When we first started The Restoration Project, I was young(ish)—31. And even though I had been to Bible college and seminary, completed PhD coursework twice (long story), and worked in various ministry contexts for over 10 years, there was a lot of stuff that I did not know. Ok, there is still a lot of stuff that I do not know. (Kate, quick, take a screenshot of this line and use it at your discretion.) At least back then, I thought that my theology was relatively set. I had read a bunch. I had spent a lot of time thinking and praying. I had many great conversations with friends and classmates and professors about weighty theological issues—you know, the stuff that you do when you are young and excited about following Jesus.
In hindsight, this confidence was probably a bit naive, seeing as though I had done a complete 180 on a handful of topics over the last ten years. I had gone from saying embarrassing things like, “I will never marry a woman who drinks,” to giving tours at a local brewery, and yes, sharing a few “adult beverages” with my wife. Or from warning my friend against attending a “dangerous” liberal arts Christian college because some of their biology faculty members were “theistic evolutionists” to embracing a figurative reading of Genesis 1-3. I had gone from being skeptical of women in the pastorate to now proudly aligning with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group that not only affirms but champions women in the pulpit. I had also gone from having zero questions about LGBT inclusion in the church “because the Bible clearly addresses it” to now having a lot of questions and reading a lot of books and having a lot of conversations because, well, Jesus loves all of us, and the Church needs to do a better job of loving our LGBT neighbors.
What I’ve learned over the first four years of ministry is that a confession like this will quickly earn you a spot on someone’s blacklist. (And those “someones” sometimes like to talk.) It will put you in the ranks of the other local heretics who are not to be trusted … especially with the Bible, despite your love for the Word of God, your respect for its authority, and your desire to read it well. It could cost you some of your church membership, some of your ministry partners, even some of your close friends. It could also cost you your job, because along with the honest admission that, like many of your congregants, you also have questions about some of the Bible’s teachings or have developed new thoughts on certain issues, your financial situation could take a sudden downturn.
We should be quick to remind ourselves here, we aren’t talking about the consequences of admitting that you have questions regarding the core truths of the Christian faith, at least not according to the early ecumenical Christian creeds. Despite the best efforts of people to conflate one’s views on the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis or the book of Jonah with the historicity of, say, Jesus’ resurrection, that is not what’s at stake. Along with the writers of the Nicene Creed, for example, you can can raise your voice boldly and excitedly and honestly, affirming to be part of the eclectic compilation of those who “believe.”
But still, for some pastors and some church starters, our theology is evolving, and we are then faced with the difficult question of how and when and to whom we admit it. Because after losing your first committed member following a conversation about any of these or other equally important topics, it becomes an issue of survival. And the temptation is to remain silent to keep the peace.
Remember, there are things about pastoring that I still do not know. I’m happy to admit that this is one of them. Honestly, it keeps me up at night. In the American Church, we have created a context in which pastors are the ones who must be certain. Questions are a sure sign not of growth or of health, but of a lack of faith. As a result, pastors must choose what to do with their own issues because being honest will cost you something … or everything.
Here’s the beauty of being a church starter. We have a lot less to lose. I don’t mean that carelessly, as if the people who have joined our churches are expendable. They are not. I mean, we don’t usually have huge notes on buildings or a big staff to support. We can try crazy things that wouldn’t fly in more established churches. My doctoral supervisor often says, “It’s hard to be a prophet when you are on the payroll.” But in a church start, it’s a bit easier to be prophetic—or just to be open about stuff.
I don’t think that anything that I have said here will be news to any of our members. We have worked hard to be honest and authentic (buzz words, I apologize). They have seen the toll that it has taken on me as a minister and as a person, some more so than others. Regardless, every week, they hear me or Doug or anyone else we ask to speak invite people into this beautiful journey of following Jesus, becoming agents of restoration and hope to our world—even those with baggage and questions and doubts.
Here’s where I would like us to take heart. I believe that in addition to the many who are potentially offended or unsettled by a pastor’s honest confession of their (ongoing) theological evolution, there are many others for whom it is life-giving. We have staked the sustainability of our church on that fact. When we allow people to hear our stories, I believe that we are modeling for them a healthy approach to loving Jesus well, to reading the Bible well, to fighting for people well, and preaching the good news of the gospel well.
So to all of the wrongfully accused heretics out there, let’s carry on. And let’s pray that those in our communities who have felt isolated and ostracized by a church where questions are not allowed, where changing your mind on certain issues is not viewed as the heart-wrenching/mildly terrifying/but perhaps God-honoring move that it truly is … that they will find you and your community, and that ultimately, they will find Jesus. Maybe for the first time, or more realistically, that they will find him again.
Jesus is bigger than our questions. Jesus is bigger than our fears. Jesus is bigger than our theological “evolutions.” And if Paul is right (and I believe that he is), perhaps we will be content to find our Yes and our Amen in him and him alone.
Josh James did finally earn his PhD in Old Testament studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a commissioned, CBF church starter, who serves as one of the pastors of The Restoration Project in Salisbury, MD.