Why for the CRC the Local Option will not bring peace or unity but instead keep us from having the conversation we need to have about what marriage is for and Christian living in our marketplace world

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Bob De Moor Suggests a Local Option would bring Peace and Unity

Banner Editor Bob De Moor in his final editorial suggested that the “local option” might be a way to resolve the question of LGBTQ inclusion in the CRCNA.

That “local option” helped us to clearly affirm biblical teaching, leave room for different perspectives on what is or isn’t a sin, and allows churches to exercise pastoral care and discipline in line with our understanding that the CRC confers primary authority on local councils.

He seems to offer this as a path for peace and unity. Let’s play this out a little bit.

From Membership to Leadership to Quotas

Let’s imagine that the Synod of 2016 decides to not only accept the pastoral care report but “looks ahead” down the road and decides that in order to prevent the nasty wrangling going on in other denominations like the RCA, the PCUSA or the UMC it would pass a resolution allowing local congregations to interpret the Bible on their own as to the question of whether same sex marriage is sinful or not.

Now this is about as unlikely a scenario for Synod 2016 as we can imagine given the number of overtures coming to it regarding this topic but play along with me. In a couple of paragraphs someone might suggest that I’m indulging in a “slippery slope” argument but you can be the judge if my ponderings are unreasonable.

Now after we imagine Synod 2016 passing this resolution overturning the position of the now famous 73 report (no church order adjustment is required and therefore no need for a second Synod to ratify it) a few local congregations, clergy and members might celebrate. Some of the openly gay and lesbian couples in CRCs that are semi-closeted could finally fully join and many of the singles would for the first time imagine that they could marry in their local CRC and be accepted.

Next Steps

After the initial euphoria in a few churches focus would turn to other congregations where semi-closeted gay and lesbian couples would like to join but the congregations doesn’t have a majority of members of its leadership in agreement with Synod’s decision. Given the survey results of the current Synodical report we can probably assume that this is a majority of the churches. Portions of these churches that support this imagined inclusive resolution of 2016 would then start to move in more activistic ways so have their congregations switch positions. They would look for affirming members to be elected to council, look for affirming pastors to be called while the other side would do the same. The congregations would organize study committees and listening sessions to explore the issue. In many cases this would raise the level of acrimony but those wanting peace would increasingly say things like “neither side is wrong or sinful, both perspectives are permissible, we shouldn’t really fight over this…”

All the while of course, individuals who are passionate about the issue one way or another would be counting votes, labeling and counting council members, labeling and counting clergy and eventually seats at classis.

On to Representational Leadership and Celebration of “Pioneers”

After the initial euphoria of inclusion in some local churches the next step question would of course be “does our council reflect the diversity of sexual and gender minorities in our church and community?” There would be a push for some of the early gay and lesbian members to be elected to council. These individuals first elected would be celebrated as “pioneers” in gender equality and would be featured in Banner pieces and on the Facebook page and blog of All One Body. Other CRC members who are not affirming would note these celebrations, be offended by them, and begin to organize to resist what they identify as a developing threat to the purity of the church. Maybe they might start a Facebook group and call it the “Regrouping Church”.

Soon those celebrating the increasing number of congregations affirming the sexual minorities would talk about seeing the first openly gay or lesbian CRC pastor in a committed relationship and a congregation or two would want to be the first to have this person as their pastor. This person would of course be courageous, a hero and a pioneer facing the discrimination and bigotry of non-affirming elements of the CRCNA. This person likely didn’t go through Calvin Theological Seminary as an openly gay person in a committed relationship leaving room for a future pioneer to take that path with the anticipatory celebrations.

On to Further Fights at Classis and Synod

Even before the push for the first openly gay CRC clergy in a committed relationship classes in the denomination would have to face the question of seating openly gay CRC elders and deacons in committed relationships. The “local option” would then have to be applied to classis and there would need to be affirming and non-affirming classes. There would of course be office bearers in churches that were affirming but non-affirming classes blocking them from serving at classis. Pressure would rise in those classes to affirm and groups in classis would organize to block that affirmation. The same would happen when it came to clergy of course and of course to Synod.

What Peace and Unity would the Local Option have Accomplished?

At this point it is hard to imagine how the “local option” brings more peace and unity if that is the goal. It could be argued that this path is inevitable so we might as well get on with it but if that is the case we’d have to ask whether we are better taking this path now or ten or twenty years from now. We should also ask what makes us think this path is inevitable and face that assumption full on. I’ve got some thoughts about whether the CRC itself will take this path that I’ve shared on CRC Voices but I’ll save that for now.

My point is that if your goal is peace and unity I don’t really see how a local option gets you there. A local option is a procedural move when the real debate is confessional. By virtue of a procedural or policy decision you are making an implicit confessional decision without fully facing it and this, I suggest, will not bring you peace or unity but rather invite the church to greatly multiply the number of confessional conversations that would be taking place under the guise of policy or procedure.

This returns me to my previous blog post where I say we need to have a confessional conversation rather than a procedural one. The procedural debates would simply become proxies for confessional conversations keeping the confessional issues submerged and bringing most of the focus to politicking. We’d be counting votes and moving to get people with the right labels into the right representative seats and counting this as wins for “justice” or losses of “holiness” instead of asking more basic questions beneath.

I think we essentially tried this approach by trying to get under the debate by asking a committee to explore the “pastoral care” of the issue, it’s application, rather than really engaging the far larger cultural issues and assumptions we’ve been swimming in since the Enlightenment and the advent of modern secularity. The biggest revelation of the current report is that trying to approach this from a pastoral care perspective wasn’t revelatory. The report simply puts pressure on the basic position of the CRC and implicitly suggests (because it wasn’t allowed to actually address it) that the real question is in the end the question itself. “Does God affirm or doesn’t He?” and the answer to that question will decide whether you approach the union of same sex couples in marriage as sinful or not.

Marriage and the Location of Individual and Communal Goods and Identities

The occasion of this great divide is of course same sex marriage but I believe the source of the greater divide beneath it concerning marriage is a fuller understanding of what marriage is for.

If we take the question of sexual minorities out of focus for a moment let’s direct our focus to marriage itself. From our contemporary perspective marriage has always been a problematic institution. If our focus is on the individual marriage has been for many a great source of suffering, bondage and misery. It has also, often, been a great source of joy and fulfillment but a lot of the critique of what we might call “traditional marriage” in all of its forms has been misery. Throughout history women have often had little say in their marriage choices while men sometimes got to choose or sometimes were also subject to marriage arranged by parents. Since marriage was supposed to be for a lifetime and since people’s passions and tastes seldom last that long divorce and adultery have always been concerns in marriage. While some found joy, security and companionship in life long marriage others found bondage, suffering and loneliness being joined to someone they didn’t like, were abused by or just plain really didn’t get along with. We might wonder how the institution that we look upon as “traditional marriage” managed to survive at all?

I think the answer to that question is because the primary goods of traditional marriage were overwhelmingly experienced by the community even when individuals struggled with it. Marriage worked better for children, for stability in society, for communities and for economics than non-marriage so nearly every society in the world prioritized it and enforced it in one fashion or another. Communal identities such as father, mother, son, daughter were of greater importance than individual felt-need identities such as lover or happy. The adjustments and accommodations tended to come on the individual side in support of the communal side priority.

The Rise of the Priority of the Individual over the Communal in the Enlightenment

If you’re looking for a primer on this you could do worse than check out Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks to explore the ways our culture, and in fact our entire world, is changing. The priority of individual choice and individual identities are increasingly supplanting the traditional priorities of communal stability and familial identities.

We are moved on from being subjects (in the monarchical mode) of communities to free agents in search of happiness and fulfillment.

I believe that Berger is correct when, in an earlier part of his book, he takes as fundamental to our modern Western culture the fact that it has enormously enlarged the area in which the individual is free to make his own choices. A vast amount of what earlier ages and other cultures simply accepted as given facts of life are now subject to human decision. With the aid of modern technology, modern man chooses when he will live, to whom he will talk, how he will behave, what style of life he will adopt. He can, if he has successfully mastered the techniques of modern living, change at will his job, his home, his company, and his spouse. The old patterns of belief and behavior that ruled because they were not questioned have largely dissolved. Each person makes his or her own decisions about what to believe and how to behave. It is therefore entirely natural that religion too is drawn into this way of understanding the human situation. It is natural, in a culture controlled by this kind of experience, for religion also to be a matter of personal choice, unconditioned by any superhuman or supernatural authority. We are all in this sense subject to the “heretical imperative.”

Newbigin, Lesslie (1988-06-01). Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (p. 13). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

Contemporary Marriage

There is obviously far more to say when it comes to this than what I can shoehorn into a few paragraphs but the priorities of contemporary marriage have shifted. Today individual goods are primary and community goods and identity secondary. Today marriage was made for the individual, not the individual for marriage.

I was watching the ABC TV version of the Saul and David story. Michal, Saul’s daughter boldly declares that unlike her older sister in this story that by virtue of appearances (Saul’s older daughter did hook up secretly with the Judean prince before they were married) she was going to pick her man and would do so by her tastes, not her father’s political necessities.

The Biblical text does of course show Michal loving David to the point of being willing to deceive her father to save David’s life. Her fondness for David would wain when he did his dance of the flying skirts in celebration of the Ark coming to Jerusalem before the new crop of young girls admiring her husband. While the show wanted to try to portray Israel between the bronze and the iron age the script writers couldn’t resist reaffirming the priority of choice in marriage that has triumphed in the West for the last couple of hundred years. Marriage is for individual happiness and fulfillment.

It is from this platform, of course, that same sex marriage makes the most sense. Why would we want to withhold the ultimate symbol and mechanism of romantic fulfillment, sexual fulfillment and happiness from those who happened to be born wanting members of their own sex or those who are indifferent to the sex of their partner? In this scheme in fact the bi-sexual or queer individual is the most evolved person because the incidental sex of their object of desire is secondary to those non-sexual personal qualities that make up that person’s “true self”. 

Communal goods and identities in marriage are now secondary. Children are a lifestyle choice that can be secured through legal or biological technology if at least one of the parents believes that being a parent would fulfill them or meet a deep longing they’ve always had. The actual demands of that child are then a function not of the child’s needs but the parent’s. A parent’s partner might help out with their partner’s desire to become a parent but if at some point the relationship no longer works for the needs of the non-parent partner that child should of course follow the party who choose the lifestyle path of parent rather than partner. This is of course a departure from the hetero-normative biological narrative of a child bearing genetic material from both parents who commit to embracing the identity of father and mother for as long as their lives shall last.

The Marriage Trilema 

David Brooks wrote a very important piece in February on the three views of marriage.

david brooks three views of marriage

 

The thing to point out immediately is that the valuation made here, the judgment with respect to marriage is of course made in terms of the individual. Our contemporary logic is of course that if the individual is doing well that wellness will permeate out to those in their relational network. Fulfilled partners make for better parents and happier kids.

The polarization noted, however, also suggests that the value of the institution should not be evaluated merely on the basis of how well some individuals do with it but also how broadly its implicit and explicit mechanisms can deliver goods on a far wider scale. In a culture increasingly concerned with income inequality we might also be concerned with the inequalities between the winners and losers of the new economy of marriage.

The New Economy of Marriage

The new economy of marriage likely favors the wealthy (marriage is currently holding among the wealthy but slipping dramatically among the poor), the powerful (especially if you understand beauty as a kind of shallow power in a Tinder-fueled relational marketplace economy) and the psychologically and emotionally healthy. Those who fail to reach this bar will likely fail to attract and hold partners who continue to find their company a source of personal happiness and fulfillment now that the new relational imperative is that life is too short to stay in a marriage “that doesn’t work”.

Even the Tim Keller adaptation of marriage to his urbane New York audience stresses the redemptive value to the individual rather than the relational community of the individual.

david brooks kelleresque marriage

Christian Marriage as Gateway Drug to the Broader Cruciform Life

In all fairness to Tim Keller marriage as self-sacrificial self-improvement is a gateway drug to deeper conversations about the purpose of the Christian life in the age of decay. Keller will want to direct us to Paul’s perspective that marriage is itself a form of Christian renunciation and sacrifice in the shape of the cross of Jesus inviting the individual to a costly life for the sake of their family community including children and the broader community and society.

Now I think it is a reasonable question to ask whether same sex attracted individuals should be excluded from this self-sacrificial self-improvement institution. If we approach the question in this way, however, many of the lines are arguments about fairness and fulfillment change. We hear few same sex attracted individuals asking that they too may find themselves trapped in a relationship that doesn’t work for them, or a sexless marriage kept on life support “for the sake of the kids”. The dirty little not-so-secret reality of old fashioned hetero-normative marriage is that quite often many people soldiered on in their marriages and learned to give and sacrifice for others while finding little in the relationship to be personally satisfying or sexually gratifying. Much of their ability to do this hard, often dirty work came from a communal norm complete with sanctions to keep them in their unhappy place at great cost to themselves. They made the best of things finding some goods, never having it all, yet along the way blessing their circles around them.

The Differing Paths of the Confessional Conversation

What is in play are really differing understandings of marriage.

The traditional path is a hetero-normative narrative where normally reproductive capable couples usually in a flush of temporary enthusiasm bind themselves into a cruciform communal institution that sets them on a course they cannot predict. The regular sacrifice of personal passions and agendas allows others, normally children, into the community and establishes a lifestyle priority of “your well-being at my expense”. Grace is always understood as being personally costly not simply a Christiany version of the word “nice”. In the long run and on a broad scale this creates and institution that supports people to do often what they don’t want to do, and what is often against their individual self-interest in order for the weak, the poor, the ugly and the infirm of the community to find lasting support and communion even when what they have to contribute is less than what they require.

Competing with it today is a narrative of personal liberation and self-fulfillment that imagines each of us as actors in a relational marketplace. We vie with one another to display what we have to offer so as to attract to ourselves a partner of highest possible value in terms of wealth, beauty, power, or relational maturity. While equality is the banner we fly our outcomes are anything but equal because relational bonds are kept to the degree that they express our market value. Individuals as market agents enter and dissolve contractual relationships as they serve their individual needs and desires. It is hoped and assumed that broader governmental and economic actors will mitigate the losses faced by the losers in the relational economy.

The Local Option as Church Expression of the Relational/Religious Market Economy

I am hoping to illustrate that while the occasion of this confessional conversation is the debate over same sex marriage the implications of this confessional divide in today’s religious market goes far beyond our heightened awareness of sexual minorities. The major elements of the playing field upon which we stand have been radically upended in the last few hundred years.

  • “Equality” has become an assumed essential good with relatively little reflection as to what it means or how and where it should be applied.
  • Assumptions of market dynamics are so pervasive we can hardly imagine what local church or denomination means outside of those assumptions.
  • We have relatively little insight into what norms and cultures are for in terms of their capacity to deliver hallowed “flourishing” on a broad scale to the weak, the poor, or the undesirable.

As I noted in my previous piece our denominational process devolves into one side citing law and claiming it’s a matter of interpreting individual passages of Scripture while the other waves the banner of equality and justice demanding that sexual minorities marriage equality. Marriage itself gets reduced to a mechanism for romantic and personal fulfillment and Christian marriage increasingly a church license for permission to have sex.

What Pastoral Care in Marriage is For Under the Traditional Regime

The longer I ponder the pastoral care report  the more I believe that addressing this question from the pastor care side simply capitulates to the contemporary framework. We’re addressing the wrong end of the problem.

In the traditional scheme of things pastoral care was to help individuals suffering under marriage as a demanding communal aspiration. Marriage was understood to be hard, sacrificial, and not always fulfilling. Pastoral care was to shore up the sacrificial side of the equation.

In some ways the contemporary framework of marriage is the success of the therapeutic, a contemporary cousin of pastoral care, which addresses the problem by changing the objective. The solution to a difficult, painful or unfulfiling marriage has always been easy to find. Divorce is the end of pastoral care for marriage. Pastoral care then shifts usually to helping the losers in the divorce cope with their new situation while those who remain with good market value re-enter the institution in pursuit of their next chapter in the search for happiness.

Should we be surprised that the pastoral care report seems to lack good news for either side of the current debate? The poor study committee did their best, like many married couples, to make the best of a difficult situation.

The Local Option is like Drinking the Salt Water of our Cultural Sea of Equality/Identity Aspirations

The local option on this subject is in a sense the denominational expression of the present market paradigm. What it will finally do is enliven the liberational missiology of equality and no matter how many churches affirm or classes seat there will always be under-representation of some identity group and marginalization of an under-fulfilled minority. We will not find our way out of this box by jiggering with the details of church polity. We must take a step back and ask far more fundamental questions about our institutions.

Our great fear is really that we don’t believe we can have a confessional conversation and that will probably be what keeps us twiddling with polity. The true sign of decayed division and hopelessness is not productive conflict but resignation.

 

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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