The debate is also a question of polity. The RCA has a localized structure that gives classes — regional church groups — authority over matters such as discipline and ordination. While all RCA churches follow the Book of Church Order, they don’t have to follow the General Synod’s recommendations.
“There’s nothing in the Book of Church Order that says anything explicit about sexuality at all,” said David Komline, associate professor of church history at Western Theological Seminary. “The General Synod has repeatedly made statements that are more traditional in orientation about sexuality, but those are just statements. There are no mechanisms in place to hold people accountable to these statements.”
An ongoing question is whether the General Synod ought to be able to make dictates it can enforce. In recent years, conservative RCA members have pushed for General Synod to do just that. In 2016, the General Synod voted to amend the Book of Church Order to define marriage as between a woman and a man. However, the measure failed to win the necessary two-thirds approval from the classes.
“We found that the RCA is designed in such a way, intentionally or not, in which the vast majority cannot move to what they believe is right because there are just enough progressive classes that can veto,” said Citlau. According to Citlau, the two-thirds rule gives disproportionate power to classes with progressive views and fewer members. But progressive members argue the General Synod was never designed to issue top-down decisions in the first place.
In 2018, General Synod formed a team charged with discerning whether the RCA should stay together, restructure or separate. In their Vision 2020 Report, that team suggested a path involving all three avenues. First, the report recommends appointing a team for reorganizing classes by affinity rather than geography; churches would opt into classes and group themselves by shared values. The second proposal is to create an external RCA mission agency that would allow departing churches to continue supporting RCA’s global missions work. Third, the report recommends allowing a departing church to retain its property and assets.
These three proposals are scheduled to be debated on Saturday and require a simple majority of votes to pass — but the measures could be radically amended before then, and other overtures could be adopted as well.
Regardless of what happens at the General Synod, the RCA is already splitting. The Kingdom Network, an alliance currently composed of five churches in Indiana and Illinois, officially left the RCA on Sept. 9. The group was formerly an RCA classis that prioritized church planting.
“The RCA has this albatross around its neck, and historically it moves very slow,” said Citlau. “From our point of view, the house is burning. We can’t keep saying, we’re going to wait five more years and have a couple of committees. It’s already a bloody mess, and until you’re willing to get in there and make some choices, there’s no way through. And we did our best effort to make a way through.”
In May 2021, the Alliance of Reformed Churches was formed as an alternative to the RCA for conservative churches questioning their place in the denomination. According to their website, more than 125 churches have expressed interest in joining the alliance.
“The Alliance of Reformed Churches is praying with the RCA for the clear leading of God’s Spirit at its General Synod,” the Alliance said in a statement emailed to RNS. “Our prayers will be with our brothers and sisters as they walk together through this significant moment in the RCA’s history.”