(RNS) – On New Years Day, 43 Reformed Church congregations in America split from the national denomination, one of the oldest Protestant organizations in the United States, in part because of theological differences regarding marriage homosexual and the ordination of the LGBTQ clergy.
The departure of theologically conservative congregations to the new group, the Alliance of Reformed Churches, leaves some who remain in the RCA worried about the survival of the denomination. Before the split, the nearly 400-year-old denomination had fewer than 200,000 members and 1,000 churches.
At least 125 churches of various denominations are in discussions with ARC leaders about membership.
“Realistically, this is a large group of conservative churches that also provide a lot of income for the denomination. I really think the mass exodus of all these conservative churches is going to put CAR in a very difficult financial position, ”said Steven Rodriguez, a church planter from CAR in Brockport, New York. “I doubt that RCA will be financially viable for much longer.”
The move follows the October decision of the ARC General Synod to adopt measures for a “grace-filled separation” with departing churches and to appoint a team to develop a restructuring plan for those that remain. .
The new denomination, in addition to not affirming same-sex marriage or ordination of LGBTQ people, will place a strong emphasis on church planting and feature a flexible organizational model designed to foster theological alignment and leadership. effective decision, according to CRA officials.
“We are passionate about having this remnant of believers part of the reform and revival in the northern hemisphere,” said Tim Vink, director of spiritual leadership and outreach for the new denomination. “Part of our strategic thinking is to design things for the 21st century which allows a multiplication of churches saturated with the Gospel and a multiplication of disciples.
Other conservative-leaning churches in CAR, as well as those of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Reformed Christian Church in North America, and the Presbyterian Church in America, are also wondering if they should join the ARC, according to Vink.
Other groups, such as Kingdom Network, a group of five churches in Indiana and Illinois, have formed and expect to absorb conservative churches leaving CAR.
Vink said the new alignment will promote growth. “We want to be a safe landing platform for churches in the short term, but in the long run we want to be a serious launching pad for the church, in mission, in the world,” he said. declared.
The launch of the ARC is part of a larger realignment within North American Protestantism. The past two decades have seen conservative Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans form their own denominations on LGBTQ inclusion and sexuality, and United Methodists should consider a denominational split in the fall.
A theologically and politically diverse denomination that dates back to the arrival of Dutch settlers in Manhattan in the 1620s, the RCA has been debating sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion since the 1970s. In 2018, the General Synod of the RCA formed a team responsible for discerning whether the CAR should stay together, restructure or separate. The team ultimately suggested a path involving the three paths, but the meeting to vote on the team’s proposals was delayed for 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, approximately 15 ACR congregational, regional, and strategic leaders began to virtually meet to envision a future outside of the denomination. Part of that future, they believed, involved theological unity in the interpretation of Scripture.
“We believe that if the church is going to be successful in the 21st century, it needs to be nurtured by a more nimble structure and it needs to be more theologically aligned than theologically diverse, ”said Dan Ackerman, director of organizational leadership for the CRA.
Joel Baar, an ARC board member and alumnus of the Fellowship Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, who elected to join the ARC by a vote of 604-9, said the theological compliance of the ARC was part of what attracted his congregation.
“As CAR tried to define and clarify marriage,” Barr said, “and efforts had been made over the decades in this regard, there was still this tension within CAR over whether the Bible was or was not the full authority of God. Word. We started to feel at Fellowship that we no longer belonged to RCA.
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But theological differences remain even within the new denomination. While the understanding of marriage between a man and a woman is a “first level” theological belief, Ackerman explained, the question of the ordination of women is a “second level problem” that local leaders can address in their own lives. own contexts.
Every five years, the organization and individual congregations will assess how well they serve each other and whether they should remain partners in ministry, Ackerman said. “The word ‘covenant’ implies a choice that occurs so that you can accomplish a certain thing, and then you reassess and say, is that covenant still useful for the next chapter?”
The ARC will replace national in-person conferences with video calls, digital messaging platforms and other forms of virtual communication to make decisions more efficiently, organizers said. Its board of directors already meets twice a month to speed up response times.
The creation of the ARC, coupled with the decisions of the ACR at the General Synod, put many ACR congregations in the position of deciding whether or not to remain in the ACR.
Baar says the decision to leave RCA was not straightforward. “My roots in CAR run deep,” he said, saying part of his followers’ discernment regarding leaving the denomination was “a process of mourning.”
The Faith Reformed Church in Zeeland, Michigan, has also taken the time to discern its relationship with the CAR. For now, the congregation has decided to stay in CAR. But staying is not easy either.
“We mourn for some of the people who are no longer in the denomination. There are churches that we have planted that are going to leave, there are children that we have raised in the church who are pastors of churches that are leaving, ”said Senior Pastor Jonathan Elgersma. “We think there must be room to lament.”
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The leadership of RCA has reached out to its congregations, hoping to share with them the growing diversity of RCA and its new international church and mission planting partnerships, which includes its old global mission organization. of 375 years which supports approximately 100 missionaries and partners with its 8.5 million dollars. endowments.
Yet the ACR is also committed to allowing outgoing churches to leave on good terms. “We want to bless our brothers and sisters who choose to find another denominational family,” said Christina Tazelaar, director of communications for RCA.
ARC also appears dedicated to a smooth transition, and ARC pastors say they are open to continuing to partner with ARC. “We bless RCA, we pray for RCA,” Vink said.
Elgersma also hopes the RCA and RCA will stay in conversation. “Are we loyal enough to respect the whole kingdom, listen to each other and learn from each other? he said. “I really hope this is where we land as this plays out.”
But, said Vink, “the October General Synod made it clear to many conservative churches that now is the time to seek a new skin.”