The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church is scheduled to meet June 13–23 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Delegates from 46 classes will meet during those days to deliberate and decide on matters pertaining to the denomination’s ministries and issues laid before synod by study committees as well as overtures and communications from classes and congregations.
A prayer service for synod will be held on Monday night, June 12, in the Twelfth Avenue CRC of Jenison, Michigan. Certainly this synod, like those before it, will need the prayers of the congregations and members of the denomination. Important decisions with potentially far-reaching impact must be made by this synod. I have written about previous synods that they could well determine to a large extent the future direction and well-being of the CRC. And I believe the same could be said for the Synod of 1995.
In this article I will not focus on the more routine, though significant matters this synod will deal with relating 10 the various ministries of the denomination, such as Home Missions, World Missions, CRWRC, Back to God Hour, etc. This is not to slight these matters or ministries. I would encourage persons to read their reports in the Agenda for Synod.
For this article, however, my focus will be on various key issues that Synod 1995 will have before it.
FUTURE OF FUND FOR SMALLER CHURCHES
One of these issues has become a matter of great concern for smaller congregations in the denomination. It is their financial support by the denomination through the Fund for Smaller Churches (FSC), which used to be called the Fund for Needy Churches (one overture recommends returning to that name). The board of Trustees of the CRC has been studying the system by which small organized churches are given annual financial support to help pay their pastors’ salaries and benefits. The board has concluded that there are significant problems with the present system, including the increasing number of churches asking FSC support resulting in greater financial demands on the denomination. At the same time less money is coming in to denominational coffers. There is also a fear of dependency—that small churches become too dependent on FSC for too many years. For these and other reasons, the Board of Trustees is suggesting a number of changes in the system, among them a recommendation “that all ministry-assistance grants from FSC are for a five-year maximum.” After that churches are on their own.
Predictably and understandably, many smaller churches are very concerned, even upset, over the recommendations of the Board of Trustees. Three classes and one congregation are overturing synod to reject these recommendations, while another classis is asking for further study before adopting them. Classis Northern Iowa, for example, expresses the fear that if FSC support is terminated, a number of smaller churches will be forced to close and their members will be lost to the denomination.
The possible effects of the Board of Trustees’ recommendations will have to be carefully weighed and studied by synod in light of the viewpoints and concerns expressed by smaller churches.
RELATIONS WITH THE REFORMED CHURCHES OF THE NETHERLANDS (GKN)
Another important issue coming before Synod 1995 concerns our relationship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands also known by the acronym GKN, which stands for Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN).
The Christian Reformed Church has had a sister-church relationship—now designated as “churches in ecclesiastical fellowship”—with the GKN for many years. This large Dutch denomination after all is generally considered the “mother church” of the CRC.
But in the last several decades that relationship has been severely strained. This is due to the increasingly liberal positions which the GKN has adopted. In fact, because of the liberal direction the GKN has taken, there has been considerable debate in the last years within the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) over whether the GKN should be allowed to remain in the REC. Some churches have even withdrawn from the REC because of GKN membership in it. So the concern over the GKN and where it is heading is widespread.
In response to an overture to the CRC Synod of 1992 which requested termination of the CRC’s relationship with the GKN, that synod mandated the Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) to study the issue and report back to the Synod of 1993. The latter synod gave the committee two more years to consider the matter. So the IRC is coming to this year’s synod with its study and recommendations. The committee (IRC looked especially at three positions of the GKN which have occasioned serious questions and much concern on the part of the CRC and other churches.
One of those is its view of Scripture as presented in a report called “God with Us.” While the GKN continues to hold that Scripture is God’s authoritative Word, how that authority is to be viewed and whether all parts of Scripture are to be considered authoritative is left open to question in this report.
The second position of the GKN studied by the IRC is its view of homosexuality. The GKN has adopted the position that the Bible does not forbid all homosexual relationships. If a homosexual pair are faithful and committed to one another, it is not to be judged as sinful And such persons must be accepted as members-in-goodstanding in the church, and if they are ministers, they should be allowed to occupy the pulpit. This stand of the GKN has occasioned tremendous concern in the CRC and other churches. Indeed, because of it, the CRC Synod of 1983 decided to restrict its ecclesiastical fellowship with the GKN by declaring that pulpit and table fellowship (allowing their ministers to preach in CRC pulpits or their members to partake ofcommunion in CRC churches) is no longer automatic, but must be evaluated by local consistories.
The third position of the GKN examined in the IRC study is how it views evangelism or mission to the Jews. Recently the GKN decided that Jews should no longer be the objects of evangelism. Rather the church should engage in dialogue with Jews, but not seek to convert them. Even so, the GKN still holds that there is only one way of salvation for all people, which is through Christ.
What all of these and other positions or trends within the GKN indicate is that it is a church which has lost its Scriptural bearings and is no longer solidly anchored in the Word of God and the Reformed faith.
Nevertheless, the IRC is recommending to this year’s synod that the CRC not break its ties of ecclesiastical fellowship with the GKN. Rather it wants to maintain those ties with the restriction on pulpit and table fellowship adopted by the Synod of 1983. Basically the committee appears to think that the GKN is still Biblical and Reformed in its main stance, and that too much would be lost if the ties were severed. The committee wishes to continue discussion with the GKN on the issues mentioned above.
I have one comment. The IRC is also reporting to Synod 1995 its continued efforts to keep in contact and restore relationships with the Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA). The Synod of 1989 suspended fellowship with that denomination over the issue of apartheid, and decided this suspension should either be lifted or relations should be terminated in 1992. Synod 1992 continued the suspension until 1995, and now this year’s IRC report is recommending the suspension be continued until 1997. It has always puzzled and bothered me that we acted so forcefully with the RCSA, but are so soft on the GKN. Is apartheid a more serious sin than homosexual practice? I dare say that the RCSA is more seriously committed to the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions than the GKN. Why can’t we deal with the GKN in the same way we dealt with the RCSA? The CRC wanted to send a strong message to the RCSA on its stand on apartheid (which it has now abandoned). But are we afraid to send an equally strong message to the GKN on its wrong theological and moral positions, which it has no expressed intention of changing? We’ll have to see what the Synod of 1995 will do.
PROFESSION OF FAITH FOR COVENANT CHILDREN
There are three study committee reports coming to this year’s synod.
The first is a divided report by a committee which was mandated to clarify the requirement of public profession of faith by younger covenant children for admission to the Lord’s Supper. The need for such clarification arose when the Synod of 1988 encouraged profession of faith by covenant children at a younger age. This in turn was connected to the matter ofallowing children’s communion. The Synod of 1988 did insist on a public profession of faith prior to communion, but also said that this did not necessarily but also said that this did not necessarily mean accepting adult responsibilities in the church, which should not be granted until the age of 18. Practical questions and difficulties were brought before the Synod of 1991 which appointed the study committee reporting to this year’s synod.
The committee is equally divided, and so there is a Report A and Report B. Report A recommends that young covenant children be permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper after making a public profession of faith in the church. That public profession, however, is to be geared towards their age-level. Also, the suggested process leading up to this profession is different from our traditional method. A child would not have to appear before the council or elders before receiving permission to make their profession, but speak only with the pastor or an elder. After that, the child would profess his or her faith in a worship service and become a communicant member. Then, at the age of 18, communicant children would be interviewed before the entire council to determine their commitment to the creeds of the CRC and their willingness to assume adult responsibilities in the church. Upon the council’s approval they would then become what the committee calls “corporate members” of the church. There would not be a public profession involved in that step, however. One question that might be raised here is: What if a communicant member does not wish to accept the creeds of the CRC or assume adult responsibilities? Would they then continue being communicant members in good standing?
Report B of the committee is of a ntind that partaking of the Lord’s Supper should not be tied at all to a prior, personal public profession of faith. In other words, this part of thecommittee would like to leave children’s communion as a local option for the churches. Children could be allowed to partake without making profession of faith. Such profession could come later; and upon reaching the age of maturity, such professing members would become “corporate members” of the church. A question here is: What if children who may partake of communion in one congregation visit another congregation which requires a prior profession of faith? May they partake there? How must these different congregational practices be handled?
Other questions to both of these reports are raised in three overtures, two of which urge rejection of both Reports A and B, and one rejection of Report B.
STRUCTURE FOR MINISTRY IN CANADA
Another study committee coming to Synod 1995 deals with “Structure for Ministry in Canada.” It deals with the matter of how Canadian concerns and ministries can be more effectively handled in our present denominational structure. At present the Canadian classes are members of the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada which deals with Canadian church matters. The Synod of 1993 rejected going in the direction of regional synods, but did allow classes to join together in ecclesiastical assemblies which would function like a classis and have direct access to synod. A committee was also appointed from the Canadian classes to “develop a proposal for more effective ministry in Canada.” This committee now submits its report to synod and makes three main recommendations, each with several subsidiary recommendations. The first main recommendation asks that the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada be disbanded. The second recommendation wishes synod to instruct its various agencies “to establish separate Canadian and US board and administrative structures to direct and operate their ministries in each country.” The third main recommendation is the most controversial. It suggests that deacons be delegated to the major assemblies, so that each church would send a minister, an elder, and a deacon to classis; and each classis would send a minister, elder, and deacon to synod.
This last recommendation is not only a major change, but seems to go well beyond the mandate given this study committee. Another major complication, already noted by many, is that it would open the door to women being delegated to the major assemblies, since women may serve as deacons in the CRC today. Overtures from four classes and two churches challenge or question one or more of these three recommendations.
WOMEN IN OFFICE – AGAIN
It is no surprise that the most prominent issue to come before Synod 1995 is once again the matter of women-in-office. When Synod 1994 adjourned, after making its decision that the clear teaching of Scripture forbids women serving in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist, I think there were few, if any, delegates or church members at large, who thought this would settle the issue once-for-all, although this was certainly the wish of many.
There were a number of indications already evident at the Synod of 1994 that the issue would no doubt come back. One was the very close vote by which the decision was made. Another was the unwillingness of that synod to deal more firmly with churches which had already defied and indicated they would continue to defy the present denominational stand that churches not ordain women elders and ministers. The result of this defiance is that synod this year is faced with overtures rom six classes asking synod to deal more firmly with those churches and Classis Grand Rapids East who have chosen to disregard Synod 1994’s decision, including not allowing synodical delegates from such churches and Classis to be seated. The meeting of synod could open on a contentious, stormy note.
A third indication women-in-office would come back was that Synod 1994 did not want to negate the decision of Synod 1992 which allowed women “to expound the Scriptures.” Instead, Synod 1994 declared that the decision of Synod 1992 was still in effect, and then appointed a committee to clarify the meaning of the expression “to expound the Word.” This committee is submitting its report to Synod 1995, and it will be one way in which the matter of women-in-office will be re-opened, even though it does not deal directly with ordination to office.
The committee on the meaning of “expound the Word” presents a brief, concise report in which it recommends: “That synod declare the expression ‘expounding the Word’ as used in the decision of Synod 1992 to mean that women ought to be encouraged to use their gifts of interpreting, teaching, and applying the Word of God in a variety of ministry contexts but not for exhorting and preaching in official worship services.”
The committee also states that if women were to be allowed to bring God’s Word in an official worship service, synod would first have to change Article 43 of the Church Order which only gives men the right to exhort.
No doubt there will be strong opposition to this interpretation of “expounding the Word” allowed for women by Synod 1992. Whether that synod understood it as not applying to public worship services will be much debated. But actually the whole matter could become a moot paint, depending on what Synod 1995 will do with respect to the broader issue of women’s ordination. And that latter issue will certainly be the most hotly debated one at this year’s synod.
A look at the overtures coming to Synod 1995, as well as items listed as “communications,” reveals that the decision of Synod 1994 on women-in-office will be put to the strongest test. I counted 18 overtures from 17 classes which are all asking Synod 1995 to undo last year’s decision and allow women to serve in all the offices of the church. In addition there are 7 congregations overturing the synod to reverse last year’s decision, and then: are 6 communications from classes and churches, most ill the form of protests, to last year’s decision.
There is also a communication from NAPARC, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council, which takes the opposite position and commends the CRC for last year’s decision and expresses the hope it will stand. Just considering the above number of overtures and communications is enough indication that the debate on the floor of synod this year will be as vigorous and heated as it was last year. The CRC is still caught in the throes of a divisive struggle, and one fears that what Synod 1995 will decide may prove to exacerbate that divisiveness.
How the synod will deal with the matter is obviously something we cannot know beforehand. But the basic outline of the debate can be discerned pretty clearly from the overtures.
The primary objection to last year’s decision by almost all the classes and churches which are overturing synod this year to overturn it is to the claim of Synod 1994 that “the dear teaching of Scripture prohibits women from holding the offices of minister, elder, and evangelist.”
Again and again, the overtures this year say in one form or another: Is it really clear? Then why have we been debating this issue for over 20 years? And why have different study committees and synods come to different conclusions and decisions on it?
On the one hand, this is a fair and legitimate question to ask. And it points to the necessity of looking to the Scriptures for guidance on this matter—which is precisely what last year’s majority advisory committee sought consciously to do and challenged synod to do. The focus was: What does God’s Word teach? and not considerations like: “I have a daughter who feels called to preach,” or “women are equally gifted as men.”
On the other hand, what many overtures seem to object to, and some very strongly so, is that any synod or committee or person can claim that Scripture is clear on whether women may hold a ruling office in the church. They suggest that any such claim is presumptuous, even “strident.” It’s what we heard at synod last year time and again—that one could not claim clarity on this matter.
However, this, of course, is precisely the issue: Is Scripture clear or not on whether women may serve in the ruling offices? One can answer that in three ways. One can say, as the majority at synod did last year, that Scripture clearly forbids women to serve in those offices. Or one can say, as I suppose Classis Grand Rapids East or Classis Lake Erie might say, that Scripture clearly allows women to serve in those offices. Or one can say, as many do, that Scripture is not clear on whether women may serve in these offices. The final test must always be what Scripture teaches.
But I somehow get the impression from those favoring women-in-office that, in deference to their position, they feel those against women-in-office should at least allow for some latitude and permit churches the local option to ordain women. But in essence this would be asking those against women-in-office to abandon their position that Scripture clearly forbids this.
And interestingly, most of those who maintain that Scripture does not clearly forbid women-in-office, who feel that a case can be made by both sides, for and against, conclude from this that women should be allowed to serve in the offices. Why don’t they conclude from this that if Scripture is not clear, we should not change our present stance?
Another problem with permitting local option of course, is that it doesn’t fit our Presbyterian form of church government. Those against last year’s decision claim their consciences are violated by having to go along with it. But if local congregations could decide to allow women to serve as elders or pastors in their churches, it would sooner or later (probably sooner) impact all the churches. I say this, despite some of the proposed guidelines, such as those offered by Classis Grand Rapids East, in which classes or synods could restrict participation by women delegates. That might hold for a brief while. But we can be sure such restrictions would not last long.
What is the way out of this struggle?
It has to be what I have said several times already: What does Scripture say?
Many of the overtures to this year’s synod do try to engage last year’s decision on that basis—which is the right way to address the issue. Are the arguments against last’s year’s decision convincing? Has more Scriptural proof been offered, or better Biblical argumentation been brought forward which negates the position taken by last year’s synod?
Much of the Biblical reasoning is not new at all, but uses texts and arguments which have been offered through the years? In some instances a new attempt to interpret relevant texts is made, but does it make a cogent, clear case? The position taken by Synod 1994, though strongly challenged, is not dealt a crippling blow, but stands on its Biblical grounds.
One thing is sadly clear, however. Those in favor of women-in-office do not plan to give up until their position prevails. There was a time when those against women-in-office were being told to stop battling over a lesser issue and get on with the task of winning souls and extending the kingdom. It was my hope after last synod that we would get on with those tasks and leave the issue of women-in-office alone. But now the shoe is on the other foot. And it is sadly clear that those for women-in-office are determined to battle until they win their case, after which, I am sure, they would admonish us to forget the issue, to let the denomination heal, and to get on with the important tasks of the church. That must not happen.
Let me conclude with a brief summary of several other matters coming before Synod 1995.
Classis Alberta North seeks a change in Church Order Article 51 relaxing the requirement for churches to worship twice on the Lord’s Day by adding the qualifier “ordinarily.”
It also seeks a change in Church Order Article 54 which would permit ministers to preach regularly not only on the Heidelberg Catechism, but also the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and Contemporary Testimony.
Several classes are overturing synod to examine the matter of ratification of Church Order changes by subsequent synods.
Synod will be asked to approve the addition of another classis consisting of Korean-speaking churches in southern California, Nevada and Hawaii. The classis would have a term limit of 15 years. lf approved, the CRC would have 47 classes.
Classis Pella proposes the establishment of a standing Issue-Awareness Committee. Comment: Do we need another permanent committee to increase the denominational bureaucracy, while denominational giving is going down?
Classis Pella overtures synod to designate a Sanctity of Human Life Sunday to be observed annually in the churches of the denomination.
In conclusion, let our hope and prayer be that Synod 1995 will not only seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit for its deliberations, but earnestly discern that guidance in the Word of that Spirit.
Rev. James Admiraal is pastor of the First CRC of Prinsburg, MN.