Monday, July 18, 2011

The UCC and God the Father

One of the big outcomes of the United Church of Christ's General Synod 28 at the beginning of July was its approval of changes to the Constitution and Bylaws to move toward unified governance for its boards at the national setting. There are currently five such boards, and these changes will slim those down to one board of 50 members. The 27th General Synod in Grand Rapids approved making this move, and this vote was approving the details of how that will happen. There were, of course, objections to the overall concept that people voiced at this latest Synod, while others focused on the specific makeup of the board and whether minority groups would be adequately represented. Nevertheless, it passed, and we move toward this new model.

In addition to those changes in the Constitution and Bylaws, there was one other change that has received a lot of attention, both during debate at Synod and since:
Delegates at the United Church of Christ's General Synod 28 recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of amending the denomination's constitution so that the phrase “heavenly Father” will no longer be present anywhere in its text.

Instead of reading “A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in God as heavenly Father,” under the proposal, Article V of the church constitution would read, “A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in the triune God.”

Delegates passed the proposal 613 to 161 in favor of the changes to the text, as reported by UCNews. Ten delegates abstained from voting.
Okay, right off the bat, notice how this change is being represented. This article, for instance, presents this as if it was the main change that was debated. The article does mention the unified governance changes later, but it's as if that was just a minor discussion held after the fact. Many other online articles present this in similar fashion, as if the UCC, in its latest act of liberalest liberalism, has rejected (some say "banished") the image of God the Father.

The perpetuation of this version of events has helped along by Biblical Witness Fellowship, a reform group within the UCC:
The Biblical Witness Fellowship, a group of UCC pastors and church members that was formed in response to “UCC's theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture,” made their disapproval of the decision clear. David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of BWF and a leader who supported keeping “heavenly Father” in the language of the constitution, spoke out on the organization's website before the vote was taken in Tampa, Fla., last weekend.

“Rejecting God as Father in an age of fatherlessness is unthinkable,” he said. “God acted toward us in amazing grace when He offered to be our Father through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ who offers us life in his name. This is not something we as humans made up in some other time. Rejecting our Father is act of arrogant rebellion in the name of cultural conformity that only further alienates members, churches, but more importantly God himself.”
The reasoning given for the change to begin with is the multitude of images for God both in scripture and tradition, both male and female. Father is one among many, though it has been given prominence down through the ages particularly because Jesus used that image quite often, to say nothing of implicit and explicit patriarchal reasons. But in addition to masculine imagery there are many feminine images as well, such as mother (Isaiah 42:12, Numbers 11:12, Isaiah 46:3-4), seamstress (Nehemiah 9:21), and hen (Matthew 23:37), among many others. At various points God is also a tower (Proverbs 18:10), an eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11), a rock (Psalm 95:1), a fortress (Psalm 31:3), light (Psalm 27:1), and a bear, lion, & leopard (Hosea 13:6-8). Yes, they really are in there. So charges of arrogant rebellion are greatly exaggerated.

Besides that, nobody seems to be looking at this in terms of what the language was changed to, that being the triune God. Think about this: a single image among many for God was removed and a doctrinally traditional description of God held by many Christians--including, no doubt, the members of BWF--replaced it. God is now explicitly referred to as triune instead. Considering how often I've heard the ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS joke that UCC really stands for "Unitarians Considering Christ," people like Runnion-Bareford should be jumping for joy about this affirmation of the Trinity, of whom one member is God the Father (or, if you prefer, Creator, Parent, etc.). God the Father is implicit in this language change, just as the Trinity is implicit in his complaints about the change. The UCC is charged with parting ways with historic Christianity, so surely somebody can explain how affirming the Trinity does that, right?

If that wasn't enough, let's consider for a moment Runnion-Bareford's specific charge about moral and spiritual confusion. Somebody from BWF can correct me on this, but I presume that this has to do with the smorgasbord of spiritual options available in American culture, from which many pick and choose at will. As a result, among other things, the identity of the Christian God can become murky. Thus God as Father becomes important in this age because it it gives God a specific identity that is faithful to traditional Christianity, the same identity that Jesus often gave God. It is a very clear definition of who God is. This is the argument as I understand it.

Well...the Trinity gives a very clear and more narrow definition of God as well. In fact, the UCNews article linked above mentions that an objection was raised to this change for that reason: perhaps some individual members and churches would find this doctrinal description too constricting. This change still gives God a clear and historically-held Christian identity that includes God as Father among other images.

From where I'm sitting there really isn't anything to complain about here. But people like Runnion-Bareford will complain and the UCC will continue to be presented as the most liberally liberal denomination, even when it's not really acting as such.