RCA dialogue: year 1 of 3...

So Ann wants to know why I'm butting in to New York classis' business, in the comments on the RCA conflict post below.

Well, it's like this.

How is it that many want to remove the conscience clause from our Constitution?
That would be butting in to every classis, consistory and conscience, and judging on a pretty hot issue, much like homosexuality. How is that justified? Only by common consensus that women must be allowed to be ordained, with no objections.

So how is my intervention justified? Only by common consensus that homosexual practice is wrong, and not to be endorsed by the church. Like Jesus with the adulterous woman, we shame those who shame homosexuals, but we then turn to her and say, "Don't do this anymore."

How is my intervention justified? The same way Paul's was in 1 Corinthians 5, and on the same sort of issue:

1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
6 Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner— not even to eat with such a person.
12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.”

Notice Paul wasn't there. He wasn't part of Corinth classis. He just heard the news, and judged the sinner on the spot, gives his reasons why, and implies that we should likewise judge, for the sake of the purity of the church.

Of course, we don't have the common consensus I spoke of earlier to carry out this judgment fully. That's my frustration and why I speak. But a fairly large majority in the RCA believes this way, I think.

I expect a Christian denomination to put fidelity to God's Word above "keeping us together" when we don't have consensus where Scripture speaks. We are simply worried about losing a large chunk of people (a vocal minority) if we take a stand. I say let them go, if they insist on making such a hubbub about such a controversial issue where the majority is against them. Let them say, "The RCA left us; we didn't leave the RCA." Fine. Just let them go. And do it by defining who we are and what we believe.

Since the states didn't take a strong stand against slavery 150 years ago, the Federal government had to.
Since the classes aren't staying true to Scripture on this matter, synod will have to use its authority to ensure such fidelity.

This is why I speak up. We can try to assert federalist governmental principles, to promote "non-intervention," to keep this leaven from being removed, and it will probably work. (I find it interesting that a polity assertion is being made - one which I completely understand and respect - to avoid a theological issue). But it does not make for the unity, purity or peace of the Church of Jesus Christ. Purity and peace reasons should be obvious. The unity argument assumes that unity derives from common commitment to conforming our lives to God's Word, not vice versa.


  1. ...Of course, Paul's influence over the early church is vastly different than the relationship between classes in the contemporary RCA. We are bodies with parity, he was (for all practical purposes) a patriarch.

    As for the question of "keeping us together," I'm disturbed at how flipantly you approach schism. Don't get me wrong, you're certainly consistant with a long line of schizmatics (that is, after all, one of the essential aspects of the reformed tradition), but Jesus had a lot to say about unity in the church...a lot more than he had to say about enforcing a particular view of morality.

    Just a few thoughts.

    Grace and Peace,

  2. What worries me in both of the responses to your post is the degree of compartmentalizing going on viz. the nature of the church. Ann seems to imply that each classis is a semi-autonomous body. This is obviously not the case, neither in reality nor in the BCO, but it serves her purposes. As a denomination, I believe we need to be looking at each other very carefully and often, at every level. This is to hold each other accountable to the covenants we have made together before God. This is why I value your comments on my blog postings. They push me out of my rhetoric into real reflection.

    For me, the church has spoken on this issue, and our 30+ years of discussion, in the face of great social change, has resulted in a fairly unequivocal answer: sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman are sinful. To deviate from this scriptural and confessional norm is to invite anarchy into the church (cf. Robert Jenson's "Systematic Theology" v.2, p.91).

    I believe it essential to our unity and fidelity as a church, to be our brother's keeper, and that means our classis' keeper as well. If New York classis would permit the ordination of an openly gay person, they would violate that unity and fidelity, and truly become an autonomous entity. I am as troubled by some of the actions of classes in the Far West, who dedicate children instead of baptizing them, as I am regarding NY. I would hope other classes would serve my classis of Passaic Valley in holding us accountable where we stumble.

    (I think what NY classis is doing to Ann, however, is wrong. Either ordain her or counsel her to seek ordination in another communion. Holding people in limbo is not good church polity, nor reflective of a commitment to the welfare of a person.)

  3. ah, but a classis is a SEMI-autonomous body. Although classes do have responsibilities to each other (and of course, to the greater denomination) they are SEMI-autonomous.

    While it may be inappropriate for a classis to act in a way that other classes would not approve, it is the perogative of a classis to do so if they are not being biblicaly or constitutionally negligent. (A question with a variety of answers depending on who you're talking to.)

    Does that mean we aren't part of the same "body of Christ?" Of course not! Does that mean that the hand has authority to control the foot? Not that either.

    Our role is to live in communion with one another under the headship of Christ. Sometimes that does mean discomfort and sometimes, yes, it means that we don't get our way. We are after all, not 3 year olds (even though we often act like it).

    Grace and Peace,

  4. Tim,
    I suppose we need to then define terms. Autonomy is the freedom to act independently of a higher authority, i.e., apart from the oversight of another. The OED defines it as "Independence, freedom from external control or influence." A classis is not structured in such a way. In fact, it is made up of men and women who have made sacred vows to the mission, doctrine, and program of the RCA. It is answerable for its actions to its Regional Synod, to the General Synod, and to the confraternity of other classes which make up the denomination. We are not "confederate states." Parity is not a license for independent action which violates the constitution the classis has vowed to uphold. To do so, as I have said, is to cease to be faithful to church, and in effect, to be in schism.

    I would be interested in your view of autonomy or semi-autonomy.

  5. Let me cut to the chase here with a helpful illustration borrowed from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary.

    We need to do some corporate theological triage in the ER lobby. Triage is a quick diagnosis to determine what issue/wound is most urgent and important to address.

    This is our core disagreement: not whether homosexuality is right/wrong or otherwise, but how important the issue itself is.

    I believe it is critical. Why? Because Scripture sanctions it quite plainly, as Lou Lotz agreed a Church Herald or two ago. And wherever Scripture says one thing, and our world says another, there are always Christians eager to accommodate, in order to be a good witness, get along, stay in dialogue, whatever phrases you want to use. But they end up breaking ordination and membership vows; Scripture is no longer their only rule for faith and life.

  6. I don't have a lot of time (not that I'm uninterested in neopuritan's points (maybe when I get back).

    However, Steve you are correct. I think the question is not particularly about whether homosexuality is right or wrong, it's whether it is an issue Status Confessionis. Although you obviously disagree, I believe it is not.

    Issues of such magnitude do deserve to split the church. I define them to my congregation as things about "who God is and what God is." The Trinity. Sovereignty. etc. Homosexuality is not.

    I also cannot buy the concept that a positive view regarding homosexuality necessarily means that someone has been corrupted by society and broken their ordination and membership vows regarding the rule of scripture. This simply isn't a topic of that magnitude. Those I know who are affirming of homosexuality are as biblically literate, theologically sound, and spiritually aware as many of those who are not.

    It is a question, perhaps, of exegesis; a question of the doctrine of revelation; perhaps even a question of language and culture. It is not a question of vows. Breaking our vows, as ordained ministers of word and sacrament (or as members of the RCA) has to do with beligerant argument against the position of scripture. Not good-faith disagreement about the interpretation of it.

    Grace and Peace,

  7. Ok, I'm back. To Neopuritan's question. You are correct that classes are not autonomous. I stick, however, to the idea that they are semi-autonomous.

    While a classis is not free to act entirely independently from the denomination, it does have the authority to do certain things. One of those things is to ordain (or not to ordain) people to the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament. Just as a classis cannot tell a consistory to (or not to) ordain someone to Elder or Deacon, so too the General Synod cannot tell a classis to ordain (or not to) someone to the office of Minister. Similarly, the consistory down the street cannot tell my congregation whom we ought to ordain to the "local" offices and a classis down on the otherside of the country cannot tell the one I belong to whom we ought to ordain to the role of Minister.

    Of course any classis can refuse to recognize an ordination performed by another classis (by not approving their call or through a variety of other ways). It cannot however, stop another classis from performing it.

    That is, I would suggest, the very definition of semi-autonomy. That we have responsibilities to one another, but not authority over, or complete freedom from, each other.

    As for definitions. Webster's New World defins Semiautonomous as "Granted autonomy with regard to internal affairs only, by a controllling nation, organization, etc." From the perspective of our polity, ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament is an "internal affair" autonomy over which, has been granted by the General Synod.

    Grace and Peace,

  8. Homosexuality may or may not rise to Status Confessionis, but the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture certainly does (cf. Belgic Confession, Art.7).

    I also believe that General Synod can certainly tell a classis whom it may ordain, and has done so in the past. I cite as an example, the ordination of women. There is also the judicial element of our polity, where the higher assemblies have the right and obligation to overrule decisions made by classes and congregations, and even individuals (e.g., Kansfield).

    By the way, I am enjoying this exchange immensely. Thanks!

  9. Neo...

    You're playing with words. :-) While GS can tell a classis whom it may ordain, it may not tell a class "to" or "not to" ordain. GS's ability to influence any particular ordination (or class of ordinations) is limited to defining requirements in the BCO.

    You are correct that there is a judicial element within our polity, however, does not extend to micromanaging. That's one of the biggest "quirks" of our polity: that classes are, in many ways, the power in our denomination.

    The GS gets to define our doctrine and theology. The classes get to figure out how that works in real life.

    As for inspiration and authority..they certainly are Status Confessionis; no one is arguing that though. The argument is the use of and interpretation of scripture, not it's inspiration or authority.

    (I too, am enjoying this. If only I got this kind of interaction on my own blog....oh well.)

    Grace and Peace,

  10. Hi Steve (and all),
    I posted some thoughts on my blog at http://yourcomfort.blogspot.com/2005/09/slavery-segregation-and-what-to-do.html. I wanted to include a picture, and couldn't figure out how to do so in the comments section. I apologize for having to link you over there for it.

    In Christ,

  11. No problem on the link, Ann.

    I need to clarify: I do not want to get rid of you. I earnestly desire that all God's people live in conformity with His Word. I am calling for renewal and reformation, which by its nature, involves people's personal lives. The Word always does. We call adamantly upon the rich to change their greedy ways, without thought that this means serious intimate personal change; then are offended when the same Word points to our own personal moral lives. Mine, too.

    Slavery: nice sleight of hand. I was making a polity point regarding states vs. federal gov't. Is there a theological-moral link between slavery and homosexuality? Well, as I've been saying all along, the root issue is Biblical interpretation; you're right about that. But there is another possibility, outside the worn-out grooves of thought in which your post runs. What if immoral slave-owners were distorting Scripture to defend their own lifestyle and convenience? What if homosexuals are doing the same, more concerned about their own rights than God's Word?

    Of course, none of this will make sense to you, because you have set aside the applicable texts, using questionable exegesis. And you say it's sound exegesis and the texts aren't applicable.

    We are at a stalemate, and out of respect for each position, I strongly disagree with Tim that this is a minor issue, and see our best course as one of ecclesiastical separation. How that happens is of small importance to me personally. If you're right and enough people see it your way, I'll go. If I'm right and most see it your way, you should go. This is not trying to get rid of you; it's trying to return integrity to a denomination. We can have a much healthier discussion across denominational lines, given the enormity of the issue, instead of having a political and ideological fight FOR a denomination. Which is what is happening. When I talk about leaving the RCA, my conservative friends often say, "Why should WE go?" This is crazy.

  12. Tim,

    I think you also are playing with words, or at least doing a polity dance around a theological disagreement.

    One of our founding fathers once said that our government was made for a moral people and won't work once the morality breaks down.

    I think the same dynamic is true regarding theological likemindedness. Our BCO was made for a people who see the Bible in roughly the same way. Once that breaks down, there is no way to remedy the problem politically (using the term positively). Theological definition is the only solution.

  13. This is not polity dance - this is a question of whose church it is and when we have the right to cause schism in it.

    The answer is simple. It is God's church, not ours. And we do not have the right to cause schism outside of those very few instances where the substance of the faith is challenged.

    Homosexuality is not one of those instances. To pretend it belongs alongside the Confessionis doctrines is absurd. I fail to see why anyone would find it so threatening to the church.

    Grace and Peace,

  14. I am siding with Steve here, especially viz. the issue of slavery. The Bible speaks implicitly and explicitly that slavery is a moral evil. As a preface to the Law we read, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Bondage in Scripture is never viewed as anything other than an evil. Hence the manumission commandments in the Torah, the letter of Philemon, etc. The texts which Ann cite are not in defense of slavery, but counsels to Christians living in a system which they could not overthrow, and in light of strong eschatological expectations. The Bible does, however, speak condemnation against non-heterosexual relations, and does so in multiple places in both testaments. I also dislike being lumped in with segregationists, ante-bellum racists, and supporters of apartheid. Because one stands with the Bible's teaching on sexuality, does not mean one stands with past misinterpretations and the misuse of scripture. Such statements are, in effect, ad hominem arguments which only divide the body further.

    Tim, human sexuality is a huge issue, which touches the deepest parts of us, so it's never going to be a minor issue - that's a bit naive. The advocacy of gay clergy and Christian acceptance/inclusion of the gay lifestyle threatens not only the biblical concepts of family, sexual purity, and ministerial holiness, it threatens to undermine, and even extinguish the entire concept of biblical authority. If we have no canon, we have no revelation. If we have no revelation, we have no objective grounds for moral decision-making. The result is chaos, and if we accept the whole counsel of God, the result is judgment. There is more at stake here than people's sexual preferences. The church is God's, and He has revealed his will concerning its nature. For those who are unhappy with that revelation, there are numerous options to pursue, options which will not result in the destruction of what the vast majority of the church at all times in all places has held to be true.

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  17. There will have to be a certain amount of disagreement here, I guess, I simply cannot comprehend the slightest possibility that sexuality (of any sort) is as major as, say, the doctrine of divine sovereignty.

    Regarding the "accepting homosexuality means loosing the scriptures" argument (not your words, mine) -- classic slippery slope. The problem here is that the anti-gay side of the RCA and the pro-gay side (ignoring, for a moment, the fact that neither side can be categorized quite so clearly) simply cannot believe that the other is acting out of good faith in a true, honest desire to respond to God's promptings in their life.

    Finally, although I don't know that it really matters, Neo - you make an assuption about my position on the topic. I have not made my position know to you or anyone else involved in this discussion. Assumptions never get us very far....

    Grace and Peace,

  18. Tim,
    Tim, I am confused. I read my post again, and was referring to Ann's blog not you. I did not intend to make any assumption regarding your position. Sorry.

    As for the slippery slope, I actually consider it more of a sheer cliff. If one says that a clear NT teaching is no longer authoritative for the church, then it would seem we have lost the scripture. Does not Paul say, "All scripture is given by inspiration..."? Instead of the image of a slope or a cliff, I prefer that of a thread in a tapestry. Pull it out and the whole thing unravels.

  19. Tim,

    Ask Ann if this is a minor issue.

    You say that issues of who God is and what He has done are worthy of schism. This touches both.

    Who God is: we are made male and female, the image of God. Part of God's image is relationship: plurality of differing persons with complete unity in being. This is Trinity. This is marriage. Homosexual partnering is not completing that relationship, that image. It is not mirroring the true image of God.

    What God has done:
    God has saved us from sin. This is sin.

    "The wicked will not inhereit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral... nor homosexual offenders... will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." 1 Cor 6:9-11.

    There's no point in talking about salvation if we are unclear about what we are saved FROM. There is no point in talking about being Christ's redeemed if we deny we need redemption where He says we do. That is denying Jesus as our prophet, Lord and Savior.

    This is not the sin of schism, it is working for the purity of the Church.

    Great discussion!

  20. For what it's worth, I've never heard Ann (or her father or anyone else supporting the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the RCA) suggest that the church ought to split over this issue - indeed they are the ones saying let's stick together with this.

    Sure, salvation is FROM sin and and eternal damnation, but let's face it - none of us will be fully sanctified until the final resurrection. No doubt there are those who would disagree with that, but come on, honest individuals know better.

    I shouldn't speak for Ann, her father, etc. (so I hope they'll forgive me here), but again, I have never heard any of them suggest anything that argues with your statement of redemption. Indeed, what I heard at GS was a consistant suggestion that we all do need redemption and that our only comfort is Christ.

    The question here, isn't whether salvation comes from God (through Christ whom we are united in the Holy Spirit, etc...) The question is whether it's appropriate for the church to embrace gays and lesbians (particularly in the pulpit.) We are all sinners in the hands of a gracious God. Let's be honest, lest we fall under the condemnation of today's gospel passage (the Parable of the Two Sons).

    Purity isn't about purging the church of those we disagree with (or even those who do not accept our concept of sin). Purity is about helping one another "take off" and "put on" what God whants us to...According to God's timing, not yours or mine.

    Purity means a very different thing to me at 30 than it did at 20 or 15. I have things to purge from my life now that I never understood to be sin back then. Similarly, I am called to different things now than at different times in my life. Sanctification is slow and (often) hard work.

    To believe that any one of us has a corner market on the way God works in the lives of any individual, besides ourselves, is nothing short of pride.

    As a side note, the idea that "relationship" is essential to the concept of Trinity may be true, but to pretend that marriage between a man and a woman is the only way humanity can experience the Trinity is absurd. There are many godly people in this world that never have been involved in a heterosexual marriage (and never will be) -- that doesn't preclude them from reaching their created potential as divine image-bearers. Indeed, Paul seems to suggest that while marriage is a blessing, it is by no means to be considered essential.

    In any case...

    Grace and Peace,

  21. I don't have much time, but wanted to write because some assumptions have been made about my views and I want to make sure that you're dealing with what I really believe verses what you think I may believe.

    #1. I do not see the issue of including LBGT folks in the life and ministry of the church as being the crucial issue facing God's church at this time.

    To prove my point, I have never preached a sermon about homosexuality. And for those who might think that the congregation I serve is full of gay folks - you're wrong. The biggest segment of our growth has come from families with moms and dads and kids. Our growth, though, demonstrates that there are lots of people seeking a relationship with God who would prefer to worship in a church that welcomes all people.

    #2. I have never said that anyone should have to leave the RCA over their views on LBGT folks. Quite the contrary, I believe that there is room enough for all view points on the issue. But, it seems that Steve is saying that there is not room enough for both his view of the Bible and my view of the Bible. Is this the case Steve?

    Lastly, none of you has actually met me or spoke with me or knows me, so I'd ask you not to make assumptions about me or my views. If you would actually get to know me, I think you might be surprised by who I am and what I think.

    In Christ,

  22. I agree with much of what Tim says about purity. Our disconnect takes us back to the basic question. Is homosexual practice sin?

    I need to hear a biblical argument denying this. I've given a few verses supporting it.

    We are about purifying ourselves for our Lord's return. How can we do so if we disagree about whether a spot is a wart or a sexy mole (tongue is firmly in cheek here!)?

    Again, asserting that this is a minor question simply begs the question of whether or not homosexuality is sin or not.

    You guys can't simply assume you are right and expect everyone to agree. You're going against a solid tradition of RCA research saying that this is sin, to be handled compassionately of course, but still sin. We all sin, but the difference is whether we repent of our sin, or ask the church to ok our sin.

  23. Ann,

    Since you simultaneously married another woman and sought/are-seeking ordination, I am assuming, quite safely, I think, that you believe there is no conflict or disparity between those two actions.

    Since I believe homosexual practice is sinful and unbiblical, I see an obvious disparity. This is the only assumption necessary to raise the question in the whole church's heart as to the propriety of this.

    Unless of course homosexual marriage works differently than heterosexual marriage...

  24. Scott,
    Yes, I see no disparity between being married to another woman and seeking ordination.

    But, where I disagree is that this raises "the question in the whole church's heart as to the propriety of this."

    The "whole church" does not agree with you, Scott. There are many in the RCA who do believe that gay people should have the ability to be married and to be ordained in service of Christ's church. I'll remind you again that 1/3 of the delegates to Synod agreed with my father.

    What do you mean by the comment "unless homosexual marriage works differently than heterosexual marriage?" I don't mean this as a trap, I just don't understand what you're saying and how it applies to ordination.

  25. ACK!!

    Just a wee point here: Ann - Steve is not Scott! Neopuritan is Scott. I am Scott (Neopuritan from Ars Theologica). I've been conflated with other folks before (on RENew), with another person who made hurtful comments toward you Ann. So I don't want that to happen again.


    I hope that clears things up.

    F. Scott Petersen, (socialist)

  26. Dear Scott (not Steve),
    Sorry for confusing you with Steve. I was running off to a meeting and got my men's-names-that-start-with-S confused. I apologize.

    And yes, I know that you've been confused for Scott N. before. But I work hard to keep the two of you separate (as best I'm able). I know what it's like to be confused with someone with whom you share a name so I apologize for the mistake.

    In Christ,

  27. Look, I'll grant you the 1/3 thing, and that the whole church doesn't agree with me.

    But in 2/3 of the church's mind and heart there is a purity, endorsing-of-sin danger here.

    This 2/3 of the church needs an explanation from Scripture (our only rule of faith and life) for how there is no disparity between living a homosexual lifestyle and being an ordained Christian leader.

    On an issue receiving so much attention, and that is so clear in many people's minds, it is not sufficient to simply say that many people agree with you, and expect nothing to happen.

    Please show me where I'm wrong on one of these statements:

    1. Ordained leaders need to be living blameless lives, that is, repenting of sin when it's pointed out to them.

    2. Homosexual practice is sin.

    Thanks for the discussion; I really am enjoying this.

    Thanks to Scott (Petersen) for reminding us he's a (socialist).
    Chuckling through my morning,


  28. Hi Steve,
    Keeping up with these comments is a little more than I can manage right now. But, I think this discussion is really good, and I'd like to address your two statements. Give me a day to two to write something up, and I'll post it on my blog (since I imagine that it'll be a little long for the comments section).

    How do you guys have enough time in your day to post comments and lead a congregation?

    All the best,

  29. My parishioners think I only work an hour a week, so I try not to disappoint them.

  30. Good conversation. I've been out of town (at some RCA meetings), so I have had limited ability to contribute. Thanks to you all for your thoughtful posts. Blessings, RogueMonk.