A centuries-old denomination may soon dissolve after breaking up with its culture warriors.
Recently, watchdog website Ministry Watch reported on yet another schism in Christianity. This one involves Reformed Church in America (RCA). The culture warriors in the denomination have now split away into the Alliance of Reformed Churches (ARC). Though the split definitely gives off Life of Brian vibes, this development is way more worrisome than that classic movie’s bickering freedom fighters. This one contains way more authoritarian buzzwords, for a start. Today, let me decode those buzzwords buried in their Christianese—and paint a picture of how authoritarianism has led to yet another fracture in Jesus’ supposed kingdom on Earth.
Everyone, meet Reformed Church in America
Reformed Church in America (RCA) just happens to be one of the oldest Christian denominations in America. According to La Wiki, it dates back to 1628!
Originally, RCA was simply part of the Dutch Reformed Church. It follows a Presbyterian tradition. That term just refers to how they handle officers and decision-making. They use councils of presbyters, which means elders.
RCA is mainline, as well. That means it’s not generally super-right-wing or extremist in its views like evangelicals can often be. Nor do they tend to get as rowdy as evangelicals. Mainline Christians tend to be better-educated, more socially active and aware, and on the better side of the human-rights squabbles that evangelicals like to start. I’m not sure exactly which of the preceding makes evangelicals despise them so much (and it could well be a “why not all of them?” situation), but there’s definitely some antipathy there.
RCA has been in solid decline for some time. Before the story we’re discussing today, they’d fallen to 200k members spread between about 1000 churches.
And it is very, very interesting to me that their Wikipedia page entirely lacks the word “Calvin” in it. Oh, it’s all over the discussion page for the entry. But it appears nowhere on the official page.
And now meet their culture warriors
“Reformed,” itself, is another name for Calvinism. There are some differences, but these won’t matter much to outsiders. I’ve read quite a few essays about the differences (here’s one), and they all seem to focus on different aspects of either term.
Officially, Calvinism is a sort of add-on software module or DLC for Protestantism. Any Christian Protestant church can adopt Calvinism and still consider itself Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, or whatever else. That characteristic makes Calvinism very versatile.
These days, a lot of Christian-watchers associate the terms “Reformed” and “Calvinism” with right-wing, ultra-conservative Christianity and the politics associated therewith these days — and for good reason. Heck, I can barely see a young white dude with haunted eyes, trendy clothes and tattoos/piercings, and a scraggly, untamed beard-for-days without immediately associating him with that contingent. Calvinists have been very openly seeking to capture the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for ages now — and they’ve been getting very close to success in the past few years.
These hardline Christians consider themselves the very best Jesus-ers of all Jesus-ers. Just ask them! They’ll tell you with joy how superior their Jesus-ing is.
Culture warriors wreck everything: Marriage equality edition
In 2012, the RCA began to break apart over homosexuality. One faction –the more mainline end — wanted inclusion. The other — the culture warriors — wanted to the denomination to be bigots-for-Jesus. That breakup completed this month, with 43 congregations full of culture warriors leaving. They’re joining a new denomination, ARC (Alliance of Reformed Churches).
Marriage equality has been the law of the land for years now. So seeing this long-settled argument feels almost like coming face-to-virtual-face with a Creationist who thinks Jesus himself told them to start an argument about dinosaurs today. Or a Satanic Panicker who is trying to get into that grift about 20 years too late.
In the case of equal marriage, I caught an evangelical leader, Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, admitting way back in 2011 (yes!) that he knew that his tribe’s anti-gay culture war was dead in the water. He knew his tribe would ultimately lose that fight. So, he urged them instead to focus on eradicating abortion access—even though he also conceded this was still only a certain victory “in theory.”
(Indeed, Jim Daly seems to have focused more on destroying women’s access to abortion care — which we documented in 2018. That’s when he claimed in a post that all those sex abuse scandals erupting from his end of Christianity were caused by people rejecting his authoritarian ruleset. Yes, he means the same ruleset that he literally just revealed in his very own post that even his own religion’s leaders don’t follow.)
But apparently one stalwart bunch of right-wing Christians are still very unhappy and upset that the people they’ve harassed and hurt for decades get to enjoy all the same rights and perks that they — as straight-presenting people — do. They’re so upset about it that they can’t bear to share a denomination with their chosen culture-war enemies.
What culture warriors want more than obedience to Jesus
A long time ago, Neil Carter described one prayer Jesus makes in the Gospels as “the most fantastically failed prayer in history.” I love that description. And it fits today’s situation perfectly.
In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays for his followers to be unified. In fact, he prays that they’ll be so incredibly unified that everyone who beholds them will know that only a god could possibly accomplish this impossible feat.
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me. . .John 17:20-23
Whew! That was quite a tall order. And yet from the very beginning, from the very first steps the infant offshoot of Judaism made, its members only fractured further and further apart.
And here we are now, right down to the “Jesus is so lucky to have us” punchline.
If I were looking at culture warriors through the lens of that prayer, I’d be forced to define them as missing the mark, to use the Christianese. The culture wars themselves are the dividers of Christians, not the unifiers of them.
They were always meant to be exactly so.
Culture warriors speak only the language of authoritarianism. And so culture wars are, to them, the best and most perfect way to Jesus. It’s the ones rejecting their demands that are Jesus-ing wrong. Not them.
They came along and finally got the Bible right.
Jesus is so lucky to have them.
The authoritarian buzzwords that should concern people
When I read the article about this new schism on Ministry Watch, I noticed a few Christianese phrases that concerned me.
I’ve always loved Christianese. That’s the weird jargon that mostly-right-wing evangelical Christians employ among themselves. They use it to make really awful things sound perfectly fine. In this case, a lot of authoritarianism is buried within their genteel-sounding words. So here, allow me to decode the Christianese on display.
First, ARC will be absolutely authoritarian in outlook:
The new denomination, besides not affirming same-sex marriage or ordination of LGBTQ individuals, will have a strong emphasis on church planting and feature a flexible organizational model meant to foster theological alignment and efficient decision-making, according to ARC leaders.Source
“Not affirming” = condemning, but in a super-Jesus-flavored way
“Strong emphasis on church planting” = they’ll fling new churches everywhere at the expense of existing congregations (ooh, I hope those big spenders leaving their existing denominations realize that; typically big spenders get really pissy about feeling neglected)
“Flexible organizational model” = the rules will shift whenever ARC needs them to, for whatever reason ARC chooses to give (if they choose to give any at all)
“Theological alignment” = ARC will impose complete lockstep in opinions, especially regarding culture-war topics; no dissension will be tolerated; also, leaders in one department will feel free to stomp on other departments
“Efficient decision-making” = there’ll be none of this years-long dithering, thenkyewverymuch
Sidebar: More Christianese
Now, let’s tackle the next paragraph:
“We have a passion for this remnant of believers to become a part of reformation and revival in the Northern Hemisphere,” said Tim Vink, the new denomination’s director of spiritual leadership and outreach. “Part of our strategic thinking is designing things for the 21st century that allows a multiplication of gospel-saturated churches and a multiplication of disciples.”Source
“Remnant” = how TRUE CHRISTIANS™ think of themselves; the name implies a raggedy band of survivors fighting impossible odds, which is funny considering who these folks actually are
“Revival” = tons of new members signing up very quickly; he wishes, cuz it has zero chance of happening
“Strategic thinking” = LOL, they have no idea what this means; in reality, they’ll use contractors to create nonsensical plans full of buzzwords promising growth (like this one), then memory hole the results
“Multiplication of disciples” = they wish; in reality, they won’t have any tangible growth apart from poaching existing Christians from other sects, and those Christians will all be furious that their existing sects aren’t “gospel-saturated” enough
I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to hear of ARC requiring those scary membership covenants for its churches. At the moment, at least, it seems like they haven’t said either way. But do not play the drinking game with the word “covenant” in their “Welcome Packet” unless you have a powerful constitution.
In every single way, the Christianese I see in this article is absolutely alarming. Watch this space: ARC is going to completely implode in abuse allegations in a couple of years. The abuse is already happening. Victims are already being spotted and groomed. It just might take a couple of years for the news to leak out.
Culture warriors are aligning
Of course, as Ministry Watch has pointed out (relink), it doesn’t sound like the RCA is losing all that many people or churches. Their article says 43 congregations are leaving out of about 1000.
The problem for the RCA is that many of these departing churches contain big spenders.
“Realistically, it’s a large group of conservative churches that are also providing a lot of income to the denomination. I really think the mass exodus of all these conservative churches is going to throw the RCA into a really difficult financial situation,” said Steven Rodriguez, an RCA church planter in Brockport, New York. “I doubt the RCA will be financially sustainable for much longer.”Source
In addition, “at least” 125 other churches from other denominations are talking to the new denomination, ARC, about joining. And that move could play havoc with a number of other struggling denominations.
All this, over a culture war evangelicals lost over a decade ago!
But this situation illustrates a point. Christianity’s family tree always branches and splinters further and further apart rather than streamlining together. Jesus’ prayer for unity was always doomed to fail, just as his religion was always doomed to fail to achieve even its simplest directives. (And for the same reasons.)
As Christianity loses more and more members and social cachet, its members who revel in holding power will try harder and harder to revive what they perceive as its glory days.
ARC is simply one attempt among many that we will encounter in coming days.