Recently, a group of CRC pastors has called for a Third Way in the CRC under the banner of “Better Together.” This is a serious call that's worthy of serious reflection. This post is the second in a series of reflections on that call (read the first post here).
Those calling for a Third Way have placed significant weight on the concept of certain church matters being “non-salvific” and thus areas about which we can agree to disagree. They express this core idea in this manner:
“As Better Together: A Third Way we may not all agree on SSM, the recently adopted Human Sexuality Report, or its ethical conclusions. We may have a long list of differences, but we are committed to creating space for disagreement on non-salvific ethical issues in service to maintain the prioritization of the mission of the gospel and protect the unity of the church.”
Though the Third Way proponents don’t specifically define “non-salvific”, it seems that they are noting that certain doctrines, beliefs, truths, or theological questions do not pertain to matters of salvation and are thus matters that we can disagree on because they do no bear on our core understanding of the gospel or endanger salvation.
We would expect that the Reformed doctrine of election, as expressed in the Canons of Dort, is a salvific doctrine because it bears directly on how we understand God to be working in accomplishing salvation. Classically, we might understand baptism to be a non-salvific issue (as we do not understand our salvation to depend on our baptism and we hold in high esteem many of our brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to different beliefs and practices regarding baptism).
For the sake of this particular reflection, I will take as a given the assertion that the matters covered in the Human Sexuality Report are non-salvific. I hope to examine that claim more closely in a following reflection, but for now I desire to reflect more broadly on how we think about non-salvific matters.
I offer that the Third Way's call for “creating space for disagreement on non-salvific ethical issues” argues for more than they might desire at first glance. It seems to me that taken seriously and consistently we must see this call as a call to end the CRC’s historic identity as a confessional church.
Consider for a moment just the immediate context of the call for allowing different belief and practice on human sexuality. We confess a certain understanding of God’s prohibition of adultery in the second table of the law. If sexuality is a non-salvific ethical issue about which we can disagree while remaining united, what will our churches look like over time as any and all understandings of what does and does not constitute adultery are allowed to proliferate?
Suppose there is a movement in the CRC inspired by Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber to approve of “ethically-sourced” pornography. This is not a far-fetched idea as any number of CRC members and pastors already look to and quote Bolz-Weber approvingly on a number of topics.
Moving to other commandments, do we understand bearing false witness to be a non-salvific ethical issue? Can we believe, teach, and practice as we believe in this arena? What about coveting? What about honoring parents? Aren’t these matters in the same arena as matters of sexuality?
Under the call of the Third Way, how are these areas not every bit as open to a variety of beliefs and practices not just in application but in core understanding? What if a church begins to teach that we need not honor the governing authorities if they are Democrats/Republicans? Or what if a church teaches that children may curse and disobey their parents if their parents don’t allow them to take puberty blockers or have life-altering surgeries?
Under a call to simply look past variations of teaching and practice on non-salvific ethical issues, it seems clear that we would not even have room to teach, rebuke, correct, or train one another in righteousness. We would have no confessional basis to call each other to account on teachings that violate God’s moral commands.
Casting the net a bit more widely, we can see a host of confessional beliefs that might be categorized as non-salvific. Consider The Belgic Confession’s instruction on any number of topics as the canonical books, the government of the church, the officers of the church, the order and discipline of the church, the civil government, etc.
Under the call of the Third Way, ought not these areas all be open to a variety of understanding and practice? Do we believe our salvation depends on a certain understanding of civil government? May a church choose to accept the Gospel of Thomas as a part of the canon of Scripture and begin teaching from it? Examples can be multiplied from our confessions, particularly the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.
If we can believe, teach, and practice what we want on “non-salvific ethical issues” then our Covenant for Officebearers is meaningless when it says:
“Grateful for these expressions of faith, we promise to be formed and governed by them. We heartily believe and will promote and defend their doctrines faithfully, conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.”
We are not covenanted together around the idea that we have merely common expressions of salvific matters, but common “expressions of faith.” We understand our expressions of faith to be explications (though not nearly exhaustive) of the broad teachings of Scripture, all of which is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (II Tim 3:16).
The call to make non-salvific ethical matters negotiable is essentially a call to reject the history of the CRC and turn the CRC into a merely creedal church as opposed to a creedal and confessional church. We ought to have eyes wide open about the far-reaching ramifications of such a call. Such a call ends only in disunity and erodes centuries of hard-fought unity achieved and cherished in the Three Forms of Unity.
In a third installment of this series, I hope to think specifically about whether or not we can consider matters of human sexuality “non-salvific” matters.