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The Reformed Church in America, my denomination, is splintering.

Last fall’s General Synod — our widest decision-making body — put some guidelines in place to make the departure process simpler and clear. One of the terms that was prominent in the discussion was “grace-filled separation” — although it was ultimately edited out. Grace-filled separation is really code for “Departing congregations may take their property and assets.” (A somewhat unnecessary precaution, perhaps? I know of no supervising body that intended not to allow departing congregations to take their property, or even “punish” them in any way.)

Grace-filled, however, may also have been to suggest that our splintering would be nice splintering, genteel splintering. We’re good people, after all. We’re Christians. We can avoid acrimony. Each side would wish each other well and bless each other as they split.

My experience is that grace-filled is really only an expectation of the stayers. “You may take your property. Plus, we will help you with the paperwork — insurance, pensions, lawyers, by-laws. We don’t want any balls to drop during your exit.” Exiting is not, as some seem to have imagined, as simple as returning a postage-paid stub — “We no longer wish to be part of the Reformed Church in America.”

No one seems to be asking what grace-filled might mean for the departers. For example, once it is clear that you are departing, whether officially or just probably, I think the grace-filled thing to do is to resign from any committees or boards in RCA organizations and assemblies. That’s what grace and integrity ask. Don’t be a delegate. You’re leaving — sooner or later. You should have no part in, or even desire for, making decisions for the body you are departing.

News of the planned departure is now spreading from the leadership to the congregation — from pastors and elders to pew sitters and members. This seems to have necessitated a turning up of the volume on less-than-grace-filled rhetoric. How else to awaken drowsy members?

Ostensibly, the division in the RCA is about affirming LGBTQ persons, biblical interpretation, and ecclesiology (our understanding of The Church). Perhaps those topics alone don’t have the firepower to inflame an only mildly interested congregation.

Now is the time to bring out boogeymen like relativism, universalism, or a weak understanding of Christ’s work on the cross. Grace-filled, indeed!

Relativism is basically being good at spotting the speck in someone else’s eye without having your vision impeded by the plank in your own eye. Relativism is so slippery, so difficult to gauge your own place in it, as to make the accusation meaningless. It is like asking the fish about its water. I love this cartoon of the rhinoceros-artist. It pretty well summarizes relativism. “Tusk? What tusk? I see no tusk!”

The pastor who accused the RCA of relativism (who has already himself departed) also said that “There is simply no way for orthodox churches to be faithful in the RCA. . .It is a necessity to leave the RCA.” Maybe since he’s already left, he no longer has to be grace-filled?

Universalism is another charge — believing that somehow or other, all will eventually be saved. As a friend asks, only half in jest, “Do you have to believe in hell to go to heaven?”

I personally know many ministers in the RCA who might be termed “progressives,” maybe even a smattering of “liberals.” I can honestly say that I don’t know a single one who is unabashedly and blatantly a universalist. Might they hope hell is a sparsely populated place? Might hell not be a frequent topic in their preaching? Might they hope that all things will be made new through Jesus Christ? Yes, but none of that is heretical. As a recently ordained RCA minister quipped, “If during my ordination exams I had declared I was a universalist, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have passed!”

I’m not saying you can’t find an outlandish anecdote or two to share about some RCA congregation or pastor. Are there some congregations where you might pick up a whiff of universalism, or certainly members who are openly universalists? No doubt.

In the same way, without too much work, I could find several wild stories about some departing congregations — their crippling patriarchy or overt racism. And certainly there are some departing churches where Christian nationalism is thick. Without a doubt there are all too many members of these churches who individually hold such views. Can we deduce from this that all departing congregations are thus guilty? All departing ministers — heretics? The answer is “no!”

A colleague who is departing tells me it is because of “polity.” I think he says that in part because he doesn’t want to debate sexuality or seem mean about it. Maybe that’s grace-filled. By “polity” he means he’s tired of high financial assessments, too many by-laws and rules of order, and the unofficial but very real power of the denominational hierarchy and staff. Many stayers would agree, but don’t believe those issues justify departing.

His concerns, however, point toward a different picture of the Church. It’s less connectional and more independent, relying more on relational than organizational cohesion. That sounds really good, until personalities clash or scandal erupts. Yet for all this desire for more independence, “alignment” is a watchword for the departers. That’s shorthand for complete uniformity on matters pertaining to human sexuality.

It is still early, too early, to really know how many churches will depart. There are several possible landing spots for the departing congregations — alliances, different networks, existing denominations. But it feels like the rush to the exits that was predicted hasn’t yet taken place. Perhaps that accounts for another place where I think the departers aren’t being especially grace-filled.

The departers’ salesmen (and they are all men) are out trying to increase their ranks. Just as one person’s “sharing” their faith is another’s “indoctrinating,” so likewise these different networks and groups are busy “informing” congregations about themselves. To some of us, however, it looks like they are recruiting, wooing, and in so doing smearing and throwing accusations. Numbers, growth, and size are hallowed icons for the departers. Sometimes I wonder if I don’t sense the tiniest bit of disappointment, maybe even a little desperation, or certainly anxiety among them.

It’s not lost on me that as I sound off about the departers’ less-than-gracious ways, this whole blog might seem less-than-gracious. I won’t defend it with the usual “they did it first.” I’m still trying to be gracious, just not a doormat. And I’m wondering if “grace-filled separation” wasn’t chimerical to begin with.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

18 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well said.

  • Well said. If it were up to me I would have allowed less than gracious leaving.

  • Rev. Nolan Palsma says:

    What makes me sad are the innocents in this departure, namely congregational members who want to remain with their congregation because that is all they have known. The issues of departure are less important to them.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Thanks for this Steve! And I agree wholeheartedly.

    Of note, the term “Graceful separation” was used by the Interim General Secretary Don Poest in his report and proposal on creating the Vision 2020 Team to the 2018 General Synod. (https://rca.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/InterimGeneralSecretary.pdf) In subsequent years the terms “Graceful,” “Gracious,” “Grace-filled,” and “Generous” were all discussed and used in various communications of the Team’s work. The 2020 Team’s final report subtitled Recommendation 3 which was approved by the October General Synod as, “Forward with Grace” and “Mutually Generous Separation.” (https://www.rca.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Vision-2020-Final-Report.pdf) None of this argues with anything you’ve said! It simply all the more calls forth how mutually generous what is going on is.

  • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

    I think I’d feel more charitable to refugees from the RCA if every now and then their leadership would preface one of their statements with “I could be wrong about this, but…”

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    Your statement of “a different picture of the church” is so true. I would never have anticipated we would witness this tribalism, even in our beloved church members.
    Perhaps God is giving us a test of our willingness to love one another? Only through His power can we do this.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I find the idea of “universalism” rather interesting. It reminds me of the many people who accused Barth of being a universalist, to which he responded. I know what universalism is, and I am not that (or something close to that). I think there are many in the RCA (my denomination too), who would say something similar, myself included, but people don’t believe that to be true, because there is no trust, so it is easier to simply label others “universalist” than to work to understand based on trust.
    Not to “both sides” the issues of the RCA, but I see the same thing going on when “progressives” say the departers are “judgmental.” Maybe that’s true for some, but maybe not for others. We don’t trust each other. Not sure exactly why. I might guess, but the space of a comment on a blog doesn’t seem like the appropriate place.

  • Tony Vis says:

    Okay, I was with you all the way, well, almost. I was saying, “Amen and amen and amen!” Over and over and over again. And then I came to the 4th to the last word in the blog, “chimerical,” and I found myself saying, “What and what and what?” Over and over and over again. What does that word mean? I looked it up. Steve, I’m sure you’ll be grateful to hear that we’re still good! 😇

    P.S. I already forgot what the word means, but it was meaningful. I’m pretty sure!

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Tony, if it helps the chimera — a mythical beast — was my high school’s mascot. I know, I know. Long story. When I thought about using a different word, what I liked about chimerical is that it not only seems to suggest fanciful, far-fetched, or imaginary but also a something a little willful — delusional, self-deceptive, beguiling, in denial. In other words, were we not being honest with ourselves?

      • Tony Vis says:

        And since it was your high school’s mascot, I suppose it also describes something rather juvenile!! You’re so good!!

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    Well said.

    A couple of historical points; sorry, it’s what I do. First, because the idea that schism is bad is deeply ingrained in Reformed folks–not only from the Belhar Confession, but from the Heidelberg Catechism, which gets it from that pesky Scripture stuff–there us a strong Reformed tendency for those who are leaving to paint those who are being left as Not The Church. It happened with the folks who left to form the CRC, and with those who left to form the True Dutch Reformed Church in the 1820s. The latter group through around the accusation of Hopkinsianism, which hardly anybody could define but everyone was sure was bad, and accused John Henry Livingston of all sorts of liberalism, which would have been hard to pin on JHL so late in his life.

    Second, one of the saving graces of the previous schisms was that, once people decided to leave, they left. Nobody came to synods or classis meetings or commissions or task forces to try to get the group they were going to leave anyway. Delegates from Graafschap and Polkton don’t seem to have gone to Holland Classis to have it out with Van Raalte over their requirements to stay; they sent a letter. Leaders of the TDRC secession published pamphlets and books about how awful the Reformed Church was; of course, several of their leaders had been tossed out of Reformed Church ministry or at least suspended before they decided to leave, and that may have had something to do with it. Nevertheless, the break was clean.

    The problem with legislating a grace-filled separation–a term with the General Synod thankfully abandoned–is that we cannot require grace. The moment it is required, it isn’t grace, and any chance at grace is gone. And, I suppose, if it has to be required, there is little chance any grace was there in the first place.

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Well said, Steve.

  • William Harris says:

    These days I live in an RCA-adjacent space, so it is not mine to offer advice, but I wonder, could we also ask about the role of grief here? That is, does the split itself arise from a sort of loss? I wonder about this as I drive through town, noting the disappearance of Bethany Reformed, or Hope Reformed gone but the building hosting another community; there’s Calvary, Newhall; and Knapp St smacked up by Ada Bible next door, and on it goes. Forty-five years ago I would preach in such places, these small and often struggling places; does their loss, their death form some sort of psychic wound?

    Do such losses make us more susceptible to spiritual infections?

  • Nathan DeWard says:

    As an RCA minister, I observe that the center held. The RCA was spared from bitter division, despite very real and ongoing loss. Let us grieve, restructure, and journey onward as communities of Christ on mission.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    The Talmud recognizes eight forms of gender.

  • John Hubers says:

    I’m watching this from afar – literally – in Addis Ababa where I am in partnership with the world’s largest Lutheran denomination – the Mekane Yesus (Place of Jesus) church which in many key area of ministry are out of synch with who we are as a Reformed Church. Differences abound, but here, as with the international churches I served in the Arabian Gulf we recognize that what draws us together is far more compelling than that which separates us. The key word in each case is contextualization, which is why I am happy with where we came out with Vision 2020 as it recognizes the central role of contextualization in Gospel witness.

    I only wish that my friends in the leaving congregations could understand how important that is. I fear, in fact, that they will learn the hard way that failing to do so is a death knell for ministry.

  • Cheryl Scherr says:

    Very well said Steve. However, I think you are preaching to the choir on this. I do think it needs to be said though.

  • Two things. First, the language we use really, really matters. Second, it’s often impossible, especially in situations like this, to get it right. What I hear in the word grace is a call – that no matter how sad or angry or disappointed or abandoned or afraid I feel, my God and denomination are calling me back to grace. Not a sentimental, cheap grace, but a gritty grace, the self-denying, cross-bearing kind, the kind that I will need to take up again and again during whatever this process is and however long it lasts. It’s a good call. I think it’s the right call, whether I’m actually “filled” with it or not. Hopefully outsiders will believe it, even when I’m not feeling it.

    As far as whether those who are leaving will return the favor, I’m reminded of what John Barklay wrote about grace in the ancient world. While a grace or gift might be unconditional, there was still the expectation that the recipient would respond with their own generosity. All we can do is expect or hope that the word grace will at least to some degree rub off on all of us, whether staying or leaving.

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