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It’s jarring to read a public appeal by a pastor saying it’s a “necessity” for congregations to leave the Reformed Church in America, bolstered with shrill accusations. Ron Citlau, a pastor whose congregation has left the RCA, declares, “There is simply no way for orthodox churches to be faithful in the RCA.” It’s a breathtaking claim, consigning hundreds of congregations and thousands of their members to the charge of living unfaithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This blog was more startling when the author justified this plea by citing the assessment of the RCA General Synod I shared on Facebook—feelings of unexpected hope and encouragement similar to what six others also in attendance at synod wrote recently on The Twelve.
The week that Jeff Munroe, editor of the Reformed Journal, forwarded to me this call for separation, asking if I wanted to respond, I heard a compelling, inspiring sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16 preached by Gary Burge, who is Dean of the Faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary. The contrast between the blog’s message and this sermon could not have been more stark. And it focuses on the key question—what does it mean to be faithful as the church of Jesus Christ in our time, and within the RCA?
Ephesians was written at the end of Paul’s ministry (and I know there’s a separate scholarly discussion about its authorship). Gathered bodies of those following Jesus were emerging throughout the Roman Empire. They were radical examples of a new community in which that culture’s divisions driven by race, social class, income, gender, and power were being overcome. These transformational communities were serving the sick, the marginalized, and the poor, even in their burials.
Being “in Christ” meant that the love demonstrated in Jesus, and the power shown in his death and resurrection, were calling people into a new way of living, empowered by the Spirit. Extremes of diversity were bonded together in a unity born from this love of God, with distinct gifts building the whole community and its mission.
It’s no wonder that the message of Ephesians was, and is, so clear and passionate about how those in the body of Christ are to live together, united in their common faith:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:1-6
And of course this isn’t some isolated proof text. The theme of God’s desire for unity sounds through the Psalms of Ascent as pilgrims journeyed up to Jerusalem. It is at the core of the last prayers offered by Jesus before his arrest in the garden, and this calling reverberates through not only the writing but the pastoral ministry of Paul and the Apostles in the New Testament. It is overriding and core to any biblical understanding of faithfulness.
The toxicity of culture wars has been injected into our congregations and denominations, involving everything from masks to same gender relationships. We’ve lost the calling of “bearing with one another in love.”
Within the Reformed Church in America, defiant proclamations about breaking fellowship and leaving the denomination are met with impunity. But there’s the weight of sin that comes whenever Christ’s body is severed—sin and failure shared by all.
I’ll illustrate. I was privileged to serve as RCA General Secretary for 17 years. During that time we had severe differences over same gender relationships, even including a trial of one of our Professors of Theology. Certainly, I and others made plenty of mistakes, leaving wounds requiring more grace to heal than often seemed sufficient. But throughout that period, only two congregations chose to leave the RCA—one at the extreme theological right, and the other on the far left. We honored the bonds of unity between us, for we believed they were not of our own choosing, but of God’s.
The ecclesial climate we live in now has deteriorated severely. Convictions become emblazoned with self-righteousness. We’re attracted more to tribalism than any biblical understanding of Christian community. Severing ourselves from fellowship becomes a strategy for proving and protecting our purity.
But let’s turn to the recently completed General Synod of the RCA. I’ve been to 27 of these. Certainly, synods are noteworthy for the actual decisions made by voting delegates. But in the RCA, I’ve found that General Synods are also like an ecclesial barometer, providing a reading of the climate and atmosphere in the denomination at a particular time. And of course, that changes, sometimes as unpredictable as the weather.
That’s why listening to delegates at this past synod report on the mood and feeling they encountered is so illuminating. There was grace, respect, listening, courageous sharing, and a willingness by most to walk together. It was as though delegates had read Ephesians before coming. And that would have been just as important as the Workbook.
Of course, there were difficult places. Worship often seemed designed for polemical purposes. Wounding words, born of insensitivity or fear, disrupted the tone of debates at points. But the prevailing commitment of most delegates seemed to be to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Some on the strongly conservative side will not be satisfied. Their desire has been for a uniform, traditional view of same-gender relationships to be constitutionally mandated by the RCA and enforced throughout the denomination by an effective judicial process. But in our 47 years of formal discussion of human sexuality and same-gender relationships, the RCA has not been willing to make this a constitutional issue defining who can, and who cannot, be included in the bonds of unity of the Spirit. The decisions of this synod opened the way to continue walking together, figuring out how to respect and accommodate those differences, focused together on our common mission.
This could include the option of having some classes (plural of classis) organized with those congregations having the same views—either traditional or inclusive—on same gender relationships. Other classes could be organized around common commitments to specific ministries and mission for mutual support. Some classes might remain organized according to geography. All this is still to be worked out, drawing creatively on our collegial polity, and healing the climate of mistrust, recrimination, and fear that has eroded our calling as the Body of Christ, and wounded some so deeply.
However, the overall imperative of “restructuring” the RCA requested by General Synod is to see how the oldest Protestant denomination in the U.S. can shed a multi-layered structure of governance and programming that seems top-heavy, overly complex, and outmoded. Can we reinvent ourselves, using the strengths of our polity to empower and serve congregations in a more decentralized way while nurturing our unity in diversity, promoting “the body’s growth in building itself up in love”? (Ephesians 6:16)
That’s how we will discover and follow our continuing call to faithfulness as the church of Jesus Christ in our time. The decisions and the atmosphere of General Synod have outlined a possible pathway toward such a future, always held only in God’s grace.
There is so much to respond to in this post. Thank you for offering it, and even more thank you for not tossing this pastor and his small, struggling, but faithful congregation to the firey trash heap of Gehenna, as we work to stay in the RCA though we do not agree with everyone in it on everything imaginable.
Thanks, Wes. Once again you speak with clarity, wisdom and a faithful commitment to the unity of the Body of Christ. I am grateful that God has gifted you with these qualities and called you to serve the Reformed Church in America.
I thank you for your thoughtful and gracious analysis. One of the unfortunate legacies of the Reformation is that truth trumps unity. That was the trade-off that created the reformed church (appropriately so in that case). The reformed tradition values a strong, systematic, and coherent theology. So when a disagreement arises over an issue, what happens is that one side will find the logical connection between their opponent’s position and their hermeneutic (and vice-verse). Once that is established, the argument gets elevated to suggest that if the position is bad, the hermeneutic is suspect if not outright heretical, and thus the entire doctrinal structure is at risk. At that point, unity is fractured and schism is probably inevitable because in that logic, remaining unified only pollutes the whole pond. This is the story of schism after schism. The stronger counterpoint to the argument over truth, it seems to me, is grace. Grace and truth belong together. Verse 7 continues: “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The unifying truth is that grace is given to us. It’s not something we deserve or earn. That is the foundation for unity.
I love this response. Thanks for writing it.