Someone recently handed me an issue of Decision magazine (May 2014). The front cover had a picture of a yellow warning sign with a graphic of a church that was teetering on the top of a crumbling foundation. The headline read “The Danger of Compromise.” I paged through this magazine and noticed that it was filled with middle-aged white men declaring that the world was going to Hell–and the church was going down with it–mostly because of the LGBT “agenda” and the denial of the “inerrancy of Scripture.” The magazine calls for the church to stop compromising with the world or else our very foundation will crumble.
I was torn as I read this. The magazine is the self-proclaimed “Evangelical voice of today.” The Evangelical tribe is my native tribe, but I am now an ELCA pastor. My journey allows me a unique perspective on reading this magazine, and I feel compelled to respond. It left me wondering about two words: compromise and foundations.
Compromise is an interesting word. It often has a negative connotation in our society. It usually means that two sides of an argument have made concessions and settled for something less than what they truly desire in order to achieve peace. Compromise is definitely a sin to a society that values winning and personal rights higher than any other virtue. Our culture seems prone to view compromise as a lose/lose scenario.
Decision magazine warns that if the church entertains the idea that some homosexuals might be OK—or even Christian—and that there might be alternative ways to interpret scripture in light of a globalized society, then we are compromising the truth and putting ourselves in danger. The church, on one side, loses its grip on truth and the world, on the other, loses its hope of knowing the truth. Both sides go to Hell, in a handbasket.
I agree that the Bible does caution against loving the world rather than loving God. Jesus prayed that the Father would not take the disciples out of the world, but would protect them from the evil one. Let’s be clear. There is evil in the world. There are attitudes and behaviors that are destructive to the purposes of God’s mission to love the world and save the world.
This begs the question: what is “the world” and from what is the world to be saved? Some would argue that “the world” systems are the oppressive Imperial tendencies of nations that claim religion as their vehicle for coercion and dominance. Others would claim that homosexuality is the sin that will ultimately destroy our nation. The heart of these debates rests with how one views scripture and how God is currently at work in the world. These are not easy conversations. The arguments they incite tend to polarize churches and nations and, almost always, lead to violence.
As I was considering Decision magazine’s headline “No Compromise” I made an interesting observation. Consider the word compromise: com–promise. It is a compound word joining com—meaning together—and promise. To compromise is to promise together. Perhaps compromising is less of a mutual losing, and more the process of mutual humility in which two sides of an argument recognize that they each have limited, finite perspectives, and that they must come together, in the promises of God, to seek a third way of loving co-existence within the tension of conflicting values and worldviews.
Compromise is, according to that definition, communicative rationality. This realization created excitement for me since communicative rationality is at the core of my research. Allow me to bring the word compromise into dialogue with what I’ve learned in my research so far. I believe that God is the God of promise. I also believe that Jesus said, “blessed are the peace-makers.” Jesus prayed that we would be one, just as he, and the Father, and the Spirit are one: The Lover, the Beloved, and Love. They are three distinct persons, with different roles and perspectives, working in relationship to bring about life. This is the dynamic, relational, social Trinity that models communicative peace-making.
Could God be the God of compromise? Could God be in the business of promising together with a selfish, sin-soaked world, to bring about new life in all of its messiness?
What would happen if God said, “No Compromise?”
The issue of Decision magazine also led me to think about the word foundation. A foundation is a static, man-made substance that is rigid and destined to crack at the slightest tremor of the earth. Jesus did say that we should build our house upon the rock, so it is a valid, scriptural metaphor, but I don’t know if he meant it in the way that we think of concrete-poured foundations. Scripture has a more prevalent metaphor that may speak more readily to our calling. Perhaps we are less called to be built on a foundation–in the modern sense–and more called to be deeply rooted in God.
Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. The vine is deeply rooted in God and saturated by the water, wind, and sun of the Holy Spirit. Roots are not static. Every season they grow deeper and wider and never stop growing. When the ground trembles, they adapt and hold on tightly. When the storms of adversity rage, they cling to the depths and allow the vine to bend and sway in the the wind. We are called to be deeply rooted in God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Foundations are static and bound to crumble, but roots are organic and ever-changing. This is why I consider myself a post-foundationalist. The missional imagination is one that is not built on a foundation of the inerrancy of scripture, human reason, or experience.1 Rather, it is rooted in the dynamic presence of the Triune God at work in the world, to bring about a new creation, in the promise of restoration, new life, and peace on earth, good will toward all nations.
All of these words are metaphors and every metaphor breaks down eventually. We should be careful to not become fixated on any one of them to the exclusion of the others. The church strives to be a house built on the rock, a tree planted by the waters, a flock following the Shepherd, a band of beggars looking for bread, a diversity of parts working in unity in the body. They are all good metaphors.
Is the church compromising and is the foundation crumbling? Yes, it is.
I love my Evangelical brothers and sisters and recognize that they are trying to honor God and the scripture that—as Luther put it—swaddles Christ and the Gospel. I thank them for their voice. And yet, I believe that the scriptures are not a rigid law which is concretized and static. Instead, the scriptures teach us that God is the God of Promise. He promised Noah that he would never flood the earth again. He promised to be faithful to the covenant with Abraham, even though Abraham’s children cheated on Him again and again. God revealed Godself in Jesus and demonstrated that God is always making things new. Jesus showed us that God is constantly challenging rigid legalism by reframing old perspectives, demonstrating self-sacrificing, other-oriented love, and standing with the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast in the face of Imperial power…to the point of laying down his own life. The Spirit of God raised Jesus from the dead, breathed life and power into a ragtag bunch of scared disciples, and led them to cross social and cultural boundaries with the Good News that God loves the whole world. God calls the world to…compromise…to promise together.
This, I believe, is the ongoing work of the infinite, loving, Triune God. True love and unity is not a veil for sinful sell-outs, as some of the Decision authors claim. It is the promise of God. We are all sinners in need of a savior. We all bring our own fears, doubts, selfishness, self-protective, violent tendencies, and limited perspectives into the global conversation everyday. God meets us there and compromises—promises with us. The Spirit guides us and empowers us, and calls us to be transformed by God’s gracious love and to extend and share that gracious love—to compromise—with all people.
Thanks be to God!