It was 1990, and the synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) opened all offices to women. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many conservatives who had battled liberalizing trends for more than twenty years. One church after another in North America seceded from the CRC. The future of denominational relationships was unclear, but many thought they needed to leave their former denominational home. With sorrow, tears, and regrets the exodus began.
In 1996, after efforts in the intervening years to explore new denominational relationships, the United Reformed Churches held their first synod. With relief, optimism, and a sense of continuing the confessional heritage of their prior denomination, work began on establishing a new church home for many congregations. Those first years were spent seeking an identity and navigating some doctrinal issues (e.g., missions, evolution, federal vision, ecumenical relations). Then came a time of settling into a rather steady existence (for more history, see http://www.urcna.org/1651/custom/23844).
It has now been twenty-one years since the URCNA was founded. For some, like myself, the movement goes back well over thirty years. Where do we stand as a federation (or denomination; I will not argue this point)? How do we stand? Where are we going, if anywhere? What is our future? More importantly, how is our spiritual health? Thirty years ago and more the momentum to secession gained as many spoke of and identified the spiritual sickness of our former church affiliation. Laxity and looseness in doctrine and practice characterized so much of the denomination’s life. Ultimately the secession was a move for the health and future viability of the churches. So it is proper in my mind to stop and assess our current health, to take our spiritual temperature, to check the barometer of the atmosphere in the URCNA.
Throughout the Scripture there are warnings about and against being deceived about one’s spiritual condition. One example (of many) would be 1 Corinthians 6:9–11: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
I am sure you are familiar with these passages. However, there is also the danger of a church (or we might say, a denomination) being deceived. We see an example in Revelation 3:17 of Laodicea “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
I am not asserting that the URCNA is like Laodicea in all respects. I am saying that for far too many, in my experience over the years, there is a blindness about our spiritual condition and the spiritual dangers that are in our midst. I write out of a love for the URCNA and from a desire that we be a vital and vibrant body going into the twenty-first century, that we be used of the Lord for the gathering in of his elect, the furthering of his kingdom, and the glory of our Savior. I value, respect, and love those things in our heritage and tradition that make us unique in the Reformed and Presbyterian world. But I see and hear too many who are (apparently) woefully ignorant of the dangers on our horizon.
Let me begin with our history. Many in the conservative movement of thirty years ago (Concerned Members, Association of Christian Reformed Laymen, the Christian Reformed Alliance) rightly identified the issues that led to our separation. Those issues were numerous as chronicled over the 1970s and 1980s. Issues such as women in office, theistic evolution, the authority of Scripture, and tolerance of homosexuality rose to the top in prominence. It was correctly maintained that all the issues were because of an underlying, root issue—that is, that decisions about these matters were no longer being decided with Scripture as the ultimate and final authority. That was true and sad. And so the separation occurred, and soon the URCNA was begun. Yet here is where a lot of the troubles began, in my opinion.
We conservatives mistakenly identified the symptoms as the problem. We failed to recognize that they were but symptoms. They were not the problem itself. What was the real problem? Huge spiritual declension and decay had been going on for many years of which the issues were but the symptoms. Hence when the URCNA was founded we thought the cure had been found—a new denominational home. We no longer faced and fought with the issues that plagued the churches for so many years. “Hooray, all is now well.” But it was not! Why? Because the disease had been misdiagnosed and hence the cure was incorrect. It did not heal and cure the real problem, which was declension and decay of the spiritual life of our people.
Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that our people are some of the finest Christian people I ever have or will have the pleasure of knowing. I will chronicle some of the reasons why I believe that in this series. But that does not dismiss the fact that we mistakenly thought the issues were the problem rather than merely the symptoms.
The problem of spiritual declension and decay are still with us, and the signs are evident for any with eyes to see. That is what I want to deal with in this series. I do so with the goal of wounding with an eye to healing, exposing with an eye to edifying. I pray you will be open to examining our collective condition in the light of God’s Word. Jesus spoke to the church in Revelation, and he speaks to us today when he says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him . . . He who has an ear, let him hear” (Rev. 3:20–22).
Rev. Paul T. Murphy
is the missionary pastor of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. He has been an elder and pastor for more than thirty years.