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Three words for the church in 2019: ‘we were wrong’

by MARK WINGFIELD  |  January 1, 2019

[From Baptist News Globa.  The author is a Baptist clergyman from Dallas]

As we look toward new year’s resolutions, my hope is that the Christian church might be able to utter just three simple words in 2019. These are words that would change the course of history, foster civil dialogue and perhaps even bring skeptics back into the church. But they are hard words to say: “We were wrong.”

There are many things the church universal and churches more specifically might – or should – admit we were wrong about. But admitting any error does not fall easily from the lips of religious folk – ironically, the very people who want others to confess their sins and turn from their wicked ways.

Too much of Christianity is built upon absolute certainty and not enough on divine mystery. I’m reminded of one prominent Southern Baptist pastor who assuredly declared that he had not changed his mind on anything ever. And I’m haunted by the words of an older adult friend who struggled with our church’s decision two years ago to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ Christians. After hearing a presentation on various ways to understand Scripture, he said: “You’re asking me to say that what I learned about the Bible from my parents and grandparents was wrong on this issue. And if I say they were wrong about this thing, then I have to ask what else they were wrong about. I just can’t do that.”

Sadly, we have been trained to worship the received interpretation of Scripture rather than the overarching narrative of Scripture embodied in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as we have been trained to worship the Bible as the word of God more than Jesus as the divine Word of God. Is our faith so fragile that to admit we have been wrong in one area necessarily pulls a string that undoes all the rest of our faith? Is our faith really a house of cards?

Since the origins of Christianity, its leaders have wrestled with more faithfully understanding God’s work in the world. Questions were studied and debated; church councils were held; creeds emerged and later revisions were made; the church even adapted from time to time to the advances of science. And yet today, many Christians are frozen in time – as though every new thought or fresh word of God that might be possible has already been given. If that’s true, we’re stuck in a dead and futile faith; we truly are the “frozen chosen.”

“Too much of Christianity is built upon absolute certainty and not enough on divine mystery.”

So what might the church in 2019 confess that it has been wrong about? Here are seven suggestions:

1. We were wrong about race.

Even those of us who believe we are sensitive and thoughtful about race often don’t know how little we know. I heard this description today: What if you were born on third base and think you can tell other people how to get to home base? That’s the problem even the most-sincere white folks don’t get. Because of our skin color, we were born at least on second base; we have no right to coach others about how to get out of the batter’s box and to first base. On the other hand, huge portions of the American Christian church still haven’t been able to admit the church was wrong about slavery. The church has been unable to confess America’s original sin – perhaps in part because it was a faith handed down without question from parents and grandparents – and we are paying a price in racial divisions that will only be healed by confession that leads to bearing fruit in keeping with repentance.

2. We were wrong to protect sexual predators.

The Catholic Church faces a tremendous day of reckoning not only for turning a blind eye to clergy sexual abuse but to knowingly allowing its perpetuation. The unique culture of Catholicism allowed this to fester on a grand scale, yet Protestant churches have not been immune. While preaching against sexual sin to the world, the church at large has failed to keep its own house clean.

3. We were wrong about women.

Just this week I reread an interview with a prominent evangelical pastor from a few years ago where he told the story of his daughter asking why she couldn’t be a pastor. His response: “For the same reason I can’t have a baby.” That kind of reasoning is just flat wrong. Having male sexual organs does not qualify someone to be a pastor any more than having female sexual organs should disqualify someone from being called by God to spiritual leadership. The biblical evidence against women as co-equals in church leadership is scant, but the handed-down bias of the church is strong. It is time for the church everywhere to move beyond soundbite theology and take a new look at the gifts of women and to believe them when they say they, too, have been called by God to service.

4. We were wrong about what it means to be ‘pro-life.’

There’s no denying that abortion is an important and difficult issue to consider morally and medically. But so are genocide, starvation, access to health care, slavery, human trafficking, capital punishment and the injustices of war. The church has erred – both spiritually and politically – by elevating the single issue of abortion as the definition of being “pro-life.” The result is an ugly kind of identity politics that has shut down dialogue and harmed the gospel.

“We are paying a price in racial divisions that will only be healed by confession that leads to bearing fruit in keeping with repentance.”

5. We were wrong to exclude people from God’s grace because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Clearly, this is the most divisive issue of our time for the church. (Although if we had worked through some of the issues above, we would have better tools to discuss this issue. But I digress.) Perhaps the first step that the church should take is to listen to its own sons and daughters and to believe them when they say they did not choose their sexual orientation. That would be a start, just to admit that we as the church have been wrong to expel faithful followers of Christ when they reveal who God has made them to be.

6. We were wrong to measure the kingdom of God in numbers more than in souls.

American Christianity has been obsessed with “nickels and noses” for too long. We have gathered crowds more than growing disciples. Most pastors understand this but feel powerless to change the mindset, because their own performance gets measured by giving and attendance.

7. We were wrong to put our hope in politics.

We live today in the culmination of a marriage of church and politics that began in the 1970s. (Most of the points made above are illustrations of why this happened.) There is a day of reckoning coming – hopefully soon – when the church will have to give account not only for its hypocrisy but also for its silence. The blame cannot fall only on those who have sought to use politicians to enforce their version of a Christian agenda but also on those of us who have lacked the courage to show a better way. The gospel has its own agenda of human dignity and human flourishing that we should call all politicians to attend to across partisan lines.

If the church of Jesus Christ is to be relevant in our mission, if we are to be agents of God’s reconciling love, we’ve got to take a hard look in the mirror. Naivete and conflict-avoidance have compelled us to imagine that there is a magical way to patch up our broken discourse without any of us having to take responsibility for anything. But real life – and the life to which God calls us – doesn’t work that way. It’s time to say we were wrong.

And that’s just the beginning.