Zero-sum faith

March 24th, 2015

I wonder what non-Christians would think of us Christians if they could see us practicing tolerance. I have to wonder, because tolerance of divergent views in the church seems to be in short supply when it comes to certain explosive issues.

One recent example is the split among Alabama Baptists regarding same-sex marriage. This month, the Madison Baptist Association voted to remove the Weatherly Heights Baptist Church from its association because Dr. David Freeman, Weatherly’s pastor, is pro-same-sex marriage.

"It is truly a sad evening for Southern Baptists and the Madison Association Baptists," Charlie Howell, MBA’s director of missions, told “Our Association has lost one of its sister churches. But our Executive Board has deemed it necessary that we remain true to the biblical definition of marriage in belief and practice.”

The recent legalization of gay marriage in Alabama and the decision of the Rev. Dr. Ellin Jimmerson, one of Weatherly’s unpaid staff pastors, to marry the first same-sex couple in Madison County undoubtedly brought the conflict between Freeman and the MBA to a head.

“We cannot waver on the absolute truths that will last for all eternity," preached outgoing Alabama Baptist Convention President John Killian in November of last year. It was his final sermon to convention attendees, a message that vigorously reiterated opposition to same-sex marriage on what Killian said are Biblical grounds. And it likely helped set the tone for the MBA’s decision.

Freeman could have reacted by making a public defense of his position. Instead, he opted to make a plea for tolerance and individual spiritual integrity.

"Gay marriage is ripping some denominations and churches apart,” Dr. David Freeman told “But not all. It is not an essential of the faith; therefore it does not have to damage relationships. I have people in my congregation who disagree on this issue and still love and respect each other. Each person is encouraged to open his or her mind, open his or her Bible, and then, before Almighty God, wrestle with the issue and the text. We do not all arrive at the same conclusion, but we do respect the others' honest struggle with God."

We live in an era defined by partisan polemics and ideological attacks. Politics has become a zero-sum game. But isn’t faith supposed to be different than politics? Shouldn’t mature Christians be able to co-exist in a denomination without line-by-line doctrinal agreement?

I’ve talked to enough believers to know that many of us already share pews with people whose beliefs don’t line up with our denominations’ company lines. These dissidents include both clergy and laity. Some dissent quietly, even secretly, sharing their true thoughts only with a select few. Others are quite public, putting their dissent on display without explanation or even defense.

What I’ve often noticed with the public dissidents is that once it’s clear that they don’t disagree with church doctrine out of hatred or a desire to be contentious — but because they have, as Freeman advised, engaged in an honest struggle with God — they are accepted and keep a place in the family. 

I believe that’s how the MBA could have chosen to handle its disagreement with Weatherly Heights. And if it had, the message that many of us would have gotten is that unity doesn’t have to mean uniformity. Differences don’t have to result in division. We can, as Freeman said, disagree but still love and respect each other.

This is what people have to do in families. Spouses don’t always agree on their deeply held beliefs. Neither do parents and children, or siblings. Yet if we truly value family, we don’t let differing opinions about religion, sexuality or politics divide us from our loved ones.

So if we can practice tolerance in our families — the most intimate of all social units — then why can’t we in churches? Perhaps we can and will, once we decide that having a fellowship based in love is more important than proving who’s right and who’s not.

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