Loose Cannons for Christ

Ecclesiology

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The lead story on tonight’s news was that of Pastor Logan Robertson’s email reply to Jim Marjoram. Jim Marjoram is a homosexual man who recently wrote an autobiography detailing his former life as a “fundamentalist” Christian. He emailed a number of Auckland Churches about the book, and about the “Support Silent Gays” support group. Robertson’s reply is now world-famous in New Zealand: “I pray that you will commit suicide, you filthy fag.” Read about it here.

Now, my cynical side (the side I usually listen to) says that when you send an email to churches advertising a book about your journey from “fundamentalism” to being openly gay, and advertising a gay support group, if you’re clever you send it to a few liberal churches who will offer supportive comments you can quote, and you pick the nuttiest you can find, so you can quote them. Either end of the spectrum is good for publicity, and that has certainly proven to be the case here. Send the book it to people who will react badly, and make sure everybody hears about it when they do. Works like a charm.

Still, what an overly nasty thing to say, you might be thinking. And you’d be right, of course! It beggars belief that the pastor of a Church whose website calls itself a “family-oriented” church would say this. And it makes one’s head explode to see that at that site, we are told that “Pastor Robertson has a love for the lost and our church has a vision of reaching the lost souls of Auckland.” A love for the lost! I doubt there would be much point in any of us, Christian or otherwise, trying to reason with a person who thinks this is a helpful way to reply to anybody. What’s more, there are enough people who already hold patently false views of how the church interacts with gay people, and this will only make that perception worse.

How does this happen? How does a person get to a place of pastoral responsibility when this is what they are? To help explain what I think part of the problem is, I want you to consider a few examples I found literally in the last few minutes. I just typed that last sentence and then found these examples in about four minutes. That’s how easy it was. I could have appealed to truly awful examples that I know of because of experience, but I just wanted to demonstrate what can be found quickly.

  • Over at Lipstick Alley a while ago, a commenter expressed the wish that “bigots” (those conservative Christians who oppose legal same-sex marriage) would “follow suit” with Dominique Venner, a historian who had once been involved in fairly extreme political movements, but who had settled into a career as a historian, held fears that Europe would become dominated by Islam, who was devastated by France’s redefinition of civil marriage, and who had committed suicide as a result in Notre Dame Cathedral. Other “bigots” should follow suit. Later the same commenter repeated that those who see homosexuality as wrong “should follow in the footsteps of the bigot in the story. BYE!”
  • In a discussion thread over at NationStates a commenter said, “I wish Christians practiced ritual sacrifice so I could throw all the stupid people in a pit of spikes or something and have a free pass out of jail.”
  • Over at Topix in a discussion thread about religion, user “ScienceRules” quipped, “I never claimed there was a clear dividing line [between atheists and fundamentalists]; if only it were that easy we could round up the fundies (it is their fault if the term insults them, right?) and shoot them.” In reply to this comment, another user (jack13) said “As always, your posts are not only interesting but very educational.”
  • Death metal band Deicide once penned a chirpy wee tune called “Kill the Christian.”

OK, so quite a few people have heard of Deicide. But you’d be right to roll your eyes at me saying a whole lot about the others. I have no idea who these people are, and neither do you. If I were to send them a book advocating conservative Christianity, you can imagine the sort of stream of rhetoric I would be the recipient of. I doubt I have to do anything to persuade you that there is more where this came from, but generally speaking it would come from people whose name nobody knows. Who cares what some nobody thinks?

They are not part of anything or accountable to anything.

If sentiments like these were being expressed by spokespeople for the Humanist Society of New Zealand or Atheism UK, then there would be something to talk about. I don’t know how widely it would be decried (my cynical side pipes up again and says that might not be something our news media really cares about). But these random idiots on the internet do not speak for anyone, they enjoy the respect of no organisations, they have no credentials and – although their ideas are harmful and are a symptom of a problem – probably have no influence. They are not part of anything or accountable to anything.

You might say “but he’s a pastor!” If that’s what you say, then I ask: Pastor of what? For whom does this man speak?

And there it is. That’s how people are able to make public comments like this. And that’s how Pastor Logan Robertson is someone who can send horrible messages like the one he sent to Jim Marjoram in his capacity as a pastor. The truth is that Pastor Robertson is pretty much as unheard of (until today) as the people I just quoted from random locations on the internet. You might say “but he’s a pastor!” If that’s what you say, then I ask: Pastor of what? For whom does this man speak?

“Independent.” It’s a label of pride for some churches. We’re an independent, King James Bible believing, fundamental church! But what does it mean? I may rub some Christians the wrong way in saying this – but maybe it’s good for you. It means unaccountable to anybody other than the people who walk through the door this Sunday. As indicated at their website, the church meets in the pastor’s home, so we can assume a very small congregation. But there he is in the news. One outlet ran with the headline: “Pastor to Gay Christian: Kill yourself.” Pastor. He runs a meeting in his living room, but to the reader, he is a pastor like any other.

There is no consciousness of the fact that this “Christian” thing is bigger and older than all of us, and we make ourselves part of it, not the other way around.

Don’t misunderstand – a house can be perfectly functional as a venue for a small congregation if need be. And sure, God can work anywhere with the tiniest handful of people. The size of the congregation isn’t the point, as Jesus said: “Where two or three of you gather together in my name, I am there among you.” The problem is this idea that you can or should just put up a sign on your front lawn, and boom – you’ve created a church.  If you get sick of the one you are at, just move next door and put up another sign. Bam. Another church. You don’t need no other churches, you’ve got your own. There is no consciousness of the fact that this “Christian” thing is bigger and older than all of us, and we make ourselves part of it, not the other way around. Anglicans and Catholics have the diocese and the Bishop (although structures exist higher up, in practice this is the main sphere of accountability for any parish). In New Zealand there is the Baptist Union, the wider body of Baptist Churches (of which Westcity Bible Baptist Church is not a part). The Presbyterian Churches in New Zealand have the regional Presbytery. And so on.

Take one of the most conservative Evangelical denominations in New Zealand: The Reformed Church. Why is it that I can bet my last dollar that you won’t hear of one of its pastors sending somebody an email in which he prays that the recipient commits suicide? Could it have anything to do with the fact that Pastors are accountable throughout their process of training, internship (being a vicar), and then beginning in their role as Pastor? Could it have anything to do with the fact that somebody with an unbalanced, inflammatory and entirely graceless way of addressing the world cannot set up shop in his back yard and presume to speak for them? Could it be at least partly because if any of their pastors did something like this, they would face the discipline of the church and would be unlikely to remain a pastor for long?

When you say that your church is independent, what is it independent of? Not Christ, hopefully. Independent of the entire history of the faith? Independent of anyone who you say isn’t a member? Independent of all other people in the world today with whom you say you share the faith?

I’m currently going through a “discernment process” (I use speech marks because that’s the official name of the thing) towards ordination in the Anglican Church. It’s a process in which I examine myself, and receive counsel as I contemplate this important investment of my life into something larger than me, and during which – listen – the church examines me, keeps me accountable to it, and decides whether or not I am fit to minister. There is no presumptive right here, and I am resolved that I will submit to the church’s judgement on the matter.

I’m not Catholic. But in any historically responsible sense of the word, this fellow and his flock are not Protestant. Perhaps I’ll say more about that another time, but in rejecting the claim to infallible authority by the Pope, the Protestant movement never advocated that we abandon the notion of authority and accountability in the church altogether. This pop-up church is a perfect example of what can happen under such an arrangement. This pastor and others like him are in a position where they can afford defiance. To any and all who raise concerns about his conduct and fitness, he can simply reply: “And what is anybody going to do about it?” He is as accountable and representative as the internet bullies I quoted earlier, but because of the wider culture’s acceptance that anything called a church is as much a church as the next thing called a church, so many people don’t realise it.

Glenn Peoples

UPDATE: Since writing this story it has come to light that the author of the offending email has a known history of serious mental illness leaving him with delusions of religious grandeur (for example, thinking that he is the pastor of a church when he is not). Although his comments were truly offensive, it is disappointing, simply in the interests of honesty and transparency, that these facts are being omitted from media coverage so far. Moreover, this loudly reinforces the concern I express here, that churches that are independent and unaccountable offer insufficient protection against somebody in this position setting up shop. Click on the image below.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Tom December 9, 2014, 3:07 am

    So true.

  • Dan December 11, 2014, 9:05 am

    Is it possible that both sides have ulterior motives? For example, the similarities–theological and name-wise–between your Westcity Bible Baptist Church and our Westboro Baptist Church are interesting. From Wikipedia on the Westboro’s: “The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is an American unaffiliated Baptist church known for its extreme ideologies, especially those against gay people.” Probably any similarities between the names and the ideologies are accidental, but I’m curious whether Robertson, whether or not he is mentally unstable, also saw the request for a quote as an opportunity to expand his own prestige, notoriety, group membership, and impact along similar lines?

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