Our Confessional Crisis

I wrote this for the CRC-Network. 

Church services are for worshipping and Synod is for fighting and Synod season is upon us.

Two of the hot topics for this year are the update to the Form of Subscription and the Belhar confession. Whatever you think of the Belhar one of the things it has done for us is to bring the question of our status as a confessional community to a head. Pragmatic concerns about numerical church decline, aging, gender of office bearers and denominational revenue put questions about confessional identity in the background. Since the Belhar became a cause celebre our community we have been trying rouse themselves from confessional slumber.

The Denominational EULA

At the start of every meeting of classis there is a call to for first time delegates to sign the Form of Subscription. New delegates queue up, sign their names in a book, and take their seats. It’s all rather perfunctory. There are no comments, no questions, no sign of struggle or process. All we know is that in order to participate at the meeting you’ve got to sign in the book. It’s almost an ecclesiastical version of clicking on the EULA before you install that new piece of software. Are you aware of what you have really ceded to Google, Apple or Microsoft or do you just know that you must click “OK” to proceed?

Maybe something has happened at the local church level when you signed it at your council meeting, or maybe it hasn’t. At Classis we engage the confessions at a different level than we do in the local church.

Do We Have A Confessional Problem?

This tiny classical liturgy grooms us for a sort of “I’m sure it’s all OK” complacency that over decades has borne some unhealthy fruit. We have a culture of confessional “don’t ask, don’t tell” that is inhibiting confessional and theological growth and development which is sorely needed for our missional future.

Three Banner editors (Kuyvenhoven, Suk, De Moor) in my lifetime have publicly advocated scrapping or overhauling the confessions or our confessional system. This week James KA Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College (wait, I thought they were supposed to be a bunch of liberals there… 🙂 ) fired back with his own screed. Perhaps we’ve got enough heat generated to actually do some productive cooking.

While you were Sleeping: Confessions and Missions

In case you forgot my statement two paragraphs ago with all the heat of conflict, I said that confessional and theological growth and development are sorely needed for our missional future.

If you’re over 50 and have a dreamy picture of Bill Hybels on your wall next to your Rick Warren autographed copy of “The Purpose Driven Life” this statement may sound strange. If you’re under 50 and moon over Calvin, Luther or some other dead theologian this goes without saying.

In 2006 a group of brother pastors and I from Sacramento traveled to NYC to meet with Tim Keller to explore the work of Redeemer Presbyterian. We had a chance to speak privately with him. He said to us “Oh, you are CRC guys. You’ve had this stull all along but you just haven’t done anything with it.” In the back of my mind I thought “I don’t think I knew exactly WHAT to do with it.”

Much of the CRC in its angst over numerical decline and lost people mattering to Jesus took pilgrimages to Crystal Cathedral, Willow Creek and Saddleback to learn technique about doing church. The subtext of these conferences was pretty clear. “Oh doctrinal purity is important, but we can kind of assume that (like Apple and Google’s innocence in their EULAs). What the church really needs are new techniques for getting the attention of slumbering Christ haunted Americans and attracting them to our religious service delivery systems (“church” can sound so archaic and scary).”

I don’t want to be too hard on the seeker movement. It did a lot of good for a generation that had enough Christendom still in them to be able to assume a number of things, but as Dr. Smith (Calvin College, not “Lost in Space”) points out, the boomer’s suspect-of-authority, suspect-of-institutions and perhaps anti-intellectual cultural hang-ups began to show. The next tick on the generational demographic clock revealed a host of post-boomer adults eager to talk theology because for them it was a more important thing than mere technique.

Christianity can no longer be assumed. What Christians actually profess is central to who we are and what we do must flow out of those theological professions.

Confessions are Complex and Change is Needed

At this point conservatives may be cheering but please hold your decision to applaud until the end. Part of the deceit of conservatism is the idea that you can go back again. You can’t. The way forward is not to cut and paste past applications back into the present (as if we were cutting and pasting text with keyboards before 1980), it is to appropriate what was good and helpful from the past and apply it to our own context. This is the project we need to undertake and that process will require change, something many of us simply don’t like.

Confessions are supposed to be multi-taskers. (See Karin Maag’s good piece in the Banner on Confessions.) We want them to be:

1. Teachers of Orthodoxy
2. Expressions of Piety
3. Definers of Community Boundaries.

The Form of Subscription is supposed to put some institutional teeth behind this but from what we’re seeing both at our classical signing liturgy and at Calvin College, the only place where in the last three decades people seem to lose their jobs over confessional conflicts, the bite is uneven and in terms of specific application I think unhelpful. The system isn’t delivering what we want nor what we need it to deliver for us and I’m not sure that simply changing our short signing statement will be enough to do the trick.

Belief is not Cleanly Subject to Volition

Forgive me a bit of philosophy but I think we need to recognize that beliefs aren’t really subject to the will (they often hold us more than we hold them) and that in our present individualistic context they are assumed to be expressions of unique expressive identity more than communal submission. If you combine this cultural context with an inherited system of confessional conformity you have a recipe for missional confusion. Commonly assumed culture asserts that beliefs are not received but rather constructed from authentic individual experience and journey. Our inherited confessional culture (thanks to the Reformation, which is partially responsible for the commonly assumed culture of individual expressivism) is a combination of free confession, “this I believe”, with “for the Bible tells US so”. The lack of nuance in quickly signing off on three short creeds and three long confessions invites us into our current “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture of public formal assumption and private sometimes non-conformist disclosure.

Missiologically we acknowledge that right now for many we need to belong before we believe. This requires that we figure out how to wed this reality with our inherited confessional system and make these new practices intelligible to those who have no experience in our inherited confessional system. As someone trying to do missional work in the CRC in an area devoid of CRC public knowledge, this is an urgent undertaking. This is a central task if the CRC is going to grow beyond its immigrant roots.

Time To Revisit

Every time this subject pops up on Facebook my friend Randy Blacketer cries out “we have this problem because we’ve neglected to teach the confessions in the local church!” and he is exactly right. It’s important though when we reflect on Randy’s cry to realize that it’s not a function of a lack of jug to mug instruction indoctrinating ignorant and empty vessels, it’s a process of clergy and community wrestling with the texts we have received in order to consider, update and apply them to our present context. An examination of our confessions will reveal their value, raise important questions and critiques, and challenge our community to achieve, avoid, preserve or even eliminate what we have received. Our tradition prescribes constant attention and revision of our confessions against the canon. We have been inattentive to this and allowed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture to emerge.

Proposal One: A Confessional Year of Examination

One of the lessons I think we may have learned from the Belhar push was that we need to learn how to do process confessions together again. We have more tools and less time to do so than our ecclesiastical ancestors had. What if we as classes and a denomination devoted three years, one for each confession, to teach, examine, explore them together. The Faith Formation committee I think helped show us that if something is important we need to devote some time and resources to it and I think three years for confessions and perhaps an additional year for the 3 creeds would do us some good. In these years we would encourage local pastors and churches to preach them, teach them in Sunday School and educational classis, use them in liturgy, etc. In that year classes could hold forums, discussions, and debates on matters that arise from them.

Proposal Two: Structure for Confessional Maintenance

We would use those years of confessional examination to harvest new materials from the local churches and make them available electronically for others to benefit from. We need more and newer material, lessons, guides and discussions on our confessions than we currently have.

I would love to see the new CRC Internet Network (which is hosting this blog) adopt an entire segment simply to confessions. I fear part of the reason it wouldn’t get much commenting is because of our culture of fear, which leads me to the next point.

An Alcoholic Father

Not only do we need to be talking more, writing more and discussing more, but we need to develop a new culture that encourages frank, honest and helpful discussion. Part of the problem of our present system, as I mentioned above, is that the bite of the Form of Subscription is uneven. You can be a pastor of a local church and openly violate the Form every week, maybe knowingly or unwittingly and nothing will ever happen. If you teach at Calvin College and publish something in an area that is hot for other reasons, someone may find a confessional angle on your writing and the bite of the Form of Subscription may cost you your job or your career.

Why is this unhealthy? The worse kind of parent is inconsistent in discipline, unpredictable in behavior, erratic in temperament, and excessive in punishment. This is the parent our current system has become. Our confessional disciplinary system is something analogous to an alcoholic father.

Proposal Three: Signing Statements

Our confessions are too lengthy, nuanced, complex and important to only offer people a binary choice for subscription. I know the gravamen process is available but our experience over the last number of decades I think demonstrates that it is insufficient for our present need.

During the presidential administration of George W. Bush a lot of attention was paid to signing statements the president would attach to bills that he signed. Apparently this was a practice for a number of years but it came to light during his administration. A signing statement was a way of still giving a bill the force of law, but also publicly registering the president’s own take on the legislation. I wonder if something like this might help us.

I would propose that each office bearer be invited (not mandated) to develop their own signing statement to their subscription of the creeds and confessions. This statement would provide a sort of safe harbor for the office bearer and give them space to publicly emphasize, endorse, explore, critique, nuance or protest something within the confessions. The statement would be public (available upon request in most cases, more public in others at the signer’s discretion) but continually available to revision by the signer.

It might sound like the Signing Statement would undermine the effect of the subscription, but I don’t think so. I think it would afford a number of things:

1. It would give room for people to belong before they believe.

There are a lot of things that can may or may not be connected to confessional statements, from evolution to women in office to infant baptism to ideas about global warming. We want people to have room to explore the confessions in a safe context where they have room to express their sincere convictions while also self-consciously being aware of the communal standards. If we are to make progress on difficult issues we need to explore them without fear of unpredictable retribution or reaction.

2. It would encourage people to actually study and discuss the confessions

Randy Blacketer is right that the confessions are dying a death of neglect. I think it’s a bit crazy to adopt a fourth confession when we neglect the three we already have. If confessions were children CPS might take them away from us. If we made some Signing Statements public, in some ways like blogs, we might actually start to do some productive work on confessional issues that we are ignoring today. I know that this process sounds scary and chaotic for some, but I think in the long run it is what we need.

3. It would allow institutions to nuance and process confessional employment issues better

Confessional conflicts today really only arise it seems when employment is on the line. Again, that is why the area is dormant in churches but hot at Calvin College. Churches are often asleep at this switch but the switch goes live at denominational fights. With more public disclosure about issues in process institutions (churches, agencies, schools, etc.) could figure out what they are willing to flex on and what they are not. Perhaps this particular person can be given some leeway on limited atonement for now but for this position here we must hold the line on infant baptism. Right now our binary choice is assumed, dormant but at times exceptionally, erratically and publicly inflamed. An institution might not be able to tolerate dissent on a particular point but that process could and probably should be a public, measured, reasoned one with some buffer from unhelpful blunt-instrument politicking that binary confessional signing encourages.

4. Classis would be the ideal place to process this

Classis is large enough to afford a pool of competent, theologically trained and articulate persons, but small enough to afford face to face relationships.

We need more and better confessional attention, process and proclamation. I hope we can get there. Perhaps some of these ideas may help.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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