(RNS) — This week, one of North America’s oldest denominations will confront its gridlock over LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage. Votes cast in Tucson, Arizona, at the Reformed Church in America’s General Synod — delayed 16 months due to the pandemic — will chart the course for the already-splintering denomination.
In the past year, conservative factions have broken ties with the RCA, with other churches threatening to follow. Delegates to the synod, which starts Thursday (Oct. 14) and will continue through Tuesday, will determine how the denomination might restructure to entice congregations to stay, if the church will establish an external mission organization and whether departing congregations can plan on taking their church buildings with them.
“At General Synod, delegates come from across the RCA to discern the mind of Christ together,” said Christina Tazelaar, RCA director of communications. “There are difficult decisions on the agenda, along with many things to celebrate, and we’re praying that the Holy Spirit guides every decision.”
The RCA is a historically Dutch Reformed denomination dating back to the 1620s, when New York was known as New Amsterdam. Today, the RCA has fewer than 200,000 members and 1,000 churches. While in theory RCA churches are united by their polity, history and Reformed convictions, they hold a range of political and theological beliefs.
The RCA isn’t the only Protestant denomination facing division over views on sexuality. Next year, the United Methodist Church is expected to vote on a proposal to split the denomination over the inclusion of LGBTQ members, and the RCA’s sister denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, will grapple with its contentious human sexuality report at its own synod.
“It’s a case study in how a church can or cannot navigate questions of identity, questions that are tense, matters of conflict,” said Matthew van Maastricht, pastor at Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. “We are just one part of a greater reshaping of the broader American Protestant landscape.”
According to the Rev. Dan Griswold, clerk of the RCA’s Holland Classis, the RCA debates involve specific questions: Can an RCA church host a wedding between a same-sex couple, and can an RCA minister officiate such a wedding? Can noncelibate gay people be elected as elders and deacons and ordained as ministers? While these questions are often framed as political, they are also theological.
“It’s really about how we view the Bible, how we understand God and the nature of the church,“ said the Rev. Lynn Japinga, professor of religion at RCA-affiliated Hope College. “It’s a fundamental difference in approach to the Christian faith that’s the source of all this. … Do you have more of a rule-based faith, or do you have a more grace-based faith?”
Ron Citlau, senior pastor of Calvary Church near Chicago, frames the question differently.
“I’ve dealt with same-sex attraction, and the issue for me and many of the people I know is, is it a thing for which Jesus Christ needs to come to redeem us, or is it a blessing he wants us to embrace?” said Citlau, who is married to a woman and whose church helped form the conservative non-RCA Kingdom Network. “If we get sin wrong, there are larger things at stake.”