Mary VandenBerg, a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is filling in while Theresa Latini is away on maternity leave. Thank you, Mary!
I have spent the past week as a faculty advisor to the Christian Reformed Church Synod. This year we have been meeting at the same time as the Synod of the Reformed Church of America on the campus of Central College in Pella, Iowa, part of the time in joint session.
The theological and ethnic background of these denominations is virtually identical because for a good part of their history they were not two denominations but one.Then came 1857.
Lets just say that in light of irreconcilable differences, the CRC chose to split off from the RCA. It might be good to point out that the split was not over something like the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, or the reality of the bodily resurrection. Rather, the division was over what one recent document called “differences of opinion and culture,” things like membership in the Freemasons and Christian day school education. As a result, these two denominations that profess belief in the same three creeds of Christendom and the same three Reformed confessions haven’t been able to get along for over one hundred years.
I grew up blissfully ignorant of any fighting between the CRC and RCA. My dad was a pastor in places that often had only one CRC and perhaps an RCA church. I was well aware from my encounters in school that most folks had no idea what “reformed” even was, let alone Christian Reformed. I remember when we lived in Omaha our little church joined together occasionally with the local RCA church for certain things, although I don’t remember what. I never heard ugly words spoken about the RCA. In fact, even when my dad took a call to West Michigan, I remained insulated from this long-standing family feud.
It was only after moving to a small town that had its origins in the Dutch immigrant community that I encountered the problem. My neighbor who was RCA told me about growing up next door to a CRC family that would not allow their children to play with any kids who were not CRC, including the RCA kids next door. I heard stories of kids on both sides of the fence being told by those on the other side that they were going to hell. Really.
And this wasn’t back in 1857. This was less than fifty years ago.
All of this because of a difference of opinion over a few relatively insignificant points that seem to fall more into the category of adiaphora than anything else. Its not even clear where the biblical precedent for the various positions of the points in question would lie unlike some of the more vexing issues churches have faced in the recent past.
In joint session on Saturday night delegates from both denominations were invited to share stories with each other about hurtful words and actions that they had either experienced or heard about. Frankly, as we sat sharing with one another that night I found the whole business rather embarrassing. Had we really divided Christ’s body and treated each other with such contempt over such minor issues? Well, clearly we had.
But just as clearly we were now discussing the beginning of the end of that division. And by the end of the evening, we had unanimously agreed to collaborate together in the work of God’s kingdom except where deep convictions would prevent that collaboration.
This was a huge step. As one of the delegates at my table said, if two sisters had lived apart for 50 years it probably wouldn’t go so well for them to move into the same house together. But if they moved into a duplex, it might turn out that they could both renew their love for each other, and grow steadily closer.
As we joined hands and prayed together and sang the doxology together, I’m pretty sure I had a glimpse of God smiling in the smiles I saw all around me.