A Pastoral Letter To CRC Churches

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The following is a pastoral letter from Joel Boot that was sent this week to all Christian Reformed churches. We are sharing it with you here on The Network.

July 2012

Dear Brothers and Sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Synod 2012 instructed me to send “a pastoral letter” to the churches. This letter is written primarily in response to Overture 3, which requested that a study be conducted to determine “the difference between the mission of the church as institution and as organism” (Agenda for Synod 2012, p. 467), regarding whether the official church may take and proffer positions on certain matters or whether such matters should be left to individual members of the church.

Specifically addressed in that overture were matters such as “positions on political policies, often including pending legislation concerning immigration, foreign aid, voting rights of felons, debt relief for foreign countries, and so forth” (Agenda, p. 466). The overture also asked whether the church should encourage members to vote a certain way on pending legislation or to take a certain position with regard to global warming. The issues are legion; the controversy is intense.

Synod 2012 decided to “receive Overture 3 for information” and not to take action with regard to appointing such a study committee (Acts of Synod 2012, p. 808). Head-in-the-sand decision? Avoidance of the issues? No, synod decided essentially that how you and I talk about these things is as important – and at this time, perhaps, more urgent – than what we talk about.

First, it is important to remember that these issues are far from irrelevant and ought to be discussed. We must take a vital interest in such things as foreign policy, immigration and climate. It is also important to note that engaging in conversation about these significant matters does not necessarily mean taking a position on them. To bring them up is not necessarily to declare how people ought to feel about or react to them.

Synod also asked the executive director to remind all of us that the Christian Reformed Church has taken positions on a number of ethical matters over the years. These positions and statements are published as the Doctrinal and Ethical Positions (available through Faith Alive Christian Resources) and are available online at crcna.org/pages/positions.cfm. Our previous discussions and decisions can be very helpful to all of us in facing current issues. Please remember that certain positions are not only permissible but obligatory to Christians. For example, while the immigration issue is surely multifaceted, it cannot be debated that Christians must care for others and be concerned for the poor and disenfranchised.

When we speak to one another, when we speak to others, and when we speak about one another and others, we must be sensitive and act in a Christian manner. We must be careful to say what we say and hold to what we believe in ways that do not wound others or offend them. It is neither sinful nor peripheral to try to be as politically correct (and therefore inoffensive) as possible. We may not ignore or belittle or look down on those who see things differently than we do. We should engage one another in a Christian manner in continuing discussion.

All of this led Synod 2012 to quote from James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” In the next verse, James goes on to say, “. . . because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (1:20). It is, Synod 2012 reminded us, even in how we discuss and perhaps disagree with each other that we reveal whose we are and point to the Christ in and through whom we all find our unity.

In this way, synod reminds us that we must address the world and society in which we live. We must do so in the light of God’s inspired and always relevant Word. We must always speak and write sensitively and lovingly. And we must see both our engagement with our world and the manner of that engagement as part of our witness to and for the Christ who is the one before whom every one of our knees must bow and whom every one of our tongues must confess as Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).

In Christ our Lord,

Rev. Joel Boot
Executive Director, CRCNA

Posted in: Synod; Blog Photo courtesy Johan Larkander - http://www.flickr.com/photos/larkander/5293089026 Image: See Credit

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Your article is written with all good intentions, Joel, and highlights some very important and beneficial points.  However, I feel that in some ways it inadvertently falls into the trap of political correctness.  While I agree with you that political correctness is not always wrong, it should not be the governing or controlling factor.  Furthermore, what is the politically correct position:  that we uphold the law, or that we support the poor who have broken the law?   Politically correct can change;  that is part of its definition.  Yes, we must be sensitive and loving.  But not at the expense of hiding truth or sin or wrong under the carpet.  It is better to be biblically correct than politically correct.   Sometimes offense is taken when none is intended. 

In our society today there is a heavy preponderance of attention focussed on process.   "Process" is the buzzword, and has often become more important than actual results or objectives.   "It's how you play the game, not whether you win or lose."   When its just a game, maybe process is most important.  But when it is life, process although important becomes less significant than the results.  

So did synod really say that it is as important that we think about how we talk than what we talk about?   Really?   Think about it.  Does that even make sense?   Is it even possible?  In other words, is it important how we talk about nothing? 

 "James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” In the next verse, James goes on to say, “. . . because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (1:20)".    What does this not say?   It does not say that we shouldn't speak and it doesn't say that we shouldn't become angry.   And while human anger on its own does not produce the righteousness that God desires, it is sometimes nevertheless a witness to the conviction of those who proclaim the truth.  When Jesus cast out the money changers in the temple, we do not have the right to say that somehow anger is always totally illegitimate.   Money changers did not belong in the temple, and certain types of political statements do not belong in a place of worship (nor attached to denominational label).   Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar's and to God what is God's.  Hopefully with the wisdom to know the difference. 

And keep in mind that anger hidden does not mean that anger doesn't exist. 

I wonder if we extrapolate sometimes quite far from a biblical position such as caring for the poor, to a non-biblical (extra-biblical) postion such as minimum wage or supporting those who have broken immigration laws, or mandatory health care insurance or government funded schools, or certain wars and foreign policy, etc.   It's not that I'm against all of those things, but would it be right for me to say that these positions are biblically mandated?   (I would be really amused (and offended) if the CRCNA made a policy statement that all farmers and especially all christian farmers ought to be using zero-till because it conserves the soil, and thus is the best christian way of caring for creation).   In any case, when we are in areas of political advocacy for issues which are not clearly and directly ethical issues mandated and prescribed by scripture, then being sensitive and loving ought to mean first of all that we are sensitive and loving and respectful to those who sincerely hold differing christian opinions on these topics, especially and even more so if they appear to be in the minority.   When we have differing opinions, we ought not to assume that we speak for them, and we ought not to leave that impression with them or with others.   

I hope this sounds sensitive and loving and inoffensive and respectful.  

Overture 3, in asking for a study to determine "the difference between the mission of the church as institution and as organism," was indeed asking for the CRC to address how we, as members of the institutional church, should address political issues, including how we should talk about them.  Those who are requesting this study are not necessarily only political conservatives who are uncomfortable with the more liberal positions that the CRC's Office of Social Justice takes.  It would include Kuyperians such as myself who believe in the principle of sphere sovereignty, which holds that not all of one's Christian life is lived out through the institutional church, under the authority of clerics.  Rather, every individual Christian, societal sphere and institution is directly accountable to the sovereignty of Christ.  Christian citizens and government office-holders should be serving Christ as citizens and government office-holders and do this through non-institutional-church organizations and institutions.  I believe that every Christian citizen should be part of a Christian citizens' organization such as the Center for Public Justice in the U.S. and other comparable organizations in the U.S. and Canada.  And those organizations should be (and are) analyzing the issues from a deeply Christian perspective, rather than parroting either the conservative or liberal perspectives of contemporary secular politics.    As for the institutional church, ministers of the Word should preach and teach underlying Biblical principles, such as loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, caring for God's good creation, not worshipping Mammon, seeking peace and pursuing it.  But the ministers and the institutional church should leave it up to Christian citizens in the pews to work that out, together with other Christian citizens who are joined together in the public arena (doubtless from many different denominations) to work for public justice.  Like Christian business people, Christian farmers, Christian lawyers, and Christian medical workers, Christian citizens and office-holders should be talking together about how to be Kingdom agents in their respective fields.   We DO need to think and talk about all these issues as Christians, but that should be done through the church as organism more than through the church as institution.   Too many people who claim to be Kuyperian forget that Kuyper not only founded the Free University of Amsterdam and a newspaper, but also a (Christian) political party through which he held political office, and this political party was not under the control of the institutional church.

I mostly agree, except that the institutional church does have to discuss how and whether it will comment on particular issues and policies. This is precisely the reason for overture 3. Moreover, unlike some later Kuyperians, particularly in the movement that came to be known as Neo-Calvinism (and even more particularly, in the philosophy of Vollenhoven), Kuyper did not denigrate the role of the institutional church and was a theologian (I have a rare copy of his Dogmatics) and ordained pastor in the church. So sphere sovereignty is not always so black and white. And while I agree with sphere sovereignty for the most part, there is also considerable gray area, contary to the idealistic views (typical of the continental philosophy of the time) that Kuyper represented a century ago. I would like the political advocacy of the church to be limited to principle, and to be more cautious on particular policy.

The issue of how the church as institute addresses various issues of personal and social ethics is a complex one, and there is much roof for disagreement among persons of equal good will. When Synod 2012 addressed this issue, one of the grounds for advising us to discuss the content of "Overture 3" was: "Discernment is better found through continued respectful conversation, rather than through attempting to formulate prescriptions as to how the church speaks on issues of the day." That conclusion is debatable. I think we desperately need such prescriptions (guidelines) to help build confidence and trust in our agencies, and to bridge the growing gap and disconnect between congregations and the agencies.

On the one hand, the language of the letter (and maybe synod's decision) seems a bit vague--and by that I mean no disrespect to my former pastor Joel Boot, for whom I have nothing but esteem and high regard. But I wonder, does this mean that the churches should expect the head offices of the CRCNA to speak on our behalf when it comes to highly debatable matters? I also wonder if this really gets to the heart of overture 3 and what Synod decided in that regard. Synod said that the pastor letter should urge "the church on all levels (congregations, classes, and denominational agencies and officers) to reflect on the issues and concerns that Overture 3 raises." This is not a "how" discussion, but a "what" discussion. I'm not sure if this squares with the line in the the pastoral letter: "No, synod decided essentially that how you and I talk about these things is as important – and at this time, perhaps, more urgent – than what we talk about." I think that may be incorrect. The overture did not primarily urge us to talk about climate change, immigration, etc, though certainly we should do so; they urged us to talk about the limits and guidelines for how the CRCNA makes official announcements about such things, sometimes without input from the local churches. So, the question is, should the church make an official statement about US policy regarding Israel and Palestine, when there is a huge range of defensible opinion among members and leaders in the CRCNA on this matter? That seems to me to be the crucial question, and the main impetus behind overture 3, and that seems to be missed in the pastoral letter. I have often been concerned that agencies who claim to speak for me take positions that I find questionable and debatable, and for which no input from the churches was sought, at least as far as I can tell.

On the other hand, the letter would also seem to imply that persons should be allowed to express opinions, albeit in respectful and civil ways, regarding the policies, practices and even the very existence of any ministry or agency of the CRCNA, including on this venue, the CRC Network. I should not be out of bounds to express the opinion, for example, that we don't need the office of Pastor-Church relations (which I think would be ridiculous, but I'm just using it as a silly example). Someone else (like myself) could respond with numerous reasons why we need this agency, and stories of how they have helped pastors and churches. Free and open discussion, within the bounds of civility and proper netiquette, must be paramount to a healthy church, for the thriving of this Network, and for the (re)building of confidence in our denomination and its agencies. I love the CRCNA; but I also love it enough to try to correct it when I feel it's veering off in the wrong direction. I hope that I can also be corrected when I'm veering off on the wrong direction as well. Mutual transparency, mutual accountability.

Contributor

I very much appreciate this letter and the message I received from it -- a reminder of how important it is to show our love for our neighbors in our speech, whether written or spoken.

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