Lessons from the RCA’s Vision 2020 Report

The Reformed Church in America (RCA) released its Vision 2020 Report this week, and some of its diagnoses are things to be taken into account for my own EPC. The report recommends that the RCA shift to affinity-based classes rather than being geography-based, allow each classis to determine their position on LGBT marriage and ordination, creating an independent missions board to maintain the RCA’s mission work if the denomination collapses, and mandating a gracious dismissal process for all RCA congregations. The recommendation on the missions board elicited a minority report from the committee that believes “Its structure is voluntary and pragmatic. By design, the agency would be extra-ecclesial, existing outside of the connection and accountability of a covenant community.” This criticism summarizes the warning lights that the RCA’s report contains.

This report and its recommendations are necessary because the RCA has been divided for decades on questions of what its unifying standards and structures should actually be. Don Poest, the interim general secretary for the RCA in 2018, led the efforts to create the committee that produced this report. In his comments leading to its creation, he says,

There also is a significant disagreement on where the power lies in our differences: Is it our polity, or our standards and statements? Is it our structure, or our commitment to a historic view of Scripture? Because we disagree fundamentally here,we often find ourselves stuck.

“Unity, purity, and peace” are words that are verbalized often—indeed, they are part of our liturgy for welcoming new members and ordaining ministers, elders, and deacons. But my observation is that if unity, purity, and peace are the three legs of a stool,we have a problem, because not everyone sees these three legs as being of equal length. Different parts of the denomination emphasize one leg much more than the others.

Some ask why this issue is so much more divisive than others we have faced. They ask, “We’ve dealt with differences in the past and always solved them; why can’t we do so now?”… I’m not sure we have ever solved some of these underlying issues. We’ve just been able to focus elsewhere until another issue arose.

The issue is that the RCA failed to maintain and communicate a unifying standard. Papering over these differences for the sake of a sense of unity has led the RCA to the precipice of dissolution. The report similarly says, “This means we currently face something we have previously weathered, but it also means that we are likely to be here again if we do not find a way to handle conflict differently.” The committee is striving to solve this problem, but is just accelerating it. By dividing the RCA into affinity-based classes, the church is inviting its members and churches to choose who to partner and submit to rather than having the RCA as a church submit to each other in a unifying standard, whatever that may be. The entire point of geography-based presbyteries/classes is to ensure that congregations don’t just choose who is worth maintaining covenant fellowship with, but that church as the church is united with congregations and ministers working to live in unity with those with whom they would not otherwise acknowledge. It compels the body of Christ to acknowledge the diversity of its parts, but an affinity-based system allows the parts to determine to what extent they are part of the body.

The RCA’s report will just lead to the balkanization of the denomination, and within a few years each classis will start asking, “What’s the point of being part of a denomination full of people we disagree with and are unwilling to submit to if we are functionally independent already?” The minority report gets to this idea with its criticism of detaching the mission of the church from the church itself, and asks in some of its concluding words, “What is urgently needed is a robust theological rationale for how the church exists in difference. What holds us together? How do we remain connected to and in covenant with one another?”

These questions are being avoided by the RCA if it continues down this path. But they are a clarion call to the EPC, whose true confession is “In Non-Essentials Liberty.” The EPC will end up in exactly the same place as the RCA, perhaps with different stimulating issues, and perhaps many decades from now, but the same the place nonetheless because the seeds of the RCA’s divisions, planted in its insistence on an ambiguous unity and peace at the expense of a robust and strict clarity, have been and are being sown in the EPC.