Rev. Langerak is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Divided by a Common Heritage: The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America at the Beginning of the New Millennium, by Corwin Smidt, Donald Luidens, James Penning, and Roger Nemeth. Eerdmans (2006). Paper. ISBN: 978-0802803856. Reviewed by Prof. David J. Engelsma.
The intelligentsia in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) desire the reunion of the two denominations. Work goes on, mostly quietly and behind the scenes, to achieve the merger. The issues that occasioned the split in 1857 have long since ceased to matter, as the CRC has largely adopted RCA ways: hymn-singing, choirs, open communion, neglect of Heidelberg Catechism preaching, and practical rejection of the doctrine of predestination as confessed in the Canons of Dordt, in favor of the Arminian decisionism (“the well-meant offer of the gospel”) of popular American evangelism. Regarding this last, it is of interest, if not of some significance, that one survey conducted by the authors showed that “while a bare majority of CRC ministers (51 percent) report the Canons of Dordt to be of importance, less than one-third of RCA respondents (30 percent) do so” (p. 79). Only 34% of the laity in the RCA have even heard of the Canons of Dordt (p. 78). Whether the CRC would still regard membership in the Masonic Lodge, approved by the RCA and widespread among the members of this denomination, as an obstacle to reunion is a question.
Four professors in the colleges of the RCA and CRC, two in Hope College in Holland, Michigan and two in Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, explore the possibility of the reunion of their denominations. The authors are political scientists and sociologists. Their study is political and sociological. By means of surveys, they determine the current thinking in the two churches regarding doctrines, practices, secular politics, congregational life, and current issues.
Hot topics among current issues are women in church office and homosexuality. One of the informative surveys reveals that 60% of CRC ministers approve the ordination of women ministers, regardless of the apostle’s prohibition, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man” (I Tim. 2:12). In the RCA, 82% of the ministers approve women ministers. (In fact, 100% of the clergy in both denominations approve women in all the church offices: all are corporately responsible for the decisions of their churches’ synods, and the resulting practices throughout the denominations.)
Another survey shows that 34% of the members of the CRC, and 51% of the members of the RCA, approve membership in the church of practicing homosexuals. Although this was not the purpose of the survey, and certainly is not the conclusion the authors draw from it, in fact this survey fairly screams the appalling apostasy of both denominations. More than one third of the one, and over half the other denomination, approve the practice that the apostle judges “vile affections,” the behavior of a “reprobate mind,” and due ultimately to the “wrath of God…revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18ff.). By responding to a survey, all of these members of Reformed, Christian churches are bold to express their “pleasure in them that do such things” (Rom. 1:32).
The conclusion of the authors is that, although merger would be an appealing marriage of convenience, if not of desperation, as both churches continually lose members, reunion would be difficult and costly. The difficulties would be practical: loss of still more members; meshing organizations and agencies; merging congregations in the same locale; and keeping the peace between those in the CRC who still support Christian schools and the membership of the RCA, which opposes Christian schools.
Ignored in this political and sociological treatment of the reunion of two Reformed denominations is the spiritual dimension. Church unity is intensely spiritual and, therefore, doctrinal. The manifestation institutionally of the oneness of Christ’s body is a solemn calling from Jesus Christ, the church’s head. It is realized by the Spirit of Christ, who operates by the preaching and confessing of sound doctrine (the gospel of the Canons of Dordt!), effecting one godly life of obedience to the law of God. The Spirit does not create church unity by surveys, graphs, and shrewd, often anxious, calculations weighing the earthly advantages against the carnal disadvantages of unity.
The uninvolved but interested observer of the nervous mating dance of the RCA and CRC closes this book convinced that there is no reason why the two churches should not marry. Nothing doctrinal divides them. The authors themselves frankly acknowledge this.
Many RCA and CRC congregations have moved toward a more free-flowing approach to worship and ecclesiology as their institutional salvation. They have, in fact, de-emphasized the creeds and confessions of the Reformed tradition and joined the larger evangelical flow, adopting worship cadences and proclamation techniques that resound throughout contemporary Protestantism. In fact, so powerful has been this pull that one could posit that the adoption of this form of popular evangelicalism is doing more to undermine the rich confessional legacy of Reformed Christianity than all of the so-called “secularization” forces of modernity. Still, within both denominations there has been a driving force to eschew things that are seen as the most encumbering (sic!) elements of the Reformed legacy in favor of the expediency of contemporary, popular appeal (p. 184).
But the marriage, if it is consummated, will not be “made in heaven.” Church marriages, like personal ones, must be in the Lord.