Editor’s Note: As the Reformed Church in America’s mid-October General Synod approaches, we will be publishing a series of articles that speak to issues not only in the RCA but the contemporary church in North America. This is the first of these articles.
When I pray with my adopted daughter each night, I thank God for adopting her, and us, into God’s own household. While we were far away, when we had no people, God graciously welcomed us: as children of God in Jesus Christ, we have communion with the Father through the Spirit, in the covenant community. I thank God for bringing us into fellowship with him, and into fellowship with a family of brothers and sisters in Christ, the church.
Yet, leaving her room, sometimes I wonder: what is going on with this “family” we’ve been adopted into? How am I to make sense of the dissension and conflict among God’s household, God’s people, the church—the bride of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, people of God’s covenant of grace?
I should be clear that these thoughts are not about my local congregation, in particular, but the larger body of Christ, of various denominations and fellowships. In our divided and polarized age, it would be nice if I could extract myself, completely bypass the scores of ways that we self-sort into different competing groups, groups with conflicting perceptions of what is real, what is important, and who to trust. But like the rest of us, I always reflect as a small mortal who is shaped and formed by larger polarizing forces in our cultural moment.
Perhaps such forces are among the “principalities and powers” over whom Christ has ultimately triumphed, but continue to plague us until Christ’s kingdom comes in fullness. But if I am honest, my automatic thoughts, walking from my daughter’s room, are often far less sublime: why are so many people in the church so annoying, self-serving, and blind, and how can I entrust my children to being shaped by these people?” In our cultural moment, I find myself struggling to see how God’s promise of household fellowship and unity in Christ—both a gift and call for God’s people—can be manifest in our context.
Cleansing Rituals of Formation: Purging the Ideological Enemy
I often hear conflicts within denominations and church networks described as a tension between two competing groups: those who value church purity, and those who value church unity. Ostensibly, some value truth, righteousness, and discipline; while others value mutual care, joint connection, and empathy. I’ve come to see this narrative as far from persuasive.
We certainly have factions and divisions. In our present polarized context, the loudest advocates on various sides focus upon purity, though of various sorts. Whether it is the struggle for the Reformed Church in America (RCA) or the United Methodist Church (UMC) to find a way forward, tensions within the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA), or the debates within the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), or the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), my sisters and brothers often seem to be animated by the threat of pollution, of impurity and compromise from an ideological enemy.
It’s understandable. We have been formed by cultural liturgies in our midst to define ourselves more by what (and who) we are against, than what we are for. We ache for answers about the political and cultural conflicts of our moment. The most widespread “explanations” of our conflict are accounts of how the other side of the ideological divide is wrongheaded, hypocritical, and misguided. News companies such as Fox News or MSNBC model this type of formation for us: they are filled with television segments and articles that focus, with outrage, on the danger of opposing ideology. In a strange way, they share a similar deep commitment: to focus a large portion of their reporting on ideological “threats,” seeking to show the absurdity of their opponents. In the process, they serve up a popular pill: viewers get a cortisol kick of righteous outrage, which simultaneously soothes so that we need not examine our own limits and blind spots.
While these cultural rituals play out in our political and social life, these habits of mind and heart are then brought into church conflicts as well. We seek “purity” by championing truth or righteousness or justice with a like–minded tribe, joined to this group through rituals of ridicule. We have numerous resources to help us apply this mindset to our ecclesial conflicts: books, articles, radio, television. It’s a hot product that sells: narratives that explain our present pain through blaming evangelicals, contaminated (allegedly) by the impurities of Trumpism, racism, and masculinity culture; or of progressive Christians, contaminated (allegedly) by the impurities of elitism, “woke” culture, and theological chaos. However one assesses the truth within these narratives, it is their ritual function that is decisive for my point: the explanation, the processing of blaming, becomes a focal point for connection within our tribe, a way to find others who share our enlightened perspectives while saying very little about what we actually think on complex issues. We come to love jeremiads. The ritual of “exposing” the malignant intruder within the church’s walls captures us with both intrigue and disgust, delivering a simple take-away: “They (whether “evangelicals” or “progressives”) are caught in their own certainties, out of touch with reality, blind to the seduction of power. They are like the Pharisee who stood in the temple and prayed “God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Mt 18:11). Our cultural rituals shape us to pray adaptations of this prayer: “God, I thank you I am not a backward fundamentalist.” “God, I thank you I am not a raging liberal.” Those people over there—we come to think—are stuck in a durable alternate reality, they threaten the witness of the church.”
But pause for a moment, here, dear reader. Take a deep breath. Be curious: have you had that storyline play in your head about others in the church whom you see as threats, contaminations to the church’s witness? Are you quick to assume, as I sometimes do, that “they are the blind ones?”
Remarkably, as we dig into the dirt of our ideological enemies, our own group comes across as humble, evidence-hearing, righteousness-seeking, while the other one is…well, a compromiser of the worst sort. The other is a compromiser–as–threat, deeply complicit, like tax collectors who were shamed for colluding against their own people (the Jews) with an occupying empire (Rome), and padding their pockets with wealth gleaned from the poor.
Truth, Righteousness, and Justice
Some readers may worry that my concern about these enemy–forming cultural rituals in the church show that I just don’t understand the stakes. The issues in dispute are deadly serious. How can we be faithful to the Lord’s word to us in scripture? What does it mean to take up our cross as communities, obeying Jesus even when elements of our culture resist? What does it mean to face the truth about the wounds of oppression in our history, in light of the calling of God? How can the household of God seek justice and mutual flourishing in our world so shot through with alienation?
I agree, these are very serious questions related to important issues that are not going away. Our responses—with our mouths, and with our lives—matter deeply. We should approach them with prayerful seriousness, with study and in conversation, seeking God’s way for us, attentive to the Spirit’s word through scripture which leads us on a path of dying and rising with Christ. If someone were to call for “unity” in the church by simply shoving these questions under the rug, it would be facile and unfaithful.
Yet, I’ve also noticed a troubling pattern. When reacting to our ideological opponent, we often assume that “truth,” “righteousness,” and “justice” are something we possess in ourselves. As we do so, we assume that the church as the household of God, is a human possession. In our zeal to defend “truth” and/or “justice,” or whatever form of purity our enemy contaminant threatens, we forget something very basic: Jesus Christ, himself, is the truth. He alone is our righteousness. He is our justice—the one who binds up the wounds of the broken, heralding a kingdom where “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). Communion will come in fullness when his kingdom comes in fullness.
We should have zeal for truth, righteousness, and justice, but we should also recognize our own profound temptation here: we can turn truth, righteousness, and justice into abstractions that we wield and control, as opposed to bearing witness to them as we abide in Christ. We can’t just snatch the “truth” and use it for our own purposes, apart from the person who is the truth. Jesus’ words in John 15:4 are stark, but directly applicable: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
Some will object to my argument here: am I saying that the ideological “left” and “right” in the church are equally complicit in our present struggles with division, with injustice and abuse, with corruption and false teaching, with the sins of racism and sexism, with loss of a sense of witness to a world? Let me be clear: I suggest nothing of the sort. I make no claims about both sides being “equally” complicit, and quite honestly, I’m not sure what that would mean.
But there is something subtly self-deceiving about the question itself: Maybe our group is 90 percent right on the issues in question, or even 99 percent right, whatever that would mean. But as members of God’s household, brought into fellowship in Christ, if our basic reaction is to simply double down on the evils of our ideological enemy, to define ourselves as “anti-woke” or “anti-evangelical,” to direct our speech and action toward the “threat” of these others while neglecting the threat of the sin in our own hearts and systems, then we are stuck, occupying a very particular place: with the Pharisee thanking God that he is not a tax collector (Mt. 18:11), with the person who has a plank in the eye and yet is preoccupied with the speck in the neighbor’s eye (Mt. 7:3-5). This is, in quite precise terms, how the present cultural liturgy has shaped us to see our disagreeing brother or sister: as “contamination” against our purity.
In such a state, we simply cannot approach these members of God’s family as the mysterious and complex and fallen and God–beloved creatures that they are. Like Peter trying to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we fight for truth, for justice, for righteousness, cutting off the ear of the betrayer (John 18:10). But Jesus doesn’t call us to do that. That’s not what he prayed for in the previous chapter of John’s gospel. He prayed that we may be “one,” so that “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). In fight mode, we assume that our group can “fix” the church by opposing the imposters, the compromisers, rather than finding life as the church in abiding in Christ, the head of the body. Yet I believe that somehow, in the midst of the messiness, with real differences about important questions, we need to find our life and hope in Christ the bridegroom rather than our own efforts to sort the “compromisers” from the “faithful.”
It may be helpful to remember that, in the end, all of the disciples were deserters. Even Peter. It was fight, and then flight. We need to admit that we are with them: we are all deserters. If we think we can save the church, we need to grieve that we’ve embraced such a self-serving illusion; we need to admit that God alone can deliver us, to repent of our certainty that we know the church’s solution by defeating our ideological enemy.
We cannot “fix” the church. It is not our own human possession. If we think we can save the church, we need to grieve for embracing such a self-serving illusion; we need to admit that God alone can deliver us, to repent of our certainty that we know the church’s solution by defeating our ideological enemy. We cannot revive the church, giving it the life, unity, communion, and love that it needs. Only Jesus Christ can do that, through the living power of the Holy Spirit. Stated differently, the church’s renewal comes through no other path than abiding in the Vine, that is, dwelling with and in the word, in Christ, by the Spirit. And, whether we like it or not, this abiding is inseparable from being in fellowship with brothers and sisters in God’s household whom we are trained, by our culture, to hold in contempt.
The church is the beloved bride of Christ—but is, and has always been, a terrible mess as well. While some seek solace by the idea of returning to “the New Testament church,” we can often forget how it was sharply divided among factions (“I follow Apollos, I follow Paul,” 1 Cor. 3:4), contaminated with deception (Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1-11), aching amidst sexual misconduct and self-righteous justification (1 Cor. 5), and struggling with false teaching (Col. 2). The epistles repeatedly return to both teaching doctrine and practice, seeing correction, discipline, and encouraging growth, through the Spirit, into fullness in Christ. Hinging upon God’s work in creating a “new humanity” in Christ, and the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” that the church can only receive as a gift, Paul repeatedly exhorts believers to live into this God–given identity, to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2,3).
This God-given identity—and the fact that the church has always struggled to live into this identity—should give us some encouragement before we despair amidst the divisions, corruption, and many forms of sin and alienation plaguing the church in North America today. While no excuse for disobedience, the scriptural witness reminds us that at least we are not alone.
And yet, we are left with the question, what does faithfulness look like when a church fellowship experiences sharp pain and alienation arising from its conflicts?
That’s the question that many bring to my own denomination’s (RCA) General Synod this year. The RCA is a small denomination with an extraordinarily long tenure of continuous ministry, since 1628, with the Dutch settlement in New Amsterdam (later to become New York). While in communion with mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), it has, so far, managed to avoid painful denominational splits that have plagued such fellowships, including hundreds of congregations leaving the PCUSA, contributing to a 40 percent decline in membership since 2009. Yet, in the RCA, there is weariness after years of conflict on the same types of questions that led to recent PCUSA and ELCA fissures, centered around questions of sexual ethics, ordination, and marriage. Some on both the right and the left have left the denomination, and more departures appear likely.
In this context, in response to a motion passed by the 2018 General Synod, a team was developed to examine various possibilities for the RCA moving forward, including the possibilities of “staying together, radical reconstituting and reorganization, or graceful separation.” After a quite involved process, the 2020 team has a final report with recommendations for the General Synod.
Responses to the report’s recommendations have varied. Some have warmly commended it, while others have expressed puzzlement. The report seems to speak a different language than heard in most Protestant national assemblies when factions lobby to receive 51% of the vote. Some want a clear “winner” and “loser”—so that the denomination can purge itself from the contamination of “compromisers.” That’s a sentiment I have heard from progressive and conservative friends alike (even as they disagree about who “the compromisers” are). To some on the left, the 2020 plan doesn’t go far enough because it does not make the RCA an “open and affirming” denomination. Why would they want to be in a denomination with someone who doesn’t see the validity of their beliefs and practices related to sexuality, rights, and justice? To some on the right, the 2020 plan does not go far enough, but in an opposite direction. Why would they want to be part of the same denomination with those who disagree with their beliefs and practices related to the unique sanctity of marriage between a husband and wife?
These are serious questions, requiring thoughtful engagement. But if we are to be faithful in abiding in Christ, we cannot simply “jump” to the “truth,” and then try to pummel our opponents. We need to abide in the One who is the truth. If what the church needs is an expulsion of “the compromisers” (whether on the left or the right), then the 2020 Vision proposal will be a disappointment. It says a lot about polity, organization, ways to connect, and even ways for congregations to leave, if they feel they must. The 2020 plan, like any plan for polity and organization, is not a blueprint for the “perfect” church.
But in deliberating on it, we should be very clear: “Who is the winner?” is not the right question. We don’t “possess” the truth, or justice, as a commodity. We abide in the one who is the truth, which includes abiding in fellowship with the body of Christ. Better questions for the 2020 Vision recommendations might include: does this provide a way forward for the RCA to nourish the ministry of Word and Sacrament, where the Triune God promises to be present to his people, shaping them to be a witness in our broken world? Does this polity provide ways to live in fellowship, with ongoing connection and shared mission, both locally and globally? Does this polity reflect the contours of healthy discipleship, which includes accountability, checks and balances, and healthy discipline within its vision?
These are key, open–ended questions to explore. And as we ask them, we should keep something counterintuitive in mind: polity cannot and should not make the pesky drumbeat of annoying, “contaminated” brothers and sisters go away. With short–term thinking, maybe we can convince ourselves that we can. But spend some time with church leaders who separated from another denomination a year or decade or half century ago, and I can assure you of one thing: they still struggle with “contaminated compromisers.” Whether it was the Donatists stuck with the compromisers in the fourth century (as Greg Lee insightfully examines), or a recently formed denomination in the United States, the church is stuck with “them,” in some form. The debates may not be the same. In some cases, leaders may be so exhausted by the acrimonious debates in the previous denomination that a new fellowship can enjoy a few years of relative calm. But wait a decade, maybe a generation, and, particularly in American Protestant circles, the cycle will be in play again: division, acrimony, and attempts at resolution that go to a vote, and the house is “divided” once more.
On Separation and Abiding
I have had close friends and mentors who have stayed in denominations where they felt out of place, disagreed with the corporate direction, and yet were able to both proclaim and abide in the one who is the truth, while staying connected with sisters and brothers who were often in disagreement. I have had other friends and mentors who spoke from conviction and attempted to value the unity of their denominational fellowship; yet in the end, years of alienating rituals reached such a point where they felt that separation was the only real option.
I don’t have magic words to prevent the tragedy of separation. Such decisions can feel climactic, like coming down from a precipice, and in some ways they are. They will likely have all sorts of intended and unintended consequences for generations to come. It’s also clear that such decisions are a moment in time where patterns of belonging in the larger fellowship, based upon ridicule and enmity rather than humility and forbearance, show their full fruition. I grieve and lament in saying that for some in the RCA (on the right and the left), some separations will follow whatever occurs during General Synod.
And yet, whether staying or separating, whether you are part of the PCA or PCUSA, SBC or UMC, the CRCNA or nondenominational, we all face a temptation: to become champions of the “truth” or “justice” while refusing to abide in the One who is the truth, righteousness, and shalom in his person, Jesus. We cannot abide in Jesus without abiding, remaining, and having fellowship with his body, the church. Fellowship with Christ is inseparable from fellowship within the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17). In the stark words of John Calvin, “we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren.”
If separation is to take place, it should be done with humility, not triumphalism. It’s not a victory over our “opponents,” and certainly not a victory for the church’s corporate witness to the world. If it is done, it should be done with lament, and a deep awareness that this will not be an escape from the noise, from those whom we think are the enemies. There is no escape, if it’s Jesus that we want to have as our Lord.
Why lament? If separating, it might be tempting to frame the whole event as a “liberation” from the compromisers, or a “creative disruption” to renew the church, where God is doing a new thing. Don’t get me wrong, God can and does work amidst messes. But in the history of American Protestantism, denominational division is not the slightest bit countercultural. It’s expected. Sadly, the ongoing fracturing and alienation among Protestants is some of why people want “Jesus, without the church,” even though our Lord assures us that we cannot have him without receiving a larger household of faith as well. Ironically, some claim that they leave a denomination to start a new one (partly) to give more resources to evangelism and mission. But unity itself, amidst our sharp cultural polarities, is a witness to God’s new creation, his amazing love.
So, whether your congregation is denominational or nondenominational, in a “network” or independent, know that if you want to be in fellowship with Christ, there’s no other way than moving toward other Christians, even ones you don’t like. I can’t just point my daughter to Christ and not entrust her to a larger fellowship—and, as many nondenominational churches have found in recent decades, congregations need larger fellowships for mission and mutual accountability and gift-giving and receiving. We’ve just got to connect if we want to participate in the fullness of God’s household, which is “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). We can’t solve all of our messes by cultivating regular habits of moving toward other Christians in fellowship, even when we disagree. But such a direction might actually surprise a few people, like our non-Christian neighbors, if they could see a people who disagreed with one another on important matters display love, joy, and peace from the Spirit (rather than fight and flight), if we could bear witness to the One who is the truth, righteousness, and justice in his person, even if we don’t have it all figured out.