Last month, author, activist and Christian leader Shane Claiborne, who self-identifies as “progressive,” was asked to clarify whether or not he was fully affirming of LGBTQ Christians. An important twitter dialogue ensued and Claiborne would later tweet an excerpt from a book, apparently invoking the common Christian platitude “we want to be known by what we are for, not by what we are against.”
According to a Barna poll of young Non-Christians, the #1 thing Christians are known for is: "Anti-homosexual." T… https://t.co/6rD7bKvguU— Shane Claiborne (@Shane Claiborne)1518529375.0
The first time I remember hearing Christians use that phrase, “we want to be known by what we are for, not by what we are against,” was in 2005. Back then, I was a 5-point Calvinist and loyal disciple of macho-hipster pastor, Mark Driscoll. That Sunday morning, he was addressing some low-level controversy that was brewing and reassuring the packed auditorium of young (mostly white) hipsters, that his commitment to “biblical” (heterosexual) marriage was unwavering. Successfully navigating any real controversy, he went on to explain how Mars Hill’s leadership team declined an invitation from local Church leaders to participate in a demonstration against Seattle’s Pride parade that year. In other words, while he was very much against the LGBTQ community, he simply didn’t want to be known for that. In retrospect, this was a profound moment of clarity for me, eventually leaving evangelicalism and co-founding an organization called Church Clarity.
13 years ago, when Mars Hill was in its early years and growing exponentially, it was actually considered “progressive” in some Christian circles. Bible studies with beer. Large crowds of smokers outside in between services. The word on the evangelical street was that Mars Hill was the “party church.” Declining to demonstrate at the Pride parade added to this mythology. Opting to skip the Pride protest, as one of the largest, most influential Churches in the region, was in fact an affront to mainstream evangelical Christianity. Back then, it wasn’t just Westboro Baptist that protested Pride; churches often showed up in force, solidifying Christianity’s legacy as chief oppressor of the LGBTQ community.
So much for “being known by what we are for, not what we are against.”
It isn’t just this specific phrase that’s the issue, it’s the strategic attempt to mislead people about your true convictions. We used to call this lying. Mars Hill’s downfall is one very public example that reveals the fruit of “let’s be known by what we’re FOR, not by what we’re against” being ineffective, to say the least. Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on why motivations to use such ambiguous language have been so destructive in reality, it seems we’re more interested in repackaging this rhetoric, with the same, misleading results. Intentional or not, attempts to sustain the “negative peace” that Dr. King described—i.e. the absence of something negative, rather than the presence of something positive—have merely delivered updated, craftier language. Anything to ensure we remain “good” in the eyes of a watching world.
“Come as you are” and “Everyone is welcome!” are great examples that sound nice and allow us to avoid being accused of what we’re “against,” but again, they’re often simply untrue. In reality, these empty platitudes usually mean: “You can totally come to Sunday Services and give us money. But if you identify as LGBTQ, forget about working here or being affirmed. Oh, and if you’re a woman, you can’t lead or teach here, LOL. Glad you’re here!” While we may be attempting to protect people’s feelings, in concealing the truth with ambiguous language, people end up getting hurt.
In short, I’m against the idea that I shouldn’t be known for what I’m against. I’d much rather prioritize the Truth, and let the chips fall as they may. Some people won’t like me. Gasp.
It was these efforts by church leaders to leverage ambiguous language that originally inspired the work of Church Clarity, which urges churches to be clear about their convictions and “scores” them based on their transparency. People in more liberal settings are often surprised to learn that their church doesn’t, for example allow an openly bisexual man to be baptized. Similar shock exists on the other end of the theological spectrum, when people observe their pastor struggling to deliver clarity about “biblical” (i.e. heterosexual) marriage. Folks invest years of theirs lives at these churches often under false assumptions, with many experiencing a rude awakening upon learning the truth. This pattern of being misled, has contributed to the well documented rise of the “nones” and “dones.” Ambiguity makes people uneasy. Deception is harmful.
The truth is, of course, there are some things we should be against. And it’s okay to be known for them. Personally, I want to be known as anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, anti-Islamophobic, and anti-MAGA. Shall I go on? Few would take issue with these convictions and caution that “Hey! Let’s be known for what we are FOR!” I want my kids to know that I stood AGAINST injustice in real time. Because that’s when it matters: as injustice is unfolding before your eyes. I want there to be no question that I used whatever voice I had to proactively reject and condemn evil.
Churches have a responsibility to do likewise. Yet, many pastors have prioritized their own capitalistic agendas, focusing on the short-sighted goal of growing their own following, building their empires, or otherwise enriching themselves. And ambiguity has become an effective means of remaining in power. If congregants take issue with something they’re preaching or not preaching, they simply respond “well, we’d rather be known by what we’re for, right Stephen?” This slow drip of placebo ensures that Christians continue to go to church, give 10% of our income, serve in Sunday school, say our prayers and go to bed feeling like we’ve done our part.
It’s also the same abdication of responsibility that has allowed Christianity to drift into its current existential identity crisis. If the Church is to deliver any hope for humanity, church leaders should embrace their obligation to lead courageously and help guide the moral compass of the world it claims to love. You can’t do this by concealing what you stand for and obfuscating what you stand against. There’s no hope in deliberate ambiguity. There’s no leadership in comfortable inaction. The reality remains that regardless of what we want to be known for, we will, as they say, be known by our fruit.