As one of the nation’s oldest Protestant denominations works intently to define its role in a post-denominational age, a group of 43 churches has announced it will break away to form a new body.
This schism within the Reformed Church in America is nothing new to the modern Protestant scene. Denominations of all sizes have been splintering for decades, although today’s debates over LGBTQ Christians and the role of women in church leadership are driving more fractures.
Baptists are notable for such schisms — historically and in recent times — over various issues of biblical interpretation and congregational practice. Disagreements about the nature of the Bible and the role of women in church leadership led to formation of both the Alliance of Baptists and then the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as breakaways from the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 20th century. Similar schisms have hit or are currently hitting the Presbyterian Church USA, The Episcopal Church in America, and The United Methodist Church, among others.
Ties to American history
What’s notable 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, traces its roots 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 New York metro congregations collectively known as the Collegiate churches.
The first Collegiate Church was formed when Jonas Michaelius arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland. He was the first ordained minister in the town, which counted fewer than 300 people in population. The first church elder was Gov. Peter Minuit, who had recently purchased Manhattan Island from the native peoples.
The Collegiate Church is the oldest corporation in America, granted a royal charter from King William III in 1696. Thus was born the Dutch Reformed Church in America, today known as the Reformed Church in America.
Post-war growth, then decline
After the Civil War and then again after World War II, the RCA grew as new congregations were planted beyond New York. The mainline denomination spread all the way to the West Coast and to Canada. Historically, its two most high-profile pastors were Norman Vincent Peale (pastor at Marble Collegiate) and Robert Schuller (pastor at the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, Calif.)
Beyond those big names, however, existed a network of churches that may not have been well-known to the average American but were faithful nonetheless. Even at the denomination’s peak, RCA Christians accounted for less than three-tenths of 1% of the U.S. adult population, placing the RCA near the bottom of a rank-ordered list of denominational membership.
Over the past four decades the RCA has faced the same challenges that have confronted all mainline Protestant groups — rapidly declining membership combined with weaker denominational identities inside the congregations not declining. Today, the RCA counts fewer than 200,000 members in 1,000 congregations in the U.S. and Canada.
Thus, when 43 RCA congregations announced Jan. 1 they are leaving to form a new body, the Alliance of Reformed Churches, it made headlines. However, those remaining in the RCA are emphatic this is not the death of their denomination.
“There are a number of churches leaving but that is not the same as a split,” said Thomas C. Goodhart, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church of Brooklyn, N.Y. “I was part of the committee that prepared for over two years the process for moving forward including a way for churches to separate. This was well understood to happen as a culmination of many years, and in particular leading up to and following our most recent General Synod that was delayed last year and took place this past October.”
In fact, amid the schism, those congregations and pastors remaining within the RCA have approved several new initiatives to address the changing times. These include innovations in global missions and rethinking what it means to be a denomination.
All this was laid out in a lengthy report produced by the denomination’s Vision 2020 Team, the group Goodhart referenced. That report was released in 2020 and then updated in July 2021.
The report makes plain the challenges facing the RCA — including an assessment that “local congregations do not want to fund a structure that isn’t delivering value and helping them move their mission forward” — and offers three recommendations. Those recommendations relate to restructuring the denomination, creating a new missions agency, and affirming a way for “mutually generous separation.” The first and third were adopted, but the second recommendation about the new missions agency was not.
“Recognizing that some separation is inevitable, we believe the RCA has an opportunity to act in an exemplary way by providing a generous exit path for those churches which decide to leave and by inviting those churches to also act generously.”
Unlike Baptist churches that can — and do — walk away from denominational bodies by a single vote, the RCA’s structure is more complex. Part of what the task force addressed was creating an easier path out for those congregations that want to leave.
“Recognizing that some separation is inevitable, we believe the RCA has an opportunity to act in an exemplary way by providing a generous exit path for those churches which decide to leave and by inviting those churches to also act generously,” the updated report states.
That “generous separation” is what’s playing out right now, except that those on both sides aren’t feeling especially generous about how it’s being portrayed. A recent article in Religion New Service drew intense criticism from RCA leaders because of its primary focus on the departing churches.
Meanwhile, the new body, known for short as ARC, has created a website and is actively recruiting both RCA and non-RCA congregations to join. It has named staff and is developing programming.
Its website describes the new body as “a community of biblical congregations who believe that it is important to affirm that the Bible is God’s written Word and those who follow Jesus live under the Bible’s authority as written. Our primary way of understanding the Bible is that we are living within God’s redemptive-historical story which is constructed and governed by God’s covenants and promises.”
The LGBTQ divide
Behind the scenes, one of the biggest issues — but not the only issue — driving the schism is full acceptance of LGBTQ Christians. This debate has been on the agenda for the RCA since 1974, the task force explained. And even though many individual RCA congregations have opened themselves to LGBTQ Christians, others have seen this as a bridge too far — mirroring similar divides in other mainline denominations.
“For those who decide to stay in the RCA, there is a path that holds the potential for the renewal and strengthening of a denomination they love.”
The latest conversation began formally in 2018 with appointment of the task force, and its results got delayed an additional year by the pandemic. Thus, three years later, in 2021, the mechanism for separation began to unfold.
The new denomination will not affirm same-sex marriage or the ordination of LGBTQ persons. And it will emphasize church planting, its leaders said.
Meanwhile, the RCA has adopted the primary recommendations of its task force and now is working toward implementation.
“For those who decide to stay in the RCA, there is a path that holds the potential for the renewal and strengthening of a denomination they love. For those who choose to go a separate way there is an opportunity to provision them well for their journey, knowing that the work they go to do is for the kingdom we all call home,” the task force report concludes.
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