I applaud those church congregations who have made a commitment to the core value of “acceptance.” One such church that I know well has been criticized as the church where “anyone can go.” That should be taken as a compliment.
But I propose two challenges for such “accepting” congregations and for Christian colleges that claim commitment to the Christian value of “acceptance.”
First, it is too easy for the word” acceptance” to be interpreted in a very weak sense as “mere tolerance.” To make this caution more concrete, a church may “accept” both gay and “straight” members, and yet harbor sentiments among some of its members such as “It is OK if those gay Christians worship with us; but once they are given positions of leadership in our church, I’m leaving for another church.” (this is an actual quote from a member of a church that has admirably committed itself to the core value of “acceptance”). Similarly, a Christian college may “accept” gay Christians into their communities, but essentially silence them by not giving their organization “official status,” relegating them to second-class citizenship.
Secondly, it is too easy for a Christian church or college that is committed to a core value of “acceptance” to interpret a related admirable commitment to the value of “peace” in the weak sense of “absence of conflict.” with the effect that those who worship at that church or attend that college “keep the peace” by not talking to each other about their disagreements. After a church service we may talk about the Cubs or the Twins, or the weather or the latest town happenings, but we judiciously avoid talking about controversial issues like same-sex marriage or a hot-button political issue out of fear that such a conversation will harm a friendship.
So, while I applaud Christian churches and colleges that claim commitment to the Christian values of “acceptance” and “peace,” I want to challenge these gatherings of members of the Body of Christ to aspire to attain stronger manifestations of “acceptance” and “peace,” as follows.
First, I believe that the word “acceptance” is too weak since it is too easily interpreted as only “co-existence,” sometimes in the extremely anemic sense of just “putting up with someone.” I prefer the word “embrace.” As a Christian, I should “embrace” every other member of the Body of Christ.
But what does it mean to embrace another? It means that “The other is received as one who is beloved” (James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, 798). I should love everyone because everyone is loved by God. So, I should not just “put up with” the married lesbian couple who attend my church or the gay Christian students who attend my Christian college. Rather, I should “get to know them”; which starts by empathetically listening to their stories of the ways in which they have attempted to be followers of Jesus and the enormous obstacles they have faced during that quest.
Secondly, in a related way, all Christian churches and colleges need to move beyond a weak negative view of “peace” as “absence of conflict” to a strong view of “peace” as “shalom,” a state of affairs where everyone in the church community is flourishing in the midst of their diversity. Once again, such flourishing precludes silencing anyone. Rather, it understands that we will flourish together only if we listen respectfully to each other’s stories of the ways in which we aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus and the differing challenges that we have faced. In other words, we do not flourish when we submerge our disagreements. Rather, we flourish when we get our disagreements out on the table and talk respectfully about them, thereby opening up the possibility of learning from one another.
There is a fundamental premise that underlies my challenge to Christian churches and colleges to move from weak to strong views of “acceptance” and “peace.” All Christians agree that Jesus calls those who claim to be his followers to love others (Mark 12:31). But too many Christians ignore or violate a particular deep expression of such neighbor-love. My fundamental premise is that to create a safe and welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express that disagreement and to then talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love