Reformed Church of America splits as conservative churches form new denomination

(RNS) – On New Year’s Day, 43 Reformed Church of America congregations split from the national denomination, one of the oldest Protestant bodies in the United States, in part over theological differences over the same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.

The departure of theologically conservative congregations to the new group, the Alliance of Reformed Churches, leaves some of those remaining in the ARC worried about the survival of the denomination. Prior to the split, the nearly 400-year-old denomination had fewer than 200,000 members and 1,000 churches.

At least 125 churches of various denominations are in conversation with ARC leaders about their membership.

“It’s actually a large group of conservative churches that also provide a lot of income to the denomination. I really think the mass exodus of all these conservative churches is going to put RCA in a really tough financial spot,” said Steven Rodriguez, an RCA church planter in Brockport, New York. “I doubt RCA will be financially viable any longer.”

The move follows the October decision of the ARC General Synod to adopt “grace-filled separation” measures with departing churches and to appoint a team to develop a restructuring plan for those that remain.

The new denomination, in addition to not affirming same-sex marriage or the ordination of LGBTQ people, will have a strong emphasis on church planting and feature a flexible organizational model intended to foster theological alignment and empowerment. effective decision, according to CRA officials.

“We have a passion for this remnant of believers to be part of reformation and revival in the northern hemisphere,” said Tim Vink, director of spiritual leadership and evangelism for the new denomination. “Part of our strategic thinking is designing things for the 21st century that allows for a multiplication of gospel-saturated churches and a multiplication of disciples.

Tim Vinc. Photo courtesy of CRA

Other conservative-leaning churches in the CRA, as well as those of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and the Presbyterian Church in America, are also considering whether to join. the CRA, 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 CAR.

Vink said the new alignment will promote growth. “We want to be a safe landing pad for churches in the short term, but in the long term we want to be a serious launching pad for the church, in mission, to the world,” he said.

The launch of the ARC is part of a larger realignment within North American Protestantism. The past two decades have seen conservative Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans form their own denominations on LGBTQ inclusion and sexuality, and United Methodists are expected to consider a denominational split in the fall.

A theologically and politically diverse denomination that dates back to the arrival of Dutch settlers in Manhattan in the 1620s, RCA has been debating LGBTQ sexuality and inclusion since the 1970s. In 2018, the RCA General Synod formed a team responsible for discerning whether the RCA should stay together, restructure or separate. The team eventually suggested a path involving all three paths, but the meeting to vote on the team’s proposals was delayed for 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, about 15 ARC congregational, regional and strategic leaders have begun meeting virtually to consider a future outside the denomination. Part of that future, they believed, involved theological unity over the interpretation of Scripture.

“We believe that if the church is going to succeed in the 21st century, it needs to be propelled by a more nimble structure and it needs to be more theologically aligned than theologically diverse,” said Dan Ackerman, director of organizational leadership at ARC.

Community Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.  Courtesy picture

Community Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. Courtesy picture

Joel Baar, ARC board member and elder of the Fellowship Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, who chose to join ARC by a vote of 604 to 9, said the theological conformity of the ARC was part of what pleased his congregation.

“While the CRA tried to define and clarify marriage,” Barr said, “and efforts had been made over the decades in this regard, there was always this tension within the CRA as to whether or not the Bible was the full authority of God Word We began to feel at Fellowship that we no longer belonged in the CRA.

RELATED: Reformed Church of America faces rift over LGBTQ impasse

Dan Ackerman.  Photo courtesy of CRA

Dan Ackerman. Photo courtesy of CRA

But theological differences remain even within the new denomination. While the understanding of marriage between a man and a woman is a “top tier” theological belief, Ackerman explained, the issue of women’s ordination is a “second tier issue” that local leaders can address in their own context.

Every five years, the organization and individual congregations will assess how well they serve each other and whether they should remain partners in ministry, Ackerman said. “The word ‘covenant’ implies a choice that happens so you can accomplish a certain thing, and then you re-evaluate and say, is this covenant still useful for the next chapter?”

The ARC will replace in-person national conferences with video calls, digital messaging platforms and other forms of virtual communication to make decisions more efficiently, organizers said. Its board of directors already meets twice a month to speed up response times.

The creation of ARC, coupled with RCA decisions at General Synod, put many RCA congregations in the position of deciding to remain in RCA.

Joel Barr.  Photo courtesy of CRA

Joel Barr. Photo courtesy of CRA

Baar says the decision to leave RCA was not easy. “My roots in ARC run deep,” he said, saying part of discerning his followers about leaving the denomination was “a grieving process.”

Faith Reformed Church in Zeeland, Michigan, has also taken the time to discern its relationship with the RCA. For now, the congregation has decided to remain in the RCA. But staying is not easy either.

“We mourn some of the people who are no longer part of the denomination. There are churches that we have planted that will leave, there are children that we have raised in the church who are pastors of churches that are leaving,” senior pastor Jonathan Elgersma said. “We believe there should be space to lament.”

RELATED: Reformed Church in America heads for restructuring, prepares for departures

RCA leadership has reached out to its congregations, hoping to sell them on RCA’s growing diversity and new international church planting and mission partnerships, which includes its 375-year-old World Mission organization which supports approximately 100 missionaries and partners with its $8.5 million. of endowments.

Yet CAR is also committed to allowing departing churches to leave on good terms. “We want to bless our brothers and sisters who choose to find another faith family,” said Christina Tazelaar, RCA communications director.

ARC also appears dedicated to a smooth transition, and ARC pastors say they are open to the idea of ​​continued partnerships with RCA. “We bless RCA, we pray for RCA,” Vink said.

Elgersma also hopes the ARC and CAR will stay in conversation. “Are we faithful enough to respect the kingdom as a whole, to listen to and learn from each other? ” he said. “I really hope that’s where we land as this unfolds.”

But, Vink said, “The October General Synod sent a clear signal to many conservative churches that the time has come to seek a new wineskin.”

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