State of the Church Address

January 8, 2006



State of the Church Address (1/8/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This is the month when the president delivers the State of the Union address. Governors all over the country deliver their State of the State addresses. So I thought it would be a good time to deliver a State of the Church address.

Of course, there are several ways to think about church. For this sermon, I will talk about the state of the worldwide church—that collection of people and institutions from around the globe who claim a loyalty to the Christian faith. Next week we’ll turn to the state of our own institution, this wonderful place called University Congregational Church.

The worldwide church. It is still, I believe, the hope of the world. But it is almost two thousand years old, and truth be told, there are times when it does not appear to be aging too gracefully. There are some serious divisions within the church. There are sincere people on both sides of a variety of issues, and there are areas where compromise seems almost impossible.
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For our discussion I will stick with the Protestant church, although the same issues that divide Protestants also divide Catholics and Orthodox Christians. There are two major weekly publications read by ministers in the Protestant church. One is called Christianity Today, and the other is called Christian Century.

These two publications reveal the divide in the church. Christianity Today is geared toward fundamentalists and evangelicals, and Christian Century is geared toward the mainline denominations and more liberal thinking Christians. Each week I read Christian Century cover to cover, and that his how I keep up on what’s going on in the worldwide church. The motto of Christian Century is thinking critically, living faithfully.

What are the issues dividing the church today? I’ll go over the major issues one by one. The first big divider is the Iraq War. The religious lines in the sand were drawn early with this issue, when the leaders of President Bush’s denomination, the Methodist Bishops, sought a meeting with the President as the war was about to unfold. President Bush refused to meet with them.

This was quite an insult to the mainline church. Virtually every mainline denomination—Methodist, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian and Lutheran—each of those denominations made official statement in the days leading up to the war, warning that the impending war did not appear to meet the criteria the Christian church had historically set as justification to go to war.

At the same time, the President was having weekly meetings with the most powerful leaders from the religious right, who were assuring him that this would indeed be a justifiable and Christian war, and they would say so loudly and boldly, as long as the president continued to speak out against abortion and gay rights.

The war divided the church, not only denomination against denomination, evangelical and fundamentalist against liberal and mainline, but it divided every congregation in the country. Pastors all over the nation walked a tightrope as they were put in a very uncomfortable situation. No minister wants to say things that will divide his or her congregation. But many simply could not reconcile the idea of a pre-emptive strike against Iraq with the teachings of Jesus. Religious conservatives were quick to label as unpatriotic any talk against the war. Every congregation in the country was wounded by the war, and every congregation in the country still bears scars.

Another issue that continues to divide the church is the battle over abortion. In my mind, this is the most difficult issue to resolve in a Christian manner. And as most of you know, I refuse to be labeled as either pro-life or pro-choice, because I believe those labels have come to represent, political agendas, and not religious convictions.

Abortion is a serious matter. I try not to kill insects, so I certainly have difficulty with the idea of terminating a pregnancy. But the so-called pro-life movement is not, in my opinion, a religious movement, even though religious conservatives drive the movement. If you look at the people who are fiercely pro-life, they often share a common trait. They long for the good old days when women knew their place in the world.

They claim that women should graciously submit to the will of their husbands. When we look at the religious people who drive this pro-life movement, we should ask ourselves, “What role do woman play in their churches?” Are women allowed to serve as ministers, or priests? Or are women relegated to a secondary status in their religion?

Often, the role of women in those churches is to organize the bake sale and stay out of the men’s way as they make the important decisions that must be made regarding the congregation. A woman’s place is to stand quietly beside her husband, for better or for worse, to raise the children, and to restrict herself to what religious conservatives view as a woman’s traditional role.

We see this thinking played out at the Promise Keeper’s meetings. Promise Keepers is a group of religious conservatives who teach men to go home and take control of their families’ lives. Now, this is a welcome message in some families. If a deadbeat dad ignores his wife and children, drinks away the rent money, and only comes home when he can’t find something more interesting to do, Promise Keepers is just what he needs. And these men’s suffering wives are more than grateful that their wandering husband has finally been motivated to take responsibility.

But for most married couples, the wife does not want to be some sort of shy and quiet appendage attached to her husband’s life. Women have the right to live life they way they want to live life. And if a woman wants to play a traditional role, and she finds a husband who wants a wife who plays that role, that is a wonderful thing. Those are often the happiest and healthiest families. But if a woman wants to do something else, that is okay too. The point is, it should be up to the woman. The choice of how to live one’s life should up to the individual person. You don’t sacrifice that right because you were born female.

Back to the subject of abortion, the pro-life political movement is balanced by the pro-choice movement. The reason I do not like to be identified with this movement is because, in reaction to the pro-life movement’s unbending stance of abortion, there are some people who march under the banner pro-choice who are equally unbending. Any woman, at any time in her pregnancy, may get an abortion, for any reason.

I don’t know, ethically, when that clump of cells in a women’s womb becomes a human being, but my faith tells me there is something holy about the unborn, especially as they approach the time of birth. I just don’t think we, as a society, should ever take abortion lightly, as if it were just another simple and acceptable form of birth control.

But as I wrestle with this issue, and as ministers in the liberal church all over the country wrestle with this issue, we tend to side with women. Trust women. The difficult decision to have an abortion should be between a woman, her faith community, and her God. That is where the choice should be placed, and not with a group of men in Washington, D.C. or a group of religious zealots in the ultra-conservative church.

Still, it remains a divisive and painful issue for the modern church. One last word on the subject before I move on. The pro-life movement would have a much better chance of winning me over if they cared for living and breathing children as much as they care for fetal tissue. But for the most part, those who cry out for an end to abortion also support politicians who cut every social program that would give an unwanted child a chance to make in this world once he or she is actually born. If a person is going to insist that unwanted children are brought into the world, that person should be willing to help take care of those children, and that means paying the taxes and supporting the policies that would feed, cloth and educate those children.

Moving on to the next issue that is dividing the church, and this may be the granddaddy of them all: homosexuality. For those of us in the open-minded wing of the faith, we have trouble understanding why this is such a difficult issue for so many Christians. Okay, we understand that a person can cite chapter and verse from the Bible indicating that homosexual behavior is unacceptable. I’ve addressed this issue at length in the past, but for now will just go over the big points.

When religious people turn to the ancient Levitical Code from the Bible to support their views, we should always be wary. There are 613 laws in the first five books of the Old Testament, and it is not fair to pick out the ones you like and treat them as universal truths while pretending the other laws are not there. If we treat those laws as universal truths because they are in the Bible, consider the implications:

We are permitted to sell our daughters into slavery;

We must kill a child who swears at his of her parents;

We must kill a woman who marries and is not a virgin;

We must kill any person who wears clothes of blended materials,

such as cotton and polyester.

We could go on and on. Of those 613 laws we choose to pretend about 600 of them aren’t even there, and we hold up the few that fit our political agenda and treat them as the gospel truth. It is ridiculous.

In the New Testament the Apostle Paul has some harsh words for same sex relationships, but we overlook something important when we read over his words without delving into his meaning. The behavior that Paul attacks in the Bible is wretched and sinful behavior. It involves promiscuity, coercion, and is utterly selfish in its nature. It has nothing to do with love. In those days, in the Greek world, it was common for adult men to sexually abuse male children. In some circles that was accepted behavior. Paul saw no place for sex in any person’s life if that sex was outside a committed and loving relationship. And he rightfully condemned such behavior.

There was no concept 2000 years ago of sexual orientation, but it is recognized today that there are people whose physical attraction is toward people of the same sex. How should the church respond to this? The answer from one side of the debate is to attack the behavior, to treat it as a spiritual illness, a bad choice, and to stand loudly and boldly against it. The answer from the other side is equally strong. Consider this. One of the highest suicide demographics is among gay men age 16-30. Why? Do these men kill themselves because they’ve made a wrong choice? Nonsense! These people kill themselves because the world seems to hate them for being who they are. And the one place they should be able to turn for some unconditional love and acceptance—the church—leads the fight against them!

This issue will not resolve itself any time soon. I can only advise that when in doubt, go back to the four words that serve as the very simple root of the Christian message: Love everybody, judge nobody. Love everybody, judge nobody. Apply that to the question of homosexuality. Love everybody, judge nobody. Next question!

Finally, the other really big issue that seems to have the church split down the middle: the debate over evolution. I’ve talked about this at great length over the years, and it is an important subject in my book. So there is no need to revisit all the old arguments here this morning. Hopefully we Kansans can take some comfort in knowing that while our battles over evolution and intelligent design are more public than most (thanks to our illustrious Board of Education), this battle is taking place all over the country.

I’ll summarize my thoughts in a single phrase: We do not need to protect God from the truth. The church fought it every step of the way, but we found out the world is not flat, and God is still here. We found out the earth is not the center of the universe, and God is still here. We found out the universe is more than 6000 years old, and God is still here. And as we unlock the mysteries to the way life developed on this planet and the evolutionary process that brought life forth, well, God is still here. When will we learn? Stop pitting our faith against the truth. God will always be waiting for us squarely in the middle of the truth.

The war, abortion, gay rights and evolution. Those are the primary issues dividing the church today. They will continue to divide. But the church will survive. As I said earlier, the church is still the best hope for this hurting world. I am reminded of the truth of that when I see even those denominations I most disagree with on these issues all doing wonderful things in the world—feeding the hungry, housing the poor, visiting the sick, caring for our beautiful planet. God can do wonderful things through those who are willing to open their hearts to God’s spirit.

As I said earlier, I remain convinced that the church—this flawed, hurting, argumentative worldwide collection of people we call the church—is the best hope for the future of the human race. And for all of its problems, I am proud to be a part of it.

And I am certainly proud of this little corner of the worldwide church we call University Congregational Church. Next week we will turn to the state of our own institution. I’ll preface my remarks with a brief look at the history of Congregationalism, the tradition in which we stand. We’ll talk about the future of our own congregation. And not to give away the ending, but you will be happy to know our little corner of Christianity is in very good health.