Is the oldest Protestant denomination in North America poised to follow other mainline churches down a road that leads to confused doctrine, political infighting, and shrinking membership?
Established in 1628, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) already presents some symptoms of denominational decay. At the same time, a growing number of ordinary pastors are trying to keep their church orthodox.
It’s a small denomination — a high of over 300,000 members 10 years ago, and now down to about 280,000, a loss of 9 percent. But its current struggle reflects those experienced by much bigger denominations, and the outcome will likely be instructive to all.
In this, the first of a two-part article, we will examine the nature of that struggle.
A Homosexual Insurgency
The most visible sign of the RCA’s struggle is the rise of a “gay-affirming” movement among some of the clergy. They press for full “inclusion” of homosexuals into the life of the church — including same-sex “marriage” and the ordination of practicing, unrepentant homosexuals as ministers of the gospel.
The RCA’s official position conforms to the teaching of the Bible: marriage is for one man and one woman, and homosexual activity is a sin.
“There is not a sentiment here that homosexuality is God’s will,” John Buntsma, president of the Council of the General Synod, told Chalcedon. “I don’t see a homosexual insurgency forming in the Midwest. You may be experiencing something different in New Jersey.”
The New York-New Jersey area is the birthplace of Room for All (www.roomforall.com), a new group of RCA clergy and laymen who are trying to change their church’s position on homosexuality. Its board of directors includes Norman Kansfield and his family.
Kansfield was removed by the RCA last year from his post as president of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, for performing a “marriage” between his daughter and another woman. Although Kansfield has promised the RCA not to make public comments on this issue until after the General Synod has further adjudicated his case, his presence on the board of Room for All constitutes a statement in itself.
Chalcedon interviewed the group’s co-founder, Robert D. Williams, formerly the pastor of an RCA church in New York, dismissed for performing “same-sex blessing ceremonies” in his church. He has not yet been able to find another pastoral posting within the RCA.
“It would appear that many kinds of sexual relations are condoned in the Bible,” Williams said. “We hear Nathan the prophet suggesting to King David that God had given him many wives. From stories such as this one, I see the need not to proof-text a particular position from Scripture, but to look at the Bible whole and seek to discern its deeper currents, trends, and values — as the church has had to do in the last two centuries regarding first slavery, then the role of women.”
We asked Williams if he recognized any sex act as morally wrong.
“What might make a sex act morally wrong?” he said. “I would think such issues as the use of violence against another, explicitly or implicitly, the degree to which the other is reduced to an object for self-gratification, the absence of love, mutuality, commitment.”
By these standards we could not rule out any kind of incest, polygamy, or pedophilia — as long as the “relationship” was nonviolent, consensual, mutually committed, etc. Although all of these behaviors are condemned in the Bible, Williams’ theology is elastic enough to encompass them.
“God has been in the process of unfolding revelation for centuries,” he said (in which case, we wonder why the Bible should be necessary at all, Ed.). “Of course, the bottom line here is the question of whether or not homosexual relations are always sinful. There is where the debate must take place. I think it will come down to a debate over how one views and interprets Scripture.”
Williams, by the way, has been married for 33 years and has three sons.
Church Leaders Respond
Paul Boice, the RCA’s director of communication, described the controversy as “a difference of opinion. There is a group that would like to see the RCA become more inclusive and change its teaching on homosexuality. But I don’t see that happening.”
The RCA has chosen to deal with the controversy by holding an ongoing “dialogue” with groups like Room for All.
“A dialogue is a healthy thing,” Boice said. “It’s not any different than if there were members of my family having a difference of opinion. But we do have a clear position on marriage — one man, one woman — and we’re not going to change it.”
But if the church’s position is not going to change, why have a dialogue at all? Scott Nichols, an RCA pastor in New Jersey, has been wondering about that.
“Why aren’t we disciplining these people?” he said. “Our denomination has constantly maintained the Biblical position on homosexuality: our big problem seems to be discipline and enforcement.
“Why don’t these people just go to another denomination, like the United Church of Christ (UCC), where they’d be received with open arms? But they say the RCA needs to change, to keep up with the times. Why aren’t we standing up for what we believe?”
Nichols agreed with Council President Buntsma that the “gay-affirming” faction in the RCA is a numerically small group (“but loud and highly visible”) confined mostly to the Northeast.
“They want to see church leadership positions opened to gays and lesbians,” he said.
“It was our classis [an RCA local governing body] that rejected Robert Williams as a pastor, for his performing gay ‘marriages’ and all. We had a public meeting on it, and his supporters all turned out. I never heard such profanity, and such absurd arguments! They got violent. It was dumbfounding.”
The RCA’s official publication, The Church Herald, ran an ad for Room for All in its May issue. A few of the more Biblically oriented pastors questioned the appropriateness of the ad, but the magazine’s editor, Christina Van Eyl, defended her decision to run it.
“I don’t think the ad conflicts with the RCA’s position,” she said. “Publishing it was admittedly a judgment call. But the issue is more with the group that placed the ad, not the ad itself. The church does not exclude people for being homosexual; it has provision for repentance and change.”
One of those who protested the ad was Pastor John Thornton, an RCA pastor in South Dakota. He received this response from Rev. Mary Wisner, of the magazine’s editorial council.
“Though Chris Van Eyl acted within full accordance of her position and presented to us her reasoning for inclusion [of the ad], it was decided by the council the ad was in violation of policy. It will not run again … The editorial council will be taking a closer look at the Herald’s ad policy at our September meeting.”
Two Different Bibles?
Norman Kansfield’s removal as president of the RCA’s New Brunswick (New Jersey) Theological Seminary (see Article) points to deeper problems within all the RCA’s seminaries, Rev. Nichols said.
“It all goes back to the seminaries,” he said. “That’s where we’ve lost our way. There are so many professors and teachers, like Kansfield, who no longer adhere to the Reformed tradition.”
Although NBTS is a Reformed Church seminary, he said, “most of the students there are from other, more liberal denominations like the UCC. It graduates only a handful of RCA pastors. Overall, there’s a loss of Biblical authority in the seminaries themselves.
“Once you give away Biblical authority, pretty much anything goes. Pragmatism always leads to a dilution of doctrine.”
As an example of such pragmatism, he pointed to the RCA’s “close ecumenical relationship” with the UCC and the World Council of Churches — two bodies not known for their commitment to Biblical orthodoxy. But Boice and Buntsma saw no problem there.
“We have ecumenical relations with lots of denominations,” Boice said, “including some very conservative ones. Those relationships are closest when it comes to foreign missionary work.”
“I don’t think you can conclude that the shared communion with the UCC and ELCA [Evangelical Lutheran Church in America] means the RCA embraces the theology or policy decisions of those other denominations,” Buntsma said.
Still, the UCC is famous for its public embrace of homosexuality, and Nichols said its relationship with the RCA is a problem.
“Some of our leaders say we need to be there to help them see the error of their ways,” he said. “But we never seem to have any impact on them. Instead, I see the RCA changing to accommodate them.”
How does all this bode for the RCA’s future?
“The future of the RCA is tied to our return to and understanding of the authority of Scripture,” Rev. Nichols said. “I don’t think the RCA leadership realizes the depth of the split between pastors of evangelical and liberal perspectives. Sometimes it seems we’re reading two different Bibles.”
Pastor Thornton put it another way.
“These gay-affirming pastors are undermining lay people’s faith in Biblical revelation,” he said. “It always carries more weight with a congregation when a pastor says it, whatever it is.
“If they can twist the Bible to make it say it supports homosexuality, they can twist it to say anything.”
In Part II of this two-part article, we will see how Nichols, Thornton, and others are trying to save the RCA for orthodoxy.