The Christian Reformed Church: A Familiar Trajectory?
When I saw R. Scott Clark’s blog posts about some recent Banner articles (here: http://goo.gl/AC204o and here: http://goo.gl/NEKoUi), I decided I had better get caught up. What I’ve discovered is a very discouraging fiasco. Why is it that confessional Reformed folks are so often entranced by liberalism? Why does the surrender of ethical and confessional standards look so appealing to people raised in the CRC?
I know something about trying to live out a Reformed identity without recognizing the normative value of our confessional tradition. Just over a year ago, I left the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination I had loved and served since 1987 and in which all my pastoral work has been exercised. The PCUSA has grown more liberal in many ways over the past decades, and it was becoming more and more difficult for me to remain a member of this denomination with integrity. In the summer of 2012, I transferred my ordination from the PCUSA to a new denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. (Our website is here: http://eco-pres.org/.)
The PCUSA likes to think of itself as “a big tent,” in which a variety of theological approaches and moral views are accepted. The problem is that such “tolerance” only works for those who think that matters of theology and ethics are relative and contextual, in which case it makes perfect sense to be accepting of those with whom one disagrees. The only people who are not welcome in the big tent are those who reject a relative view of theology and ethics, who believe that the Bible and our Reformed confessions continue to speak authoritatively to questions of faith and practice and that the denomination should be held accountable to those standards. The relativists will say to such non-relativists, “Of course you’re welcome here, but you need to be as accepting of us as we are of you,” refusing to recognize that requiring non-relativists to become relativists isn’t really accepting their position on anything at all.
I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church and educated at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary. I became a member of the Calvin College faculty in 1999, and in 2003, when I became the college’s Dean of the Chapel (a position that no longer exists), I was ordained into the ministry of the CRC (while still retaining my Presbyterian ordination). I’m part of the CRC. But the current state of conversation in the CRC about theology, about cultural engagement, and specifically about sexual ethics exasperates me, because I hear us making the same mistakes that the PCUSA made before us.
Some of my friends in the CRC seem to think that this would be a good thing. They speak to me with wistful longing about the “freedom” of the PCUSA. This is a romantic vision that is unrelated to the truth. The PCUSA is not a place of freedom, but a place of chaos, lacking any clear direction, and losing members at an alarming rate. It is a denomination without a spiritual or theological center that is unequipped either to offer sustenance to its members or to proclaim the gospel to the world. There are faithful pastors and congregations within the PCUSA, many of whom are my dear friends, but they are working in a difficult mission field, and their situation should not be envied.
The CRC has resources in our confessional heritage to keep us from falling into this same situation. We need to regroup around them. As long as we insist on defining the Reformed tradition as nothing more than “engagement with culture” we are destined to end up following the PCUSA in its descent into irrelevance. The Reformed tradition is not simply a posture of engagement toward the world (which is what passes for the Kuyperian vision in many parts of the CRC). It is a theological and confessional tradition that has real, objective doctrinal and ethical content on which we must insist. The Banner should be a place where we read thoughtful articles about the meaning of that tradition, perhaps even articles that disagree with one another about exactly what our confessional commitment require of us. But there should be no place in The Banner for articles that simply call for discarding our theological tradition. Let people who advocate such positions publish in one of the PCUSA magazines instead.