What Is Your Line In The Sand? (Updated)

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.”

What we are considering here is where to draw battle lines. We are not talking about leaving the battlefield (e.g., withdrawing from the church). Rather, we are considering where the battle for the church, for her well being, for her fidelity should be joined.

The Reformed Churches declared the whole of God’s Word to be their battle 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).

This was our confession to the world and particularly to Rome and to the Anabaptists, both of whom claimed to have superseded the Scriptures as God’s Word with continuing revelation. Both had added to or taken away from the Scriptures. Both had corrupted the gospel. After prayerful deliberation, the churches met to adopt the confession and thereby to say, “Here we stand. We can do no other.” The author of the confession, Guy de Brès wrote his confession as he was being hunted by Spanish troops. He ratified the confession with his own life, on the gallows, in 1567. de Brès died for the Word of God as confessed by the churches. He drew no other line in the sand.

How should the battle for the church should be joined? That is a difficult question to answer and will vary from classis to classis but it would be well to learn from those who have already been through the struggle. One thinks of J. Gresham Machen’s work within the PCUSA prior to 1936. More recently, consider the approach of confessionalists within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), and finally consider the change of direction at Southern Seminary (SBC) in Louisville. These are encouraging models to emulate.

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? Why did it not begin when Harry Boer publicly attacked the Canons of Dort? Consider where things have gone since “Synod 1995 recognized that there are two different perspectives and convictions on this issue, both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God…”. Is that still true or are those who oppose the ordination of females second-class ecclesiastical citizens? Was the advocacy of women’s ordination really grounded in the conviction that God’s Word is infallible or on the ground that Paul was “hopelessly patriarchal”? You and I know the answers to those questions.

Consider where things are in the RCA, because, unless the trajectory changes, that appears to be the future of the CRC. Only a few years ago there were “conscience clauses” in the RCA permitting men like Kevin DeYoung to minister in the RCA, even though they opposed women’s ordination. Those clauses were removed, however. Look at the new joint CRC/RCA hymnal, where the psalms have been subsumed into the hymns. From the point of view of history the trajectory is clear: The Psalter (1912) became a Psalter-Hymnal (1934) and thence Lift Up Your Hearts (2013). Apart from family ties and sentiment, why exactly is the CRC still separate from the RCA? Aaron Vriesman concedes that “on paper” there seems little reason for the RCA and CRC to remain separate but argues that beneath the surface there remain substantial reasons for doing so. There is a crucial point in his essay, however, that  supports my thesis. As evidence for the difference between the RCA and the CRC, which he argues is still more confessional than the RCA, he appeals to the fact that RCA is a member of the liberal, mainline National Council of Churches but the CRC is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. He assumes the difference is great, as it seems to be on paper, but using his category, under the surface, there is a great deal of similarity between the liberal mainline and moderate evangelicals. History shows that today’s moderate evangelical is tomorrow’s liberal. Often “evangelical” is an unstable, transitional phase united to liberalism by a shared subjectivism. A Modernist in intellect but a Pietist at heart, the evangelical chooses to believe the Bible (mostly) and to believe the miracles (mostly) and most of all in Jesus but he believes against his intellect. Over time the heart succumbs to the mind and he becomes a modernist. So it is in the RCA and so it is becoming in the CRC.

It is not an easy thing to be a conservative or confessionalist minister, elder, or layman in a changing borderline denomination. It is difficult to be marginalized or to be in the midst of a painful ecclesiastical struggle. This essay is not intended to diminish the gravity of the struggle but to encourage those in the midst of the struggle to soldier on and to do so by affirming and standing on God’s Word as confessed by the churches.

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    • Thank you Pauline!

      Apparently one must actually type to get the words to come out correctly. I was thinking of a different sentence but that’s not what came out.

  1. While not even remotely tempted to ‘return’ to Rome, I sincerely understand the ‘if you break away from us, who is to stop others from breaking away from you?’ argument. Denominational splits are ugly, as are church splits. Both sides suffer, one by going ‘mainline’, the other by the ‘only perfect church’ infection. It is amazing to me that Christ loves such a harlot bride at all.

    • BJ,

      These splits are difficult and painful. The URC/CRC split was especially painful for a variety of reasons. This question is why Belgic Confession art. 29 is so important. That’s our answer. There are 3 marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the administration of church discipline.

      Arguably, the western church lost the 1st mark in the 13th century when she corrupted the two sacraments instituted by our Lord by the addition of five false sacraments. In 1547, session 6 of the Council of Trent, Rome rejected the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. She condemned anyone who preaches or confesses it. She forfeited any right to be a member of the true church. That the late medieval church was undisciplined by any standard was clear to the blind by 1500.

      So, in the case of the Reformation, it’s not a matter of leaving the church. It’s a matter of Rome giving up the marks of the church. Since that time, especially after the Enlightenment, individualism (not the Reformation) has wracked the church with heresy and unbelief. When denominations succumb to the Enlightenment, as the mainline churches have done, they lose their status as true churches. The borderline churches are more difficult but the URCs judged that the CRC had made it impossible to continue to minister within the CRC by admitting females to ministerial office in flat disobedience to 1 Tim 2. The confessionalists appealed and complained until they ran out of options.

      Here’s what we confess:

      Article 29: The Marks of the True Church
      We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church—for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

      We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.
      But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

      The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

      As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

      They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

      Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

      As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

      These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.

      There objective marks. Their application to the the CRC/URC split is challenging and my federation hasn’t done so. My intent is not to point fingers but to challenge conservatives in the CRC to think confessionally. This is important since the tendency in borderline and mainline churches is for dissenters to become either fundamentalists or Pietistic evangelicals. Ultimately, these are routes away from the Reformation.

    • I was a member of Ontario CRC in California before the split. Fortunately, it was fairly unanimous for that congregation to become URC, but no doubt not painless as these Dutch farmers were severing historical ties as well as theological. I had only been a recovering evangelical for a few years at the time, and did not understand the weight of the choice; I just figured if they were going to ordain females, then just walk away.
      But these days it is harder to take. I believe schisms must happen, good ones for the reasons above; if the salt has lost its savor what good is it? Even bad ones are good in a sense, if some are uber hopped up on literal 6/24 creation, or justification by faith and x, and that is their ‘line in the sand’, then it’s good that they leave us.
      But the split always brings consequence to both parties. One party is judged as faithless, as not being a true church (obviously that is no small finger to be pointed), the other side gets distracted by status and its members get too focused on being THE true church (until the next split). I hope these things will always be painful, and humbling. But it seems also to be accelerating. Even in the reformed community. Does NAPARC deny membership to churches that have split from churches that already hold membership? Assuming that main doctrine is still orthodox in both communities.
      Side note: the grammar guerilla was snorting about people who confuse ‘there’ and ‘they’re’. I told him you were going to blame the type bot but he didn’t seem convinced, so watch out.

  2. This post strikes very close to home, because two Thanksgivings ago we were sitting around the table later in the evening when a relative, with a somewhat confused look on his face, asked use what we thought about the SSM’s that were being performed in many mainline denominations, his own, a mainline Lutheran, being one of them. We all chimed in with various quotes from scripture showing that it was clearly wrong. He still didn’t look completely convinced and, with a clearly low view of scripture characteristic of his synod, mumbled something about not everything in the Bible being either accurate or correctly interpreted.

    We continued to press our points and he seemed to concede somewhat, but suddenly got loud and declared that he would never, never agree with those who oppose women’s ordination. Interesting, I thought, where he drew his line in the sand. His particular denomination was on a down hill slide decades before its multiple predecessor synods merged into one large one in the 80’s. Lodge memberships were tolerated. The miracles cited in the gospels were looked upon with skepticism. The “golden thread” of redemptive history that runs through the OT was looked upon as either a series of coincidences or a mere reflection of how the Israelites interacted with the various cultures surrounding them. And the list goes on – all in the name of a social gospel.

    So why the sudden line drawing at SSM? At any rate, it has been the primary issue instigating many congregational splits since his synod loosely “ratified” it during the last decade with the look-the-other-way statement that SSM’s should be left up the individual congregations. Oh, and most of those taking their ball and running to one of the newly formed synods still haven’t reset the clock on any of the previous wrongs mentioned above – they’ve simply “drawn the line” at SSM’s. Your point in this post is very well taken.

  3. It is interesting to me that some borderline Christians of an evangelical bent draw the line when it comes to ethical issues at the center of our current culture wars (for example, same-sex marriage), but seem relatively indifferent when it comes to theological, ecclesiastical and confessional issues (for example, a compromised position on scriptural inerrancy, approval of women’s ordination, etc.).

    Seems to me that in the minds of many in the borderline and mainline, culture and ethics trumps theology and ecclesiology. But shouldn’t our ethics (and the culture it informs and helps to shape) flow out of our theology and ecclesiology?

  4. “History shows that today’s moderate evangelical is tomorrow’s liberal. Often “evangelical” is an unstable, transitional phase united to liberalism by a shared subjectivism. A Modernist in intellect but a Pietist at heart, the evangelical chooses to believe the Bible (mostly) and to believe the miracles (mostly) and most of all in Jesus but he believes against his intellect. Over time the heart succumbs to the mind and he becomes a modernist.”

    This anthropology of declension is important. Have you elaborated on it in another OP?

  5. Hello Dr. Clark,

    I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of what you write here, but I think you have been a bit selective in your portrayal of the usefulness of “lines in the sand”. You do, or course, realize that a good number of URC churches used that very concept of a line in the sand to determine when they should in fact leave the CRC. Not every church’s path is the same, and care should be taken to avoid substituting one’s own set of circumstances for another’s. I think there certainly can be a temptation to draw and re-draw lines, however it is not at all unavoidable, nor has it always been the case historically. The greater question is whether the individual church has reasoned the line in good conscience and with full intent to follow through on their stated intentions.

    My grandfather (Rev. Harry Van Dyken) drew his own line in the sand circa 1980, at the same time presciently forecasting many of the current trends in the CRC (as did others of his era and before). He did not fail to take the action that he deemed necessary. Was his line in the sand better or more faithful than the URCs that followed decades later? Whether or not he actually referred to it a line in the sand is not particularly important. The point his, he said “this far and no farther”. Many ministers and churches have done the same. Some have backed away from that stance as the matter has approached or been passed, others have not. So, while I agree with your description of the arch of CRC, I don’t necessarily share your analysis that a “line in the sand” is in an inevitable precursor to surrender. Thanks for your thoughtful concern for Christ’s church.

    • Eric,

      Let me clear: the confessions are the line in the sand we all signed when we were ordained. I can’t speak to why every congregation or minister did what they did in 1996 et seq.

      I don’t think that I claimed impeccability for the URCs.

      Temptation? One of the point I intended to make is that there is a history of drawing and re-drawing lines in the CRC and in other boderline and mainline denominations.

      When to leave a denomination is necessarily a subjective judgment about which good people will disagree.

  6. Dr. Clark,
    I was merely pointing to some URCs (generally) as examples of cases where “lines in the sand” were actually helpful for churches in anticipating developments and laying out a course of response/action. You had given only negative examples and concluded with this statement: “Lines in the sand have a great attraction because they give the illusion of doing something, of standing for something, sometime, in the future but their history is not encouraging”. I’m simply saying that some of the history is encouraging, and a line in the sand is not necessarily illusory.

    • Eric,

      You make a fair point but I wrote Recovering the Reformed Confession to try to encourage both boderline churches and sideline churches to re-consider their position relative to the confessions. I want to encourage “conservatives” to move beyond being conservative to becoming confessional. I want to borderline churches to look left and right at the present and to decide that they want to be confessional, not just “conservative” and certainly not liberal.

      My most basic point is that lines in the sand, which are not grounded in Scripture as confessed by the churches, are just different ways of being non-confessional. As D. G. Hart pointed out years ago in The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, conservatives and liberals are two sides of the same non-confessional coin. That’s why the categories “conservative” and “liberal” are misleading. I worry that there are URCs who are content with being “conservative” without being confessional or who assume that being “conservative” is being confessional. They aren’t the same thing.

      So, some arguably good things may have come from drawing extra-confessional lines in the sand (if that’s what they were; I suspect that, in many cases they were confessional lines) but the outcome doesn’t justify the means.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    I am quite in agreement with you in that regard. I am personally not at all interested in being conservative per se, but I do desire to be confessional. Even more basically, I desire to be biblical, but of course we start with the understanding that we believe our confessions to accurately reflect biblical truth. Team labeling tends to lead to team faithfulness, which produces large blind spots and resultant unfaithfulness. Of course all of our churches minister in unique contexts with unique groups of people who have unique pastoral needs, and even confessional faithfulness will not always work itself out the same in every circumstance. I don’t see you disagreeing with that, and I appreciate your encouragement/urging toward greater confessional/biblical faithfulness. It is an encouragement we all need.

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