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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.


Eric, I appreciate your challenge here. If violations of the 7th Commandment "aren't a salvation issue," then is the whole second table of the law a free for all, just a you do you, take it or leave it proposition? Is any sin a serious and salvific matter?

I appreciated what you wrote in your first post about areas of agreement with the Third way and agree with this post that adopting the Third Way approach will greatly impact how we do church.  I write only to clarify what I think is the central issue in what the Third Way is proposing—a new priority. 

I sense the “non-salvific” label of the Third Way is created to distinguish between the justification and sanctification aspects of salvation.  As you argue both matter—a lot.  I don’t sense the Third Way would disagree with you.  What I sense they are asserting is our mission and people coming to know Christ (justification) is a greater priority.  Thus as you state in your first blog they talk a lot about unity and mission.  They state “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.”  Church history shows most of our battles and divisions are over “non salvific” or sanctification issues.  I sense in your first blog that you agree these battles often diminish our ability to live our mission well and often actually serve our enemy more than our Lord.  You are right that making our unity and mission our new priority will effect how we do church. It will lessen the priority we have placed on our confessions but it will not do away with them. 

Our recent struggle gives us another opportunity to examine our priorities and ask which one our Lord prioritizes.  We all believe they both matter. The Third Way makes their priority clear and asks us all to consider which one we are choosing and why.  I think it is a question worth asking.

Hi Bob.  Thanks for jumping into the conversation.  I don't see that the prioritized mission of the CRC has changed, and I don't see that we need to allow disagreement on any number of confessional issues in order to maintain that priority.  We can maintain fealty to our confessional standards, including matters both salvific and non-salvific and continue to prioritize gospel ministry - as a matter of fact, for most of the history of the CRC we have managed to do so.  What the Third Way proposes takes us away from that historic approach, and in some very monumental ways.  How we understand and do ministry together is contained in a lot of these non-salvific areas.  To treat these all as negotiable or optional would be to dissemble joint ministry as we know it.  As noted in the article, I think we do well to wrestle with those far-reaching ramifications as we think about what this group of pastors is calling us to.  I maintain that "the ask" is greater than initially appears.

Thanks again for your thoughts.

Hey Eric, Thanks for your reply.  As I read your response I sense we see things different in our church.  I honestly wonder if the historic CRC has ever prioritized mission in comparison to getting our theological and ethical ducks in a row. When was the last time synod battled over making sure our churches are taking seriously Jesus' priority of making followers/disciples who are fishers of men? How many in our churches are discipled to share their testimony and disciple others? Today we make our missionaries raise their own support for the most part. My experience is that in our churches a lot of the battles are to avoid the cost of actually living Jesus mission to lost people. It seems to me many of these non salvific issue struggles enable us to do the same.  So much time and energy spent on them. Don't hear me wrong, they matter. But as I read the gospels the mission Jesus was on always mattered more. Issues of the here and now are in some ways hospice issues.  The gospel mission is about saving lives.  So I agree we do well to wrestle with far reaching ramifications of the Third Way's proposal but for a very different reason.  I agree "the ask" is greater than initially appears.   Thanks for helping us ponder these important matters.

Hi Bob,

Thanks so much for continuing the conversation.  I appreciate your perspective.  

I will tend to agree with you that we are seeing some things differently.  Lots of reasons for that possibility, to be sure.  I don't agree that the CRC has historically prioritized theological precision over mission.  I don't see the two as mutually exclusive, but rather complementary.

You ask when synod last battled over missions, but you see we don't need to battle over that as a priority because we agree on it.  We battle about sexuality right now because we disagree about it.  Notice how each year at Synod there are lengthy reports from our missions agencies.  These are non-controversial.  I will not disagree that we can always do better on both formal (institutional) and informal (personal) missions, but I don't think that a lack of controversy at Synod over these matters is indicative of a lack of pursuit.

My experience in the local church is I guess opposite of what you describe, while certainly not perfect.  I have spent my whole life in conservative (usually quite associated with desire for theological precision) Reformed churches (mostly CRC, but not my whole life) and have been immersed in mission my whole life.  I would never say that I or the churches I have been in have somehow "arrived" or cannot be spurred on to even greater mission desire.  But I was always taught in these settings that the theology led to and served the practice.  Theology was never for putting on a shelf.  The same Jesus that sent us out on mission said that we are to "teach them to observe everything I have commanded" and also said "If you love me you will keep my commandments." 

It simply won't do for the church to sideline some of those commandments for the sake of mission.  And it simply isn't necessary.  We have a path forward to allowing greater time and energy for focusing on mission and less time and energy debating theology of sexuality.  Instead of saying "do what you want" perhaps we should do what we commit to do together, and that is to submit to the judgment and authority of the church that we have chosen to associate with.  

Beyond that, I think there are central premises of the OP that you are passing by.  Do you believe that we can exist in unity under the call for treating non-salvific matters as secondary and open to varying belief and practice?  Consider that such an approach could result in churches in the CRC normalizing and promoting pornography, promoting parental abuse, racial hatred, polygamy, slander, rebellion against church government, preaching from non-canonical books as God's Word, and much more.  All of these issues and more are "non-salvific" in the same manner as how proponents of a Third Way propose to treat homosexuality.  Would these variabilities lead to greater commonality of and focus on gospel mission?  I cannot see how that could possibly be true.  


This is good conversation that helps me think through what we are addressing. Thanks.

I am blessed to hear that your church mission experience has been positive.  And I agree that a conservative approach to ministry does not necessarily hinder mission and can be a real asset.  Theological precision is a good thing and you are right Jesus calls for obedience.  And I sense it is unifying in local churches that agree on what theological precision is.

The problem comes at the denominational level where theological precision has not been unifying but divisive.  There is little personal relationship there and a variety of views and lines about what theological precision looks like.  My sense is the Third Way is not diminishing the need for theological precision.  It will not stop our wrestling with it.  It will diminish the division we experience as a denomination over it. It will acknowledge that in our present culture we will not find final agreement in the church on these issues.  So, for the sake of unity and mission focus and energy, they suggest we allow each church to live its convictions.

I agree that there is danger in this because, as you point out, what is thrown out next in individual churches.  I also agree that if we could get every church to agree “to submit to the judgment and authority of the church that we have chosen to associate with” we could achieve the same end.  But I just don’t see that actually happening in our present reality.  What I do see is a world who needs Jesus watching his body the church castigating each over what in the end (eternity) doesn’t matter most and as a result the world dismisses what does matter most. That grieves me.

I admit the Third way is a denominational shift in polity but our present polity just isn’t serving us like it once did.  I admit in the Third way shift we will lose some good things.  But I believe we will also gain some good things.  Maybe there is where our differences lie. In all honesty I am not completely sold on it. I welcome another "way" to achieve our common goal of unity that would serve our kingdom work better. Some think our more typical “Second Way” of just dividing is the answer.  That seems like indulging one sin while battling another.  I just want more people to find Jesus.  We have to find some way to diminish the divisions and hostility in our church for we are becoming just like our culture.  I sense that is a sin that is doing more damage to our mission than homosexual practice.  

Thanks for listening and conversing. Have a blessed Good Friday as we remember what our Lord did for us and all those around us.

Hi Bob,

Thanks for your additional thoughts and willingness to engage in conversation. 

I think your vision is perhaps a bit narrow when you posit that “The problem comes at the denominational level where theological precision has not been unifying but divisive.”  On the contrary, theological precision at the denominational level has been a great source of unity, to the point where our confessions are often referred to as the Three Forms of Unity.  I am not so willing to quickly throw out that historical unity on account of a troubling theological question.


The Preacher teaches us that “there is nothing new under the sun”.  We have dealt with theological challenges before and can also now.  I am not at all convinced that we should discard our confessionality over this current challenge. 


And here’s the thing: there are currently churches with exactly the makeup and polity that the Third Way proponents are seeking.  So why not rather join them than change the CRC from its historic identity?  I don’t desire to see anybody leave, but if there are like-minded organizations and one cannot bring oneself to live under the judgment and admonition of the church (as promised) then why not join those with whom you have greater commonality of belief?  What are we seeking to preserve and why?  Those who are arguing for ongoing confessionality are arguing to maintain what we have, not for the sake of tradition but because we actually and literally believe that the confessions are faithful explications of biblical theology and that these teachings unify us in understanding. 


If you have read my next article in this series you will have discovered that I also do not agree that matters of human sexuality ”in the end (eternity) doesn’t matter most”  but is part-and-parcel with what matters most.  The watching world needs to see us follow Jesus, and Jesus said in order to do that we must deny ourselves and take up our cross as we follow him.  What witness will we be to the world if we say what Jesus calls us to is actually not important?  Can we say (contra Scripture) that the death of the old man of sin and new birth in Christ is of relative unimportance?  I don’t see that we have to “castigate” each other, but we are called to teach, admonish, correct, and train one another in righteousness.  In this series I have sought to respect the proponents of a Third Way enough to engage purposefully with their ideas.  I have not sought to castigate them, but to honestly wrestle with what they are calling for.  This is the hard work of maintaining unity – it has to be fought for.  It doesn’t come by accident, and don’t see how the proposal of the Third Way to essentially turn the CRC from a creedal and confessional church to a mainly creedal and non-confessional church will result in unity. 

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