In his preliminary history of the United Reformed Churches of North America, Cornelis Venema states, “the URCNA must find a way to ‘burn the wooden shoes’ of a parochial ethnic and cultural identity while preserving all that is biblical and confessionally Reformed in the rich inheritances of the past.”  It’s a great statement.  There is something about it that makes those who have come into the Dutch Reformed tradition without the cultural and “parochial” identity smirk a bit. There always has been something really irritating with the “if you ain’t dutch, you ain’t much” mentality.  It always made outsiders who lacked a name or family connection feel as if they could never really be part of the club. “Dutch bingo” has always been intimidating for those who have no cards to play with.

But those of the tradition itself, who understand the history behind the wooden shoes metaphor, know that such an attempt at this needed separation, recognized by Venema above, was a catastrophic one in the Christian Reformed Church of North America, doctrinally speaking.  Most in the CRC were very conscious that cultural exclusivisim was wrong.  In fact, it was this very concern that motivated the editors of the Banner, a publication of the CRC, to issue one of its most controversial issues on November 3, 1980 which had a picture of wooden clogs burning; a clear promotion for the CRCNA to abandon its parochial, ethnic and cultural identity.  Unless one understands the particular ethos of the CRC, it’s difficult to communicate how momentous, and offensive, this picture was for CRC. Conscious that such a change was Biblically mandated, the CRC over the next thirty years would make a serious overhaul of her identity to be a more “embracing” church. The problem is what the CRC would also burn in the process—the whole denomination.  The project was a failure, and the CRC has followed in the trajectory of other liberal denominations that have chipped away all their particulars until nothing remains. In other words, the CRC failed to preserve those things that made her distinctively Reformed, and stuffed within the burning shoes were the very confessions that defined her, resulting in the complete loss of any Biblical and confessional identity. 

Understanding this history is crucial for anyone who has taken up membership in URCNA. The URC was birthed out of this struggle, and the majority of her members still have deep wounds over the long, protracted fight that occurred in the CRC. You can only imagine how difficult Venema’s statement is today for those who have already attempted the project, a project some thirty years in the making, only to see the particulars of the what they never dreamed could be compromised, go right down the drain.  It should be of no surprise, therefore, if many in the URC struggle to let go of the cultural identities that, alongside of biblical and confessional Reformed distinctives, also belong to the “rich inheritances of the past.”  Right or wrong, new comers who arrogantly attack these cultural distinctives are ignorant of just how willing many of their brothers and sisters were to burn their wooden shoes, only to see, once done, everything else so easily ripped away from them.  New ideas, new theological terms, along with attacks on Dutch dishes, and Dutch bingo, made by those who have no idea of the long history that lies behind the particular ethos, just isn’t going to fair well in the URC until some real time passes. 

Over the past few years, we have witnessed some real polarization in the URC.  There have been divides over issues such as two-kingdoms theology, Christian day school, how the covenant on Sinai relates to the covenant made with Abraham, covenant of works, law and gospel, and more.  These discussions are important to have and no one questions that serious doctrinal errors may result if these distinctions aren’t correctly understood and applied. It’s my contention, however, that these discussions are often driven by a greater problem, one primarily motivated by anger and fear.

In other words, I believe we could have many of these discussions in a much more unified and civil manner if they were not motivated by the deeper fear of what was outlined above. I can’t stress this point enough; there is a particular historical struggle that is not being appreciated in current theological exchange.  For instance, in his recent critique of David Van Drunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, Nelson Kloosterman writes the following:

Stated simply, given the history and identity of these URCs emerging from controversy within the CRCNA, with which I have been intimately involved, I judge the NL2K project to be an alien intruder that will eventually erode historic commitments and challenge significant sacrificial programs among us, especially in the areas of Christian day school education and Christian socio-political activity in the public square.

This, it seems to me, is the root issue for those of the tradition itself. Agree with Kloosterman’s assessment or not, these are for many--notice the language--"eroding historic committments".  Don't you hear in that statement an echo of fear and frustration in the face of another long protracted battle, correctly perceived or not, ready to start all over again? It's déjà vu. We have to be cognizant of this sentiment. Yes, it's obviously doctrinal and confessional committments that concern Kloosterman, but I wonder how our current theological discussion, which spans a broader period of Reformed development, might play out if that particular ethos and theological identity that many are fighting for now in the URC had not been so recently ransaked in the CRC? It's worth considering. New comers will have to be aware of this dynamic.

In the next part, we will look the particular dynamics in the URC that have led to the present struggle.  
My history: I was born, baptized, and raised in one of the oldest and largest of California’s CRC churches.  My father was of the German Reformed heritage, my mother of Church of Christ background. I was a product of both the CSI and public school systems as a youth, and attended a secular university in California for my undergrad. Upon graduating, I taught in the CA public school system, later to become the high school Bible teacher in a CSI Christian school. I attended Westminster Seminary in CA, and I now pastor the United Reformed Church of Lynden, WA. 


  1. Chris -

    I don't want to jump ahead to where I think you might at least touch upon in future posts! But the main reason I had red flags raised when reading your post is because of what I have experienced over the past five years being at Christ URC in Santee, a congregation where there are maybe three "families" who are Dutch (or partly) in the whole church. But yet, almost everybody who comes into our church and becomes a member is excited about what they are hearing and they know their stuff. Let me repeat that, they know their stuff! They know what it is to be Reformed and they are eating up the Confessions and can't get enough reading material. These folks ARE Reformed, but yet they aren't Dutch. What troubles me about what I read is that it seems as if you are saying these folks have nothing to bring to the table and really can't be a benefit to the URCNA because they don't know all the details of our history. That might come into play at some point in some discussions, but so many of these people know the points of the Bible and the Confessions and that is the important thing.

    Now I love being Dutch, and I love the history and tradition that the Dutch Reformed bring to the table. I know what pains took place at the beginning of the URC... ask Rev. Cammenga who was standing at his side (besides Dr. Godfrey) through the mid to late 90s when all this stuff was hitting the proverbial fan. But yet, I LOVE seeing how folks like Godfrey, Clark, Horton, and Riddlebarger have latched on to this tradition and have made it better in so many ways.

    I don't know about you, but the "fear and anger" I have seen and experienced lately has not come from ex-evangelicals.

    It has been 15 years since the URC formed, but I am really scared about where it will be in the next 15 years because we are going to fall into the same quagmire that the CRC sank into because we don't have leadership and laity that knows what it actually is to be Biblically Reformed and to take our confessions (and the Bible) seriously. This is exactly what happened to the CRC and I fear that in 1996 the URC just pushed the timeline back 25-30 years and we are are liable to fall back into the comfy cushion of the Dutch tradition which didn't bode well for the CRC.

    Thanks for the conversation.

  2. Mark, you write, "What troubles me about what I read is that it seems as if you are saying these folks have nothing to bring to the table and really can't be a benefit to the URCNA because they don't know all the details of our history."

    Did I say that? Maybe this illustrates part of the problem. I'm saying that the anger and fear is coming from those who hear attacks on what has been common in the tradition for many years, and now hear of people never raised in the tradition as stated they are "really" Reformed because they wear robes, pronounce the absolution, have higher liturgies, as they speak ill of Kuyper, scoff at infrequent communion, and much more. Have you ever heard any of this? Maybe this one, "the future of the URC is with the 'Gentiles'? I have. A lot of the practices are good and right, and, yes, we can learn a lot--I love frequent communion, and also hate to wear suits, etc. but in promoting some of these distinctives, i don't have to unnecessarily go after those who have already been through the war, actually, I might even be able to learn from that grandfather. but the fact is that we are all migrating one way or the other--why? This point exactly illustrates that the history I mentioned in the article is not being taken into account. When these things, cultural or doctrinal, are tossed around in a degrading way, there is a lot of history with those on the receiving end. You might be surprised how a different approach might get a different response--yes, this goes both ways.

  3. Mark, you write, "I LOVE seeing how folks like Godfrey, Clark, Horton, and Riddlebarger have latched on to this tradition and have made it better in so many ways."

    AS DO I!!!

  4. Chris -

    Did you say that? No, not in those terms, but that is the impression that I was getting after reading the original post a couple of times.

    Perhaps we just need to delete these comments and talk on the phone!! :-)

    You asked if I have heard, "the future of the URC is with the 'Gentiles'?" No, I have not, and I would vehimently oppose that statement too!!

    These things that you mentioned that some are doing claiming to be "truly Reformed", that I like many of as well, are coming about because folks are actually digging into the historic practices of the Reformed churches Dutch or not. Now when these sorts of things come up in the discussion the grounds for accepting or rejecting them need to be proper. If the answer is, "this isn't how we did it in the past" that is not helpful. For many "in the past" refers to the CRCNA from 1857 through 1960. When these newly Reformed guys dig into the past they are trying to do so from 1550.

    One thing that Christ URC has available in our lobby are pamphlets and essays on a whole host of issues concerning why we do some of the things that our church does (robes, weekly communions, etc.). These arguments come from Scripture, the Confessions, and our history. The reasons aren't because they are trying to be anti-1960s CRC!

    I can see some people arguing that they are more "truly Reformed" because they have made arguments for or against certian practices from Scripture, the Confessions, and history, and if that is the case then we might just have to concede in that point perhaps they are more Reformed even though there name doesn't start with "V" or end in "sma."

    There are a lot of things that I am willing to bend on concerning practices in the church and such. However, I would at least like my church to think about these things and why they do or don't do them. Even if I agree, I will want to press them to defend it so that we will be more confident in our position and be able to defend it when pressure does come. The same thing with doctrines, why do we or don't we believe in such and such.

    I truly think this was the downfall of the CRCNA - they got too comfortable and the wolves slowly crept in.

    I realize I should keep my mouth shut and wait for you to finish your essays, but oh well! Carry on!!

  5. Mark, I know Mike has done a good job of writing on these things, and I have benefited from those writings. We should alwsy aim for what is Scriptural.

    But we are still skirting the main issue, walls are being errected on both sides that Christ has torn down. I'm starting with first looking at the plank in my own eye, and am a bit surprised that I can't even admonish those coming in from evangelicalism to a federation of churches that has a particular history to use caution in their rhetoric without being challenged that this is not setting well with you and that you're not thrilled about the direction of it. Yes, i think some of the rhetoric is the main cause of the very struggle you are experiencing. Are you willing to admit this? Don't you at least think some of the blame for our divide starts here?

  6. Chris,

    I find your blog interesting. While I would not characterize the CRC in the ways you do, I think you might be onto an interesting dynamic in the URC.

    In Christ,

  7. Oh yeah, I the burning shoes cover was in November 3, 1980. I have a copy of it in front of my writing desk where I am writing a dissertation about Dutch-American history from the 1920s to the 1970s.

  8. Hi David,
    really wish I had that issue. Got an extra? Can you send me the picture on the front? Nice to hear from you, and miss our days together. Hope all is well. Chris

  9. Chris -

    You have mentioned a few times that this is a two-way street and it most definitely is. Part of this two-way street is that you are on your part of the street reacting to the bumps in your road that are different than the potholes I am experiencing on my section of the road.

    I definitely agree with you that there is a need to remind ex-evangelicals who have come into the URCNA in the past 15 years of our history and the heartaches and struggles of the beginning and the past. But what I wanted to highlight is that these newcomers can have a lot of offer (if properly discussed) because they are not inhibited by cultural practices that have become the norm primarily because of the passage of time and not because of any other external authority.

  10. Mark, I have no contention with that. It's how they react to the already established tradition as new comers that concerns me.

  11. Chris -

    I forgot to comment on your statement/question, "Yes, i think some of the rhetoric is the main cause of the very struggle you are experiencing. Are you willing to admit this?"

    Oh definitely. The rhetoric over the issues coming to the fore in our circles is awful and technology doesn't help! I don't even venture into the discussions very often, if at all, precisely because they are being done on blogs, list serves, and lay-magazines.

    We all have a passion and a heart for the URC and in these sorts of mediums our passions can become enflamed and more harm can be done instead of a soothing balm.

  12. Chris -

    It's how they react to the already established tradition as new comers that concerns me.

    And me too! There does need to be discussion, and both sides can learn from each other, but in a proper and God-honoring manner.

  13. Chris,

    You have done a great job of highlighting the tension that exist between ex-evangelical coming into a tradition that they do not always understand or always appreciate and those who have been raised within this tradition. Regardless of the specific subject that is being discussed or debated (the frequencty of communion, two-kingdoms, Christian Education etc) there is fear and anger on the part of those who have been raised in the CRC, that some of the things they value and appreciate are being threatened, by those who have newly come into this tradition.

    I am of the opinion that two-kingdoms in some form verses some form of Kyperianism or theonomy is at the heart of this divide.

    Unfortunately, one side feels threated and as a result they are responding in fear and anger, while the other side all too often comes off sounding arrogant and brash.

    I appreciate the way that you have highlighted the need for ex-evangelical coming into the urc, to demonstrate sensitivity and even patience with the tradition that they have become a part of. In addition to this it is imperative that both sides hear one another and that they learn from each other. It is a sign of health that ex-evangelical are coming into the urc. This is necessary if the urc is going to move past it cultural ethnic past, and maintain its confessional reformed distinctives.

    I am of the opinion that the Dutch and ex-evangelical need each other.

    Rev Mark J. Stromberg

  14. Chris,

    I look forward to reading your future posts on this subject.

    I very much want to learn better how to minister to families who've been through the struggle of leaving the CRC to enter the URC.

    There is a real need for pastoral care in these matters to be exercised by ministers entering the URCNA who are former evangelicals. As one of those ex-evangelicals, I have much to learn in this regard.

    There are so many dynamics at play (all at once!) that I can't sort it all out in my head yet!

    What's been helpful to me is to remember that some of our congregants have been taught certain things for their entire lives (and in some cases that amounts to over 80 years of teaching!). You just can't approach them with a sharp point and expect things to go over well.

    We have to remember that it takes time, patience, clear teaching from the Word and our Confessions applied with pastoral wisdom and winsomeness, etc... to help sheep through some of the theological issues you've raised in this post. And in some cases, change may never come.

    Thanks for your insight. I'm all ears...


  15. Great post. I look forward to future installments. This is an issue near and dear to my heart. My (Dutch) family left the CRC in the mid-90s and landed in a URC (our CRC disbanded). My parents still faithfully attend that URC in West Michigan. (I, unfortunately, live in a place where there is no URC church and have found myself back in the CRC. Trust me, you don't want to go back.)

    I remember very clearly the battles in the CRC over issues such as women in office that led to the URCNA eventually forming. Heck, it was a tense battle within my extended family that caused rifts that still exist today. So, I appreciate all that the Dutch URCers have gone through.

    However, I share many of the fears articulated by Mark Vander Pol. I've heard Dutch URCers essentially say that they want the URC to turn back the clock to the CRC circa the 1950s. That's a recipe for disaster. You're just pushing off the disintegration of the URC for a few more decades. In my humble opinion, the folks at WSC (Horton, Clark, etc), for example, can help the Dutch URCers see the bigger picture, and have injected vitality into the denomination. They're leading the charge to having an open discussion about issues such as 24/7 creation, Christian schools, and 2K. It's refreshing and inviting to hear them speak about the historic Reformed faith in ways that are not bound up in a particular ethic tradition. The Dutch URCers should count themselves blessed to have them in the denomination.

  16. Mark Van Der MolenMarch 14, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    In my humble opinion, the folks at WSC (Horton, Clark, etc), for example, can help the Dutch URCers see the bigger picture, and have injected vitality into the denomination. They're leading the charge to having an open discussion about issues such as 24/7 creation, Christian schools, and 2K. It's refreshing and inviting to hear them speak about the historic Reformed faith in ways that are not bound up in a particular ethic tradition. The Dutch URCers should count themselves blessed to have them in the denomination.

    I can certainly agree that one should not place ethnic traditions on par with the confessions. However, it is a mistake to identify 24/7 creation, Christian education, and kingdom theology as uniquely ethnic "Dutch" issues. They're not.

    Too often I've heard a form of this ethnic equation being used to answer those who may not concur that the "folks at WSC" have "injected vitality into the denomination". My humble suggestion is that if folk want to have some substantive discussion {with vitality!} let's drop the "blame it on the Dutch heritage" ethnic references. Confessional issues are typically in view, and fair minded people should be able to engage the matter at that level.

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