By George Mekhail
There are a variety of expressions of Evangelical churches in America, ranging from extremely “conservative” to socially “liberal”. The assumptions that are often made about churches tend to generalize them as similar to one another. This assumption ignores the “independent” nature of these churches.
Which ones believe in the Trinity?
Which ones provide fun environments for kids?
Which ones will baptize my Gay brother?
You may have noticed that the 3rd question stands out for many reasons. The biggest difference is that this question addresses policy. What I've observed in my experience, and through the stories I've heard has led me to believe this nuance for clarity is essential. Whether motivations for ambiguity are innocent or malicious, is not the question nor do I presume to know anyone's intent. Beliefs and approaches to scripture is not the question. Simple bottom line organizational policy is what we’re talking about. Policies which are currently enforced. Will your church hire at lesbian woman? Will your pastoral team officiate a wedding for a gay couple? Is a woman allowed to preach/teach at your church?
These are the types of questions that I believe churches have an obligation to answer directly, proactively and with clarity. Unfortunately, many churches neglect to make these simple disclosures when it comes to the policies that they are actively enforcing. As a result of this ambiguity, many individuals unknowingly attend, invest and become members of churches under false pretenses and misleading rhetoric.
To be clear (<—word of the day), this shift in my approach includes the acknowledgement that I have been unfair in the past towards churches who are NOT "open and affirming". I addressed this during my message on Sunday at EastLake, but its worth repeating here. For the times I have harshly criticized these churches, I am sorry. I hope that my newfound posture can contribute to a much needed solution for our divisions. See, I'm beginning to respect churches on either side of the theological spectrum who are simply clear. When it comes to LGBTQ inclusion for instance; if your church believes in a traditional view of scripture and you hold that marriage is between one man and one woman - fantastic! I still disagree with you, but as long as you have been explicit that this position means you will not baptize, hire or marry members of the LGBTQ community, then I can respect your conviction and appreciate your clarity. If your church, however, touts mantras such as "all are welcome", and does nothing to explicitly clarify your policies, I believe this creates too much opportunity for people to be mislead, and potentially hurt. As I continue to engage with pastors on both sides of the theological spectrum, I’m finding that we have common ground on this matter. Pastors who disagree with my theological convictions, have acknowledged and agreed with the diagnosis of ambiguity as a real problem. Others agree, and are struggling to know how to move forward towards clarity. I want to engage with pastors in both categories. I believe that Together In This can be a resource to assist these churches move towards clarity - regardless of where they land.
Clear policy is the bottom line. Specifically, policies that impact real human beings. For our purposes, it is of little value to seek clarity on a church's "beliefs" or their "theological positions". While such questions can be interesting for some, they are less harmful than an ambiguous policy. If your pastor believes in penal substitutionary atonement theory, no one is going to be harmed in a scenario where this is potentially misunderstood after months or years of faithful membership. However, a gay man who has heard nothing but "loving and welcoming" rhetoric for months or years of faithful investment in the life of a church, is a much different scenario. If this man eventually puts his guard down in such a setting, he stands to be humiliated, shamed and hurt once he learns that his church will not baptize him or affirm his relationships. The latter example can be avoided with simple, up-front clarity of policy.
I want to emphasize that this isn’t a call for churches to CHANGE their policies or theological constructs. This is about the policies which already exist at every church, whether they are communicated or not. Pastors and church leaders have to make decisions every day as to who they will baptize, who they will hire, who they will allow to preach, etc. Policies already exist and they are enforced. Since that is the case, my question is whether or not people should know and understand these policies and how they are being enforced. If the idea of clarity matters at all, it must be understood by ordinary people like us who attend, support and invest in these churches. We must first decide if the desire for a clearly communicated policy is in fact a reasonable expectation.
George is the Director of Strategic Partnerships & Innovation at The Riverside Church in The City of New York.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, George's family immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. Growing up as a Coptic Christian before landing at various Evangelical Churches, has helped cultivate a desire for broader inclusivity in the church. His goal is to see the work of Together In This reach a broad audience in Evangelicalism through storytelling, resourcing and advocating for Clarity.