Rethinking the Artificial Binary

In 1857, my church communion, the Reformed Church in America, experienced a secession of several churches because those churches and ministers thought that the things that divided them were greater than those which held them together. The fact of the matter, however, is that the things which divided were far smaller than those which united, but on those things which became their pet issues, they saw a binary choice — “you are either with us or against us.” The issues which they divided were held up to be gospel issues, issues in which there was no place for disagreement or a difference in perspective. Black and white, right or wrong. While some revisionist historians may argue that it was a disagreement understood at the time to be about cultural issues, even a cursory read of the letters of secession shows this to be wrong. While the things which caused the secession of 1857 were most certainly about nonessentials, the people involved saw them as things core to the gospel.

In 1882, there was another secessionist movement, this time over freemason lodge membership. There was nothing forcing boards of elders to allow members to be members of lodges, there was no statement by the General Synod allowing (or favoring) lodge membership. Indeed, the General Synod discouraged it. But because other churches somewhere else might allow their members to be members of lodges, a secession was required. Not because one is being forced to live and worship and practice their faith in a way that conflicted with their conscience, but because “somebody, somewhere might be doing or thinking something that I don’t like.” And so, this became a binary issue. Black or white, right or wrong. This became a gospel issue, and issue over which it was worth the risk of splitting the church apart again, leaving yet another wound in the body of Christ.

***

These are only two examples in my little corner of the Kingdom of God. Throughout history and across traditions, there have been topics, issues, that are held up as gospel issues that one must choose, you must choose this or that, black or white, right or wrong. No ability to wrestle, to struggle, to be in fellowship with disagreement. Whereas Joshua told his people to serve God or foreign gods (Josh 24:14-15), the narrative at times of tension and conflict are: choose this day your stance on this particular topic, because this topic determines whether or not you are a part of Christ.

This, however, is a false narrative, a false choice, a false dichotomy. To claim that we cannot be in relationship and fellowship and that we must break our covenantal promises because, while we all agree on the foundations of our faith and although we have all made the same promises, some see one topic differently.

This false narrative is rearing its ugly and sinful head in the Reformed Church yet again. One’s stance on human sexuality has become elevated to the single “gospel issue” which seems to matter by many in the fundamentalist/evangelical wing of the communion. The means of grace (the sacraments), the nature of covenant, salvation, or even the covenant promises that we had made to God and each other when we were ordained to ecclesiastical office, all these take second place. The narrative is that there must be a choice forced between two binary poles. This narrative, however, is artificial. This narrative is little more than a way to scorch the earth in order to try to force one into a sense of the worldly understanding of “victory.”

***

So often I hear, “We are tired of fighting!” To which I respond, “Then stop!” Stop fighting. Stop lobbing grenades over the walls, stop shooting artillery from your trenches. These are trenches that we have dug, they are walls that we have built, they are fights that we have initiated. Those who wish to cause the single issue of human sexuality to be the only thing that matters in covenantal fellowship wish to continue the fight until they either “win” or harm the church seeking a sense of victory. The goal is to continue the language of “us vs them” because it is known that if we are able to break free from this framework, that the fighting will stop, and no one except Christ and Christ’s church can claim victory.

And what about those who are not able or willing to make an artificial binary choice? What about those who think there is more to the church than sex, and who can have sex with whom? What about those who want to focus on living as disciples of Christ and living as a foretaste of the kingdom of God? What about those who want to love God and love others? What about those who are weary of the fighting, weary of the division, weary of the trenches and grenades and the war of attrition in which we are currently locked?

The choice is not binary. No two people can agree on everything, how much more for a church communion? The point is not to ignore differences, but to talk about them, even argue about them. For some, there are differences which are irreconcilable, but these are not the same for everyone. For one new and newly public faction, however, human sexuality seems to be a mark of the true church, but the means of grace are not. However, to insist that this must be the line in the sand for everyone is simply false.

***

So to those who wish to be the church, you are invited not into a faction, not into an alliance. You are invited, not by me, or by a leadership cadre. You are invited by Christ and by the saints who have gone before. You are invited into the church, you are invited into the Body of Christ, and into our corner of the Kingdom of Christ, the Reformed Church in America. Into this covenantal communion who have commitments to each other in the things that we see as essential (these can be found in the Government (and disciplinary and judicial procedures), the Liturgy, and the four Doctrinal Standards), while also allowing for difference with proper oversight (board of elders for members, consistory for church, classis for ministers and consistories), as well as ensuring that we live up to our covenantal promises, and fulfill the obligations which we have promised to fulfill (the synods, then, have a role in this).

There are those spinning this false narrative of an artificial binary choice which we must choose and choose in an instant, and if we allow this to control the conversation, we will never find peace, we will never find, unity, and we will never find purity. Indeed, there is no clear dividing line between the broad and problematic categories of “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative.” Indeed, there are conservatives who refuse to make this single issue the hill on which they are willing to die, and upon they are willing to, once again, carve up a part of Christ’s body.

We are not the world. We do not have parties, we do not have a binary opposition. We may disagree, but we are all working together for the same goal. Now we are to live into this. Understanding there are differences, and some of these differences are big. Understanding we can disagree about these differences and that we can even disagree strongly. But always understanding that Christ is far bigger than whether we sing hymns or Psalms or how we teach the Heidelberg Catechism, Christ is far bigger than the question of lodge membership, Christ is far bigger than human sexuality. Because if Christ is not enough to hold us together, then what is?

 

3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Artificial Binary

  1. Peter Nyenhuis

    Hi Matthew, I just had some clarifying questions for you, as I’m trying to better understand your post. First, if celebrating homosexuality was no different than membership in the masons, then yes, by all means let’s “stop fighting”. But isn’t this a much deeper, more foundational issue: an issue of sin? We have a portion of the denomination celebrating and affirming something that the vast majority of the universal church believes the Bible condemns and is sin. Would you be writing this same post if the issue was polyamory or pornography or adultery? These are also issues the vast majority of the universal church condems and considers to be sin. Would you herald polyamory, pornagraphy or adultery as non-binary choices for the sake of fellowship? Why or why not? Thanks in advance for any dialogue you can give regarding this. I really hope you are willing to answer these questions, as it will really help in better understanding the central argument that you made in this post.

    Reply
    1. Matthew van Maastricht Post author

      A couple of things. First, you downplay, I think, the seriousness with which the seceders saw lodge membership. They also saw it as something which was completely incompatible with loyalty to Christ. Second, the question at the root of all this is this: where is the “church”? When the Belgic Confession speaks of the marks of the church, where are those marks to be seen? It’s certainly not in a synod, indeed, it is the local church. So we are a collection of churches which are in covenantal communion…what does that mean? The Reformed Church is not a hierarchy, there are no higher and lower assemblies in the usual sense of the term. At one level this is a discussion about human sexuality, at a deeper level, however, this is also about what it means to be the church, and this is the discussion that we are not having but need to have.

      Reply
      1. Peter Nyenhuis

        Thanks for the response. But to help me better understand you, could you answer the question of would you still write this article if the issue was adultery or polyamory? Would you herald these as non binary choices for the sake of a denomination staying together? Thanks in advance again for answering.

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