lot of time debating theology or proposing new laws. Instead, Jesus sought out those who were mistreated, oppressed, persecuted, condemned and forgotten, loving and serving “the least of these” everywhere He went. In many cases, the very reason those around Him were hurting and broken was due to the work of the religious leaders of the time and He had some revolutionary things to say about that. Things like: “woe to you” and “how dare you” and “you hypocrite.” True change on the heart-level is the work of the Holy Spirit and the rest of us do the job badly.
Second, I’ve been taught since my baby-Christian years that I must do all I can to protect myself from “ungodly” influence. My Christian life, until relatively recently, has been built on the premise that I must avoid anything “secular,” “pagan” or “new age,” lest these things influence me in “ungodly” ways (Google “Should Christians do Yoga” for some interesting views on this subject.) I’ve needed to be sure of everyone’s stance on “important” issues so that I could identify the “false teachers”and keep away from those who don’t believe “correctly.” All this in an attempt to avoid what may be the very deepest of all christian-culture fears: being deceived. American Christianity has turned the act of following Jesus into the work of believing, saying and doing all the right things. In this view, “incorrect doctrine,” and those who teach it, must be avoided at all costs. In the 15 years I’ve been a Christian, I think I’ve been taught more on the subject of “avoid false teachers” (2 Peter 2:1-3) than “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31.)
Well, I won’t do it anymore. I refuse to oppress others in an attempt to make them believe as I do, and I refuse to live in fear. I’ve survived false teachers before and I’ll survive them again, not because I’m smart enough to recognize deception, but because the Holy Spirit is my redeemer, my teacher, my guardian and my friend. How am I supposed to respond to those who believe differently? With love. Unconditional, unrestricted, unlimited, unmistakable love. Sometimes love calls for correction, “fighting the good fight” and even intolerance, such as Jesus with the Pharisees. At other times, it begs us to sit and simply hold the hands of our neighbors.
Jesus’s final prayer on earth was not that His followers live sinlessly, or that their doctrine be theologically sound. He prayed that we would be united as one (John 17:20-23.) I think unity begins when we stop being afraid so that we can begin the work of loving each other as God loves us.
“I think that prejudice and dislike are usually misunderstandings based upon ignorance of each other’s hearts. I really think that to truly know someone — to truly truly know someone — is to love her. Fear can’t survive proximity. Hate can’t survive a real conversation between two vulnerable, humble, honest human beings.”
– Glennon Doyle Melton
*It’s important to note here that I have not delved into the subject of homosexuality the way that many others have. So I recognize that it’s at least theoretically possible that these authors are not wrong about this issue. The point here is that my struggle was regarding how to proceed if they are wrong – about anything. I could have written this about any issue American Christianity deems “important.”