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Some years ago I attended a weekend conference in Washington D.C. entitled “Food, Faith, and the Farm Bill.” Sponsored by the Washington Office of the Mennonite Central Committee, the three-day event included a variety of speeches, lectures, and educational trainings about what the aforementioned title suggests as well as bible study, worship, and lobbying our senators. There were probably about a hundred attendees from all over the United States—a grandfather and dairy farmer from Pennsylvania, a youth county agent from Colorado, a retired Mennonite missionary in Africa now residing in Virginia, a recent college grad becoming a CSA vegetable farmer from Minnesota, a pastor from Kansas, a grain farmer from South Dakota—and all of them were Mennonites except for me. Being the lone non-Anabaptist however, I could still keep up with them in their own name-bingo games: Yoder, Miller, Mast, Hershberger… More importantly, they showed me great hospitality. And let me add, I’ve never been in corporate worship where the four-part hymn singing was so beautiful. I made some great friends that weekend, and obviously connected on the level of our passions and interests on food, faith, and politics, but much more so in our shared identity as Christians.
I love me some Anabaptists and truly appreciate what they bring to the larger “Christian table,” but nonetheless, am not one myself. So while with them, I wanted to hear from them, what did it mean to be a Mennonite? My conversations were certainly limited, but consistently brought up three themes. Firstly, they resonated with the wider “evangelical” church in that their faith taught them the importance of a personal response to Christ. (Menno Simons would probably be proud.) Secondly, however, they felt there was a movement among many Mennonites to too easily be “absorbed” in the wider evangelical movement—almost becoming “generic” Christians—and they expressed feeling that some of their churches were loosing some of the faithful and worthy distinctions of what it meant to be Anabaptist, particularly the practices and teachings of being peace churches and simplicity. Finally, they recognized in their Mennonite tradition that there was a counter-cultural identity—counter to their national cultures, counter to a sometimes “Christian” culture, and counter to the left/right liberal/conservative dichotomy of the wider world. These sentiments of clearly wanting to retain an Anabaptist flavour were especially strong among the younger people present.
This was only a quick snapshot taken in a limited three-day conference almost 8 years ago that in and of itself may well have been slanted in a particular “activist” direction. And that said, hardly am I an adequate sociologist. I’m sure I heard things that I particularly wanted to hear.
But all that said, I’ve been thinking a lot on that experience as it relates to the recent RCA Conversations. My colleague Jessica Bratt shared quite eloquently about the overall experience of the event and her hopes for the kind of church the RCA is and can be. I agree with Jessica and her assessment and hope along with her. I confess, however, that my hope often wrestles with my cynicism. My colleague Jes Kast-Keat also shared yesterday on her experience and brought up the place and role (and need!?) of traditional reformed theology at the RCA Conversations event. What I found batting around my head the entire time in Orlando was the question of what it meant to be Reformed, and by Reformed I’m not focusing entirely on the word theologically or culturally contextualized from Dutch Reformed, rather I mean Reformed denominationally as in someone from the RCA. Who are we? What are we about?
I’m certainly not able to entirely answer this. Nor for that matter, was RCA Conversations able to answer this. However, I do think there is something to do with—dare I say the right ordering of our identity?—when I think about what Reformed is. So here are some identifiers when I consider what it means to be Reformed (as in an RCA’er): catholic, evangelical, and reformed.
The Preamble of the Book of Church Order begins: “The purpose of the Reformed Church in America, together with all other churches of Christ, is to minister to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching, and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by all Christian good works.” I appreciate that in defining who we are we recognize that we are part of something bigger, the church catholic. Particularly given our history and schismatic desire to be right and true, it’s a good reminder that we are fist a foremost “Christian” acknowledging that we don’t have it all figured out, do it all right, etc. We can also use the term ecumenical here. Sure, they don’t mean the same thing, but the point is true nonetheless; we are part of something bigger than our own flavour.
That said, skipping over my second identifier above, reformed is our flavour. There is a particular theological and biblical approach to faith and life and being church. Reformed—theologically and ecclesiologically-speaking—means something. Or it should! Call me a curmudgeon, but I think a loss of our reformed nuanced-identity has adversely affected the witness of the RCA. We aren’t generic Protestants or evangelicals; we are reformed. I’m not about to begin to explain all Reformed Christianity, but at the least Reformed means an approach with a high view of scripture, willing to wrestle with the texts, and battling against the bible-idolatry of fundamentalist and literalist—a view creeping its way into the church. At the least, reformed ecclesiology is so Holy Spirit focused that we really do believe in the value of the assembly, believing that God can and does use God’s assembled people—in sharp contrast to the rampant individualism of our culture.
And what does it mean to be evangelical and reformed? There’s not enough room here and wish to ponder this further. However here, I feel some of the same dissonance that my Anabaptist friends expressed years ago, and a kind of dis-ease I often experience in larger RCA gatherings. I self identify as evangelical. But, but, but… Its a term with such baggage. And we often so don’t mean the same thing. I appreciated what a friend (personally and of the Twelve), Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter recently put on his facebook quoting the Archbishop of Canterbury quoting Congregational scholar Bernard Lord Manning in describing what it means to be Reformed: “in feeling, evangelical.” More on this evangelical thing to come.
I came away from RCA Conversations hopeful of the larger church that I am a part of, to be sure. But I also came away with a simple question that I feel isn’t adequately being addressed, what does it mean to be Reformed.