This past July, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) did something I found troubling. It issued a resolution condemning the invasion of Iraq as "unwise, immoral and illegal." It wasn't the assembly's weighing in on a public issue that bothered me -- it does so almost every year. Nor was it the church's stand against the war -- I had questioned the invasion myself.

What took me aback was the stridency of the language. As soon as I heard it, I had the feeling it would cause problems in the pews. It didn't seem like the kind of statement that could inspire constructive conversation about a complex and controversial issue.

While people certainly come to church to receive clear moral guidance, they also come to engage in dialogue about difficult questions, and to find something that isn't readily available in the larger society -- a place where disagreement is handled gracefully and respectfully by people of shared religious values. Because this resolution stressed one point of view, I feared it would have a polarizing effect. It was a divider, not a uniter.

Sure enough, within a day of the resolution, I began to hear complaints from church members, especially active-duty or retired members of the armed forces. To them, the assembly's action had drawn a line in the sand. Some supporters of the war even began to talk about leaving the church. "If the line is drawn as a result of the convictions of the majority, then okay," observed my parishioner Mike Nelson, a career Air Force officer, fighter pilot and Vietnam combat veteran. But Mike said he doubted that the assembly was speaking for the majority of Presbyterians.

Though I've been encouraging people to ask questions about the wisdom of the invasion since before American forces entered Iraq, I object to this resolution because it does nothing to help my church members figure out what it means to be a follower of Christ in a time of war. It gives them no opening to discuss their concerns and wrestle with the conflicting feelings that arise at such a time.

Yes, we all need guidance as to what constitutes a moral approach to contentious issues such as war, stem cell research, gay marriage and abortion. But we aren't helped by resolutions that force people to be either insiders or outsiders, driven even further apart in a society that's already politically polarized.

Lately, I see this happening again and again, whether the issue is war in Iraq, homosexuality, abortion, politicians receiving Communion or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This last issue was the subject of another assembly resolution this summer, which called for the church to begin divesting itself of any interest in companies with business in Israel that is seen to be causing harm -- such as Caterpillar Inc., whose bulldozers are among those that Israeli forces use to demolish Palestinian homes.

"With the pronouncements on the Iraq war and divestment from Israel, I have lost members in my congregation," says Bill Teng, the pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alexandria and leader of our regional Presbyterian body, National Capital Presbytery. Most of the complaints he has heard regarding divestment have to do with "singling out" Israel for action. "What about North Korea, China and other countries that are oppressive and violent?" he is often asked.

Although Presbyterians enjoy freedom of conscience and aren't bound by these resolutions, many people object to having their donations used by a national body to send messages that don't represent their individual or congregational views. At the same time, people are struggling with these difficult issues, and they are looking for the church to teach, inform and inspire them -- to lead them with its pronouncements, instead of driving them away. So there's a tension between the perspective of the individual and the view of the church. This can be healthy and creative, but only when church pronouncements are firmly grounded in the Bible and theology, and are seen as being fair and nonpartisan.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Part of the problem with church pronouncements is that they are often too hastily made. My colleague Susan Andrews, pastor of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda and a former leader of the General Assembly, believes that pronouncements have to be carefully written and carefully studied. When this effort is made, the resolutions "can help put theological and biblical foundations to what would otherwise be just political statements."

The Presbyterian Church has long believed it's important to take stands on public issues of moral concern. In 1958, the General Assembly declared that it had a responsibility "to speak on social and moral issues for the encouragement and instruction of the Church and its members." Past Presbyterian pronouncements have supportedpublic school desegregation (1954), equal rights for women (1983), divestment in South Africa to help end apartheid (1985), a ban on land mines (1995), and eduction of greenhouse gases (1998) -- positions that were once controversial, but are now accepted by many if not most Americans.

The question, then, is not whether to speak, but how. In this regard I've learned a great deal from Gerry Creedon, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington and chairman of the Diocesan Peace and Justice Commission. Before the outbreak of the Iraq war, he developed a one-day program for his parishioners to talk and reflect on the church's analysis of war, which he conducted on three separate occasions to groups numbering between 30 and 60 participants.

After prayer, Gerry asked the participants to offer their reasons for either supporting or opposing military action in Iraq. He then gave a presentation on Catholic teaching on war and peace, including both just-war tradition and the older tradition of nonviolence. The program ended with a clear biblical challenge to work for peace, but it took no political stand -- instead, it provided parishioners with an opportunity to engage in dialogue and listen to the voice of the Catholic tradition.

This program, which Gerry led three times and distributed to 70 parishes in the diocese, worked because the focus was on parishioners listening to one another instead of reacting to one another. Thus, a full analysis of the Iraq issue came out of the contributions of the participants themselves.

Dialogue is such an important part of the educational process, because it draws people into an issue in a way that the simple proclamation of traditional truths never can. It also reduces the resistance and defensiveness most people feel when presented with one side of an issue without an opportunity to reply, which often happens when a sermon is preached. "There is no easy way to respond to the remarks in a Sunday homily," says my friend Dan Napolitano, a Roman Catholic layman. "The priest has a 'bully pulpit' in every sense of the expression."

Dan has no problem with priests and ministers having political positions of their own, but he feels it's important for them to create a climate for multiple opinions and to avoid the mistake of assuming that their congregations are monolithic audiences. "Priests and ministers must preach to and lead a wildly diverse group," he says, "parishioners who are either with the NRA or ACLU, those who want the 'old days' and those who can't stand them, those who love the services and those who are ambivalent."

Diversity is a characteristic of every congregation, with supporters of John Kerry sitting side by side with fans of George Bush, and if we pastors don't acknowledge this and foster dialogue, we'll simply drive our parishioners further apart. In my own preaching, I try to lift up ideas and questions that will stimulate conversation, instead of shutting it down. I want to invite members from across the political spectrum to look at important matters along with me, and continue the conversation after the service is over. For some people, church may be the only place where this kind of discussion is possible -- and even encouraged.

For every minister and every church, there will be times when they must articulate a position with absolute clarity. During the civil rights era, the pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian delivered such a call for racial equality. But in most of the complex controversies we face today, I see no real benefit in rushing quickly to decide a matter with a church vote. Linda Olson Peebles, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, believes that forcing a vote on contentious issues can make the minority feel marginalized. And when debates fixate on questions of wording and minor details, then people are pulled away, she says, from "the core faith stances that do in fact guide us."

It is a focus on these "core faith stances" that will enable churches to make their greatest contributions, whether they are guiding people toward the just-war tradition or a Christian perspective on capital punishment.

Instead of focusing on crafting pronouncements, churches should put their energy into gatherings that, as Bruce Springsteen said of one of the central jobs of a musician, "provide an alternative source of information." Like music, religion is most valuable when it draws people together, socially and spiritually. And, like music, it's most inspiring when it isn't blasted into our ears.

Author's e-mail:

Henry Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church.