Back in the 1990s, and likely earlier, we were convinced to abandon two fundamental Reformed principles: Church Discipline and the Authority of Scripture. Not openly, of course. It was framed as love, compassion, and the desire for peace; a putting aside of differences. But lying on the street (Rev.11:3), was the Word of God. The language of, “a gracious separation” shows that what I am saying is indeed the case. We overlook the vacuum of these two basic elements in order for the RCA to remain faithful to the Reformed Confessions.
A friend sent me a copy of the article by Ron Citlau, The RCA Needs a Miracle: A Reflection On What Is Needed For 200 Churches Not To Leave The RCA published in The Aquila Report. I, too, am a pastor in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and, though not nearly so aware of the tenor of the denomination to be able to say how many churches will consider leaving, I have had experience dealing with this issue. Ron’s article brought back those memories, and struggles.
Ron suggests that, “If the RCA splits, it would be a time of lament.” Many others feel this way. I suppose I do too, but not in exactly the same way, or for the same reason.
My reflection is that we should have been lamenting for the last 25, or more likely, 40 years. If we had, we would not be where we are today. Conversations over the years with other conservative ministers about our situation gives me a bit of acuity to assert that while many RCA ministers who consider themselves “conservative” are attempting to approach this problem, and some solution, it is not hard to be convinced that few realize how far down the road toward liberalism the denomination (we) has actually gone. And, when we get a glimpse of it…we don’t want to go there. The sight of the amount that would need to be repented of can be daunting.
I say this as I reflect on personal experience. About 6 years ago I was appointed as the Convener of an Ad Hoc Committee to study, respond to, and suggest a course of action to, Bible, gender, sexuality: reframing the church’s debate on same-sex relationships, a book by James V. Brownson, a Prof at Western Seminary (RCA). We read the book, and then I (painfully) read it again. Page after page of utter nonsense, rubbish and theological contortions it was (for example, at one point he says, “One cannot help but feel the sense of discovery and exhilaration that pervades Genesis 2:23. After a series of failures to overcome the isolation of the man, “at last” a suitable helper has been found!” p.87. The animals, it seems, were the result of “failures” on God’s part to find Adam a helper!).
Our committee decided not even to debate Brownson in response, for, as we all agreed, “It would take a volume three times as large to adequately respond to his errors.” We decided to briefly demonstrate that he had departed from Biblical Faith, and therefore both he and the Seminary should be disciplined. Our third recommendation was that until this was done, our Classis’ financial support would be withheld. Basically, church discipline was warranted.
Liberals treated our three recommendations as draconian and drastic. Our personal characters and motives were slandered, our work denigrated as shoddy and biased. Sparks flew as we, nevertheless, very successfully defended ourselves and our work. Then, silence. Crickets. Yet here is the kicker; it was only a small handful of classis members had actually opposed what we had put forward. The majority knew we were right, personally/privately told us the work we did was justified, and that we presented an effective solution.
But, when it came to openly confronting the vituperations of the few, the desire for “peace and civility” won out. Our Report was received, and “Tabled” for the next meeting, and for the next, and then next. I had to wonder if the liberals knew this would happen, and intentionally used noise to advantage their meager numbers. Had more than a few of the conservatives been willing to resist and discipline the noise, they would have quickly won.
This is more pervasive than we realize. For example, Ron points out that the RCA is “largely a conservative denomination,” and yet it is they who are seriously asking if, “it’s time to graciously leave the RCA”? There are stories of this happening in battles, the larger convinced to surrender to the smaller. And, eerily, Deut.32:30 says it happens. If his numbers are indeed the case, wouldn’t discipline have stopped this long ago? Why can’t it stop it now? Why relinquish to the minority everything but our churches? This is what I mean by “lacking the stomach” to face this issue.
Embracing hammer and fire
In the end I observed that the spirit of Luther, a desire to be faithful to the Scriptures come what may, split or not, is in general, lacking today. In dozens of ways Calvin was nothing less than a gift from God to the Church. But let’s be reminded that at first he sought a life of quiet study to serve the Church—away from the controversy. Fleeing though Geneva, it was then that God spoke to the young scholar via the redheaded, fire-breathing, William Farel. It shook Calvin out of what may have led to complacency; exasperated at his explanations, Farel finally roared, “May God curse you and your studies, if you do not join me here in the work He has call you to!” It was the Lord’s voice that thundered to Calvin that day, as he himself later admitted.
Now consider this; would we have the Institutes as we do today, written in both the voice of a thinking scholar and passionate fire, of Calvin and Farel, if it were not for that confrontation, and Calvin’s submission to life in the hammer and fire of controversy?
Farel, it was said, “Feared no man.” In our day we don’t often hear those voices. Most of them have already left, and usually with their congregations.
Before the RCA now is a vote, and the most “radical” of the three options to choose from at General Synod this summer is that of a split in the denomination. They call it a “Gracious Separation.” Isn’t that nice? Further, it’s couched in language implying that, “heaven forbid that we make such radical choice, but, if we do, let’s be “gracious” about it. No condemning, no judging.” In other words; “Farel and Calvin are not invited.” Never mind that for years we have been tolerating, all the way up our structure, to the pulpit and the seminary level, those who either openly support and/or practice what is so heinous in God’s sight.
Noah, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Paul, Luther, Farel, Calvin, in fact, all of those we admire in Church history would react to our present situation in ways that are utterly different than we are. We read their books, admire them from afar and call them Champions of the Faith, and of the Reformation. Founders of our denomination! But, if they were alive today, how many RCA churches would take such a “divisive” Pastor? I shudder to think what they would say in reply back to us.
John Owen was called a “Nonconformist” not because of his choice of apparel, but because he refused to compromise, and was open about it. Charles Spurgeon paid a big price in the Downgrade Controversy, but did it anyway. It’s what made him, The Prince of Preachers.
As a pastor, I feel the weight of Paul’s charge to Timothy (6:11-16), and the heart of it about mimicking the Lord’s “testimony” before Pilate.
A Communion Issue
Mark Dever says that when Johnathan Edwards was voted out of his church, “At the very heart of the controversy that led to Edwards’s being fired was church discipline and especially the question of who was to be admitted to the Lord’s Table.” Edwards complained about those who only outwardly conformed to Christian ethics, and had not confessed personal faith.
Further down in Mark’s article he also reminds us of what J.H. Thornwell wrote to a friend in 1846:
Our whole system of operations gives an undue influence to money. Where money is the great want, numbers must be sought; and where an ambition for numbers prevails, doctrinal purity must be sacrificed. The root of the evil is in the secular spirit of all our ecclesiastical institutions. What we want is a spiritual body; a Church whose power lies in the truth, and the presence of the Holy Ghost. To unsecularize the Church should be the unceasing aim of all who are anxious that the ways of Zion should flourish. (How Jonathan Edwards Got Fired, and Why It’s Important for Us Today. This is well worth the read. Emphasis added.)
At the risk of stating the obvious, let us face this question: if Edwards and Thornwell thought their issues were troubling, what would they think of our communion service at General Synod, and who is in communion with you?
Is there not a spirit of peace and security that seeks to over-ride the spirit of truth that characterized those who went before us, and that we admire? James minces no words, “don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). This talk in our denominations about staying together as “brothers and sisters in Christ despite our differences” sounds too much like what James calls “friendship.”
In the RCA there is a lack of understanding of why the liberals have stayed so long, staying in the midst of conflict. They stay to evangelize, and the denominational drift has proven their success. Their few have a lot to gain, and our many a lot to lose. Holding on, while controlling the narrative, has much potential and would be broadly advantageous.
Back in the 1990s, and likely earlier, we were convinced to abandon two fundamental Reformed principles: Church Discipline and the Authority of Scripture. Not openly, of course. It was framed as love, compassion, and the desire for peace; a putting aside of differences. But lying on the street (Rev.11:3), was the Word of God.
The language of, “a gracious separation” shows that what I am saying is indeed the case. We overlook the vacuum of these two basic elements in order for the RCA to remain faithful to the Reformed Confessions. The Belgic Confession (Art.29, 3rd para) calls both of them essential signs of a True Church.
You see, the RCA is not in need of Day Surgery; a less painful, more sufferable option. It needs more than Major Surgery to “fix some issues.” The infection has spread beyond the help of bandages and salve, scalpel and stiches. The whole body is in pain as the Great Commission is neglected. The Doctor laments that at this point only amputation, cutting out what has gone bad, will actually work. This is called; Church Discipline.
Ron suggests that if these 250 conservative churches leave the time to lament has come. Why would we start then? We should have been lamenting for the last 25 years, or more, as our congregations and finances stagnate, and our churches close; this conflict has almost completely kept us from the Great Commission. In fact, if we finally deal with the moral and theological compromise that is surely distancing the majority from the blessing of the Lord Jesus, soon after it will not be time for lamenting, but of rejoicing, for then we can get back to Kingdom work; Post Tenebras Lux. And, if it comes to separation, let us lament about the right thing: that we were complacent.
From my perspective the days of peace are over, not just for the RCA, but for the Reformed Faith around the world. Our enemy is feeling the losses due to evangelism; the True Church is growing exceedingly around the world. We live either in the time of Noah and Jeremiah, or the time of Luther and Calvin, but the calling is the same. Will we be faithful to the Lord, like those we look up to? That is the question.
Charles d’Espeville is a Minister in the Reformed Church in America.