Synod 2006 of the Christian Reformed Church finished its work but the implementation of its decisions will impact the CRC for generations to come. For over ten years I have written nothing about the CRC. I have followed its activities over the years but have not been engaged in evaluating its decisions. This year I did something I have not done since I was a delegate to Synod 1995. I observed and evaluated the decisions of Synod. I had the opportunity to do this by seeing and hearing a live web broadcast of the Synod itself.
What struck me were the significant differences between the points of debate at the 2006 Synod compared to the 1995 Synod. In many instances the topics were the same. The parameters of the debate, however, were very different. Bob De Moor, editor of the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, The Banner, believes this difference is because of “a new breed of ‘conservative’ gaining a stronger voice in our denomination” De Moor describes this new breed, “They think with their guts as well as their heads—they represent a warmer, caring kind of conservatism that replaces rock-hard doctrinalism with a deeper piety and a stronger sense of mission. They’re not about to leave—they value the unity of the Body as much as their “progressive” counterparts do; they don’t insist that everyone agrees with them, just that the church leaves room for them in matters of conscience.”
The difference between the conservatives of the last decades of the twentieth century and the “new breed conservatives” of the first decade of the twenty first century is significant. This is illustrated by comparing the debates between the 1995 and the 2006 Synods. In general, the Biblical-conservative positions on the topics debated in 1995 were not even mentioned at Synod 2006. The liberal or “progressive” positions of 1995 became the “new breed conservative” positions of 2006. The alternatives to the “new breed conservative” positions were even more liberal and deviated even further from Biblical truth and the Reformed heritage of our forefathers than the progressive agenda of 1995.
The Women in Office Debate
The most obvious debate to exemplify this deviation was the debate on women in office. The issue arose at this Synod from an overture from Classis Grand Rapids East following a year in which a majority of Classes in the CRC approved making the word “male” inoperative in the CRC Church Order. Like all matters at Synod, this overture was given to an advisory committee, which would make recommendations to Synod. The advisory committee moved a proposal that contained four parts relating to changes in the Church Order. First, the word “male” would be deleted from the church order, removing the current Church Order restriction against women’s ordination. Second, a new article in the church order would state that women could not be delegated to Synod. Third, a church order article would state that women could not serve as synodical deputies (Synod’s representatives) at classis meetings. Fourth, that there would be a seven-year sabbatical rest on any official ecclesiastical debate on this issue.
Support for this proposal began by delegates describing it as illogical, making no sense, and a clear moving of the Holy Spirit. A woman advisor to Synod argued in its favor. She claimed it honored all members and the great variety of positions they held. To publicly demonstrate their mutual honor of one another she requested that all delegates stand and bow to one another. Almost all delegates bowed, but they failed to bow to the truth of the Word of God given by the Spirit whose truth is not illogical but clearly revealed in the Word of God.
This proposal and perspective was radically different from the issues debated at Synod 1995. Synod 1995 was once more addressing the issue of women in office because Synod 1994 failed to ratify the change to the church order approved by Synod 1993. Synod 1994 voted to keep the word “male” in Church Order Article 3 because “the clear teaching of Scripture prohibits women from holding the offices of minister, elder, and evangelist.” At Synod 1994 clear lines remained between Biblical and unbiblical positions on women in office. Since Synod 1994 did not approve women in office, the debate continued to rage. No seven years of rest were requested.
The 1995 minority report continued to argue forcefully using numerous scriptural references that it would be a violation of Biblical teaching to allow women in any authoritative office of the Church of Jesus Christ. However, while opposing women in office, the minority report also criticized Synod 1994 for declaring the issue clear. The 1995 minority report stated, “Synod 1994, in stating that ‘Scripture was clear’ failed to recognize that both sides had faithfully sought to interpret Scripture on this issue.” This weakened language became the door through which the final decision of Synod 1995 was made. Synod 1995 built on this wording and officially declared that “there are two different perspectives and convictions, both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God, on the issues of whether women are allowed to serve in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist.” This post-modern approach to truth should have no place in the Church of Jesus Christ. Even where we do not agree, we ought to acknowledge absolute truth on every Biblical doctrine.
Applying this approach to truth to the issue at hand, Synod 1995 violated its own Church Order and approved the following compromise: “A classis may, in response to local needs and circumstances, declare that the word “male” in Article 3-a of the Church Order is inoperative and may authorize the churches under its jurisdiction to ordain and install women in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist”. This unbiblical approach to the questions of doctrine and practice, applied to women in office, became the new conservative approach in 2006.
The debate at Synod 1995 focused on true and false doctrine and its consistent application in life. Many delegates in 1995 continued to argue the position of 1994, that the Bible is clear on the nature of women in office. This historic position was not advocated at Synod 2006. I heard no one at Synod 2006 argue to retain the word “male” in the church order AND drop the practice of declaring the word “male” inoperative. No one stated that allowing the ordination of women to authoritative office was itself an unbiblical and unfaithful practice that should be stopped. The conservative Biblical position adopted by Synod 1994 and advocated by a significant minority in 1995 was not clearly defended by any delegates at Synod 2006. Instead, after a lengthy debate, Synod 2006 overwhelmingly approved the proposal moved by their advisory committee rooted in the same unbiblical principles of compromise on this issue.
There were only a small number of men opposed to this plan. A few delegates argued it violated the Biblical requirement that males exercise headship in office. A few other delegates opposed it because it failed to allow women to fulfill their office in all its dimensions. Those agreeing with these two opposing perspectives represented a very small minority of the delegates voting against the proposal. There were a few delegates hot for the truth of “male” headship, a few delegates who were cold to this truth, but most delegates were lukewarm, swayed by breezes blowing from all directions.
Synod 2006 overwhelmingly approved the first step. They officially approved deleting the word “male” from Article 3 of the church order of the CRC. Synod 2007 must now ratify this action. However, Synod 2006 overwhelmingly defeated other details of this “Spirit inspired plan.” Synod refused to place in the Church Order of the CRC the provisions prohibiting women ministers and elders from being delegated to Synod and serving as synodical advisors. Does this mean all those who approved the “Holy Spirit’s plan” and its first step rejected the leading of the Spirit on steps two and three? Although the logic of any answer to this question may be lost to the delegates of Synod 2006 it should be clear to those attuned to the Word of God that this Synod rejected the Spirit’s leading and logic revealed in Scripture.
Synod did vote not to allow women to attend Synod or be Synodical deputies. The difference is that they did not put these provisions in the church order as proposed. They did not follow through on their original Spirit Inspired and initially approved solution. A few delegates noted how this might be interpreted as a stab in the back to those who had already voted to delete the word “male” from the church with the assumption that the other restrictions would also be placed in the church order. But, according to the Banner and my observations the new breed of conservatives “showed themselves to be more than willing to overturn centuries of Reformed church practice with respect to …Church Order regulations concerning women in church office.” However, from the perspective of the “traditional conservatives” at Synod 1995 the Biblical confessional position was abandoned. In fact, the Biblical position was never seriously considered. The liberal position of 1995 became the “new conservative” position, and the CRC moved one step closer to the full implementation of women participating in all functions of office in the CRC. In 1995 the debate was between allowing women in office and forbidding women in office. In 2006 the debate was between having women in office in violation of the Church Order and having women in office in harmony with the Church Order. There was no conservative position.
The second major issue Synod 2006 faced with roots in the Synod of 1995 was the question of the nature of ongoing relations with the GKN, the historic Dutch mother church of the CRC. In May of 2004 the GKN merged with two other denominations forming the PCN, the Protestant Churches of the Netherlands. Rev. Peter Borgdorff, the Executive Director of the CRC, argued in favor of the motion of the Interchurch Relations Committee to remove the restriction on the CRC’s fraternal relationship with the PCN. Restricted fraternal relations continued with this new denomination. Restrictions limiting table fellowship and pulpit exchanges of ministers had been in place since 1984.
At Synod 1995 the nature of continued ecclesiastical relations with the GKN were vigorously debated. The Interchurch Relations Committee of the CRC recommended that Synod 1995 not break fellowship with the GKN, but maintain restricted relations. A minority report drafted by the committee of pre-advice recommended breaking all fraternal relations with the GKN. The reasons for this were epitomized when the fraternal delegate from the GKN addressed Synod 1995 commending them for their “progress” on the women in office issue by stating, “there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither homo nor hetero.” Still, Synod 1995 rejected the minority conservative report to break all relations with the GKN and approved the ICRC’s recommendation to continue restricted relations. The “conservative” perspective was to break relations and the “liberal” perspective was to maintain “restricted relations.”
At Synod 2006 the “new breed of conservatives” sought to maintain restricted relations. The liberal position came from the ICRC. They recommended “… to Synod 2006 that the PCN be restored as a church in full ecclesiastical fellowship.” This recommendation was not grounded in any objective recognition that the PCN had moved closer to Biblical truth or that the reasons restricted relations were put in place had changed. In fact, all indications are that the merged denomination is even further from Biblical truth than the GKN was in 1984. However, because of changes in the CRC this new Dutch denomination is today closer to the CRC in both doctrine and life. The 2006 committee of pre-advice concerning ecumenical relations with the PCN came with a majority and minority report. The majority recommended restricted relations and the minority recommended removing all restrictions. No one recommended breaking relations with PCN. Rev. Peter Borgdorff argued that Synod should remove the restrictions to demonstrate that the CRC would not follow the pattern of Ecclesiastical relations exemplified by NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council), which terminated the membership of the CRC in 2002. He claimed that ecclesiastical fellowship based on the standard of doctrinal similarity had never been the basis of the ecumenical relations of the CRC. This revision of the history of the Christian Reformed Church’s ecumenical history went unchallenged by any delegate of Synod.
The CRC was a charter member of NAPARC. The basis of the ecumenical dialogue of participating denominations in NAPARC is stated in its historic constitution, “Confessing Jesus Christ as only Savior and Sovereign Lord over all of life, we affirm the basis of the fellowship of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches to be full commitment to the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God written, without error in all its parts and to its teaching as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. That the adopted basis of fellowship be regarded as warrant for the establishment of a formal relationship of the nature of a council, that is, a fellowship that enables the constituent churches to advise, counsel, and cooperate in various matters with one another and hold out before each other the desirability and need for organic union of churches that are of like faith and practice.” The CRC was historically clearly united with other denominations based on a common confessional conviction.
Synod 2006 was urged to avoid the errors of NAPARC, remove the restrictions placed on the GKN in 1985 and once again establish full ecclesiastical relations with the PCN. Synod 2006 voted to keep the restrictions in place. Just over 50% of the delegates supported this position. The 1995 debate was between restricted relations and breaking relations with the GKN. The 2006 vote was between restricted relations and full ecclesiastical relations with the PCN.
Many may see maintaining restricted relations as a conservative victory. Such a view would be wrong. Synod 2006 failed to deal Biblically with the PCN. Both Synod 1995 and 2006 should have broken ecclesiastical fellowship with the GKN/PCN. The conservative position of breaking relations was not even considered by the Synod of 2006. The liberal position of 1995 became the “new breed of conservative” position of 2006. The 2006 progressive-liberal position, not even considered at Synod 1995, was to return to full fellowship.
The third major issue dealt with an overture concerning paedocommunion. Paedocommunion is distinct from child communion. Paedocommunion maintains that covenant children have the right to receive the bread and the wine at the table of the Lord based on their baptism and membership in the covenant. So a baby of six months or six days could be given and partake at the Lord’s Table. No profession of faith of any kind would be required for participation at the Lord’s Supper.
The CRC Synod 1988 was the first Synod to endorse young children participating at the Lord’s Supper. Synod 1995 upheld the decision of Synod 1988. Both these decision retained an aspect of the historic perspective, “Covenant children should be encouraged to make profession of faith as soon as they exhibit faith and are able to discern the body and remember and proclaim the death of Jesus in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.”
These Synods redefined the historic understanding of these words. The historic practice of making no distinction between the rights and privileges of “professing” membership and the rights and privileges of adult membership was changed. Yet, both these Synods at least maintained the requirement for some type of profession of faith prior to participation at the Lord’s Table. Some at the Synod of 1995 still held that profession of faith demanded a mature understanding of God’s word and opposed lowering the standard of an informed adult profession.
Synod 2006 approved beginning the process necessary to change the historic practice of Protestant churches since the time of the Reformation. They did see this as a major change to the Church Order.
Therefore, Synod 2007 is required to ratify the proposed changes to the Church Order before they go in effect. Synod 2006 mandated the Board of Trustees to formulate all necessary changes to the Church Order to allow for paedocommunion. The historic practice of the church is to be changed. One delegate to Synod epitomized the discussion on this matter, “Rev. Stanley Groothof, Classis British Columbia North-West, cited his own experience as a new father as a reason for supporting children joining the Lord’s Supper. ‘Young children learn through touch and taste. If I give my 10-month-old a toy, where does it go? Into her mouth,’ he said. ‘The part of the service that is especially tuned to touch and taste is the part children are excluded from.’” Synod 2006 abandoned the Biblical requirement and historic practice of Presbyterian and Reformed churches requiring a profession of faith prior to participation in the Lord’s Supper.
In addition to these points of contact between Synod 1995 and 2006 other new issues were addressed. Synod 2006 officially changed the confessions of the Christian Reformed Church. They deleted part of Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 80 exposing the errors of the Roman Catholic Mass. Synod 2006 also approved the use of the TNIV in local congregations. Conservative commentators from many denominations have uniformly condemned the principles of this gender-neutral translation as denying the inerrancy of God’s Word. In moves that did not seem to honor the conscience of some, delegates were only allowed to approve or disapprove the combined group of candidates for ministry, male and female. In addition women elders served at every station at a communion service attended by Synodical delegates prompting a few delegates to refrain from partaking. Synod 2006 opened communion to babies and closed it for some of its own delegates.
The 2006 CRC Synod consistently ignored and abandoned the truth of Scripture, the Three Forms of Unity and the practices of its Reformed heritage. In an alarming description, Banner editor Bob De Moor was encouraged that the “new breed of conservatives” in the CRC “showed themselves to be more than willing to overturn centuries of Reformed church practice with respect to children and communion, ‘fighting words’ within the Heidelberg Catechism against Catholic teaching, and Church Order regulations concerning women in church office.” One might ask if the description “conservative” should be used at all in this context. Sadly, there is some legitimacy to the term conservative here, but only in so far as it compares to the liberal progressive views becoming more and more prevalent in the CRC. This is clearly a denomination where Biblical teaching may be tolerated but not promoted, where the liberal of today will be identified as the newest new breed of conservative tomorrow and where truth is compromised for the sake of unity without confessional content.
I would encourage all who believe they are conservative to test what they see in the CRC with those federations and denominations like the URCNA and the OPC who strive to hold to the faith once delivered and take seriously the doctrines confessed in our respective standards. There are still those who believe that the current answer to the misery of the world is the bold proclamation of the gospel of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
“Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2).
Rev. Casey Freswick is the pastor of the Bethany United Reformed Church in Wyoming, Michigan.