The two synods are over, one for the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and one for the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC). Much has already been written on this blog about the CRC Synod, whose decisions have traumatized many. The RCA General Synod was traumatic only in the background, with the departure of some 60 to 120 RCA congregations. I want to address both synods, but from an admittedly RCA point of view.
I was a corresponding delegate to the RCA General Synod, my thirteenth. Unlike my most recent General Synod, in 2016, when I spent the final morning sobbing at my table over our decisions against LGBTQIA+ inclusion, this time I returned home in peace. There were some painful moments, like when the synod refused the Christian Action Commission’s recommendation to lament our treatment of LGBTQIA+ “children of God.” Meanwhile the gay delegate who presented that recommendation had to stand at the podium like Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. But this synod was a generally happy one, not least because of the leadership of the president, Phil Assink, and the worship.
And yet, we heard it many times, “The RCA is broken.” It must feel broken in the Midwest, the West, and Canada. The loss in these regions has been dramatic. We were meeting in Pella, Iowa, where First Church is no longer in the RCA. Neither is Third Church. Nor First Orange City. There are no RCA churches left in Sioux Center. Whole classes are remnants. Families are divided. But at the reception for New Brunswick Theological Seminary I noticed that everyone seemed positive and even joyful about the RCA. Not, I think, because we are “winning,” but because we in the East have long been used to working within our loss and insignificance.
The human sexuality debate is far from over in the RCA. I’m sure we have more fights to come. But the most strident conservative / traditionalist people have departed or are leaving soon. There remains a great middle that is conservative but unconvinced that the issue needs to be church-dividing. What cannot leave and what we cannot escape is the larger culture war. One delegate told me that while visiting local relatives he noticed that their real concern was the Republican primary. He said, “You know this is not really about the church. The church fight is a proxy for the culture war in America.” I suspect he’s right. This same is true for our Canadian churches.
What the RCA faced indirectly, the CRC wrestled with directly—through its “Human Sexuality Report” (HSR), some six years in the making. The HSR addressed all areas of human sexuality, but it functioned as a Homosexuality Report. Synod responded to the HSR with two moves that an RCA synod could not make if it wanted to. First, it approved an interpretation of one word of the Heidelberg Catechism as being “confessional,” and second, it imposed discipline on a local consistory, instructing Neland Avenue CRC of Grand Rapids to terminate the office of its deacon in a same-sex marriage.
No RCA General Synod could instruct a local consistory in such a way, because our consistories are not accountable to synods. RCA consistories are accountable to their classes and our constitution, and the power of our General Synod is limited by our constitution. The CRC does not have a constitution in between its consistories and the synod, and this was not the first time that the CRC has been accused of “synodocracy.” By contrast, while the RCA General Synod has a published policy against affirming homosexuality, that policy is not in the constitution’s Doctrinal Standards, and is therefore not binding on classes and consistories. So, for example, my Brooklyn elders had the right to approve my celebrating same-sex marriages, despite the policy of General Synod.
The doctrinal standards of the CRC (and the RCA) are silent on homosexuality. This silence gives space and freedom to RCA consistories and classes. This silence is what led to the CRC Synod’s action to mandate an interpretation of Answer 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism, that the word “unchastity” includes homosexuality, and further, to declare that this interpretation is “confessional.” What the CRC means by “confessional” here is not something that you confess to God or to the world, but something legally binding on everybody, including the Neland Avenue consistory. Again, this could not happen in the RCA.
This is not a new move in the CRC. The Synod of 1908 adopted the Utrecht Conclusions on presumptive regeneration by the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands (and then “set them aside” in 1968). The Utrecht Conclusions had the binding force of a doctrinal standard without being named a doctrinal standard. That’s what the CRC has now done with its interpretation of the word “unchastity” in Q&A 108 of the Catechism. From the RCA point of view, at least, the CRC now has a fourth doctrinal standard, what I will irreverently call “The Canon of Grand Rapids.”
The Canon of Grand Rapids
A canon is a binding interpretation; in Dutch, a leerregel. That’s what the Canons of Dordt are—the binding interpretations of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. An RCA perspective would expect the CRC now to require their office-bearers to subscribe also to the Canon of the Synod of Grand Rapids of 2022. (At least, mercifully, by a close vote, they would not have to subscribe to the 2022 Footnote to Answer 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism.) But the Synod did something more drastic. It declared that “unchastity” has always included homosexuality. So instead of a new canon, the decision of the Synod now has the binding authority. The canon is the Synod itself. The Synod has placed itself above the doctrinal standard.
More remarkable is that this decision is an interpretation of an interpretation. The Catechism follows a long line of moral theology by extending the Seventh Commandment to include all unchastity, not just adultery. The Synod interpreted that extension of meaning to include homosexuality. But of course, Exodus 20:14 says nothing about homosexuality (and the New Testament never appeals to it so). What “Thou shalt not commit adultery” addresses is how married men are to treat the wives that are their property. The Synod’s interpretation of a post-Biblical extension is a flimsy edifice for a binding rule. Worse, its tactic is to make law out of a teaching tool (a catechism). I guess it must have been the only convenient way, from within our doctrinal standards, to make the prohibition “confessional.” Apart from its being hurtful it is embarrassing. I expected better of the CRC.
In the RCA, to make anything “confessional” or binding requires a two-year process of a constitutional amendment, including endorsement by two-thirds of our classes. This route was tried by RCA conservatives who drafted a “Great Lakes Catechism” to be added to the doctrinal standards, thereby explicitly proscribing same-sex marriage, but this failed the amendment process.
Van Raalte’s Dream
For years the Constitution of the RCA has frustrated those who opposed the freedom of consistories to practice full inclusion and same-sex marriage. Their frustration has now led to their departure. It’s a grief, but in historical terms, we can understand it as the conclusion of a 165-year old experiment (which is outside the experience of the CRC). It’s the waking-up from Van Raalte’s dream. Let me explain.
The RCA was founded in 1628 as a colonial extension of the established church in The Netherlands. By 1763 it had grown to 100 congregations. Although the American Revolution forced its independence from the Netherlands church, the RCA still saw itself in unbroken continuity with it, claiming the “Netherlandic Constitution” of the Doctrinal Standards, Church Order, and Liturgy of Dordt. The RCA published this constitution in 1793. The established church of the Netherlands abandoned this all in 1816, which was one cause of the secession of churches under the leadership of pastors like Albertus C. Van Raalte.
In 1847 some of these secession congregations left the Netherlands for Michigan, which signaled the second Dutch immigration. In 1850, Van Raalte led the new and independent Classis of Holland to join the RCA. His vision was that despite their differences in behavior and culture, and the RCA’s looser discipline, it was right to join the RCA because, unlike the established church back home, the RCA still held to the old constitution. Not everyone shared the vision, and in 1857 some backed out to organize what became the CRC.
Van Raalte’s vision was tested a generation later, in the Masonic dispute, when more congregations left the RCA for the CRC. But it held well enough to cause the RCA to develop thereafter as a coalition of the East and the West, the one with established church instincts and the other with seceder instincts. Our Eastern churches tend to act like parishes (identified by their locations, and tolerating differences), while Western churches act like congregations (identified by shared minds, and able to move with their memberships). The East looks to the constitution and the West looks to behavior. Professor John Coakley suggests that the East has a discourse of inclusion and the West a discourse of purity. What happened this past year is that some 60 to 120 departing churches have woken up from Van Raalte’s dream. The RCA’s Constitution is not strong enough when it comes to purity and discipline to keep them in.
Pharisees and Sadducees
President Assink artfully described the two wings of the RCA as doctrinal Pharisees (purity) and polity Sadducees (constitution). The departing Pharisees have said, “We’re done. We tried it for 165 years and now we have to leave, because you are not pure enough.” The Sadducees keep saying, “You don’t have to leave, even if we disagree, because we all share the same constitution.” To which the departing Pharisees answer, “You are using the constitution to shield your impurity.” I wonder how long the remaining Pharisees and the Sadducees can recognize each other’s discourses enough to maintain the coalition. We shall see.
Or must the RCA forge some new common discourse? President Assink challenged the Sadducees and Pharisees to learn the way of Christ. Can we do it? I doubt that help will come from the Restructuring Team we’ve put to work, because our problem is not our structure but our discourse, and the Team announced to the Synod that they would maintain the current closed pattern of discourse. It’s typical for the RCA to fight its battles on the field of polity while the CRC fights on the field of doctrine. For the RCA, at least, the deeper problem is how we talk, how poorly we talk, and how poorly we talk together over the Bible. (Not to mention the looming disaster of Climate Change, which never came up at Synod.)
I am not optimistic, but we are compelled, like Van Raalte, to hope. Not in ourselves, but in our Lord. And that requires humility and penitence all around. What I deeply wish is that the RCA and CRC would stop looking at each other sideways and start meeting face to face. We really ought to merge, but after these two synods I suspect that we’d just end up with two denominations again, just differently aligned. A colleague said to me today, “We’ve got to stop treating each other like this.” Our two denominations are too silly and insignificant to go on like this, when the stakes are so high, and when in our silliness we bring such pain and distress on fragile believers.