Church Clarity is a recently-launched website that promotes churches — especially evangelical ones — clearly stating on their websites their policies on LGBTQ participation. In the homepage section “Our Solution,” they state “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.” They also state that they “believe that ambiguity is harmful and clarity is reasonable.”
To these ends, their team created a classification/scoring system for how a church website communicates their policies on LGBTQ. So far, their team has applied this system mostly to mega-churches, and they also provide a means for crowd-sourcing information and assessments.
I am for transparency and clarity. And on this issue in particular that has been so contentious, it seems reasonable to expect a church’s or denomination’s overall stance to be accessible and clear for those who seek that information. However, is that assumption fully and really so, does the scoring schema work for all contemporary systems of theologies and policies, and is this enterprise potentially about something besides seeking clarity in disclosure?
A Religion News Service article by Jonathan Merritt was posted October 18, 2017, about the launch. The title of the article is: Church Clarity pressures pastors and churches to disclose positions on homosexuality. Before I got into the article, the word pressures in the title made me wary about what was going on. Then, early on, Mr. Merritt said this:
The organization claims to be neutral on the issue [of “affirming” or “non-affirming”], but visitors will be excused from assuming otherwise based on the organization’s leadership. Two of CC’s co-founders, Tim Schraeder, who identifies as gay, and Sarah Ngu, who identifies as queer, are clearly more progressive on the issue. The third, George Mekhail, identifies as straight but serves at the LGBT-affirming Riverside Church in Manhattan. Mekhail formerly served as a pastor at Eastlake Church in Seattle, an evangelical megachurch that famously created controversy when TIME magazine reported it had quietly become LGBT-affirming. Julie Rodgers, a lesbian writer living in Washington D.C., is also listed as an advisor to the organization.
Even still, CC’s mission is one that many conservative Christians should embrace. Many evangelicals have decried the theological ambiguity of some churches and have called for greater clarity on the matter.
On the Church Clarity homepage, a section headed The Problem states that, “In the first phase of Church Clarity, our focus is on policies that directly impact LGBTQ+ people.” Why the emphasis on the evangelical stream of Christianity? And what happens after churches/denominations are scored? Check out the FAQ page to see what you discern. One point they make there is that they are laser-focused on policies, not theologies.
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.
From a systems point of view, I would suggest that policies are intertwined with theologies, so if you are evaluating policies you are evaluating doctrine. So, I’m finding their statement disingenuous, and perhaps will be able to specify more elements to that intuition some other time after more reflection.
Meanwhile, another Church Clarity point addresses potential issues of harm — something that always catches my attention. “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.” That bold-faced phrase (emphasis added) is an important assumption to evaluate, in light of paradoxical, “third way” theologies with paradigms geared for complexity and concrete relationships, far more than for precision and abstract concepts.
I have longed preached that the ways we ask our questions precondition our answers. The same goes for definitions. Based on those working principles, one potential flaw I see in the Church Clarity system is that it seems reductionist on the scoring options for church involvement by LGBTQ people. Church Clarity offers five possibilities, and if you go to their Crowdsource Form and click on an option, you’ll see the definition they are using for that term.
- Clear: Non-Affirming.
- Clear: Affirming.
- Active Discernment.
The way I see it, however, this five-option system does not fit the real-world well enough. At least in the U.S., there have been at least three major theological stances articulated over the past few decades about access to discipleship/community and involvement in activities. Two will fit into the Church Clarity format:
View #1. Welcoming, and Affirming [i.e., Clear: Affirming]. Generally at the liberal and progressive regions of the theological universe.
View #2. Welcoming or Rejecting, but not Affirming [i.e., Clear: Non-Affirming]. Generally at the conservative and Neo-Calvinist/Neo-Puritan regions of the theological universe.
However, I’m not sure the third really does.
View #3. Welcoming and Mutually Transforming. This “third way” approach *tends* to be found in Anabaptist and missional streams. My own view is closest to this, which is why I’m aware of it. I don’t know that it’s all that prominent a perspective, but then, most “third way,” paradoxical paradigms have historically been in the minority, haven’t they?
And it’s difficult to tell how long it’s been in development, because there have likely been third-way advocates for as long as there have been attempts to keep polarization in power: Welcoming and Affirming versus Rejecting and Condemning. Anyway, here’s a milestone example in the development of this approach, from a 2010 blog post by Northern Seminary professor and church planter Dr. David Fitch: Being Missional with the Gay/Lesbian Peoples Among Us.
Note especially the third comment in the thread, which is where the “mutually” came from. This comment clearly expresses the core of the Mutually Transforming part of this third-way paradigm on Christian community with broken gender and sexuality.
I’ve been fairly heavily influenced by 12 step groups, and I would only want to change your 3rd way to “welcomes and mutually transforms.” This, as you no doubt want to do, acknowledges that we are all in a moral mess, sexually and otherwise. By God, we are all moving towards Christ-like humanity through Spirit and community. Newcomer and oldtimer alike (and hetero and homosexual) affirm their continuing moral failure and continuing need for mercy and transformation. The Church needs to learn the posture of not “you’re broken and need Jesus” but “we (churchman and outsider) are broken and need Jesus.”
It’s not that there is no view on gender and sexuality in this approach, more that it assumes it is unhelpful to have a bunch of checklist points and abstract concepts when the concern should be about in-person people and concrete relationships. There are many things that may not be codified in this kind of church’s statements or found on their website. This is purposeful on their part; you’ll more likely find instead discussion about *not* creating such checklists (other than basic beliefs of orthodoxy) and that all else is worked out on-the-ground, relationally. Does that not quality as a form of “clarity”?
For the purposes of the Church Clarity scoring system, this third way of Welcoming and Mutually Transforming isn’t exactly Clear: Affirming, because people are not going to get a concrete policy statement. And it isn’t Clear: Non-Affirming, because people are typically welcomed regardless of background/identity.
It may not be Unclear or Undisclosed if there is some kind of notice about concerns being worked out relationally. But again, is this form of ambiguity automatically “harmful,” and if so, how?
And Welcoming and Mutually Transforming isn’t Active Discernment because the on-the-ground practice is their community’s established mode already. The mode is settled, though the everyday living-it-out thereof is probably always unsettling. But then, isn’t there always an unsettling edge involved in personal and communal transformation?
Those seeking clarity/precise disclosure may find this paradigm unsatisfying and potentially harmful for its imprecision. After all, as the commenters who added “mutually” suggested, this should be less about specific policies and more about redemptive/transformative posture:
The Church needs to learn the posture of not “you’re broken and need Jesus” but “we (churchman and outsider) are broken and need Jesus.”
I’d suggest those of us who wrestle within the Welcoming and Mutually Transforming approach find it spurs us to listening and discerning on an ongoing basis. It seems to me this third way requires open-ended perceiving instead of quickly coming to closure, which are core differences between the “P”/Perceive and “J”/Judge in the Myers-Briggs Temperament system. So, once Church Clarity has identified evangelical churches with/without LGBTQ policies, that brings their scoring to a point of closure. Then what?
Final Thoughts: Back to the title theme for the launch report article by Jonathan Merritt, those who live in a third way reality know already what pressures there are to reject paradox and ambiguity. But in this case, is the actual goal not clarity, but certainty? They are not the same thing, and I believe the differences here are worth reflecting on …