Attentiveness: Clarity and Grace
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist
We encourage students to become very involved in a local church while in seminary, not only when they are doing their practicum (field education).
However, for most of this year I will not be following my own advice.
For this year, Nancy and I are visiting local churches where alumni are pastoring. I feel that I need to know some of these folks and then be able to share what they are doing as we seek support for our future students. “These are the types of ministries our alumni are involved in.” Or, “I have been visiting our alumni in their churches, and guess what I have learned?” It has been very encouraging.
After only four weeks, I have learned a lot. Let me tell you about one of the churches and what I have learned.
For context, Christianity is confronted in America by a number of issues that are causing splits and decline. One of the issues is sexuality. Our culture continues to expand categories related to LGBTQ+. One of the new issues is sexual fluidity and transitioning. Such discussions are becoming part of public school education and may become a challenge to the tax-exempt status that churches and other Christian organizations still enjoy.
So, in the midst of this confusion of gender identity or plurality, an adult education class was led on sexuality at a local church. This local church is taking the issue head-on, with grace and honesty. The class began something like this:
“First, we want to acknowledge that in a class of this size [about 50 showed up], we are sure that there are some with same-sex attractions and some who have friends or relatives who are in gay relationships or marriages. We also acknowledge up front that others have temptations and passions that are not pleasing to God. We must remember that we all live under God’s grace and forgiveness. At the same time, we want to make sure everyone knows that we are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and, therefore, guided by Scriptures. Here is our church’s statement on sexuality.”
At this point the pastor read the church’s statement out loud as it was put on the screen for all to see. Scriptures were referenced. Thus, the six-week class started with an affirmation of the real situation: we are all sinners saved and sanctified by grace. But we also acknowledge God’s holiness and intention for our lives. No compromise or skirting around either our sin, or God’s holiness.
The class then prayed and began with a testimony from a couple whose child, after years of struggle and questioning, had a same-sex wedding just last summer. This is a present issue in the church that they are willing to talk about openly and with, well… I would have to say with kindness. This child respects the pastor and church who have not rejected him/her because of the decision that was made.
The pastor was a good example of clarity (“This is God’s design and what we strive for.”) and grace (“We are all sinners and each day we need to again, and again, learn to show love for each other.”). The story is not over in this situation, but in the midst of the church’s life story (in medias res) a particular story is told, and biblical standards of truth and forgiveness are being upheld.
Facing these issues openly and honestly today is getting very hard. Social media makes it easy to immediately publicly shame people if they seem to be “soft” on the issue or too “harsh” in responding to the sinner. But we must not let fear of criticism prevent us from talking openly about a Christian response to these social issues. The church needs this to stay healthy, and our neighbors need to see Christians being honest and vulnerable, but confident in God’s holiness and forgiveness.
Holiness and forgiveness. Clarity and grace. These are good partners as we provide leadership in a contentious age.
Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.