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The news that the shooter at the synagogue in Poway, California was a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church sent shock waves through the Christian community, especially our little corner of confessional Reformed churches.

Culturally, I feel a million miles away from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But as someone who still wants to take “being Reformed” seriously, especially our confessional background, I feel an affinity with the OPC.

What follows is not intended in any way as a “defense” of the Reformed tradition. My starting point is not “Don’t blame me! It’s not our fault!” I’m not trying to excuse the Reformed tradition, or Christianity in general.

Theology is potent stuff. And the Reformed tradition, like every tradition, has plenty of twisted branches, grubby corners, and shameful history.

While theology is potent stuff, thirty years in the ministry has also taught me not to overestimate my influence or the influence of the church. I, and most pastors, presume that we have no hateful mass-shooters in our congregations. Still, we also understand that if we actually knew the deepest beliefs of some in our congregations we would be saddened-unto-sickened by the racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and hatred that lingers below the surface.

I would like to claim that such people find no support or solace for their hatred in our church or my preaching. Could they hear stronger, clearer condemnations of hate? Probably. Certainly.

Three Hours a Month

Without appearing to wriggle off the hook, I also recognize that the average person in our congregation may hear my version of Reformed theology for two or three hours per month. They have more interaction with social media and TV in a single evening. The have been raised in homes, they hang out with friends, they read books, all of which may impart very different viewpoints from what they hear in church.

Increasingly, we have to recognize that except for a small handful of church-goers, the church’s voice is very much in the background. Can we use that muffled voice better? Of course. But Reformed or otherwise, to act as if the pulpit, or worship, or simply the broader church culture is the only place where people pick up their values and attitudes is unrealistic.

More Paul?

At our best, the Reformed tradition has some resources that may help blunt anti-Semitism and white nationalism. Again, my unspoken agenda is not to present the Reformed tradition as unsullied or inculpable. Instead, I want to ask what in our ways-of-being can help us?

Many times, I’ve heard the Reformed tradition called the “Judaism of Christianity.” Everything from our historic appreciation of the psalms and sabbath, to our attention to covenants and election, even our economic acumen and work-ethic, apparently align. I’m not convinced that these sorts of comparisons are actually helpful. I wonder if they don’t simply play into tired tropes and unkind stereotypes.

More than a few of us in the Reformed tradition have bemoaned our historic preference for Paul and doctrine rather than the Gospels and stories. But maybe this can actually help when facing anti-Semitism.

We know how easily Matthew’s and John’s gospels can become anti-Semitic fuel. Of course, we should address those hateful misreadings.

Just a bit of familiarity with Paul’s writings should quickly surface his love for and pride in his Jewish background. While convoluted, sometimes even tormented, it is clear that for Paul the Jews are still somehow special and have a unique place in God’s plans. People who read a lot of Paul, who find their theological moorings in his writings, should know this.

Covenant-Breaker?

I have a hard time with supersessionism, the view that God’s covenant with the Jews has now been superseded by a new covenant with the followers of Christ. It seems odd and odious that Reformed Christians, who make much of God’s covenants and election, would suggest that God would break covenants. Why should we find any comfort and hope in God’s covenant promises when apparently they can be pushed aside? Why hasn’t God superseded the covenant with Christians given our record of apathy and evil? If God gave up on the covenant with the children of Jacob, God certainly should give up on me.

Trying to make a point and in the heat of debate, I’ve made the rather brassy, backward claim that the Good News of Jesus Christ is that now we all get to be Jews. We–gentiles, mongrels, outsiders–are now included in the covenant. We are the wild branches grafted onto the root of God’s faithfulness to his covenant people.

The Blessing of Belhar

The Belhar Confession is a doctrinal statement that arose in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980’s. It speaks strongly about the unity of the Church, justice, and reconciliation. It clearly states that segregation of any sort is sinful.

The Belhar Confession was adopted as a new, fourth, doctrinal standard for the Reformed Church in America in 2010. The Christian Reformed Church of North America adopted it is as a somewhat less significant “contemporary testimony” in 2017.

I’ll confess that I was dubious when it was first proposed that the Belhar Confession become a doctrinal standard for the Reformed Church in America. My reluctance was more about impressions and image than the actual contents of the Belhar Confession. Our three historic standards–the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort–seemed like well-aged, sublime, top shelf European whiskeys. By comparison, the Belhar–a twentieth century document that originated as a class project–felt like a downgrade, maybe convenience-store whiskey with cinnamon or honey flavor.

My mind was changed when someone compared the Belhar Confession to a necessary patch upon our doctrine. In effect they said–“If a person can endorse the three Reformed doctrinal standards and simultaneously vigorously support apartheid, yet feel no dissonance, then we have a problem.”

I harbor no naive illusions that people in Reformed congregations are gobbling up Belhar and that untold thousands have been profoundly changed by it. But it is a symbolic gesture, a statement, a clear and unequivocal no to racism and all other bigotries and hatreds.

I want to say that the Reformed tradition gives us so many reasons not to hate, not to be white nationalists, not to be anti-Semitic. Sadly, those reasons have not always made it into the pews or people’s hearts. We need to do better. And we have some strong resources to help in that task.

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

  • mstair says:

    “I want to say that the Reformed tradition gives us so many reasons not to hate, not to be white nationalists, not to be anti-Semitic. Sadly, those reasons have not always made it into the pews or people’s hearts.”

    no, it has not …

    In 1543 Luther published ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ in which he says that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.”

    …ouch … that opened a door of hate that the faith-challenged, insecure, intolerants rushed through. We’re still trying to close it – if even just a little bit …

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Of course, if I had been intending to catalog all the anti-Semitic failings by the Reformed tradition, I would have written a very different, and probably longer, blog. Notice, I did say that the Reformed tradition definitely has its own grubby corners and shameful history, not only vis-a-vis the Jews. My intention, however, was rather different. It was to look for Reformed reasons and resources not to hate, without denying the wrongs that have been done.. BTW, my Lutheran friends might be a little surprised to find you classifying Martin Luther as “Reformed.”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for sharing your thoughts on anti-Semitism and where Reformed Christians might fall in that spectrum of thinking. I think Christians, in general, and Reformed Christians, more specifically, contribute to anti-Semitism.

    Most religions, including Christianity, are mutually exclusive. As Christians, we believe Christianity has the only way to find acceptance with God, and that is through Christ. We will send missionaries to countries that are predominantly Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or some other religion and preach the gospel of Christ, calling on them to turn from their false religions and to turn unto the one true and Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We welcome them to change from their Gods to ours and to join in our worship at our churches, of the one true God. But we don’t invite them to worship their Gods at our churches. We are exclusive. By saying they would rather worship their Gods, we cannot or will not embrace them as fellow believers. And they will not embrace us, either. To some extent (often to great extent) they are outsiders. You can be sure that such thinking contributes to ant-Semitism. Religions, including Christianity, are mutually exclusive.

    And the Reformed doctrine of election contributes even more sharply to the idea of separation. It may be true that God chooses all kinds of people, even those who were formally Jews or Muslim. But for those he chooses, he does not leave them with their commitment to other religions or other Gods. In that sense, the Christian God is a jealous God. He alone is to be worshiped by his chosen people. Like with the Jews of the O.T., they were not to participate in the worship of the Gods of other nations. Certainly such distinction between Christians and those who are not, contributes to anti-Semitism by Christians and more so by Reformed Christians. Christians are a distinct people, a chosen nation, set apart to glorify the one true God. By saying, we are chosen by God, there are many (or most) that are not. And all such are bound for hell (however you want to define that).

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Deftly and well done.

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