It Doesn’t Work: Reformed Church in America

It Doesn’t Work: Reformed Church in America

What happened in the RCA? In the words of one former RCA pastor, the RCA had gangrene in their right foot but amputated their left hand. “What would have made more sense is the progressives to go to the PCUSA or UCC if they were willing to leave,” said Bremer. “They were in the minority and had places to go. But they made it clear that this is not what they were going to do.” “The General Synod has repeatedly made statements that are more traditional in orientation about sexuality, but those are just statements,” said David Komline, associate professor of church history at Western Theological Seminary. “There are no mechanisms in place to hold people accountable to these statements.” “Our polity did not allow us to hold others accountable who were living in sin,” according to Gerbers, who was a delegate to General Synod in 2013, 2016, 2019 and 2021. Currently, the RCA website’s Statements of General Synod paint a picture of the RCA slowly and conflictedly coming into line with the revisionists’ position on sexuality. 

LGBTQ ideology has divided one church after another: Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Mennonite Church USA, United Methodist Church, Church of the Brethren, Reformed Church in America.

In this series, we will look at some of their stories. Each one shows how legitimizing alternative sexualities in the church is a mix of oil and water. It simply does not work. Another case in point: The Reformed Church in America

Of all the denominations that would have lessons for the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC), the Reformed Church in America (RCA) would be at the top of the list. They have the same statements of faith and the same Dutch heritage. While sharing many similarities, they have distinct histories. The RCA has a long history of trying to maintain unity despite differences, reaching across doctrinal differences to cooperate with churches outside the Reformed tradition. The CRC has a long history of seeking biblical and confessional fidelity, careful selection of ecumenical partners. 

RCA and CRC Ancient History 

The RCA is one of the oldest denominations in America, officially beginning in 1628 in New York. They became independent from the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK) in 1792. Then, in 1834 the NHK went through a split called the Afscheiding. The government-run NHK was rampant with German rationalism and French skepticism. Modernism reigned in the universities and most pulpits. The Three Forms of Unity were official but were often denied or derided. Ministers only needed to agree with “insofar as” they agreed with God’s Word. Most sermons were moral essays, urging the good life without mentioning human sinfulness, necessity of new birth, conversion, atonement through Christ, justification by faith, or sanctification. The Afscheiding left the state church and began to meet on their own. Fines on gatherings were imposed and immigrants poured into the United States. The Afscheiding band following Albertus Van Raalte was accepted into the RCA in 1850. Some among the Van Raalte group were disappointed in that union as they were afraid that the RCA was much like the corrupt NHK in the Netherlands.1

In 1857, a small handful left the RCA and the CRC was born. At first, the CRC consisted of only four churches and one minister. Meanwhile, the Van Raalte immigrants were not on board with membership in the Masonic lodge. The Masons required an oath of secrecy and especially in the Netherlands were viewed as something of a cult. The RCAs in the eastern USA did allow its members to belong to Masonic lodges.2 In 1870, the RCA General Synod declared that Masonic membership was not a good practice but that it should not be forbidden by church law. 

The Masonic lodge controversy would come to a head in 1880. Four memorials (i.e. overtures) from the western RCAs asked that Masonic membership be banned by church law. Trying to take a middle road between the Masonic-affirming east and the anti-Masonic west, the RCA General Synod gave a similar conclusion to that of 1870. A mass exodus from the RCA ensued. The CRC ranks mushroomed. The Afscheiding churches in the Netherlands withdrew their endorsement of the RCA and thereafter encouraged immigrants to join the CRC. The CRC would gain entire congregations, families and key ministers from the RCA. By 1895, CRC membership surpassed the RCA’s Midwest sector. 

Thus, the RCA in the west (Michigan, Iowa, etc.) being settled by predominantly Afscheiding refugees has had a different character than the RCA in the east (New York, New Jersey). 

The RCA would continue to grow and its membership peaked in 1967 with 384,751 members. Thereafter it began a slow decline, primarily in the east. In the 2000s, the RCA west would also begin a decline but the RCA east was by this time far smaller than it had once been. By 2011, Zeeland Classis in Michigan had over 15,400 total members and averaged 8,888 worshipers. Whereas the entire Regional Synod of Albany (made up of six classes in New York) had nearly the same amount of total members with 15,700, and only worshiped at 6,451.3 Yet, at General Synod, Albany had six classes worth of votes and Zeeland only had one. The RCA east was overrepresented when it came to voting on pivotal matters. 

Enter Topic of Homosexuality

The first time the RCA made any statements on LGBT matters was its June 12-16, 1978 General Synod meeting at Columbia University. There delegates approved a paper titled, “Homosexuality: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal” (Minutes of General Synod 1978: pp.233-239). The paper presented a clear biblical rejection of homosexual acts but also affirmed the dignity of homosexual persons.

Some of the paper’s statements include the following:

  • Paul’s rejection of homosexual activity is beyond question.
  • When Paul rejects homosexual acts on the grounds that they are “against nature” he expresses and reaffirms the clear sense of Scripture: Human sexuality was created for heterosexual expression…When the subject of homosexuality is raised, the majority of modern opinion still seems to be: “People weren’t made to be that way.” If such opinion is expressed with fear, loathing or recrimination, as is often the case, it must be pitied and resisted. When the same statement is made in humility and with compassion, it may be considered biblical.
  • Heterosexuality is not only normal; it is normative. Homosexual acts are contrary to the will of God for human sexuality.
  • The homosexual invert [one who does not decide to become homosexual, but for whom genetic, hormonal, or psychosocial factors have influenced his or her sexual orientation] is no more to be blamed for his/her condition than a [child who is cognitively impaired]. It follows, then, that the church’s ministry to the invert may best begin with the attempt to lift a burden of guilt that need not be carried. Inverts may not idealize their orientation as a legitimate alternative, but neither should they blame themselves for their sexual orientation.
  • While we cannot affirm homosexual behavior, at the same time we are convinced that the denial of human and civil rights to homosexuals is inconsistent with the biblical witness and Reformed theology. 
  • While avoiding simplistic and obnoxious social crusades, the church must affirm through its preaching and pastoral ministry that homosexuality is not an acceptable alternative lifestyle. God’s gracious intent for human sexual fulfillment is the permanent bond of heterosexual love. This redemptive word must be spoken, with sensitivity, caring, and clarity to any person who would make a perverted sexual choice, and to society as a whole.
  • It is one matter to affirm that self-chosen homosexual acts are sinful. It is quite another to reject, defame, and excoriate the humanity of the person who performs them. This distinction has often been missed. It is possible and necessary on biblical grounds to identify homosexuality as a departure from God’s intent. However…there are no theological grounds on which a homosexual may be singled out for a greater measure of judgment. All persons bear within them the marks of the fall.

This position would be reaffirmed the next year in 1979, again in 1990 and also 1994.

The 1990 General Synod voted to adopt an official position on the issue of same-sex relationships, as some classes felt there was confusion within the church as to the status of the 1978 report. It was decided “To adopt as the position of the Reformed Church in America that the practicing homosexual lifestyle is contrary to scripture, while at the same time encouraging love and sensitivity towards such persons as fellow human beings” (Minutes of General Synod 1990: p461).

The 1994 General Synod adopted a resolution of humble repentance for insensitivity to those of a homosexual orientation who sought “self-acceptance and dignity” among other failings. Nevertheless, the prior orthodox statements were reaffirmed. General Synod “recognizes and confesses that the Reformed Church in America has failed to live up to its own statements regarding homosexuality.” General Synod “seeks to obey the whole of Scripture, demonstrating in its own life the same obedience it asks from others.” They called on the RCA to enter “a process of repentance, prayer, learning, and growth in ministry. This process will be guided by the basic biblical-theological framework presented in the previous statements of the General Synod” (Minutes of General Synod 1994: p375-376).

In 1997, General Synod did not discuss homosexuality, but did enter a “Formula of Agreement” with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC). The RCA was thereafter in “full communion” with denominations farther to the left on the theological spectrum on a host of topics, including sexuality. For example, the UCC ordained its first openly gay person into ministry already in 1972. By 1985, the UCC General Synod declared itself “open and affirming” to LGBTQ persons by a 95% majority. The ELCA would open all ministerial offices to practicing LGBT people in 2009 and the PCUSA would do the same in 2011. 

In 2004, RCA General Synod affirmed “that marriage is properly defined as the union of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.” The Commission on Church Order was asked to consider an amendment to the Book of Church Order that added the affirmation into the RCA’s church order (Minutes of General Synod 2004, pp. 332-333).

In 2005, the commission reported that it had considered an amendment to the Book of Church Order but did not feel it was appropriate, and gave six reasons why (Minutes of General Synod 2005, pp. 90-91). In its report, they said the 2004 statement on monogamous heterosexual marriage “does not carry the weight of definitive church teaching. The General Synod does not have among its powers the determination of what, finally, is the ‘teaching of the church.’” Additionally, they were “reluctant to use the church order as a means of addressing social issues currently before society and the church. The commission seriously questions whether the insertion of such a definition would, as proponents of the overture claim, ‘allow the Reformed Church to avoid the difficult and public schism being played out on the world scene.’ The placement of the definition within the church order would do little to reduce the heat of controversy across the church.” 

More pivotal, on June 17, 2005, General Synod deposed Norman Kansfield, the dismissed president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, for presiding at his daughter’s lesbian wedding. “The church of Jesus Christ needs to be as inclusive as the arms of our Lord himself,” Kansfield said to delegates. This action would trigger the formation of the RCA’s LGBTQ lobby group, Room for All (RFA). Their website credited this event as the galvanizing force for RFA: 

Though, in the end, Norm was found guilty of violating the peace, unity and purity of the church, a period of “don’t ask, don’t tell” had ended. Through these events and others, the need was made clear for a voice of full inclusion, that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach will not ultimately serve the church in communicating God’s love for all people. A small group continued to meet over the summer of 2005 to discern how best to move forward. In the fall a non-profit was incorporated in the state of New York under the name Room for All, in order to support, educate and advocate for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the RCA. 

The push for full affirmation of LGBTQ sexualities in the RCA would be continuous thereafter. 

In 2009, General Synod voted to “affirm the value of continued dialogue and discernment on the topic of homosexuality within the church, to state that our dialogical and discerning work is not done, and that legislative and judicial steps are not a preferred course of action at this time.” In the meantime, they recommended that “officeholders and ministers avoid actions in violation of the policies of the earlier statements of General Synod on ordination and relevant state laws on marriage, with sensitivity to the pastoral needs of all involved.”

The 2009 General Synod also voted for the Belhar Confession to be a full confession in the RCA, but two thirds of the classes would still have to approve it and the next General Synod would have to ratify the decision. On April 5, 2010, RCA announced that two-thirds of its classes concurred with the General Synod 2009 to approve the Belhar Confession. As an indication of events to come, the same month of the two-thirds majority, the Belhar Confession’s main author Allan Boesak spoke at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, saying Belhar’s “demand for inclusivity goes well beyond the issue of race” to include “women, people with disabilities and those whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual.” Still, the 2010 General Synod made its first order of business to officially adopt the Belhar Confession

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