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A well-informed colleague just told me that more than 200 congregations may soon leave the Reformed Church in America (RCA). That’s a fifth of our congregations.
This is our third secession. The first, in 1823, gave birth to the True Reformed Dutch Church. The second, in 1857 and 1883, resulted in what came to be called the Christian Reformed Church. The first two secessions were attempts to be more strictly Calvinist. This third secession is an attempt to be more conservative and evangelical.
In one sense I am glad about this secession, because I am tired of the fighting. I am tired of the heavy cost of trying to keep these pastors and congregations in — the price of hindering our efforts to make the RCA more fully open and affirming. It has hindered the ordination of several persons I know to have been called by God. So, yes, I’m glad, especially since these people have chosen to leave instead of trying to manipulate the Church Order in order to consolidate the denomination and force me out. And yet, this is a grief to me. Why should I care?
I don’t want them to separate from me. I want to be in the same denomination with them despite our disagreements. I have relationships with them that are being broken. I have family relatives in those congregations. I have worshipped in those churches and I felt like I belonged there even when I could not relate to what they substituted for our Liturgy. One Wisconsin congregation sent its huge and powerful young adults group three times to Brooklyn for our summer work camp, with tools, funds, and supplies. One summer they did $80,000 worth of work at the congregation I served in Brooklyn. We taught them the subways, we went to Coney Island, we prayed with them and sang with them — and now, is that all lost? Of course it’s a grief. Of course I care.
The congregations are leaving because of people like me. I celebrate same-sex marriages, both theologically and in action. That the various judicatories of the RCA do not discipline people like me is the sign to the seceders that the RCA has lost its denominational integrity, and that continuing in the RCA compromises their own integrity. Apparently, they are transferring their memberships mostly to the new Alliance of Reformed Churches, although some who are more theologically rigorous are moving to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Of course, I think they’re in the wrong: they should be fully open and affirming on sexuality. They should ordain women. They should advocate for Critical Race Theory in their public schools. They should get vaccinated and wear masks. The whole works.
Yet I am wholly with them on the Holy Trinity, and Our Lord’s bodily resurrection and coming again, and the plenary inspiration and full authority of scripture, and even the virgin birth. I believe every line of the Nicene and Apostles’a Creeds. I’m orthodox, while being open. Which apparently they don’t believe or understand. I wish they’d try.
I wish them well. If they’re not happy in the RCA, why should they stay, and why should we not bless their going? I could blame them for leaving because they are refusing the radical call of the Gospel, but on the other hand they have on their side the great majority of the Church Catholic in time and space, on both same-sex marriage and women’s ordination. So if I consider it valuable to forge ecumenical relationships with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, and if I value praying and sharing with Muslims, what can I have against our seceders? Because it’s different. Because of what we so recently were.
Am I happy with the denomination they are leaving? Of course not. I believe that the General Synod Council and our denominational leadership have for a long time been contributing to the problem by their leadership, not least by their wrong-headed strategies to hold our unity. The presenting argument has been about biblical interpretation, yet evidently the last thing our denominational leadership has wanted to use the time and resources of our General Synod for was sustained, well-led, and seriously engaged biblical interpretation with each other. (A Lutheran ecumenical delegate to our General Synod Council told me that he was surprised that the GSC did no Bible study.) The eventual outcome might have been no different, but I can hardly blame the seceders for suspecting that the continued unity of the RCA is a function of ignoring the Bible.
The seceders say that the denomination has nothing more to offer them. It is not much different for us “out East.” Despite all its posturing, the RCA staff offers nothing to the urban and rural churches in New York to help us in our predicaments. But we’re not leaving. I guess our ecclesiology is different as well, beyond the issues we’re arguing about.
Since 1857 the RCA has been a coalition denomination. For a century we combined the churches of both the first and second immigrations — the Eastern colonial immigration and the Midwestern nineteenth century immigration. They held deeply different religious sensibilities united only by a Constitution (including Doctrinal Standards) and some sympathy for Pietism (even in the East). The East was defined by state-church inclusion and the Midwest was defined by purity and separation. Denominational leaders in the RCA were always those people who could cultivate the coalition with deep relationships on both sides (unlike our last three general secretaries, who were chosen to be visionary leaders).
This coalition was tested in the decade of the 1960s, like so much else in America. At the General Synod of 1969, the Synod’s past president made a motion proposing “the orderly dissolution of the RCA.” In 1984 the president asked General Synod, “What is the glue that holds us together?” After four decades of squabbling it is apparent that we have not found the glue, and the duct tape has let go.
I don’t condemn the seceders for the sin of breaking the unity of the church. The RCA can hardly make any realistic claim to the unity of the church, being itself not much more than a sect. We are actually a rather silly little denomination, historically stubborn in our independent organization. We have no right to our continued separate existence, except by God’s gracious forbearance. (Stanley Wiersma told us that B.D. Dykstra preached it so in Middleburg, Iowa in 1950: “Heeft de Gereformeerde Kerk in Amerika een Recht van Bestaan? Neen!”)
That our ecumenical partners honor us as they do is only a credit to them. True, it would pain me to have to surrender to the lawyers’ yoke of the Presbyterians, or the mess of the United Church of Christ. I’d rather go Lutheran. And true, I might claim that the RCA churches of Brooklyn and Ulster County, New York (and in Albany and some parts of the Midwest), were founded way back when there was no other church at all, and they were, at least for their first decades, the Una Sancta. Why should they be judged sectarian simply for staying faithful to their foundations? I offer these claims to you, but I’m not sure I’d dare offer them to Our Lord.
Who am I to judge the seceders? So I don’t condemn them. As I deserve no better blessing I will do my best to bless them. But I do grieve them, and I grieve the loss of what we had. Although even more I grieve the predicament of the women among them who are gifted and called. I grieve the gay, lesbian, and trans children who will be nurtured by them but only so far. I also grieve the way they are developing how they interpret the Bible.
If a denomination, from a Reformed point of view, is a community of sufficient mutual hermeneutical accountability, then it no longer makes sense to be together, and that is my greatest grief of all. I have so much love for the Bible, I am in it for an hour every morning, and yet it’s like we’re reading different books.
O Lord, how can that be? I ask you Lord, how can that be?