Toward Denominational Unity
If there is one biblical theme we’ve heard a lot of in the RCA for the past 15 years it’s the theme of unity. And no one is against unity. Jesus prayed for and Paul commends it, so who doesn’t want unity? Truth-filled, grace-saturated, gospel-centered, Bible-grounded unity is precious beyond measure. And yet, such unity does not come by wishing for it, announcing it, or devaluing truth. The only unity worth having is a unity that takes doctrinal backbone, effort, prayer, and guts.
So what events would have to take place and what problems would have to be addressed for the RCA to experience genuine, vibrant, Christ-pleasing, Spirit-filled, God-glorifying unity?
Let me suggest ten things we would have to do as a denomination to enjoy this kind of unity. Though some points are specific to the RCA, I believe most suggestions are applicable to other church bodies as well.
1. Admit we do not have unity in the RCA. The first step to solving the problem is admitting we have a problem. We are kidding ourselves if we think every pulpit preaches the same gospel and every minister believes the same basic things. We don’t all agree on hell, Scripture, the atonement, the virgin birth, the uniqueness of Christ, the purpose of missions, and a host of other crucial matters. When someone leaves your church, do you feel confident telling them “Just go to another RCA congregation. I’m sure it will be great”?
2. Draw doctrinal boundaries. Ironically, we cannot be inclusive if we don’t have anything in which to include people. We must get better at saying no to aberrant practices and doctrines. We need less death by dialogue and more tough decision making. It’s always easier to expand the boundaries or delay the inevitable, but no church or institution grows in the long run by being all things to all people. We have to be okay with people getting off the bus. I’d rather the RCA develop a strong identity and run with it, even if in the end it’s not an identity I like.
3. Make our Standards the standard, especially the Three Forms of Unity. Those who did not vote for Belhar will need to decide if they can still thrive and exist in a denomination that has, for the first time, changed its formal doctrinal foundation. But the Belhar question aside, our Standards aren’t worth much unless they are actually standards of unity. How many of our churches regularly utilize and teach from Heidelberg, Belgic, and Dort (yes, Dort too)? If “historic and faithful witnesses” only mean “these are faithful to what Christians in history have believed” then our confessions mean very little.
4. Put to rest the political pronouncements. If the Bible speaks clearly to an issue or if our theology is at stake, we must speak out. But let’s be honest about all the things we don’t know and aren’t qualified to pronounce a churchly judgment upon. Are we really equipped to weigh in on the latest farm bill, the embargo on Cuba, immigration policy, or the Israel-Palestine conflict?
5. Talk honestly about what is (and isn’t) the mission of the church. If mission is everything, then mission is nothing. We cannot be held together by missionalism, not least of all because mission and missional have become junk drawer terms filled with whatever we want them to mean. Is our mission to reach the lost, be the presence of God in the world, fight injustice, be the hands and feet of Jesus, renew cities, transform culture, care for the poor, and bless others? Is it really all of this, without distinction or priority? When we talk about “mission” we don’t mean the same thing.
6. Exercise church discipline. This starts in our own churches with careful membership and shepherding. It must also happen at the classis level. Too many denominations suffer from overindulgent parenting. Some can be too combative, but the RCA is a nice place that rarely disciplines ethical or doctrinal deviation. If the RCA has no courage or no mechanism to discipline those who blatantly contravene the Scriptures and thousands of years of Christian consensus, we have lost the third mark of the church.
7. Make the ordination process an actual evaluation of fitness for ministry. I understand the desire to mitigate the fear factor of exams and to make the process more enjoyable. But this cannot be done at the expense of doctrinal integrity. Our exams are far too easy. It is almost impossible for someone with reasonable intelligence and follow through who wants to be a pastor in the RCA to be directed out of the process (though I know of men who were so directed by virtue of being too conservative). A denomination will only ever be as good as its ordination process.
8. Make our seminaries accountable to the churches. The churches (and donors, most of whom are conservative) should know what is being taught in our schools. What is the doctrine of Scripture being espoused? What about three Isaiah’s? What about an historical Adam? What about creation and evolution? What about the “I am” statements? What is taught about propitiation, penal substitution, reprobation and other doctrines affirmed in our Standards? What is taught about homosexuality, the wrath of God, and the warnings of hell? How Reformed is the theology? How evangelical? How much would we be glad to have taught in our churches?
9. Stop focusing on unity. Unity will only be vibrant and lasting when it is a by-product of the pursuit of truth. It cannot be achieved by a concoction of institutional formulas and prolonged guilt-tripping. Talking about unity all the time is like a boyfriend and girlfriend having a DTR every time they go out. Just get on with it and find out if you really belong together.
10. Don’t assume; articulate. The first generation receives the gospel. The second generation assumes the gospel. The third generation loses the gospel. We must not only affirm the gospel when having it presented to us. We must teach our people to articulate it. We must sing it strong and preach it loud. We must be passionate about clarity and be clear with our passions.