“Why can’t you all just get along?!” I recall yelling at my children on more than one occasion when they were young. My frustration was usually followed by the irony of sending them to their individual rooms to sit in isolation. How is it that children with the same DNA and upbringing can behave as though they have nothing in common? What kind of behavior could I expect of my children, who were united as one family? What does unity look like in a family? What does unity look like in the church?
This year marks the 25th anniversary of ordaining women in the offices of minister, commissioned pastor, and elder. This year also marks 25 years of our commitment to unity. Both anniversaries are notable in a world marked by division.
The 1995 advisory committee on women in ecclessiastical office, inspired by one of the 85 Overtures submitted that year, made the following recommendation, which was adopted by synod. “[We] acknowledge our differences and yet maintain unity because the present divergences of opinion are not of such an essential nature that they warrant division of the church. Both perspectives and convictions honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God on the issue of whether women are allowed to serve in the office of minister, elder, and evangelist” (Acts of Synod, 1995). The overture that inspired the committee made the case that, “This course of action will allow synod to concentrate on issues far more significant than this long-standing and divisive matter of church polity, will free our denominational ministries from the related turmoil, and will protect the church from public ridicule and scorn” (Agenda for Synod, 1995, p. 471).
Synod urged churches “to recognize that this issue is not one of salvation and that even in our differences we remain sisters and brothers in Christ. Unity in the church will come only when we focus on him who unites us, Christ Jesus our Lord, instead of on those issues on which we differ” (Acts of Synod, 1995). As we look back over the past 25 years, did the compromise achieve the desired outcome? Some would say yes, others no. To be sure, unity is hard work. It is the reconciling work of Jesus and experienced as an “already but not yet” reality of the kingdom of God.
Our unity is a reality through Jesus, and yet our Lord prayed fervently that we would live out our oneness for the sake of the world. He prayed that we, his brothers and sisters, would be one, just as he and the Father are one (John 17). Unity doesn’t require conformity to each other. It doesn’t require agreeing on all points of view. Unity, as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, does require us to surrender to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit who is restoring the image of God in us. Unity requires us to worship and serve Jesus, the head of the church. However, this doesn’t mean unity is natural or easy, but because of the work of the Holy Spirit we are 25 years closer to our Lord’s desire for his church.
This anniversary brings a wide variety of emotions for all of us. Some remember painful arguments, relentless debates, and members leaving the church. Others still struggle with women in ordained ministry, maintaining a perspective that these roles are reserved for men. And some celebrate this milestone while working towards greater cooperation between men and women co-laboring for the gospel. Regardless of where we are on the continuum, our temptation is to live and work in our individual contexts and isolate ourselves from one another. Is that what Jesus intended as he prayed for us?
When my children are sitting in their respective rooms after a disagreement, are we still a family? Yes, of course. However, the real work of living as a family begins when they emerge from their isolation. When they come back together, they need to see each other, acknowledge hurt feelings, and own their behavior. It’s in the coming back together that trust is restored, character matures and growth is achieved. The real work in the church, just as in a family, is staying connected when things get hard, even if it gets painful. The “already, but not yet” of unity is about our growth and development as family members who reflect the life and love of God.
I invite you to take a moment to give thanks to God for his faithfulness in sustaining us as one denomination amidst our diversity. Please continue to pray that you would be increasingly transformed into the image of Christ as you worship and serve the one who has given his life for you, and that we, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, would willingly submit to one another out of reverence for Christ as we live into the unity that is already ours.
Ephesians 4:16 is the theme verse chosen for the 25th anniversary of women in ecclesiastical office. Let’s recommit ourselves to the work of living into the unity established for us by Jesus because we’re not there yet. We’re still maturing and growing.
From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together
by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love,
as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:16
What’s possible as we look forward to the next 25 years? Can we live together in love and unity? What kind of behavior can we expect of our brothers and sisters? How do we want our family to be characterized? Without a doubt, we are called to bring the presence of God and the reality of the kingdom of God to our homes and churches, neighborhoods, and cities, and that will require us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the head of the church, as each of us does the work he’s assigned us to do.