Tuesday, 12 August 2008

John Burke: Gracious open doors?

John Burke is lead pastor of Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas, and a leading member of the Emergent Leadership Initiative, an Evangelical movement to plant and grow authentic new churches in emergent culture. Winning young people for Christ is not just about packaging, but about authenticity, allowing God to change us hardened burned out religious people into bearers of grace.

From ten years’ rich, fruitful experience of growing an evangelical church among the generation most cagey about Christian commitment, John spoke of creating the right soil for faith to grow, not expecting people to get everything sorted at the check-in. God requires Mercy not Sacrifice, raising a significant question — are we leading like Jesus or like the pharisees? The world does law not grace. Grace says come as you are, and that is the essence of the good news.

John reports that the two big stumbling blocks people have every time are about other religions and homosexuality. So the question for would-be prevailing Evangelical Churches is one a young neighbour asked him of Gateway, “Does your Church teach people to love others? because I could never attend a Church that teaches people to hate gay people.”

It was fascinating, gievn the all-too-open discussions of this subject among Anglicans, how very coy non-Anglicans are, with much coded communication. Having brought it up, John simply referred people to a chapter of his book, as does the follow up Website. Nobody was willing to discuss it in real time. Even in code, however, John brought exact corroboration, hot off the streets, of the Barna Group research last year indicating we have a major missional issue here. Pretending that this is a subject about which we are either in the 1950’s or can return to the 1950’s is just idiotic. Making it a lead issue seems to be missional suicide.

John’s book takes a commendable pragmatic line — keeping Christ at the forefront, not homosexuality, whilst being wide open personally to accept gay people just as they are. He believes people’s lives turn around in the light of Christian faith in ways they never could if cultural stumbling blocks were erected in the way of their coming to that commitment in the first place. So say all of us, no doubt, but I suspect it will be a good while before many US Evangelicals feel comfortable about discussing openly the follow on — is this, some gay people may feel, in the end a kindly but ultimaterly inadequate, even patronising, response to this personal, moral and cultural issue?


Steve Hearn said...

Well yes, Grace is what we should all be about and the part about loving people first is exactly where I am, see the person not the lifestyle and love them as the Messiah loves us. It is good to hear and read this in your post Alan. May we all take it on board and put it into action.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'm with you, Steve. I think part of the faith once delivered to the saints is the Good Samaritan / Sermon on the Mount; above all, Jesus' radical will/ability to see the person behind the mask...

Anonymous said...

A fascinating question that is almost never discussed is just why homosexuality has assumed such importance, having been made in recent years The Only Sin That Matters.

As I have said to you before, Alan, I think it has much more to do with politics than theology.

Back in my evangelical childhood, I was taught that all people sin and that all sin separates us from God. There was not, according to those clumsy, benighted evangelicals of ancient times (the 1970s) a hierarchy of sins.

Our church was admirably consistent in its approach to traditional teaching on sexual morality: it took a hard line on homosexuality, of course, but also on divorce, forbidding people to remarry in the church or to hold positions of authority after remarrying.

Look at what we find today-- self-styled "orthodox Anglicans" like Carey and Scott-Joynt agitating to loosen restrictions on divorce & remarriage while getting hysterical over homosexuality--and you will see why many of us think that all this concern over The Gays, whatever else it might be, is most assuredly not a matter of upholding Scripture.

It just doesn't make any theological sense to designate homosexuality as some especially grievous sin while warmly embracing serial polygamy.

It's politics, Alan, and smart politics at that.

Homohysteria enabled a whole raft of ambitious priests in the U.S., like Minns, Guernsey, Atwood, and Anderson, to get the pointy hats they had coveted in vain for so long.

It made Duncan and his crew power-brokers by bringing foreign primates to their side in a way that, say, prayerbook revision or women's ordination never did.

Homohysteria will soon make Duncan, who is as ambitious as any cleric ever was, into a kinda sorta primate of something or other.

And so on. Homosexuality has been a bonanza for the political and religious right. It's cheap virtue for the so-called "orthodox," fulminating against something that they and their constituency aren't interested in anyway. (Preaching against divorce, on the other hand, would negatively impact the collection plate take and embarrass not a few prominent clergy and their multiple spouses.)

The speaker you heard represents a definite departure from the usual evangelical position on homosexuality--obsession--and I hope he prospers. I don't think we will ever deal with the issue, though, until we are honest about the power dynamic of it.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

nlnh, Many thanks for opening this up a bit on a meta level. A lot of the evidence seems to compute. As I remember (and this was 30 years ago — it shows!) we were taught at seinary that people with any knowledge of the reality of homosexuality had moved from simply defining it as chosen behaviour towards seeing it as a psychological illness, or being arrested in a development phase. It was something to discuss with your spiritual director... I do wonder why some seem to have regressed to pre-1978 views, let alone made this the great touchstone of all orthodoxy. At best it was worth an essay in year 3 of ordination courses. Being in England there was a tremendous gap between what was said publicly and what everyone knew informally; a space that some used creatively. And, of course, social attitudes have revolutionised in the 30 years since.

There must be something in this issue that keys into a particular cultural anxiety. Or latency? Or good ol' fashioned fear?

I really hope this guy and his church prospers, because they represent a real will towards seeing the person ahead of the issue — one obvious answer to the Evangelical question WWJD.

Good to know that for this guy the faith once delivered to the saints does seem to include the sermon on the mount, the good samaritan, and the woman at the well, as well as pure conceptual stuff.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to take a stab at your final question, since no one else has.

Christian life is about following Jesus whatever that means, wherever that leads. Christians should be prepared to voluntarily suffer for Christ's sake. At a political and worldly level, we are right to demand social justice for ourselves and others, but ultimately we have no rights, except the right to take up our cross and follow our Lord.

So gay Christians like me need to suck it up. Our relationships are not going to get much churchly respect in this generation. Evangelical churches in Texas will not soon offer pastoral counselling for gay couples. Anglican churches will not soon be marrying same-sex couples. Of course they should, but it won't happen soon.

We have a debt of loyalty to the Church and we have to remain members of the Church. Membership is partly a moral commitment but only partly. Church unity is supernatural and is not broken by a diversity of sincere moral vision.

And so to gays who feel their church's attitude is inadequate and patronizing, I say don't waste time on resentment. Keep the ultimate perspective. You are here to serve, not to be served. If you can feel resentment, then you can also turn that around and be part of the moral revelation that is slowly, slowly breaking into the Church.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, anon, for a deep and thoughtful perspective on this whle thing that I found very moving. It resonates for all sorts of groups of Christians as well as LGBT; we are but part of a process of moral revelation, and the ways we allow ourselves to be part of that define how swiftly and surely it proceeds. The ways we travel are as important as the direction. All is, in a sense, provisional, this side of heaven.

I agree, ultimately about notional "rights." They are a nice construct of the way things ought to be, but they rarely stand up to the heat of the day as well as we would hope.

I am aware, however, that any Christian trying to live genuinely in community opens themselves to others and so takes on a vulnerability that could be exploited, and I think it's important their goodnature and good will don't get exploited all the time. Recognition is a way of maintaining that line for the benefit of the whole, and that's why it matters.

However everything is provisional. the current popular anthropology we all tend to assume is as provisional as anything else. Everyone has a story to tell, from people who fit into neat schemas (left or right wing) to people whose experience doesn't sit comfortably anywhere.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. The present silence and embarrassment among many Evangelical Christians about this subject give God no glory.

David Wilson said...

I wonder what Jesus would make of the homosexual who says I want to lead My life My way and you must accomodate my to live my life my way, rather than recognize that he must die to self, not follow his own deceitful desires but rather follow the Holy Spirit, he is after all, as a Christian, looking to follow gods ways. It is no longer his life but Christ's. This of course applies to each and every Christian and is a challenge in a largely godless world e.g selfishness, jelousy, greed and gluttony and of course lust. I have never seen any research that cannot be explained by "the fall" and I see no endorsement in scripture that these acts are part of leading the Holy life that God has called us to, or indeed how I distinguish them from the ungodliness referred to in Jude. This is not some purient interest as it affects me personally, or has in the past until I received Jesus love, but also many friends who choose to follow a celibate life and even more so those who have been persuaded by the world to leave the celibate life and follow its call. I admire your conviction that these are God's ways.

Savi Hensman said...

Surely, David Wilson, a long-term loving and self-giving partnership, whether with the opposite or same sex, usually involves some measure of dying to self. Relationships which nurture the fruits of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control - should I believe be valued. At any rate, many churches are broad enough to welcome people with varying views on this matter.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

David, thanks for your comment. The bit I strongly agree that there can be no quantum leap difference between the fallen-ness of anyone and anyone else because of their sexual orientation or for any other reason. But God's standards are relational and part of the greater commandment to love, not checklists of particular sexual practises. Love is love, and bears the fruit of love, whatever the sexual orientation of people concerned. Similarly lust is lust, blindness is blindness, unfaithfulness is unfaithfulness. But the sexual orientation makes no necessary difference at all to these standards of judgment of a relationship.

I don't think I have a conviction that these are God's ways, or not God's ways. As the whole concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation only began to be defined in the way it's used today about a hundred years ago it comes as no surprise that there are principles to apply, but there's almost nothing about it specifically in the Bible, in fact, any more than there's anything direct about Fascism, Keynsian Economics or Imperialism, all concepts first defined around the same time.

What I think we all have to remember when we all start trying to find principles about this is that these surely include the sermon on the mount, the golden rule, and the great commandment. Some Christians with obsessions about the gay issue may be squeaky clean in bed, but their failure to judge not that they be not judged, love their neighbour as themselves, makes them seem like Pharisees, laying on gay people burdens they would never bear as heterosexual people.

Savi, thanks for making this point more positively and clearly than I just have!

David Wilson said...


You seem to imply that these positive attributes of the friendship are fruits of the Spirit and therefore presumably the Spirit is blessing the relationship. But Jesus said even the Pagan loves his friend. They are equally evident in a friendship that involves no physical intimacy. But one would also expect them from one involving a physical relationship that involved friendship - even a short friendship, unless such intimacy destroyed the friendship.

These fruits could also be present in a heterosexual relationship not approved of by the Holy Spirit.

For me the real sign the Spirit is working is where the man can love those who hate him, because the natural man cant do that.

As for the burden, my own experience is that I do not wake a hollow shell - as some gay Christians expect - but with a sense of His presence and His love for me - I have been provided with many opportunities to be in relationship with the Lord and other people. The relational aspect of man evidently doesnt require a physical partner. Jesus love has always been enough.

I mean we have a predominance of women in our church and many single very plain women, both in look and personality, like Leah rather than Rachel. That is a burden in a society and even christian society to prefer attractive women. The Lord still loves them just as much as someone who does find a husband. The Lord seems to accept this as a burden that the women have to carry. They do of course find fulfilled lives by serving and living for the lord and receiving His love.

David Wilson said...


Following you post describing the gifts present in the love I felt I should meditate on Corinthians 1:13 on love. You should of course have added to your conviction from Corithians 1:13. Love does not delight in evil (i.e. not involve ungodly acts) but rejoices with the truth (biblical).

I was reading today from John Pipers book, "What jesus demands from the world": "He did not die to make the life easy for us or prosperous. He died to remove every obstacle to our everlasting joy in making much for him. And He calls us to follow him in his sufferings because this life of joyful suffering for Jesus' sake (Matt. 5.12) shows that he is more valuable than all the earthly rewards that the world lives for (Matt 13:44;6 19-20). If you follow Jesus only because he makes life easy now, it will look to the world that you really love what they love, and Jesus just happens to provide it for you. But if you suffer in the pathway of love because He is your supreme treasure, then it will be apparent to the world that your heart is set on a different fortune than theirs. That is why jesus asks that we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

David, I can see how everything hangs together for you, but in a way it simply does not for some other people for whom Christ died. Your message will be stronger if you can think through how it can be good news for them, especially for those who have tried your approach and it hasn't worked for them as it has for you...

David Wilson said...

I have thought about your comment, in particular your suggestion that the only hope can be provided by entering an active relationship. You assume such an arrangement does offer hope. Matthew 19 came to mind today. Jesus paints the picture of marriage of a union of flesh between a man and a woman. The only alternative offered was that of a eunuch. Jesus offers the eunuch hope through His love. The eunuch is not alone. There is the possibility of rich relationships and also the comforting Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus is realistic and says some will be unable to accept this. I am struck with the thought: who were these eunuchs, clearly not so incapacitated that they were not tempted. So is Jesus saying the hope for the single person is to behave as if you are one. He doesnt offer them an alternative, yet they still have hope.

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