[Religion News Service] This week, one of North America’s oldest religions will face a stalemate over LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage. Votes cast in Tucson, Arizona, at the Reformed Church in the General Synod of America — delayed 16 months due to a pandemic — will chart the course of an already fragmented denomination.

In the past year, conservative factions have severed ties with the RCA, and other churches have threatened to follow suit. Delegates to the synod, which begins Thursday (October 14th) and will run until Tuesday, will decide how the denomination could be restructured to force congregations to stay, whether the church will establish an external mission organization, and whether outgoing communities can plan to take over. their church buildings with them.

“At the General Synod, delegates come from all over the RCA to discern the mind of Christ together,” said Christina Tazelaar, RCA’s communications director. “Tough decisions are on the agenda, along with many things to celebrate, and we pray 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 less than 200,000 members and 1,000 churches. While theoretically RCA churches are united by their politics, history, and reformed beliefs, they have a range of political and theological beliefs.

The RCA is not the only Protestant denomination facing a division around views on sexuality. Next year, the United Methodist Church is expected to vote on a proposal to divide the religion to include members of the LGBTQ population, and the sister denomination of the RCA, the Christian Reformed Church, will fight its controversial report on sexuality at its own synod.

“It’s a case study of how the church may or may not manage identity issues, tense issues, conflict issues,” said Matthew van Maastricht, pastor at the Reformed Altamont Church in Altamont, New York. “We’re just part of a larger reshaping of the wider American Protestant landscape.”

According to the Rev. Dan Griswold, RCA Holland Classis officer, discussions about RCA involve specific questions: Can the RCA church host a wedding between a same-sex couple and can the RCA minister lead such a wedding? Can unmarried homosexuals be elected elders and deacons and ordained ministers? Although these issues are often framed as political, they are also theological.

“It’s about how we look at the Bible, how we understand God and the nature of the church,” said Reverend Lynn Japinga, a professor of faith at ROC-affiliated Hope College. “It is a fundamental difference in the approach to the Christian faith that is the source of all this. … Do you have more faith based on rules or faith based on grace? ”

Ron Citlau, a senior pastor of a church on Calvary near Chicago, asks a different question.

“I have been dealing with same-sex attraction, and the question for me and many people I know is is it something Jesus Christ has 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 has helped form a conservative non-RCA network of kingdoms. “If we make a mistake, there are bigger things at stake.”

The debate is also a matter of politics. The RCA has a localized structure that gives classes — regional church groups — authority in matters such as discipline and order. Although all RCA churches follow the Book of Ecclesiastical Order, they do not have to follow the recommendations of the General Synod.

David Komline. Photo courtesy of Western Theological Seminary

“Nothing in the Book of Church Order says anything explicit about sexuality,” said David Comline, an associate professor of church history at the Western Theological Seminary. “The General Synod has repeatedly made statements of a more traditional orientation on sexuality, but these are only statements. There are no mechanisms to hold people accountable for these statements. ”

The question is whether the General Synod should be able to make dictates that it can implement. In recent years, conservative members of the RCA have asked the General Synod to do just that. In 2016, the General Synod voted to amend the Book of the Church Order to define marriage as a woman and a man. However, the measure failed to obtain the required two-thirds approval from the classes.

“We have found that RCA is designed in such a way, intentionally or unintentionally, in which the vast majority cannot move on to what they believe is right because there is enough progressive class that can veto it,” Citlau said. According to Citlau, the two-thirds rule gives disproportionate power to classes with progressive attitudes and fewer members. But progressive members argue that the General Synod was never designed to make decisions from the top down.

In 2018, the General Synod formed a team tasked with deciding whether the RCA should stay together, restructure, or separate. In its 2020 Vision Report, the team suggested a route that includes all three avenues. First, the report recommends appointing a team to reorganize teaching according to affinities rather than geographical location; churches would opt for classes and group according to common values. Another proposal is to create an external RCA mission agency that would allow outgoing churches to continue to support the work of global RCA missions. Third, the report recommends allowing the outgoing church to keep its property and assets.

These three proposals are scheduled to be debated on Saturday and a simple majority of votes is needed for adoption – but the measures could be radically changed before then, and other changes could be adopted.

No matter what happens at the General Synod, the RCA is already divided. The Kingdom Network, an alliance that currently consists of five churches in Indiana and Illinois, officially left the RCA on Sept. 9. The group used to be an RCA classis that gave priority to church planting.

Ron Citlau.  Courtesy of the photo

Ron Citlau. Courtesy of the photo

“The RCA has this albatross around its neck, and historically it’s moving very slowly,” Citlau said. “From our point of view, the house is on fire. We can’t talk all the time, we’ll wait another five years and have a few committees. It’s already a bloody mess, and until you’re ready to go inside and make some decisions, there’s no way to get through it. And we did our best to break through. ”

In May 2021, the Alliance of Reformed Churches was formed as an alternative to RCAs for conservative churches that question 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 clear guidance of the Spirit of God at the General Synod,” the Alliance said in a statement sent to the RNS. “Our prayers will be with our brothers and sisters as they go through this significant moment in RCA history together.”

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More departures are expected. The 2020 Vision Report said, “We have learned informally of the intention of entire classes to leave the title in the near future.” These departures have been coming for a long time; The RCA has been discussing sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion since the 1970s.

“People on different sides of the spectrum have been fighting for about 40 years and they are bored,” Komline said. “They believe their struggles are hampering their mission. I think that is the case on both sides. Liberals want to continue to seek justice, as they define it, and evangelicals want to share the gospel as they define it. ”

According to Griswold, these divisions can be traced even further. The RCA was originally formed by several waves of Dutch immigrants. Those in earlier waves settled along the east coast, where they eventually developed a sensitivity that resembled those of their peers, while migrants who came in the 19th.th centuries often inhabited the west. Today, cultural and theological divisions are still evident. All but five of the 44 churches listed as LGBTQ affirmed by the Room for All-network that certifies LGBTQ in the RCA — are located in the northeast.

“As America as a whole has changed, the RCA has experienced some similar shifts,” Komline said. “Just as America is very polarized now, so is the RCA.”

This story was originally published by the Religion News Service and is published here with permission.

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