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Saturday afternoons at General Synod (annual gathering of delegates from across the Reformed Church in America) are usually reserved for some of the most difficult and contentious business. At this year’s General Synod – the 209th – many matters were discussed, from creating a special council to provide clarity on matters of human sexuality, to calling for a season of restraint from performing same-sex marriages or from leaving the denomination over matters of sexuality, and the nature of the power Regional Synods might have as it concerns moving churches from one classis to another.
Debates drag on. Impassioned pleas are made from the microphone on the floor. Parliamentary questions stop us in our tracks and make us realize how very little we know about Robert’s Rules of Order. Emotions fill us up, and we overflow with anxiety.
While I am not a delegate this year, I was one two years ago. I remember the feeling of Saturday afternoon well. I watched the livestream yesterday, and it transported me back to that Saturday afternoon two years ago when very similar topics were discussed.
But this year, two things were said that I haven’t been able to forget. The first wasn’t said by any one person, but was a sentiment that was reflected in many comments. It is a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly – not just yesterday – from both sides of the divide. It’s not always said the same way, but the meaning is the same.
“I’m afraid for the future of the church.”
I completely and totally understand this fear. Our already small denomination seems torn, not just in two but into thousands of fragments. Can we really weather one more storm at sea? Will this be the storm that sinks our fleet of ships” [1] And we cry out in fear.
But, something else was said from the floor of debate that pulled me back out of my fear. James Brumm referred to Acts 5 and the words of Gamaliel.
In Acts 5, Peter and the apostles were teaching about Jesus. They were brought before the high priest for questioning. They had been forbidden to teach in the name of Jesus, and yet they were continuing to do so. And then Gamaliel, a Pharisee in the council, asked for Peter and the apostles to be put outside for a moment. What he said next is astonishing.
First, he looks back at history, and he talks of others who rose up and drew a following. Over time, these leaders were killed and their movements disbursed. Gamaliel said, “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” [2] When tensions are high, disagreements are fierce, and when we seem at an impasse, we can’t be given over to fear. We can worry about our denomination. We can wonder about our individual churches. Ministers can feel uncertainty and concern about their jobs. But we cannot fear for the Church because it is something created by God. What God has made cannot be destroyed.
Perhaps this is why John wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” [3] God is love, and the perfect love of God should cast out all our fears. What God has created cannot be destroyed. Even when it seems impossible, God will continue to uphold and strengthen the church.
As it says in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 54:

Q. What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?
A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

Always. God gather, protects, and preserves this community always. And even when we fight against God’s purposes, God will accomplish them through us anyway.
After all, we are those who follow the One who made this startling claim: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” [4] How startling it would have been if Jesus had been referring to the physical temple. But, even more than that, he was referring to his own body, to the conquering of death, and the resurrection that would unite us to Christ so that we might not be enslaved to death.
Brothers and sisters, we cannot allow ourselves to become enslaved to fear. We are perfectly loved by the love of God. We are being gathered, protected, and preserved into a community that transcends denominations, geography, nationality, and time. And of this community, we are and will always be living members.

  • [1] The word “Classis” (RCA regional governing bodies) comes from the Latin for “fleet of ships.”
  • [2] Acts 5:34-39, NRSV
  • [3] 1 John 4:18, NRSV.
  • [4] John 2:19, NRSV.