On Being Notorious

A couple of years ago at a conference, a mutual friend introduced me to an editor of a denominational magazine. The editor promptly said, “Oh. You’re the notorious pastor.”

I did feel like a minor (very minor) celebrity at that conference in the wake of news stories about “the wedding” and “the review.”  That would be the wedding I officiated for two women who love each other and wanted to commit themselves to each other in the presence of God and their family and friends. That would be the review of my ministerial credentials to determine if I was still fit to be a pastor after said wedding.

Many people were deeply upset–not to mention scared and hurt–by the review board’s decision to allow me to remain a pastor in good standing. Some people (you may have heard this viewpoint before) believe that same-sex intimate relationships are explicitly condemned in the Bible. I have had–and will continue to have–this biblical/theological discussion. I’m not intimidated by this conversation because I know I’m right.

That probably sounds arrogant. Especially since I am a woman and am supposed to preface everything with “I think” and “It seems to me that.” But really, I deeply, passionately, unapologetically believe that God cares about the quality of our love, not the gender of the lovers. If I thought the Bible condemned same-sex intimate relationships, I would never have officiated “the wedding” in the first place.

Some people consider my willingness to disagree with the accepted theological position of the Mennonite church to be a sign that I am self-differentiated. Honestly, though, it’s just that I’m stubborn and opinionated. Plus, while I might disagree with the “party line,” I am in agreement with the majority of my closest colleagues, friends, and family members.

So in this situation, I don’t think my biblical interpretation is where self-differentiation comes into play.  I’ve never struggled with or questioned whether gay marriage is O.K. with God.

The struggle has been with my role and responsibility as a pastor ordained by a denomination that–officially at least–disagrees with me on this one particular issue.

Many people, I know, were upset not just because they disagreed with my theology. They were upset because I broke a rule. And got away with it.

I get that.

I am, at heart, a rule-follower. Ask anyone who was ever a classmate of mine in school. If I had ever gotten my name on the board, I’m sure I would have cried. The mere thought of getting in trouble ties my stomach in knots.

So while the biblical conversations about gay marriage won’t sway me, the accusations of rule-breaking and disrespect give me pause. In part because I know that people create rules for a reason. In part because I understand the need for accountability within communities.

Yes, my denomination has rules against pastors officiating weddings for same-sex couples. (Sort of. It’s complicated.) We also have rules against pastors engaging in public drunkenness and extramarital affairs.

Accountability is a good thing. That is the piece I had to struggle with as I made the decision to go ahead with the wedding in the face of pressure from conference leadership. In breaking an implicit rule of my ordaining body, was I being self-differentiated, or merely refusing to be accountable?

During the most difficult part of a conversation I had with conference leadership, I received what I consider to be a sign from God. Now I’m not one of those people who sees Jesus in my burnt toast. I don’t throw around the phrase “sign from God” lightly. My sign was a bird fluttering just outside the window I was facing. As the powers that be were telling me about my responsibility to uphold my ordination agreement all I could focus on was the bird bathed in light. Almost hovering right outside the window.

It was a holy moment that allowed me to shed my need to follow all the rules; my need to be acceptable and accepting and–most importantly–not in trouble.

Now that I am already in trouble–or, more technically speaking, “at variance” –my temptation runs in the opposite direction. I am no longer tempted to comply with authority. I am now tempted to ignore it altogether. To make light of my rebellion and dismiss any kind of accountability as oppressive.

To rebel for the sake of rebelling is just as unhealthy–possibly even more unhealthy–than to follow the rules just for the sake of following the rules.

And so we are on this journey together. And I thank God for my Christian brothers and sisters who pray with me and for me, who counsel me and comfort me, who hold me accountable to the true way of Jesus Christ.

 

–This post was written for my friend Marty Troyer’s blog series on self-differentiation and Christian community. I commend to you the other posts in this series as well.

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3 thoughts on “On Being Notorious

  1. I agree that authority is a two-edged weapon. Having pastored a church that was briefly independent (until we found a sponsoring congregation within the Metropolitan Community Church), and having thus considered at length the place of denominational authority, I understand both the need for it, and the drawbacks.

    When I read through the gospels, I read the story of a man who had the very same struggle. On the one hand, plucking grain on the Sabbath so that he and his disciples could eat (in express opposition to the law as interpreted by the religious leaders of his day), and on the other hand telling his followers, “I have not come to abolish the law…”

    We’re in good company there, Joanna.

  2. Building bridges is always more satisfying than burning them, but showing integrity and expecting it from those we are trying to partner with may be messy. I am thinking of a completely different issue, in this case, reducing gun violence. My middle class white (liberal) church needs to partner with churches in the black community, who may be middle class but may also be conservative. Can we publicly affirm our theology on matters which may offend them (gay rights), and can they affirm theirs which will offend us (homosexuality is a sin), and can we still find value in partnering on a shared commitment to reduce gun violence in our city? It may help not to be notorious. Does that mean we are in the closet?

  3. pip, I think the way to partner with anyone is to affirm those values which you have in common. No two churches, no two Christians, are exactly alike or hold exactly the same beliefs. Humility for me is the most important Christian virtue. Humility is not saying, “I am not important,” but simply saying, “I don’t know everything, and I only hold a piece of the puzzle.” And even more, “I am not perfect, and some of my beliefs are probably wrong, too.” (If only I knew for sure which ones… 🙂 )

    I think the practice of humility (as imperfectly as I practice it) is why I can be friends and work with some very conservative Christians, whilst still disagreeing with some of the beliefs they hold.

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