The Confessional Conversation
The CRC, like many Protestant denominations in the West is heading for a fractious fight over human sexuality. I believe this is brought on by deep assumptions in Western culture about the nature of progress and practice. If we can learn anything from these battles fought between Presbyterians, Mennonites, Methodists, Lutherans and Reformed Christians we know that they prove destructive to the unity of the church and to the bonds of love that hold churches and her people together.
What is at play beneath the surface are assumptions that I’m calling confessions. But what are they?
- Confessions are deep assumptions or interpretive filters that can be implicit or explicit.
- Confessions are interpretive filters formed from how a community reads scripture with developed practice impacted by culture and context and then employs that that filter in its further conversation with Scripture.
- For Christians who believe that the author of creation revealed himself in a unique way in the book we call The Bible confessions can be imagined as the epigenetics that shape our reading of that revelation. They prioritize certain themes and texts and use them to interpret other themes and texts.
- Confessions emerge communally. Confessions can be identified when significant groups within the church discover their voice in them, embrace them as identity statements and promote them as faithful statements of God’s story and work among and within us.
- Confessions bind congregations and denominations together holding them accountable to the discipline of the community in their mission to God.
- Confessions are scalable. They spawn derivative documents, teachings, and educational materials. They are reduced to slogans, aphorisms, catch-phrases and acronyms so that they can be taught to children, used as in-group code talk for adults. They inspire materials to educate the very young and sophisticated derivative theologies for the well educated. They provide the basis for further theological reflection and community formation.
- Confessions are viral. They inspire new confessions, honing, shaping or resisting them. They spread through communities in conflict to give expression, shape and definition to those communities and define the boundaries and borders of those communities.
- Confessions are gravitational. Because confessions in community take on authority they re-adjust boundary markers over time. They can act as center-set gravitational poles to help churches and denominations re-define and agree upon practices that express and give life to the unique shape of their beliefs while maintaining narrative threads for the community over time.
- Confessions are time and culture travelers. Great confessions endure with their host churches or traditions and speak from their conflicts and contexts to other times and places their authors could not have imagined. They shape the voice of future generations as particular groups find their voices in them.
- Confessions are children of conflict. They emerge when the church needs to figure out, define, oppose or agree because of the need of the day against a threat of conscience groups within the church see as an existential threat.
- Confessions have an angular relationship with church political power. Because they often arise out of crisis and conflict they commonly the voice of those who feel that power is being misused against them. If they emerge, find expression in communities to become boundary markers themselves they will take on power and wield it themselves.
For an example of how the practice of Apartheid worked with confessionalism see my previous post.
Having a Political Fight while Avoiding Confessional Conversation
Most churches are fighting these battles with political tools over boundary markers. An example is the attempt to hold back same sex marriage by adjusting the church order to prohibit clergy from conducting same sex weddings. We saw a similar attempt to inserting “male” in the church order for office bearers and then selectively making it inoperative in the fight over women in church office.
The political arguments played out in this way.
- The Bible explicitly prohibits this practice and we must be obedient (law).
- The Bible demands that this be seen as a matter of equal identity and status in Christ and therefore demands equal access to office and practice (liberation and justice).
How could both groups declare themselves under the authority of the Bible as interpreted by our historic confessions and find themselves with such deeply divided readings of Scripture?
The political compromise in the CRC on women in office justified itself by legitimizing “two readings of Scripture”. This tilted the conversation toward hermeneutics, how do we interpret particular passages that we believe inform a specific practice (women in office or same sex marriage or sexual practice). It implicitly strengthened a specific type of regard for Scripture and a specific approach to reading it and did so for both sides.
The CRC did this with women in office to avoid a confessional conversation which might put the unity of the CRC at risk. Confessions for the CRC as practiced by the Form-of-Subscription/Covenant-for-Officebearers are a unity defining, enforcement mechanism. By not engaging this as a confessional conversation the CRC did not resolve the tensions between multiple implicit confessions. These implicit confessions have continued to fester for the 20 years since the compromise was reached. These implicit confessions continue to express themselves in new issues reinforcing factions within the church.
Could we have better, more productive conversations by addressing these confessions direction rather than fighting over boundary marking practices?
How do we know when we’re having confessional conversation?
- We know we’re having a confessional conversation when our focus shifts from the actors and practice to the implicit or explicit confessions operating beneath them.
- We know we’re having a confessional conversation when we’re no longer talking about one specific issue but a range or progression of issues.
- We know we’re having a confessional conversation when we’re not just wrestling with what one specific passage says about a specific teaching or practice but talking about broad themes in Scripture and discovering foundational disagreements that are shaping our posture towards multiple texts.
- We know we’re having a confessional conversation when parties who both value the authority of Scripture are reading it in such a way to begin to believe they can no longer live under the authority of the other.
I believe we do great damage to the church when we’re having confessional conversations but not acknowledging we are. Splits, divisions and separations occur over individual practices and persons. If there are divisions in the church we should illuminate and articulate the confessions, implicit or explicit that are driving them and search for appropriate separations or structure of unity that express whatever authority or community is possible or impossible. To have divisions over persons or practice without illuminating the governing confessions, implicit or explicit simply multiples the divisions and eliminates opportunities or possibilities of unity or community even after the splits.
How do We Facilitate the Emergence of the Confessions We Need?
- We should recognize that we don’t just sit down to produce a new confession. While confessions are the products of people and the church they are above us because they are time and culture travelers.
- We can produce documents that may become confessions in time. I call them proto-confessions. Whether or not they become full blown confessions is not up to only us and not seen only now. Our goal should be to have better confessional conversations and in that effort produce good some good proto-confessions that can bring to the surface the implicit confessions that are driving our conflicts.
- Confessions are not necessarily produced by self-conscious (church) political process. They may emerge from them but others will be the judge of that. Confessions can emerge in surprising places, from unexpected people and in serendipitous ways. The Spirit blows where it wills not where we want it to blow.
- It could be helpful for a church structure to curate the development of proto-confessions. The goal of the group would be to foment, encourage and archive proto-confessions from within their field of view.
- The curator’s criteria would be that these proto-confessions be clear, find traction among combatants and illuminate the implicit confessions operating beneath the surface of a conflict. Many of these proto-confessions may be in conflict, expressing the implicit confessions of competing tribes or factions within one denomination or many. The job of the curators would not be to judge between the proto-confessions but to facilitate a process to improve them in clarity, in virility, in distribution, in scalability and in accessibility. Curators would facilitate the political process by helping to elevate the confessional conversation over the win/lose political expression when confessions are implicit and not explicit.
Could this become an Ecumenical Project?
Confessions have long been helpful tools for ecumenical conversations. In confessions we lay our cards on the table and help other communities and individuals engage productively with each other. Because the Christian Reformed Church is not alone in wrestling with the implicit confession I call progressive liberationism it could serve the broader church by helping to curate and facilitate the process of proto-confessional development, curation and illumination.
- Such a project would be multi-nodal. Because the curators are not evaluators or political actors many curating projects could work simultaneously in competition or coordination with each other.
- Such a project could be ecumenical with many, even competing denominations participating and contributing to the development of proto-confessions.
- The process would be open-ended. It concludes when the participants feel it is no longer contributing to the confessional conversation and departs leaving proto-confessions for successive generations and cultures to evaluate or appropriate on their own.
- The process is curated yet crowd-sourced. Candidate confessions and proto-confessions may come from outsiders and fringe places and people. Curation helps the organic political and communal processes to evaluate and rank contributions as conflicts and times unfold.
- The process could be Spirit driven. No one can determine the outcome nor will any one political actor govern. The spirits of the proto-confessions will be discerned in time, in many different places and by many different actors. In the process heresies will be exposed and the church refined and purified. No one generation or denomination will be the judge or decider.
How the Confessional and the Political Meet?
Prioritize Confessional Conversations in the Political Context
Churches are tearing themselves apart in political processes over specific questions of practice. In the fight over women in office and sexuality the focus has been exegetical and hermeneutic “what do specific passages have to say about specific practices?” while the determining influences have been implicit confessions often unexplored and therefore undisclosed.
These implicit confessions have created plausibility structures that make the exegesis of political rivals and combatants offensive and unthinkable. As long as these conversations remain focused on specific issues adjudicated by political means churches will continue to fracture over them and over whatever the next conflict is down the implicit confessional river.
I believe a better way forward is for us, through confessional conversation, to start mapping their rivers, noting the rocks and snags in them, and charting their confessional courses finding structures and practices of unity where they can be found. If we can agree, or agree to disagree on the ideas that lead to practices maybe we chart political and structural pathways that illuminate our divisions rather than obscure them.
The church has throughout its history used confessions to articulate differences to help denominations, congregations and members discern what can be tolerated, what should be opposed, and how participation and structures can be adjusted for the welfare of people and the narrative threads of traditions. Church political efforts and practices can then make more open and rational sense in these conversations.
I’ve been pushing what I call confessional conversations in a number of posts and many have asked “what do you think we should DO? Do you have any specific recommendations that could be considered by assemblies or individuals?” Here are some. I’m open to more.
- The CRC needs to heighten, not lower, the political process by which a document becomes a denomination wide confession. In the process of exploring whether or not the CRC would embrace the Belhar as a confession it became obvious that the CRC’s political structure might embrace a confession that wasn’t widely embraced, recognized or even known among the churches and its members. Confessions should take time to emerge. Confessional conversations should be active. We have not practiced confessional conversation vigorously enough to know how to best use this tool to help us with our conflicts and divisions. For confessions to help us they need to emerge, define and bind. Moving quickly with them undermines their effectiveness and authority over time.
- Resist imagining that there are political solutions to these implicit confessional conflicts. Changing the church order will not make any of this go away or resolve anything. Implicit confessions need to be brought to the surface through proto-confessions and in time political actors may need to readjust structures to match the new confessional realities.
- Be ardent promoters of theological reflection. Ask deeper questions about assumptions and expectations. How does this existing or proposed new practice fit into our confessional history? What do we mean by equality? What do we mean by progress? How has law function in our Reformed tradition? etc.
- Resist easy, false, merely structural unity. We will not have meaningful structural unity if we have ongoing implicit divisions of confessions.
- Find good conversational curators who are buffered from political forces and figure out how best to resource them. If we are going to encourage the process of turning implicit confessions into proto-confessions we’re going to need non-anxious actors to encourage competing voices to do this work. The curators won’t themselves be the voices but they assist and facilitate the emergence of helpful proto-confessions.
- Academic institutions have some common skill sets and traditions that could be helpful in this. While there is a just the beginning of an awakening to the biases of secular academia our Christian colleges are better positioned to curate, network, and facilitate the cultural exegesis of these conversations. When I think about the work of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship or the Calvin Center for Excellence in Preaching we see non-anxious institutions that reach out and facilitate conversation among diverse and even competing tribes. They also manage to curate what these conversations produce and make them available to the CRC and the church more broadly. What might happen if we helped begin an Center for Christian confessional development?
A Center for Christian Confessional Development
- The mission of the organization would be to facilitate multiple voices within churches to turn implicit confessions into proto-confessions. Over time these proto-confessions could become full blown confessions.
- These proto-confessions would be available to the church political actors, congregations, classes, denominations to interact with, purify, ignore, denounce or embrace. The Center would facilitate the curation of these conversations and help make these available to the CRC and beyond.
- The church-political conversations could then feed off of the confessional conversations. Over time this should then help church-political figure out the best ways to proceed in terms of adjusting structures and finding structures of political unity or diversity.