In just a few weeks, members of the United Church of Christ will gather in Altanta, Georgia, for General Synod, the biennial national gathering of the church. The UCC has never shied away from controversy, choosing to speak boldly and to act boldly whenever it has discerned a call of the Holy Spirit. It is most certainly a strength of the church that it is ready to witness faithfully, to follow where Christ leads, even when that witness may provoke dismay and alarm. But this summer, the UCC will take up an issue that is as explosive and divisive as any it has considered in its almost fifty year history. That issue is gay marriage.
General Synod will consider three separate resolutions on gay marriage. One resolution sponsored by the Southern California/Nevada Conference calls on the UCC to affirm equal marriage rights for same gender couples. (Text of the resolution). The second, sponsored by the Central Atlantic Conference, calls for prayer and study on the issue. (Text of the resolution). The third resolution, sponsored by eight individual UCC churches, asks the UCC to provide faithful witness by supporting the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (Text of the resolution).
It is a no-win situation. If the church votes down the gay marriage resolution or chooses to ask for more prayer and study, it will be seen by its more progressive members as reversing its course, failing in courage, or, at best, dragging its feet. Many will view the UCC as losing the distinctive”edginess” that is its hallmark.
On the other hand, if the equal marriage rights resolution is passed, many in the church will see this as a betrayal of the scriptural witness and an abandonment of the Christian virtues of chastity and fidelity. Many will view the UCC as losing its way, as losing Jesus’ way.
So what do I think? My concern is with the integrity of the witness of our church, our core witness to the unity Christ intends for his Church. It is this very zeal for witnessing to Christian unity that brought our church into being in the first place! So my concern, first of all, is not so much with result, but with process. Paying attention to process is the only way through this no-win situation.
I have long found helpful the analysis of conflict provided by David Augsburger in his book, “Caring Enough to Confront.” He observes that in any conflict situation two things are at stake: (1) the issue being contended, and (2) the relationship between the contenders.
His book provides a catalog of conflict styles. In brief, some folks value issue over relationship. Defending the truth, “my” version of the truth, becomes paramount. Fighting for what is right, for what is fair, for what is just, takes precedence. If the relationship between “me” and my “opponent” of the moment is damaged or even destroyed, so be it; the issue is what matters.
Other folks value relationship over issue. They will be ready to stop fighting, to compromise, to give in, whenever they perceive a relationship is in jeopardy. They would rather swallow their pride and their need to be right to protect a relationship that matters to them.
Augsburger contends that the different styles each have their time and place, but that the healthiest approach overall to conflict is to learn to value both issue and relationship. This is not compromise which means going 50-50. It means complete honesty and complete humility … 100-100! It means caring enough about the issue to make sure “you” hear “me” out, and caring enough about relationship to make sure “I” hear “you” out.
It is this “marriage” of truth and love, “speaking the truth in love” as the apostle Paul puts it, that I believe is sorely lacking in this debate. Proponents of gay marriage accuse those who would reserve marriage for the union between one man and one woman of being homophobic and reactionary and intolerant and unchristian. And defenders of traditional marriage accuse gay marriage advocates of being faithless and unbiblical and amoral and unchristian!
Both sides do need enough courage to voice their convictions fully, but they also need enough humility to acknowledge and respect the integrity of the convictions of their counterparts. We need to understand that the impulse that drives followers of Jesus to advocate equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians is not libertarianism, but a desire to fulfill the gospel of Jesus Christ, to enact Jesus’ radical acceptance and affirmation of those deemed “outsiders” by the rest of society.
And we need to understand that the passion that motivates others to reserve marriage to the committed relationship of one man and one woman is not fear of change, distrust of what is foreign and strange to them, but a sincere desire to fulfill the gospel of Jesus Christ, to follow Jesus in paths of wholeness and faithfulness!
Granted, motives on either side of this issue are not always pure and undivided … But we will have already lost no matter the outcome of these debates if we do not recognize that we are alike passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is our common allegiance to Jesus, our genuine commitment to listening together to Jesus, that can keep us together and make us a real church, a vital church, even when we do not yet agree on the “mind of Christ” with regard to this or any other particular issue. Do not demonize a brother or sister in Christ! That well may be the sin against the Holy Spirit!
May the Holy Spirit lead our church as we struggle with difficult issues, as we seek to know the mind of Christ. May we act with all boldness, and love each other with all humility.