Individualism and the Confessional Church

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I’d like to offer three data points and then some synthesis on individualism, a confessional church, and the future of our confessional witness.

Data point 1. Tim Stafford, author and long time editor of Christianity Today wrote what is for me a haunting blog post on faith and family through generations. The CRC has not been alone holding the vision and the dream of generational covenantal identity. We’ve long assumed that children will follow the religious identity that they inherit. Although religious beliefs of parents still weigh heavily in their children what Tim Stafford points to here is an experience that many in the CRC are sharing.

Data point 2. I recently did some work with our Leadership Development network where I was helping a youth pastor in our program process Reformed theology. When the church planter was encouraging this young woman to not only formally join his small, developing congregation he introduced her to various aspects of Reformed theology including our positions on original sin and total depravity. She recalled today how she immediately reacted against these positions but now as she is reading, reflecting and discussing these stances she’s developing a deeper understanding of our confessional positions and beginning to see how they connect with both Biblical revelation as well as her life experience. She is doing this while being a youth leader in her congregation and considering a possible future as an Article 23 ministry associate.

Data point 3. Synod 2011 hosted a long discussion about a proposed denominational covenant to replace the current Form of Subscription. The draft offered to Synod 2011 was sent back to committee looking for language to tighten it with respect to a signor's subscription to our creeds and confessions.

We also saw that we have a difference of opinion in how church membership in contrast to office holding relates to creeds and confessions.

Although I appreciate the desired outcome of greater confessional fidelity in our denomination, I’m concerned about the message that this decision sends with respect to how we pursue that confessional fidelity. We are also trying to process affirming a new confession, the Belhar, while we’re struggling to figure out practices and understandings of being confessional itself. We have a lot on our communal plate.

Part of what Tim Stafford in his post is wrestling with is the powerful cultural element called “expressive individualism.” Religious beliefs are culturally valued as “authentic” when they are arrived at after a conscious process of experiential discovery usually in reaction to a set of received beliefs.

Expressive individualism tends to devalue any belief that is received apart from such a process or received as part of a larger package inherited from a familial group. “Authentic” religious faith valued by this cultural movement must be arrived at through a sort of spiritual crisis for our context. To stand up and associate oneself with a group and its confessions is seen as violating this cherished value of expressive individualism. Expressive individualists require a process by which they can make received confessions their own “authentically.”

I believe we need to make sure any system of communal confessional identity affords a very practical, understandable, long term process that offers those considering membership, those who have inherited membership from childhood, and those who consider leadership a safe space to process confessional matters. Safe spaces afford appropriate places to disclose doubts, concerns, and questions and allow people to make confessions legitimately their own, reservations included.

If such a process is not in place we will encourage a kind of community with multiple levels of identity and disclosure. We all act like party line people when we line up to sign the covenant at council or classis but in other “safer” spaces we let our hair down to challenge, question or even mock the settled standard. There will always be a level of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but we want to diminish that dynamic so that the whole community can have productive, honest discussion that arrives at what a communal confession ought to be, a unified body speaking with one voice.

The goal of a system of public confessional identity is not to create poster models of a small group’s cherished past but to afford a living witness that communicates the process of long term Christian sanctification and profession to a decaying world.

It is legitimate to lament with Tim Stafford the loss of communal confessionalism and the power for good it offers to successive generations. Good stewards of a successful confessional tradition find ways for new generations, and older generations within a context of change, to appropriate a tradition for themselves, call it their own, and learn to steward it in turn for the next generation. This ought to be our goal.  

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Thanks Paul. This thoughtfully wrestles with what's going on in our churches and in our denominational agencies. I've wrestled with these things as well in a part of the denomination far removed from the geographic or cultural center of the CRC. What follows are some musings inspired in part by what you say above.

Let me suggest an alternative to the polarizing concepts of expressive individualism and communal confessionalism. If we must choose between the individual living in isolation, and the individual being absorbed into a borg-like communal consciousness, we're doomed to choose between the alternatives of solipsism and classical Buddhism. I know, I know, over-exaggeration -- but the same sort of polarization, and, IMHO, a false dilemma.  Instead, I see a personal/corporate identity working well, when we choose the beliefs we thoughtfully choose, and assume those held communally when we haven't had a reason to doubt, question, or even deeply examine them. And I think this is how it actually works for most folks, including most leaders.

There is a danger to the members of the body in simply assuming the beliefs of the communal entity without affirming them personally. The danger is the member of the body affirms the beliefs of the body, but lives a life disconnected from that belief system, because they don't personally believe what the community believes.

The other danger is to the body itself. If a body has no explanation for its beliefs, if it cannot convince its members of the validity of those beliefs, if it simply asserts them and enforces them as rules and laws, the body becomes less a corporate entity with living/breathing parts and more a corporation that has functionaries carrying out various duties.

In the end, we agree that what we need are members of the communal body personally affirming and believing the beliefs of the confessional body. We also agree that these beliefs should be dynamic, more than static (let's wrestle with them, reword them, if we have to, to make them ours). Let's also agree that as individuals living in the present, we honor our fathers and mothers, if we honor what they have said authentic faith looks like, and make any changes to what they have said with a bit of fear and trembling.

Ultimately, our struggle, as a denomination and as churches within it, is to decide which beliefs are unmovable and at the core of our identity, and those that are peripheral, negotiable, and yet perhaps logistically important, and those that are completely removed from our corporate identity. It's here where we struggle, since we have different ideas about what belongs in which category, especially in a denomination that is becoming more and more culturally diverse (which I applaud heartily). If we don't solve these issues, I'm afraid we'll have little unity left beyond our form of subscription - meaning we would cease to be a body (a corporate entity), and become merely a corporation.

Paul and Rich,

I am sitting here at the Three Trees with our missionary to downtown Bellingham, Mitch, discussing unity and reading your blog.  What timing.  Two quick thoughts, on the nature of confessional identity (or, as Rich frames the issue, which issues are core) and on question of unity.

First, I am in the "as few as possible" camp when it comes to core issues.  Especially when it comes to practices.  What we do agree on is, IMHO, a way of approaching Scripture (the Reformed hermeneutic we received from our fore-mothers and fore-fathers) and a covenental way of working together to be the church.  The recent blow up over creation/atonement issues is a symptom of disagreement in the former.  Our difficulties in getting church visiting done reflects the value we actually place in our peculiar way of working together.  These questions may be more important than whether the confessions are static or dynamic, or whether we adopt the new covenant or stay with the FOS.  This also makes the role of classes very important, modeling covenant living in their positive discipline (church visiting and

Second, I think there are a lot of ways of being that covenant body (what Rich calls the "corporate entity") without being merely a corporation.  It may be that the next generation will hold to the authority of Scripture reflected in our Reformed hermeneutic while developing a very different way of life together.  In that case confessinal identity will have little to do with the uniformity of practice and much to do with commitment to each other.  Don't think church visiting could every be done by facebook or twitter, but I'm sure it will be different. 

Thanks for thinking with us on these important questions.