Substance and Drama
The CRC Synod 2015 is over. Synod did a number of large things with very little drama.
- Synod added deacons to Classis and Synod.
- Synod “unified” Home Missions and World Missions.
- Synod blew up the agency board system that had governed the agencies for as long as we’ve had them for not much more than a concept and a promise to keep Synod informed throughout the change process.
It did all of this without much drama at all. I think all three moves could have been adopted with easy majorities without any discussion at all. Some on the floor were calling this the “rubber stamp Synod” but I think that is unfair. I’ll talk about the other changes in subsequent posts. The hot topic to watch was the Overture to have Classis Grand Rapids East silence the “All One Body” effort.
The Train to No Where Made the Most Noise
It wasn’t hard to know what would happen to that overture. The overture was going nowhere on procedural grounds alone as the advisory committee noted. If it had stopped there there would have been no drama, but that would not be, that COULD not be. What energizes “All One Body” energized Classis Minnkota to write the overture and energized first the advisory committee and then Synod to talk about it. “Something must be said. Something must be done.” And so we try.
A Wolf in Binary Clothing
The conflict looks simple. Traditionalists assert that in sex anything but monogamous heterosexual behavior is sinful. Progressives say that this view is outdated and ill informed. Right now CRC progressives are proposing that the church ought to include, affirm and celebrate monogamous same sex marriages on a par with the celebration of heterosexual marriages. Nothing new to see here really.
The CRC Culture Pond
Going to Synod, however, is like visiting a strange, sometimes wonderful, sometimes awkward cultural pond. The CRC has a thick culture and you can taste it at Synod especially if you come from a place where the culture isn’t quite so thick. That’s not a bad thing. Culture is culture. It is, however, a complicated thing. Many who feel the power and influence of the culture and if you come from a place outside of that culture it makes you realize that in some ways you don’t fit. “Outsiders” of many stripes have been making this comment for years. It is part of the blessing and the struggle of being CRC.
This too is not new. Its roots lie in our history, the strength of our legacy institutions and practices to shape culture. We visited it with the burning wooden shoes Banner. We addressed it with SCORR. We feel it with Women in Office. It is the reason we now have “Youth Advisors” and “Women Advisors” and “Ethnic Advisors”. When it comes to the LGBTQ… conversation these dynamics continue to hold true. Will they be next on the great advisor parade? I doubt it. The Youth Advisors often try to speak for them.
This is Not He Said Ne Said
As with many polarizing debates it is easy to imagine that there are two sides. There were not. When it was clear, as it always should have been, that the overture would not be acceded, to the main mission of the advisory committee report was to make a statement. The advisory committee because of the design of Synod felt a similar need. They worked hard to bring a unified report to the floor, to avoid a majority and minority report. They should be commended for their effort. If they had come with two reports what was probably the most painful episode of this Synod would have been more painful still. The Advisory Committee wanted to make a couple of balanced statements to communicate unity amid difference, but in this fight unity is hard to come by.
As I said there are not two positions in play here, there are many.
- Some wished to use Synodical statements to reaffirm the traditional position.
- Some wished to test the waters to see if a CRC Synod would make “progress” towards more inclusion. It was a lot to wish for but that is what wishes are for. When you believe history is on your side then time is also on your side. Progressives (and many Traditionalists) feel it is just a matter of time. All they need to do is wait to see their deliverance, like Moses on the brink of the Red Sea crossing.
- Some Progressives and Traditionalists both wanted their fears confirmed, that either Synod would not give a clear affirmation of the Traditionalist position or it would. In either case some on both sides would feel justified to do a John Piper and tweet “Farewell CRC!”
- Others knowing all of this was at stake and knowing people were watching (via Acts and Livestream) tried frantically to stop the debate in hopes of stopping the damage and the fallout. This led to a very crafty move to challenge the chair for letting the rest of the advisory committee report bring recommendations beyond the “not accede” recommendation. That was a very skillful and subtle move but it would fail. It is always a wish of desperation that we can avoid this passage either by turtling up or going around by parliamentary procedure. The rules of Synod are designed to let Synod have its way and this poorly preformed conversation would have its way. How do we as Christians keep denying the fact made evident by Israel and Jesus that the path to glory ALWAYS goes through the pain and the loss and not around it? We will not finesse our way around this painful passage, do not be deceived.
If the Belhar conversation a few days before was a lose-lose, this one was lose-lose-lose-lose. Nobody got anything out of it except “All One Body” whose discipline was never really in the cards via a Minnkota overture. This is what will be codified in the Acts. Stories outside the Acts, however, govern us more deeply
Synodical Pond Water
As I’m crammed into a coach seat on the flight back to Sacramento I am pondering the Synodical pond water.
The CRC together with many other evangelicals of course sees the LGBTQ… identified person as suffering from a sexual disorder, one that will likely not be remedied in all the clinical or pietistic idols we fashion. The fall of the Exodus movement is a critical revelatory moment which makes Wendy Vanderwall-Gritter’s book so important for the CRC conversation. Your gayness will not likely be exorcised by prayer or a therapist. While Jesus has the power to heal we all know that many of our wants in this world are not remedied in the age of decay. Most will be gay for the stay and queer for way more than a year.
Our formal theology really isn’t shaken by the “born this way” argument because we are Augustinian. We are all born disordered we say, but few fail to notice that in practical community we implicitly express that some are more “disordered” than others. Commonly acceptable “holy living” is quite achievable and flexible unless you’ve got the wrong disorder. The standard for holy living with this “disorder” calls for “extraordinary sacrifice” in our world more shaped by post-enlightenment Providential Deism than by Augustinian brokenness.
Where CRC Culture Still Finds Consensus, For Now
Even if there is disagreement with some key elements of this approach (namely the disorder aspect) within the CRC community the one thing that the vast majority can agree on is the need for compassion. It comes in two flavors.
- It may take the form of compassion for sexual minorities as victims of Christian, evangelical or CRC majority culture power on the Progressive side,
- or it may take the form as compassion for one who finds themselves “disordered” on the Traditionalist side.
What is important to see is that the compassion consensus is dependent upon the CRC legacy culture and in many cases the evangelical frame, either as majority culture power or the assumption of “disorder”. What happens to the compassion consensus when the power of the frame diminishes? Get ready hes, shes and nes because this is the next part of our journey.
Grandma gets hip with her new Tracphone
Many who watch the CRC struggle with this note how “far behind” the CRC is from the broader cultural conversation. While this implicitly embraces an idea of linear progression it is an important observation. What’s more important is that it is in fact getting further behind all the time. Not only did the CRC start far back in the pack but it is also a slow runner if running is your goal.
This word picture is part of the “development” model of secularization. Since technology tends to be the source of our imaginary in this consider the story of the cell phone and the land line.
In North America people are abandoning the land line in favor of everyone having a personal phone. Grandma might have a land line and a Tracphone. The Tracphone mostly sits in her purse unused or maybe even uncharged. She considers it an emergency phone. Her kids consider it useless because it’s never on, she’ll never text, and she has no idea what everyone else is doing with their smartphones or why they think they need them anyway.
In the developing world cell phones have leapfrogged over the landlines. In many ways the cell phone has leapfrogged over the personal computer too. Grandma might have an Apple 1 that she is finally willing to part with.
Communal theology and moral assumptions aren’t quite so malleable as communication technology but if the traditional position is the land line, gay monogamous couples might be the Tracphone, while the culture is burning through revisions of the IPhone with all its adaptability and flexibility. The CRC Synod is fighting about whether or not to get a Tracphone.
“Where is the Harm?”
In the CRC debate the “where is the harm” question is sustained by an image from within the pond. The poster child is the son or daughter of the CRC nearly culturally identical with their Christian school cohort but gay or lesbian. We imagine them settling into a relationship just like their peers and maybe adopting a covenant child or two. We know or imagine the second-career-gender gay CRC person who had a previous heterosexual marriage. They are fully acclimated and acculturated to the CRC already and solidly middle class. They are trained and equipped to serve on council, go to Synod, read Stanley Wiersma and appreciate Lew Smedes. They will tithe, serve, sing from the Psalter Hymnal and give to Calvin College. These people are at home in the CRC pond. They are our own. Why would we be so mean as to deny them the common pleasures and happinesses afforded to the heteros? What’s important to see is that this is just as much a function of the CRC pond.
“We Don’t Want/Need Your Stinking Compassion!”
On the way home from Synod this piece came across my screens. “Can we forgive the evangelicals?” This piece is worth your reading.
So while I understand that evangelical institutions need to go through their processes and hopefully evolve to a more progressive view on LGBT civil and human rights, I continually ask myself:
Can we forgive you for defining us as “inherently disordered,” as “contrary to God’s will,” as “sinners,” as “perverts,” as “heretics,” as “Godless,” as “deceived” and “depraved,” as a “corrupting force on civilization and on the family,” as “contrary to the laws of nature,” and that our relationships “will tear down the very fabric of society”? Can we forgive you for your insulting and repugnant mantra “We love the sinner but hate the sin”? Can we forgive you in your efforts to deny me and members of my community the rights of self-definition and self-determination, and to deny us our integrity and our humanity by attempting to prevent us from maintaining our subjectivity, our agency, and our voice?
Can we forgive you as you so arrogantly tell us why and how we have come to our same-sex attractions and our gender identities and expressions, and that it is a “choice” that we can change? Can we forgive you for your abusive “religious counseling” to remove us from the so-called “gay lifestyle”? Can we forgive you for your bogus and dangerous “reparative” or “conversion therapy”? Can we forgive you for the defrocking, excommunications, purging, and banishments? Can we forgive you for turning our loved ones against us, and for making us internalize your lies?
Can we forgive you for using our bodies as stepping stones for your own ambitions and political (yes, political) advancement? Can we forgive you in your endeavors to deny me and members of my community the rights granted under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution to equal protection under the law, and in particular the right to marry the person of our choice, to serve our country openly in the military, to equal protections in employment, housing, public accommodations, insurance, inheritance, and to pursue happiness as we see fit? Can we forgive you in your efforts to legislate us into second-class citizenship and codify your so-called “values” into law and attempt to deny us entry into the institutions of our choice? Can we forgive you in your efforts to prevent me and members of my community from gaining our rightful place in our society?
When religious leaders preach their damaging interpretations of their sacred texts on issues of same-sex relationships or identities and gender non-conformity within and outside their respective houses of worship, they must be held accountable and responsible for aiding and abetting those who target and harass, bully, physically assault, and murder people perceived as LGBT. In addition, they must be held accountable as accomplices in the suicides of those who are the targets of these abusive actions.
Um, he’s talking about us, and in some ways he’s too still debating the Tracphone. What is exposed is how CRC pondish (and evangelical pondish too) our conversation is. A year before the “Pastoral Care for Same-sex Couples” report comes out to our surprise it is the whole frame of the “Pastoral Care” side that’s probably most obsolete. We assumed we were approaching this question from a position of strength, moral superiority, power and with “compassion” only to discover that the world looking into our ponds sees us as tadpoles. They are waiting for us to grow some legs to hop out of the pond. We might maintain our amphibious abilities to venture into other ponds for occasional private, vestigial, therapeutic reasons but evolve we must because really, ponds, tadpoles and frogs are all going away.
“We don’t need your stinking compassion. Oh silly tadpole Christians, it isn’t you who are going to figure out whether or not to throw us a line, it is we who need to figure out what to do with you!”
Unlike the ethnic minorities whose narrative of victimhood this author uncritically appropriates this group will rise to the heights of cultural power African Americans or Native Americans can never wish to receive in North America.
The Path is Through, Not Around
The CRC is fighting over whether or not or how we will “tolerate” while the culture is gearing up to demand not acceptance but celebration. I don’t want to sound alarmist but Daniel 3 surely comes to mind. The path is through, not around.
Two Ways, Both Narrow
There is a self-importance in our conversation that is unwarranted and it is afforded by the assumption that our experience of power and self-determination in the near future will be like the near past. The CRC like the church in North America will not pick the progressive or the traditional paths it will take them both. It already is, which is why Minnkota wrote the overture. Denominational multiplication is our coping strategy for pluralism in the secular world. We try to take control of whatever slice of the pie we have left.
The advantage the traditionalists have is that they know their path will be hard. They know that their views will be counter-cultural. They know they will be mocked. For those who have been riding the moderate fence this will be a new and uncomfortable experience.
The progressives will accommodate and join in the celebration. Initially this will seem like the path of promise. The Tracphone to IPhone wave, however, is already turning as Tony Campolo is discovering. He arrived too late to the party. His penance insufficiently intense and is view insufficiently broad. Progressives will receive immediate affirmation for evolving legs and dropping their tail but they may discover they will be quickly ignored. In a culture that values strangeness and diversity even gender bigotry is more interesting and attractive than conformity once it becomes the minority position. In some ways the mainline keeps showing up at the party saying “won’t you love me now?” but rainbow hair isn’t nearly as interesting when everybody else already has it.
Repenting of Our Successes
The most important paragraph of the “forgiving evangelicals” article is this. It helps us keep time.
Possibly in the future we may see some real change in some of the more conservative religious institutions around the country. For me, though, I would like to see genuine support, nurturance, celebration of difference, and not mere “tolerance” or “acceptance,” which implies there is something to accept, as if a superior being deigned to regard an inferior being. This feels extremely condescending and patronizing. It seems very nobless oblige.
What this means is no matter what the “Pastoral Care” study committee comes out with it will impress no one beyond the few progressive CRC insider still dreaming of a Tracphone. It will most certainly not satisfy the harder core traditionalists who feel that no matter how much we talk about “diversity” their faction never makes the cut.
At some point we will need to recognize the pride beneath the “compassion” which is our fig tree’s leafy show. Augustinians aren’t supposed to do “pride” parades of any sort yet we in the CRC pond we have long figured out how to do our own in our humblebrag sort of way.
I think all of this leads to the appalling realization that in the final analysis the sin beneath the sins are really what do us in, whether we align with traditionalists, progressives or moderates just trying to keep the family together. The core of our theology is that we face a foe we cannot defeat and all too often that foe is our own pride. The way beyond is the way through and not around. The wages of our sin will be death but Jesus has a way of raising the dead.
You can watch the video. I’d also recommend that you watch Bruce’s concluding homily, his confession of being a Synod big-mouth. (I don’t see it posted yet. I hope they.) He preaches that the grace we preach is the grace we need.
The “deeper magic” of our confession is that nobody is justified by their ability to get this question right. The dark betrayal of this confession is that we rarely believe this and that betrayal works its way through in our behavior and community.
We may derive comfort that the CRC pond is ultimately not our own but belongs to God. We may experience anxiety that God is often hardest on his favorite servants, including his own son. I will say it again, the path beyond is the path through, not around.