That was the very first question I was asked at the first coffee break at Thursday’s conference here in Kuala Lumpur. It was a conference of pastors and other church leaders to explore the perspectives of the emerging church movement. The question, asked honestly and not aggressively, brings up all sorts of issues for a Christian leader/speaker/author like myself in a foreign land like this.
Brian was here in 2007, and many people have spoken fondly of his visit. I’ve addressed and met with many of the same people. The pastor who asked the question was one of them.
But, he told me, he’d read lots of things on the Internet about Brian since that visit — about Brian’s universalism and social views and that Brian blessed his gay son’s wedding. He said, “I’d like to ask Brian about sexuality and about John 14, but I figure asking you is the next best thing.”
He said this with a smile. Like I said, he was not being disrespectful or aggressive. He really wanted to know.
There are three issues that this confronted me with:
1) Brian McLaren is one of my dearest friends, but I don’t speak for him. Emergent Christianity is a network of relationships, not a canon of doctrines. We do not all ascribe to the same set of beliefs. Brian and I agree on much, but we’ve never cataloged our agreements and disagreements. I don’t actually know how much we agree and disagree on. So, of course, I couldn’t answer the question on that premise alone.
2) Who cares what an American church leader thinks? This is something I’ve been struggling with all week. While I love love love to travel, and I’m thrilled to be invited to places like Malaysia, it’s also humbling and even awkward to be addressing these earnest pastors with my thoroughly Western ideas. It’s embarrassing that they’re keenly interested in Brian’s (or my) perspective on a social issue, when I don’t know the name of even the most famous pastor in their country.
Of course, I’m not naive. American church leaders have an influence here because we write books and blogs and such. So in my talks, I’ve tried to do two things. I’ve tried to focus as much as possible on theology — not on anything that could be seen as more American imperialism. And I’ve tried to always couch everything I say as my experience from my context.
3) The American church and the global church have a tenuous relationship. This is the most important point, and it’s the thing that I spent the most time talking to the pastor about. The aforementioned imperialism of the American church’s past missionary efforts are always in the background of conversations like this. I told the pastor that while I couldn’t speak for Brian, I’d be happy to tell him my views on homosexuality, which I did.
After explaining that I am a strong advocate for full inclusion of all persons at all levels of church leadership, and that I also advocate for full, legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples, I said something else. I said that as an American Christian, I realize that this puts me at odds with much of the rest of the world. I said that America has a unique history, which includes slavery, and that much of the church got that social issue wrong. A lot of us in the States don’t want to make that mistake again, and we think that we’re on the right side of history this time. But, I reiterated, we realize that this makes tense the relationship between us and the Malaysian church, as well as the church in most of the Global South.
I think there’s no quick and easy remedy for this. Those of us in America who are allies are following out consciences and our best interpretations of the Bible and the Christian tradition, I said, and he is doing the same in his context. I asked him to afford me the benefit of the doubt, and I would do the same for him.
No one converted yesterday. I didn’t recant my stance on sexuality, and he didn’t become an ally. But he did pull up a chair next to me at lunch, and we sat together again at tea. He even intimated that if I come back, he might ask me to preach at his church. To be honest, I think that I made a friend yesterday. I hope that I did.