The “A Way Forward” task force has proposed a reflection on how the RCA does its business. R-16 proposes that the RCA review its church order that it might change the relationship between the synods, classes and congregations. The entire project is problematic from the outset because the fundamental changes envisioned change the Reformed church at its very core. The RCA functions with a particular understanding of those relationships and to alter those relationships, while possible, would be a shift in the Reformed church’s understanding of the nature of the church.
However, it is R-16c that makes the recommendation a “spectacularly” bad idea. R-16c reads:
c. that upon the general Synod’s decision to implement or not
implement such changes, to urge the general Synod to instruct
the general Synod’s Commission on Church order to propose
constitutional changes that would enable each congregation
and/or minister to choose between grace-filled re-covenanting
to remain a member church and/or minister, or grace-filled
and accountable separation from membership within the Reformed
Church in America without recriminations such as forfeiture
This certainly sounds innocent enough. It is “grace-filled” and would allow the parties of the church to go their own way. It might conclude the endless debates we are having over homosexuality and the church. It would solve the problem.
Except that it doesn’t. Beneath this recommendation is the notion that it is possible to separate. Simply to acknowledge the possibility is to violate creedal and confessional commitments of the church. The church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” as the Nicene Creed would have it. Both unity and catholicity are at the heart of a Reformed understanding of the church. As Calvin scholar Philip Butin has put it, for Calvin (as for the Reformed confessions), the church is one, ontologically. And it is catholic (this is particularly stressed in the Belgic Confession). That we live as multiple denominations is an anomaly, even a sin, and “impossible possibility.”
Even the Reformed folk in the Netherlands who separated (the Afscheiding) did not acknowledge a multiplicity of churches. In the Act of Afscheiding, the separatists were clear that it was the larger church that had become apostate.
The RCA has just begun to confess Belhar in which the unity of the church is a confessional matter. The point is not that it is easy to stay together. It isn’t up to us. We are together—in Christ.
It could, of course, be argued that the apostolic character of the church requires the church to be faithful to its founding message. True enough. However, while it is true that on the particular issue at hand, the General Synod has a policy that states that marriage is between a man and a woman, a synod policy is not the teaching of the church. It is not doctrine. That has been reserved to the confessions. And while we will argue over just what the confessions might mean –and appropriately so—we do not divide over competing interpretations. Or if we do so, we have violated something fundamental.