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I found Jeff Monroe’s post Merge! both thought and emotionally provoking.Coincidentally—or in this forum perhaps I should say providentially—the news media have been reporting on the recent sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which I find maybe only tangentially connected, but connected nonetheless.
But first to Jeff’s task: “I believe the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America should merge. Please tell me why they shouldn’t.”
Before I could even begin to explore this I wonder two other questions: Firstly, why should we merge? Secondly, and probably more importantly, what does it mean to be Reformed Church in America?
The first question Jeff’s post only begins to get at but is certainly written in the attitude that unity is a biblically and theologically warranted practice that we should be doing or moving towards, of which I am in complete agreement. Enough has been studied and shared that more isn’t necessary. I think of especially, An Ecumenical Mandate for the RCA and significant materials relating to the Belhar Confession. Even so, there are some in both the RCA and the CRC who would find issue of “purity” to be just as important as unity and worthy of trumping unity. My own conviction is that Jesus meant it when he prayed that we might be one. I’m all for unity. Although admittedly, I’m not sure merger is the best way to that unity.
As it relates to my second question, of what does it mean to be RCA, I am speaking from my own perspective and the context of my particular congregation. The same question could and should be asked from one’s own denominational context. It seems a little silly to have to say but let’s assume from the get-go that to be RCA is to be Christian, biblical, Reformed, as well as evangelical and catholic in the best and historic senses of those terms. So what else? What else is definable or discernibly RCA? Even that question demonstrates a difficulty in that we don’t even have a good moniker to use. RCAer? Reformed? Both terms seem to lack a certain something. Say for instance you are trying to tell a joke, “A Baptist, a Presbyterian, an Episcopalian, a Lutheran, a Methodist, and a Congregationalist all went into a bar…” What are you suppose to use for the RCA person? Are we not to enter bars?
I don’t know what it’s like among the CRC crowd, but in the RCA what I often hear (myself, included) when describing who we are is, “it’s like the Presbyterians…” We also sometimes inevitably fall back on “historically, Dutch Reformed.” Whereas the RCA is certainly like the Presbyterian church, I think to be Presbyterian—be it conservative, liberal, or moderate—is to have a discernable identity, one that I’m not so sure exists in the RCA. Presbyterian roots go back to Scotland and other parts of the British isles, yet they are certainly not wedded to their historical cultural founders.
While the RCA is certainly historically Dutch Reformed, I think that particular identifier carries with it baggage and I wonder what relevance it currently has in expressing our identity. I appreciated Professor Smith’s earlier post on this blog, “Don’t Burn the Wooden Shoes Just Yet.” I’m a product of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary. I get our Dutch heritage. During the 2010 World Cup, I wore my orange jersey. And I look forward to one day dressing up my poor children in Dutch outfits, putting them into fields of tulips, and taking their pictures. That said, at least in the RCA context I’m not convinced that “Dutchness” is enough of an aspect to our denominational identity and where it is, it brings with it significant ambiguity. I celebrate our Dutch heritage and its contemporary presence in the midst of our growing racial and cultural diversity. And that’s just it, we are a culturally diverse (and growing ever more so) church. We may have Dutch roots but our limbs are of a much greater variety. Which leads me back to my original exploration, what does it mean to be an RCA person if it isn’t rooted in our denomination’s historic ethnic culture?
It may seem counterintuitive, but I’m going to use a culturally heavy and overused RCA term here and I mean it in a good way. (Whenever some one has to explain they mean something in a good way, be careful.) RCA bingo, usually said as “Dutch bingo” where one person meets another at an RCA function and from that contact makes relational connections that unites the two persons. It used to be that those connections were rooted in an ethnic and cultural Dutch milieu; yet now in the RCA, as diverse as we are—and we are growing ever more diverse racially/ethnically, theologically, politically, regionally, etc.—we are still as a core aspect of our identity, relational. We are still connected. Obviously, that’s because we are a small denomination. And certainly, we still have common points of connections, say our colleges and seminaries. Yet those common points are fewer and fewer. Still, we are a relational people. What does it mean to be RCA? It has something to do with our identity relationally speaking.
I’m sure there are other things also, that make us RCA, but I struggle with this question. I think the RCA struggles with this question as a whole. We have a tough time moving forward when we don’t clearly understand who we are and how to foster and share from that perspective. For our identity is directly connected to our unity as a body of believer. We don’t have a clear identity, we don’t have a whole lot of unity within our denomination. So why am I dwelling on this? It is difficult sometimes, to say the least, (and one could say it has always been) within the RCA to have unity among ourselves. Now, the argument has been made and used before, “let’s get our own house in order first.” I am not saying that. But I do wonder if we are misequating unity and merger. Because, if so, I wonder if we could first merge the RCA with the RCA. Oh, wait…which brings me back to Munch’s The Scream, because every now and then working within the church for unity can bring you to do as the painting depicts.
Why shouldn’t the CRC and RCA merge? As the comment section under Jeff’s post has listed, there are a few reasons. But asked, why shouldn’t the CRC and RCA have unity? Then I think there are no reason why we shouldn’t. And all the following reasons from the bible (and the Belhar Confession!) why we should. Let’s keep working on unity. And step by step, maybe merger will simply be the inevitable result. Perhaps, the RCA and the CRC could show how to live out gospel unity in a broken world in tangible ways, and possibly even be leaders.
From the Belhar Confession
- that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
- that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
- that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
- that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity (Phil. 2:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; John 13:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:1-6; Eph. 3:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Gal. 6:2; 2 Cor. 1:3-4);
- that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-13; Gal. 3:27-28; James 2:1-13);
- that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.