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by Joshua Bode
The Reformed Church in America’s 2012 General Synod passed a resolution that included the statement, “homosexual behavior is a sin according to the Holy Scriptures, therefore any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.” While the question of what the Bible says about homosexuality is of basic importance in the church’s debates around homosexuality, the synod’s declaration also raises questions about how the RCA has ordered itself in light of the Word of God, and why. What is the authority in the church? What is the nature of Christian unity? What is the character of the gospel itself? This article, an adaptation of a presentation I gave in October 2012 to the RCA’s General Synod Council and Synod Commissions, attempts to address these questions.
Our church order expresses a practical theological frame—and a spirituality. Talk of the church’s order comes across as lawyerly and “wonkish” and procedural. So the first thing that needs to be affirmed is that the church’s order is, at its core, an expression of a practical theology. When we confess certain things, when we order our lives according to what we confess, and when we live according to that ordering, we come to believe what we confess all the more. The order contains a set of rules, if by “rules” we mean “covenants,” but the rules emerge from what we believe. It’s one thing to know the rules; it’s another to ref lect on why the rules exist. For example, we ask ministers to subscribe to the confessional Standards of Unity, but we don’t ask the same of elders or deacons or church members.1 We know that what, but when we ponder its why, it appears that the RCA is ordered around its Standards of Unity with varying degrees of adherence. And the why of that makes clear that however the RCA understands Christian unity, it is not as a lockstep like-mindedness.
We confess that Jesus Christ was born, lived, taught, died, was resurrected, and is ascended. At the heart of the church’s order is the question, “What kind of people does the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus create on earth anyway?” In other words, “What kind of people are we to be because of Jesus?” Everything in the order—all the rules we are covenanted to—must be understood as part of that answer. The church’s order assumes and asserts that the way we order our life as a church is itself a witness to the gospel. The medium is the message. Jesus’ teaching and his life fit together, so the church’s order emerges from the gospel of Jesus and seeks to have us live—and die—like Jesus. And, like Jesus, the order does its work noncoercively. The specific questions I addressed in October were “How do authority and assembly function when there is disagreement within the body? How is this representative of, or how does it relate to, the whole church?”
Our church order orders authority throughout the RCA. When we violate our covenants, there’s no national guard to send in. No police. The gospel contains a fundamental critique of power. The RCA’s church order understands this: it is radically suspicious of power, especially power at a distance. When in the 1500s the Reformed churches in the Netherlands gave themselves a name, they called themselves “The Churches under the Cross.” The church’s order is still leading us to the cross.
Amid disagreement the order cannot protect us. As Allan Janssen recently reminded me, the church’s order can neither create nor vouchsafe our unity. In other words, the order does not protect us from our worst selves. Often, people want the order to protect us from ourselves or from others, but it doesn’t, because Jesus didn’t. Consider the order’s theology of authority. It is both limited and delimited. All authority, say the Book of Church Order and the Bible, is from Christ.2 Suspicious of power, especially power exercised at a distance, the order places most authority where we are met by Jesus daily, where we meet those near us every Sunday, where we practice all the Christian disciplines most of the time: around the Word in the local church, at font and table and pulpit.
Because the local church is where the people of God are archetypically encountered by the Word, the local church is given authoritative priority in the RCA’s church order. This ordering practice and principle is deep in the Reformed way of being. I know of no Reformed communion whose broadest assembly has legislative power to interpret scripture authoritatively for the whole church, although some are able to make authoritative interpretations of their confessions or of their church orders. The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly3 and the Christian Reformed Church’s General Synod,4 in its way, are given such authorities. But the RCA’s General Synod is not. In the RCA, the Christian discipline of interpreting scripture takes place in the preaching and hearing of the Word within the context of the local church gathered in worship under the supervision of the board of elders. Whatever the local church and its consistory cannot do alone, the classis is assigned to do. Whatever the classes cannot do alone, the synods are assigned. This principle has been a limiting and delimiting principle in the Dutch Reformed churches since at least the 1570s.5
Our church order orders our (cruci-)formation as Christians. While the order doesn’t protect us from our worst selves, it does seek to form us into sanctified Christians. A repository of wisdom from the saints of the past, the order encourages our best selves, our sanctified selves, our Jesus-like selves. The order wants us to be like Jesus. It keeps its eyes fixed on the eschatological vision of rightly ordered lives in the kingdom of God and calls us to live that way. It considers the reality of sin, as, for example, in the order’s “Disciplinary and Judicial Procedures.” But this section, in its brevity, disappoints all who turn to it to ensure what we’re used to calling “justice” or ” purity,” that is, what has been secured by coercion or the threat of coercion. Whatever those really are, they are not the justice and purity the church’s order shows us. The discipline it gives us is positive, noncoercive discipline aimed straight at reconciliation because the order keeps its gaze pretty firmly fixed on the church ordered in God’s shalom, not in sin.
The order starts with the vision of the peaceable kingdom of God. And so coercion is out. Authoritarian power must disappear. When coercion is out and authoritarian power disappears, so too does the expectation of homogenous consensus. In our order we are allowed to disagree with the decision of an assembly, even an assembly of which we are members. Respect the decision, yes; but agree, not necessarily. Bind our lives to it somehow, yes; be slaves to it, no. We are slaves to Christ alone and are responsible, as the order says, first of all to Christ.6
Exactly what kind of togetherness does the Book of Church Order have in mind when it says that “the local churches together delegate authority to classes and synods, and having done so, they also bind themselves to be subject together to these larger bodies in all matters in which the common interests of the many churches are objects of concern”?7 This is an open and historically contested question. If we could articulate what it means that decisions of assemblies are “binding” on our lives nonhierarchically, noncoercively, and without the expectation of like-mindedness, we would have progressed a long way toward articulating how the RCA’s order imagines what the church’s unity looks like when it becomes visible, as the Belhar Confession says it must.
We know that assemblies are neither homogenous nor infallible. But the order assumes that having deep disagreements even about important things doesn’t stop us from being the church. It makes us a church in pain. But still the church.
Perhaps the whole church order may be read as a reply to the question, “How can we live in pain even with deep differences, like how we read scripture?” For the most part the order doesn’t tell us how. Instead, it shows us how to avoid coercion and authoritarian power. But it doesn’t force us. Rather, it works where we are like Jesus and breaks down where we are not.
Our church order orders the church’s assemblies. Assemblies are designed to be gatherings of the offices humbly listening in the Spirit and praying for the Word of God to speak to the church. This is the heart of Reformed church governance. The church is not a society of the like-minded. Our mind is in our Head, who is in heaven, and we are always on the way, a pietatis viatorum. When church assemblies gather primarily to, as the Dutch say, count noses—when they see their primary function as taking votes—they sacrifice their fundamental listening role and become more like civic legislatures composed of interest groups talking over one another. The church’s order is radical and is not the politics we are used to. Vying to win is often our default mode when we gather in assembly because we think like legislatures. Church assemblies work as church assemblies only to the extent that we live out of our humble, listening, waiting, sanctified selves. When we act like civil legislatures, we employ different kinds of power, power from which the order doesn’t protect us. Instead, power breaks down the order—just as it broke Jesus.
How then does the church’s order, a practical theology of the cross, help us when we disagree? The church’s order is a practical theological expression of what the RCA has confessed about authority in the church, about the nature of Christian unity, and about the character of the gospel itself. In our current disagreements around homosexuality the order provides us with a theological frame. It directs us to the Word of God in a particular way: with a cruciform spirituality ordered by limiting and delimiting covenants of authority. The church’s order starts from a vision of God’s shalom and the headship of Christ, but it cannot save us. It breaks down before coercive power. It tells us to expect disagreements, but it doesn’t protect us from each other along the way. It assumes that human humility works. It gives authoritative priority to the local church. Our order is vulnerable in just the ways Jesus was vulnerable, and strong in just the ways Jesus was strong. It calls us as persons to be like Jesus too. How we order our lives together is itself a witness to the gospel. The medium is the message.