The Federation of Reformed Churches- A Short History

A Short History (AD 2008)

David Shank and Stephen Jones1

"We knew something was wrong" -- so began Presbyter Dave Shank in his discussion of the early history of the Federation of Reformed Churches (FORC). All of us, the current and human results of that history, were happily seated with our wives and children or grandchildren, thoroughly enjoying the historical presentation along with the many stories that the longest serving FORC pastor was sharing with us. It was a warm and sunny day at a retreat/campground in upstate New York where we were joining together in our initial merging of the friendly fellowship of a family retreat and the sober deliberations of a Synod. This Synod/Retreat of the summer of 2008 was making FORC history even as Pastor Shank took us into the past.

"We knew something was wrong" -- so thought a tiny group of men meeting in Placerville, California during the month of August, 1989. Like-minded, were they? Not really; not at all, in fact. Beyond the idea that "something was wrong" with the current, evangelical church in America, this pre-FORC gathering consisted of brothers whose beliefs ranged from a mild form of Aryanism, American nationalism, and Roman Catholicism to mostly men with Protestant roots in Presbyterianism or Pentecostalism. This first "gathering" was certainly not a "synod" and could hardly be called a "meeting". They were bewildered Christians somewhat discouraged that they might bear such a label as "maverick," or even "heretic," and the lonely burden that goes with that.

"Something is wrong," they said to each other and experienced, in sharing those words, a touch of relief for the loneliness each of them felt. At that time, the Christian walk of these few men with deep convictions seemed only to separate them from their Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world. The Christian Church in the late twentieth century was changing away from the Bible. These men were becoming vestigial appendages and no longer felt like members of the body of Christ on earth. God's promise is covenantal so their experience ought to have been anything but lonely. Ironically, a cultural seed, becoming weed-like in the late twentieth century Church, may have been the prideful individualism of the Western and, especially, the North American world. Even the newer conservative denominations were not hearing what these Bereans believed the Word of God to be saying. Increasingly, others have been feeling the same way, and so, today, brothers from Africa and Korea send missionaries to heal our nation by exhorting it to return to Christ. "Something is wrong."

Why would these men be isolated for holding an optimistic view of eschatology?...for believing in the kingship of Jesus now?...for desiring to adhere to Biblical ethics -- for wanting to feed their children at the Lord's Table? Weren't these things clearly stated in the Bible? Weren't they believed for many centuries in the universal Christian Church?

At first, these brothers shared little more than their loneliness and their dismay at what was happening among Christians, but soon they were pared down to more orthodox and reformed Protestants with much in common. At their next gathering -- the first Synod held in Fairfax, Virginia in January 1990 -- the Fellowship of Reformed Churches was established. Present were David Baird, David Chilton, Rick Doughty, Ken Hines, Doug Mills, and Allen Shatley. Already, the Aryan and Roman Catholic influences had diminished and soon more nationalistic Americana, as well as Pentecostal leanings, would be less influential in our FORC history.

Indeed, a problem in this early group was its same-feathered, self-protective tendency. These men were in a football-like huddle with their uniformed bodies "turned in" against the Christian world around them. Over the years since that first Synod in early 1990, God's chastening would correct these selfish errors. In fact, Presbyter Ralph Selin's keynote sermon at this summer's Synod/Retreat underlined both the necessity and the struggles of a genuine catholicity in our midst. God's design is for a universal Church -- a global Church characterized by unity, though not necessarily uniformity. As the Trinity of God is, so, also, is "the one and the many" of the structure of the Church. We're learning that the hard way.

We now long for more Christian unity, but back then our founders were pariahs trying to find and embrace each other in a sea of half-truths which appeared to be washing contemporary Christianity away from the Bible. A result was that these men had found it necessary to eat dinner by themselves for far too long. As an example, one of our finest thinkers, David Chilton, was twice flunked on his ordination exam because, as history reflects upon it, he answered questions biblically and not in the more particular terms of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The upshot of Chilton's flunkings was that his church kicked out, not Chilton -- their beloved pastor -- but rather the organization who failed him on the exams. Pastor Chilton still had a job, but his isolation remained.

No wonder the importance of weekly communion with every baptized soul, young and old, was central to the understanding of covenant renewal worship held by Chilton and the others. Subtracting the Lord's Table from weekly worship or denying it to children was not only unbiblical and non-covenantal, but it reminded our founders of their own anguish at being flunked out of the traditions and company of Christian men.

Whatever reasons may have been given, central to Chilton's exam failures were his convictions about paedocommunion. To his way of thinking, children were not only to be baptized soon after entering the world -- thus going against a long history of Baptist doctrine -- but also children were to eat and drink with the grown-ups before passing any would-be examination -- a practice that has offended most Presbyterians as well. The strong resistance to children feasting at the Lord's Table is perhaps the best example of the struggle, both then and now, against the influences of individualism in our nation. Philosophies emerging from America's frontier individualism may well remain the most significant version of men wresting from God His control of their own destinies. Or trying to. For example, surely, anyone, including children, had to be examined by leading men before really being counted and fed as Christians! One by one, each individual, although baptized, must pass the muster of men before feasting in God's kingdom. But, wait a minute, didn't Jesus say something like, "Stop it, guys! Let the children come to me."?...

According to Pastor Shank, the earliest synods focused on protection from such influences. The intent of this huddle of believers was to come up with a way of getting together and maintaining the core beliefs they shared which went beyond the Apostles or Nicene Creed. They also needed to protect themselves from destruction. Many small, Protestant churches at that time were being deeply affected by internal takeovers stemming from a lack of clear distinctives and a stable polity. Small groups with differing doctrinal beliefs "would enter into churches," according to Shank, "swamp the place, vote the pastor out and put in whoever and whatever."

The early FORC synods made efforts to avoid these errors.

How is unity established and maintained among like-minded believers? This question leads, once again in Church history, to the necessity of distinguishing between unity and uniformity. Anabaptists, for example, mistakenly sought unity through a type of uniformity which required common dress and common habits in order to demonstrate their nonconformity to the world. Ironically, this attempt on their part to be faithful to the New Testament simply leads them to a uniform nonconformity. Our founders recognized the need for unity, but questioned if that necessarily involved uniformity. A wise and gentle friend and member of a Dutch Reformed denomination walked beside these FORC synods in their early rescue efforts. Pastor Don Van Dyken�s old-world wisdom, and especially, his understanding of the ancient church issue of unity versus uniformity, kept discussions lively and solutions clear.

Unity, argued Van Dyken, involves the "faith that was once for all delivered to the saints"; uniformity, however, demands a contrived sameness of language or practice or dress, as in the case of the Anabaptists. This sort of external uniformity, as opposed to internal conviction, fails to inspire a true Christian unity that maintains denominational integrity while at the same time allowing our denomination to reach out to other and dissimilar church cultures. Such genuine unity must involve wisdom as to a sound polity as well as clear denominational distinctives.

The first phase of these early FORC synods, therefore, focused on church polity. "With Van Dyken's contributions in the mix," Pastor Shank continued in his story about who we are, "we put into place a presbyterial form of government." The structure that emerged from these discussions had the following three characteristics:

1) At the request of a congregation, a council would be appointed to help deliberate and advise upon the problems within that congregation. However, most critical in this relationship is that the ultimate place of authority would be in the Presbytery (Board of Elders) of that congregation and not in the FORC denomination. The "highest court," in other words, is found within the lowly, local church. Here Van Dyken's continental view of church order underlined for these early synods the importance of the responsibility and authority of those who teach and rule in the congregation.

2) Presbyters, who have authority in the congregations, would come together in synods and councils for advice, support, and accountability. Here's how that ultimately worked out over the years: Each congregation would ordain two or more presbyters overseeing the local body, and at least one of those presbyters would be examined and sustained by a FORC Council. Furthermore, only two presbyters from a Presbytery, and only those sustained by a FORC Council, would be able to vote at synods or participate in councils.

3) The Book of Church Order (BOCO), from its inception, was designed to be clear and concise regarding the purposes, doctrines, and governing principles of the FORC. "Not endless reading, but lots of praying!" quipped Brother Shank. With his deep blue eyes sparkling, he assured us that there was a consciousness from the very beginning of keeping the FORC BOCO short and to the point. The BOCO would not communicate answers from deep in a morass of headings and indentations, but rather be a general background of support for our prayerful consultations with the Holy Spirit at any given place and time and for any problem. As though still further to reassure us about endless searches for exactly the right rule, Shank spoke of the Federal Register whose quantity of pages would "fill a good-sized truck"! The FORC was not to be structured under the umbrella of a "growing" document resembling a "loose-leafed notebook."

Summing up these decisions about polity, Shank commented that "Van Dyken's understanding of unity led us to develop a structure of polity which allows for the diversity represented by different congregations." From these early deliberations there emerged a clear understanding about the congregational locus of responsibility and authority, about congregational representation, and about smallness and efficiency in the rules of church order. These decisions "took us a long way toward the practical unity in the faith that we sought."

These decisions about polity, however, weren't enough. To further avoid previous denominational errors that ended in destructive takeovers "these early FORC presbyters needed to be clear about what we believed. We needed to state those beliefs, going beyond the Apostles Creed, which distinguished us from other denominations," Shank said.

Therefore, a second major phase of these early synods was many discussions about distinctives. "Dave Chilton, shortly before he was taken ill, Doug Mills, Rick Doughty, Dave Shank and others drew up our main distinctive beliefs which included," said Shank, "the practice of paedocommunion, the kingship of Jesus now, a recognition and adherence to biblical ethics, and an optimistic present- and future-oriented eschatology." Also that we Christians are "divinely commissioned with the task of carrying the Gospel of the kingdom to the ends of the earth and discipling the nations until the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." Synod in 2003 revised the BOCO to state "we believe that the world was created out of nothing in six normal days thousands of years ago." Synod in 2007 added a clear statement of our central "purpose of serving and nurturing local churches."

In sum, the men at these early meetings often were reaching back in time as well as over into "continental" space in order to create a strong foundation both as to doctrine and polity. They were attempting to proclaim biblical positions that would correct the "wrongs" -- the procedural, doctrinal, and organizational mistakes of churches in our modern era. As Shank said, these men meeting at bi-yearly synods wanted to "put something together that would so lock things down that nobody would be able to disinherit them because of their distinctives."

Pastor Shank looked at us somewhat curiously at this point as though he guessed there was still a loose end dangling from this central part of his morning's talk. Was it my imagination or did he whisper, "What's in a name?"

"Yes," he said with a grin. "We did formally change our name." He went on to tell us that it was during this time of working through an integrated doctrine and a protecting polity that the name of the FORC was changed from the Fellowship, to the Federation of Reformed Churches. Shank concluded this part of his talk by assuring us that both then and now the synods over the years have effectively resisted adding an "E" to FORC. Whether we are pronounced "force" or "fork," we are neither a New-Age idol nor a traditional eating utensil. Here Shank resisted the temptation of telling us of his own preference for eating with a three-pronged fork, representing the Trinity.

Our minds were now well settled from a much clearer understanding of a somewhat complex history. Pastor Shank regaled us with a few more warm and memorable stories that wove the big picture together. He mentioned such men as James Jordan, Burnett Magruder, and John Elliott who, along with Pastor Van Dyken, were significant friends of the FORC back in those early days.

Then Shank brought us forward to the time of Pastor Paul Slish and his congregation, who joined the FORC in the summer of 1996. Brother Shank's gaze swung easily out over the small crowd and, engaging the eyes of Brother Slish, he said, "Paul and I are not like each other as men, but we love each other!" This expression of respect and affection was Shank's way of telling us the soul of the rest of the FORC story. By honoring Paul Slish and praising his faithful leadership and their mutual fellowship, the next twelve years of FORC history, of which we all are so much the players, became like a visible glow shimmering before us in the campground auditorium.

That "soul of the rest of the FORC story" has to do with the love of the brotherhood. The love among us, along with growing convictions about who we are, meant that Pastor Shank needed to say very little, at the end of his talk, to complete the vision of our significance in the body of Christ. Our personal loneliness is becoming a thing of the past, but our corporate worthiness will in time take its place.

In this spirit of fellowship, there were a few quips and chuckles and then a hush fell over the room. Brother Shank said, "By the grace of God, we are learning, we are evolving, we are catholic."

  1. As the story-teller at our Retreat, Pastor Shank is the first author of this short, historical sketch. As the second author, I have the privilege of inserting Shank himself into the mix of FORC history. We very much appreciate the review and additions of Paul Slish to this article. ↩︎