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.