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I’m much more of a Jeopardy fan (may we have a moment of silence on The Twelve for the late, great Alex Trebek, please?) than Wheel of Fortune. But occasionally, if nothing else is going on, I’ll settle in and watch the Wheel before my beloved Jeopardy.

One of those evenings happened recently, and I was struck by something early in the show. Pat Sajak was going through the usual pleasantries with the guests when he came to a contestant whose name was Robert.

“Tell us about yourself, Robert.”

Robert said, “I’ve been with my husband Brian for twenty years, he’s the love of my life, and I’m happy to be here.”

Of course Pat then said, “Wait a minute. There’s been a mistake. You don’t belong here. Someone like you isn’t supposed to be on this show.”

No, he didn’t say that. Pat smiled at Robert and turned to the woman next to him and said. “Here’s Susie from Little Rock, tell us about yourself Susie,” and the show went on. Robert won a few thousand dollars but wasn’t the big winner. Neither was Susie. A third contestant won a Caribbean vacation and a bunch of cash.

But I was sitting there, scratching my head, wondering how we’d gotten to the point where Robert could proudly proclaim his love for Brian on Wheel of Fortune while the two of them would be shut out of so many of our churches.

Wheel of Fortune? You can’t get more mainstream. This isn’t Schitt’s Creek on Netflix. This is “America’s Game,” that comes on just after the dinner hour in every television market from coast to coast. Like their simple game, Pat and Vanna are ageless and dependable. They are a bowl of vanilla ice cream, somehow both bland and enjoyable (with no nutritional value) at the same time.

How is it that Wheel of Fortune, the antithesis of a trendsetter, can be in such a different place than the church? As a bellwether of middle America, the Wheel is pretty accurate. The Wheel has gone to a place the church is deeply divided about.

I used to suggest (tongue in cheek), that someone needed to write on The Twelve about how God caused the pandemic to keep both the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church together. I’m not serious about the theology of that, but I am serious about the beauty of the cease fire. Now that the pandemic is waning, the rival factions are heating up again.

Do you sometimes feel like, to use a well-worn cliché, the church is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? The culture has moved on while we’re busy fighting ourselves. I used to think the line “Cure thy children’s warring madness” in the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” was about international conflict. Now I think old Harry Fosdick was just writing about the church.

I’ve been reading about the early days of The Reformed Journal, which was started in 1951. Eerdmans Publishing Company sponsored the Journal, but most of the work was done by a collection of Christian Reformed pastors and theologians. It makes sense that a new progressive CRC voice would emerge on the heels of World War II.

Historians Jim Bratt and Ronald Wells put it this way, “The war had swept hundreds of young people out of Christian Reformed enclaves into what was said to be a crusade to save civilization from totalitarian destruction. . . By contrast, the timid legalism, the petty customs, the reflex defensiveness of the old CRC seemed passé at best, irresponsible at worst.” Some of the same returning veterans who started the Journal were appointed to the faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Predictably, with all this new wine going into old wineskins, an internecine dispute broke out that resulted in the termination of almost the entire seminary faculty. The finer points of the dispute are long gone, but at the time it was life and death. Just like every disagreement in the history of Christianity. I suppose one could argue that our squabbles have given us fine things like The Reformed Journal or the Belgic Confession. But isn’t it clear, when we look through the spectacles of history, that all our disputes are simply about the same thing? They are always about power.

And throughout the history of the church, our disagreements have been a zero-sum game, a weaponized duel unto death. Who gets to be in charge? Who gets to tell the story? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out, to tell Robert and Brian come on in or get lost? I simply wish we’d be able to live in the tension of disagreement. But that’s not acceptable. The way we fight, one side must win and the other be vanquished. No one seems to care much about what will be lost.

I was in a conversation with a friend once about some issue — my memory of what the issue was has since faded — but as we talked my friend, who is pretty conservative, became convinced of my argument and, for a moment, indicated a willingness to adopt a different viewpoint.

“So you’re going to support it?” I said to him.

“No, I can’t,” he said. “You see, the thing is, even though I agree with you, I just hate liberals. I cannot be associated with them.”

I’ve been reminded of his statement many times recently. It’s not just conservatives hating liberals. The animosity goes both ways. We are dug so deep into our ideologies that even if we see the wisdom of the other side’s point of view we won’t be able to do or say anything about it.

I’m not optimistic about either the future of either the RCA or CRC as the entities we know. Are you?

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. Personal Website

15 Comments

  • Tom SINKE says:

    Nope.
    However, I don’t think it’s about power for most people; for most it is really about principle and how we read and interpret the Bible. The power struggle is mostly between those leading the charge on both sides who believe they are 100% correct and can’t accept anyone that disagrees with them.

    • Rodney says:

      I suppose that might be true but don’t you think that what you described is actually a battle for the power to say who’s right about the principles or what the Bible says. It seems to me that many argue it’s all or nothing. As one of my favorite Sci-fi series offers, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

      • Tom SINKE says:

        I’m with you that many people argue in absolutes; and, in reality, there are very few absolutes. I do think that on this issue, most people are genuinely conflicted and it is those toward the ends of the spectrum that do most of the yelling and name calling. Some people are better able to deal with the gray areas of life than others are. I’m personally pretty comfortable in the gray, others are not. In the end, I’m not sure if that makes them Sith or if that just means they are more principled than I – probably a little bit of both, but once again, there’s the gray . . .

        • Rodney Haveman says:

          Thanks for the response, Tom. As I was reading it, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t calling “the other side” a Sith. Anyone can get caught in absolutes, so there’s that. I agree about the conflict for most of us. In almost every conversation I’ve had with siblings of Christ, people acknowledge the conflict about how they feel and what they believe. I wonder what it would look like if we held a principal to hold on to both. I don’t know, maybe I’m too optimistic. I do think a church that follows Christ understands that his path leads to death. My hope is we can get to the other side with new life that might surprise us all. I hope the gray is filled with grace … I live there much of the time.

          • Tom says:

            George F Will’s feeling about the current state of our politics/civilization best describes how I feel about the church: “I’m a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist”.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    As far as the future, the % of pop identifying as LGBT has been about doubling with each generation:
    Only 1.3% of those born before 1946 identified as non-heterosexual (figures from recent Gallup Poll)
    2.0% of the Boomers did
    3.8% of Gen X did
    9.1% of Millennials did
    15.9% of Gen Z do now
    People are shifting as the science tells us more and as shows like the Wheel reflect changing attitudes

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for a fine article. I appreciate that you can write such an article and will receive accolades from a number of fronts. Had I written such a comment to a “Twelve” article it would have been dismissed immediately. I’m not optimistic about the future of the CRC or the RCA either, in fact any of our Reformed church denominations. But as long as we stay in our little box (let’s ban Wheel of Fortune) and close our eyes to the world, it might seem as though we are having an impact on the Western world stage. Blindness can be, oh so glorious!

  • John Tiemstra says:

    Arguing about theology is an old tradition in our community, and it is unlikely it will ever cease entirely. But the instinct for survival is very powerful, and it is reinforced for us by the Biblical injunction to love each other for the sake of Christ. The issues that divided us in the past will pale in importance as the society around us becomes more and more secular, and the effort it takes to keep and spread the faith becomes that much greater.

  • Norm Heersink says:

    The gospel according to man vs the Gospel of God.

    Which has caused this problem of division.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Well Jeff, for me hope outweighs optimism.
    when I hear of Tim Vink’s point of view and Randy Weener’s conversations with over 100 congregations in the US and around the globe, who have an interest in affiliating with the RCA, I am hopeful going into the future.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    nyet

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Oh, the irony of Wheel of Fortune, leading the way in acceptance. I have hope, but only if we lean into who we are together, next to each other at the feast on Sundays. Last week we had a contentious attempt to discuss politics with beloved friends, for whom one issue defined who they would vote for, regardless of anything else. It was several days before we were together again and, having just read Laura de Jong’s latest post, we were able to come back to the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ and we can agree to disagree, because that bond trumps all others. The trick is somehow to bring that truth into the hearts and minds of the many delegates who will come together at some point to decide to show the world what real love is or demonstrate how narrow we think the door is to the church and eternal life.

  • David E Stravers says:

    No, I’m not so optimistic. Thanks for giving us good things to think about as most of us scatter into other Christian communions. Institutions come and go but the kingdom of God and the church of Christ will outlive them all.

  • Scott Millen says:

    I love that you’ve simplified the argument so well, Jeff. Pat and Vanna didn’t ask them (or any other guest I might add) about their sins. The simply welcomed Robert to the wheel. We should simply welcome people to the table, just like Jesus did. The rest will be sorted out over time.

  • Thoughtful article. To Dave Straver’s comment above, I wonder how we got to the point that institutions must remain for our faithfulness to endure as if the two are inextricably tied together?

    Churches have life cycles. My hope is that someday people will see a ‘church’ and be reminded of a group of people who are actually trying to follow the ways of Jesus…

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