At its May 10 meeting Classis Central California “acquiesced” to the decision of First Christian Reformed Church of Ripon, Calif., to disaffiliate from the denomination. That’s the final step in a process directed by the Church Order (Article 38-f) when a local congregation determines it no longer wishes to belong to the CRC. The congregation, part of the CRC for more than 100 years, will continue as “First Church,” independent on a temporary basis as they research other denominations with whom they could partner.
In discerning whether to leave, the church’s council wrote position statements on three matters—women in church office, social justice, and human sexuality—and put them before the congregation in the fall of 2020. Background to the positions said, “For the past year, the Elders have been engaged in significant discussion concerning the increasing disparity between the ministry directions of our denomination compared to that of our church.”
Determining that they could not in good conscience continue to actively participate in the ministries of the CRC, the congregation followed through on the Church Order process, which concluded May 10.
Eric Graef, a commissioned pastor, and ministers Glenn Gerdes and Matthew A. Riddle each requested release from ministry in the CRC. The classis granted these requests at the May 10 meeting. Meeting minutes say, “Gerdes addressed classis stating that they are leaving with sorrow and continue to plan and work with the Almond Valley and Immanuel CRCs in the future.” Immanuel, organized in 1946, and Almond Valley, organized in 1978, are two other Christian Reformed congregations in Ripon, planted by First CRC.
While the congregation spent the past two years discerning these matters, First CRC’s discomfort with denominational positions, particularly whether the offices of the church can be biblically understood to be open to women, have been present for decades. In 2002 The Banner reported, “First CRC of Ripon, Calif., informed Classis Central California that it continues to struggle with how to participate in classis meetings without violating the consciences of its delegates.” The classis had decided that year to permit women delegates. First CRC continued to participate, but with objection. “For many years now,” its 2020 position paper said, “we have attended Classis with a statement that we do not agree with the seating of women. We have done this in effort to be faithful to our denomination and our position. While the statement alleviates our conscience before God, it does not alleviate our disconnect from what is often times being celebrated.” The congregation wished to “support the work of the denomination,” they wrote, but they “wrestle with how our Ministry Shares may be used to promote ministries to which we are biblically opposed.”
First CRC’s position paper said that while the denomination officially recognizes “two different perspectives and convictions on (the issue of women in church office), both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God,” the congregation has not found support or encouragement for its “conviction regarding God’s design for male leadership in the church.” Further, “we have come to realize that the nature of this theological disagreement limits our ability to live in unity with one another. … For the sake of the Gospel, it is our conclusion that we would be better spurred on and encouraged in ministry by a denomination that celebrates the complementarian position.”
First CRC’s two other position statements were on “the sinfulness of desire” and “social justice and the Gospel.” First CRC recognized it “is moving in a more conservative direction than our denomination” on the matter of same-sex attraction—concluding that the attraction (desire) itself is sinful and not only behaviors arising from it. And it described a difference in focus on priorities around living “justly in the world … while fulfilling the mission of the church—to preach the gospel of Jesus to the lost world.”
Classis Central California noted in its minutes that delegates approved the disaffiliation “with regret and that (we) wish the First Church Godspeed.”
The Ins and Outs of Ins and Outs
The process of disaffiliation, laid out in article 38 of the Church Order, might not be familiar to most Christian Reformed members. Al Postma, who until recently served the denomination in classis renewal with the ministry of Pastor Church Resources, said some classes (regional groups of churches) might experience an affiliation (coming in) or disaffiliation (going out) only once in a decade. Following a practice of sharing knowledge and experience between classes, Postma created a 60-minute presentation, “The Ins and Outs of Ins And Outs” in 2021, which he started offering to classes with questions about either process this year. He has presented it three times since February.
Postma said, “It is the classis that guides, oversees, and makes decisions about affiliation and disaffiliation. For both of those, it’s not a denominational decision.” The workshop is meant to help classes understand more clearly their role in either process. “One of the values of both the affiliation and disaffiliation is a high level of congregational engagement—it is not simply a decision of the council or the pastor, but it is a congregational decision,” Postma said. “Classis functions as an accountability mechanism” for congregations as they engage the process.
Postma created the presentation to be helpful perennially—“at any given time, there are classes wondering how to do this,” he said. But he did acknowledge that “currently almost every affiliation or disaffiliation conversation has some sort of reference to synod 2022. Typically, whether a church is exploring joining or leaving and wanting to have better awareness of the process to accomplish either of those, there is some reference or recognition that the decisions that happen at Synod 2022 may be a factor.” Postma said in the workshops he encouraged participants with this thought: “If the decisions of Synod 2022 impact either an affiliation or disaffiliation, my hope is that you take the time after synod to fully digest and make sure that you completely understand what decisions are actually made.”
Synod 2022, meeting June 10-16 in Grand Rapids, Mich., will deliberate over the report to synod of the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality. They are expected to be the most significant and controversial synod deliberations in a generation.
Related: Synod 2022: What to Watch (May 13, 2022)
Other disaffiliations in the past year include First CRC of South Holland, Ill.; Hanaro Community CRC in La Puente, Calif., and Eastern Hills Community Church in Aurora, Colo.