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I’ve been thinking about the coup that the Christian Reformed chapter of the Theobros pulled off at the CRC Synod last month, and the musings have piled up so high that I figured why not use Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s random thoughts genre and let ‘er rip? Steve’s offerings in this vein tend to be more gentle and genuinely interrogatory than what follows, so be forewarned…
1. A word from Kuyperian experience on executing coups like this. Abraham Kuyper was nothing if not a great organizer, and early in the 1880s he plotted a strategic purging of the Netherlands Reformed Church (NHK), starting from the consistory of Amsterdam and working out over the whole land. Like our own Coup Boyz, he established a network of like-minded pastors, caucused with them before crucial meetings, and formed a bloc vote. Well disciplined, they took over the Amsterdam church, marginalized its Modernist ministers, asserted control over church properties, and moved to ordain graduates of Kuyper’s recently founded Free University of Amsterdam in receptive pulpits, church order to the contrary notwithstanding.
That move would only be the start, Kuyper thought, of a great reformation that would cleanse the denomination of its heretics and dead wood—not just Modernists but also (especially) the denominational boards and bureaucrats that protected them and that, with all their routines and regulations, kept the church from mounting the vital witness it needed to make amid the profound challenges of modern times. Liberation would flash across the land, he promised, strengthening those who believed, attracting many who did not (yet), and working a moral and spiritual revitalization of the entire nation.
To date, the CRC’s Coup Boyz seem more focused on washing away the impure and tending the walls of Zion to keep them out — just like Jesus did with the ‘lepers’ of his time — than on shaping a Christian witness that might attract new people in. Not to worry: CRC membership has been soaring so high of late that we needn’t bother about numbers. There is considerable resonance between the Coup Boyz’ initiatives and Trumpian yearnings to make America great again — that is, whiter than snow, with men on top, women in service, children obedient and very, very straight. So if that’s national cultural renewal, there you have it.
2. How did all this work out for Kuyper? Not so well. Not nearly up to his hopes, anyway. When it was all over, Kuyper’s breakaway movement, the Doleantie (from those ‘mourning’ the loss of the real church—the language of victimization wasn’t foreign to Kuyper’s ranks), attracted just eleven percent of all the country’s churches and only a third of those who identified as orthodox Reformed. Kuyper lost the church property battle in the courts and wound up fighting the moderates and a fair number of conservatives in the NHK much more than its Modernists or outright unbelievers. Overall church membership in the Netherlands fell, and within a few years the Doleantie merged with the churches of the earlier (1834) Secession from the NHK to form a new denomination, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN), comprising some 8% of the Dutch population. They held strong for three generations until the cultural revolution of the 1960s blew open the highly segmented Dutch society — and opened the doors to a huge exit from organized religion. In 2004 most of the GKN merged with most of the NHK and the country’s Lutherans into the PKN, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands.
3. How has secession worked for similar churches? The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in its 87th year, has barely 32,000 members. The Protestant Reformed Churches, in their 98th, only 8,000. In their thirty years the United Reformed Churches have managed to draw some 25,000 members out of the CRC. A colleague of mine attributes schisms in the Dutch Reformed lineage to an edifice complex: once a critical mass of males have finished building churches, Christian schools, and parsonages, they need to find a theological grievance that justifies hiving off to build new churches, schools, and parsonages. Funny: once the walls are up and the orthodox secure, inquirers do not beat down the doors to get in.
4. As for coup-mongers, the national champion is undoubtedly the Southern Baptist Convention which was taken over by a fundamentalist insurrection in the 1980s. It gloated at the numerical growth that supposedly rewarded this faithfulness, but after that first generation one can’t help noting a shift in the other direction. Since 2005 the SBC has lost nearly 20% of its members. Certainly, not all of the shrinkage is due to its recent exposé as being the Protestant leader in the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. Which fits well with their cultural witness of Trumpism.
5. Staying with Trump for a moment, the Supreme Court’s remanding of abortion policy to the states is to be followed — per its purest voice and the thousands of laity who quiver at the sound — by a nationwide criminalization of the process, then by a revocation of other laws based on the right to privacy: first of all same-sex marriage, then the right to birth control. On the CRC side, we can expect to see the banning of same-sex marriage to be followed by efforts to bar women from ecclesiastical office and then by the reversal of what the plaintiffs have always seen as the devil in the brew, Report 44 on “The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority, adopted by the Synod of 1972.
6. The interpretation of Scripture is instead to be no interpretation at all, just a plain and literal (except when inconvenient) reading of an inerrant text. Which is the core principle of classic Protestant Fundamentalism. Its spirit, according to its master analyst, George Marsden, is militant anti-Modernism. Its cultural initiatives always circle around to a war upon a single symbolic issue: alcohol, abortion, same-sex affiliation. Leading me to conclude that the synodical Coup Boyz of 2022 were more Fundamentalist than Reformed.
7. To spy out Protestant Fundamentalism today, we have to grasp that it has taken over and colonized the label Evangelical. Ironic, because Evangelical re-emerged as a term after World War II with a “neo-” in front and in hopes of bringing its more conservative orientation into a respectful dialogue with the Protestant mainline, gaining respect in the process. To this the likes of Jerry Falwell responded with a great No! Falwell boldly proclaimed himself to be an unreconstructed and unrepentant Fundamentalist with no interest in dialogue or respectability — at least none with or from the cultural establishment. From presidents like Ronald Reagan, yes indeed. Neo-Evangelicalism was promoted by such Reformed Journal stalwarts as Marsden and Richard Mouw. Which spirit was evident at CRC Synod 2022—M&M’s or Jerry Falwell’s?
8. I devoted more of my career than I can believe to help recover and nurture the better part of the CRC tradition in the hope that it might occupy some space between both the mainline and Evangelical sides of American Protestantism. Color that gone—bad choice.
9. So much of the tone and behavior of the allegedly born-again in America over the past generation has made me ponder Mark Twain’s classic advice: Take heaven for the climate and hell for the company. But then I usually retreat to Reinhold Niebuhr’s core principle, at least as I always distilled it for my students: Beware of sinners, for they shall try to deceive you; but beware especially the saints, for they deceive themselves. Need to remember that’s for me too…
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