Thinking About a ‘Third Way’ – How Do We Understand Unity?
April 5, 2023
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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 is worthy of serious reflection. This post is the fifth in a series of reflections on that call (read the first post, second post, third post, and the fourth post).
As noted in my introductory reflection, I share the desire of Third Way proponents to see and experience unity in the church. But I wonder if we can so directly and uncritically use Jesus’ High Priestly prayer as reason to promote CRC institutional/organizational unity in the face of significant divergence of belief, teaching, and practice on matters of human sexuality.
There are a couple of ways of thinking about this call that I think are worth exploring. The first thing I would note is that while perhaps the most ubiquitous reference from the High Priestly prayer is Jesus’ call for us to be one, Jesus also says in this same prayer: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)
Truth and unity in this prayer are not presented as opposing or separable ideas. For those who understand the sanctification of the church by the word of truth as critical to any notion of true unity, calls to set aside or make optional certain biblical truths for the sake of unity will ring hollow.
When Jesus prays as he does for the “people whom [His Father] gave [Him} out of the world” (the church) to be one, should we understand that as directly applicable to the CRC as an institution? Is Jesus’ priority here really that we might have organizational unity or perhaps rather spiritual unity? Do denominational boundaries currently keep us from recognizing and celebrating spiritual unity with countless brothers and sisters around the world under any number of other organizational structures? Certainly not! The catholicity of the church is something that we profess regularly.
At this current moment, every member of the CRC has made a decision (for themselves and their children) to be a member of the CRC, which by definition is a choice not to be a member of the RCA, the PCA, or some other denomination which holds very similar core theological beliefs. We share a bond of unity with many of these denominations, churches, and people. That unity is not dependent on CRC membership. Yet the unity within the CRC has always been about the sharing of common beliefs that are even more specific than these other bodies. Beliefs that we have put in writing. Beliefs that matter. Beliefs that we hold each other accountable to. I see no way that making some of those beliefs optional will strengthen our unity.
For years we have testified that ethnic roots, family ties, and institutional histories should not be what binds us together. But if we seek to preserve the CRC amidst and despite serious doctrinal differences that cannot be resolved, isn’t that essentially what we are doing? Does not that then prioritize our common history, our ethnic ties, and our institutional commonality as the basis of our identity rather than our common convictions?
There is indeed a path forward toward unity and preservation of the CRC, and that option remains the option that would preserve us in real unity. Belgic Confession Article 28 speaks of the Obligations of Church Members and states that people ought not withdraw from the church:
“But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body.”
We profess that the unity of the church is kept by submitting to the instruction and discipline of the church. That is our path forward in unity. One wonders why the proponents of a Third Way do not reference this common confession in their call to unity.
There is a portion of the CRC right now that is openly saying that they are unwilling to preserve unity by submitting to the instruction and discipline of the church. How is unity served by allowing that pattern to prevail? Who among us will desire to be bound to this common confession if the established pattern is to reward or disregard such unwillingness to heed the church’s admonition and instruction?
The road of unchecked divergence does not lead to unity, but further divergence. The proponents of a Third Way would do well to use their significant ecclesiastical capital to work diligently with those in the CRC who are straying from our historical and settled theology and practice in order to convince them of the wisdom of our common confession in seeking to preserve unity.
In a sixth installment I hope to offer a number of shorter and varied thoughts.
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Thank you Eric for addressing this reality. These calls of Unity do ring hollow, when we consider other denominations that we have varying degrees of fellowship with. Unless we still are holding on to the "Wooden Shoes," our unity needs to be based something much deeper than just our ethnicity/ancestry/history. The CRC (rightly) has recognized and rejoiced in the way that our denomination is expanding in different ethnic communities. That expansion is not based on their past generations attending Calvin University, nor Grandparents or Aunts and Uncles that served as officebearers in the CRC. Instead, it is our understanding of God's Word, and how we live it out. That is the Unity of being part of the CRCNA!
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