I Don’t Like God’s Seating Chart

As you know from my last post, I was devastated by World Vision’s reversal, under pressure, of a previous policy decision to welcome people in legal same-sex marriages as employees. Today’s post is less about the decisions themselves than how they made me feel about many of my fellow Christians—those at World Vision and those whose vocal opposition to same-sex marriage brought about World Vision’s reversal. I was angry. And I was really, really sad. (Still am.)

I am tempted to just sever my ties with Christians whose conservative theology and morals are so different than mine. I am tempted to fling bitter accusations at those whose ideology did such damage last week—damage to Christian unity, to hospitality and inclusion, and to the primary Christian call to serve the poor. I am tempted to surround myself with nice progressive Christians who see things the way I do, to stop putting energy into conversation with those whose Christianity looks so different than mine. I suspect that these temptations are not mine alone.

I am proud to be an Episcopalian. I’m proud of our liturgy and prayer book, our progressive policies and radical hospitality. I worship alongside others who are equally proud of our liturgical, sacramental, “big tent” tradition. And I suspect that our love of the progressive Episcopal way of being Christian, combined with our bewilderment and even disgust with some other ways of being Christian, can lead us to a kind of Christian isolationism. We become uninterested in conversation with those who think and believe differently. We dismiss their theological and moral arguments out of hand. We put our heads down and do our work, our way, and pay no mind to those Christians whom we can’t understand or abide.

There are certainly some who claim the label “Christian” whose actions and attitudes are so far removed from the life and ministry of Jesus Christ that we can, in good conscience, refuse to embrace them as fellow Christians. I’m thinking, for example, of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, who died last week. But while every movement and ideology has its share of blowhards and egotists, most Christians whose positions on gay marriage and other sociopolitical issues I find hard to accept are simply, like me and my progressive kin, trying their best to follow Jesus Christ. This was most apparent to me last week when I read a colleague’s interview with World Vision’s Rich Stearns after he announced the organization’s reversal. Some of what Stearns said still puzzles and troubles me. But while I find Stearns’s opinions and actions difficult to swallow, he’s not a villain. He’s a fellow Christian, trying to make decisions that are right for his organization and for our common faith. As much as I want to distance myself from Stearns and anyone who influenced and/or supported World Vision’s retraction, I can’t. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Just as we can’t choose our biological family, we can’t choose our Christian family. A commenter to last week’s post on the World Vision controversy wrote this:

All too often we forget that God calls us all to his table and that we don’t get to choose who he seats us next to. No one loves you like family and no one can break your heart like family.

For me, that was the truest thing that anyone said in response to this World Vision mess. God’s seating chart poses a challenge to all Christians. It is a challenge to the folks at World Vision, and those who spoke out so vehemently against their initial decision, to recognize that Christians in same-sex marriages are invited to sit at the table alongside those in traditional marriages. And it is a challenge to all of us, to continue building relationships with and listening to our fellow Christians—to honor God’s seating chart—even when they break our hearts.

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  • R Vogel

    Just as we can’t choose our biological family….really?

    ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?…..whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.’ The corollary is….?

    Fred Phelps you are comfortable declaring not a part of your family but those who hold the same opinions, the same warped view of Jesus but are just too cowardly to truly apply it like he did are OK? Fred Phelps is easy for you to reject, safe because no one questioned his immorality. Rejecting people who would deny bread to children rather than give a true brother or sister in Christ a job would take courage. And we’re all just so invested in this whole thing…..

    So answer me this about your table, would you make room for at the table for your sister-in-christ’s rapist? Her unrepentant, gleeful, arrogantly proclaiming his victory rapist?

    • I think the people who pressured World Vision to retract, and the World Vision leaders themselves, were wrong. That doesn’t make them not my brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re all wrong sometimes. Part of what makes divisions between Christians so deadly is that we love to categorize and demonize those who see things differently than we do. We love to say that someone who has theological problems with gay marriage (which I disagree with but can also understand in an intellectual way) is hateful a la Fred Phelps and the “God hates fags” folk. They are not, and it’s both unfair and counterproductive to categorize them that way. We do ourselves, and those with whom we disagree, a disservice if we’re unwilling to be in conversation. They will know Christians by their love, remember? For the poor and the marginalized, and for one another. Most people change their minds not through some lightning bolt from God, but through conversation with other believers. Redemption through Christ is available to everyone, even the Westboro Baptist folk, even a rapist. The process of redemption is not mine to direct or decide.

      • R Vogel

        Don’t strawman my point. Someone having a theological problem with gay marriage is not ala Fred Phelps – someone making gay marriage a litmus test for christianity, and calling for the defunding of support programs for the poor in order to enforce that point is ala Fred Phelps. Clearly ‘G*d hates fags’ so much that he would rather we pull our support for a poor child that we have developed a relationship with than give them a job. So they aren’t as crude as Fred, but does that matter if you are a poor child who just lost their sponsor, or a gay person who just lost their opportunity to serve, or now worries that they might lose their job because they already work for WV? That is not ‘wrong’ it is evil. Then WV apologizes, not to the children or to LBGT people they just kicked in the stomach, but to the poor confused and upset evangelicals because the hampered their efforts to victimize LBGT brothers and sister for almost an entire day? You are going to sit at the table with them while they toss your LBGT brothers and sisters into the cold – because THEY won’t have it any other way. All in the name of some silly notion of unity? They have replaced Jesus with some twisted idol and we are supposed to sit there pretending we have some sort of unity with that? What happened to the Jesus to told you if your right hand offends, cut it off? Where is the Jesus who called the hypocrites a brood of vipers and declared that travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when they have succeeded, make them twice as much a child of hell as they are? Was that about unity and sharing a place at the table?

        Sorry but if my family told my gay brother or sister, which they would if I had one, that they are not part of the family, I would go with my brother or sister. That is the ‘love’ I want to be my witness before the world. The love for the oppressed, not the oppressor, for the poor, not the principalities and powers. Jesus’ love was expressed through being nailed to a cross by the principalities and powers, not sitting at the table with them.

        Of course redemption is available, but they aren’t repentant. They think YOU should repent. They are joyous and reveling in their defilement of the message of Christ, and progressive christianity sits with them at the table while the gloat, while our brothers and sisters stand outside in the cold. Is that somehow going to bring them to repentance, or convince them they are right? You don’t have to direct the redemptive process to not be complicit in their oppression.

        • I’ll just say again – I think the WV folks and their supporters were wrong. Really really wrong. I just don’t think that they will change if Christians who think differently aren’t willing to be in conversation with them. And there’s plenty about which I’m wrong, I know. I still hope to have a place at the table.

          • And I’ll say too, reading your comment again, that I think you’re absolutely right about a lot of this. I agree that the subtler tactics of WV and supporters are not as far removed from “God hates fags” as they want to make it out to be. I agree that God sides with the oppressed…in this case our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I agree that if an actual sibling were gay or lesbian (a non-theoretical situation in my extended family), I would side with the gay or lesbian sibling over other family members who reject them. I’m winging it here, and have the sense–based on being in relationship with Christians who don’t accept gay marriage–that the key to change is not telling people that they are Fred Phelps wannabes. The key, I think (and maybe I’m wrong) is to continue being in relationship with Christians who have some possibility of change and redemption, who are willing to be in relationship with ME and hear another way of seeing things. I’m pretty sure the Westboro Baptist folks (based on how they responded via Twitter to this post yesterday) don’t give a hoot what I think. But other Christians with whom I’m in relationship might. But I might be wrong. I do understand what you’re saying, and I don’t know whose way is better…mine or yours. Maybe both are needed.

          • I am not normally a big fan of text proofing but this seems appropriate.
            A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. Proverb 15:1

  • R Vogel
  • Philokalia12 .

    Thank you, Ellen, for writing this. I am one you would disagree with on many issues, yet, maybe not……I proudly like to use the label “Evangelical” when I describe my tribe within the Christian spectrum. I am also a reforming angry Christian (a group that exists across the theological spectrum). One of the early church fathers commented about the argument for righteous anger and unrighteous anger in this way. He said that whether you have a leaf made of gold or of lead, once you put either leaf over your eyes you are blind. Looking forward to sharing a meal with you sometime. Blessings.

  • mona

    Great blog…. thanks.