As one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the country actively working to define its role in a post-denominational era, a group of 43 churches announced they will be breaking up to form a new body.
This schism within the Reformed Church in America is nothing new on the modern Protestant scene. Denominations of all sizes have fragmented for decades, although today’s debates about LGBTQ Christians and the role of women in church leadership lead to more fractures.
Baptists are distinguished by such schisms – historically and recently – on various questions of biblical interpretation and congregational practice. Disagreements over the nature of the Bible and the role of women in church leadership led to the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as a break with the Southern Baptist Convention in 1991. Similar schisms have struck or are now striking The Presbyterian Church in the United States, The Episcopal Church in America, and The United Methodist Church, among others.
Links to American History
What is remarkable about the RCA schism is the historic nature of the body as part of American history and the relatively small size of the denomination even before 43 churches began a process of separation.
The oldest of the RCA congregations, Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, dates back to 1628, four years after the founding of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now known as New York. Marble Collegiate is one of four metropolitan congregations in New York City known collectively as collegiate churches.
The first collegiate church was formed when Jonas Michaelius arrived in New Amsterdam from the Netherlands. He was the ordained premier of the city, which had a population of less than 300. The church’s first elder was Governor Peter Midnight, who had recently purchased Manhattan Island from the Indigenous peoples.
the Collegiate church is the oldest corporation in America, which received a royal charter from King William III in 1696. Thus was born the Dutch Reformed Church of America, today known as the Reformed Church of America.
Postwar growth, then decline
After the Civil War, and again after World War II, the RCAF grew as new congregations were established beyond New York. The name of the main line spread to the West Coast and into Canada. Historically, its two most prominent pastors were Norman Vincent Peale (pastor of Marble Collegiate) and Robert Schuller (pastor of Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California).
Beyond these big names, however, was a network of churches which may not have been well known to the average American but which were nonetheless faithful. Even at the top of the denomination, Christians in CAR made up less than three-tenths of 1% of the adult American population, placing CAR at the bottom of a ranked list of denominational members.
Over the past four decades, the ACR has faced the same challenges that all major Protestant groups have faced – a rapid decline in membership combined with weaker denominational identities within congregations that are not shrinking. . Today, the ACR has fewer than 200,000 members in 1,000 congregations in the United States and Canada.
So when 43 RCA congregations announced on January 1 that they were leaving to form a new body, the Alliance of Reformed Churches, it made the headlines. However, those who remain in CAR insist that this is not the death of their denomination.
“There are a number of churches leaving, but it’s not the same as a split,” said Thomas C. Goodhart, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY. “I was on the committee that for over two years prepared the process to move forward, including a way for the churches to separate. It was of course understood that this was happening as the culmination of many years, and especially before and after our last General Synod which was delayed last year and took place last October.
In fact, amid the schism, congregations and pastors who remain within the ARC have approved several new initiatives to deal with the changing times. These include innovations in global missions and rethinking what it means to be a denomination.
It has all been presented in a long report produced by the name Vision 2020 Team, the group referenced Goodhart. This report was published in 2020 and then updated in July 2021.
The report clearly explains the challenges facing the ACR – including an assessment that “local congregations do not want to fund a structure that does not add value and does not help them advance their mission” – and suggests three recommendations. These recommendations relate to the restructuring of the denomination, the creation of a new missionary agency, and the affirmation of a path for “mutually generous separation.”
“Recognizing that some separation is inevitable, we believe that the ACR has the opportunity to act in an exemplary manner in providing a generous way out for churches that decide to leave and in calling on those churches to act generously as well. “
Unlike Baptist churches which can – and do – distance themselves from faith-based organizations with a single vote, the structure of CAR is more complex. In particular, the task force looked at creating an easier way out for congregations wishing to leave.
“Recognizing that a certain separation is inevitable, we believe that the CAR has the opportunity to act in an exemplary manner by offering a generous way out for the churches which decide to leave and by inviting these churches to act generously as well”, indicates the updated report.
This “generous separation” is what is playing out right now, except those on both sides don’t feel particularly generous about the way it is portrayed. A recent item in Religion New Service has drawn intense criticism from RCA leaders because of its primary focus on departing churches.
Meanwhile, the new organization, known as ARC, has created a website and is actively recruiting RCA and non-RCA congregations to join. He has appointed staff and is developing a schedule.
His website describes the new body as “a community of Bible congregations who believe in affirming that the Bible is the written Word of God and that those who follow Jesus live under the authority of the Bible as it is. it is written. Our primary way of understanding the Bible is as we live in the redemptive and historic history of God which is constructed and governed by the covenants and promises of God.
The LGBTQ divide
Behind the scenes, one of the biggest issues – but not the only one – driving the schism is the full acceptance of LGBTQ Christians. This debate has been on the RCA’s agenda since 1974, explained the task force. And while many individual RCA congregations have opened up to LGBTQ Christians, others saw this as a bridge too far – reflecting similar divisions in other main faiths.
“For those who decide to stay in CAR, there is a path that offers the potential for renewal and strengthening of a denomination they love. “
The last conversation officially began in 2018 with the appointment of the task force, and its results were delayed for another year by the pandemic. So, three years later, in 2021, the separation mechanism began to unfold.
The new name will not affirm same-sex marriage or the ordination of LGBTQ people. And it will focus on church planting, its leaders said.
In the meantime, the CAR has adopted the recommendations of its working group and is now working on Implementation.
“For those who decide to stay in RCA, there is a path that holds the potential for renewal and strengthening of a denomination they love. For those who choose to follow a separate path, it is possible to prepare them well for their journey, knowing that the work they are going to do is for the kingdom we all call home, ”concludes the task force report. “And before we leave this crossroads, we have the chance to build something new together in the form of a mission agency, as a place to work together, and to preserve some of our best work as a celebration of our common journey. . “
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