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By Allan Janssen

In the past few weeks, I have heard talk of a “split” in my church, the Reformed Church in America, from a number of folk, including denominational leaders. While the conversations don’t assume that a division is inevitable, they talk more and more of the possibility of schism (that’s what it is). This is disturbing for a number of reasons, and not primarily because divorce is painful.

On the one hand, consideration of dividing the church violates the declaration that ministers make upon ordination. There we promise two things of relevance here. First, we promise to seek “the things that make for unity, purity and peace.” Proposals to divide the RCA sacrifice unity for the sake of a purported “purity” and “peace.” It is more peaceful if we don’t stay together in the same house. And we can remain pure if we are no longer contaminated by those whose presence defile our standards of purity.

At ordination we also state that we “accept the Standards as historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God.” This includes adherence to the creeds of the church, the Nicene included, in which we confess that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The church is one, as well and holy, etc. Unity is not an option. The church is one or it isn’t church.

And so the other hand—and this of much deeper import—the church is one because it is one in Christ. That is an ontological reality. To consider dividing the church is to consider dividing Christ!—which is, of course, an impossibility. That, in turn, makes it a sin to divide the church. Consideration of the possibility of division means making plans to sin. It’s that simple and it’s that profound.

Which doesn’t mean that we haven’t done it. We have. We have committed what Barth called the “impossible possibility.” We continue to live in sin.

That, of course, gives me pause, because we Reformed have a habit of dividing. Many readers of this blog are deeply connected with either the Reformed Church in America or the Christian Reformed Church in North America. We are the products of a nineteenth century division. We are also Protestants who have just commemorated (some have even celebrated) five hundred years of division from the Roman Catholic Church, which is itself the result of an earlier, much greater, division. We live with a sinful heritage.

We can claim that we are not dividing. Instead, we say that we are walking away from an apostate church, a “church” that is not a church. That is what those who separated from the Netherlands Reformed Church claimed when they became part of the Afscheiding (the “separation”) in the nineteenth century. But that is not an amicable parting of the ways, where “you be church there and we’ll be church here.” It is to claim to be the one church. The others are “non-church.”

Reformed folk tend to take this route on confessional grounds. We are one because we are one in confession, one in “faith,” as the Belgic Confession has it. But even here we tend to draw lines rather narrowly. This in contrast to John Calvin, for whom the marks of the true church were in the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Calvin acknowledged that the churches must have a common confession, but he limited that to certain essentials: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like.” (That “and the like” has driven Calvin scholars nuts!)

Even this “unity in confession” makes sense only as we confess, that is, give witness to the fact that we are one in Christ. This holds us together even with, especially with, those with whom we differ, often profoundly, even with those we don’t particularly like! Our unity is not up to us. It is up to the God who shapes the church as a sign and foretaste of what God has in store for all humanity.

Admittedly, I have no answer for our continuing disunity. Of course, I don’t! I write this during the season of Lent, so I’m pretty convinced of the attitude we might take—that of repentance, profound sorrow for and admission of responsibility for our continuing division. That notion is not unique to me. I’ve been intimately involved in the North American Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogue. There I hear not only from Protestants, but from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers that the way forward is the path of penitence.

If that is the case, then the path my own church appears to be headed, is an occasion for profound sorrow. This is more than the loss of the church of my heritage. This is the way of sin.

Allan Janssen

Allan Janssen is a retired minister of the Reformed Church in America who also teaches at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. He resides in Glenmont, New York.

8 Comments

  • Mark William Ennis says:

    Thank you for this, Al. Well said, and informational, as always.

  • Anne Weirich says:

    Staying together crying “peace, peace” where there is no peace is also sinful. Jesus says that there are times to shake the dust, which I take to mean the dust of deadly doctrine, off our feet I order to move along and evolve. Sometimes splitting allows for new life.

  • mstair says:

    The church is not “ours.” I think Christ made that clear in Matthew:

    “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build MY church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. (Matthew 16: 17-19)

    We are privileged to be chosen for inclusion in Christ’s “unassembled assembly.” So are billions others throughout time. Regardless of what we decided or will decide to do – from the Paul/Barnabas split in Acts 15, to the Luther/Catholic split in 1520, to your impending RCA split, and my imminent UMC split – The Holy Spirit will drive Christ’s church to purity, renewal … reform …

    And whatever shape He transforms it into, nothing will succeed in standing against it. All of His souls will be found, discipled, and brought in. Your call for repentance is the correct response. Let us ask for forgiveness, and a gentle hand as He keeps us from getting in His way.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I agree with you that splitting is always a sin, schism and secession are always sinful, but can it ever be the lesser of evils? Like divorce in a marriage?
    Sure, we could say that the RCA has never been schismatic itself. We’ve never seceded from any other church. We could argue that the whole Roman Catholic Church of the Netherlands reformed itself (by order of the provincial governments!), to make the Reformed Dutch Church, and that when we were planted in New Amsterdam, we were a fresh planting on a non-schismatic church, and the fact that other denominations developed around us, and prospered beyond us, is not our responsibility, and although we have never merged with any other denomination, neither have we seceded from any. We could argue that, but the historical justification of our denominational innocence no longer impresses me. As an ecclesial phenomenon right now, and in catholic terms, the RCA, which has evolved into not much more than an association, feels essentially schismatic to begin with, the the whole denominational emphasis on planting new churches as the only way to make new Christians is absolutely schismatic. So I’m not sure the splitting of the RCA is all that more sinful than staying together.

    • Allan Janssen says:

      Rather my point, Dan. We can’t claim innocence. But the question remains: how do we remain integral to our credal commitment?

  • George E says:

    Perhaps the sin (offense separating ourselves from God) is not in the physical division in which like-minded believers cluster among themselves but in the hostility directed at the other side? We harbor no hostility against believers with a separate church because they live somewhere else. We have no hostility towards separate churches because the members speak primarily Korean. We expect separation in many cases. There should be no hostility toward me because I attend a church that says to-may-to just as there should be none toward you for attending a church that insists on to-mah-to. I realize that religious differences can seem far more vital than pronunciation, but if we insist only on those “certain essentials: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like.” ” without being offended by differences beyond that, can’t we be happy with one another?

  • Ann Carda says:

    Isn’t the idea of splitting believing the lie that if only we could push “those people” out we could have the perfect church. As Reformed Christians who take sin seriously… we of all people should know that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every human being.

    I’m reminded of story I heard once in a sermon by Peter Rollins. There was a man named Seamus who was shipwrecked, alone, on a desert island. After 20 years a plane flew overhead and saw some smoke and landed on the island. They found Seamus and promised to take him back to Ireland. But first they started asking him about how he survived on his own for 20 years. So he took them over to a clearing and showed them his house. He told them how after about 6 months he built a house and put in plumbing and everything. But there were actually three buildings and so they wanted to know about the other buildings. So they point to the next building and Seamsus says… “Oh, I’m a religious man. That’s my church. I go there every week, pray, read by Bible”. So they point to the next building but Seamus says “No, no, no I don’t want to talk about it”. But they keep pushing and asking and he responds again “No, no, no, let’s just go”. But they won’t leave so finally Seamus relents and says “That’s the church I use to go to… TERRIBLE place!”

  • ralph p acerno says:

    Ridiculous . If people choose to leave the RCA, they are not leaving Jesus!!!! The church is not composed simply of RCA members.

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