Overture 31 from Wisconsin and the Confessional Conversation

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A friend asked my comment on Overture 31 from Wisconsin in the light of my confessional conversation discussion.

The overture nails the defects of the Pastoral Guidance report

I think it’s probably the best, concise treatment of the report from the CRC traditional perspective.

Point e is vitally important to this conversation. 

Finally, the majority report offers a very questionable understanding of the extent to which church members (and especially church leaders) are free to disagree with the ethical positions that CRC synods have approved and that are still considered “settled and binding.” The majority report hastens to remind us of the judgment expressed by Synod 1975— “that synodical reports which function as pastoral advice on ethical matters remain open to discussion and even disagreement because they are not confessional matters” (Agenda, p. 365). However, the report also immediately makes this concession: “These reports, however, do bind the behavior of the church’s members” (Agenda, p. 365).

Right there we get into the area of “confessional matters”.

Let’s briefly review CRC confessional procedure.

Before any office bearer is allowed to serve in an assembly (local council, classis or synod) that office bearer must sign the Covenant for Office Bearers. Subscription to the creeds and confessions, often called the “three forms of unity” are supposed to be the foundation for agreement within which there is liberty to disagree. They also define our reading of Scripture.

These confessions continue to define the way we understand Scripture, direct the way we live in response to the gospel, and locate us within the larger body of Christ.

Two gray areas remain in this system.

  • Are only office bearers required to fully subscribe to the creeds and confessions are members held to these standards as well? The language in the forms for Adult Professions of Faith has members submit to the teaching of the church but members normally are not required to sign the Covenant for Office Bearers. It isn’t uncommon to have local churches allow persons into membership who likely can’t sign the Covenant but are allowed to participate fully in the church as members. There was a vigorous discussion of this on the floor of Synod a few years ago but it remains an area where there is not full agreement.
  • How should approved Synodical positions and reports be regarded by members and office bearers? The overture states: “When there is serious disagreement, members (and especially officebearers) have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to bring their disagreements to the church’s attention via overtures and gravamina, as the Church Order provides.”

Gravamina

If you look in the Church Order under the supplement for Article 5 you’ll find the procedure for “confessional-difficulty gravamen” and “confessional-revision gravamen”. These generally only govern office bearers regarding their subscription to the confessions. These usually don’t govern non-office bearers nor subscription to Synodical policies and positions.

How does this pertain here? What we doing is stumbling around the question of whether regard for same sex marriage is explicitly a confessional issue. If it is then the position of the confessions bind CRC office bearers in ways that Synodical reports do not. The Overture wishes to go there but is it warranted?

While some may argue our confessions would rule out affirming same sex marriage I don’t think you can argue it is specifically addressed in them. If it isn’t addressed in them can you bind currently bind CRC office bearers on this subject with confessional subscription? I don’t think so.

The Call for a New Report

I think the call for a new report in Overture 31 is a classic example of what I previously called “bullseye theology“. The Overture suggests who should be on the study committee and what the results should look like. Even though the last points call for a pause on action until the report is released I wonder why. There is no mystery what the report will conclude. This really isn’t a study committee they are asking for it is a paper assignment. The ideas and conclusions are recommended, what they are hoping for is a document would articulate the traditional position already mostly assumed or presumed by the overture writers .

Our members, particularly younger members, need to be equipped with the kind of thoroughly biblical understanding of sexuality that we envision in order to live holy lives and to bear faithful witness in our broken culture and our fallen world.

and

Younger members in particular, as noted in the present report, are in need of this theological and pastoral guidance.

In other words what the overture hopes this new report would do would be to, if not convince the young of the validity of the traditional position, then at least encourage them in it. We are hearing the call of Synod 2013 to use the “shepherding model” because what the overture commissioned paper really wants to do is Faith Formation on this matter.

The Confessional Horse is Already Out of the Barn

We are already repeating the pattern of the Women-in-Office wars. The problem with the Pastoral Guidance Majority Report team was that many were not sufficiently convinced of the traditional position but sought to do the best they could within the committee’s mandate. Now we need to assemble a proper team to commission a report to rectify the situation. You can read the Classis East Grand Rapids communication as firing back yet again.

It is the job of Synod to define the teaching of the church on matters. The job of committees to produce bullseye theologies is to deliver to Synod reports and positions that can achieve the political objective of winning majority approval. That is how the system is designed to work.

In a process seeding compromise positions are blurred for political reasons

If we really have different implicit confessional streams operating beneath the surface, and not just a difference of opinion on one point of theology or church practice, this process of compromise will tend to yield documents that obscure confessional differences rather than illuminate them. This then tends to lead to the kind of slowly-removing-the-bandaid type of trench warfare where all parties are jealously guarding each square inch of earth crying “this is mine!” The church then creeps through the progressivist script.

What happens is that the system moves slowly along a progressive track. Yesterday’s liberals are today’s moderates (like me) and yesterday’s moderates are today’s conservatives (I could name names) and yesterday’s conservatives are now URC. Bit by bit we go with processes and documents of compromise all along the way.

While compromise is a vital skill and important job of Synod, what we also need is an understanding of what forces (roots of the Texas privet) are moving us unconsciously. It’s like when you swim in the ocean you get pushed down the beach without knowing it. As a kid I would look up and my mom on the blanket was over to the left and I couldn’t figure out how she got there. I was moved by the current and I didn’t know it.

A confessional conversation doesn’t just ask “where do I line up with my mom on the beach” but what is this thing called a current and how should I factor THAT in when I consider my swimming?”

While I can see the value of the type of report the Overture is requesting I doubt it will push back the progressive liberationist movement towards LGBTQ inclusion among the young nor will it do anything to discourage those who wish to see the CRC embrace an inclusive stance in this area. Because of the way the report is commissioned it likely won’t get much of a hearing from those who wish to see the CRC “make progress” in this area. It will be dismissed the day it is commissioned and the “study committee” named. The report would not encourage more conversation across the divide.

What the Overture doesn’t come out and say is that there is already significant report in the CRC to move, perhaps slowly, towards an affirming position but that those who wish to do so, especially among the clergy, are for the most part closeted. The script says that as the war develops more and more will feel emboldened to reveal their position or evolve on the matter hardening both sides and making the fight increasingly purely political.

How A Confessional Conversation Might Work Differently

We should encourage leaders in the CRC who currently think we should affirm LGBTQ inclusion to come out of the closet. We shouldn’t force them out but rather give them the opportunity to express what has already become an implicit confession. Why?

  • Technically they have not violated their subscription to the confessions as none of our current confessions explicitly rule it out.
  • Present CRC policy remains clear. They may disagree but the CRC still enforces its rules. This Overture asks Synod to clarify the guidelines and given our current position I see no problem with that.
  • Unless and until people can speak their minds we won’t really be talking with one another. If we are going to truly evaluate the fruit of these implicit confessions the game of incremental trench warfare doesn’t allow the church to fully see where the forked road ahead leads.

Encouraging New Confessions to Fully Come Out

Here is a Youtube playlist that I think nicely expresses where a lot of people are currently at in terms of their implicit liberationist confession.

If the goal of the new study is to convince the young, among many of the young people I know this series of videos would probably eat that committee report for lunch.

Do we want to help the conversation? Do we want to help bring implicit confessions to the light of day and look at them in a far broader perspective? Then the implicit confessions beneath these playlists must helped to come full flower. There may very well be a fork in the road but we would be better to help people embrace their implicit confessions than to keep producing Synodical reports that blur them in order to achieve political compromise. Let’s be able to talk about our differences, show them, examine them, and ultimately people will make their decisions about them.

Working Better Together With Differences

I think we need the curation of proto-confessions along with Confessional Conventions that help bearers of implicit confessions better know their own confessions and the confessions of their neighbors.

I don’t think that we will be able to avoid denominational re-alignments over these issues. I’d rather see us make them through legitimate theological disagreements finding unity or division in ways that make the most sense with a minimum of acrimony. I do believe that this is a normal, healthy part of the long term life of the church. It’s the means by which orthodoxy and heterodoxy are discovered and established. Our generation now must do its part.

I think Alister McGrath’s take on Heresy  is helpful.

So what is heresy? Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith. Both this process of destabilization and the identification of its threat may be spread out over an extended period of time.

McGrath, Alister. Heresy (pp. 11-12). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Too often the process is impeded by a lot of relational bad behavior.

How are the origins of heresy to be understood? What are the motivating concerns that led to its emergence? Early Christian writers offered a variety of explanations for the origins of heresy: heretics were driven by personal ambitions, ecclesiastical jealousies, a naive enthusiasm for philosophical speculation, or an inflated sense of their own theological genius. Yet despite the fulminations of some early Christian heresiologists such as Tertullian, there are no real grounds for supposing that heresy was the outcome of malevolent and arrogant apostates plotting to destroy Christianity by reckless, eccentric biblical interpretation and driven by a paganizing agenda.

This older stereotype is found in most nineteenth-century accounts of heresy written by stalwart supporters of orthodoxy. For John Henry Newman (1801–90), heresy was a phenomenon whose origins lay outside of the church. Arianism, for example, was an ungodly byproduct of its environment, combining the worst elements of pagan culture, particularly Judaism and syncretistic philosophy.1 For H. M. Gwatkin (1844–1916), Arianism was “an illogical compromise” between Christianity and paganism, tipping the balance in favor of paganism. It was “a mass of presumptuous theorizing” that was “utterly illogical and unspiritual.”2 Subsequent scholarship has raised troubling difficulties for such assertions, especially in relation to the motivation of those considered heretics. While it is notoriously difficult to psychologize the dead, the idea that the essential “person description” of a heretic includes obstinacy and arrogance, supplemented by some degree of mental incompetence and institutional disloyalty, seems to bear little relation to what is known of early heretics.

The historical evidence, though not unequivocally clear on this matter, suggests that we should think of heresies as the outcomes of journeys of exploration that were originally intended to enable Christianity to relate better to contemporary culture. Heresy arose through a desire to preserve, not to destroy, the gospel.

McGrath, Alister. Heresy (pp. 175-176). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

If seen through this light we might have a bit of compassion, and give a bit of liberty to our rivals in our battling confessions. Which confessions will win out? Which confessions will preserve the gospel? Both sides believe they are right.

Traditionalists will need to journey into the space unknown where their sexual ethic is viewed not just as prudish but as immoral to the rest of the culture and increasingly at odds with governmental authority.

Progressives will need to demonstrate that their confession not only connects with the moral assumptions of a progressivist culture but that it can present a cogent enough Christian witnesses so that the church grows vigorously through evangelism and that Christian discipleship continues to reveal Christ and not just follow two steps behind the culture.

I do not think both sides will win. We won’t be served by having the two paths muddled.

Summary

Overture 31 I think shines much needed light on the Pastoral Guidance report but doesn’t sufficiently break the script for the future. 

 

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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6 Responses to Overture 31 from Wisconsin and the Confessional Conversation

  1. Jeff Brower says:

    Thanks, Paul. It’s Wisconsin, not Wisconson, btw. 😉

    • PaulVK says:

      I had a friend whose father ran a small grocery story. He’d always include typos on his signs to get people to see them. I wish I could say my spelling error was intentional. Thanks for letting me know. 🙂 pvk

  2. Craig Van Hill says:

    It seems that I’ve missed something here and I’m sure Paul will point out my error. This study committee was formed with the mandate of staying true to previous synodical decisions on the matter. Yet, when the report came back trying to hide the fact that some on the committee members didn’t even agree with previous synodical decisions we are to backtrack and open up the conversation so that we can alter our position. When Wisconsin wrote this report we (as a pastor in Wisconsin who voted for this overture I include myself) didn’t see a reason for a study committee on how to be pastoral according to the denominational position should go against that. Now, if there was a desire to rewrite what our position is then that would be a separate matter. Any committee that is to provide pastoral advice ought to agree with the current position of the denomination. So, when this is called “bullseye theology” that is correct in the fact that this isn’t meant to alter our theology. That should not be considered negative. Instead it is what the committee and the report are designed for.

    Until or unless we change our position we must hold to it. If at some time we decide to change, then it will trickle down to other reports just as we have changed church order according to new decisions.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks Craig for the comment and I agree with you. I don’t correcting what the Pastoral Guidance report failed to do is a bad thing. I thought the Overture nailed the problems with the report. My focus is on the meta-process under way. We are following the Women-in-Office civil war script which will, in my opinion lead to a similar heightening of the conflict and path focusing on political control of a practice or position (for or against SSM). I’d like to see us figure out a way not not repeat that old war.

      I do not mean to be negative about the overture. It was masterfully done. What I’m pushing for is that we find another way besides repeating the script.

      Thanks again for your feedback.

  3. Jeff Brower says:

    Paul,

    A procedural question…who precisely appoints people to study committees and what oversight is there in this process?

    I ask because the original 2013 overture, I believe from Classis Zeeland (correct me if I’m wrong) requests in part “how to communicate this biblical position in a loving way within a North American culture where the biblical view is increasingly in the minority. Synod has consistently reaf rmed the biblical analysis from 1973. We do not wish to challenge or replace the 1973 report in any way, but ask for guidance on how to apply the report’s conclusions in these new situations.”

    Not a call for revisiting/broadening our stance by any stretch. Yet somewhere betwixt the cup and the lip, things went in a different direction than the original overture expected.

    • PaulVK says:

      Synod 2016 ends when it adjourns. This is why there was the CIC then the BOT to do the work of the church between Synods. If Synod2016 wants to name a study committee it has to be done before Synod 2016 adjourns which usually means the offices in consultation with others. They can send it to the BOT but then other forces come into play. This is a weakness of our Synodical Study committee system. Note how much care Overture 31 put into “who would be on it”.

      Traditionalists in this conflict have the hope that what is denied in decision can be made up for in communication. While that might work on an individual level “that pastor seems to care and is a nice person…” this good will evaporates when it comes to regarding the institution that holds the position. Institutions are already regarded poorly and this just then says “the institution perpetuates bigotry and despair…” or “the institution is hopelessly out of touch with reality”

      I’m doubtful any study committee could write any report that will bridge this gap. The foundations for regard are at a far deeper level. We have to go that deep if we want to address this.

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