My Church went through a pretty interesting month in July 2004. On the 13th of July, our church was featured on the first three pages of The New Paper in Singapore. The New Paper is an afternoon newspaper known for its hype and sensationalism – sort of like the Tabloids in the UK, though not as bad. In the bottom of the front page were the words “GAYS ARE ACCEPTED IN THIS CHURCH”. And on the second and third pages there was a story about my church. It so happened that 2 days beforehand, three guests visited our church. They later identified themselves as reporters from The New Paper and had a chat with some members about our church. I wasn’t present during that service because I was attending the NUS Business School Social Entrepreneurship forum that morning.
It so happened that Roy Clements was going to be our Church Camp speaker during our camp on the 23rd to 25th of July. He also gave a lecture on Postmodernism and Preaching organized by my church on the 22nd of July. This lecture was open to all churches and Christians in Singapore and invitations were sent to every Church in Singapore. Roy Clements hails from the UK and was known as one of the best preachers in the Evangelical Christian world. However, a few years back he came out that he was gay and this caused quite a stir among Evangelicals in UK and worldwide. I guess I wouldn’t have to mention to you what he had to endure to this day from his fellow Christians and former friends. When churches and pastors started receiving the invitation and realized a discredited practicing non-repentant homosexual like Roy Clements was coming to lecture by invitation from a previously unheard of church called Free community Church, and when they searched our website (a link was written on the invitation card) and found how liberal minded our church was, lots of things started to happen. Pastors started denouncing us on various email lists. Emails started flowing through the Net – one calling us “pre-believers”! Our venue was meant to be at YMCA but they soon lost faith in heretics like us so we had to search for another place. And it so happened that somebody complained to The New Paper about us which resulted in the three ladies visiting us that Sunday. Too bad I missed them!
But I did write an email to the author of the article, thanking her for the balance shown in it. I guess we all feared the worst, but the article turned out to be fair and we were all glad. Singapore knew about us and it wasn’t a bad way to have come “out” to everyone. It could definitely have been worse!
The lecture by Roy Clements on Postmodernism and Preaching saw a crowd of about 70 people or more. Although I could understand everything he said (because the topic of Postmodernism was something I had been reading up a lot on recently), I think it just flew past the heads of most people there. It was an extremely intellectual lecture. He basically came out more critical of Postmodernism than I am – and I think than most of the church members are, who know what Postmodernism is! This wasn’t that surprising considering his very strong Evangelical roots. He’s one guy who would be highly respected in the Sydney Evangelical scene – of course before he came out as gay. So I understood his strongly critical attitude towards Postmodernism. When I first heard he was going to come to teach on Postmodernism, I had initially thought he’d hold towards more of the same view as I hold to – as he, as a gay, would have tasted the attacks of overly dogmatic Evangelicals who think they and they alone have got the truth. But then I realized this was not so after reading some articles on his webpage. I was surprised he holds the view he holds, yet I guess it’s also understandable considering his roots. Although he didn’t only have condemnation for Postmodern philosophy, his emphasis was clearly on the dangers of it, than on the positive aspects.
Already during his intellectually stimulating lecture, I had admiration for the way he spoke and the way words eloquently flowed from his mouth. During the Church camp he gave three sermons on 2 Corinthians 10-12 and I got to hear more of his great preaching. The Reverend Yap Kim Hao, ex-Methodist Bishop and a big supporter of Free Community Church, also contributed two very interesting sessions on Centering Prayer, an ancient practice which was a great challenge to all of us.
The Church camp was held from Friday morning till Sunday morning. Not everyone came on Friday as the whole day was basically a free day for shopping, eating and fellowshipping – with no serious session except the praise and worship session at night. This session was actually a very beautiful session as about 20-30 (about half the full number of participants) gathered outside one suite which was used as headquarters for the camp. There was a huge balcony outside and there’s where we sung and prayed. It was really an experience because of the ambience – we were outdoors and it was very windy and cooling and there was just a spirit of freedom there, which made the experience so cool.
Overall, it was quite a short church camp compared to those I’ve been to by my previous churches – which could stretch up to 4-5 days, and with much more serious preaching and less free time. Though I would prefer the longer church camps with more spiritual food, I did enjoy this camp. I got to know many more people and some of my interactions (especially with the leaders) made me reflect more about my beliefs and the church’s beliefs. Some stuff Roy Clements said certainly didn’t go down well with some of my more liberal-minded leaders. (I’m going to use the word “liberal” a lot and I know people want to get beyond the “conservative” and “liberal” labels. I’m not sure what I think about this “getting beyond labels” thing because I’m not sure how to get beyond them. Labels are useful in describing people’s beliefs. And that’s why people use them. Anyway, when I use “liberal” here, I normally use it in a comparative and adjective way – e.g. “more liberal” – to describe where one’s view is on along the scale. I don’t mean the person is a liberal in the traditional sense of the meaning but that the person hold to certain beliefs that the theological liberals traditionally hold to and thus makes him/her more liberal in thinking. I am also considered more liberal in my thinking than most conservative Evangelicals definitely. But my point is that some of the leaders here are also more liberal than I am. Anyway I do have to think of whether I want to keep on using these labels, but that’s for another time). There was a time when Roy Clements spoke of the need of a new Church like ours that seeks to be inclusive to take a stand on matters so that they don’t confuse new believers and members. Also, he asked after one sermon what the non-negotiables of Christian beliefs are. The discussions I had with some of my leaders during the camp and after the camp about these controversial issues made me realize how liberal some of them are! When I talk about these liberal-minded leaders, I’m just talking about some of the leadership committee members, not everyone there. Others, I believe, are more conservative. And that makes it interesting, as it doesn’t allow any one agenda or any one side to dominate. However, these more liberal-minded leaders happen to be in my cell group so I am in a good relationship with them and we interact pretty often during cell time and out of it (e.g. through our email group) on these issues. Therefore, what I have to say here is what they already know and I don’t believe that, since this is all going to be seen in public, I should be more politically correct and not mention all these controversial issues. Rather, I think it’s necessary to continue the conversation, dialogue and discussion openly for there should be nothing to hide. I believe in the power of dialogue because I think we all have much to learn from each other. Yes, I have my stand and I do think sometimes that some of the more liberal views are too much for me and ridiculous, but in a way I’m glad there’s that extreme to counter any overly conservative elements too. Of course, idealistically, God would make me judge and ruler over all and I get to have the final say over what everyone believes, but too bad God doesn’t think likewise .
When some of my more liberally-minded (henceforth known as MLM!) friends answered the question on what are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith with a, “Are there any non-negotiables?”, I started to feel worried. I do think there are non-negiotiables. I see the Bible warn us in many areas not to allow wrong beliefs into the community of faith. To me, beliefs are spiritual, not just intellectual. Wrong beliefs are inspired by the devil. However, as a non-fundamentalist and anti-fundamentalist, I’m not about to be narrow-minded on what these non-negotiables ought to be. But yet on the other hand, I do not want this church to be a church whereby anything goes and everything is ok.
Yes, the church desires to be inclusive, whatever that means. But does that mean then that we allow every belief in creep into our community? I don’t think this can be the case because it doesn’t seem that the Bible is inclusive in that sense. Inclusive in loving and embracing everyone, yes. Noone ought to be excluded from coming to our Church and in fact that’s what I love about our church: we desire to reach out to the marginalized that normally will not find a place in 95% of the world’s churches.
Let me digress a bit here:
On the idea of inclusivity, I want to just point out that I don’t know any other church or place in Singapore where you can get straight, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals coming together and loving one another. I have a transsexual friend in my cell and church and I’m so thankful I’ve gotten to know a person like her – someone I would never have gotten to know without being in Free Community Church. Through her, I’m beginning to know more about her struggles and how bad it is for the transsexual community. And my heart really goes out to this community and I’m looking forward to the day whereby a ministry towards the transgender community will be started in my church. Everytime I think about the inclusiveness and the diversity of people that come to my Church, I can’t but be really proud and happy I’m in this Church. I can’t but think how happy God feels when He thinks of us! No, I don’t think our church is perfect, but I think our church is spot on in reaching out to the marginalized. We Christians love to boast about how we all should “love the sinner but hate the sin”. Anyone who actually looks at the church as a whole can not but laugh whenever such statement is repeated in the Church as though the Church is living it out. Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transsexuals, Prostitutes, foreign workers – these are surely groups that have not felt our love! Tell me, how many churches can you find in Singapore that welcome and love these people? All I can say is I envision Free Community reaching out to Transsexuals, Prostitutes and the foreign workers in a greater way in future. That’s what I love about my church. Though I may have disagreements over certain matters, the spirit of love and acceptance present is what so inspires me and it is the idea of inclusiveness promoted by my church which teaches me and challenges me on how God loves everyone.
Ok, going back to my train of thought, I want to say that there ought to be a certain sense whereby our beliefs and practices are exclusive. We can’t allow any sort of beliefs or we can’t allow any sort of practices either. I feel that in my MLM friends’ desire to be inclusive, they have over-reacted to the conservativism of Evangelicals and have not seen the need to be exclusive in any way. To me, one great exclusive claim we need to stand by is that Jesus is the only way to God as written in John 14:6. Now, this isn’t to say there’s nothing positive we can learn from other religions. Of course we can. But the way God normally and ordinarily brings people to Him is through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now, in a way I totally understand my MLM friends’ beliefs. They realize they know so little and have been learning so much and they don’t want to hold dogmatically to anything. That’s why they are not prepared to confidently state what is non-negotiable to the Christian faith at the moment. They desire to be open, inclusive and not to exclude. The spirit is indeed admirable and what I can learn from them is their openness. Despite of this, I still feel that there are non-negotiables if the Bible is anything to go by. And to me, of course, the Bible is God’s Word and THE thing to go by! I gradually realized that the reason they are so unsure of what they believe in and are so open to all beliefs is because of their view of the Bible. I am not sure what exactly they believe about the Bible or how authoritative they view it – nor do I think they know themselves. I think they are still wondering too what role the Bible ought to play in their lives though they know they don’t want to be too simplistic as Evangelicals are in treating the Bible as totally authoritative and inspired. For me, I was brought up with a conservative Evangelical view of the Bible and I have as yet no reason to change my mind. My MLM friends bring up some challenging questions and thoughts about the Bible and how it came to be a canon and so on and so forth and I do think I would want to face them one day and look more into these important questions. However, the way I see it for the moment is that if I were to question the authority of the Bible, the basis of my faith and everything I know about God and Jesus and Salvation is on shaky grounds. In fact, there is hardly any basis for all those beliefs at all. If you believe one area of the Bible is wrong, then everything falls along with that. If we question one thing in the Bible, how can we be sure that the other thing we believe of the Bible is true? And if we can never be sure whether anything we believe of the Bible is true, then can we be sure what we have believed about God and Jesus is true? Can we be sure of our salvation? So, for now I hold to a very simplistic belief that the Bible is true and authoritative for without it, there is no yardstick to test truth or know what is right in this world. And without that compass to direct our paths, we are as good as lost in terms of being directionless and unsure of where to go and what to believe. And that’s not a situation I want to be in!
When I say the Bible has to be true and authoritative, please don’t think I’m pushing for a literalistic view of the Bible or a fundamentalist view. There are many ways one can interpret the bible and view the Bible and yet still treat it as authoritative. The point is where you go to for what you believe in. What is the basis for what one believes in? If you don’t go to the Bible, then that means to you the Bible isn’t of ultimate authority. And that’s something I cannot accept. That’s why I’ve been trying to encourage the leaders of my church to put out a rough biblical defense of their position on homosexuality not being a sin. It’s not for me – I’m still finding what I believe in. But it’s to show the rest of Singapore that their unorthodox view of homosexuality isn’t something that they just want to believe in because it’s suitable to the desire of many gays in the church not to change. That is, through laying out a rough biblical defense, they can show Singapore that it’s something that they believe in because they believe the Bible supports their belief! I would like to see them appeal to the Bible in everything they do. And other Christians I’m sure are wondering how on earth they got to their unorthodox position on homosexuality. Most Christians would dismiss their position as untenable biblically because they have not been challenged by a biblical argument/position that supports this unorthodox position on homosexuality. Yet is it true that the orthodox position of homosexuality being a sin is the only way to interpret the bible? I don’t think so – at least I think one can formulate a pretty credible defense of their position from the bible, as many scholars have done. But I’ll be worried if the leaders of my church refuse to lay out the biblical arguments for their beliefs because they don’t believe appealing ultimately to the Bible is something needed. (Not that I think all my church leaders think such but I believe a few of the MLM ones do think that their position on homosexuality not being a sin cannot be defended from the Bible!) I think supporting one’s view from the Bible is of utmost importance. My personal opinion now is that the Bible is of incredible importance for our faith because it is God’s Word and is the ultimate authority we as Christians ought to appeal to here on earth.
Other stuff that my Church or my Church leaders or at least some of my Church leaders believe that I am concerned about:
1) Sexual ethics.
I think this is a big issue that the church will have to face whether they like it or not. And I believe they have trashed a lot of things out as regards to this area and yet still have not come to agreement upon any sexual ethic. I have realized how gays are more sexually promiscuous than straight people. This is of course speaking very generally. I have also realized how important it is try to understand their culture first before coming to any judgments. I can’t say I have understood it perfectly. Yet on the other hand, I don’t think one needs to understand it perfectly to say certain things. What I want to say (and here I stand being corrected as I know that I still have much to think about all these issues and much to understand concerning the gay culture) is that while I’m more or less ok (at least for the moment as I’ve mentioned many times I still have not come to a firm conclusion on what I believe) with gay Christians being gays and not asking God to change them to be straight, I would be uncomfortable if gays were to have flings with other gays and not be faithful to their partners. The gay culture is quite sexually promiscuous and so there is a tendency to be influenced by such a culture. I’ve heard a lot about what happens in some gay clubs and also spas and so I feel gay Christians need to be cautious about going to these places. I heard the concept of an “open relationship” being mentioned in my church. This is about how two gay couples remain committed to each other but are allowed to have flings with other gays, on an understanding that they come back to the same partner. Frankly, this idea shocks me! Sexual promiscuity like this shocks me. That’s not to say I am sexually pure or that straight couples are sexually purer (though probably that is true in a certain sense because of the differences in culture). But I don’t think such a practice should be accepted in a Christian context!
There’s also the issue of whether it’s ok to have sex before marriage. Of course this is a difficult issue because being in a committed marriage isn’t something that’s freely available for gays as for us straight couples. That being said, marriage is something before God, not before man. If marriage is thus available before God (as the church can hold such blessings), should we impose upon gays not to have sex before marriage, as we do for straight couples? Again, another very difficult question, taking into context the gay culture. I’m for the idea of limiting sex to after marriage. Again, this is not to say that it’s easy to conform to such a standard or that all straight couples conform to such a standard. The point is not how easy such a standard can be attained – by either straight or gay couples. The point is what’s right and what’s biblical. The biblical standard may be high and perhaps unachievable to many or most, but even if such is so, that doesn’t mean it’s to be done away with. Rather, it ought to be held up as the standard and we ought to strive our best to attain it.
The Church has to think about how it’s going to evangelize. I know a lot of the Christians there are put off by the conservative Evangelicalism’s way of evangelizing. Some may think it’s too narrow-minded to put forth Christianity and Jesus as the only way. This goes back to what I talked about above about what’s non-negotiable. Is there anything that’s non-negotiable? If there’s nothing that’s non-negotiable, then what’s the difference between Christianity and other religions? And if that’s no difference, then why call oneself a Church or why call oneself Christians?
I believe there definitely has to be evangelism. However, we need to come to a common understanding of how we’re to evangelize. Evangelism to me is through two ways. It’s through proclaiming and living. Or to put it another way, evangelism is about good news and good works. The first has to do with proclaiming the message of the good news of the gospel and the kingdom of God. While we’re hesitant to do it like those “evangelicals” do it by forcing the message down other people’s throat and condemning other religions, that shouldn’t mean we do nothing. We should continue to hold on to the message we believe and share it when the time is appropriate – that is, not forcing it down on others and being sensitive to other religions by respecting them while not necessarily agreeing with them. The point is that there is a way to “proclaim the gospel” sensitively and we shouldn’t automatically throw out evangelizing through proclaiming. Perhaps we may like to use the more subtle word of “sharing” (rather than proclaiming or preaching), which appeals to me more as it moves away from the image of forcing the message down someone’s throat. The second way to evangelize is through living a life of good works. MLM Christians like to emphasize this aspect and rightly so (though it has to be said that the first aspect of evangelism ought not to be thrown out!). Here we’re talking about helping the poor, fighting for social justice and so on. To me, it’s about reflecting the love of God as shown through Him sending Jesus to die for our sins. It’s about us showing that same love in our lives – living lives of love towards all. That would mean helping and loving the poor and the suffering. Through doing all this good works, we draw unbelievers to God. We let them know through our actions that God has first loved us and thus we are trying to love everyone else through all we do. This is a very important aspect of evangelizing too.
What needs to be said as regards to FCC is that we’re good at the good works part. And we need to continue to excel in this area. I’m all for good works and doing good and all. And I really wanna see FCC lead Singapore Christianity in this area. But we have to discuss more about how we’re going to share/proclaim the good news. That has to be an integral part of our faith too. And I think this is the area we’re weak at and need to work on.
3) Faith statement.
Since the very first time I read my church’s faith statement, I had a bit of problem with the part which said that they welcomed Christians who took the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed “to represent historical realities as well as those who ascribe to them metaphorically to represent spiritual realities in Christ.” What does metaphorically mean? Does that mean that Jesus Christ did not really rise from the dead but merely did so metaphorically, whatever that means? I’m still a bit uncomfortable with a person believing such because Paul said that if Jesus did not rise from the dead then our faith is in vain. But I guess the respond would be that, “It’s not that I believe Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, just that He did so metaphorically!” Ok, but what does that mean?