“The Scriptures are clear.”
“The Bible says so.”
“That’s not what God wants for your life.”
These phrases were common ones for the world I inhabited. We were so confident in who God is, what God wants, what it means to be good, and how to secure an eternity of bliss. We had a lot of answers. And sometimes, these were answers to questions that nobody seemed to be asking. We were just told that these were questions that we should be asking. When you induce a little fear behind the question, it makes sense that you would want an answer--that you would need an answer.
How did we know what we presumed to know? I was taught that we relied upon Scripture alone to teach us about God, ourselves, and the universe. The problem with this approach was that it did not stop people from having different ideas about what the Scriptures taught. What happens when Scripture seems to give multiple answers for things? Is murder bad? What about the multiple times that the God of Israel is depicted as commanding the ancient Israelites to completely wipe out whole cities of Canaanites including their children? What about polygamy? I mean King David was a “man after God’s own heart” and had multiple wives, right? How do we determine what parts of Scripture are simply descriptive of a time and place and what parts are prescriptive? This was how I heard many conservative biblical scholars work to frame the conversation (descriptive vs. prescriptive). But who decides what is descriptive and prescriptive?
This created problems for me when my experience was not lining up with the Scriptures. The major issue that ultimately led me to breaking with my Pentecostal and Evangelical siblings was my sexuality. I wrestled silently for months once I finally acknowledged to myself at 24 years old that I might not be heterosexual. I had been trained in conservative biblical exegesis and I was determined to find an answer for how to think about what the Scriptures taught about queer sexualities. On top of that, I was married; what did the Scriptures actually teach about divorce? For some reason, I believed that divorce was not the end of the world--probably because I actually knew Christians who were divorced and they seemed to be okay. But I did not know (personally at least) Christians who openly identified as Queer and Christian. It seemed like a foreign concept and felt as though my deciding to embrace my queer identity would mean that I would be forging a new path. And although I could not see the full effects of embracing a new path, I knew that the effects would not be entirely pretty.
Before I ever came out to myself or anyone else, I did encounter another way of thinking about how we know what we know. This approach felt more true to life, possibly because it was taught in my practical theology courses in my first master’s program (note that this was still at my conservative Pentecostal university). The model proposed was the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which taught that we came to our theological conclusions by putting four things in dialogue: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. At first I felt conflicted about this model. What do you mean that it’s not just the Scriptures that we rely upon to know what is true about God, ourselves, and the universe? There are other sources of truth?
This was confusing in part because Pentecostals are all about their experience. Phrases like, “The Lord told me in a vision that...” or “God said to me in my dream that…” got thrown around. And have you ever experienced a prophetic message given in a church service? These are all experiences that are not just a group of people reading the Scriptures and deciding what to do. Instead, these experiences held their own weight and authority (although classical Pentecostals are always trying to remind people that discernment is key here). At the same time, however, our experiences “outside of spirituality” were labeled as untruthful. If you experienced same-sex attratctions, it wasn’t true. That’s not how God made humans--at least that’s what they said.
Nevertheless, when I finally opened myself up to the wisdom of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, I realized that whether or not we acknowledge our use of these other sources of truth, we employ them in our service all the time. We loved to say that we were not like these liturgical churches so steeped in tradition that we couldn’t see God’s truth in front of us and yet, we failed to recognize that our conservative ways became their own kind of tradition. We made it seem like we were “anti-reason” and created a culture of fear around learning; sadly, we had elevated someone’s reasoning about how to understand God and failed to remember how to love God with our minds.
So what happens when we leave these spaces and go to spaces like Common Ground where we want to make claims about who God is and what it means to be human? Do we move forward by taking the same way of knowing into our new communities? I wrestled with this for some time and have watched many friends who are now affirming of LGBTQ+ persons maintain their same theological framework and just change their mind on one issue.
I think that leaving those conservative spaces is about more than changing our mind about one issue. I believe that it’s learning to reexamine the way that the whole system taught us how to exist in the world. It’s recognizing that God is not limited to the Scriptures nor is God limited to Christianity. Progressive Christianity is about liberating us and our notion of the Sacred. It is about opening ourselves up to more forms of knowledge. Progressive Christianity is an invitation to rethink not just what we believe but why we believe it. What are the structures that we created to make these beliefs make sense? If we examine the structures, it is likely that we will find that not all of the structures are able to stand. And that is a scary thing. Yet, this is the way of Jesus--to go through death to experience resurrection. Letting old structures die does not mean we will be lost forever. Yes, disorientation will take the place of the orientation we once experienced. We may even long to return to Egypt because at least there we knew where our food was coming from. The good news is that together we do find that new structures resurrect in place of the old. They don’t erase the past entirely. They integrate the truths of the past and embrace wider truths that we experience. And if there’s anything we learn, those structures will need to be examined as well at some point.
As Common Ground establishes itself as a Christian community in the 21st century, we are working out what it means to follow Jesus and love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We are allowing our experiences, our reason, our traditions, and the Christian Scriptures to be in dialogue with the whole community as we discern what this community is and will be. So if you’re reading this blog, I invite you to join us on this journey. Throughout January and February, you’ll be reading from various voices in our community as we start the new year off by thinking about what it means to be a progressive Christian community. We certainly don’t have all the answers--sometimes we have more questions than answers. The good news is that this is a dynamic community where together we are figuring it out. The invitation is open. Join us for this journey. And if you’re not already part of the Common Ground community, feel free to stop by and see what this looks like in action!
Sarah is a Brooklyn-based music educator & musician who's always learning new instruments. Originally from Long Island, Sarah came to NYC to study at NYU, then Columbia. She's passionate about equity and access in education, especially arts education, and has worked for numerous non-profits who share this vision. Sarah's excited help shape communities that prioritize practices & culture that bring everyone to the table.