Observing what is going on around us in the church world can often be a very depressing exercise. Usually what “makes the news” is the kind of event that gives evidence of appalling apostasy in the church. Therefore, we often take note of the worst events that are taking place in denominations and churches around us.
Certainly much could be written about the terrible apostasy taking place in the denomination we give attention to in this article, the Reformed Church in America (RCA). In this article, however, attention will be given to a movement called RCA Integrity, which seems to represent the best of what is going on in the RCA. RCA Integrity is a conservative movement that began with a desire to “promote biblical truth and grace”1 in the RCA, and seems to be the best hope for a reformation in the denomination, leading to a return to biblical and confessional orthodoxy.
RCA Integrity’s Organization
RCA Integrity is a very organized movement. In 2006 a group of RCA pastors appointed a steering committee. In 2007 the steering committee wrote and adopted a “Covenant for Integrity” and a document setting forth its “Foundational Principles,” which “officially launched RCA Integrity.” An executive committee was then appointed to carry out the work of the organization.2
The Preamble of the Foundational Principles explains that “RCA Integrity is an association of assemblies, churches, ministers, and members of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) committed to the Purpose, Covenant, and Membership Guidelines of the Association. RCA Integrity is a self-governing association which is neither affiliated with nor sanctioned by the Reformed Church in America.”3 The organization’s website (http:www.rcaintegrity.org) lists 12 churches and about 200 individuals who have become members.
The main commitment members make is to “[a]ffirm the Covenant for Integrity in the RCA and agree to teach and promote what is consistent with it (quoted from the ‘Foundational Principles’ document).” Because of the importance of this Covenant for the movement, it is quoted in full below:Preamble
This Covenant was written in hope and humility—in hope that God will protect the Reformed Church in America from moral and theological error; and in humility, asking God to continue the much needed work of sanctification in our own lives. For the holiness and happiness of God’s people, we write to define and defend the marvelous truth about grace and the full graciousness of truth. This Covenant is not meant to replace the Bible or our Confessions. At times in the life of the church, however, it becomes necessary to clarify doctrinal boundaries and re-establish cherished truths in order to preserve and strengthen the foundation. This Covenant was written for such a time as this.
Our commitment to Christ and His Word compels us to affirm….
Article 1: The Glory of God
God’s chief purpose in all that He wills, thinks, and does is the glory of His name. Moreover, every person, indeed all creation, exists for this same purpose: to glorify God. God is sovereign, such that there is nothing unseen, unknown, or undetermined by God in all of creation, time, or eternity.
Article 2: The Authority of Scripture
The Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments is the ultimate authority, without error in all that it intendsto teach, and altogether sufficient for Christian faith and practice. The Bible reveals universal truths which are true for all people at all times and can be known with certainty and clarity. The authority of Scripture should not be made subject to or equal with other writings or human experience. As divine revelation, Scripture accurately describes who God is and how He wishes to be addressed, including the trinitarian language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Article 3: The Gospel of God
Humanity’s greatest need is to be reconciled with God. The gospel is compromised when the grace and love of Christ are expressed without the ultimate objective of calling sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. The appropriate response to sin is one that believes in the power of God to change lives, hopes in the mercy of God to forgive sins, and loves enough to call sinners to confession and transformation. God is inclusive in that He calls all to come to Him in faith and repentance. God is exclusive in that only those who believe in Jesus Christ and seek to keep His commands can be assured of salvation. The gospel is the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and should not be equated with or reduced to mere good deeds, humanitarian relief, or societal reform.
Article 4: The Uniqueness of Christ
Jesus Christ is unique among the so-called gods of this world. Only in Jesus can we have salvation, fellowship, and a true understanding of God. Jesus Christ died on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for sins, and in so doing absorbed God’s wrath and eternal judgment upon our sin. We are counted righteous before God based on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. No one will be saved apart from the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Salvation is received through personal hearing of and conscious believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The unrepentant and unbelieving will not be saved, either in this life or after physical death. Apart from Jesus, who is the eternal Son of God incarnate, we cannot see, know, or glorify God as He is.
Article 5: The Confessional Church
We recognize six doctrinal Standards: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. Although authored by humans and imperfect, these Standards are nevertheless faithful and trustworthy expressions of the doctrines of Holy Scripture. Our common commitment to these Standards is the critical component of our denominational identity and unity. Calls to church unity should not be made at the expense of truth and purity.
Article 6: The Covenantal Church
Members of the RCA have entered into a covenantal relationship with God and one another which obligates each one of us to be accountable to others in the community. This obligation may at times require the exercise of church discipline, one of the marks of the true church. Any judicatory which fails to exercise pastoral oversight and church discipline for those who have strayed from the truth of Scripture or the doctrines of our Standards is remiss in its duties. Establishing, upholding, and defending the truth of the gospel is not antithetical to church health and evangelism, but is essential to the ministry, mission, and unity of the church.
Article 7: The Gift of Sexuality
Marriage is a joyful covenanting between one man and one woman. All sexual intimacy is divinely designed for and should be expressed solely within the covenant of marriage. Any teaching or practice which blurs gender distinction, such as homosexuality, bisexuality, or trans-sexuality is contrary to Scripture. Same-sex “marriages,” even in committed and consensual relationships, are contrary to Scripture. Ordination to the offices of the church for any person who unrepentantly practices or promotes any form of sexual sin, whether fornication, adultery, homosexuality, or the like is to be prohibited.
Article 8: The Dignity of Human Life
All human life is to be treasured as a gift from God. Any practice which demeans human dignity, such as pornography, racism, abuse, exploitation, persecution, abortion, and euthanasia is immoral and unjust.
Does RCA Integrity Have Strengths?
The strength of the RCA Integrity movement is that it unashamedly professes that the basis of church unity is the truth of Scripture as set forth by the Reformed creeds. It is heartening to see that in the RCA there is a group of people committed to promoting the Reformed creeds. Rev. Kevin De Young, a member of the executive committee, has even written a short commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, the title of which admits that this Reformed creed has largely been forgotten in the RCA: “The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism.”
A second strength of the movement is that it is ready to identify and oppose errors that are contrary to Scripture and the confessions and that are creeping into the RCA. Once again it is heartening to see that there are those in the RCA who are willing to call sinsin. In its “Covenant” the organization commits itself to fighting against serious sins such as homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia.
In affirming the authority of Scripture and the confessions and in denouncing the above-mentioned sins, RCA Integrity shows that it is willing to address some of the crucial issues that are being dealt with in the denomination. Rev. Ron Sanford, also a member of the executive committee, explains this as one of the organization’s goals in an article entitled “Why RCAIntegrity Exists,” explaining that the organization was formed in response to “spiritual falsehood” that exists in the RCA. He gives examples of such “spiritual falsehood” writing:
Within the RCA, I have, or know of others who have, personally encountered ministers in the RCA who: scoff at the doctrines of Calvinism, deny the sovereignty of God, do not believe the Holy Scriptures are sufficient or authoritative, reject universal truth, deny the necessity of the cross, discredit our need for repentance, do not believe personal faith in Christ is essential for salvation, distort the biblical views of gender and marriage, and have abandoned the sanctity of life.
The willingness to speak out against ministers who hold such heretical views is heartening because it too often seems to be the case that those who call themselves conservatives in apostatizing denominations are silent and refuse to speak out about the issues of the day.
Criticizing RCA Integrity
Although it is possible to find some positive things to say about RCA Integrity, in the end there are some fundamental problems with the organization that are so serious that the organization should not even exist. If the problems with the organization are so serious that the organization should not even exist, why write about anything positive in the organization? The answer is that although the organization itself should not be promoted, the members should be encouraged to continue to do the things mentioned above. By arguing that RCA Integrity should not exist, I am not at all saying the members should not fight for the truth. I am only saying they should and can do it without the organization. One of the fundamental flaws of the organization is that instead of promoting unity it creates division.4 RCA Integrity, in its very nature as an organization that includes only some members in the denomination, is a faction in the RCA. One is reminded of the situation the apostle Paul addresses in his first letter to the Corinthians, in which he describes and condemns the divisions in the congregation, writing, “that everyone of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.” In the RCA, there are those who say, “I am of RCA Integrity” and those who say, “I am not.”
The Preamble of the group’s Covenant is certainly correct that there are times when the church needs to make timely statements defending and promoting the truth, but this is the business of synods, which make statements that are binding on all the members of the denomination. Synodical statements promote unity in the whole denomination because they bind all the members to confess the same thing. An organization such as RCA Integrity (which admits it is a para-church organization: “neither affiliated with nor sanctioned by the [RCA]”) includes only those who choose to be members, who by joining, immediately identify themselves as a faction in the church and make themselves guilty of schism. If the members of RCA Integrity think there needs to be a statement to clarify doctrinal boundaries and re-establish “cherished truths,” they do not need to make a new organization that will be for some of the members of the RCA, let them bring a proposal to synod to adopt a statement for the whole denomination.
Another criticism of RCA Integrity is that organizing and joining such an association is not a proper or an effective means for rooting error out of the church and promoting the truth.
There are two proper and effective means for dealing with error and promoting the truth: sound preaching and Christian discipline. The members of RCA Integrity, especially the ministers, ought to promote and engage in preaching that condemns heresy and expounds sound doctrine. They should also focus on bringing charges against those who promote and tolerate “spiritual falsehood,” bringing them before the ecclesiastical courts, demanding either repentance or excommunication. When error has taken root in a denomination, the only hope for reformation is sound preaching and Christian discipline, not the organization of a para-church organization such as RCA Integrity.
Whether it is necessary to leave a denomination that has fallen into as many gross errors as the RCA has is a legitimate question that some may be asking at the end of this article. My own opinion is that it would be best for those who love the truth of the Reformed faith in the RCA to find another church home where the truth is clearly confessed and defended. However, the members of RCA Integrity have decided for the time being to stay in the RCA and seek reformation. While I do not believe they are making the wisest decision, I do pray for them and encourage them to seek to bring about reformation by using the means by which God has preserved and purified His church throughout the ages: sound preaching and Christian discipline.
Taking note of a conservative movement in the RCA does not at all diminish the seriousness of apostasy taking place in the denomination. However, we constantly pray for churches damaged by the inroads of apostasy that there may be a return to the “old paths,” to the truth of Scripture as confessed by the Reformed faith. One of the reasons we in the Protestant Reformed Churches humbly pray that God will preserve us in maintaining the truth of the Reformed faith is that our testimony may be of help and encouragement to those who are fighting for orthodoxy in churches where the truth is being set aside for the lie. So we write about RCA Integrity in part hoping that we may be of encouragement to the members of the movement.
Examining a conservative movement in a “falling” church is also instructive for members of faithful denominations. The chief lesson is that false doctrine and sinful practices must be met immediately with church discipline and, if necessary, excommunication, as we see the tremendous obstacles members of RCA Integrity face in promoting the truth in a denomination where apostasy has taken strong root.