Setting the Table for a Good Debate

The only lesson from my catechism class that I consciously remember is the one I disagreed with the most.

Some recent articles published in The Banner raised all sorts of jarring questions, sending tremors through some of what many of us consider basic Christian beliefs. As one who loves a good question—and a healthy debate even more so—I see this as an opportunity for some vigorous wrestling that will hopefully lead us to greater clarity.

But how shall we have these conversations? Like many people, my initial reaction when reading these articles was, What were they thinking? The Banner is not the right place to allow an author to throw out such complex and difficult questions.

After talking with some of my colleagues, however, I realized that we don’t have great forums for these kinds of debates in the Christian Reformed Church. Perhaps we need to make more room for this, and then set the table right for such conversations to take place.

We do have a few things to work through: What kind of questions or ideas should be allowed on the table? Should “the answers” be at hand to make the questions easier to digest? What kind of table manners should we expect?

The Banner has put some stuff on the table that has made many readers balk. So how should we receive it—with excitement at the possibility of engaging ideas or with our noses pinched at the odor?

Usually we expect our denominational magazine to serve up questions with nice, clean, packaged answers that will inform our opinions. That makes it easy for us, right? But isn’t this a little like asking our leaders to predigest our food before serving it to us? I don’t know about you, but my jaw works just fine, and having something previously chewed usually makes it a little less appealing.

Maybe we should be asking for more solid or even spicy “food” to test our palates and shake up some things we have been resting on. Don’t we learn the most in those times and places where we experience ideas that jar us and send tremors through all that we have accepted?

The only lesson from my catechism class that I consciously remember is the one I disagreed with the most. It was the one about election. I remember debating the pastor on it and wrestling with the question for a number of years before it was settled in my mind. Perhaps we in the church need to embrace a more dynamic learning process that challenges and stretches us to become more mature and alive with the Spirit and the mind of Christ.

Let me just say that it’s important to get this right. If you are a Christian in the Western world, you’ll face questions and challenges to your faith. Young people likely feel the tension the hardest, but it impacts all of us. We need places to sit and talk these things through with each other.

We’ll need to use our manners, of course. There will be times where the food isn’t spiced to our taste. No questions should be forbidden, but we should certainly ban a spirit of division (Titus 3:10). Someone will say something that sounds arrogant or makes false assumptions. But we can make room for some of that at our table, can’t we?

As God’s people do whenever they sit and eat together, we should take time to celebrate God’s love and faithfulness to the church he loves. That knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness should give us courage, grace, patience, and hope as we are stretched, challenged, and encouraged by the questions we work through together.

Web Questions

  1. Give an example of a time when you read a Banner article, heard a sermon, or engaged in a discussion that caused you to disagree strongly. Looking back, did those experiences hinder or help you in your faith walk? How?
  2. Where should we have the difficult conversations that challenge our most fundamental beliefs? Is a denominational magazine like The Banner a good forum for those? Why or why not?
  3. What is the goal in such discussions: to convince others that our position is the right one? To defeat our opponent? To help us see both sides better even if we continue to disagree?
  4. When we discuss really challenging topics, what are the rules we need to apply to help us come to healthy results? How can we have a frank, open conversation without polarizing or getting into an unhealthy slugfest?
  5. What kinds of topics or positions should be ruled out of bounds from the get-go? Who should decide that?
  6. Can we be truly one in the Lord and still have fundamental differences on faith-related issues?
  7. Van Boom says that “knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness should give us courage, grace, patience, and hope as we are stretched, challenged, and encouraged by the questions we work through together.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

About the Author

Michael S. Van Boom is pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta.

See comments (6)

Comments

I believe you are correct, Michael, in suggesting that it is good for conversations to occur in the CRCNA about difficult issues.  On the other hand, I think it is incorrect that "we don’t have great forums for these kinds of debates in the Christian Reformed Church."  We have, after all, "The Network," where permanent category moderators can post articles to start conversations and anyone else can post lead articles to start conversation on whatever discussion topic they want.  CRCNA members and others can come to this forum to converse about these more "difficult issues."

Indeed, The Network is designed to be a true "conversation facility," unlike the Banner, which is, I would argue, much more of a "one-way" publication better suited to tell the world who the CRCNA is and provide the CRCNA membership (and their growing children) with news about other churches in the CRCNA and materials that promote the CRCNA as the theology/worldview family that it is.  What the Banner is not, I would argue, is a forum where a few people can decide and push for the direction they want the CRCNA to go, again theologically and worldview speaking.  Nor should it be a propoganda device for convincing CRCNA members to move in the change direction where these very few people want it to go.

One caveat though about "The Network."  Despite it being an inherently great "conversation facility," its moderators have a history of deciding what conversations will be permitted and what conversations won't be permitted, and their reins can be selectively pretty tight.  This is ironic, given The Network's inherent character as a "conversation forum."  For example, I am currently banned from posting on The Network but not from posting to Banner articles (and I'm not the only one).  One would think that The Network would be the "nothing excluded conversation living room" and The Banner otherwise, but such is not the case.  The Van Belle article, for example, belonged in The Network, not in The Banner.

In short, the CRCNA has the tools, but for some reason it hasn't decided to use the right tools for the appropriate tasks.  I think it is the case that some people just don't want to adopt the solutions that are in front of them, that they want the Banner to be otherwise than what it should be, and they want the The Network to be other than what it should be.  In both cases, the manner in which these "facilities" are "managed" just so happens to allow a great deal of "direction" to come from the relatively few people in charge of both facilities.

Thanks Michael -- a thoughtful article.  I would add to what Doug said by pointing out a couple of other forums where such discussion takes place -- the Calvin Theological Journal, for example, is a forum for raising the questions brought up in the recent Banner issues.

More in response to your article -- as a Confessional Church, we have committed ourselves to certain boundaries, namely the three Confessions of our church.  We agree, as a church, that these are the lens of understanding through which we see Scripture.  A broad-reaching periodical is probably note the place to challenge or repudiate these doctrines.  My contention is that the Banner can be a place where many ideas are discussed and debated, provided that those ideas are still within our confessional limits.  If one would like to challenge those core doctrines, there are other forums to do that, that will not cause such hurt and damage to the local churches.

BTW, this does not mean, of course, that ideas outside of those confessional boundaries disqualifies a person from Christendom; of course not.  We simply recognize that there are other traditions and worldviews that we disagree with (and they with us).  And again, there are forums for that (more broadly reaching, evangelical publications, for example, in which the merits of Calvinism/Arminianism are debated with great rigor, and, in my opinion, to the edification of the chruch).  It's just that when people turn to our denominational periodical, we expect to read things that are within those boundaries, that edify the church.

One caveat that I think is relevant here.  Some of the teachings/ideas presented within the Banner were not only outside of the Confessionally Reformed Worldview, but outside of orthodox Christianity itself.  That is a much more spiritually dangerous road to walk.  I think there are some occassions in which the church must, rather than engage in discussion about the merits of ideas, learn to repudiate these ideas.  The Van Belle article, in particular comes to mind.  That was presented in the Banner as one valid position among many, worth debate and discussion, and the choice was left to readers to choose from a series of viewpoints.  This is, I believe, a mistake.  We must learn to repudiate certain teachings and worldviews when they are unbilbical.  Not present them as one choice among many.

Finally -- in this rambling post -- as much as the Banner would like to be a "Kitchen Table", and as much as the editor takes that approach, that is not how it is percieved by most people.  Like it or not, agree or not, the Banner is seen as the official publication of the CRC which articulates the general viewpoints of the denomination as a whole.  The perception among both members and non-members is that the CRC as a whole embraces the positions in the Banner.  That's why we've lost families from our church, plain and simple.  All my trying to convince them that these are not official points of view is for naught; the Banner is seen as the voice of the denomination, not a kitchen table.

Michael, having known you since you were a small child, I appreciate your perspective here, and your attempt to find a way for people to communicate and explore ideas.  However, I totally agree with Doug Vande Griend in terms of how those conversations should take place. 

If an idea is expressed, and there is an opportunity for immediate rebuttal or response, then this idea will not receive more authority than it deserves, but it will still receive consideration.   However, if an article is printed and a printed response does not happen for a month or two, then it receives more vallidity than it deserves, (unless it is a topic already vetted by the confessions or other previous discussions and decisions).  Part of the reason we have examinations for various office bearers, accompanied by signing of the form of subscription or covenant of officebearers, is to create and assume a common understanding of scripture and how it applies to our life.  If confessions or agreements are ignored or seriously contradicted then it calls into question as to why we have them in the first place.   If we want to question some of these things in a crc publication, then the discussion ought to be placed contextually in the frame of a question, with reference to rebuttals.  If we want an open discussion around a coffee table, then we must let everyone speak, and not say that some people can speak for a month while the others must listen before they get their chance to speak, and then only to say whatever the first group allows them to say. 

We can challenge practices and confessions, but if this is done from a bully pulpit, then it would be hard to criticize other practices.   For example, what if a number of churches simply stopped using ordained pastors for their pulpits and simply appointed six elders in their church to write and present sermons?   What if a local church decided to write its own confessions, and stopped practicing infant baptism while still claiming they were reformed?   What would be wrong with a local church or classis deciding to stop sending in ministry shares, since they have decided to send half of their "ministry share" to creation.com, and the other half to a particular mission in Honduras which they have decided to support with greater effort.   Ultimately, they have the power and ability to do so, but usually don't because they attempt to respect a common effort and approach based on the theology and practice identified in the 150 pages of material at the back of the Grey hymnal.  If this respect is no longer required or expected, then by all means let us know so that we can all get going on our individual pet agendas.  

Scripture is our first foundation (sola scriptura).  Then our confessions are  a basis for living, and for understanding scripture.  Then we have sermons, explanations of scripture and of the confessions.  Then we have the church order, fourth in priority, as a way of organizing ourselves.  If we ignore the confessions and scripture, then we surely can have no objections to ignoring the church order, can we?   The banner cannot be all things to all people;  it must decide its primary purpose and raison d'etre.   If it does not represent the crc, then it should say so, so that people are not misled.  Christian Renewal magazine also deals with many controversial issues, but does so from a biblical perspective.  Christianity Today is another magazine that deals with controversial issues.   But those magazines are voluntary,  supported through subscriptions.  As far as I know, they do not operate under a forced subscription paid for by a denomination.  

Amen to Doug's comments from another proud member of the Banned on the Network Club.

The Network is supposed to be a forum for open discussion, but its moderators aren't comfortable with that.  The Banner is supposed to be a publication, which one would expect to be more restricted, yet they allow their commenters to run pretty much freely.  I might prefer a different Banner editor some days, but I'd let Bob DeMoor moderate the Network any day of the week and twice on Sundays.  He and his staff try hard not to squelch discussion.

Good article, and fantastic comments, however your asking the wrong question.  In a sense you're putting the cart before the horse by seeking a venue for members to wrestle with difficult questions when the pressing need the for the vast majority of this denomination is an education in the basic precepts of theology.

Too many of our members - elders and ministers especially - mess up on the big, broad confessional pillars of our faith.  If you want to set the table for a good discusion of theological minutia, first you need a proper table.  

Don't misunderstand, asking and discussing the difficult questions are a good thing, but the critical need is re-establishing the rock solid doctrinal foundation that built this denomination in the first place.

PS: as a 20+ year catechism teacher, I'd suggest that even that catechism lessons you don't consciously remember made a huge impact on building the strong foundation you have today.

 

Thanks Chad, you got to the context. The foundational beliefs are embedded in Scripture via the Decalogue and the great summary in the Apostles Creed. They form a pretty good "table" setting. Pick from those table settings what you like and don't like and I will get a pretty good idea of where the discussion will go. Virtually all topics are directly or indirectly covered in those two key items. They are a very good framework which any good discussion needs. But the world is anti-Decalogue and Creed so in the public sphere these discussions are much more difficult but of course not impossible.

 

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