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Like Jacob and Esau:The Historic Postures of the RCA and the CRC

By January 16, 2004 No Comments
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Throughout their long history, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) have been much like those famous biblical brothers, Jacob and Esau. Born from the same Dutch Reformed mother, they have often fought as only brothers can. A look at their professions, practices, and feuds reveals two different mentalities that were present from the start and have yet to disappear.

The CRC seceded from the RCA in 1857 to preserve pure doctrine in a “true church”–one closely identified with the 1834 Secession Church in the Netherlands. It developed, in the words of one apologist, “a spirit of separatism” (an opponent called the same impulse “a lust for schism”) that took pride in “strictness of creed and code,” as James Bratt, the author of Dutch Calvinism in America, has put it. The RCA, on the other hand, regarded America as less a threat than a vast ecumenical opportunity, suggesting greater cultural openness. Indeed, the RCA has always exhibited greater cultural openness and has proved, again in Bratt’s words, “more genial and tolerant–and tending to absorb the less fervent of the later immigrants.”

And not much changed until after World War II when the CRC had experienced an influx of Kuyperian thinking and divided into three distinct parties that proceeded to fight a series of internal battles. Of these, only one party, known as the Positive Calvinists, called for an end to isolation and the spirit of separation, and this party, led by Kuyperian Henry Stob, gained ascendancy after WWII. RCA-CRCThe early 1950s also saw the removal of some legalisms in the CRC, a process that culminated in 1966 when the denomination finally permitted movie-viewing, an issue over which Calvin College had dismissed faculty. Progressives in the CRC slowly gained ground, pushing the denomination to critique its own distinctive historic separatism.

Meanwhile, after a period of imbibing the optimism of mainstream Protestantism, the RCA proceeded, to exhume its “own Netherlandic past with the result, eventually, of a theological renaissance” (Bratt). By the early 1970s, the RCA became as theologically productive as, and in some areas even superior to, the CRC. At the same time, the RCA continued its very American ecumenism, fueled as it was by increased personal mobility and the national appetite for church union and growth. Thus, while theology in the RCA revived through a return to sources in the Netherlands–an echo of the CRC mentality–its own American character dispersed the church from the East to the Midwest and into areas of the Far West.

Where these brothers now stand can best be seen in their responses to the recent question of the ordination of women. In both the CRC and the RCA, the issue of women’s ordination accentuated age-old differences. The matter highlighted again the different temperaments of each church and, in the end, edged them closer. For both, the approach to women’s ordination revealed how each denomination–and the factions within each denomination–approached the culture at large. This posture toward the larger culture proved the fundamental issue. The CRC found itself wrapped in biblical debates that were informed by differing views of how the church and the world relate. That disagreement, one fueled by early 20th century Kuyperian influences, soon flared into schism. When the dust settled, the CRC would be left with a new understanding of its relation to the world.

Women in Church Office–the RCA

The RCA had historically suffered less division over its approaches to the world. Although the Midwest still clashed with the more open East, the RCA had no antithetical impulse with which to contend. Few, if any, in the RCA advocated complete separation from the world. Thus, when women’s ordination became an issue, the dispute was not framed by larger questions about the church’s relation to culture. The debate in the RCA ran along geographical ridges, but it never polarized into the well-defined, opposing ideologies of the CRC. The RCA nearly divided in 1969, but it did so over the question of ecumenical alliances, not over approaches to culture. Thus, though they disagreed on the issue of women’s ordination, the East and the West eventually found that amid their differences they still could live in unity.

The RCA handled women’s ordination in a way that seems characteristic of its historic bent toward openness. Once again, the RCA proved more attuned to cultural changes in the nation and, through its ecumenical engagements, changes in the Church across the world. Included in the Report of 1957/58 was a section entitled, “The Practices of Other Churches in the Ordination of Women,” which begins “Now that we as a church are studying the Scriptural basis for the ordination of women, we are interested in what other churches have done.”

The distinctiveness of this approach, however, was not simply a matter of awareness. The CRC was also aware of what other churches did. The difference lay in respect. The RCA not only noted what others had done, they respected those decisions, particularly the decisions of other Reformed denominations, and they allowed themselves to learn from others. In 1965, for example, the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland opened all offices to women. While the CRC responded with criticism, the RCA studied those findings and used them in their own report.

Another distinctive characteristic of the RCA was its openness to cultural change. For over 250 years, the RCA had engaged the American nation with a spirit of openness, and that habit disposed it to accept change. In the late fifties, and especially in the sixties, the RCA responded to the Women’s Liberation Movement with far more welcome than the CRC. As women gained acceptance outside the home, the RCA began to reconsider its historical stance. It was willing to learn not only from the churches of the world but also from its national culture.

Not only was the RCA open to cultural change, it was willing to examine its own social norms. Rather than merely critiquing “worldliness,” the RCA scrutinized itself. When calls for women’s ordination revived in 1964, the Christian Action Committee (CAC) began studying women’s roles in contemporary society and their relation to the church. By 1970, the RCA had officially recognized the feminist movement and committed to study it. Not content to let matters rest there, in 1974 the CAC presented a study paper on “Feminism and the Church,” initiating inquiries into larger issues than women’s ordination. Synod examined anti-women practices in its own churches and appointed the Theological Commission (TC) to study “maleness” and “femaleness.” The TC reported two years later (1976) and rejected sexually assigned roles of leadership. Throughout the conflict, then, without prior conclusions as to who was right and who was wrong, the RCA committed itself to understanding the culture of the world and the culture of the church.

On the other hand, the RCA debate was notable for its comparative lack of biblical discussion. Though its theological strength and focus had begun to revive after WWII, it was still maturing throughout the debate over women-in-office. Thus, when a scholar did introduce biblical concerns, he received a series of letters that challenged his position largely on sociological grounds. Commissioned to educate church members, The Church Herald, the denominational magazine, asked Burrel Pennings to defend the position opposing women’s ordination. Pennings brought the biblical case to the fore: “The real issue as we see it is this: First, what do the Scriptures say; and secondly, how is the church to interpret and apply the biblical data within the cultural milieu we find ourselves today.” Pennings’ view grounded gender distinction in creational order and went on to critique broad social changes, such as the decline in male breadwinners, m
others moving into the workforce, and the like.

The responses were severe. Over the next two months The Church Herald received numerous letters opposed to Pennings’ position. Most, however, dealt only with the second part of his argument on sociological change. Eventually Pennings responded. He called his opponents back to Scripture, claiming that they were not dealing with the relevant biblical passages in their critique. Pennings was partly right. Unfortunately for Pennings, the denomination was not apparently as concerned about those passages as he was; a study committee of trained scholars had explained them, and the denomination could let them rest.

The examination of women’s ordination in the RCA reiterated many of its historic traits. More engaged with the culture and in ecumenism, the RCA responded to women’s liberation far sooner than the CRC. Its response criticized its traditional position out of respect both for the culture and for the many churches that had ordained women. Without a strong separatist impulse, the RCA proved itself more willing to learn and more open to change. Since it did not implicitly claim to have everything right, it could consider being wrong. At the same time, the RCA never reached the depths of biblical analysis–including the examination of hermeneutical methods–that the CRC would undertake. To such troubled depths, then, we turn next.

Women in Church Office–the CRC

The issue that defined the RCA’s openness determined the CRC’s closedness. By the time the CRC dealt with women’s ordination, the Women’s Liberation Movement had achieved the height of its influence–an influence many in the CRC disdained. Conservatives continually argued that the impetus for change in the church came directly from a depraved feminist agenda. Said one conservative: “We live in a culture which seeks to ride roughshod over God’s own inbuilt distinctions of masculinity and femininity.” Time and again the conservatives raised the banner of “worldly contamination.” In a meeting to discuss secession, one conservative pronounced that “The CRC is actively and continuously sinning against God. She rejects the Scripture’s teaching regarding women in authority. She has accommodated to our culture. This is sin and immorality.” In 1986, eighteen conservative consistories gathered to oppose changes made by Synod. At this meeting, they specifically rejected any biblical interpretation that “allows the culture of any age to determine the meaning of Holy Scripture.” Informing this declaration is the assumption that their own interpretation was somehow free from “the culture of any age.”

In this continuous motif of separation appears again the old reflex: it had things right and nothing to learn from others. Such an attitude also determined how the CRC would respond to denominations that did open offices to women. Where the RCA studied others’ documents to see what could be learned, the CRC attacked. Banner editor Lester De Koster led the offensive with apparent delight. In 1976, Episcopalians opened their offices, to which De Koster rejoined that “The inevitable happened, last September 17, and the Episcopal Church officially joined the modern world.” This, it should be noted, was not meant as a compliment, for “the modern world has never taken the literal Scriptures seriously.” De Koster reveals again, in the middle of lambasting the Episcopalians, the separatist, antithetical mentality of the dominant conservatives: “The Church is always faced with its own choice: the way of the Word, or, the way of the world?” When he returns to attacking the Episcopalians, he essentially claims that God’s divine blessing will cease flowing through their church for this disobedience. Such is not what one might call respect for the decisions of others.

Behind this separatist mentality–opposed both to changes in the culture and to changes in the Church–lay an approach to the Bible that linked the “historical” to the “biblical.” Early on, Lester De Koster claimed that the CRC majority, “with the Church of all ages, hears the Bible plainly refusing the appointment of women to ecclesiastical office.” Apparently, De Koster was not listening to the Church of his own age, which did not plainly hear such a message–by 1975, much of the Church across the world had opened offices to women. What De Koster appealed to, then, was the historic Church, claiming that its understanding of the Bible was, in fact, the Bible. Similarly, when the Concerned Members of the Christian Reformed Church met in 1986, they asserted their mission was to maintain the historic character of the CRC.

Because of this understanding, conservatives in the CRC were able to do what could not be done in the RCA: they made the women-in-office issue a status confessionis. Disobedience to the historic position of the CRC became disobedience to the Word of God. Conservatives, however, could not ignore the fact that their opponents still studied the Bible. They could not exactly claim, therefore, that progressives ignored the Bible. Instead they claimed they approached it with a “new hermeneutic.” In a booklet published in 1990, John Cooper of Calvin Seminary explained that both sides of the conflict used the same hermeneutic to derive different results. The conservatives balked, claiming that Cooper defended women’s ordination “with a hermeneutic which is at odds with our historic position as Reformed believers.”

In reality, Cooper was right. The booklet, Women in the Service of Christ, is a clear demonstration that conservatives and progressives used the same hermeneutic. Cooper claimed that one must understand the general meaning of the whole of Scripture in order also to understand particular parts. Conservatives saw in Cooper the “drive for a comprehensive idea or principle by which to explain away passages throughout Scripture which he finds unacceptable.” However, as Cooper pointed out, conservatives contextualized every example of female leadership in the Old Testament in order to dismiss it. Instances of female leadership, according to one conservative, were but “exceptions to the general thrust of the Old Testament.” In short, conservatives also worked from a comprehensive idea or principle to explain away passages they thought unacceptable.

In the end, though, biblical hermeneutics proved a red herring. The church did not divide over different hermeneutics, as much as either side may have indignantly thought so. Differences in the church arose from different interpretations of various passages–interpretations that both influenced and were influenced by the culture of the church. The church divided because the CRC historically opposed Americanization and the world’s culture, and in the women’s issue it came face-to-face with a new attitude that sought to end isolation and engage the culture, other denominations, and the world.

In the historic CRC, disagreement with culture or with others was not a call for reexamination, but rather for reinforcement. Challenged, the distinctive mentality of the CRC only became more confident of its position, not less. Only this kind of reaction could turn women’s ordination from a matter of church order into “the eternal law of God.”

Conservatives and the women’s issue have received the bulk of attention here because their position more reflected the continuing historic CRC separatist mentality. The fact that these conservatives seceded, however, suggests that the CRC was actually changing. The ascendant progressives began to emphasize, as one writer put it, “that within our fellowship are honest and valid differences of persuasion with respect both to biblical data and current wisdom.” For the first time the CRC was not so sure what the ‘right’ position was and began opening itself to the possibility that there could be more than one. Finally, in 1995, church offices were, at the discretion of each classis, opened to women. The CRC agreed that either way of interpreting the Bible could be warranted. In a sense, both th
e conservatives and the progressives proved right because there was no single, correct biblical position. In this way, the progressive wing revealed an attitude much more closely allied to the RCA. For one of the first times in its history, the CRC voted for unity rather than for a sure, true, decisive, separatist stance. The irony is that such a vote caused secession in the CRC, a secession of those who could not give up the old separatism. At the end of this conflict, then, a progressive movement begun in the early 20th century found itself, for the first time, at the helm of the church. The conservatives were right, the CRC had changed.

Joining Hands, Maybe

So what does this say about the CRC and the RCA and their current postures? A new progressive mentality has gained a great deal of strength in the CRC, but the CRC is still not the RCA. Nor should it be. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about purity and orthodoxy; just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong about openness and unity. The RCA learned after two world wars that openness needs to be checked by theological grounding, and so, in recent years, has pumped up its theological and historical awareness. The CRC learned through the debate over women’s ordination that the drive for purity and orthodoxy needs to be checked by a certain degree of openness–especially openness to the possibility that there may not be one right and true answer. In this way, the CRC and the RCA have both moved back towards each other.

But in a more fundamental sense, the RCA and the CRC never really left each other. They have always believed in the same creeds, the same confessions, and essentially the same practices; they have simply done so with different emphases. The CRC and the RCA stand in the same central spot, and they stand back-to-back to one another. And if they could agree to join hands, then the mentalities of each might offer just the right balance to keep them standing for a long time to come.

Abram Van Engen is a freelance writer and editor in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Abram Van Engen

Abram Van Engen

Abram Van Engen is Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and co-host of the podcast Poetry For All.