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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.