Two Sizeable Reformed Communities in North America

INTRODUCTION

Scotland and the Netherlands are in the same latitude and separated only by the North Sea. The cold, wet winds bf the North Sea may be partly responsible for the hardiness of the Scots and the Dutch, their work ethic, and their reputation for thriftiness. From the days of New Amsterdam onwards, thousands of them have migrated from Scotland and Holland to the United States and Canada, establishing Presbyterian and Reformed churches in many states and provinces.

When anthropologists study the culture of a society they often engage in what they call “participant observation” — participating with the people in their activities all the while observing what they do and why they do it. Because of my training in cultural anthropology in addition to theology, I tend to observe the culture of a people even as I learn their theological insights and their practice of Christianity.

After serving as a Christian Reformed minister until retirement, I was recently received as an “honorably retired teaching elder” by the South Coast (California) Presbytery of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). In June, 1999, I attended the General Assembly of this Church as a commissioner (Reformed Christians would say “delegate”). Without discussing doctrinal and practical changes that have recently occurred especially in the CRC (Christian Reformed Church). I wish to say something about social differences between the Presbyterians and the Reformed that may be helpful to both groups as they seek to understand one another. (Although Presbyterians frequently refer to their Reformed faith, I will for the sake of convenience in this article refer to all Scotch-Americans and those who have joined them as “Presbyterians,” and all Dutch-Americans, including the RCA (Reformed Church in America), the CRC, the URC (United Reformed Church) and several smaller groups, as “Reformed.”

The Reformed hold high the “three forms of unity,” the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. The Presbyterians adhere to the Westminster Confession, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism. These confessions are in substantial agreement with one another although some churches on both sides of the ethnic fence no longer take their own confessions as seriously as they ought. There are several other conservative Presbyterian groups not mentioned so far, such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, but my observations on Presbyterians concentrate on the PCA because theirs is the only General Assembly (Reformed would say Synod) that I attended.

CHURCH GOVERNMENT: DIFFERENCES IN STYLE

All the Reformed Churches in North America with which I am familiar have a very orderly and representative way of doing business in their broader assemblies. Each church sends a minister and an elder to every meeting of classis (“presbytery” in the Presbyterian system). Each classis in turn selects delegates to the national synod, which is really international when both Canada and United States are involved. Synod is viewed as a deliberative assembly, and, at least in the days when the CRC Synod met for two weeks, delegates were often allowed to speak as frequently and as long as they wished.

Although the meetings of classis and synod preserved a numerical balance between what Presbyterians call the ruling elders and the teaching elders, in practice the ministers tend to dominate the meetings at least in terms of who are the officers and who talks the most.

On the surface the Presbyterian system resembles the Reformed system. But viewed from the inside, important differences emerge. While the ministerial credentials of Reformed ministers are held by a local church, among Presbyterians they are held by presbytery. Every teaching elder, even those retired, is a member of presbytery and entitled to voice and vote at all presbytery meetings. Thus the ministers represent themselves, or presbytery, while the ruling elders represent the local churches that ordained them.

In the PCA, all elders, both ruling and teaching, are welcome at General Assembly as full participants. They simply have to register beforehand and be willing to pay their own way if their local church is unable or unwilling to pay their expenses.

Inasmuch as many teaching elders have greater freedom to leave the churches they serve than the ruling elders have to leave their secular work, one might conclude that among Presbyterians the teaching elders will surely dominate the broader assemblies of the church. Curiously that does not appear to be the case. In the section below I will suggest a reason for this.

The free-for-all-elders attitude of the Presbyterians makes for a very large assembly at the national level — potentially a very unwieldy assembly. The assembly that I attended in Louisville in June was made up of more than one thousand commissioners. But the business of this assembly was dispatched rapidly and in an orderly way.

The docket or agenda for the meeting was well-prepared. Committees of commissioners spent the first two days of their time reviewing and drawing up their own recommendations for general assembly. Each commissioner had a large book in which reports with pages already numbered were filed as they were received.

At least 12 “floor clerks” were assigned to distribute papers in their seating area and also to count the vote should the moderator (the chairman of the assembly) call for a show of hands. Even the hands that were used to vote were augmented by foot long yellow cards that were easy to see from a distance.

A “time clerk” was sitting next to where the moderator stood. and discussion on anyone motion was limited to 10 minutes. although the discussion could be extended by amendments or a show of hands. All speakers were encouraged to be brief and to the point, and when the discussion dragged on, the question was called from the floor.

Over 1000 commissioners held their first brief organizational meeting on Tuesday evening after the opening worship service. By Thursday evening all business was completed and they were ready to go home the next morning. For one accustomed to CRC deliberative assemblies the speed with which all this was accomplished was breathtaking.

Still another distinctive of the PCA is their program for women. While General Assembly was in session there was another series of meetings for women sponsored by Women in the Church, or WIC for short. The women heard women who were authors and leaders among them. present and analyze problems peculiar to women and to the Christian family. My wife found these meetings to be both inspirational and very informative.

A WITNESS TO THE WORLD: THE INFLUENCE OF HISTORY

This writer has often wondered how it is that the Reformed Churches of North America have had little influence on the culture that surrounds them. including the political manifestations of this culture. For all our respect for Groen Van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper, no one of their stature has arisen among us who could persuade not only Reformed Christians but many others as well to follow their leading.

On the other hand the Presbyterians. while they respect Abraham Kuyper. do not bother a great deal with theories of Christian action or sphere sovereignty. But their members are having an influence on the political process through elected politicians who are members of their churches. Five or six PCA members are presently serving in the US House of Representatives and others as judges in the higher courts of the land.

They are also influencing culture through both men and women members who are writing and speaking on the issues. Why should this be?

Here is a possible answer History is on the side of the Presbyterians Many of them trace the descent to ancestors who arrived in the New World while America was still thirteen British colonies. The great majority of them have ancestors who fought in the American Civil War, on both sides of that conflict. This sense of history gives them a natural sense of ownership.

Inasmuch as their ancestors held the land, they hold the old wealth at least in the southern states, and their children have filled the universities and colleges for generations. I am told that most ruling elders in the PCA are college graduates and many are lawyers and physicians. Educationally they have parity with the teaching elders and this gives them greater boldness to lead and to give their opinions. This, it strikes me, is the reason why the ruling elders have significant influence in their assemblies even though their numbers are smaller than the teaching elders.

The sense of historical ownership mentioned above also inspires many of them to enter the political arena successfully and inspires still others to enter the military chaplaincy. One of the most interesting discussions that I heard at the June Assembly was that of the place of women in the military, especially in combat. The military chaplains who were commissioners at the assembly (their prerogative under Presbyterian rules) offered helpful comments on where the military is headed. A report prepared by a study committee was received but also returned to that committee for further refinement.

Although Dutch-Americans living in New York and New Jersey have a strong sense of history in the New World, many of those living further west claim a history in this land going back no further than 100 years. I know that Van Raalte's settlement in Michigan sent a small contingent of young men to fight in the Civil War and that Scholte was considered by Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for US Ambassador to Austria. But this represents only the first links in what became a chain migration from the Netherlands extending from those early years to the first twenty years after the Second World War, the latter migration especially in Canada.

Some leaders in the CRC are promoting greater cooperation with the RCA. Could it be that this desire for moving closer to the RCA is an unconscious desire to piggyback on the RCA's historical roots going all the way back to New Amsterdam? The really critical question is this: Do we influence history and culture by adopting parentage we don’t possess, or do we become an influence for good by returning to the Scriptures and allowing the Scriptures to speak with greater clarity on contemporary problems? We can all learn from the remark made by a commissioner at the General Assembly in Louisville: “It is not our task to bend to culture but rather to influence culture for good.”

CONCLUSION

Responding to a suggestion that originated with Dr. Robert Godfrey of Westminster Seminary in California, several churches that take the Reformed faith seriously have agreed to discuss with each other how they can draw closer to one another. On the distant horizon they see some type of organic unity that still preserves denominational distinctives. This is a worthy goal and the discussions ought to begin, provided these discussions do not take up so much attention that they eclipse the paramount task of the church to be a lighthouse to the world.

What you have just read is not a scientific study. It is an honest account by one who engaged in “participant observation” of how two sizeable groups both calling themselves Reformed are both similar and different from one another. It is presented in the hope that it will inform and encourage whatever discussions might take place rather than hindering them.

Dr. Monsma served as missionary to Nigeria (CRC) for many years. He also served as Director of Cities for Christ Worldwide, and has taught at Reformed Bible College, Mid-America Reformed Seminary and currently teaches at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA. Dr. Monsma wrote a book entitled, An Urban Strategy for Africa, and coauthored a book with Dr. Roger Greenway from Calvin Seminary, entitled Cities: Missions’ New Frontier. A new revised edition of the book will be released by Baker’s at the end of 1999.

 

PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AMERlCA (PCA) GENERAL ASSEMBLY UPDATE

The 27th General Assembly of the PCA makes the following declarations about Creation:

1. That Genesis land 2 are a historic, self-consistent, and true account of God’s creation of the universe and of mankind in six days;

2. That Genesis 1 and 2 do not represent a mythical account of creation, without reality in space and time;

3. That Genesis 1 and 2 represent one unified account of creation and not two accounts that are inconsistent with each other;

4.That God made all things directly by His command, concurring with our fathers. “That no part of the universe nor any creature in it came into being by chance or by any power other than that of the Sovereign God”;

5. That the eight fiat acts of Genesis 1 were discrete; supematuralacts, and describe the creation of all kinds;

6. That those things created by these acts were brought into existence instantaneously and perfectly;

7. That God made Adam immediately from the dust of the ground and not from a lower animal form and that God’s in-breathing constituted man a living soul, in the image of God;

8. That God made Eve directly from Adam;

9. That the entire human race, with the exception of our Lord Jesus Christ, descended from Adam and Eve by ordinary generation;

10. That each of the kinds resulted from separate creative acts, and that any genetic development is only within these kinds,thus denying macroevolution.

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