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Essay

Queen Vashti, King Ahasuerus, and R-56 (Substitute)

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From Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Lynn Japinga is substituting for Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell while he is on sabbatical.  She teaches religion at Hope College and writes about the recent history of the RCA. She is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the RCA and attends Hope Church, Holland, Michigan. She can be reached at japingal@hope.edu.

Last month while the RCA’s General Synod was deciding to make advocacy of homosexual behavior a “disciplinable offense,” I was teaching a Doctor of Ministry course on preaching about women in the Old Testament.  Two days after Synod ended, the class discussed the story of Vashti in Esther 1. 

King Ahasuerus of Persia was nearing the end of hosting a six month party, the Persian version of Animal House.  “Drinking was by flagons, without restraint,” the text says.  The king had the brilliant idea (he was “merry with wine” at the time) that this stag party really needed an attractive woman.  The  sent seven eunuchs to bring his wife, Queen Vashti, to the party, wearing the royal crown.  Some rabbinic commentators suggest that she was told to wear ONLY the royal crown.  She chose not to parade herself in front of a room full of drunken men, and the king was enraged by her disobedience. 

The king and his brain trust sprang into damage control mode.  This was not simply a personal disagreement between the king and queen.  Oh, no.  Queen Vashti had not only wronged the king, the advisors said, but all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces!  The advisors were certain that once the news of her rebellion got out, ALL the women in the kingdom would rebel against their husbands, and “there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” 

The brain trust suggested that the king draft an order deposing Vashti.  This would not only solve the problem of the rebellious queen but ensure that “all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.”  The king thought this was an excellent plan, and he sent letters to all the provinces, each in its own language, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.” 

I wonder how well that worked. 

My students and I were laughing and lamenting over the way that arrogance and fear and the need to control resulted in this ridiculous overreaching. 

And then it struck me that the General Synod had done something quite similar.  The debate was complicated of course, and people had a variety of reasons for voting as they did.  But it appears that fear, anxiety, a desire to control, and a certainty that the RCA already had all the answers were significant factors leading to the approval of the R-56 substitute.  And this vote occurred in the midst of a great deal of confusion as to whether the substitute bore any resemblance to RCA polity.  Synod tried to demand compliance and obedience. 

The General Synod took a similar action in 1990 when it declared that homosexual behavior was a sin.  One of the rationales provided at the time was that “we don’t want to appear soft on sin.”  And another speaker said that if the Synod took a firm stance against homosexuality, the RCA would be more attractive to dissident congregations from the United Church of Canada.  Opposition to homosexuality could be an opportunity for church growth. 

After Synod voted to take its firm stand, it acknowledged that maybe the issue deserved some study.  An Ad Hoc Committee was formed, which recommended in 1994 that the RCA needed more dialogue and discernment.  The Synod did not approve this advice, although it did recommend the development of a study guide to help people make sense of the papers on homosexuality which had been written in 1978 and 1979 (and were already dated in many ways).

Almost 20 years later, the Synod of 2012 decided it didn’t need to study the issues either.  The committee proposed in the R-56 Substitute is not allowed to revisit the RCA position.

The Presbyterians and the ELCA have engaged in lengthy studies of the issues surrounding homosexuality.  Those are not easy conversations and the reports produce plenty of conflict.  But at least they are wrestling with the issues.

I wonder why the RCA (or parts of it) is so afraid of real conversation and theological reflection?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

4 Comments

  • Andrew says:

    I'm unclear as to what do you think "real conversation" means in this situation?

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    I think "real conversation" looks like what is described in the following: http://www.respectfulconversations.net

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Good question, Andrew. I'm fairly certain that real conversation does NOT usually happen during a debate at General Synod. Especially this year, when the discussion seemed to be more about power and manipulation and "winning" than it was about discerning the will of God. No easy task, I realize. I think some better conversation happened on Saturday night in smaller groups, although there are usually very mixed reactions to that kind of structured dialogue. It's difficult to have real conversation when people have only two minutes to speak, they cannot respond to each other, the polity isn't entirely clear, and everything is decided by a vote … or two … or four.

  • Andrew says:

    Thanks, Lynn – that helps fill it out a bit. Though I am still unclear as to what precisely you sense needs to be discussed: the nature of the church, official church teaching, pastoral approach, nature of sexuality, etc.? My gut is that there is fundamental disagreement on each of these issues (and more). It will take theological leadership of a whole new caliber to even set-up a conversation. Of course, some are saying that the divide cuts all the way down to the level of fundamental commitments. (I know little about the RCA and mean these comments more generally – I assume RCA is a microcosm of what is happening all over the western world in various denominations.)

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