Secessionist Impulses in the Reformed Church: A Historical Lesson

Classis Holland Minutes 1848-1858
There has been a secessionist impulse running throughout particular parts of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as of late. There is a variety of reasons offered for this, but the prevailing one is the differing perspectives on human sexuality.

Secession is nothing new, and in our Book of Church Order there is a process outlined through which churches may petition to leave the denomination. It is important to note that, in our church government and our theology of church, churches must be released, and cannot leave by their own volition, after all, churches do not create themselves, they are established by the greater church. Ministers do not ordain themselves, they are ordained to office by the greater church. The process, then, is time consuming and marginally difficult.

There has been a movement to make the process of secession easier, so as not to be difficult, a movement which has, thus far, failed. However, there are churches which have requested secession, and others more which are, in their words, “considering the possibility”.

This is not the first time that this impulse has moved through our denomination. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a schism which divided the Reformed Church, particularly in the Midwestern United States.

When we think about this, we must not demonize those desiring to separate, however we must also understand the gravity of the situation. Secession is not something to be taken lightly, like changing allegiances to a sports team, or changing jobs. Secession is a rip, a tear, a pulling apart at the seams which leaves frayed edges. While we must not see those who secede as enemies, we must not simply acquiesce to this impulse either.

As something of an armchair historian, I often look to our denomination’s nearly four-hundred year history to see how challenges and obstacles were handled so as to learn from them so that we can hopefully do things better in the present and future. In doing so, I also look to our past to see the secessionist impulses and the responses as guidance for how we might deal with this in the future.

***

One thing that became apparent is boldness of conviction and speech.

In our speech, we cannot water down the reality of the situation.  In our communication we cannot address our point in a roundabout way so as to make it seem like it is less of a deal than it is, or that it is less painful than it truly is. As we continue on this road, we must say clearly and boldly the reality of the situation, and speak truly as to what is going on. We must speak with conviction, after all, with secession there is an inherent judgment of the church that one is trying to leave that it is not the true church of Christ.

Here, then, are some quotations from the Minutes of the Classis of Holland on April 8, 1857 when the denomination was going through a similar trial. (As found in Classis Holland: Minutes 1848-1858, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950).

For those desiring to secede, this is a bold declaration of intent:

By this I notify you that I can hold no ecclesiastical communion with you, for the reason that I can not hold all of you who have joined the Dutch Reformed Church to be the true church of Jesus Christ , and consequently I renounce all fellowship with you and declare myself no longer to belong to you. I am the more constrained to do this by the fear of God, on account of the abominable and church-destroying heresy and sins which are rampant among you, which, if the Lord will and we live, i shall present to you at the next meeting of Classis.
I hope that your eyes may yet be opened to see your extreme wickedness, to take it to heart, and to be converted therefrom.

-p. 240.

Here is the response to the above declaration of secession, equally as bold.

…although there is noting else for the Classis to do than to receive these letters of secession as notification, as it is the fruit of a lust for schism already for a long time manifested by a few leaders, against which there is no weapon, which will do us less damage outside of the church than inside of it; and although the speaker has no desire to abridge the liberty of those who are separating themselves, also is even earnestly desirous that we may not be involved in quarrels, and [thus] arouse [mutual] bitterness among the Holland people, but may avoid everything that may give occasion thereto, and may, as far as possible, promote [mutual] love…nevertheless he is constrained with his whole soul to testify against this conduct that tears asunder the church of God, and warns each and every one against such a reckless course of conduct, which will bring ruin upon our posterity; [and to point out] that the whole affair (excepting a few leaders who fan the fire of distrust and suspicion), is a mixture of ignorance, sectarianism, and a trampling under foot of the brethren, of which the ministers of the [Classis] have been constantly for years the prey, which trampling under foot now extends itself to the entire old Dutch Reformed Church and the orthodox denominations — [a spirit] which has never been characteristic of the Reformed Church [and] which shall bear the judgement of God.

-p. 244-245

***

As with us, our forefathers and foremothers were sinful and broken people and were not perfect in speech and action. In this instance, there was so much hurt, that each side of the division were pointing fingers at the other and cataloging their faults, blinded to the fact that each of the sides had missteps and had a role in the painful situation. This, of course, is not a way to heal wounds, and to be sure, these wounds lasted for generations after, each generation passing on their residual pain to the next until here we are, a little over 150 years later, and we are finally (in the last several years) able to work together in newer and closer ways.

Truly, there is a call for repentance for all involved in an ecclesiastical division. Our forefathers (in this case they were all men) did well in the boldness and clarity of speech and conviction. They, however, did not do well at the mutual repentance and healing. We can learn from the past in the positive (what we ought to do) and we can learn from the past in the negative (what we ought not do). As we move forward as a denomination, I hope that we can learn in both ways, that we can gain boldness in our speech and conviction and debate, so as not to forget the gravity of the situation, but that we can be more graceful than our ancestors, that we can repent, and that divisions which may come may be healed. A scar will remain, a scar always remains, there is no way around that. But passing on a healed scar is far better than passing on a festering wound to the generations that will come after us.

***

As we face the potential for further division, we cannot forget the final words of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. I hope that we will pray these words regularly as we traverse through this latest situation of disagreement and difficulty:

Grant that, being joined together in him,
we may attain to the unity of the faith
and grow up in all things into Christ our Lord.

And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf,
and these grapes from many hills into one cup,
grant, O Lord, that your whole Church
may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth
into your kingdom.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

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6 thoughts on “Secessionist Impulses in the Reformed Church: A Historical Lesson

  1. When I first read the title I confused my theological terms and thought “Cessationist… oh boy!”

    Nothing so controversial as spats about speaking in tongues, thank God. Only about whether or not the LGBTQ folk among us and their allies are really part of the same faith, same baptism, same Spirit and the further fracturing of the body of Christ over that question.

    I know that you are absolutely right Matthew that we are sinful and broken people, not perfect in speech or action, much like our forebears. For my part I am absolutely ready to 1) confess my snarkiness is and defensiveness is ever before me and 2) I am sincerely ready to repent, sit that aside and come to the Table and acknowledge a shared kinship in Christ with any brothers or sisters who disagree with us open & affirming folks.

    However, those who feel so strongly that they wish to break communion with the larger body and leave and even the many who just murmur about it, I actually wish they would quit talking in pragmatic language about the difficulty of fellowship and teaching with those who believe differently. If they (whoever “they” are) are thinking “abominable and church-destroying heresy and sins which are rampant among you” I wish they would just say it rather than talking about difficulties in functionality.

    • Wayne, sorry to disappoint you that this was not about cessationism.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. We need to learn from this boldness and clarity. We seem to have lost the art of debate and deliberation in our assemblies. We need to learn to disagree face to face again, and be clear about where we stand. I appreciate the letter of secession that I quoted, because it is clear, albeit a bit overstated.

      We do need to be grace-filled, but that doesn’t mean we must be “nice” as it plays out in our neck of the woods. After all, Jesus was grace-filled and overturned tables and called people “brood of vipers”. What we must do, though, is to grieve our wounds and forgive. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt, because it does. We need to heal, too. I, for one, will not apologize for my convictions, nor will I mince words. However, I must do this with grace.

      I would hope that those wishing to secede would use language like that above, I would hope that we can respond with language like that above, but I would hope that this language would not be the end of it, but rather that everyone can mourn and repent and ask God to heal us.

  2. Wise words, jump on them. Matt, it was a privilege to read this. I hate the disagreement and fracturing were going through right now, and I also wish that we could all approach it more directly and disagree even with strong language. I love that you use the Great Thanksgiving at the end of this post, since I always think of our desire for unity throughout the denomination whenever I read these words too.

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