The CRC Story
Where did we come from? Historically, we came from the Netherlands. But today, although a majority of our members are still from Dutch backgrounds, we can’t honestly be called a Dutch church – unless we’re also called a Korean church, a Navajo church, a Southeast Asian church, a French-Canadian church, a Hispanic-American church, an African-American church, a melting pot church.
More important to us than such ethnic badges is our place as one branch of the tree that started growing on Pentecost, almost twenty centuries ago.
The early Christian church was like the single trunk of that tree. After about 1,000 years of growth, the trunk divided into two major branches – the Eastern and the Western churches. In 1517 the Protestant Reformation divided the Western (or Roman) church into several new branches. One of these Reformation branches, formed under Martin Luther’s influence, was called the Lutheran church. Another branch developed under the influence of Ulrich Zwingli and later John Calvin. These churches were called “Presbyterian” in Scotland and “Reformed” in continental Europe. The Reformed churches flourished in the Netherlands. In the middle 1800s, some of these Dutch Reformed people moved to the United States, and in 1857 they started the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
John Calvin What sets the Christian Reformed Church off from many other denominations is its embrace of key teachings of John Calvin. In a nutshell, these all center on the sovereignty of God. The biblical teachings of predestination and election give us comfort because they assure us that no one and nothing, not even our own bad choices, can snatch us out of God’s hand. And the realization that God owns all of creation and continues to assert his rule over it gives us a sure hope for the future.
John Calvin’s teachings blossomed in many countries, including the Netherlands. While much of the Netherlands remained Roman Catholic, the Reformed faith established itself as the state church. As is often the case, politics and church make a bad mix. The Reformed Church in the Netherlands began to show its share of moral decay and of theological liberalism – the latter largely spurred on by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that idolized human reason at the expense of Bible-based faith.
In response to this trend, a grassroots movement developed among the less-educated lower-income folk, who clung to a simple, practical faith based on traditional Calvinist doctrines. Because the churches did not nurture such faith, those who joined this movement worshiped in small groups called “conventicles.”
When the Reformed Church began to actively persecute the leaders of this movement, a number of groups, under the leadership of Rev. Hendrik de Cock and others, seceded from the church. This branch of Dutch Calvinism ultimately gave rise to the Christian Reformed Church.
Coming to North America The next key event that led to the formation of the CRC was the decision of secessionist pastor Albertus Van Raalte to flee from the specter of religious persecution and famine in the Netherlands. Together with his wife, his family, and some forty others, Van Raalte immigrated to the United States. In 1848, they settled in and around what is now Holland, Michigan, establishing a “colony” on American soil that fervently held onto Calvinist doctrine, practical piety, and a strong commitment to living all of life to the glory of God.
It wasn’t easy. Inexperienced and crippled by disease, the settlers faltered under the grueling task of extracting a living from the untamed ground. Only the steady trickle of new immigrants kept their ranks replenished and even allowed for some modest growth in their numbers. Through these first terribly difficult and painful years, the settlers tenaciously clung to their most prized possessions: their faith and the freedom to live out that faith in their daily life.
The Sixties The flood of changes in values, lifestyles, and social interactions precipitated in the 1960s profoundly affected the CRC. Tidier patterns of church life gave way to a rising disenchantment and disagreement over how believers should respond to the social chaos around them. While the CRC never overtly held racist teachings, members debated long and hard over the ways the church should combat racism – if at all. Even among Kuyperians there was strong disagreement over the extent to which the institutional church should become involved in significant social issues.
The role of women in church leadership also became a hotly contested conflict during the sixties. Changing roles for women in the larger society forced the CRC to ask whether women should be allowed to serve in ecclesiastical office. While both sides in this struggle sincerely sought to be biblically obedient and Reformed in their interpretation of the Scriptures, neither side was able to convince the other. The impasse has led to a compromise decision that allows individual churches to ordain women as elders and classes (if they so choose) to allow their constituent congregations to ordain women as ministers of the Word as well. That decision spurred the departure of more than forty thousand members from the CRC.
Called to serve Despite the deeply divisive spirit that has caused such pain in the CRC, there have been many evidences of God’s grace as well. People on both sides have reached out in forgiveness and love. While some have left the CRC over their disagreements, many others have stayed. And they continue to be committed to living together and working together in this part of the Body of Christ. Despite the variety of different positions and viewpoints held by members of the CRC, the denomination is still bound together by a deep commitment to respond to the good news that our world belongs to – and is being redeemed by – our faithful God. In the unity and empowerment of that conviction, CRC members join together in an amazing variety and scope of ministries.