WHAT HAVE WE LOST? THE CHRISTIAN REFORMED CHURCH POST -SYNOD 2022 (Part 1)


In the larger scheme of things, the dissolution of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), should it eventually happen, is ecclesiastical small potatoes: one more immigrant denomination absorbed into the morass of American evangelicalism. But it makes me sad if for no other reason that for many years, in the old prizefight metaphor, the CRC hit above its weight. Perhaps still does. Or could.

I’ll have some things to say in later posts about the future of the denomination and about the future of denominationalism in general, including a look at the New Calvinism (not so new anymore) and its impact on the current state of the CRC, but for this post allow me a few, admittedly nostalgic, thoughts on what we are losing and have perhaps already lost in the contentious, take-no-prisoners atmosphere pervading the denomination at the moment. And what perhaps in some future denominational arrangement we might aspire to once again.

What have we lost or seem about to lose? Start with the intellectual life of the denomination. I grew up CRC in the 50s and 60s of the previous (20th) century. It was a time, post-WWII, when the CRC like many other similar institutions was emerging into the world. For a kid from Lynden, Washington, these were heady times.

I was 17 years old when I climbed on the Great Northern railroad in Everett and began the long journey east to Grand Rapids. The train was called the “Empire Builder.” Still called that today despite what it suggests about trains and about those who built them. I had never been away from home before. Used to cool weather in summer in the Pacific Northwest, I glanced outside as we pulled into Union Station in Chicago. It looked cloudy. Cool weather, I thought. I grabbed a jacket and to my surprise stepped into the heat and humidity of a Chicago summer. We weren’t in Lynden anymore.

The Calvin I attended that fall was in ferment. The civil rights movement was in full flower. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, a year before I stepped off that train first in Chicago and then in Grand Rapids. On July 2, 1964, before I left Lynden, President Lyndon (no relation to the town) Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. A year later, it was followed by the Voting Rights Act. The tectonic plates were shifting.

We soon were at war in Vietnam. In 1964, protests against the war had already begun to break out here and there on progressive campuses. At Calvin, still relatively isolated and buttoned-up, we didn’t protest—that came later. We talked about the war, debated it, and I, along with many classmates, began to question what we were doing in Vietnam. When I returned home at Christmas and raised my doubts to my parents, my dad was a veteran of WWII, they were stunned and angry. No one in my little community questioned the government. Until then. My parents came eventually to agree with me.

But these were issues swirling around in the atmosphere of the time. For me, a kid from Lynden, it was the promise of the academic world that challenged and changed me most. Woefully unprepared academically—mostly my own fault, I suspect—I plunged into Calvin with all the exhilaration of someone who has chanced into a new and unexpected world, a sort of Narnia or Hogwarts, as if the Empire Builder had left the continent where I grew up and arrived at a new continent full of arcane wonders. There were for the offering great literature, history, and thoughts—thoughts and thoughts and thoughts about everything under the sun. And even beyond the sun.

When I arrived on campus, the emerging center of intellectual life at Calvin was the philosophy department. Beyond the individual accomplishments of the stars of the department, professors like Alvin Plantinga and Nick Wolterstorff, what stands out for me from that era is a lack of parochialism in their approach to the issues. They were not narrow. They were not merely debating other closely aligned Christians. It was not all in house. They engaged thinkers across the board with respect and a genuine desire to understand other points of view. They approached the broader world of human thought with wit and a certain confidence that the positions they held, positions rooted in Reformed thought, could stand up in the debates of the time. There was a sense that what was happening at Calvin—and not just at Calvin, but in other, CRC-allied institutions—was at the center of Reformed theological life. And perhaps not just at the center of Reformed theological life but of Christian thought in general. 

In these discussions there was a sense of excitement, a sense that in the meeting between deep faith and the world, it was often the world and not the faith that was being changed. Perhaps better, it was the world being changed and the faith being deepened. The conviction at the center of that engagement was that our faith is always a faith in what is real and true—not true because we believe it but true because it best represents the world in which we live and the God whom we serve. The church need not fear the best in science and art and literature. It is all of God and for God.

The church itself, the CRC, was also beginning to engage the issues of the day, although slowly, often taking a step back for every step and a half forward. Take Synod 1973. The agenda was overwhelming. It included study committee reports from committees looking at neo-pentecostalism, a new confession, a new translation for the Heidelberg Catechism, (separately) proof texts for the Heidelberg Catechism, a Psalter Hymnal supplement, liturgy, women in ecclesiastical office, marriage guidelines, lodge and church membership, homosexuality, and ecclesiastical office and ordination. The year before, 1972, synod had looked at “the nature and extent of biblical authority” among 19 other study committee reports, some with majorities and minorities. The church was studying and debating. And changing. And no one locked the doors for the debates.

It was a time of liturgical study and renewal. A study committee report from 1968, written by the late Lewis Smedes, brought the CRC into contact with the great liturgical tradition of the church. Another study was brought to synod in 1997. With the founding of the Calvin Worship Institute, the CRC has brought worship reflection and renewal to a broad swath of churches and denominations.

It was also the time of the development of justice ministries. The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, now World Renew, was first incorporated in the United States in 1962. A clutch of other denominationally affiliated justice ministries have surrounded and supplemented World Renew’s emphasis on development work: in Canada, such ministries as the Centre for Public Justice and in the US, the Office of Social Justice.  

The point is not to name all these signature CRC initiatives, nor to cover the field. My intent is not to write a history but only to suggest that the CRC has done good work, especially in the era from, say, 1960-2000. Nor am I in this overlooking the considerable failures of the CRC. If you want an account of how insular and opaque the CRC could be, read Willie James Jennings’s chilling opening chapter in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.

Too much of what the CRC was in those years was held together by ethnic pride of the “If you aren’t Dutch, you aren’t much” variety. Debates at synod were friendlier because, well, everyone knew everyone else. We are well to have stepped beyond that sort of false harmony. But, allowing for all that, we have lost something precious in our moving on.

What we have lost is a loyalty to each other. No, better, a loyalty to the church. Not to the institution but to the people. I’ve often told a story from the time when I was the heretic of record in the CRC. In the story, as it came to me, three Lyndenites were playing a round of golf. A fourth, not known to three, joined them to fill out the foursome. This man, also CRC, as it happened, soon began to vent about how the CRC was losing its way, citing me and my views (and those who supported me) as a key piece of evidence for his claims. At first the Lynden guys listened politely, but after a while they stopped him. They said to the stranger, “We don’t always agree with Clay, but he grew up here, and we know him, and we don’t to hear any more of your complaints.” That sort of thing seems no longer possible, even in Lynden.

The contrast between then and now can easily be illustrated by the difference between the 1973 report on homosexuality and the 2021-2 human sexuality report. The 1973 report was for its time a breath of fresh air. The authors recognized that the issue wasn’t just sex; it was life together. They explored the idea of civil unions for gay people. They wondered whether the apostle’s condemnation of gay sex in Romans 1 was not really about temple prostitution. If, in the end, they got things wrong and fell well short of where the church needed to go, it was a good beginning. But there the CRC stalled, as someone recently put it, “xeroxing” the 1973 report until 2022, when synod rewrote it, no longer in a spirit of genuine inquiry and graciousness but in a spirit of judgment, seeking not only to draw its conclusions but to elevate those conclusions above debate, to make them “confessional.”

I’m genuinely sad about the course of the CRC over my lifetime. It seemed to reach a zenith sometime near the end of the millennium and then begin a long slide into a form of Reformed theology more Westminster than Heidelberg (more on this in another post), more judgment than grace, more scholastic than reformational. Perhaps the first omen of this development was Synod 1994, when an organized group sent delegates to synod to shut down the debate on women in office once and for all, trying to give their position quasi-confessional status. 

After a long and bruising debate at that synod, a debate that ended with a vote excluding women from the offices of elder and pastor and making that exclusion an article of faith (“the clear teaching of the Bible”), the late Harvey Stob, a delegate from New Jersey, rose to a point of order. He asked the chair if in the light of the declaration of synod the previous day he should simply go home, since synod had declared his views to be unbiblical. His question and others led to a discussion clarifying the right of delegates and people of the church generally to publicly disagree with the decision of synod. Synod backed off, but a warning had been sent.

Will the CRC back off what it decided in 2022? I don’t know. And even if it does, one cannot go back to the church as it was. Nor should we. But we should continue to dream of a church, fully invested in the best of Reformed thought, always open to the longer and much larger tradition of the church reaching back to the apostles, affirming not only of the inclusion of LBGTQ+ people but open to what they have to teach the rest of the church—a church that reads the Bible not for whom it condemns but for its gospel of freedom. 

I’ve come to think that what is required for our time is the work of retrieval. I have in mind three traditions that need to be retrieved in the CRC or whatever entity succeeds it. The first is scripture. In what I’ve written previously, I’ve already tried to contribute to the retrieval of scripture from the sort of readings one finds, for example, in the synodical report on human sexuality. Equally important is to retrieve the broad tradition of the church. It seems to me that we live in a time in which there can be an unusually open and fertile conversation across old boundaries, including not only the churches of the West but the churches and theologians of the East (on this, see recently Rowan Williams, Looking East in Winter). And last, the retrieval of the Reformed tradition. 

The Reformed tradition didn’t begin as a tradition at all. It began as a reaction to what the Reformers regarded as the calcifying of tradition. In this sense, it was and is against tradition. Calvin, Luther, and others were young men when they began their reform. (For women in the Reformation, see the essays of Marilynne Robinson on Marguerite of Navarre.) They were intent on getting back to scripture. To think through it anew. Calvin, in particular, was a brilliant exegete. But now to calcify the work of these reformers—often, in fact, not the work of the early reformers themselves but the codification of their work in the following generations—is to betray what they were about. We need to do the work of reaching back to their key insights, knocking off the rust, and reconsidering against scripture and life what is true and what is not.

Can such a church emerge from current controversy? I don’t know, but I hope in some small way to push towards that goal. I hope you do, too.

Clay


14 responses to “WHAT HAVE WE LOST? THE CHRISTIAN REFORMED CHURCH POST -SYNOD 2022 (Part 1)”

  1. Thanks Pastor Clay… another great insight from an angle that is much needed. You give someone like me, who was already not allowed to serve because of my anatomy in a confined classis, a place in the conversation but now I will never ever be welcome to the table if I bring up the wrong topic or present my true opinion. We are calcified in our present stance.

    My church community and Calvin U opened my eyes to a world of conversation and a world that would allow for expression of ideas and debate and exploration of theology in the midst of our culture and world. I worked in politics and travelled the world… I developed a robust worldview that was cultivated in the CRC, it’s ministries and institutions. It was always moving, evolving and shaping and reshaping.

    I loved my church; I loved what I was taught and I never stopped trying to grow and learn and converse…. I kept trying to think deeply and act justly. I can cling to that individually but institutionally, not so much.

    We silence the debate, we hunt down and abolish the outliers and we have lost the gospel balance of sin/grace/mercy. We exegete to be proud of our exegesis so we can call it the rock on which we all must stand. We punish and we are proud of it. What has happened?
    Have we doubled down on orthodoxy instead of doubling down on Jesus?

    Will I become the collateral damage of a bad breakup precipitated by a bad closing argument? Will God find a place for me somewhere?.. , for sure, yes, He will, I believe it; but what have we done to those who come after us?

    I only hope some of us can pursue the goal you mention and keep moving away from calcification. Let’s hope they don’t damn up our streams next.

  2. As always you have me thinking. At the moment we have to bring back listening, treatment of people, and engaging conversations that are not always comfortable.

  3. It is a good thing that Ancients like Clayton review where the CRC has come from. Their own view of it, of course. What I appreciated most about this latest presentation is the presence of a tone of openness in the writing. I’d like to believe the CRC still has some deep thinkers who can present the history in an inviting tone, one that opens a crack in the current rigid bastions of thinking so some hint of civil dialogue might emerge to enlighten the people of the CRC, or at least lower the temperature of the present debates. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, Clay. I, as you know, likely had a very similar experience growing up in the CRC in Lynden and 2 years at Calvin College (1971-1973). I agree with your historical assessment. After officially leaving the CRC around 1977, I have hoped that more progress would have been made by now. After receiving the Calvin Spark for many years, I contacted the editors (not sure, maybe 15-20 years ago) to say I no longer was interested in receiving it after reading about Calvin’s position on homosexuality. It is my fervent hope that all of us imperfect followers of Jesus will continue to search for wisdom in what it truly means operationally.

  5. We’re from almost the same era at Calvin and what you describe fits my experience well. As Prof. Wolterstorff writes – “it opened vistas” – the thinking, debating, and growing. But I think you’re being generous in your timeline extending these days up until the turn of the century. I think the calcification began in the 80s already, with the rise of merging evangelicalism with politics, Ronald Reagan (who seems positively liberal these days) and the rest that has followed. I consider myself fortunate to have been at a great place at a good time – a very fleeting time.

  6. Much appreciated for honest analysis and options to change. Your plea and suggestions are similar to what John Milloy recently wrote as a challenge to his Canadian Roman Catholic church family. The short book is “Politics and Faith in a Polarized World: a Challege for Catholics”. John Milloy combines direct experience in political world with a strong role in Christian church circles; he is unapologetic about being Christian but also frustrated about missed opportunities because of strategic decisions the RC church has made. Those are similar to the strategic choices made by the CRC. I also weep most about lost opportunities in both Canada, where I now live, and in the US, where I grew up. In Christian Courier review I tried to extend his insights for the Reformed family. Why are we slow to see the pattern and make different choices?

  7. Thank you for this, Clay. It strikes a resonating chord in my experience. I am a non-Dutch “immigrant” from Fundamentalist Dispensationalist Baptist realms. Drawn to the Reformed faith by its deep commitment to Scripture, careful theology, and humbly thoughtful wrestling with the issues of the day, the CRC became my home. I found the approach to the many issues the CRC dealt with in the 70s, 80s, and 90s reports you mentioned stimulating. They expanded my world to see how divine grace and love could speak to contemporary issues, all while remaining respectful of alternative views. (And I sat, as a delegate from Classis Hamilton at the same small table with you at Synod 1994! Our views on the point at issue aligned.) Then in the 2000s, I had the great privilege of serving on CRC ecumenical and interfaith committees for many years, grateful for the opportunity to live out and encourage that open and respectful approach in the challenges of relating to other faith communities with love and grace. — But the last few years have been disorienting. I grieve the loss of ability to listen to each other and consider thoughtfully views other than those of our particular tribe. We have lost so much … I wonder whether return is possible. What we’ve seen and experienced the last handful of years doesn’t bode well for that.

  8. I was 16 years old at the Young Calvinist Convention in Lynden in 1975. Johnny come lately, I guess. But I grew up in the open-minded, creative, respectfully debating CRC/Calvin College community. I never imagined synodical delegates being escorted to sessions with guards, Synod debating behind closed doors and then coming out with a decision that could only be developed behind closed doors. What in the world happened to us?

  9. ❤️love your thoughts and writing – I am from the same era but did not grow up in a religious home but married a Dutchman . I admired a religious group who put so much thought into their beliefs but now I am shaken by the retreat into Colonialism and Extreme Conservatism – we left the CRC and became Reformed ages ago.

  10. Thanks for your thoughtful comments about this issue and putting them into context of culture at the time of the issues we’re discussed.

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