Reformed Church in America

Reformed Church Split Mirrors Mainline Divides, Minus Acrimony

Jeffrey Walton on January 12, 2022

An historic North American church that uniquely straddles Evangelical and Mainline Protestant traditions is undergoing a denominational split exacerbated by disagreement around defining God’s holiness and acceptable human sexual expression. Those disagreements are most recently seen in the presenting issues of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ-identifying clergy that split Mainline Protestant churches.

Forty-Three congregations of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) are breaking away from the denomination to form a new Alliance of Reformed Churches (ARC) with the expectation that others will follow, including additional churches from outside of the RCA fold. The process of separating the church into two may be an instructive example for United Methodists preparing to vote upon a negotiated split of their own at the General Conference scheduled for late summer.

Unlike its Mainline peers, the RCA is a small denomination reporting a total of 877 congregations in 2016 and a 2019 membership of 194,064, down from a high of 949 congregations in 1997 and 384,751 members in 1967 (a decline of nearly 50 percent) according to numbers from the Association of Religion Data Archives.

The initial group of departing churches represent about 5% of RCA congregations, and potentially a disproportionate share of both denominational revenue and evangelistic energy. ARC leaders have outlined different roles from the RCA in denominational governance, theological convictions and the funding of mission priorities.

Religion News Service coverage by Kathryn Post reports that at least 125 churches from various denominations are in conversation with ARC leaders about joining – some from other reformed bodies including the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and Christian Reformed Church (CRC).

A statement on the ARC web site affirms the Bible as God’s written Word, reading that “those who follow Jesus live under the Bible’s authority as written.”

Now the realignment that began in the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is reaching the Dutch Reformed – but without the lawsuits and acrimony that characterized some of those prior splits. Delegates to the RCA General Synod in October approved recommendations that allow transferring churches to retain assets and church buildings.

The move potentially presages how an expected split in the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second largest Protestant denomination, could unfold with a minimum of disruption and rancor. The UMC has also seen a significant decline in the number of Americans worshiping in its pews, dropping from 11,026,976 U.S. members in 1967 to 6,268,310 in 2020, a decline of 43 percent.

The RCA is unusual as an institution in bridging mainline and evangelical Protestant Christianity: it shares affiliation with both the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals. Scholars of American religion sometimes include it alongside the “seven sisters” of mainline Protestantism, pointing to the organization of North American congregations beginning in 1628 in the New Amsterdam colony – making the RCA the oldest continuously existing Protestant church ministering within the United States. Those congregations as a classis (a governing body equivalent to a presbytery) effectively gained independence from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1754.

This isn’t the first split in the RCA: in 1857 the Holland, Michigan-based CRC split from the denomination, later adding additional congregations from the RCA in 1882. Other reformed churches with a nationwide presence include the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) that split from the PCUSA’s southern predecessor body, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) that split from the PCUSA’s northern predecessor body, and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) that split more recently from the PCUSA. All three denominations have reported growth across the past decade as the PCUSA has declined.

  1. Comment by David S. on January 12, 2022 at 1:09 pm

    I had an acquaintance recently lament what is going on the ELCA, where it is estimated that at least 1,000 congregations have departed. Given that the ELCA, unlike the TECUSA, PCUSA, and UMC, does not have trust clauses, so the issue is really any financial settlements related to overhead and pensions. Given the lack of the clauses, it seems that the ELCA implosion has been rather quiet as compared to TEC, PCUSA depending upon the presbytery, and UMC depending upon the conference. If those responsible for leading a more adversarial, retributive approach modeled the RCA and what certain presbyteries and conferences have/are trying to model as well, then perhaps there would be less acrimony, and those departing wouldn’t view the instigators as wolves masquerading as genuine members of Christ’s body rather than fellow Christians, who’ve merely been deluded into unorthodox teaching.

  2. Comment by David Charlton on January 12, 2022 at 3:14 pm

    It’s not quite true that the ELCA does not have a trust clause. It depends on which Predecessor Church Body the congregation belonged to prior to the 1998 merger. Those that were from the American Lutheran Church or the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Church are able to keep their property on leaving the ELCA. Those congregations that were part of the Lutheran Church in America or that were organized after the formation of the ELCA are not able to keep their property without approval from their respective synod council. That is one of the reasons that departures from the ELCA have been as few as they have been.

  3. Comment by Reynolds on January 12, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    The 80/20 rule states 80% of money comes from 20% of the people. This is why PCUSA and TEC fight so hard. They know that rhe 20% want out. You will know within 5 years which part of RCA left. This is why UMC doesn’t want the protocol vote to happen.

  4. Comment by Gary Bebop on January 12, 2022 at 7:38 pm

    Anyone who is presently sanguine (or even jubilant) about Protestant splits and new denominations in today’s market should consider Aaron Renn’s sobering critique of the “three worlds of evangelicalism.”

  5. Comment by Rev. Duke on January 14, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    A correction you should make – reports 2020 attendance at 1,767,681.
    They report membership at 6,268,310. There is a vast difference!

    The thought of nice, divisible split in the UMC is aspirational at best, and most likely irrational. Humpty Dumpty has been pushed off the wall . . . it’s all piecemeal from here.

  6. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on January 14, 2022 at 2:04 pm

    Hello Rev. Duke, the article text lists membership numbers, not attendance numbers.

  7. Comment by Thomas N Rightmyer on January 14, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    The Episcopal Church has had services continually since 1607 in Jamestowne, VA, and the baptism of Virginia Dare at Roanoke in the 1580’s was the first known baptism of an English heritage child in what is the USA. There is some disagreement whether Anglicans are truly Protestants and whether the Episcopal Church reorganization in 1785 was a new church, but the majority opinion is that it is Protestant meaning non-Roman and that the same body continued under a new name and organization. And then there are the Spanish Roman Catholic missions in the southwest in the 1500’s.

  8. Comment by Walt Pryor on January 15, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    I say anyone who does not want to follow Christ and the teachings of the New Testament should not even call themselves Christians. We should not even be in the presence of such people. We should quickly separate from them and get on with serving Christ. Do not even acknowledge them, they are deceived and lost most likely.

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