To those ruling elders, ministers, and concerned laity in the CRC, you established your boundary when you stood before God and the church and promised to uphold, teach, and defend the Word of God as confessed by the churches. If church discipline is your line (not a bad one, since its is one of the three marks of the true church in Belgic art. 29) then why does it begin only at the ordination of homosexuals or homosexual marriage? Why does it not begin with the ordination of females to ministerial office?
I am not certain what it means but pastors resort to military analogies with surprising frequency. One of them is the metaphor of “dying on a hill.” The image is that of a marine charging up a hill or fighting to hold a hill. They also speak about drawing a “line in the sand.” In this instance the image is the act of declaring to one’s enemies where the battle will be engaged. In the last two centuries there have been drawn some notorious lines in the sand. In reaction to World War I, the French created the Maginot Line, a series of fortifications and bunkers along the border with Germany. It did not work. German tanks rolled into France via Belgium. As the saying goes, the French were fighting the previous war. More recently, in 2012, President Obama decreed that Syrian President Assad would not be permitted to cross a figurative “red line,” i.e., the use of chemical weapons against his people, without a military response. When chemical weapons were used in 2013, there was no military response from the U.S. and the slaughter continued.
Both instances are instructive for pastors who think and talk about what is their “line in the sand.”
I recall seeing an interview, in the 1980s, with Clayton Bell (1932–2000), then pastor of Highland Park (PCUSA), who declared that things were coming to a place in the PCUSA where the doctrine of Scripture was a stake. Coming? The Confession of 1967 had fundamentally weakened weakened confession of the church two decades earlier. J. Gresham Machen had been drummed out of the mainline Presbyterian church nearly six decades earlier. Bell’s line in the sand struck me as fairly useless. At lunch recently some co-workers and I were discussing some of the lines that some ministerial friends are prepared to draw.
Some conservative friends in the Christian Reformed Church, which I characterized in Recovering the Reformed Confession, as a “borderline” denomination, have been considering what should be their “line in the sand.” One about which I have heard is that when a CRC minister is not disciplined for conducting a homosexual wedding. Others have proposed different lines in the sand and some seem to have abandoned any line whatever, content, perhaps, to conduct occasional guerilla resistance against the continuing drift of the CRC away from historic Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
Military and ecclesiastical history suggest that those who draw lines in the sand have already capitulated. The great problem with such lines is that they are arbitrary and can be erased as quickly as they were drawn. That much was clear in 2013. Obama’s “red line” was a bluff. Assad called his bluff thereby revealing Obama’s lack of will to enforce it. The fortresses of the Maginot Line were magnificently stout but warfare had changed. It had become much more mobile and less predictable than in World War I. This time there would be no trenches, long stalemates, and chemical warfare. This time it was Blitzkrieg. Where planes entered the battle late in WWI, jets entered the battle late in WWII. The world was speeding up.
So it is in ecclesiastical conflict. The last war is interesting and instructive but it is not this war. Arbitrary lines in the sand actually encourage an opponent determined to achieve victory. The invention of new lines is a form of capitulation and self-delusion. It gives the illusion of resistance while ever drawing back toward the capitol. “We will stop them in the country!” becomes, “we will stop them in the suburbs!” which inevitably becomes, “we will fight them in the streets of Paris.”
The Reformed Churches declared the whole of God’s Word to be their line:
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house (Belgic Confession art. 7).