Christian Reformed Church (CRC) History

A History Of Change Moved the CRC Church from Isolation to Involvement

Christian Reformed Church Logo
Christian Reformed Church Logo. Image: ® Courtesy of Christian Reformed Church in North America

From its beginning in the sixteenth century to today, the CRC Church has struggled with which path to take. The Christian Reformed Church in North America has a history of change, which has often resulted in pain and division.

The church had its roots in the theology of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, two landmark reformers in Switzerland. The CRC started as the Dutch Reformed Church in the sixteenth century, eventually becoming the official state religion of the Netherlands.

By the nineteenth century, however, many commoners felt their church had become too liberal. A schism led to an Orthodox branch.

The Dutch Reformed Church reacted by persecuting and imprisoning the fledgling group's leaders. At the same time, an economic depression in the Low Countries hit the common people especially hard. Rev. Albertus Christiaan Van Raalte and 53 followers left the Netherlands, and 46 days later their ship landed at New York City.

The CRC Church and a Question of Isolation

Originally the group planned to settle in Wisconsin, but harsh winter conditions forced them to wait near Detroit. Instead of pressing on, they chose a forested area in the western part of the state and founded Holland, Michigan.

For many years, CRC Church members kept to themselves, speaking Dutch within their communities and in their services. Their emphasis on personal holiness and separation from worldly amusements led to a conflict over whether they should isolate themselves from society or become involved in it.

What forced the change was World War I. Americans became fearful of their German-speaking neighbors, and the Dutch language sounded much like German. Some states even passed laws requiring churches to conduct their services in English. The CRC Church had to make a choice. It sent sons to serve in the U.S. Army, and moved away from the Dutch language in church services.

Ironically, the change led to evangelization and church growth. The Christian Reformed Church in North America was seen by others as solidly American and established itself firmly as an independent denomination.

The CRC Church Moves into the World

In the 1920s and '30s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America expanded its missionary efforts. It reached out to Indians in the United States and Canada, and began foreign missions in China, Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa.

Patriotism during World War II again brought the CRC Church into the mainstream. It joined the National Association of Evangelicals, which brought its leaders in contact with other denominations and showed solidarity in the war effort.

After the war, the CRC Church boomed, especially in Canada. The denomination grew from 12 small congregations in that country before the conflict to more than 42,000 members by 1957, the church's centennial year. Overall, the CRC added more than 90,000 members in the 1950s and 200 new churches.

Missions also blossomed. The CRC Church started new ventures in Japan, India, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Cuba, Australia, and New Zealand.

The CRC Church Deals with Change

From its roots as a conservative denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America has evolved to take bold steps for change.

CRC Churches were in the forefront in the American civil rights movement and today the church has a Ministry of Race Relations.

Involvement in the women's movement had mixed results. Today, individual churches may ordain women as elders. Classes, or regional councils, now have the option of allowing constituent congregations to ordain women as ministers as well, but when that decision was first made, the CRC lost more than 40,000 members.

The church also stepped up to recognize disabled people. Its ministry of Disability Concerns helps local churches meet the needs of persons with physical, sensory, mental, and emotional disabilities. The CRC urges its churches to "eliminate physical and architectural barriers, attitudinal barriers that make persons with disabilities feel unwelcome, and communication barriers in sight, sound, and understanding."

Amidst all these changes, the CRC Church has stayed loyal to its Calvinist roots and decided not to change when it comes to gender-neutral language for God. In its Position Statements, the church says, "...Christians ought to speak of God in the way that Scripture speaks of God...Since there are no feminine names or pronouns applied to God in Scripture, they should not be used in this way today."

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