RCA staff acknowledge that, despite decades of passion and vision to eradicate acts and systems of racism and white privilege, the successful implementation of steps toward a multicultural future freed from racism has often been stalled or lacking, due to a variety of circumstances.
Please note that Minutes of General Synod are primary source texts, such that language and diction should be read and considered within each historical context. In addition, there may be gaps in this particular listing of General Synod recommendations and actions.
In 1957, the General Synod adopted a landmark Credo on Race Relations, as prepared and recommended by the Christian Action Commission. The credo is built upon ten statements of belief, including the confessing and repenting of sinful actions that failed to demonstrate Christian love. It also asserted a commitment to act:
We believe that sincere repentance manifests itself in acts of obedient love. We, therefore, believe that our sincerity will be demonstrated through concrete local acts, such as:
1—identification with minority groups victimized through unjust discrimination.
2—conscientious efforts to open the doors of all churches to all people.
3—the support of those laws and agencies designed to uphold and guarantee the rights and health of all.
4—the promotion of inter-group discussions, where in atmospheres of understanding and good-will, the forces for reconciliation may operate creatively.
5—the education of our youth in the privileges and responsibilities of life in a free, mixed society.
The 1964 General Synod established a Commission on Race to serve for an initial two-year term. The commission “produced and distributed various materials concerning Christianity and Race — seeking to inform and engage the mind of the Church on race relations” (MGS 1966, p. 96). The 1966 General Synod voted to continue the Commission on Race for another two years and to grow the commission through the election of an additional three people. In 1968, the General Synod approved the recommendation to merge the commission’s activities into the General Program Council, rather than reporting to the Board of North American Missions.
In 1967, the General Synod adopted the following recommendation from the Christian Action Commission regarding increasing tension in South Africa:
1. That the Reformed Church in America register its disapproval through the Stated Clerk of General Synod to the Reformed Churches of South Africa on the policies within South Africa which deny basic rights and freedoms to the vast majority of people in that country.
2. That the Reformed Church in America support the efforts being made to withdraw funds of church groups from those financial institutions which invest in South Africa.
3. That the members of our churches be urged to write to our government leaders calling for them to work through the United Nations and diplomatic channels to seek remedies for the inequities in South Africa.
In 1969, the General Synod heard from Mr. James Forman of the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), who—with his associates—had previously made demands at the RCA’s headquarters in New York. In response to the demands of the NBEDC, the Ad Hoc Committee on Response to the Black Manifesto was formed. The committee’s report stated:
The appearance before this General Synod of Mr. James Forman and some of his associates of the National Black Economic Development Conference, the “liberation” of our denominational headquarters, the private conversations some of our people have had with him, have brought us to a new and far deeper understanding of the suffering and denial of manhood that vast numbers of our citizens have experienced.
In response, the synod, “without a dissenting vote,” adopted statements and 12 recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee on Response to the Black Manifesto (MGS 1969, p. 104). Among other items, the synod agreed to “individually and collectively take concrete action to help resolve injustices” and formed the Black Council for the Program of General Synod (102-104).
In 1977, the General Synod adopted a statement of purpose for the RCA’s racial/ethnic councils, which concludes:
We must confess the need of the church and the world for the prophetic word which minority councils are called upon by God to utter in his behalf. Injustices of the past and present must be compensated for, and the war on disease of racism must be waged until our oneness in the family of God’s children is accomplished in fact as well as in principle. Further, minority councils are in a favored position to stimulate the church and the world to protect and preserve the rights, responsibilities and privileges of minority groups.
In this interim between reality and the accomplishment of the ideal, minority councils fulfill a vital role in the world’s history and in the building of the Kingdom of God.
The 1977 General Synod also adopted the following theological basis for the preceding statement of purpose.
We believe that God has created from one, every people on the earth and that in the church there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.
We confess that our sin has led us to erect religious, cultural, economic and political barriers along ethnic and racial lines and that these barriers have separated us from one another and deprived many of us of the right to develop our personal and corporate identities.
We believe that God in Christ has broken down the dividing walls of partition and that the differences which have divided us have become the diversities which enrich us.
We believe that God will accomplish His purpose of gathering together in the new world people of every tongue and tribe and nation and that the glory of human diversity will enrich the new Heaven and the new earth.
We believe that the Body of Christ will grow and be built up in love only when each organ is in good health and able to function freely and that the parts which have been deprived of their full membership in the Body need an opportunity to discover themselves as members of the Body each in its own way.
We believe that this unity of the Body with its diversity of members is given to the church as a witness to the world and that we must use our unique gifts and special insights to equip one another for the continual renewal of the church and its ministry in a divided and broken world.
The 1977 General Synod additionally requested its General Synod Executive Committee, its General Program Council, its Board of Theological Education, and all of its General Synod committees and commissions “to take such steps as are necessary to change their constitutions and enabling documents to allow representation of at least one person from each of the RCA’s minority councils, with nominations originating from the councils themselves” (MGS 1977, p. 82).
In 1978, the Black Council made the following recommendations, which were adopted by the General Synod:
THAT the General Synod, understanding that racism is sin, call upon all churches to study the causes which made necessary the founding of the Black Council, giving special attention to the role of the churches in these historical injustices; and
THAT the General Synod urge particular synods, classes, local congregations and all other agencies of the church to work with the Black Council in improving communication and developing better working relationships, so that the already difficulty work of struggling for racial justice can be made a bit easier and the day of its achievement can come soon.
The 1978 General Synod requested the General Program Council to “consider making available an equal number (2) of scholarships at Western Theological Seminary and New Brunswick Theological Seminary” for students within minority groups in the RCA (MGS 1978, p. 200).
The synod also instructed “appropriate officers of the church study the manner in which the current investments of the church might be contributing to apartheid and report back to the General Synod of 1979” (200). In response, the RCA filed a number of shareholder resolutions, requesting termination of operations with and sales to the South African government, military, and police “unless and until the government commits itself to ending apartheid and takes meaningful steps toward the achievement of full political, legal and social rights for the majority population” (MGS 1979, pp. 97-98).
In 1979, the General Synod adopted recommendations from the Black Council that recorded support of federal programs that ensured full employment for all people who want to work and communicated this position to national government bodies. The General Synod also called upon churches and members of the denomination to “do all within their power to extend employment opportunities to racial minority group members” (MGS 1979, p. 93). Denominational staff, in cooperation with the minority councils, were called to “bring forth specific program ideas and policy proposals which enable the church to make a relevant and creative response to this pressing problem of unemployment among minority people” (MGS 1979, p. 94).
The 1979 General Synod also acknowledged “the biblical call of the Church to solidarity with people suffering from racial injustice in all its forms, and particularly at this time with the oppressed people of southern Africa and the call to give support to people and groups who struggle for justice, freedom, and peace, with special affirmation for the use of non-violent means” (MGS 1979, p. 106).
In 1980, the General Synod Executive Committee report included the work of the Task Force on Nonviolent Liberation of South Africa. The report encapsulated related General Synod actions since 1967:
Subsequent Synods initiated correspondence with the Dutch Reformed Church (MGS, 1968, pg. 221), recommended an exchange of seminary students (MGS, 1972, 1973, 1978, 1979), encouraged negotiations with the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (Black) (MGS, 1976, p. 214-215, 229), and sent a letter to the government of South Africa urging them ‘… to enter into negotiations with the Black leadership in South Africa on an equal basis in order to work for reconciliation and thus avoid further bloodshed’ (MGS, 1976, p. 257).
The report continued:
These and other actions have made the position of the Reformed Church in America clear: apartheid is an unjust system based on race that is contrary to the Scriptures. Confessing its own shortcomings in the matter of race relations, the Reformed Church in America has shared its views with both the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (NGKA) while expressing its concern for them in these days of conflict (MGS, 1977, p. 252, 269) and, in 1978, urging our own churches “to join in continuing prayers for an equitable resolution of the problems and tensions among the peoples of South Africa” (MGS, 1978, p. 199). …
If the actions of General Synod are to be seen as more than empty rhetoric by those in South Africa who are, in fact, struggling for justice, freedom and peace, some specific support must be given by our church.
In response, the 1980 General Synod voted to provide ongoing financial support for health, education, and welfare programs in South Africa. The synod also voted to discontinue investments in banks and corporations of business in South Africa and to support embargo policies and other economic sanctions against South Africa (MGS 1980, pp. 306-308).
In 1981, the General Synod adopted the following recommendation from the Commission on Christian Unity:
To call on all Reformed Church members to write to the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Canada, urging them to give fresh affirmation to our countries’ opposition to apartheid, and to establish that the abolition of apartheid is the key to normal relationships for both the United States of America and Canada with the Republic of South Africa.
The 1981 General Synod also adopted a recommendation from the Black Council—“in light of the overt signs of resurging racism in America”—to call on RCA members and congregations to purchase and read two specific books in order to be acquainted “with the extent of this problem [of racism] and to assist in developing responses to it” (MGS 1981, p. 70). The recommended books were Portrait of Inequality—Black and White Children in America by Marian Wright Edelman and Race: No Peace Without Justice by Barbara Rogers.
In 1984, the Commission on Christian Action brought the paper, “The Resurgence of Racial Violence and Discrimination Against Asian Americans,” before the General Synod and recommended that it be distributed to and studied by RCA congregations. The synod also called on RCA congregations to be “in prayerful concern regarding the recent sinful resurgence of racial violence aimed specifically at Asian Americans” (MGS 1984, p. 74).
In 1987, after the Commission on Christian Action cited racism as a cancer that sometimes goes into remission but is not yet cured, the General Synod adopted the following:
To encourage RCA congregations to provide assistance to local groups and persons victimized in their fight against racism.
To encourage RCA members to support legislation that will enable government, industry, labor, church, and other groups to unite in new methods of ending racism.
The 1987 General Synod also voted to appoint a task force on racial justice. In 1989, the task force reported on its initial work to explore “visions of a ‘fully inclusive church’ with classes, the seminaries, the executive staff, and the councils” (MGS 1989, p. 73). In their report, the task force stated:
What is true for the congregation is also true for the denomination: “lukewarm” is not an option. By the RCA’s witness or its silence on issues of racial justice—indeed by the very structures used by the RCA to make decisions concerning its life and witness—the RCA will either struggle against racism in all its forms by means of a prophetic witness, or it will by its silence abet racism both within and outside the church. …
The church, from congregation to executive staff, from its individuals to its agencies, must be about the task of reforming itself and of being a reforming agent in society. The task force therefore calls the church to work toward the goal of becoming a fully inclusive church.
As proposed by the Task Force on Racial Justice, the 1989 General Synod adopted four principles to guide the RCA in its response to concerns of racial justice and inclusiveness, including:
The church shall seek to
1) celebrate the presence of people of color in the RCA,
2) stand in solidarity with the particular needs of people of color,
3) rejoice in the contributions of people of color to the church, and
4) eliminate racism from its attitudes and structures.
The 1989 General Synod proceeded to adopt approximately 20 recommendations that, among other action items, required reports of specific actions taken to eliminate racism, encouraged consultation with the racial/ethnic councils, called for the seeking out and hiring people of color, urged for the inclusion of people of color in denominational publications, and created cross-cultural programs in RCA seminaries, camps, and affiliates.
In 1998, the Commission on Christian Action produced a paper about racism and affirmative action. Among other things, the paper states:
Where there is talk of prejudice and racism, we can face it squarely because we already know that we are sinful. That racial prejudice and racism might be in our hearts and actions should not surprise us. That institutional racism would exist even in spite of our intentions serves as a particular example of our constant need for repentance, and the constant thankfulness that God’s grace makes repentance possible. We should be able to talk humbly with one another about our failings and explore ways of making race relations better, precisely because we have no illusions.
… As people in the Reformed Church in American learn about their own participation in institutional racism, they will want to participate in it no longer. The discomfort people feel about the possibility that they may be part of a racist system can express itself in two ways—denial or deliverance. The discomfort is good—it tells us that we disapprove of racism. The choice is between rejection of the diagnosis (denial) or commitment to changing ourselves and the system we live in (deliverance).
The 1998 General Synod voted to “designate the decade 2000-2010 as the ‘Decade Freed from Racism in the Reformed Church in America;’ and further, as the Reformed Church in America works to become freed from racism, to advocate for a society freed from racism” (MGS 1998, p. 131).
The synod also instructed the newly formed Commission on Race and Ethnicity (CORE) to coordinate plans and establish steps for the Decade Freed from Racism, and to invite RCA regional synods, classes, congregations, agencies, commissions, and institutions to plan events and have open discussions of race and racism in an atmosphere of Christian love. Specific recommendations were also made to various RCA bodies to help accomplish a decade freed from racism (MGS 1998, pp. 131-134).
The 1999 General Synod adopted recommendations from the African-American Council to recruit, train, and mentor racial/ethnic seminary students in order to provide pastors for the growing number of racial/ethnic churches within the denomination. The General Synod also voted:
To encourage all members of the RCA to speak boldly, in the spirit of Christian love, against acts of intolerance, racism, and police violence; and further,
to encourage commissions, synods, and classes to work with all deliberate speed in the implementation of past and present recommendations in addressing issues of prejudice and racial intolerance.
From 2006-2008, the General Synods adopted 19 recommendations that addressed the “transformation of the Reformed Church in America from a predominantly Caucasian denomination to a fully multiracial and multicultural church. The recommendations ranged from encouragement to consistories and congregations, to directives to the General Synod Council concerning staffing and ministry priorities, to requests for a broader engagement in global mission with peoples in developing regions where the RCA has previously not been involved” (MGS 2008, p. 80).
In 2008, the Commission on Race and Ethnicity presented a report on the progress of the “Decade Freed from Racism,” which originated in 2000 (approved by the 1998 General Synod). The report commended the work done in the past eight years and also outlined ongoing concerns. It stated:
There are many good things going on the RCA, but CORE believes that the commitment to a “decade freed from racism” has not received the energy, resources, and sense of urgency it deserves.
The members of CORE recognize that the 1998 commitment to a “Decade Freed from Racism” was in itself an expression of naïve enthusiasm. Eliminating racism and its consequences will not be accomplished in a decade. It requires intentionality, commitment, education, vision, passion, allocation of resources, and structural and attitudinal changes at all levels of church life. CORE believes that beyond the “decade” the RCA must be perpetually committed to a multiracial future freed from racism.
In 2008, the General Synod voted to add an emphasis to Our Call, the RCA’s ten-year goal that was approaching its midpoint:
To affirm that, in the spirit and intention of the “Decade Freed from Racism,” the RCA’s racism-free multicultural future is a critical and strategic component of the working out of Our Call; and further,
to direct the General Synod Council, in collaboration with appropriate commissions and agencies of the RCA, to prepare a proposal to integrate, within the framework and language of Our Call, a commitment to the core values of the Belhar Confession: unity, reconciliation, and justice, for report to the 2009 General Synod; and further,
to instruct the General Synod Council to suitably reflect that affirmation by adding to the five dimensions of Our Call the following as a sixth: “A Multiracial Future Freed from Racism,” and to develop objectives, goals, and strategies for implementation and measuring outcomes.
The 2008 General Synod also instructed the General Synod Council to revise the annual consistorial report form in order to gather information about churches’ actions to deepen and develop multiracial and multicultural ministries and congregations.
In 2009, the General Synod declared that “racism is sin because it is an offense to God” (MGS 2009, p. 311).
In 2010, the Commission on Race and Ethnicity defined and addressed white privilege in their report. They stated:
CORE recognizes that many synod and GSC processes and operations predate our current RCA commitments 1) to be Reformed and mission, 2) to pursue a multiracial future freed from racism, and 3) to include women in all offices of the church. Since these processes have been established within a system of white male privilege it is very important that they undergo discerning critical evaluation.
James 2:1-9 forbids favoritism in the church, and Acts 6:1-4 records that the apostles took corrective action when they recognized that some groups in the church were being favored over others. Before we can act we must better understand these particular dynamics of privilege as they are enacted in the RCA.
The 2010 General Synod voted:
To direct the General Synod Council and the Commission on Race and Ethnicity to study and critique the effects of white privilege in the processes and operations used and decisions made by General Synod and General Synod Council.
A task force was also established to develop “a series of discipleship resources and experiences that are educational, transformational, and incarnational such that people understand white privilege and its effects in our lives, and become equipped to live from self and Christian identities that are freed from the harmful and hurtful effects of white privilege” (MGS 2010, p. 337).
In 2010, the General Synod adopted the Belhar Confession as one of the RCA’s doctrinal standards. Stemming from apartheid and racial divisions in South Africa, the Belhar Confession centers on God’s call to unity, reconciliation, and justice. The Commission on Christian Unity stated:
In the late twentieth century the leaders of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa, like those Christian leaders centuries before them, stepped forward to confront yet another critical issue that threatened the very core of the gospel message. In this case, the church and the society in which it functioned were torn by horrible internal conflict, injustice, racism, poverty, and the subjugation of those who were disenfranchised. From this crucible of suffering emerged the Belhar Confession, a biblically based doctrinal standard of justice, reconciliation, and unity, intended to guide not only the personal lives of God’s children but the body of Christ in the world as well.
Like the confessions which preceded it, the Belhar Confession became a gift from one particular expression of the church to Christians in other parts of the world, a testimony for all of God’s people in our time. For South Africa is not alone in its journey with conflict, injustice, racism, poverty, and the subjugation of the downtrodden. This history of oppression in our countries, and the reality of racism and injustice in our own time, calls for the voice of the Christian church to be heard with unmistakable clarity—one that not only speaks against injustice but also offers a biblically faithful picture of hope, mercy, and reconciliation.
In 2011, the Commission on Race and Ethnicity asked “classes and all denominational bodies to analyze and become conscious of the actual distribution of resources to insure that all ethnic congregations have equal access to them” (MGS 2011, p. 288). General Synod voted:
To instruct the General Synod Council (GSC) to develop tools for discerning race-based disparities in the distribution of financial resources, embedding principles of the Belhar Confession of unity, reconciliation, and justice into the factors of these tools; and further,
to direct the GSC, and urge assemblies to use these tools.
In response to this recommendation, in 2013, the General Synod Executive Committee reported the creation of two race-based disparities tools. The same report also included a resource list for understanding and dismantling white privilege as a matter of Christian discipleship, provided by the 2010-commissioned task force.
The 2013 General Synod directed the Commission on Church Order and the Task Force on White Privilege to “propose changes to the Book of Church Order that would create an at-large voting delegation to General Synod composed of ministers and elders representing the racial/ethnic diversity of the RCA” (MGS 2013, p. 160).
In 2014, the Task Force on White Privilege presented their report to General Synod. They stated:
Through a range of actions the RCA has shown a desire to address the effects of both racism and white privilege. It has made clear that its best future—the one God has planned for it—is one in which the effects of racism and white privilege are one day eradicated. …
The Book of Church Order developed first in a mono-ethnic and then in a mono-racial context; that context, along with its philosophical and theological frameworks, have influenced the RCA’s governance. But how do these governance frameworks serve us in our increasingly multiracial contexts and in the future to which we believe God is calling us? Do some parts of our polity fit well in the RCA’s context? Would modification of some of our governance expectations and methods serve us better? Are there portions of our polity that simply do not work well in today’s multiracial contexts and even contribute race-based disparities within the RCA’s part of the body of Christ?
The R-91 Task Force strongly urges General Synod to explore these questions. The task force believes we have a confessional duty for such an examination. The Belhar Confession emphasizes that the values of unity, reconciliation, and justice are deeply embedded in God’s own character, and, consequently, must become deeply embedded in the character of God’s people.
The 2014 General Synod instructed the Commission on Race and Ethnicity:
To monitor the successful implementation of recommendations proposed by the R-91 Task Force on White Privilege and adopted by the 2013 and 2014 General Synods; and further,
to include this information in their reports to General Synod for the next five years.
In 2014, the Commission on Christian Action presented a report on mass incarceration, citing it as “an issue of human rights, public health, and racial and ethnic disparity” (MGS 2014, p. 190). Read General Synod’s response and resolutions, including subsequent actions in 2015 and 2016.