Lately, I’ve been drawn back to Acts. Specifically, Acts 11 and 15. As I read, certain phrases and sentences stand out. Phrases like: “Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story.” And: “This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.” And: “After much discussion…” This last one is my favorite because we all know what it’s code for, don’t we? It means they fought, bitterly, for hours. I am a church nerd and like few things better than going back and reading session minutes. When I read “after much discussion,” I know it was a long night.
I suspect in the coming months there will be minutes with the phrase “after much discussion.” I know with the passage of amendment 14F there will be sharp dispute and debate among brothers and sisters in Sunday school classrooms, around conference tables and even during coffee hour. The change in the Book of Order doesn’t silence the discussion, it heightens it. The debate is no longer theoretical, it is practical.
Sessions will have sharp disputes about setting blanket policies or discerning what to do on a case-by-case basis. Some churches will think, “Well, this isn’t an issue here.” Only to discover that, in fact, one of their own wants to get married under this new possibility. Then, like in Acts, the conversation will be urgent, immediate and personal.
I recently read a book about the Holy Spirit. The author argues that, like in Acts 15, the Holy Spirit is particularly present and at work in the midst of gut-wrenching conflict. (If my books were unpacked, I’d give you the title and the author.) I found his argument both compelling and encouraging. It reminded me that God is not absent from sharp debate and dispute, but rather actively working through those heated conversations.
Holding on to that truth will be important in the days ahead. It will also be critical to infuse our discussions with prayer, Bible study and worship. I would commend gathering around tables: the communion table and the dinner table.
I also encourage us to be explicit about how we will talk with one another. Expectations matter and holding one another accountable to those expectations is critical, too.
A resource, “Ground Rules for Family Meetings,” shared with me by a wise ruling elder, has helped me in many and varied situations. Harvard Business Review has a brief and helpful article on managing difficult conversations. While not everything applies to church, much of it does.
There are also resources for study. The Thoughtful Christian has both a youth and adult study titled “Same Sex Marriage, For Better or Worse.” Additionally, there are many thoughtful books that explore more broadly human sexuality and our current climate of division around it. “The Church Transforming” by Garrett and Jinkins and “God, Desire and a Theology of Human Sexuality” by Jensen are two such examples.
My hope is that we will not fear our sharp debates, but rather trust God to work through them as we seek to make manifest the unbreakable unity won for us through Christ Jesus our Lord. My prayer is that we will share with one another our whole stories, speak the truth in love and listen – to each other and to the Holy Spirit.