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Friday, April 12, 2013

Why The Reformed Church Cannot Work For Peace

During a Veterans For Peace protest outside the White House a few years ago, I had a very brief conversation with journalist/activist Chris Hedges. Though as a fundamentalist, I have serious disagreements with Hedges on theology, I very much appreciate his writings and have a deep respect for the courage he has shown in his life. And I hasten to add that we ignore his words about the direction of our country at our own peril. In our exchange, I told him of my efforts to get people from my denomination involved in peace activism. Though I don't remember what he exactly said, when I told him that I belong to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), he communicated a message of resignation. Basically, I have no hope, according to Chris. Today, I now have a better understanding of what he meant.

Chris was right about the OPC to a certain extent. Pertaining to the older members of the denomination and those in control, there is little to no hope for change. There is hope among the young people though.

Why is there little to no hope for the older members and those in control? Before that question can be answered, one must briefly describe the OPC and its sister denominations. The OPC and its sister denominations follow the teachings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and a select set of confessions and catechisms. The extra biblical documents they follow most closely include the Belgic Confession of 1561, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, the Canons of Dort of 1619, and the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The most revered of these documents are the ones from Westminster. If we used the language of Jesus's day to describe these documents as a whole, we would call them the traditions of men. Or in this case, we can call them the Reformed Traditions. For just as Jesus used the word "traditions" to describe the interpretations of the Scriptures of his day, so can we do the same when referring to the interpretations of the Scriptures that today's church relies on.

The ministers from these denominations tell us that the Reformed Traditions, especially the ones from Westminster, provide the best system of doctrine of what is taught in the Scriptures. This calling the Reformed Traditions the best is a rather vague statement that is pregnant with ambiguity. For if what is meant is that after reading or sampling most, if not all, the interpretations and systems that try to describe what the Bible teaches, they think that the Reformed Traditions provide the most accurate picture of what the Bible says, then I fully agree. After all, this meaning for the word best allows for a great deal of disagreement as well as a laissez-faire attitude toward relying on material from outside of the these documents. But, if what is meant by calling the Reformed Traditions the best is that the Reformed Traditions provide the authoritative rendition of the theology taught in the Bible, then there are problems. And when one looks at the vows for church officers in the OPC and its sister denominations, tragically, the latter meaning of the word best seems to hold sway. For the Church officers are to "receive and adopt" these traditions, especially the Westminster ones, while allowing a minimal number of disagreements.

There are problems with regard to the Reformed Traditions, regardless of which documents you elevate the most, being any kind of authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. By putting these traditions on such a high pedestal, they start to compete with the Scriptures for our attention. When we so admire these traditions, we are tempted to spend more and more time understanding these traditions and less and less time reading the Bible because these traditions become the key that unlocks the mysteries in God's Word. And when we have such a high regard for the Reformed traditions, if we also struggle with understanding the Bible, we are tempted to regard these traditions as Catholics regard their priests or venerate the Pope. That is the Reformed Traditions become an intermediary between us and the Bible.

The dynamics that result from having such a reverence for these Traditions tend to prohibit its adherents from working for peace. For, the degree to which one disagrees with the Reformed Traditions shows one's disagreement with the Scriptures. And to prove if a new or rediscovered insight is right or wrong, such as VanDrunen's definition of God's 2 kingdoms, one must FIRST appeal to the Reformed Traditions for support. Here is where reverence for and mastery of the Reformed Traditions can become a competition and thus result in tribalisms inside the Church at first and outside later. Inside the Church, one must definitively show that the Reformed Traditions had, in one way or another, already supported one's own positions. Those who disagree will also do the same. And thus we have these battles as to who is best interpreting the Reformed Traditions. Outside the Church, many Reformed Christians adopt an us verses them attitude toward the world. They believe that the writers of the Reformed Traditions have everything to teach the world and nothing to learn from it--to adopt a Martin Luther King line. So what many Reformed church leaders do when trying to respond  to a pressing issue of the day is to read these Traditions without questioning while avoiding all other sources of information. Just think of what is being said here; those who wrote the Reformed Traditions had nothing to learn from people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King. Neither do the writers of the Reformed Traditions have anything to learn from Hellen Keller, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and alike.

Now should one appeal to the Scriptures to prove something here, it is usually done from having studied the Scriptures through the Reformed Traditions first. Thus, such a person has studied the Bible through systems that are viewed as providing almost divinely inspired cookie cutters that shape what the Bible can and cannot say. A similar effect can be seen in churches that adhere to Dispensationalism. It isn't the mere use of the Reformed Traditions that is wrong here. For one could use the Reformed Traditions as providing flawed models of thought that comment on the Scriptures. But after a certain point, the more reverence one has for the Reformed Traditions, the less this is done.

Another problem here is that, all too often, equal weight is put on all of the parts of the Reformed Traditions. This means that what the Reformed Traditions teach us about how to relate to each other is to be treated with the same respect that the statements about God and salvation are treated with. The implication is clear but not carried out. Rather, the intention here is to maintain uniformity and obedience. The issue is control.

So how does all of this inhibit those who follow the Reformed Traditions from working for peace, world peace to be specific? The first way all of this hurts our efforts in working for peace can be seen in how we are to relate to those in authority. The second way the Reformed Traditions keep its especially older adherents from joining  peace movements is that it kills the curiosity that causes us to not question by instilling a phobia to complexity.

Let's face it, the writers of the Reformed Traditions were authoritarians. The twenty-third chapter of the Westminster Confession said that the government was to preserve the Church and was to punish "blasphemies and heresies." And though many in today's Reformed churches do not agree with the parts of this chapter that gives the government control over religious statements,  this was the mentality of the writers. And they lived in a time where elite-centered governments were in style. Those in authority were to obeyed, not questioned. To use the language of the Westminster Standards, those in authority or who are older are our "superiors" while we are their "inferiors."

The Reformed Traditions spoke in unison about our duty to obey the government. Both the Heidelberg and the Westminster Catechisms declare that obedience to the government is part of our keeping of the 5th commandment to honor our parents. In fact, the Westminster Catechisms explicitly interpret the 5th commandment as demanding that we submit to all of our superiors.

On the other hand, all those in authority have their responsibilities too. For some of the Reformed Traditions state that, as just mentioned, the government is to punish those who teach what is wrong. One only needs to remember how Servetus was burnt at the stake by Calvin's Geneva because of heresy. Besides that, the government was to encourage and reward and defend those who are good and punish evildoers. However, Government is not to provoke the people to wrath. When one compiles all that the Reformed Traditions say, the government is to be an instrument used by God to protect and guide us.

But what do the Reformed Traditions say we should do when evil results come from governments ordained by God to do good? Here, not much is said except that we should be patient with the failings of those in authority and pray for them and that we are only obligated to obey laws that are both just and not contrary to the Scriptures. But not being obligated to obey unjust laws can mean different things to different people. To the apostles, it meant preaching the Gospel despite being commanded not to. To Martin Luther King, disobeying unjust laws meant ignoring those laws that did not treat people fairly and as equals. To King, disobedience to such laws are not the concern of the law's targets only, but of all who would are concerned for others. But at the same time, King stated that we are also submitting to the authorities when we peacefully and lovingly submitting to the consequences of such disobedience (see King's Letter From A Birmingham Jail).

When we look at the Reformed Traditions, we see that there is a tendency toward tribalism built into commands to obey the government. Some even say that explicitly (see the Summary and Conclusion from John Frame's Toward A Theology Of The State). That is there is a certain myopia taught by the confessions and catechisms regarding our relationship with our government and nation. According to the Reformed Traditions, we are to submit to our own leaders, relying on them for guidance and protection. Meanwhile, these traditions say nothing of be mindful of the world outside. Should this bother us considering human history and how governments will say anything to garner and maintain popular support? But, we are told to submit to those in authority so we can lead peaceful and quiet lives, so we can keep to ourselves.

We should note the role tribalism plays in wars. For tribalism does not consist merely of some kind of familial, religious, ethnic, ideological, or national sense of belonging. We all belong to groups and belonging to a group does not mean we practice tribalism. Tribalism refers to the degree of loyalty one has for one's own group. The greater the loyalty people have for their groups, the greater the tribalism that exists. The greater the tribalism, the more people embrace moral relativity. That is because the greater the loyalty people have for their groups, the more right and wrong is decided by who does what to whom. Sooner or later, moral absolutes fade from the picture of ethics. The more we judge moral wrongs by what ill effects others cause us, the more self-righteous we will be in answering alleged evil with real evil. And how will we know that our government is practicing real evil in its responses when we depend on it for guidance and protection as the Reformed traditions tell us to?

When we see that history has provided us with a plethora of examples of the real reasons why nations go to war, that they are moved by avarice and ambition, and how these same nations lie to their own citizens so as to recruit their help to fight these wars, how can we be content with the Reformed Traditions' view of how we are to submit to the government? If we have an ounce of care for anyone outside of our own littles worlds, how can we follow the Reformed Traditions here?

To question or even challenge the Reformed Traditions within the Reformed community is to be seen as a troublemaking pariah. This perception often reveals more about the community than the individual. The community reacts this way to challenges to the Reformed Traditions because such challenges cause one-and-many panic attacks. This is because change can cause some to be afraid that they are losing vital connections to the past. So the question becomes for those in the Reformed community, how much change can we undergo and still call ourselves Reformed? The question reveals our problem. Our problem is that we are not asking ourselves the right question. Our problem is not whether the next change will disqualify us from being Reformed. The question is whether the next change either moves us closer to or takes us away from Christ? We should note that our greatest fear here reveals our greatest treasure.

One of the mottos in the Reformed Churches is that we are always reforming. And yet, the more reverence we have for our Reformed Traditions, the more we resist reform. And the older one is, the more one is likely to revere the past and resist change. This is why there is little to no hope for having the older members of the Reformed churches work for peace. But, amongst the young people there are stirrings that doctrine without love and the right works is not worth sticking around for. And indeed, some are not. But some of the some are also showing us that if we do not change what we can afford to, they will leave and change what they can't afford to let go of.

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