“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35 NIV)
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NIV)
When I was in college, a friend of mine was on the receiving end of an extremely hurtful action by our church leadership, born of an obviously inaccurate interpretation of a few Bible verses. All our friends were utterly appalled and tried to communicate to the volunteer leaders and the pastors how painful and wrong their action had been. Every person outside of the church who heard the story agreed with our visceral response: the action was wrong. But leadership doubled down on their action, and my friend was put in the uncomfortable position of having to choose whether to undermine our pastors’ authority or stay silent and absorb the unjustified hurt.
With hindsight and more life experience, we realize now that those weren’t our only two options. We know that hurtful behavior is hardly ever isolated, and we wish we had kept fighting it, which might have prevented others who came after us from getting hurt. But at the time, our whole social lives centered around the church, and we didn’t want to abandon that nor derail the ministry that had until then been lifegiving to us.
The most frustrating part of that whole incident (for me, since I wasn’t the one who’d been hurt) was the leaders’ unwillingness to believe what we were telling them. “This is wrong,” we said, in tears. “Love doesn’t hurt like this.” But they heard only, “Your theology is wrong,” and they were certain it was right.
Theology is important. It’s our systematic understanding of how God wants us to live. The epistles of the New Testament demonstrate that we do have a responsibility to interpret Scripture and live by that understanding. And Jesus did hold people to high standards of behavior, which occasionally made them sad (see the rich young ruler in Mark 10:21-23).
But he also showed great compassion, even to people whose sin was known (for example, the woman caught in adultery in John 8). The poor, the oppressed, and the sinner all found a loving reception from Jesus. Only the religious elite, who thought they were righteous already, earned his scathing rebukes.
The Church today is struggling to balance these two responsibilities, especially in the areas of gender roles and human sexuality. Is it possible for a non-affirming church not to harm LGBT+ people, or for a church that ordains only men not to harm women? I hope it is, although a lot of people (Christians and otherwise) think it’s not.
We are called to love one another, which Jesus says will be the evidence that we are his followers, so we must take it seriously when someone tells they’re hurt. Perhaps it indicates that our theology is wrong, and we’ll have to remind ourselves to hold it loosely. While the Bible doesn’t change, our interpretation of it can, because our finite minds can’t fully understand an infinite God.
Or perhaps our theology is acceptable, but we aren’t living it out with enough compassion. One thing we can be sure of is that the way we act on our beliefs should move people toward Jesus, who knows exactly what they need.
My mom, a Christian professor, wrote a blog series on how theology changes, if you’d like to read more. Years later, the church did issue an apology to my friend, and they’ve made some changes that I hope will prevent such a situation from happening again.