Conflict and Covalent Bonds

Daniel Meeter

This book is essential reading for those connected in any way to the Reformed Church in America. It fills a gap in the denomination’s historiography, and its compelling analysis makes a first-rate case study of the travails of post-war American Protestantism. Lynn Japinga, who teaches religion at Hope College, has given us the story of 49 years, from the end of World War II to Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s debut as general secretary.

Japinga has not intended a comprehensive history. It’s a political history that focuses on issues of power, leadership, direction, and decisions. The story traces the series of conflicts in which these issues were fought out, and the stated theme of conflict is interwoven with two other themes, identity and family. Cover Drawing from the records of the General Synod of the RCA, from the RCA’s magazine The Church Herald, and from interviews and letters, Japinga shows how the conflicts were the means by which the RCA, typically seeing itself as an extended family, kept working on its identity. If not ethnicity, or even theology, then “what is the glue that holds us together?” she asks. It’s a convincing way to frame five decades of denominational history.

Japinga wisely avoids the conservative-liberal polarity. She identifies three types within the RCA, from right to left: purists, conservatives, and moderates. I think she’s right. This is not a perfectly neutral typology, because the purists certainly regarded the moderates as anything but, yet it holds true within the larger world of American Protestantism. While I don’t think any purist would have called himself that, what other term could you use? And Henry Bast, the book’s first purist to enter the lists, did love the great Puritan theologians. What the book demonstrates is how the confl icts were decided by the large conservative middle group going with either the purists or the moderates. It’s not an altogether new dynamic in the RCA—in colonial days, it was the purist Voetians versus the moderate Cocceians, with most of the people in between.

The author is not disinterested and does not claim to be. Her leanings do come through, and she states them in the epilogue. I’m not against this when the historian is candid and fair, and Japinga is, though occasionally her analysis of a conflict begs the question. That the purists often come off looking bad results from the terms of the analysis: a study of conflict within an institution in which confl ict is regarded as a negative, especially by the moderates. And as the moderates keep wanting to change the denomination, for better or worse, and the purists resist the changes, right or wrong, they’re going to come off looking negative. A few interpretive footnotes off er cause to doubt Japinga’s objectivity, but these are only minor blemishes.

After 1857 the RCA became a coalition of the East and the Midwest. The East, with colonial roots, founded by the Dutch state church, had an establishment sensibility (its pastors wearing clerical collars, as one purist sniped) with an accommodating and ecumenical Calvinism. The Midwest came out of a second immigration of anti-establishment, secessionist pietists. It developed a patriotic American evangelicalism with a Calvinist shell. The shift of power from the East to the Midwest is the occasion of the first post-war conflict, setting the stage for more to come, as the RCA worked the balance of ecumenicalism and evangelicalism.

The East and Midwest were able to unite on foreign missions but not on the ecumenism that missions had generated, and membership in the Federal (National) and World Councils of Churches was the next conflict, with the conservatives siding with the moderates. Twice the moderates led merger attempts with Presbyterians, and twice the conservatives went with the purists. Other conflicts over the years were over civil rights, Roman Catholicism, the fear of communism, higher criticism, school prayer, denominational funding, Vietnam, women’s ordination, and homosexuality. At one point, in 1969, the conflict was so intense that the General Synod seriously considered an orderly dissolution of the denomination.

Implicit in all these, it seems to me, is an underlying issue that Japinga keeps illustrating without naming as such, and that is the RCA’s surrender to American civil religion. The RCA had developed, in its liberal and conservative versions, two strands of Calvinism reduced to accommodate the claims of civil religion, and these claims gained new strength from World War II and the new world status of the United States (as well as the Soviet Union). The generation that fought this war felt betrayed, for example, by the next generation’s anti-war and civil rights demonstrations. Wasn’t this the deep and undiagnosed conflict that aggravated the others? Such is suggested by Japinga’s many quotations from the editorials in The Church Herald.

During some of the years when the RCA was pulling itself apart, there was real denominational vitality at many levels. (Historian Dirk Mouw recently demonstrated that the colonial Reformed Church actually grew and strengthened under the Coetus–Conferentie conflict.) I can remember lots of interest and pride in the work of the Board of North American Missions; the World Missions work in Hokkaido, Bahrain, and Oman; the Reformed Church Youth Fellowship; the women’s guilds; Temple Time on New York radio; Hope College choir tours; Mott Haven choir tours; and the Caravaners—summer mission volunteers who made an impact on us in Brooklyn! A conflict-telescope will miss these. But all this vitality has waned, and so the conflict story remains the telling one.

Three enduring identity steps that were not conflicted are missing from the account. First is the outsized effect of the RCA on Dutch Reformed Church relations in South Africa, including what that meant for our own African- American members and their identity. Second is Edwin Mulder’s steady leadership of the RCA into renewed participation in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and how that subtly strengthened our Reformed identity. Third is the RCA’s complete recasting of its church order in 1968, changing its focus from the offices to the assemblies. The last reflected the evolution of the RCA into a cohesive religious corporation, which was even more apparent in the centralization of all the boards into the General Program Council with its staff. The emphasis on the church as family may have served as compensation for a relatively Calvinist denomination’s unease with being such a corporation.

Why do we use the family metaphor for the RCA? Japinga goes into relationship reasons. But we never reverse the terms—we don’t identify our families with the metaphor of a church, as in “our family is like a church.” This might be evidence of a weak and even conflicted ecclesiology in the RCA. We’re not sure what a church should be or even is, which has to aggravate our issue with identity. And yet, as RCA pastor Josh Bode has recently said, “for a Reformed church, the question of identity can never be settled.” That’s at least because of the inherent dynamic of catholicity and the freedom of the Word. Are we consigned to conflict on this, or, as Japinga asks, can we find a way to make it a positive and creative dynamic?

I am not a disinterested reviewer. I read this history in terms of my own father’s career as an RCA pastor, from 1945, when, as a G.I. in Germany, he was “called” to the ministry, till his final retirement around 1994. Was he family? Yes and no. He didn’t enter the RCA till he was 30. He was ethnically Dutch, but he never attended an RCA college or seminary. He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, attended Calvin College, left Calvin Theological Seminary during the Barth wars, attended the ecumenical and evangelical Biblical Seminary in New York, was received by Classis Passaic, took a dying white church in a Brooklyn neighborhood and revived it as a vital African-American congregation. He was deeply, warmly, and joyfully Calvinist. He loved the Heidelberg, he used the RCA liturgy, and he read the forms in full. The 1955 hymnbook was his favorite. He liked to wear a collar. The first time I was in a synagogue, he was praying. The first time I was in a Roman Catholic church, he was preaching. He was very strong on civil rights, a patriotic anti-Communist, indifferent to the World Council of Churches, distrustful of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, strongly against merger with the Presbyterians, and opposed to women’s ordination until my wife’s, when at the last moment he rushed forward to join the laying on of hands. He was a relationship guy. He had friends among the purists and the moderates. He was a conservative who fit Japinga’s typology spot on.

My father was loyal to the RCA. It gave him his identity, and he always said the denomination was good to him. But he never spoke of it in terms of family. What he got from it was a structure of accountability within which he could securely practice his ministry plus a network of resources and relationships to support his work.

I suspect much of the anxiety about the glue that holds us together is peculiar to denominational leaders, power brokers, and fund raisers. If my father is typical of the conservatives, it’s less like glue and more like the covalent bonds of an atom. It’s dynamic desire and functional love within a context of dangerous freedom. That, to me, is the good news that comes through Japinga’s book. It’s a very good story, and even a little inspiring.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York, and an adjunct instructor at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey.