On October 18 2017, Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Services (RNS) published this article, giving a broader reach to the organization, Church Clarity (CC). From their website, they state “the problem” and “our solution”:
There are millions of churches around the world. They represent a wide spectrum of beliefs, which are translated into actively enforced policies. At the level of the local church, policies are often communicated unclearly, if they are disclosed at all. In many churches, especially evangelical ones, clarity is elusive.
In the first phase of Church Clarity, our focus is on policies that directly impact LGBTQ+ people.
Church Clarity is not advocating for policy changes. Together, we’re establishing a new standard for church policy disclosure: We believe that churches have a responsibility to be clear about their policies on their primary websites. Following a simple, yet consistent method, our crowdsourcers submit churches to be scored on how clearly their website communicates their actively enforced policies. Once the information is verified by Church Clarity, it is published to our database.
We believe that ambiguity is harmful and clarity is reasonable. Learn more below, about how you can help us create this new standard.
As with many things that begin with good intentions but also include many unintended consequences, so too does Church Clarity “miss the mark” on several issues. I share my respectful critique below.
First, My Appreciation
I first want to express my appreciation for the organization’s ultimate aim. They state, under FAQ’s:
Our goal is to eliminate the prevailing reality – among Evangelical churches but also beyond – where ambiguity is acceptable, where accountability is rare and where pastors are able to conceal the policies that they actively enforce.
The fundamental premise is that ambiguity is harmful:
We believe by identifying ambiguity as a fundamental issue that creates harm, we can collectively encourage more churches to aspire for clarity, regardless of their convictions. Please visit our resource hub at wearetogetherinthis.com to learn more.
So, to begin, while I will critique their platform, I have no critique of their mission. I join with them in the work of reducing and eliminating the harm that is too frequently done by a church’s exclusivity.
A Meme Does Not A Policy Make
My first lament is that most people will never read through CC’s full mission and FAQ’s. They’ll only see the memes. It is ubiquitous in our current cultural milieu to summarize complicated ideas in hashtags and 140 characters or less. “The less” in this case being a “score.” While CC does link you to the church’s blog posts or pages that articulate further, the power of the meme is most likely going to win the day.
But more importantly, the meme/score actually betrays what the organizers of CC say that they wish to do. CC states that they want to clarify a church’s policy, not their theology. Again, under FAQ:
Why do you evaluate church “policies” and not, say, “doctrine”?
Church Clarity is not interested in evaluating theology or doctrine, but rather organizational policy. Policies are much more straightforward and have clear impact on people. Will your church let a trans woman join a women’s group? Will your pastoral team officiate a wedding for a gay couple? These are the policy questions we are seeking to clarify. What we’re not interested in: A church’s theological position on whether queer Christians go to heaven, whether same-sex attraction is natural or chosen, how gender plays out in the story of Adam and Eve, etc. You get the point. Conversations around LGBTQ+ issues often drift needlessly into theological debate. That is why we painstakingly emphasize our laser focus on evaluating the level of clarity in regards to a church’s actively enforced policy.
The problem is multi-layered.
First, this renders their scoring inaccurate, and perhaps irrelevant, because most churches are clear on “theology/doctrine” but not so clear on “policy.”
Case in point. In 2011, Willow Creek’s guest speaker, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, withdrew from speaking at the Leadership Summit (at the good graces of Willow, without any contractual penalty), due to pressure from an online petition that claimed Willow was “anti-gay.” Bill Hybels, then Senior Pastor, explained that Willow does challenge,
…homosexuals and heterosexuals to live out the sexual ethics taught in the Scriptures which encourages full sexual expression between a man and a woman in the context of marriage and proscribes sexual abstinence and sexual purity for everyone else. But even as we challenge all of our people to these biblical standards, we do so with grace-filled spirits knowing the confusion and brokenness that is rampant in our fallen world. And at Willow we honor the journey of everyone who is sincerely attempting to follow Christ.
However, while Willow’s “theology/doctrine” is clear, in their documents and public statements, nowhere can we find any “policies” regarding how LGBTQ+ people’s can be involved in their church. To “score” Willow as “unaffirming” is not a “policy” score, but a “theology” score.
Second, policies are variegated even when theology and doctrine may not be. Can LGBTQ+ peoples serve on the worship team, teach children’s church, become baptized, etc.? The answer for many is “yes” even if they subscribe to a “traditional” view of sexual identity. [I do have to say at this point that even the terms used are insufficient to communicate these ideas. The word “traditional” is used most popularly, which is why I employ it here, but I wish to acknowledge its insufficiency as well.] And yet, for other churches, the answer may be “no.” To “score” a church accurately means to score each specific policy.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am (at this point in time) not yet ready to “officiate” a gay wedding (for a variety of reasons). But we did host a wedding reception for a gay couple in our church. I am still to this day, proud that we did that, and delighted at the party we held (and it was a party!) However, and more to the point of this post, nowhere on our website, nor in our church’s “policies” is this stated or clarified. Other pastors in our church may choose not to do any of those things. For us, this is not a “church policy.” We are effectively incapable of being scored because different pastors at our church may have different ways in which they approach different elements within our congregation. So, how would our church be “scored?” I do know this. Whatever score it would be given, it would be inaccurate, and even misleading.
Again, the meme does not do justice to the variegated ways in which this issue is actually lived in the life of a church.
Public, Not Clear
My second critique, (and this is a bit semantical, but I think an important point) is that what CC is attempting to do is make the church’s policies more public and explicit, not necessarily “clear.” The churches in Merritt’s examples in the RNS article had clear positions, they were just not disclosed in the ways that CC wants them to be. This is a distinction with a difference.
First, the divisions and fragmentations in the Church are being exacerbated by giving more focus and attention to the issues that, I would argue, ought to be secondary (or tertiary) to a church’s core identity and existence. Stating up front what a church believes on these issues can have the sociological and psychological effect of elevating human sexuality as a primary orthodoxy which thusly diminishes a church’s other values and commitments, such as loving God and people, and serving the poor, etc. That we find ourselves in an ecclesiology in which people cannot be together because of their differences in sexual identity beliefs is discouraging. That an organization wants to make this issue more prominent amplifies this crisis.
Second, by making a policy more public, the process of “self-selection” will segregate people along those lines and will diminish the possibilities of people with disparate views coming into relationship with one another, the most effective avenue for the changing of one’s mind. If CC is successful in their exposure, the divisions will be more prominent, and the beliefs, therefore, will become more entrenched. And the opportunities for redemptive reconciliation will decline.
Ambiguity is Good
While I understand the need for clarity (all good organizational health consultants understand this), clarity works for communication and organization, but not so much for theology, hermeneutics, and discipleship. Throughout the biblical narrative there exists a “beautiful ambiguity” regarding the specifics of biblical teachings. One example is Psalm 136:1, which reads:
הודו ליהוה כי טוב
Literally, the phrase is:
thanks to YHWH because good
There are two ways to read this. Give thanks to God because God is good, or give thanks to God because it is good to give thanks to God. Both are accurate readings of this text. It is a “beautiful ambiguity” that leaves room for open interpretations, what is known in rabbinical traditions as the “seventy faces” of the text.
While many completely reject this concept when it comes to the Bible, the text itself is wrought with ambiguity, from the very beginning all the way to the very end as evidenced by the thousands of commentaries on the Bible which reach different conclusions, understandings, and applications. I argue that this ambiguity is necessary for any progress in understanding. Once one states that the Bible is “clear,” that is effectively the end of furthering one’s education and understanding of the text. It is the “closing of the Evangelical mind.”
Most importantly, so much of this conversation is about “voicing one’s opinion,” we are no longer (or ever have been?) engaged in “asking deeper questions.” This is, in my opinion, a tragedy. Ambiguity naturally leads to asking deeper, more profound questions. Stating opinions, or publicly declaring “clarity,” keeps us wading in the shallow end of our own views. Perhaps the biblical narrative is inviting us to dive deeper.
If I were to propose suggestions to the efforts of Church Clarity’s mission (albeit a bit pretentiously), they would be as follows:
- Replace the memes with an actual list and scale of policies. Rather than suggesting a church is “affirming” or “non-affirming,” state that the church’s pastor “will” or “will not” officiate a gay wedding. Then do that for the worship team. Then do that for Bible studies. Etc. Do that for each policy that is stated on their website. The color scheme would then be one blurry rainbow spectrum, not a solid color. Likewise, if there is no stated policy, the “score” should be noted as “unstated” rather than “unclear.”
- Score policy and theology with the same level of intricate detail. Help people see that this issue (along with virtually every other issue) is complicated, variegated, and yes, ambiguous, in both.