“What’s a nice conservative theologian like you doing in THAT classis? A Confession and a Challenge.”
John Bolt of Calvin Theological Seminary
Leaving aside for the moment the aptness of any labels, I confess to spending more “unofficial” time with CRC ministerial colleagues who are “conservative” than with those who are “progressive.” Over restaurant breakfasts or coffee I will get asked, “What’s it like for you having your ministerial credentials in Classis Grand Rapids East?” The unstated background of a question like that of course has to do with the fact that “everybody” knows I am unabashedly and openly conservative–theologically, ecclesiastically, and politically–while Classis Grand Rapids East is, well, Classis Grand Rapids East.
So, after 23 years in the same church in Classis GRE, where do I fit? Am I an “outsider”? To tell the truth, I really don’t think so, because so little of my identity–who I am, what I believe and experience, how I think, how I relate to people in ministry (including my students)–has anything to do with that ecclesiastical connection. It is so different from that of my denominational identity which shapes my daily thought. Still, I cherish the many personal friendships and shared moments of deep Christian intimacy that happen again and again with people in Classis GRE who are involved in church ministry or Christian education. Oh, yes, there are occasions when something happens in Classis GRE that prompts me to roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders (accompanied by fervent prayer that my eye-rolling and shoulder shrugging remain sanctified!), but those all pale in significance to the shared bonds in Christ. A common love of Jesus, a conviction about the Gospel’s power, and a shared commitment to ministry, especially ministry across racial lines, is the tie that binds and trumps everything else to the point that differences on matters of theology and polity just don’t enter the picture all that much.
All of this leads up to a reflection on the January 19, 2012 meeting of Classis GRE which I attended as a visitor, not as a delegate. A confession: My motives for attending meetings of Classis GRE are less than completely pure; there is a powerfully self-serving dimension to them. Other than going out of duty as an elder delegate once, I only attend when a candidate with whom I developed a close relationship at Calvin Seminary is being examined by classis, and on three occasions when the council of my church, Plymouth Heights CRC sent an overture, an overture I had written. As we would say in Canada, “Not so noble, eh?”
The occasion for last night’s visit was similar. I had written an overture, which the Plymouth Heights council generously endorsed and sent to Classis GRE, asking the 2012 Synod of the CRC to defer a final decision on the Belhar Confession, appoint an independent study committee to revisit the matter, and report to the Synod of 2017. This overture faced two obstacles:
- It came in just too late to be automatically on the agenda of classis; classis would need to vote on whether the overture could be considered as part of its agenda in spite of this.
- There was an overture from Madison Square CRC, properly on the agenda, asking synod to not delay any longer but to go ahead in 2012 and make the Belhar the fourth doctrinal standard of the CRC.
In spite of some tangles of procedure that took some time to clean up (the officers of classis deserve commendation for helping classis to finally sort it out) the outcome was that Madison Square’s overture will go to synod as the statement of Classis GRE’s position and desire about the Belhar. The PHCRC overture was officially placed on the agenda of classis and the prior vote approving the Madison Square overture was put in the classical record as constituting Classis GRE’s answer to the PHCRC overture. Sounds complicated? Well, it was–a little–but the outcome was satisfactory in that it accurately reflected the mind and will of the delegates. Now that Classis GRE has dealt with the PHCRC overture, it can go on to synod from the church’s council.
Still, for me, that conclusion is not the most important outcome of my visit to classis. I came right after supper time and about an hour and a half before the Belhar discussion was scheduled to start. And am I ever glad I did! I won’t come close to doing justice to the “WOW!” factor of that time, but let me list some of the highlights. Five church planters gave testimonies of what God was doing through their ministry and here’s an abbreviated list that does not capture the human drama and joy that was present:
- A prison church (Celebration Fellowship, Ionia) that involves a large number of volunteers in its discipling of inmates who are effectively ministering to each other;
- A church plant (Madison at Ford School) that is recovering from recent hardship and with dedicated volunteers and staff moving ahead;
- A church plant that effectively reaches out to those who have been “lost” for the church, works at being a 7/24 community of worship, work, fellowship, and prayer and is moving toward a membership threshold that could lead to another church plant (Square Inch Community);
- A church plant (Step of Faith) that is intentionally geared to finding out “how do black and white folks live together in the same house and learn to become one,” where an ex-con who is on fire for Jesus is having an impact not only on this community but on the larger GR community;
- An Arab-language based ministry to refugees from the war-torn African Sudan (meeting in Woodlawn Ministry Center) that continues to be formed by Scripture and the Reformed faith but is also building bridges back to the newly formed nation of South Sudan with a vision to bring a Christian Reformed mission presence there.
These ministries have in common a wonderful testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ breaking down the ugly barriers of race and class that have often hindered the church’s outreach. There were so many signs that there are possibilities for the CRC to be polychrome. There was a lot of Revelation 7 in these testimonies and I would strongly echo the comment of one of the delegates who noted that it was important for the church at large to hear these stories. Amen to that! I hope I can persuade the powers that be at CTS to arrange for these five ministries to be highlighted at Calvin Seminary.
A final comment. The way Classis GRE processed the Belhar overtures last night meant that PHCRC’s overture did not get a separate discussion. I have no problem with that---the mind of classis was very clear and it acted in a way that honestly reflected the will of the delegates. That is as it should be. Nonetheless: If there had been a separate discussion, and if I as a non-delegate had been given permission by the chair to address synod, I would have taken the opportunity to indicate my fundamental conviction about the Christian Reformed Church and its membership in these words:
I am quite convinced that the overwhelming majority of CRC members are opposed to racism, committed to a church that welcomes and enfolds people of all nations, ethnicities, and skin hues who are committed to Christ and the Reformed faith, believe that we are called to break down all unbiblical barriers to becoming a more inclusive church, and desire the nurture and development of non-traditional, non-Dutch, non-white, leadership in the CRC. In other words, I don’t think that there is significant opposition to the spirit and content of the second article in the Belhar or to our 1996 statement on God’s Diverse and Unified Family. To put it differently, acknowledging that we are a long ways from actually being where we want to be, I believe that the problem is more a matter of being overwhelmed by a sense of the enormity of what we face than it is of unwillingness to address it.
Last night’s meeting of Classis GRE gave me yet one more way to communicate this. I would love to have the entire membership of the CRC hear the testimonies we heard last night and I am convinced of two things:
- There would only be great rejoicing and gratitude across the entire denomination for these ministry blessings.
- Many individuals and churches would be inspired to begin taking the small steps that lead to bigger ones. They would take note of what is God is doing and be open to also being led by the Holy Spirit instead of being overwhelmed and paralyzed.
God is doing great things! Praise him and pray for more of us to be willing to follow in these steps!