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September 16th, 2014

Rev. Dr. Edward Davis, Southern Conference (UCC) minister, has asked me to write an essay on why I stay in the United Church of Christ.  The request comes from some comments I made at a gathering of UCC folks in Salisbury August 23, 2014.  We had come together to have a conversation with the UCC’s General Minister and President, Rev. Geoffrey Black.  At that meeting I was asked to make a statement about why I object to the lawsuit filed against the State of North Carolina by the UCC’s General Synod over Amendment One. Much of what I write below was included in my statement.

My wife Linda and I are asked often (directly or indirectly) why we stay in the UCC.  It is, after all, very un-American, even very un-Protestant, to remain in covenant with Christians who think differently than you do.  Because freedom of religious association is embedded in the First Amendment of the United States constitution, and found its way there because it was already a key tenet of Protestantism, it’s an oddity to choose voluntary association with people who think differently.  It seems especially unusual in the UCC, where it’s much easier for a congregation to disassociate with the national body without penalty.  I not only stay in the UCC; I ask my congregation to stay with me.

The push back Linda and I get about staying in the UCC usually arises from conservative friends rather than liberal.  Evangelically-oriented Christians who self-identify as born again, Bible-believing, gospel-centered believers are often oriented toward separation.  But UCC people also ask why evangelicals stay, so we hear it from both sides.

The short answer to why we stay is that it’s based on our commitment to the Bible.  Several key Scripture passages enter the thought process.

  • I Corinthians 7: calling.  In 1 Corinthians 7:17-27, Paul says the situation in which God has placed you is the situation where he wants you to stay.  This passage doesn’t say “never” leave, but the default choice is to trust God enough to remain where he put you and serve him faithfully there.  You don’t know have to know why.  You don’t have to see results.  You don’t put a timetable on God.  You just stay where he called you.  The Lord called Linda and me 35 years ago to serve him in the UCC.  That’s all we need to know.
  • John 17: unity/evangelism.  The night before Jesus died, he prayed that his followers would be one.  He didn’t pray that their doctrine would be pure or their lives would be perfect, although clearly the values of purity and holiness matter to him as well.  As he prepared for the cross, Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that his followers would be united, so that the world would believe in him.  This is the evangelistic reason for staying in the UCC.  Christians across the centuries have found plenty of reasons to separate, but Jesus prayed they would remain together.  When we demonstrate Christian unity in contrast to the world’s inability to overcome difference, our witness to Christ is more credible.
  • Philippians 2: humility.  Paul says to consider others better than myself.  What if they’re wrong?  First, I have to remember that they probably think the same about me.  Christians across the generations have been absolutely sure God and the Bible were on the side only to look foolish with the hindsight of future generations.  That could happen to others – or to me.  Second, even if I believe it’s others who are in need of more light and truth from God’s word, does not the example of Jesus require that I give up my right to be comfortable and choose to be among them?  The bottom line for me is this:  If you and I disagree, then (1) I need to learn from you, or (2) you need to learn from me, or (3) we both need to learn from each other.  I believe the UCC needs my witness to the historic and evangelical faith, but I also believe I need the lessons I have learned from UCC friends about justice and compassion.  Although I have a conservative position on sex and marriage, by being in the UCC I have learned to welcome, listen to, and care for gay and lesbian people.
  • 1 Timothy 1: local priority.  Timothy is struggling with whether to leave the church he pastors because of difficulties related to doctrinal and ethical conflict.  Paul tells Timothy to stay – the problems are exactly why the church at Ephesus needs him.  It’s easier for pastors to leave difficult churches, and churches to leave denominations they find difficult.  But easy is not necessarily right.  Thirty-plus years ago, when God called Linda and me into the UCC, the primary focus was on local churches – not the denomination.  We just believed there were churches in the UCC who would want a pastor like me – evangelically oriented and biblically focused.  We would fulfill our calling one church at a time.  As it turns out, we have spent most of our pastoral ministry in one church, and have seen how God uses faithfulness and longevity to stabilize, unify, and grow a church.
  • Jeremiah 29: prosperity.  I like to joke that when Linda and I staff our information booth for Faithful and Welcoming Churches at the UCC’s General Synod, it feels the same as if we were staffing an Obamacare information booth at a Tea Party convention.  But we’re not there hoping the UCC will fail or cheering its financial struggles.  When the southern kingdom of Judah fell to Babylon in the 6th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah told the people to settle down and let God take care of the long view.  He even said to pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon, the nation that had used its power to destroy Israel.  The Jews listened well, apparently, because a large population of Jews lived in Babylon for 1500 years!  The point is that things don’t have to change on my timetable or even in my lifetime.  FWC’s goal is to maintain a positive, constructive presence, and to keep the conversation open.  The rest is up to God.

Not everyone reads these Scripture passages the same way, of course, and we respect that.  Some counter with other biblical texts and stories.  But our commitment to stay is a sincere commitment to hear and follow God’s call on our lives, and a strong desire to counter the cultural impulse to separate from people and groups we find difficult.

Issues like the UCC’s lawsuit against North Carolina make our calling to stay in the UCC more challenging for us, of course.  What I try to do is call the UCC back to its own founding vision – which was about the unity of the church based on the central tenets of the historic faith.  It was not about a progressive vision that would alienate more conservative members and give them yet another reason to separate.  But even when local churches or the national church act in ways that divide the church, I do not believe that changes God’s calling on our lives.  When we remain in a situation it would be easier to leave, we grow in faith and humility.  We challenge others to think differently as well.  Along the way we find some joyful surprises in opportunities to extend and receive God’s grace.

That’s why I stay in the UCC.

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