In the larger scheme of things, the dissolution of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), should it eventually happen, is ecclesiastical small potatoes: one more immigrant denomination absorbed into the morass of American evangelicalism. But it makes me sad if for no other reason that for many years, in the old prizefight metaphor, the CRC hit above its weight. Perhaps still does. Or could.
I’ll have some things to say in later posts about the future of the denomination and about the future of denominationalism in general, including a look at the New Calvinism (not so new anymore) and its impact on the current state of the CRC, but for this post allow me a few, admittedly nostalgic, thoughts on what we are losing and have perhaps already lost in the contentious, take-no-prisoners atmosphere pervading the denomination at the moment. And what perhaps in some future denominational arrangement we might aspire to once again.
What have we lost or seem about to lose? Start with the intellectual life of the denomination. I grew up CRC in the 50s and 60s of the previous (20th) century. It was a time, post-WWII, when the CRC like many other similar institutions was emerging into the world. For a kid from Lynden, Washington, these were heady times.
I was 17 years old when I climbed on the Great Northern railroad in Everett and began the long journey east to Grand Rapids. The train was called the “Empire Builder.” Still called that today despite what it suggests about trains and about those who built them. I had never been away from home before. Used to cool weather in summer in the Pacific Northwest, I glanced outside as we pulled into Union Station in Chicago. It looked cloudy. Cool weather, I thought. I grabbed a jacket and to my surprise stepped into the heat and humidity of a Chicago summer. We weren’t in Lynden anymore.
The Calvin I attended that fall was in ferment. The civil rights movement was in full flower. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, a year before I stepped off that train first in Chicago and then in Grand Rapids. On July 2, 1964, before I left Lynden, President Lyndon (no relation to the town) Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. A year later, it was followed by the Voting Rights Act. The tectonic plates were shifting.
We soon were at war in Vietnam. In 1964, protests against the war had already begun to break out here and there on progressive campuses. At Calvin, still relatively isolated and buttoned-up, we didn’t protest—that came later. We talked about the war, debated it, and I, along with many classmates, began to question what we were doing in Vietnam. When I returned home at Christmas and raised my doubts to my parents, my dad was a veteran of WWII, they were stunned and angry. No one in my little community questioned the government. Until then. My parents came eventually to agree with me.
But these were issues swirling around in the atmosphere of the time. For me, a kid from Lynden, it was the promise of the academic world that challenged and changed me most. Woefully unprepared academically—mostly my own fault, I suspect—I plunged into Calvin with all the exhilaration of someone who has chanced into a new and unexpected world, a sort of Narnia or Hogwarts, as if the Empire Builder had left the continent where I grew up and arrived at a new continent full of arcane wonders. There were for the offering great literature, history, and thoughts—thoughts and thoughts and thoughts about everything under the sun. And even beyond the sun.
When I arrived on campus, the emerging center of intellectual life at Calvin was the philosophy department. Beyond the individual accomplishments of the stars of the department, professors like Alvin Plantinga and Nick Wolterstorff, what stands out for me from that era is a lack of parochialism in their approach to the issues. They were not narrow. They were not merely debating other closely aligned Christians. It was not all in house. They engaged thinkers across the board with respect and a genuine desire to understand other points of view. They approached the broader world of human thought with wit and a certain confidence that the positions they held, positions rooted in Reformed thought, could stand up in the debates of the time. There was a sense that what was happening at Calvin—and not just at Calvin, but in other, CRC-allied institutions—was at the center of Reformed theological life. And perhaps not just at the center of Reformed theological life but of Christian thought in general.
In these discussions there was a sense of excitement, a sense that in the meeting between deep faith and the world, it was often the world and not the faith that was being changed. Perhaps better, it was the world being changed and the faith being deepened. The conviction at the center of that engagement was that our faith is always a faith in what is real and true—not true because we believe it but true because it best represents the world in which we live and the God whom we serve. The church need not fear the best in science and art and literature. It is all of God and for God.
The church itself, the CRC, was also beginning to engage the issues of the day, although slowly, often taking a step back for every step and a half forward. Take Synod 1973. The agenda was overwhelming. It included study committee reports from committees looking at neo-pentecostalism, a new confession, a new translation for the Heidelberg Catechism, (separately) proof texts for the Heidelberg Catechism, a Psalter Hymnal supplement, liturgy, women in ecclesiastical office, marriage guidelines, lodge and church membership, homosexuality, and ecclesiastical office and ordination. The year before, 1972, synod had looked at “the nature and extent of biblical authority” among 19 other study committee reports, some with majorities and minorities. The church was studying and debating. And changing. And no one locked the doors for the debates.
It was a time of liturgical study and renewal. A study committee report from 1968, written by the late Lewis Smedes, brought the CRC into contact with the great liturgical tradition of the church. Another study was brought to synod in 1997. With the founding of the Calvin Worship Institute, the CRC has brought worship reflection and renewal to a broad swath of churches and denominations.
It was also the time of the development of justice ministries. The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, now World Renew, was first incorporated in the United States in 1962. A clutch of other denominationally affiliated justice ministries have surrounded and supplemented World Renew’s emphasis on development work: in Canada, such ministries as the Centre for Public Justice and in the US, the Office of Social Justice.
The point is not to name all these signature CRC initiatives, nor to cover the field. My intent is not to write a history but only to suggest that the CRC has done good work, especially in the era from, say, 1960-2000. Nor am I in this overlooking the considerable failures of the CRC. If you want an account of how insular and opaque the CRC could be, read Willie James Jennings’s chilling opening chapter in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.
Too much of what the CRC was in those years was held together by ethnic pride of the “If you aren’t Dutch, you aren’t much” variety. Debates at synod were friendlier because, well, everyone knew everyone else. We are well to have stepped beyond that sort of false harmony. But, allowing for all that, we have lost something precious in our moving on.
What we have lost is a loyalty to each other. No, better, a loyalty to the church. Not to the institution but to the people. I’ve often told a story from the time when I was the heretic of record in the CRC. In the story, as it came to me, three Lyndenites were playing a round of golf. A fourth, not known to three, joined them to fill out the foursome. This man, also CRC, as it happened, soon began to vent about how the CRC was losing its way, citing me and my views (and those who supported me) as a key piece of evidence for his claims. At first the Lynden guys listened politely, but after a while they stopped him. They said to the stranger, “We don’t always agree with Clay, but he grew up here, and we know him, and we don’t to hear any more of your complaints.” That sort of thing seems no longer possible, even in Lynden.
The contrast between then and now can easily be illustrated by the difference between the 1973 report on homosexuality and the 2021-2 human sexuality report. The 1973 report was for its time a breath of fresh air. The authors recognized that the issue wasn’t just sex; it was life together. They explored the idea of civil unions for gay people. They wondered whether the apostle’s condemnation of gay sex in Romans 1 was not really about temple prostitution. If, in the end, they got things wrong and fell well short of where the church needed to go, it was a good beginning. But there the CRC stalled, as someone recently put it, “xeroxing” the 1973 report until 2022, when synod rewrote it, no longer in a spirit of genuine inquiry and graciousness but in a spirit of judgment, seeking not only to draw its conclusions but to elevate those conclusions above debate, to make them “confessional.”
I’m genuinely sad about the course of the CRC over my lifetime. It seemed to reach a zenith sometime near the end of the millennium and then begin a long slide into a form of Reformed theology more Westminster than Heidelberg (more on this in another post), more judgment than grace, more scholastic than reformational. Perhaps the first omen of this development was Synod 1994, when an organized group sent delegates to synod to shut down the debate on women in office once and for all, trying to give their position quasi-confessional status.
After a long and bruising debate at that synod, a debate that ended with a vote excluding women from the offices of elder and pastor and making that exclusion an article of faith (“the clear teaching of the Bible”), the late Harvey Stob, a delegate from New Jersey, rose to a point of order. He asked the chair if in the light of the declaration of synod the previous day he should simply go home, since synod had declared his views to be unbiblical. His question and others led to a discussion clarifying the right of delegates and people of the church generally to publicly disagree with the decision of synod. Synod backed off, but a warning had been sent.
Will the CRC back off what it decided in 2022? I don’t know. And even if it does, one cannot go back to the church as it was. Nor should we. But we should continue to dream of a church, fully invested in the best of Reformed thought, always open to the longer and much larger tradition of the church reaching back to the apostles, affirming not only of the inclusion of LBGTQ+ people but open to what they have to teach the rest of the church—a church that reads the Bible not for whom it condemns but for its gospel of freedom.
I’ve come to think that what is required for our time is the work of retrieval. I have in mind three traditions that need to be retrieved in the CRC or whatever entity succeeds it. The first is scripture. In what I’ve written previously, I’ve already tried to contribute to the retrieval of scripture from the sort of readings one finds, for example, in the synodical report on human sexuality. Equally important is to retrieve the broad tradition of the church. It seems to me that we live in a time in which there can be an unusually open and fertile conversation across old boundaries, including not only the churches of the West but the churches and theologians of the East (on this, see recently Rowan Williams, Looking East in Winter). And last, the retrieval of the Reformed tradition.
The Reformed tradition didn’t begin as a tradition at all. It began as a reaction to what the Reformers regarded as the calcifying of tradition. In this sense, it was and is against tradition. Calvin, Luther, and others were young men when they began their reform. (For women in the Reformation, see the essays of Marilynne Robinson on Marguerite of Navarre.) They were intent on getting back to scripture. To think through it anew. Calvin, in particular, was a brilliant exegete. But now to calcify the work of these reformers—often, in fact, not the work of the early reformers themselves but the codification of their work in the following generations—is to betray what they were about. We need to do the work of reaching back to their key insights, knocking off the rust, and reconsidering against scripture and life what is true and what is not.
Can such a church emerge from current controversy? I don’t know, but I hope in some small way to push towards that goal. I hope you do, too.