The pastor of a church we used to attend has told his congregation in one of his weekly letter that for congregants to stay silent to their friends on the issue of gay marriage would be to compromise. It is not made clear in the letter what they would compromise and that is a weakness of the letter, but given that it is from the pastor of the church, one might expect a congregant of the church to assume that not talking about gay marriage to friends is to compromise their loyalty to God. Heavy stuff.
Richard says they are to talk to their friends about the issue. Previously he has published three blog posts in which he outlines his views. They are written with a large amount of thought, are gracious in tone and precise in language. But I think this request goes further than many (in and outside of CCB) will be comfortable with. Furthermore I think it is not a request everybody needs to follow. However, paradoxically I also want to praise Richard for this request. Let me outline the paradox.
First, its absolutely not the case that everybody in the church needs to be proactive about explaining what the bible teaches about any given issue, even if it is a hot-button issue at the time to their friends. Not to speak up about an issue need not be a compromise. To say otherwise might even contradict the freedom we have in the gospel. This is a boundary I think Richard should not have crossed in this way. Richard does not justify biblically what it might be the case that it is compromise not to talk against gay marriage to a public that does not agree with us on more fundamental issues. My biblical defence of the freedom we have in the gospel not to, is that not everybody is called to the same sorts of tasks. We are one body with many parts.
It is the case however that speaking up will be something that some of us will have to do. The body is made up of people who have different skills. Some have already done so publicly. The issue was debated in the House of Commons, and it has been in the Press. Some of us will be asked that question by our friends. Ducking the question then would likely not be right. Others will feel that it is right to mention it, or raise it in a particular situation. But others will not and I think that is fine.
Richard is absolutely right that we should not bang on about the topic (he makes this clear in his letter). Rather we should be known for the good news. As he says, we should be known for the good news that Jesus has come for us, that there is hope, that we have a story to tell that can make the hardest cynic cry towards joy. But he is wrong that we should risk so much for anything less than that story. For talking against the spirit of the age on the issue of homosexuality entail risks that should not be born by all. Here again is the paradox.
I think we are heading into a time when it will be increasingly harder to be a Christian in the United Kingdom. We are not being persecuted at the moment, but our freedoms have been curtailed. Somebody has lost his job because he posted his opposition to the redefinition of marriage on facebook, even before the draft bill was published. That is truly bizar in a liberal democracy! But its also not a small thing. Particularly for that man who has responsibilities for a family and now has a significantly lower income.
My friends, at least the ones that I have in the UK, who are not christian are primarily those that I find in a work context. I suppose for many at Christ Church Balham that will not necessarily be the case but a large proportion might be in that situation. Given that might be the case for many the question arrises in my mind that if Richard is requiring congregants to speak about the issue of gay marriage to their friends, and if these happen to be at work, are his congregants risking the ability to pay their mortgage? If that is true, is the church that Richard shepherd’s a church which has shaped people in such a way as to be able to trust God that they will be able to live without their mortgages for the sake of the Gospel? I hope so. And this is where I agree with the requirement Richard puts on his congregants in relation to the Gospel, and peculiarly with what the Gospel has to say about the political. But if it is not, there is work to be done in his church, and many churches like his which may well face harder trials in the future.
I dont know that Richard knows this, but his request for people to speak against gay marriage and therefore also to speak of Gods love to their friends is a political act. It is a political act in the sense that it is the churches mission to help the world understand what it means to truly be the world. That is a world that was meant to bring glory to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This world is a world into which the Kingdom of God is breaking. That means that the tensions between loyalty to the state and the law will start to contrast the loyalty that is required of Christians to Christ Jesus. This is a loyalty that will require us to die in order to live. Is Christ Church Balham preparing people to die in such a way? I hope so.
Is Christ Church Balham a church that will help the person who talks against gay marriage and subsequently loses employment a church that will take care of the emotional, spiritual, psychological and physical needs of that person and perhaps more importantly their family? It better damn well be.
But I want to commend Richard on another point. That is that he is calling people to be courageous. Courage is a virtue. Courageous people will be people who know the depths of fear more than those who are fearful because the courageous are those that have faced fear, and face deeper fears than the fearful and have won. The fearful dont really know fear. Since courage takes people to ever more fearful places. In contrast, a bull that runs into a wall and does not know that he should fear the effects of running into a wall is not a courageous bull. It is a bull that does not know to fear that it should know if it knew the effects of running into a wall. Its a stupid bull. However a bull that knows that it might die when running into a wall, well that is a different order of bull. Its freedom is not bound to its life, but to a life beyond the wall.
So the larger question that points to the paradox is this: Are we creating communities that will be willing to stand by Christ when to preach the Gospel means we might die by the hands of the state, or state supported walls? That question was not addressed in Richards letter, though if there was a man willing to die for the Gospel, Richard may well be your man.