Donald Miller is wrong.
I like Donald Miller a lot. I love his writing and almost always agree with him. He wrote an interesting piece on his blog about the evangelical church’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fiasco approach to the issue of homosexuality. He is 100% correct in that assessment. Pretending that there are not gay people in our churches who love Jesus is not a formula that is going to work.
Miller also blames people like Ted Haggard and Eddie Long for the graceless culture of the church and the church’s anti-gay homophobia. Not all people who hold a traditionalist view on homosexuality are anti-gay homophobes; but many are. He blames the hypocritical teaching of Haggard, Long, et al, for this… and here is where I think he is wrong.
“In my opinion, the reason Christians become marginalized for being open about their homosexuality is because of people like, well, Ted Haggard and Eddie Long. And not because both men have been accused of being gay. It’s because both men actually created the attitude that judges them in the first place.
Both men, perhaps acting out of insecurity and self deception, trained the mobs that attacked them. They are the ones who brought a black-and-white, judgmental attitude about the issue to the table, and then got cut on the knife they sharpened.
I heard Ted Haggard speak at a conference in Austin two years ago, and he got a round of applause when he took a stab at his staff back in Colorado, saying he only did one thing wrong, and they wouldn’t show him grace. Mr. Haggard, with all due respect, buying drugs from a prostitute and having sex with him while leading the nation in a stand against homosexuality and also being married yourself is not one little thing, and also with due respect, that no-grace attitude amongst your staff came into existence under your leadership. You taught them to think that way. If you would have taught them grace, they would have shown you grace. Who exactly was their leader in the first place?“
Miller blames Haggard and Long (and those like them) for the lack of grace in the church, saying that the church is simply doing what they have been taught by their leaders.
It is is easy to make that case by looking at the two examples in question (Haggard & Long), but less easy if you include other examples of closeted gay evangelical pastors who have been outed in scandal and lost their ministries.
The standard script is easy with people like Haggard and Long — ultra-conservative, anti-gay, republican, hypocrites.
But the script only works if we don’t look at other examples.
Now I am rarely happy to be compared to either Haggard or Long — I think the differences in my situation and what happened when compared to theirs is considerable. For example, I was not a mega-church pastor, so no one outside my congregation really cared (this was a good thing!) And more importantly: I was single and unmarried, no kids, never denied the accusations when confronted (I actually went to my Board to tell them — under pressure from my accuser, of course), what I did was 100% consensual with an adult friend, there were no prostitutes or drugs involved, no international flights or teenagers… so my case is not that interesting.
And some other differences: I never preached an anti-gay message in my life, I never opposed civil unions nor condemned homosexuals. When the issue came up, I did hold a traditionalist theological view (one I no longer think is the best reading of the scriptures), but always spoke about it with compassion, grace and nuance.
Again, he wrote:
If you would have taught them grace, they would have shown you grace. Who exactly was their leader in the first place?
My case disproves (or at least mitigates) against this assertion. Miller argues that the church lacks grace because its leaders have not taught grace. I think it is a more fundamental problem. The church lacks grace because people fundamentally misunderstand the radical nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
If there was one topic — besides the Lordship of Jesus Christ — that I taught, preached and modeled as a pastor for over 10 years it was the centrality and significance of grace in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I taught on grace.
I preached on grace.
I practiced grace with my staff, volunteers, leaders, members and community.
I modeled grace in every aspect of our church.
Grace was one of our core values as a church — “believing that having received unmerited grace from God we are compelled to extend unmerited grace to others.”
The grace I taught on and extended to people included issues of sexual immorality and other moral failures. I taught and believed that no one was outside the radical, restorative and redemptive grace of Jesus Christ — and that the church cannot have higher standards than Jesus in terms of who gets grace, who gets to be in the church and who gets to serve in the church.
Does practicing and extending that kind of grace get messy or complicated sometimes? You bet. It is messy and complicated and often there are no easy answers. But grace demands that we get our hands and feet dirty sometimes — as Jesus did.
So I taught, preached and modeled grace in our church. And, if I can say so humbly, I did it well.
And yet, I can honestly say, in the 15 months since my life exploded and I left the church, I have not received any grace from the church I led.
Have some individuals extended grace and forgiveness to me?
Yes, and for that I am deeply thankful for it is always healing and powerful.
But the church-as-church has not extended any grace to me, and whenever they had the opportunity, denied even small moments of grace.
I have detailed out some examples of this before, and most of the examples I have never written about and probably won’t. My point is not to accuse or rehash those issues. One of the things about grace, is that by definition you do not deserve it and therefore cannot expect or demand it. And so I neither think I deserve it, I don’t expect it… I only continually hope and pray for it.
My point in this post is simply that Miller’s assessment that the problem is that church-goers have not been taught grace (and therefore do not extend it) is not true — at least in my situation. To the contrary, despite years of experiencing grace, they chose not to extend it likewise
I am still not 100% sure. I have some ideas… some theories… some thoughts. But I don’t really know and honestly was surprised by it.
But I think we should resist easy answers and the blame game… it is much more complicated than that. Haggard and Long both produced the culture that led to their fall, but just as much were created by a culture that made their fall at some level inevitable. In other words, the church has a lot of work to do on the
se issues still.
If I had to posit an answer?
I think the problem is that people — beyond my circumstance or church, both pastors and pew-ers — don’t believe Jesus. They don’t take him at his word. The Gospel teaches that we are always to extend grace, that grace is radical and transformative, that no one is beyond grace or redemption, that we are never to give up on or abandon people. This is the GOOD NEWS — and for many, it is too good to be true.
The Bible also teaches that church is a family. This is not a metaphor — it is a reality. And there is no mechanism to get out of the family… grace keeps you in the family, even when it is hard and even when you have messed up royally. That is what family is about and that is what grace is about.
Simply put, people don’t really believe in grace. They believe in a modified legalism of look-good-do-good-be-good — the kind of “gospel” Jesus explicitly rejects.
Or at least that is my best guess… I am open to other explanations and interpretations.