Desirers of Clarity, Clarify Thyselves!

CLARIFY

1. make (a statement or situation) less confused and more clearly comprehensible.
“the report managed to clarify the government’s position”
synonyms: make clear, shed/throw light on, elucidate, illuminate
2. melt (butter) in order to separate out the impurities.
synonyms: purify, refine

From the mouths of those who have supported the creation of a “Council” to recommend a constitutional pathway forward for the RCA with regard to matters of same-gender relationships and same-sex marriages, the most frequently uttered motivation has been “clarity.”

The RCA needs to be clear about what it believes.

The RCA needs to be clear about what it teaches about the Bible.

The RCA needs to take a clear stand in a manifestly sinful culture.

Etc.

Read most charitably, these statements assume the first meaning of “clarify” above: “make (a statement or situation) less confused and more clearly comprehensible.” The underlying assumption, I guess, is that currently the RCA is in a confused and somewhat incomprehensible situation regarding matters of homosexuality. The repeated actions of General Synods regarding this matter, many believe, are not enough. After all, congregations and classes (and perhaps even a regional synod or two) have acted out of compliance with the General Synod’s positions. And yet, they have not been brought to the bar of discipline. This, it seems, is the visible manifestation of a lack of clarity, or a surfeit of confusion and incomprehensibility.

What would bring “clarity” to the situation, then, is a statement that goes beyond statements of General Synod; a statement written into the Constitution of the RCA. Such a Constitutional remedy would require approval by 2/3 of the classes, and many doubt whether any positive statement regarding homosexuality per se or homosexual practice could receive such general approval (“positive” here meaning not affirming, but a statement that actually takes a position). Nevertheless, the Synod has decided to move forward to hold (and fund) this Council, in the interest of clarity.

One might ask what would be the point of writing a position on any particular behavior or orientation into the Constitution. Would a constitutional position bear witness to the church, or to the world, what is the will of God regarding homosexuality? Would it enable the bringing forth of charges against those who, as mentioned above, at present act in ways that appear unaccountable to the General Synod? (“I charge you with violating Chapter thus-and-so, Article such-and-such of the BCO”) Would a constitutional position lay down a marker, such that, if it were not complied with, some consistories would feel justified in leaving the denomination (“how can we be part of a group that doesn’t even follow its own rules?”)? Would such a position vindicate the position of the Scriptures in the church? It’s hard to say. Likely different people foresee different outcomes.

What many may fear is that, while the ostensible motive around “clarity” circles around meaning #1 above, the practical and predictable outcome will bring about a culture that is focused on #2: “melt (butter) in order to sort out the impurities.”

Well, OK, we’re not butter, but you get the “sort out the impurities” part. Separate the righteous from the unrighteous. Clarify who resides within the covenant, and who is residing outside. Submit the church to a refiner’s fire (referred to in Malachi 3: 2-3). Adjudicate whose view of the Scriptures most closely aligns with what you believe our confessional position to be. Bring charges. Hold trials. Suspend ministers. Supersede consistories. Cast a cloud of legalism over the denomination, not over such sins as pride and ambition and greed and ill treatment of the poor (cultural support for which has been so deeply ingrained that we barely recognize how much they have pervaded our personal values). Instead, rather than attempting to seek Scriptural guidance in battling those sins that are broadly attested in the Scriptures, in the name of defending a particular understanding of the Scriptures, intentionally or unintentionally create a climate of mutual suspicion, based on the singular behavior in which two consenting adults engage in the privacy of their own home. Or based on affirmation of such behavior. Or based on acceptance of such behavior. Or based on affirmation or acceptance of others who affirm or accept such behavior. (It gets pretty complicated, pretty fast.)

Now, to many, the creation of such a climate is long overdue. They may cite John’s strict separation between the children of light and the children of darkness (I John) or Paul’s counsel to shun immorality (and the remainder of I Corinthians 6), or a cobbled together theology of the orders of creation, or any of the passages that they read to lend support to a non-affirming stance regarding homosexuality. Indeed, for those who believe the Bible is so manifestly clear, the very notion of even having a discussion seems absurd.

To others, the question of “sorting out the impurities” is a matter of timing and authority and criterion. In other words, they don’t argue that there is no need for some sort of separation (judgment). What is arguable is exactly when God desires that the separation be carried out – now, in the era of the church, or at some later date, when judgment occurs. For this position the classic text is the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13: 14-20). Regarding authority, the question is who will be doing the refining – sinful human beings, this side of the consummation of all things, or the sinless God, the only righteous being capable of decreeing judgment. (John 8: 1-9) As to the criterion of judgment, folks on this side of the ledger may point to the chief criterion being the way the people of God have treated, or ill-treated, the marginalized. Here again, scriptural warrant is claimed. (Matthew 25: 31-46)

Thus, two schools of thought in regard to clarifying (purifying) the church: those who on the one side say that it must happen now, must be carried out by those authorized to do so, and on the basis of behaviors and attitudes; and on the other side will say that the clarifying will happen someday, and will be done by God alone, and on the basis of how one has actually treated the tossed-out and left-behind. And both say “the Bible tells me so.”

That’s a lot of words to make a rather straightforward point: “clarity” doesn’t “clarify” anything. In the first instance, it heads in so many possible directions that it is less than helpful. (It has that marvelous but frustrating quality of so much ecumenical-speak; people agree on a concise statement, then take it to mean whatever best fits their own presuppositions.) In the second instance, although people may converge on the necessity of the church being clarified, the practical implications of such clarification diverge so widely (with both sides claiming Biblical warrant for their positions) that one must wonder whether the minor convergence was of any actual value.

So, a final request: If you’re going to avail yourself of the rhetoric of “clarity,” please be clear about what you mean. First, clarify yourself.

–Paul G. Janssen, Pastor and Teacher, United Reformed Church in Somerville, NJ

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2 thoughts on “Desirers of Clarity, Clarify Thyselves!

  1. Thank you, Paul. It is so very necessary, especially now, for us to keep reminding ourselves what we are really talking about.

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