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Can Churches Split?

The question—can churches split?—reminds me of the bromide attributed to Samuel Clemens.

           Do you believe in infant baptism?
           Believe in it?  Hell, I’ve seen it!

The General Synod of my church—the Reformed Church in America—begins the day after tomorrow, Thursday, here in my town of Pella, Iowa. General Synod is the widest decision-making body of our church; the annual conclave of ministers, elders, and sundry other staff, groupies and hangers-on. Synod is part family reunion, part business meeting, and part promotional bonanza.

One of the more intriguing, perhaps controversial, items that will come before this year’s RCA General Synod is known as “R-16” (“R” for recommendation).

On the hottest, most divisive issues in the church, rarely do we really debate the issue itself. Instead, it becomes a matter of “polity” (how we structure ourselves). Are we true to our Constitution? Are we following our order? And on the issues surrounding LGBT inclusion in the church, it is happening again. I’m not quite sure what to think of this. Is this the church’s way of lawyering up? Or are we simply trying to fight fair?

Here’s the back story. Last year’s Synod reaffirmed the long-held RCA position that homosexual behavior is sin. Whatever you happen to think about that position, it isn’t really new or surprising for the RCA. But General Synod statements are hardly towering or binding pronouncements. Don’t be thinking Protestant versions of papal encyclicals. Past General Synods have made statements about Styrofoam cups and gun control which no one seems to notice, let alone revere.

What was new last year was Synod’s assertion that advocating for LGBT inclusion or presiding at a gay wedding were “disciplinable offenses.” You could get in trouble for them. In other words, General Synod was telling local bodies who they should discipline and for what. This seemed to many like a provocative overreach of General Synod power, a radical breach in our polity.

So this year’s “R-16” comes to Synod as the recommendation from the “Way Forward” task force, appointed in light of last year’s rancor. After proposing a “grace-filled conversation” about the reach and extent of a General Synod’s authority, and the possible profound changes in the way we do church together, the recommendation ends with an escape-hatch. If the grace-filled conversation does not reach consensus, then congregations and ministers could chose to leave via a “grace-filled and accountable separation from membership within the Reformed Church in America without recriminations such as forfeiture of property.” All sorts of images come to mind—amicable divorce; prearranged funeral plans so the kids don’t have to deal with the mess and expense.

Are you still with me? If so, then you realize this is a pretty incredible proposal. Basically a church is saying that if we can’t find agreement on a way forward, then we can go our own way. Take your marbles and go home. The first time I read R-16, I thought it was facetious.

Al Janssen, a RCA minister and “General Synod Professor of Theology”—about whom it is true that he has forgotten more about Reformed polity, theology, and history than most of us will ever know—has written a blog subtly titled Why R-16 is a Spectacularly Bad Idea. Among other things, Janssen posits that churches just don’t split. By definition, it is contrary to our very nature—one, holy, catholic and apostolic. “It is incoherent for Reformed folk to propose disunity,” says Janssen.

In a deliciously ironic twist, Janssen reminds us that “unity” is one of the main points of the RCA’s recently adopted doctrinal standard, the Belhar Confession. Just three years after boldly declaring that “unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ” and “accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted,” the RCA is now proposing “grace-filled separation”? According to Janssen, churches split only when apostasy is the issue. When you split a church, you yell “You Christ-denying heretic!” not “Blessings as you find your grace-filled way forward.”

My brief response is posted below Al’s blog. Basically I wonder if different churches, denominations, and splits might not be more like families than a deep affront to the Gospel. I recognize your family as good and decent folk, but I don’t want to move in or celebrate holidays with you. Similarly, I can like Methodists and Baptists and people who disagree with me about LBGT matters. I recognize them as brothers and sisters in Christ, part of the same one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. But I may not really want to have formal ties with them, share General Synod with them, and continually bang heads with them. And they likely say to me, “Right back at you!”

Or might we look at church splits the way we look at war, divorce, and other ethical accommodations? Tragic and unfortunate, but maybe a necessary “way forward” fraught with collateral damage. I’ve often quipped that all the broadly Reformed bodies—from the United Church of Christ to United Reformed or Orthodox Presbyterians—should release all congregations to realign and re-sort themselves into three different piles. Like Goldilocks, every congregation would select between too hard, too soft, and just right. Pick one. No oxymoronic “independent Reformed” churches. Of course, no one is delusional enough to think these new arrangements and bodies would be harmonious and unified, but it’s a fun exercise to while away the hours!

Instead of being facetious, maybe R-16 is more like the mature parent saying to the petulant child, “Is this really what you want?” R-16 invites us to walk to the edge of the cliff as a church and carefully deliberate, do we want to jump? We might wonder if a recommendation to General Synod is the place to do psychotherapy on the church via semi-serious proposals that stand almost no chance of ever happening. But maybe after watching the Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians tear themselves apart, perhaps R-16 is an earnest attempt to truly look for a “grace-filled” alternative.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Thomas C. Goodhart says:

    I appreciate your concluding paragraph and hope it to be so.

    Been wondering about the variety of ways we use the term "family" and "sisters and brothers" in relation to church and faith and beyond. The prayer of the people following communion invokes God (and us!), "increase in us the recognition that we are all your children." Most broadly, we are all God's children. Yet we have our tribal families within the family: the Abrahamic faiths, the Church catholic, the Reformed communion, even to the unique "sibling" relationship of the RCA and CRC. I often use the term "sisters and brothers" referring to ministry partners in the neighboring Roman Catholic or Lutheran or evangelical church. I will say sister denomination regarding the PCUSA or the CRC. But even in use, those terms mean something different when said of a Presbyterian verses that of a fellow Dutch Reformed church. Concerning unity it says respectively, we are sisters but "we didn't quite get there" and "we are children of the same broken home."

  • Al Janssen says:


    You appended a knowing comment to my post. So I'll return the favor. Tragically, we've found our way into different families. We are strange to each other, and indeed we couldn't get along very well under the same roof. But isn't that the point? It isn't about our "getting along," but about a strange new union in Christ, whereby we are made sisters and brothers with the "other." The task of the church isn't just to "get along." More and more, I don't see how this will happen until we are around one table, not a table that we build, but the Lord's Table.

    Of course churches split. And for good reason. I'm just trying to emphasize the anomalous character of the situation. This is not "normal."

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Thank you, Steve. I probably shouldn't speak for the entire R-28 task force here, and I've refrained from commenting on the various responses that I've seen. But your last paragraph eloquently captures my own explanation of R-16, and I was relieved to read it. I'll venture to say that I think it also represents the rationale of the others on the task force as we came to recognize some painful and undeniable realities. Although some may protest the parent/petulant child analogy, the sense of it is right, and I can't come up with a better one right now. Of course R-16 is risky, and yes, could be spectacularly bad, as my friend Al Janssen has noted. That reality weighs heavy and wakes me up some nights as Synod approaches because I've been in this family my whole life. But sometimes when family members don't feel they have a voice, or when the issue du jour is too contentious to keep them from seeing the larger picture, they can easily lose their perspective on – and loyalty to – all that's precious and sustaining and sacred about this flawed assembly. Maybe R-16 is foolhardy and should be rejected. But even if it is, I hope the stakeholders and heirs in the RCA will see it as an urgent call for a family meeting to consider our legacy, the pros and cons of the family structure, and the generations to come, with the goal of everybody choosing to stay around the Table, because that's where the reunion happens.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I don't understand how we are tolerating the "re-covenant" language. Do people understand what "covenant" means in Reformed theology? (And let's not be misled by some Scottish nationalists.)

  • Paul Janssen says:

    @Thomas….the prayer also includes the phrase "bring to an end our unhappy divisions." (I'm not treating the prayer as constitutional, but its words nevertheless have some power…and these particular words have a pedigree well beyond the RCA in time and space). We must, I think, recognize that when we start treating our divisions as happy, or take actions that confirm our unhappy divisions, for whatever reason, we are no longer acting like the church for which Jesus died or for which he prayed.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Jeepers, even the aspiring wizards at Hogwarts were sorted by a hat. They didn't sort themselves, and figured out how to get along. Are we creatura verbi or self-made ? Or just kaput?

  • Jane Dickie says:

    We are sisters and brothers in Christ. The family analogy is apropos the current situation. I am reminded of anthropologist Margaret Mead's explanation of why families exist:
    "We have families to teach us how to get along with people we don't like." So there it is. God puts us here, with a smile and says, "find a way to love each other even if you don't like each other very much."

  • ralph acerno says:

    The RCA is in big trouble. It is the most dead organization I have ever had the displeasure of being a pastor in. The time is coming soon when churches will begin leaving in numbers just as in the PCUSA. The perversion and allowing groups such as "Room for all" is for me the sign of the end for this sad denomination.

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