The Trouble With Separation

wetbeard

At the end of May, a congregation in my denomination—the Reformed Church in America (RCA)—voted to leave for another church body, and there was public discussion of the departure, most especially, I think, because there are many congregations considering such departures. For the purposes of this post, the reasons for the departure are not important, for it was what I said, and the response to what I said, that bring me to what I am writing here.

I wrote that I was saddened by this. Saddened not because we in the RCA are a family (though we are), not because this pastor and the political/theological stances of his congregation don’t often drive me nuts (which they do), but because we are the Church of Jesus Christ Reformed According to the Word of God, and that the Word of God tells us that schism is a sin (as the Belhar Confession reminds us) and that we are gathered into one church by Jesus Christ (as the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us) and that, while we can and should wrestle with Christ and argue with God, we do not get to second-guess our Lord (as no less than John Calvin, whom we normally take seriously in Reformed circles, reminds us). I went on to suggest that this was something we all needed to mourn and confess.

Responses to my post included some suggestions about my naïveté, and someone wondering whether I truly believed that moving from one denomination to another was, in and of itself, a schismatic act. Well, I must admit that I had to think about that, and it is the Word of God which tells us that schism is a sin (as the Belhar reminds us) and that we have been gathered into one church by Jesus Christ (as the Heidelberg reminds us) and that, while we wrestle with Christ and argue with God, we don’t second guess our Lord (as Calvin reminds us)., and it is the Word of God which tells us that schism is a sin (as the Belhar reminds us) and that we have been gathered into one church by Jesus Christ (as the Heidelberg reminds us) and that, while we wrestle with Christ and argue with God, we don’t second guess our Lord (as Calvin reminds us).Word of God, and it is the Word of God which tells us that schism is a sin (as the Belhar reminds us) and that we have been gathered into one church by Jesus Christ (as the Heidelberg reminds us) and that, while we wrestle with Christ and argue with God, we don’t second guess our Lord (as Calvin reminds us). I would hope that my brother Kevin and the folks at URC would hear this and confess their place in this fracture, even as I confess and mourn my role in it. . It seems so logical, so American to think that we can just choose how we want to worship, where we want to worship, to simply go and find a place where we fit, and, when we don’t fit any longer, to find a new place. Ever since Charles Finney suggested that a worshiper who does not feel fulfilled in a particular church should seek out one that feeds the worshiper’s spirit, the practice of church shopping has been ecclesiastically acceptable, almost required.

The problem is that, as American—or even, in Finney’s terms, evangelical—as all of that seems, it isn’t particularly Reformed. This shouldn’t come to us as a surprise: no less a Calvinian than I. John Hesselink, RCA missionary and emeritus professor of theology and past president at Western Theological Seminary, insisted (in his report as president of the 1996 RCA General Synod) that “The Reformed faith in some ways is un-American. That is, it does not emphasize the individual, free choice, and “doing your own thing.” It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to be Reformed and always get things to suit us at the same time.

There is the problem that I have. As difficult as it can be for us to get along, we profess that we have been gathered, protected, and preserved by Christ. God decides where we should all be together, for God’s own purposes. When we install pastors in congregations, we say that we believe that they were called by Christ’s church, and therefore by God, to be there. This leaves us a problem with the notion that certain pastorates are “bad matches”: if God put the match together, how does a Reformed understanding allow for God to have gotten it wrong?

As for the loophole that is usually used to separate parts of the body of Christ—that a particular church has so lost its way that it is no longer the church, so those departing are not actually leaving the church—exactly how do they know? If, in fact, only God knows who the true Church is, how do we get to identify anybody, with absolute certainty, as not being a Christian?

Of course, there is the argument—which my ecumenical Reformed nature appreciates—that different denominations are all part of the same Church, with things to teach each other, so a congregation departing one denomination for another is not actually schismatic. And there is the argument that some separate denominations, maybe even most of them, are cultural divisions, rather than theological: Germans worshiping with Germans, Dutch with Dutch, et cetera. But aren’t the cultural divisions—which, when they are applied to housing or schooling, get names like “segregation”Word of God, and it is the Word of God which tells us that schism is a sin (as the Belhar reminds us) and that we have been gathered into one church by Jesus Christ (as the Heidelberg reminds us) and that, while we wrestle with Christ and argue with God, we don’t second guess our Lord (as Calvin reminds us). I would hope that my brother Kevin and the folks at URC would hear this and confess their place in this fracture, even as I confess and mourn my role in it. –something that we seek to overcome? Aren’t our denominational separations a sign, as C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, of our infancy in the faith, something that we should be trying to outgrow?

This was where I was coming from when I mourned the loss of that congregation from the RCA. I don’t want to shake my finger at them or call them schismatics. If I did, I think I would have to call myself one, too, for I believe that I—with my own opinions about what it means to be Reformed and my own impatience, at times, with those whom I think don’t get it—and those who think like me are just as responsible for this break as the departing congregation and pastor. No, I don’t think they are irredeemable sinners any more than the divorced believers in my parish are; nobody is beyond Christ’s redemption. As I tried to say in the first place, this is not a time for accusing but a time for mourning, for we clearly have so far to go to be one, even as Christ and the Father are one.

It is also, as some of us are traveling across the country to be gathered as our denomination in General Synod once again, a focus for our sober reflection. As we fight—and we will, no doubt, fight, as siblings are wont to do—we need to do so holding hands. As we fight for the heart and soul of the church, for our unity, purity, and peace, we must remember that those three values are equal and dynamic. They do contradict one another from time to time, and a perfect balance seems to be beyond us in this life. But it is not our job to figure out how to make it work: it is our job, as absurd as it seems sometimes, to stay together, and to learn all that we can along the way.

It is our job to keep loving each other.

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