The Reformed Church in America logo. Courtesy image
(RNS — This week, North America’s oldest religious denomination will face its gridlock regarding gay marriage and LGBTQ ordination. Votes cast in Tucson, Arizona, at the Reformed Church in America’s General Synod — delayed 16 months due to the pandemic — will chart the course for the already-splintering denomination.
In the last year, conservative groups have severed ties to the RCA. Other churches are threatening to follow. Delegates to the synod, which starts Thursday (Oct. 14) and will continue through Tuesday, will determine how the denomination might restructure to entice congregations to stay, if the church will establish an external mission organization and whether departing congregations can plan on taking their church buildings with them.
“Delegates from all over the RCA gather at General Synod to discover the mind of Christ together,” stated Christina Tazelaar (RCA director of communications).
The RCA is a historically Dutch Reformed denomination dating back to the 1620s, when New York was known as New Amsterdam. Today, the RCA has fewer than 200,000 members and 1,000 churches. Although the RCA churches may be united in their polity and history, and Reformed convictions, there are many political and theological beliefs.
The RCA is not the only Protestant denomination that is divided over sexuality. The United Methodist Church will vote next year on a proposal for splitting the denomination over inclusion of LGBTQ members. Meanwhile, the Christian Reformed Church (RCA) will be dealing with its contentious report on human sexuality at its synod.
” “It’s an example of how a church can navigate questions of identity and questions that are tense or matters of conflict,” said Matthew van Maastricht pastor of Altamont Reformed Church, Altamont, New York. “We are only one part of a larger reshaping the American Protestant landscape .”
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon/Creative Commons
According the Rev.
According to the Rev. Non-celibate gay men can be elected elders, deacons, and ordained ministers. These questions, while often considered political in nature, are theological as well.
” It’s about how we see the Bible, what we understand God, and how we perceive the nature of God,” stated the Rev. Lynn Japinga is a professor of religion at Hope College, an RCA-affiliated college. It’s fundamental differences in how Christians approach the Christian faith that are the source of this. Is your faith more rule-based or more grace-based ?
Ron Citlau is the senior pastor at Calvary Church in Chicago. He frames the question differently.
” I’ve dealt with the same-sex attraction and the question for me and many others is, “Is it something for which Jesus Christ has to come to save us or is it a blessing he wants to give us to embrace?” Citlau, who was married to a woman, and whose church formed the conservative nonRCA Kingdom Network. “If sin is committed wrongly, there are bigger things .”
The debate is also one of politics. The RCA has a structure that grants classes (regional church groups) authority over matters like discipline and ordination. All RCA churches must follow the Book of Church Order. However, they do not have to follow all the General Synod’s recommendations.
David Komline. Photo courtesy of Western Theological Seminary
“There is nothing in the Book of Church Order which says anything about sexuality,” said David Komline (associate professor of church history at Western Theological Seminary). “The General Synod repeatedly made statements about sexuality that were more traditional, but those statements are only statements. These statements are not subject to accountability .
A continuing question is whether the General Synod should be able make directives it can enforce. Conservative RCA members have pushed for General Synod’s approval to do this in recent years. In 2016, the General Synod voted to amend the Book of Church Order to define marriage as between a woman and a man. The measure was rejected by two-thirds of the classes.
” We found that the RCA was designed so that the vast majority of people cannot vote for what they believe to be right. There are enough progressive classes to veto the decision,” stated Citlau. Citlau claims that the two-thirds rule gives an unfair amount of power to progressive members and classes with fewer members. Progressive members claim that the General Synod was not designed to make top-down decisions.
In 2018, General Synod formed a team charged with discerning whether the RCA should stay together, restructure or separate. In their Vision 2020 Report, that team suggested a path involving all three avenues. The report recommends that a team be appointed to reorganize classes by affinity, rather than geography. Churches would then opt in to classes and group themselves according to shared values. A second suggestion is to establish an external RCA mission agency to allow churches that have left to support RCA’s global missions work. The third recommendation is to allow a church that has left the RCA to keep its assets and property.
These three proposals will be discussed on Saturday. They require a simple majority vote to pass. However, the measures could be drastically amended before that time and other overtures could also be made.
No matter what happens at General Synod the RCA splits already. The Kingdom Network, a group of five churches from Illinois and Indiana, officially left RCA on September 9. The group was a former RCA classis which prioritized church planting.
Ron Citlau. Courtesy photo
” The RCA is wearing an albatross around the neck and historically it has moved very slowly,” stated Citlau. “From our perspective, the house is on fire. We can’t continue to say that, so we will wait five years more and form a few committees. It’s already a mess. Until you are willing to make some decisions, there is no way out. We tried our best to find a way through .”
In May 2021, the Alliance of Reformed Churches was formed as an alternative to the RCA for conservative churches questioning their place in the denomination. According to their website, more than 125 churches have expressed interest in joining the alliance.
“The Alliance of Reformed Churches prays with the RCA to receive God’s Spirit’s clear leading at its General Synod,” said the Alliance in a statement emailed directly to RNS. “Our prayers are with our brothers, sisters and friends as they traverse this important moment in the history of the RCA
More departures are likely on the way. The 2020 Vision Report said: “We have informally learned of entire classes’ intention to exit the denomination in the near future.” These departures have been a long time coming; the RCA has been debating sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion since the 1970s.
“People on different sides of the spectrum have been fighting for about 40 years, and they’re sick of it,” said Komline. They believe that their fighting is hindering their mission. Both sides believe that.
According to Griswold these divisions can also be traced back further. Many waves of Dutch immigrants formed the RCA in its early days. Those in the earlier waves settled along the East Coast, where they eventually developed sensibilities that resembled those of their mainline peers, while migrants who came in the 19th century often settled further west. The cultural and theological divides remain today. All except five of the 44 churches listed as LGBTQ-affirming by Room for All — an LGBTQ-affirming network in the RCA — are in the Northeast.
” As America has shifted, so has the RCA. Komline said that this is a similar shift to what has happened to America. “RCA is just as polarized as America is now.”
This story has been updated to show that the RCA is one of the oldest denominations in North America. It was previously stated that it was the oldest denomination.
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