‘A more perfect union’

A year ago, the church I serve as pastor — Wilshire Baptist — took a historic vote to clarify that our bylaws provide for only one class of membership. We removed the longstanding practice of denying certain privileges of membership, such as ordination and marriage, from Christians who are same-sex oriented or transgender. (See Keri Mitchell’s story here.)

We have since used the phrase “Open to All, Closed to None” to describe our fellowship. That’s generally true, but it doesn’t mean we lack discretion. We don’t allow convicted axe murderers to work in the nursery or bank robbers to count the collection. Like most churches, we require belief in Jesus and baptism in his name as a membership threshold. Full inclusion also includes high moral standards, all of which now apply equally to all.

The decision to address the scope of engagement in congregational life of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Christians was not about welcome per se. The church welcomed LGBT persons to worship with us and even to join as members. The question was whether they would be treated as second-class citizens in their own church.

Not everyone believes that was the issue. Some who left the church after the vote, and even some who stayed, believe the point was whether we would hold fast to the Church’s historic teaching that marriage is only between one man and one woman and leadership is reserved for role models of traditional sexual mores.

The debate before the vote and the reaction after it often came down to those who quoted scriptures that seems to condemn all same-sex behavior for all time, and those who looked at gay Christians today in their church and families and said, “Surely those biblical texts cannot be addressing what we see in the lives of these people.”

Churches, like nations, are unfinished projects. We are communities of real people seeking to live out our ideals toward, what Lincoln termed, “a more perfect union.” The Christian project for some is about preserving what is good from the past, while for others it’s about leaving things better than we received them. Conservatives remind progressives that every innovation isn’t an advance; progressives remind conservatives that tradition isn’t always truth. “We see as through a glass darkly,” St. Paul said. No one has all the light yet.

Like all churches, ours is a work in progress. Whether this change is progress or not is for God and time to tell, but here’s the good news as I see it: LGBT Christians can now bring their whole selves to church. We are finding “them” to be “us” — no more “us and them”! We are all of us loved by God and called to live honorable lives of service to the Lord.

St. Benedict counseled his brothers to “welcome all as Christ.” We are learning anew what “all” really means; and we are being made new ourselves because of new friends who are finding their place in the pew and in our hearts.

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