As RCA churches talk about splitting, they do so with grace

Many expected this year’s General Synod of the Reformed Church in America to devolve into incendiary debate — as the most prominent point of contention was the issue of human sexuality — however, according to Rev. Ron Rienstra, Synod featured an “irenic spirit,” as discussion of highly controversial topics was surprisingly subdued. While the denomination fractures over the issue of human sexuality and splinter groups such as the Alliance of Reformed Churches continue to take shape, the RCA Synod boasted calm conversation between opposing perspectives.

Although the ARC has suggested that many churches will be leaving the RCA to join the new association, it is too soon to know just how many churches will leave. And as many point out, each church will need 75 percent of their consistory to vote in favor of leaving the denomination to start the process.

Rienstra, professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary, succinctly described the current landscape of the RCA: “The denomination is fracturing, and it’s fracturing along fault lines that were established decades if not centuries ago,” Rienstra said. “Although the presenting occasion is human sexuality, the underlying issue is, theologically speaking, biblical hermeneutics.”

My work has been so focused on unity that the divisions have been very profound for me theologically and personally. It’s very sad to see my denomination splitting.

General Synod took place from Oct. 15-18 and saw relatively peaceful discussion of three main proposals: one that allowed for a grace-filled departure for churches who no longer felt at home in the RCA, a second that would explore the creation of affinity-based classes as opposed to the standard geographically-based classes and a third that would make RCA missions into an independent entity apart from the denomination, the latter of which failed to pass. Although the meeting set forth a path for churches to leave the denomination, after two weeks few Grand Rapids churches have filed official requests to leave.

Religion professor Monica Pierce has been teaching part-time at Calvin for three years while working for the RCA as its ecumenical associate, facilitating relationships within the denomination. Now, apart from teaching at Calvin, Pierce is also the interim executive director of Christian Churches Together — a national ecumenical organization. Pierce grew up in the RCA, attended RCA universities and seminaries and worked for the RCA. She is deeply committed to the denomination and focuses on issues surrounding church unity.

“My work has been so focused on unity that the divisions have been very profound for me theologically and personally. It’s very sad to see my denomination splitting,” Pierce said.

For Pierce, the division of the church is a personal matter. “I think it grieves the heart of God that we already have over 40,000 denominations in the world and even more are forming out of this division in the RCA,” Pierce said.

Pierce’s husband, Rev. Steve Pierce, is senior minister at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

As the oldest RCA church in Grand Rapids, formed in 1918 when First and Second Reformed merged, Central is firmly dedicated to the RCA. First Reformed was founded in 1840, 10 years before Grand Rapids was incorporated as a city, and Second in 1854. Steve Pierce is in his fifth year at Central.

He noted that with divisive topics like human sexuality, the church’s long history encourages his congregation to hold firm and work through difficult conversations.

“We have been a church traditionally that has held the middle ground,” Steve Pierce said. “We have had people leave in the past because of not being liberal enough or being too conservative. If that’s the case then we’re probably doing something right.”

Their focus is ultimately not on themselves. “The center for us has always been Christ,” Steve Pierce said. “He has always been, will always be, enough to keep Central together.”

For Central Reformed, there’s no talk of leaving the RCA.

“We are 100 percent committed to the Reformed Church in America. There is no conversation happening in our church, in any of our circles, about leaving. There’s no one here that would leave,” said Steve Pierce.

Rev. Eric Barnes co-pastors Second Reformed Church alongside his wife, Miriam Barnes, in Zeeland. They came to the church as associate pastors seven years ago and have been serving as co-pastors for the last three years. Like Steve Pierce, Barnes affirmed that his church has no intentions of leaving the RCA.

“Our church is committed to the RCA. Without a doubt,” he said.

However, Second Reformed is a black sheep among the Zeeland classis, one of the most conservative in the area, according to Barnes.

“We had a classis meeting and two churches in our classis so far have filed petitions to leave,” Barnes said. “My sense is there’s potential that half of Zeeland classis leaves in the next year.”

This small number of current petitioners — and similar numbers he’s heard from churches in other classes — make him skeptical of the ARC’s claims.

“The ARC in particular has been touting that they’re bringing in all of these folks. As I heard at Synod from various people, they have been inflating their numbers,” Barnes said. “We don’t quite know how many are going to leave.”

Rev. Dave Zomer, minister of Bethany Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, falls in line with Steve Pierce and Barnes. Zomer doesn’t see his congregation petitioning to leave, either, and has not witnessed a groundswell of churches leaving his classis.

Bethany Reformed is a 105-year-old church deeply rooted in the RCA. The congregation, like Central Reformed and Second Reformed, is largely moderate and isn’t looking to leave the denomination.

While local RCA churches watch to see who will stay and who will go, local CRC churches are getting a sense of what their denomination may look like in a few years.

“We have a good 50-50 — 50 conservative, 50 liberal. I don’t think we could ever get 75 percent one direction or another,” Zomer said.

But Zomer isn’t worried about the other churches in the Southwest Michigan classis leaving the RCA, either. 

“In our classis there are no official requests to leave at this point,” Zomer said. “There’s maybe a dozen churches that say they’re going to leave, but they’ve been saying that for three years.”

Zomer estimated that perhaps six to 10 of the 25 churches in his classis are considering leaving the RCA. However, Zomer is on the subcommittee that deals with the legal filing of requests to leave and not one official request has come through. He wouldn’t be too shaken if a few requests did appear, however.

“If you’re left with 15 churches, life goes on,” Zomer said.

While local RCA churches watch to see who will stay and who will go, local CRC churches are getting a sense of what their denomination may look like in a few years.

“The CRC will be looking at more permanent divisions in the future as well,” Monica Pierce told Chimes.

But her warning for the CRC is not without hope. Even though the RCA is splitting, they’re doing so amicably, something Barnes and Zomer, who both attended Synod, were pleased to see. 

“Even in intense moments there was graciousness,” Barnes said. “In the current political and world and church climate, to have a meeting where people weren’t verbally assaulting those they disagreed with was pretty amazing.” 

“People still had opinions but the sharpness had gone away,” Zomer said. “The vast majority of people were kind and considerate — that surprised me in a very pleasant way.” 

For Monica Pierce, who grieves the fracture of the denomination, this peaceful end to the conflict has been a source of hope.

“It gets better. There’s hope after all of the disagreement and pain,” she said. “This general synod and the unexpected spirit of peace that we saw there is a foreshadowing of the brighter days ahead for the RCA.”