When the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) met from June 20-25 at Central College in Pella, IA, it practically reversed last year’s decision on homosexuality, removed conscience clauses regarding women’s ordination, and instituted a requirement for churches to be shaped by the Belhar Confession. It adopted a missional strategic goal program and moved closer to the CRC.
Last year’s General Synod adopted a resolution calling advocacy of homosexual behavior or performing same-sex marriage a “disciplinable offense.” This year’s Synod pulled that decision’s teeth by stating it had been done with “a lack of decorum and civility” in an atmosphere in which delegates did not treat one another “as sisters and brothers in Christ” and declaring that it “usurped the constitutional authority” of classes.
Related decisions were adopted, primarily promoting further discussion on the matter. But a recommendation calling for more direction and accountability as well as permitting churches and ministers to leave the RCA “without recriminations such as forfeiture of property” was defeated.
Synod officially ratified removing from the Book of Church Order the conscience clauses regarding the ordination of women, which had been adopted in 1980. Last year’s General Synod voted to remove these statements permitting conscientious objection to the ordination of women. Two-thirds of RCA classes have since approved that action (31 in favor, 14 voting to retain the clauses). The term “complementarians” is often used within the RCA to refer to those who cannot in good conscience agree with women serving in church office. This decision will make serving in the RCA even more difficult for complementarians.
In 2013, the RCA adopted a fourth confessional standard, the Belhar Confession. Every year consistories must respond to standard questions regarding the life and faith of their church. The 2013 General Synod added to that annual review this question: “How have the Belhar Confession and its principles of unity, reconciliation, and justice shaped your congregational life and witness?”
Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, MI, blogs at “DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed” on the Gospel Coalition website. He notes there are “no specific requirements for congregations teaching or being shaped by the Belgic Confession or Canons of Dort” and that the only previous question regarding confessional standards has been “a line” about teaching points of doctrine in the Heidelberg Catechism.
DeYoung writes, “Already, ministers making ordination or installation vows must consider whether they can subscribe to Belhar in good conscience. Now congregations are being asked to make this new confession an important part of their identity. How can one be committed to a confessional denomination when it adds a confession you didn’t vote for?”
Ben Kappers, pastor of First Reformed Church (RCA) in Lansing, IL, blogs at “An Uncommon Grace.” He writes, “I have no problem with confessional integrity and confessional consistency, but I’d like to know how our congregations and seminaries are being shaped by the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well.” He adds, “I suppose my wondering has at its root the question of why we felt the need to add accountability in regards to the fourth confession when it seems most of us don’t really take the first three all that seriously.”
General Synod overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strategic goal program that calls churches to focus for the next 15 years on “Transformed and Transforming: Radically Following Christ in Mission Together.” The document lists three primary strategies: cultivating transformation in Christ, equipping emerging leaders of today and tomorrow, and engaging in Christ’s kingdom mission.
“For good or bad, the RCA is fully committed to a missional agenda,” writes Kevin DeYoung. “This is good in that we are trying to plant churches, be active in the world, and look outside ourselves. This emphasis is also troubling at times because the view of the mission of the church is overly expansive (e.g., lowering unemployment), the theology of the kingdom is not very careful, and the strategic goals are so broad as to have room for a multitude of interpretations and applications.”
The RCA moved ever closer to the CRC, appointing representatives to a committee tasked with developing a joint statement of ecumenical understanding and commitment, signing a cooperative agreement with World Renew (formerly CRWRC), laying groundwork for a joint leadership team, and affirming a process to merge the two denominations’ insurance plans. Both Synods will meet during the same time frame at Pella, IA, in 2014, even holding some sessions jointly.
General Synod spent considerable time discussing the issue of “White Privilege” and adopted a recommendation to develop an online resource for discussing, understanding, and dismantling it.
A “Statement on Immigration Reform” will be posted on the RCA website. Congregations are encouraged to write letters and promote “Dream Act” legislation at state and federal levels.
Additional resources and guidelines are being developed regarding children at the Lord’s Table.
According to Ben Kappers, the number of confessing members in classes varies widely, from fewer than 1,000 in some east coast classes to more than 10,000 in Classis Zeeland. Classis Zeeland overtured Synod to change its composition to more accurately reflect the size of other classes. In response, Synod appointed a committee to study the matter and report to the General Synod in 2014.
“Even if the commission…recommends these changes (which they almost certainly will not do) they will not pass,” writes Kappers. “To pass a change to the Book of Church Order requires ratification by 2/3 of the classes. The problem with this is that over 1/3 of the classes lean considerably towards the theological ‘left’. This 2/3 ratification is the immovable object which threatens to impede any and all reform in the RCA. Ratification of an amendment like this one simply will not happen.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 12 & 13 of the July 31/August 21, 2013, issue of Christian Renewal.