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What is the Reformed Church in America?

What do Andrew Yang, Martin Van Buren, Teddy Roosevelt, Norman Vincent Peale, and Evel Knievel have in common? The answer is that they all were or are members in the Reformed Church in America. As you can tell by some of those names, this denomination has been around for a while. On the scale from Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism to Theologically Liberal, Congregations in the Reformed Church in America fall well to the side of the more theologically Liberal Churches, but holding positions slightly to the right of the United Church of Christ.

The RCA is considered to be a ‘mainline church’ which essentially is a historical term referring to churches that have been around in one form or another well into past centuries, churches that have historically contrasted with Evangelical churches in their doctrine and practice, and for many decades represented the mainstream of American Christianity. Mainline churches have been declining precipitously in recent years, as I cover in the video “the decline of mainline churches in America”, so although these denominations retain the name “mainline”, they are now outnumbered by Evangelical and Pentecostals among American Protestant Christianity.

The History of The Reformed Church in America is important to understanding its doctrine. During the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch Reformed Church was formed in the Netherlands in the 1571. It retained its status as the largest protestant church in the Netherlands into the 20th century. For two centuries until 1795, public officials in the Netherlands were required to be communicant members of the church. This church, following the reformation as a whole was highly influenced by the theological teachings of John Calvin, and it was within the denomination of the Dutch Reformed Church that the still influential Synod of Dort of 1618-19 met to condemn Arminian views, solidifying the Reformed doctrines of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, and so forth.

Not too long after the Reformation, things were getting underway in America, and in 1628 the first Dutch Reformed Congregation was established in North America. Until 1764, for more than a century, Dutch Reformed Churches within the United States continued to hold services in Dutch. In 1754, the churches in America gained independence from their mother church denomination. It remained under the name of the Dutch Reformed Church in America until 1819, when the name “Reformed Protestant Dutch Church” was chosen, and finally in 1867 the current name of The Reformed Church in America was selected.

Over one hundred years after gaining independence from the Dutch reformed church, the influence of that church was still felt in America. Over in the Netherlands, the church in the town of Ulrum received a new minister, Hendrick De Cock. Members in the church encouraged him to read the Canons of Dordt, and upon reading them, De Cock also moved on to reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. After coming to appreciate and agree with what he read, De Cock sensed that the Dutch Reformed Church had been moving in a theologically liberal direction, and as he began to practice what he had learned, other churches reported him and he was suspended as a minister. This led to a split in the Dutch Reformed Church beginning in 1834, where a minority of churches who agreed with De Cock left the denomination, and new churches were formed.

In America, churches and ministers watched the situation, and some developed positions on either side of the matter. Other issues arose such as the use of hymns, failure to pass on doctrinal teaching to young people, and membership in the masonic lodge. For decades after the split in the Netherlands, theological disputes took place among more conservative American congregations, and ultimately in 1857 four churches left to form a new denomination, which would later be named the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Though it took more than a century, today the Christian Reformed Church in North America is larger than the Reformed Church in America.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America does still retain differences from the Reformed Church in America being on the whole more conservative and aligning with Evangelical denominations, but they have been growing closer to the denomination they split from. In 1975, the CRCNA formed a council with more conservative reformed denominations including the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America. This contrasts with the more liberal reformed and mainline churches that the RCA was aligned with. However, in 2005 the two denominations voted to allow the exchange of ministers between their denominations, and in 2013 a hymnal was produced for use in both groups.

In 2014, a joint session of RCA and CRCNA synods produced an agreement, which says in part:

as the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America and the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, we declare that the principle that guides us, and the intention that motivates us, is to “act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately”[1]

Today if you visit the RCA’s website and go to the “find a church” page, there is a prominent notice stating “Can’t find a church near you? Try the CRCNA’s church finder” with a link to the find-a-church page on the CRCNA’s website. The CRCNA’s website likewise has a link to the RCA’s church finder.

As of 2016, there were 877 congregations in the RCA, and in 2018 there were 196,000 members.

Let’s take a look at how the RCA lines up on doctrine and practices.

As a mainline church, there is not a focus on a born-again theology like is present in Evangelical churches. As a demonstration of this, the RCA website positively presents the following quote from contemporary Christian singer Rich Mullins:

“You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too…But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”[2]

Another doctrine that separates Evangelical Churches from Mainline ones is the Inerrancy of Scripture. Most churches in the RCA do not hold to this belief. Pastor Neil Margetson of The Sunnyside Reformed Church writes on the RCA website,

Many Christians will tell you that The Bible is inerrant and must be taken – and followed – literally. I cannot agree. For while it sounds right and reasonable, closer study suggests that it is misguided piety. I believe that we are called by Christ to read The Bible – not literally – but compassionately and prophetically.[3]

Though on the whole churches in the RCA believe in a literal hell, there are more ministers and laypersons within the denomination who deny it than you would find in evangelical churches.

The Reformed Church in America accepts three creeds: The Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. They also claim four “standards of Unity”: The Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and the Confession of Belhar. The adoption of the Confession of Belhar provisionally in 2007 and officially in 2010, among other reasons has led to some churches leaving the denomination for more conservative reformed denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America.[4]

Let’s look at the RCA’s stance on social issues. On Abortion, the General synod stated in 1973,

We believe the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life. [We] are given the precious gift of life from God and are created in the image of God. Therefore, we believe, in principle, that abortion ought not to be practiced at all. However, in this complex society, where many times one form of evil is pitted against another form of evil, there could be exceptions. It is our Christian conviction that abortion performed for personal reasons to insure individual convenience ought not to be permitted.[5]

This is still part of the RCA’s position on abortion, and has been discussed as recently as 2005 and affirmed. However, not all clergy in the RCA agree with this. As an example, in 2018 many religious leaders signed an editorial titled “We support woman’s right to an abortion”, including one pastor from the RCA, who, as of the making of this video remains an RCA pastor.

On the topic of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, in 1978 the Commission on Theology produced a paper which the General Synod presented, which included the following:

“Heterosexuality is not only normal; it is normative. Homosexual acts are contrary to the will of God for human sexuality.”

“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.”[6]

In 1979 the following statement among others was made:

The church should acknowledge its sins against the homosexual. Homosexuality is neither to be celebrated nor persecuted. Homophobia must be replaced by a sense of common humanity, the desire to understand, and the determination to put away the sins commonly committed against the homosexual, including stereotyping, caricaturing, and enjoying disparaging humor at the homosexual’s expense.[7]

In 1990 this statement was formally adopted:

the practicing homosexual lifestyle is contrary to scripture, while at the same encouraging love and sensitivity towards such persons as fellow human beings[8]

In the decades since, there has been much debate on the issue. There are churches within the denomination that are fully and publicly affirming of same-sex relationships. Some congregations are performing same-sex marriages, and some homosexual pastors ordained in other denominations now serve as pastors of RCA churches. In 2005, a group of churches formed a nonprofit called “Room for all” to push LGBT acceptance within the RCA. As of 2020, more than 40 churches are affiliated with this group. In 2019, the Room For all Facebook page posted the following:

The RCA, like the United Methodist Church, is actively considering separation, largely over disagreements about LGBTQ affirmation in the church’s life and ministry.[9]

Some more conservative churches have left the RCA due to the lack of response or dismissal of churches from the denomination despite their affirming of LGBT lifestyles.

On the topic of alcohol, a 1990 General synod pronouncement said in part:

Guidelines for responsible use of alcohol are vague, perhaps in the recognition that church members differ in their views on whether abstinence is the best expression of Christian faithfulness. Several emphases are clear, however: Societal portrayals of alcohol use contribute to the negative consequences of alcohol consumption.[10]

The RCA takes no stance on issues that are in the forefront in fundamentalist churches in other denominations such as the rejection of certain types of music or teaching on certain standards of modesty in clothing.

On the issue of Women in Leadership, the RCA admitted women as deacons and elders in 1972 and in 1979 began to ordain women to these offices. The RCA’s book of church order was amended to include the following statement in 1980:

“If individual members of the classis find that their consciences, as illuminated by Scripture, would not permit them to participate in the licensure, ordination or installation of women as ministers of the Word, they shall not be required to participate in decisions or actions contrary to their consciences, but may not obstruct the classis in fulfilling its responsibility to arrange for the care, ordination, and installation of women candidates and ministers by means mutually agreed on by such women and the classis[11]

In 2013 this clause was removed, leading to some churches leaving the RCA.

The RCA is opposed both to Euthanasia and the Death penalty.

On theology, the RCA is, as a reformed denomination, Calvinist as opposed to Arminian. However, in many more liberal churches, the specifics of Calvinism are not taught or upheld.

There are minority groups within the RCA that will look different from what we’ve discussed so far, with some evangelical-type churches present, and some charismatic churches.[12] These are certainly not representative of the denomination as a whole.

The RCA holds to two sacraments, Baptism and the Communion.

The mode of baptism may be immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Infants as well as adults may be baptized. On the effect of baptism, the RCA states,

In baptism God promises by grace alone, to forgive our sins; to adopt us into the Body of Christ, the church; to send the Holy Spirit daily to renew and cleanse us; and to resurrect us to eternal life.[13]

This position contrasts with Evangelical churches, which reject baptism as playing a part in the forgiveness of sins.

The practice and frequency of communion can very within RCA churches, but they do hold to open communion where all baptized individuals are permitted to partake.

On the doctrine of salvation, the RCA is part of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, a multi-denominational group, which 2017 signed an agreement to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This is a statement, also signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, which essentially states that the denominations no longer consider the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant viewpoints to be the cause of division.

The RCA’s website says about the signing of the JDDJ:

the JDDJ describes the agreement between the LWF and the Catholic Church on what was a church dividing issue at the time of the Reformation: justification, or how we are made righteous before God. The Reformers (including Martin Luther and John Calvin) believed that people were saved by grace through faith alone. The Catholic Church maintained that works were also an essential piece of salvation.

In the JDDJ, the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church acknowledge their common ground with regard to the doctrine of justification and affirm “that the remaining differences … are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.” The association agreement signed by the WCRC affirms the JDDJ and identifies distinctive Reformed contributions to the understanding of justification.

“We’ve seen that what brings us together greatly outweighs what keeps us apart,” says Monica Schaap Pierce, ecumenical associate for the RCA.[14]

On the topic of End Times or Eschatology, which is a hot topic in Fundamentalist churches and many Evangelical churches, most in the RCA have very little to say. There is little to no teaching of an imminent rapture, which goes along with a premillennial belief. Premillennialism is rare in the RCA, where millennial views are favored along with some postmillennialism. The RCA is opposed to dispensationalism and Christian Zionism, stating in 2004,

“the ideology of Christian Zionism and the extreme form of dispensationalism that undergirds it to be a distortion of the biblical message noting the impediment it represents to achieving a just peace in Israel/Palestine.[15]

Though there may be some exceptions, in contrast to the prosperity Gospel movement and Word of Faith Movement, churches in the RCA don’t teach a health and wealth message or that positive confessions can alter reality.

The polity of the RCA is Presbyterian, with consistories, classes, regional synods, and a General Synod. The church recognized four offices, minister of Word and sacrament, elder, deacon, and General Synod professor of theology.[16]

The RCA, like many mainline churches, is liturgical and has a fixed use of liturgy. There are rites and approved words that the minister uses. Though you will find churches with all styles of music within the RCA, use of the hymnal and congregational singing are preferred and prominent, and performance music is less prominent.

The RCA, being protestant, doesn’t have iconography or practice prayer to saints or the use of prayer beads. There is no confessional or penance, and the only two sacraments as mentioned are baptism and communion.

The RCA has several ecumenical partners. As stated on their website, The RCA is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and is a founding member of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and Christian Churches Together.

The RCA is in Full Communion with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). This means these denominations may share clergy among other things. This is particularly of note seeing that the UCC and ELCA have more liberal positions on homosexuality and abortion than the RCA does, and so incoming clergy from these denominations tend to push the RCA in a more theologically and socially liberal direction.

[1] Resolution on the Relationship between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (Accessed from http://images.rca.org/docs/synod/Synod2014-JointResolution.pdf on 3/2/2020)

[2] Retrieved from https://rca.org/resources/mission-trips-devotionals/5-sacrificing-kingdom 3/2/2020

[3] “The Seventh Sunday , & ” http://churches.rca.org/sunnysidenyc/the-seventh-sunday.html (Accessed 3/2/2020)

[4] https://glendafayemathes.com/2014/11/11/churches-leaving-the-rca/

[5] https://www.rca.org/abortion

[6] https://www.rca.org/homosexuality

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] https://www.facebook.com/RoomforAllRCA/posts/the-rca-like-the-united-methodist-church-is-actively-considering-separation-larg/2593625157324463/

[10] https://www.rca.org/alcohol

 

[12] https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/june/whatisthereformedchurchinamerica.html

[13] https://www.rca.org/resources/beliefs-about-sacraments

[14] https://www.rca.org/news/wcrc-affirms-joint-declaration-doctrine-justification

[15] https://www.rca.org/christianzionism?pid=3839

[16] https://www.rca.org/resources/introduction-book-church-order

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