Is the Church About Love? Or Is It About Doctrine?

I’m going to keep badgering you about this – my book, Damaged Goods, pubs on Feb 10th! Make sure you get your copy!

This week, the family of a young mother of two was in mourning. On December 29, a tragic accident during a routine gun cleaning took Vanessa Collier’s life. Her family scheduled a memorial service at New Hope Ministries in Lakewood, CO, and carefully put together a memorial slide show and planned the service. When the church saw a photo of Collier proposing to her wife in the slide show, they demanded that it be removed. When the family refused, the church refused them the space to hold a service.

But they kept the deposit.

As someone who is still reeling in many ways from my own mother’s death, I am particularly horrified by this story. Indeed, for my mother’s funeral, I was the one who put together the slideshow shown both at her funeral and at her wake. Each photo and each song and each arrangement was chosen carefully to best represent my mother throughout her life. I cannot imagine being asked to eliminate a section because the church didn’t approve – and within hours of the funeral.

This church failed. I think we can all agree on that. Instead of standing alongside a family when they experienced pain and tragedy and loss, the church rubbed salt in the wound, harnessing themselves to a millstone of doctrine over showing love and grace to a family.

But this church isn’t necessarily unique in its failure. Sure, it did so in a particularly egregious and horrendous manner. But that doesn’t make it unique in terms of the failures seemingly inherent in the evangelical American church. Every Sunday, churches prize doctrine over people and alienate and harm and deny the very humanity of the people God has told them to love.

When a single woman is denied ordination because she is a woman, despite God’s call on her life, this is the church choosing doctrine over love.

When a person who needs an abortion is instead screamed at on the sidewalk, this is the church choosing doctrine over love.

When a family is torn apart because a church instructs the parents to reject their transgender daughter, this is the church choosing doctrine over love.

When the church prizes virginity and purity in a bride over loving graciousness, they are choosing doctrine over love.

I know, I know – the response is obvious. Without doctrine, what metric or qualifying properties do we have to know what love is? We have to know the Bible to know how to love God, right? Because we have to know God in order to love. And around and around and around.

But then I think of Hebrews 13:2 and the instruction that we must show love to all because we may be encountering God’s angels – God’s workers – without knowing it. There are no qualifications on this verse. There are no hesitations, no “but not if they’re gay or black or genderqueer.” No, it’s “always.”

And we have failed so miserably at this, Church, because we have swung so far into rigid, Sola Scriptura defense that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in the real world. We’ve forgotten what it means to simply be with another person in their suffering, to come alongside them. We think preaching “the truth in love” means we are doing something right if we alienate people or cause more pain. We find ways to baptize that pain, calling it conviction or God’s calling us back to righteousness.

We’re refusing to look in the faces of those we hurt, refusing to see the broken bones and broken spirits. We’ve put so much into prizing our rules and regulations and our doctrines and our “right reading” of Scripture that we’ve forgotten our very humanity. And like the mangled portrait of Dorian Gray, we have become a rotten, distorted, unseemly version of ourselves. There’s real hope for beauty under all that muck. But it will require us to give up something of ourselves, something of who we thought the church was. We need to work our way back to love, back to the grace which should define us. We need to learn to love again.