The Christian Reformed Church is much different than it used to be. Forty to fifty years ago you could identify a Christian Reformed congregation by its style of worship. That is no longer possible. And the denominational loyalty we once counted on seems to be on the way out too, especially with younger folks. Historically we’ve also been held together by what we call “our three Forms of Unity”: the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and Heidelberg Catechism. But today it’s not uncommon to discover that many members of Christian Reformed churches have no idea what those documents are all about. (Recently a minister told me he was not in favor of adopting the Belhar Confession as a creed to be added to the three we already have. He said it would simply be another irrelevant document along with ones already on the shelf.)
A feature article in the November 2009 issue of Perspectives stated unequivocally that our sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America, has run its course: “It has sprung debilitating leaks which can no longer be plugged. It is time to look for a new vehicle, or coalition of vehicles, to move the church faithfully and compellingly into the twenty-first century.” Is the CRC on the same road?
It could be. A growing number of our congregations are ignoring or downplaying their historic Reformed, Calvinistic roots. One way they do so is by identifying themselves as “community churches.” It seems the intent is to distance themselves from unappealing events of the past and emphasize what it means to be Christian rather than Reformed. This is understandable, and much can be said in its defense.
In order to appreciate this trend, it’s important to remember what lies behind it: the CRC has a long history of being an exclusive ethnic community in the Reformed tradition with its own set of mores. Old-time members can tell a great many stories about the rules they used to live by. Many years ago a Banner editor wrote about the need to “burn our wooden shoes.” We have been trying to do that. Some want to lay aside the name “Christian Reformed” altogether to free themselves from an ethnic isolation that no longer appeals to them or to their neighbors.
The current emphasis on ecumenism has great appeal. We need only think of the days when most Protestants thought Roman Catholics held to a different religion. It was not uncommon for youngsters in our catechism classes to ask whether Roman Catholics would one day go to heaven. I remember how surprised I was to learn that young folks in Roman Catholic parishes asked their priests the same question about Protestants. Thank God we have moved beyond that day.
There is much that’s refreshing about what is happening today. Generic Christianity is not the curse we may have thought it would be. The 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed briefly summarize what it means to follow Christ. Our three Forms of Unity do not have that function. We are properly embarrassed about the hostile language historically used by those documents to denounce fellow believers with different theological emphases. So you can understand why some may think it helpful to take the name “Christian Reformed” off the marquee and identify themselves primarily as community churches.
However, there is more at stake than a simple name change if we wish to do a serious evaluation of our heritage. We must also evaluate the function of our denominational structures.
I am referring to the two or three meetings our 47 classes (regional groups of churches) hold each year, and to our annual synod, which classis representatives attend. The waning interest in these structures does not bode well for our future. We must either recognize the value of these structures and take action to strengthen them, or allow them to continue down a course that reflects what some may think is the irrelevance of our denomination.
There’s something appealing about being cut loose from such structures. Some church members think of them simply as expensive and time consuming. Congregations could significantly reduce their budgets if they no longer felt obligated to pay the ministry shares that support these structures and the work we do together as a whole.
But a number of significant issues must be taken into consideration before making such a move. For example, ministry shares allow even small congregations to take part in national and global missions. Our mission boards, made up of classis members, help church planters and missionaries do ministries that are often praised and envied by other Christians.
Should we no longer function on a classical and synodical level, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary would be on their own. The college could function as an independent entity for some time, and perhaps the seminary could do the same. But the CRC, which now owns these institutions, gains considerable benefit from them. The institutions as well as our congregations would lose more than we can imagine if we allow our relationship with them to dwindle.
And what about mutual accountability? Classes and synod have historically held our officebearers accountable in both theology and daily life. Of course, dropping accountability has appealâ€”even children know that. But it can also be disastrous. Would allowing the structures of our denomination to die a slow death enhance or weaken our ministry?
There is really no middle ground on this question. Either we take steps to strengthen our structures, or we allow them to limp along in ways that fail to capture the imagination of and elicit support from our members.
In speaking with a number of people who have recently become members of CRC congregations, I have discovered that they appreciate our structures. I have heard this especially from pastors who’ve joined us from traditions that did not have similar structures to support them in their ministries. There is good reason to thank God for freeing us from the historical and cultural baggage that has sometimes encumbered us, but it may also be a huge mistake to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
There is more to our future than considering the benefits of today’s ecumenism and the structures that have been part of our history. There are also the biblical insights contributed by Calvinists throughout history.
Granted, there are things that we should move beyond, but we must not lose sight of the fact that Calvinists had significant influence on the development of society in North America. By the time of the Civil War, nearly two-thirds of the colleges in the U.S. had been founded and were controlled by the theological heirs of John Calvin.
I cannot recount in this article the large number of theological insights contributed by the Calvinistic/Reformed tradition, but I can mention two that could make a significant contribution today if they were proclaimed by Reformed congregations.
The first concerns the matter of justice. It is beyond dispute that justice is required in our society, and many of our pastors preach about the need for it. But in its debate whether to adopt the Belhar Confession, the CRC is deciding whether the promotion of justice should be tied directly with our denominational identity. May the biblical concept of justice be left to the whim of individual members?
If we officially adopt the Belhar as a fourth Form of Unity by synodical action in 2012, we will be a church that takes a prominent stand about the relationship between justice and love. There is nothing irrelevant about that.
A second relevant contribution relates to our society’s economic meltdown. What brought this about? The secular government concludes that human greed stands close to the center of the problem. Perhaps had we as a denomination been on top of our game, we would have proclaimed this before it was announced by economic strategists.
While some Christian economists present theories about how believers can get back on top of the current financial crisis, Reformed believers would encourage them to acknowledge the role human greed plays. Reformed theology states unequivocally that human sinfulness lies at the heart of the economic problems we face today. Perhaps Reformed leaders have had little to say about that because we as a denomination have moved away from what it means to be Reformed. John Calvin would have nipped this in the bud long ago.
Where are we going as a denomination? If we do not come to a fresh and relevant understanding of what we have to contribute as Reformed Christians, our future may not be long-lived. But should we gain a new and vigorous appreciation of who we are, we may have a lengthy and productive ministry ahead of us.