Statement for Unity As Being Primary
A Reforming Church in the Sense Christ Would Desire
by The Rev. Dr. A. Rand Peabody
Specialized Minister, retired
Classis Rockland-Westchester, Regional Synod of New York
Reformed Church in America
Jesus in the upper room uttered a great and heartfelt prayer for the unity of believers — “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 17:21, KJV)
The reason why Christ prayed for this unity was not simply so as to provide healthy soil for the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit— its “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22-23, KJV). That is surely part of what Jesus was praying for.
But in addition, the Lord knew that such unity would be a compelling WITNESS— a sign to the world that it was indeed our parent-God who had sent Jesus forth into human history. That witness has suffered many setbacks. Should we add another?
We in the Reformation tradition have long prided ourselves on being a church semper reformanda— “always reforming”. Such ongoing action — “reformanda” is a present participle—occurs according to the leading of the Paraclete— the “helper”— the divine Spirit that IS the living presence of Jesus Christ in our mortal lives.
So in our beloved denomination right now, we need to consider what it would mean, not simply to be “reformed” in the sense of an historic past, but also what God’s immediate call upon a “reforming” church might be in this critical moment through which we are now passing.
What Christ would NOT want, according to John 17: 21, is for the denomination to dissolve into the tribalism of camps dissing each other in the name of righteousness. Jesus would not want us to ‘live down’ to his image of the children in the marketplace: ‘We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not weep.’ (Luke 7:32, NKJV)
What Christ WOULD want, per John 17:21, is for the RCA to re-pitch its tent in a way that will create a more hospitable space again, a tabernacle for us all. And how can that happen? It can happen ONLY if we commit ourselves afresh to a faith-based renewing of our denominational ties— not via some wholesale re-structuring featuring far-flung “affinity-groups”, or through an outright abandoning of our centuries-long covenant. After nearly fifty years of bickering over our interpretations of certain scriptures, isn’t it high time for us to set about “reforming” the RCA into a denomination that will whole-heartedly embrace EACH and ALL of those who strive to engage in a conscientious interpretation of the Bible, thus agreeing to accept the inevitable reality of disagreement EXCEPT in the truly essential matters of Christ-centered faith. This does NOT mean that the Bible is anything less than our full “standard of faith and practice.” It simply admits that differing interpretations of Scripture are held by confessing Trinitarian Christians like ourselves, brothers and sisters, albeit sinners all, in terms of sharing a common faith in Christ’s saving power.
For us to emerge from the current time of testing as a church that affirms “unity” as our highest value, per Psalm 133:1-3, would be a wondrous witnessing to the "greater Christianity" we certainly DO share. And what an anointing it could bring! But of course Satan is too wily to simply embrace our stepping up and witnessing to the world in such a Christ-hearted way. Rather, we are so often ready to consider ourselves "Christian", and "those others"-- well, perhaps not so much. And yet, if such attitudes of entrenchment end up splitting a denomination with a witness as historic and as vital as the RCA’s, would that not be offensive to “the Only King and Head of His Church”?
The Vision 2020 Team (may it not be ironically named!) makes the distinction between those who are “defined” and those who “remain connected”. Right now, though, the challenge is for us faithful members of the RCA to re-affirm our essential statements of faith, e.g., the Ecumenical Creeds and the Standards of Unity, while stretching to embrace in BOTH a “defined” and “connected” way a range of conscientiously derived agreements or disagreements with regard to moralized teachings.
People of hermeneutical integrity may very well, and indeed with a totally committed Christian conscience, read such Pauline pronouncements as those at Romans 1: 26-27, and other passages such as I Corinthians 6: 9-10, derived from Levitical law, as being the Pharisee-apostle’s scathing critique of the idolatrous and sexually profligate central-Mediterranean cultures he was encountering, and hence interpret them as requiring contextualization, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Other people of faith, equally conscientious in their pursuit of Biblical interpretation, may understand them to be everlasting proscriptions or universal instructions being directly affirmed by the Holy Spirit through an infallibly inspired Paul. The question is: can our RCA tent be pitched large enough to include everyone? For us to say, “no, it cannot”, risks sinning against the prayerful desire of Jesus in the Upper Room. And if we discern that He would NOT be happy with such an outcome, then we, His committed followers, meaning each and every one of us who call Him Lord, should not be content to move forward in such a direction.
What if we were TOGETHER to call upon the Reformed Church in America to put "first things first"-- to affirm forthrightly that the unity of the Body of Christ is currently THE matter of utmost concern? From such a re-affirmation at the General Synod of 2021, all other things of a structural nature could be configured or re-configured in ways that would energize a renewed sense of identity and purpose. In so doing, though, we should clearly recognize that our faith-based unity has not been, is not presently, and never would be possible on the basis of a strict unanimity of Biblical interpretation. Yet why should that mean that we must be a house divided, or dividing? Why should we split apart this part of the Body of Christ that God has entrusted to us because our conscientiously derived Biblical interpretations lead us to different understandings? Is anyone actually rejecting the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice? That does not seem to be the problem. We are strongly disagreeing about certain interpretations of what to each of us is the Living Word. But disagreement is inevitable. And therefore, if we were to hold out for unanimous agreement in all matters, the way a hierarchical body like the Roman Catholic church would insist, then we in the RCA would never be able to "dwell together in unity”.
If Jesus would indeed counsel us to keep our overall tent pitched, then couldn’t we prayerfully expect that the Holy Spirit would grant us the gift of trust in one another, as we each strive to work out our salvation with "fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, KJV). Indeed, the mainline teaching and heartfelt exhortation of Paul seems to be found at the end of the fourth chapter of Ephesians: “. . . do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away.” (Ephesians 4: 30-31, NKJV) Disciplinarian though he surely was when he felt the need to be so, Paul valued most of all a church that clearly witnessed to its essential unity in confessing the redemptive love of Christ. Of course, how that love is then expressed to others requires continual prayer and the leaven of ongoing discernment. But such a process might best go forward in a house of faith that affirms and treasures its unity in creedal matters. Regardless of how we proceed with the question of what can only be called schism, we are assured that the Risen and Ascended Lord will be meeting us at the end. And can’t we perhaps imagine what He will be asking us about when it comes to our present-day stewardship of this particular branch of His Body, the RCA?
There are a good number of assertions made in Dr. Peabody’s paper with which I agree. Jesus’ prayer in the upper room is a powerful, heartfelt call for unity, and that unity would indeed be a powerful witness to the world, a unity which, unfortunately, has suffered setbacks. Safe to say, unanimous agreement with respect to all matters has never been realized in a denomination, and never will be. We must always pay attention to how Christ would have us to be reforming. Christ’s call to unity does not negate the need to recognize and deal with sin.
I Timothy 3:16-17 reads, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV) This includes John 17:21 as well as Romans 1:26-27 and I Corinthians 6:9-10. The church as a whole, and the various denominations such as the RCA and the CRC, should stand on the entirety of God’s Word. Yes, there will be people of “hermeneutical integrity” and “other people of faith, equally conscientious” who disagree on the interpretation of these passages, but we must struggle together to find an answer, not just agree to disagree.
There is one aspect of biblical teaching which I believe of necessity must be addressed here. That is the message of I Cor. 5. I believe that the incorporation of that passage’s message does in some cases require separation. It is not schism, in a bad sense, if it is required of us by biblical teaching.
In I Cor. 5 we read, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you.” (I Cor. 1:1) “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (I Cor. 1:2) This passage requires us to discern whether or not an act committed by a person is a matter of sexual immorality. If it is, the biblical requirement is to remove that person from the fellowship of believers. We do not have the luxury of simply agreeing to disagree. That is not an option.
I don’t believe Paul is saying that we are to stand at the church door with our arms crossed, denying entrance to those who struggle with sexual immorality. Matthew 18:15-20 gives us a roadmap to deal with sin, in love and in a way that encourages unity. It is not a cut and dried process, but one that may take time. Paul’s later statement in I Corinthians 6 to remove them can be seen as the unfortunate end result of unrepentance, with the hope that the unrepentant will return.
As is often the case, there is certainly a fair amount of truth in the statement, “Rather, we are so often ready to consider ourselves ‘Christian’, and ‘those others’-- well, perhaps not so much.” However, in light of I Cor. 5, the matter cannot be left there. Paul explicitly states in verse 5 that the reason for removing such a person is, “. . . deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (Italics added.) Our motivation for taking any action with others must always be out of love for them and aimed at realizing the best possible outcome for them. This passage teaches that the church must remove even believers when they are guilty of sexual immorality.
Peabody’s position is that Christ’s call for unity requires us to remain in fellowship with people as long as they hold to “the Ecumenical Creeds and the Standards of Unity” and conscientiously strive to interpret God’s Word correctly. However, Paul does not put that qualifier in there. He does not say, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you, unless if he is striving conscientiously to determine what is right.” Paul puts the burden of determining if the person (or people) has committed sexual immorality on the church. And if immorality has been committed, then action by the church is required.
This kind of response to a person who has committed a sin is often seen to be relevant only in the context of one individual in one congregation. Some probably consider it irrelevant at the level of congregations considering leaving a denomination. Perhaps the matter of congregations considering leaving is considered the same as states considering their right to secede from the Union. The Civil War in the U.S. determined that to not be a legitimate option. However, is Paul’s call to “Purge the evil person from among you” (I Cor. 5:13) limited in any way to a single individual in a single church fellowship? Isn’t the principle here that immorality needs to be removed? If that is, in fact, the principle at stake here, then the numbers of people wouldn’t matter.
Unanimous agreement will never be realized in this fallen world. So, what is required of us is to work very hard at fostering and maintaining unity, while at the same time knowing what the biblical requirements of unity are. Peabody has identified a requirement of unity in his statement that we must hold to the Ecumenical Creeds and Standards of Unity. We must also conscientiously strive to interpret God’s Word correctly. I believe that biblical unity, as stated in I Cor. 5, also requires us to determine if a person has committed immorality. If a person has committed immoral acts and will not acknowledge them as such, then we are required to separate ourselves from them.
Peabody quotes Paul in Ephesians 4:30-31, “. . . do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away.” Disagreements and discussion about the meaning of Scripture does not need to be done in a bitter, angry, clamorous, or evil way (although, unfortunately, many have not heeded this). It can be done in a prayerful, loving way, with the participants striving to glorify God with not only the conclusions, but also by the process. I believe Paul expected the church to strive for both. That creates true, biblical unity.
The conclusion of this material will be posted in a few days and will take comments received into account.
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