By Rob Renfroe
Recently Dr. Timothy Tennent posted an article on seedbed.com entitled “Why the Church is So Concerned with Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination.” As president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Tennent’s article was thoughtful, insightful and reserved. In all of his writings, he has a wonderful way of making his point without belittling or condemning those with whom he disagrees.
The reaction to Dr. Tennent’s article was as predictable as it was immediate. Of the many responses that could be cited, Dr. Sanford Brown, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Seattle, critiqued Dr. Tennent’s thoughts as “a reminder that our message of ‘God is love’ hasn’t yet melted the iceberg at the heart of conservative, evangelical Christianity.”
Dr. Brown’s primary criticism was that those of us who maintain traditional Christian beliefs regarding sexual morals do not truly love our neighbors. Instead we are “… hamstrung with the older-than-Christianity tradition that drags us downward toward pride in our own righteousness and condemnation toward others and emptiness of heart toward the stranger.”
We’ll leave aside Dr. Brown’s less than charitable characterization of those he disagrees with. But his response did cause me to think about the words we use.
For example, the word “love.” Brown uses the word 18 times in his article and along with “listening,” he states that love should be the determining factor in how we think about homosexuality. But he never defines “love.”
We must love our neighbors, Brown rightly contends, but he never defines what it means to love another person. The closest he gets is that love requires us to be in “an attitude of compassionate service” to those around us. But that simply begs the question, “What does it mean to serve someone?” “What does it mean to love?”
I facilitate a course at our church titled “How to Love and Help Your Adult Child.” Parents attend who have children who are alcoholic, guilty of criminal behavior, and/or repeating bad decisions regarding their love life. And every parent who attends, no matter how much pain he or she has experienced, still loves his or her child.
But the question becomes: “What does it mean to love a child who is making poor decisions?” Some want to give the child money and shelter so he or she will be safe. They’re certain that’s what love would do. Others feel they must let the child live with the consequences of his or her choices, even if it means living on the streets. These parents believe that’s the loving thing to do. Both sets of parents love their child, but they disagree about what love requires.
I think in some ways that’s where the church is.
Does loving others mean that we must celebrate their lifestyle? Does serving another person mean we must accept and support every choice he or she makes?
If it does, then surely Jesus was not a loving person. He told people, all people, to repent of their wrong choices and change their “lifestyle,” to use a word that was not known in the time of Jesus and is today used primarily to defend the idea that all moral and sexual choices are equal and above criticism. He told the greedy, the self-righteous, the sexually immoral, and those who taught falsehood as truth to repent – not because he did not love them, but because he did.
There was no iceberg in the heart of Jesus. There was no emptiness of compassion in his soul. There was only the purest love the world has ever known. And yet, serving others did not mean accepting what they did or what they taught. It meant caring enough to tell people the truth they needed to hear – the truth that would set them free.
M. Scott Peck defined love this way: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing … another’s spiritual growth.” I don’t deny – in fact, I decry – the fact that there are some conservative Christians who use demeaning language toward persons with same sex attraction and who find it difficult to feel compassion or have friendships with persons who are gay. That’s not who I am. Furthermore, it’s not indicative of any of the orthodox leaders I know within the UM Church. But I know there are some conservative Christians who are unwilling to “extend” themselves to love, accept and serve persons – all persons – as they are. And out of love let me say, they need to repent and change.
But there is also a word of caution in Dr. Peck’s definition of love for progressives. And that is what does it mean to nurture another person’s spiritual growth.
Is spiritual growth nothing more than learning to accept one’s self? Or is spiritual growth a process of transformation from who we are into the person God wants us to be?
Is spiritual growth learning the eternal moral truths of the Bible and living accordingly? Or is it ignoring the teachings of The New Testament in order to affirm “the new thing” that liberals tell us “the Spirit is now doing?”
Is spiritual growth coming to a place where we believe we know the motives of others and judge them for having icebergs in their hearts and being guilty of “pride in (their) own righteousness” and “emptiness of heart toward the stranger?” Or is it believing that we can have real differences on important issues and even write about them, without impugning each other’s motives?
Progressives tell us that the way of Christ is the way of love. And I agree. But what we don’t find in Jesus is the love of the sentimentalist. What we don’t witness in the ministry of Jesus is grace without truth. And what we don’t see in Jesus is a compassion that accepted people without also telling them, “Now, go and sin no more.”
No, he extended himself to nurture the spiritual growth of people – and that always meant speaking to people about the Father’s love and their brokenness and their sin. And then teaching them about and loving them into a new way of life.
My best friends have been the ones who have told me when I was failing. They have done so with compassion, but on two occasions, different friends have said, “Rob, here’s an area of your life that needs to change.” And they were right. I needed someone to confront me and correct me. And these two friends loved me enough to tell me the truth – and nurture my spiritual growth. And I am forever grateful.
I hope the church will be a good friend to all – the greedy, the self-righteous, the sexually immoral, the prejudiced, the alcoholic, the judgmental. And being a good friend means loving people as they are and then nurturing their growth so they can become more the person God desires them to be.
That is the least that love requires.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.