During the RCA General Synod, I posted to this blog about being calm and conciliatory, about looking at the long view of history and the mighty acts of God in the face of what some saw as frustrating nonsense going on at the Synod. Last week, I posted pastorally, about the need to be patient with those who take a different view of Scripture and have a different understand of God’s will when it comes to human sexuality—no matter what our view might be.
This week, most RCA ministers, actively serving elders and deacons, and consistories have received a letter dated 2 July 2015 from the Rev. Greg Alderman, immediate past president of the Synod and moderator of the General Synod Council for 2015-16. Ministers and consistories have received this letter in hard copy via surface mail—fairly extraordinary in this day and age. Mr. Alderman has seen fit to not only explain the actions of the Synod to all of us, but to “share my thoughts on where we go from here.” This is prompting a very different blog post from me.
Let me preface this by saying I have resisted posting for a couple of days. First of all, my TRB colleagues have been busy with other things, and I don’t want to monopolize things. Second, I am getting ready to leave on vacation, and I have other things to do. Last, but not least, I am hesitant to make a political response here.
Having said that, I find the Spirit still prodding me, and I have come to realize that this is not only a political response, but a Reformed reflection on ministry and the nature of the Church, which is very appropriate here. It is time, I think, to say “Enough.” This letter is inappropriate, the proposed Council is un-Reformed and probably unhelpful, and the behavior of the recent General Synod and the denomination under this leadership is not giving glory to God.
I doubt that it will surprise anybody reading here to say that I think God is calling the RCA to be more open and welcoming to all people, regardless of sexual orientation, including into service in the offices, and that I am not sure the Bible says much of anything normative or regulative about marriage—apart from complete fidelity being required between spouses. I also know some of my kindred in Christ disagree with me, and I am called to be in the church with them, gathered, protected, and preserved together by Christ, and I do not believe Christ makes mistakes, so we second-guess being together at our own spiritual peril.
But my problems with this Council, and more so with this letter, are only peripherally about these issues—just as, I suspect, our denominational arguments about sexuality are much more about power than about sex. My problems—my concerns—are about how we live together in covenant in Christ’s name.
My first concern is for my brother in Christ, Mr. Alderman. He presented his report and his recommendations, as all presidents do, and he was eloquent and cogent. After that, however, he did something presidents of assemblies rarely do: he argued for his recommendations from the floor during the debate. I have presided, not at General Synod, but in other bodies, and I know the frustration of sitting on my hands and tongue while the body discusses the recommendations which I know are invariably God-inspired. But this president not only argued his case continually with the other delegates, he became visibly upset when he was interrupted by a Synod professor and member of the Commission on Church Order who was raising a point of order so that Mr. Alderman might not accidentally say something about another matter still before the body, something that would have made it difficult for us to do that subsequent work.
Now, with this letter, Mr. Alderman continues to argue his case, using assessment dollars to foot the bill for his argument, an avenue which is not open to anyone else in the RCA. The cost of such communication is such that a standing commission of the General Synod, instructed by the Synod to communicate with all classes and consistories, cannot spend that kind of money; e-mail is used instead.
My advice to my brother in Christ is that he has made his case, made it well, and he should be able and willing to let it go. This is a ministry issue. In a Reformed understanding of ministry, we know our knowledge is limited and imperfect, and that none of us are right all the time—indeed, we are totally depraved. We are given elders and deacons and made amenable to classes because we don’t know everything, and, sometimes, we are going to lose. We live in covenant with all of those other office bearers, and they are called to admonish and advise and nurture us, and, in the process of doing that, sometimes our ideas do not prevail. Still, we have to trust our covenant partners enough to present our case and then let them go. If we cannot trust them, that may say more about how we operate and suspicions we project onto them than anything else.
My second concern is all about anxiety. Many people are anxious about this issue, more anxious than seems rational or than the issue of sexual orientation might seem to warrant. Some may argue that this is because the Bible says things about homosexuality. But we cannot only question whether the Bible is really addressing what we understand as homosexuality, we also know that Scripture is a lot more explicit about other issues—gossip, hospitality, hatred, and usury, to just begin a short list—over which the church has been far less anxious. Some may say our anxiety is because our common understanding of marriage is being rewritten, but it has been rewritten before; very few of us sell our daughters to their suitors, do we?
Still, we are anxious, and why is less important than what we, as Christians, do about it while the world watches. Jesus called us to not be anxious, to trust in the grace and providence of God, to consider the lilies. When we tell the world that we have faith in the absolute providence of God, and that we know we can do all things in Christ who gives us strength, and then we are put into such a denominational apoplexy over something we can do nothing about (sexual orientation) and treat each other with such disrespect, mistrust, and contempt because we do not all think alike, and divert huge resources—this Council will cost over $300,000.00—from mission, outreach, and care for the lost and broken world we like to talk about so much, we bring dishonor to the cause of Christ, and chase people away from the Gospel.
Meanwhile, in some parts of the RCA, even where there is not unanimity of thought over this issue, we have found ways to live and work together, to reduce the anxiety. As is often the case in a human system, however, people who are anxious become upset when everyone is not as anxious as they. This proposed Council, by asking for just one delegate from each classis, requires classes that have reduced their anxiety to potentially become polarized again. The letter from Mr. Alderman further raises that anxiety, especially among office-bearers who did not sit through the Synod in June. Our job is to lower anxiety and listen to God; we seem to have this backwards.
Last of all, this Council seems to be a way around the system we all covenanted together to use. It was Ronald Reagan who in modern times most famously said, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck.” This Council, being a gathering of classes and office-bearers to decide something together, looks, walks, and quacks like a synod—a gathering of classes and office-bearers walking together. We have, in the RCA, covenanted together around a way to call Synods, and even to call extraordinary sessions of synods, but this synod-by-another-name seeks to circumvent that (again raising anxiety). In the end, any decisions it makes will have to come back to a more conventional synod, and, if constitutional changes are required, back to the classes for a two-thirds supermajority vote. Given the current division within the RCA over this issue, that seems unlikely.
The Council is allegedly being formed because we do not have a clear path forward on this issue in the RCA. In 2000, a group within the Synod, representing a variety of views and understandings, got together and called for us to stop debating the issue for a while, to listen to each other, live with each other, and wait. After that, a denomination-wide set of dialogues led to a recommendation that we were being called to listen to each other, live with each other, and wait. Most recently, the “Way Forward” task force, another varied group, worked diligently for two years, and came back with the opinion that we were being called to listen to each other, live with each other, and wait. Three times in a generation, we prayerfully look for an answer and get the same one. Why can’t we accept that as an answer from God?
More and more, I am wondering whether some of us, in an effort to keep anxiety down, in an effort to answer God’s call to listen to each other, live with each other, and wait, perhaps should refuse to play along with the we-have-to-have-a definitive-answer-NOW approach. What would happen if somebody threw a synod—even calling it a council—and nobody came? What if we all stayed home? Again, any changes would have to come back to all of us anyway. So what legitimacy would this odd thing have if a significant portion of the church wasn’t represented. What if we refuse to have our anxiety raised?
I am not sure this is the right question, but I think it is one worth pondering, slowly and calmly and prayerfully, this summer, while we all trust in God and try hard to listen.