That’s what Amway titan Rich DeVos said recently to the Grand Rapids newspaper. So he has plans to reunite the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America (HT: Presbyterians Weekly News). The columnist comments that no one remembers why the CRC separated from the RCA in 1857. Is that really true? Not really. The article itself lists at least one of the reasons the separation happened in the first place:
…the issues that caused the CRC to break away are irrelevant now. For instance, one was whether to sing hymns or Psalms.
So it’s not that that no one remembers. It may be, however, that no one cares any longer, but that’s a different matter. The article comes closer to the truth when it says:
Virtually no theological or worship differences remain. Now that the CRC ordains women, that’s no issue either. The only significant difference is the CRC’s greater emphasis on Christian schools.
According to the story, merger discussions began in earnest in 2002, seven years after the the “progressives” told confessionalists and conservatives to take a hike. Both RCA and CRC synods approved closer cooperation last year. Pressure will continue to build within the CRC to merge with the RCA. The case for the proposed merger appears in the article. 1. A merger will produce a stronger “witness for Christ.” 2. A larger church will get more done. The article lists a couple of possible obstacles (including a potential exodus of pastors and scholars—but we’ve already seen that was no obstacle in 1995) and it really comes down, as Jerry Dykstra notes in the article, to property.
Is it true that a merger between the CRC and RCA will produce a “more efficient” church and a “stronger witness for Christ”? It depends on some definitions. Mergers may be good business but in the history of American Christianity, the sorts of mergers proposed above have produced little efficiency and there is no evidence that such mergers have advanced the Christian witness. Consider the seven sisters of the mainline Protestant family. What is the “witness for Christ” in the PCUSA, the UCC, the UMC, the Episcopal Church, the Churches of Christ and the rest? In other words, in the rush to join the mainline, perhaps the powers that be in the CRC should ask Mr DeVos whether he will really get what he says he wants? Has Mr DeVos ever worked with the bureaucracy of a mainline Protestant church? Efficiency is not the first word that comes to mind.
It’s probably true that there are no substantial, principled reasons to remain separate, but who has moved since 1857, the CRC or the RCA? To ask that question is to answer it. The RCA “Americanized” very quickly in the 19th century and the CRC resisted for about a century. By the middle of the 20th century, however, the push to make the CRC a truly “American” (what some of the old Dutchmen in the CRC used to call “Methodist” or revivalist) was underway and has continued in the decades since.
The prospect of a merger with the RCA should make the remaining “conservatives” and “confessionalists” sit up, pay attention, and ask some difficult questions. What are you conserving and what are you confessing? I understand that, for many, the CRC is “holy mother church.” That loyalty to the institutional church is laudable and, in important ways, counter-cultural but you must ask yourself whether you are being loyal to the Christian Reformed Church? Is it really the CRC or has it become something else? Is there an essence to the CRC or is the CRC whatever Synod says it is? If I take the core out of a golf ball but leave the cover, is it really a golf ball any longer? If you hit it with a driver will it make that sweet “ping” sound or will it simply say, “thawp” and lay there on the ground?
The article gets right at the heart of things. The CRC came into existence to preserve the Reformed faith (theology, piety, and practice) as confessed in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Is that what the CRC is about now? No, not really. Take the example raised in the article and dismissed as inconsequential: psalms versus hymns. I realize that it’s not fashionable to criticize hymns but there was a principle at stake in 1857. It wasn’t just preference. It was about the second commandment as understood and confessed by the Reformed Churches since the early part of the 16th century. As the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes that teaching we confess:
96. What does God require in the second Commandment?
That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.
When this language was adopted by the Dutch Reformed Churches in the 1560s and at the great Synod of Dort (1618–19) this language, the second commandment of the law of God was understood to mean that we may do only that in worship which God has commanded. We understood that God’s Word requires us to respond to his grace by singing to him in his Word. Whatever the virtues of hymns they are not God’s Word. The corollary to this understanding is the doctrine of sola scriptura. The church may not impose upon her members anything as obligatory that is not required by God’s Word. There is no requirement in Scripture that God’s people pray or sing using anything other than the inspired Word of God. “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” cannot be assumed to equal “How Great Thou Art.” These principles, as applied to worship, have become known as the Regulative Principle or sometimes the Reformed Principle of Worship (RPW). You can read more about this in Recovering the Reformed Confession. It wasn’t that long ago that Christian Reformed congregations could be heard singing the psalms (without musical accompaniment). There are still folk in the CRC today who remember singing out of the 1912 Psalter.
According to the article, the last line in the sand is Christian schools. We’ve gone round and round about Christian schools in this space. Let me suggest that, as important as Christian education is, it is, as I suggested recently about the Church of Scotland, only the end of a very long train. Questions like Christian schools are matters of the application of God’s Word to specific circumstances and faithful believers may differ on the matter of exactly how to educate one’s children. Strictly considered, we don’t confess “Christian schools,” as such. We do confess a specific understanding of the 2nd commandment, however. Long before one gets to Christian schools one must consider the authority, truthfulness, and reliability of God’s Word. One must consider how that Word is to be read and understood, what we confess about God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, and last things. Ethics flow out of our theology. When our theology has been pushed to the side in favor of other interests, then we have “dead orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy, of course, is never really dead, but it is possible to continue mouthing the words while denying the substance of the faith.
Gradually over the last 60 years, the CRC has gradually abandoned her confession (theology, piety, and practice). She isn’t even mouthing the words any more. The very thing feared by Foppe ten Hoor and Louis Berkhof and others, in the early part of the 20th century, has come to pass. The CRC has become a broadly evangelical denomination. On its present path the future of the CRC is clear: the RCA; the home of those paragons of Reformed theology, piety, and practice: Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller. Is that the witness for Christ for which Mr DeVos hopes and if not, how will he or anyone else prevent it when the CRC and the RCA merge?