What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming?
By Travis Collins
With denominations, the relationships are not as intimate as in local churches. The connections are not so tight. So, loyalty to one’s denomination is not usually as compelling as loyalty to one’s local church family.
Nevertheless, a number of local congregations and pastors have chosen to remain in their denominations despite differences with the majority. One argument given for remaining is that changes at the denominational level actually don’t change many things at the local level. Local folks argue, “Edicts and pronouncements originating from some meeting far away have little direct impact on us. We’re still going to be who we are.” Church members say, “We’re going to keep on doing church like we’ve always done it, no matter what declarations they make in the denominational offices.” (That’s a naïve assumption, by the way, and we’ll talk about that momentarily.) So they stay.
Others simply believe the mission they share with their denominational family trumps the beliefs they don’t. So they remain in the fold for the sake of educational institutions, justice initiatives and social ministries. They stay for the sake of missionaries across the globe whose support they share. Missional cooperation, for many, is simply a higher value than doctrinal conformity.
Another common reason for staying in a denomination is to remain a prophetic voice from within. People who have deep ties to a national body are often not content to write off that body. They become loyal dissenters. Often their opposition is gentle, well-reasoned and respectful, though sometimes their opposition is emotional and strident. (My hunch is some denominational leaders would breathe a sigh of relief if a few of their congregations would go ahead and withdraw.)
Some congregations, obviously, make the terribly difficult decision to leave their denominational family. Longstanding relationships are fractured. Facebook feuds abound. In some cases, arguments and lawsuits over who owns the buildings consume a painful amount of time and money.
So why would a church leave its denomination over the matter of sexuality? For many, this is a defining issue. This is not one of those marginal debates about which disagreement is justifiable. And for many, being labeled as either liberals or fundamentalists (depending on where they lie on their denomination’s spectrum) by their denominational partners has grown tiresome. Some people are weary, as a friend of mine put it, of having adversaries from within their denominations constantly “in their grill.” This fight has been exhausting for lots of people, and many feel the energy spent debating this topic would be better spent on evangelism and meeting human needs. So some have withdrawn from the fray.
Many also recognize that, while a denomination’s decision might not make an immediate difference in a local congregation, in time the impact inevitably will be felt. Such realities as the theological bent of ministers coming out of the denomination’s seminaries and the positions championed by denominational literature eventually do have an impact on local churches. Insightful people at the local church level understand that, although they do not feel an immediate impact from denominational decisions, down the road they likely will. The church will notice that pastors coming from the denomination’s seminaries have different theological views than previous graduates, and they will notice that the Sunday school and discipleship literature has a different slant than before. So, recognizing that changes at the denominational level eventually do trickle down to the local church level, congregations sometimes decide to leave.
Moreover, many recognize that a denomination’s decision cannot be divorced from the national debate on this topic. A denomination’s stated position sends a signal to society-at-large as to where people of that denomination stand on that question. Outsiders tend to lump together all who are identified by a denominational label. Outsiders often do not recognize the diversity that can exist among congregations and individuals within a denominational family.
Those who believe the denomination has veered from its historic identity are thus placed in a difficult position. Local churches may seek a formal way to distance themselves from the denomination’s stance. Not to demonize the denomination, but to say, “This decision is beyond the lines. That’s not who we are.” And the only way to distance themselves might be to disaffiliate.
One of the most trying scenarios occurs when a congregation is no longer welcome around the denominational table. There are occasions when the larger group believes a local congregation has violated the shared values of the denominational body, and so barring the congregation from the larger group is justified. Such removals from the fellowship can be painful for the local church and for the denomination, and the media often exacerbate the pain of separation.
It’s hard to imagine how negatively our constant dividing into smaller and smaller groups must be perceived by unchurched people. Yet, as with Paul and Barnabas, sometimes good people view things so differently that separation is the only viable option.
It’s easy to pity denominational executives nowadays. Across the board, denominational participation is plummeting and bank accounts are dwindling. The very purpose and future of denominations are in question. The last thing denominational leaders need is a brouhaha over sexuality. Good denominational leaders are now torn between doctrinal soundness and open-hearted inclusiveness, between the influence of the large congregations and the rights of the smaller ones. Understandably and inevitably, the need for funding is always part of the equation. These denominational executives are, after all, charged with the mission and future of their denominations.
Ministry in the context of the same-sex debate presents unprecedented challenges to organizational relationships. Some denominations identify as connectional, meaning that every congregation is part of a formal network, and the connection is both defined and part of the congregation’s identity. Other congregations identify as congregational, meaning the churches are autonomous and cooperate with others in their denomination only to whatever level they believe to be appropriate.
Churches that are connectional will have less flexibility at the local level than congregational churches. The challenge of connectional churches will be how to influence their denomination and then, if they find themselves out of step with their denomination, how to disengage from the denomination then connect with like-minded congregations of their denominational tradition. This desire to link themselves with like-minded congregations, of course, often results in the formation of new denominations that identify with their heritage yet distinguish themselves from others who find their identity in that same heritage, such as Presbyterian congregations that break away from their historic denominational identity to form a new denomination, thus linking up with like-minded Presbyterians, and so on.
Excerpted from What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming? by Travis Collins. ©2018 by Travis Collins. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. IVPress.com