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Groundhog Day: The Church Edition

When it comes to human sexuality, can we do better than majority rules?

I recently resumed pastoral ministry in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) after 10 years with the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). During those years, the matter of human sexuality dominated the denominational agenda. The engagement was serious, intense and divisive, with each side endlessly quoting their chosen Bible texts.

When I attended my first Classis meeting and witnessed my first Synod back in the CRC, I felt like I was in some church edition of the film Groundhog Day, experiencing the same reality over and over again. Different denomination but the same impasse; different final direction but the same political manoeuvres and emotional dynamics, and the same divisive results. Remind me again, what’s it called when we do the same thing over and over expecting different results?

We are, in the words of family systems therapist Edwin Friedman, “imaginatively gridlocked.” We are blind to see a better way through, convinced that handling this matter through study and committee reports, deliberation, ecclesiastical procedure and a majority vote will bring a satisfying resolution. But have we discerned the mind of Christ for the church in this moment?

Our synodical procedures are well and good for handling certain matters, what you might call instrumental decisions that flow from established convictions and core mission. But when we are asking larger questions and dealing with more fundamental decisions, like sexual ethics in a changing culture or how we understand scripture, those matters would merit turning less to Roberts Rules of Order and more to the Christian tradition of discernment. After all, this isn’t the first divisive issue Christians have ever faced. The church took over 300 years to figure out what texts to include in the final canon of scripture and during that time never required a “decision” of any church council. When later Councils recognized the canon, it was the fruit of patient listening.

An Acts 15 practice

The Church’s long tradition and practice of discernment includes not only the perceptual capacity to attend to God’s voice in scripture and receive the Spirit’s guidance for a particular time and place. It includes the cultivated heart dispositions and Jesus virtues, as well as a covenantal commitment to God’s people. It’s what the early church lived in Acts 15. They faced an impossible predicament yet ended with the shared confession of “it seemed good to the Spirit and to us;” they began with suspicion-laced tension but ended in miraculous joy (v.31). Might that be the hope for us?

Frustratingly, the writer of Acts leaves only hints of how this discernment happened. So what can we learn from the Christian tradition of discernment? How could the CRC be led by Scripture and the Spirit to a place where our leaders would together confess, “it seemed good to the Spirit and to us” and that would stir up joy across the church?

Certainly a discernment process will differ from our current church decision-making mechanics, governed by rules of procedures that privilege highly rational and articulate approaches. How can we create honoured spaces for those gifts of discernment and hold up the often unrecognised sages among us? The practice of discernment also won’t be a process settled by a majority vote or who tells the most heart-wrenching story but rather by the communal capacity to know the prompting of the Holy Spirit and follow the will of God. It’s not a consensus model either, so often derailed by group think or amplified negative voices that rarely births the wisdom that is the gift of the Spirit.

Here are a few features of the Christian discernment tradition that will need to guide us:

A transformed people

Our hermeneutical savvy and biblical skills are not sufficient for discernment; we must become a certain kind of people who can sense God’s heart and purpose, a practiced people of prayer who are familiar with the ways of the Lord. And we must be people of trust because we cannot be open to God while remaining closed to each other in the church.

Holy indifference

This is not apathy or a lack of care but an openness of the heart where we detach ourselves from our hopes and will in favour of God’s will for us. Holy indifference is a form of dying to ourselves; we ask, what do we need to release in order to receive God’s gifts in our lives? Are we able to let go of our well-defended positions to seek God’s will for our time? (Editor’s note: Roland De Vries’s reflections on the phrase “Holy indifference” can be read here.)

Humility and repentance

Isn’t there so much to repent of around human sexuality? The harm and rejection of LGBTQ persons or how we’ve allowed the cultural antagonism (affirm or not affirm) to set the terms of our conversation. The absence of discernment is rooted in pride and self-assertion while the witness of the Spirit is gifted to the humble who raise no self-defence but rest in the love of God.

Fresco depicting the First Ecumenical Council in the narthex of the Church of Saint Athanasius the Athonite in the Great Lavra on Holy Mount Athos. Photo: United European Christendom.

The affections of our heart

We’re convinced our sexual ethics are so very rational and biblically objective when in reality much of our settled convictions are driven by emotion – fear, compassion, anxiety and grief. The long Christian discernment tradition has insisted that we pay close attention to the affective movements of our hearts. We don’t abandon reason, but we use it to be self-aware. How much is fear of “the other” or the comfort of like-minded communities the primary mover behind our decisions?

Commitment to each other

We see humility in action when a covenant community commits to moving forward together, trusting that God’s Spirit is guiding and relying on each other to listen and follow. If the threat of departure looms, the process is emotionally rigged.

A sacred discernment assembly?

What might this look like? Perhaps it’s a renewing of what we understand by the “ecclesiastical manner” of Church Order Article 28, allowing for “some measure of freedom in discussion and action.” Or perhaps we venture a new way.

What if we convened an entirely separate gathering from Synod to address matters like human sexuality. What if each Classis discerned not someone who would represent their interests but one who was a trusted, wise and discerning figure, and delegated that person to a discernment assembly. What if through a year of preparation, the discernmentarians would participate as a community, living a shared set of faith practices, meeting to listen and clarify the important issue that we seek the mind of Christ on. And then perhaps this assembly would gather at a retreat centre, with no other business than that of discernment. It would be a spacious time of praying and eating together, listening and speaking, thinking, waiting, imagining, until clarity and light emerge, until the mind of Christ appears and we say, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Something like this happened before so why not again? Risky? Without a doubt because it requires us to step into where we rarely have gone before.

But isn’t the risk worth it given the splintered wreckage on the North American church landscape? Perhaps then we might wake from our ecclesial Groundhog Day and step into the light of a new morning in the CRC to hear the voices of joy among God’s people.

Recommended reading

Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton. Every council or elder board would benefit from studying this manual for communal discernment, providing not only a process for discernment but more so, the practices to become a discerning people.

“Nurturing a climate of discernment” in How Change Comes to Your Church by Patrick Kiefert and Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. The authors explain the pitfalls of the Roberts Rules of Order model and offer alternatives. 

Author

  • Phil is a minister at ClearView Church (CRC) in Oakville, Ont. He is the author of the prayer book "Seeking God's Face" and blogs at philreinders.com. He also teaches a course in discernment in the DMin program at Tyndale Seminary.

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