As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Back in my roaring twenties, I used to volunteer with something called the Committee for Contact with the Government (CCG). I was an aspiring political scientist, a fresh-faced graduate student deeply impressed by the need to root the work of justice in serious theology. I remember clearly a conversation on strategy we had around that table in the Burlington office of CCG one day where two goals were set in front of us. On one hand, we would put our resources into an Ottawa office, get more face time with Members of Parliament, and work more actively with like-minded nongovernmental organizations and denominations. On the other, we would work more with people in the pew, putting time and money into adult discipleship and curriculum resources on justice—working out, though probably not resolving, the often-conflicting political positions of our church membership under the discipline of the gospel.
Sign me up for that last thing! I was sold. But the Centre for Public Dialogue was born instead. It opened its Ottawa office, and I took leave of CCG for work in traditional politics and eventually settled into a university.
I am a Canadian, a political scientist at Redeemer University College, and a Fellow at two Washington think tanks. I worked for almost a decade for a think tank in Canada on issues ranging from education policy to urban planning to freedom of religion or belief. I believe in and work for things like state-sponsored universal health care, peacekeeping, public-private sponsorships of refugees, freedom of religion or belief, and more. By most American standards, I have pretty progressive policy preferences (which is to say, I’m Canadian). Mike Hogeterp, who ran the CCG and now runs the Centre for Public Dialogue, is a friend and a thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate staffer. But I disagreed with him and the old CCG on the above choice profoundly. And I grow increasingly alarmed by rhetoric on both sides of justice issues in our denomination of late.
At stake is this: How should the institutional church talk about justice? Notice the question is not whether but how. Reasonable people can disagree on this latter question. In fact, Jordan Ballor and I edited a small book called The Church’s Social Responsibility a few years ago specifically in response to what we saw as polarizing and overheated rhetoric in the Christian Reformed Church on justice. The spectrum can run quite wide: from people eager to harness the energy of the institutional church to speak quite specifically on political issues, to people who are formed in the rituals of church life to work for justice in more public settings but refrain from using church levers or church powers. The distinction sometimes runs in Reformed circles between church as “institute” and church as “organism”—the gathered, denominational body and the dispersed followers of Jesus working out their faith in all spheres of life. Not all Christian Reformed people like this distinction. But both boosters and knockers of this distinction care about justice. Both worry about the abuse of the church, either as silent and complicit on the one hand, or progressively and improperly polarizing on the other.
Two things must therefore be said. First, Scripture compels us to care and act along the wide range of issues of what we today call both public and social justice. But, second, reasonable people can disagree to what extent that activity is carried out—or not—by the institutional church. And, even more, reasonable people can also disagree to what extent activities of social justice must be carried out by the state. The institutional church agrees that it must always speak prophetically about justice. But it should only sometimes speak specifically about policy, and it is often not equipped with the expertise to do so. In The Church’s Social Responsibility, political scientist Kevin den Dulk even raises the prospects of success of church-based lobbying, since politicians are usually incentivized to respond on the basis of constituents, and they know denominational “policies” do not actually reflect how their memberships vote. Our denomination’s “positions” become, as I have experienced personally, an open joke in the halls of power.
Take the example of poverty. The institutional church has a ministry and a calling to the poor. This is uncontroversial. Should the CRC, therefore, lobby for specific poverty reduction strategies like raising minimum wage? Some Christians passionately think so. But minimum wage is one of those difficult policies that some economists insist have unintended consequences of making life worse for the poor. Who’s right? The answer to that question is less important for the church’s sake than that reasonable people can disagree on specific poverty reduction strategies, particularly when those strategies revolve around economic and political ideologies about the competency of the state and the distribution of wealth. It may even be the case that certain policies, like a higher minimum wage, work in some settings, but fail in others, for a range of reasons that social scientists need to do hard work to uncover.
These distinctions need to be understood to restore constructive disagreement to our denomination’s polarizing politics. We can disagree on policy, and the church should not bind consciences where it is neither competent nor called to do so. But we should also be busy exegeting the Bible’s call to justice and sending our members to act on it.
The controversy at Synod 2017 over the work of the Office of Social Justice (OSJ), the Centre for Public Dialogue (CPD), and the Do Justice blog make clear to me that the most critical role these church organizations could play is to disciple and teach us about the full range of issues of justice (not just “conservative” or “progressive” issues) and help our members constructively disagree on those issues. Civil disagreement may actually be the most prophetic practice our denominational offices could foster in our day.
The blowback these offices are receiving is in part because their policy work has so far outstripped their discipleship efforts; synodical representatives don’t know why the denomination is working on this issue or that issue (and not another), or why the denomination should have such a policy. That, fundamentally, is where the wealth of the work of OSJ and the CPD lies: bring us to the Scripture, help us understand, and in the process, hear how people in the pew—like me—might work out a different conclusion.
When our denomination has discipled its people and sent them into the world to be salt and light on the great issues of our lands, then the advocacy and lobbying will, after all, be the least of its troubles. Nor is the choice a false one between an “institutional church” or “mere individuals.” We need badly to rediscover the organic church in civil and social associations, in the full range of civil society’s parties, policy institutes, universities, trade unions, and so on. Christians like me will be out there joining parties, debating platforms, researching with think tanks, and teaching the next generation to do the same. We won’t be using the church to do so, we’ll be the result of the church preaching the gospel. The dialogue we need most now is right inside the denomination. We might even sound more convincing outside our churches once we’ve mastered how to talk and disagree inside it.