Of Standards and Sanctions

For or Against Changing Standards

Churches in the west are embroiled in discussions about acceptance of long term same-sex relationships. Andy Crouch wrote a nice piece in CT that shouldn’t be missed.  At the same time the CRC is currently having its own tempest in a teacup over co-habitation and expectations about sexual activity.  Some are calling for the Banner editor to be fired for this and an article about evolution. The CRC hasn’t had a nice Banner donnybrook for a generation so it’s partly a sign of life for the old girl.

The back and forth isn’t uncommon. Church standards and expectations are called into question. Some thing they should be changed, others say they shouldn’t. Who is being faithful to the Bible? Who is being loving towards the outsider? Who gets to say what’s right?

It might be helpful to take a step back and reflect a bit on what standards and sanctions are and why we have them.

Both Sides Are For Standards

One of the first bombs thrown usually from the conservative side in these debates is that those promoting changing of standards endorse anarchy and chaos. This is usually unfair and seldom true. Once a standard is “loosened” or changed the winning side will usually hurry to tightened the new position into a new standard and try to hold others to it. This is quickly seen and felt in the same sex marriage question. The debate quickly shifted from liberals asking “how can you exclude committed same sex couples from the institution” to conservatives complaining “we are now outcasts!” See Scalia’s dissent on DOMA. 

That we have standards is not the issue, what the standards should be is clearly the debate.

A Culture of Negative Reactivity

Both sides know how to employ the outrage machine. Outrage is a favorite tool of both sides to marshal the faithful and mobilize them for protest. It’s tempting to say that this is a symptom of our new social-networked cyber technology but letters to the Banner have long been a staple of CRC politics. The Internet just makes it faster and easier.

As is true in most conflicts, reactivity is seldom helpful to sorting out complex issues. Emotional reactivity usually just breeds more reactivity and ultimately polarization. The CRC would probably be better served if we were a bit less reactive and a bit more gracious with each other.

The challenges facing the CRC regarding how standards of sexual behavior are real, important and complex. We are well served neither by yelling “NO” all the time nor by saying “well it’s 2013 you know” as if the calendar had much to do with the issues.

Reactivity to Sanctions

Part of our culture of reactivity is our reactivity to sanctions of any kind. While both sides quickly assertion “you really shouldn’t behave that way, this kind of behavior will not be allowed in our community” neither side has much maturity to hear it. We demand to be in CS Lewis’ Inner Ring. Our reactivity reveals the dark truth that we want to be in control and we are willing to take that control at the expense of others.

We seem to be terrorized at the thought that others might think less of us because we hold to a standard they disagree with. While it is natural to want to be liked and accepted a high degree of reactivity at even small verbal sanctions from another reveals the possibly of a rather flimsy self beneath all of our verbal bluster. The last time I checked God is the only arbiter of heaven and hell and everyone else’s application of his unique prerogative may be heard but ought also to be weighed. 

Standards, Exceptions, Ways and Means

Church standards are communal things and their application are nearly always contextual. We all know this. We have standards. We make exceptions. We find ways around the standards to afford cases that seem to require we bend the rules.

Likewise we know that standards change or are tightened often because of this flex in the system. Flexing, testing and trying are all part of the development of communal standards. We should remember this is all part of the process too.

Standards and Sanctions are Helpful

Our reactivity about standards and sometimes our reactivity about the violation of standards should be mitigated by the fact that standards and sanctions (both changed and unchanged) are often for our good. They define us as a community and if the standards are good they help us experience shalom within that community.

If my neighbor parks their car on my lawn standards demand that I approach my neighbor in a civil way and see if we can resolve the offense. Cars should be parked in appropriate spaces. We have a standard for this. We also have a standard for how I am to approach my neighbor. I shouldn’t yell, use profanity, destroy her property or malign her name with my other neighbors. If I do so I myself might face stiffer sanctions than my neighbor who violated the standard in the first place.

When we explore standards and sanctions we always do so with respect to shalom. This is never an easy task because our breaking of shalom is both subtle and deep and its recovery is always contextual and multi-layered. It is also, always, relational if we believe that there is a creator God.  How this gets expressed and articulated to an age that is skeptical about God and his relationship with this world is no small or simple thing.

When it comes to establishing standards and trying to apply those standards it a particular circumstance the complexities abound. We should be encouraged though because I think we do sometimes do things well. See Neil De Koning’s wonderful piece on pastoral care to co-habitating couples. 

What Changes Will Come?

I think there will be a lot of sorting out of all sorts of standards in the coming decades. Will standards be “relaxed” or will they be strengthened? Probably both. That is usually how things go. Changes in our standards about “who may employ this institution” have been premised by changed assumptions about the institution itself, much of which has been implicitly adopted by the church within the culture in many subtle ways.

The church today will have to do what the church has done in every generation which is to sort through all of the material and make decisions about our standards and sanctions. We will undoubtedly get some things right and some things wrong.

Questions that May Help

When considering standards and sanctions we might ask some questions to lead us forward. When we work on our answers we will certainly use all of the tools that our two books (general and special revelation) afford us.

  1. Why was the current standard established and how did it seek shalom?
  2. Why is the current standard challenged? Is the standard itself impeding God’s desire for the application of his shalom in our community?
  3. What are the signs of shalom that we are assuming or expecting?
  4. Does the present or proposed standard express love of God and love of neighbor? How?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Daily Links and Notes. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Of Standards and Sanctions

  1. Pingback: The Modesty Meme and the Meaning of Hell | Leadingchurch.com

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