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Essay

Living into the General Synod Tension

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thumb_IMG_8353_1024The first General Synod I attended was in the year 2000 and I went with loads of enthusiasm. As a student having just finished my first year at seminary—attending the seminarian seminar—I was excited about how the church did its work. Even geekily so, I shared with my buddies the virtues of good polity and order, of how it was related integrally with our Reformed theology. Not sure they truly appreciated my passion.

By about the third day some of that enthusiasm had been tempered. Participating in an advisory group on theology I encountered not only deep and rich conversations about what the church believes, but also profound anxieties, fears, and significant disunity. I heard one pastor say to a beloved and deeply respected (from my perspective) professor, “we don’t trust you. I wasn’t surprised by the disagreements or differences. I was surprised at the tone and behaviour delegates sometimes demonstrated. I didn’t go to that first General Synod naïvely, but I did go with greater expectations. Admittedly, I left that synod still with my enthusiasm for the work of the church, but with a larger amount of disappointment and discouragement too.

One phrase that I found myself using often back then was “live in the tension.” The work of the church, the work of life and faith is often about living in the tension of our joys and sorrows, the tension between on earth as it is in heaven, the tension between enthusiasm and discouragement.

Since that first General Synod I have had the pleasure(?) of serving in a variety of capacities and going back to Synod on multiple occasions. I’m still a geek about polity, church order, and theology although I’ve probably reigned it in a bit. I am going back to Synod today—the RCA General Synod begins today meeting on the campus of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL—and I am still enthusiastic. Below are seven things I’m thinking about as I go:

  1. I have become an even bigger believer in Reformed polity and church order and the rich theology they intone, and especially our flavour of Dutch Reformed polity and order. We are beautifully inefficient! That can be exasperating, indeed. We are slow and work by committee. But I think it is precisely the inefficiency that is a gift for it demands that our work be relational and intentional. Like making a fine wine or cheese, the work is deliberate but takes time. This is of course-counter cultural and goes against our personal tendencies. We don’t often get what we want when we want it. That’s part of living in the tension, I suppose, and maybe that’s a good thing.
  2. We Reformed folk have a healthy view of sin alongside an even healthier view of grace. Granted, in recent years I have heard more and more of a rather problematic language of sin and atonement that has a neo-Reformed and Baptisty-take to it, probably due to much influence by the wider evangelical world. Still, at our best, we understand we can also be our worse. We’re all in need of God’s grace, and often of one another’s. We are all very prone to see ourselves and our views out of proportion. A healthy understanding of sin should keep us humble, help us to listen to the Spirit and to one another.
  3. Be kind. Probably because of number 2 above, I am ever in need to remember to be kind. I realize that I speak as someone who is privileged, but the tendency to be unkind is too prolific. And being nice is not enough. Our faith demands kindness especially to one another in the church.
  4. Enough with the binary language of two sides. There are more than two sides…to all sorts of issues. And especially when I know that I may well fall strongly in one perspective over another, I still don’t want to be summed up as all that, reduced to a “side.” I admit, however, that I think and speak in these ways too and it is often not helpful or constructive. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t opposing perspectives. Sure there are. But not everything needs to be limited to opposing camps. Not good.
  5. What is your only comfort? That I belong, body and soul to my faithful Saviour. And that means also that we belong to one another. In a world with so much alienation and disunity, that the church could practice and demonstrate how we are called to belong is powerful.
  6. Faith is a gift of grace. Still, following Christ is a lifestyle choice. Synod offers so many opportunities to choose, to choose our words carefully, to choose to listen, to choose to share, to choose not to dismiss. There will be so many opportunities in the days ahead to make choices that can build up the body, the can encourage one another, and to grow. I want to make good choices.
  7. “We believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.” General Synod always brings up much discussion (and some consternation) about unity. Belhar certainly reminds us of unity being both gift and obligation. But going to Synod this year has me thinking even more so on that gift and obligation. With the report from the Special Council there has been discussion about dividing the church, proposing ways to split. Part of that gift of unity is that we are adopted children of God, which means we are siblings to one another. We have many choices as number 6 above demonstrates but it seems to me that we are also obligated to our sisters and brothers. What church unity says is that we can’t cease being siblings. We may want to. But we can’t divorce from one another. We are siblings in Christ.

I’m thinking of other things too as we begin Synod. I’m enthusiastic, if somewhat tempered. I’m ready to enter the tension, a good kind of tension. My plane has landed. Off we go!

4 Comments

  • Well said and good thoughts, Thomas Goodhart.

  • Grace and Peace be with you during Synod. It was a pleasure meeting you last year. One of the things I do enjoy about Synod is meeting different faces from around the RCA.

  • castaway5555 says:

    Many thanks for these reflections … I’m a bit older than you are (hee hee) and find in your comments a great deal of assurance that good minds and kindly hearts will still have their say in what is often a potentially, if not realized, explosive encounter. It’s not likely to ever be different, because of sin, but grace can prevail, as folks hammer through the issues of the day in light of our theological convictions and our polity (I’m PCUSA). We’ll not achieve heaven-on-earth, but heaven is present, and that’s the hope and guarantee that God’s gracious and merciful purposes will be realized in the likes of us.

    I chuckled when you noted how one pastor expressed distrust of a professor – memories emerged! I graduated from Western in 1969, and I recall several instances in which prominent GR pastors made it very clear that the Seminary, was, indeed, the enemy of all things right and good. It makes for good pulpit fodder and excites the folks in the pew – for what it’s worth … and so it goes.

    It was a pleasure to read your note; keep up the good work.

  • Sherri Meyer-Veen says:

    Dear friend,

    I hadn’t read this before Synod. I found it while going through emails on the plane. My soul is weary and aching, as are many many others. And that aching is by many, regardless of perspective. Even in light of all that has happened, this remains an excellent and important article. It is ALL still relevant and still true. The conversations continue. Lord have mercy upon us all in them.

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