GRAND HAVEN, MICH. (February 2, 1996) URNS — Is the Reformed Church in America broad enough to include a local congregation whose senior pastor “proposes that Jesus Christ may not be the only window toward God,” believes that Scripture is “informative, but not normative,” and states that “if the New Testament writers knew what we now know from scientific study, they could hardly have made the statements they made regarding homosexuality”?
That was the question before a special meeting of the RCA’s Muskegon Classis held on February 1 at Second Reformed Church of Grand Haven. The pastor in question, Rev. Richard Rhem of Christ Community Church of Spring Lake, has served the 3500 member church since 1971. Rhem is the longest-serving minister in the classis and pastors what is by far its largest congregation.
The current controversy ignited when Christ Community Church allowed a predominantly homosexual congregation, the Muskegon Metropolitan Community Church, to meet in its facilities. However, the church is no stranger to controversy. Previous conflicts have arisen when the church changed the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Father and Mother” in a worship service and refused to pay denominational financial assessments for the Church Herald, the official RCA newspaper.
The assessment conflict—in which Christ Community Church was joined by the theologically conservative Seventh Reformed Church of Grand Rapids—went all the way to the 1994 RCA General Synod. Citing a church order provision stating that “a classis shall be required to be current in the payment of its General Synod assessments before its delegates are seated as members of the General Synod,” the RCA synod voted not to seat the entire delegation from both Muskegon Classis and North Grand Rapids Classis.
The conflict eventually led to a March 1995 decision by the North Grand Rapids Classis to expel Seventh Reformed Church from the denomination. Christ Community Church escaped similar treatment last year by agreeing to pay its assessments. Whether it will escape a second time is not so clear.
At the beginning of the special meeting, classis minister Rev. Richard Veenstra noted that the meeting was to be pastoral rather than judicial in nature. “Admonition and rebuke are pastoral in nature and are exercised by an assembly in the course of its regular proceedings,” said Veenstra, quoting the denominational rules for discipline. “The further steps of discipline which are listed beyond that all require judicial proceeding which is not what we are to do here tonight.”
Rather than following the normal business format of a classis meeting, Muskegon Classis divided the delegates into eight groups seated around tables, distributed a packet of materials detailing Rhem’s positions on homosexuality, salvation and Scripture, and assigned three questions to each discussion group. The first question asked delegates how they understood the three areas under discussion.
Second, delegates were reminded that “there is diversity within the Muskegon Classis” and asked their opinion on whether there is room in the classis or the denomination for the positions under consideration. Third, delegates were asked whether they were able to achieve consensus within their discussion group and to identify either the content of the consensus or the nature of the division.
After reviewing the procedure for the meeting, Veenstra introduced Western Theological Seminary professors Dr. James Brownson and Dr. James Cook and indicated that they would be meeting with the executive committee of classis following the reports from the discussion groups to assist in making a proposal for action to the next classis, meeting onFebruary 29. Veenstra reminded the delegates that the classical executive committee had recommended that no official vote be taken until that meeting. “Assuming there is something the executive committee wants to propose, we will move toward voting at that time,” said Veenstra.
Classis then broke up into discussion groups for 45 minutes. When the groups reported back to the meeting, most raised serious questions about Rhem’s views and many expressed concerns that the process did not allow adequate time for discussion of some very complicated issues.
“The consensus on the three issues is that the teaching of Dr. Rhem is outside the consensus of the Reformed Church,” said Rev. Sherwin Brantsen, pastor of Laketon Bethel RCA in Muskegon—sentiments voiced repeatedly by other delegates.
However, the classis was by no means unanimous. “Do we really understand where he is coming from?” asked Rev. Timothy Vander Haar of Central RCA in Muskegon. “His positions are probably no more radical than those Reformation heroes we look back to, John Calvin and Martin Luther.”
Rev. Shirley Heeg, an RCA minister serving Hart Congregational United Church of Christ, was more pOinted: “Certainly four-fifths of us would agree there is room for Dick Rhem in the classis and in the RCA,” said Heeg.
Closing the session, Veenstra told the delegates that he hoped the unusual procedure would assist both the delegates and the executive committee in dealing with a difficult situation. “I haven’t been in the ministry forever, but I have been in the ministry a long time, and I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced this kind of consensus building before on the classical level,” said Veenstra.
Following the adjournment of classis, the executive committee met to draft a proposal on how to deal with the case.
According to Veenstra, representatives of the classis will meet with Rhem—who was on vacation during the February 1 meeting—to further clarify matters prior to the scheduled classis meeting on February 29.
What will happen at the next classis meeting? “The one side would be, though there are differences between us, that they are not so great to keep us apart,” said Veenstra. “The other side would be to part ways, that this would be by some mutual agreement of both.” Veenstra said a formal expulsion of Christ Community Church from the denomination similar to that of Seventh Reformed Church was unlikely. “Neither of us is interested in making it into a judicial proceeding,” said Veenstra.
Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer United Reformed News Service