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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?

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is pastor emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He lives in New Paltz, New York, where he does pulpit supply and teaching and feeding birds and minding his grandchildren.

23 Comments

  • Dana R VanderLugt says:

    Thank you, thank you for putting words — and faces — to this grief.

  • Thank you, Dan. You expressed all my feelings in this writing.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    I grew up in the RCA, graduated from Calvin and Western, and was ordained (1970) in the Presbyterian Church, (the church of my birth and baptism) … we, too, struggled long and hard, shed a lot of blood, tried our best to hold the show together, but to no avail. After 40 years of wrangling, and maneuvering, the evangelicals packed up, by and large, and left, to join other groups, or form their own. It was a relief to all – the evangelicals could get on with their own worldview (now pretty much in shambles), and we could get on with the task of welcoming and affirming our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and continuing affirm ordination for women (something the evangelicals may have accepted when in our ranks, but never fully endorsed). It’s a sad day, of course, for the RCA, but in the larger perspective, things will come together in unexpected ways. As you suggest, our task is to be faithful to the Sacred Text, to the moving of the Spirit, and to those colleagues who are called, and to their families and friends. Lament is appropriate, and needed, but courage and even some element of joy are part and parcel of the jostling of the puzzle pieces. Be of good cheer, even as the tears roll down.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Thank you for the phrase “orthodox, but open.”

  • Tony Vis says:

    Thanks, Dan. I appreciate you and your perspective. Always have, even when we’ve disagreed and you’ve clearly been wrong. 😇 (Okay, okay … you’ve mostly been right! 😊) Oh, and I’m not going anywhere. Let the conversations continue.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    It is indeed a sad time for the RCA. I also wonder how much of this mess we are in is the result of not daring to do our theology together, not allowing our professors of theology to lead us in the study of the word, not listening to the wisdom of our brothers and sisters, and thinking another program, another statement will somehow hold us together, even as we discard our liturgy. While I am deeply saddened, I also find myself breathing a sigh of relief that maybe now we can get on with being and doing what we are called to be and do.

  • Michael Van Buren says:

    Since I am intimately involved in inviting Churches to the ARC (Alliance of Reformed Churches) and I am the development director for the ARC, I need to respond to articles like Dan’s.
    I have been a pastor in the RCA for 44 years, been on the General Synod Council, been at General synod a dozen times, written a dozen overtures that made it to the floor of General Synod and my grand children are 6th Generation RCA members. ALL of my family was loyal to the RCA for those generations— married, buried, baptized and made confession of faith in the RCA. That is longevity and loyalty. So, is it easy for me to leave a denomination having invested that much time , effort, love and loyalty???? At first NO. I cried. However, with articles like the one I am now responding to, it makes it easy, necessary and exciting.
    The RCA was based on “Stricture alone”, yet little or no scripture is ever sighted to support the direction of the RCA over the past 2 decades. It embraces persons who put their wisdom above the Scriptures and put unity above Truth. Never did Christ put unity above truth and the exiting Churches will not do so either. It is going to be so enjoyable to get off a Ship navigating it’s way away from Scripture and getting on a ship where Stricture (truth) will again reign on it’s pulpits and show us THE WAY,
    When Dan and others are happy for our exit, so am I. However, because the RCA has lost it’s foundation and direction, it will also lose it’s funding and influence. The present leadership will navigate it’s way into inconsistency and non-influence. It is so sad that human thought and human behavior has become their guide and (as it has dozens of time in Ecclesiastical history) those who leave the Word of God for the words, desires and thoughts of mere humans, it will fail. With sadness, Pastor Mike Van Buren

  • David E Timmer says:

    When the history of this sad era of the RCA is written, attention should be focused on the relentless elimination of denomination-wide media for communication between the regions (East, Midwest, and – arguably – Far West) and the diverging tendencies among us. For years, we’ve been like a divorcing couple who are still living under the same roof but hardly speaking. This development tracks with the general fragmentation of the media and the degradation of discourse in the broader culture. The CRC-NA faces many of the same strains (and the famous 25-year gap has narrowed considerably!), but at least The Banner still seeks to host a denomination-wide conversation.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Laced through your comments is grief, resignation and prayer. Thanks for showing us your insight but especially your sadness; your kind sadness. As I read I had a brief shining of hope that your empathy might be felt by all and we would “hang together.” But alas!
    I am especially grateful for what you said about the Bible. You make clear what I have said through this time of stress, “That we also respect the authority of scripture. We differ not on authority but on interpretation.” (You said it is as if we are reading different books, and so it does) Also your comments about rural and urban New York churches resonated with me. It is if in the mind of the leadership upstate New York churches don’t even exist. When Don Baird was president of Albany Synod, we went to the microphone on the floor of the synod and said, “I represent your grandmother in the nursing home whom you visit once a year.” (i.e. the only time upstate churches are given consideration if I need to explain his remark.) The loss is great and hurtful, but as you point out, Dan, we simply have to accept it and strive to love one another in obedience to our Lord.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Maybe now is the time for the orthodox but open CRC and RCA members to reunite?

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      I would love that.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      In the late 1990s, maybe 1997, at an RCA General Synod, and as secretary of our ecumenical commission and chair of our South Africa Task Force, I hosted both Domine Clarence Boomsma for the CRC and the delegation of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa. They were shocked and dismayed when Henry and I informed them that the CRC and the RCA would not be attempting reunion in the foreseeable future, on the grounds that both denominations had serious internal controversies. They sort of reprimanded us, and you can imagine so, when you consider the incredible costs they’d had to pay for their own church union

  • Jack Ridl says:

    As a member of the UCC, I mean the mess of the UCC, I sit here laughing. Let’s see, hmmm, how about “the cruelty” of whatever you call what you describe? Oh, I know it’s “sad, heartbreaking, tragic.” Calvinist. Poor Jesus. The only places he brought his love was into the mess. I’m glad to be there in the mess. We have no idea what to believe. We just get on with what needs everyone’s care. Blessed not to believe except in the mess,
    Jack who reads you daily. You me? You us?

  • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

    I agree with your observation, Daniel, that there’s more to the current cleavage in the RCA than the debate over homosexuality. When I look at voting trends in regions where congregations leaving the RCA are located and at the Facebook posts of those in support of leaving (hardly theological treatises, I know; but still a reflection of personal values), I come to the conclusion there’s really no ecclesiastical home for me there. My mother used to say, “Onze lieve Heer heeft rare kostgangers.” (Our dear Lord has strange boarders.) Seems to apply to all of us these days.

  • David Hoekema says:

    A moving lament for another symptom of the profound illness afflicting church and society.
    The CRCNA too turned away from serious theological engagement with LGBTQ issues for decades, choosing to follow the pastoral counsel of a 1973 report — which was sound and compassionate — and not think much about its long-outdated biology and psychology or its highly selective Biblical interpretation.
    The report to be debated next summer, alas, is an example of the principle that good deeds seldom go unpunished. Our Synod commissioned a thorough Biblical and theological reflection on sexuality in the Christian life, and what we got was a great sprawling hodgepodge. In its 150 pages one will find, on the one hand, thoughtful and helpful discussions of many cultural and societal issues related to sexuality and, on the other, an unqualified and unsupported declaration that God really meant to say “no gay marriage! No, never!” in the Bible but forgot to make it clear enough, so now we will do so on God’s behalf. I do not have much hope that this report will bring the churches back together for considered dialogue.
    (But why the snarky comment about the PCUSA? Run by lawyers?? Not the lively and vibrant church my kids and grandkids attend, or the one my wife and I attend in winter with worship in English and Spanish and Tohono O’odham — fine and faithful communities of Jesus followers in the East and Southwest respectively. Whatcha got against lawyers, anyway, Dan?)

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Ja, probably should have avoided the snarky comments about the Presbys and the UCC. And neither of them are as silly as the RCA. But I do find the PCUSA as a denominational structure (not congregations) legalistic in its Book of Order (where the UCC is essentially unordered). And yes, historically, many more lawyer types in leadership positions than among the Dutch Reformed, who also tended to be one step lower in socio-economic class.

      • Jane Pauw says:

        I, too, was confused by the lawyerly comment. In my ministry (which, by the way, had at our service yesterday Afghan refugees, Kenyan and Korean immigrants, and Congolese refugees), there is the most imaginable amount of flexibility. There is no other way to minister so cross-culturally. You might be surprised at how little that “lawyerliness” trickles down!

      • Jack Ridl says:

        You weren’t being snarky about the UCC. You meant it. Jesus wasn’t orderly. He entered the mess. He often caused a new and loving mess. That’s where we all belong, not just those who have THE definition of God and the end result of Jesus–Christianity.
        You wrote it; you meant it.

  • Jan Koopman says:

    Enjoy reading these comments — I believe any future for the church must embrace diversity within the humble belief that the expansive and inclusive example of Jesus manifesting God’s expansive. Daniel, you are so bright!

  • Doug Gunderson says:

    I know nothing about the author or the secession within the RCA. This is the first I’m hearing and trying to understand what’s taking place. It would be interesting to read a similar letter from a church leader that is in favor of secession. The letter was well written and came across as genuine but my biggest take away was the feeling that this man’s true loyalties and ideals are to a political “scripture” and not to The Word.

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