Will Natural CRC and RCA Factionalism Stall Collaboration or Can It Become A Space to Seek Revival From?

The Ebenezer RCA building Shared With the Leighton IA CRC in the 1950s When my Grandfather Pastored There

The Ebenezer RCA building Shared With the Leighton IA CRC in the 1950s When my Grandfather Pastored There

The Bible as A Record of Squabbling for the LORD

A majority of the Bible is occupied by tussling between people who consciously profess allegiance to the LORD or over which the LORD lays formal claim.

  • The LORD makes covenant with patriarchs and tries to get them to believe he will bless them.
  • The LORD lays claim to the children of Israel through Moses and tries to get them to trust in his promises
  • The LORD raises up Judges to again and again rescue Israel after she’s forgotten Him, slid into slavery to the surrounding peoples, their practices and their gods.
  • The LORD sends prophets to Israel as they repeatedly express their mistrust in God and their confidence in themselves sliding them into despair over their weakness before the great empires of their region.
  • The LORD sends Jesus to renew, correct, refine and establish his missional claim over Israel and the rest of humanity.
  • The LORD sends apostles into all the world to bear witness to this claim and refine it over the competing attempts to make life work or save ourselves and over the competing narratives within the Jewish conversation.

Church History as a Record of Squabbling for the LORD

Writings of the Church Fathers

This history of tussling is taken up in church history as church fathers write volumes and volumes of material defining the faith, refining our beliefs, tussling with pagan competitors and Christian rivals. Creeds are written, councils are held, statements are embraced or rejected, philosophies developed. Constant back and forth of ideas and opinions over practices and structures.

The flow of books and writings and meetings haven’t ceased but only multiplied.

In McGrath’s little book on Heresy illustrates that it is in the process of differentiation through division that the church comes to understanding of God and itself. The product of productive squabbling and factioning is greater knowledge of ourself, of God and of his kingdom.

The Broad Taxonomy of Streams of Living Water

A number of years ago I read Richard Fosters Streams of Living Water with appreciation. It was helpful to understand the different emphases that are expressed in the body of Christ. His list gives us some large, long emphasis within the broad Christian church.

His list was as follows.

  1. The Contemplative Tradition: Discovering the Prayer Filled Life
  2. The Holiness Tradition: Discovering the Virtuous Life
  3. The Charismatic Tradition: Discovering the Spirit Empowered Life
  4. The Social Justice Tradition: Discovering the Compassionate Life
  5. The Evangelical Tradition: Discovering the Word-Centered Life
  6. The Incarnational Tradition: Discovering the Sacramental Life

I find these to be helpful labels to understand the diversity of emphasis and practice in the history of the church.

What I want to show, however, is that this tussling is normal. This is a normal part of being in the body of Christ. We wrestle with God. We wrestle with one another.

Tim Keller on Revival and Renewal

In 1990 early in his ministry in New York City Tim Keller did a series on Revival. One of the theses that Tim Keller returns to again and again in his talks and sermon is that by the Spirit of God, especially in times of revival, but which is the constant goal of the church of Christ is that the streams come together. Here in Introduction 1 to the series he lays out some of his own list of the aspects or streams. What this creates is a transformed community that operates with all of these streams or aspects fully enlivened.

  1. Intellectual depth of understanding of God’s Word
  2. Intimate fellowship within the body of Christ
  3. Anointed Worship
  4. Aggressive Evangelism
  5. Compassionate Social Concern

The community achieves a beauty that is unique, attractive and powerful. The lives of the Christians you live with become radiant and this deeply impacts the community. The conversions deeply impact the entire community beyond the church.

When he first came to NYC he told people he wasn’t going to be a liberal church, a fundamentalist church nor a charismatic church and people said “What other kinds of churches are there?”

Three views of revival

  1. Mainline view, Negative view of revival: we don’t need that crazy emotionality
  2. Fundamentalist View: every church had revivals which meant evangelism and if we have the right music or the right message then lots of people will come, but revivals aren’t really things that you can hold, only God can hold them. You don’t get it by methods and programming. It tends to be very methodological.
  3. Charismatic view of revival: tendency to define it as miracles and signs and wonders. The history says that sometimes there are signs and wonders during revivals and sometimes during these awakenings there weren’t. It’s the ordinary things that are constant.

In Revival we first see our sin and then we see the surpassing beauty of Jesus. It is

  • Like Charismatics in that we’re tremendously excited and hopeful and believing that God will make an impact on the city BUT we won’t force people or hype their emotions.
  • Like Fundamentalists we have a high view of the authority of Scripture BUT we’re not going to be legalistic NOR will we be trying to get people to withdraw from engagement with society.
  • Like the Mainline Liberals we want to be socially aware, socially concerned, engaged with the world BUT unlike them we believe in the high authority of Scripture AND the supernatural regeneration of the heart with the rebirth of the Holy Spirit otherwise nobody can be saved.

In Revival the streams come together.

Where do I Want To Go With This?

The CRC and the RCA are dating. We’ve found ourselves in a room together of practicality and convenience. We’ve signed a statement together and we’ve structurally come together in things that are efficient and not too risky. I haven’t seen a lot of appetite to really engage some of the bigger things. What might those be?

Both denominations are more highly occupied with the ongoing factional and political struggles within each respective denomination. These factions align not so much with intramural historical Reformed divisions but increasingly with the broader divisions in Western church:

  • An egalitarian, inclusive gender leveling vs. traditional gender identity
  • Low church liturgy in contemporary form vs. increased ancient liturgical consciousness
  • Exclusivistic high Biblical authority vs. universalistic spiritual experience
  • Missional priority of personal conversion and clear Christian profession vs. missional priority of social justice and identification with the marginalized
  • Prioritizing individual access to the age to come vs. kingdom realization in the present age
  • Embrace of past, present and future supernatural intervention vs. skepticism about intervention and optimism for human capacity for renewal

These tensions and others form divisions WITHIN the CRC and RCA. These battles hold the primary focus of attention and energy in both denominations arenas of political and factional battle. Both anxiety and excitement over how increased collaboration and union might change the political/power status quo will likely dominate and probably stall any substantive ability to move forward in both denominations.

  • RCA East will be anxious about CRC conservatism slowing their gender agenda. CRC conservatives will mirror this anxiety from the other direction.
  • RCA evangelical pragmatists will be anxious about CRC confessionalist distinctivists and visa versa.

Can the two denominations move forward IF coming together raises anxiety all along the limes of entrenched factional fighting?

Reversing the Anxiety

Can we turn this lose/lose into a win/win?

What if instead of seeing coming together as a threat we could see it as a movement towards greater self-understanding?

All of these positions have implicit within them deep theological assumptions and commitments about the shape of human flourishing, brokenness and redemption. Closer contact with allies and adversaries might illuminate things about ourselves and the gospel that we have yet to realize or experience.

  • Can the CRC learn something about its ongoing immersion in American culture by closer contact with RCA cousins who have been soaking in these juices longer?
  • I’m hesitant to speculate on what the RCA might benefit from because I don’t know how the CRC looks from its perspective?

CRC History Since 1970

James Bratt wrote Dutch Calvinism in Modern America in 1984. He finishes his analysis in the 1970s. Here’s a brief overview of the book. He outlines 4 mentalities.

Dutch Calvinism in Modern America

Dutch Calvinism in Modern America

As I look at these and think about how broader forces in the North American context have impacted the CRC his analysis looks increasingly dated. While these movements continue to shape the church larger societal trends seem more determinative today. In the CRC I think we’re going to need to update our awareness of the new shape of our factions so we can have sufficient self-understanding of why we are anxious about collaboration and moving closer towards the RCA.

My Hope

  • Like the poor we will always have factions with us. I hope that we an learn to squabble more productively so that we produce more light than heat. This is not something we’ve always been good at.
  • I hope that moving closer to the RCA might create an opportunity for greater self-understanding as we get to know this group what is like us yet distinct. Maybe instead of anxiety creating more political gridlock and fear getting to know each other might lead to more self-understanding, insight and creativity. In Jesus’ John 17 prayer the assumed need for the prayer is inevitable squabbling and divisions. Perhaps the hope of the prayer is that the process of coming together is itself redemptive and transformational. Choosing denominational division for the sake of factional advantage feels like a betrayal of our Lord.
  • My prayer is also for revival. I find Keller’s vision of revival as a coming together of the streams to be terribly compelling. Can our factional streams come together? I too think it doesn’t rely on method but is in dependence to the Spirit of God coming down upon us and creating among us a community so beautiful and compelling that it changes not just our churches but our communities as well. This is more than worth all that we might lose in our petty rivalries and agendas.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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2 Responses to Will Natural CRC and RCA Factionalism Stall Collaboration or Can It Become A Space to Seek Revival From?

  1. Dan Hendriksen Jr. says:

    Interesting piece. You give a very thorough analysis of the recent history of the North American church in general and the CRC in particular, of the various factions, and of where we are at this time regarding relations between the CRC and RCA. I agree that the more conservative wing of the CRC, and RCA East, will likely oppose a merger of these two denominations. Indeed, both of these factions could likely name other denominations with which that they would rather have their denomination merge..I would like to expand on and add to your list of obstacles.

    1) Many people don’t see organizational unity as necessary fulfill what Jesus said in John 17. A growing part of the North American protestant church is comprised of congregations that are not even part of a denomination. They may still be on friendly terms with other churches, They just don’t see the value of “dating” anyone.

    2) There are theological differences between our two denominations. The RCA has one more confession than does the CRC, and they do require their pastors and other leaders to subscribe to the confessions in the same way as does the CRC.

    3) The RCA has the extra layer of authority, the regional synod, which allows different regions considerable leeway as to what they permit congregations and pastors in their region to do.

    4) You cite six different intramural disagreements between factions that occur in both of the denominations. For most of them, the proportion of the denomination that is on each side is very different in the two denominations. For instance, it is safe to say that the RCA as a whole is more in agreement with women in church office than is the CRC.

    5) A merger between the two denominations would, for all practical purposes, be the CRC merging into the RCA. This is because:
    a) The RCA would never agree to a merger that substantively changed their position on women in church office, the confessions, or regional synods.
    b) A substantial part of the CRC would not participate in a merger, so it would involve a small majority of the CRC taking the CRC’s corporate assets and transferring them to the RCA.

    There is, of course, a wild card in all of this: One of the wealthiest people in the CRC is openly committed to merging the two churches, and he is already investing millions of dollars in Kingdom Enterprise Zones, with the apparent hope of getting CRC and RCA to plant churches together. Will he successfully merge the two denominations with his money, or will his intervention meet with insurmountable resistance? I don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine now that a few decades ago the main things keeping us apart seemed to be Christian schools and lodge membership.

    Dan Hendriksen Jr.

  2. Pingback: 20th Century Voices in the CRC: The Evangelical Strain, From Hawthorne Gospel to Willow Creek | Leadingchurch.com

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