So it’s been a year since I’ve posted! Whew! Time for an update. In the past year I’ve moved my ministerial credentials from the Christian Reformed Church in North America to the United Church of Christ. It’s been a healthy and hopeful move, and I wanted to share a bit of that with you. I am posting here the “Theological Paper” that I had to write as part of my transition to the UCC. In the past year I’ve also been a part of starting a new UCC community in Holland, MI: Holland UCC. You can read more about that at hollanducc.org. It’s a long paper, but I thought you might enjoy reading about some of my spiritual journey and theological evolution—which of course is ongoing! Here’s the paper (including endnotes!):

Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in small fishing towns in the first century of the common era, these simple words rang out: “Come, follow me.” Words that echo through the centuries. Words that evoke something within us: a longing to go, to participate in something large and meaningful, to hear the voice of God in our lives, and respond. This simple beginning for Jesus and his disciples reminds us that the spiritual life is above all a journey. My own journey of faith started early, as a child raised in a loving, Christian home. I was taught the tenets of the Reformed faith from a young age, as expressed in the Christian Reformed Church. This was a wonderful foundation for my faith journey and I am grateful for it. Yet my journey has taken me beyond the inherently narrow confines of this confessional tradition with largely conservative values. A confessional tradition like the CRC requires consent for all pastors and office bearers to uphold, defend and be governed by certain Reformation-era doctrinal formulations.[1] My journey, some of which we’ll discuss in this paper, has led me to a place where such consent is no longer possible, and further, seems unnecessary. This has led me to the United Church of Christ, where there is “no rigid formulation of doctrine or attachment to creeds or structures” and the “overarching creed is love.”[2] Those words are incredibly welcoming to someone coming from a tradition with quite rigid formulations, and incredibly strong attachment to its confessional identity. The “What We Believe” section of the UCC website notes that “In the UCC, members, congregations and structures have the breathing room to explore and to hear … for after all, God is still speaking, …”[3] I find this a healthy and hopeful statement, because it creates space for real journeys by real people seeking to hear that ancient and simple invitation of Jesus. It opens to the real possibility of the Spirit at work in new ways in our lives and world today.

While there may not be rigid doctrines or attachments to creeds or confessions, the United Church of Christ still has a theological center from which to operate. Given the UCC’s beginnings as a uniting church bringing several traditions together, this was and continues to be important. The varied traditions that comprised the denomination each had various historical confessions which shaped those traditions. Yet rather than adopt any of these, the church felt it proper to create a new statement of faith which articulated some of the central themes of the new denomination to help guide and inform theological development, preaching and teaching, yet without requiring slavish adherence to this new statement. In that spirit, a statement of faith was written and adopted in 1959 by the UCC General Synod and is widely regarded as one of the most significant Christian faith testimonies of the 20th century.[4] The UCC Statement of Faith has proven to be surprisingly enduring given the progressive nature of the denomination itself and its own professed desire to allow space for humans and God to continually breathe and speak in new ways together.

The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ begins by pointing us to God, the Eternal Spirit. A beautiful starting point, noting that God is eternal: without origin, beyond time. God is also Spirit: not created matter, but rather the source of all that is and the ground of all being. Secondly this statement of faith describes God as Father in two senses: father to Jesus Christ and father to all of humanity. I resonate with the description of God as a parent, particularly as we consider God as the source of all life, and God the creator, who made humanity in his image. It is important, in my opinion, to expand this parental description of God to include ‘Mother’ as well. Parker Palmer begins his version of the Lord’s Prayer in this way: “Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, Holy and Blessed is your true name.”[5] Similarly, the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer starts its version of this same prayer with: “Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love Maker, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven.”[6] As God has given birth to the cosmos, it is fitting to also use feminine language to describe her, as indeed we see in Job where womb-imagery is used to describe the waters of creation bursting forth, among other feminine Scriptural references for the divine.[7] Given the many female images for God in Scripture, Kristina LaCelle-Peterson observes, “the question is not whether using female images for God will draw us away from orthodox Christianity, but whether using exclusively male metaphors will so distort our view of God as to render our concept of God unbiblical.”[8] Could the UCC Statement of Faith be improved by adding feminine language for God? I would say unequivocally, “Yes.” It is worth noting that the adapted version by Robert Moss eliminates this parental language altogether. This is one solution, though I would prefer to include both father and mother imagery and language.

The UCC Statement of Faith goes on to say that we testify to the deeds of God. These deeds include calling worlds into being, creating humanity in God’s own image, and setting before us the ways of life and death. I wholeheartedly affirm these deeds of God. And the way of life that God sets before us I see most fully and clearly in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, who called out to those fishermen so long ago. In following the way of Jesus, the way of inclusion, of forgiveness, of peace—we find humanity at its best. In setting before us the way of death, as the statement of faith indicates, I would frame that as God giving us the latitude to use our wills freely and to make decisions that are life-giving and nourishing to ourselves, our neighbors and our world, as well as the freedom to make decisions that are harmful toward ourselves, others, and the planet. These latter decisions are clearly evident in our world, and often contribute to the suffering and death we see around us.

The statement continues: “God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.” In the tradition in which I was raised, I was taught to understand humanity as being totally depraved. The Heidelberg Catechism, one of three confessional documents in the Christian Reformed Church, puts it this way in Lord’s Day 2: “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor, thanks to the irrevocable fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in paradise.”[9] In case that wasn’t clear enough, it goes on in Question and Answer 8 to note the depths of this depravity: “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?” Answer: “Yes.”[10] These were satisfying answers to me as I grew up in the church. Yet the life of faith is above all a journey, and this view became less and less satisfying to me as I began to meet humanists, atheists, and people of other religious traditions who were doing many good things in the world. It began to ring untrue to me that human beings could do no good in the world because of their inherent sinful nature.

Author Daniel Shroyer is one among several theologians who insist that Jesus himself did not believe in original sin, and therefore, perhaps neither should we. It is true that this idea is not prevalent in Judaism, and that Jewish commentaries tend not to frame Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden as an existential fall that doomed all of their progeny. Shroyer notes: “While the early church talked about sin as an action or an illness, Augustine and others shifted language to an inborn sin nature. Once that happened, all the theological focus went toward trying to fix the problem of sin. The cross was seen differently, and salvation became primarily about sin management, and human bodies became suspect, and on and on.”[11]

I agree with Shroyer—and the early church—that human beings indeed do sin, but that perhaps it is best not framed as being ‘inclined toward all evil’ or ‘unable to do any good.’ I also agree with the UCC Statement of Faith which speaks of God seeking to save people from aimlessness and sin in holy love. The Statement of Faith goes on to note the means through which God accomplishes this: in and through the person of Jesus. It says, “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, he has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to God.” There is a lot to unpack there.

The Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood used to say to his students, as relayed in Brian McLaren’s thought-provoking book, A New Kind of Christianity: “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.”[12] What is the significance of putting it this way? McLaren notes that this view prevents us from using a “pre-determined, set-in-stone view of God derived from the rest of the Bible” and then simply extend that view to Jesus, even (or especially) if it contradicts the presentation of Jesus we discover in the gospel texts themselves.[13] This idea has been very freeing to me and has rescued my understanding of God from other images of God that are tribal, violent, capricious, and prone to anger. The Jesus we read about in the gospels seems to reflect none of those things, and if Jesus is the best picture we have of God—as a number of New Testament scriptures clearly echo[14]—then it seems to me it is actually more proper to give priority and credence to the view of God we discover in Jesus above many of the alternatives.

This view is open to a ‘progressive revelation’ about God, in other words, that pictures of God that we have earlier in the scriptural tradition may not be as clear or as full as later pictures. I think this is a healthy view, particularly as religious views are in many ways bound to, and reflective of, the culture(s) out of which they arise. I find that the United Church of Christ’s insistence that “God is still speaking” reminds us that we have new things to learn about God even today! I find that refreshing coming from a more conservative Reformed tradition that tends to use a ‘constitutional reading’ of Scripture in which all parts are equal—a view which, if pressed, begins to collapse under the inherent contradictions that the various Scriptural voices present, whether on the nature of God or on many other issues.

So how exactly does God save all people from aimlessness and sin through Jesus? The UCC Statement of Faith notes that in Jesus God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death. This is a central and common understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus throughout Christian faith and history. Often this is framed through the lens of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), a view that arose later in the Christian tradition through certain readings of the Apostle Paul, Saint Augustine, and Saint Anselm, and crystallized during the Reformation in the 16th century. The traditional PSA reading notes that God required a perfect blood sacrifice in order to forgive sins, and that God actually willed this violent act. In other words, God required the use of violence to accomplish God’s ends. This view became increasingly problematic for me as I saw it at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus himself, who told us to not return violence with violence, but to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to forgive seventy times seven, to love our enemies, and saying explicitly that we need to go and learn what this means: “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.”[15]

If Jesus operated in a non-violent fashion, and Jesus is the best picture we have of God, perhaps God is not violent, either. Theologian Brad Jersak sees God’s nonviolence at work in the cross. He notes that while the cross was indeed a violent episode, we are not witnessing God’s violence: “Good Friday was not the outpouring of God’s violence upon Christ to assuage his own wrath. That day was God’s “No!” to wrath and “Yes!” to love and forgiveness in the face of humanity’s violence and wrath.”[16] It is significant here to recall Jesus praying to God on behalf of those killing him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Could it be that this desire to forgive even one’s enemies who are pouring out their worst upon you is reflective of God’s heart as well? I believe so.

Jersak also notes that the life of Jesus shows God’s identification with humanity in the incarnation and the invitation for us to identify with his life, death and resurrection, and that his solidarity with humanity “draws us into the new humanity he is creating.” And, drawing on the work of Walter Wink, he notes that through the crucifixion Jesus confronts and defeats sin and the powers that be “through his resistance, obedience, and resurrection.”[17]

So it still may be worth asking, “How does the cross save us?” To which I would respond, it saves us by showing us the divine power at work in the life of Jesus which was willing to love at all costs, to confront the powers of this world and respond not with hatred or vengeance, but with nonviolent compassion, with a heart so wide it could forgive even its worst enemies. It saves us by interrupting our cycle of violence by saying no to violence. It saves us by inviting us into life with God, whose infinite compassion is seen in this episode. We must also note that the life Jesus lived was the kind of life that led to that death. It was a life for and on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the stranger, the other—those who had been left behind and left out by the institutions of both religion and empire. Indeed, he came announcing good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and release for the captives. I find it also helpful to remember that throughout the history of the church there have been multiple theories on the atonement, and that we are best served when open to the many layers and insights these offer on this complex, yet central, event of the Christian faith.

One could say that my faith has shifted from a sin-centric gospel, and a next-life-escape-plan gospel, to a holistic, earthy, flesh-and-blood gospel which works to bring life and renewal in our neighborhoods, our cities and world. This happens as we respond to the invitation of Jesus to follow him, empowered by his own example and the Spirit of God at work in our lives and communities. I believe we see this notion of the journey in community expressed in the UCC Statement of Faith as it notes that “God bestows on us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church and calling that church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship and to be his servants to all of humanity, sharing this gospel of Good News to all the world, resisting the powers of evil and sharing in the baptism and meal of Jesus.” I think this is a beautiful picture of what God is doing in and through the church on behalf of the world today, and expresses why after over a decade in ministry I continue to want to be a part of it.

I think it is important to note that this statement reminds us that God call us to be servants of all humanity. This is a timely and needed reminder in an age of demonization, other-izing, xenophobia, racism, homophobia and misogyny. The church does not exist for its own sake. It does not exist simply to perpetuate itself or to take care of itself or to love those who are already there. Those things are important, but we follow a Jesus who crossed every boundary to eat with the excluded, to welcome the outcast, to sit with the sinner, to welcome the unwelcomed. And so I love that this extravagant service and welcome is expressed in this original statement of faith in the UCC, and that we really do have Good News to share with all of the world. The practice of sharing the meal of Jesus to all who come through our doors is a beautiful way of exemplifying God’s boundless love and welcome. Having been raised in a tradition that had a number of stipulations on who and how one could participate in the bread and the wine, I cannot say how life-giving it is to say now at my church, “All are welcome at the table. No exceptions.”

The UCC Statement of Faith goes on to say that God “promises to all who trust her forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, her presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in God’s kingdom which has no end.” I appreciate this framing of God promising us not just grace, but a fullness of it, a full welcome despite our shortcomings. I also appreciate this word about courage in the struggle for justice and peace. Simply seeing the words ‘struggle for justice and peace’ in a statement of faith is astounding to me. YES. I believe God indeed offers us courage and calls us to be those who struggle for justice and for peace. And the United Church of Christ has a rich history of working for justice dating back to its founding traditions. The American Missionary Association, comprised largely of Congregationalists, worked tirelessly toward abolition of slavery, and was described by Fredrick Douglass, who often worshiped in the First Congregational Church of Washington DC, as “a society honestly laboring to disseminate light and hope amongst us.”[18] Congregationalist, Reformed and Christian congregations also were instrumental in advancing roles and responsibilities for women through the establishment of Women’s Boards and Societies during and after the Civil War. It has been noted that the development of these boards did three things for women and the churches: 1) It transformed the mission consciousness of the churches, 2) it improved the situation of the women involved, and 3) it created a climate that supported the advancement of women and the ecumenical movement.[19] This early social consciousness has translated into a continuing ethos of being on the forefront of progressive justice movements in the United Church of Christ. This is part of the core identity of the UCC, as noted on its website: “We believe that the UCC is called to be a prophetic church. As in the tradition of the prophets and apostles, God calls the church to speak truth to power, liberate the oppressed, care for the poor and comfort the afflicted.” I honestly believe that as we continue to use that voice—in this era of potential regression on civil rights and justice for people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees—the United Church of Christ will grow. Many people, especially the younger generation, are looking for churches that are living, working and speaking in these ways.

As it moves toward its close, the UCC Statement of Faith reminds us of God’s “presence in trial and rejoicing.” I love this view that God is with us in the hard times as well as the good. This is a healthy pastoral approach—which I believe also has the virtue of being true!—and a good counter-message to the expanding prosperity gospel voices in our culture which note that wealth and success are signs of God being with us. This statement reminds us that God not only promises to be with us in our struggles and our successes, but that we have life in her kingdom, which has no end. I think it is important the way this is phrased, that eternal life is not merely life after death, but life now—right now—and beyond. Too many Western presentations of the Christian faith center on life after death, and reduce faith in Jesus to a sort of fire insurance to keep one from experiencing eternal conscious torment. I appreciate that this concept of hell is not even mentioned, nor hell at all for that matter, in this statement of faith. I do not believe that a loving God could or would create a place of eternal conscious torment, nor that she would send people there as punishment for anything one might commit during a finite earthly existence. This note of God with us toward the end of this statement of faith is a beautiful recapitulation of the center of the Christian faith, that in the person of Jesus humanity experiences the presence of God in a unique and powerful way that is indeed Good News.

At this stage of my own journey and vocational calling, I see the United Church of Christ as a natural and meaningful place to call my denominational home. I appreciate the embedded desire to be a uniting church, a value out of which the denomination was formed and arose. I am grateful that part of the UCC’s heritage hearkens to the Reformation churches of England and Germany, encompassing Congregational, Christian, Lutheran and other faith expressions. This broad diversity within its own history gives validity and integrity to the claim of wanting to be both a uniting body as well as a diverse body—a difficult but needed stance! Some of the original Christian traditions that now comprise the United Church of Christ date back to the founding of this nation, and these roots are allowed to nourish and support the church today without choking out the possibility of new life. I found this statement from the former General Minister and President of the UCC, John H. Thomas, to be very emblematic of this:

“Recognizing that Jesus Christ is the head of the church, the United Church of Christ has claimed as its own the faith of the church through the ages, even as it has understood the responsibility of each generation to claim and confess that faith in the face of new circumstances. Our world is very different from the world our founders sought to address… in ways our forebears in the 1950s could have hardly imagined. Yet we remain what we have always been at our best, a people bearing witness to a grand moral vision rooted in the Bible and the person of the crucified and risen Christ, and a people of spiritual audacity, prepared to risk old assumptions for the sake of new possibilities.”[20]

You could almost say that my own journey out of a confessional denomination into a more progressive body of faith is itself a microcosm of the UCC: particular beginnings rooted in a specific Christian Protestant strand and then growth and expansion that builds and grows in ways that require a fresh hearing on how God is still speaking today. My own growth and understandings in some of the areas already covered in this paper continue to shift and evolve, and no doubt will continue to grow throughout my life! I long to be open to learning new things about the beauty and mystery of life with God and the journey of following Jesus. And as I learn new ways of understanding the scriptures and new ways of thinking about faith, I hope to resist the temptation to come to a new fundamentalist-like certainty that demands all now adhere to my views. I am still—and will always be—learning, studying, growing, praying, discovering, while having my ear open to hear and live into that simple and ancient call, “Come follow me.” In the United Church of Christ I have found a place where I can hear that call anew. The implications for my journey and for the journey of the church continue to unfold in new ways. I am grateful for this intentional space that the UCC creates to hear our still-speaking God, and I am delighted to find fellow friends and travelers there.

 

[1] https://www.crcna.org/resources/church-resources/liturgical-forms-resources/ordination-installation/covenant-officebearers

[2] http://www.ucc.org/about-us_what-we-believe

[3] ibid.

[4] http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_statement-of-faith

[5] http://progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com/2012/07/lords-prayer-workshop-texts.html

[6] New Zealand Prayer Book –Rev. ed.: He Karakia Mihinare O Aotearoa, HarperOne; 4th Edition edition, p.181.

[7] Job 38:8, New International Version.

[8] Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, “Rediscovering Discarded Images,” in Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, Baylor University Center for Christian Ethics, vol. 33 (Fall 2009).

[9] https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/heidelberg-catechism

[10] ibid.

[11] Jonathan Merritt, “Author: Jesus didn’t believe in ‘original sin’ and neither should we” Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2017/01/13/author-jesus-didnt-believe-in-original-sin-and-neither-should-we/

[12] Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, p.114.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3, among others.

[15] Matthew 9:13, New International Version.

[16] Brad Jersak, Stricken By God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, location 181, Kindle edition.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Clara Merritt DeBoer, “Blacks and the American Missionary Association,” Hidden Histories in the United Church of Christ, p.84.

[19] Barbara Brown Zikmund and Sally A. Dries, “Women’s Work and Woman’s Boards,” Hidden Histories in the United Church of Christ, p.151.

[20] Margaret Rowland Post, History and Program, Revised and Updated, backcover.

2 Comments

  1. Pam Herbert says:

    Well written, Bryan. Thank you for sharing your journey. As one who is on a similar journey, you described it very well. Blessings on your new endeavors.

  2. ncyjoygries says:

    Thank you for sharing your heart with us Bryan. I’d love to read the state of your mind 30 years from now. I suspect it will be even more revolutionary. I feel your struggle and wish you all the best as you go forward.

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