Artificial Litmus Tests and the Threat to Christian Unity | Sojourners

Artificial Litmus Tests and the Threat to Christian Unity

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. —Philippians 2:1-4

When these words were read at our church service recently, tears immediately filled my eyes and anguish gripped my heart. The church has strayed further from being faithful to these clear expectations and biblical commands for how to live our life together than anytime I have known in my ministry.

Friends with a lifetime of commitment to my denomination in particular — the Reformed Chuch in America — share similar fears, saying that in 50 years they have never seen the life of this denomination gripped by attitudes and actions of recrimination, judgment, mistrust, and bitter dissension that would find the immediate condemnation of the Apostle Paul. We are living in sin — and that sin is division.

Differences in the body of Christ over ethical and theological issues have been with the church since its inception. The letters of the New Testament and ministry of its first leaders were focused on how we live together in the face of inevitable tensions. Our call is to display an outpouring of humility, a commitment to the well-being of other brothers and sisters, and a self-giving love that builds a community truly shaped by the Spirit and acting as a corporate body infused with the love of Jesus.

A spirit of division destroys all of this. The presenting issue in the RCA and many other denominations is differing stances over how to regard, and whether to accept, brothers and sisters who are committed before God to living together faithfully in same-sex relationships. The RCA has been studying, discussing, debating, and taking various actions on this question for 40 years. We have done so in methods of deliberation and discernment, both formal and informal, that have sought for wisdom and attempted to display mutual love. At times, inevitably, it’s been painful. But we have done so preserving our life together, but far more important, maintaining our focus on God’s missional calling.

Differences over the church’s stance toward those in same-sex relationships will remain, not only in the RCA, but in the global life of the Body of Christ for years to come. But the real question is whether and how we can faithfully follow and obey Paul’s injunction to the Church at Philippi:

… be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …

Schism is a sin. Unity is not just one value, competing against others. It is the precondition for the church’s life and witness, a gift given by the Spirit and not created by us, and the means through which the church grows in its discernment and faithful mission in the world. This compelling call is not justified by a single proof text but woven throughout the biblical story of God’s initiative and grace. It isn’t some transactional item up for political negotiation, permitting us to hedge our denominational bets. It is a given reality, and our call, our “obligation,” is to act in response.

Amid calls for further division and “litmus tests,” people are being wounded. Strife has become expected, even worn by some as a badge of purity. Enmity grows. Anxiety paralyzes our governing bodies. Trust is shredded, and a shared missional future is forsaken. We are living in sin.

The record of the early church, maintaining a missional unity and openness to the Spirit in the midst of the highly contentious issues of its day models the opposite story, and one which allowed the church to flourish in its mission.

At our synodical meeting in June, I watched in dismay as one faction was intent on turning a historic confession, the Heidelberg, into a political weapon in our present debate, declaring that it condemns same-sex activity. It also deployed a strategy of trying to create a political litmus test: believe the same or risk one’s fellowship in the RCA. What troubles me so deeply is the attempt to mandate a unified understanding of those in same-sex relationships as legally enforceable for all within our governance, meaning it would define who could be considered as a true brother or sister in Christ within the fellowship of the RCA. Doing so would forsake all we know to be true about the gift and obligation of our unity in Christ, make a mockery of our witness to the world, deeply wound those called through baptism as members of this body, and cripple our capacity to participate in God’s mission.

The other thing that troubles me is what was not said. We are living in a time when the integrity of our public faith and witness to God’s love for the world, seen in Jesus Christ, is in peril. The moral and spiritual challenges around immigrants and refugees, the threats to the integrity of God’s life-sustaining creation, the chasm of racial division, and the status of truth and accountability in political life, are all matters which call for faithful public responses rooted in the power of the gospel. Synod’s silence on such questions, with only a few exceptions, was deafening.

God can get along very well, of course, without the Reformed Church in America. We — and every Christian denomination for that matter — are but a very small part of a dynamic, growing, diverse, global presence of the church. But choosing to “dismember” our body, in the words of John Calvin, would forsake the grace that we have been shown, and severely wound this body’s potential for serving as an ongoing means to extend God’s grace, and embrace God’s mission, in the future.

We must change our ways, heal our self-inflicted wounds, and heed the pastoral instructions for nurturing our life and witness together, given as the church was being born, and still resonant today. In my service with the RCA, I’ve observed that we are a gracious people, tempered by humility, grateful to belong to God, and willing to live out of gratitude and joy as a forgiven people, called into God’s missional future. Let us live together worthy of that calling.