My church, St Peter's Free Church in Dundee, is a progressive, affirming, accepting, welcoming, biblical church. We even have a rainbow as one of our symbols! In today's Christian jargon that is to some people a sign that we are backslidden degenerates and to others that we are just exactly the kind of modern contemporary church that today's culture needs. It's at that point the latter get confused. They discover that we are opposed to SSM, that we hold to the Bible's teaching about homosexuality, and that we agree with Jesus that marriage is between a man and a woman. And lo and behold we are turned into demons. 'Homophobic, unloving, judgemental bigots' is the judgement made without a trace of irony.
Recently I was involved in a couple of those discussions where the superior 'liberals', the ones who just know they are right and everyone else is de facto wrong/unloving/unChristlike accused me and any church that did not accept their re-interpretation of the Bible, of not knowing any homosexuals, encouraging homophobic bullying, and being partially responsible for every transgender suicide! When I asked them to name any church they knew where homosexuals were bullied or not welcomed, they couldn't. I found it interesting that all their examples were not the result of their personal experience and were vague and anecdotal, even at one stage being reduced to citing Westboro Baptists. Don't get me wrong – I am sure that there are churches and professing Christians whose attitude and behaviour towards homosexuals is something they need to repent of, but I am getting tired of every Bible believing Christian being tarred with the same homophobic brush, when the evidence often suggests otherwise.
I was asked if I had any homosexuals in my own congregation or the churches I knew and what their experience was. And there was my dilemma – I know plenty but how could I give personal examples without breaching pastoral confidences? I don't discuss other people's personal issues in public. And then along came Tom, who greatly helped by posting the following:
"As a teenager I assumed that Christianity was homophobic based on what I saw on the news. I actually thought the Westborough Baptist Church was typical for the US South and that the US South was what 'real Christianity' was like. I was the LGBT officer in my student union and the bisexual officer in the LGBT Association. However since becoming a Christian (over 7 years ago) I have never felt excluded or hated. Quite the opposite, the church is an incredible place of love and support. Just in case there is any confusion, I'm talking about evangelical, reformed churches here. Not liberal churches which 'love' by telling saying 'believe what you like, do what you feel, you're fine just as you are'. The doctrine that we are all sinners in need of grace, and the atonement achieved by the cross, has a levelling and equalising effect. It means we can associated with anyone from any background without being afraid, or patronising, or ashamed. Gay and straight people alike are equally sinful and can be made equally righteous by the Lord. Praise God I had Christians in my life who shared with me the gospel and didn't just affirm me where I already was!
"PS I've seen much more homophobia, 'gay' jokes, talking about 'poofters' etc., in the secular work place than I ever have in the church."
I asked Tom if I could use his post and he agreed and added the following, which is also very helpful:
"It really annoys me when 'liberal' Christians...claim that evangelical churches are homophobic. It isn't true but because it gets repeated so often people assume it's true (as I did when I was a teenager) and it does them great harm by keeping them away from the Gospel. The slander against Christians is one thing but the impact it has on teenagers and others is wicked. There is no better place for the lonely, the hurting and the confused to go than Christ and his church. How evil then, to keep people away from it by telling them 'don't go near them, they hate you'."
What was interesting is that the 'Christian' who posted the original accusations against me being 'unloving' etc, removed many of his posts and Tom's as well. I think Tom's testimony is far more eloquent than anything I could write but let me add the following explanation of why I claim that St Peter's is a progressive, affirming, accepting, welcoming, biblical church.
Biblical. That is of course where we should all start. Christ is the Head of the Church. It's his. He bought it with his own blood. We are his bride. We may be ugly but we are being beautified and made ready for the wedding feast of the Lamb. Our primary concern therefore is not what the culture or society thinks, or even our own comfort and needs, our primary concern is for his glory. Jesus is our raison d'etre. What he says we will do. Where he goes we will follow. We are Christians – his ones. We believe his Word. And on the subject of gender, humanity, sexuality and marriage, that word is crystal clear. Jesus taught that marriage is between a man and a woman and I have no intention of telling him he got it wrong! I don't care what politician, pope, pastor or pseudo-scholar says – we ain't moving from the Word of God. Pick 'n' mix Christianity is not following Christ.
Welcoming. We believe the Bible we welcome everyone. Paedophiles, pharisees, perverts, prostitutes and priests are all welcome. I mean that. All those individuals have been in congregations I have pastored, and they are welcome. Why? Because all are sinners just like us and all need to hear the Good news that there is redemption, forgiveness and new life in Christ. One of my older elders used to stand at the door and tell passers by, "Come in, come in, and meet the bride, we will do you good!" The language was quaint and strange, but the sentiment and theology spot on!
Accepting. We don't just welcome in the kind of 'handshake, come to our meeting' way. We also accept people as they are – human beings made in the image of God. But fallen human beings. Each of us has identity issues. Each of us is a rebel. Each of us is plagued by a human heart that is "desperately wicked and deceitful about all things". Each of us is a hell bound, hopeless hypocrite. And for each of us there is good news beyond what we can imagine. I think of the woman who came to my previous church who before she was outed by a major national newspaper as a man (she was a political candidate of a party which the newspaper did not support) told me her story. This was in a small Highland village and when I told the elders of my small Presbyterian church, I wondered what their reaction would be. They looked at me as though I was mad. "What's the problem? She is a sinner the same as the rest of us and needs the gospel the same as the rest of us". Biblical theology is so liberating!
Affirming. We go even further. We don't just welcome. We don't just accept. We also affirm. Now there is of course an immediate qualification. We don't affirm people in their sin. We affirm them in their humanity, in their being made in the image of God. Because of that we challenge their sin. We love them too much to leave them where they are. We want to bring them to Christ because we affirm them as more than just a bag of chemicals imprisoned in their bodies. I have never met a human being who I could not affirm in some way or other. And I have never met a human being who did not need radical change!
Progressive. While affirming we do not want to leave people where they are. We want them to progress. To move towards the Kingdom of God. We don't want people to discover themselves; we want them to discover Christ. It is only then will they truly know themselves. When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.
The trouble is that far too many churches have compromised with the culture and turned away from the Lordship of Christ. They have reversed the order. They begin with being 'progressive' and that means conforming with the culture, letting the devil dictate the church's agenda. They have to affirm whatever the culture says is acceptable. They accept not only people but also their sins. They welcome those who buy into the cultural norms. You will note that they cannot welcome everyone; racists, homophobes and redneck fundamentalists are among those who need not apply! It is only the radical biblical teaching about sin and Christ that enables us to welcome and proclaim the gospel to everyone!
Some people will say I am just playing with words. Trying to turn things on their head. No – I am being deadly serious. Those who are playing with words are those who start with the desire to be seen as 'progressive' and end up redefining the word 'biblical' so that it becomes a meaningless and confusing cliché. They are those who twist the scriptures and squirm over its plain meaning, seeking to confuse the people and cause doubts so that their 'expertise' becomes the sole authority. When you believe in the Bible what you like, and leave out what you don't like; it's not the Bible you believe, but yourself. May the Lord grant that we would all be biblical, welcoming, accepting, affirming and progressive churches – in that order!
David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. Follow David on Twitter.