My friend David Wesley Gould posted this statement on his Facebook page: “In our belief system, when the negotiable becomes non-negotiable, it won't be long before the non-negotiable becomes negotiable.” I thought it was an interesting statement, and since David and I come from very different denominational backgrounds, I wanted to hear the rest of the story. I asked David to give me the context that his statement emerged from.
David went on to explain that he had been involved in a fairly vigorous online conversation with some colleagues from his denomination about the role of women in ministry. His denomination ordains women for any office, a practice that David thinks should be done with great care and not just to be avant garde. The denomination is officially egalitarian, but since most of their churches would never hire a female pastor, David believes they functionally fall into the complementarianism category. But this post is not actually about women in ministry. What it is really about is how churches, and sometimes whole denominations, can get their focus off course on what is really important, which is what led to David’s comment about what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable. Let me explain.
David shared how in the course of the conversation, one person declared that women in leadership is a “cornerstone” of the denomination, and “not up for debate.” David recalls that “Others began to jump in, and suddenly, people were saying that woman’s ordination was one of our core beliefs.” While it is clearly an important issue, regardless of which side of the debate we fall on, is it really a cornerstone of the denomination? It is really a core belief? Since I am not part of David’s denomination, I do not know for sure, but somehow, I would think that the Gospel should be the cornerstone of ANY denomination, more than the gender of the pastor.
What David found interesting about the discussion he took part in is that at the same time that this discussion about women in ministry was going on, there was also discussion by some in the denomination that they should open the door for those who would see the Bible (primarily the Old Testament) as merely a story-telling narrative, compiled from various writers who may or may not have been giving historical accounts, but certainly wove in their own cultural stories into the main story. David concludes that “basically the inerrancy of Scripture is on the table for review and dismissal (negotiable), but allowing women to pastor is now an essential (non-negotiable) doctrine.” David sees that as a real problem, and made the statement on his Facebook page to express his frustration. I find myself in agreement with David’s concern.
What we decide is negotiable, or non-negotiable, really is important. If we focus on the wrong things and make them non-negotiable, we may find ourselves fighting for a cause that in the end does not make a significant or eternal difference. (For the record, I believe that God reserves the office of pastor for males who meet the biblical qualifications, but that belief is not a “cornerstone” of my faith.) On the other hand, if we give up the fight on issues that are indeed crucial to our faith, then in the end, we will lack the ability to make a significant or eternal difference because we will no longer be teaching the truth. Lord, help us know which issues are truly the cornerstones of our faith and which issues are perhaps important, but secondary.