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Terry Gross was interviewing the author Judy Blume on NPR’s Fresh Air. Blume had grown up secular Jewish, and Gross was asking her about her later attempts at religion. This was their exchange:

Blume: “The synagogue didn’t work for me. I just felt my children were learning things that I didn’t like.

Gross: “What were your children being taught in Sunday School that you didn’t approve of?

Blume: “I didn’t like how much we are the chosen people, and we are different, and we are better. I didn’t like that.

“The CRC.” That was my wife’s first thought when she heard it. When Melody told me, I laughed. Me too, my first thought, “The CRC, the chosen people.”

It was never official, and admitted mostly in jokes—a sentiment, an attitude, a habit of being within the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). But it was voiced enough from the pulpit and in letters to The Banner. God had a special calling and purpose for the CRC. The attitude was reinforced by the official doctrines of Election and the Covenant and that “all of life is religion.” In 1975 the novelist Chaim Potok told me that the Calvin College community was the most Jewish bunch of Christians he’d ever met.

To belong to a covenantal people means that to leave it is breaking covenant, a moral failure, not just letting down the side. The attitude was even stronger in South Africa among the Afrikaner Boers. James Michener entitled his novel about that country The Covenant.

No doubt the attitude has weakened in the CRC. With ethnic diversity and only a minority of its kids in Christian school, the CRC can no longer feel like “a people,” much less a “chosen” one. But that weakening suggests also a weakening of assumed loyalty, shared confidence, and mutual sympathy, along with uncertainty about the CRC’s distinctive calling and unifying mission.

The CRC’s first mission was to protect Dutch Pietism. This evolved into a vision of being Calvinist and championing Calvinism, which fit the “chosen people” sentiment. The sentiment could survive when the vision further evolved into being Kuyperian and proclaiming a Christian worldview.

But now the worldview mission has been coopted by outside evangelicals, especially on the Christian Right. As Calvin College and Seminary lose control of the CRC, it’s becoming just one more evangelical denomination planting churches while also trying to preserve its hardest doctrines. This is the larger story behind the impending debates to come at this year’s synod. I will be watching, sympathetically, and with affection.

My wife and I have been close observers of the CRC for our whole lives. We both had mostly CRC relatives. We both were baptized CRC, but both of us were taken early by our parents into the RCA (Reformed Church in America), and grew up in vibrant RCA congregations. We both were sent to Christian schools, we both went to Calvin College (where we met), and while there, attended CRC churches, while keeping our RCA memberships.

We got all the benefits of the CRC without suffering its burdens. We were never part of the chosen people. We have never had to leave it or feel the hardness of the leaving. My dad, despite being very loyal to the RCA, always harbored a little shame among his relatives for having left the CRC. Later in life, when I told him of my discovery that in the Netherlands his people had been Reformed, not Christian Reformed, I watched him heave a great sigh and come close to tears.

I suspect that Melody and I were aware of the “chosen people” attitude because we were always in the CRC but not of it. Especially because it’s totally absent in the RCA. The RCA has never felt like a “chosen people, who are different, and better.” Our distinctives are few, and we have nothing to show for being better. Indeed, the CRC was more interesting intellectually and flew closer to the sun. The RCA expected less of itself, and offered less. We never had a unifying vision until thirty years ago when our General Secretaries began trying to give us one. We are now on our third attempt. It’s proven a fool’s errand. Meanwhile, we’ve just lost a third of our membership.

The reason you belong to an RCA church is because you like it. Full stop. Oh, you might have family roots in it, but you belong because you like the local congregation—its people or the pastor or its history or, rarely, its doctrine. And if you leave, the most you’re letting down is your family. My parents chose the RCA, so I have chosen it too, and, foolishly, I love it. It is a weak and silly little denomination, but that reminds me of myself. It is my chosen people.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is Pastor Emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He feeds the finches and drives uber for his grandchildren in New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley.


  • RZ says:

    A lot of good historical insight here! At the risk of stating the obvious, might I suggest that a “Christian worldview” minus humility ultimately leads to a sense of doctrinal or cultural exceptionalism. The cultural identity eventually consumes the Christian identity. In AA there is a saying, ” First the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” “Unifying vision” or “fool’s errand” ? The harder we work at piety, the less pious we become.

    • Kathryn D VanRees says:

      That’s right, RZ.
      “ . . . a Christian world minus humility ultimately . . . “ That is the truth.

  • Daniel,

    This is a very interesting article. Thank you for sharing it. However, hasn’t the Church of Christ always had this notion of being “chosen people?” It is not unique to the CRC. We can find it as far back as Paul’s writings.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      It’s even stronger in First Peter. But for the CRC it was being chosen in a way that other churches were not.

  • Doug says:

    Thanks for this, Daniel. Filled with insight, as always.

  • Kirk Vanhouten says:

    To be clear, the perception from the conservative side was that the churches are losing control of the college and seminary, not that the college and seminary were ever supposed to “control” the denomination.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Fair enough. But look back a generation.

    • John Breuker, Jr. says:

      IMHO, it is decades since the CRC churches/congregations “lost control” of the college/seminary. The schools had developed into world-based and world-populated and world-respected institutions, so the denominational “control/ownership” disappeared as well. I like to think of them as being similar to kids matured and now out of the parental house, living apart and on their own – not always easy for the “parents” to let them go in either case. The offspring still respect, admire and are influenced by those who bore them, but are no longer controlled by them.

      • Theo says:

        And this is a good thing, how? Isn’t the seminary supposed to feed the churches their pastors? And the college educate the adult children of the parishoners–not to mention educate the teachers who will teach the young children? I’ve heard this sentiment before and never understood it. If the CRC cut loose its seminary and its college, it would seem like we would just have to build new ones. The more sensible route would seem to reassert control over that which you already own. Unless, of course, the mores have changed such that we no longer believe in a Christian education project, which I don’t think is true at all.

        A lot of the sentiments here are just odd. It’s as if people are lamenting that Christians find themselves to be a chosen people, and that people within the CRC find themselves to be more right than others. If Christ is the only path to heaven–which every Christian church has believed except a few outliers, since that’s what Christ said–wouldn’t you want to belong to the group that you think has it closest to right? That’s why the Reformation happened in the first place.

  • Kathryn D VanRees says:

    As always, you write with delightful clarity, Dan. Perhaps part of the clarity for me here is that I know those worlds rather well.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Daniel, to underscore your point I have to admit something very personal: I grew up in my small town of Oskaloosa, Iowa believing I was Jewish. I still remember the day, sometime in grade school, that I figured out I wasn’t. I was astonished and disappointed. As I grew older, I figured out why I got such basic thing wrong.
    The first reason was the point of your article. Our preacher talked Sunday after Sunday about the Jews as God’s chosen people, God’s special people, and talked in equally hushed tones about our beloved Reformed faith as superior to all. I wasn’t sure what made it superior but my hunch was its exceptional ability to make people feel guilty. In any case, when our preacher talked about the chosen people, and Jacob I loved, Esau I hated, I had no doubt about what side of that divide I was on!
    Two other frequent references to the Jews as I grew up made me think I was a Jew. My dad managed three clothing factories – in Oskaloosa, Ottumwa and Knoxville – that were owned by two Jewish men from Chicago. Every Thursday “the Jews” came to Oskaloosa to see how things were going at the factories. Especially during dinner on Thursday, my dad talked a lot about his day with “the Jews.” I knew from meeting them as a small boy that they were very important people and that they really liked my dad because my dad was really important to them. It fit perfectly that we were Jews too.
    And then, a more difficult thing to admit, my uncles would frequently call my dad a Jew. I didn’t realize they often meant to hurt him by it and were using an ethnic stereotype of Jews, but my dad was successful financially, known in town as having a knack for making money. My uncles, often out of envy, would call my dad a Jew to put him down. But as a small boy, I only heard them calling my dad a Jew which I already knew was true, and seemed to go with making money, and well, being special—special like the factory owners and special like Christian Reformed people.
    I was truly shocked and disappointed to learn I was a Gentile. Living into my newfound Dutchness never had the same charm as the idea of being Jewish — truly special and chosen by God.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Wow, Duane, I love that memory story because it’s, well, unique, and it uniquely demonstrates the general point.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    It’s like I’m looking into a mirror
    Every detail. Father left, Christian schools, met wife at Calvin, who as also CRC, etc.
    Love of my silly little RCA denomination , spooky Monday morning
    Thanks for reminding me of the good company

  • Pam Adams says:

    Daniel, I have been in the CRC since I was 19 years old. I grew up as a Catholic but left it with my new husband, who was an Orthodox Presbyterian. When we moved to Connecticut for his first job there were no OPCs so we joined a church that was Reformed, which was a CRC. I have been CRC ever since and that is a lot of years. But believe me I have not gotten over the high holy feeling that I get from many CRC people. If you want to look into their righteousness just read Michener’s The Covenant to see terrible sinful racism and societal taking down of an entire population who were all made by our Creator.

  • SMN says:

    A memory that I did not convey to you in my email this morning is of a conversation I had in my early years at New Hope. A family was transferring their membership from the Christian Reformed Church in Columbus, OH to New Hope as the CRC congregation had very few children and, therefore, no children’s ministry. On the day that this family was welcomed into the membership of New Hope, this individual told me that this was the most painful day of his life as he was leaving the CRC for the RCA.

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    Don’t you find hints as far back as the Gospel of John that followers of Jesus began thinking of themselves as the rightful inheritors of the mantel of God’s chosen people? The people of the new covenant, with Rome becoming in due time the new Jerusalem.
    It is certainly manifest in the papal bulls of the 15th century that put Christianity’s stamp of approval on the age of “exploration” that sanctioned the centuries of appropriation, oppression, looting, enslavement, displacement, genocide and cultural annihilation in Africa and the Americas. Europeans were Christian. The native peoples were heathens. We are reminded of the complicity of our Christian ancestors with every refugee from Central America that knocks on the door of our southern boundary. Yes, the CRC may take the trophy for self righteousness, but I’ve grown over 80 some years to believe all of Christiandom has some skin in the game of claiming God’s chosen status.

  • Glenda Buteyn says:

    I grew up in a small town in Iowa where there were several churches. In all fairness, the rating which I am about to share was of my own doing; no one told me to do this. But this is what I thought was a fair rating on which churches were closest to God;
    1. CRC 2. Reformed 3. Presbyterian 4 Methodist 5 Lutheran 6. Catholic
    isn’t that sad?

  • I grew up in the PRC and the attitude of being the chosen people was everything you’ve described times 10. Repeatedly I heard that leaving The Church (the PRC) would mean your generationws would lose their faith. Such manipulation and control. Resorting to such tactics only shows how insecure a church is about its identity.

  • Gordon says:

    Another memory for me jumped out as I read your piece was the comment my mother made when my father left the CRC to marry an RCA member. The CRC elders said goodbye to my father membership and told him. “ you are taking a step in the downward direction” Are we still thinking like that in the CRC?

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