CRC and RCA: The Fundamental Differences

When Christ prayed that his church would achieve “unity” (John 17:23) I do not believe he necessarily meant institutional unity. True unity between churches such as the CRC and RCA will be accomplished by cooperation and collaboration on the local level among individual congregations.

On April 8, 1857, letters from four churches were read at a meeting of Classis Holland in Michigan. The churches explained that they could no longer belong to a denomination with a fundamentally different mindset. Those four congregations formed what would become the Christian Reformed Church, and contrary to popular belief that different mindset still exists today.

Many would look at the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and see only similarities. Frank Roberts in his article, “Obstacles to Reformed church union can be overcome,” described this blurring of the boundaries:

“We share the same confessional standards, we work closely together in our publishing efforts. In a couple of years we will share a common hymnal, and we already have congregations that are jointly supported by both denominations.”

Moreover, some would correctly point out that the official reasons for separating in 1857 are no longer applicable today: The CRC objected that the RCA sung man-made hymns instead of just Psalms, were spotty on preaching the catechism, allowed non-Reformed people to share in the Lord’s Supper, and permitted membership in the Masonic lodge.

On paper it is true that the CRC and RCA have little that divides them anymore. Less known, however, is that the two denominations emerged from two distinct legacies. To this day the two administrations reveal fundamental differences in roots, character, and priorities. To be sure, neighboring CRC and RCA congregations can certainly find much in common. Members of both churches will frequently see no difference at all in worship or beliefs. Taken as a whole, however, the CRC and RCA are two very different institutions. As a CRC pastor trained at an RCA seminary, I have had many experiences that reveal deep and usually unnoticed differences between the two denominations.

Different Roots. The RCA is built on a long tradition that values unity, whereas the CRC is built on a long tradition that values doctrinal purity. Before the large Dutch immigration of the mid 1800s, the Netherlands was rocked by a split in the government-sponsored Reformed Church. In 1834, many ministers and congregations left the state church because it taught the popular enlightenment principles of reason and individualism instead of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

Elton Bruins & Robert Swierenga’s book, Family Quarrels, details the causes and developments of the 1834 secession. Among the dissenters there developed two schools of thought that would form the basis for the diverging viewpoints in 1857. A “northern right” party, primarily from the northern Dutch provinces, wanted a full return to the beliefs and practices of the Synod of Dordt. The “southern center” party, primarily from the southern provinces, was more inclusive in spirit and did not relish leaving the mother church like the northerners.

Once in America, the “northern right” school of thought found fault with the RCA. The “southern center” immigrants did all they could to promote togetherness and smooth over the “northern right” differences with the RCA, but the 1834 schools of thought were too entrenched. One of the 1857 letters put it this way: “What grieves our hearts the most in all this is that there are members among you who regard our [1834] secession in the Netherlands as not strictly necessary.” The emergence of the CRC proved inevitable. They were of different minds.

Different Role of Confessions. The CRC and RCA are both confessional churches. Confessional churches have their identity defined by historical creeds and confessions, as opposed to most other churches that are oriented toward an individual experience of conversion. To this day the CRC and RCA hold to the same confessional standards but their role in each denomination is fundamentally different.

The RCA views the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort as historical documents, outlining doctrinal touchpoints that identify roots. As landmarks of the past, confessional statements in the RCA clarify “where we were.”

By contrast, the CRC views the confessions as current documents, outlining doctrines that are upheld to this day. The CRC makes work of footnoting or bracketing portions of the confessions that are judged to be out of line with Scripture. In the CRC, the confessions are kept up to date. In the RCA, the confessions are never updated because, as a note in the proposal for a joint translation of the confessions says, “the confession was written within a historical context which may not accurately describe the situation that pertains today.”

The exposure and importance placed on the confessions is vastly different. While at Western Theological Seminary of the RCA, I remember studying the Heidelberg Catechism on two separate occasions over the three years I spent there. The Belgic Confession I remember consulting once, and the Canons of Dort not even once.

When I spent one quarter at Calvin Theological Seminary of the CRC to complete the CRC minister requirements, I had to look at all three confessions frequently. I was required to take an entire class on using the Heidelberg Catechism in preaching. This different emphasis on the confessions extends throughout both denominations.

Divided by a Common Heritage, a book detailing the similarities and differences between the CRC and RCA, notes that many RCA laity have never even heard of the confessions. While 89% of CRC laity have “heard of” the Canons of Dort, only 34% of RCA laity had heard of them. The two confessional churches definitely understand and utilize the confessions differently.

Different Associations. The CRC and RCA hang out in different groups of churches with different priorities and agendas. The RCA belongs to the National Council of Churches (NCC), a who’s who of the most liberal churches in the United States. All four major denominations that officially ordain practicing homosexuals into the ministry belong to this organization. The goals and priorities of NCC churches concern social policy and match those of the political left; such as expanding the powers of the United Nations, pushing for affirmative action, raising the minimum wage, universal health care, and abolishing the death penalty.

The CRC does not belong to the NCC but belongs to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a group that emerged as an alternative to the NCC. The NAE works for spreading the gospel of the Christian faith as well as provide world relief. Their motto is, “Cooperation without compromise.” NAE member churches have consistently stood for infallible inspiration of Scripture and held traditional positions on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Since the CRC and RCA hang out in different circles, they are shaped by different contexts and move in different directions.

I remember attending Calvin Seminary (CRC) and noticing a distinctly different atmosphere than that of Western Seminary (RCA). Calvin’s teaching had a classical character that valued theological tradition. The theological hero at Calvin was generally John Calvin, whereas the hero at Western was easily Karl Barth. Western’s teaching had a neo-orthodox style that would often be linked to the oppression of women, minorities, and the poor.

Early on at Calvin I was sitting with a theology professor and asked, “Calvin or Barth?” I got a somewhat surprised look and a quick reply of, “Calvin.” At Calvin Seminary I could use the NIV Bible in papers without being penalized, and I could say the word “mankind” without getting dirty looks. Believing that the Bible reserves the office of elder and minister for men was considered a valid position at Calvin. The handful of times I revealed this view at Western felt like “coming out of the closet.” Usually laughter or wide-eyed looks would be the response, and the view was generally tolerated. But it also brought passing derogatory comments and even ended some friendships. These personal experiences reveal two denominations that are in different pools of influence.

Different Priorities. The RCA’s priority on unity has led them in directions contrary to the CRC’s priority on purity. In 1998, the RCA entered into a “full communion” Agreement with three other denominations that are much more liberal on doctrine and morality. As a result, the RCA denomination officially recognizes that “the gospel is rightly preached” in churches like the United Church of Christ, which has supported abortion and ordained practicing homosexuals for the past 40 years. The Agreement also includes the free exchange of ministers, but now the RCA is the only denomination within the Agreement that does not ordain practicing homosexuals as pastors.

Even though the RCA’s official positions on abortion and homosexuality are similar to those of the CRC, the priority of unity has led the RCA into partnerships with churches that have different stances on these issues.

Many more differences could be covered here. The CRC promotes and funds Christian day schools, whereas the RCA largely utilizes public schools. Women in ministry presents another field of differences. The CRC has some pockets where women are in ministry leadership roles, but the CRC opened the door to women in ministry offices much more recently than the RCA, where women can be found pastoring in virtually all classes. Many CRC congregations still believe the Bible does not support women in leadership offices and so pushing for merger will stir up those differences.

Not only differences but even similarities will present challenges of merging. Unlike the 1980s merger of the north and south Presbyterian Churches, the CRC and RCA congregations are often in close proximity and serving the same locations, making a merger awkward and impractical. Most of the two denominations’ colleges and seminaries are located almost on top of one another in western Michigan and northwest Iowa. More than anything else, the biggest problem with merging the CRC and RCA would be the number of split-offs that would occur as a result.

Consequences of merging. If the CRC and RCA were to merge, the initial high of reuniting two churches would be overshadowed by increasing factions, splits and decline. The CRC and RCA each have their own internal factions on both of the ideological poles already. RCA Integrity is one group on the conservative end, clearly standing for traditional values, including traditional marriage and keeping the pulpit free from those who practice otherwise. On the other side is Room For All, an RCA organization fighting for full inclusion of gays and lesbians without the constraints of celibacy placed on them.

In June 2012, the CRC will be having the final and deciding vote on the Belhar Confession, a document that has invigorated proponents and opponents alike. Judging by the rhetoric used in the Belhar debate, it has grown into a dealbreaking issue. Opponents are declaring that if the Belhar is officially adopted as a fourth confession they will not be able to sign the CRC’s Form of Subscription, which all officebearers sign to declare agreement with the three Reformed Confessions.

Proponents have developed a devotional and study guide on the Belhar titled, “From the Heart of God,” suggesting how much conviction its supporters have. Both denominations already have conflicting groups within that are diametrically opposed to one another on where the church should go next. Throwing a merger into this mix would only make the situation more divisive.

Church history shows that merging denominations only create more denominations. Every time denominations have merged under the banner of “unity,” there have been just as many new denominations created by those who believe too much is being compromised.

When the northern and southern Presbyterian Churches merged in the early 1980s to form the Presbyterian Church USA, two more denominations emerged from the talks of merger: The Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church were formed by those Presbyterians who opposed compromises they saw taking place for the sake of sharing the same name.

In 1968, when the United Methodist Church was formed by a merger, two more denominations were created. The Association of Independent Methodists and The Evangelical Church were formed by disagreeing members of the merging denominations because certain principles were being compromised.

The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches was formed in opposition to the merger that created the United Church of Christ in 1968. In opposition to the 1988 merger into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Association of Lutheran Churches and the Conservative Lutheran Association were formed. The merger into the Wesleyan Church actually spawned three new denominations: The Bible Methodist Connection of Churches, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, and the Pilgrim Holiness Church of New York. If unity is the goal than merging the CRC and RCA is not the way to go.

Survival is sometimes used as an argument for merging churches. But history has shown that merging is ineffective for survival. Mergers create denominations that decline. The Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are all the result of mergers and all are known for their persistent decline in membership. Many have declined every year since they began and some are currently half the membership of that when they started. If survival is the goal then merging would not be a smart move.

When Christ prayed that his church would achieve “unity” (John 17:23) I do not believe he necessarily meant institutional unity. True unity between churches such as the CRC and RCA will be accomplished by cooperation and collaboration on the local level among individual congregations.

The CRC congregation I serve, North Blendon Christian Reformed Church, is literally next door to North Blendon Reformed Church. We have a long history of good will and cooperation. Even our oldest members have no memories of ill will towards one another. We share some worship services and do joint outreach projects together. By working with the church next door I have learned that unity can be achieved without compromising our distinctive identities or watering down our individual strengths.

When someone asks why we do not join together to be one congregation, I usually answer, “For the same reason I don’t live in the same house as my cousins.” I like my cousins. We belong to the same family. We share similar backgrounds and in some cases have the same last name. I do not need to live under the same roof as my cousins to belong to the same family or enjoy their company. In the same way, North Blendon CRC does not need to share the same building as North Blendon RCA to achieve unity.

Jesus prayed that his church would be “one” (John 17:21). But Jesus did not mean one headquarters or one establishment any more than he meant one language or one race. Jesus meant one in objective and purpose, serving one God and preaching one message of salvation. Institutional merging is not how the CRC and RCA can follow this call of Christ. Individual members and congregations collaborating on efforts to spread the gospel message or show the love of Christ is the way to form a unified testimony so that the world will see that Jesus Christ is truly from God in heaven.

Special thanks to my friend Rev. Nate Meldrim of North Blendon Reformed Church for his help in producing this article.

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is the Pastor of the North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. He reported on the CRC Synod for The Aquila Report