My four-year-old is learning her letters. She looks up at me after scrawling a cattywampus “M” across the page. “How’s that, dad?” she asks. I tilt my head and pinch my eyes together. I smile. “It’s great honey,” I say. Right now, her M’s are disproportionate lines that require tilting your head to the right to make out the letter. I’m proud of her anyways and I know she’ll keep working on them. One day, the letters she’s working on will let her read Augustine and write her dad long letters from college.
The Reformed Church of America (RCA) held its long-awaited General Synod a few weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona. Important decisions had been delayed due to the pandemic—decisions about how the denomination would move forward given our diversity of views on human sexuality. Having witnessed many denominations spar and split over these topics, the table was set for fiery argument and inevitable division. That’s how it felt.
That didn’t happen. Not really.
In the end, the RCA passed a recommendation to create a committee to “restructure” in a way that would avoid a split. We passed a recommendation to keep RCA Global Mission within the denomination rather than to spin it off as a separate entity. And we passed a recommendation to create a “generous” pathway for churches who are choosing to leave the denomination.
Was it a good outcome? Good feels like the wrong word. But we didn’t split! Well, not really. Numerous churches, each with their own reasoning, had already chosen to leave the denomination over the past decade. There was already an entirely new “alliance” of formerly RCA churches. And, in the wake of General Synod 2021, other churches began to line up for the path of generous separation. Perhaps it is semantics.
We had decades of debate, years of discernment, surveys and proposals. We gathered to hear recommendations. We amended them. Vetoed amendments. Got 120 seconds on the floor to voice concerns, then got 60 seconds so we could get to dinner, then 120 seconds again. We played around with words and quoted John 17 ad nauseum. In the end, we’re still here.
We scribbled an M across the page and looked up at God. “How’s this Dad?”
Maybe God can tilt his head and squint his eyes a bit and see how through all of our church-play, we were trying, imperfectly, to maintain unity.
I usually imagine God looking over our ecclesial shoulder shaking his head in sheer disappointment. Division in the church grieves God. I don’t want to diminish what there is to grieve.
But perhaps if I can see my daughter’s good efforts and smile down in encouragement, God can look upon us with kindness and compassion as well. Maybe God can tilt his head and squint his eyes a bit and see how through all of our church-play, we were trying, imperfectly, to maintain unity. We were trying, imperfectly, to walk humbly. We were trying, imperfectly, to love justice.
Definitely imperfect. But God can redeem it yet.
Leading up to General Synod, many people pointed out that denominations are not synonymous with Christ’s church. They are particular historical expressions of the church, but they aren’t canon. That seems true to me. Yet I care deeply for the RCA and that deep care does not feel improper.
On the Friday of General Synod, I walked my 4-month-old around our neighborhood and texted a friend who was at General Synod. It was 8am in Chicago, 6am in Tucson. He texted me back immediately. He had been up all night, mainly praying he said. We talked on the phone for a while about how heavy life felt. Then we talked about the RCA and we prayed on the phone. There was a moment both of us started weeping. I hid my red eyes behind sun glasses and tried to pray through sobs that surprised me. We wept together because we felt like the church that baptized and ordained us was falling apart.
I was born in Pella, Iowa and baptized in February of ’89 at First Reformed Church by my dad who was an RCA minister. During my childhood my parents served small RCA churches in Portage, Michigan, Corsica, South Dakota, and Brandon, Wisconsin. I studied religion at Hope College (RCA) and got an M. Div at Western Theological Seminary (RCA). My RCA credentials are solid. Eventually my wife and I moved to Chicago. I looked for an RCA church to get ordained through. I was surprised to find that there was only one RCA church in Chicago. It is the church I currently serve, Grace Chicago Church. Formerly a church plant of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Grace is now an RCA congregation in the City Classis.
Joining the Classis of the City was a bizarre experience for me. Most of the churches in this newly formed classis picked the RCA as Grace Chicago did. They did their prayerful due diligence and actively chose the RCA. They extolled the RCA for its virtues. They talked admiringly about the classis structure, the bottom-up polity, the big-tent reformed approach which had historically seen us through thorny issues.
I felt out of place in the city classis because I never chose the RCA. I was born into it. I never opted out, but I had never considered vetting the other options. The RCA was family and you don’t choose your family. In the city classis, I felt like the confused kid who overhears someone complimenting their family for being “so cool.” Really? My family? Are we talking about the same people?
I found myself in the RCA. And as a reformed Christian, I don’t believe where we find ourselves is happenstance.
We are four-year-olds playing with words and heavenly things. We seek the mind of Christ as best we can.
On Fridays leading up to General Synod I found myself on Zoom prayer calls with others from across North America who were praying for the RCA. We broke out into Zoom rooms with 4 or 5 others. Folks from Canada, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, New Jersey. People in their 30’s and 90’s. We talked about our hopes and dreams for the denomination. Sometimes our conversations gave away whether we were progressives or traditionalists. Sometimes it became clear whether we prioritized the unity of John 17 or the discipline of James 5. There were weighty differences among us. But we also found ourselves together in prayer. We found ourselves praying together for the future of the church. And where we find ourselves is usually where we are called.
When it comes to being the church, we know the stakes are high so we are tempted to imagine that we’ve got it figured out. We want to be silver tongued giants with theology above reproach. At General Synod this year, some people are certain we missed the mark. Maybe we did.
There are no easy answers. There was never going to be a perfect outcome. In the end, we are not so different than my daughter. We are four-year-olds playing with words and heavenly things. We seek the mind of Christ as best we can. We try to keep the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus at the center of our life together. But at the end, we hold up our construction paper to God and ask, “How’d we do?”
If he wasn’t a loving Father, he’d tear it to pieces.
But I think he smiles. He loves us still.
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As a delegate to this RCA General Synod, I resonate with so much of what Rev. Schut expresses in this post. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection and for recognizing that we who participated did our imperfect best.
You’re so welcome! Thanks for reading. And thanks for serving as a delegate!