Reality check: We are talking past one another

failure-to-communicateI have written before about the reality that so-called liberal-progressives and so-called conservative-traditionalists have a serious failure to genuinely communicate. We use the same words but we mean different things. We express our viewpoints but many do not honestly listen to the viewpoint of the other.

I “watched” a conversation on Twitter yesterday that makes the point. Without disclosing the identities of the three Presbyterian Church (USA) Teaching elders involved, suffice it to say that the “conversation” was spurned by a Tweet by More Light Presbyterians. At one point the pastor who was seeking to uphold the view of marriage as affirmed by Jesus in Mark 10 where Jesus quotes Genesis 1:27 was accused by the fellow PCUSA TEs of teaching hate and personally contributing to the problem of young adult suicide. Suffice it to say, they were talking past each other.

These “conversations” are not only failing to be had among Presbyterians. Other Christians are failing equally in the effort. My friend and colleague, Rob Renfroe, of the Good News movement in the United Methodist Church recently addressed the reality in his context. He has graciously given me permission to repost his editorial here.

Rob RenfroeYou’ve probably watched two people have an argument that got nowhere. They championed their positions with as much passion and clarity as they could muster, but to no avail. Finally, they left exhausted by the effort but no closer to a resolution. Sometimes we describe that scenario as two people “talking past each other.” In hopes of helping our conversation regarding same-sex relations and gay marriage, let me share some arguments that go right past me and why.

1. You’re doing harm when you say the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The reoccurring progressive mantra that we traditionalists hear repeatedly is “you are doing harm” to children of God. I have written on several occasions that we fully believe in the worth of all persons and the imperative that the church must be in loving ministry to all persons. I know some, claiming to be Christian, have used the most offensive language to refer to gay persons and I am all too aware that even awful acts of physical violence have been perpetrated against gays by some who have used the Bible to defend their actions. That kind of harm is wrong and wicked.

But do we really “do harm” by stating that the Bible does not affirm same sex relations? Does it truly follow that you cannot speak against a practice without demeaning a person’s worth? If so, we would never be able to teach that the Scriptures condemn pride, greed, or adultery.

I know it is hurtful when we are told that our actions are not acceptable in God’s sight. But there is a difference between hurt and harm. A doctor who sets a broken bone may hurt us to move the bone into place, but he or she does not harm us. Just the opposite – the doctor makes our healing possible.

We traditionalists believe that God intended the good gift of human sexuality to be expressed within the covenant of marriage between one woman and one man. Telling someone that sexual relations outside that covenant are not what God intends and that engaging in such relations is sinful may hurt, but it does not harm – not if spoken in love, and not if there is also the offer of understanding, love, forgiveness and support for all who seek to be faithful to God’s will in this aspect of life.

2. The culture is changing and we’re going to lose people, especially young people, if we don’t change. Sadly, this argument is all too common, made even by some of our bishops.

In the past, liberals often knocked large churches, charging that their rapid growth came because they preached “an easy gospel,” avoiding the hard message of Jesus that we must deny ourselves and live by different values than those held by the culture. But now, liberals tell us just the opposite. They tell us that we had better reflect the values of the culture, at least regarding sexuality, or we’ll become irrelevant. If we ever want the church to grow, we can’t hold to positions that young people don’t hold.

I agree that too many churches preach an Americanized Gospel of prosperity, health, and success dressed up in religious garb. I find that not just misguided theologically; I find it offensive and blasphemous – just as I do the progressive idea that we should abandon traditional biblical views to attract young people.

There are two problems with the “we better change our views or the church won’t grow” mentality. One, the numbers do not bear out what liberals tell us. All of the mainline churches besides the UM Church have changed their positions to allow practicing gay pastors and gay marriage. And they are all declining in numbers – and rapidly. The UM Church’s membership data is not encouraging either, but it is healthier than the denominations that have changed their standards. If telling young people what they supposedly want to hear regarding sexuality would bring them into the church, the statistics would be just the opposite.

Second, and even more importantly, the idea that we should follow the culture instead of following the Scriptures is nothing more or less than unfaithfulness. How do we make faithful disciples of Jesus when we won’t be faithful to the biblical witness?

Progressives are fond of saying that we conservatives are on “the wrong side of history” regarding homosexuality. But our goal is not to be on the right side of history – it’s to be on the right side of eternity. And that means being true to what God has revealed to be his will.

The church is called to be countercultural. We must live differently than a materialistic and hedonistic culture. Not easy to do, but still we must call people to self-denial of all that is contrary to what God has revealed to be his will. I will need grace to live that way. And persons with same sex attraction will need grace to live faithfully. Can’t we love and help and understand and give grace to each other as we struggle to do God’s will?

3. You are denying people their civil rights. Sexual progressives within the church see themselves as Dr. King’s heirs. Those of us who cannot condone the practice of homosexuality are portrayed as being as malevolent as Bull Connor with his water hoses.

Our UM Book of Discipline rightly states that persons should not be denied their civil rights. But being married in a church is not a civil right. We don’t marry siblings. We don’t marry three persons together. In fact, I have refused to marry a loving couple who did not want me to use the name of Jesus in their ceremony. I pointed them to a Unitarian Church where they could be married, but I could not do what they wanted because I am a Christian pastor and I perform Christian marriages. It is not a civil right to be married by a UM minister. And we do not deny anyone their right to be married when we tell them that our doctrine does not allow us to perform their service.

Neither do we deny anyone’s civil rights when the UM Church refuses to ordain him or her. I know of several individuals who were denied ordination because an Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry found them too conservative. No one screamed about their civil rights. We would not ordain someone who does not accept women’s ordination or whose beliefs do not allow for infant baptism. We would not ordain anyone who was found to be in an active heterosexual relationship outside of marriage. Refusing to ordain persons because their beliefs are not in line with UM doctrine or because their lifestyle does not conform with our understanding of God’s will does not deny their civil rights. That’s because ordination is not a right – it is the decision of the church that God has called a particular person to a special form of ministry and that he or she possesses the gifts, graces, lifestyle and doctrines that will be effective in the UM Church.

4. You’re hypocritical by selecting this one sin to condemn. Of course, we don’t single out this one sin. I don’t know of one UM pastor who speaks about the practice of homosexuality as much as he or she does pride, greed, heterosexual lust or anger. And rightly so. More people will be left outside the Kingdom of God because of those sins than because of homosexual sins.

But there is a reason we traditionalists do write about homosexuality and speak out about it as much as we do. And that’s because it’s the only practice prohibited by the Bible that some people in the church are attempting to normalize and celebrate. No group is arguing that greed is good, pride is to be condoned, or adultery celebrated. If there were such groups, I can assure you Good News would be as adamantly opposed to their arguments as we are against attempts to celebrate same-sex services and normalize the practice of homosexuality.

So, the real question is why do progressives single out this one practice? The Scriptures – Old and New Testaments – written to Jewish and Gentile cultures over thousands of years are uniform in stating that this practice is not God’s will for us. Why then have progressives affirmed this one prohibited practice?

5. Jesus never condemned homosexuality. If Jesus never spoke against homosexual relations, we’re told, then it can’t be wrong or, at least, it can’t be very important.

Jesus never spoke about – and I’m not equating these sins to homosexuality – rape, incest, child abuse, or mistreating the environment. Should we, therefore, decide they aren’t wrong or important?

If the Bible that Jesus would have known and the religious beliefs of his culture were all against the practice of homosexuality, are we really supposed to believe that the message to be received from his silence is his affirmation of homosexual practice? Especially when he specifically reaffirmed the created order of sexuality by stating “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matthew 19.15)?

These five arguments play very well among progressives. But no matter how often, how loudly, or how passionately they are spoken to traditional, orthodox Christians, they simply carry no weight. If liberals want to have a meaningful conversation with us, it must begin with the belief that the Bible is God’s word and that the answers to our questions will be found there. For traditional Christians, the ultimate authority for determining God’s will is not human wisdom, liberal sensibilities or a progressive view of justice. We may differ about what the Bible teaches. But that’s where a good conversation begins. Start anywhere else and we’ll continue to speak past each other.

– See more at:

Almost no translation is needed for our Presbyterian context. Which illuminates another reality: Christians who agree on the issues across denominational lines are more able to communicate with one another than people within a particular denomination who disagree.

Do you agree?




Carmen Fowler LaBerge