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The month of June begins tomorrow and whatever else this new month might contain, the meeting of the Christian Reformed Synod is prominent in the minds of many people in my circles. I have written some blogs and a Reformed Journal article that touch on issues surrounding the upcoming Human Sexuality Report (HSR). Today I want to write a partial answer to a question a number of people have asked me in recent weeks: What do you hope will emerge from Synod 2022?
By way of a roundabout answer to that question, I will first detail something my colleague Neal Plantinga talks about in the preaching seminar “Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching”—a week-long seminar for pastors that we have co-led many times over the last twenty years. When we talk about why it is important for preachers to have a robust program of general reading, one of the things Neal highlights is that reading thoughtful books—including thoughtful fiction in novels and short stories—can help preachers come to what Neal calls “middle wisdom.”
Wisdom in Scripture is differentiated from knowledge. Knowledge is what you learn in school. It’s book learning. It’s the periodic table of elements, the facts of history, multiplication tables. Wisdom, though, comes not from classrooms but from observing how things work in the world. Sometimes wisdom comes from the school of hard knocks. Other times it emerges when we just look around us and discern what makes for flourishing in this world and what makes for misery.
As such, wisdom can traffic in things that require a lot of thought and nuance. Even the biblical Book of Proverbs shows this. It takes wisdom to apply wisdom which is why you can encounter such apparently contradictory proverbs in the Bible. One text tells you that the best way to deal with a fool is to leave him alone—just walk away quietly and try not to make any sudden movements. But then a bit later you encounter another verse that advises that the best way to handle a fool is to rebuke her harshly lest she persist in her folly. So which is it? Well, it depends on the fool and on the specific nature of the folly you see. Life does not always proffer one-size-fits-all solutions.
Of course, wisdom can also be a matter of having common sense in very ordinary matters. Spitting into the wind and sawing off the branch you are sitting on are not smart things to do. Common sense tells you that much and there are a thousand examples of such things.
But there is also a kind of middle wisdom. Maybe it’s not an example of world-class proverbial wisdom but neither is it an obvious matter of basic common sense. An example Neal uses in our seminar is from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In a scene set inside a roadside diner we see the hard-bitten short order cook Al working the stove in the kitchen and also the waitress Mae who is chatting with a couple truckers at the lunch counter. Then a poor Oakie and his two small children come in. The man asks Mae if he can buy a loaf of bread. Mae refuses. “This ain’t no grocery store.” Instead she offers to sell him various sandwiches or hamburgers that they serve on the bread.
But no, the man has their finances figured pretty close and he can only afford a dime for the bread itself. Mae isn’t budging until Al yells at her from the kitchen to sell him the damn bread. Mae relents and when the man takes the dime out of his coin pouch, a penny falls out onto the counter too. Meanwhile the man’s two children are gob smacked as they stare longingly at the peppermint stick candies in the glass case. The man asks Mae how much those cost. Mae says they are two for a penny, so the man buys them for his kids and leaves. The truckers then tell Mae they know full well those candies are a nickel a piece but Mae tells them to shut up. When the truckers leave, they each give Mae a whopping 50-cent tip, even though the pie they had eaten had been only 15 cents plus the coffee.
What middle wisdom might one glean from a scene like this? That people are more prone to show compassion than we might sometimes think and when a tough guy like Al gets the compassion ball rolling, others take permission and get in on the action. As wise observations go, this falls somewhere between big-time proverbs and common sense. But it’s important to develop skills at discerning such things.
So what does all that have to do with what I might hope to see emerge from the CRCNA Synod in June? I hope a middle wisdom can be found. I hope that a discerning Advisory Committee will process the HSR for the floor of Synod in ways that avoid extremes, that take a nuanced look at an array of issues with which it will be confronted and find a way to put it forward that will set a tone for conversations that will be loving and constructive. Synod does not need definitively to cut any Gordian knots or wow the church (or the world) with amazing breakthroughs in insight.
Instead it may be enough to recognize which issues and sub-issues can wait for now and which need to be engaged. It may be enough to recognize that some of the scientific issues as well as some of the personal and pastoral issues need time for refinement and further contemplation and study. Just as the short order cook Al was able to get a virtuous ball rolling with one simple act of kindness, so the Advisory Committee and others in leadership may be able to signal a posture that will help others take permission to do likewise.
Yes, this may mean not everything will be settled on things like confessional status or more acute pastoral and biblical questions. This in turn may feel incomplete to some (even as others may chalk it up to failure to uphold this or that standard). But if somehow Synod 2022 manages to produce an outcome that shows respect for multiple ideas and that keeps dialogue going, then it may be because someone found the middle wisdom of the Spirit to help move the church to the next stage, whatever that stage precisely turns out to be.
Some may not regard anything along these lines as the best outcome but maybe it will be the best that can be achieved for now. And that would not be the worst thing one could hope for.
Thank you, Scott.
May it be so.
Let’s hope and pray that will happen!
Knowledge is understanding that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is understanding it doesn’t go well in a fruit salad.
Right on! True wisdom!
Excellent! This is wisdom! When there are controversies in the church we cannot always get everything we want. We need to meet each other in middle, if necessary. Relationships are more important than propositional truths.
Your words have given words for my prayers.
It is always wise to obey God. Only obeying God partway is not wise.
Thanks Scott. If only we had eyes to see and ears to hear.
Scott, although I agree with much of what you write, on the question of what is the “wise” decision to make at Synod, respectfully, I think your post lacks wisdom. As you note, on the one hand Proverbs calls us to ignore a fool, on the other to rebuke him. Wisdom is needed to know when and who. Putting aside for a moment the issue of what does the Bible say, and perhaps more importantly, what approach are we employing in how we are reading the Bible, your post pleads for “middle wisdom” in order that we might preserve unity as we move onto “the next stage, whatever that stage precisely turns out to be.” Wisdom teaches us what that next stage will be. I draw your attention to Lora Copley’s fine post on “But What About Unity?” (https://www.abideproject.org/articles/what-about-unity). There she observes the trajectory of many denominations that have already attempted the “middle wisdom” approach. The RCA experience alone should indicate to us the highly problematic nature of prolonged listening and dialogue and agree-to-disagree perseverance. If wisdom comes through “observing how things work in the world” then the wise decision for Synod 2022 would be to take a clear position and adopt all the recommendations of the HSR. Following the same trajectory of other denominations and expecting something different than a prolonged and painful season of bleeding members and churches and Classes–that is what the “next stage” will look like–would be folly.
Of course the irony here is that my friend Lora is a CRC pastor precisely because a little over a quarter century ago the CRC did recognize two different (and opposite) positions to try to hold in tension on the question of whether women may be pastors. Many in the CRC then and now regard Scripture as crystal clear on this issue and some of those folks would jettison someone like Lora if they could. But even Lora’s own piece pits two diametrically opposed–and somewhat caricatured positions–and then pretends like those are the only two possible positions in the CRCNA and says that clearly only one position can prevail. I cannot, for instance, locate myself in either of the positions Lora sketches. And I know lots of people on all sides of this issue who do not fit anywhere nearly (or neatly) into those little boxes either. There is quite a bandwidth on people’s ideas about what the Bible says and it is by no means clear that those who arrive at different conclusions than at least some of what the HSR contends and recommends are doing so because of a wanton tossing out of all sense of biblical authority. And that is just my point: if we make the HSR an either all-in or all-out proposition on the assumption that this report alone has nailed every exegetical contour correctly such that there is no faithful CRC reader of the Bible who could so much as raise an eyebrow over this or that idea is itself not just folly but a plain rejection of the facts. To reject the idea that there are many ideas and conclusions out there that fall everywhere in between the two poles Lora’s article proposes as the be-all and end-all of this matter advances no cause.
Scott, do you honestly think Scripture allows for a man to marry and/or have sexual relations with another man?
Are you aware of a denomination which has allowed for a diversity of views on marriage and human sexuality that has avoided a prolonged and painful bleeding of members. Where has a “big tent” approach “worked”–i.e. kept the denomination together?
I love that story from The Grapes of Wrath.
I’ve often understood that knowledge tells you what your destination is, and wisdom tells you how to get there. Along the way some odd twists and turns occur. One of our colleagues in a You Tube video (guess who?) told of how he actually bought a beer for a guy who was living on the street and probably addicted to alcohol. Why would a good pastor do this? It was because of the situation. The man in question was getting into an argument with the grocery store owner/manager and things were escalating such that without some intervention, the man would probably have ended up in an altercation with police that would have made things much worse. In certain situations, setting aside lesser laws like the way bread is sold or the cost of pastries is set aside for the greater law of kindness and compassion.
What is the greater law at work in this situation if Synod 2022 takes “a third way”? What is the goal in mind for a decision-making body to hold off on making a decision? What would that look like? Is it compelling? Those are a few of my questions.
Thanks Scott….this is indeed wisdom whether it comes from either side or the middle. We apprecaiate the story of Al and Mae fro Stienbeck. May they be present at his syonod. Paul and MAry
Thank you, Scott, for these “thoughtful” thoughts. God give delegates and all of us the Spirit of wisdom that makes us eager to listen to God’s voice and to follow His leading in this meeting of Synod.
Jeff, I think a greater law at work in the “third way,” if you want to call it a law, is what Jesus prayed for in his high priestly prayer – “may they be one.” Doesn’t mean we all have to agree on every fine point of doctrine. My hope is that delegates will diligently search for areas where we can agree before we focus a searchlight on points where we disagree–to find first of all what unifies us and to celebrate that. What is the goal for holding off? The CRC has done a lot of “holding off” in its history! I think the goal might be to avoid something that none of us want – a split in the church and to allow time for more wisdom to be gained.
Kathy, what additional “wisdom” are you waiting for on the question of men “marrying” and having sexual relations with other men? I have 3 young sons, ages 10, 7, and 5, who were all baptized into the covenant in the CRC. Are you saying Scripture is not clear enough for me to teach them that God’s design for marriage is one man and one woman?
In reading this article, I am reading it with the eyes of a therapist. I stepped down from a role as a church staff in part because of my church’s response and hand in writing the HSR… so I’m reading as a person who now works with LGBTQ persons as a Christian who also now is a therapist.
Our church, the CRCNA, is in need of healing. Therapists are at times instrumental in helping healing processes through listening and responding. We also are trained to look at issues systemically, meaning that issues often exist between individuals or constituencies, and are either disrupted or maintained by these same parties. Systems, by their very nature, resist change. Examples of systems are family systems, corporations, or larger institutions – like a church denomination.
As I read this I am mindful of whose interests I am centering in my mind. Middle wisdom serves the institution of the CRCNA best. It allows the denomination to stay the course, denominational missionaries and staff to keep their jobs, and assuming no-one leaves… keeps the budget more or less unchanged. It also allows those of us who hold out hope to effect change in our local congregations to allow emotions to cool in the hopes that cooler heads are more amenable to new information. I see this as a therapist- it is almost impossible for someone to consider new information or perspectives when emotionally flooded or overwhelmed. We tend to make better decisions about our futures when we are not emotionally escalated.
Here is another way to put it:
Middle wisdom serves the needs of those the institution serves best.
In other words, middle wisdom serves those who are most comfortable with the institution – or the present rate of change in the institution.
However, middle wisdom does little to address the needs of people who are hurt by institutions. Jesus, by contrast, centered the needs of those who were hurting the most, and would save his strongest language for those moments when those with the most power were not seeing or tending to those who were hurt the most.
As a therapist, there are moments when directly addressing a problem with plain language is needed to affect change – especially when the stakes for harm are high and those causing the harm are unwilling to do what needs to be done to keep from harming those who already are most vulnerable. The risk is that those addressed in this manner may NOT have a moment of epiphany. They may drop out of therapy, or go to a different therapist, and might keep on harming the vulnerable at the same rate or even harm them at a higher rate! However, sometimes the result is that someone decides to get sober, go to rehab, destroy their pornography, stop the affair, join and anger-management group or do the thing that will save their marriage. The therapist has no control over the outcome, and at best, can only hope for the Spirit to be present as they speak carefully chosen words to address the issue at hand.
I am a straight white man who at best can appreciate at a distance what it must feel like to have one’s dignity, hopes, desires, marriage, and or salvation questioned by those who adhere to the HSR. If Middle wisdom prevails, this will allow me to remain as comfortable as possible given the high-stakes of this issue. But that is a perspective that centers me.
I can imagine how the status-quo would feel to those who already feel hurt and marginalized in the denomination. Voting for the status-quo likely means hurting those already hurt the most by extending the pain of the present indefinitely. Not to decide is to decide. And unlike therapy, where people keep talking while making gradual, incremental changes towards an unforeseen future… it is also possible that if Middle Wisdom prevails, the parties will stop talking altogether.
In the short-term it would look like the ship held together. In the long term, however the unresolved issue will fester and infect all other communication until the original issue is dealt with. In other words, the short term strategy of kicking the can down the road will only work if all involved keep communicating. Does the CRCNA have the stomach for this? Or are both sides banking in people dying or leaving the denomination until numbers allow for their own side to prevail?
Paul cautions us to see all parts of the body as indispensable in 1 Corinthians. Body integrity is central to what it means to be a body… but not under the auspices of “fake peace.” Scripture also ask us to have relational integrity as well.
Not talking about the things that tear us apart is not a winning strategy. Unfortunately, I believe that the outcome of Middle Wisdom – if it can be achieved – may be just that.
In my church, probably like your own congregations, I’ve watched both conservatives and liberals leave in higher numbers. Some of my liberal friends are joining affirming or more-affirming CRC congregations… some leaving the denomination or in some cases the church altogether. The conservatives who leave have many churches to choose from. I feel called to return to my home church, even to the place I quit working for, because these are still my friends, and some of them have LGBTQ children and someone needs to be there. My friends don’t all agree with me, and at the moment I can handle it. Maybe that won’t be the case forever, but it is where I feel called to for now. Middle wisdom serves me. But am I the one who needs to be served most?
Jesus tells us that in the kingdom the first will be last. Those who are centered on earth will be de-centered in heaven. This challenges my comfortable landing spot in the center and leaves me deeply uncomfortable. But do I want to maintain my comfort at the expense of those currently most uncomfortable? Too often, I settle for this. God help me not settle for that which keeps me comfortable while my fellow Christian is oppressed. Help me, God. Help even me.
Eric, I’m confident we are very far apart on this specific issue, but I very much appreciate your intellectual clarity and honesty here.
This middle “wisdom” does disservice to the LGBT human beings from BOTH points of view!
To the left (forgive my term), this forces the LGBT people to continuously question where or if they belong. “Wait, some CRC churches welcome me openly, but some would call me a sinner if I act on who I am?!” This is psychological pain. Hardly the clarity and acceptance AND LOVE that LGBT people need!
To the right, this gives LGBT the impression that either the Bible is unclear about whether sexuality, and possibly sin itself, is acceptable when its definitely not and actually puts their soul at jeopardy, OR that holiness itself is unimportant to Christ and that it matters not if someone takes their salvation for granted!
This middle way is actually declaring that LGBT people are not important enough to change for!
As a retired therapist, I am grateful for words of wisdom spoken to address a controversial issue in the denomination I grew up in. Although my beliefs and views about the subject may differ from those of others, I keep trusting that God’s love will prevail as stated in scripture.
Wow, Thank you Scott for your thoughts and perspective . Thank you also to many others who expressed thoughts that may have apposed a little, or a view from another perspective. Great thought provoking reading. Having all these thoughts & views expressed , in a loving and Christian open discussion, as they were written, would be uplifting and a joy to be part of.
Wow, so much has been written! Wisdom happens to be one of my favorite categories of conversation with pastoral counseling counselors. It’s about living with tensions, not trying to resolve one over the other. For us now, the challenge may be to live with the tensions between the need to be right and
the need to belong. In Christ we are one body, Hopefully.
Wise words! Now that I am advised to turn my sword in, what am I supposed to do with middle wisdom plowshares, anyway?