An Introduction to the United Reformed Churches in North America
by Rev. Shane Lems
The first Synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America was in Lynwood, Illinois in 1996, but our story does not begin there. The beginning of our story is the same beginning as other Christian churches that submit to the authority of the Scriptures and the early Creeds of our Fathers: the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. We find our foundation in the writings and preaching of the Apostles, who in turn rest upon the cornerstone, Jesus Christ, the main subject of the Old and New Testaments. In summary, United Reformed Churches are biblical, historical, and Reformed churches.
A Walk in Time: Our Roots
United Reformed Churches stand on the shoulders of great teachers in the early and medieval church (such as Augustine) as well as the principles of early church councils and synods (such as the Council of Nicea in 325 AD). The story of the URCNA also includes many beliefs and teachings of the 16th century Reformation. We have benefited greatly from Reformers such as Martin Luther (d. 1546) and John Calvin (d. 1564). Our story includes a chapter on other great Reformed Christian teachers from the 17th-19th centuries. We also appreciate and agree with the great statements of the historic Presbyterian church – the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.
We have a summarized form of our beliefs, beliefs and doctrines which are found in the very fibers and substance of the Bible. Since Christians throughout the ages have contributed greatly to the understanding of who Christ is and what salvation means, for example, we find it beneficial to utilize some of these doctrinal summaries of the Christian faith. Along with the above three creeds mentioned, we also fully confess and acknowledge the truths found in three documents of the Reformation, namely the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Canons of Dort (1618-19). The biblical summaries in these “Three Forms” along with the three Creeds of Christianity are what draw us together into community. They are not meant to fraction and divide us; rather, they are statements of unity that show the world the biblical truths we love. We take joy in the fact that so many Christians from so many eras and nations have confessed and still confess these major truths of the Christian faith.
Maintaining Pure Doctrine: The 19th Century Story
The story of the URCNA is not a perfect story; nor is it one without some painful chapters. Many throughout the ages have died for naming the same truths we confess today. Many have attacked us and churches like us for hundreds of years from within and without. Many Christians in our ranks have fought terribly over truths worth fighting for (and sadly, those that are not). In the 1830’s, in the Netherlands, the state church (which was the Reformed/Reformation church of the day) abandoned the truths of the Synod of Dort (1618-19) as well as other key doctrines and confessions of the Reformation.
Therefore, a group of people came out of that church to continue one that stood proudly on the shoulders of the Reformation. They were not starting a small sectarian church; they were simply returning to the biblical teachings of older Reformation churches. Some people in this group moved to America and started what we know as the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1857. Another group, years later and still in the Netherlands, faced much of the same anti-Reformation teaching. They left the state church of Holland in 1881; some moved to the United States and joined the Christian Reformed Church in the following years.
Maintaining Pure Doctrine: The 20th Century Story
In the 20th century, our story has some twists and turns. Now in the United States, we faced some teachings that simply were not clear Reformation teachings. In the 1950’s, for example, Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids had a major “quake” which led to the firing of an entire faculty. While some at Calvin still submitted to the great truths of the Reformation, others were swept away by new teaching (called “neo-orthodoxy” by some).
Again in the 1970’s some in the CRC taught doctrines that clearly contradicted the Three Forms of Unity (such as a move away from the inspiration and authority of Scripture as well as teaching the Arminian view of the love of God). On other issues, some teachers and pastors in the CRC began to argue that women can and should hold ecclesiastical offices. Some even advocated evolution and argued that some parts of Scripture are not the Word of God. A CRC Synod in 1973 declared that homosexuality is not much different than color blindness and is not an outright sin as long as it is not openly practiced.
These things, all added up, forced people to (re)action in the 1980’s. A sizeable group in the CRC was disturbed that the CRC was moving away from Reformation truths. From 1986 to 1990, this group grew considerably. In 1994, 62 churches met in November to discuss solutions to the problem. Some of these churches had already left the CRC and were independent; others were still in the CRC maintaining a Reformed voice. Much happened in 1994-1995; these churches joined a federative unity, and in 1996, they held their first Synod and adopted the name, “The United Reformed Churches in North America.” Fast forward ten years: in 2006, the URCNA had 96 congregations.
A Few Details: More About Us
The URCNA meets every three years for our synodical meeting (Synod). Each classis (there are seven in the U.S. and Canada) meets twice each year. We have our own church order, largely drawing on church orders of previous generations dating back to the 16th-17th centuries. Ministers in the URCNA graduate from several different seminaries; we do not have a denominational seminary or college. Each minister undergoes a similar rigorous oral exam in front of classis before he can become an ordained minister of word and sacrament.
We have not closed our doors to like-minded denominations. For example, Synod 2007 was in dialogue with churches such as the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, and other Reformed and Presbyterian confessional churches. To be sure, this same Synod did take a firm stand against certain teachings within some Reformed and Presbyterian churches, a movement that contradicts Reformed theology especially in the doctrine of the covenants and election. (This movement is sometimes called the Federal Vision). In other words, we are striving to uphold Reformation doctrine while at the same time striving for unity.
Looking Outward and Forward: The Great Commission
In the 21st century, we have been working to establish mission fields and church plants. In 2007, the URCNA had ten church plants in various cities in the United States, from Washington D.C. to Kauai, Hawaii. Many URC’s support missions such as Reformed Missions in Trinidad, India, Latin America, Canada, and several within the United States. We are churches that vary in race, nationality, location, and even language at times – but we are united in historic Reformation teaching, teaching that emphasizes the biblical truths of sin, deliverance from it in Christ alone, and gratitude for deliverance in biblical worship.
Author’s Note: Information from earlier and similar articles by Rev. R. Pontier, Rev. H. Zekveld, and Rev. E. Knott has been used in this article.