The Holdouts Keep the Church in the Trenches

When World War II ended, the US dropped leaflets over the Philippines that read “The War Is Over” to inform the Japanese soldiers that the violence had ended. However, not everyone believed the leaflets. The people who didn’t believe became known as “holdouts” and they hid from American and Filipino authorities–some for decades! One of the most famous holdouts did not believe the stories until almost 30 years after the war was over:

On March 9, 1974, intelligence Officer 2nd Lt. Hiroo Onoda emerged from the jungle of Lubang Island with his .25 caliber rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and several hand grenades. He surrendered 29 years after Japan’s formal surrender. When he accepted that the war was over, he wept openly.

That last line is the key to me: “when he accepted that the war was over…” His clinging to belief that the war was still ongoing drove him to the forests and outside of civilization for 29 long years. He was a holdout because he repeatedly chose a conflict that the rest of the world had already settled.

When the Holdouts are Outliers

Even though I don’t like military imagery, I think the story about the holdouts is a helpful metaphor for the Church in the 21st century.

In the Church, we don’t allow the holdouts of past wars to define us. Many mainline churches battled over women serving as clergy, but now they predominantly do (except the fundamentalists, and the Catholics). The holdouts are held accountable when they are misogynists. Many mainline churches battled over persons of color serving as their spiritual leaders, but now they predominantly do (even the Mormons since the…1980s). The holdouts are held accountable when they are racist in word or deed.

Because they have dealt with the holdouts to these inclusive values, the Church can be a prophetic witness against sexism and racism in society, punching holes in the darkness, and reflecting light in the bad places to bring truth and grace. Even though we definitely have internal issues with sexism and racism, the Church has the integrity to speak prophetically to these areas in society in spite of our holdouts.

In combatting the sins of racism and sexism, the Church can offer a prophetic witness because they don’t allow the holdouts to hold our prophetic witness hostage.

When The Holdouts are Mainliners

But the above is not so in the Church in the areas of LGBT inclusion where the holdouts to inclusion continue to define the Church.

Like a row of dominoes tipped over in 2003 by Massachusetts, we now live in a country where 38% of Americans live in states with Marriage Equality. Increasingly, the holdouts to this cultural war are in the minority in both society and in the Church.

But even as the rest of the world is steadfastly moving towards acceptance and marriage equality, the holdouts in the Church continue to define the conversation. Schismatic Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists dominate the news as they withhold money or property and keep the denominations mired in legal battles (much to the IRD’s glee). Rather than being known for our generosity, we are known for our judgment.

The holdouts (not just pastors, but some entire denominations) would have us believe that they are fighting a war that can be won. It is true that some cultural shifts are susceptible to pendulum swings–look at how the reproductive choice debate has waxed and waned. But full inclusion of women? Full inclusion of other races and ethnicities? Those wars are over in many faith communities, and the need now is to live into the new reality at its fullest and carve out the persistent sins that come with it.

Conversely, when it comes to discrimination and violence against LGBT persons, our prophetic witness is blunted by the holdouts:

  • How can we  advocate for LGBT persons who live in states with draconian laws that mirror Sochi when we preach that they must be celibate to be a minister?
  • How can we fight against LGBT discrimination and advocate for transgender teens to use the bathroom that matches their identity when we won’t baptize a lesbian couple’s daughter?
  • How can we stop gay kids from committing suicide or trans folks from getting killed if churches don’t hold parents accountable when they kick their queer teens out of the house? While Quoting scripture?

The holdouts who are still in power in many denominations (or have just lost their “golden tenet”) continue to blunt the church’s prophetic witness against society’s ills.

Stuck in the trenches

The sad truth is that the holdouts keep us focused on our navels when we should be turning the full might and conviction and grace of the church outward towards the sins of society. And we can’t do that if we are still in the trenches.

Back in World War I, trench warfare that had ground the war to a standstill for 3 long years before the Americans arrived. The French and British generals called for the Americans to refresh their trench troops, but General Pershing wouldn’t release his troops to the trench strategy. He held them in reserve until the opportunity came to launch a major counter-offensive. He broke through the lines, poured resources and lives into the Argonne Forest, and cut their communications and supply lines. The novel strategy won the war.

Here’s what Rick Joyner saw as a parallel to the church:

“In the trenches, those who stick their heads up a little higher than anyone else, to try to see beyond the trench, are shot… the main strategy of the enemy is to keep their opponent pinned down in the trenches…We have been bogged down in trench warfare for so long that many of the present leaders can no longer see beyond trying to find reinforcements for their old programs. Many are simply trying to hold the ground taken twenty or thirty years ago…We will never win if we remain in the trenches…

Like the medieval church that sold indulgences and then was unable to combat the corruption in the secular society, we have been in the ecclesial trenches for so long that we are unable to commit our resources to be prophetic against the culture of violence around us. The Church is kept in the ecclesial trenches instead of turning our resources, vision, and grace against society’s sins of violence, hatred, murder, and discrimination.

Living out our Baptism

Every baptized member of the United Methodist Church (along with most churches) vows to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of their sin. We have overthrown the ecclesial sins of discrimination against women and people of color. It is time that we live more fully into our baptismal covenant and overthrow the ecclesial sin of discrimination against LGBT people in the life of the Church so that we can confront the sins of violence and discrimination in the world with integrity.

Will the Church get out of the trenches and turn towards rejecting the spiritual forces of wicknedness in church and society? Or will the dwindling number of holdouts keep us in the trenches while the societal sins reign without a word of grace with integrity?

The choice is (collectively) yours.


Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Irene says

    Excellent metaphors to our current challenges. I see these comparisons spilling over into many areas where we must throw open the church doors and emerge to accept needed changes to be relevant to seekers and the unchurched. Instead, it is easy to hunker down in the trenches behind the closed doors and try to hold onto the familiar. We need to celebrate and learn from our history and then move forward into a new, exciting reality. Thank you for continuing an important conversation!

  2. Txcon says

    I’m open to redefining my faith in a lot of ways; I’m fairly sure that advocating “for transgender teens to use the bathroom that matches their identity” is not one of them. What does that have to do with Christianity? What about “non-transgendered” teens using the properly labelled restroom that may not be comfortable with this “innovation?”

    I respect your opinion and am interested in what you have to say, although I disagree with a lot of it. This topic, however, is one that is tearing apart our church and deserves serious treatment and merits more than this trivial point.

    • Zzyzx says

      For a trans person, this point is most definitely NOT trivial. Think about this:

      Trans people are more likely to suffer from violent crime than gay people. Gay people have a protected status in many US states, meaning they cannot be discriminated against or fired for being gay. Trans people are nowhere near as protected by law as gay folks. They can still be discriminated against in housing and in the job market. Very few places allow trans folks to change their gender on their official IDs or birth certificates. Even if trans folks have undergone gender reassignment surgery.

      To put it another way: Gay folks can come out of the closet in many places and face acceptance. Trans folks still must remain partially or completely “in the closet” for many reasons. The use of bathrooms is just one more example. A trans person may be less likely to go to a place with public restrooms if they cannot use the restroom of their identity due to fear of prosecution or violence. Thus, a trans person has three choices: Do not live as their gender identity, live as their gender identity and risk prosecution by going into the bathroom that matches their identity (and possibly being listed as a sex offender due to some state laws), or live as their gender identity and use the wrong bathroom, opening themselves up to the threat of greater violence from any transphobic person who sees them enter that bathroom or sees them in that bathroom.

      The fact that you think the issue of bathrooms is “trivial” just shows how much non-trans folks fail to consider how even “small” things can be massively problematic for someone else. It’s nice that you can think of bathrooms as “trivial,” but that’s likely because you’ve never had to encounter such a dilemma as many trans folks face.

  3. Jeni Markham Clewell says

    Well said, brother Jeremy! This is not an “issue.” This is about people’s lives, their families, their freedom to love, and yes, their hopelessness that sometimes leads to ending their lives. Jesus had something to say when asked about the greatest commandment – Love. Love God, love neighbor (see Samaritan/Jew story), love yourself. GLBTQ people and their allies are flocking away from the UMC because of our blatant discrimination imbedded in our discipline. Let’s lead with love. If Africa is the quantitative “holdout” at General Conference, how can we show love? How can we talk about love? How do we fill those trenches with love? If and when we get to the place where we say love is most important, more so than whom we love, who will still be in those trenches?

  4. says

    Jeremy, two things, and some bonus material. First, “rest of the world” betrays a very myopic and Western-dominated point of view. Secondly, who exactly are the “schismatic” Methodists? I hear advocates from both “sides” talking schism, but you seem to only have one side in mind, unless I have read you wrong. Th illustration of a “holdout” is of course one that strokes a progressive worldview, but not everyone has a progressive worldview. Many conservatives, postmoderns, and others who’ve paid attention to the history of the 20th century all have questions about whether or not things get better just because time happens to pass. I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that you aren’t going to convince anyone holding a different worldview with eloquent stories that presume a worldview not shared by your opponents. Putting pearls before swine, as it is said. At the very least, casting your opponents as backwards losers in a historical struggle that has already been decided is no way (even if correct) to win people to your point of view or even to attempt a dialogue.

  5. says

    “But even as the rest of the world is steadfastly moving towards acceptance and marriage equality…” This is simply not true. Do you know where most of the world lives? Asia and Africa, places very unlike Oregon in their sexual sensibilities.

      • says

        I didn’t speak of them as a monolithic culture. All I pointed out is to say that the “rest of the world” is moving toward marriage equality is not statistically accurate. Despite any changing attitudes across Africa and Asia, gay marriage does not majority support there.

  6. Janice Gardner says

    Jeremy, are you saying that following the New Testament teaching regarding pastors is misogyny? Because if so, you’ve just said I’m a misogynist, which is a bit strange given my gender, and you’re also saying that my denomination (the Southern Baptists) are misogynists by extension, as well as the Catholics, and the Missouri Synod, and the Eastern Orthodox, and probably the majority of Christians worldwide.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *