Sometimes my listening, pastoral side gets the better of me. The side that wants to hear people out, even if it’s something that I completely disagree with. For example, I’ve heard people say for years that the church—in this case the mainline church (that frankly needs a new name, because we’re really not “mainline” anymore)—must move beyond the issues of lesbians and gays. That there are more important issues out there. That calling lesbians and gays, many of whom are white, upper middle class, marginalized is a stretch. And so on.
And then I came across this. Mark Driscoll, hugely popular evangelical pastor of Mars Hill mega-church in Seattle, posted this little “gem” on Facebook: “So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you've ever personally witnessed?”
I kid you not. It’s 2011, and a formidable leader in the mega-church world actually posted this question on his FB page, receiving 87 likes and 610 comments.
Rachel Held Evans, an excellent emergent Christian author, took Driscoll to task on her blog: “Mark Driscoll is a bully. Stand up to him.”
“Mark has developed a pattern of immaturity and unkindness that has remained largely unchecked by his church. In evangelical circles, he’s like the kid from high school who makes crude jokes at every opportunity, uses the words “gay” and “queer” to describe the things he most detests, encourages his friends to subject the unpopular kids to ridicule, and belittles the guys who aren’t “macho” or “manly” enough to be in his club.”
In a non-apology that followed his being called on the carpet by a host of angels in the evangelical blogger world, Driscoll explained the source of the question. His elders asked him to do better, to talk about “real issues with real content.” Which is an odd response in itself. Is the issue of gender identity and sexual orientation not a real issue? Are we not talking, after all, about real people who attend our churches?
After skimming my way through this strange exchange, I came away convinced that “the issues underlying the issues,” as Driscoll dubs them, are issues that most of us, evangelical and mainline, would love to shove under the carpet. We don’t really want to talk about gender and sex in the church, because, you know, they’re not polite topics. And there is so much shame associated with them for so many of us, that we have to move mountains even to engage the conversation. And so instead we join in “creative” theological rationalizations to shove the issue aside, claiming it’s not worthy of serious conversation. (By the way, Driscoll promises more talk about the issues and I have to give him credit for addressing them. However, based on what I’ve seen and heard, I have little hope that his take will move beyond exclusion and bigotry.)
However awkward and out of place this may feel in the church, this is a conversation that’s absolutely necessary. It’s a conversation that’s not going away and one where, frankly, culture is way of ahead of the churches. And it’s no more or less important than the dozens of other issues that the church is unwilling to face. Economic injustice and the growing obscene gap between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans. The untouchable U.S. Defense Budget and the growing prospect that we will have to start eating tanks. Ignoring our homeless brothers and sisters, most of whom are baptized Christians. Just to name a few.
We may need first to back up and create a safe space for conversation. But let’s not avoid the conversation altogether in the interest of preserving some kind of fake peace and unity that masks deeper divisions in the way we look at the world and that obscures the Biblical call to mercy and justice. My guess is that welcoming and affirming (reconciling) churches of every stripe, rather than being an unnecessary duplication of what every church should be or perhaps on some level already is, will be critical in the creation of that safe space for real dialogue about difficult issues.