by Pastor Doug Kings

Christian denominations are experiencing a lot of turmoil these days. A feud that has been simmering for years in the United Methodist Church has finally broken out in the open. The primary issue is whether to allow gay clergy and gay marriage, but many disgruntled members see other problems as well. Hundreds of congregations opposing such changes are now leaving what is one of the country’s largest Protestant churches.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination, has made decisions which, in some cases, are causing congregations to leave, and in other cases forcing congregations out. Most recently it reaffirmed its policy of forbidding female clergy, thus expelling churches which have them and refuse to dismiss them. One of the largest such congregations is Saddleback Church in southern California, also one of the largest churches in the country. It’s well-known founding pastor is Rick Warren, the author of the bestseller The Purpose Driven Life and many other books.

But such problems are not confined to Protestants. Recently, Pope Francis has shown he is not letting his 87 years cause him to back down from a fight. In several speeches and talks, the pope has taken on American critics of his church reform efforts. In the case of critical bishops, they are fans (and typically appointees) of Francis’ conservative predecessors. They are appalled at this pope’s openness to women, increased lay leadership, LGBTQ people wanting to participate in the church, and addressing the climate crisis.

One of the Pope Francis’ most strident critics has been the bishop of Tyler, Texas, Joseph Strickland. His words have been so incendiary that his leadership is now the subject of a Vatican investigation. According to an article in National Catholic Review (NCR), Strickland has accused Francis of “undermining the Deposit of Faith.” In a recent letter he warned his diocese of “the evil and false message” that he said has “invaded” the church. NCR also says another American critic of Pope Francis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, declares in a new book “that the pope is risking confusion and even schism.”

According to another NCR article, in response to questions at a meeting of fellow Jesuit priests,

Pope Francis blasted what he described as groups of “very strong, reactionary” American Catholics, warning against becoming “backwardists” who oppose change in the Catholic Church. “The situation in the United States is not easy: There is a very strong, reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally,” said the pope. “I want to remind these people that backwardism is useless, and it is necessary to understand that there is a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.” …

“Those American groups of which you speak, so closed, are isolating themselves. And instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies,” he added. “But when you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.”

The pope goes on identify the issue at the heart of all three of these church disputes: Is it possible to say to anyone that they cannot be fully included in the life of the church?

“The door is open to everyone, everyone has their own space in the church,” said Francis. “How will each person live it? We help people live so that they can occupy that place with maturity, and this applies to all kinds of people.”

“What I don’t like at all, in general, is that we look at the so-called ‘sin of the flesh’ with a magnifying glass,” said Francis. “If you exploited workers, if you lied or cheated, it didn’t matter, and instead relevant were the sins below the waist.” … The pope went on to recount his numerous meetings with transgender people, whom he said felt rejected by the church. “Everyone, everyone, everyone, are called to live in the church,” he told the Jesuits. “Never forget that.”

What the pope is revealing is the extent to which church life has been and still is centered on power. Being “in charge” includes deciding who can participate and in what ways. The pope’s view is more nuanced than it seems here, however. Everyone is welcome in the Catholic church but there are still restrictions on how women and LGBTQ people can participate. Yet it is obvious where his overall viewpoint is leading the church for the future and that is what has conservatives upset.

What has been so often missed in the church is that it is not about rights and privileges but grace and service. The 62nd of Luther’s 95 Theses declares that “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” Belonging to the church conveys no special identity or power. The church’s treasure is not some “thing” called salvation but rather a transforming message and experience of God’s love.

So Pope Francis is right: everyone is “called to live in the church” to have the opportunity to experience that love. If churches are behaving as if belonging to the church is for some other purpose, then they need to reexamine their own life and purpose. “I came not to call the righteous but sinners,” Jesus said.  Everyone is called because everyone needs to be set free from fear, doubt, selfishness, and egoism to discover the “true treasure” that is their life: an eternal gift of God here and now.

Blessings in your life and ministry.