HUDSONVILLE, Mich. — A decades-old dispute is coming to a head in the Reformed Church in America.
Impasses over certain ideologies and interpretations of the Bible are causing congregations to leave the denomination in droves. At the center: disagreements over policy and LGBTQ inclusion.
During the RCA’s General Synod in Tuscon, Arizona — a meeting at which major decisions are made — a plan was unveiled to allow certain congregations to leave the denomination to form their own splinter groups.
It’s been a long time coming for many of them. In 2018, at the behest of many congregations and members, the RCA set in motion an exit plan of sorts that was finalized and presented during a delayed 2021 synod. The Vision 2020 Plan lays out guidelines for churches that want to leave to do so amicably, retaining church property and accepting liabilities on that property.
At the core of the schism are issues over LGBTQ acceptance — whether RCA churches can host LGBTQ weddings, whether RCA ministers can officiate those weddings, and whether LGBTQ members can ascend to church leadership. Likewise, many congregations felt they didn’t have enough say over ordination and even discipline within their own church walls.
Christina Tazelaar, a spokesperson with the RCA, told FOX17 the issues were based in “differences of opinion about biblical interpretation, polity, and human sexuality, and lack of alignment around the RCA's strategic goal of Transformed & Transforming.”
For one of the oldest denominations in the country with a historically Dutch background, it’s been a long time coming.
“What we’re seeing is what I think is a redefinition of churches who hang together and why they hang together,” said Dan Ackerman, a West Michigan man who helped form the Alliance of Reformed Churches with other former members of the RCA and now serves as their director of spiritual leadership. “It would be better for both of us if we launched out into new territory with people who are like us, who have the theology we hold to.”
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The ARC is one of — and perhaps one of the largest — conservative factions to break from the RCA this year. Ackerman says this past weekend, 30 churches in North and South Dakota were released from the RCA and that five churches in Wisconsin and Iowa each are set to do the same very soon. He suspects that more will follow.
Even here in Michigan, the congregation at Fellowship Reformed Church in Hudsonville voted this past weekend 604–9 to leave the RCA and join the ARC.
“We continue to see this inability to agree upon what the word of God says, and so most of our time is spent debating, disagreeing, arguing at times,” said Rev. Shawn Hulst, pastor at Fellowship in Hudsonville, “and it really stalls the church in her mission and in her purpose of reaching folks with the gospel.”
Ackerman says to his knowledge, most congregation votes have been overwhelming in favor of leaving, averaging 95% in favor of exiting the RCA. In the past, the RCA has expressed a range of stances on LGBTQ issues.
According to an RCA spokesperson, the denomination currently has 977 established churches and 186,000 members.
Despite a relatively amicable process for leaving the RCA, votes still must be approved by local classis, a governing body of elders and church leaders that oversee regions of churches. Reverend Hulst says he doesn’t expect any issues with leaving.
“They have tended towards theological diversity,” said Ackerman of the RCA. “And saying the more diverse their theology is the better they feel their mission goes. We think the more theologically aligned, for people that’s how you see God, how you see salvation, how you see Jesus, the better our mission goes.”
“I think it says the state of religion right now mirrors the state of society; people are having to define where they are, where they think those boundaries are for themselves,” said Ackerman. “It doesn’t mean we’re mean to people; it doesn’t mean we don’t care about them; it doesn’t mean we’re not compassionate.”
The RCA isn’t the only denomination seeing ideological impasses. Last year a group of Methodist bishops laid out a similar separation plan over many of the same disagreements. Their proposal would preserve the United Methodist Church while allowing “traditional-minded congregations” to form a new denomination. Those separations were supposed to be finalized at the church’s general conference in 2020, but the pandemic delayed that event twice. It’s now scheduled for late summer 2022.
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