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Refuge & The RCA: The Future

Since it’s inception, Refuge Church has been part of the Reformed Church In America. We’ve been blessed by it’s guiding confessions, biblical theology, helpful liturgy, accountability and relationships, and much more. Speaking as the present pastor, I can sincerely say I’ve been blessed by this denomination’s legacy.

However, in the latter half of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, there have been increasing issues in terms of scriptural authority. Some would seek to make it about the current “presenting issue” of human sexuality, but the root issue is really the authority of God’s Word and faithful interpretation, seeking to be subject to the scriptures versus a subjective, selective use of the scriptures.

The following is a helpful framework for where we find ourselves as a church, the state of our denomination, and why things may be headed for a change. (It is an edited excerpt from an article at banner.org and we appreciate their helpful summary and distillation of a long process that has transpired over decades).

In October 2021, the Reformed Church in America, one of North America’s oldest denominations, gathered to confront its gridlock over LGBTQ affirmation and same-sex marriage. Votes cast in Tucson, Ariz., at the Reformed Church in America’s General Synod—delayed 16 months due to the pandemic—have set the course for congregations that remain with the denomination. Conservative factions have broken ties with the RCA with other churches threatening to follow.

The RCA is a historically Dutch Reformed denomination dating back to the 1620s, when New York was known as New Amsterdam. Today, the RCA has fewer than 200,000 members and 1,000 churches. While in theory RCA churches are united by their polity, history, and Reformed convictions, they hold a range of political and theological beliefs.

The RCA isn’t the only Protestant denomination facing division over views on sexuality. Next year, the United Methodist Church is expected to vote on a proposal to split the denomination over the inclusion of LGBTQ members, and the RCA’s sister denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, will grapple with its human sexuality report at its synod.

According to the Rev. Dan Griswold, clerk of the RCA’s Holland Classis, the RCA debates include specific questions: Can an RCA church host a wedding between a same-sex couple, and can an RCA minister officiate such a wedding? Can noncelibate gay people be elected as elders and deacons and ordained as ministers? While these questions are often framed as political, they are theological. “It’s really about how we view the Bible, how we understand God and the nature of the church,“ said the Rev. Lynn Japinga, professor of religion at RCA-affiliated Hope College.

 “I’ve dealt with same-sex attraction, and the issue for me and many of the people I know is, is it a thing for which Jesus Christ needs to come to redeem us, or is it a blessing he wants us to embrace?” said Ron Citlau, whose church helped form the conservative Kingdom Network. “If we get sin wrong, there are larger things at stake.”

The debate is also a question of polity. The RCA has a localized structure that gives classes—regional church groups—authority over matters such as discipline and ordination. While all RCA churches follow the Book of Church Order, the General Synod doesn’t have authority over the local churches.  “There’s nothing in the Book of Church Order that says anything explicit about sexuality at all,” said David Komline, associate professor of church history at Western Theological Seminary. “The General Synod has repeatedly made statements that are more traditional in orientation about sexuality, but …there are no mechanisms in place to hold people accountable to these statements.”

An ongoing question is whether the General Synod ought to be able to make dictates it can enforce. In recent years, conservative RCA members have pushed for General Synod to do just that. In 2016, the General Synod voted to amend the Book of Church Order to define marriage as between a woman and a man. However, the measure failed to win the necessary two-thirds approval from the classes. “We found that the RCA is designed in such a way, intentionally or not, in which the vast majority cannot move to what they believe is right because there are just enough progressive classes that can veto,” said Citlau… the two-thirds rule gives disproportionate power to classes with progressive views and fewer members. (only 44 churches are listed as LGBTQ-affirming by Room for All—an LGBTQ-affirming network in the RCA). But progressive members argue the General Synod was never designed to issue top-down decisions in the first place.

In 2018, General Synod formed a team charged with discerning whether the RCA should stay together, restructure or separate. In their Vision 2020 Report, that team suggested a path involving all three avenues. First, the report recommends appointing a team for reorganizing classes by affinity rather than geography; churches would opt into classes and group themselves by shared values. The second proposal is to create an external RCA mission agency that would allow departing churches to continue supporting RCA’s global missions work. Third, the report recommends allowing a departing church to retain its property and assets.

Regardless of what happens at the General Synod, the RCA is already splitting. The Kingdom Network, currently composed of five churches in Indiana and Illinois, officially formed Sept. 9. “The RCA has this albatross around its neck, and historically it moves very slow,” said Citlau. “From our point of view, the house is burning. We can’t keep saying, we’re going to wait five more years and have a couple of committees. It’s already a bloody mess, and until you’re willing to get in there and make some choices, there’s no way through. And we did our best effort to make a way through.”

In May 2021, the Alliance of Reformed Churches was formed as an alternative to the RCA for conservative churches questioning their place in the denomination. According to their website, more than 125 churches have expressed interest in joining the alliance. “The Alliance of Reformed Churches is praying with the RCA for the clear leading of God’s Spirit at its General Synod,” the Alliance said in a statement emailed to RNS. “Our prayers will be with our brothers and sisters as they walk together through this significant moment in the RCA’s history.”

More departures are likely on the way. The 2020 Vision Report said: “We have informally learned of entire classes’ intention to exit the denomination in the near future.” These departures have been a long time coming; the RCA has been debating sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion since the 1970s.

“People on different sides of the spectrum have been fighting for about 40 years, and they’re sick of it,” said Komline. “They believe their fighting is impeding their mission. I think that’s the case on both sides. The liberals want to go pursue justice, as they define it, and the evangelicals want to share the gospel as they define that.”  

REFUGE CHURCH, holding to the biblical and historical view of human sexuality and marriage that the church has held to for over 2,000 years, and to which the RCA adheres to on paper but not in practice, will be praying to decide what decisions we will make and actions we will take as we finish 2021 together. We hope to take steps in unity with our Classis and churches that stand with unanimity on this essential doctrinal issue and align with those who desire to maintain fidelity to the Word of God and the authority of scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Pastor James Harleman and the elders and deacons of Refuge Church

2022-01-26T12:14:50-08:00