Churches with Adjectives

I’m against churches with adjectives. Years ago, when I was a pastor in Maine, I would sometimes drive by a church with a big sign announcing the church to be a “Bible-believing, fundamentalist, conservative, born again church.” I supposed they subscribed to the notion of truth in advertising, but that sign always bothered me. It wasn’t just the coded message that here was a church different from my own. The sectarian specifics of that sign offended my sense of the catholicity of the church. Why not just be the church without all the adjectives?

We are no better in the United Church of Christ. We have Peace and Justice churches and Open and Affirming churches. I am against these on principle, though I cannot imagine a church of Jesus Christ that isn’t for peace and justice, and who are we not to be welcoming to someone for whom Christ died? I remember when General Synod declared the UCC a Just Peace church. I thought at the time, what could this possibly mean? We clearly were not one of the historic peace churches, like the Society of Friends and the Mennonites. My father was a Quaker, and I know what being a peace church has meant, so what would Reinhold Neibuhr or Roger Shinn think of their beloved UCC saying it is a peace church? Perhaps it depends upon what “is” means.

There are other problems with adjectives for churches. I worry that declaring such adjectives betrays self-righteousness or pride, and offers a way to distinguish ourselves from other Christians, much as the Maine church with the big sign did. And the votes are suspect. Some congregations I know voted unanimously to be “Open and Affirming”, but the truth is, that the dissenters either quietly left the congregation or kept their doubts to themselves for fear of being called homophobes. Unanimous votes always make me nervous.

Shouldn’t the church be the one place where people who bitterly disagree can come together? I remember Will Campbell serving the Lord’s Supper to the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil Rights struggle, because he believed Jesus’ table was big enough for even them. I know that their sin and mine are only different in degree and not in kind, and the blood of Christ’s cross can cleanse us both. Flannery O’Connor has a short story in which her vision of the judgment shows the good people of the church coming up the aisle and even their virtue is burned away. Is it possible that our adjectives will need to be purged before we can all join the great congregation? We’ll be in line right behind those folks from Maine waiting for our adjectives to burn away with theirs.

So I’ve assiduously kept the adjectives away from the church where I have been pastor for nearly two decades. “United” is hard enough to live up to, but it is the “of Christ” that I have tried to have as the prevailing and controlling modifier for our life and mission. So here comes my mission chair with an enthusiastic proposal from the UCC that we become a Jubilee 2000 church. He wants to take it to the annual meeting. I’m between a rock and a hard place, because I think Jubilee 2000, a proposal to forgive third-world debt, is just the kind of thing the church should be for, and my mission chair is a great guy with faithful enthusiasm for mission which I don’t want to dampen in any way. So I sputter through all the above objections to a church with adjectives. “Can’t we just be the church?” I say. “Such resolutions don’t cost us anything,” I say. “They lead to resolutionary Christianity instead of revolutionary Christianity,” I say.

He sees my point, but at annual meeting we vote anyway and it passes, you guessed it, unanimously. So now we are a Jubilee 2000 church. Oh, and while we’re at it, we are also a Habitat for Humanity covenant church, and a Stephen Ministry congregation. We’re pretty proud of it, actually.

Lord, have mercy.

(This first appeared in Colleague,Vol. XXI, No. 3, May, 2000)

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