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.
The third recommendation will receive the most substantial analysis here, because this one is thick with assumptions.
In this first part, I want to address some of the assumptions that seem to be made by the task force, in the second forthcoming part will be a closer discussion of the category of rules and regulations, and the third forthcoming part will be a closer analysis of the proposed rules and regulations.
I applaud the Task Force in seeking to find a way in which no one is treated harshly simply for their decision to leave or stay. I share that value. Cleaving a church is a hard and painful thing. Breaking ties that have been created by Divine Providence is never something that should be quick or easy. This being said, it should not be something which is dealt with vindictively, either. It is my insistence that the reason that classes may transfer a church with some or all of its real and personal property is not so that the classis can seek revenge, evict a church and make money on the property, or anything of the like. It is to protect the rights of the minority when a church wants to leave. That is, when a church wants to leave the classis, does the whole church want to do so, or is a church split actually what is going on? What if there is a substantial minority who wish to remain a Reformed church, then it does not leave this group of people homeless. While secession should never be quick and painless, it should not be unduly painful, either.
Quite frankly, I have never once met one of those “vindictive liberals” that people are afraid of who want to evict churches to sell their property. I’ve served on executive committees of the classes of Wisconsin and Schenectady, and from my experience, I can share that one thing that a classis does not want is a bunch of property that they have to insure, maintain, tend, and try to sell. I cannot, and will not, say that this never happens, but it is most certainly not an epidemic.
Therefore, in many ways, I think this is a solution in search of a problem.
One of the most nonsensical phrases in this entire report is “generosity is prescribed rather than simply permitted.” There is no such thing as prescribed generosity. It is a contradiction in terms. There can certainly be social conventions and mores that govern things like gift exchange and obligate things like generosity. However, these obligations are based on social relations rather than codified into law. If there was a law that for birthdays in one’s immediate family, a certain number of gifts of at least a certain value are required by law, it would be hard to say that meeting this obligation would be generous.
If requirement makes generosity, then I am very generous to the state in my payment of income taxes, and in my payment of car registration fees. I’m also generous to the grocery store for my payment of what I purchase, and I am very generous to my local bookstore for what I give them. If a prescribed obligation makes for generosity, then everything is generosity, and if everything is generosity, then nothing is.
While it is nice to say that we are requiring generosity, it is really just shifting the way we think about this, moving from local classical discernment to categorical and distant synodical legislation.
This report also claims that such dictates are “an exemplary way.” I wonder, exemplary by what standard? Is it exemplary in faithfulness? Is it exemplary in embodying values of Christ? Or is it exemplary in efficiency and ease? If it is the latter, then we have to consider the values we hold. Truly, a dictatorship, then, is exemplary as it is incredibly efficient. I’m not sure that’s the kind of example, however, we want to set.
Further, who is it exemplary to? For whom are we seeking to set an example? For our ecumenical partners? For a model for future secessions? To help try to numb the hurt that this all causes?
We can say a lot of things, but saying something does not make it so.
No needless pain, however
Should we do this in such a way that we reduce, as much as possible, the needless pain? Most definitely. Rending the church is painful enough as it is, there is no need to make it worse. However, we cannot simply tell ourselves that we are doing a good thing. It may be a necessary thing, but it is not a good thing, it is not a right thing. It is a very bad, and very wrong (even if necessary) thing. Words like “exemplary” and “generous” are simply trying to dress up something extremely ugly, to try to help divert our eyes from what we are actually doing. I applaud the desire to try to reduce the needless pain, but let us be very honest about what is going on and not try to dress it up as something it is not.