Why Can’t We Say Our Denomination Is O&A?

Another Conversation

Pastor (First Church, Anywhere, USA): Hey Derek! Good to see you. Listen, I want to tell you that I’ve read some of your stuff about churches becoming Open and Affirming.[1]

Me: Yeah, I seem to be having those conversations quite a bit lately.[2]

Pastor: I also see that you think our denomination [Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)] should declare itself O&A.

Me: Yes, I do.

Pastor: That’s not going to work.

Me: Really? Why is that?

Pastor: Congregational autonomy. Churches can do and believe just about anything they want. So, to say that our denomination is O&A is basically a lie, because we have a significant majority of churches that aren’t.

Me: So, just so I get this right: Are you saying that we should never make claims about ourselves as a denomination that can’t be demonstrably supported in the life of all congregations?

Pastor: Not all of the congregations. If that were true, you could never say anything.

Me: True enough. Then, how many of the congregations need to be on board before you’re comfortable making claims about our denominational identity?

Pastor: I don’t know that we should put a number on it—but at least a majority.

Me: Do you think that should apply to our denominational Statement of Identity?

Pastor: What do you mean?

Me: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.” Should we be able to say that about ourselves if we don’t always live up to it? Should we wait to say that about ourselves until we can be reasonably certain that it’s true for Disciples and Disciples congregations … at least a majority of the time? At what point, and based on what polling data were we convinced that it was theologically acceptable to allow women to become ministers? Even though it’s fairly clear that in practice, at least based on the hiring practices of a majority of Disciples congregations, as a denomination we don’t believe in women ministers.

Pastor: But, here’s where you’re missing the point: The Statement of Identity is not necessarily supposed to be a descriptive statement. That is to say, we don’t slap that up on our web site, claiming that this is true of all Disciples all of the time. We put it up there to show us who, according to our best lights, we ought to be.

Me: Ok. So, here’s my question: How is voting to say that Disciples are Open and Affirming any more a lie because it doesn’t represent all congregations than saying that “Disciples are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world?” Neither are true of all Disciples everywhere. Isn’t that false advertising?

Pastor: No. It’s an ideal, not an empirically verifiable statement of fact.

Me: But voting to declare ourselves O&A as a denomination should be?

Pastor: It’s not the same thing. We don’t want to mislead LGBTQ people by telling them that we’re O&A and have them come and find out we’re not.

Me: I understand that—and I think it’s a legitimate concern. But the church always has to deal with the issue of hypocrisy—saying one thing, but doing another. What happens if a person who’s been hurt by the church before wanders onto the denominational web site and sees this Statement of Identity and thinks, “At last, I’ve found a denomination where I can be safe. They heal people here; they don’t break them?” Then that person goes to a series of Disciples churches and finds out that in practice we aren’t always “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Don’t we risk alienating people by representing ourselves this way, when sooner or later they will find out it’s not always true of us?

Pastor: All right, but at least we can all agree in general as a denomination that we should be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world”—whether or not we always live up to it. We don’t all agree in general as a denomination that we should be “Open and Affirming.”

Me: But isn’t that what the second part of the Statement of Identity says? “As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.”

Pastor: “Welcoming” people to the table isn’t the same as “affirming” someone’s sexual orientation.

Me: I’m not so sure about that.

Pastor: You know what I mean.

Me: I think I know what people who disagree with me about this issue mean when they say it. But how does the average person reading our Statement of Identity know that?

That’s the point: If you say that we can’t honestly claim to be an O&A denomination because it’s not true of enough congregations, then you’ve seriously limited what we can say about ourselves as a denomination—since, we’re never in full agreement about much of anything. Moreover, we don’t have any metric in place by which we can measure when we’ve reached consensus—apart from “Sense of the Assembly Resolutions,” which is what many have said we cannot put forward on this issue because there’s not enough evidence to establish its veracity—a veritable ecclesiastical extravaganza of question-begging.

Additionally, if you say that we can’t claim to be an O&A denomination because it might mislead people by luring them into the church under the false pretense that we affirm their sexual orientation or gender identity—which they may soon find out isn’t necessarily true and by which deception they might be hurt—then we’re always in danger of false advertising and potentially harming people any time we hold out the vision of who we think God wants us to be … since we so regularly fail to live up to it.

“You are master of the straw man argument. You use this ‘conversation’ device to trot out easy arguments so you can knock them down.”

Fair enough. If the past is any indication, I’m sure I’ll get all kinds of email pointing out my failings as a logician, a theologian, and a human being.

But my point in all of this isn’t just to be right; it’s to struggle toward the truth. And the truth is that “We can’t say we’re O&A when we’re not” doesn’t settle the matter. It risks confusing different kinds of discourse. A Statement of Identity is at least as exhortative as it is declarative.

The question that our denomination will continue to contend with is the extent to which we can claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” that welcomes “all to the Lord’s table,” when in practice we defend a brokenness that excludes people from that table.


  1. Open and Affirming (hereinafter: O&A) is a designation that speaks to the decision of a congregation or organization to declare itself publicly to be not only welcoming to LGBTQ people, but embracing of them as people created by God with equal standing in the church.  ↩
  2. As always when I write about this issue, I realize that not everyone agrees with me on the proposition that LGBTQ people are fine just the way they are—at least as far as their sexual orientation or gender identity. If that describes you, this post isn’t addressed to you and will just make you mad. I’m writing to people who already agree with me on the basic issue, but who (for whatever reason—and there are many) don’t think pressing ahead on the question of O&A is a good idea.  ↩
This entry was posted in Christianity, LGBTQ and tagged , , , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

12 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Say Our Denomination Is O&A?

  1. Pingback: Why Can’t We Say Our Denomination Is O&A? | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. I have been engaged in this conversation for a very long time as the former staff to to the processes of discernment on the participation of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church as well as an openly partnered general staff person for more than 16 years. My bottom line view is that the Disciples of Christ (as a denominational institution) is not open and affirming. As a movement we can work toward being open and affirming, in a manner similar to our earlier commitments to work toward being anti-racist–that is to dismantle systemic, cultural, institutional and individual practices of racism from our life-ways. But we can’t simply declare that we are open and affirming and have that openness and affirmation be a reality without the mechanisms in place to systematically dismantle practices of exclusion and oppression. As a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, I agree that we have a lot of internal work to attend to even as we try to promote healing and reconciliation in a more global sense. In so many ways we don’t quack like an O and A duck even though we’re claiming our “duckness” in the larger world.
    Thanks for great conversation.
    Lori Adams

    • Lori,

      I think you’re right that, despite any announcement we might make on O&A, we still have a large constituency who wouldn’t self-identify that way. That’s why I think that we need to frame this issue on a denominational level not so much as an empirically verifiable declaration of the way things are in every congregation, but as an exhortation to the way we believe they ought to be.

      Thanks for taking the time to write.


  3. I myself struggle with this food for thought. I recently agonized over a school application that asked my religion. It took me a long time to decide on “non-denominational.” I thought about putting “Disciples of Christ” because your church is so open and affirming, and I do search for wholeness in a fragmented world. I also considered calling myself a Unitarian Universalist because I also agree with many of their beliefs. I went with “non-denominational” because I feel your church is the exception, not the rule. I didn’t want to be lumped in with all those other churches, the ones that judge, the ones that do not practice what they preach, the ones who are only accepting of people conforming to their ideals. I almost considered putting “Christian” in fear that any other answer would cost me points in earning entrance into the school. But I didn’t want to lie. So it was a pretty brave step for me, to risk judgment based upon my lack of affiliation with a particular church. Right now, I am a commitmophobe to religious denomination. But your church inspires me!

    • PS: please don’t judge my grammar or any spelling mistakes. I’m usually very conscious of those things, but am currently writing all this on an iPhone while on the elliptical at the gym 🙂

  4. There is no psychiatric, medical, or scientific basis for viewing homosexuality as pathological. In lay terms, there is no objective basis for viewing homosexuality as “sick”. Consequently, this means that homosexuality as a sexual orientation is normal and healthy. Increasingly, research shows hetreosexuality and homosexuality to be end points on a spectrum of sexual orientation.

    “Lawrence v. Texas” made the criminalization of homosexuality unconstitutional. Ever since “Lawrence v. Texas”, there has been a decreasing and shrinking legal basis for discrimination against homosexuals. “Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell” is gone. The “Defense of Marriage Act” is on the judicial ropes. The constitutional acceptance of same-sex marriage is within sight.

    There is no absolute and no singular and no universal interpretation of the Bible.

    There is no rational basis for opposing homosexuality. Without a rational basis, opposition to homosexuality is irrational and, therefore, is a prejudice.

  5. To the original question: “Why can’t we say our denomination is open and affirming?” (and be accurate). I only qualify, at best, as a Disciples of Christ Church lurker. I don’t really know how the denomination would come to such a place. My guess would be because the majority of those who vote on such things don’t want to make such a declaration. Those who make up the majority of the denomination do not want to be open and affirming. Perhaps the question should be: “Why does our denomination not want to say we are open and affirming?”

  6. Doug:

    Commentary about the conversation IS conversant. Mingle mingle mingle. We have declared ourselves Christian, then made it so not by conforming to the term, but by redefining it. Do we become o&a, or do we simply redefine it? Instead of fictionalizing an opposing view, why not find someone who actually holds one? Otherwise, we run the risk of painting the issue as larger than reality, or accusing ourselves of crimes we don’t commit.

    Christ did not buckle to discuss matters that were beside the point. I agree with the sentiment, but not the approach.

  7. Derek, like we talked about last year at General Assembly, let’s get a resolution about this on the slate for the next General Assembly next year in Orlando, and help make this Real!

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