Unity and A Crucified Messiah: A Response to “Testing the Spirits.”

[The third in our response to essays appearing at The Living Church site.]


Given the way that positions have hardened over the last little while in the debate over changing the marriage canon, it was almost a pleasure to read Dane Neufeld’s “Testing the Spirits: Catholicity and the Marriage Amendment.” This piece rightly names the complexity and inter-relatedness of the issues facing General Synod this summer, particularly around Indigenous cosmology and relation to the land, as well as the difficulties that our colonial past have created in discerning the roots of Indigenous and African positions on same-sex marriage. As Dr. Neufeld puts its: “Is the theological conservatism of African Anglicans, for example, a broken mirror to our tortured past, or a witness and memory of something we have lost?” As he indicates, the question of same-sex marriage is only the current presenting issue for a problem that is much deeper and with which we will have to grapple more fundamentally.

It is such complexity that makes his call to ground our discussion in discernment of the fruit of the Spirit in our midst so important. This is an argument that I made over fifteen years ago when I first wrote about Acts 15 as a template for discerning how the church engages in decision-making around difficult topics. Can we see the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of our LGBTQ+ siblings? There are many who argue that such fruit is indeed present not only in the lives of individual LGBTQ+ Christians but also in LGBTQ+ Christian communities such as Generous Space Ministries.  (I should add that some have suggested to me that even insisting that the affirmation of same-sex marriage be somehow dependant on the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit is demanding a much higher standard from LGBTQ+ Christians than cis straight Christians, since such fruit is conspicuous in its absence in so many of our ecclesial interactions around other issues).

I also appreciated the candour with which Dr. Neufeld cautioned against seizing upon politically expedient aspects of Indigenous Christianity to serve particular agendas. This has been been true across the board in a culture that wishes to give lip-service to reconciliation, but is not willing to engage in the hard work of reparation and self-sacrifice that is essential for such reconciliation to take place.

However, there are other points in his argument where Dr. Neufeld does not acknowledge the complexity of the issues he discusses. First, and most startling, is his parenthetical admission that Indigenous Anglicans are not unanimous in their views on same-sex marriage. This seems to me to be a critical and crucial point that deserves more than a passing reference. Although, as Bishop MacDonald has indicated, marriage in Indigenous traditions is rooted in a much larger cosmology, it is also clear that there is considerable diversity on this issue in the Indigenous church (and in wider Indigenous society in general). One way to practice sensitivity in this discussion, therefore, is to desist from treating “Indigenous Christians” as a monolithic whole with one viewpoint.

The other place where Dr. Neufeld’s argument falls short is in his simplistic and exegetically sparse understanding of “unity” in relation to the larger church. To be fair, he is not alone in this. All the articles in the Living Church series have treated “unity” as if it is a desirable goal without exploring what Paul’s appeals to unity actually referred to in the early church. There is no merit in being united in a cause that is antithetical to the gospel. For instance, the church demonstrated a high degree of unity in its understanding of the colonial project and in its participation in the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada. This unity made it possible to engage in similar actions across widely divergent denominational lines. This was a point of remarkable ecumenical unity. And it was deeply sinful, so sinful that the church has rightly repented of its actions.

Perhaps it would be helpful to look at the Biblical texts for some guidance on what kind of unity we actually seek. When Paul calls for unity in the letter to the Philippians, he is speaking of being united in love and humility and of having the same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, took the form of a slave, and humbled himself to the point of death on a cross (Phil 2.1-8). This is a unity that leads to the cross, a unity of suffering love that considers the interests of others more than one’s own (Phil 2.2–4).

Similarly when Paul discusses unity between the powerless and the powerful in Romans 14 and 15, he is concerned with welcoming those who are powerless, as Christ has welcomed us (Rom 14.1–15.7). Such unity means that no one passes judgement on another or treats another with contempt (Rom 14.3,4,10-13).

And in Ephesians, that great letter of peace and reconciliation, Paul describes the unity that is now possible between Jews and Gentiles as possible because the hostility between the two has been broken down with the abolition of the law with its ordinances and commandments (Eph 2.14 & 15). There are many more texts that could be employed to make my point. But these three are representative enough.

For Paul, unity is not unity at all costs, but rather unity in suffering love for the sake of the powerless. It is unity and reconciliation in the face of hostility. It is unity that is willing to walk the path to the cross with Jesus. It is a cruciform unity.

The implications of these texts in relation to unity with the global church are startling. When we think of unity, we need to ask ourselves, who are the suffering ones? In addition to those who are suffering hunger and poverty due to our abuse of creation, and in addition to the suffering of Indigenous peoples around the world due to the continued impact of colonial structures and extractive economies, many in the LGBTQ+ community around the world suffer discrimination, exile and abandonment, violence, torture and death—all things that Jesus experienced. Such is the reality in our own schools and towns.This is why gay and trans kids commit suicide at such alarmingly high rates. What should the response of those who have the mind of Christ be to such suffering? The call of Jesus is to walk with the oppressed (Romans 12.16), it is to be united in our desire to protect those who are the victims of such hostility, it is to humble ourselves and be willing to walk the path to the cross with those who are the victims of violence, injustice and abuse. This means that our unity should be rooted in putting to death the hostility that creates such violence (to quote Ephesians). Unity with those who agree with violence and hostility towards the powerless is antithetical to the gospel. It is not faithfulness. It is not the unity that the Bible calls us to.

The call to a cruciform unity in bearing the suffering of the powerless in the face of injustice is the thread that binds together these issues that are facing general Synod. As Dr. Neufeld has indicated, the resolutions concerning the Marriage Canon, Indigenous self-determination, and the stewardship of God’s creation are all inter-related.

If we are united in cruciform love, the love that Jesus demonstrated, then we are called to work for justice for the LGBTQ+ community in the face of oppression. We are called to listen to them and hear their stories. We are called to work for their flourishing. And one way that we do that is by voting in favour of amending the Marriage Canon for our suffering LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ.

If we are united in cruciform love, the love that Jesus demonstrated, then we are called to work for justice for Indigenous peoples. We are called to listen to them and hear their stories. We are called to work for their flourishing. One way we can do that is to vote in favour of self-determination for the Indigenous church, which has suffered long under the colonial assumptions and structures of our current church polity.

If we are united in cruciform love, the love that Jesus demonstrated, we are called to work for justice for creation. We are called to listen to the groaning of creation and hear its story. We are called to work for its flourishing. One way we can do that is to vote in favour of care and service for the creation, which has suffered under the same colonial oppression as the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.

This is what unity looks like in the church. This is what unity looks like for those who follow a crucified Messiah.

Sylvia Keesmaat
Sylvia Keesmaat is a biblical scholar-activist whose passions are teaching the Bible, heirloom tomatoes, and permaculture. She explores radical discipleship and resilience on an off-grid permaculture farm with her husband Brian Walsh and a fluctuating number of people and animals.

Sylvia is the author of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, both co-authored with Brian Walsh. In her down-time she teaches part-time at Wycliffe College and Trinity College in Toronto.

6 Responses to “Unity and A Crucified Messiah: A Response to “Testing the Spirits.””

  1. Jonathan Turtle

    Hi Sylvia,

    While I suspect that most people will have no trouble getting on board with your rally cry to stand up for and defend the oppressed it’s not clear to me how your conclusion follows from this.

    Yes, we should absolutely defend the oppressed and this certainly includes LGBTQ+. This is, in part, why it is such a scandal to the gospel when churches prop up legislation that threatens their lives.

    However, that’s not what we’re voting on at GS2019, is it? The question there is not “Should we defend the oppressed?” but rather, “What is marriage?” It seems to me that one could answer the first question in the affirmative while not rushing into changing the church’s teaching on marriage. Don’t you think?

    • Sylvia Keesmaat

      Thanks for this comment, Jonathan.

      While it is true that deciding that marriage is only for male-female relationships can be construed as not necessarily oppressive, in this context it seems that it is. Given the role of marriage in our culture and our church, exclusion of the LGBTQ+ community from marriage does end up being oppressive. It means that their relationships are not fully accepted or approved of by the church, on rather shaky exegetical grounds. And, of course, the same people who were vigorously arguing against homosexuality are now arguing vigorously against same-sex marriage.

  2. Dane Neufeld

    Dear Dr. Keesmaat,

    Thank you for you generous and kind hearted response. Exchanges like this are good reminders of things we have in common, at a time when it feels like we are moving apart. I will make just a few remarks.

    I agree with the account of unity you describe. Focal points like Philippians 2 are powerful and we both agree that a suffering and sacrificial love for others, that is founded in and oriented toward the cross, is at the heart of the gospel (as articulated by the fruits of the Spirit). Likewise, Romans 14 and 15, as you suggest, describes the willing restraint and offering of the strong or powerful, for the sake of the weak or powerless. This is why unity can be agonizing because the demands are high, love isn’t sacrificial until it begins to cost us. My own point is simply that we are called to love and put the whole body before ourselves, not just select groups, which is tricky because it leads us into conflicting viewpoints. Again I agree, Indigenous and African Christians are not monoliths, (neither is the LGBTQ+ community) but various leaders and representative bodies from the these communities have spoken to various extents on the matter of same sex marriage. The ones who have spoken do not like their views to be thought of as colonial relics. In some cases these leaders have asked us not to proceed, in other cases they have asked to be ‘bracketed’ from the outcomes, but my own view is that I don’t really want to go on without them.

    As for your points about the fruits of the Spirit, I wasn’t suggesting the LGBTQ+ community have to demonstrate a certain level of sanctity and spirituality to merit inclusion. I have no interest in denying the fruits that many have discerned amongst LGBTQ+ Christians. The problem is there are other groups, also faithful Christian people, who do not believe SSM is the Spirit’s leading, for various reasons which the proposed CoGS amendment has already suggested have integrity and are credible. When we have come together on this issue, the signs of the Spirit have been difficult to discern. If Acts 15 is the standard, then can we honestly say that it seems to us and the Holy Spirit that this is the right decision? Perhaps it is not possible for Church decisions to meet this high standard, but it seems quite clear that the present circumstance falls well short.

    As you say, with respect to Indigenous reconciliation, there is a deeper sense of unanimity–as far as I know (I could be wrong) there is not a sizeable minority within the Church of Canada suggesting we reconsider this initiative; there are no provinces in the Anglican Communion suggesting we do otherwise; there are no official bodies of the Anglican communion urging us to be cautious; we have no ecumenical partners, that I am aware of, suggesting this is a serious departure from the historic faith. People may disagree on how to pursue reconciliation but I don’t hear anyone saying we shouldn’t be doing it. Same sex marriage, on the hand, remains deeply disputed at home and abroad and this dispute has led to division, unrest and resentment. For that reason, and others, I have a hard to time acknowledging our present circumstances as a work of the Holy Spirit vis a vis some sort of new outpouring of grace.

    I would imagine we both know people on both sides of this dispute whose lives are notable examples of self giving, cruciform, love. So I cannot quite agree with you that voting for the marriage canon amendment is “what unity looks like for those who follow a crucified Messiah”, as though anyone who doesn’t vote for it is following something else. Of course, I believe in the importance of human rights and protecting all peoples from violence and cruelty, but we are currently in the midst of genuine theological disagreement about big things: the creative and redemption character of the body, human sexuality, the interpretation of Scripture. The last few weeks of exchanges have illustrated how deep these differences run, and how little we understand each other.

    Unlike at Pentecost, where the Spirit overcame divided tongues and languages, it seems here we are struggling to recognize and understand each other’s language. This too could be a work of the God, but of a different nature than the gradual, expanding, widening work that has been argued for in Acts 15.

  3. Agent X

    This comment may seem off topic, but please bear with me.

    I read your book, Colossians Remixed several years ago (more than a dozen now?) and it totally wrecked my life. Actually, I can’t say it was that book, strictly, but that book was far more than the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

    Anyway, speaking of testing spirits etc… at that time, I was a long standing member of a wonderful church that was neck deep in care for the poor and needy of our neighborhood and feeling more than a little overwhelmed. And somehow I found myself at the tip of that spear.

    Without dragging this comment into a longwinded story, let me say that my engagement with the streets vis-à-vis Jesus and the church that sent me, we stopped a murder one night with a communion service we offered to the riff raff we met there. I began diving more and more into theological exploration of communion and prophecy.

    Eventually, the church I was part of began withdrawing from this ministry. I think we were heavily burdened alright, but also beginning to change – change into something Rush Limbaugh would mock as “liberal” on so many levels. (Did I mention I live in Lubbock, Texas just 80 miles from the “most conservative county” in the US?)

    I reported to my church what I was seeing, doing, and thinking, but they did not take me seriously until on Sunday, July 4 (I think it was 2010), I showed up for worship services carrying my Bible in my left hand and also the corner end of an American flag which I let drag around on the floor behind me everywhere I went. I was prepared to answer anyone who questioned this by saying that IN THIS HOUSE, THIS SYMBOL CAN BEND THE KNEE. However, no one asked and very few even said anything at all. However, the shock on faces definitely spoke vols.

    While I never was officially sanctioned – which would have given me a chance to make a public defense of my actions, I was functionally shunned. I have been shunned now at several congregations around this town now, and I have reason to believe (though this is not much more than speculation on my part) that word of this event follows me or even precedes me.

    To be sure, this is not the ONLY time or symbolic act I ever tried, but I am finding that my own beliefs about Jesus, about confronting idols in my own life and in that of the church, has me ever more isolated and lonely. I think I am the loneliest person in the assembly, functionally shunned everywhere I go except where I meet people in public spaces and in retail exchange circumstances.

    If this comment is of interest to you, I might really appreciate any insight and feedback I could get from you or Brian.


    Agent X
    Fat Beggars School of Prophets
    Lubbock, Texas (USA)

  4. Brian Walsh

    Well, friend, that is a very different kind of comment from what we had been seeing in response to this post and the others that Sylvia and I wrote around the debate about same gendered marriage. And we welcome your comment. Since you have sought a kind of personal engagement that goes beyond the back and forth of comments and replies on a blog post, I am posting your comment here, and following it up with you personally by email.

    • Agent X

      Thanx for your reply. Yes, I am a bit off topic here. A slight connection but only a point in contact with different direction, really. I hate to interrupt the otherwise normal and good business, but very much appreciate the connection.

      Thanx again, and God bless…



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