Application for Leave to Withdraw
Petition for Leave to Withdraw from the Denomination for the Purpose of Affiliating with Another Denomination
Whereas the Consistory of First Reformed Church has carefully considered the best interests of Christ’s Church in our denominational affiliation…
Whereas the Congregation has overwhelmingly 98.5% affirmed the consistory’s recommendation to transfer to a new denomination, believing this will best serve Christ’s Kingdom…
Whereas the Book of Church Order has provided the process for a Congregation to pursue such a course of action (Book of Church Order Chapter 1, Part II, Article 7, Section 18, 19):
The Consistory of First Reformed Church petitions the Classis of Illiana-Florida (RCA) for approval to withdraw from the Reformed Church in America and be transferred to the Chicago Metro Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA); together with all of its real and personal property free from any claim of the Reformed Church in America, or any assembly, board, or agency thereof.
Ministers of Word and Sacrament:
The Book of Church Order: Grounds and Process for Withdrawal
Brothers and sisters, as we have deliberated over these past months and years over whether we feel it is appropriate to seek fellowship with another denomination one of our chief concerns has been that we are fully faithful to our current commitments. To this end we have diligently studied the Book of Church Order and in our study have found that the BCO anticipates a situation, such as ours, in which a congregation feels that the church of Jesus Christ is best served through a peaceful and amiable separation from the Reformed Church in America.
The Book of Church Order says the following regarding appropriate grounds for withdrawal of a church from the Reformed Church in America for the express purpose of joining another denomination (1.II.7, Sec. 18):
a. such church can no longer function effectively in its present relationship;
b. the effectiveness of such congregation as a local church could be enhanced if it were to affiliate with another denomination;
c. the denomination with which it desires to affiliate furnishes written evidence that the church in question would be able to exercise a more effective ministry under its jurisdiction, and that if such church were to be transferred to its jurisdiction, it would be received without reservation as a church having all the rights and privileges of any of its churches.
We understand these clauses establish two criteria for withdrawal:
- The “effectiveness criterion”: The BCO envisions that the RCA may not be the best place for a congregation to minister effectively. It allows such a congregation to transfer to another denomination that would enhance its ministry effectiveness. Therefore, effectiveness in ministry is of chief concern in this petition.Perhaps unfortunately the BCO does not clearly define what constitutes “effective ministry.” Because of this we will try to give our best understanding of what it means to minister effectively and why it is that we feel we are no longer able to do so in good conscience within the Reformed Church in America.
- The “full partnership” criterion: The BCO does not allow a congregation to enter another denomination unless it is received as a fully participating member of that denomination. Since we fully embrace the wisdom of this requirement we are eager to demonstrate that in fact we will be a welcome and valued member of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Also in our study of the BCO we have found a very fair, open, and timely process for the classis to follow in considering the petition of the church seeking to withdraw. The Book of Church Order outlines this process in 1.II.7, Sec. 19:
a. The petition for withdrawal shall be promptly referred to the executive committee, the Committee on Judicial Business, or a special committee, as shall be determined by the classis or its executive committee.
b. The classis committee shall meet with the congregation, with the consistory of the church, and with representatives of the denomination with which the church desires to affiliate. The committee shall endeavor to ascertain the basic facts and conditions underlying the petition, endeavor to reconcile any differences of opinion within the congregation and between the church and the denomination, explore the advantages and disadvantages of a withdrawal and the needs of both the church and the denomination, and endeavor to ascertain how Christ’s Kingdom may best be served in the matter.
c. The committee shall endeavor to ascertain the will of the congregation at a meeting…
d. The committee shall file its report with the stated clerk of the classis within six months after its appointment, setting forth its findings and recommendations. Such report shall be submitted to the classis at a regular or a special meeting held within sixty days and after receipt of the report by the stated clerk.
We are fully committed to being willing and responsible members of this process.
Reasons for Withdrawal from the RCA
Brothers and sisters, in this portion of our petition we desire to share with you why it is that we feel we can no longer minister effectively and in good conscience within the Reformed Church in America. We hope that as you read this you will not find us to be combative, but informative, not angry at any one person or entity, but grieved that we feel so out of step with our historic home.
Our determination to petition for transfer from the Reformed Church in America to the Presbyterian Church in America was not made lightly. It comes after years of seeking to serve, influence, and advocate for unity in truth within the RCA. Allow us now to outline our reasons for pursuing this transfer. As we do we will be indicating why this move will enhance the effectiveness and fruitfulness of the ministry of First Reformed Church.
Here we will list four specific areas of concern (in no particular order) and provide a summary of why these issues within the RCA are concerning to us. In doing so we hope you will see how it is that we feel we simply can no longer minister within the RCA effectively and in good conscience.
Much of our research on these issues has been a shared task between a number of churches and ministers who share mutual concern over these issues. While we do not feel compelled to give credit to each person who contributed to this research we do wish to make known that our presentation of these issues is the result of efforts ranging beyond just our own congregation.
Concerns about the Confession of Belhar
Our former General Secretary adequately stated the importance of confessions within the life of our denomination:
A confession is studied by and commended to each student in ministerial formation for preparation as minister of Word and sacrament. Ministers in the RCA acknowledge publicly that they accept confessions as “historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God.” Thus, a confession is the lens through which the truth of the Scripture is distilled and taught. A confession is foundational to the identity and self-understanding of a church. A confession serves as a covenantal bond clarifying how Christian faith is to be understood. A confession provides a way to express the unity of Christian conviction held by a body of believers.
Addressing the continued relevance of confessions in an increasingly pluralistic society, Professor Carl Trueman comments,
As other religions collide with Christianity, and especially as some of those religions use the same kind of biblical vocabulary that we use, it is going to be more and more crucial that we understand not only what words to use, but also what those words actually mean. Your friendly Mormon neighbor might well agree with you that Jesus is Lord; he may even sing some of the same hymns at his worship service. Thus, you are going to need to know what exactly your church means when it says “Jesus is Lord” or performs baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Good confessions enable you to do that with greater ease than anything else.
We have no interest in waging a campaign to remove the Belhar Confession as a standard of the Reformed Church. Our denomination has settled the question on whether the Belhar will serve as a confession for the RCA. It will. At the same time, we feel it is important to provide a summary of why the Belhar Confession concerns us and constitutes a significant factor in our decision to submit this petition for withdrawal and transfer.
We’re concerned about what it is.
While we have gladly celebrated the rich history of the confession itself and social impulses expressed in the Belhar Confession, we have also maintained that the primary problem with the document is that we cannot regard it as a confession. In our estimation, while Belhar may serve as a meaningful statement or a helpful historical reference point, it does not share the essential, confession-making qualities of our other three confessions. Perhaps this is why it has not been received by two of our closest denominational relations—the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Christian Reformed Church.
Dr. John Cooper, professor of philosophical theology at Calvin Seminary, argues:
Compared to our three “Forms of Unity” ... the Belhar Confession is much too brief and narrow to be a confession. It neither summarizes the Christian faith (as do the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession) nor elaborates God’s plan of redemption (Canons of Dort). Moreover, its prologue states that it was not meant to be a doctrinal standard.
Alan Wisdom, from the PC(USA) comments:
Belhar, unlike other confessions, does not say much about the work of Christ in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. It starts with a brief reference to “Christ’s work of reconciliation” but then moves quickly to focus on human relationships in church and society. The problem is that the pattern of Reformed theology is to start with God’s work in Jesus Christ and only then move to draw ethical and political implications.
And from another tradition, African-American Baptist pastor Thabiti Anyabwile summarizes:
Belhar could never stand alone as a confession... Belhar lacks any definition of the Gospel or most other cardinal points of Christian belief. It must stand on the shoulders of ... other confessions–and secondary to them–or else the entire Christian confession falls, in my opinion. Others have already noted this, but it warrants stating again.
We’re concerned about what it does and doesn’t say.
We believe that the Belhar Confession fails to speak with clarity on key issues an adequate confession would address. Dr. Cooper comments,
The Belhar focuses on God’s concern for the poor, racial reconciliation, and social justice. But it does not first make clear the basic gospel truths that all humans are sinners, that salvation is God’s gracious gift of eternal life extended without regard to social status, and that salvation comes only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. (Cooper, ibid.)
Belhar demands that “the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice.” But this categorical assertion about the mission of the church seems too broad. In the words of one commentator:
Belhar’s language seems to be a prescription for endless political crusades against every form of perceived injustice. Already, the ... Reformed Church in America...has indicated that it will use the confession to address issues such as agricultural subsidies, refugee resettlement, opposing the Iraq War, liberalizing immigration laws, raising the minimum wage, and ending U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Whatever you may feel about those particular issues, the question must be raised: Does the list have any end? Does Belhar give us any help in discerning the difference between clear issues where the church is called to take a strong corporate stand and cloudier issues that it ought to leave to the political judgment of its members? (Wisdom, ibid.)
The Belhar depicts God as “in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” It calls the church to “stand where the Lord stands”: “with the wronged” and “against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” Again, such language is imprecise and potentially unhelpful. Wisdom comments:
“This binary view of society made some sense in the South Africa of the 1980s. It really was divided starkly between a white minority and a non-white majority.
But does this dualistic language of class conflict accurately describe our U.S. society in 2011? Is our society neatly divided between the oppressed and their oppressors? Is it such a simple thing to take sides with the oppressed? Do the political forces that claim to represent the oppressed always in fact serve their best interests? Just because a movement attacks “the powerful and privileged” does not mean that it really helps the poor.
It’s even more complicated in America today. If you took a poll, I suspect that most respondents would identify themselves as members of some oppressed group. Some of my fellow conservative Christians see themselves as a persecuted minority, and I think they look a bit ridiculous all decked out in their martyrs’ robes. And they are far from the only ones who cultivate their self-image as a victim group. Everybody wants to be counted as oppressed, and nobody admits to being an oppressor.
Granted that God has a particular concern for the poor—liberation theology was right on that point—does it help the poor to turn God into a partisan for their social faction? Aren’t rich and poor alike in the grips of sinful inclinations and sinful systems? Don’t we call both to repentance and redemption in Christ? Aren’t we seeking social systems that restore both rich and poor to their proper humanity?
I recognize that Belhar does not go to the extremes of militant liberation theology. But its binary language pitting “the wronged” against “the powerful and privileged” is still not helpful in our PCUSA context of 2011. Seeking justice in most cases involves a lot more than deciding who are “the wronged” and lining up on their side. It requires political prudence to balance various legitimate claims of parties that have all suffered wrongs and all committed wrongs. Belhar’s liberation theology rhetoric is not our best guide through these complexities. We may need to find more suitable words. (Wisdom, Ibid.)
Cooper sums up the issue well:
Read as a confession—a summary of the Christian faith or the gospel—the Belhar does look like the social gospel or liberation theology. It seems to equate the gospel with social well-being and to conflate human reconciliation with reconciliation to God. It does not sufficiently distinguish salvation from providence, eternal life from earthly welfare, or unity in Christ from human solidarity. (Cooper, Ibid.)
We’re concerned about what it’s being used to say.
Unlike the Three Forms of Unity, the Belhar Confession is an ambiguous document. The point of a confession is to bring doctrinal clarity to essential issues. Such clarity fosters a true Christian unity, rooted in biblical truth. Rather than doing this, we feel the Belhar Confession muddies the water. Several examples could be offered. But the most poignant have to do with the ways the Belhar Confession has been used to address the debate over homosexuality in the church.
Kevin DeYoung has observed:
Allen Boesak, under whose leadership Belhar was first drafted, recently made headlines when he ‘dramatically insisted that the church’s Belhar Confession demands the defense of the full rights of gay members. When the synod rejected this, he announced his intention to resign from all church offices and left the synod floor with his wife’ (The Banner, January, 16). If the man responsible for overseeing the first draft of the Belhar Confession asserts that support for homosexual unions and homosexual ordination is demanded by the Confession, why should we think that this document will not be used in the RCA to a similar end.
Our former General Secretary, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, delivered a paper titled, “What Might the Confession of Belhar Unify?” While acknowledging the Belhar Confession does not advocate for the full inclusion of practicing homosexuals, Granberg-Michaelson indicated that the Belhar Confession certainly has something to say to churches debating the issue:
...where did we ever get the idea that [differences over homosexuality] could determine whether or not [we] should regard one another as brothers and sisters in the same denomination? [The issue of homosexuality] ... is not addressed by the Belhar Confession, ... But that does not deprive this confession of power to guide those denominations threatened with division over [homosexual relationships]...There is no excuse in the Belhar Confession which justifies ignoring this “binding force” of God’s Spirit. ... This unity must be real. It “must become visible so that the world may believe...” In my own North American context, the church needs to hear these words with the confessional weight that Belhar intends, and obey.
According to this reading of the Belhar Confession, it would appear that to separate from a church that rejects the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is a greater sin than celebrating sexual practices that Scripture clearly condemns.
We’re concerned about what it will force pastors and elders to say.
The confessions form the theological basis for ordaining ministers and holding them accountable. When pastors enter a new classis; when theological students sit before an examination committee; when we stand before our classis and state that we “accept the Standards as historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God”; when subscribing to our confessions, the Minister of Word and Sacrament or Commissioned Pastor is making a statement of integrity and inviting accountability. We believe that any minister the Lord might call to serve our congregation will not be able to make such a statement about the Belhar Confession with full confidence and in a pure conscience.
We are aware that there are many ideas within the Reformed Church in America concerning what it means to confess the confessions to be “faithful and historic witnesses to the Reformed faith.” Our conviction is that we are a confessional church and the confessions of our church guide and direct our theological hermeneutic. We do not believe the Belhar Confession is a faithful guide for the teaching ministries of our congregation and we cannot expect our pastors or officers to confess it in good conscience.
We’re concerned about where it will lead us.
While we celebrate and affirm the historic role the Belhar Confession played in undermining apartheid, we do not believe the Belhar Confession should serve as a foundation-level document for building the church of the future. While we affirm the heart for unity, reconciliation, and justice expressed in its most stirring passages, we question the precision of its language.
An additional concern to us is the way in which the Belhar Confession’s adoption has vaulted it to the top of the confessional ‘pecking order’. At a recent synod we attempted to count the number of references to the Belhar Confession v. the Three Forms of Unity. It was hard to get a precise count, but our best guess is that the ratio was at least 20-1. The prioritizing of a confession which we do not confess is a matter of increasing concern as we consider the theological trajectory of the Reformed Church in America.
Ultimately, we are convinced that the Belhar Confession will not lead to greater unity in truth within the Reformed Church in America. The Belhar Confession will only lead us further into the very situation that we find so untenable, everyone will continue to do what seems best in their own eyes and will continue to import their own desires into our authoritative documents. The Belhar Confession’s lack of clarity and theological ambiguity lends itself freely to precisely that problem.
Brothers and sisters, we understand that the RCA has embraced the Belhar Confession and that the Belhar Confession has, at times, had a wonderful effect on Christ’s church. While we opposed its adoption as a confession (as did our classis) we have no illusions as to its permanence and prominence for the RCA. However, as a congregation we believe that the adoption of this new confession has placed us in the unenviable position of having to confess a confession against the better judgment of our own consciences. The only alternative we see is to seek a new confessional home where we are able to serve with confessional integrity. As a church that highly values confessional integrity the Belhar Confession is a significant concern and motivation for our petition to withdraw.
The denomination’s response to homosexuality
The issue of homosexuality will be a central issue in church ministry today and in the coming decades. This is not simply a matter of “getting a position right.” As a congregation we are ministering to loved ones, friends, and family. We know people who struggle with same sex attraction. We feel that we must be clear in our convictions and gracious to those who are affected by same sex attraction (SSA). Unfortunately we feel that the clarity we seek is being undermined by the actions of the Reformed Church in America, and our ability to delicately minister to people affected by SSA is undermined by our deep-seated desire to promote clarity within the Reformed Church in America.
This issue is extremely important and extremely sensitive. It is extremely important because the Scriptures are exceedingly clear (as is the testimony of the historic and global church) concerning the Lord’s desire for human sexuality. Paul makes clear, under the inspiration of the Spirit, that homosexuality is among a list of sins that lead to death—yet an increasing number within the Reformed Church in America (particularly in our seminaries) are blessing homosexual relationships and in effect saying “peace, peace” when there is no peace. We can no longer in good conscience continue in fellowship with those false teachers who would lead people to believe that God blesses the very sin which is destroying them.
The issue of same sex attraction is extremely sensitive because it affects families within our own congregation. We have people, undoubtedly more people than we know of, who struggle against attraction to members of the same sex. We want to be extremely gracious to them, we want to help them to see the beauty of God’s design for marriage and seek healing and restoration in Christ. We want to walk faithfully alongside the young man whose desires simply do not go away, and comfort him as he contemplates a life of dying to himself and living for Christ. We want to graciously offer love and support to the young woman who chooses to leave a homosexual lifestyle because she has come to Christ. We do not want to imply whatsoever that these precious members of our congregation are the enemy, but we fear that this is exactly what comes across when so often we are forced to deal with the issue of the RCA’s increasing lack of clarity and obedience on this very issue.
We believe that the denomination’s response to this issue has not only been inadequate but has come to be unfaithful. Worse than that, it has come to be detrimental to our local ministry. Though the RCA has made pronouncements, we have not lived up to them. We have outlined positions, but not enforced them. More troubling, we have increasingly adopted a “live and let live” approach that undermines the integrity of past statements and results in a radically confused witness and ministry to the sexually broken and their families.
Here are the factors that lead us to this conclusion:
Limited Effect of Repeated Statements on Biblical Sexuality
Since the 1970s, the RCA has officially endorsed the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality—of course it was the implied position since the RCA’s inception since it is the position of the Scriptures and the universal position of the historic church:
- In 1978, the General Synod approved a paper entitled “Homosexuality: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal.” The paper stated clearly that “Paul’s rejection of homosexual activity is beyond question” and “we cannot affirm homosexual behavior.” The paper concluded, “Heterosexuality is not only normal; it is normative. Homosexual acts are contrary to the will of God for human sexuality.” (MGS 1978: 233-39)
- In 1980, General Synod voted to adopt a resolution “To bring to the awareness of RCA members, congregations, classes, and synods competent programs and persons which can successfully help the practicing homosexual and lesbian, minister or layperson, overcome his or her homosexual behavior.” (MGS 1980: 97)
- In 1990, the General Synod adopted R-11: “To adopt as the position of the Reformed Church in America that the practicing homosexual lifestyle is contrary to scripture, while at the same time encouraging love and sensitivity towards such persons as fellow human beings” (MGS 1990: 461)
- In 1995, the General Synod approved that a faithful summary of the RCA position on homosexuality includes, among other statements, that “Homosexual behavior is not God’s intended expression of sexuality.”
- In 2004, the General Synod adopted R-92: “To affirm that marriage is properly defined as the union of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.” (MGS 2004: 332)
- In 2012, the General Synod adopted R-56 “While compassion, patience, and loving support should be shown to all those who struggle with same-sex desires, the General Synod reaffirms our official position that homosexual behavior is a sin according to the Holy Scriptures, therefore any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense”
In spite of these statements, a growing and influential movement within the RCA is reinterpreting Scripture and pressing for full affirmation and inclusion of LGBTQ lifestyles. They continue in false teaching without discipline though their teaching leads to death.
Consider the Norm Kansfield incident. In 2004, Rev. Dr. Norm Kansfield, a Professor of Theology and the President of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, married his daughter, Ann, to another woman. In 2005, he was disciplined by General Synod. At this same Synod, “new business” contained an item labeled “Engage in Dialogue or Hold Us Accountable, Too.” The letter stated:
We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ, full of the Spirit, should bless covenantal same-sex relationships, as it does heterosexual relationships. We believe committed same-sex relationships are not sinful, but rather a blessing from God. We believe that the Reformed Church in America ought to confess its sinfulness in adhering for too long to an oppressive position on homosexuality and ought to seek the forgiveness of its lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered brothers and sisters.
It included more than 150 signatures, including dozens of RCA ministers, scores of elders and deacons, and several professors at RCA institutions. (MGS 2005: 378-81). Currently, Rev. Kansfield has been fully reinstated as a Minister in the RCA (October 18, 2011). A few days after reinstatement he gave a lecture at Central Reformed in Grand Rapids entitled “An Uncomplicated Theology for Same Sex Marriage.” Ann Kansfield and her partner are currently serving as pastors at an RCA church.
Today, through the Formula-of-Agreement, churches within our denomination are being served by “married,” same-sex couples and celebrating same-sex “marriages.” Consider this statement from an RCA Church’s website:
Tonight the New York State Senate voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. The consistory of the Greenpoint Reformed Church has voted to encourage committed same-sex couples to prayerfully consider marriage, and pledge our support to couples wishing to get married in our church. If you would like to be married at the Greenpoint Reformed Church or would like one of our ministers to officiate at your wedding, please email us. . . .
In one article, reporting on a same-sex “wedding” in an RCA church, we read:
I regularly attend Middle Collegiate Church where our Pastor, a fierce advocate for Marriage Equality, invited us to share our commitment along with two other gay male couples a week later, on July 31, 2011. Our families came to that ceremony where, in front of an affirming church community, three homosexual couples renewed their spiritual commitment through marriage.
At last count, “Room for All” has 24 churches on its roster, including Hope Church in Holland, MI, home of several Western Theological Seminary and Hope College community members. Besides the churches listed on “Roster of Affirming Churches in the RCA,” many other congregations provide support to this advocacy group, including two churches in the North Grand Rapids Classis which hosted RFA gatherings—Central Reformed in Grand Rapids and The Community in Ada. Room for All is an open, influential and active presence in our denomination.
Additionally, many prominent denominational figures have argued for an open and affirming position. Professor David Meyers’ book What God has Joined Together and Prof. James Brownson’s The Bible Gender and Sexuality represent works that are radically out of step with Scripture and our historic positions. Commenting on Prof. Brownson’s book, WTS President Rev. Dr. Timothy Brown said:
I have the utmost respect for Jim’s scholarship and work as a professor of New Testament and as a General Synod Professor of Theology...While I agree with much of what Jim writes in his new book, I do not ultimately affirm the trajectory of his vision as it relates to same-sex relationships. Yet, I will argue strongly for Jim’s right to write this book... (The Commons, Winter 2013, p 4)
While it might feel comforting to hear that Dr. Brown does not “ultimately affirm the trajectory” of Dr. Brownson’s book, it should be a cold comfort. In our opinion, when the most prominent intellectual of our denomination is given enthusiastic cover by one of the most beloved voices in our denomination, there is little to celebrate. The General Synod Professors should be primarily concerned, in our opinion, with the proper teaching of the truth of God’s Word, not with academic exercises or personal preferences. We are greatly discouraged by Dr. Brown’s defense of false teaching within the seminary.
Former General Secretary Wes Granberg-Michaelson commented:
This study opens a door, through rigorous biblical interpretation, that could welcome those in same-sex relationships into the full life, ministry and witness of the church. Personally, I find his biblical arguments persuasive.
To sum up:
- In spite of statements stretching back to the 1970s, pro-LGBT teaching and practice continues to grow.
- Advocacy groups like Room for All receive increasing support from significant sectors of our denomination
- Pro-LGBT teaching is embraced and promoted at both our RCA seminaries. We can no longer support our seminaries in good conscience through yearly assessments when part of that support, given by faithful and sacrificing members of our congregation, goes to the very men and women who are propagating this sort of false teaching.
- It would seem a denomination that claims to hold a Scriptural understanding of homosexuality is left only one way forward in the face of such an unscriptural movement of office bearers and teachers: discipline.
Since discipline seems to be an impossibility we have found a “third way.”
The “third way” approach insists that the RCA should allow classes to determine how to handle the matter. This has been our de facto approach, since cross-classis discipline is practically impossible within our church order (with limited exceptions). Recently, the “third way” has been advocated as a strategy for unity by our two past presidents of General Synod and our former General Secretary.
In her 2012 General Synod President’s Report, Lisa VanderWal commented:
…here is where we are. On one pole is the belief that to be faithful to Christ, to the church, and to the Scripture, we must declare homosexuality to be contrary to God’s design for human sexuality, denounce it as sin, and therefore render it unacceptable for members of the body of Christ. On a second pole is the belief that to be faithful to Christ, to the church, and to the gospel, we must reach out to all people, regardless of their sexual orientation; further, that this is indicated in Scripture by the radical nature of grace and the inclusivity of the gospel of Christ redeeming all things (see Acts 10 and 11, for example)…. I am firmly convinced that if we, as the RCA, are going to find a way through this morass of contradictory beliefs, we must find a third way forward. I say this because all signs point to the fact that we will not all come to agreement on this issue—nor is this issue a reason to splinter the unity of the church of Christ…. The grace and love of Christ compel us to find a different way forward, a third way of patience and humility that allows other believers space to live out their faithfulness to Christ, to the church, to the Scriptures, and to the wider society in the ways in which God calls them. Our order allows this through the classes that live and work in vastly diverse regions of our denomination.
In his memoir, Unexpected Destinations, former General Secretary Wes Granberg-Michaelson comments:
In the end, the church’s debate over homosexuality revolves around a very narrow question. If a couple of the same sex are committed publicly to a monogamous, lifelong relationship, should they, in the privacy of their bedroom, be celibate or sexually expressive? I understand that there are different convictions around that matter. But what I don’t understand is why those differences should rupture fellowship between brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
It seems completely mistaken that this narrow ethical difference become a church-dividing matter in the Anglican communion, or should alter how Rome has fellowship with historic Protestants, or should cause Lutherans to break their bonds of communion with one another, or should cause anyone to question whether they can maintain their vow to fellowship and unity in the Reformed Church in America. (223)
In an interview for Perspectives journal, Granberg-Michaelson made similar comments:
One of the saddest moments was the trial of Norm Kansfield. This isn't to say anything about where one would stand on the questions that were adjudicated in that trial. But having the highest body of the Reformed Church in America consumed in an actual trial represented to me that we had failed. We had not found a way to resolve the differences, short of this radical action. We had 100 inquiries from press around the country and even beyond the country, who wanted to hear and see the church in this unflattering situation. It was like the last scene in the world I would want for the RCA.
After the verdict I knew that the next day General Synod would have to make choices about whether they were going to go down the line of seeking to draw lines in the sand. To decide who was going to be "in" or "out" around this issue. Or were we going to go in another direction? I remember in the middle of the night feeling I had to say something to warn the church about going in a direction that, in my judgment, would only lead to further tension and division and disruption. It would take us away from our mission. I think, in fact, we did turn in another direction since then…
I actually feel reasonably optimistic. I think that the RCA has made the decision, really since the Kansfield trial, that this is an issue we're going to talk about rather than vote on. We're going to continue to seek discernment around rather than to write resolutions around. Most important, I think we've decided that this is not the question that's going to cause us to draw a line in the sand, to raise this question to status confessionis. When I look at other denominations that have gone in the direction of forcing this as a constitutional question, the outcomes I see are essentially no-win. I see people being divided. I see congregations leaving. I think the RCA is taking a different path and saying, "We've held a position on homosexuality for some time, but we've also said this is a question where we need to listen to one another and we need to be in dialogue with one another.”
General Synod 2013 seems to have moved the RCA further towards this “third way” approach. Consider:
- In his President’s Report, Tom Smith indicated that talk about “lines in the sand” was “troubling,” commenting:Can we live in unity, purity, and peace when we draw lines in the sand? Must we live by ultimatums? Last year General Synod president Lisa Vander Wal spoke of hearing the outer poles of the denomination both threaten to leave the RCA if things went ‘the wrong way.’ The same words have come to me, classic ‘if-then’ statements: If this or that happens (or doesn’t happen), then we can no longer be a part of the RCA.As we move into the future, will we be all about positional statements, staking out territory, drawing lines in the sand—and all within the body of Christ?! Toward fellow believers? To me this is very troubling. (MGS2013, 28)
- The case of Dr. Ursula Cargill, a gay woman credentialed in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches and ordained by the Classis of New Brunswick, was sent back to the Regional Synod of Mid-Atlantics, which had already voted to confirm the classis decision. (MGS2013, 346)
- The “Way Forward” committee, appointed in 2012, reported back, indicating, in essence, that the RCA should articulate a definitive statement about our position and then open the door to a period for peaceful withdrawal or recovenanting. Instead, the General Synod voted to approve a measure that moves us in the opposite direction:
R-21: To instruct the General Synod Council to appoint a diverse working group representative of the constituencies of the RCA and the varying understandings within the Reformed Church in America regarding sexual orientation and gender identity to identify, design, and/or develop resources for use in congregations and other RCA settings that will encourage grace-filled conversations among those holding varying understandings; and further, To identify, design, and/or develop resources for use in congregations and other RCA settings to assist the RCA in the development of strategies to preserve unity, purity, and peace. (MGS2013, 115)
This recommendation offers Room for All an officially sanctioned “place at the table.” In light of R-21, it seems churches may continue to teach and advocate pro-LGBTQ theology as one welcome perspective in the RCA. R-21 appears to call for those on various sides of this issue to coexist and develop “strategies to preserve unity, purity, and peace.”
4. Undoubtedly, one of the most troubling actions taken at General Synod 2013 was R-52:
R-52: To acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, in the proceedings that led to the adoption of R-28, demonstrated a lack of decorum and civility, and a general atmosphere in which delegates were not always treating one another as sisters and brothers in Christ; and further, to acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, usurped the constitutional authority reserved for the classes when, in R-28, we stated that “any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.” (MGS2013, 179)
Both ministers and an elder from First Reformed Church were present for General Synod 2012 and remember things differently. Many, perhaps most, of the delegates who voted on R-52 were not present at GS 2012. It is not clear how they could comment on a “lack of decorum and civility.” It is accurate to note that some procedural confusion arose in 2012. This was not due to a lack of decorum on the part of the delegates, but instead because the President repeatedly attempted to table a proposal she personally opposed. This led to a lengthy delay in the proceedings before delegates were allowed time for discussion and voting on the substance of R-28. In passing R-52, General Synod 2013 reprimanded General Synod 2012, which had affirmed a biblical response to pro-LGBT teaching/teachers. It also indicated that any attempt at General Synod to recognize that unbiblical teaching is “disciplinable,” is a “usurpation of power.” This move, in effect, institutionalized the “third way” approach.
5. To be sure, some might object that General Synod also voted to have a new paper prepared:
R-54: To instruct the Commission on Theology to draft a paper on human sexuality from a Reformed perspective to be presented to General Synod 2015. (MGS2013, 181)
But we are convinced another paper revisiting our position is extraneous. Another round of dialogue is not required. Consider this quote describing a General Synod:
The synod ...unanimously approved a [recommendation] which calls ‘the RCA members and churches to a process of repentance for failing to live up to its own pastoral statements on homosexuality, and to a process of prayer, learning, and growth in ministry on issues surrounding the question of homosexuality. Finally, it asks the church's Commission on Theology to develop a study guide and collect models for ministry that will help local congregations grapple with their own calls to minister in this area.’ Moments after approving this recommendation the delegates sang the doxology.
The Synod described here was convened in 1994. At a certain point, a body must move from dialogue to deliberation to decision. It appears that this General Synod did make a decision: To define strategies for us to live together in “unity, purity, and peace” with room for all perspectives.
Our consciences compel us to reject the so called “third way” for two reasons.
- First, we reject the continual caricature that we are living at one end of an extreme pole that does not want to reach out to all people because of their sexual choices and behavior. The truth is that we too believe in the radical nature of grace, and we too reach out to all people. We view the gospel as having transformational power in the lives of believers; transformation always involves repentance.
- Second, the “third way” presupposes the idea that homosexuality is something that we should all learn to live with as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is simply not possible. So long as these two positions exist in the church we will never have unity and peace, nor should we. First Corinthians 6:14b states, “What fellowship has light with darkness?” and 1 John 1:6-7 says, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” We will never resolve these differences without repentance, nor should we. We absolutely should be drawing a line in the sand. This is an issue of truth versus lie, light versus darkness, not a personal conviction versus someone else’s personal conviction. The “third way” may be warmly received by the world, but it is not biblical. It is not of Jesus. We cannot continue to walk the “third way” in good conscience.
We understand that many who share our interpretation of Scripture might feel that our assessment of the RCA situation is too bleak, but we believe that this year’s General Synod represented the final step over the line for our congregation. In our estimation, General Synod 2013 voted to grant the Room for All agenda a sanctioned “place at the table” in our denominational life. Every action on the LGBT issue at General Synod 2013 suggests we will continue to be an increasingly “open and affirming” denomination. We can no longer in good conscience be part of a family that has adopted a strategic commitment to diversity on this question.
The removal of the “conscience clauses”
While General Synod 2013 voted for diversity on the question of homosexuality, it voted down diversity on the question of the ordination of women. Amid unsubstantiated claims that the conscience clauses have been improperly used to block or discourage women’s ordination, the General Synod opted to remove a provision that has allowed complementarian elders and pastors to operate in good conscience, serving faithfully with their egalitarian brothers and sisters for three decades.
The conscience clauses allowed ministers to exist within an egalitarian body without transgressing their conscience. At minimum, complementarian pastors were not bound by duty or dictate to take part in an ordination service. The conscience clauses represented more than a technical dispensation, however; they represented our denomination’s commitment to minister together despite our differences on this important issue. It is difficult to be sure of all the ramifications of this decision, but we believe the following issues arise:
Our Elders and Pastors are Faced with a Crisis of Conscience
In their ordination vows, pastors agree to “conduct the work of the church in an orderly way and according to the Liturgy and the Book of Church Order.” Once, they could make these vows in good conscience because the BCO made room for disagreement on this issue. Since that clear constitutional allowance was removed, pastors and pastoral candidates who refuse on biblical grounds to take part in ordaining a woman are open to charges of breaking their ordination vows. They could be charged with standing in contradiction to the order codified in the BCO, an obviously egalitarian document. Even if such charges are never leveled, their own consciences could certainly accuse them.
Our liturgy, which carries constitutional weight, clearly states in the order for installation, “Christ alone is the source of all Christian ministry, through the ages calling men and women to serve.” We unconditionally and wholeheartedly embrace the truth that women are called to serve in the church. However, the very context of the event in regards to the ordination of a minister of word and sacrament heavily implies that the liturgy intends to speak about ordained ministry. When we do ordination services at First Reformed Church we simply hope that the presiding officer will omit “and women” out of respect for our consciences. Our consciences are troubled as we are pressed between the order of the RCA, an order to which we have committed ourselves, and the Word of God. Of course we must follow the Word of God, yet we remain conflicted in our conscience in regards to our obligations to our own ordination vows.
Our Convictions are at Odds with the Direction of the RCA
Our theological convictions stand squarely in contradiction to the General Synod Council “Women in Ministry and Mission” ends policy which states:
“The RCA will be a fellowship of congregations in which all women are equipped and empowered to fully exercise their gifts in the life, ministry, mission, and offices of the church.”
While complementarian pastors and churches certainly seek to develop and encourage sisters to minister in the church and culture, they do not believe this ministry extends to all offices of the church. Thus, on an issue of basic theological and practical ministry significance, we stand in opposition to our denominational practice.
Complementarian ministerial candidates may face significant hurdles in gaining a certificate of fitness for ministry.
In February 2011, the MFCA blog had an article defining the “RCA lens,” specifically defining views that might be a “poor fit” for the RCA:
What does seem to be a debate for the RCA is the way a number of our candidates and pastors have adopted the perspectives of the New Calvinism. Our certification committees have encountered individuals who claim teachers such as Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Wayne Grudem as having the most significant impact on their perspective. Labeled as “conservative,” “reformed,” and “evangelical,” much of what these modern day gurus teach is valuable, but does not accurately reflect the RCA perspective (lens). The MFCA is thus confronted with the tensions created when candidates have positions around scripture, baptism and women in ministry that do not line up with positions adopted by the RCA. Extreme positions held by candidates may even result in situations where the candidate is deemed a poor “fit” for RCA ministry.
Rev. Kappers has discussed with the consistory specific cases in which he and other complementarian/conservative ministerial candidates have felt unduly burdened and discouraged in the process of gaining a CFM through the MFCA process. With the removal of the clauses, such students are left with no confidence of fair treatment. This will almost certainly lead to a much shallower, or even empty, pool of candidates who share our convictions on this issue. We will not call men who do not share our convictions on this issue to be pastors at First Reformed Church. However, there are almost no men who are willing to risk thousands of dollars and years of time attempting to enter a denomination that seems to have made it clear that they are no longer welcome. We simply do not have confidence that we will find appropriate leadership in the future.
The RCA does not appear to have, or desire to attain, a welcoming future for complementarians.
One of the chief spokespersons for this amendment said as much, commenting,
“I believe that we have more integrity as a denomination if we just say ‘we ordain women.' And if you can’t live within a system that ordains women, then there are a lot of denominations, and perhaps this isn’t the one for you.”
It is difficult to see how congregations dedicated to building ministries and planting churches that winsomely commend a complementarian message can continue to have a productive place in the RCA.
We understand that the RCA has held an egalitarian position on ordination for three decades now. For those three decades, it also validated the right to exercise conscience. The removal of the conscience clauses significantly impacts the ministry of complementarians within the RCA. It not only affects present status, but future hopes for growth and multiplication. Holding these actions in juxtaposition with the increasingly welcoming actions of General Synod towards those promoting homosexuality and the concern is only amplified. We simply cannot continue to serve in a denomination that makes no official allowance for our position on ordination, and we have difficulty seeing First Church as a thriving ministry for decades to come without access to appropriate ministerial leadership.
Brothers and sisters, at the root of our concerns with the Reformed Church in America is the stark reality that we simply do not share in a common biblical hermeneutic with the majority of our denomination’s leadership, pastors, or seminary professors. This should already be evident as you have read through the previous three points. But, we desire to make it explicit here for the sake of clarity.
As a consistory we whole-heartedly embrace the truth that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. We believe this is taught within the Scriptures themselves when the Lord says:
“The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” (Psalm 12:6)
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” (Psalm 19:7)
“Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” (Proverbs 30:5)
Beyond these statements we believe that the Word of God has as its primary author the Lord himself in the person of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Word shares in the purity and perfection of its primary author.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16)
“For no prophesy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21)
We believe that this is the authorial intent of our confessions as well:
“True faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true…” (Heidelberg Catechism A. 21)
“Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures” (Belgic Art. 3)
“We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical…and we believe without a doubt all things contained in them.” (Belgic Art. 5)
We agree with and hold to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Which states:
“Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.”
Brothers and sisters, this is not the position of the Reformed Church in America. The RCA has official positions on Scripture that are strong in some ways, but the lack of a concrete foundation of inerrancy has left the door open to a significant, and harmful, amount of theological diversity and hermeneutical oddities.
In fact there is an incredible diversity of thought regarding exactly what it means to confess that we believe the Bible to be the Word of God and the perfect doctrine of salvation. What does it mean for the Scriptures to contain the perfect doctrine of salvation within an imperfect document?
Scripture is, as we so often remark, the only rule for faith and life. Yet there are extremely diverse understandings of what the Scriptures teach. This greatly disparate understanding does not promote unity, purity, or peace. We feel that we could be far more effective if we were to join a denomination which shares our fundamental understandings concerning biblical inerrancy and authority. The Presbyterian Church in America offers us precisely that opportunity.
Conclusion: Answering Objections
In our own process we have dealt with the following objections as we have wrestled with the painful decision of whether to file this petition or not. Please accept the answered objections as our attempt to relay answers to frequently asked questions, and not an attempt at preempting conversation with the classis that may arise around these topics.
If we really care about these issues, then we should remain and lend our voice to the debate.
We have. Our church has actively supported the ministry of RCA Integrity, submitted overtures to classis and networked with likeminded congregations. We have served as delegates, taken part in student exams, served on committees and faithfully attended classis meetings. Others have stood with us, and for that we are grateful.
But it is time to acknowledge reality: Because of the significant changes that have taken place in the last few years, our congregation, which has remained robustly and fruitfully rooted in the same doctrine and convictions for 152 years, has come to occupy outlier status in the RCA. The ideas we embrace gladly—e.g. complementarianism, traditional marriage, confessionalism, and inerrancy—are frequently painted as the “extreme right wing” of the denomination. For us, an endless campaign to push things “our way” will only result in continued frustration for our congregation, the classis, and the denomination at large. We desire to move on rather than foster disunity.
The adoption of Transformed and Transforming represents a new hope for the denomination.
Transformed and Transforming could be inspirational in a denomination that wasn’t as theologically mixed as ours. In the RCA, its power to produce gospel-centered growth is limited. By issuing a call to be “Transformed and Transforming” without first issuing a call to biblical fidelity in all areas of life, we are acquiescing to an untenably large range of doctrinal diversity which will only increase as each constituent part of the RCA transforms further according to their own ideas and preferences. Transformed and Transforming will only push us further into an era that already mirrors the dark times of the judges. Everyone will increasingly do what is right in their own eyes.
The RCA is engaged in an aggressive church planting effort; with time and patience the evangelical wing will grow enough to effect change.
The problem here is a basic numbers game. Even if Illiana-Florida classis was universally committed to transforming the Reformed Church in regards to human sexuality, biblical inerrancy, biblical manhood and womanhood, and the Belhar Confession the fact remains that planting churches within a classis is a relatively useless strategy for denominational transformation. To transform the RCA will require gaining the requisite 2/3 of the classes approval for constitutional changes. Planting churches in our own classis will not help this endeavor whatsoever. In fact as we can already see making your classis larger is not the strategy at all—having many smaller classes would be much more beneficial.
For instance: the Conscience Clauses were removed from the Book of Church Order through a 31-14 vote among the classes. That may seem like overwhelming support until you realize that though the removal obtained approval of 68.88% of the classes those classes only account for 57.3% of the RCA’s total membership. The three largest classes voted against the removal.
In fact as we look carefully at the hope for constitutional change within the Reformed Church in America we quickly realize that the process grossly misrepresents the mind of the RCA as a whole and eliminates all hope of the sort of reform which would cleanse our consciences in regards to our relationship with the RCA.
Ministers and churches should never leave a denomination, otherwise they are guilty of disunity.
We simply disagree with this. While there is much to be said for remaining faithful to your convictions and being a part of something even if that something doesn’t share in all your convictions, we also feel that the time has come where we are no longer able to serve effectively and in good conscience. Serving contrary to conscience is not something that we feel is right and it violates the very spirit of the Belgic Confession, particularly Article 32. Therefore we are petitioning the classis to graciously transfer us long before we feel we would be in danger of being removed from the denomination.
In a very real sense, the terms of our covenant relationship with the RCA have been changed. The RCA is a markedly different denomination than three years ago or even 9 months ago. The removal of the conscience clauses is tremendously significant for us, as is the General Synod’s decision to give RfA a sanctioned seat at the table. The adoption of the Belhar Confession will have a profound, long-term affect on the nature of the RCA. Already, we’re required to provide an annual report on how we have incorporated “the Belhar Confession and its principles of unity, reconciliation, and justice” into our congregational life and witness (MGS 2013:139).
While the RCA has changed, and will continue to change, we feel that we are not changing along with it, nor are we comfortable with the trajectory upon which it has embarked. As the denomination moves forward in an attempt to build a sense of unity through Transformed and Transforming we do not want to hinder its unity or compromise our own convictions. Rather than remain a perpetual irritant we ask to be released to a denomination where we will find unity, purity, and peace with brothers and sisters who share our values and beliefs. We ask to be released to a denomination where we can, and will, Lord willing, joyfully serve in good conscience for many years to come.
The Presbyterian Church in America: A More Effective Ministry
The Book of Church Order expects that a church will desire to withdraw to join a denomination in which it feels the effectiveness of Christ’s church will be enhanced. This is precisely the situation we present to you.
The PCA’s Confessions
Brothers and Sisters, we wholeheartedly embrace the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms. We find it to be clear and fully expect it will be appropriately helpful in guiding the theological identity of our congregation. We may have exceptions to the document, but they do not strike at its vitals or the system of its doctrine. We look forward to entering into a confessional denomination where there is a high level of theological unity. We love the reformed faith, we love the truth of the Word of God, and we long for the day when we can serve joyfully alongside of other brothers and sisters who fully embrace the doctrines of grace and share our confessional commitments.
While one of our frustrations in the RCA has been the lack of clarity concerning what it means to subscribe to the confessions, the Book of Church Order in the PCA lays out clear guidelines as to what exceptions may be taken to the confession. Only those exceptions which are more than semantic but not striking at the vitals of religion or the system of doctrine contained within the Confession (and Catechisms) may be allowed by a presbytery. All exceptions must be made in writing and approved by the presbytery. All actions of the presbytery regarding those exceptions are then open to review by the General Assembly and other presbyteries. There is genuine theological accountability within the PCA which we feel will enhance our own effectiveness in ministry.
We anticipate the PCA’s confessional integrity to increase our effectiveness in a number of ways:
- The confessional integrity of the PCA will enhance our ministry effectiveness by giving us confidence that those we partner with locally, nationally, and globally share our convictions and theological commitments. We will feel free to use resources developed by the PCA, support PCA missionaries, and partner with PCA multiplication efforts because we can have a high level of certainty that those resources, missionaries, and church plants will consistently share our values.
- The confessional integrity of the PCA will enhance our ministry effectiveness by ensuring that candidates we call to minister to our congregation are properly vetted and examined by an equipped body which shares our theological convictions.
- The confessional integrity of the PCA will enhance our ministry effectiveness by allowing us to focus more of our efforts towards proclaiming, spreading, and promoting the work of the reformed faith rather than focusing those efforts towards laboring for its authority and place within our own denomination.
- The confessional integrity of the PCA will enhance our ministry effectiveness by returning us to a position where we can confess each of the standards of our denomination in good conscience.The PCA’s Position on Biblical Manhood and WomanhoodWe have already expressed how we have felt out of step with the RCA in regards to what it means to be a man or woman in the church for quite some time. We believe the Scriptures teach a complementarian view of men and women. This complementarity has implications for sexuality, the home, and the church. The PCA’s position on gender, manhood, and womanhood matches the position the Scriptures teach.We firmly believe, as already stated, that women are called to serve the Lord Jesus Christ with their full efforts within the church. They are called to know Christ and make him known, they are full of his Spirit, they are called to bear witness to his gospel, they are called to make much of his glory. We believe the PCA is on the right track when their women’s ministry (WIC) has as their stated goal, “that every woman know Christ personally and be committed to extending His kingdom in her life, home, church, community, and throughout the world.”We also enthusiastically embrace the language of the PCA’s BCO which states that an elder is a man. We long for peace on this issue. We have for some time now felt as though we have been portrayed as the extremists of the RCA. As if somehow believing what we believe means we can appropriately be relegated to the margins of the denomination’s life. We long to be with other elders, ministers, and churches that share our commitment to biblical manhood and womanhood and who will support us as together, men and women, we serve the Lord with gladness in the many diverse ways in which we are called to do so.We anticipate the PCA’s position on women’s ordination and biblical manhood and womanhood will enhance our ministry effectiveness in a number of ways:
- We believe the PCA’s position on women’s ordination and biblical manhood and womanhood will enhance our ministry to the women of our church. We currently do not use any of the resources provided to us by the RCA. We feel they are not only unhelpful, but that they are in fact generally unfaithful and work directly counter to the teaching of the Word of God in our church. Here at First Church we look forward to blessing our women with the teaching of the Word of God through resources produced by WIC, and other organizations, which are produced specifically to bless and minister to the women of our congregation.
- We believe the PCA’s position on women’s ordination and biblical manhood and womanhood will enhance the ministry of our pastors. Our pastors have for some time been engaged in the debate over women’s ordination in the RCA. We have seen them exasperated at what seems to be the increasingly hostile attitude of the RCA towards men and women of our conviction, and we long for the day when they can have peace on this issue.
- We believe the PCA’s position on women’s ordination and biblical manhood and womanhood will enhance the ministry of First Reformed Church by allowing us to serve and minister again in good conscience. We simply cannot affirm the clearly egalitarian teaching of the Reformed Church in America’s Book of Church Order. We cannot swear to uphold it, or swear loyalty to a denomination which is committed to it when we fundamentally disagree with its assumptions and teachings concerning what it means to be a woman in Christ’s church.The PCA’s Position on Human SexualityUnlike the RCA’s confessions where homosexual activity is only implicitly rejected (although certainly the authors of those documents would have accepted biblical human sexuality as being between a married man and his one wife) the Westminster Larger Catechism explicitly mentions homosexual behavior as being forbidden by the 7th commandment.Q. 139. What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?A. The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections, all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews (old English word meaning houses of prostitution), and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage, having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others. (Emphasis added)This confessional nature adds to the strength of the PCA’s position. It has often been claimed within the Reformed Church that there is no explicit forbiddance of homosexuality in our confessions. This cannot be claimed in the Presbyterian Church in America.The PCA, like the RCA, has for many years made clear statements regarding human sexuality. However, unlike the RCA, the PCA has never had any church, minister, or officer directly challenge or rebel against the stated position of the denomination.When the PCA is asked for a position on human sexuality this is the answer it gives,“The PCA is committed to the sanctity of human sexual relationships. We believe God’s intent and design in creation was that male and female would be complementary, that the privilege of sexual expression would be between a male and female only, and this expression would be only in the context of marriage. Therefore, any heterosexual or homosexual behavior or relationship that does not conform to God’s design does violence to the human spirit and distorts God’s intent for men and women.”We wholeheartedly embrace this statement. The Presbyterian Church in America shares our convictions regarding the complementarity of the sexes, the exclusivity of monogamous sexual relations between a man and his wife, and the sinful (yet pardonable) nature of all sexual activity which occurs outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage.We believe the PCA’s position on human sexuality will enhance the effectiveness of our ministry in a number of ways:
- We believe the PCA’s position on human sexuality will enhance the effectiveness of our ministry by giving us peace on this issue. As with other already mentioned issues we have been on the frontlines of this conflict for many years. Our consistory, elders, pastors, and even laypeople have labored long and hard to promote biblical human sexuality in the RCA. We have been sufficiently distracted by this too. We have chronicled with shame and dismay the growth of Room for All, the reinstatement of Rev. Dr. Kansfield, the flippant way our past presidents and past General Secretary have spoken of what has been referred to as a “minor ethical issue.” We have informed the congregation, we have engaged in the process for reform at the local level, at the classical level, and at the synodical level. But the beat marches on. We have given as much of our time, energy, and effort as we feel we can to the RCA on this issue. Our people need our attention more than those in rebellion against the Word of God in some far off classis. We simply can no longer afford to be perpetually at odds with others in our own denomination over an issue as significant and emotionally charged as sexuality.
- We believe the PCA’s position on human sexuality will enhance the effectiveness of our ministry by allowing us to deal more delicately, pastorally, and sensitively with our own members who struggle against homosexual desires. Brothers and sisters, this is not an issue that we are unfamiliar with. We grieve that in our efforts to promote clarity in the RCA on this issue we may sometimes deal less pastorally here at home. We want to love, support, and encourage our brothers and sisters who struggle with same sex attraction. We want to see the Lord heal those whom he will heal, and bring comfort to those who are still afflicted. We want to be set free from the constant battle over this issue. We want to clearly be an unconditional ally of those who want to put their sin to death, yet whose temptation continues to rear its ugly head. We want to be pastors and elders, not warriors. However, we cannot stay in the RCA with anything less than a warrior’s mentality given the apostasy which mars much of our denomination. We ask that you will set us free from this perpetual battle.
- We believe the PCA’s position on human sexuality will enhance the effectiveness of our ministry by affirming our convictions regarding the complementarity of the sexes. We believe that the Lord created men and that the Lord created women. We believe that men and women are created equally in the image of God and that they are given different and complementary roles sexually, domestically, and ecclesiastically. The PCA affirms that belief at every level. The PCA views human sexuality as consistently complementary whereas the RCA officially views the sexes in an egalitarian light domestically and ecclesiastically, but as sexually complementary. We are confident that the PCA’s consistency, and consistency with our own position, will enhance our ministry to men, women, children, youth, and families.
- We believe the PCA’s position on human sexuality will enhance the effectiveness of our ministry by giving us a place to serve in good conscience. Those in the PCA who would rebel against the position of the denomination would be disciplined in any of its presbyteries. And if, by some unforeseen happenstance, a presbytery were to neglect to discipline someone in rebellion against the stated position another presbytery would be free to bring the issue to light and enact a disciplinary process. Brothers and sisters, we simply cannot stay in the RCA in good conscience given the open rebellion that is ongoing; we believe the PCA would offer us a respite from this exhausting battle which would enhance the effectiveness of our ministry greatly.The PCA’s Position on InerrancyUnlike the RCA, the PCA confesses to believe in inerrancy. In fact, a belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures is required of anyone who would serve in office. Officers in the PCA are required to affirm the following question,“Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?”The Presbyterian Church in America is a relatively young denomination (particularly compared to the RCA) and was formed in large part out of a desire to have a reformed denomination for whom the inerrancy of the Scriptures is a core value for all those in the fellowship. The PCA’s official website gives a bit of background on the birth of the PCA, we suspect that from the following paragraph you will sense why it is that we feel the PCA is an appropriate denominational home for us.“Organized at a constitutional assembly in December 1973, (the PCA) was first known as the National Presbyterian Church but changed its name in 1974 to Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). It separated from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Southern) in opposition to the long-developing theological liberalism which denied the deity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. Additionally, the PCA held to the traditional position on the role of women in church offices.”We are thankful that in our experience with the RCA we have met very few people who would deny the deity of Jesus Christ. However, as you can see the Presbyterian Church in America’s birth occurred largely due to matters of conscience very similar to those we have presented in this petition. Central to those convictions for both the PCA and for First Church is a belief in the inerrancy of the Word of God.We believe the PCA’s position on inerrancy will enhance the effectiveness of our ministry in a number of ways:
- We believe the PCA’s position on inerrancy will enhance the effectiveness of our ministry by giving us a common hermeneutical foundation with all the other congregations and officers within our denomination. We have found that the root of so much of our difficulty within the Reformed Church stems from basic hermeneutical assumptions about the Bible that are incompatible. We feel that our ministry will be fortified for years to come if we are permitted to transfer to the PCA where the men we will call to pastor us, and those responsible for forming those men for service in Christ’s church, will share our basic understandings about Scripture, its purity, and its perfection.
- We believe the PCA’s position on inerrancy will enhance the effectiveness of our ministry because those looking for a congregation committed to inerrancy will be more likely to join us. As it is there are many people in our own congregation who are uncomfortable with their association with the RCA and what it has come to stand for. Those who would be looking for a congregation that embraces inerrancy will certainly be more likely to covenant with us in becoming members of our congregation if we are able to be clearer in our convictions through having more compatible associations.The PCA: A Good HomeBrothers and sisters, the RCA has been home to us for many years. At times we have found it to be a warmly welcoming home, and at other times we have felt like strangers in our own home. As time has gone on we have increasingly felt as though the Reformed Church in America is no longer a home for men like us, and churches like ours. We grieve over this, but it is not something of our own choosing. Our congregational convictions have remained constant through the years. While we grieve, we also look forward with joy to joining the Presbyterian Church in America because we believe it will be a good home for us.Friends, the PCA is a faithful denomination. It is full of men and women who love the Lord, who embrace the Scriptures, who robustly promote and affirm the reformed faith. The PCA has a special burden for reaching the lost, for planting churches, and for sending missionaries to the unreached peoples of the earth. We share in those commitments. We feel that joining the PCA will liberate us from the struggles that have consumed us for so long, allowing us more joy and more fruit in our local ministry.We know that the PCA is not a perfect denomination. It is full of sinners, redeemed though they are the effects of sin are still present. We have labored hard to discern the weaknesses and short-comings of the Presbyterian Church in America and we have found some just as we expected to. Yet, we believe that of all the denominations we researched, and the list was extensive, the Presbyterian Church in America offers us the best opportunity for maximizing our local ministry and enabling us to serve the Lord with joy and in good conscience for generations to come.We would like to include for you a brief informational sheet so that you can become familiar with the Presbyterian Church in America. We hope that you will be encouraged by its work and mission and will come to see why it is that we feel our ministry will be most effective in fellowship with them.About the PCAMembership: Communicant membership was 276,642 as of Dec. 31, 2011. Total membership is approaching 400,000.Presbytery: The local presbytery we are petitioning to join is the Chicago Metro Presbytery which currently has 14 churches. Only one of those churches serves the South Suburbs and NW Indiana. About half of those churches are within the city limits.Headquarters: Lawrenceville, GA.Churches: The PCA had 1,777 congregations as of 2012.Ministers: There are just over 4,000 ordained teaching elders in the PCA.Formed: Dec. 1973 in Birmingham, AL.Growth: The PCA has grown through conversion and transfer each year for the past 30 years.Affiliations: National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC), World Reformed Fellowship, National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).Institutions: Covenant College, Lookout Mt., TN., Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, MO., Ridge Haven (Camp), Brevard, NC., Reformed University Fellowship.Dispersion: The PCA has churches in all 50 states, Canada, Germany, the Cayman Islands, and Okinawa. There is a major emphasis on church planting within the PCA, particularly in urban areas.Demographics: The PCA is majority white, but with a large segment of Korean congregations (15%), and smaller but still significant and growing populations of Hispanic and Black members.Missions: The PCA lists 303 missionaries (or missionary couples/families) on its website. This does not include a sizeable number of missionaries who work in countries where they are not free to declare their purpose openly.Reformed History: NAPARC at one point wanted to merge the CRC and PCA which led to the PCA having its GA in Grand Rapids more than once.ConclusionA concluding summary of why we believe Classis approval of this petition will be in the best interests of Christ’s Kingdom.Because the Book of Church Order defines a process for withdrawal and our consciences have moved us to engage in it.We understand that this parting of the ways is painful. We can attest to that ourselves.We have prayed fervently. We have shed tears. At the same time, we do not believe that this difficult process is meant to be an impossible one. Surely the BCO makes this provision because it envisions that such a step should be achievable.Our church has walked through a careful process. We have concluded that we can no longer minister effectively within the denomination. We have found a denomination that we believe will be a good fit, allowing us to minister effectively and in good conscience. We hope that you will see this as clearly as we have seen it and release us to follow the path we believe the Lord has set out for us.Because there is biblical precedent for a peaceful parting of the ways between brothers and sisters in the Lord.In his report this summer, General Synod President Tom Smith commented,There are critical questions to be answered. When do we sing in unison and when do we sing in harmony? When does the classis have responsibility and authority? When can some classes conduct themselves in ways that are completely different from other classes? What is it that gives us unity, purity, and peace? Paul and Barnabas parted company in a very public way, but they both carried the same gospel (Acts 15).A parting of the ways might be painful, but it can be good. Sometimes, as in the case of Barnabas and Paul, the best thing is to acknowledge that the path has split and two who once walked together now strike out in different ways. Paul pursued his ministry. Barnabas must have done something right with John Mark, for Paul esteemed him highly later in life (2 Timothy 4:11).Because while others might feel called to stay, we genuinely feel compelled to leave.In Romans 14, Paul discusses the difficult question of meat-eating and Jewish food laws. He specifically addresses those who feel at liberty to eat. He warns them to have consideration for the “weaker” brother in exercising their liberty. Paul concludes with these words:The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:22-23)Commenting on these verses, Douglas Moo notes,… “faith” here almost certainly has the same meaning that it has elsewhere in this chapter (vv. 1, 22): “conviction” stemming from one’s faith in Christ. Paul is not, then, claiming that any act that does not arise out of a basic trust and dependency on Christ is sinful, true as that may be. What he here labels “sin,” rather, is any act that does not match our sincerely held convictions about what our Christian faith allows us to do and prohibits us from doing…. Violations of the dictates of the conscience, even when the conscience does not conform perfectly with God’s will, is sinful….The “strong,” he is suggesting, should not force the “weak” to eat meat, or drink wine, or ignore the Sabbath, when the “weak” are not yet convinced that their faith in Christ allows them to do so. For to do so would be to force them into sin, to put a “stumbling” block in their way. (Moo, Romans, 863-864)Paul’s point is this: It’s sinful to do something you feel is sinful. Unless you are convinced in your heart that God approves, you should avoid it. Don’t violate conscience. For us, the dilemma is clear: Due to the issues we have outlined above, the conscience of our congregation, ministers, and consistory is violated. We have come to the conclusion that staying in the Reformed Church in America is something we simply can no longer do in good conscience.As we conclude this petition we reflect, one final time, upon the position of our consciences. As we do we are reminded of the words of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms,“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning—and my conscience is captive to the Word of God—then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”Brothers and sisters, it is not safe or wise to act against conscience, we hope you will not ask us to do so. We sincerely hope that you will understand the strength of our conviction and the plight of our consciences and release us to minister with joy within the bounds of the Presbyterian Church in America. We ask that you would release us with all our real and personal property so that our ministry may be maximally effective, that there will not be bitterness or anger between our congregation and the classis, and so that the community in which we live will not be confused by the financial and legal wrangling between believers. We firmly believe that approval of this petition for withdrawal will result in greater effectiveness of our church, greater joy for our community, and the growth and strengthening of the Kingdom of God.Soli Deo Gloria,The Consistory of the First Reformed Church, Lansing, IL.
Constitutional Reform in the RCA—the Facts:
There are 45 Classes.
The RCA had a total confessing membership of 150,437 as of 2012.
The RCA gives each classis one vote in determining whether to accept or reject constitutional amendments.
The RCA requires 2/3 of the classes to approve of all constitutional changes.
The largest classis is Zeeland Classis with 10,199 members.
The smallest classis is Canadian Prairies with 360 confessing members.
The average classis has 3,343.04 members.
The median classis is New Brunswick Classis with 2,725 members.
If you combine the 11 smallest classes, Zeeland classis still has more members.
If you combine the nine smallest eastern classes, Zeeland classis (10,199) still has 195 more total members.
If you combine the eight smallest eastern classes, Illiana-Florida (8,498) still has 359 more members.
It takes 29 Zeeland Classis members to equal the weight of 1 Canadian Prairies Classis member.
Schoharie Classis members are weighted 12 times more heavily than Illiana Classis members.
Each of the Midwestern synods are underrepresented when classis votes are taken.
They are underrepresented by a total of 23.82%.
Each of the eastern synods are overrepresented when classis votes are taken.
They are overrepresented by a total of 15.4%.
Regional Synod of Mid-America has the same number of classes (4) as Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics.
Regional Synod of Mid-America has 42% more members than Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics.
Regional Synod of Mid-Atlantics is the most proportionally represented synod when classis votes are taken.
Of the smallest ten classes six are in the east, eight of fifteen, and twelve of twenty.
It is possible for classes representing 62.22% of the RCA’s membership to attain only 1/3 of the classis votes, thus failing to stop a constitutional change.
Conversely it is possible for classes representing 38.78% of the RCA’s total membership to attain the necessary 2/3 of the classis votes required to make a constitutional change.
If the three regional synods east of the Appalachian Mountains vote as a bloc they have 37.7% of the classis votes and 22.37% of the total membership.
Attaining 37.7% of classis votes is sufficient to stop any proposed constitutional change.
Changing this process requires the approval of 30 of the RCA’s 45 classes.
28 classes are currently over represented when classis votes are taken.
Interpreting these Facts:
Making a list of interesting tidbits is one thing, but interpreting them and applying them are something quite different. What does this information mean for the RCA’s future?
I am sure the information could be used to reach a multitude of conclusions, I want to highlight three:
- The RCA’s current system encourages inefficiency in ministry.
Each classis necessarily performs certain functions, many of which are rather time consuming. Each classis is tasked with vetting and preparing candidates for ministry, overseeing churches and consistories within its bounds, and a plethora of other day to day, week to week, and annual responsibilities that often take up far more time than you would expect. Each classis has a clerk, a president, and most often a number of other officers with various responsibilities.
Because of this it would be more efficient if smaller classes (say classes with memberships around or below 1000 members) which were in close geographic proximity merged and shared their burdens. But, since each classis gets a vote of its own when constitutional changes are proposed it would be to the classes disadvantage, politically, to merge. Thus the RCA’s current system—and current politically charged environment--encourages inefficiency.
- The RCA’s current system grossly misrepresents the mind of the church.
The intention behind the required approval of 2/3 of the classes to effect any constitutional change is to ensure that such change would be approved of by a significant majority of the church at-large. But, as you can see from the figures above, that is simply not the case in the RCA any longer. When one geographic region is underrepresented by 23.82% while another is overrepresented by 15.4% it is difficult to say with sincerity that the mind of the denomination can be accurately discerned through the classis vote mechanism. It is now possible that a change could be passed against the wishes of over 62% of the denomination’s membership. It is also possible that a change which is widely favored could be rejected by classes representing 12.02% of the members of the Reformed Church in America.
There is no obvious remedy to this scenario since reforming this process also requires approval of 2/3 of the classes. This is leads to point three which is…
- The RCA’s current system eliminates any hope of positive constitutional reform.
It takes 16 classis votes to vote down a constitutional change. There are 17 classes among the three eastern regional synods. These 17 classes have voted as a bloc for some time, most recently on the removal of the conscience clauses, and before that on the acceptance of the Belhar Confession. If that practice continues it will be constitutionally impossible to effect conservative reform of a lasting manner.
This is important for a couple of reasons:
- The only truly effective means of reform in the RCA would be to change the constitution of the denomination. If we are going to have enforceable positions and common standards they will need to be enshrined within the RCA’s constitution (BCO, Confessions, and Liturgy). Although the eastern synods make up just over 22% of the RCA’s membership they receive nearly 38% of the classis votes. It requires only 34% of the classis votes to deny a constitutional change. Thus even if there was unanimous approval of a change among the other 28 classes (and there wouldn’t be) even moderately positive changes could be, and would be, defeated in a vote of the classes.
- The RCA is in desperate need of biblical accountability in the form of church discipline. This discipline will remain an impossibility so long as there is no mechanism for cross-classis accountability. To create such a mechanism would require the approval of two general synods (a tall order since representation is not proportional there either) and 2/3 of the classes. This will certainly not happen in the current system.
Why am I bringing attention to this information? The reason is quite simple: many people within the Reformed Church in America ask those of us petitioning to withdraw this question, “But, isn’t there still hope? We can bring some reform, right?” Unfortunately, I think the answer to that question in human terms is “no”. We serve a God who can do the impossible—and I would love nothing more than to see him work powerfully in the Reformed Church in America to bring about revival. However, I believe the task to be equally impossible with or without myself, First Church, or the other ministers and churches seeking to withdraw from the RCA. If renewal comes it will not be due to our efforts because our efforts are easily thwarted with our current polity. In this way we leave with clean consciences feeling as though we have fulfilled our pledges to be loyal to the witness and work of the Reformed Church in America. We no longer feel we can minister effectively and in good conscience within the bounds of the Reformed Church in America, but each of us will continue to pray that the Lord revives many hearts within the RCA and leads her forward in renewed faithfulness and fruitfulness. May it be.
 Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “What Might the Confession of Belhar Unify?” http://images.rca.org/docs/aboutus/WhatMightBelharUnify.pdf
 Carl Trueman, “Why Christians Need Confessions” http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=771
 Thabiti Anyabwile, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2010/07/27/bringing-up-Belhar-again/
 DeYoung, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/05/11/Belhar-confession-yea-or-nay/
 Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “What Might the Confession of Belhar Unify?” http://images.rca.org/docs/aboutus/WhatMightBelharUnify.pdf
 Trygve Johnson, “Turning the Page: An Interview with Wesley Granberg-Michaelson” Perspectives. Source: http://www.rca.org/Page.aspx?pid=7384
 For a definition of the complementarian perspective, see http://www.churchcouncil.org/iccp_org/Documents_ICCP/English/17_Male_Female_Distinctives_A&D.pdf
 Source: https://www.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=8442
 For a full look at the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy go to: http://www.alliancenet.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086_CHID750054_CIID2094584,00.html
 The RCA’s official position as contained in the liturgy is that the books of the Old and New Testaments are to be received as the Word of God and containing the perfect doctrine of salvation. This is, of course, not nearly the same thing as believing it to be true in all its parts and propositions.
 For more information see: “Constitutional Reform in the RCA--The Facts” and “Interpreting the Facts” by Rev. Kappers
 The PCA’s Book of Church Order requires ministers to subcribe to the confessions by affirming positively this question, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”
 Regarding the office of elder, “The office is one of dignity and usefulness. The man who fills it has in Scripture different titles expressive of his various duties.” PCA BCO Chapter 8-1
 PCA BCO 21-5 and 24-6