Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part II)

The Rev. Joshua Bode is a guest blogger for this miniseries on the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) present work to envision a future for itself in the midst of tension.  Josh is an RCA minister who has served a church in upstate New York, been the stated clerk of his classis, and is a former moderator of the RCA General Synod’s Commission on Church Order.  He currently serves as a senior pastor in the Protestant Church in Oman, a church the RCA founded as part of its Global Mission.

Part II:  Reflections on Option 1 and Another Option Not Imagined

Other Options

I see two additional options for the future which are not included in OV 18-23.  Each is more preferable than the three options identified in the synod’s act. The first option is one that, to my mind, is a better version of option 1.  It is an option articulated in an overture to the 2017 General Synod, and which was not tried. I was part of the group that originally drafted that overture.  I reference it here not to cry over spilled milk, but because it helps explicate the rationale in what I am presenting in these posts. This is the overture (I have redacted some parts to avoid digressing):

6. The Classis of Mid-Hudson respectfully overtures the General Synod to instruct its General Synod Council to implement as a matter of its highest priority actions that minister to what is not working in the life both of the RCA and of the General Synod in respect to (1) the breakdown of community in the church and synod, and (2) the consequent cost of that breakdown to processes of governance.

Reasons:

1. The Classis of Mid-Hudson is seeing that the distress of community in the RCA and in the General Synod is the most important and most urgent challenge facing the General Synod today.

2. Reformed assemblies have two basic functions:  koinonia (fellowship, relationship, community) and episcope (oversight, governance).  And the two are deeply related.  The governance function of the assembly works only to the extent that its community is healthy.  Put negatively, to the extent that people do not know each other and do not trust each other, they will not be able to think and work well together.  We see that the General Synod is suffering in its governance capacity because its community is suffering. We believe that this phenomenon is present both in the life of the RCA as a whole and in the life of the synod as an assembly.  We believe the synod has the capacity and responsibility to address both.

3. We see in the life of the RCA as a whole that people and groups are not communicating well between the echo chambers in which we live.  Across the RCA, people are not understanding why others in the church who have perspectives different than their own think what they think and feel what they feel.  People are attributing to others intentions they would never attribute to themselves. The RCA is lacking the means to communicate across lines of difference, to let off steam throughout the year, to make our cases, to make ourselves known to each other.  The cost is a breakdown of trust across the RCA. We note that trusting is different than agreeing. And while agreeing is not a necessary condition for either community or governance, trusting is. . . .

4. . . . .We see in the life of the General Synod assembly a microcosm of the RCA as a whole.  Many delegates come to the synod meeting not knowing each other and not trusting each other.  They have to overcome enormous obstacles to get to workable community. This at a time when the church urgently needs the synod to do governance well.  Yet it is not working well. . . . (MGS 2017, p. 112-113)

I attended the 2017 General Synod as a resource person from the Classis of Mid-Hudson in support of this overture.  In the special advisory committee that considered the overture, I suggested with this overture that the General Synod, and the General Synod alone, has the financial resources, polity authority, polity responsibility, and jurisdiction to do what seems needed at the scale required:  for example, to convene groups of leaders from across the country in in-person dialogues about the issues of division in the RCA. What later occurred within the Council of Synod Executives (COSE) and between leaders from the Gospel Alliance and Room for All are just the sort of events this overture had in mind:  intentional face-to-face crucial conversations about the substance of the tensions between people who are cut off from one another. By many accounts these later meetings began to make real progress toward reconciliation.

The 2017 General Synod declined to pursue the path suggested by this overture, instead exhorting classes and regional synods to hold these kinds of face-to-face conversations.  That exhortation displayed, in my view, a failure to acknowledge that the lines of most acute trouble and [unsurprisingly concomitant] littlest direct personal communication lie not within classes, but between them.  What if the General Synod were to take upon itself to convene dozens of facilitated meetings between key influential leaders drawn from the regions and classes across the RCA? I believe this remains an untried and better version of option 1.  It may be too late at this point. But it remains untried. The reason I believe trying to do so is a better version of option 1 is because I believe that the phenomenon troubling the RCA is in fact not conflict, but distancing.

I see another option not mentioned among the three in OV 18-23.  This option is to me both the most obvious option at present and the only possible option in the long-term.  It is also the most unthought thought in the RCA regarding possible futures for the church. The option to which I am referring is the planful and orderly dissolution of the Reformed Church in America and the disbanding of every local church in its communion, for the sake of the unity of the church.  That last clause is crucial: for the sake of the unity of the church.  This option is not a pragmatic solution to the RCA’s current anxieties.  This option is entirely unrelated to the RCA’s present anxieties, except for the two facts that this moment in time presents a historical occasion for considering it, and that this option is worth considering.

One definition of ideology is that it is a thought-structure which renders certain future possibilities impossible beforehand and which invalidates as a matter of unexaminable assumption certain thoughts in the present.  Given that definition, I take the fact that this option is an unthought thought to be an indication of the total ideological capture of the church by the powers of modern Protestantism, which among other things assume that the continuing existence of Protestant churches is unquestionably both justified and justifiable.  

I think that the continuing existence of Protestant churches is unjustified and unjustifiable, from historical and eschatological perspectives.  The way I understand it historically, the Protestant movement was an existential, confessional and institutional reaction to the perceived abuses of church power in [what would become] Europe in the sixteenth century.  Protestant churches came into being as an emergency response to the crisis. I believe that that crisis no longer exists today, and therefore that the emergency response to it has no legitimacy today. Actually, the more urgent crisis facing the church today is the proliferation of Protestant churches not in communion with each other.  From an eschatological perspective, the church is one, and will be one when the Son finally hands the kingdom over to the Father (I Corinthians 15:24-28). This is the only possible future and only intelligible norm for church unity. Not to consider living into it today is unjustified and unjustifiable.

In Part III I will argue that Options 2 and 3 are tantamount to schism, and, to round out this series, will offer an idea for Option 2 that could mitigate its damage were it pursued.

7 thoughts on “Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part II)

  1. Well, that’s a pebble in the pond. On a global scale, I’m willing to think the unthought thought with you re Protestantism. My profound hesitance is the disbanding of the local congregation, and that for theological reasons (and personal as well). So long as the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments celebrated, that church exists, and as an ontic reality, I am part of it, a member of Christ and co-member with my fellow believers. That doesn’t mean that I am not a member of the “greater” church, however one might construe that. The fact is that as we/I did constitute the church, neither can I dissolve it. I say that even as I think that Protestantism has had its day and it is time for both the Protestant and the Roman church to repent (but I can only call on our “side.”).

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    1. Why, then, Rome? Why not Constantinople? Were the movements that coalesced into Protestantism purely outside the Spirit? (Merely human reactions?) Did God take a few-hundred year vacation? While I am not at all ready to claim that all things Protestant are divinely blessed, inspired, or sanctioned, neither am I ready to say that they are merely confessional and existential reactions to perceived abuses of power. Perhaps I’m just feeling defensive, but I’m not sure that all Protestant principles are reactionary.

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      1. My response was quick — mostly because my interaction is in the Latin West and the division with Rome. My sense is not that Protestants “go back” to Rome. Indeed, the so-called Protestant Principle is important — and has been acknowledged by the Roman Church. It’s that we all move back toward each other in an ever reforming (or “about to be reformed”) church, I recognize the current power issues with Rome — but that’s not my immediate concern. It is with those of us who confess “protestant” in one way or another.l

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  2. Josh,
    First of all, thanks, and keep doing what you’re doing. This is delightful and healthy. I wish everyone in the RCA would read it.
    Second, I take the surprising proposal, that we dissolve the RCA at all levels and join the Church of Rome, very seriously. I don’t think that such a proposal should be rejected out of sentiment or for any but thoughtful reasons. I offer some such reasoning below.
    While the idea of returning the RCA to Rome has, on first sight, the attraction of repairing a 500-year-old schism, the premisses and outworkings of the proposal need further examination.
    “The way I understand it historically, the Protestant movement was an existential, confessional and institutional reaction to the perceived abuses of church power in [what would become] Europe in the sixteenth century. Protestant churches came into being as an emergency response to the crisis. I believe that that crisis no longer exists today…”
    1. It was not just a protest against abuses of church power generally, but also against the way that the Church of Rome structured that power, namely, in a monarchical and top-down way. That situation still exists.
    2. It was not just a protest against the abuse of power, but against the neglect of the scriptures, the elevation of the clergy into a highly-privileged (at least within the ekklesia) class, the loss of a Jesus-centered focus amid the attention paid to so many saints, and the drift of theology away from grace. Although that situation has clearly shifted, and 500 years may be too long a time to use “crisis” as a descriptor, the problem has not been remedied to an extent that Luther or Calvin would approve.
    3. The current power structures and accepted norms of the Church of Rome continue to allow and protect deep abuses of power, as witness the on-going sex abuse scandals.
    Aside from these considerations, there are others of a practical and theological nature:
    1. Would they have us? How many RCA members, let alone the ordained ministers of word and sacrament, would pass the standard entrance exams?
    2. Are our ordinations legitimate? If not, then why are we ministering word and sacrament at all? If they are, then hiking to Rome will require us to deny what we know to be true about them—as, of course, it would require us to deny what we believe about soteriology, ecclesiology, etc.
    3. Are there not intermediate steps that would practically accomplish the same thing, e.g., joining the Anglican Church or the ELCA? The question raised in another reply, “Why Rome? Why not Constantinople?” is relevant here. Why not Canterbury? It does not have Rome’s antiquity, and, perhaps, to those with a more Continental background it does not have the attraction it has for those with a British background, but the Church of England is very active in conversations with Rome about eventual reunion.
    – – –
    Again, thank you for your deep and spiritual scholarship.

    John

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  3. I’ve thought that it might make sense to dissolve the RCA – not so much the local churches – but to send churches into other denominations – say the UCC, CRC, and PCA as the most likely individual churches would end up joining. If there was agreement at General Synod and every church in the RCA was willing to join another Christian body, having one less “denomination” might be worth the loss of the RCA as a separate body.

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  4. Thanks guys. I’m just seeing the comments now.
    I didn’t suggest that our people go Roman Catholic. I did make a claim about the etiology of the Reformation, and I take your feedback on that. That is, of course, a longer conversation. As you know, power-analysis is a basic analytical concept for me, inclusive of all the objections to Roman Catholicism you cite, John, not because of Foucault (though he helps) but entirely because of how I understand the gospel to be a proclamation about power. And so on.
    I do float the idea of dissolving the RCA and disbanding every congregation in all seriousness, though. Al’s thoughts are ones I also have, regarding the catholicity of the local church. I’d grant all that, and still want to consider the constructive value in an orderly and planful dissolution. . .perhaps over the course of a couple generations. People could go to any church, wouldn’t have to be Roman Catholic. Really my question is about the justifyability of the existence of the RCA. I love the thing, very much, but that’s a separate issue, just because I/we aren’t the agents of its constitution.
    Re “did God take a few hundred year vacation”: lol. Between Malachi and Priest Zechariah, supposedly, God did. Or no?

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  5. I have been wondering if the RCA in fact still exists in anything other than its local churches, financial dynamics, the missionaries, and educational institutions. Now that our classis isn’t fighting for its existence, it isn’t clear to me what its sense of purpose is or what it in fact does. Denominationally, other than carrying on some vestiges of a tradition at the local level, what are we doing? Who are we any more? The personal connections are important for me, as embodied in this conversation, but beyond that I’m very unsure.

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