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I believe the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America should merge. Please tell me why they shouldn’t. I mean that literally. Please respond to this blog and tell me why they shouldn’t.
This is not a new conviction of mine. I remember sitting in a seminary class almost thirty years ago discussing Paul’s great calls for unity in I Corinthians and the professor passionately lamenting the sinful nature of the fractures in the body of Christ. Naïve kid that I was, I raised my hand and asked, “Why don’t the RCA and CRC merge?” I remember his answer clearly. The first reason was women’s ordination. In the intervening years, that’s been solved. The second was that a lot of denominational employees would lose their jobs. That reason causes two distinct thoughts to come into my mind.
- I don’t believe the purpose of a denomination is to employ people.
- Haven’t the cutbacks caused by the poor economy in recent years already left each denomination’s staff so thin a merger would actually help?
Whatever differences remain don’t seem significant. What are the differences? Sunday evening worship?
I know (and applaud) all sorts of missional initiatives being done together between the two denominations. I know (and applaud) that the Pillar Church in Holland (where so much of the bitter divorce happened over a century and a half ago) is reconstituting itself as a joint CRC-RCA congregation. I know (and applaud) that West Michigan’s most influential philanthropist wants to see the two become one in his lifetime and his generosity has sparked many joint ventures.
I just wonder what’s stopping a full merger from becoming reality.
When Branch Rickey was about to tell the world he had signed Jackie Robinson to break the long-standing color line in baseball he told a friend of his plans. “Branch,” his friend said, “All hell will break lose when you do this.” “No,” Mr. Rickey told his friend, “All heaven will rejoice.”
Heaven will rejoice if the CRC and RCA came back together. Why shouldn’t they?
You could not be more right. This has been my belief for 20 years now.
While it may not appear to be significant to many, the two churches have different confessional bases. The most serious has to do with Article 36 of the Belgic. In fact, it's the theology behind the difference that surfaces the deeper issues. That could be resolved. It has been in the Netherlands, albeit with the return to the original form of the confession.
In any case, merger would require signficant conversation and that at something more than a superficial level (like denominational employment). Not that it shouldn't be done. The phenomenon of denominations is nothing less than sin. With the confession of Belhar, the RCA has committed itself to organizational, visible unity.
I think a merger is great idea, but what does it mean, exactly? The same letterhead? The same hymnal (working on that)? Hashing out subtle theological differences, as Al mentions, in some kind of theological meeting of the official minds? Consolidation of office space?
Since I have lived in a cross-cultural marriage (CRC and RCA) for 24 years now (exactly 24 years: today is our anniversary!), I have moved in an around both CRC and RCA circles in Michigan, New Jersey, and Iowa. From what I have seen, the main differences between the denominations today are differences of story: we have different though entangled histories, and this has resulted in a slight differences of ethos between the denominations. As any married couple knows, these very subtle subcultural differences seem trivial at first, but when you actually start a household together they suddenly become rather important. So how might we find ways to tell each other our different stories, thereby helping to explain and mutually understand our slight subcultural differences, and thereby (one hopes) figuring out how a merger could be most meaningful and fruitful?
First, I'm in the collaborative church multiplication work in Florida. http://www.cmi21.com
Also, here is a link that may help readers understand the "other perspective." The thing I can agree with in the link is that visible unity starts with individuals and small groups committed to that kind of witness.
Collaboration in a spirit of unity helps us test the workability of RCA and CRC partnerships.
I would love to see it, but I have many reasons to believe that it will cost the CRC more than the RCA, that is, if the merger includes the whole of the RCA. For the CRC to merge with the RCA would force a reversal on some ecclesiastical principles (with regard to theological unity) which many in the theological leadership of the CRC hold dear. I would certainly welcome it, because I believe the RCA's approach to unity, while less "principial," is actually more historically "catholic."
I was at the RCA General Synod of 1997 (I think it was) when we received a high level delegation from the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa. I remember how shocked they were when they found out that we and the CRC had just backed off from unity talks with each other, for our stated reason that internal issues were too difficult for both denominations (women's ordination for the CRC, Full Communion with the ELCA for the RCA). Exasperated by us, they said, "When things are difficult internally is precisely the time to seek greater unity externally!"
I suspect that one of the biggest impediments to merger is not something that is officially on the books at all, but which deeply shapes the spirituality of the two denominations in different ways. I'm thinking particularly about Christian schools. For many in the CRC, this lies at the core of their vision of faithfulness and discipleship. I still remember the year I taught at Calvin, how many students would naturally and effortlessly tell stories of parents who had sacrificed and worked multiple jobs to put them through Christian schools. The commitment to Christian schools for many of these folks stood at the center of their piety. The same is true for a small number in the RCA, but it is not nearly as widespread. I wonder whether merger with a denomination that doesn't share that same commitment in their DNA would be difficult.
I'm guessing the Christian school issue is now both regional and essentially symbolic. I heard from someone recently that less than half of current CRC families send their children to Christian schools (although I sure the CRC leaders do). I can't believe the CRC new church plant in Manhattan or elsewhere play up Christian schools. But it certainly remains symbolic. It symbolizes the old division: the RCA expects its people to be Protestants, and the CRC expects its people to be Calvinists (Young Calvinists, Calvinist Cadets, Calvinettes). I know that expectation is eroding in the CRC, but a merger attempt will have to deal with the remnants of that expectation, and I can imagine some CRC leaders will fight its further erosion.
I've participated in a variety of conversations with CRCNA and RCA colleagues about merger (informal ones, obviously, a few with beer but most not); each one touched on most if not all of the subjects named above, although usually less about Article 36 of the Belgic than the others. And just about every time we concluded the issues surrounding merger could probably be resolved, except the one day after a particularly hard-fought Hope-Calvin basketball game when a few of us weren't feeling all that kindly toward the other. That conversation convinced me that the most important issue probably wouldn't be Kuyperian theology or Christian schools or even the basketball, but charity: "in that we love one another…to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another," in the words of the Belhar.
That said, I found myself less worried less about whether we should, or could, merge these two denominations, and more about a throwaway statement in Jeff's piece: the one that with a shrug of the shoulders proclaims the issue of women's ordination "solved." On the official ledgers, yes, I suppose it is solved–if by solved we mean permitted–but oh my, if I'm hearing the stories right, we're not even close to solving it on the ground. In either denomination. But that, I suppose, is a blog for another day.
Accidentally Belhar – I have the privilege of sitting in the background of the First Reformed Church of Holland's consistory on a monthly basis. And a few years ago they were sending a delegate to General Synod where there was to be a vote on the acceptance of the Belhar Confession as a standard of unity in the RCA. Their minutes will state that they encouraged their delegate to vote no on such a thing.
Ironically, they shortly thereafter (shortly in the scheme of the church-time-continuum) voted unanimously to move forward in the ministry partnership with Pillar Christian Reformed Church in Holland where they parted ways so many decades ago.
My heart smiles.
I can see the working of the Spirit through the Belhar…won't be long now, folks! Well, won't be long according to the church-time-continuum.
I doubt if many RCA or CRC folk would get excited about Article 36. In fact, a lot of RCA folk would have difficulty with it. I mention it because what was behind the change in the article is the theological underpinning of many of the issues brought out in this thread. Van Ruler talked about the "religion of the confessions." The habits, ways of being, ethos, etc. expand from the confessional basis. So that the school question, the approach to ecumenism, the attitude toward culture and politics, all reflect a basic theological choice — even our vocabulary (RCA folk don't talk about "common grace", for example).
In fact, religious differences (habits, customs, ethos) are often more stubborn than explicit theological differences. In this case, as in many others, history has left a deep imprint.
That said, both sides have a great deal to offer to a deepening conversation. It will take a lot of trust, which means risk. I hesitate to say it, but at one level it will be easier from the RCA side — but that's largely because we have historically had a more open stance toward ecumenism. What the CRC brings is a more critical voice, which we (RCA) need to hear.
"In fact, religious differences (habits, customs, ethos) are often more stubborn than explicit theological differences. In this case, as in many others, history has left a deep imprint." That's exactly what I meant, Al, but you said it better. Maybe my marriage metaphor is still helpful. Maybe the RCA and CRC are children of old rivals who are now tentatively dating. We can't expect a deep and mature marriage in two years or something. That's not how things work, certainly not in "church-time-continuum." We would have to think about this as a process of creating a new culture, one that combines the best of both histories, just as marriages create a new family culture. That is not an easy thing, and in the case of two denominations it would probably take a few generations. No reason not to get started, especially with grass-roots efforts like the Pillar Church re-boot. But it will require patience with the inevitable rough spots and misunderstandings, and lots of intentional communication.
Jeff, I and many others in the CRC believe that, among other reasons, one very-significant barrier has kept the CRC & RCA from merging for a long time, but is rarely mentioned anymore, to my surprise and disappointment. That is the RCA's longstanding acceptance of members in their churches that are also members of the Masonic Lodge (&/or Eastern Star, the female equivalent to the Lodge) and related organizations. Focusing just on the Masonic Lodge, as a professor who includes the Lodge in my course on cults, and who had a father who rose to the top of his Lodge, and who grew up in Texas where the Lodge has had a devastating effect on the health of many churches which accepted such co-memberships, it is a cult to be taken seriously. One may walk into any remaining Christian bookstore or search on-line for Christian books and can easily find books (in the cults section) with the information and evidence that the Masonic Lodge is a cult. Truly-biblical churches and unbiblical cults are not to be mixed together in a church's membership, nor denominational mergers. This alone should and must keep the RCA & CRC from merging (Gal. 1:6-9).
May 3, 2012, Stephen Whatley, Faith Evangelical Seminary
Thanks, Jeff for your provocative post. Thanks also to Stephen for his post above. It really didn't take too long to surface the sorts of issues and questions that make a RCA-CRC merger improbable, perhaps even unwise. Stephen obviously knows more about Masons than I do, and I am very glad that we both are part of Christ's one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. At the same time, I simply do not want to be part of a congregation or attend a General Synod where discussion of Masonic membership is on the agenda–nor women in ordained office, nor Sunday evening worship, nor all the other cultural yardsticks that would inevitably appear. Al might be right that the CRC would bring some theological rigor to the RCA, but I wonder if religious hairsplitting would be more dominant than theological rigor.
To Stephen (not Steve), the Masonic issue is illustrative and often misunderstood. At issue in the 19th century for the RCA's General Synod was not membership in secret societies as such. In fact, the GS opposed them. The issue was whether the synod could require local boards of elders to make lodge membership a test for church membership. A real difference emerged, but it was less about lodge membership than it was about ecclesiology. How is a church a church? That's a real issue and one that would have to be worked out. There are rather fundamental differences in church order between the two denominations and thsoe differences reflect different theological positions. I'm all for getting them on the table.
Actually, I think we tend to approach the question from the wrong direction. The theological question isn't "should we merge?" but "why not?" That is, the burden is not on those who long for ful unity, but on those of us who defend remaining separate. And I mean that not only for our little part of a Reformed world, but we have to answer why we are not part of the Latin church — and in turn why we are not part of the entire world church. We confess it, after all — not only in the creeds but in our confessions as well.
Al, I suppose I could just phone you, but in the interest of clarification…..Are you saying that the "Mason issue" was about synodical authority over boards of elders, rather than about lodge membership per se?
And, I suspect that Jim is onto the deepest issue. In the ecumenical work I've done over the the years, the "why not" question surfaces at the level of the blood of the ancestors. It goes pretty much as Jim said it: "My ancestors gave up their blood over (this or that issue), and I dare not dishonor them.". Until we get to issues of "blood", and place them before the cross, we will not make significant progress toward unity, no matter how many papers we write. In fact, studies can become (but are not always) exercises in the avoidance of the blood issues.
Yes, Paul, it was about synodical authority — or at least that's how the RCA General Synod put it (it may not have been so for those who wanted a different response).
And yes, blood is an issue. Simply see the struggle in the NGK in South Africa over Belhar. Most can agree on the theology — but the deeper issue has to do with positions staked out and "blood" spilled in the earlier division.
Some of us in the CRC despair of ever seeing the Belhar passed. Do I understand correctly that it was barely the two-thirds majority required by the RCA Synod? I know that God can work miracles, but if the RCA could barely squeak it through, I'm not holding out a lot of hope that the CRC will. Which to me is akin to spitting in the faces of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the two-thirds world, but maybe that's just me.
Like Deb Rienstra, I to am in a mixed marriage, only with a Presbyterian. Why not merge with the PCUSA? Or with other denominations? What privileges the CRC?