The Reformed Church in America (RCA) is a mainline Reformed Protestant denomination in Canada and the United States. It has about 223,675 members, with the total declining in recent decades. From its beginning in 1628 until 1819, it was the North American branch of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1819 it incorporated as the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. The current name was chosen in 1867.
The RCA is a member of the National Council of Churches (founding member), the World Council of Churches (WCC), Christian Churches Together, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). Some parts of the denomination belong to the National Association of Evangelicals, the Canadian Council of Churches, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The denomination is in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and United Church of Christ and is a denominational partner of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
The early settlers in the Dutch colony of New Netherland first held informal meetings for worship. In 1628 Jonas Michaelius organized the first Dutch Reformed congregation in New Amsterdam, now New York City, called the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, now the Marble Collegiate Church. During Dutch rule, the RCA was the established church of the colony and was under the authority of the classis of Amsterdam.
Even after the British captured the colony in 1664, all Dutch Reformed ministers were still trained in the Netherlands. Services in the RCA remained in Dutch until 1764. (Dutch language use faded thereafter until the new wave of Dutch immigration in the mid-19th century. This revived use of the language among Dutch descendants and in some churches.)
In 1747 the church in the Netherlands had given permission to form an assembly in North America; in 1754, the assembly declared itself independent of the classis of Amsterdam. This American classis secured a charter in 1766 for Queens College (now Rutgers University) in New Jersey. In 1784 John Henry Livingston was appointed as professor of theology, marking the beginning of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary.
The Dutch-speaking community, including farmers and traders, prospered in the former New Netherland, dominating New York City, the Hudson Valley, and parts of New Jersey while maintaining a significant presence in southeastern Pennsylvania, southwestern Connecticut, and Long Island.
In the early 18th century nearly 3,000 Palatine German refugees came to New York. Most worked first in English camps along the Hudson River to pay off their passage (paid by Queen Anne's government) before they were allowed land in the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys. There they created numerous German-speaking Lutheran and Reformed churches, such as those at Fort Herkimer and German Flatts. Thousands more immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th century. They used German as the language in their churches and schools for nearly 100 years, and recruited some of their ministers from Germany. By the early 20th century, most of their churches had joined the RCA.
During the American Revolution, a bitter internal struggle broke out in the Dutch Reformed church, with lines of division following ecclesiastical battles that had gone on for twenty years between the "coetus" and "conferentie" factions. One source indicates that defections may have occurred as early as 1737.
"Desolation pervaded many of the churches, whereas prior to 1737 good order was maintained in the churches, and peace and a good degree of prosperity were enjoyed. ...But in 1754, the Coetus of the previous year, having recommended the changing of the Coetus into a Classis with full powers, the opposition became violent, and the opponents were known as the Conferentie."
A spirit of amnesty made possible the church's survival after the war. The divisiveness was also healed when the church sent members on an extensive foreign missions program in the early 19th century.
In 1792 the classis adopted a formal constitution; and in 1794 the denomination held its first general synod. Following the American Civil War, in 1867 it formally adopted the name "Reformed Church in America". In the nineteenth century in New York and New Jersey, ethnic Dutch descendants struggled to preserve their European standards and traditions while developing a taste for revivalism and an American identity.
Some members owned slaves—the most famous of whom was Sojourner Truth—and the church did not support abolitionism. In rural areas, ministers preached in Dutch until about 1830–1850, then switched to English, at the same time finally dropping the use of many traditional Dutch clothing and customs. Although some ministers favored revivals, generally the church did not support either the First or the Second Great Awakenings, which created much evangelical fervor.
Immigration from the Netherlands in the mid-19th century led to the expansion of the RCA into the Midwest. In 1837 Pastor Abram D. Wilson and his wife Julia Evertson Wilson from New Jersey established the first Dutch Reformed church west of the Allegany Mountains in Fairview, Illinois. Hope College and Western Theological Seminary were founded in Holland, Michigan, Central College in Pella, Iowa, and Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. In the 1857 Secession, a group of more conservative members in Michigan led by Gijsbert Haan separated from the RCA. They organized the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC), and other churches followed. In 1882 another group of congregations left for the CRC, mirroring developments in the church in the Netherlands.
After 1945 the RCA expanded into Canada, which was the destination of a large group of Dutch emigrants. Between 1949 and 1958, the RCA opened 120 churches among non-Dutch suburban communities, appealing to mainline Protestants. It was a charter member of the Presbyterian Alliance, the Federal Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches.
Like most other mainline denominations, the RCA has had a declining membership during the last thirty years. In 2016 the total membership was less than 220,000, down from about 300,000 in 2000 and 360,000 in 1980. In the last thirty years, the Church has lost more than 1/3 of its membership.
Due to theological changes reflecting new interpretations of Scripture, the adoption of the Belhar Confession, the removal of the conscience clauses related to women’s ordination, and growing acceptance of homosexuals as members, a number of congregations have left the RCA to join the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which is more conservative on these issues.
The RCA confesses several statements of doctrine and faith. These include the historic Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed; the traditional Reformed Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism (with its compendium), the Canons of Dort, and the Belhar Confession.
The RCA opposes euthanasia. The report of the Commission on Christian Action stated in 1994: "What Christians say about issues of morality ought to be and usually is a reflection of their fundamental faith convictions. There are at least three of these convictions that appear especially relevant to the question of whether it is acceptable for Christians to seek a physician’s assistance in committing suicide in the midst of extreme suffering./ A fundamental conviction Christians have is that they do not belong to themselves. Life, despite its circumstances, is a gift from God, and each individual is its steward... Contemporary arguments for the 'right' to assistance to commit suicide are based on ideas of each individual's autonomy over his or her life. Christians cannot claim such autonomy; Christians acknowledge that they belong to God... Christians yield their personal autonomy and accept a special obligation, as the first answer of the Heidelberg Catechism invites people to confess: 'I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ' (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1)... A decision to take one's own life thus appears to be a denial that one belongs to God./ A second conviction is that God does not abandon people in times of suffering... Christians express their faith in God's love by trusting in God's care for them. A decision to end one's life would appear to be a cessation of that trust... Suffering calls upon people to trust God even in the valley of the shadow of death. It calls on people to let God, and not suffering, determine the agenda of their life and their death./ A third conviction is that in the community of God's people, caring for those who are dying is a burden Christians are willing to share. Both living and dying should occur within a caring community, and in the context of death, Christian discipleship takes the form of caring for those who are dying./ This is an era when many people find legislating morality a questionable practice. Should Christians promote legislation which embodies their conclusions about the morality of physician-assisted suicide?... If Christians are to be involved in debating laws regulating assisted suicide, it will be out of a concern for the health and well-being of society... As a society, there is no common understanding that gives any universal meaning to 'detrimental'. In humility, Christians can simply acknowledge this, and proceed…to share our own unique perspectives, inviting others to consider them and the faith that gives them meaning."
The Reformed Church also condemns the death penalty. The General Synod in 2000 expressed seven reasons why the Church opposes it:
The General Synod resolution expressed its will "to urge members of the Reformed Church in America to contact their elected officials, urging them to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment and to call for an immediate moratorium on executions."
The RCA is generally opposed to abortion. The position of the General Synod, stated in 1973 and later affirmed, has been that "in principle" abortion "should not be practiced at all", but in a "complex society" of competing evils there "could be exceptions". However, abortion should never be chosen as a matter of "individual convenience". The church personnel should promote "Christian alternatives to abortion", and church members are asked to "support efforts for constitutional changes" to protect the "unborn".
Since 1978 the General Synod has made a number of statements on homosexuality. Homosexual acts are considered sinful and "contrary to the will of God". But homosexuals are not to be blamed for their condition. The church must affirm civil rights for homosexuals while it condemns homosexual behavior (1978). The church must seek to lift the homosexual's "burden of guilt", recognizing that homosexuality is a "complex phenomenon" (1979). The church should encourage "love and sensitivity towards such persons as fellow human beings" (1990). In 1994 the Synod condemned the humiliation and degradation of homosexuals and confessed that many members had not listened to the "heartfelt cries" of homosexual persons struggling for "self-acceptance and dignity." While calling for compassion, patience, and loving support toward those who struggle with same-sex desires, the 2012 General Synod determined that it is a "disciplinable offense" to advocate for homosexual behavior or provide leadership for a service of a same-sex marriage. The following year, however, the General Synod essentially rescinded this statement and rebuked the 2012 delegates for demonstrating "a lack of decorum and civility," and usurping constitutional authority. In 2014, the General Synod recommended that the Commission on Church Order begin the process of defining marriage as heterosexual. However, in 2015, the General Synod approved a process for studying a way "to address the questions of human sexuality". Also in 2015, Hope College in Michigan, affiliated with the RCA, officially decided to recognize same-sex marriages.
Additionally, a number of congregations and the Classis of New Brunswick have voted to publicly affirm LGBT members. Some of those congregations, including congregations dually affiliated with the RCA and United Church of Christ, have already begun performing same-sex marriages. "Some RCA churches have gay pastors, but their ordination is from other denominations". On May 5, 2017, the United Church of Christ and Reformed Church in America congregations that support LGBT inclusion announced the formation of an association for dually-affiliated congregations.
In April 2016, a working committee of the RCA developed a report on human sexuality. The report offers different options, for review by the General Synod, and includes the option to define marriage as between a man and woman or to define marriage as between two persons thus allowing same-gender marriages. Of these options, General Synod 2016 voted to define marriage as "man/woman". However, that vote needed to receive the support of 2/3 of the classes and be ratified again in 2017. In March 2017, the proposal to define marriage as "man/woman" did not receive the necessary votes from 2/3 of the classes, and, as a result, it did not pass. On June 12, 2017, the General Synod voted for a "recommendation [which] says, 'faithful adherence to the RCA’s Standards, therefore, entails the affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman.'"
The RCA first admitted women to the offices of deacon and elder in 1972 and first ordained women in 1979. By 1980 the General Synod of the RCA amended the Book of Church Order (BCO) to clarify their position on women's ordination, including amending the language of Part I, Article 1, Section 3 of the BCO from "persons" to "men and women".
In 1980 the RCA added a conscience clause to the BCO stating, "If individual members of the classis find that their consciences, as illuminated by Scripture, would not permit them to participate in the licensure, ordination or installation of women as ministers of the Word, they shall not be required to participate in decisions or actions contrary to their consciences, but may not obstruct the classis in fulfilling its responsibility to arrange for the care, ordination, and installation of women candidates and ministers by means mutually agreed on by such women and the classis" (Part II, Article 2, Section 7).
In 2012 by a vote of 143 to 69, the General Synod of the RCA voted to remove the conscience clauses. However, the vote by the General Synod had to be approved by a majority of the classes (a classis serving the same function as a presbytery). Eventually, 31 classes voted in favor of removal, with 14 voting to retain them, and the vote was ratified at the RCA's 2013 General Synod.
The RCA has a presbyterian polity where authority is divided among representative bodies: consistories, classes, regional synods, and the General Synod. The General Synod meets annually and is the representative body of the entire denomination, establishing its policies, programs, and agenda. Measures passed at General Synod are executed and overseen by the General Synod Council. Council members are appointed by the General Synod. A General Secretary oversees day-to-day operations. The Rev. Tom De Vries, D. Min., was installed as the current General Secretary at the 2011 General Synod.
The Constitution of the RCA consists of three parts: the Liturgy, the Government, and the Doctrinal Standards. The Government, along with the Formularies and the By-laws of the General Synod, are published annually in a volume known as The Book of Church Order.
Through a document known as A Formula of Agreement, the RCA has full communion with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The relationship between the United Church of Christ and the RCA has been the subject of controversy within the RCA, particularly a resolution by the UCC General Synod in 2005 regarding homosexuality. The ELCA's affirmation of the ordination of homosexuals as clergy in 2009 prompted some RCA conservatives to call for a withdrawal from the Formula of Agreement. In 2012 RCA discussed its own position regarding homosexuality. The two denominations undertook a dialogue and in 1999 produced a document discussing their differences (PDF).
Along with their Formula of Agreement partners, the RCA retains close fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC). In 2005 the RCA and CRC voted to allow for the exchange of ministers. Faith Alive Christian Resources, the CRC's publishing arm, is also used by the RCA and in 2013 published a joint hymnal for use in both denominations. The two denominations have also collaborated on various other ministry ventures, voted to merge pension plans in 2013 in conformity with the Affordable Care Act, and plan to hold back-to-back General Synods at Central College in Pella, Iowa in 2014.
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