Devouring Each Other

Often on a particularly stressful day, I will make the intentional decision to visit a nursing home or the home of one of our church’s shutins. Whatever is wrong keeps me from concentrating on sermon preparation or background reading, so I go and try to do some small, good thing. It works every time: I spend an hour listening to the stories that folks want to recall and share. Some are happy stories from the past, others an acknowledgement of losses that remain. If the conversation is long enough, usually both stories emerge. The shared life–with all of its mountains and valleys–is the good life.

On one particularly stressful day recently, I did something different. I went for a walk. The stress was rising up from a place where we in Reformed churches uniquely walk. It is a challenge for us who confess that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” to believe that all really means all. But since it does, and includes you and me, we find it hard to live in covenantal relationship with one another. I believe that it was the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said that we are like porcupines on a winter night: we either suffer alone in the cold or end up poking each other in an attempt to stay warm. He could have been talking about my classis, where things have been feeling prickly to say the least.

During my walk, out of my subconscious arose a memory from a book my wife and I had read years earlier. The Custom of the Sea (Wiley, 1999) takes its title from a phrase used by British sailors. The custom in question was only invoked in the most desperate of situations.

A ship wrecks. Some are caught below deck and the ship becomes their casket, the ocean floor their cemetery. There is no grave marker. Others are injured as the ship sinks, but manage to get to a life raft. Some on the raft are already weakened by illness. Together they apply their waning strength against unseen currents. Green Men They scan the horizon for land or another ship. If neither land nor ship appears, the “custom of the sea” is carried out. Straws are drawn and one life is forfeited so all might be at least able to scan the horizon for a few more days. In his book author Neil Hanson indicates that this terrifying custom was quietly tolerated by everyone in the maritime community. Those who had never been in such a position could not bring themselves to judge. Those who had, understood.

In the year 1884 Captain Thomas Dudley was stranded on a life raft with three others after their ship broke apart in a violent storm a thousand miles off the coast of Africa. By all accounts he was a good man and a skilled captain. After more than two weeks adrift, supplies had run out and the survivors’ bodies had begun to wither under the relentless sun. The youngest sailor, just a teenager by the name of William Frost, had begun to quench his thirst with salt water, against the orders of the captain. In continuing to do so he sealed his fate. As the salt water poisoned his body and the others were dying from dehydration, Captain Dudley invoked the “custom of the sea.” Young Frost was barely conscious, his eyes open but with a fixed and empty stare. As something to approximate straws was being located, the captain revoked his decision. It was, he declared, impossible for William to live. Indeed, he was even too weak to participate in the act that would determine whose life would be forfeited. Captain Thomas Dudley said a prayer over young William Frost, then with knife in hand opened his throat. A life was sacrificed and hope was sustained long enough for the others to live until help finally did arrive.

Why in the world did this story come to mind at the moment it did? Eating each other is what human beings have always done when things get desperate and there seems to be no other way to survive. Historical records of such terrible moments would indicate that it is most often a decision made and carried out by men, though the story of the Donner party reminds us that women have participated too. It is impossible for us to understand the awfulness of such a decision. Will Durant, in his massive The Story of Civilization, maintains that even total annihilation of the enemy and enslavement of whole nations represent advancement in civilization over cannibalism.

But devouring each other is what we are doing in the church. This may seem like too strong a claim for some. It wasn’t for the apostle Paul when he observed the church of his day: “But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15). We in the Reformed Church in America are desperate when it comes to numbers, and there seems to be no help on the horizon. Instead, there are strong cultural currents that negate our best efforts. Apparent help has proven illusory. Many of us in mainline denominations had our hopes raised by the Church Growth program that came out of Fuller Seminary in the 1970s. The “98 by 98” program in the 1990s was the RCA’s particular attempt to reverse trends of decline. Alas, a comparison of the 1998 Report of General Synod with the 2007 directory of RCA churches indicates that two-thirds of the new churches launched under this initiative have not survived. A congregation that I was part of fixed its eyes on the horizon and thought it saw 2000 members by the year 2000. All along the way, of course, there have been charismatic individuals who have promised their plan is the answer.

Now, the RCA has a 10 Year Goal to start four hundred new churches and revitalize existing ones. But whereas the ten year plan begun in 1988 had a parallel $9.8 million fund-raising program, the present multiplication scheme does not propose a similar financial mechanism. This makes those of us who are in churches menacingly (and usually involuntarily) designated “legacy” or “hospice” churches a little nervous. Where is the funding for these four hundred new churches to come from?

Lots of churches in America scan the horizon for help as they grow weaker by the day. Every RCA congregation in the Classis of the Rocky Mountains saw a decrease in membership last year. Old churches and old members of those churches are weakened by–well, old age. Churches at some mid-point of life know that they cannot hold out forever. The financial commitment typical of recently birthed churches is an ominous sign of things to come, whether or not their leaders are courageous and honest enough to acknowledge it. Many churches have discovered the hard and expensive way that “If you build it, they will come” only works as long as your building is the fanciest.

Like dying sailors, some churches have started to look about, deciding who will need to be sacrificed. Sometimes struggling congregations identify a scapegoat, often a pastor, in the belief–or hope?–that one must be sacrificed for the good of many. More germane to the concerns of this article are the local and regional judicatories that, under both external and self-imposed goals, view old congregations as tying up valuable financial resources that could be used to fund new church starts.

  Schopenhauer compared us to porcupines on a winter night: we either suffer alone in the cold or end up poking each other in an attempt to stay warm. He could have been talking about my classis.  Some privately, others not so privately, are pointing out the candidates that will be sacrificed. Paul Borden’s book Hit the Bullseye (Abingdon, 2003) is becoming a guiding light for many denominational leaders. It recommends getting rid of churches that someone has decided are too weak to live. As a matter of policy, Borden as a church administrator will not recommend future pastorates for individuals who have not led churches to five percent annual growth in attendance. We so want to live that some have started to say and b
elieve that these are the hard decisions real leaders make.

How do we find this scapegoating to promise a logical way out of a desperate situation? Two factors may be worth giving some attention. I wonder if such thinking is tolerated because men largely remain the captains of the ship, particularly of the ships we call classis. I have never once seen the name of a female denominational leader associated with this violent plan for church renewal. Who comes up with phrases like “hit the bullseye” and “church planter’s boot camp” ?

I also wonder if the biblical images that we have chosen to describe our lives together make it easier to think of sacrificing some of our own. Take Natural Church Development (NCD), a tool that has been used for several years now by many denominations. NCD elevates a minor biblical image–a fruit tree–into a dominant guiding principle that provides the vocabulary for our conversations with one another. If the church is viewed as trees in an orchard, discrete and separate from one another, then it might make sad but necessary sense to cut down the ones that are taking up space and using up resources. Grind up those old trees for mulch. But if we reclaim the dominant biblical image of the church–a body, the body of Christ, God’s body–we will tremble at the thought of taking knife in hand. No one with a view of the church shaped by the apostle Paul could think of cutting off part of God’s body.

All this said, it is hard to know what to do. The church does find itself in a desperate place. There is logic to the idea that the sacrifice of one might mean life for many. But this logic is too terrible for finite people to choose for one another.

  We in the Reformed Church in America are desperate when it comes to numbers, and there seems to be no help on the horizon.  That one should die so that others might live is the logic of God. It is true, according to God’s Word, that a good man or woman might be willing to forfeit his or her own life for another. But nowhere does God’s Word say I can make this choice for you, or you for me. What would happen if, in our desperation, we made the wrong decision? What if the one we sacrificed held the key to our future? Consider, for instance, that many in our older churches know something about the challenges and blessing of tithing that might be crucial for our lives together and for our witness in the world.

How long this analogy works–or if it works at all–would make for a profitable discussion. A ny discussion of life and death matters by Christians needs at some point to consider our baptisms. A ll of us have already died because in baptism we participate in Christ’s death. We speak oh-so-inaccurately when we say that only some of our churches are dying. If they haven’t died with Christ they are something other than a church. Death does not have the last word.

It would also be worth our time to dwell on the last commandment, ” Thou shalt not covet…anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Clearly the commandment does not provide an exemption if the coveted object can be put to good use. Some may recall how Raskolnikov, in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, coveted the wealth of the old pawnbroker. She was so miserly and he could do such good for the world if he only had her resources. Those who know the stor y recall the agony of Raskolnikov’s tortured soul and body after he makes the sacrificial choice for her. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to make Raskolnikov’s story our own. A ll who love the church must be deeply concerned about the way such rationalizations can enter into decisions about how we will live together.

Above all, although I hardly presume to have the answer, I wish that these sorts of discussions were happening more than I fear they are. But I worry that, even if they were underway, such dialogue would amount to nothing more than windowdressing instead of a broadly shared conversation by which the many would give shape to our future. Instead it seems that a few want to make decisions, even life and death decisions, for the rest. Indeed, one of Borden’s cardinal principles in Hit the Bullseye is that “individuals, not groups, including boards, lead” (129).

Whether or not open-minded, theologically sound, broad-based discussions happen, I will keep visiting and ser ving our very old congregation because the shared life is the good life. A nd I hope that the way we live together as one body will be a beacon of light in our community and to a world that for too long has advocated killing in the name of living.

David Phillips is pastor at First Reformed Church in Denver, Colorado.