Discernment and Its Discontents

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

For a couple of decades the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has said we are in a “process of discernment” about the status of LGBT people in the church.

And for longer than we might have expected, we have maintained an outward peace amid all the political and ecclesiastical conflicts related to discussions of human sexual orientation. We have even witnessed the public fights within our fellow old-line denominations with a measure of self-satisfaction and complacency.

But we did not escape public conflict because we are more of one mind, or wiser and more loving, than our Methodist, Lutheran or Presbyterian brothers and sisters, but rather because we do not have a decision-making structure that requires—or allows—a church wide legislative decision about anything. We don’t describe our situation that way, though. What we say is “We are in a process of discernment.”

There is an essential problem here. Discernment is a journey through study, conversation and prayer toward a decision. Discernment implies that the alternatives being considered are of equal practical import and are morally comparable. I can enter discernment over whether I’m called to be a physician or a welder, but I wouldn’t enter discernment over whether to commit adultery, or rob a bank. Though it has been inadvertent, and with good intentions, nevertheless we have been disingenuous in our talk about discernment.

After all, do we really consider a discernment a success whatever its outcome? If a congregation does the Bible study, does the sharing, holds the conversations—all in good faith—and reaches a consensus that LGBT people are essentially flawed humans and therefore do not have the same status in the church as heterosexual people, I am not prepared to mark that as a laudable outcome of discernment. Would we have called for a discernment process if we really thought it likely that such discernment would result in making things worse than they already are for LGBT people in the church? I hope not. Our actual, if unstated, goal of discernment has been to overcome prejudice with relationship, correct Biblical and historical misinformation, and demonstrate that differing sexual orientations are part of the order of God’s creation and not, in themselves, sin or perversion.

This is hindsight, of course; I did not see it 20 years ago. We wanted to make progress against attitudes that dehumanized people because of others’ views of how God made them, and we wanted to encourage people who already knew and cared for each to sit down and talk it through as an effective way of doing that. The problem is that what sets the stage for candor and love in a congregation can, for a denomination, function as an avoidance mechanism.

Now, in 2012, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) includes individuals, congregations, and regional expressions of the church with differing positions on whether a significant number of people among us are created fully in the image of God. But, in practice, the general expression of the church has resolved the matter in favor of justice, openness, and affirmation. We welcome the leadership of LGBT people in the life of the General Ministries, General Board and General Assembly and all their myriad committees, task forces, commissions and vision teams, but it often seems we do so while hoping it won’t be noticed by anyone whom it might upset.

We cannot whitewash the conflict much longer. God and history are outflanking our attempts to shield ourselves. For twenty years we have worried that conflict over the basic humanity of some of us would lead to a loss of congregational participation and financial support for the denomination. Now we see that an even bigger loss of participation and support than we ever would have imagined is happening anyway. The world has changed around us and traditional congregations have failed in multiple ways to engage that changing world on behalf of the gospel of Jesus. We went to a lot of trouble, and sacrificed conscience, integrity, and the gospel in order to protect ourselves from the wrong danger. It’s not conflict over sexual orientation that threatens the church. What threaten us are complacency, unexamined assumptions, and forgetting that God has called us to proclaim radical love and inclusion and not to compromise with hatred.

Justice, equality and freedom for LGBT people is not a bell that is going to be un-rung. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We need to act with love even toward those who hate us or hate those we love, and we must not ourselves succumb to anger or cruelty. But we must not dilute the power of the gospel, or pretend there is something noble in tolerating injustice for the sake of membership numbers, or mission funding, or peace and quiet.

This is what I have discerned.