Whose Church Is It Anyway?

He got me from the moment we first met.  Sure, our relationship was not “conventional”, but his soft grey eyes, his laugh, and the way he talked about the Bible with me added a certain type of charm.  Sure, we didn’t see eye to eye on a few of the “frill” topics (women in ministry for example), but I considered myself a largely conservative Christian and I thought, hey, if that’s one doctrine that has to go for the sake of our relationship, so be it. Boy, would S be shocked now to hear that I am training for ordained ministry with the most progressive denomination in Canada!

Things didn’t work out.  At the time, I was being pursued by another long-term friend and felt I needed to make a decision.  When I decided that Y and I would be better as friends than partners, I decided to give S another chance. I got back in touch, he was more than keen, we went on our “first/second date” – a stroll on the beach (how much more romantic can you get than that) and within weeks we had made it official.  Coming from conservative backgrounds and also due to the fact that both S and I were pretty much desperate to find a lifelong spouse, we decided to quickly become engaged. We were, after all, both in our late twenties and surely by that time, you don’t need a long courtship anymore.  Ends up, we were both wrong.  Today, I have come to see that because of my own desperateness I was willing to sell anything (including my core values, beliefs, and sense of self) for the sake of what I considered “love.”  True, I did care deeply about S.  We had some similar interests, I felt energized by his presence, and he was the first person I would call or text as soon as I woke up every morning and would vent to when anything went wrong.  This post is not about defaming his character which he had plenty of.  A few of his best characteristics were his compassion, his intellect, and his sense of humour.  S was someone who was easy going, relaxed, and deeply sensitive.  There were so many aspects about him which would make one interested in having such a person in their life, but there was one aspect which he was not willing to release at all: his devotion to a specific denomination.

S belonged to a very conservative church known as the “Free Church of Scotland, Continuing.”  This is a very old school branch of Reformed Christianity which is more characterized by what they DON’T believe in than what they DO.  Among other things, they believe women should wear hats to church, women should wear dresses, women are not meant to preach or hold any form of public office (not even as a deacon), hymn singing and instruments are not permitted (the only form of music available would be a cappella Psalm singing),and dancing was strictly prohibited.  I started attending church services with S whenever we were together on a Sunday and there were a few things I did actually like about this church.  Firstly, I thought the Psalm singing was absolutely gorgeous as the a capella melodies zinged through the air, but also, I got the sense that it was a tight knit community which really cared about one another and would do anything to help.  I went on a young adults retreat early on in our relationship and thought I could handle being part of this type of church.  I still had issues on some things, but for the most part, I justified to myself why they thought the way they did.   Yet, as time went on, I found myself more and more unhappy in this reality.  

The Free Church Continuing believes that a woman ought to go to the man’s church once they are wed.  One of their favourite verses to use in this defense is “Rebekah followed Isaac,” but they also felt it was a matter of submission which the Bible urges wives to do. The problem is that given my theological background and master’s degree I wasn’t entirely sold out on lots of things, didn’t find them relevant or even understand the Scriptural arguments, and I wanted my future children to grow up in a more well-rounded and ecumenical church setting like I had.  By this point, I had travelled extensively, read widely, and befriended interculturally, and there was no way I thought I would be remotely interested in shrinking that bubble.  However, like I said, I thought I was in love and when you think you’re in love you are willing to continue to bend and bend to accommodate and to compromise.

The final straw came a few weeks before we were meant to come back to Canada to meet my parents in person.  We had gotten into a huge fight over wedding arrangements. I felt it was important (if nothing else) to have a father daughter dance as well as first dance between bride and groom.  Once again, S’s worries about offending those in the Free Church overshadowed this.  Society has brought women up to believe that the wedding is the Bride’s Day, though I would have been fairly content if it would have just been our day together.  Instead, S was taking every moment to “hijack” it into a Free Church wedding.  It was all about what we COULDN’T do (we couldn’t stay out past midnight on a Saturday for example as once the clock strikes 12 it becomes the Lord’s Day). We couldn’t dance at the wedding, but perhaps a compromise might be to have juke box alone in our hotel room.  And instead of any other form of fun entertainment, the best we could do is have a photo booth and an A Capella Psalm singing. My friends who were Christians were not interested in this and forget about my non-Christian friends.  Even myself (as the bride) was getting myself settled in for a huge yawn fest.  But once again, I thought I loved him, so perhaps this was not so big of a deal.  After all, what is one day when it comes to the rest of our lives together.  Thankfully, through prayer and fasting, God stepped in miraculously and the wedding was called off.  It was hard at first, but it was for the better. 

The point of this post is not to slam down S at all.  We both came from two very different cultures and perhaps our cultural conditioning would not permit us to get to the place of ever having a fruitful relationship, however, it did shape me profoundly on the topic of submission. Those of you who follow my blog know that I am generally an advocate of traditional marriage. By this I mean, I do believe the Bible underscores for us that husbands are to love their wives unconditionally, whereas, wives are called to respect their husbands and submit.  A wife’s submission is not due to her inferiority or lack of decision making, because a loving husband will consult his wife and will make decisions based on good leadership and having her best interests in mind.  A husband’s love is not a cheap escape, but is an unconditional love which is willing to sacrifice every part of him for the sake of his bride, to forgo his own wants and needs in a selfless way in order that his wife may grow, blossom and achieve her full potential.  Thus, the two, comingle and act as one agent – the two leave behind the familiar and all they have ever known in order to embrace a new way of being.  They venture forth no longer as individual beings who are free to do as they wish, but rather become a mature vessel compromised of two unique souls who are on one unique mission.

That said, when my brother and sister-in-law got married I said in the wedding speech “God is to be your pilot and Sam (my brother) the co-pilot.  You (Rebecca) get to ride in first class, make sure that happens.”

So, if the husband is the co-pilot then what happens with church?  Does the woman simply always revert to her husband’s church or does she actually have any say in the matter?  I have spoken to a few conservative friends since S and I broke up and I have heard different viewpoints.  Some say the woman is always just to tag along with her husband, but I think again, this comes down to love and respect.  If the husband loves his wife, he wants to go where she will grow and flourish the most.  Even if it means moving out of his familiar bubble.  If the wife respects her husband it means she will go where her husband will grow and flourish and ultimately she will trust her husband’s decision on this.  If she doesn’t trust her husband to make the right choice, then perhaps their relationship is not as strong as they believed.

One of the difficulties with S was his refusal to even look at other options.  This particular denomination more or less believes they are the only path to heaven.  On the other hand, I believe that when two people come from different backgrounds, they should explore and investigate together, being open-minded and travelling around to different churches to see what each has to offer before making their decision. I believe that when two people have two different theological views some compromises may need to occur.  I suppose on an issue like baptism there is less room to debate – either you baptize your child as an adult or as an infant, but on many other issues like music there are a wide variety of churches catering to each taste.  I came from a background that played guitars and drums, S came from an a cappella background – surely a compromise could be found in the middle with a hymn singing church with an organ or piano.  I remember being so excited for S to visit Canada and get to know the different churches where I worshipped.  S was only willing to attend a “Reformed Church.”  I often sent S little articles and sermons to read or watch, which he didn’t because they did not adhere to his unique theology.  All this after I had spent countless hours in his Free Church trying to understand their points of view.  When only one person is willing to go the distance and the other person doesn’t meet part way, eventually things start to break and crumble.  

Since then, as I have continued on with questioning how to pick a church, I have come to a few conclusions.  Firstly, in most cases I don’t think it works when someone is from such a wildly different theological background.  There may be exceptions if both parties are willing to grow and truly love each other so much that they will abandon everything and cleave to their husband/wife, but in most cases, it’s better to find someone who is at least more to the centre.  Secondly, the only reason a husband/wife would absolutely need to attend the other spouse’s church is if the one spouse is in ministry.  Okay, so that’s a bit of a convoluted sentence, but think of it this way: I am soon going to be an ordained minister with a certain denomination.  My husband (should God put him in my path) will need to understand that and be part of that church because I will have married the church before I married him.  The same if I was an average church goer and married to a pastor – I would then expect myself to attend his church and encourage him in his ministry.  Lastly, please don’t get the wrong opinion.  I very much believe in family worship.  There are probably loads of cases where the husband and wife attend different churches and different denominations and still have a happy marriage and raise God fearing children, but in general, worship is meant to be a family affair.  All sitting together in the same pew and being actively involved in a church, help set the precedent for younger children to know what it is like to celebrate together and this models a healthy spirituality and formation to them. 

So, if you are dating someone from a different church background here are a few things you can do to help make the transition a whole lot smoother before you tie the knot: 1) be interested in your partner’s spiritual background. If you are not from that denomination, still show your eagerness to get to know their beliefs.  This really helps to start the relationship on a path of honesty rather than adapting for the sake of the other person.  Listen to sermons from that church, ask questions about it, even meet with a pastor or attend a service. 2) State what you are comfortable and not comfortable with upfront.  3) Don’t compromise.  I found that when I did I started keeping score (and as 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, love does not do this).  Eventually it all came tumbling out.  It is better to adapt and change as you learn and grow together rather than staying silent until you eventually crumple under the weight of it all.  

September 25th would have been our wedding date.  Instead I sat in the empty parking lot of a hospital awaiting a procedure (all is okay :)).  I was sipping water out of a special travel mug S had gotten me for Christmas.  I thought to myself “this is so depressing.  Look where life has taken me.”  In fact, breaking off the engagement was the greatest thing that ever happened.  I still miss S.  There are many moments when I see something that reminds me of him.  There are lots of things I miss about him and about being in a relationship in general.  S and I have made peace.  We now understand that God did not want us to be together and we have parted on friendly terms.  We don’t talk anymore but we know we’d be there if the other person needed anything.  I still know in my heart that S is a great guy and I am thankful that we did have that year together and I believe it shaped me as a person and made me a stronger Christian.  For that, and for him, I am grateful. But breaking off the engagement taught me something else: I am worth the wait.  I don’t have to compromise myself to find true love.  My obsession for marriage (which I had battled with and was a non-stop constant assault on my thoughts for years) suddenly disappeared.  Marriage is still something I very much want in the future, but God took this part of my life which I was unwilling to surrender and more or less destroyed me, and has transformed it into peace and inner calm.  I can’t explain it at all except to say God took it from it and I have been restored to a state of sanity and reasonableness once again.  In another life, I would have gotten back from my honeymoon (or whatever the COVID equivalent is) and we would have celebrated one month of marriage.  Instead, as I sit here, I am not wearing a hat and a dress, I am wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt and will be taking the stage at any moment in my green spiked hair getting ready to preach a message from the pulpit. 

Pocket Thoughts – Life as a “White” Biracial

“I have become all things to all people” wrote the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22, a phrase he used to describe cultural adaptation for the sake of furthering the Gospel.  Paul was a devout Jewish leader who used to murder Christian believers, but suddenly he found himself between two cultures and two religions.  He was part of both camps so he knew how to act and behave as well as what was expected from either one.  The fact that Paul belonged to two distinct people groups made him one of the most effective missionaries of his time and his evangelism is still marvelled at today.

While I am no Apostle Paul, I have also spent 29 years of my life vacillating between two different cultures.  It has at times been exhilarating, and at other times confusing.  I have given quite a bit of thought to it, but in recent months with the whole Black Lives Matter movement and talk of White Fragility, it is something that has been on my mind a whole lot more.

Throughout my life I have had some embarrassing (and perhaps even insulting moments) due to my race.  When I was in elementary school I did not like to eat bread and I hated sandwiches.  What do kids bring to school in their lunchboxes?  Usually sandwiches.  I used to take out the lunch meat eating it first and then roll my bread into little dough balls to eat.  Weird, absolutely, but all kids have such quirks.  One of my classmates looked over and scoffed “is that the way Asian people eat sandwiches?” she taunted.  I stuck the rest in my bag.  I had suddenly lost my appetite.  Also in elementary school I struggled with math.  To this day, I can barely even add or subtract and calculus and algebra may as well be Greek (oh wait, I did 3 semesters of Greek in seminary and it was certainly easier than this stuff!) Once again the whole “Aren’t all Chinese people good at math” came back to taunt me.  Perhaps many Asians are good with numbers, but many others prefer art, music, or drama to mathematical formulations. 

After elementary school, no one could guess my ethnicity.  Some of the most common ones people have suggested are: Hispanic, Latina, Jewish, Philippino, Italian, and Mexican. Once people hear that my nationality is Canadian they also tend to assume I am aboriginal. 

I realize that I have had a fairly easy life due to largely having white phenotypes and ironically my brother looks quite a bit more Asian than I do.  I have also chosen to self-identify as white for the majority of my life due to not only looking more white than Asian but also based on the fact that I don’t speak Chinese, know how to eat with chopsticks but rarely do, and grew up in a Western society.  However, I have been thinking recently that I have as much of a right to claim my ethnicity as Chinese as I do as being white/European.  That said, I’m sure if I did start introducing myself as Chinese I would probably get some rather odd looks from people within the Asian communities. 

I have been taking a course on Indigenous History in Canada.  The lecturer recently spoke about how many Canadians are trying to claim Native ancestry.  Some are interested in hopes they can get a status card which will give specific privileges, but many are simply curious.  When someone discovers they are perhaps one tenth Cree they then feel they can start saying they are Indigenous.  My lecturer, who is Native herself, disagrees with this stance.  She says being Native is not just about DNA, but it is also about being part of a complex history, culture, and decision making process.  She believes that someone is not Native by virtue of their DNA alone, but rather based on adapting to a certain lifestyle.  One line she said in her lecture was “you cannot claim to be part of a people group which has not claimed you.”

By virtue of being Canadian I have been claimed as white.  There have been moments as well when I have been claimed as Asian such as when I joined the Chinese Student Association on my university campus as their token “white person” or when I took a course in seminary entitled “Preaching in a Chinese Church” but there have been many other moments when I have not been claimed by the Chinese such as when I attempted to youth pastor a Chinese church a few years ago.  The kids realized right away I wasn’t one of them and became closed off to me.

I don’t think there are any easy answers here and perhaps this is all a bit of drivel, but it is a constant thought in my mind these days.  What if my genes would have shifted only slightly so that my face looks more Asian than white?  What if I decided to self-identify more as Asian?  What if it was my Dad rather than my Mum who was Asian and I grew up with an Asian last name?  These are perhaps all thoughts for another day, but one question for today still remains: what does White Fragility look like when you’re white but you don’t actually feel fragile?