Bad Questions Make For Bad Answers


Since the late 1980s, the Presbyterian Church has been asking, “Should we include LGBT people in our congregation, and to what extent?”

Perhaps that has been exactly the wrong question, because since the late 1908s the Presbyterian Church has been fighting over the role of LGBT people which has resulted in a much weaker denomination over the last 25 years of fighting. Individual congregations have pulled out by the droves, moving to smaller but “purer” denominations, and a leaving much weaker Mother Ship. Those who have pulled out have essentially alienated themselves from a large segment of the American public, the 51 percent who do not oppose same sex marriage. They may have shored up their base, but statistics show that very few ex-Presbyterian congregations have expanded that base.

All because we have been asking the wrong question.

Edwin Friedman, in his book A Failure of Nerve, recounts how the West was stymied in finding a route to the Far East after the fall of the Mongol Empire, because the Silk Road was no longer safe and open for trade. The fall of Constantinople made passage impossible. The West was stuck on the question, “How can we continue traveling East over land, using the Silk Road?” which proved to be a question with no answer.


As it turned out, a much better question was, “What happens if we go west to get to the East?” Columbus made his famous voyage, and the rest is history. (Actually it is all history.) This question opened up the Age of Exploration, and led to massive changes in the Western world. In fact, according to Friedman, they still got it wrong. It took a hundred years after they bumped into the New World to realize that the New World itself was the prize, not the obstacle. So an even better question would have been, “What else is out there?” Continually asking, “What is the best route to the East caused them to be blind to the treasure they were trying to get around!

In the small area where I live, two Presbyterian churches have pulled out of the denomination. My congregation is the only one in the town where I live. And to what effect? Disgruntled members from the other churches have come to my church, and the local denomination has spent hundreds of hours dealing with the departures, thus proving to the rest of the community that Presbyterians cannot get along with each other, much less with people in other denominations.

Fortunately the broader civic community has ignored our little spat, mostly because they don’t give two shakes of a mule’s tail what churches do. Our little squabble just proved how irrelevant we are to the world at large. And for reasons that are beyond my understanding, people in the churches think this is somehow important.

So what questions should we be asking?

I was talking with the pastor of “The Other Presbyterian Church,” one that pulled out, and he said we should support relationships that honor God. Now on the surface, I think he is dead right, but unfortunately what that means to him, and what it means to me are two different things. I believe the love between two people of the same gender can honor God. And heaven knows, there are enough straight relationships in the church that are as close to honoring God as East is from West.

Imagine if all the energy that has been expended bickering over what gay and lesbian people do was turned to finding ways to help ALL relationships honor God. Imagine if the question was “How can we help people love?” instead of “What are we going to do about the gays and lesbians?”


Ask a bad question, and you will get bad answers. Should we include LGBT people in our church is a really bad question. If Jesus was right, we can judge things by their fruit, this fruit is rotten.

Maybe our question needs to be bigger. I don’t know, but all this makes me wonder.

What question should we be asking?

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
This entry was posted in Christianity and Homosexuality, Church, Jesus, LGBT, ministry, religion and politics, spirituality, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Bad Questions Make For Bad Answers

  1. Happy says:

    I have a daughter who is gay…….she has the biggest heart of anyone I know, towards people and animals……I think of her as a special person because of her heart……not because she is gay…

  2. Andrea B. K. says:

    I had a longer reply typed out, and then my browser ate it.

    Anyway, there’s a common theme in your last few entries, which I can think can be summed up as “a lot of people really can’t handle change.” I liked your recent point about the NT being written by/for new converts because there is a limit as to what it tells us about how the church should handle change over time. I’ve spent my share of time around older people (some not that old!) who think society should just never change; there was a re-curring discussion in my most recent ex-church about the good old days, which was usually followed by a round of Millennial-bashing. Meanwhile, anyone born after about 1980 has never experienced a world that’s not constantly mutating.

    So I think an important question here is how has interpretation of scripture changed over time, how should we apply Biblical teaching to concepts that didn’t exist at the time it was written, and what teachings are universal vs. what should be adapted to the time or community it’s being read in.

  3. tmrichmond3 says:

    Thank you Andrea. The fact is, I don’t like change. (Sometimes I wish I was still the youth pastor back at TAPC, watching Monty Python with the group!) But the fact is that we do have to change. On my Facebook page two people said all we need to follow the Bible, but exactly what does that mean. I mean, according the Bible, they both should just stay silent!

    Taking a first century text (or earlier) and plopping it into the early part of the 21st century is just not an option for thinking people. How to bring it to bear on our society (and I still believe it has much to say to us) is the question that faces us.

  4. Andrea B. K. says:

    This, exactly. I think that’s part of the attraction of literalism, is that it allows you to be a “good Christian” without having to really think too much. It’s all neat and tidy, and takes all the messiness of life and wraps it up with a bow.

    There was something you said back in the old days, and I wish I could remember the context, but the point was to be aware of the difference between religion and superstition. In my experience, a lot of people don’t get that. A see a lot of people who are scared of something, whether it’s Muslims, or the “gay agenda,” or changing family norms, and they practice their religion in a way that is actually superstition. If we just do what we’ve always done and never do anything different, it’ll all be okay. If these crazy kids would just start doing things our way, it’ll all be okay.

    Sometimes it’s hard for me, at 35, to gauge what’s really changed in the church vs. what’s just my own increasing life experience. At 16, I thought TAPC was unique with its infighting, and now I know that’s not even close. (BOY was I wrong…) But it’s just been in the past few years that I’ve encountered this idea that Christians in the US are some kind of persecuted minority. If you think having a “holiday tree” in your kids school is persecution, go be a missionary in the middle east for, oh, 20 minutes! But I see that as fear, too.

    I’ve never had a problem with listening to new information, evaluating it, and deciding whether to believe it or discard it. If I decide I was wrong about something, so be it. But not everyone is like that, and if someone is wrong about homosexuality, oh my gosh, what else have I been wrong about?! New information just shatters their worldview.

    1995. It was a simpler time. 😉

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