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Compared to ten years ago, the Reformed Church in America is missing many churches that used to be part of its organizational structure. Many churches—and even a whole classis—simply up and left to join other alliances, networks, and denominations. Differences in how to assess the morality of same-sex relationships was the pressing issue. Those who left might claim that it was not just about that—which is true—but LGBT concerns were at the forefront.

Before this exodus happened, the progressive side in the RCA appealed to the conserva­tives to stay together because Jesus prayed for the church to be one as he and the Father were one, so that the world would know that Jesus was sent of the Father (John 17:11, 20-23). They insisted our witness would be hurt if we became yet another group of Christians that could not learn to live together. After all, there are already over 33,000 denominations, and we should not add to that tragic total.

I do not intend to be an apologist for church division—and find myself countering what Jesus was praying for—but it is important to look closely at the unity of the church, beginning with the bounds of unity and types of unity.

The bounds of Christian unity can extend in many directions to include unity between individual Christians, within a local congregation, between churches in a given area, within a denomination, between denominations in the same theological tradition, and between denominations from different traditions. All this unity takes place amid amazing levels of diversity in age, race, ethnicity, language, geography, social status, and wealth.

The types of Christian unity could include:

worship unity: a willingness to worship together

theological unity: a recognition of the validity of the theology of other churches, though there may be different emphases

fellowship unity: fellowship and friendship between churches/denominations

confessional unity: a recognition of the validity of the confessions of other churches/denominations

sacramental unity: a recognition of the validity of each other’s forms of celebrating sacraments and a willingness to share in those sacra­ments together

missional unity: participation in common missions of service and/or evangelism

organizational unity: a sharing of resources, staff, and programming within an organization

educational unity: joint ventures in curriculum development and semi­nary training

leadership unity: making it easy instead of hard for pastors to move from one denomination to another

respectful unity: recognition of others as Christians even though there is a strong disagreement on theological matters

Unity across the board in all these respects has never been achieved, alt­hough we might look on it as a vision for God’s desired future for the church. Of course, when we look far enough into the future—when all God’s diverse children are gathered around God’s throne—about the only types of unity that will still be needed are the unity of worship, theology, and fellow­ship. Other types of unity will be unnecessary. While God will always be a God of or­der, I doubt that there will be organizational bureaucratic unity required in the new heavens and new earth. At present, all these one-day-will-be-unneeded forms of unity can serve as pointers to the ultimate unity of God with God’s people.

The RCA, with its reputation for joining nearly every ecumeni­cal group that comes along, has done fairly well in every category listed above with one glaring exception—unity within our denomination. The RCA’s internal denominational disunity has had a long history. Every so often, some issue would arise that not only would divide the denomination theologically, but threaten to split the RCA into two denomi­nations. Over time, however, the denomination mostly managed to stay to­gether.

This time the RCA did not manage to stay together. Regarding the latest—and long—controversy over same-sex behavior, it was not a case of each side feeling pretty strongly about the issue. It was a case of each side feeling certain about the issue. Conserva­tives felt that if the denomination officially gave some forms of same-sex behavior a stamp of approval, then it would be an act of defiance against God with eternal consequences. Progressives felt that if the denomina­tion officially took a stand against all forms of same-sex behavior, then it would be committing human sexuality racism, rejecting a whole people group. The stakes were high for both sides. We were no longer weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. In­stead, what one group celebrated caused the other group to mourn.

But why was the RCA able to tolerate other denominations who have practices with which they do not agree—even on the issue of same-sex relations—but unable to tolerate other perspectives on this is­sue within the denomination?

I think it has to do with a Reformed emphasis on cove­nant. Although part of the worldwide church (and vaguely in covenant with all Christians), we were especially in covenant with those inside our denomination. We covenanted to be a people in mis­sion to­gether, offering our own unique witness to the gospel of Jesus. Be­cause of this denominational covenant, we felt more ac­countability with one another than with other denominations. We were not responsible for the whole body of Christ. But we did feel responsibility for what happened in our part of the body. If we were to think of ourselves as, say, the elbow in the body of Christ, we wanted to make sure all parts of the el­bow worked well. We really couldn’t deal with the infection in the big-toe denomination, nor provide much relief to the sore left-shoulder denomination. We simply had to be the best elbow we could be. And we couldn’t agree on what that should look like—at least with regards to the LGBT community in our midst.

When conservatives talked about leaving the RCA, progressives likened that move to a divorce, an analogy that con­veys well how traumatic a split would be. This was not a matter of efficiently di­viding up a business, it was a painful rending of a long-established relation­ship. But there is a sense in which the divorce analogy doesn’t work. Churches in a denomination are not married to each other. The entire worldwide church is already married to Christ, who func­tions as the groom. When churches separate from each other, they are not separating from Christ.

We may be on better footing if we stick with the “body of Christ” im­agery. If we have covenanted together to function as the elbow, then when we no longer function well in that capacity, Christ (the head of the body) has the prerogative to move us around. We can be separated and grafted onto a different, more fitting, part of the body of Christ. We’re still both a part of the body of Christ, but in a new place in that body.

Of course, that imagery can be taken in weird directions (imagine a stomach moved to replace the ear). So how about another image? What if we were to think of each denomination as a group of God’s people who are on an ex­tended mission trip together? When we look at each denomination, we see that the Lord has all kinds of mission trips happening all over the world. In a sense, they are organizationally separate, but in another sense, they are one, for they are all following the one Lord in mission. If we were to view the early church from this perspective, we could think of the Apos­tle Paul, his co-workers, and the churches associated with him as being on one mission trip, while the Apostle Peter and those associated with him were on another trip. The twelve apostles had twelve mission trips going from the very beginning. There was some coordinating of all this in the be­ginning when they were small, but it was fairly free-flowing. It wasn’t a perfect system; but what is? There was some rivalry, some conflict, and some individuals promoting false teaching. Yet these groups all belonged to the one church of Christ, with each group on a different mission trip.

In the early church, some of those mission trip groups would subdivide fur­ther, sometimes with some conflict mixed in. Acts 15:36-41, for instance, tells of such an incident involving Paul and Barnabas, who had been to­gether for a number of years and had recently completed what is now called Paul’s first missionary journey. But when Paul suggested they return to visit the new churches they had helped start, they got into a squabble over who else to take along on their mission trip. Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark, who had gone on part of the first trip, but then abandoned the mis­sion. Paul did not want to give him another chance. They had a sharp disa­greement, selected new mission partners, and went on separate mission trips (Acts 15:39-41). Years later Paul had a change of heart about John Mark and wrote apprecia­tively of him (2 Timothy 4:11). Although we have no record of Paul explicitly acknowledging it, Barnabas ended up being right about John Mark’s potential.

But the thing to notice is that Paul and Barnabas did not sit on the dock and argue for twenty years about who was best qualified to be a mission partner. Nor did they anathematize each other as they went their separate ways, disparaging each other’s faith. Nor did they insist on staying together for the sake of the unity of the church, with either Paul or Barnabas having to give in concerning Mark. No, the church remained one even though they had disagreements and went on separate mission trips.

I look at the RCA’s conflict in light of that story. For the past few centuries my denomination has covenanted together to be accountable to one another within our own denomination’s mission trip, but we reached the point where that no longer seemed very workable. We both believed we were hearing God’s call to take a certain path with regards to same-sex relationships. Rightly or wrongly, both sides believed it was not a peripheral issue which could be overlooked.

Maybe someday the conservatives will have a change of heart concerning the progressives’ LGBT mission partners (as Paul had a change of heart about John Mark). I doubt it; but we must always remain open to what God has in store—as well as to what God warns us against. But in the meantime, for the sake of the unity of the church, we needed to go on separate mission trips. We’re still connected be­cause we both remain part of the one body of Christ, but now in different organizations.

Why were conservatives in the RCA were more willing to separate than the progressives? Here are a few possible answers.

(1) Perhaps it’s because progressives tend to operate under more of a big tent view of truth. For them, there are many grey areas with regards to truth, and a smaller block of black and white issues. Conservatives, on the other hand, lean toward larger blocks of black and white truths. Progres­sives are more willing to stay together because they are more tolerant of divergent views. This one confuses me a little, however, because if the refusal to affirm at least some forms of same-sex behavior is really a kind of human sexuality racism, then why put up with conservatives in this matter? Why be organizationally united with heterosex­ual supremacists?

(2) Perhaps progressives were less willing to separate because they place a higher value on the accepting side of love than the conservatives, who also value love, but greatly appreciate its correcting side (such as found in Prov­erbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” ESV). I think people on both sides know that love includes accepting and correcting, but they definitely lean in different directions.

(3) At least some progressives in the RCA were eager to stay together because they actually do value some of what conservatives bring to the table, such as evangelistic zeal. They sus­pected that if the denomination were just comprised of progressives, some of the Je­sus-focus of conservatives would be missed. Conservatives, on the other hand, didn’t think they’d be missing much if they no longer had progressives in their denomination. What I don’t think the conservatives realize, and I say this as a conservative, is that without the progressives, it is easier for the conservatives to fall into judgmental legalism.

(4) It’s also possible that progressives were more eager to stay together be­cause they believed the tides of history were moving in their favor, and if the RCA managed to hold together long enough, more of the conservatives would come around to tolerating and even accepting same-sex relationships. Progressives might be right about what the future holds, but conservatives would not see that as a sign of progression, but regression to a pagan past.

There is no longer organizational unity between the RCA and the churches that left. But the other forms of unity were suffering long before the great exodus (which includes about a quarter of the churches and nearly half of the confessing membership). We were confessionally united on paper, but our understanding of those con­fessions had drifted apart. We had worship and sacramental unity, but since our theological division was somewhat tied to geography, the opportuni­ties for both sides to worship together seldom happened. Our mis­sional unity suffered because we were so focused on conflict. Leadership unity has also been harmed—churches on both sides have been reluctant to call pastors from the other side. The level of respect and warmth of fellowship was trending downward. When staying together on an organizational level drove us further apart, I no longer thought that or­ganizational unity was the best way to live into Jesus’ prayer for his church to be one.

Now that the organizational unity is no longer what it once was, what’s most needed is for both sides to work to restore other kinds of unity that we can still live out. We may be in different denominations, networks and alliances, but we can also work our way back toward joint worship, warm fellowship, missional cooperation, confessional unity, and respect. After all, the parties involved—the RCA, the networks and the alliances—are all still a part of the one church of Jesus Christ on a mission. I’m not talking about some “invisible” unity. We are all called to very tangible forms of unity, even if is organizational unity has been ruptured.

It’s no longer time for each side to blame the other side for what happened. Angry, mocking words about those jerks on the other side are unhelpful. That’s the kind of thing that unbelievers are especially watching for. People of the world don’t care if we’re organizationally or institutionally one or not. What they want to see is whether or not we love one another.

David Landegent

David Landegent is a retired pastor in the Reformed Church in America, now living with his wife Ruth in Oregon. He spends his time carting grandkids and writing books on biblical studies (Colossians, 1 Peter, and Christmas) and renewed lyrics for classic rock songs. For the past 39 years he has been a weekly contributor of discussion questions to The Sunday School Guide, and its editor for the past 21 years.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    David, this is really good. Thank you. There are two key points at which I disagree with you, but on the whole this is very helpful.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Dave,, first, I don’t see any evidence in RCA history, church order, or liturgy where we have “covenanted” with each other. I made a Declaration to behave and be accountable, but I don’t think that rises to covenanting. I certainly see a denomination as a textured mutual accountability structure but I don’t think it’s covenantal. That, alarmingly, is the UCC! Second, a reason I think you missed why at least some “progressives” (I don’t think of myself under that word, but there it is) want the conservatives still in is because many of us are more “Catholic,” with a higher and even sacramental ecclesiology. This goes back even to Van Eyck’s Landmarks of the Reformed Fathers, against the secession of the CRC. Danirl

      • David Landegent says:

        I will take your word for it that the idea of covenanting together is not used in RCA history, church order or liturgy. But it sure seems like much of the RCA has talked as if that language was at play, myself included. If you’re right, and I don’t doubt that you are, it certainly is surprising that a denomination, which has made covenant so prominent in its understanding of God’s relationship with us, does not use it in its ecclesiology. I gather that there’s an important reason why covenanting together is not the proper phrase, but I’m unaware of what that is.

        • Daniel Meeter says:

          Yes, that language was definitely talked, and in Calvinist circles “covenant” was a convenient category for all kinds of things after 1600. The Scottish “Solemn League and Covenant” was church-political, and one party was called “Covenanters.” The New England “Half-Way Covenant.” It was soon abused in Dutch Reformed circles. James Michener’s book on South Africa is called The Covenant because the Boers developed this ideology that God had called them and covenanted with them to bea special tribe of God. In recent centuries adopted children were often refused baptism because they were outside the Covenant line, coming close to the Afrikaner idea. And in Congregational churches in general, they always began with a Covenant. I think all of that leaked into the CRC and RCA. But our Doctrinal Standards and Liturgy are very firm that these is only one Covenant, which is the Covenant of the Cross, to which we are “parties of the second part” only by faith, sealed by the sacraments (for which, see the Standards, and also the oldest Baptismal Form in our Liturgy). They were quite firm on protecting this sole use of the category of Covenant. Even baptized are covenantal not because of descent, like with Abraham, but because of the Cross, on which the Belgic is firm. Our RCA practice has been far looser with the term than our Standards would actually allow, but that’s why there has never been any official sense of covenanting as our denominational bond.

          • Daniel Meeter says:

            Even baptized children.
            In our Standards, you belong to the Reformed church not by your covenanting, but because God has called you, and you had better say yes.

          • Daniel Meeter says:

            Now, here’s something actually to substantiate your claim. In recent years the CRC changed its Dordt-era Form of Subscription to a Covenant for Office -Bearers, making explicit what you sensed as implicit. So I’m guessing that in the Midwestern RCA there might well have been this sense of mutual covenanting. Far less so in the Eastern RCA, being Established Church in background. Thus, in the East, unity is objective, in the Midwest, subjective.

  • Ken Eriks says:

    Thank you, David! This is the type of thinking and writing I ave come to expect of you. You define yourself well, while do all that you can to stay connected to those who see things differently.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Thanks, David. Since coming to some sense of the broader RCA, I’ve wondered about that phrase in the post-Eucharistic intercessory prayer in the 1968 Liturgy (which I believe was imported wholesale from the Book of Common Prayer): “bring to an end our unhappy divisions.” I fear that the divisions, for many, and for whatever reason, have been more happy than unhappy. In the last 10 years I’ve become increasingly saddened that too many within the RCA simply do not love one another. The sadness arises from the Augustinian definition of love “volo ut sint,” or “I want you to be.” We have been overtaken by the broad cultural/political flood of ‘team orientation’, by which the people in the broad middle have felt compelled to take one side or the other on a range of issues. Too often the animating question for folks has been less “what do the Scriptures teach” and more “what do my fellow conservatives or progressives say.” And we have, too often, wanted to cast ‘the other’ out or to opt out of the fellowship, which is an organizational way of saying “I do not want you to be.” On the one hand, that could mean “I do not want to be in fellowship with you.” Sadly, on another hand, far too many of my friends have borne witness to me that they have had experiences of being told that their very existence was unwanted – and not just within the RCA. In such a situation, I’m not sure that many of the types of unity you name above were any longer possible in principle. Harboring such direct contradiction to Christ’s clear command to love one another, how could we even be anything like a church any more?

    • Matthew Pirrone says:

      That’s a very interesting analysis. Thank you. I appreciate the note regarding “more happy than unhappy”. From what I have been reading, of accounts of those who left, is that harmony was not possible, and eventual defeat was inevitable, as more and more of the Classes went their own way, deciding to sanctify various sins that are culturally considered “protected”. Just as in the world, we don’t live in a vacuum, and when cultural forces continually struggle against the tenets of Scripture, staying together means eventual corruption of the whole body.

      Matthew 5:29-32 (ESV)
      “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

      This then, becomes the impetus behind the split. Frankly, when I discovered there was such a controversy in the RCA, I was the first to push for the Churches who were trying to follow scripture to stay, and as talk of them leaving trickled in, I wondered why they would abandon ship, rather than discipline or remove parts of the body that did not comport with scripture. So, I was not aware of one of the glaring oversights in the BCO, which is that a Classis is virtually independent, and that there is no discipline that could be brought to bear against a rogue group. This was one of the most common reasons I saw as to why a particular church might have left. I had been uninvolved in the political dialogue occurring within the larger framework. Frankly, I was not very interested. We had our own communities, which are in great need, and trying to help someone 1,000 miles away when there is need not even a mile away seems inefficient.

      I see now that many who are very interested in the larger organization are thus because they seek to change the denomination. At this point, they aren’t really part of the RCA, but are merely using the name. By taking over, they can claim that the oldest Protestant denomination in the US accepts homosexual behavior as not-sinful.

      Now, these topics barely saw the light of day at Synod 2024, but there were other ahistorical resolutions passed, which were largely focused on indulging resentments on behalf of people long dead against other people long dead, and gestures meant to genuflect towards repentance. However, we cannot repent of sin we did not commit. We have our own terrible sin, and it has nothing to do with some long term benefit accrued as a result of bad behavior in the past. Were that the case, the entire world would owe repentance for the entire nations enslaved by the Romans, Macedonians, Egyptians, African tribes of various sorts, Persians/Arabs, etc.

      This year’s focus seemed bent on this, and maintaining the resentful feelings between ethnic groups, rather than uniting as Christians.

      Had the “traditional” churches remained, the outcome would likely have been different. But, as was noted in the accounts, the progressive churches would merely wait for the next year, and the next year, and the next year, to try again. At Synod, I spoke with a few people whose Churches were planning on leaving. This will likely continue until all resistance to progressive political goals within the RCA has been purged. It rather depends on whether the Classes approve the changes thus far.

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    This was really helpful. Thank you. I understood the situation, but your essay gave it words that I lacked. I tried in this essay to give a perspective (, but your insights help me understand it much better. But I do wish I could have my old whole denomination back. Thanks again.

    • David Landegent says:

      I’m glad you found it helpful and that you also pointed me to your article. A lot of interesting analogies you brought to the table. Although I was a Reformed Journal/Perspective subscriber back in the 80’s and 90’s, I only recently came back to it, so I missed that article when you first published it.

  • Dean Van Farowe says:

    Thanks you. As an RCA pastor who teaches traditional marriage but has stayed in the denomination, this was a significant piece for me. I have felt marginalized by the Journal over the last few years because most (I hope I’m being fair) articles on the marriage morality debate were critical towards those who hold the traditional conviction. (I don’t say this combatively, but seeking to be honest).
    The clear nuance that you provided here and the call to be generous and loving with each other felt like a blessing, and a breath of fresh air. Thank you again.