The Final final (maybe…?) report of the Vision 2020 Task Force was released. You can read it here. This series of posts will look deeper at the recommendations not just from a pragmatic lens, but also through a theological lens. While many have given up on the reality that the church order is theological, I cannot accept that. If we cannot see the church order as a theological document, then this entire enterprise is lost. While we may value things like ease and efficiency, this cannot be the driving values. If they are, we have lost sight of what we are about.
From the outset, I want to affirm the hard work of the task force. It was an impossible task with which they were charged, and I think they have done their work faithfully. There are parts of the report that I affirm, and more parts that I critique. But my desire is that critiques are to be understood not as attacks (personal or otherwise), but rather, my desire to contribute to the discussion in what I hope will be a constructive way.
While I reflected earlier about restructuring, I wanted to think a bit about affinity in particular.
A recent social media post (who says social media is the cause of all our problems?) brought to the surface one more important item which is central to the restructuring by affinity which is proposed by the Vision 2020 Task Force: what does affinity mean?
Affinity and non-geographic are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing, and this difference is very important to whether the Reformed Church in the future remains a church or is simply an organization that teaches people about Jesus.
Of note, is that much of the RCA has been taken, with much of modern Protestantism, by the corporatizing influence. A corporation has a goal and every aspect of that corporation has to be tied to that goal. In some ways, we can say that the church has a goal, indeed, the Preamble to the Book of Church Order begins with “the purpose of the Reformed Church in America, along with all the churches of Christ, is to minister to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching, and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by all Christian good works” (Preamble, p. 1). This is the reason that the RCA exists, indeed, this is why all churches exist. This is a laudable goal which ought to drive the life of the church.
The problem, however, is when the General Synod adopts a strategic plan for the denominational program, and pretend that this is the plan for the entire RCA, as if we are all simply corporate branches of the head office. We see the influences of this when there are discussions of “alignment,” which seeks uniformity, but in essence trades our birthright for a bowl of pottage (cf. Gen 25:29-34).
The Church is More than Just an Organization
At its core, the church is not an organization, rather it is an organism. An organism has its own life, whereas an organization is constructed. The Reformed Church in America, as a denomination, is an organization. But it finds its legitimacy because it seeks to express the organism of the church. The church is far greater than the RCA, the Reformed tradition, or Protestantism in its pluriform expression. Church polity helps to structure an organization, but it is not simply a pragmatic structuring, but rather, a structuring which helps it to serve as an agar of sorts for the organism. As such, church polity is not to help the organization be efficient or to accomplish that which we desire, rather, church polity is to help the organization to express, in the fullest way possible, the organism of the church, something which is far broader than us and far more important than us.
This becomes especially important when we speak of affinity. Affinity makes much pragmatic sense. The assumptions behind affinity is that things work better when we are with people who are like us. That way big churches don’t have to worry about small church issues, and visa versa. Similarly, rural churches don’t have to deal with city church issues, and suburban churches don’t have to deal with the issues of either. The crucial question, however, is not whether this is efficient, or even whether it is effective, the question is whether this is faithful.
The Image of the Body
One of the central image of the church in the Scriptures is the organic metaphor of a body.
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.(1 Cor 12:12–14)
The letter continues on to speak of the diversity of the body and its members, all of which are essential to the functioning of the body.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members yet one body.(1 Cor 12:15–20)
In this letter this occurs in the context of the spiritual gifts, that God gives a variety of gifts to people for the building up of the body. In such an arrangement all are essential, no one is dispensable.
Throughout, the Scriptures—particularly in the New Testament—put forth a vast, expansive, inclusive, and diverse vision.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.(Rev 7:9)
This, of course, is the eschatological vision, but we cannot simply say that this is for the future, not now, for this is the télos toward which we move. The question, then, is how is this to be embodied and expressed on this side of the veil.
When we think about how the church ought to be structured, we must consider not what is most efficient, or which makes the most pragmatic and organizational sense, but rather, what helps to foster beloved community.
Spiritual Unity and Apartheid
This is also important to consider in light of the theological justification of apartheid ideology in South Africa. While there is a significant sociohistorical context which could fill volumes, a significant moment came when the General Synod of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) decided, on the question of racial integration or segregation at the sacramental table,
The Synod considers it desirable and according to the Holy Scripture that our heathen members (non-whites) be accepted and initiated into our congregations wherever it is possible; but where this measure, as result of the weakness of some, would stand in the way of promoting the work of Christ among the heathen people, then congregations set up among the heathen, or still to be set up, should enjoy their Christian privileges in a separate building or institution.Quoted in Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel, “Reading the Belhar Confession as a Historical Text.” In Reformed Church in South Africa and the Struggle for Justice: Remembering 1960-1990, edited by Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel and Robert Vosloo, 329–45. Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2013, 334.
This decision was clear that all should come to the tale together. But “as a result of the weakness of some,” an accommodation could be made for segregated separation of the sacrament. This was intended to be an accommodation, not a rule. However, it did not take long for this accommodation to become the rule, and even before Apartheid was social policy, it was ecclesiastical policy. Christians of different races were not kept from the ministry of Word and sacrament, but rather, they were to encounter Word and sacrament separately. To American ears, this sounds much like the infamous Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Furguson, which allowed for racial segregation assuming that there was an equality of facilities (e.g. drinking fountains, toilets, schools, &c), though the separate was certainly carried out, the “equal” aspect was left wanting. The church, of course, is not driven by civil polity, but we cannot but acknowledge the similarities.
For the NGK of the day, the unity of the church was primarily a spiritual unity rather than a tangible unity, that is: we are all spiritually united together, so we don’t have to be physically together, and this segregation does not violate this foundational ecclesiastical attribute. This is why the Belhar Confession speaks so strongly about the essentiality of visible unity, in order to counter the over-spiritualizing of unity which can justify separation.
Affinity and Is the Eye Talking to the Hand?
This all leads to the question of affinity and denominational structures. Affinity classes and non-geographic classes are often spoken of interchangeably, but these are different things. Non-geographic classes are simply classes which are not defined solely or primarily by geography. Affinity is defining a classis by particular characteristics that are held in common, likes, or preferences. While there is a significant amount of overlap between non-geographic classes and affinity classes, these are not the same.
The question, then, is first: Is affinity a legitimate basis on which to formally structure the church? And secondly: what is meant by affinity?
In the classes in which I have served, the classis has been made up of rich churches and poor churches, big churches and small churches, rural churches and urban churches and suburban churches, traditional churches on matters of sexuality and open and affirming churches, churches with racial and ethnic homogeneity and churches with racial and ethnic diversity. In short: a slice of the diversity of the church. Rather than a monoculture type of ecclesiastical agriculture, we have a polyculture form of ecclesiastical agriculture, which much better resembles the natural ecosystem of creation.
Big churches have issues that small churches don’t, and small churches have issues that big churches don’t. You can continue this with all the varieties of churches. Indeed, the geographic classis is often the opposite of programmatic alignment. Rather, it often provides a (often frustrating) degree of diversity and being bound together. However, while this may seem to be incredibly inefficient and ineffective for programmatic alignment, it does not cause a problem, whatsoever, in living out the purpose of the RCA as quoted above. In fact, this diversity actually helps us to do so, as it reminds everyone that us and our preferences and our ideas do not form the church, and these do not carry the church forward.
What does it mean, then, to be bound by affinity? To be with those who think like us, or those we like? Are there bounds to affinity? All the big churches over here, and the small churches over there? Rich churches over here and poor churches over there? White churches over here and black churches over there? Do we assume that those who are not like us or who do not think like us do not have something essential for us? Is this the eye saying to the hand, “I have no need of you”?
While I think that non-geography should be something that ought to be anomalously allowed, affinity is deeply troubling. Are there bounds to affinity? Or can we see a classis that is defined by churches that are: over 1,000 members with budgets of over $1M, majority European descent and which primarily vote Republican?
This may be argumentum ad absurdum, but these are the types of things we must consider when we are speaking of defining ecclesiastical relationships by something as broad and loosely defined as affinity.
While geography is not perfect, nor does a geographic division necessarily provide for the fullness of diversity within its bounds, and while geography, itself, is not sacrosanct, we cannot simply fall for the siren song of the ease of affinity to define our relationships.