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. 

The Value of the Study of Church Polity

It is no surprise that I like church polity*. But my appreciation for church polity is not in the rules, as if I am some kind of stringent rule-follower. In fact, I’m more likely to push boundaries, and I have a tendency to push back against authority. 

For me, church polity isn’t about the rules; church polity is about the theology that lies beneath the rules. 

This is what, so often, gets missed. This is why church polity has been increasingly pushed to the periphery in theological education and in the practice of ministry. Too often, church polity is either ignored or it is used as a means to an end other than the end for which it is intended. The end for which it is intended is to provide a basic structure, consistent with our theology, to free the church to do ministry. How can a book of order free the church? Churches do not have to go to the drawing board for everything.  It is by being freed from having to dwell on the practicalities of these questions that the church can be freed to do the important work of ministry.

But too often, the order is either ignored as largely meaningless for the church of today, or, and even worse, it is used as a means to an end. One can approach the order with an end goal and either seek to find a way to make it possible for it to happen or to change the order to allow it to happen. These approaches are quite different, but they share one commonality–they view the order as something atheological.

But church polity is entirely theological. Indeed, church polity is where ecclesiology, sacramental theology, historical theology meet the life of the church on the ground. 

Church polity is where theology and the practical life of the church meet. And it is for this reason why we would do well to spend more time studying church polity. 

***

Church polity is a window to ecclesiology

In the study of church polity, one can see the shape of the church, the governance, the structure, the functioning of the church. The particular rules and regulations of a church order are not simply matters of practicality and utility (though to be honest, these do play a part), but they also express the particular ecclesiology of a tradition. Governance by offices in assembly, in the Reformed tradition, is certainly not a matter of practicality or efficiency. To be sure, there is a practicality which is required for church polity, after all, it is designed to help the church as it lives its life. But it is always theology which frames a particular polity, which undergirds it and directs it.

While not the only way, this is certainly one valuable way to frame an understanding of ecclesiology, a point of departure to plumb the theological depths. The study of church polity is particularly valuable because it serves as a bridge between the academy and the church, between the theoretical and the practical, between the mind and the feet.

Church polity is a window to sacramental theology

In addition to ecclesiology, the study of church polity can be a window into sacramental theology, particularly how sacramental theology finds its lived expression in the local church. 

Even in the practice of the celebration of the sacraments, one can see theological elements. For instance, why ought the sacraments be performed at a place and time of public worship? Why is the private celebration of the sacraments not acceptable as a normative practice? Why do the elders oversee the celebration of the sacraments? Exploring sacramental theology through the window of church polity aids in understanding how we live our sacramental theology. 

Church polity is a window to historical theology

A church order is a living entity, changing to respond to a changing world. A church order, the particular fruit of a particular church communion’s understanding of its polity, necessarily must change. If it does not change, there is no way that a church is able to adapt to the changing cultural contexts. That it must change is nearly universally accepted. The pace and scope of change is often the points for discussion and dialogue. 

Understanding the reasons for the changes in a church order can give insight not only into the changes in the surrounding culture in which a church communion finds itself, but also changes in the understanding of one’s own church tradition. 

Church polity is a window to ecumenical engagement

An essential aspect of ecumenical engagement is mutual understanding of one another’s traditions. There are different ways to do this, but one important way is to seek to understand how they view the church and how they understand the shape of the church by understanding the differences and similarities between church orders and church polities. By understanding these differences, these can be a point of departure for a deeper understanding of one another’s traditions. And with this understanding can come deeper relationship and collaborative work. 

Church polity is practical theology

One of the challenges that the church faces is the growth of the distance between theology and practice, between the academy and the church. Church polity is a place where, when explored in its fullness, these two can come together, where our practice can be given theological depth of understanding and where our theology can find legs in the ordinary life of the church. Too often the study of church polity is relegated to simply learning the rules and regulations of one’s own church’s particular order. When we understand church polity more fully, as a theological discipline, we can not only learn the rules, but also learn why these rules exist and not others, what function they have, and, broadly, help to learn the logic of the order.

And even beyond a particular church order, a deeper and fuller understanding and approach of church polity as a theological discipline can, at the same time, enhance one’s theological reflection and one’s practice of ministry. 

A deeper study of church polity holds great opportunity, not only for understanding one’s own church order (though this is very much needed), but to understand church polity as a theological discipline and a place where theology and the life of the church meet.


*I use “church polity” to refer to the theological discipline dealing with how a church structures itself, and the term “church order” to refer to a particular form of structuring. 

Descriptivism, Prescriptivism and the Church Order

In lingusitics, there is an ever-present tension between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Briefly (but not comprehensively), prescriptivism holds that grammar rules and usage should be prescribed, that is, there is a more or less stable and normative set of rules. According to prescriptivists, language is stable. Descriptivism allows for change and adaptation. Dictionaries, grammar, and usage are not a single monolith but ought to be adapted to reflect the way that language is used. The former sees a dictionary, for instance, to prescribe the words used in a language, and the latter sees it as something to describe the words used in a language. Prescriptivists insist that “irregardless” is not a word; whereas descriptivists accept it as a word because it is widely used.

I simply bring up this tension–descriptivism and prescriptivism–because it is not only something in linguistics, but it also occurs in the field of church polity, though we often do not use these terms.

Does a church order prescribe how a church ought to live its life, or does it describe how a church does live its life? Is a church order a stable monolith, or is it something which ought to be easily changeable to reflect how things are lived out in the church?

This is certainly not a new debate, and I am not the first to write about it. Indeed, Daniel Meeter describes a similar tension when he makes the excellent, and as yet tragically unheeded, proposal to separate the church order into Constitution and Canons (though I might say “regulations” instead of “canons”). Constitution would be those things which are essential to the church’s being, and canons would be those things which are helpful to live out that essential being as described in the constitution*. Indeed, this is, largely, drawn from the church order of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands that has a church order (constitution) of some thirteen pages but a much longer section of regulations which are nonessential which help the church to live out its essential nature as expressed in the church order proper.

The foundation that the church is governed by offices is very different from, as Meeter notes, the fact that a candidate must be under care for twenty-four months before a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry may be granted (BCO, 1.II.11.3). The former is an essential (of the essence) aspect of how we understand the church, while the latter is a regulation that the church has found to be helpful but could amend with little consequence. Whether it is twenty-seven months or twenty months is neither here nor there.

Moreover, the question of whether the church order ought to prescribe or describe is not easily answered, nor has it only been treated in one manner throughout history.

A via media

As with most other things, the Reformed find a via media–a middle way–between these two extremes. And this is further complicated by the fact that, as noted above, the church order contains points of vastly different importance. Thus, some things in the order are prescriptive and some are descriptive. Some impact the essential nature of the church and some are largely inconsequential. The difficulty, of course, is discerning which regulations are which.

Indeed, the fact that there is a provision for amendments shows that it is not entirely prescriptive. But the fact that it is a constitution, that is, it lays out what constitutes the church and that constitutional changes require two general synods and a supermajority of classes shows that a church order is not entirely descriptive, either.

The difficult work, and the work so rarely engaged, is to discern what in the order is prescriptive and what is descriptive, or to put it in Meeter’s framework, what is constitution, and what is canon?

This work ought to be the foundation of any attempt to amend the church order, not because it should not be amended, but because we must understand the ramifications of what we are doing. The Reformed have always understood that all of the offices are required, and therefore all of the offices must be present for the fullness of Christ’s ministry to be represented (BCO, Preamble, p. 3).

A Case Study

The Reformed Church in America dates its beginning to 1628. This, however, is not the date when Reformed ministry began here, it began earlier than that. This is the date of the arrival of the first minister, Jonas Michaëlius. However, it is not a minister that constitutes a church, but once a minister arrived, a consistory was completed. There were already elders and deacons here, but no minister. But the arrival of a minister completed the consistory, the fullness of Christ’s ministry was now represented to the people, and a church could be organized.

With the recent changes to the commissioned pastor designation, both attempted and accomplished, about which I’ve written previously (here and here), we have redefined how we understand a church.  Previously, where there was no installed minister in a church, a minister of the classis acted as supervisor and was, among other things, present at consistory meetings to complete a consistory, to ensure that all the offices are present. However, in 2014/2015 a change was effected which would allow a commissioned pastor (an elder) to serve as supervisor of a consistory. And thus we have instances where a church is missing one of the offices of the church, and where, as we affirm, the fullness of Christ’s ministry is not present.

What was done in 2014/2015 was to change how we understand a church. Now, this is a perfectly fine thing to do. It is possible for us to change how we understand what constitutes a church. But this was not the discussion that happened. This was a prime instance of not doing the work to determine what is constitution and what is canon, what is more prescriptive and what is more descriptive.

Ongoing struggles over accomplishing an end

Currently, the Reformed Church is in the midst of ongoing struggles on many levels, and one of those levels is how we understand the existence of the church. One faction within the communion desires an end, lockstep uniformity on understandings of human sexuality, despite the fact that many of them have a wide diversity on matters of the covenant and the effectual call of grace.

However, the order that exists in the Reformed Church, and the order how it has existed since the Reformation, resists such a move. However, rather than understanding that perhaps there is some prescriptive piece in the order that teaches us something about the nature of the church, the church order is simply seen as a code of laws that ought to simply allow to be done what the “majority” wants to accomplish. As the South African church polity scholar, Pieter Coertzen, notes, “just as bad as making the church order an authority equal to that of the Scriptures is treating it as something imposed by certain members onto others, or as something that one can find loopholes in with a certain amount of ingenuity.”

And because there is no distinction present in the order which shows a difference between those things which are prescriptive and those that are descriptive, it leaves it up to popular opinion to determine which is which, and often a popular opinion which is driven to see a particular end rather than trying to find a right means.

This is the reason why the General Synod of 2017 made an illegal pronouncement when it tried to declare, in a way almost suggesting doctrines of ex-cathedra infallibility, a definitive interpretation of the Heidelberg Catechism. It was assumed that the General Synod’s inability to make definitive doctrinal declarations on its own was a weakness because the assumption prevailed that the end was righteous and so any means that prevents the end is wicked. Additionally, there has been an increasing number of classes, and there are rumors of more in order to gain a political advantage for the particular faction so as to be able to control the classical approval process of constitutional amendments. When a church order is wholly descriptive, then any and all measures are justifiable.

A church order is not theologically neutral

Indeed, just because we want something to be so doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean that it ought to be done. A church order is not simply a code of laws, but it forms part of the constitution–that which constitutes the church. 

In that the church is a theological entity and not simply a sociological one, in that the church is a creatura verbi, we cannot simply believe that tinkering with her constitution is an exercise in theological neutrality. Indeed, if we do not do the work of determining what is essence and what is regulation, we risk altering the very foundations of how we believe God desires the church to be. In such a case, everyone loses–especially the witness of Christ in the world. 

 

 

 

 


References:

*Meeter, Daniel J. Meeting Each Other in Doctrine, Liturgy, and Government. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. (see pp. 178-184).

Kerkorde Van De Protestantse Kerk in Nederland: Inclusief De Ordinanties, Overgangsbepalingen En Generale Regelingen (bijgewerkt Tot Mei 2013). Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2013.

Coertzen, Pieter. Church and Order: A Reformed Perspective. Leuven: Peeters, 1998, p. 50.

BCO – The Book of Church Order of the Reformed Church in America.

Post-Denominationalism, deinstitutionalization, and the future of the church

Like a vast majority of Protestant communions in the United States (and Canada), my church communion, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), has seen a decline in membership and participation during the past several decades. This trend, then, brings questions about the viability of denominations in general, and one’s own in particular. How long can we continue to lose members and still be in existence? How long can we continue? These are ubiquitous questions in the circles in which I operate. However, I think that we are asking the wrong questions and that “denomination” as we understand it is a result of circumstance rather than essence. Indeed, I argue that denomination and church are related yet clearly distinct. This brief essay will use the RCA as a case study for arguing that denominationalism is neither central to our ministry nor is it essential to our continued existence as an ecclesiastical communion. Indeed, those who proclaim the impending doom of the communion fundamentally misunderstand the nature and essence of the church and our communion.

Superstructure and Infrastructure

The church is established by Christ and entrusted to Christ’s people. The Belgic Confession states that the “church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end…” (Art. 27), and therefore we can neither establish nor destroy the church. We do, however, form structures, influenced by the scriptures, to help the church to operate and to live into its calling in the fullest way possible. Indeed, the church could not have continued to exist without some sort of order. This essential order of the church is the discipline of church polity, and continues to be an essential element to the mission of the church. However, in modern Protestantism, there is another structure which has been placed upon the church–denomination.

But before we can speak of denomination, we must speak of order. Order is a necessary part of the people of God and throughout the scriptures, it is apparent that God brings order out of chaos and invites God’s people into that order. The church, therefore, is inherently structural. Indeed, the Preamble to the RCA’s Book of Church Order states, “The governmental functioning of these offices takes place not apart from, but in harmony with the understanding of the mission of the church and the nature of its ministry.” Therefore, the church has infrastructure which sustains it. In my own tradition, the infrastructure is composed of the offices (deacon, elder, minister of Word and sacrament, and professor of theology) and assemblies (consistory, classis, regional synod, General Synod). These are the elements which support and sustain the church and allow it to function. These are elements which constitute the church and are therefore a part of the RCA’s Constitution. While the presbyterial-synodical system is certainly not the only system of church polity, it is the one that we claim, and therefore it is essential to our being of the church.

Above all of this, then, is a superstructure, and this superstructure is designed to support and aid the infrastructure in sustaining the church. The superstructure can be understood as staff, departments, boards, programs, and strategic goals. We might call this superstructure denomination. This superstructure is important, but it is not essential to the church, it is not a constitutive element of the church and is therefore largely absent from the RCA’s Constitution. By viewing the church in terms of infrastructure, which is the necessary base which supports the church, and superstructure, which supports and maintains (and indeed influences) the infrastructure, we can gain a better perspective on reality and the future of the church.

In order to gain a broader view of this superstructure and how it develops, a brief look to the history of the church is both instructive and enlightening.

Origin and Development of “Denomination”

The term, “denomination” finds its origin as a middle way between claiming to be the church, outside of which there is no other, and a sect, which carries with it negative and exclusivist connotations. Linguistically, denomination simply means to give a name to, or to identify by a name. The term and concept of denomination is a result of a religious plurality rather than a singular unity. As such, denomination is a sociological term, rather than a theological one.

Indeed, when the Reformed Church in America adopted its Constitution after independence from the Classis of Amsterdam, it also adopted the “Explanatory Articles” which help to translate the received Reformed theology and order to the particular situation in the newly independent United States. The term “denomination” only occurs in a handful of places, primarily in the Preface. The first occurrence actually defines the term as “descriptions of particular Churches…” and subsequent occurences use it in a consistent way, as such, it is simply a neutral way to refer to different traditions, or expressions, within the Christian Church universal. It is worth noting that the use of this term is a catch all for other churches, not our own.

While a comprehensive history of the usage of the term is not within the scope of this brief essay, it did not take long for the usage of “denomination” to begin the shift from a term primarily speaking of other “particular Churches” to our own church. The church order of 1833 (in which the Articles of Dort and the Explanatory Articles were first merged into a single order), the term occurs four times and nearly always refers to others, rather than ourselves. While much has happened between 1833 and today, by way of comparison, the 2015 edition of the Book of Church Order uses this term approximately seventy-five times, referring not only to other churches but also ourselves, speaking of “the denomination” and “denominational policy.” While the number of occurrences alone is not enough to draw conclusions, it is illustrative of the usage of the term “denomination.” This term, then, has moved even beyond its sociological origins and has become a term to speak of an organizational reality (nearly supplanting theological language), and it is this usage of the term which is most salient for our discussion here.

Increasing Institutionalization

With the continued growth of the RCA, a larger membership and more resources meant that there were both additional opportunities and additional obligations. While the RCA has always been institutional, in the late nineteenth century and onward one can observe a growth in the institutional existence and operation of and in the church.

Growth of organizational superstructure

In 1874 a further major revision of the church was undertaken, which was built on the previous church order (and subsequent amendments) and continued the work of adapting to the ever-changing context in which the RCA found itself. It was in this revision that another provision entered the government (and therefore the Constitution),

To the General Synod also belong the power and duty to institute and organize such general agencies as shall best enable the church to fulfil the command of the Lord Jesus Christ by which He has enjoined on all His disciples the duty of teaching all nations and preaching the gospel to every creature; to maintain, supervise and direct such agencies when erected in the conduct of missionary operations at home and abroad; and to recommend such methods in the churches as shall effectively sustain such agencies and tend to secure the largest possible dissemination of the gospel. (Art. 73)

Here we can see the beginnings of the superstructure that has come to be called denomination which continues to this day. In the generations since, the RCA has added staff, agencies, boards, and councils. The Stated Clerk of the General Synod has become a General Secretary and among the responsibilities was added, “articulating a vision for the church…” However, the denominational (organizational) structure that we now have really only dates back to the middle of the twentieth century.

For most of the history of the Reformed Church, the assemblies were the main agents within the church (in their respective spheres). For those things that were larger than individual churches, classes, or particular (regional) synods (such as foreign mission or theological education), the General Synod established a number of subsidiary boards which aided the church in its mission and ministry. Around mid-point of the twentieth century, there was a movement to provide for a more centralized structure to coordinate the programs of the church. The first of these was the creation of the General Synod Executive Committee (GSEC) in 1961. A significant aspect of the charge given to this committee was to carry out the work of the General Synod between sessions of the General Synod. Not long after, the General Synod approved the merger of three boards and a council to create the General Program Council (GPC) in 1967, which was formally organized in 1968, and was designed to work alongside of GSEC. This continued until 1992, when the General Synod voted to merge GSEC and GPC into the General Synod Council (GSC), which continues to this day and is the main agent of the General Synod which provides oversight and direction. Throughout this, we can see an increasing centralization of the superstructure aligning itself far more to a corporate structure than an ecclesiastical structure.

Post-Denominationalism

There is nothing sacrosanct about the superstructure of denomination. It was born as a result of need and changing cultural contexts, and it can be re-shaped in any way needed as a result to changing contexts and situations. Church polity is the infrastructure that supports the church, which in our case is presbyterial-synodical, but which is actually quite distinct from the superstructure of denomination. The denomination as an organizational reality has been so ingrained in our cultural psyche that, in many ways, it can be difficult to imagine a distinction between denomination and church.

Much of the anxiety present in the RCA regarding membership and participation numbers is rooted in the question of how long the denomination (rather than church) can be sustained. There have been assertions that the RCA cannot survive another schism or separation such as we saw in the nineteenth century. But these fears are largely centered around the viability of the denomination (superstructure), not the viability of the church communion. If we are able to separate these two concepts, it will help us as we (and other communions) look to the future to find our place amidst a changing context. As we seek to separate these concepts, perhaps a few corrective measures can be helpful to help right out perspectives and orientation.

Proposals for the RCA

As the church, we need to be concerned not only with what is efficient, but also what is right and proper. As such, the RCA has become far too hierarchical and corporately focused, that we have forgotten about how the communion actually ought to function. Indeed, many of our structures can serve to aid in the mislocation of the essence of the church. As such, I have a few suggestions for the RCA to help the church recover its ministry and mission.

Return the General Secretary to Stated Clerk

The General Secretary exists, primarily, to serve the General Synod. However, often the General Secretary is given near bishop-like authority. This is problematic not only for the functioning of the church, but also for the understanding of the essence of the church. The story of the ancient people of God show us that it is natural for the people to clamor for a king, but that natural impulse is not necessarily faithful. The Reformed have rejected the nature of prelacy, and so unless we wish to reexamine the foundations of our ecclesiology (which we are free to do), we ought to fight against this natural tendency.

But this proposal involves more than simply a change of job title. It would also involve two changes to the role of this position. First, to remove the provision in the Book of Church Order that the General Secretary shall present “a report articulating a vision for the church…” (1.IV.5.3). This provision places an inordinate amount of focus and authority on one person, and enhances the corporate tendencies of the church. The General Synod has staked much of the RCA’s future in strategic plans, but this continues the mislocation of the essence and purpose of church. Second, to remove the last half of that sentence, “…including recommendations for the future…” (ad loc). This will stop the General Secretary from presenting proposals to the General Synod and making this change will serve as a step toward removing such inordinate focus on this one single individual in the life of the General Synod and the RCA.

Dissolve the General Synod Council (GSC)

The tendency to place more authority and power into a hierarchy is not limited only to persons, but also to groups. Assemblies are not hierarchies and the same goes for subsidiary councils. In practice, the GSC is often seen as the locus of authority and it can seem as though the GSC is willing to accept that authority. There is no real check or balance on the GSC. This council has nothing to do with the essential infrastructure of the church, but rather the nonessential of the superstructure. This single council concentrates authority and further reinforces the hierarchical nature of the church.

The GSC could be dissolved and its functions returned to a collection of subsidiary boards. Returning the functions of the General Synod to a collection of subsidiary boards would allow the General Synod to continue to accomplish the things with which it is charged, while avoiding the concentration of power and authority in some imagined and artificially constructed “top.” One of these subsidiary boards could be an executive committee.

No General Synod assembly for fifty years

Synods exist for the good order of the church rather than being of the essence of the church. Christ’s presence in the church is not, in the first place, through the synods but through Word and Spirit as God’s people gather around pulpit, table, and font. The General Synod itself is also not immune to this tendency to concentrate power at a “top.” How easily we forget that our mother church in the Netherlands did not hold a General Synod for nearly two hundred years after the Synod of Dort in 1618/1619. The Reformed Church did not cease to exist, but was able to continue because a General Synod is not of the essence of the church nor does a General Synod mediate Christ to the church.

At times, a radical corrective is warranted and this, I think, is the case here. As such, I suggest that a General Synod not be called for a period of fifty years. While there is nothing special about the number fifty, I do not think that we need a two hundred year hiatus like our mother church; however, it does need to be enough time that the church can adjust and adapt to this major corrective. It can be possible to empower the new executive committee to do the necessary and essential functions required by law for the corporation of the General Synod, while allowing the lesser assemblies to take more responsibility to fulfill their charge in their respective spheres.

While none of these suggestions will be a panacea, these are steps that might help to aid us in the distinction between superstructure and infrastructure and to place the appropriate amount of focus and emphasis on each.

The Future of the Church

The decline of denominationalism and the waning importance of ecclesiastical communions is a reality with which we must deal, and it is not a trend that we can simply ignore or reverse. I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. However, neither do I think that the inevitable future is in independent, unconnected, deinstitutional, generically evangelical churches. The church requires an infrastructure, but the infrastructure does not require the sizable superstructure that is so often the hallmark of modern denominations. The Reformed Church had a ministry as a church before there was a denomination, and oversight and accountability have been undertaken without agencies, boards, or executives.

So long as we are concerned with sustaining the denomination (as a superstructure) we will be fighting a losing battle. However, if we focus instead on being church, allowing the superstructure that we call denomination to change (even drastically) to fit the changing cultural context, we will not only survive, but can even thrive. Neither the essence of the church nor its constitutive elements are found in denomination as a superstructure.

The superstructure is not bad, but it is tentative. It does not form the essence of the church, but rather it is formed out of need and can change with those needs. We need not intentionally abolish our institutions or the superstructure that we call denomination, there is much good that they can (and do) provide. With or without the denomination, a solidly Reformed way of existing as the church and finding a way to provide for mutual ministry and accountability in a connected fashion will continue. But this will involve shifting our mindset, and our behavior, from denomination to church; from a corporation to the body of Christ; from a sociological and organizational reality to a theological one.  We ought not strive to dismantle denomination. However, if our superstructure does become unsustainable, burdensome, or if it begins to crumble, we need not sacrifice the church in order to sustain it.