A very strange thing happened near my home a few weeks ago. It happened quickly, then was over in a few days and left me shell-shocked and amazed.
At a busy country crossroads, a billboard was installed consisting of four separate statements, each in its own colourful box: “Bibles back in schools! Let the Bible be your teacher.” “Marijuana or peace with God.” “A ship without a rudder is tossed to and fro.” “God says no to homosexuality and abortion.”
It was the last statement that caused the fuss. Outrage began even before the sign was completely installed. A passerby noticed the admonition against homosexuality, snapped a photo of the partially-complete sign and uploaded it to Facebook. Among the swift comments: “Pretty sure this violates the Charter!” “I expect nothing less from the religious nut jobs.”
Those responding didn’t exactly dwell on the words or carefully unpack the statement before reacting in anger. They didn’t call the phone number on the sign and inquire about the author’s thinking. People read what they wanted. The outrage spread like wildfire on a windy day. Within a few hours, it had been shared widely and made the local news. The president of the local gay pride association said it “attacks the very soul of Chatham-Kent.”
Few people defended the sign; those who did pointed to free speech, even if it’s offensive. But that didn’t wash among the militants: “There’s also a big difference between being offensive and promoting hate of a specific group,” said one critic.
The 81-year-old man who paid for the sign and put his phone number on display said that the message about homosexuality was a warning to his 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren and their generations who don’t realize that there’s a link between same-sex attraction and higher rates of suicide.
The sign lasted only four days. It was removed by the property owner without the client’s knowledge.
The sad affair speaks volumes about how much we truly value freedom of thought and speech and to what degree we tolerate diverging views.
Sadly, the church isn’t much better. I’m not pointing fingers at the modernists. The evangelicals are just as likely to judge and take a negative slant in a theological debate. Those on the fringes who have disdain for the LGBTQ community may be a small minority, but they tarnish all evangelicals. At the same time, there are those of a liberal mindset who like to compare traditional thinkers to those who were once opposed to female elders or racial equality. Or worse.
But in the nastiness of the billboard reaction, God shows up. A mere hour after I learned of the billboard and read the uninformed reactions, I ran into a friend who happens to be in a long-term same-sex relationship. She is a dear, sweet, caring person and I love her like a sister despite our radically different lifestyles. We spoke about the billboard. She echoed the frustration of those who saw it as hate. While I didn’t defend the sign per se (a public sidewalk wasn’t the place for this discussion) I did say it was the wrong way to go about voicing an opinion and, in fact, it might be doing more harm than good. I did point out that while I don’t know the man who arranged it, the offending statement doesn’t necessarily translate into hate. What we need is dialogue, I said. It was a brief discussion. We promised to do coffee sometime soon.
Why can’t we do that as a denomination? If we can have respectful one-on-one conversations with LGB friends and with church people who hold different theologies – which just about all of us do – can we not do so on a macro level?
The billboard, the reaction to it and my five-minute encounter with an old friend revealed three lessons.
First, the way forward to dialogue won’t be successful if it’s prescribed. What’s needed is a groundswell of local discussion that would become a foundation for a national conversation on how to co-exist. Ask the Holy Spirit to ignite something.
Second, the divide is so deeply entrenched that we need unbreakable and realistic guarantees of freedom of thought and action. Let it be stated clearly that our desire at Renewal Fellowship is that the church will renew an authentic biblical view and reaffirm our theology and teaching, which includes marriage and sexuality. However, in light of the fact that neither side in this debate is showing any sign of resigning from the PCC in any substantial number, we are stuck with each other. It’s like the Cold War in the church: stalemate and rising tensions. I can pray for a Berlin Wall to come tumbling down or the rise of a Mikhail Gorbachev, but I’m not holding my breath. So let’s embrace realpolitik: if we are to face a future in which competing theologies co-exist in one denomination, how do we protect the traditional point of view? We need a framework which guards against the proverbial slippery slope. God help us if there is ever a change in our polity and framework to allow some diversity of practice, let alone theology. But if that happens, then we must protect the traditional, apostolic foundation of the church – what we maintain is authentic biblical thinking – in perpetuity, not for 10-12 years. If the church ever allows legal ordination of those in the active LGB community and to solemnize same-gender marriage, then those opposed must be allowed the right not to actively participate.
Third is a lesson for those on the evangelical side. Like missionaries to our own people, we need to go into dark places, learn the language, understand the culture, and speak the truth, all with the love of Christ. We need to be more like Jesus who looked with love at the rich young man who just couldn’t give up his attachment to worldly wealth. No anger. No screaming billboards, pamphlets, flyers, or inflammatory posts. Speak the truth in love. And echo the words of Christ, who didn’t condemn but said, “Go and sin no more.”