What do I Mean when I Say we Need a Confessional Conversation as a Way Forward in our Conflict over Same sex Marriage and other Matters

DSC01967Confessions as a way of making explicit cultural faith expressions

What was Apartheid?

I first learned about Apartheid when I was a boy. A South African pastor was a guest in our home. He was in the states to talk about Apartheid as an evil in the church in South Africa. I was old enough to be curious about other cultures so I asked him questions and learned about the practices of separateness.

Apartheid was a political practice. It was a social practice. It was an element of South African culture and it had a theological manifestation in some Reformed South African churches. These churches developed a theology based on their reading of the Bible to justify and promote the practice. Some South African churches that practiced Apartheid were confessionally, culturally and historically close to the Christian Reformed Church. Practices and the theology that supported these practices became a sort of confession for these Apartheid churches. Their practice and theology shaped their reading of the Bible.

Not just a Hermeneutical Conflict

The conservative Dutch Reformed churches that practiced Apartheid believed that their position was not only in alignment with the Bible but also in some ways derived from it. These churches probably had nearly identical, conservative hermeneutical practices as their Christian Reformed relatives in the United States and Canada. “Hermeneutics” are the rules by which Christians scholars believe themselves to be interpreting Scripture. Their hermeneutics didn’t keep them from reading not just a justification for Apartheid in the Bible but also a mandate for it. I would like to say that Apartheid, it’s practice and its theology became a “confession” for those churches and whether or not they formally wrote and subscribed to an Apartheid confession it was a confessional practice.

A confessions did arise out of that struggle. They were having a confessional conversation in dealing with Apartheid. A confession that arose out of it was the Belhar Confession.

There was an effort to have the Christian Reformed Church adopt the Belhar Confession as a confession but it failed. There were a number of reasons why it failed. Part of why it failed I believe was because despite our years of practice surrounding subscription and our current confessions we have not used this framework or tool to govern ourselves and struggles.

I believe that approaching theological conflicts, conflicts of practice, and different ways of understanding the Bible as confessional conversations are a helpful way of processing these disputes. Because the struggle with Apartheid was seen a confessional matter it was able to be processed and out of it arose documents and learnings which could be helpful for other segments of the church.

Confessions and the Bible

We know that we all read the Bible through a certain set of theological and cultural filters. While the text may stay the same what we derive from it differs. How do we talk about this? How do we understand this?

One image that might help us is understanding epigenetics. If we imagine the DNA of Protestant churches to be the text of Scripture, Confessions work as the epigenome to turn on and off elements of that text in the life of the church as it travels through time and cultures.

The Canons of Dordt for example wrestled with the various texts of the Bible that were read to answer the question “Do we contribute to our salvation or does it all come from God?”

This is a complicated question when it comes to the Bible as it is in life. The Canons of Dordt in distinguishing its subscribers from Arminian Christians use the confession to read some Scripture in the light of others and in a sense give certain ones priority. The Canons of Dordt activate some Scripture and understand other passages in the light of those first ones.

We can see similar things happening in other church groups. Some Seventh Day Adventists still practice some Old Testament dietary laws like refraining from eating pork. I know that some very conservative Reformed Calvinists also try to partially comply with Old Testament dietary laws. Many do not. They have a theological understanding which I’m calling a confessional understanding of why Christians no longer need abide by those laws. Christians who eat pork read Jesus’ words in Mark and Paul’s words in Galatians and other passages to de-activate these passages in the Torah that prohibit pork consumption. This is a difference in theology, a difference in practice but one way to understand it is a difference in confession even if their hermeneutic remains the same.

Christians and Manicheans

One of the more interesting books I’m reading is Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions. Accounts of Augustine’s life that I’ve heard often talked about Augustine’s Manichean phase as a pagan phase of his life. Fox asserts that Augustine through that phase considered himself a Christian. This was because Mani and his teachings arose in a Christian context.

At first the teachings of Mani’s Twin were to be kept secret, but they sat awkwardly with life in the Baptist community. Its members lived by rules which prescribed the strictest purity. They respected many biblical laws of the Jews, except for the offering and consumption of meat (they were vegetarians) and the use of fire in their rites (they used water). They practised circumcision and observed the Sabbath, but abstained from sex and washed very frequently for ritual reasons. They ate only the special bread and vegetables which they grew and prepared. They ‘baptized’ each vegetable before they ate it. However, they were not an isolated, local group. In Augustine’s lifetime like-minded Baptists were recognized to be a significant presence in the Holy Land. They persisted long after Mani, spreading into southern Arabia, where they are probably the enigmatic ‘Sabians’ whom Muhammad mentions with esteem in the Koran. 5

The Baptists were not restricted to Jews, but they respected many Jewish laws and revered many apocryphal Jewish texts. It is of the first importance that the recently discovered Greek ‘biography’ has confirmed that Mani was born into a community which was considered Christian, although its practices and many of its beliefs were not those of most Christians in the Latin West.

Fortified by his visions, the young Mani began to challenge the Baptists’ rules in the name of the ‘Saviour’, Jesus Christ. Jesus, he observed, had never taught that repeated washing made the body holy. Mani argued that in the very soil which the Baptists tilled, there was a divine substance, the spiritual Jesus who was imprisoned in it. Here, Mani appealed to Elchesai, a past figure of prophetic authority whom the Baptists honoured and who was also believed to have had a vision of angels. One day, Mani claimed, as Elchesai prepared to plough the earth, it had spoken to him. ‘Why do you make your living from me?’ it asked him. Elchesai wept, kissed it and realized, ‘This is the flesh and blood of my Lord.’ 6 Water had also spoken to him and taught him that he should not pollute it by washing in it. These and other visions ran contrary, Mani realized, to the relentless washing and tilling of the Baptists in his own day. While appealing to Elchesai, a past authority whom they professed to respect, Mani began to look to a new future. Enlightened by his heavenly Twin, he refused to eat the Baptists’ special bread. Inevitably, the Baptists began to interrogate him and tried to discipline him.

In spring 240, when he was aged twenty-four, his Twin appeared to him again and completed the lessons about his origin and parentage, ‘how I was separated from my Father on high and was sent according to His will, what orders and teaching He gave me before I clothed myself with this mortal body, before I fell into error in this loathsome flesh’. 7 Mani learned that his ‘spirit’ had existed long before his earthly birth. His father, Patticius, had merely ‘built the house’ (Mani’s body), but ‘another came and moved into it’ (the Twin). This extreme dualism divided the ‘spirit’ from the ‘loathsome’ body and was certainly taught to the young Augustine in north Africa.

Nowadays, scholars can match many parts of Mani’s teachings to an undergrowth of earlier Jewish and Christian writings, many of which are best known in languages other than Greek in the Christian East. The presence of Christ in the very earth of the material world was not a novel idea in this febrile thought-world, one in which the historical Jesus of the four Gospels had been replaced by a ‘cosmic’ Jesus, a spiritual redeemer in a drama about the universe which extended way beyond Galilee and Judaea.

Fox, Robin Lane. Augustine: Conversions to Confessions (pp. 92-94). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Our knowledge of Mani and the Manicheans has continued to grow as scholars have discovered more texts from them and about them. Their teachings get strangers still yet young Augustine considered himself a Christian and a Manichean. Augustine’s “conversion” Lane will argue was not self-consciously so much to “Christianity” because at the time he still considered himself one as he moved away from the teaching and practices of the Manicheans but to wisdom influenced by Neo-platonism which would shape his future theology.

Most of us reading this would say “this isn’t Christian”. Why? Because of our confession. If we had access to a modern day Manichean we could both appeal to the Bible to justify our beliefs. We might even have similar hermeneutical practices. We would he having a confessional conversation.

Bringing to the Surface Implicit Confessions

We are immersed in numerous implicit confessions. The church has within it numerous competing confessions. Part of the reasons Apartheid as heresy could be exposed, contained and defeated was because it was approached as a confessional conversation. I have no doubt that those who embraced Apartheid considered themselves to be faithful Reformed Christians who had discovered in the Bible and in their experience the truth about God’s design for racial justice. They would have felt justified and edified if Reformed churches around the world had adopted their confession and practice as a way of expressing what they believed was a Christian response to race.

Instead, quite the opposite thing happened. Apartheid as a confession was denounced and abandoned. This wasn’t a purely ecclesiastical struggle. It had its elements in secular politics, in economics, and had versions that had nothing to do with Christianity or the church. The church, however, was able to process this productively as a confessional conversation.

When I use the term “progressive liberationism” I do so to bring an implicit confession to the surface so that we may examine it, talk about it, and have a confessional conversation about it. I believe that there is a way of reading the Bible within this confession. I also believe that as a belief system there are secular expressions of this that while they have their roots in Christendom have little self-conscious awareness of their relationship with Christianity.

Churches in North America, Western Europe and around the world have been struggling with this implicit confession for a while now. It stalked the CRC’s long struggle over Women serving in Church Office. It stalks our conversations about race, about sexual practice and norms, about church discipline. It has deeply impacted and influenced our reading of the Bible and our assumptions about morality in ways we are only beginning to appreciate. Discerning this implicit confession, articulating it and processing it as a community as a confession is probably the only way we can deal with it politically and ecclesiastically in a respectful and practical way.

While I’ve been pushing for this on my little blog I think this needs to be a community endeavor where we come together to try to expose and articulate the elements of this confession, what it gets right, what it gets wrong, how it shapes our reading of Scripture and where it illuminates important themes and truths in Scripture. As I said before I think it is a product of Christianity as well as a product of foundational social and philosophical movements in our history, not unlike Apartheid and Manicheism were in their times and places.

I think dealing with it in this way can help us do the hard work of figuring out how practice in the church and church boundaries can best be negotiated to resolve or live with the political tensions that are dividing denominations today. I don’t see this necessarily as a strategy for avoiding splits, but rather as one where we can try to figure out when and where splits are advisable or avoidable and how.

What Next?

I am often asked “OK, so you want to see this as a confessional conversation, what does that look like?”

I really don’t know. I think in many ways, whatever you think about the Belhar Confession the CRC botched that attempt to have a confessional conversation. We really don’t know what this looks like or how to go about it. We imagine we should do things via Synodical study committees, which has been our practice, but there are some reasons to believe this isn’t the best approach.

Synod 2013 tried to launch the “Pastoral Guidance” committee following the “shepherding model” seeing the success of the Faith Formation process but I’m not sure we really understand what that looks like for other efforts beyond Faith Formation. There is a lot of skepticism that Synod is the right tool for authoring a new confession.

We should note that the confessions we do formally embrace emerged in different ways. The Belgic Confession is different from that of the Heidelberg Catechism   is different from the Canons of Dordt. I suspect that if from our present struggles a formally embraced written confession emerges it might come from a surprising source and perhaps have a new way of development. The process may be messy and it may take a lot of time. We’ve had our Contemporary Testimony for a number of years. I think we are recognizing its value and status as confessional in nature even if we haven’t adopted it as a confession.

Part of the complexity here with our formal Confessions is that they are also ecumenical documents. They are not only intended to govern within the Christian Reformed Church but to guide us and bind us to other denominations. This is part of the conversation too.

When I say we need a confessional conversation I mean that we need to be operating on all of these levels.

  • We need to discern the implicit confessions at work in our church and culture
  • We need to articulate the active elements of those confessions and how they shape us
  • We need to engage how these confessions in the light of our formal confessions
  • We need to engage questions of ecclesiastical boundaries and practices in the light of implicit and explicit confessions.

I believe that if we can use confessions as a way by which to have conversations about practice we can talk about the beliefs and practices that are causing conflict within and between us and hopefully find pathways forward that produce more light than heat.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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8 Responses to What do I Mean when I Say we Need a Confessional Conversation as a Way Forward in our Conflict over Same sex Marriage and other Matters

  1. Richard A Bodini says:

    Paul, I’m thinking that we’re just going to need to have another study from a biblical perspective, a confessional perspective (after the Bible view), a biological/scientific view, a pastoral view, a sociological and psychological view, and maybe something else. Folks won’t want this or all of it or parts of it only. It will need to be comprehensive and will take another 3 years or so. During that time, we don’t talk about it at Synod… but we have engaging conversations at the local and classis and regional level… and some won’t like that. And see where this all falls out after that time.
    With me… I move from more conversations so that I can figure this out all the way to just draw the line and finish the conversation NOW. Thus says the CRC. Some other part of me would rather go and be laborer somewhere… maybe as an illegal migrant worker (an alien) in the US.

  2. Rob Braun says:

    Sadly Paul I hate to repeat myself but I’m at a loss at why this is so important to you? As I mentioned before, pursuing the SSM issue with the end result of our denomination accepting it will blow us up. A confession that stands the test of time should be a form of topicgraphical Bible study. It needs to emphasize the analogy of Scripture interpreting Scripture. I can’t even think of how a confession that is SSM inclusive would, with any kind of intellectual honesty, work this way?

    This was the problem with the Behar in that it didn’t endeavor to be an honest and clear reflection of Scriptural teaching. It had a clear cultural and political mandate that very often buried the clear voice of Scripture rather than illuminating it. Although I agreed with everything it said and endorse it’s basic moral philosophy, I don’t see it as equivalent to a confession that would clearly stand the test of time in honestly reflecting the teaching of Scripture. Could the Belhar had been written in a way that was this kind of Scripturally based confession-Absolutely! I honestly wish it had.

    Also, and something you seem to somewhat dismiss, there is something called the historic continuity of faith. Hebrews 11 The Church has always held to a standard of sexual holiness. This belief reaches back to Adam and Eve. Why are we so easily being seduced into accepting the unholy sexual practices of our society of just the past 50 years. The Apostle Paul lived in a world very much like ours where sex was made a religion and any kind of sexual practice was not just allowed but made part of a religious ceremony. He stood his ground against it. 1 Cor.6 Why don’t we? As Paul writes in Galatians 5 by doing so It will bring us true spiritual freedom.

    • PaulVK says:

      Why do you imagine I’m pursuing acceptance of SSM in the CRC?

    • PaulVK says:

      What I really want is to see the CRC have a productive conversation about this and find a path forward the produces more light than heat. I’m afraid we’re careening towards a much more destructive process than what we had with WICO. There has to be a better way. I’m watching the RCA and the UMC and in painful, fruitless attempts. Let’s learn and figure out how we can move forward, but don’t assume when I say “move forward” that I’m picking from one of the few menus we’ve seen so far.

  3. Henk Bruinsma says:

    I think there is a lot to what you are saying Paul.

    Regarding implicit confessions I think it is worth asking about the model for understanding the fallen state of people at work in our denominational conversations. I am quite sure it is different than what is written in our confessions. Consider what happens when the claim is made that same-sex attraction, or transgender convictions, might be a manifestation of the fallen sinful state of an individual. A common response is to presume that this claim means the same-sex attraction, or the transgender conviction is a matter of poor choice, not something deeply embedded in the being of that person. This response is reflective of an extremely shallow understanding of the fallen nature, and demonstrates a complete disconnect with our what our confessions teach. The understanding of our fallen state taught by our formal confessions offer no contradiction between the experience of the same-sex attracted person who finds this attraction coming from deep within the way their being is structured, and the claim that it may nevertheless be an expression of the fallen sinful state of the individual with this experience.

    This confusion about what our confessions teach was not helped by an ambiguity contained in our 73 report on homosexuality. It stated “homosexuality is a state of disordered sexuality which reflects the brokeness of our sinful world, and for which the homosexual (sic) himself may bear only a minimal responsibility.” It is the phrase regarding minimal responsibility which has led to a lot of theological confusion. What the authors were quite properly saying is that the homosexual (sic) did nothing to cause the state of same-sex attraction. Quite properly also, this opened the door to the understanding that same-sex attraction may be fixed at birth. But this has been understood differently, as if the authors meant to say that same-sex desire is not in itself a sinful desire (as in for example 1 Peter 2:11), and reflective of our sinful fallen state. This faulty understanding flatly contradicts the earlier part of the sentence in the report, and is in part responsible for the false hope so long held out by reparative therapy. After all, if the desire is really not reflective of something fixed at conception, a manifestation of original sin in this person, then it probably can be fixed by therapy. For all of us the ultimate answer to our inherent disordered existence is not outward therapy, but death and resurrection with Christ, anticipated in part through the work of the Holy Spirit now, but realized fully only when we literally die and are raised again.

    We have been working with a theological matrix at odds with our confession for a long time, and it has not only our thoughts about what it means to be LGTBQ, but everything else. Consider the pervasive working model for understanding self esteem and inherent dignity. The most common operating paradigm for self esteem is based in the idea that there is nothing wrong with what I am at the deepest level. It has pervaded our conversation for a long time. But confessionaly, there are two ways to understand our basic dignity. One is to follow this pervasive understanding, and to make the claim that I am an okay person simply because I say I am an okay person. Total self determination. The other way of claiming dignity is more complicated, but is also more in line with our stated confessions. It involves a recognition that the person I was at birth is so structurally distorted that the only ultimate hope for correction is death. Before that death this sinful misalignment can only be partially restrained and corrected through a combination of social construction and God’s grace. It can even by God’s grace reflect new attitudes and behaviors inspired by the Holy Spirit, which is a deposit, guaranteeing the new nature that will be completed with bodily resurrection. This second way of claiming of dignity further implies that my deepest dignity is only partially inherent. It relies more on a dignity which comes to me from outside of myself, i.e., from the fact that God still loves me, is patient with me, and has promises for me. The love he extends by making it clear he didn’t want to go through eternity without me is the deepest source of my dignity, even though the nature with which I was born is something to which I have to die every day of my life, until it is good and dead. Jesus is unashamed to call me his brother. That is truly a dignity which no one, and nothing can take away, but it is not inherent in my person.

    One strong advocate for the normativity of same-sex attraction once told me that it was the words of his therapist “there is nothing with you” that changed his life. I have no doubt of the truth of what he said, and I certainly didn’t begrudge the relief he felt. But I also told myself, “the day I tell myself there is nothing wrong with my very being is the day when I am in spiritual deep weeds. That would be the day I no longer need to die to the nature with which I was born, nor would I really need the cross except as a tool for mopping up the past outward guilt for some momentary errors in judgment.”

    Further to the second understanding of basic dignity is that even before conversion the unbeliever who exists only in Adam and not yet in Christ, is still owed esteem by others on the basis of God’s promise to every creature after the flood. Even though we are all inclined to evil right from our youth he still values us, is patient with us. Though in Adam we were all sentenced to death, and hence do not even have any inherent right to life, a new right to life is extended to all people because it is God who said the human race should go on. It is only on the foundation of this promise of God that any inherent remainder of the image of God in any person has any power to grant dignity. This is surely the background of Jesus exhortation to love our enemies, and not just those who are good to us. He is not appealing to a inherent goodness or dignity in the enemy, but to the fact that God has chosen to preserve and care for that enemy and requires that we do the same. I am sure his words which call us to be living reflections of our Father in heaven who makes the rain to fall, and the sun to shine on the evil and the good is actually an echo of what God said to himself at the end of Genesis 8, and what he affirmed by covenant in Genesis 9. My neighbor’s dignity is much more firmly planted in my brain by God’s claim the he is not through with my neighbor, that he cares for my neighbor, and that he commands me to do the same, than by my recognizing some dignity inside his outwardly shabby existence. After all, my sole claim to dignity is that God has extended the same to me. Again, without that there is only the sentence of death already given to Adam, and no inherent right to life.

    These are confessional theological matters on which we have all let ourselves off of the hook, of original sin, but have still refused to give the same relief to those who experience themselves as LGBTQ. We will not resolve matters of ministry to same-sex attracted people as an issue by itself. We are at a turning point. Lightening up on identifying same-sex attraction as one manifestation of original sin has come as part of a long trajectory of ministry based on lightening up on many other manifestations of the same for the rest of us, be it greed, evil thoughts, lack of real concern for my neighbor, or whatever. We are all well practiced at excusing ourselves from the demand to truly reflect the righteousness and the love of God with the claim “that’s impossible.” And we frequently let it go at that. The fairness that we sense in the cry for acceptance from our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is real. If heterosexual people have all let themselves off of the hook of original sin, why have they left the LGBTQ on that hook? We need to choose whether we also let them off the hook, or whether we make a 180 degree turn for all of us on all these things and return to a renewed working model of original sin for all of us, one that is more reflective of our stated confessions.

    Some will perceive this as a depressing prospect. Is this an invitation for all of us to contemplate how depraved we are? Are we all to hate ourselves with the same lonely despair to which we have often driven our same-sex attracted and trans brothers and sisters. This need not be so. I have already mentioned the reality the Holy Spirit in us, a guarantee of what is to come. Besides that, in “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be” Plantinga make a good case for how our amazement at God’s grace only increases dramatically when perceive that his deep love is certainly directed at such unlikely candidates. It also increases our delight with the trust that our brother Jesus is not ashamed of us. As long as our self esteem is based on something inherent in ourselves it is much too fragile. How much better to trust God himself, the father who loves us so much in spite of our fallen state, that he did not want to go through eternity without us. Our hope is truly in him alone.

    I believe this perspective comports with some of the questions raised in the video by Rebecca Reily-Cooper (referenced by you at an earlier time, and by the claim by Andy Crouch CT July/Aug 2013, that the LGTBQ conversation has brought us back to an earlier confessional matter, the gnostic claim that bodies don’t matter.

    So yes, it is a confessional matter, but its a renewal of conversation about what we confess at the basis of everything, not just a reframed conversation about same-sex attraction. Without that larger picture there is no hope for resolution.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks Henk for engaging in this confessional conversation. You’re right that the LGBTQ issues arising are just one manifestation of a far larger conversation. We can’t make progress on the instances without engaging the landscape! Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Should the CRC Establish a Center for Confesssional Development to turn the Implicit Confessions tearing the church apart into Proto-Confessions? | Leadingchurch.com

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