The notion that a good church, full of good theology and sound preaching, deeply invested in doctrinal purity and the disciplines of holiness, can, in its zeal for orthodoxy, leave people feeling unheard, unloved, and hurting, may surprise you. The Reformed church, especially the OPC, views herself as a lampstand of Old Light and Old Life religion. We embody the best traditions of the Reformation, and we are deeply committed to Biblical faith and practice. For decades, my family have fed on the nourishing meat of Reformed orthodoxy: the doctrines of Grace, the theology of covenant. As a young couple, we preoccupied ourselves with being Godly children to our parents, Godly husband and wife to one another, and Godly parents to our kids. But as the years wear on, our experience of faith in this community becomes more complex and more rife with tension. We survived depression and kept our marriage together long enough to turn it into something strong and supple. We embraced a disabled son, and we discovered the experiences of many of our friends who also have occasion to think about how to accommodate disabilities, neurodiversities, and other differences.
Through all of it, we took constant comfort in the doctrines of Grace, and also in our relationships with pastors, elders, and friends who were willing to walk with us through our times of weakness. We think of the pastor who invited himself to our house and brought a bottle of wine because he sensed there were issues between us that we needed to talk out, and the elder who made time out of his work day to have lunch when he sensed we were struggling, and the friend who asked every time he saw us, “how are you, really? What do you need? I’m praying for you.” Those relationships sustained us in the midst of dark times, when we felt otherwise unloved and overlooked, when depression, anger, and alienation threatened to consume our spirits, when we had nothing to give and didn’t fully understand how to ask for what we needed, when for all our pleading and arguing those in a position to care for us walked away.
As a community of faith, our common assent to the propositions of Reformed orthodoxy draws us together into our places of worship and fellowship, and forms us around a unified religious practice. But something more than assent animated so many precious Christians to walk on their knees, as servants, willing to take us for who we are without asking more of us than to submit ourselves to being loved, who sought to know us and to experience all of the messy, dirty, scary thoughts and emotions, who came alongside of us to walk in our reality, empowering us to love and to flourish and to in turn do likewise for others. You think I’m going to say, “Jesus.” Obviously, real fruit-of-the-spirit Christian love flows out of the person of Christ who sits at the center of our community, shaping us by his spirit into his very own body. But given that so many of us suffer sometimes willful exclusion and alienation, and even abuse at the hands of other members of that body, I think it’s necessary to say more.
I wish to name the sort of being-with-others-being-in-Christ that gets to the heart of real, Christ-like care for others, that engages people as singular beings situated in time and space, working out their sanctification in difference, navigating their realities as best they can with the resources they have. Psychologists, philosophers, and cognitive scientists call it “empathy,”, and those who seek others in this way cultivate the kind of openness that allows them to encounter others as situated persons, and not merely as the impersonation of social and religious ideals (i.e., Good Husband, Good Daughter, Good Christian), and an ideal churchliness that elides our singularities and denies us opportunities to experience the diversity of Christ’s body. When we neglect empathy, we risk the spiritual well being of those for whom being churchly means they aren’t truly known, loved, or accepted, except insofar as they embody certain ideals. This is the experience of many who dwell at the frayed edges of ‘normal’ Christian faith and practice, who find themselves distanced from the centers of privilege in the Reformed church: women, people with disabilities, people of color, the neurodiverse, and other cultural, political, social, and physiological minority groups who experience disempowerment and marginalization within our limb of the body of Christ.
Some churchly ideals relate to social and political norms and expectations. Others relate to the forms and practices of Christian piety. Many are explicit and are backed by heavy ideological investment. These show up in our sermons and our sunday school lessons, where they get backfilled into our exegesis and embedded into our theology. But behind these lie many tacit expectations, which are harder to identify and confront. These work the same as in every other sphere of life. Consider a simple example from the workplace: if you show up to work and everyone wears blue pants, but you wear red, then you are at variance with a tacit expectation. The expectation feels innocuous to most of the people who live with it every day and have no trouble embodying it. But it doesn’t feel innocuous to people with an invisible disability that makes wearing blue pants a painful proposition, who face discrimination from people who relate their expectations to higher values, like respect for the workplace and professionalism, and pass either conscious or unconscious judgment.
Tacit norming happens naturally. Sometimes it’s nefarious, but usually it isn’t. It’s about making assumptions about people’s beliefs, their feelings, or their abilities, most of which are extremely reasonable and hold true-- until they don’t. In small churches especially, tacit norming happens when six out of ten families home school, they all share similar outlooks on parenting, and they all configure their families around traditional, roles (dad works, mom handles the home). Opportunities for socializing, including choice of activity, time, and venue revolve around these realities (women’s breakfast at 10 AM, men’s prayer meeting at 8PM). How people talk, what they talk about, what they assume about one another, all encode assumptions about who is in the church, what they care about, and how they cope.
So what about the single mother who sends her kid to public school because she believes in public education, she doesn’t have “well behaved” kids (she values creativity and exploration over obedience), she can’t make the 10 AM women’s breakfast and she doesn’t have the right genitals for the 8 PM men’s prayer meeting? Also, she doesn’t own blue pants, and she’s a Democrat. She feels alienated from the life of the church. The few opportunities she has to engage leave her feeling awkward and unsure how to proceed. How does she insert herself into a conversation that revolves around the day-to-day of homeschooling kids and running a house while hubby works? How does she feel when everyone she talks to assumes they know how she votes, or what she thinks about social issues? How is she supposed to relate when she hears “applications” in a sermon that baptize those assumptions, and, by implication, marginalize her by virtue of her circumstances, her beliefs, and her choices falling outside the norms?
A man struggles with chronic illness, and a battery of mental disorders that makes sitting through an hour long church service extremely difficult. Other activities don’t tax him as much-- it’s just the sitting still and quiet in a hot room on a wooden pew, plus the anxiety of having to interact socially, that presents a challenge. When the elders come to visit him, they indicate their concern that he isn’t at evening service regularly. To them it’s a question of will, and this speaks to his spiritual condition more than anything. The elders aren’t convinced by his explanations. They don’t understand about invisible disabilities and the realities of living with chronic illness, and so they judge that he makes excuses for being out of church.
I struggle with depression, and in those moments when my mind and my emotions tell me lies and leave me feeling isolated and hopeless, I cling to those around me who help me change whatever narrative has me spinning. I surround myself with people on whom I can depend to come after me and pull me back with a message that closeness to God doesn’t depend on my feelings or my performance. A friend mine told me about a sermon his pastor preached from Hebrews, about “drifting”, in which he spelled out the signs of trouble: feeling distant from the church, neglecting your prayer life, neglecting your daily devotions… this pastor described my friend, as he was in the throes of depression that Sunday. With every word of that sermon he dragged my friend deeper into the abyss of hopelessness. His exhortations to conform himself to a standard of piety that the pastor had extracted from the passage by 'sound exegesis' didn’t inspire action, as that pastor must have intended. Instead, they deepened my friend's darkness.
When my friend talked to the pastor about the sermon, he responded not with empathy but with the admonition, “sometimes preaching confronts us with uncomfortable truths.” After circling the issue for more than an hour, my friend was left to the conclusion that the pastor wasn’t prepared to see his own sermon from the perspective of someone in the midst of a depressive episode, or that he didn't deem that perspective on his preaching as worthy of accommodation. The pastor believed that he preached a good sermon based on good exegesis. He believed that his applications of the text were salient and justifiable, and that was all he had to say. From the pastor's perspective, he preached God’s word, plain and simple. Beyond that, it was up to my friend to decide how to respond: either accept the word, even when doing so is uncomfortable, or reject it. If he were to reject it, then this would come down to sin, or possibly an error of theology or a miscommunication, which one could resolve through further explanation and argumentation.
Empathy might have moved this pastor in a completely different direction. Setting aside the question of whether his sermon was good or bad, whether his exegesis was sound or not, and whether his applications were useful or justifiable, he could have opened himself to be someone else for a little while to see how the words that he intended to be instructive and convicting instead were hurtful and alienating. From there he could have offered comfort as sympathy, being willing to hear the problematic experience of his congregant without judgment, assuring him that he would be there to walk with him and hear him. It would have given him an opportunity to minister. He may or may not have come back to consider whether his preaching might have been different if he’d had that experience of a different perspective before. But however that journey ended up, they would have taken it together. By responding to my friend as he did, he accomplished the opposite: he responded to his alienation by raising a principle that referred back to the standard set of norms and expectations, which in that moment distanced himself from the suffering human before him and silenced a voice of difference.
If every presbytery asked every ministerial candidate what it means to love the people of God and how that would play out in their ministry, and if every pastor and every session committed themselves to creating a culture of nurturing, accepting, and accommodating diversity in their congregation, then it would open the way for truer understanding of ourselves and others by leading us behind the generalities of norms and expectations. It would lead us to encounter individuals on their own terms, as they’d have themselves be known. Creating such a culture starts with active empathizing, and it starts with the people you have. You can’t wait until a person of color or a neurodiverse person comes to your church to start talking about ways to be inclusive and respectful of difference. Otherwise, you don’t confront the norm; you simply create an exception that affirms it. This is the logic of alienation. It’s how people end up at the edges. Real empathy that meets all people in difference treats each difference univocally: With the same voice, we affirm that all of our singular concerns as black, deaf, autistic, democrat, woman, intellectual, etc., are Christian concerns.
When you cultivate discourse that allows people to name their differences and present them, and when they find that we welcome their differences without judgment, then encountering difference becomes a matter of course and not a thing we do when we must. What about the single woman, or the man with invisible disabilities? Can we allow their differences to expand our orthodoxy? Sure, we might have to set aside some of the distinctives with which we preoccupy ourselves. The boundaries separating us from other believers might become more porous. But we’d be more deeply embedded in the distinctives that make us Christian. This is not a call to be “politically correct”. It’s not a call to give up on standing for Truth. It is a call to elevate empathy and to allow it to animate how we deploy our orthodoxy. As it is, I believe that we continue to fail those at the edges of normal faith and practice by neglecting, and sometimes actively refusing to open spaces for them to have a voice. We baptize our tacit norms and expectations, and we deploy a host of strategies to silence those who feel marginalized, unheard, and unloved in the church. We must actively seek those people out in humility and love. We must approach them as Christ himself approached them, by identifying with them in empathy and then by raising them up in Him.