Denominational Unity?

I have neglected writing the last week or so, as I have been working at this year’s meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, my denomination’s highest assembly. I have previously written a bit about my role this year.

This year’s meeting had a great deal of tension both surrounding it, and within it. Several overtures (requests for the General Synod to take action on something) were received on a variety of topics, a few of which were “hot button topics” within our denomination. Most everyone who was aware of the business with which the General Synod was going to deal knew that this meeting would be a difficult one. I have been wrong before, and my hope is that I would have been wrong again, however, I was not.

There was a lot of difficult discussion, there was a great deal of pain on both sides of the discussion. Tensions ran high, so high, in fact, that one could literally feel the tension on the floor of the assembly. The theme of the General Synod was “Unity in Diversity.” The theme of the General Synod is chosen by the President, which changes every year, and permeates much of General Synod including sermons at worship and the music. The tension could also be felt with the folks who argued that unity is not our goal, that unity is not possible, that we are a divided denomination that could not be unified because we are divided on one topic.

The most difficult day of General Synod was Monday, June 25. That was the day in which we deliberated all of the divisive topics. There were passionate people on both sides of the subjects, people who take scripture seriously and seek to make an honest interpretation of scripture. However, it is clear that there is not a consistent interpretation of some scriptures in the Reformed Church in America.

After plenary, I could see tears on the faces of some delegates, and many delegates were exhausted — long deliberations on topics which cut deeply are very taxing emotionally, and consequently, physically. I prefer not to get caught into the snare of talking about “winners” and “losers,” it was simply a difficult day for all of us. The very next day, we celebrated our closing worship.

It was an interesting juxtaposition, because at our closing worship, we sang a song that we also sang at opening worship, called, “One for the World.” The refrain goes as follows:

One for the world. One for the Savior.

United in love, now and forever.

Break down the walls, joining together,

in God’s love, we are one, one for the world.

There were people on “both sides” who did not attend closing worship, and who did not want to hear about or talk about unity, as many of our discussions seemed to arise from a root of disunity. Some expressed the fact that we are not united, while others were not yet ready to sing a song expressing our unity because of the pain that still lingered from the difficult debates that happened as well as some of the votes that were taken.

I had similar feelings. I felt frustration and I felt hurt at the general tone of deliberation on the floor. I know that the entire denomination is not united in thought on a couple of these subjects, but the question continues to remain: are we united? Our motto on the Crest of the Reformed Church in America is “Eendracht maakt Macht” (Concord makes strength). Even despite our differences do we continue to have and display concord?

My answer is yes, and no. We do have some degree of concord in that we all subscribe to the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America, and that we all “believe in the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and as expressed in the Standards of the Reformed Church in America” (Formulary 3: Declaration for Ministers of Word and Sacrament). On the other hand, we lack a degree of concord because we have such different interpretations on a select group of topics, and it often seems as though the two interpretations simply cannot coëxist with one another.

Despite these differing interpretations and despite the seeming disunity, I went to closing worship, and I sang the song “One for the World.” During this, it occurred to me, perhaps we are talking about unity not so much because there is a spirit of unity, but because there ought to be a spirit of unity. Perhaps we are not being descriptive, but rather formative. Perhaps our sermons and songs about unity are not because we already have a great sense of unity, perhaps they are intended to form us, that even in our diversity on some scriptural interpretations, perhaps we must still seek unity.

This is difficult, of course. All people who join a church of the Reformed Church in America make promises before the Board of Elders to “seek those things which make for unity, purity, and peace.” All Ministers of Word and Sacrament and General Synod Professors promise to “[seek] the things which make for unity, purity, and peace.” We all have to hold in balance the unity and purity of the church, even when sometimes these seem to conflict. We have to take seriously Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John, “‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one'” (17:20-21a, NRSV) as well as Paul’s admonition to the church at Corinth, “‘Drive out the wicked person from among you'” (1 Cor 5:13b, NRSV).

We need to hold both of these in tension. This is why the theme of “Unity in Diversity” was so important, and this is why I could go to closing worship and sing about our unity, even though the previous day we had a very divisive deliberation on the assembly floor. I serve the church not because the church is perfect or has everything figured out, but because I believe that the church is the Body of Christ, even despite all of our sin, despite all of our division, despite all of our infighting. I continue to think on these theme of unity, not because we have necessarily achieved it, not because we can even agree what it means, but because Christ desires it for us, and this is what the church is called to wrestle with.

In this way, I found the theme of General Synod to be formative rather than descriptive. It was to form what we are to be, rather than to describe what we are. It was to show us what Christ calls us to, even if we do not exactly agree on what that looks like. It was an invitation to continue wrestling with one another, because wrestling is not bad, wrestling is not necessarily harmful — wrestling means that we’re still alive, that we’re still engaged, and that we’re still committed to living out the faith as we understand it.

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