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.
Thanks for the history lesson; it was very informative and helpful. I agree, let’s work together!
Dan, you gave us a great summary of our histories as well as great reflections. Thank you for this.
Thank you, Dan. This is very helpful and as always your historical knowledge is a gift. I’m sending this to several of my siblings and in-laws who will appreciate your words. Some are CRC and angry and broken hearted. (And members of congregations that will likely continue to include all). How did I get so lucky to gain your friendship? Wait! We don’t believe in “luck” do we 🙂
You are mistaken. The luck is mine. You first gave me your friendship.
Thank you Dan. You are leading us into the deep weeds of our history and I, for one, find that not only illuminating, but enjoyable – in spite of the grim background. Taking the long view like this somehow works to ease the current burdens, and, makes one more hopeful, more trusting.
Dan, as much as I wish our two denominations would merge I agree that it would not work for the reasons you mentioned. Your history and love for both denominations is evident in your article.
You are correct, I believe, Johannes. The things that separate are not very theological. But they are more powerful than anything theological.
Well said. Hopeful and trusting is good. Thanks to all involved for this dialog!
This was very informative and helpful, Dan. Thank you for this.
That last sentence will stay with me for a long time. Thank you for telling our story so meaningfully and so lovingly.
Hey, Daniel Meeter, my friend of 50+ years, I remember fondly and tell the story often about us pastors’ kids, from RCA and CRC, walking to school together in West Sayville NY. Next we met at Calvin College, where I learned that building bridges is better than building walls in a community of faith. Now I worship with a Christian Reformed Church in Holland MI shepherded by a pastor with RCA credentials, and work with a Community Development organization supported by partner churches in the CRC and RCA. I am still hoping for unity in the Church the Body of Christ, and hoping to meet you again, face to face, soon.
I foresee a trend, over the next few decades:
Left-leaning CRC congregations gravitating to the RCA
Right-leaning RCA congregations gravitating to the CRC.
Merging the CRC and RCA is mute. Changes are shaking the foundations of both denominations. Each will continue to evolve, wrestling with the old and the new. New wine seeks new wineskins. The old skins fracture, as is happening now.
Local congregations are still where the action is taking place. Some are able to hold the unity and purity wings together better than others.
During Covid and now post-Covid, persons and families are assessing where their allegiances are as they seek to be disciples of our Lord. That will continue.
Seek a congregation that is alive to the good news and is learning how to share it with neighbors, nor and far. Pray for congregation leaders and rank and file believers/disciples. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the congregations and get on board.
I appreciate this article & thread so much. Yet, perhaps your phrase summarizes my question(s) best, “…persons and families are assessing where their allegiances are as they seek to be disciples of our Lord.”
Do we really think most of our people want to be disciples? Perhaps I am too skeptical. However, it seems many of our people want to get to heaven when they die, worship on Sunday, and return to life no later than Monday morning. I’m trying to imagine a time during my 56 years when the CRC collectively struggled for faithfulness, and I’m left grabbing the air…
Daniel, thanks for this article. While I support the union of CRC and RCA, the differences are still so enormous that we cannot use the present structures but need new ones — new wineskins. The terms “unity” and “purity” well describe the two poles. I would add the terms “inclusive” and “exclusive” or “open” and “closed” to these two segments of both churches. The culture war has further polarized these segments. I am not very hopeful that the “purity” people will be open to change as long as Trumpism remains. Yesterday I attended a church service in a breakaway segment of the Anglican Church of Canada opposed to homosexuality. Many churches are experiencing similar divisions. More wineskins are needed. As an ecumenist, I lament schisms, but I do not know how to prevent them.
It would seem that the realignment of the two denominations should happen. Conservatives to the CRC, liberals to the RCA.
It won’t happen.
The conservatives in the RCA chose to leave, mostly because they were tired of fighting the gender and sexual battles.
My prediction: the liberals in the CRC won’t leave. It’s not in their nature. For many people with a leftist mindset, the struggle and fight for power is what gives them meaning.
It doesn’t reflect well on them, but thats their nature.
Marty, I wish you wouldn’t judge other people that way. There may be some “liberals” or those with a “leftist mindset” that find their meaning in struggle and fight for power, but there are also “conservatives” or those with a “rightist mindset” who also do the same. You can find many examples of both in history. But there are many more, in both church and society, who advocate for their positions because they truly believe their positions are true, and are best for society or the church. I hope this is especially true of those in the church. Those that I know in the CRC who are “affirming” want to affirm LGBTQ+ people, and bless same-sex marriages, b/c they believe the Bible allows this, calls us to love all people most of all, and see the great harm that is done to many by rejecting this possibility as being in line with God’s will, partly because of their personal experiences with LGBTQ+ Christians. (See the Classis GR East report for evidence of both of these in a Reformed context.) One could easily interpret the action of declaring an interpretation of a word in the Catechism confessional, and ordering Neland Ave. CRC to end the term of a beloved deacon, as basically part of a struggle and fight for control, but I would like to think that most who voted for it saw it as what they believed was best for the church. But it is easy for those on both sides to sometimes confuse what comes from a desire for power and control with the will of God.
If the CRC continues to insist that intimacy in same-sex marriages is against the confessions, and that any office bearers who teach that are subject to special discipline, I think many affirming office bearers and other members and their churches will end up leaving the CRC. Having heard from LGBTQ+ members and attenders things like “This is the first congregation where I have felt safe being honest about who I am” or even “this is the first congregation where the pastor told me God loves people like me”, they won’t be able to keep quiet on this in order to stay, as much as they love the CRC.
I should start by saying you have strange wishes.
My prediction is really more of an observation than a judgement. People who are influenced by postmodern philosophy inevitably are drawn to political strife and power struggles like moths to streetlights. When you eliminate transcendent Truth (either openly or tacitly), elevate doubt as a virtue, and value personal experience over tradition and (in our little situation) orthodox Biblical interpretation, then you’re not left with much but to fight over the reigns and levers of power in a culture or (again, in our little case) a denomination.
So, after the Synodical dust settles, the Progressives around here will lick their wounds, regroup, and go back to battling the racistsexisthomophobes in their midst. But they won’t simply leave the CRC.
I could be wrong, but I doubt it.
Exhibit A: Neland Ave. CRC’s response today.
WOW. Brazen arrogance.
Thank you for your insight, Daniel.
As a former member of the CRC who joined an RCA, I’m astonished at the similarity between the two denominations regarding doctrine, worship, and so many other things. I also feel a great deal of regret about the attitudes of people in our two small midwestern towns who have looked at each other sideways when so much was really just the same. There needs to be a social, community reconciliation between the two denominations and repentance on the side of the CRC regarding their contempt for public school education.
As always, thank you Daniel. I am grateful for you!
There are certainly some in both denominations that have wondered (hoped for?!) a gracious CRC-RCA realignment of churches and / or classes. This conversation was held just over two years ago between 2 CRC pastors and 2 RCA pastors.
Perhaps now that the CRC has made its recent decision, these kind of discussions might continue. I hope so.
Thank you, Daniel, for your insights. Most of them are spot on, but I would want to push back a bit on just how many of those who have left the RCA woke up from Van Raalte’s dream (a wonderful metaphor). While we are still likely to be a decade or so away from writing a proper history of the RCA’s current turbulence, I would be interested to see, in the end, the role played by those who came neither from the theological children of the first immigration nor the second, but were heirs of more purist documents than the Heidelberg Catechism, who came in through TEA and MFCA to the RCA and never really knew Van Raalte or any of our other Josephs (like a long-ago a Pharaoh). They were never part of the dream, never part of the coalition, or what I would call the creative tension. But that is a discussion for another day.
I am comforted that, as a wise church historian who pastored in South River and Brooklyn once taught me, none of us belong to CRCs or RCAs. We all belong to Reformed congregations which in turn belong to classes, and it is those classes that have the denominational affiliations, though we confuse that in countless ways. While our denominational structures are silly and often hurtful, I see so many Reformed congregations of various denominational stripes doing good work, loving work, and sharing the Gospel with such grace. I am often pessimistic about the RCA, and now the CRC, but very optimistic about the ministry of many Reformed churches.
Good points, James.
Thank you Daniel, my Friend, Teacher and Pastor! Your influence on me as a pastoral leader is forever special to me. I am so grateful to God for your mentorship, even as some try to use our relationship to divide us. Many of us, grafted into the RCA, benefit greatly from this historical background. May God’s blessings be forever with you and your family.