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
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.
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.