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Dear friends in Grand Rapids, Calvin U., and CRC-land:
I am chagrined at the Christian Reformed Synod’s recent adoption of the report and recommendations of the task force on human sexuality. As others have discussed, there are a number of aspects of the report itself and the conditions and conversation around it that are troubling. One in particular stands out to me: its assertion — and the Synod’s declaration– that these matters carry confessional status.
One of the things that I admired about Calvin, the CRC, and a confessional approach and tradition is that it could make distinctions between what was a first-order concern (a hill to die on) and other important, but perhaps second- or third-order issues, which could be addressed with more patience and open dialogue.
It seemed to me that Calvinists in particular have had plenty of practice, via many bitter learning experiences, in making these distinctions. In fraught times, when churches and Christian colleges are being pressed to declare themselves on this or that hot social issue, the Reformed could point to their confessions and say that those matters are central, and while these other controverted issues are important, we can afford to differ on them while maintaining unity with each other.
I have served at evangelical colleges which had relatively brief and very generalized statements of faith, and they were extremely vulnerable to the shifting winds of the culture wars. The recent dustup at Wheaton that cost an African American political science professor her job when she said that Christians and Muslims prayed to the same God is a case in point. When I came to work at Wheaton in 1983, older faculty advised me that more than the written standards, they worried about the unwritten standards and the populist preachers out there who wanted to impose them.
So for me, what is most dismaying about this whole matter is the way that this wise and honored confessional tradition of making distinctions between first- and second-order questions seems to have been ditched by the CRC Synod’s current majority.
The denomination has experts who could give learned opinions on what is confessional and what is not, but evidently they were not consulted in this current round. They were consulted in the past, including during the controversy at Calvin University in 2009. At that time, the president bypassed proper college governance at the faculty and board levels. In executive session with only a few board officers involved, he issued a declaration that same sex marriage was a confessional matter and faculty could not argue with the current denominational position on it. Both the history and philosophy departments, then the Faculty Senate — and then the provost too — protested these actions. They cited both Synodical reports and Seminary church order experts to insist that these were important moral and pastoral concerns, but they did not rise to confessional status. Calvin’s president and board backed down.
Yes, fidelity in marriage and chastity outside of it are confessional matters, and no doubt everyone on faculty and staff at Calvin would affirm these standards. But the second-order question is how to understand and apply these standards to same-sex marriage in light of current scientific knowledge, biblical scholarship and today’s gospel-and-culture situation. To run this issue up the confessional flagpole seems fundamentally mistaken, if not peevish and vengeful. What then could not be escalated to confessional status?
One could say, for example, that because obedience to the government is a confessional item (e.g. the Belgic Confession, article 36), anyone who raided the US Capitol, or who believes that the raid was justified, is risking damnation. As of last month’s opinion polls, that might send at least a quarter of the Republican Party straight to hell.
Especially in times of social conflict, it is vitally important for the church to resist the culture wars mentality of turning everything into a matter of the highest stakes, on which all must take sides and fight one’s opponents. The church, and Christian institutions like Calvin U., need to point to a better way.
At Calvin and the other Reformed universities, professors are obliged to seek the truth: to engage in investigation, analysis and debate, and to advocate ways of thinking and acting based on these deliberations. It is only human to want to have matters settled, but professors are called to ask unsettling questions, arrive at differing answers, and argue for the truth of what they have discovered.
As Nicholas Wolterstorff put it, a Christian university “should be a place where the Christian community does its thinking about the major social formation of contemporary society — its normative and strategic thinking.” In order to perform that duty, college professors need to have the freedom to critique ideas, structures and actions, try out new approaches or revive old ones. Given the often contentious nature of public issues, this can be tension-filled work, but colleges and their professors need to embrace such tensions if they are to live up to their calling.
I have been listening in on the conversations at Calvin, and I am touched by professors’ and professional staff members’ expressions of commitment to each other, beyond their differences on these issues. They want to work in an ethos of being eager to listen and open to learning from each other. What we learn from the history of social and religious conflicts is that in troubled times these virtues seem to fly away, and polarization takes over. The vital center is lost, and the potential for constructive change while keeping the peace dies with it.
I hope and pray that Calvin University can stand firm in this regard, and that the CRC members and leaders can pause a bit, listen patiently to each other, and back off the temptation to silence debate by declaring these matters to be of confessional status. Such actions may do more to destroy confessional commitments than to uphold them.