On New Year’s Day, 43 congregations of the Reformed Church in America split from the national denomination, one of the oldest Protestant bodies in the United States, in part over theological differences regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.
The departure of the theologically conservative congregations to the new group, the Alliance of Reformed Churches, leaves some who remain in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) concerned for the denomination’s survival. Before the split, the nearly 400-year-old denomination had fewer than 200,000 members and 1,000 churches.
At least 125 churches from various denominations are in conversation with Alliance of Reformed Churches leaders about joining.
“Realistically, it’s a large group of conservative churches that are also providing a lot of income to the denomination. I really think the mass exodus of all these conservative churches is going to throw the RCA into a really difficult financial situation,” said Steven Rodriguez, an RCA church planter in Brockport, New York. “I doubt the RCA will be financially sustainable for much longer.”
The move follows the RCA General Synod’s October decision to adopt measures for “grace-filled separation” with departing churches and to appoint a team to develop a restructuring plan for those that remain.
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The new denomination, besides not affirming same-sex marriage or ordination of LGBTQ individuals, will have a strong emphasis on church planting and feature a flexible organizational model meant to foster theological alignment and efficient decision-making, according to leaders with the Alliance of Reformed Churches.
“We have a passion for this remnant of believers to become a part of reformation and revival in the Northern Hemisphere,” said Tim Vink, the new denomination’s director of spiritual leadership and outreach. “Part of our strategic thinking is designing things for the 21st century that allows a multiplication of gospel-saturated churches and a multiplication of disciples.”
Other conservative-leaning churches in the RCA, as well as those in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Christian Reformed Church in North America and Presbyterian Church in America, are also discerning whether to join the Alliance of Reformed Churches (ARC), according to Vink.
Other groups, such as the Kingdom Network, a group of five churches in Indiana and Illinois, have formed and expect to absorb conservative churches leaving the RCA.
Vink said the new alignment will promote growth. “We want to be a safe landing pad for churches in the near term, but in the long term, want to be a serious launching pad for the church, in mission, to the world,” he said.
The launch of ARC is part of a larger realignment within North American Protestantism. The last two decades have seen conservative Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans form their own denominations over LGBTQ inclusion and sexuality, and the United Methodists are scheduled to consider a denominational split in the fall.
A theologically and politically diverse denomination that dates to the arrival of Dutch settlers in Manhattan in the 1620s, the RCA has been debating sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion since the 1970s. In 2018, the RCA’s General Synod formed a team charged with discerning whether the RCA should stay together, restructure or separate. The team ultimately suggested a path involving all three avenues, but the meeting to vote on the team’s proposals was delayed for 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the interim, roughly 15 congregational, regional and strategic leaders from the RCA began meeting virtually to consider a future outside the denomination. Part of that future, they believed, involved theological unity on the interpretation of Scripture.
“We believe if the church is going to be successful in the 21st century, it needs to be powered by a more agile structure and it needs to be more theologically aligned than theologically diverse,” said Dan Ackerman, ARC’s director of organizational leadership.
Joel Baar, an ARC board member and elder at Fellowship Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, which opted to join ARC by a vote of 604-9, said that theological conformity of ARC is part of what appealed to his congregation.
“As the RCA was attempting to define and clarify marriage,” said Barr, “and efforts had been happening over the decades in that regard, there continued to be this tension within the RCA of whether or not the Bible was the full authority of God’s Word. We started feeling at Fellowship we no longer belonged within the RCA.”
But theological differences remain even within the new denomination. While the understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman is a “top tier” theological belief, Ackerman explained, the question of women’s ordination is a “second tier issue” that local leaders can address in their own contexts.
Every five years the organization and individual congregations will assess how well they are serving one another and if they should remain partners in ministry, said Ackerman. “The word ‘alliance’ implies a choosing that happens so you can accomplish a certain thing, and then you reevaluate and say, is that alliance still helpful for the next chapter?”
ARC will replace national in-person conferences with video calls, digital messaging platforms and other forms of virtual communication to make decisions more efficiently, organizers said. Its board already meets twice a month to expedite response times.
The creation of ARC, paired with the RCA’s decisions at General Synod, has put many RCA congregations in the position of deciding whether to stay in the RCA.
Baar says the decision to leave the RCA wasn’t a simple one. “My roots in the RCA are deep,” he said, saying part of his congregants’ discernment about leaving the denomination was “a grieving process.”
Faith Reformed Church in Zeeland, Michigan, also took time to discern its relationship to the RCA. For now, the congregation has decided to remain in the RCA. But staying isn’t easy either.
“We mourn some of the people who are no longer part of the denomination. There are churches we planted that will leave, there’s children we’ve raised up in the church that are pastors of churches that are leaving,” said the senior pastor, Jonathan Elgersma. “We do feel there has to be space to lament.”
RCA leadership has reached out to its congregations, hoping to sell them on RCA’s increasing diversity and new international church-planting and missional partnerships, which includes its 375-year-old Global Mission organization that supports roughly 100 missionaries and partners through its $8.5 million worth of endowments.
Yet the RCA is also committed to allowing departing churches to leave on good terms. “We want to bless our brothers and sisters who are choosing to find another denominational family,” said Christina Tazelaar, director of communication for the RCA.
The ARC seems equally dedicated to a smooth transition, and ARC pastors say they are open to the idea of continued partnerships with the RCA. “We bless the RCA, we pray for the RCA,” said Vink.
Elgersma, too, is hopeful that the ARC and RCA will remain in conversation. “Are we faithful enough to respect the full kingdom and listen to and learn from each other?” he said. “I really hope that’s where we land as this plays itself out.”
But, said Vink, “the General Synod in October made it clear to many conservative churches that the time is now to look for a new wineskin.”
Kathryn Post is a writer living in Washington D.C. She is a graduate of Calvin College and an editorial assistant for Sojourners magazine.
9 thoughts on “Conservatives Split From Reformed Church in America over LGBTQ Issues”
I’m not sure why the Christians who want to continue abiding by 2000 years of basic Old and New Testament teachings and common sense are the bad guys here.
One group is trying to please Jesus, the other is trying to please the culture.
Baloney – one group is deciding that a late bronze, early iron age culture is should be adhered to including the legitimatization of chattel slavery – and one group is attempting to wrestle with the reality that God has given us…. Except the former is completely hypocritical in that they twist the obvious meaning of texts to suit their humanistic ethics and condemn chattel slavery – they cherry pick for their own ego-centric biases.
Three score and ten years I was a member of the RCA in Holland, Michigan, and served as an elder in Holland Classis. I lament that the RCA has been a house divided for many years and along with the CRC and TEC and UCC have suffered great loss of membership the past forty years.
In 2015 I was party to a report of “Ministering with and to Our Gay Members” presented to Holland Classis. The last point of the report – f) “Maintaining a welcoming, supportive and encouraging place in all our congregations for people who identified as LGBT and now choose celibacy, enter heterosexual marriage or express a change in sexual orientation.” – was changed in the Minutes of the Classis meeting by omitting the rest of the sentence after LGBT.
Most of all I lament the apostacy that has overtaken the RCA and many other denominations in America. One could write a book of such, and RCA professor asking – “is it necessary to believe in the virgin birth?”
And exactly why is it necessary to believe in the virgin birth – in light of the fact that the oldest documents NOWHERE reference this – much less Bethlehem…nor ANY of the NT other than the open chapters of two later documents….🤔 AND that was never a requirement at any level to be reconciled to God….
How do churches that for over 40 years have accepted women in office and the steady march to allow LGBTQ+ also, now become conservative? Join a new group with the same churches? Thoughts?
“…efficient decision-making, according to leaders”. I see ‘leaders’ pop up again. So, this church denomination is, what, a business, a military unit? In the NT we have ministers, servants, administrators…but no ‘leaders’ in the modern since. So, …efficient decision-making, according to the servants/ministers/administrators/.
The many Roys Reports reveal that much of the western church is like the church in Corinth some 2000 years ago. Fallen, to sexual immorality and apostacy.
Well I went to General Synod a few years ago when we held it in Iowa. It was a joint meeting with the CRC. Right then I could see what we were up against in the RCA. There’s a fundamental dived here, one that I knew we’d regret if it wasn’t firmly addressed. There’s a big push by the Bi Costal classis to to force LGBT into the RCA regardless of church teaching and doctrine. When we left I knew neither parties were satisfied since it was basically tabled to be looked at again. Now when they did make the decision they tried to placate all and did that to none.
If we don’t stand for what we believe in why even have a denomination? That’s why you are seeing long faithful people leaving. They’ve had it with the, to them is capitulation to Sin. I’ve met some of the people involved in this. At not one moment do I think they’re any kind of bigot or have any distain for the communities involved. That said they will not and have taken steps to what they believe is being faithful to God’s call.
In the end this will change the RCA for better or worse. It all could have been avoided by standing for what we believe in. Instead of trying to satisfy all concerned.
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