Following the Script
There really isn’t any great mystery about what’s coming next in the CRC struggle over what to say and do about the liberation of sexual minorities. There should be no mystery because we’ve been watching this play out in the PCUSA, the Lutherans, the Mennonites, the UMC, the RCA and others for a number of years now.
These things will probably happen, not necessarily in this order.
- Synod 2016 doesn’t fully embrace the Pastoral Guidance report
- Synod proposes changing Article 69 (Overture 20 and others) as a firewall
- Synod creates a new study committee composed of individuals who will bring forward a more conservative perspective than the majority report of the Pastoral Guidance Report and says we won’t talk about it for the three years until that report is written.
- After a while a church decides to publicly force the issue by ordaining a deacon or elder in a same-sex marriage or a pastor officiates at a same-sex wedding. The focus shifts to see if their classis will take action. If classis does nothing then the focus shift to see if Synod will act. You don’t necessarily have to win a vote at Synod if you want to see this practice tolerated in the CRC. It just has to stop being disciplined. (Remember that it is suggested that discipline is a mark of the church? Don’t we seem to be getting along with less and less of it?)
- There will be more and more pressure for “the local option”. The fight over “the local option” will produce lots of what I call “bulls-eye theology” reports. We’ve been watching this unfold in the RCA and in other places with books and articles written back and forth whether the Bible permits or mandates these practices. I call this “bulls-eye theology” because the target of the theological analysis or report is pre-determined. The outcome of the report is set before the report is written usually by the composition of the committee. The bulls-eye is placed on the wall and a group is found to hit the bulls-eye with their report, on both the traditional and progressive side. For those of you who follow Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant the rider makes up stories to explain and justify the behavior of the elephant beneath her.
- At some point people just stop talking about the theology of the issue because most of what is being produced is bulls-eye theology and the combatants on both sides reach for Bulverisms like “they are homophobes” or “they are liberals who don’t believe the authority of Scripture”, etc. The combatant’s minds are already made up, the theologies are mere bulls-eye theologies and so the conflict turns purely political. The battle is for the non-vocal majority who aren’t saying much or even necessarily paying much attention. The issue becomes a shibbolleth for who churches and assemblies send to higher assemblies.
- Proxy battles and factioning increases. Pastors, churches, classes are increasingly labeled according to where they stand. Overture 3 (Same-sex attracted advisors to Synod) Overture 15 (Gender Dysphoria) and other things are seen or suspected as flanking maneuvers all in the political battle to win the next vote in the script. Even though everyone who comes to the meeting signs the Covenant for Office Bearers the practice means little because the historical confessions are non-operative in the real conflict beneath the feelings of the factions.
- Progressive imaginaries create expectations in both the affirming and traditional camps. The affirming camp is encouraged and traditional camp discouraged by the assumption that “time is on their side.”
- Side Comment: I think this becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy by encouraging the affirming side to stay in a non-affirming denomination because they expect they will win and it encourages non-affirming churches to leave with their churches at varying stages of the fight. In reality it is more complex which can be seen by the growth of African churches in the UMC and the growth of the evangelical wing of the RCA.
- If the affirming side secures its local option the ground game continues to move church by church, classis by classis to join the inclusive camp. This will be harder than it was for the WICO fight simply because the population of same sex couples is far smaller than the population of women, but some churches will embrace and affirming stance out of conscience. There will be increased pressure “not to police” the sex lives and family relationships of anyone. The language will shift from this being a conscience issue “local option” to a justice issue. There will be increasing pressure to insure that sexual minority voices and representation can be found in denominational committees and assemblies.
None of this is new, mysterious or surprising. Everyone knows the script but knowing it doesn’t necessarily prevent the church from following it. Knowing the script in fact heightens the political tension and accelerates the timing. Both sides in the conflict know the next move of the other side and tries to leapfrog to other to gain a political advantage.
De-constructing the Script
Those of you who follow my blog know that I read through a lot of online materials. These recent pieces nicely illustrate the conversion stories operating powerfully in this conversation.
These stories operate powerfully in the conversation.
Those who have a traditional position on the subject are asked “what if your son or daughter were gay? Wouldn’t you want them to find love and happiness? Would you want them to stay in a church that treats them like second class citizens blocking and barring them from enjoying that natural happiness of romantic and sexual love that the heteros enjoy?”
At this point none of my 5 children have come out and if they did I would of course love them “anyway”, as if love were a binary thing only preserved through agreement and compliance. I am not going to harshly judge LGBTQ persons or their parents for their choices. It is easy for me to believe that if I were in their shoes I would choose as they do. We all have to make choices within the complex situations we find ourselves and as the 73 report made clear most don’t “choose” these circumstances.
The Practical “Solution” is to See There Never Really Was a Problem
These stories operate as powerful conversion stories in the conflict. The way the problem is presented natural prescribes the practical remedy. These are religious narratives. “I once was traditional but now have seen the light through my experience” is pretty much “I once was lost but now am found.”
The solution to the “problem” is obvious. There never was a problem. The problem was bigotry or religious darkness and the custom, traditions and holy books that enshrined it. Once you remove the bigotry and the traditional stigma all the other problems go away. Sources of resistance to this are found in obvious places you would expect.
- Hold-outs haven’t really known gay people or gay Christians. If they did or once they do the scales will fall from their eyes and they will find the truth. (See the CC piece on Growing up CRC)
- People resistant to these facts here are just bigots, re-incarnations of slave owners, white supremacists, Jim Crow hose wielding cops in riot gear and your aunts and uncles who still make racist comments when their audience isn’t hoodwinked by political correctness.
- This is just another example of resistance to science. Science has shown that people are just “born this way” and these are the same kinds of people who believe in a flat earth or 6 day creation or that the Bible recorded miracles and that they can happen today.
The Liberationist Missionary Effort
This leads to a powerful missionary effort by progressives to save children and young people from their traditional parents.
- Celebrities in entertainment, industry and politics come together to rescue kids through the Itgetsbetter.org.
- Schools, public and private under pressure from health organizations and federal laws get the message out there. Now with the memo from the Department of Education and Department of Education bathrooms are liberated from hetero-sexism. Children in liberation resistant homes are welcome to take on their new gender identity in school who promises to keep this from their parents. The student can’t be absent or tardy without communicating with the parents but the school will keep the student’s gender identity from the parents for the safety of the student.
- Runaway, abuse and suicide statistics are repeated again and again. Protestors at the UMC meetings recently accused LGBTQ liberation resistant clergy of homicide for failing to get with the program. These pleas and accusations have becomes set-pieces for most liberationist appeals. Lives are at stake!!!
Why Splits Usually Happen to the Right
Many have noticed that while traditionalists will often flee a denomination with their churches intact that is showing signs it might flip. Progressives, on the other hand, will hang in there in a non-affirming denomination for years or decades. Why? Because the mission of the liberationist is to invite the pre-converted to their side, to follow the path they have walked. They are also there to save the children of the traditionalists. If they leave the non-affirming denomination they lose influence and won’t be in a good position to finally move the body.
The movement becomes mostly political because of all the bulls-eye theology and the natural resistance and polarization in the denomination. Theological cynicism sets in. Bulverisms are confirmed.
There is no point wasting your breath or effort on liberation resistant individuals so your chief goal for the sake of the LGBTQ individuals and children in non-liberated congregations and classes is to change the practice by centralized power, at Synod or anti-discrimination denominational policies, websites or re-education programs. Governmental pressure comes to bear through human resources practices further regularizing liberationist practices. These practices are mandated in the secular environment and as often agency and denominational offices follow business practices pressure builds to follower these practices in these spaces too.
Why Now is the Time for the Confessional Conversation
One of the challenges I get from traditionalists in my plea for a confessional conversation is that it is too late. Ears and minds are already shutting down to each other on this issue and we are already reaching or are at the state where the two sides are polarized, bulls-eye theologies are already set, and there is no longer and point to doing theological reflection or trying to shift the focus onto theology.
The time only looks late if you are focused on this one issue. There is always time because the issues will just keep popping up like privets. The crisis or cause puts energy into the system to do theology. We should use it while it’s here, otherwise we’ll simply move onto the next item down the river.
- Much of the theology done about WICO was done as bulls-eye theology in reports advocating or resisting the ordination of women. Once the debate progressed past a certain point that was no longer written or even referred to because “people’s minds are already made up.” After Synod crafted their political process the theologizing stopped and the conflict focused purely on the (church) political battles for each classis and congregation. That battle continues to rage on 20 years later in some places reinforcing the imaginary that it was always a matter of “progress” or now “justice”. Ardent promoters of women’s liberation are commonly aghast that new churches are planted that are against WICO and that young men and women are coming into the CRC having grown up in very egalitarian homes are choosing more traditional leadership gender expressions in home and church. This breaks the liberationist narrative and motivates liberationists to double down on getting rid of the “local option” or in the RCA the “conscience clause”.
- Read Mark Noll’s work on the Civil War as Theological Crisis. After the shooting was over in the Civil War the theological debates over slavery ended. The South turned to try to re-incarnate slavery in the form of Jim Crow. The progressives turned into the temperance movement and women’s suffrage. Perhaps a better conversation about slavery might have shed light on the fact that there are many ways to enslave someone in order to “extract bread from the sweat of other men’s brows” than that old institution. The North and the South might have recognized that the issue wasn’t of course simply slavery but racism as well. The next hundred years was spent in rather unproductive remodeling the same old sins, sins that are with us today.
A Confessional Conversation does not halt the political conflict, resolve it, or necessarily avoid a split nor insure it. My plea for a Confessional Conversation is to raise the quality of our theological conversation and hopefully better inform the political process. If we don’t do the theological work now to contextualize the overly specific bulls-eye theologies we will squander the energy of this important theological moment just like we missed it in WICO civil war. We didn’t take from that debate all we could have about what we need to learn about the larger issues. Not only do we need a better conversation in order to make good political decisions we need a better picture of the broad landscape or landscaping, as you’ll see below, for the sake of issues that go way beyond sex and gender.
Cracks in the Drywall as “normal” settling or a Compromised Foundation?
I am waging my little blogging effort advocating for a Confessional Conversation in numerous forums and as I debate this new images and metaphors emerge from these conversations.
Imagine you see a crack develop in the wall of your home. You might be new to home ownership and so you ask a friend or a contractor about the crack in the drywall. They will probably tell you something like this. “Cracks develop because the house settles. It’s common and probably no big deal. The next time you paint get some spackle and drywall tape and with the help of Youtube you can fix it.”
If, however, you see cracks developing all over the place you might need to go down under the house and examine the foundation or look for a structural engineer. If the foundation is cracking no amount of Spackle and tape will address the multiplying cracks in the drywall.
My plea for Confessional Conversations are for us to get into the basement and examine the foundation. What happens as the conflicts develop is that conflicts establish new hidden confessions in the church.
If you are an office bearer in the CRC every time you join a new assembly, council, Classis or attend Synod for the first time you must sign their Covenant for Office Bearers or as it was called the Form of Subscription. Your pledge of allegiance qualifies you to participate in the assembly. The Confession becomes the agreement platform for working together. This is the idea behind a confessional church. It means that there should be liberty on what is not confessional and accountability on what is.
Now someone who wants progress on women’s liberation or LGBTQ liberation might say “that’s a good thing because the church can change on these matters and still stay united” but that’s not how it’s been working out. What happens is that these issues become implicit confession in the body and these concerns become determinative about hiring, friendship and splitting the church into implicit confessional camps. What really will be the quality of our unity if we keep taping and applying spackle?
When there is a search for an agency director or a senior pastor or a Banner Editor or a seminary professor the questions will come out. How people line up on these issues will be seen as being more important in the hiring decision than whether or not they agree with the actual written confessions. Currently in the CRCNA it would be easier to hire someone who is soft on infant baptism or Arminian theology, both matters of confessional subscription, than to hire someone who is against Women in Office or openly for LGBTQ inclusion. We have made non-confessional matters now to be confessional matters and demoted our actual confessions to pro-forma status. Because of this people reasonably assume that confessionality has been nearly lost in the church and there is no point in trying to resurrect it. The current culture war issues of the day are how we define churches and as religious consumers make our selections.
Confessions can be Powerful Tools to help in Times of Conflict
My point is that confessionality is an incredibly important tool for helping us process this conflict better. It allows the church to draw lines and individuals to expose their confessional cards with integrity. It helps us to stop playing games about beliefs, or harboring secret confessions or encouraging suspicion, gossip and factioning as we really suspect that the tribe at Returning Church or the OSJ are not really “one of us”.
The point of confessions is that we want and need places of openness and honesty where we can say who we are, what we believe and how we should maintain or redraw lines when necessary. If all we are doing is spackling and taping while we ignore the foundation we are wasting our time. While I’m under no delusions that we’ll suddenly have two or more new confessions that will help everyone rationally choose sides an honest confessional conversation actually helps people see how practice and theology should line up and maybe stop factioning and insinuating that the other side is bigotted or godless and actually have adult, respectful yet heated conversations. We are going to experience pain, loss and division anyway, why do it will spackle and tape hanging from our damaged walls and reputations?
Texas Privets and Running Bamboo
The space between my house and my neighbors over the years became increasingly filled by small trees that seemed to be proliferating. The more I would cut them the more they would multiply. Fighting this privet was like Hercules’ second labor! I noticed that this same tree was making its way if left unaddressed all over my yard, next to the house and into my home’s foundation.
Someone told me we in Sacramento called it a “Texas Privet”. You can find it here on an invasive species database. At first I was mystified by how much work it was to control it. The less attention I gave it the more it flourished. It spreads by sending out roots underground. I wasn’t dealing with one tree as I imagined, I was dealing with a huge organism much of which was underground. I never knew where it would pop up next.
We decided to get rid of as much of it as we could and go with some bamboo. You can see in the picture above the bamboo beneath and the mature Texas Privet in my neighbors yard behind. We were warned right away to get “clumping bamboo” not “running bamboo” because this species too is incredibly invasive. Running bamboo will take over your yard, destroy your concrete and ruin the foundation on your home if given the chance.
LGBTQ Liberation as a New Work of the Holy Spirit
A lot of recent Christian and evangelical theologies promoting LGBTQ liberation are portraying it as a providentialist Christian movement of the Holy Spirit. Here is just one example.
I think it is important to take a step back and look at this assertion in a broader light, even in a confessional light.
If this is a providentialist movement of the Holy Spirit then the Spirit is doing this work in more places than the church and in many cases the church is resisting and holding back from this work of the Spirit outside of the church. Not too much Googling will reveal that this is not a specifically Christian conflict. Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, animistic faiths and secular and atheistic communities are all having this conversation and conflict.
This is part of the reason many who become morally convicted and persuaded of the need for LGBTQ liberation have seen it as a reason to leave the Christian faith. For Ryan Bell, the “Year without God” blogger who left the ministry of the Seventh Day Adventists, like many found this to be a powerful reason to de-convert. In this year end posting he does some important work to try to figure out the role of Christianity in the far broader movement of Western Secular Humanism.
The question remains, however. Is it true that the story of divine enfleshment is “how much of our humanistic tradition was born?” It’s a bold claim, and one that frankly surprises me. When I was a child, I routinely heard that secular humanists were the enemy of Christianity. Now I am being asked to believe that Christianity is the source of humanist ideals. Which is it?
Still, it depends on what Mr. Wehner means, exactly. Clearly Christianity has been enormously important in the development of human moral reasoning in the West. Because Christianity was so dominant in Western Europe, the Enlightenment project itself could be understood as emerging from Christianity—grappling with the emerging scientific worldview as it clashed with traditional religious dogma. It would be very difficult to paint a picture of the evolution of modern ethics without Christianity figuring largely.
This, however, is an historical observation, not a substantive one. The question that must be answered is whether Christianity is primarily “pushing” the ethical or being pulled by it. Is Christianity advancing ethics or is ethics pulling Christianity along? In my view, the latter is more likely. At every turn, Christianity has adapted to catch up to new ethical developments, whether it is feminism, racial justice, or marriage equality. There are exceptions when, for example, some Christians led movements for the abolition of slavery in the United States and the United Kingdom. Christianity does encourage love for neighbor and enemy as well as fostering in-group loyalty and this does at times give rise to progressive social movements (over major objections from the masses, it should be noted).
Bell of course de-converts from his Adventism and theism because of his moral vision of the world. He, like many of my atheist or agnostic friends came to the conclusion that you don’t need God to love your neighbor. Even if the West has come to this point of embraced moral clarity on love of neighbor, non-violence, racial and gender liberation through the path of Christianity it is not only no longer needed but now no longer helpful or welcome. The Bible clearly gets in the way for people so the sooner we can remove or identify the Bible as an impediment for liberation the sooner the people can be liberated from it and their children can be saved.
“We must Embrace LGBTQ Liberation To Save the Future of the Church!”
Now naturally committed Christians see this line of argument, see millennials, gays and lesbians leaving the church often with this reasoning under the surface or perhaps even held as unconscious suspicion and say “we need to get ahead of this!” So the great t bulls-eye theological effort goes out to show that Christianity has actually been ahead of the game all along and that the church has been behind and needs to catch up quickly for the sake of saving the young and the sexual minorities.
Many who are “spiritual but not religious” get there another way.
The records of ancient religions are scoured to reveal that non-hetero-sexist sexuality was embraced long before late-Roman period preachers went on a rampage to demonize sexual minorities. There were always sexual minorities who lived and loved in the ancient world. What we have here is a Doctrine of Christian Discovery that victimized not just First Peoples in the Americas but sexual minorities of the natural world before the Abrahamic religions imposed their harsh bigoted ideology upon them and repressed the free expression and affirmation of their sexual true selves. Not only would the First Peoples have been better off if the Europeans had not “discovered” the Americas (we do need to find a non-Eurocentric label for the continents don’t we?) but the sexually the world would be better off if the Jews had never written their Abrahamic stories that got all of this going in the first place. (This history is a bit selective because it conveniently fails to note that much Hinduism and Buddhism historically has not been terribly affirming either.)
When former CRC people who joined a PCUSA congregation were explaining to me why their church was undergoing a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign to buy their building back from the PCUSA in order to leave they told me it wasn’t just over LGBTQ issues but over “uniqueness of Christ” issues. I paused and wondered about that because I hadn’t heard too much of that coming out of the PCUSA.
As I watch mainline denominations not only process the conflict over sexual minorities but also histories of colonialism it increasingly makes sense to me. The revelation of spirit seen in the new obvious morality of LGBT liberation, seen in the narrative of black and women’s liberation eventually leads to our needed liberation from the exclusivist legacy of all the Abrahamic religions. Bigotry is seen as the root sin in many forms including religious particularism and exclusivism.
The Liberal Female Rabbi whose Religious Bigotry Hurt the Nice Lesbian Couple and Their Cat Laurie
Those of you who follow my blog note that I read a lot and use my blog to save links to a broad range of articles that I find interesting. Last January I noted this liberation story of a lesbian couple in Boston that were having trouble with finding a rabbi to do their wedding. They didn’t have too much trouble finding a Rabbi to do a lesbian wedding, but they had trouble finding a REAL Rabbi (not just someone’s well-meaning and slightly artsy aunt with an online rabbinical ordination to do a wedding) who would accommodate their faith expression which was for them a blend of Christianity and Judaism. This faith expression was authentic to them and the implicit demand was that the organized religion accommodate itself to their demanded authenticity.
Do you hear the liberation narrative beneath this story and the denial of it beneath their hurt feelings?
Synod and the Texas Privet
Now traditionalists at Synod are lining up to make a stand at Article 69.
Progressives will follow suit and meet them at Article 69 and we will all know when the tide turns because Article 69 will be the sign just like Article 3 was for WICO.
Note how in the RCA the battle will revolve around whether their have in their liturgy that marriage is between a man and a woman or marriage is between two people.
Traditionalists will say “we need to cut down that tree in the back yard” at Article 69 and when they do they’ll soon discover they haven’t done anything.
Progressives will say “we need to celebrate that tree in the back yard. It gives shade, fruit for the birds to eat, cover to hide my neighbor’s house. It is drought tolerant and flourishes no matter what I do. For the sake of the future of the church we need to save this tree!”
What I am saying is that you are not talking about A TREE. You are talking about an organism that is mostly concealed, beneath the surface and already well rooted in your yard. You had better take a look to see if it’s growing up in the foundation of your home rather than being preoccupied if it’s making a nice decorative element in your landscaping. This tree-like plant has been with us for hundreds of years already and will be here after we’re gone. This Texas Privet or running bamboo is shaping the future not only of the CRC but of the Western world and now with our new age of far more subtle colonialism through Western Educated elites and institutions being spread through out the developing world not unlike how Colonial missionaries spread Christianity over the last 3 centuries. A most ironic achievement is that it once again tries to do to non-Western peoples exactly what the previous wave did all the while saying that it is sorry for what it did and promises never to do it again. The African Methodists or Reformed Koreans lamenting the loss of the Gospel in the former missionary church are simply behind the civilization curve. Progress is always about progression right?
Resist Focusing on the Tree and Start Studying the Whole Plant
A Confessional Conversation invites us to not simply address the bamboo or privets above ground but to address the plant in its entirety. It is intended to help us address the question of why or why not this is a providential movement of the Holy Spirit within and especially beyond the church or if it is something else. It helps us over time try to figure out where institutional boundaries should be and how productive, honest unity can be found. It invites us to stop playing spackle whack-a-mole with the cracks in our walls and have a substantive, ongoing conversation about the status of the foundation and the future of the house.
Find Your Confessional Flag and Fly It!
I am not trying to write a conservative screed to win the CRC culture war. I want us to all look at the whole picture rather than looking at it piecemeal.
- If you believe that LGBT liberation is a work of the Spirit leading to the eschatalogical renewal of all things and not a threat to the uniqueness of Christ then I want to read your proto-confession.
- If you believe that now in this movement God is uniting all things, even the world religions into a new spirituality and a new people then I want to read your proto-confession.
- If you believe that WICO was just another stage in the long slide down the slippery slope then I want to read your proto-confession that addresses so many of the ancillary issues connected with this privet all over the Western world.
- If you believe we can have WICO but not LGBTQ liberation then I want to read your proto-confession.
I want us to have a renewed confessional system so that our historical confessions aren’t just old documents we salute at but when we get to the “real work” in the church we tribe up as gay and women blockers vs. gay and women lovers.
I want us to have reasons for our practices that go beyond alignment with the secular culture wars.
I want us to be able to be honest about our agreements and differences and to have operating confessions that help us figure out and talk about what is essential in terms or our narrative worldviews, what we can disagree on, and where the institutional boundaries and unity structures are most appropriate.
I don’t want us to become WICO Civil War re-enactors looking for old blue and gray carnation clad uniforms to wear to Synod over the next 20 years. Let’s figure out how to be real Christians, real confessionalists, real theologians and have the kinds of conversations these challenging times deserve.
Thanks, Paul, for another excellent post and helpful insights!
Just a little bit of “off the cuff” thinking here…I like the challenge of the proto confession. I have to admit that as one on the traditionalist side of things, I have not deliberated much about my approach to Scripture but more or less go with my instincts and arrive at traditional, conservative positions most of the time (we all have a few deviations, I believe). So what are these instincts? What are the little building blocks that make up my implicit confession here?
One of them might be some kind of conviction regarding Scripture and timelessness. I imagine that Moses or Paul would stand by what they wrote today if they were allowed to visit 21st century North America in person. While I am interested in the history, culture and context of the books of the Bible, I tend to make less of cultural differences than others might. I tend to have a “nothing new under the sun” mentality. I have noticed that others who lean in the progressivist liberation direction have occasionally referred to the books of the Bible as “ancient documents”…a term that makes me bristle a little bit. I wonder if part of what bothers me about the “Four pages” method of preaching is that it makes more of the gulf between the time of the Bible and our time (by dwelling on one for several paragraphs/pages before going to the other for another several paragraphs/pages) than I might.
Other convictions might revolve around “plain or simple meaning” of Bible passages, probably something about the clarity of Scripture. It would be a good project to work some of these things out and see if they can be coherent and sustainable. I believe they will be, but it would be good to work it out and demonstrate it.
Of course, I can’t write a whole theology of Scripture interpretation or preaching on a comment thread and have it be all that good. But these are some of the pieces of it for me. I would like to work this out more and see what the implications might be.
Then again, perhaps folks on the progressivist liberation side of things might say “Hey, I believe in a timeless quality with regard to the Bible’s instruction too!”
Anyway, thanks for moving the conversation along!
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