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Two Sundays ago, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary Emeritus of the Reformed Church in America, preached on Saul’s conversion at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my family and I attend.
In explicating the background of the passage, Wes said:
Saul was on a mission to protect the purity of his religious faith. And that demanded conformity and religious adherence to prescribed ways of behavior he believed constituted righteousness. Exceptions were not to be condoned or tolerated…The focus of Saul’s uncompromising intolerance were fellow Jews, those in his community who were following what he called ‘the Way’. They were behaving, loving, and living in ways which transgressed rules and rituals which Saul, along with the Jewish religious establishment, regarded as sacrosanct. In doing so, they were following a man called Jesus, whose provocative, inclusive, and nearly seditious teachings focused during a week in Jerusalem about five years earlier had generated the wrath of the religious establishment.
Wes sees an echo of Saul’s own prioritization of “conformity and religious adherence to prescribed ways of behavior he believed constituted righteousness” to issues facing my church, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, at present:
Let me bear my soul for a moment, vulnerably. We are living in a time when your denomination and mine and so many others are being torn asunder by those who believe they are on a purity campaign to protect their faith against those they see as following another way…In the wider church, we are losing all sense of what it means for Christ to actually be identified and present with all those who have joined his body. Some believe they can sever ties with brothers and sisters in self-righteous certainty and with impunity. And in truth they are severing Christ’s body.
The sermon is well-worth listening to as a whole. In an early section, Wes contrasts this “purity campaign” with those who enact the Gospel’s call to live out God’s love: to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, liberate the oppressed. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
This isn’t to say that religious belief doesn’t matter. It’s not that anything goes theologically. Rather, the point is to emphasize that when orthodoxy (right belief) becomes detached from orthopraxy (right action), we should consider that it is something other than the Gospel that is ultimately driving that insistence on ‘purity of doctrine’.
There are, as Wes points out, those within the CRCNA who today are on their own “purity campaign to protect their faith against those they see as following another way.” There are those who insist that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and that homosexual practice of any sort is incompatible with obedience to the will of God, and that even civil ceremonies for same-gender couples should not be countenanced.
These are indeed the CRCNA’s official positions.
However, there are also other official positions that are not taken as seriously and do not receive the same attention or policing, as evidenced by the fact that violations are widely known and tolerated.
Consider, for instance, the CRCNA’s official position regarding disability. Despite signing onto a letter lobbying for an exemption for religious institutions in the lead-up to the passage of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in 1990—a lobbying effort which was successful, and still to this day exempts churches from much of the law — the CRCNA quickly changed its course.
According to the 1993 report “Toward Full Compliance with the Provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Christian Reformed Church in North America,” subsequently accepted by Synod in June 1993, the CRCNA has an obligation toward all members, worshippers, and other with disabilities. While not exhausted thereby, this obligation includes the need to provide accessibility and accommodations to disabled individuals. “Toward Full Compliance” called for “all CRCNA congregations, agencies, facilities, [and] programs supported by denominational quota” to fully live up to the requirements of the ADA by July of 1996.
But of course, as anyone at all familiar with the experience of disabled members or the requirements of the ADA knows, that hasn’t happened. Consider for instance Calvin University. I joined the then-college’s faculty in 2016. I taught my first class related to disability in interim of 2019. As part of that class, we had a presentation on the ADA by staff from Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC). We discovered in that presentation that the classroom we were in was not ADA accessible.
I learned that DAKC had done a more extensive ADA compliance audit prior to my arrival, where numerous failures to live up to the ADA were noted. I myself gave college administrators extensive documentation on how both the college’s and Calvin Theological Seminary’s parking lots failed to satisfy ADA requirements in April of 2018. Many of these documented failures were simply issues of inadequate access aisles that could easily be addressed the next time the lots were restriped. To date, those issues have not been resolved (despite the parking lots in question having been restriped). Nor have the larger failures to comply with ADA requirements that were supposed to be addressed by 1996. The classroom I taught in for that 2019 course is still in violation.
This suggests then that what’s really behind the policing of some denominational positions, while openly ignoring others, isn’t in fact concern for CRC positions per se. Not all “transgressed rules” seem to matter. Our orthopraxy is willing to exclude and marginalize disabled congregants. Instead, the current situation suggests a “purity campaign” that sees only some positions as inherent to “demanded conformity and religious adherence to prescribed ways of behavior.”
I don’t think that the individuals behind these inconsistent purity campaigns have bad intentions, any more than I think that Saul and the other religious authorities of the day had bad intentions. But I also don’t think that settles the moral matter.
As study, after study, after study, in various disciplines, show us, you can have bad social structures apart from individual ill-will. Social structures naturally tend to benefit those with power and influence, leaving those already marginalized aside. It is all too easy to fall into thinking that we can enforce boundaries without severing the unity that marks Christ’s body when those boundaries don’t exclude us or those like us.
When our praxis fails, perhaps it’s because we’ve misunderstood what our beliefs really call us to. Social dynamics make it too easy to insist that only certain rules and rituals shouldn’t be transgressed, but that others can be. So perhaps it’s not the rules that really are behind our actions and inactions.
We are called to improve social systems and advocate against injustice, wherever we find it. When we do so only in some domains and not in others, we may want to consider that, like Saul prior to his conversion, we’re more protecting the perceived purity or righteousness of our own religious system than we are serving the risen Christ.