Theological Diversity: Facing the Numbers

Have you been encouraged to read the Bible recently? We have. And while we love the Bible and diving into it with others, this was that special kind of “encouragement.” The kind that says, clearly you haven’t been reading it, or you haven’t been reading it correctly, because you don’t agree with ME.

Reading the Bible differently than other Jesus followers shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Yet it clearly often is. Christians have wrestled over so many things throughout the centuries, sometimes finding agreement, sometimes finding agree-to-disagreement, from how to understand the Trinity to who can get baptized when, to whether drinking or dancing are morally permissible. 

So of course, on any given Sunday most of us will be sitting next to someone who sees these things differently than us. These range from how we engage politics to how we respond to homelessness or how we would handle an unexpected pregnancy. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith works from empirical evidence showing how radically diverse Christians are on so many theological issues, and he writes this:

On important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality. It is, in fact, the single reality that has most shaped the organizational and cultural life of the Christian church.

The Bible Made Impossible

Theological diversity – the ways we wrestle with what Scripture means and how we should faithfully follow Jesus – is an objective reality. It’s also a gift we can offer each other as co-journeyers. But only if we’re willing to have brave, humble and honest conversations. Facing the numbers can be a helpful place to start.

One Church’s Numbers 

A few weeks ago we had this kind of dialogue with three leaders (pastor, board chair, worship director) of a mid-sized urban church in a non-U.S. context. Though they would describe the surrounding culture as where much of the U.S. was 10-20 years ago, their church has become a haven for many in the LGBTQ+ community. So they were asking some really good questions about what it might look like to become more welcoming of their queer folks in the midst of theological diversity in their congregation as a whole.

We wondered if it might be helpful for them to get a little more specific in describing the theological diversity in their community. So we shared with them the six major Christian views on “homosexuality” described in L. R. Holben’s What Christians Think about Homosexuality. (For any LGBTQ+ friends reading this, a trigger warning and apology in advance for the language some have traditionally used.) This is an overly simplistic summary of Holben’s work that creates a spectrum of possible positions:

  1. It’s an abomination
  2. It can/should be healed
  3. LGBTQ+ believers are called to celibacy
  4. Like divorce, we can accommodate it
  5. We celebrate the queer community
  6. Complete equality is a justice issue

Then we asked these leaders to share what percentage of their congregation they thought held each view. Here are screenshots of their responses in the zoom chat:

Needless to say, this was a small sample size, an unscientific study – but the results still gave us much to discuss.

Interpreting the Numbers

First off, let’s notice that yes, there is substantial theological diversity. And from our experiences, this kind of spectrum can be found in most churches that contain some age and ethnic diversity.

Yet within this diversity of beliefs, these three leaders – each answering our question independently – they all identified the same point on the spectrum as the majority’s approach. All of them thought that the largest category of people at their church were #4’s, holding the position that gay marriage is not God’s ideal but is perhaps permissible as God’s gracious accommodation to our brokenness, limitations or sin.

Same Approach, Different Reasons

As the conversations continued, however, we uncovered a new layer of difference – that the reasons people might have for holding a #4 perspective were themselves quite diverse! The board chair, on one hand, shared that this category was a place some of their members had developed into from a much more conservative starting point. Although these members may initially have thought of homosexuality as an abomination (#1), as they’d gotten to know, like and even care for some of the church’s gay members, their hearts changed, and their perspectives shifted. They realized they wanted a way to allow them into fellowship.

On the other hand, the pastor suggested that some of the more progressive members of the church were holding at a #4 position because they didn’t know if they could – theologically, biblically – move any further toward a #5 or #6. Their life experiences made them inclusive, but they had never done any Scriptural work to firm up or more fully understand their position. So #4 was the default, “safe” option for them as Christians versus a fully affirming stance. 

One solid takeaway? Movement between positions happens all the time. Each of these leaders could also look back at their own faith story and see that, while they might wince a bit at where they had begun, their perspectives had expanded, just like they saw in so many of their congregants. Change tends to unfold naturally through proximity, through people getting to know, love and understand people with different life experiences than their own. And then it can be supported through Scriptural investigation undertaken through a compassionate and non-anxious lens.

Facing Your Own Numbers

  • Where have you been and where are you now on Holben’s spectrum? What led to your own shifts?
  • If you had to sit down right now with those six categories and assign percentages to represent the diversity in your congregation, what would you say? Why do you think the numbers look the way they do? (Extra credit: share this blog and compare answers with a few friends or co-workers.)

We ask these questions to help you acknowledge and better understand the theological diversity in your own community and in your own spiritual history. Faithful followers of Jesus understand things – even important things – differently.

But there’s one other, very important question we haven’t yet asked, in this article or with these particular leaders, though we hope to soon. They’ve been given it to mull, and we invite you to do the same.

  • Thinking again of Holben’s spectrum, what is the posture LGBTQ+ folks in your community need from you to feel safe?

You see, Jesus had this awkward habit of turning the tables on people. When the disciples told him the crowds were hungry and should be sent away, he’d say, “You give them something to eat.” When religious leaders brought in a woman to be stoned, he’d say “You who are without sin can throw the first stone.” And perhaps in this setting, Jesus is saying to many of us, “As straight leaders, you are talking about how to handle the LGBTQ+ people in your congregation. But what is it that they actually need, as opposed to what makes you feel comfortable?” 

The humility, honesty and compassion we bring to this question has the potential to make all the difference. And this final number may matter most of all.