The Christian Reformed Church: A Familiar Trajectory?

When I saw R. Scott Clark’s blog posts about some recent Banner articles (here: http://goo.gl/AC204o and here: http://goo.gl/NEKoUi), I decided I had better get caught up.  What I’ve discovered is a very discouraging fiasco.  Why is it that confessional Reformed folks are so often entranced by liberalism?  Why does the surrender of ethical and confessional standards look so appealing to people raised in the CRC?

I know something about trying to live out a Reformed identity without recognizing the normative value of our confessional tradition.  Just over a year ago, I left the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination I had loved and served since 1987 and in which all my pastoral work has been exercised.  The PCUSA has grown more liberal in many ways over the past decades, and it was becoming more and more difficult for me to remain a member of this denomination with integrity.  In the summer of 2012, I transferred my ordination from the PCUSA to a new denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.  (Our website is here: http://eco-pres.org/.) 

The PCUSA likes to think of itself as “a big tent,” in which a variety of theological approaches and moral views are accepted.  The problem is that such “tolerance” only works for those who think that matters of theology and ethics are relative and contextual, in which case it makes perfect sense to be accepting of those with whom one disagrees.  The only people who are not welcome in the big tent are those who reject a relative view of theology and ethics, who believe that the Bible and our Reformed confessions continue to speak authoritatively to questions of faith and practice and that the denomination should be held accountable to those standards.  The relativists will say to such non-relativists, “Of course you’re welcome here, but you need to be as accepting of us as we are of you,” refusing to recognize that requiring non-relativists to become relativists isn’t really accepting their position on anything at all. 

I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church and educated at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary.  I became a member of the Calvin College faculty in 1999, and in 2003, when I became the college’s Dean of the Chapel (a position that no longer exists), I was ordained into the ministry of the CRC (while still retaining my Presbyterian ordination).  I’m part of the CRC.  But the current state of conversation in the CRC about theology, about cultural engagement, and specifically about sexual ethics exasperates me, because I hear us making the same mistakes that the PCUSA made before us. 

Some of my friends in the CRC seem to think that this would be a good thing.  They speak to me with wistful longing about the “freedom” of the PCUSA.  This is a romantic vision that is unrelated to the truth.  The PCUSA is not a place of freedom, but a place of chaos, lacking any clear direction, and losing members at an alarming rate.   It is a denomination without a spiritual or theological center that is unequipped either to offer sustenance to its members or to proclaim the gospel to the world.  There are faithful pastors and congregations within the PCUSA, many of whom are my dear friends, but they are working in a difficult mission field, and their situation should not be envied. 

The CRC has resources in our confessional heritage to keep us from falling into this same situation.  We need to regroup around them.  As long as we insist on defining the Reformed tradition as nothing more than “engagement with culture” we are destined to end up following the PCUSA in its descent into irrelevance.  The Reformed tradition is not simply a posture of engagement toward the world (which is what passes for the Kuyperian vision in many parts of the CRC).  It is a theological and confessional tradition that has real, objective doctrinal and ethical content on which we must insist.  The Banner should be a place where we read thoughtful articles about the meaning of that tradition, perhaps even articles that disagree with one another about exactly what our confessional commitment require of us.  But there should be no place in The Banner for articles that simply call for discarding our theological tradition.  Let people who advocate such positions publish in one of the PCUSA magazines instead.    

 

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About Laura A. Smit

Teaching theology in the academy and the church View all posts by Laura A. Smit

18 responses to “The Christian Reformed Church: A Familiar Trajectory?

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  • David Feddes

    Well said, Laura. Thanks.

  • Zak Smith

    Well written. Disregarding the Word of God while simultaneously proclaiming “His message” is a contradictory philosophy and ultimately doomed to failure. I have a dichotomous view of Scripture: Either 1) It IS the Word of God as it proclaims and we should submit to it and live our lives by the Gospel of Grace in obedience, or 2) By claiming to be the Word of God even though it is not, it is a lie, and in fact the most dangerous of lies: one that insists that it is that Truth with a capital ‘T’ to which one MUST submit.

    I, of course, choose the former, and this by no means indicates that I have a perfect or even fully correct view of Scripture. There would be no command to go to the Scriptures as to your mother’s milk if we could ever be complete in the knowledge of God, and because Scripture clearly indicates that God’s ways are higher than ours, the path to God through Christ should involve a constant coming to the Word in faith that He will bring us closer to Himself. As God is unchanging, so His Word does not change; merely our understanding of it. As God is above us, so His Word is above us, and He works to conform us through sanctification FOR LIFE. His patience in our lack of understanding should NEVER become an excuse for complacency in misunderstanding of Scripture, doctrinal error, or “tolerance” of only those who are willing to forsake Truth with that capital ‘T’. Whether I know it fully or truly( and in fact I do not), the existance of that Truth is the only measure by which we can be assured that through our continuing depth in understanding the Scriptures and His work in us through His Spirit- knowing Him- we will come to know Him.

  • Don Jabaay

    Laura, you make some excellent points. The more liberal denominations keep on loosing thousands of people each year and we (CRC) seem bent on following them. We must hold true to the word of God and to our confessions.

  • R. Scott Clark

    Thanks Laura. I’m a reader of NBWCD.

  • Steven J. Van Zanen

    Thanks Laura, I appreciate your perspective here. You’ve seen the end off the path and understandably don’t want to start down it. Steve

  • Michael Vander Laan

    Laura, you have some good points, especially that the church can’t make tolerance an absolute value. But I think you end up playing the us/them game in the church instead of helping us ‘regroup.’

    I don’t think a person can be a complete relativist. A true relativist would have to hold their relativism as a non-relative value. And likewise, I think it would be very unlikely for a person to be a complete non-relativist either. The question is what issues is a person a relativist about. People inside the church will see what to be relative about at different places. You should certainly be aware of this, being an ordained female. There’s plenty of people in the CRC that would see your ordination as an act of a relativist leaning church. So making this about the relativists vs. the non-relativists is a bit of red herring in my opinion.

    Similarly, what constitutes confessional matters will vary from person. This is a little better as we are working with particular documents with particular content, but even then there is disagreement about whether an issue is truly a confessional issue.

    The answer, then, is not to rally around the confessions (though they should be important to our church life and practice). The answer to your concern is to dialogue honestly through issues as a denomination. The confessions will be part of that conversation along with other factors, especially scripture. Yes, different denominations will come to different ‘resting places’ in regard to various issues. But if we are to hear the truth and wisdom of scripture (and subsequently the confessions), we need to hear God speaking through the WHOLE church in all times and in all places. And after that, to hope and trust in the kingdom God is bringing, not the purity of our institutions.

    Playing the us/them game won’t work.

    • Laura A. Smit

      Michael,
      Thanks for your reply. Of course no one can be a complete or consistent relativist, since relativism is internally incoherent; however, there are a lot of incoherent people in the world. The point of this post was to look at the situation in the CRC through the lens of my experience in the Presbyterian world, which is indeed deeply polarized. We are in the middle of a major church split, so yes, there’s an us vs. them mentality on both sides. One of the things that I’m arguing is that this is unavoidable when the two parties are operating on the basis of radically incompatible epistemologies, which is the case when it comes to the parties in the PCUSA and ECO. I hope it is not yet the case in the CRC, but I can see that sort of polarization in our future if something doesn’t change.
      If we are not to be polarized, we need a common center. There are various candidates for that center. You suggest that dialogue will suffice as a common center. It appears to me that such a suggestion is a variation on the “big tent” and as such already contains within it a commitment to theological pluralism as a good to be cultivated. I think theological pluralism is a reality to be recognized, but that ideally we should be united by a common theology. My argument is that our confessional tradition offers such a theology. Of course, if the majority of members in the CRC have already moved away from thinking of the confessions as theologically normative, my argument is a futile exercise in nostalgia.

      • Michael Vander Laan

        To clarify, I don’t see dialogue as the center. I think scripture is, with the confessions acting as a guide.

        But even with a common center, there is still some division and polarization. There are arguments about what the confessions mean about this or that (or whether they apply to a particular issue at all.) A common center in the confessions will still require humble dialogue if the confessions are to be of benefit to the community.

        Thanks for your work.

  • William Harris

    Isn’t there’s a gap between the theological /confessional and the liberal’s “cultural engagement”? That would be the kerygmatic, the speaking of the Gospel to our neighbors. The kerygmatic is also a difficult thing for immigrant cultures such as the CRC with its DNA of hegemonic cultural institutions. The antidote to this liberal slipperiness is less going to the battlements (or trashing engagement, per se) and much more going out to our neighbor.

    • Kenneth Prol

      Is this trashing engagement or, bringing light to the fact that some are bent on trashing our confessions? The liberal trashing of confessions as highlighted in Banner articles, is more than a slippery slope, and it isn’t “enlightenment” as some may believe.Shall we just throw out the confessions and let everyone espouse their personal views? I couldn’t disagree more with Mike Vander Laan’s response or William Harris’s response. A confessional church has a confessional standard that should not be attacked in The Banner, just to score points.

  • Jason Ellis

    Thank you, Dr. Smit! I am glad that others are willing to speak up on these matters. I agree that there is room for respectful disagreement, but recent developments in the CRCNA such as the referenced Banner articles go well beyond historic small “c” catholic orthodoxy.
    It is my hope that the CRC would seek closer relations with the ECO, EPC and other “middle of the road” orthodox Reformed churches. This would be far healthier for us and them than pursuing the mainline trajectory of watered down theology and an emphasis on political activism. Time will tell.

  • Jeff Scripps

    Thank you, Dr. Smit!

    This is one of your 1999 Ancient/Medieval Theology students. I loved reading some of your thoughts on the recent Banner articles and your word to the wise on what “big tent” life is like. I’m a pastor in Hudsonville now and I’m happy to report that at least in the congregation with which I serve, the confessions are still normative (I’m preaching through the Heidelberg at night). I was having lunch today with another student from the same ’99 class. He too is a pastor and we were talking about congregational identity. People usually want to know what it is they are being asked to join. If such is true on the congregational level, it makes sense to me that at the denominational level there must be a discernible theological identity. Reformed identity has to mean more than engagement.

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