A Brief Look at the Agenda
Rev. Harlan Vanden Einde
On Saturday, June 8, 2002, 188 delegates from the 47 classes of the CRC spread across the United States and Canada, will gather at the Fine Arts Center Auditorium on the Calvin College Campus in Grand Rapids for their annual synod. Unless their work is finished earlier, the sessions are scheduled to conclude by 11:45 AM on June 15th. By mid-April, most of the delegates had received their copy of The Agenda, and began pouring over its contents in preparation for deliberation and decision. The purpose of this article is to give you a bird’s eye view of what that agenda contains.
The Board of Trustees
The governing board of the CRC is called “The Board Of Trustees”, and this board annually presents to synod a summary of the activities carried out on behalf of synod during the interim between annual synod meetings. Included in that report is a summary of the activities of the agencies and educational institutions of the CRC, which is why the BOT report occupies 276 pages of The Agenda. Let me highlight just a few items from their report.
Of note is the fact that the office of general secretary is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2002. It was back in 1902 that synod initiated that office (then referred to as Stated Clerk; now General Secretary). At that time Synod appointed Dr. Henry Beets to that position. Since then, five different persons have occupied that office, which became a full-time position in 1956.
Also of interest is the fact that to date, 19 of the 47 classes of the CRC have declared the word male inoperative in Church Order Article 3-a. Synod 1995 instructed the General Secretary to keep a list of those classes and report their names annually to synod. Synod 1995 also approved the position of an ethnic advisor to serve synod, and thus the BOT has appointed six people to serve in that capacity at Synod 2002.
Synod 2000 adopted a recommendation that is in effect until 2005 that women advisors also serve synod. Thus the BOT has appointed seven women to serve in that capacity at Synod 2002. A review of this decision concerning women in office is scheduled to take place in 2005.
Though this has been a difficult year for most charitable organizations, including the church and our denominational agencies, it is gratifying to note that as a support system for denominational ministries, our ministry shares have generated over twenty-million dollars of support annually for the past few years. In view of the specific needs of the agencies, and on the recommendation of the Ministries Administrative Council, the BOT has adjusted the ministry share allocation, increasing the shares for Calvin Seminary and CRC Publications, and decreasing the shares for Back to God Hour, Calvin College, Home Missions and Word Missions. Synod 2002 will be asked to approve that reallocation.
In 1997, the synod endorsed a recommendation from the BOT which presented a Denominational Ministries Plan, put together as a result of two extensive listening tours throughout the denomination. The intent was to give some clarity about the CRC’s identity and purpose. After working for several years with the goals and strategies that were part of the plan, major portions of it have been rewritten. This expanded and revised version is being presented to Synod 2002 for endorsement. It is found in Appendix H of The Agenda, and covers some 26 pages. It not only describes what the CRC is, but prescribes what we should be. All members of the Christian Reformed Church would to well to take the time to carefully read this identity statement.
In an article such as this, it is impossible to go into detail about the work of the various agencies of the CRC. Each of these agencies report their activities, their concerns and their successes. If you would take the time to read through these reports, you would be amazed at what the Lord is accomplishing through this relatively small denomination known as the CRC. There is reason for tremendous gratitude and praise to God for what He is doing through this small group of churches.
Interchurch Relations Committee
But let me call your attention to a couple of recommendations coming from the Interchurch Relations Committee. One of them is this: “The synod authorize the IRC to apply for membership in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), (Agenda 2002, p. 245). This alliance is one of the oldest ecumenical organizations, having been formed in London in 1875. Today its membership consists of over two hundred churches located in more than one hundred countries, with a total membership of approximately eighty million Reformed believers. Though there is reason for caution in joining this alliance, since there are some member churches who interpret Scripture in a manner incompatible with the CRC’s principles and practices, yet as the report of the IRC says, “membership in WARC offers the CRC a rich opportunity for Reformed ecumenical witness and work” (Agenda 2002, p. 263).
The other report of the IRC that to clarifying the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the Mass. This report is the outgrowth of two overtures presented to the 1998 Synod concerning question and answer 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism. In a 20 page report, found in Appendix D of The Agenda, (page 274ff), the committee analyzed the statement found in q. & a. 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism as it relates to current Roman Catholic theology and practice. As a result of their study, the IRC is recommending to Synod 2002 that this entire report be submitted to “the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops requesting their agreement that the report gives an accurate presentation of official Roman Catholic teaching regarding the sacrament of the Eucharist” (Agenda 2002, p. 294). Before any changes are suggested in the Heidelberg Catechism, that much surely has to be done, and synod would do well to give careful and prayerful consideration to this report.
Synod 2002 will be confronted with just one study committee report this year, a 38 page report (including appendices) from the committee to give directions about and for Pastoral Care For Homosexual Members. This report is a result of a mandate given to them by Synod 1996 to study the above mentioned subject “in a manner consistent with the decisions of Synod 1973” (Agenda 2002, p. 313).
This committee met with a variety of persons with same-sex attractions and reviewed a survey sent to CRC pastors as to the ways in which the guidelines of the 1973 report were being carried out in the churches. Their conclusion was that many congregations appeared to have little knowledge of the 1973 report, and thus the guidelines for dealing with persons of same-sex attraction were not being followed. So the preliminary report of this committee, which was presented to Synod 1999, was made available to the churches for study and response. Now Synod 2002 is receiving their final report.
It is obvious, as the committee reports, that there “is considerable diversity of opinion and feeling within the denomination about individuals with same-sex attractions and ministry to them” (Agenda 2002, p. 315). The committee’s hope is that “the contents of the report that follows….will assist our churches in ministering more effectively in the name of Christ” (Agenda 2002, p. 316).
There are 13 overtures going to Synod 2002, two of which ask synod to revise the decision of Synod 2000 not to permit women ministers to serve as synodical deputies; one calls for a revision of Belgic Confession Article 34, specifically that sentence that says “we detest the errors of the Anabaptists”; and two have to do with our present minis-try-share system, asking for some revision.
Finally, one Confession-Revision-Gravamen is on this year’s agenda, appealing to synod to consider replacing the phrase “He descended into hell” with “He descended to the realm of the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism. Since this gravamen was rejected by the classis in which the church presenting it is located, the appeal is now being presented to Synod 2002.
Being a delegate to synod involves a very significant responsibility, and surely one that requires the prayerful support of the entire church. As the delegates themselves prepare for Synod 2002 and the matters on the agenda, may all of us be much in prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that the will of our Heavenly Father may be done through the part of His Kingdom known as the Christian Reformed Church.
Rev. Harlan Vanden Einde recently retired from active ministry after serving the Borculo Christian Reformed Church for thirteen years.
Observations on Synod 2002
Rev. Richard Blauw
An annual rite of spring, like seeing the first robin in your back yard, is having the UPS driver deliver the Agendas for Synod. At first glance it appears to be a fairly light agenda. There are the reports from the agencies and committees all calling attention to various noteworthy or sometimes less than noteworthy projects with which they are involved. There is the usual politically correct rhetoric, yet there are also some significant trends that can be seen in this year’s agenda.
A Reformed Identity
Appendix H (p. 63) the Denominational Ministries Plan for Agencies and Institutions of the CRC, has an extended discussion of our reformed identity. There is an analysis of three emphases in our denomination. The first is the doctrinalist (or confessional) emphasis which stresses the confessions. Being “reformed” is defined by the historic reformed confessions. The most well known systematic theologian of this position is Louis Berkhof.
The second emphasis is that of the Pietist. Here the stress is one’s experience of the Christian life and one’s personal relationship to God. The third emphasis is labeled the transformationalist view. Here the emphasis is on developing a world and life view and applying this perspective to every aspect of culture.
Abraham Kuyper is quoted noting “that the sovereign Lord Jesus Christ lays claim to every square inch in the whole domain of human existence.” The report concludes that “these three emphases – doctrinalist, pietist, and transformationalist – have often functioned as distinct approaches in the CRC”. All three of these need to be integrated in a well-balanced Christian life and theology.
The report is a sound analysis of the CRC, although a few more observations could have been made. There is increasing fragmentation in the denomination and some of it is along the fault lines of these mind-sets. Home Missions, for example, and those who advocate praise teams and contemporary worship are usually of a more pietistic bent. Among the transformationalists, for example, are those who think that the denomination is obligated to create a committee to address every real or perceived social ill.
It is the first emphasis – the doctrinalist – that now exercises the least influence in the denomination. In some quarters to appeal to the confessions or the creeds is perceived as being “exclusive” or “dogmatic” or “legalistic”. Some churches have abolished programs of catechical instruction for their children and catechism preaching is waning. There are some who think the creeds and confessions are 16th century documents and should be re-written every 10 or 20 years to keep up with the changing times. Some of that mind set was behind the “Contemporary Testimony”. Recent articles on doctrinal subjects in the Banner (eg. on Election or the Authority of Scripture) reflect either an ignoring of the confessions or a desire to redefine them.
The problem is that when one does not emphasize the doctrines of grace as embodied in the Reformed Confessions, it is very difficult for our children to understand what it means to be reformed and why we are different from other evangelical protestant churches. This may be one reason why we are losing our children in significant numbers.
From NAPARC to WARC
Evidence of the diminished role of the confessions in the life of the church can be seen in the report of the Interchurch Relations Committee (p. 238 ff). It appears that our historic association with NAPARC (North America Presbyterian and Reformed Council) will be terminated. One of the charges brought against the CRC by the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) is that the CRC, in allowing the ordination of women, acted not only contrary to Scripture, but also contrary to its own confessional statement, i.e. Art. XXX of the Belgic Confession which deals with the government of the church and its offices. This article notes “that everything will be carried on in the church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his Epistle to Timothy.” Obviously this article would be an impediment to the ordination of women so the word “men” was changed to “persons”. The argument put forth was that the word in the French version of the creed was “personages” which is gender neutral. The word “personages” is not gender neutral, rather its gender is determined by its context. Contextual references to the Epistle to Timothy make the word in this context masculine so the use of the phrase “faithful men” is correct. This was part of the
PCA’s theological-historical argument. The counter arguments of the CRC appear to be grammatically and historically weak. It reflects a diminished view of the significance of the confessions in the life of the church.
If ecumenical relations with our historic reformed friends and sister denominations are terminated, it is a bit difficult to confess the catholicity of the church. We would find ourselves in an ecumenical noman’s land. So the Interchurch Relations Committee is recommending that the CRC apply for membership in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The report rightly notes some significant difficulties in joining this alliance. “WARC’s confessional commitment is not as clear and distinct as the CRC’s.” The constitution of WARC recognizes the Reformed tradition as a “biblical, evangelical and doctrinal ethos, rather than any narrow and exclusive definition of faith and order.” Such language ought to make Synod extremely nervous. J. Greshan Machen was expelled from the Presbyterian Church in the 20’s because Presbyterianism was a “controlling ethos” and not a “doctrinal commitment.” The Apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy identifies the church as “the pillar and ground of the truth” not the pillar and ground of an “ethos”. Tepid commitment to an “ethos” has allowed outright heresy in some denominations. Even Roman Catholicism demands commitment to the “magisterium” (the teaching authority) of the church. It is unlikely that membership in WARC will enhance our commitment to the confessions in the life of the CRC.
This recommendation to join WARC represents a shift away from identifying with the more historically conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations towards identification with the more mainline protestant and theologically liberal denominations. If this trend continues one might expect an overture in the not too distant future to join the National Council of Churches (NCC). If, however, the CRC desires to drift toward the mainstream of American Protestantism, there is a serious risk of getting swept away in some dangerous theological currents.
Perhaps no other issue has been as devastating and divisive in the history of the CRC as the issue of women’s ordination. In the past decade we have lost numerous churches, families and some 40-50 thousand members. Financial receipts are down and support for denominational causes and agencies is eroding. In an effort to settle the troubled denominational waters Synod decided to postpone dealing with Church Order Art. 3 until the year 2005. Such pastoral considerations and concerns seem lost on Classes Grand Rapids East and Lake Erie which are overturing Synod to revise the decision of Synod 2000 not to permit women ministers to serve as Synodical Deputies. The rhetorical overkill of the Grand Rapids East overture is astounding. The implication is that they are a “voice for the voiceless”, as if it is impossible for male delegates to Synod to represent the interests of the women of the church. It may come as a surprise to some that there are some intelligent and educated women in our denomination who think that women’s ordination is “contrary to the clear teaching of scripture”. It is highly unlikely that their views will be represented on the Women’s Advisory Committee to Synod. Overtures such as these are not likely to promote the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
CRC and RCA
There is however, another overture from Classis Grand Rapids East that merits careful consideration and that is the proposal to explore “organic unity” (whatever that is) with the RCA (Reformed Church in America). The overture rightly notes that the grounds for separation in 1857 (such as singing hymns in public worship, having non-RCA Christians at the Lord’s Table, not enforcing weekly catechism preaching and annual home visiting) are now characteristic or the common practice of the CRC as a denomination.
The RCA is less bureaucratically dominated and with its regional synods is more respectful of the rights of the local congregation. It is in many ways a kinder and gentler denomination. Perhaps we ought to explore the possibility of merger which would formally acknowledge what in fact has taken place. Opposition to this would be most evident in the denominational bureaucracies and boards. It remains, however, something worth considering.
Synod 2002 may be a more pivotal synod than a superficial scanning of the agenda may first indicate. Ultimately its success will be measured not by denominational pundits but by the Lord’s blessing. The Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung once observed that “The Bible is the Book of the Church and that the Church must continually strive to become the Church of the Book”. As Reformed Christians we confess indeed that the Bible is the book of the church. The question that synod must ask is, are we increasingly becoming the church of the Book? May God grant His wisdom and discernment to the delegates of Synod 2002.
Rev. Richard Blauw is the pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.