Time to Say “Enough”

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.


14 thoughts on “Time to Say “Enough”

  1. Thank you, James, for saying what I have been wanting to say. The anxiety level is off the charts, and seriously there is NO reason for it, except that Greg sent out this letter. My classis has worked itself into a panic over this.

    Same-gender marriage is legal in all 50 states now, whether the RCA likes it or not. The RCA has been discussing homosexuality for decades, and have come to a fairly clear answer that we shouldn’t make any definitive moves. The Jerusalem council is being formed so that we can discuss it again, and perhaps come to some “constitutional pathway forward” whatever that means. We have also been tasked with a “season of restraint” until this council completes its work. Part of that restraint should include waiting to put definitive policies in place! You are spot on that this isn’t Reformed in any way.

    Some in my classis have asked for “a policy” regarding how we should respond if asked to officiate a same-gender marriage. This is fear, plain and simple. No one is going to sue a pastor for declining to officiate a same-gender marriage. We are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The Supreme Court decision has no bearing on the clergy’s right to exercise our religious freedom, so if a pastor doesn’t want to officiate a wedding between two men or two women, they have the right to say no.

    There are also those who say we have to have a “position” on LGBT standing within the church, or on marriage, “so as not to scare away church planters.” Are we sure we want to work with church planters who are so skittish about our theology that they’d go to another denomination based on rumors that we might accept the sexuality of people they don’t even know? Yikes! I’d rather not work with them.

    In addition to Greg Alderman’s letter, there was an email, sent to some in the Synod of the Far West that used the unfortunately chosen language of “huge victory for the conservative side;” and “the best response is to dig in…and the existence of rule breakers does not change that;” and claiming that there are people in the RCA “who would twist and change the gospel of our Lord.” And yet at the same time, he says things like “We want to be radically inclusive.” I don’t think that means what he thinks it means.

    Greg’s plan for this Council may sound like a fair and unbiased approach, but it is clear that he intends to covertly undermine it until the RCA declares a conservative position. Unfortunately, his behind-the-scenes lobbying is causing division, fear, anger, and confusion within the RCA. It is not Christ-like, Reformed, loving or humble.

    I would love to remind him that homosexuality and sexual orientation are not salvation issues. Welcoming LGBT people into our churches, ministering to them, and loving them as fellow human beings does not “twist or change the Gospel.” God still loves and rules the world; Jesus was still crucified and resurrected; and the Holy Spirit still guides us in all truth. And most of all, Jesus calls us to love. Period.

  2. James, Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I got the letter but haven’t read it yet, being my day off and all.

    I’m not so sure that anxiety and power are big issues in this debate. Well, except for Hope College, which decided to ignore the idea of a “season of restraint” as they announced this week that they will offer benefits to folks in same-sex marriages. That seems to be a move in response to the anticipated anxiety of lawsuits, rather than adhering to the calling of General Synod.

    Geographically I am in the boonies of my classis, so I don’t really know what office-bearers in other congregations think about our denomination’s continued course of inaction, or perhaps better said, a non-declaration of position regarding human sexuality and the Gospel. I have a rough idea of what the positions are that are held by elders in my congregation. Regarding the idea of love, particularly of the distinctive Christian shading on love and the two perspectives on that…they know what I think, because I wrote about it on my blog last week and printed out copies for the congregation.

    I have only been a member of the RCA a relatively short time, moving into it in 2007, so I don’t have a deep understanding of the history of this debate. I do see what has happened in places such as the PC(USA) as they shifted to a position that was clearly on one side of the fence.

    If we, as a denomination, take no position then I would anticipate a gradual, inevitable slide, to one of the options. And if we do take a position, there will certainly be a different future for the denomination, as some element of fracture would seem to be unavoidable.

    Interesting set of closing questions, regarding participation or non-participation in the process put forward at General Synod. Perhaps at General Synod we should have brought forth something from the floor to make a more definite decision. There was openness in talking about the presence of the elephant in the room, so perhaps we should have tried to deal with the elephant then and there.

    I would agree with the idea that it is time to say “enough.” And going a step farther I would say that it is time to decide, and move on. May it be the work of this council to facilitate that decision, to the glory of God.

    1. Brad – I don’t see anything in the language of the Recommendations that passed that prevent an agent of the RCA from providing marital benefits to same-sex couples. The text directly from R-42a states that the season of restraint included:
      “[r]efraining from performing same-sex marriages, ordaining practicing homosexuals, initiation of judicial actions related to these matters, and separating from the denomination.”

      The “calling of the General Synod” does not include a college making a policy change in an effort to avoid lawsuits.

      Also, as someone who recently attended Hope College, I can attest first-hand that while Hope may be an RCA college, faculty, staff, and students are not required to adhere to the doctrines of the denomination. While some might view this as a blatant rejection of the General Synod’s recommendation, I would instead see it as a decision PRIMARILY to avoid lawsuits, because there is nothing in Hope’s decision that directly violates what General Synod asked assemblies to refrain from.

  3. sometimes “transformational leaders” intentionally increase anxiety because they be,I’d’ve it will help the long term health of the organization. Not what I would do, but it’s a method. Legitimate question, IMO, whether it’s a gospel method.

  4. James,

    Just a slight clarification. The Way Forward Task Force actually proposed that the church make “constitutional changes that would enable congregations and ministers to separate from the RCA without recriminations such as forfeiture of property.” The Task Force members expressed appreciation and even love for one another but also said they saw no way forward except to allow those who so desire to leave gracefully. It was the Advisory Committee on Church Order and Governance which made the the recommendation to deny the Task Force’s second recommendation, noting that the BCO already provides a means for leaving the RCA and preferring a focus on dialogue rather than an exit strategy. The General Synod affirmed the Advisory Committee’s recommendation.

    1. Excellent point Rick. Yes the task force did not present a way forward but that certainly wasn’t a recommendation to continue to wait. It simply acknowledged that they were at an intractable point at the conclusion of the time limit of the task force.

      Furthermore to address the suggestion that some churches or Classis disregard the overwhelming majority vote at GS2015 to organize this council is a serious foul and flies in the face of the argument to accept that sometimes your position loses. It is true that GS and the RCA has already clearly stated and declared that Scripture declares homosexuality to be a sin and is contrary to God’s design for His creation, yet we continue to hear the exact opposite-an almost bizarro world contention that somehow embracing our sinful desires is some way glorifying to God! And to some it isn’t even a sin to be repented of which makes a dialog almost impossible when we can’t even agree on the definitions. For decades there has been a force at work trying to “reform” this rich and beautiful denomination and the most effective tactics are to wait for the old thinkers to die off and for culture to significantly penetrate and infiltrate the church to the point where the church is indistinguishable from the world. We are almost there. That is why it must be decided. And I for one am willing to accept that I am on the “losing” side of history. I will then know if I am welcome in the RCA; but until this is settled we remain in this anxious state of limbo while the incredibly articulate collegians patiently wait while whittling away at the formerly clear truths of the Gospel we all were ordained to protect, preach, teach and advance.

      Eric Moreno

      1. Eric: Your description of the intentions and strategies of those who disagree with you (“to wait for the old thinkers to die off and for culture to significantly penetrate and infiltrate the church to the point where the church is indistinguishable from the world”) is, in my view, lacking in both accuracy and charity. The real biblical and missional concerns of those who have moved (often slowly and reluctantly) toward an affirming view are simply ignored or denied. How can we carry on a God-honoring process of discernment if we refuse to listen to each other in good faith?

        David Timmer

      2. David,

        Endless dialog actually accomplishes what you say is inaccurate – the church is looking more and more like the culture instead of standing apart from it. Since the RCA already has a position that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s design, what possible outcome can be achieved by more by asking for more dialog? Why does this continue to consume so much of our time and resources that can be used to spread the gospel to a dying world? At some point don’t the people who are already in the church (who thought they knew where it stood) deserve to know? How about those looking for a church? This has historically has been a settled issue in every church. What about those who are planting new churches? I am aware of several dozen planters who have already or are considering ditching the RCA as a home for their churches. This is the fastest growing area of the church while the rest of it is contracting. How sad to run people off because we cannot declare what we believe and instead abdicate our responsibility to be leaders. The relationship we built with the church in Chiapas is at risk because of this lack of leadership – that’s 800,000 souls! The Hispanic Commission is struggling with how to manage this tension.

        And finally, how do we continue to dialog when we can’t even agree on the terms of engagement? Is homosexual sex a sin? Does it bring glory to God when a man does with another man what God intended to only be done with his wife? Sorry to be graphic, but I am interested in a simple response to a simple question rather that hermeneutical gymnastics. I don’t think there is a single Scripture reference that affirms that homosexual sex brings glory to God. After all, that is why we are here. Not to follow our fleshly desires.

        This is a particularly painful place for me as my own brother is a practicing homosexual and I dearly love him. This is why standing on truth instead of my experience is so difficult yet vital. Grace and peace.

  5. James, thank you for writing about this, and especially for your paragraph listening, living, and waiting WITH each other. With the anxiety this high, we are not representing Jesus well, regardless of which side someone is on. That, more than anything else, breaks my heart. I do hope you’re right and a 2/3 vote through the classes wouldn’t happen. Of course, whether it does or doesn’t, there is likely to be a fracture anyway. And I feel like I’m steeling myself for the blow–a blow that is completely unnecessary, completely unReformed, and in my view, completely unChristlike. And I say this as someone who is moderately conservative.

    1. I did not know how to reply the original post by James (techy challenged :)) so I am replying here. True, it is enough and it is time. There are many stirrings and thoughts I have regarding this. I have waited several days to respond since receiving the letter. My first response was, “Really? More waiting!”

      As I read these posts and read about anxiety I am reminded that in times of anxiety – we are instructed by God’s Word to give thanks. “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving make your request before God and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I am thankful for a denomination that allows family disagreements to happen and provides a process in which to handle our differences. I am thankful for a God who broke through sin and darkness and brought me into His kingdom of light. I am thankful to be a laborer in His vineyard calling others to find forgiveness of sin, freedom from guilt and shame, hope, joy and peace and life abundantly in Jesus. I am thankful that, like a bullwark never failing, God’s truth abideth still and He is our helper amid the flood. I am thankful.

      I believe that the anxiety within our family is being produced by consistent indecision by our governing body for fear of offending someone. In our indecision we actually produce more uncertainty and unnecessary panic. No one has the courage to say one way or the other where we stand. Consequently, frustration on both sides wondering what is or what is not OK. This leads to fear and anxiety.

      I happen to believe that practicing homosexuality is contrary to God’s Word and consequently same sex marriage is contrary to God’s design and Word. I would appreciate our denomination standing there in its public statements, General Synod actions, theological papers and constitutional documents. There would be some who would say they could no longer be part of the family. If the denomination were to take a stand in support of same sex marriage, there would be some that would say they could no longer be part of the family. Either way take a stand.

      Just say, “We affirm that God’s Word affirms and supports homosexual committed relationships in same sex marriages.” Or say, “We affirm that God’s Word affirms marriage between one man and one woman and all others contrary to that.” If the denomination takes a stand you do not agree with we have an agreed upon process for how to handle that – overtures. Yes, it is a lengthy process but when we take our vows we agree to submit to the authority over us and follow the process not just do our own thing because we don’t agree.

      For the record. I will not take my ball and go home if the denomination stands and affirms same sex marriage. I will continue to stand where I stand and operate as I do now. We have a process of discipline. If in the course of discipline, I stand on trial for holding to and practicing what I believe, I pray I would have the courage and faith to say with Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And if that meant my family defrocked me, then so let it be. My brothers and sisters who believe differently than I regarding same sex marriage should be committed to the same if the denomination were to stand for marriage between one man and one woman.

      Right now, my brother Greg Alderman, is calling for a season of restraint. Anxiety will be the only fruit of this restraint.

      It is enough. It is time to decisively stand one way or the other and live into the joys, pains, comforts and challenges. To stand and say the RCA stands here (whatever that here may be: our current position of marriage as between one man and one woman or a different stated position in agreement with recent Supreme Court Decision) and then live in that.

      1. Todd,
        Thank you for pointing out the main point, it’s time to say enough. We’ve talked it out, now it’s time. I commend your steadfast desire to remain put regardless of the outcome of the council, I pray you will allow those who who desire to leave because of the outcome to go with your blessing. Sometimes the best thing to do is to separate well and continue to share the Gospel. Thanks again Todd. Blessings
        Eric Moreno

  6. James, you have peeked my interest. As a second-class RCAer (aka Canadian), I have yet to receive the letter (we seem to frequently receive things 10-14 days later). I’ll look out for it to read it for myself. Thanks for posting your thoughts. Blessings!

  7. I love to be a part of Christ Community Church and, in my opinion, Pastor Greg Alderman is a very good pastor and fits excellent to the body of CCC. Recognizing the dark times we live in, the RCA should spend a some time to debate and then decide if they will continue on the teachings of God’s Holy Word or follow their own interpretation. For those who have a different position on how the RCA should handle the issue of same-sex relations, I can only advice: “Please read the Holy Bible thoroughly from Genesis to Revelation and if you still have an opposite position, you either a) don’t understand what you are reading or b) you are ignoring what you are reading. I have spent some time reading the Holy Bible, especially during my studies, and I found, that where God is addressing the same-sex issue, there is NO DOUBT on how a Christian Church should handle this issue. There is no room for debate, as God’s Word is the final authority on any issue. Finally, it is my belief that the RCA should not make the mistake and interpret God’s Holy Word in a way their leaders would prefer. This mistake has been done by Roman Catholic Church many centuries ago and Dr. Martin Luther was right to correct them publicly. I am certain that our Pastor Greg Alderman will represent our church in the spirit of God’s Holy Word.

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