The right side of history

Jun 23, 2014 by

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The other week I was at a conference. One of the speakers challenged us as church leaders to “be on the right side of history.” He then went on to reference women, race, immigration and sexual orientation. I have been thinking about his challenge ever since. On one hand I like the idea of the church being prophetic, creating spaces for those who have been excluded from the table. From a distance it seems heroic.

There is also that other hand. I am part of a church tradition that was once referred to as the “radical reformation,” the Anabaptists. Five hundred years ago one of the few things that the Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could agree on was that the Anabaptists should be burned at the stake. Looking back on that period, it is now easy to say that the Anabaptists were on the right side of history. Their emphasis on community, nonviolence, and the priesthood of all believers are ideas that have gone mainstream and as a result have been accepted in the church at large.

The result of this is that we have become less radical and more normalized. And normalization has led to institutionalism. This in turn has led to maintaining the status quo (the institution). Although it is true that institutions create stability and help to maintain order, the downside is they do this by resisting change. This resistance can and does lead to being on the wrong side of history.

Even my radical tradition was, and still is among some groups, resistant to inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership. Racism continues to rear its ugly head. Our acculturation has occasionally led to an unwelcoming attitude towards the immigrant. Currently we are either ignoring the sexual orientation debate or threatening to let it tear the church apart.

You see, there is a cost for being on the right side of history, especially in the church. Confronting injustice more often than not leads to misunderstanding and sometimes goes all the way to charges of heresy. Being thrown out of the church for “not holding the correct beliefs” is not fun.

I realize that it is not easy to go to church with people whose beliefs are radically different than the traditional way. If the church is going to be the church, then it needs to figure out how to embrace and include that which is different. It is the only way we can find our way back to the right side of history.

Glenn Balzer lives in Denver and attends His Love Fellowship. He blogs at where this post first appeared.

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  • Elaine Fehr

    Should the goal of the church seek to be on the right side of history or on the right side of God? I believe it must be the latter.

    As for the statement – ” If the church is going to be the church, then it needs to figure out how to embrace and include that which is different.”, the word “different” needs to be defined.

    If “different’ means going against God’s word, then it is a dangerous concept.

    But, if “different” means not succumbing to the world and seeking to live within the boundaries of the righteousness of Christ, then the church is on the right track.

  • Lisa_Schirch

    Anabaptist churches in the past have insisted that African Americans were not full people and they should not attend Mennonite institutions. Mennonites insisted that this was Biblical. They denounced the few brave people who stood up for their humanity. Conservative Mennonites called these people “secular activists” and ignored Biblical teachings about love.

    Likewise, Mennonite institutions have punished men for not wearing the proper “Biblical” clothing and have shunned women who had their hair cut or didn’t wear the proper dress. Some church leaders have taken harsh, punishing behavior for anyone who emphasized Jesus’ teachings over Paul’s. These church leaders ignored the parts of the Bible about looking at the log in your own eye before the speck of dust in your neighbors. These church officials sinned – they seemed to take joy in punishment, exclusion, and offering up judgement on the lives of others.

    And now there is a refusal again to look at the Bible and try to understand what it is saying about sexuality. There are no victims in a committed relationship between men or between women. Where is the sin? What other sin has no victims? Who suffers? On the other hand, Mennonite families are harsh and even hateful to their children who are born with a same sex sexuality. Far too many of these children are driven to suicide because of the churches hateful actions. From my reading of the Bible in its entirety, both Jesus and Paul would chastise church officials, not the committed lesbian couples in my church for the sin of violence and harm.

  • Bruce Leichty

    I wholeheartedly agree with Elaine’s comments. And I feel a great deal of caution about the writings of Ms. Schirch, who is not from an Anabaptist background and who necessarily must compromise considerably in order to function in the Beltway world I understand she inhabits. But pedigree and associations aside, what she says is just plain erroneous and/ or acculturated. For every few Mennonites who didn’t regard African Americans as not “full people,” whatever that means (she’s been reading too much Tobin Shearer), I’ll wager there were at least three times as many who understood that all human beings are created in the image of God. The preoccupation with dress was rightly concerned with modesty, and often verged into error, but to deduce that church leaders elevated the teachings of Paul over the teachings of Jesus and “enjoyed” punishing, excluding and judging — well, I would like to see the historical proof, because that sounds polemical more than anything. Yes, we have had our share of leaders who were more concerned with power than compassion, but compassion does not preclude exclusion or punishment — about the right things. The equation of rejection with suicide is also unproven. I have previously pointed out in these columns that the suicide of someone with homosexual orientation can be a very complex thing — not to minimize its pain in any way, or the need for compassion. The equation, however, is a canard that needs to be shelved absent clear peer-reviewed scientific evidence.