We are better off together than we are apart. We are better off staying in dialogue than we are going our separate ways. Though this is the harder way, it is the better way. And by the way, it’s what God has in mind for his people as well.
After synod last year, tensions began to grow within our churches. Sure, the tensions had been there for some time. But certain decisions made by Synod 2006 polarized people’s positions and ratcheted up the anxiety on both sides of the issues.
However, tension is not necessarily negative. Tension can even be healthy at times. Tension can be used to keep balance. Tension can be used to keep the church healthy. Where there is tension, there is dialogue. Where there is tension, there is relationship. It might not always be a fun relationship, but the communication continues. Tension can keep us from going to extremes. Tension can keep us from going down the slippery slope.
The Slippery Slope
That term has often been used to warn of future trends. Most recently, conservative-thinking individuals have used it to warn about changes being made in the Christian Reformed Church. However, the slippery slope doesn’t slide only in a “liberal” direction. The slippery slope goes both ways.
When Jesus walked the earth, the Pharisees had slipped down the conservative slope. Because they were afraid of disobeying, they created rules, and then more rules, and slipped down the slope. Fifteen hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church slipped into a position that maintained the purity of Scripture by allowing only priests to read it. The slippery slope is dangerous, to be certain, but dangers lurk in both directions.
This means we are safer when tensions remain. We are safer when people who disagree continue to listen to one another, to share their views, and to listen to other views. Take, for example, the most divisive issue in our denomination, the role of women in positions of authority. Though there are other issues, such as allowing children to participate in the Lord’s Supper or the decision to change Question and Answer 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism (which called the Roman Catholic Mass a “condemnable idolatry”), the role of women continues to drive a wedge between classes (regional groups of churches), congregations, friends, and families.
Some individuals are now pushing to give women access to every aspect of ordained ministry throughout the denomination. That is their conviction, and they are following through on that conviction. However, those actions do not allow space in this denomination for people who disagree with them.
In 1995 we agreed at synod that both views regarding the role of women can exist in the CRC.
Unfortunately, not much is said publicly in our denomination in support of those who disagree with women holding authority. Their perspective often seems to be discussed rather derisively, as if that view is antiquated, dusty, and oppressive. Our dialogue today does not fully recognize the validity of differing views on these potentially polarizing issues.
To a large extent, we do not want this tension. We will not allow for the validity of two differing views because we want to have “arrived.” We want to be settled on the issue of women in leadership, on children at the Lord’s Supper, on the other issues, and be done with them. We want to find unity based in agreement on these issues, rather than unity in Jesus Christ. We want to remove the tension. And in order to remove the tension, we will either remove the people who are causing the tension, or we will remove ourselves.
But we need tension. In churches where the tension has been removed, there is no need to struggle over the issues. The conversation is over. The difference of opinion is gone. And when that tension is gone, then the danger of the slippery slope, either toward rigid conservatism or loose liberalism, begins to drag the tensionless church into sin.
Tension can exist in a healthy way when people are really listening to one another. In our denomination, there are four groups of people divided over these issues. One group is made up of people who hold a conservative view and cannot accept any validity to the views of the “liberal” side. For example, it’s unthinkable to them to even consider allowing children to the Lord’s Supper or women to ordination. They find no need to listen any further. Another group acts similarly, except in the other direction. These two groups are the sources of most of the noise in our denomination—those threatening to leave the denomination and those persistently pushing for change.
However, two other groups exist as well. The third group is made up of those who hold a more conservative view but who understand that there are God-fearing, Scripture-honoring, humble individuals who might disagree with them. They understand there are difficulties with their view—that it’s not so neatly wrapped as to warrant no further discussion. Likewise, the fourth group, which desires opening church offices to women, understands that there are God-fearing, Scripture-honoring, compassionate individuals who might disagree with them. They too understand that their views remain open for discussion.
These latter two groups are the future of our denomination. The two extreme groups will fight and shout and threaten and push until one or both groups leave. What will be left are the two moderate groups, and our denomination will be healthier for it. Sure, there will be tension and disagreement, but the tension and disagreement will be addressed in kindness and gentleness, patience and love. Where there is accusation and judgment, the conversation falters, breaks down, and people go their separate ways. Where there is love, relationship, and respect, then we can talk.
And when we talk, we keep each other from sliding down the slippery slope. We point out the dangers to each other. We hear one another pointing out the dangers. We listen to one another. We respect each other.
It would be nice to have arrived as a denomination regarding our difficult issues. It’s an awful lot of work to keep talking.
But maybe we’re supposed to keep working on these things. Maybe the purity comes from the work, the tension. Maybe we’ll never be done until Jesus returns and settles everything once for all. Maybe we’re supposed to stay in tandem with each other, pulling together, sometimes pulling against each other, but remaining together. Maybe we really are better together.
About the Authors
Rev. Gary Brouwers is pastor of Hollandale (Minn.) CRC
Fred DeYoung, a ministry associate, is co-pastor of Second CRC, Kalamazoo, Mich.