Thinking Historically About Church Conflicts

Thinking Historically About Church Conflicts

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in an online series called “Past Controversies, Present Insights.” The series explores issues that shook our denomination at the time, but now we might wonder what the big deal was. In the articles, William Katerberg, curator at Calvin University’s Heritage Hall, outlines the historical contexts and digs into what we can learn from our denomination’s past disagreements.

This summer I spent time thinking about the history of controversies in the Christian Reformed Church. That’s partly because I’ve been writing a series of stories about this for The Banner. And it’s the case that the CRC has been arguing about one thing or another—such as now with human sexuality—for as long as I can remember. It’s part of our Protestant DNA.

My earliest memories of controversy date to the discussions about women in office in the 1970s (and beyond). Some issues from that era—membership in fraternal lodges and baptizing adopted children—did not make my radar. I did not know about synodical discussions of Pentecostalism, but I do remember hearing concerns that “small group” programs were cult-like. My Christian high school forbade dancing even though the CRC changed its mind on the issue in 1982. When I was in college in the 1980s, it was women in office (still) and evolution (again).

I knew about “the battle for the Bible” and anger at what some professors and clergy in the CRC allegedly taught. I did not know about synod’s Report 44 on Scriptural authority and interpretation. I was a kid in 1972. Like most CRC folk, I assumed that all our battles ultimately were about who got the Bible right.

We were children of the Reformation, after all. Scripture was the proper authority. We criticized Catholics for bowing to tradition and liberals for exalting reason. I don’t remember what I knew about the church splits in the Netherlands and America that led to the formation of the CRC, but the idea that faithfulness to the Bible often required separation was a part of my heritage.

In the 1990s, in graduate school at Notre Dame and Queens University, I studied religious and social history. I learned comparative perspectives on my background and started to see more dimensions to my Reformed heritage and its militant impulses. Somewhere along the way, I began to wonder whether the individual was the functional authority for Protestants—each person his or her own interpreter of the Bible. .

My series of stories avoids taking sides. It explores how we in the CRC have fought and how social and religious contexts have shaped our conflicts.

  • We’ve often agreed to disagree and allowed for local options.
  • Issues occasionally fade away. Synod condemned three “worldly amusements” in 1928. It changed its mind on movies and dancing, but not card playing. Yet we play cards without guilt.
  • The way we argue is predictably Reformed. I don’t mean the content—the doctrine of grace, for example. I mean how we apply categories such as “confession” to conflicts and other traditions, even if that category makes no sense to another tradition.
  • We’ve never been just “Reformed.” Being an immigrant church also has shaped our conflicts, as have Americanizing/Canadianizing and growing more bourgeois and ethnically diverse.

My point is not whether any of this is good or bad. It’s about becoming more self-aware. My hope is that we can learn to see our peculiarities in new ways.

About the Author

Will Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is a member of Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids.

See comments (2)


In anticipation of this series on how the church has dealt with conflicts over the past 60 years or so and what we can learn from those conflicts, it is hoped that you will also deal with those conflicts in the midst of cultural diversity. I am not thinking of ethnic diversity -- Korean, Spanish, Native -- as much as American and Canadian cultural diversity.

The CRC is uniquely binational and bicultural but that element has rarely been acknowledged, addressed or analysed when dealing with those issues of conflict: ie dancing, Pentecostalism, women in office, human sexuality, justice and human rights.

Your anticipated series on controversies needs to be viewed, no only through the lens of the mood within the denomination at the time but also through the lens of American and Canadian culture at that time.

To become specific, when synods dealt with women in office, did all delegates speak with one voice  (obviously not)? Were those differences based on narrowly conservative and more liberal perspectives across North America? Were there clear geographic (read national) differences?

When synods dealt with race relations/social justice issues, was there a recognition of two cultural perspectives on race (U.S. and Canada)?

I raise these questions because there has been an ongoing, informal discussion within Canadian CRCs and leadership for the past 50 years around the cultural differences within the CRCNA. My hunch is that it's been a non-issue for the much larger American side of this binational denomination. 

American and Canadian CRC folks think differently about a wide range of issues. It is hoped that you pick that up in your analysis of past controversies and what that means for the CRCNA in the 2020s.

Keith:  The articles do not make US-Canadian relations and comparisons part of the analysis. I suppose that the series implicitly takes a transnational approach.

That's not because I am unaware of US-Canadian differences (and similarities) and their history. I grew up in Canada. My Ph.D. at Queen's University was in the history of US-Canadian relations. I've taught courses in this area and in comparative history more generally and written about them too.

Students at Calvin University whose roots are not Dutch/Reformed often have remarked about how strange and "Dutch" the school and Grand Rapids are. When I arrived at Calvin College in the 1980s, a Canadian whose parents had immigrated to Canada, Calvin did indeed seem strange to me. Not strangely "Dutch," but strangely "American."

The articles, as you'll see, are long as it is. Other factors, ones shared by CRC folk in the two countries, struck me as more immediately significant. Adding US-Canadian comparisons would have made the articles even longer.

To your questions about national differences and how they play out, I'd add regional differences. In some matters, might similar regions in the two countries have as much or more in common with each other than with other parts of their own country? Do Calgary and Denver have more to do with each other, so to speak, than with Toronto, Ottawa, New York, and Washington? Comparisons between small towns and rural areas, suburbs, and cities also strike me as similarly interesting. Might those differences be as relevant as national differences?

(I also wonder about what people in congregations in Canada that left the CRC in the 1990s would say the significance of US-Canadian differences.)

I'll keep thinking about your US-Canadian question (and the questions I added about regional and rural-urban differences). Maybe there's another article or series in thinking about the history of US-Canadian relations and the CRC, particularly in the past 30 years, as not only the American wing of the denomination but also the Canadian have become post-immigrant.