It goes without saying that these comments do not purport to be anything like an exhaustive study of the Agenda of the synod of the Christian Reformed Church scheduled for June of this year. All that is intended is the making of a preliminary appraisal of a select number of the salient features of the synodical program.
The Agenda make good reading. Not only has the Stated Clerk, Dr. R. J. Danhof, collated the material in orderly fashion; the various reports, overtures and appeals give evidence, by and large, of thorough study and thoughtful evaluation. All in all, the Agenda are marked by a wholesome balance, there being little or no evidence of either tenacious traditionalism or radical revisionism. An exception is an overture which suggests that the Form for Infant Baptism is so faulty that it may be beyond emendation and therefore may have to be discarded for a new one. No doubt, some, on perusing the Agenda, will think that the coming synod will not have to deal with any important doctrinal issues. But the fact is that every significant ecclesiastical issue has its doctrinal implications.
It becomes evident that in several respects the Christian Reformed Church is moving forward. A few evidences to that effect follow. The Back-to-God-Hour Committee requests permission to institute a broadcasting ministry in Spanish similar to the present ministry in the Arabic language. Through its World Relief Committee the Christian Reformed Church is exercising Christian mercy the world over with ever increasing efficiency. A study committee takes the unqualified position that there are only three offices in the Christian Church, corresponding to the threefold office of Christ, and that the office of the professor of theology, instead of being a fourth office, is but an aspect of the office of the ministry of the Word and sacraments. Another study committee recommends the licensing of “lay evangelists.”
Still another study committee, although critical of the formulation of the resolutions of the 1963 Reformed Ecumenical Synod regarding the complex problem of Christian organizations, recommends that synod adopt those resolutions as its own and make provision for their publication. The work of both Home and Foreign Missions is expanding. To be sure, the Board of Foreign Missions calls attention to a serious problem created by the insistence of indigo genous churches on self-government and self-propagation, and even suggests that on this account some missionaries may have to be repatriated. However, that situation, too, may well entail an element of progress for Christ’s kingdom.
The Church Order
For years now a competent committee has been preparing a revision of the Church Order. Its work has received the tentative approval of several synods. The Synod of 1963 expressed complete confidence that the Synod of 1965 would be able to adopt a revision in final form. Perhaps it should be noted here that the Synod of 1963 had no right to order the Synod of 1965 to that effect and likely did not intend to so order. Lo and behold, what has happened? It is hardly an exaggeration to say that overtures expressing more or less dissatisfaction with the work of the Revision Committee have kept pouring in. The Synod of 1965 confronts as many overtures on this matter as on all other matters combined.
One cannot help wondering whether something is wrong somewhere. I am convinced that such is the case, and I think it is rather obvious where the difficulty lies. Time was when both Dr. Samuel Volbeda and T taught Practical Theology; he at Calvin Seminary and I at Westminster. Once in a while we would consult each other. On one of those occasions he exclaimed almost passionately: “How I wish the curriculum had room for a course in Church Polity as well as Church Government, Kerkrecht as well as Kerkregeering!” What I mean to say is that somehow we are not as firmly grounded in the principles of Presbyterian or Reformed Church Government as we ought to be.
Let me be specific.
We talk much about the autonomy of the particular church, but it can hardly be said that we adhere consistently to that principle. Occasionally the Revision Committee, although obviously committed to that principle, has slighted it. And, to be very concrete, it is questionable whether that principle was honored in the matter of the issuance of a call by a particular church to the Reverend Robert Sutton. On the other hand, while those who favor the Independent type of church government, as, for example, the Baptists and the Congregationalists, carry the principle of the autonomy of the particular church so far as to ascribe to councils or conventions of churches only the right to advise, we of the Reformed faith hold that the Bible teaches by implication, if not explicitly, that major assemblies are to exercise a measure of ecclesiastical authority, derived though that authority is from the particular churches. But is it perfectly clear to all of us just how far that authority extends? I fear not.
Again, it is a matter of great importance that we adhere to the principle enunciated in Article XXXII of the Belgic Confession: “We reject all human inventions and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.” Even the most commendable human tradition is not to be equated with a divine precept. How then do we dare to make compulsory the holding of a service of worship on Christmas day—to say nothing of New Years eve or New Years morning—no matter how desirable such a service may be and admittedly is? God has indeed commanded us to commemorate the death of his Son, but the Bible contains no such command with reference to the Saviour’s birth.
The conclusion is warranted that those overtures which request that the revised Church Order begin with a declaration of the basic principles of Church Government are very much to the point.
In passing, may I suggest that, whenever the church is ready to adopt a revised Church Order, it will be highly desirable that the entire document be gone over with a fine comb, so to speak, for the correction of inaccuracies and infelicities in language? Who, pray, has “the native ability to preach the Word” (Art. 7)? “All over the world” (Art. 51b) is a colloquialism and as such quite out of place in a Church Order. The sentence, “The deposition of a minister shall not be effected without the approval of classis, with the concurring advice of the synodical delegates” (Art, 91c) is confused. Should the comma be omitted and with be replaced with and?
It is difficult to peruse the Agenda of any Christian Reformed synod without being reminded of the danger of what is often called “Boardism” and may also be designated “Ecclesiastical Bureaucracy.” In that respect the Christian Reformed Church is no worse than are other churches. It would seem that in every growing church there is a trend toward government by boards or committees rather than ecclesiastical assemblies. To James H. Thornwell of Southern Presbyterian fame. often spoken of as the Charles Hodge of the South, belongs the distinction of having launched a vigorous attack on that cvil. (See Discussions in Church Polity by Charles Hodge, pp. 438f.) May I suggest one measure which the Christian Reformed Church may well take in order to ward off that perversion? It has become customary for certain of our standing committees, among them the Publication Committee and the Education Committee, to present to Synod nominations for the filling of vacancies in the personnel of those committees. In that way these committees become to all practical intents and purposes self-perpetuating. That certainly ought not to be. Would it not be much better in such instances to have nominations presented by another body; for instance, by Synod’s Committee on Appointments?
This being the age of ecumenism, one would expect the Synod of 1965 to be confronted with at least a few ecumenical problems. As a matter of fact such is the case.
The Committee on Relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church quite properly recommends closer relations in a variety of ways and just as properly calls attention to a considerable difference in church polity between that communion and the Christian Reformed Church. The Church Order Revision Committee reports that a meeting with a committee which has in preparation a revision of the Orthodox Presbyterian Form of Government has convinced it that existing differences in church polity, while not insignificant, need not constitute barriers to union negotiations between the two denominations.
The Committee on Contact with the Canadian Reformed Churches reports progress. The Committee for Ecumenicity and Inter-Church Correspondence recommends that, in accordance with a resolution of the 1963 Reformed Ecumenical Synod, the Christian Reformed Church cooperate in the holding of a Regional Conference of North American Reformed Churches in 1966, and that Synod authorize assistance to the seminary of the “Hapdong” Presbyterian Church in Korea in the amount of $30,000. The Consistory of the Neerlandia Christian Reformed Church overtures Synod that it express to the “Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland” its concern about the attitude of those churches to the World Council of Churches. To say the very least, this overture is deserving of serious consideration. A recent report by Dr. Paul G. Schrotenboer, General Secretary of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, included a commendable communication on that very subject addressed by the Reformed Churches of New Zealand to the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. The Christian Reformed Church may well follow that good example.
May the Synod of 1965 perform all its labors in obedience to the Head and King of the Church, in harmony with the infallible Word, under the guidance of the Spirit of truth, and thus to the glory of the Triune God.
Every year for those interested in the work of the Christian Reformed Church the question is raised: What will come up at synod?
Prof. R.B. Kuiper, president emeritus of Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, reviews the major items of ecclesiastical business which will engage the attention of the delegates.