Sunday, June 24, 2012

Elephants in the Room - by Charlotte Ellison

Dear Blog Readers,

A good friend of mine, the Rev. Charlotte Ellison, Grand Rapids, MI, offers the follow reflection on life and events in the Reformed Church of America.

When I read her note, I was immediately struck by its relevancy and its depth of faithful thought.

As the RCA struggles with many of the issues confronting American Christianity, it's helpful to read some commentary from inside the Western Michigan Beltway!

Blessings Charlotte, and thanks for permission to republish your essay in this blog.

Tom Eggebeen
Los Angeles.


Those of us in the RCA are spending a good bit of time talking about "unity" this Synod season--it all rests in identity, though--who are we, where do we receive our identity from, what is diversity and what is a basic distortion of our identity--do we most faithfully resemble our Lord when we protect ourselves from any variant in the interest of purity or do we most faithfully reflect our Lord when we go forth with an imitation of his engagement of the world, his apparent acceptance of people of many conditions and his welcoming them to a place of forgiveness, grace and acceptance.

I think there is always a temptation to confuse "unity" with "uniformity", always a need to project our sense of purity onto the image of Jesus' desire to call all to fellowship with his heavenly Father, always the temptation to "defend the faith" in a way that undeniably resembles the Pharisees and always a strong human impulse to be carried by those factors and hidden currents of our own unrevealed human psyches, projecting into Jesus those "imperatives" of our own fragile selves.

The hidden elephant in the room, in my opinion, has less to do with our openness to women in office (now thirty years in, and still contested), our position regarding homosexuality (do we offer hospitality and healing acceptance or do we participate in the persecution of anathema for the protection of the purity of the body), do we continue our exchange with theologically kindred bodies (sharing Reformed roots but with different histories) or do we narrowly define those "pure" enough to fellowship with as those who have even more strict standards of "purity" and closed communion.

I think the elephant in the room is our commitment to an identity that has little if anything to do with our Christian identity--our love of sectarianism, the ethnic roots of this particular tribe, the Dutchness which is nationalistic and nostalgic, a "brand" of theological virtue known for its scholastic rigor but not well regarded for its inclusiveness or gracious application of is magisterial theology of Grace.

I think the RCA struggles with a current of sectarianism that perpetually is oppositional, defining who is the "real" reformed communion by erecting ever more strident and exclusive marks of the true church and schizming into smaller and smaller communions that produce bigger fish in little ponds, the historic reward for leading the charge of schism.

It is sectarianism, and it is an offense to the gospel and a vanity and those further up its stream are not well positioned to instruct us on its benefits, so when we bemoan our communion with the PCUSA and long for closer ties with the Orthodox Presbyterians, for instance, that is a clear marker of this sectarian spirit at work, I think. Sectarianism is a terrible distortion of the Gospel and if you want to see its effects, one need look no further than North Ireland for examples of Orangemen in their oppression of Catholics in the name of the "true religion" through the propagating of an exclusive and utopian distortion of the church.

Our identity rests in one place--Christ Jesus, as revealed by his life and the witness of the whole Word of God, rightly interpreted, not appropriated with weak hermeneutics and self-styled but theologically ignorant leaders who are trying to "re-brand" their own version of what is "reformed" by simply asserting with vigor that it is. To be Reformed is to take the whole counsel of God and follow the Word of God wherever it leads, even if that reveals a long arc of justice, a widening inclusion into the family of God and a manifestation of Grace that is almost beyond our human ability to comprehend it. Reformed ever reforming. May God's spirit be powerfully present at Synod this year.

Charlotte Ellison
Grand Rapids, Michigan

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