Forgiveness in the Mainline

This piece appeared on UPI’s Relgion and Spirituality Forum on January 21, 2007 
Mainline Protestantism has a problem.  I realize this is hardly news for anyone who has made even the most cursory of surveys into the landscape of American spirituality, but those of us who are part of the old guard of American Protestantism cannot seem to get along.
Mostly we’re arguing about sex and about the roles, if any, that gays and lesbians should play in the life of the church. We’re also arguing about theology, about who is saved by God’s grace, and we’re arguing about how properly to read the Bible. These divergent opinions have Mainline Protestants asking if it may be time to file for divorce.

There have been a few good attempts at reconciliation, but the acrimony remains. And while I’m not entirely sure what can be done to heal the wounds that are festering in the American Mainline, I believe that in order for our churches to avoid schism, there must be an attempt on the part of Mainline Protestants to forgive one another for all of our disagreements.

I confess to being a active participant in the debates that are threatening to divide Mainline Protestant churches. I am a liberal. I believe gays and lesbians should be welcomed and included fully in the life of the church. I also believe that when I get to heaven I’ll be greeted by a lot of non-Christians. Moreover, I believe that the Bible is unreliable as a book of history, science or self-help, and that the most important scriptural truths are found in the myth, poetry and story of sacred writ.

Standing, as I do, on the left-ward margins of Mainline Protestant belief can be painful. My soul is marked by the sadness of dear friends who have been rejected by the church because of their sexual orientation.

My convictions also make for a lot of work. I expend a lot of pastoral energy in the effort to bring healing and grace to those who must unlearn the overly simplistic, literalistic, and sometimes spiritually abusive interpretation of the Bible taught by those who inhabit the right-ish corners of the Christian geography.

At times I feel like a under-compensated janitor, cleaning up messes left behind by the recklessly conservative, and that makes me grumpy. I get to feeling that those whose intolerance and ignorance have so burdened my life owe me something for all of the inconvenience I’ve endured on account of their spiritual and theological blunders; but as a Christian, my work is to pay attention to the words of the Lord’s prayer and to forgive such debts, just as I am forgiven for the similar debts I’ve incurred.

No doubt an Evangelical sister or brother reading this column will call to mind the ways people like me have caused them frustration and sadness. My progressive theology seeks to create a church that, to some, feels incompatible with the one that we’ve inherited from our forebearers. When I advocate for the inclusion of gays and lesbians, when I speak of God’s grace extending beyond the Christian family, and when I refuse to read the Bible in traditional ways, I am rocking the boat. That’s impolite at best. At worst it’s destructively heretical. I need forgiveness too.

When we forgive one another we choose to keep the burden of disagreements from standing between us as we stand before God. If we refuse to offer forgiveness to those with whom we disagree, then we are suggesting that being theologically incorrect is a sin beyond the reach of God’s grace and the outside the scope of Christian reconciliation.

This week is the week of prayer for Christian unity. It is a week for Christians to set aside our differences and to focus upon the things that bind us one to another. My prayer is that during this week, as Mainline Protestants seek understanding and commonality with Christians from other traditions, we will practice the kind of forgiveness that will keep us united within our own denominations as well.

6 thoughts on “Forgiveness in the Mainline

  1. Hey ben:
    Read your article; I agree that this is an important place to start healing, and I think it needs to start soon. I keep hearing here at seminary about the “imminent schisms” that are apparently approaching for Lutherans, Episcopaleans, and Presbyterians and it makes me sad that we would want to run away from one another rather than face the problems and work together. I don’t understand how a church that claims Christ’s lineage would choose to walk away from part of its family, or deny its own family… the church community is a family that ought not be walked away from, one that we are all welcome to join and supposedly freely loved in- but how can I be assured of that love and grace when someone can walk away and leave just because they disagree?

    I am not sure how to answer that…. but I hope that forgiveness can enter in the equation soon. I want to start that process, but I’m afraid that if I asked for forgiveness from someone I disagreed with or forgave them, it might be misinterpreted… how do we start forgiving effectively?

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks for the post. Good to hear from you.

    You raise an important question: How do we forgive without seemin schmarmy? At first anyway, I think the forgivness has to be done personally and privately. I can forgive someone without talking to them, and that’s where we start, I think. Later, perhaps there can be conversation, but before we get there work has to happen in individual hearts.

    What do you think?



  3. Forgiveness for all? Fair enough. But sometimes, these schisms may be legitimate — at least on the part of one of the separating parties — and may take a long time to reconcile and heal. I am thinking specifically of the break in the Presbyterian church, north and south, over slavery. That separation lasted a full century, as perhaps it should have.

    I am not equating the current flap over gay-lesbian acceptance with the abhorrance one must have for something as evil as slavery. But clearly, feelings on the matter are running high in many quarters. Perhaps time — as long as it may take for hearts to change and positions to soften — may be the final answer.


  4. Man! I wish that I got an email so that I would know you responded 🙂

    Yes I agree that forgiveness ought to be done in a way that avoids grandstanding and the schmarminess that often accompanies public “forgiveness”… although I find it sad that in our culture, honest conversation and forgiveness is so often interpreted cynically, so often assumed to have an ulterior motive. I guess that people have a hard time believing that others have either a right to be forgiven or the power to forgive at all.

    I like where you are going with individual forgiveness, but I can’t help but feel that the process is so tediously slow… sometimes I fear that I won’t have the patience.

  5. Sarah,

    It is a slow process, and it also must be internal. I think the minute we ask for some public acknowledgment of our forgiveness, the forgiveness ceases to be pure.


  6. agreed.

    …did i mention that i asked for forgiveness the other day and got it…arent i a good person? hehe jk.

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