“Affinity Classes:” A Good Idea for the RCA?

I continue with another posting about denominational issues for the Reformed Church in America, which faces a range of complex issues this coming summer at its General Synod.

We now have the report from the “special council” that met in Chicago from April 15-18, 2016.  The group was convened to propose a way forward for the RCA in dealing with difficult and contentious issues surrounding sexual ethics.  In this reflection, however, I do not intend to speak to the question of the RCA’s position on sexual ethics (though I have published a book on that topic, and have many thoughts swirling in my head).  Instead, I want to speak to another issue addressed in the report, the option of so-called “affinity classes.”

This is an option advocated in several places in the report.  Group 2 includes it among their recommendations, as does group 4 and group 8.  The “group of five” that organized the assembly includes it in their summary recommendations to the General Synod.  They recommend “that Synod establish at least one affinity classis that includes people and congregations regardless of their perspective on human sexuality to ensure and allow relationship and mission together.”  They note that this action “might provide a way for those with differing interpretations of Scripture to remain in the RCA.”

Of course, there are some significant church order issues that immediately arise here, particularly whether the General Synod has any authority to create any classes at all.  Right now, our church order locates that responsibility exclusively within regional synods, the “mid-level” judicatory in the RCA.  The General Synod may “transfer classes and churches from one regional synod to another,” but apart from that, there is no authority granted to the General Synod to create a new classis of any sort.

But quite apart from those difficulties, this recommendation concerning affinity classes comes in the midst of a variety of tendencies, in the last ten years or so, to call into question what had been assumed in the RCA up to that point:  the geographic basis of the organization of the church into classes.  The Regional Synod of the Far West was the first to begin to call into question the regional bases of classes.  It created the City Classis, and defined the geographic boundaries of that classis to be the same as the boundaries of the Regional Synod.  This is a classis devoted to churches in metropolitan centers containing populations of more than 500,000.  Yet even this geographical boundary has not been entirely upheld.  The City Classis now includes churches in Philadelphia, for example, which is located outside the boundary of the Regional Synod of the Far West, and is exploring other church plants outside the region of the far west as well.

Other regional synods are also exploring this.  For example, the Regional Synod of the Great Lakes has made a number of moves which create ambiguity around geographic boundaries for classes.

So we stand at a crossroad of sorts.  If we move toward a full adoption of “affinity classes,” this move away from geographically defined classes will have finally reached official culmination in the order of the RCA.  It’s time for us to step back a bit from specific issues, to ask if this move away from a geographic understanding of classes is a good idea.

I understand why this is an attractive idea.  It allows people to avoid conflict that would diminish the effectiveness of the church overall in its mission.  It allows churches which are out of step with their surrounding churches in a classis to find a way to avoid discipline and other problems.  It allows churches to focus on issues that they think are important, without having to devote so much time and attention to issues they think are a waste of time.

Despite all these positive things, I think that affinity classes are not a good idea.  Let me offer a number of reasons for this conclusion.  First of all, a simple reading of the New Testament suggests that this is not the way the New Testament envisions groups of churches.  In the New Testament, multiple churches are very frequently envisioned and addressed in term of geography.  We hear of the “churches of Galatia” (1 Cor 16:1, Gal 1:2), the “churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), the “churches of Macedonia” (2 Cor 8:1), the “churches of Judea” (Gal 1:22), and the “seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev 1:4).  There are no references to “churches” in the plural that reference anything apart from their geography (except for some that speak of the “churches of God” or “churches in Christ,” which are clearly references to the church in its totality).

Secondly, the use of “affinity” as a basis for grouping churches together runs into serious problems with Paul’s image of the diverse parts of the body of Christ in 1 Cor 12:12ff.  One might argue that Paul is speaking here of a local congregation, rather than clusters of churches, but do we really want to say that the diversity of the body of Christ is welcome at the local level, but unacceptable at the wider level of groups of churches?  Do we really want to undermine, at the organizational level, the celebration of diversity which Paul emphasizes at the local level in 1 Cor 12:12ff.?

This leads to my third concern.  If we are going to move toward “affinity classes,” we must decide what sorts of “affinities” constitute legitimate bases around which to organize clusters of churches, and which do not.  Is the recognition of women in ministry, or the refusal to do so, a sufficient basis for an “affinity classis?”  How about support of, or opposition to legalized abortion?  Would the use of, or resistance to charismatic gifts be a sufficient basis for an affinity classis?  What about worship styles?  What about eagerness to plant new churches?  Many of these have already been discussed in one context or another, and the explicit adoption of affinity classes would only encourage all these ways of dividing the body of Christ.  There are precedents here that lead to a very murky future, and to a church which doesn’t appear very healthy for a variety of reasons.  This looks like avoidance of conflict, rather than engagement of difference.

Finally, we have the problem of the interaction between classes that are more geographic in character and those that are structured in terms of affinity.  Who decides which churches get to opt out of geographic definitions and move toward affinity classes?  This becomes a complex problem for which easy solutions don’t seem evident.

In short, I recognize the extreme difficulty that questions of LGBT inclusion pose for the larger church, and the attractiveness of affinity classes as a strategy for diffusing to some extent this conflict.  I also recognize that there may be good reasons for assisting churches which share a common vision on a particular topic to affiliate in some way with each other.  I don’t believe that classis boundaries should be rigidly enforced, and there may be instances where a move of one church from its present classis to an adjacent classis may be well-advised.  However, I believe that adopting “affinity classes” will bring far more problems than it solves, and I urge the Reformed Church in America to avoid this strategy.

Intimacy and the RCA Special Council

[For those of you who may not know me in this context, I am a member of the Reformed Church in America, a small denomination that recently held a “Special Council” on how to deal with controversy over LGBT inclusion in the church.  This post is a response to the report of that council.]

Although I was not a delegate to the RCA Special Council on Sexuality that met this past April in Chicago, I have heard from a variety of people who were part of that council, and an interesting thread has emerged in those reports.  Although the council was clearly not an easy time, and deep differences emerged that were not resolved, many of those who attended the council also reported significant interaction with others, particularly those who disagreed with them.  They left the council feeling closer to those people with whom they disagreed, even though their disagreements were not resolved, and were still a source of pain.

I have found similar sorts of dynamics in my own experience.  I was a delegate to the 2012 General Synod, which was extremely contentious on this topic.  Yet I was part of a small group that was extremely diverse, and we found ourselves bonding with each other, and established closer relationships, some of which have continued, despite our disagreements on sexual ethics.

I want to pause for a moment to reflect on those experiences.  In particular, I want to ask the question:  what is the Spirit saying to us in this?  Of course, it’s certainly possible to “over-read” experiences like these.  Whenever people allow themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of conflict, a natural response is to be drawn toward such a person, and certainly some of the dynamics of this council may have been shaped by such psychological processes.

But I’m not convinced that this is adequate as an exhaustive explanation.  There are some objective reasons why this response of closeness in the face of this conflict ought not to be overly psychologized.  The most significant of these is the fact that there is nothing in our confessions about this division over sexual ethics, and indeed, almost everything in our confessions is mutually embraced by people on both sides of this conflict.  In other words, part of the reason why people who disagreed over sexual ethics still found themselves feeling closer to each other at the conference was that they discovered that they embraced the same faith, not only in vague, general terms but also with respect to deeper nuances of their faith.  They found common ground, even in the midst of painful differences.

This is not so minimize the real, substantive, and painful aspects of this disagreement.  Reading the report makes it clear that these differences remain without any final resolution.  But it does raise a possibility that people on both sides of this conflict may not be looking for:  perhaps the Spirit is saying that this disagreement should not ultimately divide us as Christians who belong to the RCA.  Perhaps the deepened intimacy, along with the absence of identifiable aspects of our confessional life that divide us, should give us more patience as we work through this particular conflict.

This may also help to explain one of the recurring themes of the report that seems strange at first glance.  I am thinking of the repeated references in the Special Council report to a “grace-filled and orderly departure from the denomination.”  At one level, this seems like an exceedingly strange notion.  How can the sort of division of fellow believers that is based on an inability to work together be spoken of as “grace-filled?”  How can such a division be expressive of good order?  Where is grace present in such a separation at all?  (I suppose that people might choose to treat each other without animosity in the midst of such separation, but that represents a rather severe diminishment of what Christians mean by the word “grace” in an ecclesiological context.)  But the fact that the Special Council felt compelled to speak this way suggests another reality beneath the division:  the perception that both sides may well have a grasp of the gospel and the heart of Reformed faith, even though they cannot come to a common mind on this topic.  It’s interesting, in this regard, that the Special Council speaks in these contexts of “grace-filled and orderly separation” rather than of discipline (an emphasis for which I am grateful).

So rather than moving too quickly to the language of “grace-filled and orderly separation,” I would like to invite the RCA to explore more deeply why it uses such language in the first place, and what it says about the status of our differences, as deep and painful as they may be.  If those differences allow for us to recognize the presence of “grace” in the corporate lives of others with whom we disagree on this topic, can we really be that far apart?

I suspect that, even in the arena of sexual ethics, we may not be far apart on many issues–closer than we often imagine.  I suspect that together we recognize that the gap between the sexual practice of our culture and the (rightful) teaching of the church is greater than it has been in a long time.  Together we would agree that the proliferation of promiscuity is a serious problem.  Together we may well lament the movement of many younger people away from the public commitment of marriage, and the way in which living together too easily replaces it.  Together we would agree that the church needs a deeper vision of grace to deal with sexual experiences that are more “to the margins” than in the mainstream.

So yes, the differences are real, substantive, and painful.  But if we have so much in common, not only in our shared confessional commitments, but also even in the arena of sexual ethics, might that not be an invitation to more work, and less focus on separation?  I certainly hope so.