Both-And: My Interview with Rich Nathan
Rich Nathan is the lead pastor of the Columbus Vineyard. You can find out more about the church in this extensive write-up in Christianity Today. I've appreciated his friendship and was glad to host him and other Vineyard megachurches at LifeWay for two days on "How Megachurches Can be Missional." Those sessions led to a five-part series here at the blog.
Rich has a new book out that tackles some tough issues in the Christian life. We've put together a Q&A around the book and thought it worth sharing here.
1. Why did you feel that it was important to write Both-And?
You don't have to look very hard to see how fractured our world has become. Unfortunately, the church is not immune to divisions. Today the church in America is divided between those who limit the message of Jesus to the spiritual realm and those that limit his message to the material realm. The spiritual-realm-only folks believe that Christianity is simply about getting as many people as possible to invite Jesus into their hearts so that when they die, their souls will go to heaven. The spiritual-realm-only people also typically talk about private morality, giving priority to areas such as sex, marriage, divorce and perhaps appropriate gender roles. But the spiritual-realm-only people often say almost nothing about public morality: the rest of life that includes issues like education, poverty, immigration, racism, global hunger or war and peace. They assume that all those areas of life belong to politicians, TV pundits, economists and military leaders. For the spiritual realm-only people, it is as if the Bible has nothing to say about anything other than personal morality. Their churches, their lives and their understandings of the Bible offer little wisdom about vast domains of life.
At the other end of the spectrum are the material-realm-only people. For them, the sole concerns of the Christian faith are issues such as the economy, minimum-wage legislation, big business and military expenditures. The material-realm-only people often have almost nothing to say about sexual holiness, the Holy Spirit, experiencing God's presence or—most importantly—the death of Christ that atones for our sins. Indeed, some material-realm-only churches simply turn over the whole spiritual realm to other denominations. "If you want that sort of thing," they say, "you need to go to one of those emotional churches, or maybe an ethnic church. We're too sophisticated for the spiritual stuff."
In a time of increasing polarization in the world, we believe that Christians are called to radically live out the whole gospel in a way that transcends the Conservative-Liberal agenda and the Traditional-Progressive divide. This is why we wrote this book.
2. The issue of homosexuality and gay marriage is becoming more and more of a divisive issue for the church today. How do you navigate this issue in your own church?
Let me quickly sum up the approach that we lay out in the book. First of all, I think it is absolutely vital that we understand the difference between Christian ethics, pastoral care, and public policy. These 3 categories presented by Dennis Hollinger, president and distinguished professor of Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, helpfully distinguishes how we can navigate this discussion. Christian ethics addresses what is God's ideal for our sexuality. Pastoral care addresses how Christians should come alongside of those who are struggling with their sexuality. When it comes to a Christian approach to public policy, we still have to decide our approach in a pluralistic society that doesn't necessarily agree with a Christian view of sexuality. As Christians relate to politics, we can't simply say, "Well, this is what it says in the Bible." We can't demand that everyone—Christian and non-Christian alike, people who know Jesus and people who don't—follow this. Public policy gets into practical concerns about what is enforceable, what is possible, what will harm the spread of the gospel and what is wise.
At Vineyard Columbus, we are seeing more and more homosexuals attending our services. And here is what we offer them: First, we offer them love. The apostle Paul offers what I believe to be the very best strategy for relating to anyone, but especially for relating to people who have fallen short of God's ideal. It is Paul's strategic advice for all human relationships and for all situations. He says in, "Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:8). So when we talk about how we should relate to those who are sexually broken, the first things we should do is offer love.
Second, we offer grace. The Christian faith is designed for moral failures. The Bible is the story of moral failures and the God who shows grace to these moral failures. Starting with Adam and Eve and going on to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Gideon, Samson, King David, the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul: the Bible tells us about folks who have blown it and received the grace of God. We don't clean ourselves up to come to God or to come to church. The story of the Bible is that we come to God and to the church as we are. Then the Lord cleans us up.
Some in the church have missed this most basic notion of showing grace. We think that our job is to be the moral police of the world. We feel obligated to let everyone know our moral standards so there are no misunderstandings regarding where we stand. But this is wrong-headed! The leading edge of a Christian's relationship with anyone is not where we differ morally. The first thing that people ought to encounter is not our view of abortion or sex or greed. The first thing that they ought to experience when they meet us is the offer of friendship and grace, not where they are messing up morally.
Third, we offer community. A young lady in my church recently shared with me that she is seriously thinking about leaving her partner because of what God is doing in her life. However, this has been a very difficult decision for her because she knows that it will result in her being shunned by her gay community which has been her only family for the last decade. She actually tried to leave her gay community once before, only to return later because she could not find another group that offered what they did. So it is absolutely vital that our churches offer genuine community where this young lady and others like her will find a true family.
Fourth, we offer the forgiveness of sins. This is the case for both the heterosexual sinner and the homosexual sinner. Many Christians feel that they are "damaged goods," since they are no longer virgins and have engaged in either heterosexual or homosexual sex. But right on the heels of texts that condemn sexual activity outside of marriage come incredible promises of God's grace and mercy—grace and mercy bought with the price of God's own self-sacrifice.
Fifth, we offer a call to self-denial as the key to living a full life. A call to self-denial is issued to every person on earth. It is a call to experience abundant, full, satisfying life now and in the future, no matter what your sexual orientation or marital status. Every one of us has to continually deny our impulses if we want to follow Jesus and experience his friendship in our lives. If you are a single person, heterosexual or gay, you are called to abstinence. If you are a married person, you are called to lifelong fidelity to one person in sickness and in health until death. All followers of Jesus must continually say no to themselves and to their appetites, prejudices, sinful desires and rebellion. This is not cruelty. You say no to yourself and to your sin so that you can say yes to God. Saying yes to God, means you say to God, "I will stop pushing you away. I will give you permission to do whatever you want to do in my life!" When you say "Yes, Lord!" that's when you experience abundant life.
3. What are some practical ways that Christians can live the Both-And faith today?
In the book, we write about Philippe Petit who was a street performer whose big dream in life was to walk between New York's Twin Towers on a wire. On August 7, 1974, at 7:15 a.m., Petit stepped off the edge of the North Tower onto a wire that was hanging 1,350 feet above the sidewalks of Manhattan. With nothing but a long balance stick in his hands, he mystified onlookers by kneeling, lying down and even dancing on the wire for forty-five minutes. For those forty-five minutes Petit lived in a state of tension that few of us will ever experience.
We use this story to illustrate what it means to live as a Both-And Christian. It is to live in tension. This is what it means to follow Jesus. We worship one God who exists in three persons. We serve Jesus who is both fully God and fully man. We live in a world that is both good and fallen. And the kingdom of God that Jesus announced is both already here and is still yet to come. This tension exists not only in what we believe and experience but in who we are: both sinner and saint. But here is the rub: gale-force winds are always threatening to knock us off of the wire. As disciples of Jesus, we live in the Both-And tension while always being pulled by forces to relieve the stress and to go back to our "normal" Either-Or state. But the moment the tension is relieved, there is no longer any power. It's like the string on a violin: no matter how wonderful and expensive the instrument itself may be, it is the tension on the strings that enables it to make music.
Both-And is what makes a church great. But Both-And is also the source of most of the conflicts that we experience as a church. These conflicts typically concern a group of people outside the church or an individual on staff or a group within the church trying to pull the church in one direction or the other, away from the Both-And commitment. They say, "You can't do justice; you must do mercy. You can't be large; you must practice authentic community. You can't be evangelical; you must be charismatic. You can't be culturally relevant; you must be orthodox. You need to be an Either-Or church!"
So, one of the first practical things that you can do to live the Both-And faith is to embrace the fact that you are called to live in tension, which is not easy to do. It means coming to terms with our personal biases and prejudices that have been formed over many years. It means that we need to learn new ways of thinking and doing, while at the same time, unlearning some of our old ways.
A second practical thing you can do to live the Both-And faith is to engage with people who are swimming in a different stream. Talk with people who attend churches that are different from yours. Read books written by authors who you would not normally read. The point is not to agree with everything they say and do. The point is to see their heart and understand why they landed where they did.