by a Common Heritage: The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church
in America at the Beginning of the New Millennium
Is it possible that the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America, which split more than a century ago, could someday reunite?
Calvin College political scientists Corwin Smidt and Jim Penning and Hope College sociologists Donald Luidens and Roger Nemeth explore this topic in Divided by a Common Heritage. Eerdmans published the work through its historical series of the Reformed Church in America.
“The impetus for it was the discussion that’s begun in the last 10 or so years, rather more aggressively recently, about whether or not the two denominations, in the face of the fact that they’re both losing members, should be thinking now about reconciliation, about merging,” Luidens said.
Divided by a Common Heritage compiles and culminates research that the two teams of scholars have been conducting on the denominations for decades. Luidens and Nemeth since 1974 have studied membership trends in the RCA, Hope’s parent denomination, while Penning and Smidt have been studying Calvin’s parent denomination, the CRC, for more than 20 years.
Common characteristics, the scholars note, make the idea of merging tempting. For example, in addition to sharing a Dutch heritage and Reformed theology, the RCA and CRC approach political issues in comparable ways, with pastors using their pulpits to emphasize personal and collective morality rather than to stump for specific candidates or causes.
“That’s important in this day and age when more churches are taking a more activist role,” Nemeth said.
However, the researchers have also found important differences between the CRC and RCA. They found that while the Midwestern members are similar in outlook in many ways, the denominations differ significantly in other parts of North America. For example, the researchers’ surveys have shown that the RCA segment based in the East is generally more liberal than other RCA sections, while the segment of the CRC in Canada is more liberal than the CRC membership in the Midwest.
“These two segments of the RCA and CRC are so different on measures of belief, religious practice and social/political issues that it is hard to imagine them remaining comfortably under one denominational umbrella,” Luidens said.
The researchers note, however, that the differences between the RCA and CRC needn’t preclude working together. For example, as neighboring children of their denominations, Hope and Calvin colleges are often cast as archrivals, particularly on the playing field, but through the years have also found ways to work together.
The process of writing Divided by a Common Heritage mirrors an option that the researchers feel could help the denominations—namely, that the RCA and CRC find ways to cooperate, often through individuals, denominational agencies and local churches, for their mutual benefit even while remaining independent.
The CRC and RCA could also share ideas with one another based on their individual experiences.
In the end, opting to cooperate doesn’t preclude the possibility of exploring a merger later. It could, Smidt said, even make the choice clearer: “The establishment of patterns of cooperation, then the continued expansion of such cooperation, and finally the continually expanding efforts of cooperation as new opportunities become available, set the foundation for what might become the ultimate merger of two denominational bodies.”
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Even as worship wars in the church and music controversies in society at large continue to rage, many people do not realize that conflict over music goes back to the earliest Christians as they sought to live out the “new song” of their faith. In this book, Stapert challenges contemporary Christians to learn from the early church in the area of music.
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