By the end of this week my denomination’s annual meeting of the Synod will have begun. My colleague here on The Twelve, Steve Mathonnet VanderWell, recently posted his thoughts ahead of also the Reformed Church of America’s upcoming gathering. My own Christian Reformed Church will also face a report dealing with homosexuality, gay marriage, and related issues. There is also a heady report on the Doctrine of Discovery that the delegates will have to ponder. These are not easy tasks and no matter what happens, various groups will be relieved or angry, satisfied or disappointed.
I have been a regular pastor delegate to the CRC Synod just twice and I attended as a Seminary advisor about four other times so I am hardly a Synod veteran. After each of the half dozen times I have attended, I came away with the same mix of feelings: I was exhausted–Synod’s days are long and at times tense. I was frustrated–issues that should take 10 minutes often stretch to hours with an extraordinary number of people in the speaking queue on sometimes the most mundane of topics (and too many speeches that begin with “I know this has already been said but . . .”). I was enthused–it’s nice to meet up with classmates and other colleagues as well as to hear reports of some pretty remarkable ministries that are happening in diverse places, some of which I had inklings about before Synod and others of which were new to me and filled me with gladness that such work was happening.
But each time I also went away a bit saddened, disappointed. What I am about to express will make some people upset, and I may get push-back. And I write this not just as a Seminary person now but as a reflection of what I thought when I was also a pastor before coming to Calvin Seminary 11 years ago. My sadness and disappointment stemmed from some other things I learned about–or better said, was reminded of–concerning the wider church/denomination of which I am a part. If for 51 weeks a year I can convince myself that my church thinks and operates a certain way in strong biblical-theological integrity and with the grace of the Gospel shining brightly at every turn, one week at Synod reminds me that in many places, that just ain’t so all the time.
Too many of the speeches I have heard arguing for this or that practice were premised on whatever seemed right, whatever felt good. Some years ago I heard several delegates argue against infant baptism on account of the fact that the people in their churches just don’t understand the meaning of infant baptism and so it’s easier just to dedicate babies and leave it at that. When it was suggested that a task of the church is to educate people on such matters as to the whys and wherefores of a covenant sacramental practice that our Reformed tradition has long held dear, delegates seemed unimpressed by the suggestion. If people don’t want their babies baptized, why would we suggest otherwise? And then there have been those speeches that are so clearly tinged with sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, and other unhappy things that the speakers were clearly unaware of and had no idea, therefore, how at odds with the Gospel such sentiments seemed to many of us to be. “He didn’t just say that, did he?” is a question I have often had to ask.
Of course, this was not everyone or probably even a majority of delegates at any given Synod. But such speeches, comments, and the way certain votes went were all a kind of reality check. The church as it operates at the ground level in many places is not everything you might wish it to be nor is it everything you fool yourself into thinking it is when you hang out with only fellow pastors or church members who already think like you do. And, sauce for the goose, probably there are people on the other side of some issues who likewise go home from a Synod scandalized by what people like me had to say. They, too, like to think the church is mostly like what they experience 51 weeks a year and then a week at Synod tells them a different story as well.
Recently a lot of Christians in the U.S. have had the same experience on the political stage. The support for Donald Trump–including among many evangelical Christians–has been an eye-opening, sobering, and (for many of us) utterly disheartening experience. Rank racism has been cheered and rewarded with millions of votes for a man whose character and ideas are at odds with the Gospel in more ways than you can count. Just this past weekend Mr. Trump’s comments on judges who have a Mexican heritage or who are Muslim sent chills through even those Republican leaders who have begun dutifully to line up behind him. This, too, has been a reality check for how we view the wider church landscape in this country. And as with Synod and once more with sauce for the goose, I know there are plenty of fellow Christians who look at my politics and shake their heads with equal vigor.
I don’t know what to do with all this politically at this point. This election is fraught with tensions the likes of which we’ve not seen before. “I thought our country was better than this” is a comment I’ve heard from many. Recently a national columnist wrote that unlike all the other presidential elections he can recall, this time he does not even dare to ask family members how they may vote come November because he flat out doesn’t want to know who votes for Trump because he cannot handle the information. I know how he feels, and you can see this anxiety all over Facebook these days too.
I have a little better sense, maybe, of what to do on the church front. The easiest thing for any of us to do is walk away from a Synod and dismiss out of hand those people who made speeches and comments we found ridiculous on one side or the other. The easiest thing to do is go back to our enclaves with people who already think and act like we do and begin to bracket out for another 51 weeks the presence of sisters and brothers who think and act otherwise.
The harder thing to do, however, may be the better course, which is to figure out what this glimpse of the wider church means. Given the reality of our diversity, given the reality that some seem to operate in a biblical-theological way far different from what some others of us believe to be correct, how do we live together? How do we talk together? Where can we find our unity and how can we leverage that unity to discuss the other issues better and more fruitfully?
Last week I wrote a sermon starter article for my website on Galatians 2 and on the famous line from the Apostle Paul “I have been crucified with Christ so that I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” What we often forget about concerning that verse is that Paul is quoting himself from a time when he and the Apostle Peter were at odds over requiring people to adopt Jewish practices before becoming Christians (or adopting those practices as a way to enhance one’s assurance of salvation). Paul was livid that Peter had caved in at times to those insisting on adding to the work of Christ’s cross. So when Paul first spoke that verse we now all love, those same words were pinning Peter’s ears back at the time as Peter cowered in a corner at Paul’s public rebuke.
Paul, too, could fool himself into thinking that everyone in the early church thought and taught like he did. And then fourteen years after his conversion he actually went to a meeting in Jerusalem and found out something else about the church. He was devastated by what he learned. But those Apostles found a way to live and work together when the donnybrook was over.
Maybe we can too.