The Church and the Minority

In the late 1800s, the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America was working toward a federal union (not an organic one) with the (German) Reformed Church in the United States. Because this was a change in how the General Synod operated, it was a synodical decision. However, the General Synod desired to get the mind of the church, and so asked classes to register their votes. Fewer than 1/5 of the classes voted in the negative, which meant that 80% of the classes supported the federal union. However, the General Synod did not effect that union even though the majority clearly desired it and they had every right to do so. Why? Because such a union was very problematic for a group of recently arrived immigrants in the midwest, and the General Synod showed deference to the significant concerns of the minority. 

In 1969, the classical votes were counted for merger with the Presbyterian in the United States. The General Synod has voted to approve the merger, a majority of classes voted to approve the merger, but the supermajority was not attained, and the minority made the decision. 

In 1971, the classical votes were counted which would allow women to serve as elders, deacons, and ministers. A majority approved of those, but they did not reach the requisite two-thirds majority. In this case, the minority delayed this for several years to come. 

These are only a couple of instances where the minority was a deciding factor. And these are certainly not the only instances where there were significant moments and the minority carried the vote. 

***

Is voting divine design or an accomodation to sin?

Voting is so deep into our way of understanding the world that we can sometimes think that voting was a divinely designed and commanded method. However, this is simply not the case. 

When it comes to our understanding of church government, there is considerable contamination from the similar-looking liberal democracy of the civil government. Similar looking but very different. The foundational philosophy of a liberal democracy is that the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and so (with some boundaries, especially constitutional ones), what the people want is what is right. However, not only is the Reformed Church constitutional, but as a church it stands on a very different foundational philosophy. That is, the church is a creation not of people, but of Word and Spirit. 

Indeed, while the majority may win in the civil government (at least most of the time), the church asks fundamentally different questions. The church is concerned with what is right, the church is concerned with discerning the mind of Christ, and being attentive to the promptings of the Spirit. This leads to very different assumptions about how things ought to work. 

While a recent communication from the Synod of the Far West speaks of the “tyranny of the minority,” such an assumption is based upon values which are not theological values, or even biblical values. Indeed, such a concept is based upon unchristian values. 


Tyranny is a real thing. Not being able to do what you want because you want it does not equal tyranny.


While voting is often the default way to make decisions, voting is not divinely instituted, and voting is not part of the Kingdom of God. Voting is an accommodation to our sinfulness. When we bear this in mind, we approach it differently. 

In reflecting on the “democratic captivity” of the Presbyterian Church, Joseph Small writes this

The simplified division of substantial concerns into two opposed alternatives is further degraded by the expectation that the way to choose between them is by majority vote. Voting can work reasonably well in political arenas where winning and losing is the assumed outcome, even the name of the game. It works best, however, in situations where differences are encompassed within broad consensus regarding aims, so that balloting is about the best means to achieve those aims. Voting does not work well in situations of intractable polarity (witness the United States Congress) or when fundamental issues of faith and life are at stake.

Why a supermajority anyway?

The two-thirds requirement for constitutional amendments was incorporated into the church order revision of 1916. The Minutes of the General Synod do not provide any commentary about the particular reasons for this, but supermajorities are required for one thing: to have greater consensus for significant changes in a shared life. 

Foundational changes to our shared life ought to have greater consensus, not lesser. Indeed, this is not about a majority winning, but it is about a collective listening to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus tells us to enter by the narrow gate, for the broad gate leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13). Which shows that the minority is not necessarily wrong, and the minority ought not be discounted. Indeed, it is possible that the minority may be speaking the Word of God. 

There is nothing sacrosanct about the two-thirds threshold, that is the way that we have decided to pay attention to the minority. It could just as well be three-quarters, or even unanimity. My argument is not for the two-thirds supermajority in particular, but the concept of a supermajority for foundational changes to our shared life together.

And when we think about it, haven’t we all been in a minority opinion before? And haven’t we wanted the majority to think about us? This is even more the case with the faith we profess. 


Indeed, the minority may actually be the voice of the narrow gate.


The simple majority amendment

The amendment that classes will be voting on will be to allow fundamental changes to our shared life together by a 50%+1 vote of the classes. The goal, then, is to pass something rather than putting in the hard work of doing the right thing. This is certainly not the only significant moment that we have faced as a church, but for the past one hundred three years we have required that fundamental changes to our shared life require at least 66% of the classes (and most definitely in 1892, the classes that supported the union had the vastly more confessing members than those that opposed it). However, for some reason only now, and only for this is this requirement no longer tolerable. This amendment asserts that we must change the rules so that whatever passes the General Synod can pass easier without having to put in the hard work of greater consensus. 

Small continues, 

All too often, when a majority vote determines the matter, the unity of the church is betrayed. Presbyterian votes on contentious theological and moral issues often fall within the range of 55 percent to 45 percent, the equivalent of a vote of eleven to nine in a local church. Can it be said that the church has decided anything when nearly half of the church dissents? 

Erroneous math often used

 I’m certainly not a mathematician, but a word needs to be said about the faulty math behind the numbers that are so often tossed around. 

When a classis votes on a constitutional amendment, 50%+1 is all that is needed for the classis to register a vote one way or another. Too often, someone adds up the confessing members in all the churches in that classis and argues that this vote speaks for x many people. However, it cannot even be said that a vote fully represents the classis, when 49% of the classis can disagree. Not to mention the fact that the classis may not speak for any of the churches, and it is certain that the churches have diversity within them. So one cannot say that 50%+1 of a vote of a classical assembly speaks for anyone else than the majority of that classis at the session that the vote was taken. 

It is often noted that 2/3 of the classes do not represent 2/3 of the members evenly. This is true. And this has always been true. Never in the history of the Reformed Church has the church been so evenly distributed. Indeed, there was a time when the Western classes contained far fewer members than the Eastern classes, and each classis still was able to register a single vote on constitutional amendments. Classes are each given a vote not because they have the same number of members within their bounds, but because as the body which serves the episcopal function, they have value apart from their size or wealth.

Giving value to larger classes because they are more populous is contrary to the very foundations of Reformed ecclesiology and is patently unbiblical.

The church is called to something more

The church is called to something more than might makes right or the majority always wins. After all, we follow a savior who died naked on a cross. We profess a faith that proclaims that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16) and “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Mt. 23:12). The simple majority amendment is an exercise in power, which is not something that is fitting for the church of Christ. 

Paying attention to the minority is not tyranny. Disenfranchising a minority because you can, however, is tyranny. When we discount a minority simply because they are the minority, we have ceased listening to Christ and have begun listening to the enemy. Indeed, the minority may actually be the voice of the narrow gate. The simple majority amendment has nothing to do with seeking to live faithfully and has everything to do with a bald powerplay, which is the voice not of our savior, but of the enemy. 

Why It is Time to Disband the General Synod Council

In the previous post, I discussed the General Synod Council (GSC) and its function in the life of the Reformed Church, including what it is and what it is not, what it does and what it does not do.

In this post, I am going to look at some of the troubling aspects of the General Synod Council, and argue why this council ought to be disbanded. While the GSC seeking to accumulate more power for itself is nothing new, there are two issues right now, which show that the GSC is unable or unwilling to operate within the constitution of the church.

Coordinator of Interreligious Relations

The 2018 General Synod adopted the following

To direct the general secretary to authorize and fund a halftime position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious
relations, to facilitate the RCA’s interreligious relations
work, including equipping congregations, leaders, and
students for missional interreligious engagement; and further,

To conduct the RCA’s interreligious work through a joint committee
with the CRCNA, consistent with the Reformed Collaborative.
The committee will be comprised of the RCA coordinator for
interreligious relations, the RCA ecumenical associate, CRCNA
staff, and practitioners and experts in interreligious relations
from both the RCA and CRCNA. The joint committee will report
its work to the General Synod each year through the Commission
on Christian Unity.

Both the position of coordinator for interreligious relations
and the joint committee shall be funded for a period of five
years, at which time the effectiveness of structuring the RCA’s
interreligious work in this manner will be evaluated and the
Commission on Christian Unity will bring recommendations to
the General Synod regarding whether to continue this structure
for interreligious work.

MGS 2018, p. 97.

As typically happens, the Synod makes decisions and then addresses the financial ramifications at the end of the meeting. When this was discussed, for some reason which neither I nor anyone else that I spoke to seems to understand, the GSC decided to insist that the General Synod front-load the funding for the position, so that the entire five years would have to be paid the first year. While some have argued that this is because one General Synod cannot bind a subsequent General Synod, this is not how we deal with staff. If this was the case, then every staff position that fits within the strategic goal must be funded for the entire fifteen years in the first year, and operational staff people must be funded for an entire lifetime in a single year.

Regardless, the unexplained insistence on funding the entire five years in a single year resulted in a significant increase in per-member assessments. What followed was a rather contentious discussion where ministers and elders, knowing how their church budgets work, were trying to get a handle on the denominational budget. But because the GSC never presents a denominational budget to the assembly that oversees it, the lack of transparency means that the church is never able to get a hold on the budget.

This dynamic created an “us” and “them” mentality. “Us” being the church and “them” or “you” being the denomination–something that tends to happen when there is a lack of transparency. There was tension on the floor because assessments are an increasing burden on local churches and classes (and at some point the Reformed Church will have to deal with this, but this was apparently not that point). In response, the General Synod voted,

To approve from the unspent reserves from the year 2017 to fund a half-time position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious relations, and a joint interreligious committee with the CRCNA.

MGS 2018, p. 66.

To be clear, my personal opinion is that this was a poor and misguided decision. It is true that the General Synod didn’t have good information about the reserves, restricted and unrestricted funds, the amount of funds needed on hand, and the intricacies of the finances of a major corporation, and the rest. However, the reason that the General Synod didn’t have good information was because the GSC does not provide that information. Regardless, what the General Synod decided was possible, that is not disputed, and while it may have not been a prudent decision, it was the General Synod’s decision, and it is the General Synod’s decision to make.

Subsequently, however, the GSC directed the General Secretary to not hire that position, but to delay it until they could bring this decision back to the following General Synod for reconsideration. There were three reasons given for this, although only one stands: some delegates expressed unease about that decision on their post-synod survey. And it was based on this that the GSC invented the ability to decide that the General Synod made a poor decision and stopped it.

This is unlawful.

As we clearly saw in the previous post, the GSC “shall implement the decisions…of the General Synod…” (1.IV.7.1). In no way is the GSC able to not implement a decision simply because they disagree with it or think it unwise. The General Synod has made unwise decisions innumerable times before; however, the responsibility of the GSC is to implement those decisions, not to act as a check or balance on those.

Some may argue that the GSC is not not-implementing that decision, it is simply postponing it. However, the fact remains, nothing allows the GSC to vote to postpone a directive of the General Synod (and at some point, postponing is nullifying). This was not an unfunded mandate–there was instruction given regarding the funding, and even if ill-advised, and it is possible to fund that position in that manner.

The other related concern is practical precedent that may be derived from this. While I continue to argue that precedent is not a thing in the church (this is true), it is worth acknowledging, at least, that people believe that it is, and this belief colors the way that we function and operate. Will this allow for the GSC to determine which decisions it approves of and which it doesn’t? Will it allow the GSC to simply postpone (indefinitely?) carrying out the directives of the General Synod? Again, I did not think it a wise action of the General Synod but it is not permitted for the GSC to review the decisions of the General Synod, it is there job to implement them. Shall means shall.

Asking the Commission on Church Order to Reconsider

Another troubling action that the GSC has taken as of late is formally asking the Commission on Church Order to revisit something in its report.

In 2017, as a result from an overture, the Synod voted to

To instruct the Commission on Church Order to propose constitutionally
appropriate amendments to the Book of Church Order to accomplish the intent of Overtures 16 and 17 for report to the 2018 General Synod

MGS 2017, p. 139.

The intent of the overtures was to make classical secession easier by instructing that the classis relinquish its constitutional obligation of oversight over any permanent disposition of a church’s property. (The matter of classical oversight of church property will be the topic of a subsequent post.)

The instructions are important here, “propose constitutionally appropriate amendments.” The Commission on Church Order presented a substantive report of the matter and concluded that there were no constitutionally appropriate amendments (MGS 2018, pp. 264-266). This, of course, is certainly within their right to do. Commissions are required to receive work from the General Synod, but commissions are not simply the scribes of the General Synod.

The troubling matter is that the GSC approached the Commission on Church Order to “revisit” their conclusions. How does something like this even come before the GSC? This is a mystery that is yet to be addressed. However, it is troubling that the GSC would encourage or suggest that a commission change the conclusions after it has already reported to the General Synod and the General Synod as adjourned.

This is unlawful.

Just as the GSC is not a check and balance on the General Synod, it is not a check and balance on the Commissions. The GSC does not oversee or supervise the commissions, the GSC is “to support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the commissions” (BCO, 3.I.3.6f). Approaching a commission to change their mind is a significant overreach of constitutional authority.T

The Root of the Problem

In one session, the GSC made two significant violations, not only of the Constitution but also of the Bylaws of the General Synod. And it seems that the GSC is unable to maintain its constitutional obligations.

While one possibility would be to vacate the council. However, the true problems with the GSC is not because of its current composition, it is a systemic problem with the council itself.

The GSC was formed from two different bodies that did two different things. The GSEC and GPC had different foci and different goals. One was an agent of the General Synod, the other was the executive committee of an assembly. The program of the denomination is not the church, and the church is not necessarily the denominational program. The General Synod is far more than simply a program body. The GSEC and GPC were, in part, set up to counterbalance one another, because of the differences in foci and differences in essence. With the creation of the GSC one combined an agent of the General Synod and the executive committee of an assembly. One took an apple and combined it with a potato.

This also had the effect of distributing power. With the consolidation into a single council, however, this also consolidated power–something that the Reformed have historically been rightly apprehensive to do. The only way that the GSC can be checked is for the General Synod to do so, and the General Synod does not seem to be aware of this, that the GSC is simply the workhorse of the General Synod, that the General Synod has the ultimate say over the GSC.

When we consider both the combining of two things that are fundamentally different, and the fact that the consolidation of power ought to disturb all of us to our core, it becomes apparent that the problem is not with the people that are on the GSC, but the GSC itself. The GSC has largely become an unaccountable body which has accumulated an inordinate amount of power.

The best solution would be to disband the GSC and reconstitute GSEC, or something like it, and GPC, or something like it and return the proper responsibilities to the proper group.

NOTE: I do think it is worth pointing out that I do not see some kind of nefarious plot here. Nor do I assume bad intentions on the part of the members of the GSC. I have tried to be clear above that the problem is not with the people but with the structure. These are simply natural lines to which such a structure brings us. We have bumbled into this situation together, and we can get out together.

What is the General Synod Council

The General Synod Council is established by and responsible to the General Synod. It shall act as the executive committee of the General Synod and it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod. It shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod through proper channels and agencies. It shall support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the several commissions, boards, institutions, and agencies of the Reformed Church in America, thus seeking to increase the effectiveness of the mission and witness of the church.

BCO, 1.IV.7.1

Brief History

The General Synod Council (GSC) finds its origins in the 1990s with the merger of the General Program Council (GPC) and the General Synod Executive Committee (GSEC).

The 1960s was a significant decade for the Reformed Church, as it was a significant decade for the United States. Growing frustration with the federation of boards led to a desire to better coordinate the work and program of the Reformed Church. During this decade, two new bodies were created. The first, in 1961, was GSEC, an executive committee of the General Synod to coordinate the work of the various boards and to “implement all the actions and decisions and policies of the General Synod.” (MGS 1961, p. 272). Not long after, in 1967, the General Synod approved the merger of the Boards of North American Missions, World Missions, and Education with the Stewardship Council to create a single program arm of the Reformed Church, the GPC.

The GPC and GSEC were designed to work alongside one another, and sometimes to act as a counterbalance to the other. It was fitting for these to be separate bodies, after all, they were very different. While GPC dealt with program, GSEC primarily dealt with church. While today we tend to conflate them with little understanding of the difference between church and program, there is a significant difference. These two bodies would also, at times, have different goals and tensions would have to be worked through.

About three decades later, in 1991, the Ad Hoc Committee on Services, Structures, and Funding in the Reformed Church in America argued that these two bodies were inefficient and that there were redundancies and proposed a single body that would incorporate these two very different functions. This would be called the General Synod Council (GSC). This change was adopted into the church order in 1993.

The Function of the GSC

The Government gives three specific responsibilities to the GSC,

(a) “It shall act as the executive committee of the General Synod and it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod.”

(b) “It shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod through proper channels and agencies.”

(c) “It shall support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the several commissions, boards, institutions, and agencies of the Reformed Church in America, thus seeking to increase the effectiveness of the mission and witness of the church. “

“shall act as the executive committee”

The General Synod is a sizable assembly, and convening the General Synod is costly and takes a significant amount of time and work to make it possible. Particularly as the General Synod had begun supervising a large denominational apparatus (the denominational program: currently ‘Transformed and Transforming’), it is not possible for the General Synod to supervise and oversee that adequately. Indeed, the main expressed reason for the creation of an executive committee in the first place is to help coordinate the various ministries of the various constituent boards of the General Synod (MGS 1961, p. 271).

By the creation of an executive committee, the General Synod authorized this new body to act in specific ways on behalf of the General Synod, but always accountable to it. It did not work independently of the General Synod but always in its name. The executive committee receives its mandate, responsibility, constraints, and authority from the General Synod itself. This also contains a somewhat peculiar line, “it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod.” This has led some to the mistaken belief that the GSC is somehow ‘the General Synod’ between sessions. This is certainly not the case.

In no way does the GSC adopt the authority of the General Synod during the 51 weeks (excepting a special session) when the General Synod is not in session. The GSC is responsible for keeping the lamps burning, so to speak. If there is a legal issue that arises, it is the responsibility of the GSC to handle that. If there is a sudden and pressing financial issue, it is the responsibility of the GSC to manage that. The GSC is to oversee the denominational program which supports the church.

I think of the children’s book, Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, in which a lighthouse keeper had to leave to get needed supplies and charged his daughter with tending the light, keeping the light burning. It wasn’t her place to decide to stop tending the light in the lighthouse, to relocate the lighthouse, the build another lighthouse. Her responsibility was to keep the light burning. Similarly, the GSC is charged with keeping the light burning. It charges the GSC with maintaining that which the General Synod has put into motion. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The General Synod is the assembly–the GSC is not.

“shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod”

Ever since the genesis of GSEC, it was never intended to simply coordinate the denominational program, but also that it would be a body that would implement the decisions and actions of the General Synod (MGS 1961, p. 272).

The General Synod makes all sorts of decisions. Perhaps it will make a decision regarding the denominational program. It should make decisions regarding the church. Perhaps it may direct its stated clerk to write a letter to the President of the United States to express a viewpoint, perhaps it will seek closer ecumenical ties with other church communions, perhaps it will decide to enter the world of interfaith work with earnestness, or perhaps it will decide something as it did during Apartheid in South Africa and decide to divest thence. The entire synodical assembly is not able to carry out the details of implementation, it is so impractical to be nearly impossible for the synodical assembly to do this. This responsibility, then, falls to the GSC.

As the General Synod is the assembly and not the GSC, the GSC is not so much a check and balance on the General Synod as it is the synod’s workhorse. The GSC is charged with navigating the practicalities to turn the decision of the General Synod into a reality. The GSC, then, is charged with following directions.

Note the prescriptive language, “shall.” This means that the GSC does not have an option. It cannot decide that it does not like a decision or agree with it. The Synod is able to make bad decisions, and it often does. It is not the GSC’s responsibility to try to “fix” a wrong decision, it is their responsibility to carry out the directives that it receives. While the order is often reversed in the minds of the church, the GSC exists and works for the General Synod. The General Synod does not work for (or exist for) the GSC.

“shall support, strengthen, and coordinate”

This harkens back to one of the presenting reasons for the creation of an executive committee in the first place: support and coordination. Even with the merger of these two bodies with different foci, this responsibility still remains.

It is worth noting, however, that the GSC is to “support, strengthen, and coordinate,” not direct. That is, the commissions, boards, agencies, &c. of the General Synod do not report to the GSC and they are not to take direction from the GSC. The GSC has no authority over the decisions that they make. The Commissions, boards, and agencies are accountable directly to the General Synod.

While these other bodies do, at times, defer to the GSC, this is out of courtesy only and in no way out of duty or obligation.

Conclusion

Certainly, the GSC is an important body in the life of the Reformed Church. However, it is not in charge of the Reformed Church, nor does it oversee the Reformed Church, nor does it have broad and undefined powers. While the GSC has been expanding its understanding of its own role for years, and the General Synod has been all too compliant in the GSC’s accumulation of power, simply because something has been a particular way doesn’t mean that it must–or should–remain.

Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part III)

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 III:  Reflections on Options 2 and 3

Options 2 and 3 Are Schism, and Option 2 Is the Worst Possible

I need to explain what I mean by the word “schism.”  What I mean does not refer only to separation of church structures, but it does include it.  “Schism” is to me a phenomenon on the level of what the philosopher Hegel called “objective spirit.”  Whereas “subjective spirit” is the spirit of a subject, objective spirit is the spirit of a system. It is akin to the concept of “the spirit of the age.”  Objective spirit is expressed in concrete things like laws, institutions and behavior. It is also expressed in more abstract things like thoughts, beliefs, morality and culture.  Objective spirit is an ethos of a group, a way of its being, the thoughts people in it can think, and is expressed among other things in the language and norms that determine and structure its life.  Objective spirit determines what meaning is possible, and what can possibly have meaning. Objective spirit determines the thoughts and actions of subjects who live under it. As I understand the terms, ideology is a power of objective spirit, for example.

When I use the word “schism,” I mean it to be a phenomenon of objective spirit.  I define schism as whenever Christian people intentionally move away from other Christian people in communion.  A schismatic thought or action is any thought or action by one or more Christians the telos of which involves any form of irreconciliation.  A thought or action can be said to be schismatic when among its purposes is anything inclusive of irreconciliation.  Shism is most objective when Christians intentionally walk away from each other at the literal Lord’s Table (the table of communion), but it is more deeply objective when they disconnect from each other “in spirit” in communion.  I take the four responses to anxiety listed above as four examples of schism “in spirit”– a spirit which is objective and very real. If one questions whether it is “real,” consider whether you can feel it when schism so-defined happens:  the force is both invisible and objective. As spirit, it moves people and is invoked by people’s moves.

Typically we think of schism as the separation and non-communion of churches as institutions.  That is indeed schism in an objective sense, but it is only one species of the genus. When Christian people and groups fail to stay connected in any way, that also is schism in an objective sense.  When I offer this understanding of schism, sometimes people say, “But we do that all the time!” My response is, “Yes. And the deeper problem is not the act of schism; the deeper problem is in any ideology that has us naming it anything other than ‘schism.’”

Much more can be said about this understanding of schism theologically, including theological and biblical justification of it.  And much can also be said about what comes after we properly identify schismatic thoughts and actions as schism (in brief:  it would fall under the rubric “what comes after you confess your sins?”). I will not address those things here.  I do believe that the validity of this view can be felt, however, as one considers options 2 and 3 of OV 18-23 as examples.  If either option is chosen by the General Synod, every person and every congregation in the RCA will feel it.  On my view, both options are properly categorized as schism.

Option 3 is in my view obviously schism in any sense of the term.  The only additional trouble with it is its ideological language of “grace-filled.”  Aside from the complex problem of whether this sort of a human act can properly be described using the adjective “gracious,” basic cognitive and emotional dissonance is evident on the surface of option 3.  Grace may and does come before and after any separation (thank God), but in my view the only power served by describing the act of separation as “grace-filled” is the self-justifying power of modern Protestant ideology I discussed earlier.

Option 2 is the worst option.  It is worst for four reasons. First, to the extent that it buys into the frame, “the RCA is in conflict,” it addresses the wrong problem.  It would be an action based on, and active within, a false narrative about current reality. It will, however, create another reality that is not false:  further cut-off. In other words, option 2 is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will create the very problem it seeks to ameliorate. The problem lies on the level of objective spirit, or the relational system.  People will ‘feel’ and be more disconnected from each other than they presently are. They will not be less related to each other in the [family] system, but they will be stuck in highly anxious cut-off for generations.  

The second reason option 2 is the worst option in my view is closely related to the first.  If you do not restructure on the basis of what is real in current reality you will create a structure that is not capable of delivering what you intend or hope for, regardless of what it is you intend or hope for.  If you intend for various groups in the RCA to become institutionalized into “three or more” (as OV 18-23 envisions) bodies, the future perduring existence of three or more bodies might happen, but it will be an outcome of unforeseen future events and not due to their founding institutionalization.  This is true for literally any intended or hoped-for future to the extent that the act of reorganization is based in a false narrative of current reality. The future consequences of actions based in a false narrative of current reality are simply impossible to imagine.  That is my point here. If I hazarded a guess as to the likely outcome of option 2, given everything we know about the un-false narrative of Protestant history and current ideology, I would guess that the most likely future for the reconstituted bodies would be further fragmentation.  Murray Bowen and others have shown us that systems repeat their objective spirit generation to generation unless intentionally intervened-in.

The third reason option 2 is the worst option is related both to the two reasons just stated and to the better version of option 1 I wrote about above.  In my view the trouble in the RCA is not a structural trouble. I have two hypotheses with respect to this. The first is that the current trouble in the RCA is relationship-system trouble and not organization-system trouble.  Another way of stating this is that the current trouble in the RCA is on the level of objective spirit, specifically in the forms of disputed theological beliefs and the systemic energy that carries those disputes, not in the form of organizational rules and structures.  The second hypothesis is that the RCA’s current structure is capable of containing the relational work that needs to be done, as I described in better version of option 1 above.  As I see it, people in the RCA from cut-off echo chambers need to get together. “Radical” restructuring would be further avoidance of that work.  In a word, it would be an intervention at an ineffective place in the system. OV 18-23 misidentifies the site of crisis, and seeks to apply leverage at a different site than the real one.  Option 2 would create a new and separate crisis.

The fourth reason option 2 is the worst option, and to my mind the worst possible option, is that it would be an act of schism as I defined schism above, only with even more cognitive and emotional dissonance than that of option 3.  Option 2 is likely to be described with ideological benign-sounding language like that of, “organizational realignment,” which from a Christian perspective conceals more than it reveals. I take it to be bad enough to do a thing that’s bad.  I take it to be worse to disable yourself from thinking it is bad. I take it to be the worst possible thing to tell yourself it is good. That is the power of ideology in its purest expression: it occludes not just what is normative, but what is real.

Mitigating the Damage In Option 2

The only way I could see option 2 being plausible is if the resultant institutional bodies included in their founding impulse the self-requirement to stay in mediation, remain in active dialogue and on a concrete action-path toward eventual reconciliation and re-union.  Perhaps temporary reorganization in the institutional system could be a way to “turn down the heat” in the relational system sufficient for reconciliatory work to be done that is presently not being done. But, at least in OV 18-23, that vision is not in view. Nothing temporary about the possible restructuring is suggested.  Without temporarity being instituted in the structures themselves, I believe almost no optimistic expectation for resolution is rational. Indeed, frozen irreconciliation appears ‘baked in’ to option 2, as it is envisioned in OV 18-23.

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.

Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part I)

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 I:  Introduction and Re-Framing Current Reality

I am currently serving an international Protestant church in the country of Oman.  In this church are Protestants of every conceivable kind from some 60 countries and of at least a hundred denominations (and no denomination).  This experience has allowed me some reflective distance from church in the States as well as a rapid immersive learning in wider perspectives on Protestant Christianity.  From those vantage points I wanted to put down in writing, and share, some thoughts on one aspect of the RCA’s present life. Whether or not readers agree with what follows, my hope, and intention, is that it may be a constructive contribution.

The Reformed Church in America’s 2018 General Synod acted:

OV 18-23

To appoint a 2020 Vision Group to work, in consultation with whatever staff, commissions, councils, agencies, and/or outside consultants the vision group deems necessary, to identify possible scenarios, strategies, and consequences for these future options for the Reformed Church in America:

Staying together

Radical reconstituting and reorganization

Grace-filled separation

This should include, but not be limited to, consideration of one denomination with three or more affinity assemblies within it. Care should be given to the administrative, legal, financial, real estate, and emotional burdens of each option. Any potential new bodies should be identified by what they are “for” rather than what they are “against” and should be consistent with Reformed theology. This should be done in ways that affirm all parties. This must be bathed in denomination-wide, hope-filled prayer that God will show a way.

As the vision group engages these options, its work should include, but not be limited to:

  1. A commitment, as much as is possible, to the unity of the church in its being, spirit, covenantal relationship, mission, and kingdom witness in the world
  2. An understanding regarding the foundational role that biblical hermeneutics and Reformed exegesis play in the life and witness of the church, and a commitment to articulate how those methods are operative in the church’s way forward
  3. An analysis of the role that the RCA’s theology, Standards of Unity, and liturgies play in the present and future life of the church

The vision group will consist of 10-12 members named by the interim general secretary and general secretary, in consultation with GSC, and its makeup should reflect the wide diversity of the Reformed Church in America. The general secretary will serve as an ex-officio member without vote. Expenses for the vision group and any attendant costs, such as consulting or legal feels, will be taken out of GSC reserves, not to exceed $250,000.

The vision group shall present semi-annual reports to the GSC, an interim report to the General Synod of 2019, and a final report with recommendations to the General Synod of 2020. (ADOPTED)

The synod has directed its “20/20 Vision Group” to consider three possible future options for the RCA:

Option 1:  Staying together

Option 2:  Radical reconstituting and reorganization

Option 3:  Grace-filled separation

In this series of blog posts I will do four things in three Parts:  

Part I:  First, I will take a step back and offer a narrative that I believe accurately describes what is currently the reality in the RCA.  The narrative I will offer is a re-framing of the narrative which says that the RCA is experiencing “conflict.” I will also say why I think the re-framing matters.

Part II:  Second, I will lay out what I believe are two additional options not included in OV 18-23, one of which is completely absent from the list of three, and one of which is, in my view, a better version of option 1.  

Part III:  Third, I will explain why I believe that options 2 and 3 are schism (and what I mean by that), and why I believe that option 2 is the worst possible option.  Fourth, I will end with a brief idea about how possibly to mitigate damage in the case that option 2 is taken.

Re-Framing The RCA’s Current Reality

Bowen Family Systems Theory tells us that there are four basic responses to anxiety.   One response is conflict, ranging in severity from persuasion to more familiar expressions of outright conflict.  A second response is distancing, ranging in severity from avoidance of people and subjects that stir up anxiety to cut-off.  A third is over- and under-functioning, where people take responsibility for things they are not responsible for or do not take responsibility for things they are responsible for, respectively.  A fourth response is projection, ranging from ventilating to a third person (called ‘triangling’) to blame projection. While these four responses to anxiety behaviorally look very different from each other, what they have in common is that they are responses to anxiety.

It is customary in the RCA to say that the RCA is “in conflict” or that there “is conflict” in the RCA.  I do not see that. Of the four responses to anxiety, the one that I have personally not much seen at the level of assemblies, governance, or public visibility is conflict.  Very occasionally an unmediated form of conflict does show up in assemblies like the General Synod, but when it does it is almost always in a raw, unproductive way– at best in the form of attempts at persuasion, and very rare.  One thing I believe is that the RCA needs to experience more conflict, and in a facilitated, mediated, potentially productive way.

The main response to anxiety that I observe in the RCA is not conflict, but distancing.  There is much cut-off. I also observe lots of the fourth response, in the forms of triangulation and blame projection.  I take speechifying in governance assemblies, preaching, and voting to be forms of distancing. The re-framing of the RCA’s current reality that I am suggesting is that the RCA is primarily suffering from behavioral distancing, avoidance and cut-off, and secondarily from echo-chamber-triangulation and blame-projection.  I am comfortable saying that what the RCA needs is not less conflict, but more and better conflict, in a potentially-productive way.

I hear folks in the RCA say they are “tired of fighting.”  I perceive in that phrase a self-description (“I am tired”) and a system-description (“of fighting”).  I believe the self-description but do not believe the system-description. I do believe that folks are exhausted by the way they have been showing up.  I do not believe that most people in the RCA have been fighting. To repeat: in my view most people in the RCA have in fact been avoiding the people they perceive to be the source of their anxiety.  Instead, most people have been choosing to ventilate to like-minded people in their own echo chambers and to cast blame on people from whom they are cut off. This dual behavior indeed is exhausting. It produces only more anxiety, which takes increasingly enormous energy to carry.  

In Part II I will offer reflection on Option 1 and describe another option not listed among the three options outlined by the General Synod in OV 18-23

We Are not a Church of Laws

One of the more troubling developments in the Reformed Church is not conflict or tension (after all, the people of God are the people who strive with God and humans until the sun (Son?) dawns anew), but rather the excessive focus on the church order as a way forward for the church. Perhaps this sounds strange from a church polity teacher and researcher, but church order works best when it is in the background and not in the foreground. When church polity is in the foreground of an assembly or its deliberations, something is profoundly wrong. 

This can be seen with the continual push to put a definition of marriage in the church order, in the push to change the church order in response to a particular situation. We do very little theological reflection on the church, our amendments to the church order are simply legislative. 

The church order exists to facilitate the mission of the church. It exists to give churches a skeleton, a framing, or as A.A. van Ruler speaks of it, the rafters in the cathedral of love. The church order exists to help assemblies to do the work that is given to them, and all of which is to help local churches to bear witness to Christ in their communities as they gather around Word and sacrament, around pulpit, table, and font. Just as in a functional house, the owners rarely notice the framing, in a functional church, the church order should act in a similar way. It provides structure, form, stability, some bounds. Just as when a home is not functional, when things are falling apart, when there are problems, then attention is drawn to the framing; so also when the church is not functional, attention is drawn to the church order. 

In a time such as this, we don’t agree, we have no way of facilitating any kind of meaningful communication after the Reformed Church pulled the plug on the church’s publication (there’s still a denominational publication, which is different than a church publication), and just like the political system, we largely remain in our echo-chambers, distance from others, and seek to craft laws that ensure that “they” conform with “us.”

It is sometimes said that the United States is a nation of laws. That is, the law is supposed to be the thing that rules in the nation-state. But church order is not the ruler of the church, and it is not church law that holds us together. It certainly helps provide structure, but a body is more than a skeleton and a house is more than framing.

We are not a church of laws, the church order does not hold us together. The Spirit holds us together, which may sound like a platitude, but it is not, it is a profound theological reality that is too often taken for granted and not acknowledged. 

***

Too much time is spent at the synodical levels trying to legislate a unified church. This is a futile endeavor which largely ignores the presence and work of the Spirit. When we try to make the church order into something that can hold us together, we will be frustrated at every point. Because it is not intended to do that. The law may be the foundation of the United States, but the Spirit, through Word and sacrament, is the foundation of the church.

And as such, we ought not flee from conflict, tension, and disagreement, but lean into it. This is why we need to be the people who wrestle with God and with one another. And we may be tired, Jacob was, too. But he wrestled all through the night until the dawn of a new day and he squeezed a blessing out of the angel. Wrestling and struggling may not be comfortable, but it is that to which we are called. 

And treating the church order as some sort of fix will not solve anything. It may use power and coercion to reduce conflict or tension, but power and coercion are not traits of the people of God, and it will do nothing for the cause of Christ. 

The law may be the foundation of the United States, but the Spirit, through Word and sacrament, is the foundation of the church. We are not a church of laws. Order is essential to a church, but an order is not what holds us together. We are a church of the Spirit, and we are dangerously close to forgetting that.