Do you want to be a liberal in a conservative denomination or a conservative in a liberal denomination? This was the question asked of me many years ago as I wrestled with where God was calling me to serve. Having been raised in the Pentecostal tradition, I knew that no matter which route I chose my mother would be praying for me!
Eventually it began to grow clearer that the water in which I was called to wade, no matter how muddled or turbulent, was the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I knew that it would not be easy and that at times I would feel like an outsider (as much for my background as my theology), but I also knew that the tension would force me to continually seek God’s face.
In honesty I have frequently found myself weary from fighting with brothers and sisters in Christ over Scripture, sexuality, love and justice. There are times when this family squabble makes me yearn for the peace of forgetting it all and simply moving away.
I can remember the first time I felt like that. It wasn’t after a conversation with a progressive seminary classmate or a contested presbytery meeting or another round of voting on amendments. No, it was 27 years ago, when I was 11 and my mother finally told me the reason my parents were getting a divorce was that my father was gay.
In an instant, I began to see that life was not nearly as neat and tidy as I had previously imagined. Scripture, sexuality, love and justice came crashing together, not in some distant theoretical place but into the deepest part of my being. It is a collision that I have heard virtually every day since then, no matter how, in Jonah-like fashion, I have tried to flee. Though my theology has matured and my wisdom and love have hopefully deepened since that day, when I reflect on this collision, the vulnerability and confusion often result in my feeling more like that pre-pubescent boy and less like a nearly 40-year-old, seminary-trained Presbyterian pastor.
Perhaps it is for this reason that I ended up deciding to join our tumultuous denomination. Not out of a masochistic need to relive my own pain and vulnerability, but because of a need to be in the presence of those who are likewise a part of the collision.
At this point, I continue to believe that I have a calling to be in a place where these conversations and debates are raw, painful and incredibly honest. For the most part I feel this denomination has given me that opportunity in ways that few others ever could, and for this I am incredibly grateful. I have embraced those deeply personal times of struggling with others to hear Christ in the midst of flawed humanity, where sin and grace collide.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t grieved at times and even questioned whether I was being faithful in staying, a question with which I must continually wrestle. As an evangelical (of the Presbyterian variety) I understand the pain, loss and anger that many of my brothers and sisters feel. I fear that many progressives have heard the anger across the aisle and been unable to see the broken hearts that underlie it.
While it may be easy for some to critique those who are conservative as holding back progress (and we need to be critiqued for this at times), the reality is that as a Christian community we are in peril if we lose one of our “ends” which hold us in tension. All too often when this tension is lost, we are left with a community that looks less like Christ and more like ourselves.
So it is that we in the Presbyterian Church find ourselves in an incredibly volatile place. What will it look like if the tension between conservatives and liberals unravels even more as evangelicals find their home elsewhere? More personally, what does an evangelical like me who continues to feel called to engage with those in this fold do if it becomes clear that my voice is either no longer heard or wanted? This is not a “woe is me” question from an angry adversary, but a genuine query to those whose hermeneutic of the Gospel simply looks different than mine.
I am not beseeching my evangelical sisters and brothers to stay for just a little longer. For many of them, the time to depart has come, and I neither wish to convince them otherwise nor feel it is my place to do so. I will certainly miss their support, encouragement and guidance, which have been more helpful for me than I have probably understood. I am, furthermore, not asking for a return to power. Power does not interest me and it is likewise not for any human or institution to give.
What I am asking for, though, from the General Assembly to Louisville and to presbyteries across the country, is a willingness to experiment with new ways to be church. New ways that will allow evangelicals like me who continue to feel called to this place to remain not just tolerated but welcomed.
It might be a more friendly approach to affinity groups, or nongeographic presbyteries, or union churches or many other creative ventures that God’s people may discover. I will admit that every new option we try will have risks, and there will certainly be some that fail. However, I am equally convinced that if we do nothing, we will end up losing a vital segment of our body. My fear is that this loss will leave us with wounds from which we will not quickly, if ever, heal.
This is not a scare tactic or fear mongering but simply the observation from one person behind the “conservative curtain.” I know I am not alone in hoping that evangelicals in our denomination will feel they have been given the freedom to remain and be faithful. There are many who are looking for a “release valve” that allows them to be distinct, yet still united. Will we lose some of our connectedness in trying these new structures? I am not naïve enough to think we will not. Yet, I also believe that those evangelicals who remain, even if distinct, will be of the ilk to continue in relationship with those whose denomination we share.
On the other hand, we can be almost certain that our relationships will be severed if there is a complete separation.
Yes, many will leave no matter what changes are made. The gauntlet has been thrown down and they simply cannot in good conscience stay. But there are others who, for a plethora of reasons, remain called to stay. We will be the ones who disagree with you and with whom you are often completely baffled. We will be those who keep asking why it’s OK to seemingly dismiss one text and not another. We will be that brother or sister who will not stop asking whether your understanding of love does not, in some way, cheapen it.
But we will also be the ones who are excited to partner with you on what we know is a difficult and sometimes incomprehensible journey of faith. Many of us will be those who mourn the brokenness of sexuality (in all its forms) and long to explore with you how God can be seen in the midst of all our brokenness. We will be that brother or sister who cannot let go of you, even when our hugs might look more like wrestling holds.
To be sure, there are difficult days ahead of us. Days when it would be easier for us to simply part ways, days when we believe we were foolish to try new ways of being together. But I am not yet ready to give up on the belief that God can work through us, no matter the struggle.
My hope is that we have the courage to engage in this struggle and experiment with new ways of moving forward together. Not simply to keep our denomination alive but out of a belief that God’s Kingdom is strengthened when followers of Christ, from the right and the left, continue to live out this faith together. May those of us who feel called to this life together have the energy, intelligence, imagination and love that will be needed for the journey ahead.
JERRY DECK is executive director of Presbyterian Global Fellowship and lives in Encinitas, Calif.