Session 6: The RCA Inside and Outside
The Post-Augustinian Context
The RCA is trying to fix its identity (inside) and find its place (outside) in a secular, pluralistic, post-Christian world. This, I believe, is the pressure behind both the Vision and Mission Statement and the Ten Year Goal. What is our legitimacy? What can we all get behind? Do we have enough in common that we can join together in a common work? Can we find some collective purpose as a denomination, beyond mere maintenance, that we can demonstrate some legitimacy to ourselves? Our leadership is taking us through a process of total readjustment.
Like many other denominations, we feel like we’re in something of a simmering crisis. Our old patterns aren’t working any more, and the world is changing very fast. We are engaged in total readjustment because we find ourselves in a new and unfamiliar (and uncomfortable) environment at the same time that our common traditions and practices and institutions (like our liturgy, our catechism, our colleges and seminaries) have the weakest influence on us. Who are we, what do we stand for, where do we fit?
Christendom is over. But we were founded as an expression of Christendom. The context of Christendom was never in dispute in all our early controversies. Christendom was assumed by both Coetus and Conferentie, by both Albany and New York, by Livingston’s millennialism, by the missions movement, and especially by our Christian patriotism. But at the close of the Second Millennium and the Opening of the Third, it’s clear that Christendom is over, and if the USA and Canada are Christian nations (as fundamentalists of all religions still believe), they are Christian in ways that often defy the Kingdom of God.
It’s no news to anyone that our environment is post-Christian. But I think it’s insufficient to leave it at that. In many ways the deeper issue is that for the first time since the early Middle Ages our world is post-Augustinian, and this is true for Christians no less than for the secularists. For most of Western history the general worldview has been Augustinian, derived from the influence of that great church father St. Augustine. Till lately even the non-Christians and the secularists have been more Augustinian than not. We are watching the development of a post-Augustinian Christianity, and it’s happening in the RCA, and this is causing conflict, because our Constitution and our traditions are very, very Augustinian.
“Augustinian” includes a number of factors. It means that we all agree that there are some ideals, such as the good, the true, and the beautiful, and that these ideals are given to the world, and we can appeal to them, because they don’t depend on us. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”) It means that some things are better than others, no matter what may be the current opinions or preferences. It means there is a right and a wrong. It means that the ideals are worth learning about and living by. It means that the purpose of education is teach these ideals, and to teach the awareness of right and wrong, not only when it comes to mathematical computation, but also in matters of society and behavior. It means that children must be disciplined to rise up from a state of nature and ignorance to learn the good, the true, and the beautiful. It means that the purpose of ethics is to learn how the good, the true, and the beautiful lay claims on us. It means that we understand our lives in terms of obligations, and that we live our lives in terms of fulfilling our obligations. It means that if we have freedom, our freedom is not for self-definition, but so that we might be unencumbered for carrying out our true obligations.
This is the general Augustinian worldview that still held sway in North America through the first generation after the Second World War. It was held by humanists as well as by religious people. But the last two generations have seen a huge cultural shift. We no longer see our lives in terms of obligation. Education is for children discovering the truth within themselves. Truth is now whatever is “true for me.” No one has the right to speak for all of us. Our obligation is now to ourselves, and our happiness, and our security. Or comfort. Or prosperity. And this is the way that Christians see the world as well, and it’s the new way we are doing church.
One of the clearest expressions of this great cultural shift is the way that we observe our holidays. Originally you got off from work on a holiday because it was a holy day, a so-called “day of obligation,” and the government recognized that you had an obligation to go to church to worship. This was even the case in early America, when the state and federal governments would call for public days of penitence or thanksgiving, and everyone had off from work in order to go to church to pray. That’s the origin of Thanksgiving Day.
Eventually the US and Canada developed civic holidays, and you had the day off in order to go to a parade or town picnic or hear a speech. That’s all by the wayside. Now we all accept that holidays are an opportunity for either shopping (Presidents Day sales) or recreation (Fourth of July traffic jams) or television sports (football on Thanksgiving). The great tragedy in all of this is that the post-Christian world is also the post-humanistic world, and what our holidays have become most clearly demonstrates that we have descended into this strange and perverse identity of being “consumers”. That’s what we now call ourselves! (In Dante’s Inferno the only “consumers” are the demons, and Satan most of all.)
Churches are struggling with the issue of whether to accept this as the facts of our society or to fight against it. Do we calculate our worship and programming according to the market, do we perform our music in the style and medium of what is being consumed right now, or does that cheapen the gospel too much? And then what’s the point of hanging on to our doctrines and liturgy and government? Why even continue to have an RCA?
Does the RCA have the capacity to address this change in worldview, or only to hang on for dear life? Our doctrinal standards were not written for it. In the early nineteenth century we had a hard time addressing the problems of westward expansion; our resources were not up to it. What about worldview expansion?
At this moment in the RCA, our “Christian action” and “social justice” work is minimal, and we are spending most of our collective energy on trying to keep our numbers up. Even the Ten Year Goal was motivated by the news of our declining statistics. We emphasize new church starts because we’ve been told that new churches are the best at making new Christians. I think it’s fair to make the controversial point that, while there is no question that people in the field are really committed to evangelism and the wonderful truth of the gospel in people’s lives, yet the denomination, speaking institutionally, is mostly in reaction.
It cannot be too much emphasized that Christians today are no less post-Augustinian than the secularists, as is evident in the way that we do church. Our traditional doctrines and liturgy are pretty much “Antiques Roadshow.” Till recently we honored our traditional system of church government, but now even is being challenged by the denominational leadership. We are post-Augustinian when we calculate the value of our worship services on how many people they reach and how much they satisfy. We calculate the value of our doctrines on how much they speak to boomers and busters and whatever latest group defined by marketing. And yet, at your ordinations, the Lord willing, when you stand before your classes to make your Declarations, you will be declaring your commitment to a very, very Augustinian system of doing church. How do you intend to work this out, with faithfulness and integrity?
The RCA as “Bridge”
Let’s take a little detour here. I want to use the modern nation of Turkey as an analogy to the RCA. Lately I’ve had contact with several Muslim Turks, including a leading imam (actually a mufti, if you want to know!), I’ve read a history of modern Turkey (Turkey Unveiled, Nicole and Hugh Pope, New York, 1997), and I’ve just finished the wonderful novel Snow by the Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. Turkey, like the RCA, may be understood in terms of the issues that define it, the issues that it will never solve but always manage. These issues generate among the Turks a marvelous creativity and self-awareness, as well as tensions and conflicts. The Turkish leadership has tried to get Turkey to be “one thing,” but the Turkish realities make this impossible.
Externally, Turkey, stretching from Iran to Greece, is a “bridge” country, between Asia and Europe and between Islam and the West. It’s the only Muslim member of NATO, and might become the only Muslim member of the European Union. Internally, Turkey is a coalition, not only of several ethnicities, but also of secularists and Islamists. Its successful politicians are the ones adept at managing the coalitions. Turkey is officially a secular state, yet all its imams are state employees! The Turks are hotly debating what their future shall be, and what shall be the role of religion in the public square, especially since Islam has not yet developed any theology to allow for the separation of church and state. (It didn’t come easy to Western Christianity!)
Of course there are connections between the internal coalitions and the external alliances, but they are not what you’d expect (and are poorly understood by our newspapers). The leader of the Islamist party is strongly in favor of joining the European Union. And after all, why not? The Turks are better informed about us than we are of them, and they know that in Germany, most of the clergy are also supported by the government, that English Archbishops sit in Parliament, the Head of the Church of England is the Queen! Indeed, why not.
There are different versions of secularism in the world. The French and American version requires the separation of church and state, but the German version doesn’t. The British and Canadian version has no “wall of separation,” and they do not want it, thank you very much, and they allow for government funding of some religious institutions. Yet the societies of Canada, the UK, and Germany are probably more secular than America. The Turks are debating what version of secularism they want to follow: French (“no headscarves”) or German or British or Canadian (“protect headscarves”) or American (headscarves are legal but suspect). The Turkish debate about its future identity has implications both internal and external..
The RCA is having a similar struggle over its future and its definition, and we can see it in terms both internal and external.
Internally: We have already discussed how the RCA is a coalition. We discussed how the defining coalition of our middle period has broken down, and our coalitions are amorphous now. East-and-Midwest no longer works. The East and the Far West have more commonalities than either to the Midwest, though these have yet to settle. Our greatest differences come down to the value we place on our traditions. The loyalty to tradition, with huge exceptions, generally weakens westward. For example, the ethnic churches of the East are no less evangelical than any congregation in the Midwest and Far West, but like the East they tend to honor their traditions. The strongly evangelical African-American congregations in Brooklyn have elders who, as I can testify, like to repeat the Communion Liturgy by heart! The old patterns don’t work, and the coalitions have yet to settle out.
Externally: Wes Granberg-Michaelson has defined us as a “bridge denomination” ecumenically. The Ecumencial Mandate speaks of our particular mission to be a brdige between the “ecumenicals” (of the NCC, the CCC, and the WCC) and the “evangelicals” (of the NAE and the EFC). Many of the essays in Concord Makes Strength deal with this. The “ecumenicals” tend to see Christian unity as institutional or, at best, churchly (see especially Karel Blei’s first essay, # 4, and Allan Janssen’s essay, # 9), while “evangelicals” tend to see Christian unity as individual or, at best, personal (see essays # 10 and 13). Like teenagers, the RCA risks trying to determine its identity in terms of whom it’s hanging out with. This is why our Full Communion with the Lutherans and the PCUSA and UCC is so important (see essays #2 and 5).
Well, for a bridge to carry heavy loads its got to have sufficient integrity and strength. It’s open to question whether the doctrine, liturgy, and government still have that strength, and if they do, why are the doctrines so ignored in our preaching and the liturgy so ignored in our worship and why is the leadership trying to change our form of government? Are we rather a “ferryboat” denomination, going back and forth from shore to shore, now here, now there?
The Implications of Belhar
Or is the RCA a “bridge” between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and this peculiar nation called the USA which claims the blessings of God and stands for the best political ideals, and also seeks its narrow interests by means of violence and greed? How much shall RCA members question the USA? (In Canada the RCA is second fiddle to the CRC.)
One of the most momentous changes in the RCA’s history is before us right now. While both our Liturgy and Government have been under constant evolution, our Doctrinal Standards have been fixed. And now we are closer than we’ve ever been before to amending them, by adding the Belhar Confession. Dear friends, this is huge. And there are many implications, the first of which relates to the paragraphs just above.
Internally and externally, how much does the RCA belong to North America and how much does it belong to the world Reformed communion? Are we a thoroughly American (and slightly Canadian) denomination with a peculiar heritage, or are we the North American branch of a worldwide movement and a global fellowship of Reformed churches? When the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), at its meeting in Ghana a couple summers ago, declared that Western free-market capitalism was more dangerous a threat to the world than terrorism, how (pace Canada) should RCA members feel? American or Reformed? (And why did we fail to bring this matter up at General Synod: lest it distract us from the Ten Year Goal?)
This international Reformed connection, on one hand, is a return to our earliest origins, but on the other, is a relatively new development. Forty years ago our ecumenical expressions were the WCC and NCC, and the WARC was just a sideshow. Now WARC is probably more important to us than the WCC. I suspect that South Africa, more than anything, caused this change, because WARC provided the medium for the RCA to respond to Apartheid, and in doing so, to rediscover its long lost cousins in South Africa.
Let me give you one example. As you might know, my father was the pastor of a Black congregation here in Brooklyn, where I spent my childhood. Our Black members often felt like “stepchildren” in the RCA, and there were so few of them. Then, in the ’80’s, some of these members went on delegations to South Africa, and imagine how empowering it was for them to be welcomed and even honored by thousands of other Black Christians who were Reformed, and who numbered more than the RCA itself. In the RCA they were stepchildren, but in the global Reformed fellowship, they were in the vanguard.
It continues today. Just twenty blocks from my apartment is a Ghanaian congregation that belongs to the RCA (and PCUSA) but hardly knows a thing about us. And yet a frequent guest in their pulpit is Rev. Dr. Setri Nyomi, the General Secretary of the WARC in Geneva, Switzerland, who is also Ghanaian. This congregation sees the RCA as the local North American expression of the global Reformed fellowship. And yet I imagine that most RCA people have never heard of Setri Nyomi or even the WARC. Indeed, could they even locate Ghana on a map?
One of our students has shared with me the response of a pastor in his classis to the Belhar Confession. The pastor admits that he doesn’t see that Belhar has much relevance to the local RCA experience. (To which my Black colleagues would reply, “How long, O Lord!”) Is this is a sign of the narrowing of Reformed identity, not only to evangelicalism narrowly conceived (our Black and African churches are extremely evangelical), but also to being a Reformed Church of America rather than in America? What would happen if the American flag were moved out of your church’s sanctuary? Or at least put in the back of the church, to hear the Word, as Bruggink advocates in Christ and Architecture. How is the American flag different than the sacred poles in the sanctuary that the prophets denounced? When we sing God Bless America, which God is that, and is that God allowed to Judge America? (Apparently not, according to Fox News.)
Well, if the RCA’s connection with America moved from Livingston’s millennial identification of America as God’s instrument for world Christianization, to a more general sort of Christian patriotism, what does it mean that the Reformed churches are growing stronger in Africa and Asia and weaker in North America? What if we have less to give the “Third World” churches than to receive from them? And what about the fact that the nations where we used to send our missionaries are now sending their immigrants to our cities, and that these immigrants are variously rich and poor, educated and uneducated? Where shall our denomination fix itself? Can we simply accept America (and Canada) as given and good? What does it mean for the RCA when Our Lord commissioned us to preach the gospel to, not every person, but every “nation”? Doesn’t that require us to pay attention to our larger theological themes of justice and such, beyond the matter of making new Christians? Doesn’t that require us to pay attention to our doctrines, liturgy, and government?
That’s exactly what happened in South Africa, and what led to the Belhar Confession. In order to answer Apartheid, the Black and Colored Reformed denominations paid heed to their Reformed theology and Calvinistic heritage. And here is a story you need to know about, and some terminology you need to know. It’s the story of the Belhar Confession.
We came to know of Apartheid as a political ideology, but you need to know that it started in the church. A few years after our General Synod heard Dr. How declare “slaveholding not sinful,” certain Dutch Reformed congregations in South Africa petitioned their Synod to allow for separate communion services for whites and blacks. With reservations, the Synod decided to allow this “apartness” (apartheid) at communion, “because of the weakness of some.” That was the camel’s nose under the tent.
From this the Dutch Reformed Church developed “apart” congregations, and then “apart” classes and synods, until the various races were kept apart in separate sister denominations: the Dutch Reformed Church (for whites), the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (for mixed-race “coloureds”), the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (for native blacks), and eventually even a Reformed Church in Africa (for Asians). After World War II, political power was gained by the National Party (the Dutch Reformed Church was called “the National Party at prayer”), and the apartness of the church was made the pattern for the whole country. “Coloureds” lost the right to vote were placed in “apart” townships. Native Africans were given pseudo-nations of their own.
There were different strategies for attacking apartheid, but certain courageous Dutch Reformed pastors knew that the foundations of apartheid were theological, and needed to be addressed as such. Finally, in 1982, the Mission Church declared the Reformed Churches of South Africa to be in a “state of confession,” or status confessionis (you’ll need to know this term). A status confessionis means that the church finds itself in a “moment of truth,” a kairos moment, a watershed time, when the gospel itself is at stake, when the church cannot remain silent and must make a choice, and when certain ideas and practices which may earlier have been tolerated are tolerable no longer. The maxim goes: in statu confessionis nihil adiaphoron est.. (In a state of confession nothing is indifferent.)
In a state of confession, the church must confess. The Arian controversy was a status confessionis and the church produced the Nicene Creed. The Reformation was a status confessionis and the church produced the Augsburg, Second Helvetic, French, and Belgic Confessions, etc. The Nazi era was a status confessionis and the church produced the Barmen Declaration. In the status confessionis of South African apartheid, the church produced the Belhar Confession, which was the confession to the world about a local situation by a local church on behalf of the whole church catholic. This is not the place to go into the content of the Belhar Confession, but you are now responsible to learn it on your own, and the RCA has resources for you to do so. I only hope you notice how much it quotes from the Belgic and the Heidelberg.
The credibility of the Mission Church’s confession demanded that it question its own “apart” existence as an institutionalization of the very apartheid it was declaring heretical. So the Mission Church proposed that all the Dutch Reformed denominations merge back into one non-racial denomination, which it proposed as the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. The native black denomination agreed in principle, though not without much backpedaling.
The WARC responded by suspending the membership of the white South African denominations until they renounced apartheid. The RCA opened ecumenical relations with the Uniting Reformed Church and suspended our long ties with the Dutch Reformed Church until such time as they declared their agreement to enter the Uniting Church (I myself had the honor of writing the letter). We were told by many voices in South Africa, both white and black, that the RCA had an outsized influence in supporting and abetting the struggle against apartheid.
But then our South African partners began to say to us, “What about America?” What about your own racism, which is still maintained by your educational and economic structures? Would a black pastor be considered by any and every vacant church throughout the RCA? And so by considering the Belhar Confession the RCA is finally examining admitting that maybe it must judge a log in its own eye. If we add it to our Doctrinal Standards we are committing ourselves to the unending witness against racism as much as the witness against, say, Arianism and Arminianism. The Belhar Confession is forcing us to consider what it means to be “confessional,” and its therefore having the effect of requiring us to examine just how truly Reformed we are willing to be.
It’s difficult for an American denomination with a heritage of millennial triumphalism and American patriotism to take instruction from a Third World church, or to be told by a third world church that we’re not paying attention to our own situation. The RCA cannot continue its comfortable American isolation, not with the globalization of both the economy and the church. We have already seen how the RCA was at its best in Foreign Missions. We were able to be both evangelical in the best sense and also very ecumenical. Indeed, we learned ecumenism in the mission field. Our Foreign Missionaries used to have great influence in the RCA, not only at General Synod itself but also in our publications and our seminaries. That is now no longer so. Our Foreign Missions program is only a shadow of what it once was. And now our Missions department has been charged for raising funds for domestic new church starts. One hand we might say that this is so because, through immigrants, the world is at our door, but on the other hand it even more threatens our Foreign Mission funding. (Before 1968, the Foreign Missions staff was independent, and didn’t take orders from denominational staff. Today, all Missions staff get their instructions from the General Secretary.) The jury is out on whether our ethnic and immigrant congregations will serve to counter the easy American isolation of the RCA.
A final word. It is always a temptation in church history to be too critical of the church. I want to close with this. In spite of all the weaknesses and failures of the RCA, this remains true: over several centuries and in hundreds of congregations the praises of God were sung, the prayers of the people were raised to heaven, the preachers proclaimed the doctrines of Sovereign Grace, the souls of the faithful were comforted in life and death, and homes and families were sanctified as under the Sovereignty of God. Children learned to name the Name of God into whom they were baptized. Men and women made vows to each other before the face of God. People were buried in the hope of glory. People ate and drank in the presence of the Lord. Works of charity, witness, and outreach were extended without fanfare. Great sacrifices were made with joy. Faith was edified, hope was restored, love was strengthened. God gathered, protected, and preserved a “congregation” chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And God blessed with world through us and we sanctified God’s name. Don’t doubt it.