If there is one biblical theme we’ve heard a lot of in the RCA for the past 15 years it’s the theme of unity. And no one is against unity. Jesus prayed for and Paul commends it, so who doesn’t want unity? Truth-filled, grace-saturated, gospel-centered, Bible-grounded unity is precious beyond measure. And yet, such unity does not come by wishing for it, announcing it, or devaluing truth. The only unity worth having is a unity that takes doctrinal backbone, effort, prayer, and guts.

So what events would have to take place and what problems would have to be addressed for the RCA to experience genuine, vibrant, Christ-pleasing, Spirit-filled, God-glorifying unity?

Let me suggest ten things we would have to do as a denomination to enjoy this kind of unity. Though some points are specific to the RCA, I believe most suggestions are applicable to other church bodies as well.

1. Admit we do not have unity in the RCA. The first step to solving the problem is admitting we have a problem. We are kidding ourselves if we think every pulpit preaches the same gospel and every minister believes the same basic things. We don’t all agree on hell, Scripture, the atonement, the virgin birth, the uniqueness of Christ, the purpose of missions, and a host of other crucial matters. When someone leaves your church, do you feel confident telling them “Just go to another RCA congregation. I’m sure it will be great”?

2. Draw doctrinal boundaries. Ironically, we cannot be inclusive if we don’t have anything in which to include people. We must get better at saying no to aberrant practices and doctrines. We need less death by dialogue and more tough decision making. It’s always easier to expand the boundaries or delay the inevitable, but no church or institution grows in the long run by being all things to all people. We have to be okay with people getting off the bus. I’d rather the RCA develop a strong identity and run with it, even if in the end it’s not an identity I like.

3. Make our Standards the standard, especially the Three Forms of Unity. Those who did not vote for Belhar will need to decide if they can still thrive and exist in a denomination that has, for the first time, changed its formal doctrinal foundation. But the Belhar question aside, our Standards aren’t worth much unless they are actually standards of unity. How many of our churches regularly utilize and teach from Heidelberg, Belgic, and Dort (yes, Dort too)? If “historic and faithful witnesses” only mean “these are faithful to what Christians in history have believed” then our confessions mean very little.

4. Put to rest the political pronouncements. If the Bible speaks clearly to an issue or if our theology is at stake, we must speak out. But let’s be honest about all the things we don’t know and aren’t qualified to pronounce a churchly judgment upon. Are we really equipped to weigh in on the latest farm bill, the embargo on Cuba, immigration policy, or the Israel-Palestine conflict?

5. Talk honestly about what is (and isn’t) the mission of the church. If mission is everything, then mission is nothing. We cannot be held together by missionalism, not least of all because mission and missional have become junk drawer terms filled with whatever we want them to mean. Is our mission to reach the lost, be the presence of God in the world, fight injustice, be the hands and feet of Jesus, renew cities, transform culture, care for the poor, and bless others? Is it really all of this, without distinction or priority? When we talk about “mission” we don’t mean the same thing.

6. Exercise church discipline. This starts in our own churches with careful membership and shepherding. It must also happen at the classis level. Too many denominations suffer from overindulgent parenting. Some can be too combative, but the RCA is a nice place that rarely disciplines ethical or doctrinal deviation. If the RCA has no courage or no mechanism to discipline those who blatantly contravene the Scriptures and thousands of years of Christian consensus, we have lost the third mark of the church.

7. Make the ordination process an actual evaluation of fitness for ministry. I understand the desire to mitigate the fear factor of exams and to make the process more enjoyable. But this cannot be done at the expense of doctrinal integrity. Our exams are far too easy. It is almost impossible for someone with reasonable intelligence and follow through who wants to be a pastor in the RCA to be directed out of the process (though I know of men who were so directed by virtue of being too conservative). A denomination will only ever be as good as its ordination process.

8. Make our seminaries accountable to the churches. The churches (and donors, most of whom are conservative) should know what is being taught in our schools. What is the doctrine of Scripture being espoused? What about three Isaiah’s? What about an historical Adam? What about creation and evolution? What about the “I am” statements? What is taught about propitiation, penal substitution, reprobation and other doctrines affirmed in our Standards? What is taught about homosexuality, the wrath of God, and the warnings of hell? How Reformed is the theology? How evangelical? How much would we be glad to have taught in our churches?

9. Stop focusing on unity. Unity will only be vibrant and lasting when it is a by-product of the pursuit of truth. It cannot be achieved by a concoction of institutional formulas and prolonged guilt-tripping. Talking about unity all the time is like a boyfriend and girlfriend having a DTR every time they go out. Just get on with it and find out if you really belong together.

10. Don’t assume; articulate. The first generation receives the gospel. The second generation assumes the gospel. The third generation loses the gospel. We must not only affirm the gospel when having it presented to us. We must teach our people to articulate it. We must sing it strong and preach it loud. We must be passionate about clarity and be clear with our passions.

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25 thoughts on “Toward Denominational Unity”

  1. Chuck says:

    Excellent. And you are correct, applicable to other church bodies.

  2. Bernard says:

    ^ Chuck has said exactly what I was going to say!

  3. I love the RCA and believe God has big plans for us. Can we move forward by sharpening our focus on Jesus Christ and the Gospel? I think so and these ten suggestions will move us in that direction. Thanks for carrying the torch to Genral Synod Kevin.

  4. Dan says:

    So Belhar passed? Disappointing if so.

    Interesting that in email conversations with a friend (formerly my pastor), I expressed to him my serious doubts over non-denominationalism, and he agreed that he saw that it was largely bankrupt. One point of possible exception I held up was my reading of Kevin’s prior discussions about the RCA, which indicated that the “denominational” church model was not a panacea. And of course we’ve heard of other denominational splits in the last several decades. But with both of us coming from an independent church perspective, we were seeing that with all of the different paradigms of what the church is or should be, and all of the various ways of interpreting Scripture or of ascribing various levels of authority to it, indy churches these days face a very difficult task of establishing a doctrinal standard, and without a sound, clear doctrinal base, we will continue to repeat our history of instability. In short, doctrine unifies and stablizes; the lack thereof is deadly to the vitality of a church.

    Now out of my home state, his family appears to have found a home in a local church of a strong, biblically sound confessional evangelical denomination. As some in the RCA face the struggles of a shifting doctrinal base, I can attest to the frustrations of a bare-bones doctrinal base that faces the nearly impossible task of unifying a diverse congregation of professing believers. I likewise know of how doctrinal instability can create disputes within the home lives of families who struggle not only through the question of “should we stay or should we go?”, but the implied accompanying question of, “exactly WHERE shall we go?”.

    While acknowledging my own messy non-denominational situation, I pray for the RCA, its leaders, and member individuals and families for unity in standing upon the authoritative truth of the Word that was breathed out by the divine Author, and for wisdom in acting accordingly.

  5. Bill says:

    “Ironically, we cannot be inclusive if we don’t have anything in which to include people.”

    That sentence, (and the rest of item 2 as well) is what I consider the biggest driver behind change of the modern church.

    For the past few decades, we have seen an increase of non-denomination churches AND a lack of adherence to existing doctrine among the existing historical denominations (items 6 and 8). For all I know, this movement was probably a good thing during the time it happened because it brought some people back to Christ. However, many of us can definitely feel a movement now towards setting a doctrine and stating theologies. This is true whether it’s a small church with a overly-simplified faith statement wondering how to discipline an elder, to the largest US protestant denomination wondering how many points of Calvinism (if any) is good because the doctrine wasn’t defined as authoritative when the denomination started.

  6. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Two things that occur sometimes:

    (1) Folks can over-emphasize unity such that unity becomes a false idol.

    (2) Why is it that heretics are usually the ones crying out for unity? Is it so that they can leaven the rest of the body?

  7. Jesus offers no loopholes to the unity he expects and demands of his church. John 17 makes this clear. The true dividing line is only the gospel. All other divisions are man-made traditions.

  8. Dan says:

    Hmmm, man-made? I don’t think so. 2 Tim 3:16

    Moreover the visible church can’t even agree on what ‘the gospel’ is.

  9. Robert W. Fretz says:

    Dear Kevin,
    Allow me a simple question as a fellow RCA pastor – Who are you talking about?
    • Who has reneged on their ordination vows in seeking dis-unity in the Church?
    • Who has rejected the Bible as the source of our salvation and our Christian life?
    • Who has rejected the Standards (all of them)?
    • Who is it that the politicians turn to when they seek support for elections?
    • Who is it that has a monochromatic or two dimensional understanding of Christian mission?
    • Who is it that does not exercise discipline (not just punishment) in the local church and which classes are giving a pass on failing students for fitness?
    • Why would a local congregation be better able to insure the quality or our Synod Professors in their scholarly expertise than the General Synod – representing our classes? (Regarding problems in the denomination by individual students or ministers which seem to stem from their theological education, it has been my experience many were not willing to attend Western or NBTS.)
    • Why would unity be a “by-product” when every minister in the RCA declares “I promise to walk in the Spirit of Christ, in love and fellowship within the church, seeking the things that make for unity, purity, and peace.” It is much more than a by-product. It is the first thing we seek.
    • Finally, the only places I have heard a weakness in preaching the Gospel have been where other things take its place – such as literalism, uniformity, authoritarianism, complementarian constructs, creationism (intelligent design), and restricting full participation of our RCA LGBT sons and daughters in their home congregations. The Gospel is so much more.

    This is not the 1950s and you are not Joseph McCarthy. If you have ministers in your classis who violate their ordination promise, bring a charge. If there is a General Synod Professor teaching heresy, bring a charge (oh, right, you can’t do that for non-RCA seminaries). And if you think the Gospel is not being preached well enough, keep practicing.

    Allow me to ask a few more questions.
    • Who is it that declares there is only a single teaching of scripture (not including the Roman Catholic Church) with no room for reformed understandings beyond accepted tradition?
    • Who is it that labels people as having a “low” view of scripture if they identify a different intent and understanding of a teaching?
    • Who is it that constantly raises ultimatums of schism if their demands are not met at General Synod?

    I understand, some individuals may find they can no longer fulfill their promises and honorably resign their ordained position. However, stop blaming others and doing damage to the RCA simply because you are not getting your own way.

  10. Paul Vroom says:

    Robert –

    You said, “The Gospel is so much more.” As a Minister of Word and Sacrament within the RCA who must have gone through classical training within a certified RCA seminary, could you clarify what is the Gospel?

  11. Matthew says:


    Good sense is telling me to keep quiet, that this is probably a hit and run comment and that you don’t really want to dialogue about these issues. But I’ll bite…

    I grew up in the RCA, have parents who work at an RCA college and numerous family members who are RCA pastors. I now pastor in another denomination. All this to say, I have some history (even the 100% Dutch ID card!) and no lack of love and gratitude for the history of faith passed down to me, in no small part through the RCA.

    Having said all that, I’ve had conversations with RCA pastors who specifically reject significant portions of the Standards. I’ve had conversations with the troubled congregants after a Sunday School term that left them shaken by the things their pastors had said regarding Scripture, the reformers, etc. And I’ve had conversations with pastors who have significant concerns about the RCA.

    If you really don’t think there’s an issue in the categories Kevin lists, you’re either naive, a convinced false teacher (i.e. some or many of those categories hit a little close to home) or really want to bury your head in the sand. You might not agree with his conclusions, but the issues exist. The Elephant in the room is real brother.

    And to say that Kevin and pastors like him are the ones creating disunity is incredibly disingenuous. If having theological convictions and the courage to state them and stand by them makes one a harbinger of disunity, then Kevin should gladly accept that label. He would stand in the distinguished lineage of men like Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, The Cappadocian Fathers, Luther, Calvin and many others.

    If unity means taking no stands for doctrinal fidelity and turning a blind eye when a man feels convinced significant orthodox positions are in jeopardy, then you have a deficient definition of unity.

    It’s no small thing that prior to praying for the unity of the Church in John 17, Jesus prays “Sanctify them in truth, your word is truth.” Unity matters. Jesus prayed specifically for it. But the kind of unity matters more. Namely, unity founded upon the truth of God’s word. If a pastor feels the foundation of truth is being compromised, he has a responsibility (which God will hold him accountable to on the last day) to defend it.

    And the McCarthy charge is just weak, if not outright slanderous. You’ve just accused Kevin of deceitful, underhanded practices unbecoming a minister of the word. You’d do well to either repent of the hyperbolic accusation or take your own advice and bring formal charges. If you really think that label appropriately sticks, you’ve got more to do than a little blog comment.

  12. Joan says:

    Well said, Matthew.

  13. Robert Fretz says:

    When I address a blog to the writer, I usually do not get involved with surrogates; however, I will make these two exceptions.

    Paul; I affirm the Standards of Unity regarding the content of the Gospel found within scripture the same as I did 34 years ago when I took my senior exams in Zeeland Classis. What I meant by the Gospel being “more” is that it is not confined by the mechanical functionalism of the constructs I cited. The Gospel is organic… living… growing… dealing with the relationship between God and humanity that contains his image. Why do you suppose Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism begins with a relational question?

    Matthew; Strange you took what I said to mean to be quiet. Read my response again. What I said was, “If you have ministers in your classis who violate their ordination promise, bring a charge. If there is a General Synod Professor teaching heresy, bring a charge…” I suspect you haven’t done so because they haven’t violated their vows… they just don’t agree with your mechanical definitions. As to the rest… if Kevin has anything to say, I will engage him in conversation.

    PS: Our families most likely knew each other in New Amsterdam.

  14. Matthew says:


    I didn’t take it mean you were calling him to be quiet. I took it to mean you thought he was the problem and source of this disunity.

    Your charge of McCarthyism seemed to imply you found Kevin’s assessment baseless and/or fear-mongering.

    Now, back to sermon prep!

  15. Peter TeWinkle says:

    Thanks for starting the conversation.

    A Path Toward Denominational Unity (not Uniformity)

    It’s nice to read that the theme of this year’s General Synod was unity. It’s unfortunate that the reports and anecdotes I’ve heard since then were anything but unifying. So, “what events would have to take place and what problems would have to be addressed for the RCA to experience genuine, vibrant, Christ-pleasing, Spirit-filled, God-glorifying unity?

    1.) Admit that we do not trust one another in the RCA. This is not just a denominational problem. It is a symptom of our larger society. Mobility and social media have allowed us to be surrounded by like-minded people and the result is suspicion differing views. It lurks around every corner. Democrats and Republican don’t trust one another. White people and black people don’t trust one another. Young people and old people don’t trust one another. Rather than get to know one another and find common ground, people tend to hunker down in their respective camps and demand uniformity in belief and behavior. Uniformity is not unity. My wife and I are united, but we are certainly not uniform in our beliefs or our behaviors. Still, even if we disagree, we always trust that our partner begins with good intentions and give each other space to learn and grow. It would be nice to have that in our denominations as well.

    2.) Remove cultural boundaries. Our denomination continues to struggle with unity because, like the first churches, we have a hard time telling the difference between cultural and theological boundaries. Cultural differences, gender roles, socio-economic status prevent us from coming together as one in Christ Jesus. The church is the body of people who confess that Jesus is Lord (or God’s Son or Anointed One or Messiah, etc.) and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead. This is what it means to be Christian, Reformed or otherwise; probably not more and definitely not less.

    3.) Understand that our Standards are “faithful and historic witnesses” (but also politically motivated). We already don’t ask are candidates for ordinations proscribe to every letter and line as they are written. We have been humble enough to admit that some of the statements are over-stated or even improperly stated. I’m sure some pastors would like to blur the lines on other portions of our standards (or the whole Belhar for that matter) as well. It would also be honest of us to admit that there is more going on than theological clarification. The Belgic Confession throws the Anabaptists under the bus to avoid association and, therefore, persecution. The authors of the Canons beheaded their opponent to seal their victory. They are political pronouncements of a sort. Still, they are helpful documents in offering an answer to the questions that people have asked and will continue to ask about the Christian faith (even if they’re not always very good).

    4.) Admit the difference between theology and ideology. Christians can agree that God wants to bring healing into the world. Honestly, the Bible says nothing on private insurance or single-payer plans. The Bible says that the government is God’s servant for our good and that we should pay our taxes. But, we all have to admit that that there aren’t any verses against communism or for capitalism. These are political and economic terms, not theological ones. Again, it would be nice if we could trust one another enough to allow for different perspectives without condemning them as evil (or maybe actually admitting that they start with good intentions). Christians, perhaps more than others, should weigh in on important policies because we (and maybe we alone) understand that government, too, belongs to God.

    5.) Admit that we all have different priorities when it comes to mission, but that they are all part of the same mission. The social justice advocate can no more say to the evangelist, “I don’t need you” than the hand can say to the eye “I have no need of you.” The glory of God is that we all have different gifts and different experiences and different desires and have been invited into the same house where God can use all of them for good. God’s mission is wide and long and hard and thanks be to the One who allows us to do our small part in it.

    6.) Emphasize discipleship. The church is made up of people who have been called out to learn and to grow. Unfortunately, faith has become a very private matter and inquiries from elders and pastors have become uncomfortable if not resented. Theologically speaking our denomination has done a good job rooting people in justification by faith and the hope of glorification, but we have been more lax on sanctification in the Holy Spirit; on becoming a people set apart for bold proclamation and compassion in the way of Christ; on dying to the old and rising to the new.

    7.) “Priesthood of all believers” doesn’t mean that everyone should be a priest (or a pastor). I understand the exciting nature of the call to ministry. I think seminary education would be good for every Christian. But I’m also beginning to notice how quickly that gets translated into the role of professional pastor. I hope I answered my call to ministry well (sometimes I wonder), but so far I’ve been affirmed. At the same time, being a pastor is not the only way to minister. We can be honest with people about that. We can be proud enough not to feel ashamed about that.

    8.) Make better use of our seminaries in our churches. As a pastor in a reformed denomination, it frustrates me to no end when I am criticized for a reformed position by a reformed parishioner. The evangelical movement and mindset has infused a great part of our Christian culture, the RCA included. Most people in our pews don’t know the difference. Some pastors don’t care. Making better use of our standards would help here. But making better use of our seminaries would go a long way in maintaining our identity.

    9.) Stop trying to force uniformity. Uniformity is a slippery slope and its by-products are often heavy-handedness, cold-heartedness, and mean-spirited pride. We must do better at sharing our experiences, building trust between differing groups, and giving each other space to learn and grow. You will know them by their fruits (gentleness, kindness, patience, harvest of righteousness, etc.).

    10.) Remember the gospel is good news. Three days after his crucifixion Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Death is defeated! Life is eternal! It can be found in Christ and can start today. Sing it strongly. Preach it loudly. Live it boldly.

  16. rey says:

    What is liberal Christianity? In the church I grew up in it was those teach justification by faith alone instead of that you have to live morally (in addition to believing in Jesus and being baptized as believers by immersion and attending church every Sunday) to be saved. You can call yourself ‘orthodox’ with respect to the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, and whatever else, all you like, but so long as you teach justification by faith alone you are not one whit different from the churches that have fallen to the homosexual moffia — you are liberal. Oh, so instead of accepting homosexuality you say “Homosexuality is a sin, but it can’t damn anyone who believes in Jesus because we are justified by faith alone” — how does that position at all differ from the Episcopalians? Justification by faith alone is what lead them to accept homosexuality! Duh. Only those churches who reject faith-onlyism (i.e. justification by faith alone) will stand, because only they are standing now. The rest already fell long ago!

  17. david says:

    unity by choice with help of HOLY SPIRIT
    or eventually through persecution

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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