Like a vast majority of Protestant communions in the United States (and Canada), my church communion, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), has seen a decline in membership and participation during the past several decades. This trend, then, brings questions about the viability of denominations in general, and one’s own in particular. How long can we continue to lose members and still be in existence? How long can we continue? These are ubiquitous questions in the circles in which I operate. However, I think that we are asking the wrong questions and that “denomination” as we understand it is a result of circumstance rather than essence. Indeed, I argue that denomination and church are related yet clearly distinct. This brief essay will use the RCA as a case study for arguing that denominationalism is neither central to our ministry nor is it essential to our continued existence as an ecclesiastical communion. Indeed, those who proclaim the impending doom of the communion fundamentally misunderstand the nature and essence of the church and our communion.
Superstructure and Infrastructure
The church is established by Christ and entrusted to Christ’s people. The Belgic Confession states that the “church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end…” (Art. 27), and therefore we can neither establish nor destroy the church. We do, however, form structures, influenced by the scriptures, to help the church to operate and to live into its calling in the fullest way possible. Indeed, the church could not have continued to exist without some sort of order. This essential order of the church is the discipline of church polity, and continues to be an essential element to the mission of the church. However, in modern Protestantism, there is another structure which has been placed upon the church–denomination.
But before we can speak of denomination, we must speak of order. Order is a necessary part of the people of God and throughout the scriptures, it is apparent that God brings order out of chaos and invites God’s people into that order. The church, therefore, is inherently structural. Indeed, the Preamble to the RCA’s Book of Church Order states, “The governmental functioning of these offices takes place not apart from, but in harmony with the understanding of the mission of the church and the nature of its ministry.” Therefore, the church has infrastructure which sustains it. In my own tradition, the infrastructure is composed of the offices (deacon, elder, minister of Word and sacrament, and professor of theology) and assemblies (consistory, classis, regional synod, General Synod). These are the elements which support and sustain the church and allow it to function. These are elements which constitute the church and are therefore a part of the RCA’s Constitution. While the presbyterial-synodical system is certainly not the only system of church polity, it is the one that we claim, and therefore it is essential to our being of the church.
Above all of this, then, is a superstructure, and this superstructure is designed to support and aid the infrastructure in sustaining the church. The superstructure can be understood as staff, departments, boards, programs, and strategic goals. We might call this superstructure denomination. This superstructure is important, but it is not essential to the church, it is not a constitutive element of the church and is therefore largely absent from the RCA’s Constitution. By viewing the church in terms of infrastructure, which is the necessary base which supports the church, and superstructure, which supports and maintains (and indeed influences) the infrastructure, we can gain a better perspective on reality and the future of the church.
In order to gain a broader view of this superstructure and how it develops, a brief look to the history of the church is both instructive and enlightening.
Origin and Development of “Denomination”
The term, “denomination” finds its origin as a middle way between claiming to be the church, outside of which there is no other, and a sect, which carries with it negative and exclusivist connotations. Linguistically, denomination simply means to give a name to, or to identify by a name. The term and concept of denomination is a result of a religious plurality rather than a singular unity. As such, denomination is a sociological term, rather than a theological one.
Indeed, when the Reformed Church in America adopted its Constitution after independence from the Classis of Amsterdam, it also adopted the “Explanatory Articles” which help to translate the received Reformed theology and order to the particular situation in the newly independent United States. The term “denomination” only occurs in a handful of places, primarily in the Preface. The first occurrence actually defines the term as “descriptions of particular Churches…” and subsequent occurences use it in a consistent way, as such, it is simply a neutral way to refer to different traditions, or expressions, within the Christian Church universal. It is worth noting that the use of this term is a catch all for other churches, not our own.
While a comprehensive history of the usage of the term is not within the scope of this brief essay, it did not take long for the usage of “denomination” to begin the shift from a term primarily speaking of other “particular Churches” to our own church. The church order of 1833 (in which the Articles of Dort and the Explanatory Articles were first merged into a single order), the term occurs four times and nearly always refers to others, rather than ourselves. While much has happened between 1833 and today, by way of comparison, the 2015 edition of the Book of Church Order uses this term approximately seventy-five times, referring not only to other churches but also ourselves, speaking of “the denomination” and “denominational policy.” While the number of occurrences alone is not enough to draw conclusions, it is illustrative of the usage of the term “denomination.” This term, then, has moved even beyond its sociological origins and has become a term to speak of an organizational reality (nearly supplanting theological language), and it is this usage of the term which is most salient for our discussion here.
With the continued growth of the RCA, a larger membership and more resources meant that there were both additional opportunities and additional obligations. While the RCA has always been institutional, in the late nineteenth century and onward one can observe a growth in the institutional existence and operation of and in the church.
Growth of organizational superstructure
In 1874 a further major revision of the church was undertaken, which was built on the previous church order (and subsequent amendments) and continued the work of adapting to the ever-changing context in which the RCA found itself. It was in this revision that another provision entered the government (and therefore the Constitution),
To the General Synod also belong the power and duty to institute and organize such general agencies as shall best enable the church to fulfil the command of the Lord Jesus Christ by which He has enjoined on all His disciples the duty of teaching all nations and preaching the gospel to every creature; to maintain, supervise and direct such agencies when erected in the conduct of missionary operations at home and abroad; and to recommend such methods in the churches as shall effectively sustain such agencies and tend to secure the largest possible dissemination of the gospel. (Art. 73)
Here we can see the beginnings of the superstructure that has come to be called denomination which continues to this day. In the generations since, the RCA has added staff, agencies, boards, and councils. The Stated Clerk of the General Synod has become a General Secretary and among the responsibilities was added, “articulating a vision for the church…” However, the denominational (organizational) structure that we now have really only dates back to the middle of the twentieth century.
For most of the history of the Reformed Church, the assemblies were the main agents within the church (in their respective spheres). For those things that were larger than individual churches, classes, or particular (regional) synods (such as foreign mission or theological education), the General Synod established a number of subsidiary boards which aided the church in its mission and ministry. Around mid-point of the twentieth century, there was a movement to provide for a more centralized structure to coordinate the programs of the church. The first of these was the creation of the General Synod Executive Committee (GSEC) in 1961. A significant aspect of the charge given to this committee was to carry out the work of the General Synod between sessions of the General Synod. Not long after, the General Synod approved the merger of three boards and a council to create the General Program Council (GPC) in 1967, which was formally organized in 1968, and was designed to work alongside of GSEC. This continued until 1992, when the General Synod voted to merge GSEC and GPC into the General Synod Council (GSC), which continues to this day and is the main agent of the General Synod which provides oversight and direction. Throughout this, we can see an increasing centralization of the superstructure aligning itself far more to a corporate structure than an ecclesiastical structure.
There is nothing sacrosanct about the superstructure of denomination. It was born as a result of need and changing cultural contexts, and it can be re-shaped in any way needed as a result to changing contexts and situations. Church polity is the infrastructure that supports the church, which in our case is presbyterial-synodical, but which is actually quite distinct from the superstructure of denomination. The denomination as an organizational reality has been so ingrained in our cultural psyche that, in many ways, it can be difficult to imagine a distinction between denomination and church.
Much of the anxiety present in the RCA regarding membership and participation numbers is rooted in the question of how long the denomination (rather than church) can be sustained. There have been assertions that the RCA cannot survive another schism or separation such as we saw in the nineteenth century. But these fears are largely centered around the viability of the denomination (superstructure), not the viability of the church communion. If we are able to separate these two concepts, it will help us as we (and other communions) look to the future to find our place amidst a changing context. As we seek to separate these concepts, perhaps a few corrective measures can be helpful to help right out perspectives and orientation.
Proposals for the RCA
As the church, we need to be concerned not only with what is efficient, but also what is right and proper. As such, the RCA has become far too hierarchical and corporately focused, that we have forgotten about how the communion actually ought to function. Indeed, many of our structures can serve to aid in the mislocation of the essence of the church. As such, I have a few suggestions for the RCA to help the church recover its ministry and mission.
Return the General Secretary to Stated Clerk
The General Secretary exists, primarily, to serve the General Synod. However, often the General Secretary is given near bishop-like authority. This is problematic not only for the functioning of the church, but also for the understanding of the essence of the church. The story of the ancient people of God show us that it is natural for the people to clamor for a king, but that natural impulse is not necessarily faithful. The Reformed have rejected the nature of prelacy, and so unless we wish to reexamine the foundations of our ecclesiology (which we are free to do), we ought to fight against this natural tendency.
But this proposal involves more than simply a change of job title. It would also involve two changes to the role of this position. First, to remove the provision in the Book of Church Order that the General Secretary shall present “a report articulating a vision for the church…” (1.IV.5.3). This provision places an inordinate amount of focus and authority on one person, and enhances the corporate tendencies of the church. The General Synod has staked much of the RCA’s future in strategic plans, but this continues the mislocation of the essence and purpose of church. Second, to remove the last half of that sentence, “…including recommendations for the future…” (ad loc). This will stop the General Secretary from presenting proposals to the General Synod and making this change will serve as a step toward removing such inordinate focus on this one single individual in the life of the General Synod and the RCA.
Dissolve the General Synod Council (GSC)
The tendency to place more authority and power into a hierarchy is not limited only to persons, but also to groups. Assemblies are not hierarchies and the same goes for subsidiary councils. In practice, the GSC is often seen as the locus of authority and it can seem as though the GSC is willing to accept that authority. There is no real check or balance on the GSC. This council has nothing to do with the essential infrastructure of the church, but rather the nonessential of the superstructure. This single council concentrates authority and further reinforces the hierarchical nature of the church.
The GSC could be dissolved and its functions returned to a collection of subsidiary boards. Returning the functions of the General Synod to a collection of subsidiary boards would allow the General Synod to continue to accomplish the things with which it is charged, while avoiding the concentration of power and authority in some imagined and artificially constructed “top.” One of these subsidiary boards could be an executive committee.
No General Synod assembly for fifty years
Synods exist for the good order of the church rather than being of the essence of the church. Christ’s presence in the church is not, in the first place, through the synods but through Word and Spirit as God’s people gather around pulpit, table, and font. The General Synod itself is also not immune to this tendency to concentrate power at a “top.” How easily we forget that our mother church in the Netherlands did not hold a General Synod for nearly two hundred years after the Synod of Dort in 1618/1619. The Reformed Church did not cease to exist, but was able to continue because a General Synod is not of the essence of the church nor does a General Synod mediate Christ to the church.
At times, a radical corrective is warranted and this, I think, is the case here. As such, I suggest that a General Synod not be called for a period of fifty years. While there is nothing special about the number fifty, I do not think that we need a two hundred year hiatus like our mother church; however, it does need to be enough time that the church can adjust and adapt to this major corrective. It can be possible to empower the new executive committee to do the necessary and essential functions required by law for the corporation of the General Synod, while allowing the lesser assemblies to take more responsibility to fulfill their charge in their respective spheres.
While none of these suggestions will be a panacea, these are steps that might help to aid us in the distinction between superstructure and infrastructure and to place the appropriate amount of focus and emphasis on each.
The Future of the Church
The decline of denominationalism and the waning importance of ecclesiastical communions is a reality with which we must deal, and it is not a trend that we can simply ignore or reverse. I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. However, neither do I think that the inevitable future is in independent, unconnected, deinstitutional, generically evangelical churches. The church requires an infrastructure, but the infrastructure does not require the sizable superstructure that is so often the hallmark of modern denominations. The Reformed Church had a ministry as a church before there was a denomination, and oversight and accountability have been undertaken without agencies, boards, or executives.
So long as we are concerned with sustaining the denomination (as a superstructure) we will be fighting a losing battle. However, if we focus instead on being church, allowing the superstructure that we call denomination to change (even drastically) to fit the changing cultural context, we will not only survive, but can even thrive. Neither the essence of the church nor its constitutive elements are found in denomination as a superstructure.
The superstructure is not bad, but it is tentative. It does not form the essence of the church, but rather it is formed out of need and can change with those needs. We need not intentionally abolish our institutions or the superstructure that we call denomination, there is much good that they can (and do) provide. With or without the denomination, a solidly Reformed way of existing as the church and finding a way to provide for mutual ministry and accountability in a connected fashion will continue. But this will involve shifting our mindset, and our behavior, from denomination to church; from a corporation to the body of Christ; from a sociological and organizational reality to a theological one. We ought not strive to dismantle denomination. However, if our superstructure does become unsustainable, burdensome, or if it begins to crumble, we need not sacrifice the church in order to sustain it.