HOLLAND, Mich. — As the Reformed Church in America grapples with conflict over how to deal with the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion, congregations in the nation’s oldest Protestant denomination are facing a choice: stay or go.
After the denomination cleared the way for churches to amicably part with the RCA at their annual meeting in Arizona, churches around the country are voting on potentially leaving for another denomination altogether.
The topic of LGBTQ inclusion has been a flash point in the RCA for decades and is now coming to a head. Points of contention include questions over whether LGBTQ weddings can be held in Reformed churches, whether Reformed pastors can officiate LGBTQ weddings, and whether or not LGBTQ individuals can be ordained in the church. The church’s stance on sexuality had varied over the decades.
But while many churches that have held votes to leave are seeing overwhelming support — like the Fellowship Reformed Church congregation in Hudsonville voting 604 to 9 to leave — some RCA church leaders see that as more the exception than the rule.
“We don’t have a rush for the exits,” said Dan Griswold, who leads the Holland classis of 19 RCA-affiliated churches. He said none of the churches in the Holland classis have indicated they will leave the denomination, although he acknowledged that could always change.
“Some very conservative people are sad about the conflict in the RCA and the departure of some of their friends from the RCA,” continued Griswold. “I think that not as many churches who said they’re going to leave are going to leave.”
Denominational fractures aren’t unique to the Reformed Church. 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.
“Splits happen and we are kind of waiting to see how large this split is going to be. We don’t know yet,” said David Komline, an associate professor of church history at the Western Theological Seminary in Holland. “If it’s a really big split, that’s pretty rare. Those don’t happen very often.”
Komline says historically, denominations typically lose around 10%–20% of congregations when schisms arise.
Dan Ackerman, director of spiritual leadership for the newly formed Alliance of Reformed Churches, told FOX 17 that 45 churches have already indicated they will leave the RCA for the ARC. Griswold says others may choose to join the Covenant Church – Presbyterian Church in America.
Christina Tazelaar, a spokesperson with the RCA, told FOX 17 the RCA currently has 977 churches and 186,000 members.
Tazelaar 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 and transforming.'”
“It feels like we’re finally coming to the end of a conversation in a way,” said Cameron Van Kooten Laughead, executive director with Room For All, a nonprofit that works to advance the acceptance of LGBTQ people in the Reformed Church. “Our stated goal from the beginning has never been this universal capitulation. All we’ve ever wanted is for any LGBTQIA person to have a church that they can go to that will affirm and celebrate them.”
“There seems to be this conflict between understanding the image of God and the affirmation of God in queer identities as being a distraction to mission in some way, and that gets really disappointing,” Van Kooten Laughead continued. “I find it sad that this is a moment where there are some congregations that are saying, ‘No, we can’t live with you,’ so that’s kind of a bummer.”
Despite some overwhelming votes to leave the RCA, Griswold says classis leaders still need to approve the split. Exiting churches can retain control of their churches and church property even if they go.