Open and Affirming Church

Written by Joel on May 26th, 2009

prop8The recent proposition 8 controversy has put the issue of homosexual marriage on the front page of both secular and religious blogs and newspapers. In a call for compassion many churches are voting to declare themselves as “Open and Affirming” congregations. The group in my denomination which greatly advocates for the rights of homosexuals in the chruch is the GLAD Alliance (Gay Lesbian and Affirming Disciples).

From their “About Us” page:

We invite congregations and other manifestations of the Christian Church to declare themselves Open & Affirming, to proclaim publicly that LGBT persons are welcome in the life and leadership of the Church. We work with similar welcoming congregation programs in other denominations, providing time and resources to advance this call for inclusion throughout the whole Church.

This is not a post for nor against gay marriage, but I would like to explore the concept of the “Open and Affirming” label as the primary description of a church. For example the twitter bio-line of Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation reads (as of May 26):

An open and affirming congregation celebrating diversity with a reasoned faith and a passion for justice

When you only get 160 characters to describe what it means to be church, is this the best description? Please don’t misunderstand me. Regardless of one’s position on gay marriage, all peoples ought to be treated with dignity within the church. We ought to celebrate diversity, have reasoned faith, and have a passion for justice in the church. Amen to all of that. But where is Jesus? Shouldn’t the Lordship of Jesus Christ be what defines a church? I would be just as critical if I read a bio-line that defined a church as being against gay marriage, abortion, immigration, etc.

What does it mean when churches and congregations are defined by a political position and not by Christ? Be Open and Affirming (or not), but that is not what defines a church.

Politics will always change. Political parties will come and go. The source of bigotry will change through the ages, and social justice will be redefined. But, Christ will always be Lord. That is why we cannot let the church be defined by these things. Yes, have an opinion, and express your faith in the world of politics. But don’t let the world of politics define you or the Church.


14 Comments so far ↓

  1. Allen says:

    Interesting point there, Joel. I guess, for our own congregation, the name Chalice Christian (before any tag line we might add) tips people off about Christ being central — as opposed to, say, Chalice Pro-Life, Chalice O&A, etc. While our congregation is rather vocal about issues of justice, we do so as a Christian community.

    • Joel says:

      I believe that is the way to approach these issues. Be Open & Affirming, be vocal about social justice, but do so because your faith informs the issue. I find myself rather critical of the issue at hand because Christ, the Bible, theology, and morality are largely absent from the conversation. Or, if you do bring up these questions you are automatically labeled a fundamentalist bigot.

    • Joel says:

      I just went over to your website and read your church’s mission statement. I believe you have the correct order of things. I would encourage others to follow suit. You begin with the “life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” and you are Open & Affirming in response to that understanding of faith.

      I wonder if I would benefit from writing about O&A more generally though, as it is often quite misunderstood.

  2. Agellius says:

    You write, “Shouldn’t the Lordship of Jesus Christ be what defines a church?”

    Absolutely. The Church is all about the lordship of Jesus Christ, i.e. his authority over us. What he says — not what we say — goes. By the same token only those to whom he has granted authority may teach and act in his name.

    • Joel says:


      How might that inform the current discussion about how churches get involved in social justice (and how they are defined by this)?

  3. Gee, Joel, nothing like hitting the nail on the head to make the rest of us hammer slingers feel uncomfortable.

  4. keith says:

    Yes, do write more about the O&A label.

    One pastor friend out West told me of a church that refuses to label itself O&A not b/c they don’t affirm homosexuals, but b/c they don’t want to exclude from the table those who DON’T affirm homosexuals! Jesus especially loves those we find hard to love.

    • Joel says:

      I think that is most wise in Disciples churches. In a twist of irony, it is mostly certainly possible to be so open that some are repelled. I have even heard some people go so far as to say “if you are not as open as us, you are not welcome here.”

      Thanks for affirming the need to discuss this issue, I invite you to continue the conversation with me…and I got a post in mind about pastors out my way who are refusing to perform marriages in California until same-sex marriages are legal.

  5. Agellius says:

    Joel writes, “How might that inform the current discussion about how churches get involved in social justice (and how they are defined by this)?”

    I thought your main point was that churches should define themselves by Christ’s lordship, and not by the temporal activities they engage in.

    • Joel says:

      I wasn’t sure about your comment “By the same token only those to whom he has granted authority may teach and act in his name.” I’m not sure where you were going with this, and what it has to do with the O&A designation.

      My main point is some who are teaching in his name are putting politics before Christ, and this shouldn’t be.

  6. susan says:

    Sadly, many DOC folk believe “O&A” to be a political statement. A dose of reality: when my beloved brother (who happened to be gay)died unexpectedly of a stroke at age 59, our family suddenly faced the sad task of planning a memorial service. His partner of 24 years felt that for the sake of comforting my elderly parents, the service would need to be in a church (my parents are lifelong Disciples). We knew to expect a minimum of 300 of my brother and his partner’s friends – as my brother was a co-founder of several lgbt square dance organizations in two metropolitan areas. With Disciple chuches in our area not wanting to take a “political O&A stand,” there was no way to know whether we would be welcomed unless we called and asked. Quite frankly, the thought of having to play a guessing game with Disciple churches during a time of mourning the loss of loved one was not something any of us could stomach. It would mean calling DOC church offices, explaining my brother was gay and had suddenly died, asking could we have a memorail service there that would include 300 of his friends, would his life and union with his partner be celebrated, would we as his family and friends be honored and treated with dignity and respect…and so on. Because so many DOC churches see O&A as a “political statement” rather than a marvelous opportunity for reconcilng, healing ministry, my brother’s partner and I chose the emotionally, spiritually healing route – we simply checked the listings of O&A congregations and made one call to a local UCC O&A congregation. They gave us the red carpet treatment, making it clear that “O&A” is about outreach ministry. There were 600 at the memorial service and their O&A statement was in the bulletin at our family’s request. We didn’t want anyone to wonder whether they were welcomed as Christ would welcome them. The church’s O&A committee acted as ushers and prepared the fellowship hall for a reception afterwards. Their minister and worship committee helped us plan the service, my brother’s holy union was blessed, people attending knew they were free to be open about their sexuality without making others “uncomfortable,” etc. In the weeks that followed, my ninety year old father wrote a thank-you letter and enclosed a generous check to the church, acknowledging that his late son, as the church knew, was gay – and how grateful he (my dad) was that this UCC church openly welcomed gay people. He hoped that those attending were witnessed to – that his God is the God of gay people, too. In all of his active membership years in a DOC congregation, my father had never acknowledged having a gay son (even though this son served as president of Chi Rho and CYF for 6 years and always delighted the church with his sermon on Youth Sunday for 6 years back in the 1960s). Our family is forever grateful that there are churches such as Christ Congregational UCC that understand the need for an O&A ministry. If you’ve got Christ’s light to shine, make it known. Too many Disciple churches sing the song, “This little light of mine, it’s too political…I’m gonna hide it under a bushel so outsiders who need us will just have to guess…” Just a reality check from a 60 year old Disciple engaged in O&A ministries with the UCC.

    • Joel says:

      Susan, thank you so much for sharing your story. Please know that I am sorry for your loss.

      And thank you for giving me this new perspective to consider. It is down right shameful that the churches you encountered could not “take a stand” to honor another human being with the dignity of a memorial service. The O&A label (or lack of one) should not be what causes churches to be welcoming to all people, it should be because that is what Christ calls us to be.

      I do want to dialog more about your personal story, however I am on the road for another week while my wife and I move to Virginia. I will be more free to write after the move. Thank you again for sharing.

  7. Susan Jaquith says:

    Hi Joel. Hope your move went smoothly and you’ve had a little time to settle in. Would love to continue this discussion…Susan

    • Joel says:

      Oh yes, I haven’t forgotten you. We made it to VA about a week ago and just unloaded the moving truck yesterday, and now it is on to unpacking boxes.

      Where should we go from here? Is this the best place for a discussion?

      I do suspect I will have more time in the coming days. Thanks for reminding me!

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