What you have done here by ceasing debate is incredibly harmful to what sense of trust the minority has in this body. (Cara DeHaan, from the floor of the synod of the Christian Reformed Church, June 2023)
. . . [Vitalik] Buterin [founder of Ethereum and cryptocurrency theorist] argues that one of the most valuable properties of his institutional design is “trustlessness.” Again and again, [Buterin] argues that crypto is a way of building a trustless utopia. . .. (Trevor Jackson, “The Price of Crypto,” The New York Review of Books, June 8, 2023, page 9)
Trust is in trouble. And not just in our politics but in our churches and our neighborhoods and, perhaps, at our dinner tables. And where trust is trouble, other troubles follow. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Bret Stephens writes about the brokenness of our social and political institutions. He concludes by saying that among all these things the most broken is the “public trust.” Stephens names, “Trust in government, in news media, in police, in the scientific establishment.” He adds, “There’s a ton of scholarly research showing that when societies become low-trust . . . they tend to fare poorly” (The New York Times, accessed online July 4, 2023).
It’s perhaps this large-scale failure of trust in our society that has prompted the promoters of cryptocurrency and crypto for much of everything else like Vitalik Buterin to reach out for technological ways to make society “trustless.” He proposes that trust can be replaced with computer code. In the Ethereum system, these bits of code are called, “contracts”—what the Bible would call “covenant.” The code, the theory goes, will regulate human interactions, no trust required. As it turns out, it doesn’t work quite that way, as anyone who has speculated on cryptocurrency will have long since discovered, no surprise there, but it’s a sign, a sign of the deep distrust in our society for government and much else.
As I said, trust is in trouble. So it is at least interesting to anyone thinking about the Christian gospel that trust—the broader word is “faith”—is at the heart of biblical religion. It all starts, and it all turns on trust.
The fundamental story in this regard, as the Apostle Paul well understood, is the story of Yhwh and Abram in Genesis 15. The issue under discussion as the story opens is Abram’s and Sarah’s lack of an heir. Yhwh takes Abram outside, tells him to look up and count the stars, and when he does so—looks up, not counts—it says that he “trusts Yhwh.” And this we are told, this trust, “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Righteousness in the Older Testament (and in the Newer) is not so much a legal concept as an ethical one. It means doing right by someone or something. Abram does right by Yhwh by trusting the promise Yhwh has made to him. Trust is the basic currency of biblical religion.
Paul makes the argument for trust in Romans 4. Before Moses, before law, before Torah, before religion, Paul says, our faith begins with Abram’s simple trust that Yhwh God intends good for him and not evil, a future and not the death of his dreams. And all who like Abram trust in God are his children (Romans 4:18), as many as the stars of the sky. This is an expansive gospel. And as Abram, all but dead, was raised up to hope, so all of us who trust the one who raised Jesus from the dead will be raised to that same hope (Romans 4:21). So Paul.
So then trust is the foundation on which the church is built. Our trust, as Paul makes clear in the next few chapters of Romans, is based in the events of the life of Jesus. His life becomes ours. In his death, something fundamental for the human race died—is dying—and in his resurrection something new is born—being born. And even though we drag the old into our every interaction, in the church we believe that this is true not just for Jesus or for me but for everyone. The center of our fellowship is trust, not only in the God who raised Jesus up but in all of us who are being raised up with Jesus. This is the basic message of the gospel. The church cannot exist without trust. We cannot worship or confess Jesus or claim Abram and Sarah as our ancestors without trust.
In another place, Paul says that “Now there abide trust [what Paul means by “faith”], hope, and love, these three, and the greatest is love.” He could have said equally, were he making another point, that the greatest of these is trust. It depends on which end of the stick one grabs. In the end, they are all the same, trust, hope, and love. Love is the measure of trust. You can’t trust what you do not love. Hope is the life of our faith. In the face of all that speaks death in the world, we grasp hope. And trust is where it all begins.
And now in my denomination and perhaps yours, if you share the same denomination, trust is in trouble. It would be easy to assess blame, and blame has frequently been assessed. The language of the most recent synod is replete with accusations that some have “broken covenant” with the rest of the denomination. This accusation is often made about Neland Avenue Church in Grand Rapids and its classis, Grand Rapids East. In overtures, in speeches from the floor of synod, and in other places, it is frequently said that Neland by ordaining a woman committed by marriage to another woman as a deacon (and Grand Rapids East by not disciplining Neland) have violated the covenant that holds the denomination together.
It’s not the way Neland and Grand Rapids East (and many others) see it. They believe that faithfulness to the Lord and to those the Lord has called to them has led them to new insights about what it means to trust God together and to live as a church of Jesus Christ. One is reminded of the story of Peter and Cornelius told in Acts 10 and 11. In baptizing and eating with gentiles, Peter could be accused of breaking covenant with the rest of the church. He was in fact so accused (Acts 11:2-3). What he did went violated what many understood to be what God had always commanded. In his defense, he simply told the story of what had happened, that he had been compelled by God to see things in new ways. And eventually the church accepted gentiles as well as Jews as fully Christian.
I do not expect that those of you who identify as conservative will agree that what Neland has done compares in any way to the story of Peter and Cornelius. Even so, I want you to see that they see it so, that what they have done has not done out of a desire to break covenant but out of a desire to be faithful to God. And I want to suggest that like the Jerusalem leaders in Acts 11 you hear them out.
But this takes us back to where I began, to trust. And to the limits of trust. Must we always trust? Of course not. Are there no lines to be drawn? Of course there are. Trust is malleable. Trust can be configured to what is not Christian. It often is. Trust can be in raw power. Or be given to gospels that are not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Trust can and often does go wrong. We trust what we should not trust, and we fail to trust what we should trust. The church needs always to be sorting these things out. Part of what we do together in our official meetings is to try to sort these things out. And this requires a good deal of trust, trust enough to engage each in matters of great moment.
And of course lines do need to be drawn, but not here. Not in this place. The line between gospel and what is not the gospel does not go between Neland Avenue and those who hold to more traditional views of sexuality. I’m not saying that both sides are right. I don’t think they are. But this is not the time to draw this line in the Christian Reformed Church. Not now.
And not like this. Paul has an eloquent discussion of drawing lines in his letter to the Galatians. In that letter, he tells the story of Peter and the gentiles. He tells it differently than it’s told in Acts. He portrays Peter as vacillating between openness to the gentiles and conformity to older attitudes. Paul rebukes him for his vacillation, and through the story of Peter, he rebukes the Galatians who have in a similar way drawn the line in the wrong place. But note what Paul does not do. He does not say that the Jerusalem Christians or Peter when he adopted Jerusalem attitudes are no longer Christians. They remain followers of Jesus. Mistaken, but still people who embrace the same trust. They are still connected by this trust. The line cannot be drawn there.
Through the entire discussion, Paul reminds the Galatians that the church is not the church of rules about circumcision and other such matters but always the church of Jesus Christ. And in doing so he evokes in several places the story of Abram including here: “For we eagerly await in the Spirit hope of righteousness that comes from trust.” The line is not between those who are circumcised and those who are not or those who believe that all male converts should be circumcised and those who do not believe that; the line is between those share trust in the promise of God and therefore the same righteousness.
So count this as plea that in drawing lines we not draw them between Christians but between those who trust God and those who don’t. And if we fall on the same side of that line, let’s keep talking as long as it takes for the Spirit to show us the way.