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Right relationships in a binational denomination

Two decades ago, I immigrated to Canada from the United States. And for the last decade I’ve been researching the power dynamics and structures of the institutional church within the (Kuyperian) Reformed tradition. One piece that seems to be missing in current discussions of the Christian Reformed Church’s binationality and the SALT report is this element of power.

Canadians gathered at CCC2 in disapproval of the SALT report, the rapidity of its adoption and initial implementation, and its implications for Canadian ministry without Synod’s involvement. But Canadians also gathered to protest the cultural assumptions of U.S. superiority.
SALT uses the right words about binationality and Canadians having “direction and control” of Canadian ministries and funds. But this doesn’t address the U.S. cultural assumptions about the unique and legitimate ministry in Canada.

I have personally been told in Michigan that Canada is “the 51st state of the U.S.” Our culture of niceness, compared with the more bold and assertive U.S. culture, has been described to me as “cute.” This isn’t just ignorance of the Canadian context; this is disrespect for how Jesus may be calling us to life and ministry which is different than across the border.

So when I hear American CRC pastors voice support for “binationality” but then I witness motions before the Council of Delegates or other denominational agencies, on matters that directly affect Canadian ministry, that pass despite strong opposition from Canadian delegates, then I seriously wonder what is meant by “binationality.” It sounds an awful lot like paternalism; and too often, when parents are anxious or insecure about their power, children are controlled.

Institutional health

The issue facing the CRCNA is the cultural assumptions about institutional power, not finding the best organizational chart. This is even more important to acknowledge because the USA is the dominant global empire today. “Structure and leadership,” when used in an imperial cultural context, tilts toward a corporate managerial model.

This is what is precluding us from achieving the institutional health we desire. If we keep envisioning the administrative structure of the denomination as an organization to manage, we will never address these imperial cultural assumptions that lead to institutionalized power. In fact, this just shows how much our faith has been accommodated to visions of hierarchical domination.

To be a church, we must give more attention to multi-lateral global models of Christian ecumenism which embrace diversity around a central unity of confession. To be truly binational, then “Grand Rapids” needs to re-examine the cultural assumptions around managing “Burlington.”

This is what dragged 100 Canadians online for a Saturday afternoon. CCC2 was a tangible expression of growing hesitancy around trusting the U.S.-CRC, as if the U.S. empire and its culture are benign.

SALT is a recycled version of previous structures that don’t work because they don’t address these cultural issues with sufficient self-criticism. Yes, SALT has changed the titles of the administrative positions but, however much the structure is adjusted, the assumption that Grand Rapids knows what’s best for Canadian ministry goes unquestioned.

Here’s one example I observed: Leading up to October 2020, the Canadian desire for a more balanced and equitable structure (with a Canadian Executive Director and a U.S. Executive Director) was proposed. But within three months, SALT was back to the faulty old model, what one CCC2 delegate described as “the CEO and CFO in Grand Rapids and a Canadian office in Burlington.”

Structural justice

When questioned about this abrupt shift, the CRCNA Corp representatives were silent. They declined to answer the question. I understand that there may have been legal or staff issues within that period. But silence is a powerful tool that can be used to avoid accountability. Silence is often what a party with less power is forced into when the party with more power is in charge.

As one delegate said, our binational structure has become a “fetish” – it has become the thing we’ve latched onto, assuming that we can fix our deepening cultural crisis with a little structural tweaking but without addressing the root issue. Our administrative denominational structure is important, but only secondarily. Our unity as a church will never come from our denomination’s administrative structure. Our unity can only come from Jesus Christ who topples powerful empires and lifts up the marginalized.

For the two sides of the North American CRC to be in a right relationship, therefore, there must be not only structural justice but also a cultural renewal where power and privilege are set aside as defeated idols. SALT forces us to continue believing the fiction that reconciliation will occur administratively. Canadians are clearly upset and unhappy. The question is whether the U.S.-CRC culture will respect and celebrate Canada’s unique ministry – or whether the empire will strike back.

Author

  • Mike is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he is also a professor of theology and culture. He is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019). Mike adapted this reflection, published by Kuyper December 13, 1899, for our cultural context.

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