Similar to how Paul and Barnabas were at odds with each other about how they should handle the situation of Mark abandoning them halfway through their first missionary journey together - and how this disagreement ultimately led to their separation (as described in Acts 15:36-41)… I believe that the churches of the CRCNA are now at odds with each other about how the denomination should handle the situation of members and office-bearers who are unable to fully affirm the synodical interpretation of the word “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 - and that this disagreement should lead to a separation (ideally, a peaceful one) of the CRCNA into two denominations.
For it seems to me that many churches in the CRCNA are currently emulating Barnabas, while many other churches are currently emulating Paul in the story from Acts 15:36-41.
According to the story, Barnabas wished to have Mark accompany him and Paul on their next missionary journey despite the fact that Mark wasn’t able to complete the first missionary journey they all went on together. This is because Barnabas believed that Mark deserved to be given some grace in light of the immense potential he appeared to hold for ministry work.
Likewise, there are many churches who are acting like Barnabas. These churches believe the “Marks” of the CRCNA (i.e. all members and office-bearers in the CRCNA who are unable to fully affirm the synodical interpretation of the word “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108) should be able to stay indefinitely in the denomination. Specifically, they believe any members who are unable to fully affirm the synodical interpretation of the word “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 should be able to maintain their membership, and that any office-bearers who are unable to fully affirm the synodical interpretation of the word “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 should be able to continue serving in the denomination - so long as they (members and office-bearers alike) respectfully act in accordance with this interpretation. This is because these churches believe that these members and office-bearers possess spiritual fruits and spiritual gifts that strongly contribute to the flourishing of their communities, and deserve to be given the opportunity to fully demonstrate their love and respect for, and commitment to the wider denominational body.
On the other hand, according to the story of Barnabas’ and Paul’s fall out, Paul was adamant in not letting Mark accompany him and Barnabas on their next missionary journey because of the fact that Mark wasn’t able to complete the first missionary journey they all went on together. This is because Paul believed that Mark’s inability to get through the whole first missionary journey with them indicated spiritual immaturity on his part, and how Mark needed several more years of spiritual discipline before he would be fit to do ministry work with either one of them.
Likewise, there are many churches who are acting like Paul. These other churches believe the “Marks” of the CRCNA (i.e. all members and office-bearers in the CRCNA who are unable to fully affirm the synodical interpretation of the word “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108) should not be able to stay indefinitely in the denomination. Specifically, they believe that any members who are unable to fully affirm the synodical interpretation of the word “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 must come to full alignment with this interpretation during a specified period of time or otherwise they can no longer continue to be members of the denomination; and that any office-bears who are unable to fully affirm the synodical interpretation of the word “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 must similarly come to full alignment with this interpretation during a specified period of time or otherwise they can no longer continue to serve in the denomination. This is because these churches believe that only those who are able to fully align themselves with this synodical interpretation, will truly be able to continually serve and contribute to the flourishing of their respective communities and the wider denominational body, faithfully.
And of course, as most of us we know, because both Barnabas and Paul were unwilling to yield and come to a consensus about what would be best for Mark - whether it would be best to let him come with, and grow spiritually under their mentorship or whether it be best to have him stay behind to grow spiritually under the mentorship of another - they ultimately ended up parting ways, with Barnabas choosing to take Mark with him to sail for Cyprus, and Paul choosing to take Silas with him to travel through Syria and Cilicia.
But here’s the thing.
Just a chapter later, in the book of Acts it is heavily implied that God more or less used their disagreement and separation as a means to further his Kingdom purposes. When Barnabas and Paul separated, the number of missionary teams automatically doubled - and God appears to have used this outcome to strengthen the early churches and bring forth the creation of new ones (Acts 16).
Not only this, but in 1 Corinthians 9:5-6 we see Paul reference Barnabas; which not only further indicates that both continued to strongly persevere in ministry work even after their separation, but also indicates that they ultimately came to reconcile with one another in the end.
Moreover, in 2 Timothy 4:11, we see Paul reference Mark and describe him as being helpful to him in his ministry - indicating that Paul later came to the conclusion that while Mark could definitely learn a few things from him, he could certainly stand to learn a few things from Mark too, by them doing ministry work together.
And all of that is just to say…what if the CRCNA was always supposed to separate over this confessional issue? What if this is what God predestined for our denomination? What if the Holy Spirit has intentionally been guiding many of us in one direction, and guiding many of us in a different direction?
Indeed, perhaps we’ve all been - more or less - discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit correctly. It’s just that the Holy Spirit had two main messages to deliver, with one of the main messages being specifically for the churches that strongly embody Barnabas; and the other main message being specifically for the churches that strongly embody Paul. And that is why there is disagreement. God has always planned to use this disagreement to further his Kingdom purposes.
And so perhaps, it is not so much that the CRCNA is falling apart at the seams, but rather that it is experiencing the growing pains that come before it will experience any real growth. And this growth will only occur after the CRCNA separates into two different denominations that go on to live out the special missions God seems to have assigned each of them to do.
Additionally, perhaps this is why I wouldn’t be dismayed if a great number of churches - either those who strongly embody Barnabas, or those who strongly embody Paul - chose to disaffiliate to form a denomination of their own. I wouldn’t be dismayed, because I have a profound feeling that only after they have departed, will the remaining churches of CRCNA come to one day experience what they always hoped to experience between the churches that leave and go on to form a denomination of their own, and vice versa. And that is, they would experience the reconciliation of their relationship with one another.
And this is perhaps also why I feel like I have good reason to believe that a person like me - a “Mark” - will one day be able to have true fellowship with and have the honor of working closely with both types of church leaders (i.e. those who head churches who emulate Paul and those who head churches who emulate Barnabas).
Similar to how Paul later comes to more deeply appreciate Mark, and truly gets to see how useful he can be in helping him with gospel ministry; I believe that one day the churches who emulate Paul may come to more deeply appreciate the company of people who are in Mark’s position, and truly get to see how useful people in Mark’s position can be in helping them do the restorative work of the Kingdom of our LORD and Savior.
Now, to those who are wondering “ What about the few churches who wish to be fully-affirming? Where do they fit in all of this? Who are they in the narrative of Acts 15: 36-41 that the CRCNA seems to be following right down to the tee?”
Make no mistake, I haven’t forgotten them, and I dare say neither has the LORD. For it appears to me that perhaps the few churches in the CRCNA that desire to become fully- affirming could very well be occupying the role of the brothers/sisters in Christ that Paul and Barnabas leave behind in Antioch, when they depart to continue their now separate missionary journeys.
Specifically, in the story of Paul’s and Barnabas’ fall out, it mentions that some brothers/sisters in Christ went out to bid farewell and offer words of blessing to Paul and Barnabas as they were about to go their own separate ways to continue doing ministry work in other places. And it is typically assumed that after seeing Paul and Barnabas off, these brothers/sisters in Christ went back to the church they were from (i.e. the Church of Antioch, which is actually the first church where Paul and Barnabas teamed up to do ministry work together) and continued sharing the gospel with people in the local area and in other places the LORD personally called them to do ministry.
In a similar way, I feel like the few churches in the CRCNA that want to become fully-affirming churches are supposed to similarly bid both the CRCNA churches that resemble Barnabas and the CRCNA churches that resemble Paul, a gracious and loving farewell, and offer heartfelt words of blessing to them, as they go on to carry out the special missions that God appears to have assigned each of them to do. Additionally, it seems that the LORD might be calling them to go back to the church the CRCNA originally came from (i.e. the RCA), and continue sharing the gospel with people in their local communities and in other places the LORD directs them to minister in, as part of this church.
In summary, I believe what we are seeing with the CRCNA is ancient church history repeating itself. We have churches like Paul and churches like Barnabas among us, and they strongly disagree with each other about whether members and office-bearers like Mark should be allowed to accompany them in their ministry work. And it appears that this disagreement should lead to churches like Paul and churches like Barnabas to decide to part ways, resulting in two different denominations. Furthermore, just before the churches like Barnabas and the churches like Paul part ways; it seems like the churches that seem to correspond to the brothers/sisters of Antioch should go to graciously bid them farewell before they themselves take their leave to fulfill the work the LORD appears to be calling them to do as part of another denomination. For just as God did with Barnabas’ and Paul’s separation, I believe God is planning to use the separation of the CRCNA as means to further his Kingdom purposes, and is going to also ensure that the churches who are like Paul and the churches who are like Barnabas will eventually come to reconcile with one another - thus, making it possible for people like Mark to experience true fellowship with people of both types of churches. In other words, the Holy Spirit has been on the move, it's just the Holy Spirit hasn’t been moving in the ways we expected. Indeed, God seems to have prepared a path forward for us, but it doesn’t look like the path many of us had in mind.