The Most Important Thing that Happened at Synod Today, Why it was a lose-lose, why we will do it again, and maybe how God will refine us through it all

When Do You Have Time to Blog?

I get this question all the time at Synod. Here’s my answer. I don’t, but I do it anyway and tonight is a good example. I’m dog tired but I’ve got a couple things stuck in my mental craw that I have to dig out before I go to bed.

Borgdorff’s 5 Minutes and the Belhar

While what many will take away from today was the excitement and enthusiasm of the two new CTS profs, the most important moments on the floor of Synod today were the 5 minutes that Peter Borgdorff gave us and the conversation about the Belhar.

The EIRC and the One Way Street

For an denomination with as insular an ethos as the CRC ecumenical activity is a dicey proposition. Peter Borgdorff was given 5 minutes (a few of us joked that this was impossible, Youtube says it was 8 minutes, not bad) to sketch out a history and vision for how this has changed in the CRC.

In the past ecumenical relations for the CRC was something like a Virtual Private Network for churches. We’d create relationships with “safe” churches, which historically meant conservative, confessional reformed churches where we could do things like pastor swaps, fraternal delegates, etc. The big relationships was of course with other Dutch churches always troubled by the threat of liberal contamination. Listen to the Youtube snippet starting at 1:03 and going to 1:11 that I linked above. Dr. Borgdorff has lived most of this history and he summarizes it succinctly.

“But the world in which we live has changed”

The new ecumenical charter has a mission to it, more than an ecclesiastical VPN and firewall. We will engage with Reformed churches different from ourselves, like the two relationships we began today in Congo and Sudan, and this will give us “an expanded vision of the church of Jesus Christ” and give those churches benefit from a more “recognized, affirmed existence”. Having served 6 years in the Dominican Republic it is easy for me to appreciate what these partners around the world get from the relationship.

One-Way Please

While ecumenicity is supposed to be about mutuality and affirming relationships between churches this new missional postures I think is most comfortably imagined to really be a one way street. While we might like to learn from these relationships, we are not really intending to be schooled. Might we have a bit of colonial superiority still lurking in our hearts? We’re comfortable being a patron, even if we assume the popular language today of being a learner or being a listener or being humble. Deep down we really imagine ourselves as being able to make a contribution more than receiving.

The Belhar, however, came up through the pipe the other way via the EIRC and many in the CRC still feel they were the victims of a sales when the effort was made to have it adopted as a 4th confession. When the Belhar reappears in the EIRC report in recommendations like these many call “foul”.

5. That synod note the decision of Synod 2012 regarding the Belhar Confession and encourage the churches to study and incorporate its themes into their discipling and liturgical ministries.
Grounds: a. The lack of attention by churches to the Belhar Confession and the need for further study of the Belhar’s themes and incorporation into the discipleship and liturgical life of the CRC call for synod’s reaffirmation. b. The importance of Synod 2012’s decision deserves to be emphasized by a subsequent synod.
6. That synod instruct the Board of Trustees to ensure that denominational Ministry Support Services, Faith Formation Ministries, and Worship Ministries provide consultative Belhar Confession assistance to congregations and make related materials available through their service, marketing efforts, and web-based access.

Two Groups React and their darker Narratives reinforced

When I read Advisory Committee 8 I knew there would be trouble.

Some see the Belhar as having been defeated but the EIRC won’t let it die. This especially stings this crowd when the overtures wanting to reopen the PCN decision from last year was ruled out of order by the Synod exec. for failing to bring forward new grounds. The EIRC of course doesn’t need new grounds to make the recommendations they did. In fairness to them they didn’t try to represent it as a new confession again, but this is the fear of those who fear the Belhar. Beneath this fear is the conservative vs. progressive narrative (spelled out in the RCA LGTBQ struggle) where conservatives fear the progressives with the cultural wind at their back just relentlessly use their positional advantage at least in the EIRC to keep at it until they get what they want. I usually see this imagined progressive advantage as overblown (most people on these committees are far from progressive ideologues) but the reappearance of the Belhar reinforces that narrative.

The next response was equally predictable.

Many in the CRC African American community resonated with many of the themes of the Belhar and saw the promise of a non-European confession begin added to the three Northern European ones we have now. This would be emblematic of their ethnic place in the church and a document understanding of their historical experience of injustice. The defeat of the Belhar for them was also reinforced a narrative and the fight on the floor to once again encourage the churches to use the Belhar re-opened the wound.

This was a lose-lose moment where those who want the Belhar to just go away lost by having Synod encourage it again and those who won that vote were reminded that they were denied having the church validate them by embracing a confession from Africa that resonated with a history of bitter pain.

We’re going to keep having these moments

This was not the first such lose-lose and it will not be the last. This is of course because of how these issues vibrate with the resonance of the far larger culture war through which we experience these struggles. The colors of the culture war bleed into all of our debates through language and assumed narratives that we are nearly powerless to separate.

  • When Disability Concerns use “inclusion” what do we hear?
  • When we hear “everyone is welcome, everyone serves” what do we hear?

Now we can easily tease this out. Disability Concerns is NOT talking LGBTQ concerns here, they would offend both sides if they were, obviously, but this is what a culture war does to language and to signals.

If you jump to minute 1:09 of the Borgdorff speech where he talks about us being at the table, being in the middle, etc. This will be heard in this context in different ways.

The Appropriated Civil Rights Narrative

The American Civil Rights movement was an extraordinary thing in American history and became for an increasingly secularized country its moral yardstick and defining narrative. The template used in that struggle would be successfully appropriate by women and now by the LGBTQ struggle. The attempt is to tie it all together and have it appear to be all one long march of progress towards the liberation of the individual from group constraint. The continued re-tooling of the term “bigot” is the most important signal.

One of the unique facets of this struggle is to enable both sides to simultaneously feel like victims. Social conservatives and Christian conservatives watch the Same Sex marriage map (show in another conversation today) reinforce the narrative that they are on the “wrong side of history”. The reappearance of the Belhar awakens these feelings. It didn’t take long for the Belhar to be heard in the LGBTQ conversation even though it came from a continent that LGBTQ promoters are deeply frustrated by.

At the same time, in a context like the CRC there are ample opportunities for minorities of many kinds to feel like victims of institutional power. Synod is dominated by white men with Dutch last names. Women and ethnic minorities are constantly on guard and watchful for signs of bias combined with power.

Untangling the Narratives, Resisting the Reactions

The way forward is of course to untangle the narratives and resist the impulse to react to signals that we hear in light of the broader culture war. There are currently multiple fool’s gold narratives in play now in our cultures which deeply compromise our ability to live out the cruciform gospel of incarnation, humiliation, crucifixion and resurrection.

We are each most blind to the fools gold that is passing for the real thing in our own hearts. It might be a narrative of liberation through self assertion or a narrative of validation through confessional purity or traditional role playing. All of our hearts are compromised and we need each other to see the places we perpetually fall for devilish counterfeits.

Christian remedial applications against sexism and racism are not identical to contemporary solutions of self-affirmation and opponent defamation. The way back from mistaking our enemy in flesh and blood is drawing back from our re-activity and lovingly, patiently understanding the fear and anxiety of our beloved fellow imagebearer. The power to change the defects we clearly see in the other (and are blind to in ourselves) comes from the Holy Spirit that keeps biding us to stay together, to love, and to finally trust God to make us and his church holy.

When We Get Triggered Can We Pause? 

OK, I’ve written until I can sleep. Tomorrow morning at breakfast I’ll feel like crap. I’ll get triggered by all sorts of things and maybe be too quick to speak and too slow to listen. Maybe through all of my failings in this way I’ll learn to trust God more and love my neighbor better. Be patient with me as I stumble and I’ll try to be patient with you.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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4 Responses to The Most Important Thing that Happened at Synod Today, Why it was a lose-lose, why we will do it again, and maybe how God will refine us through it all

  1. Gina says:

    I really appreciate these sentences and marvel that you were able to write so clearly when reportedly so fatigued. I wish I could do the same:-)

    “The way back from mistaking our enemy in flesh and blood is drawing back from our re-activity and lovingly, patiently understanding the fear and anxiety of our beloved fellow imagebearer. The power to change the defects we clearly see in the other (and are blind to in ourselves) comes from the Holy Spirit that keeps biding us to stay together, to love, and to finally trust God to make us and his church holy.”

  2. Rob Braun says:

    Thanks you Paul for you views and firsthand insights. I appreciate your perspective. My concern is that the CRC seems to be trying to hard to mirror the darkness of society rather than be a light to it. For many, myself included, there seems to be too much of a progressive agenda going on with us. And it is clear, this progressive direction is not attracting people to the CRC. Instead we’re losing numbers over this and consequently funding to do the ministry work we’d like to do. The financially driven need to combine World Missions with Home Missions is a good example of this. It frustrates me to no end that the great theological heritage which attracted me to join the CRC is systematically, year by year, being abandoned.

  3. Pingback: The Lose-Lose-Lose-Lose Conversation of Synod 2015 on the Silencing of “All One Body”, and why the Path Beyond always goes through, not around |

  4. bruce416 says:

    Nice reflections, Paul. I was at Synod 2015, my first. I was on Advisory Committee 8, “Ecumenical Relations (name might not be exactly correct).” During the course of our discussions regarding the PCN in particular, and the status it had been granted, I was tempted to ask whether, if there had been a First Christian Reformed Church of Sodom and Gomorrah, with a Dutch heritage, whether we would form a bond with them too. The definition of “full ecclesiastical fellowship” had been changed in 2006, from implying pulpit exchange between partner denominations and the like, to something much less. Peter Borgdorff sat in on our committee meetings, and said the definition had been turned not on its head, exactly, but on its side. I commented that it had been turned on its side and spun around. When you change a definition of a commonly understood term, it leads to misunderstanding and confusion, which has certainly been the case regarding our relationship with the PCN, which appears to be as liberal as our most liberal mainline denominations in the U.S. and Canada. A man attended our meetings from the PCN who believed in the saving power of Christ and the truth of the Word of God (which appears to be the position of a small remnant of PCN members) described the actions and statements of some of the PCN people as “silly.” He said he felt the PCN could really benefit from the CRC and its adherence (I will say for the most part) to the creeds and confessions. He was a very learned and distinguished man, and a very humble man, and I admired what he was striving to do–to bring some of our traditional beliefs back into the PCN. I learned a great deal from him.

    As we deal with what one person described as the tsunami of cultural change all around us, we need to hand tightly to He who is the anchor of our soul. We also need to follow the example of love and humility set by our brother from the PCN. We need to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, find the balance between standing strong for our Lord and His Word, while at the same time being loving and patient with those with whom we disagree. We need to remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood, including our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree, but rather our battle is against powers and principalities. We need to use spiritual weapons. One very positive recent example has been our work to organize prayer for our denomination.

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