Stepping out of line

I am done with not rocking the boat.

I am done with putting up with things in church that I would not for a minute tolerate anywhere else.

I am done with letting bigotry have the last word in the name of unity or respect.

The church is too important for that.

I walked out of a church meeting last week because it was clear that the visiting speaker assumed that everyone there would agree with him that an extremely controversial and homophobic view of sexuality is an essential part of the true Gospel.

Crap, crap, utter crap.

I was too shocked and emotional to stand up and challenge him, so I had to do the next best thing, which was to remove myself from a situation where my presence would imply that I condoned what he was saying

Many of the people I know would say I should never walk back into a place where that kind of speech is tolerated. They have a point.

The trouble is, that after so many years as a Christian I have learnt that I need to belong to the messy, flawed and ultimately hope-filled place that is the local church.

I have tried doing without church in the past, only to discover that there is a way of encountering God there that doesn’t present itself anywhere else.

I have found that being committed to a group of people who may not be the ones I would naturally seek out as friends brings about growth in a way that nothing else does.

(Let me be clear here: if I belonged to a church where the kind of dehumanising attitudes I encountered last week were a regular feature, then I would go elsewhere. But this was a visiting speaker and such an approach is unusual for us.)

As I struggled with the powerful emotions that came up after that meeting, I resolved two things, both of them appropriate for the year of dare.

First of all, I will err on the side of offending when I encounter prejudice in the Church. I would rather create an atmosphere of discomfort than remain silent about ugly attitudes that have no place in a community of love and truth.

People in churches – and I include myself – are too often quiet and inactive because we are afraid of stepping out of line. I don’t know how this happens when we are supposed to be following the greatest out-of-line-stepper who has ever walked the earth, but it does.

And the result is not just that we end up tolerating prejudice, we can also do great harm to ourselves and to our relationship with God.

We can develop a mindset of constant, anxious self-censorship that prevents us from doing the very thing we say we are committed to, which is becoming the people God created us to be.

Churches should be among the most vibrant, creative, risk-taking, innovative, life-giving organisations on the planet – but how often is that creativity stifled through fear of disapproval?

How many world-changers, prophets and visionaries are sitting silent in church pews because we have bought into the lie that unity is the same as uniformity?

If we believe what we preach, that God’s love is unending and unchanging, then shouldn’t we be marked by a joyful, childlike desire to try new things, to seek out adventure, to explore who we are?

My second resolution was that I am not going to spend my life sitting quietly. I am going to dream and experiment and go on adventures because I believe that is our calling as children of God.

That means I will make mistakes. I may well fall flat on my face in public. But if the church is even remotely what we claim it to be, then surely it should be the one place where we don’t need to worry about falling over because we can rely on people to pick us up, dust us down and send us back on our way with a hug.

What’s harder is the knowledge that if I am more active and adventurous I will almost certainly expose some pretty unattractive character traits that I would have preferred to keep hidden.

When that happens, I need to know that my church people will not be afraid to call me out on it.

But I also need to know that it’s not the end of our relationship, that even when they find my attitudes offensive they will stay committed to working with me to bring about change – change in myself and change in the world around us, just as we are called to do.

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20 comments

  1. Great challenge – a wake up call to those who have become so desensitized to wrong, hurtful and dehumanising thoughts & comments that we’ve forgotten to take a stand, to speak up, to say something. This is a problem! When I heard this the other day I didn’t even clock it other than a “well, that’s not right” in my head. This is me: “People in churches – and I include myself – are too often quiet and inactive because we are afraid of stepping out of line.” That’s not good enough. That’s not what love looks like. Thanks for standing up. Thanks for being an example. And thanks that you keep coming back.

    Fortunately, as a positive, I’m glad to be leading the discipleship year in the same church where people of different sexualities are open and loved rather than discriminated and hurt. But the important thing I’m taking away from this is that it’s not ok to sit and do nothing. When did that even become ok?!! I am guilty of this and appreciate this blog post a lot.

    Thanks Jo. Thank you.

    1. I hate confrontation too – I think that’s why I’ve so often been silent when I shouldn’t have been. So thank you for your comment because it encourages me to keep on.

  2. Thanks for this Jo, it’s hard to know how to respond when I guess for your own reasons you’ve kept the details vague (I find ‘homophobic’ is thrown around quite liberally). That said sinful behaviour and attitude in church are upsetting, unsettling and distressing.

    Jesus’ words are some of the most helpful in giving a strategy for response though “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens you’ve won your brother over. But if he will not listen…” (Matt 18), and then Jesus prescribes an escalation in response.

    In the church there seems to be appropriate responses for the sinner and the sinned against, in fact what it truly counter cultural is that Jesus seems to suggest here that the sinned against are to serve those who have most offended them. Hope your year of dreaming dreams and taking on dares includes some of this. Blessings to you up in Sheffield from down here in Derby.

    1. Hi David – good to see you in this space and thank you for commenting. I did deliberately keep the details vague as I didn’t want to get diverted into arguments about a controversial issue but rather to make a general point about not giving legitimacy to declarations that are likely to increase prejudice and oppression. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I felt I had been sinned against because that was not the case at all. Also, I always choose my words carefully: I am a writer! Blessings to you and the family. I very much enjoy seeing pictures on Facebook of your boys growing up!

  3. “I would rather create an atmosphere of discomfort than remain silent about ugly attitudes that have no place in a community of love and truth.” – I love this.

    Thank you for being brave and daring and inspirational. xxx

  4. Thank you so much for this Jo, I have really been struggling with this issue for some time now, and feel the same. I have met a few people who are so homophobic and call themselves Christians! They will not even to enter into a dialogue with some people because they are “sickening, disgusting and make them feel ill” I want to ask them “where is your Love?” I do tend not to challenge, but I know if anything is going to change I really need to start doing so, otherwise I am guilty by default.
    Thank you.

    1. I have heard comments like that too and they are so vile and distressing. ‘Where is your Love?’ seems a very good thing to say by way of challenge. Blessings to you, my friend.

  5. Jo Dobson. I love you. Yes and amen.

    ‘I have learnt that I need to belong to the messy, flawed and ultimately hope-filled place that is the local church…’

    Me too xx

  6. With you completely on this Joanna. “How many world-changers, prophets and visionaries are sitting silent in church pews because we have bought into the lie that unity is the same as uniformity?….very many is my guess!

  7. I walked out of church once because I found a visiting speaker’s views offensive. I thought I was alone in my views, but my action initiated a discussion with someone else who agreed with me, but I would not have known that had I not taken a visible but silent stand. Good on you for daring in the spirit of hope and change. Me – I don’t attend church these days.

    1. Thank you, Colleen. I know that a lot of people have been hurt by churches in all sorts of ways and I really appreciate you engaging with this.

  8. Its a hard one to step out of the box and risk being put out of fellowship with the views or understanding you , Churches need to be accepting of where people are at , I would also ask where is the loving relationship with that person ? Jesus told us to love one another. How do you accept people with differing opinions , in most churches you are shunned and shut out for having dared disagree with the churches view so being different and standing up for what you believe to be true be prepared for a lonely life

  9. I really enjoyed this post, and your brave honesty around Faith. I am not religious anymore but I miss the community of the Parish and recognise the messy, imperfect community of The Church that you describe… well done for bringing honesty and love to that place, and for fighting for a tolerant, hopeful, brave and loving paradigm there. Hurrah!

  10. Hi my name’s Joanna Dobson too, from Northumberland. Someone sent me your comments Jo, (I’m called Jo Dobson too). I have quite similar views but probably not quite as much courage nor am I a writer-more of a preacher/teacher. It was really strange reading your words and feeling I could have said those things. I completely agree we need to speak up, speak against and take a stand, and actions speak loudly when we can’t manage the words. It would cause quite some impact if I walked out of church part way through a service or sermon as I’m the Vicar!

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