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.