An Open and Shut Case

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The question has been asked often. Just today, as I was checking out the Network, I found a reference to the question dating back to the early church fathers. In the forum regarding Overtures 3 & 4 for this year’s Synod, Meg Jenista quoted Augustine of Hippo, who said: "In the essentials, unity. In the non-essentials, liberty and in all things, charity."

So what’s the question? The question is: what are the essentials, and what are the non-essentials when it comes to our faith?

In the example of Overtures 3 & 4, in which a group of churches are petitioning Synod to create a separate classis based on affinity of belief regarding the role of women in ecclesiastical office, there seem to be those who claim that what we believe about women in ecclesiastical office is an “essential,” and others who believe it is not. So, who’s right?

Of course, the role of women in the church is not the only topic in which we dispute amongst ourselves the question of “essential” vs. “non-essential.” Some of our churches seem to view the question of infant baptism vs. believers-only baptism as a non-essential, whereas others view it as extremely essential.

And then there’s the whole question of church unity. While some of our churches seem to want to separate themselves from their current classis based on a theological/doctrinal issue of some debate, our Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC) is hard at work building bridges between our denomination and other denominations. It is laudable that the ERC continue this work on our behalf, but where are they to draw the line in our relationships with those who differ from us on theology and doctrine? What is “essential” and what is “non-essential” in our relationship and unity with other denominations?

Tough questions. Here’s what I believe to be a biblical way to look at this: the essentials are those things on which the Bible is very clear, the non-essential things are those on which the bible is not-so-clear.

As I write that, I think to myself (and maybe you do too): “What a cop-out! How do you know what the Bible is ‘clear on’ and what it’s not clear on?”

So, I leave it to you (I know, not fair at all): How can we know what the Bible is clear on? Be specific! How do you know that the bible is clearer about worshipping God alone, and not as clear about infant vs. believers only baptism, people? How do we know that the bible is very clear about Jesus Christ being the only way to salvation? How do we know that the bible is not as clear about working on Sunday? In other words: how do we determine what are the clear essentials, and what are the debatable non-essentials?

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Participant

Our Confessions ought to determine the essential tenents of our faith.  It's puzzling that ministers and elders in the church can signify their agreement that the Three Forms of Unity "fully agree" with the Word of God in their summaries of scripture's teaching on fundamental issues of the faith, yet still come to such contradictory conclusions on core issues such as baptism or Sabbath rest.

As a denomination, we've agreed that we have clear, concise answers to nearly every hypothetical question listed in this post.  These answers are listed in a logical, orderly fashion complete with scriptural references so that the context and rationale for each answer is plain to the reader. 

Officers in our churches who don't like these answers have an obligation: convince the rest of us that we're wrong by using the prescribed means, or refrain from teaching their differing views.   Why is there such a desire to create disunity in the body by continuing to debate issues that are so clearly settled?

I believe Chad, that you are right about the guidance of the confessions.  That is also why most people did not want the Belhar adopted as another confession or form of unity, because they saw it as non-essential - at least debatable.   Many church order items also seem not to fall into the "essentials", which is why they can be relatively easily changed.  Ironically, the idea that the non-essentials such as church order should not be debated outside of "proper" channels, is perhaps also debatable.... or is that idea also buried in our confessions somewhere? 

Community Builder

[quote=Chad Werkhoven]

Our Confessions ought to determine the essential tenents of our faith.  It's puzzling that ministers and elders in the church can signify their agreement that the Three Forms of Unity "fully agree" with the Word of God in their summaries of scripture's teaching on fundamental issues of the faith, yet still come to such contradictory conclusions on core issues such as baptism or Sabbath rest.

As a denomination, we've agreed that we have clear, concise answers to nearly every hypothetical question listed in this post.  These answers are listed in a logical, orderly fashion complete with scriptural references so that the context and rationale for each answer is plain to the reader. 

Officers in our churches who don't like these answers have an obligation: convince the rest of us that we're wrong by using the prescribed means, or refrain from teaching their differing views.   Why is there such a desire to create disunity in the body by continuing to debate issues that are so clearly settled?

[/quote]

I hear your points, Chad, but I'd like to follow up with a couple other questions, if I may:

1) Even within our confessions there is a tacit (and sometimes explicit) admission that some doctrines are more "essential" than others. As a very simple example we just have to look at the fact that we hold the Bible to be more authoritative than the creeds and confessions, which are in-turn, more essential than the Contemporary Testimony. Just because we believe that the Creeds and Confessions "fully agree" with the Word of God, does not mean that we believe that everthing held within those creeds and confessions is of an equally essential nature. Our doctrine teaches us that the Bible is most essential, the creeds and confessions next, and then other things. So, my question is, then: HOW do we know which of the doctrines WITHIN those creeds and confessions are more essential, and which less?

2) Even when we totally agree with our denomination's doctrines (which office bearer's should, seeing as they've committed to that), there's the question of ecumenical relations: and I guess that's the more important question for me here: HOW do we know WHICH issues/doctrines are important enough to break fellowship with others who claim to be Christ followers? 

Just a couple of other thought-provokers, I hope.

Blessings, all.

Participant

Thanks for the good questions.

1) You're equivocating somewhat in your usage of 'authoritative' & 'essential'.  All doctrines taught in scripture are absolutely authoritative, but not all are essential.  At first that sounds heretically harsh, but consider this case in point: the last half of Daniel.  Those doctrines are certainly authoritative, but few of us would say a correct interpretation and understanding of them are essential to the Christian life. You're not going to find a Confessional Church who demands strict subscription to a particular interpretation of Daniel.  We've ecclesiastically determined that it's not essential.

I would argue that the Confessions are both authoritative and essential, subject to the following qualifications:  Their authority is not absolute, as in the case of scripture, but is subject to the Church's interpretation of scripture, and we are obligated to respect this conferred authority.  Their doctrines are essential in that great wisdom and restraint was exercised as to which particular doctrines of scripture were summarized within these documents, and by extension which are excluded. The former, essential; the latter, not so much.

Certainly there's a hierarchy within the essential doctrines included in the Confessions; I would rank Head 5 of the CoD as being more essential than BC Article 36, but that doesn't mean that a proper understanding of the Civil Gov't is not essential to my Christian Worldview.  I would rather use the term 'priority' rather than 'more or less essential'.  When I teach the BC to junior high kids, I typically skip Articles 4 & 6 simply because I don't have the time.  They are essential doctrines, but less of a priority.

2) You're second question is a much tougher nut to crack! I would start by substituting 'Eccumenical Creeds' for 'Confessions' in my answer above as to what is essential to maintain fellowship between denominations. That's pretty straightforward- if we can't agree on the most basic of Christian doctrines, it's hopeless.

Here's where my footing gets a bit looser. As Confessional Christians, we've agreed that Christianity has some outward signs: QA 87 and BC 29, for example. Therefore, I would argue that Churches who blatantly & unrepentantly disregard these signs by default can not assent to the basic truths of the ecumenical creeds. Subsequently those denominations should be outside of our fellowship.

Thanks again for the excellent and thought provoking discussion.

Community Builder

Thank you, Chad, for your thoughtful responses! I think so far, we're actually pretty much on the same page. Certainly I have no qualms with agreeing with everything you've said in your last comment, but here are my follow-up questions:

If we believe ecumenical relations should be significantly rooted in the clear marks of the true church, so-far-so-good. BUT what should those relationships look like? Should we be constantly trying to "merge" with other like-minded denominations in an attempt to undo hundreds of years of schisms? Should we strengthen existing associations like the World Alliance of Reformed Churches-- if it still exists), so that they're almost like a meta-denomination? Should we work extra hard at building relationships in local ministerials--even to the neglect, perhaps, of closer ties with the CRCNA? Should we be working at abolishing denominations altogether?

Should we be "making room" for the increasing number of folks coming into our churches who believe almost as we do, but not quite (like those whose only issue is with infant baptism)? If so, what would that look like? How would it not look?

All questions that boggle my mind, at least. If you have insights, I'd seriously LOVE to hear them!

Blessings, all!

Participant

 

It's difficult to answer all of your questions in a short reply (or even a long dissertation), but the summary I would offer is that the goal (telos) of a ecumenical relationship would determine the definition of 'essential'.  A group of churches banding together to help bring relief to their community after a tornado or other disaster would easily push deep theological differences aside, but when we chooses alliances to form a local Christian School we would certainly want to tighten the scope of essentials.

As a businessman, I find it ironic that Confessional churches like ours are rushing so quickly to follow the the 'big tent' pattern set by the more mainstream denominations.  First of all, it hasn't worked well, as their rapidly declining numbers show.  Why emulate that?  More importantly, when I sell my products I emphasize my distinctives; my widget is better because A, B & C are different than my competitors.  I build truck equipment, so I want ALL trucks to have certain safety components, and to that end I don't care whose brand they have or where they bought it.  I think the products I offer have more benefits, but I'd rather a customer buy from brand X than not at all.  But as brand X and I compete, we both improve.

In the same way, I want ALL people to be Christians and to be affiliated with a church.  I sincerely believe that the CRC has dozens of distinctives (dare I say essential distinctives) that make us a better choice than the Baptist, Lutheran, or even RCA church down the street.  I still rejoice when someone joins the Baptist church, but my baptist neighbor and I will be better churchmen when we know exactly what we believe and why one particular theological distinctive is better than the other.  Iron sharpens iron.  Competition is not a bad thing; Paul uses the analogy often.

Sadly, the trend is to bury these distinctives for the sake of ecumenical relations and/or expediency. In doing this we hurt not just the CRC, but also the denominations we 'compete' against.

Community Builder

Chad, I very much like a lot of what you say here, and totally recognize that the questions that I've asked can't really be addressed in such a short-form type of way. 

I very much appreciate your talk of distinctiveness, I think it can be, as you say, true "iron sharpening iron" material when we recognize, embrace, and even possibly celebrate that in the midst of our diversity we can work together. My strong tendancy would be to say that the best method for bringing more visible unity to the church would not be through mergers or anything like that. As you said, it hasn't worked very well for mainline churches, but it would also lose us some of that opportunity to sharpen each other.

However, if we shouldn't merge with each other, how can we do the following:

1) Heal rifts between churches where schisms have occured (both denominationally and with individual churches)?

2) Maintain theological rigour while making that rigour "friendly" as opposed to antagonistic?

3) Create "room" for one another, not in the sense of compromising our theology, doctrine, or life, but in the sense of saying, "It truly is okay for you to believe differently on this than I do. It's even okay to participate in our church life in the following ways, believing what you do."...?

I guess a good example of this might be the case of infant baptism: Imagine a new young couple comes to our church. They hang around for a while and eventually express an interest in becoming members. Our elders interview them, after they've done their new members' (or profession of faith) classes, and all is good except that they just can't get past the whole infant baptism thing... they just believe the bible more clearly points towards believers' baptism alone. They have good company in this, as about 500 years' worth of theologians have come to the table on this and the debate still rages on. Still, we, as a church also have good company on this too, as there's even more history of theology on infant baptism.

So, what do we do? Do we say, "you can be members, as long as you're willing to totally buy in to infant baptism, but otherwise, no, sorry, you'll have to just stay an adherent." Do we say, "you can be members as long as you keep your beliefs on this to yourself?" Do we say, "you can be members, but you can never be on council, because you can't honestly sign the Covenant for Officebearers." Do we say, you can be members, but you can't teach any of our children, because you might teach them the wrong things."?

To me, then, this whole question has two major lenses attached to it: the macro (our big-picture relations with other denominations), and the micro (our pastoral/theological/doctrinal life with an increasingly diverse and non-mono-theological local church bodies).

Participant

I'm not trying to be snarky here, but the responses to 1, 2 & 3 are lessons we all should have learned on the playground as first graders, but alas in this fallen world we all do poorly at interpersonal relations, especially the more personal it becomes.  Church is extremely personal.  Add Dutch stubbornness into the mix... quick joke: A Dutchman was rescued off an island he was marooned on for decades.  The rescuers asked him what the three buildings he erected were for.  The first, he said, was his house. “The second is my church.  Even though I'm all alone, it's important to spend the Lord's Day in His house.”  The Dutchman was silent on the third building.  After be prodded, he muttered, “the third building is my old church, but they got too liberal & I had to leave.”

As to your hypothetical credo-baptist member, if after significant and sincere counsel, discussions and brotherly debate agreement remains elusive, what is wrong with lovingly referring them to the Baptist church down the street (assuming he wanted to lead/teach... as you inferred, CRC members are not bound to subscription)? Sure egos are bruised, feelings probably hurt, etc., but would the Kingdom lose? Will not this member, now even more certain of his belief, be a huge asset to that congregation?

On the other hand, what would acquiescing do to the value of either of our beliefs? What would (does?) it teach our kids? How would the simmering and unresolved conflict of such a weighty issue affect decades worth of congregational health? Sorry for answering your questions with questions!

Maybe I'm overly idealistic here, but I think the more we openly discuss distinctives, the more we de-personalize theology (in a good way), and the easier these conversations will become.  After all, we don't personalize other scientific convictions like 2+2=4 or that what goes up must come down, so why are we so personally offended when our understanding of a complex theological formulation is challenged?  The way we feel about addition doesn't affect the outcome, yet we way too often allow feelings to dictate theological conclusion even when the conclusion is totally at odds with the evidence.  One would be held criminally liable for not preventing a person who didn't understand gravity from jumping off a cliff, yet we bend over backwards to not offend brother Christians in our own and other denominations who seek to dive off of theological cliffs. 

I'm afraid that decades of designating nearly every aspect of Christian belief as 'non-essential' has left huge numbers of Christians and entire churches teetering on theological cliffs.

I wonder.... do we equate sacraments with theology, or do they merely reflect theology?   And why has our practice of sacraments often become a point of division, while we ignore the very real deleterious effects of disobedience in daily living?  I'm reminded that no one in the new testament died for how they celebrated lord's supper or practiced baptism, yet Annanias and Sapphira died for lying in a desire to be accepted.   So which is worse then?   Which is the most significant aspect of our theology?   Jesus offered the Lord's Supper to Judas who would deny and betray him, and to Peter who Jesus knew would betray him.  Yet we would deny Lord's supper to those who only baptize adults?   Where are our priorities?  

Why is it that we choose to permit two opinions on women in office, against all the clear indications in scripture, and yet refuse to permit two opinions on infant baptism, a doctrine which requires a fairly convoluted argument (one I understand and hold to) to sustain, and on which scripture directly is relatively silent, neither directly for or against.  Where are our priorities?  

Does our confession of the covenant of believers depend on our practice of baptism?   And conversely, is there the real danger that the practice of infant baptism can minimize the significance of living obediently in that covenant?  Do we acknowledge that danger or do we minimize it?   But even further to that, do we allow that some who hold to God's covenant promises still see infant baptism as a potential temptation to complacency rather than as an instruction of God's pre-eminent choice for us?   I personally have often seen it used in the wrong way.  I don't have a clear answer on this, but it just strikes me as odd as to how and when we accept diversity, and when we do not.  I know I am treading on tricky ground, but the bible is much more clear on the sin of homosexuality, than it is on the necessity of infant baptism, yet we deny membership on the basis of one, and not on the other... or do we?  how do we choose our priorities? 

Just asking.

Participant

FYI... that quote is not from Augustine, although that is a common misconception...

see link...

http://theflamingheretic.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/in-essentials-unity/