Tag Archives: Unity

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?

 

The Idea of Brokenness is Great…

I like the idea of brokenness. I like thinking and talking about the fact that the church is a place for broken people, where broken people can be accepted and loved. I like Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and all that.

I say that I like the idea of brokenness, because the idea is much better than the reality.

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday mopping up a leaky pipe at church. I also found myself grumbling. Grumbling that I didn’t go to seminary to mop up a leaky pipe, grumbling that our old building has so many troubles, grumbling because when I would picture where I would be at my first charge, this was not it. I was grumbling because our building is broken, and I have neither the patience nor the skill to put it back together.

Our building is only the beginning of the brokenness in our community. Some folks have alcohol problems and still smell from last night’s bender. Other folks had a misfortune early in their life, and this has had negative effects for the rest of their lives. Some folks only have a ninth grade education, while others are transient — here at times and suddenly gone for a while. There is certainly a good deal of visible brokenness in our community.

Sometimes people speak to me about how noble I am for serving a church in such a troubled community with so many broken people. I often chuckle. It is something which is easy to admire from afar, but difficult to admire when one is in the midst of brokenness. At times I find myself frustrated, even cynical.

Blessed are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I come from a subculture in which we hide our brokenness. We put on “church-faces,” the false facade that we plaster on our faces when we go to church to give the impression that everything is fine even when it is not. We all ask everyone some variation of “how are you?” The appropriate answer is some variation of “good.” Deviations from this appropriate answer, particular if the answer is “bad,” immediately receives negative informal sanctions. We are not prepared to deal with brokenness.

With this desire to hide our brokenness, I think that we like to believe that we are not broken, and “those people” are the broken ones. We have jobs, and refinement, and adequate places to live. We have morals and values, and we are very much unlike “the broken” whom we generally see as projects.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

There are places which are centers of brokenness. Hospitals, nursing homes, and inner cities are places where brokenness is visible, on the surface, and prevalent. Generally, I have typically attempted to avoid these centers of brokenness as much as possible. If I visited someone in the hospital I would walk straight to the person I was to visit, and when finished I would leave immediately. All the while attempting to avoid as many people as possible. Similarly with nursing homes. Inner cities have been a locus of mission. I would drive in, serve in a soup kitchen for a few hours, say “hi” to a few folks, and then leave feeling as though I was able to help “the broken” while still maintaining a certain level of distance, seeing them as people to perform outreach to, but always keeping them at arm’s length.

I think in a lot of ways, I tend to be uncomfortable around people who are visibly broken because they remind me of my own brokenness. They remind me that my church-face is fake, that despite of all my attempts, I still do not have my life together. When I am in centers of brokenness and surrounded by people who are visibly broken, I am reminded that I, too, am broken.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

We are all broken, just in different ways. For some of us our brokenness is very visible on the surface, for others of us, our brokenness lies a bit deeper. I need to come to terms with my own brokenness because brokenness is at the core of the Christian life. Without brokenness there is no need or desire for restoration or redemption, and in this case there is no hope. Our understanding of the kingdom/queendom of God is predicated upon the fact that we are broken, and that we must come to terms with our brokenness.

So I continue to pray, that I will not only recognize my brokenness but come to love my brokenness; that I will not only be able to tolerate the brokenness in others, but love the brokenness in others; that I will not only like the idea of brokenness, but also the reality. When I can learn to love my own brokenness and the brokenness of others, I can dwell with and walk with others as we all look forward to redemption and restoration. Brokenness is not the goal, to be sure, however, it is the road toward the goal of true wholeness. Brokenness is not to be sought after, but rather acknowledged and accepted as a part of the human condition, always seeking the wholeness that God offers. It is only when I can do this that I can learn to live in community with broken people, not just seeing them as objects of outreach or mission projects but as people created in the image of God.

At the end of the day, it is important that I recognize and remember this: there is only a place for me in the body of Christ because there is a place for the most broken.

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.