Some church leaders focus on dogma, not message of love

I was raised in a traditional evangelical church. As I reflect on the finest people I have known in my 37 years, many I came to know there.

✔ A pastor who challenged me to embrace the mysteries of faith.

✔ A youth minister who tutored me through the tribulations of adolescence.

✔ A Sunday School teacher who drilled biblical passages with military-style repetition, hoping that one day, when we were capable of knowing their full meaning, the words would remain there.

✔ A disabled church-goer whose vise-like hugs made me feel the warmth of Christ’s love.

Life-shaping experiences, they were.

Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.

Repeat: Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.

But when I was a child, to paraphrase the Good Book, I understood my church as a child.

Now that I’m a little older, I know that these memories of an idyllic church are not an entirely complete recollection of what was.

Churches split over power, personalities and politics. There was infighting and back-stabbing.

Alas, even the booming voices behind the pulpit belonged to men who occasionally fell short of the glory of God.

Even though the various churches I attended were organized to promote Christ, the pews and pulpits were still occupied by standard-issue human beings — flesh, blood, warts and all.

Knowing this now doesn’t diminish what matters most from the formative moments in my faith. His grace, after all, is sufficient.

Still, the imperfections in the church were very real — and they were not confined to personal foibles either.

A rigid focus by the church on tertiary matters of dogma compromised its ability to meet the imperatives of the Bible’s new commandment — that we love one another.

I remember vividly one Sunday when our pastor entered a long dissertation about the moral impropriety of seeing R-rated movies. As he did, my dad gave me a wry glance out of the corner of his eye. You see, Dad really liked Charles Bronson movies, and Dad knew that I knew he really liked Charles Bronson movies. Most were rated R.


Did a predilection for “shoot ‘em up” flicks jeopardize the salvation credentials of the most moral man I knew?

This, of course, was absurd, and it was placed in the archive of long-running family jokes.

In truth, my church’s fixation on trivialities such as R-rated movies (there were many others) was both a distraction and a waste.

A distraction, because such questions, however one answers them, are infinitesimally small in the existentially grandiose order of God’s grace.

A waste, because there’s no question that this divisiveness chased would-be disciples from the lessons of faith and redemption that the church, on its better days, taught.

All of these memories, and the questions they raised, have loomed large in mind in recent years as my church — and all of Christendom, for that matter — has wrestled with its posture on how to treat same-sex couples.

As public opinion has shifted in favor of more rights for gay couples, so too has the tone of some in the church.

Joel Olsteen, one of the most respected names in the evangelical orbit, has endeavored to round the sharp edges off the church’s rhetoric toward gays and lesbians, calling for Christians to be “inclusive.”

Pope Francis single-handily reset the debate last year with a poignantly simple question: “Who am I to judge?”

It is a question that many Christians with evolving views on the matter, present company included, have asked themselves. The question’s answer is equally poignant and simple.

Even so, an inclusive, accepting approach is still a minority view among church leadership, and probably among rank and file, too.

Some, including certain members of certain reality-based TV shows, still assert a hard-line view of same-sex relationships — it is sin, it is wrong, end of story.

In a country where freedom of speech and religion are our first rights, those holding this view have every right to say so.

But when I hear such harsh recriminations from the same lips proclaiming Christ’s name, I can’t help but think of similar admonitions about R-rated movies in days gone by, and whether such dogma trumps words first spoken by Christ that were later imbedded into my head by a Sunday School teacher:

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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