Those who have ever gone through the process of obtaining a mortgage know what a fearful prospect a “closing” can be. A large number of documents are produced, written in legalese (and therefore incomprehensible to the lay reader), often with a number of paragraphs in fine print, and needing to be signed on almost every page. Very few of us have the time or inclination to read all of these documents and, therefore, we sign them hoping that, in so doing, we have not “signed our lives away.” The people and institutions who present these official documents for our signatures seem to be reputable, and so we sign, trusting that nothing is hidden in any of those fine print sections that might come back to haunt us in the future.
While browsing through this year’s Agenda for Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, I was reminded of this signing process when I came across several pages (some in small print) of material in the report of the Board of Trustees (formerly known as the Synodical Interim Committee, hereafter referred to as the BOT). Included in a section of the BOT’s report innocently entitled “Polity Matters,” these pages contain a series of proposals relating to the manner in which congregations may disaffiliate from the denomination and how their articles of incorporation should be (re)written to ensure denominational control of the local church’s assets.
As I read through these materials, including the fine print sections, I was troubled to discover that the adoption of what the BOT is recommending would amount to something like each congregation signing its life away! Basic changes in the way local churches relate to the denomination and exercise control over their assets are proposed, changes which amount to reducing the churches to little more than “franchises” of the denomination. Indeed, were these proposals to be adopted, the local councils and the congregations under their care would be in a position less desirable than a franchise of a corporation, since they would become wholly owned subsidiaries of the denomination.1
THE PROPOSALS OF THE BOT
The background to the proposals of the BOT begins with an overture to Synod 1995 from Classis Zeeland. In its response to this overture, Synod 1995 adopted two recommendations: one, that a “legal review” be done of the process being used by churches leaving the denomination; and two, that the BOT “review the Model Articles of Incorporation so that churches may be provided with clear procedures to follow in the event of a separation from the denomination” (Acts of Synod 1995, pp. 697–8). On the basis of these recommendations, the BOT subsequently appointed a special committee whose report and recommendations are now substantially a part of the BOT’s report and recommendations to Synod 1997.2
In order to assess properly what the BOT is recommending, I will first summarize the proposals for Church Order changes and revisions of the local churches’ Articles of Incorporation. Only after the proposals of the BOT are carefully reviewed will it be possible to determine what implications these proposals have for the life and well-being of the local churches.
The proposed Church Order changes
The first set of proposals by the BOT concerns Article 38 of the Church Order, an Article that presently has two stipulations dealing with “groups of believers among whom no council can as yet be constituted.” Such groups, this Article declares, should be under the supervision of a council designated by the area classis and require the “approval of Classis” before a council is “constituted for the first time.” Until now this Article only addressed the situation of unorganized groups of believers who organize and are received by classis as member churches of the denomination.
The BOT recommendation, however, asks synod to add to this Article a series of stipulations that relate to organized churches of the denomination when they either “disband or revert to unorganized status,” “decide to merge,” or decide to “disaffiliate from the denomination.” For our purposes, the last of these stipulations, the one addressed to councils deciding to disaffiliate, is the most important.
In respect to the decision of councils to disaffiliate, the BOT recommends the following addition to Article 38: “38-e: When a council decides to disaffiliate from the denomination, the set process for disaffiliation adopted by synod shall be followed” (Agenda for Synod 1997, p. 23). The grounds offered for this recommendation are:
1) Classis approves the formation of a council as part of the denomination; it is logical that classis be involved when a congregation leaves the denomination. 2) The involvement of classis provides an ecclesiastical structure for hearing any disputes that may exist or be created in the disaffiliation. This arrangement is consistent with 1 Corinthians 6 (Agenda for Synod 1997, pp. 23–4).
In this proposed addition to Article 38, reference is made to the “process for disaffiliation adopted by synod.” This process of disaffiliation is spelled out by the BOT in their report and is recommended as a Church Order Supplement to Article 38-e. Among other important steps, this process includes several that are worthy of special notice: church councils are required to notify classis of their decision to disaffiliate together with their grounds; classis will appoint representatives to meet with the council over a period of no longer than two months “to attempt to dissuade the council from such action”; when councils call the congregation together to consider their recommendation to disaffiliate, copies of the classical representatives’ “rebuttal” of the council’s grounds must be distributed; and representatives of classis must be given opportunity to “persuade the congregation to remain within the congregation” (Agenda for Synod 1997, p. 24). Each of these provisions in the process for disaffiliation recommended by the BOT is intended to provide an avenue whereby classical and denominational representatives can seek to dissuade a council and congregation from withdrawing from the denomination.
The proposed model Articles of Incorporation
The second set of proposals from the BOT deals with the model Articles of Incorporation for the local churches. In this set of proposals, the BOT recommends some substantial revisions to an earlier model adopted by Synod 1980 (Acts of Synod 1980, pp. 23,401–4). These changes involve provisions for much greater classical and synodical authority over the local churches, including authority over decisions relating to the distribution of their property or assets. Though the BOT insists in its introduction to its proposed changes that “the new proposed model is essentially the same as the 1980 model,” the careful reader who has the time and patience to wade through the large and small print sections of the BOT’s report will discover that some major and far-reaching changes are being recommended. 3
By its own admission, the BOT is recommending the most substantial change in the model Articles of Incorporation in Article VII. This Article contains provisions for “the ownership of, control over, and distribution of property.” Rather than attempting to summarize the changes in this Article that are being proposed by the BOT, I would prefer to cite first the current model’s Article VII and then cite at length the proposed new Article. The present article reads as follows:
The ownership of all property, real or personal, acquired by this church shall be vested exclusively in this corporation, and title to the same shall be taken in its name alone.
This corporation shall have exclusive control over all of its temporalities, nor shall the exercise of its property rights through the lawful decisions of its council and/or congregation be subject to revision by the classis of which this church is a member or the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
In the event of schism in this church, as defined by Article 153, Acts of Synod 1970, if a division of its property becomes necessary, this shall be done according to the scriptural injunction of I Corinthians 6. Every effort shall be made to achieve a just and fair division of property. To this end, counsel, assistance, and advice shall be sought first from the classis and synod, provided that if these ecclesiastical methods do not resolve the controversy, the church may seek the counsel, assistance, and advice of non-ecclesiastical advisors and sources.
The replacement article that the BOT is now recommending is in part as follows:
A. Manner in Which Held
All real and personal property shall be held exclusively in furtherance of the purpose of this church as a member church of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and in furtherance of the principles of doctrine and ecclesiastical government outlined under Articles III and V of these Articles of Incorporation and interpreted by the Classis of which the church is a member (the “classis”), subject to review on appeal by synod, consistent with the Church Order….
D. In the Event of Irreconcilable Division
In the event that the classis (or synod on appeal) determines that an irreconcilable division (schism) has occurred within this church, the confessing members of this church who, according to the exclusive determination of the classis (or synod on appeal), remain true to the purposes of this church as a member church of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the principles of doctrine and ecclesiastical government outlined under Articles III and V of these Articles of Incorporation shall be the lawful congregation of this church and shall have the exclusive right to hold and enjoy the real and personal property of this church. Nothing in this Article VI shall prevent the classis (or synod on appeal) from determining, in keeping with the scriptural injunction of I Corinthians 6, that more than one group of confessing members of this church are each a lawful congregation and dividing the real and personal property between the groups of members as classis (or synod on appeal) may determine.
In order to insure that these new model Articles ofIncorporation be adopted by the local churches, the BOT also recommends that they be included with the Church Order as a supplement to Article 32-d. And, to encourage reluctant churches to revise their Articles accordingly, the BOT further recommends that the following question be added to the current Guide for Conducting Church Visiting: “Do the current articles of incorporation faithfully reflect the model adopted by synod and contained in Church Order Supplement, Article 32-d?”
AN EVALUATION OF THESE PROPOSALS
Having summarized the proposals of the BOT regarding the procedure for councils to disaffiliate from the CRCNA and the model Articles of Incorporation, I would like to evaluate these proposals. Are these proposals, as the BOT suggests, relatively innocent attempts to provide for an orderly process by which councils could lead their congregations out of the CRCNA? Will they prevent, as the BOT suggests, circumstances arising in which groups of believers will take each to court in order to settle their disputes regarding property?4 Do these proposals truly reflect a Reformed and biblical view of the church, in distinction from what the BOT alleges was the more “congregationalist” view exhibited in the present model Articles of Incorporation?
Without attempting a complete evaluation of these proposals, I believe a number of observations need to be made about them and their implications. Readers who may be unsettled or even offended by some of the observations I will make, are encouraged to read the BOT’s report for themselves. Just make sure you don’t overlook any of the small print sections!
Regarding Church Order Article 38
In the proposals regarding additions to Article 38, the BOT provides, as we have seen, a procedure for councils to lead their congregations in disaffiliating from the CRCNA. Some of the guidelines in this procedure are appropriate and reflect biblical insight and sensitivity. For example, that councils should inform the classis and denomination of their reasons for disaffiliation; that they should provide clear grounds for their actions when the matter is presented to the congregation for its advice; that adequate time should be given for the serious matter of disaffiliation to be deliberated in council and before contemplating withdrawal from the denomination. Certainly, there is no place in the church of Jesus Christ for activities that are carried on in secret and effected in a manipulative manner. Nor is there any place for taking actions which do not honor the mutual responsibilities that councils and congregations have to each other within their denominational connection.
Despite these acceptable aspects of the procedure outlined by the BOT for disaffiliation, however, there are some fundamental flaws in their proposals regarding the Church Order.
Perhaps the most obvious flaw is the BOT’s attempt to graft into Article 38 provisions that do not belong to the concern of this Article and that are, accordingly, “unnatural” branches. Article 38 addresses the matter of the organization of a group of believers without a council. The proposal of the BOT attempts to extend the application of this Article to all councils and congregations, as though their organization and existence were owing to the actions of classes in the same way as with unorganized churches.
In order to do this, however, the BOT has to ignore the lessons of history and to embrace a doctrine of the church that is clearly “hierarchical.” There are very few Christian Reformed churches whose existence and membership in classis is the result of the application of the provisions of Article 38. For example, the congregation of which I am a member, the First Christian Reformed Church of South Holland, IL, existed as a church of Jesus Christ before it entered into a relationship with other churches through classis and synod. The same is true of most other Christian Reformed Churches. Churches organized according to Article 38 are the “exception,” not the “rule.” This should not surprise anyone with an acquaintance with history and Reformed polity. Classes and synods owe their existence to the decision of councils and congregations to form them and enjoy relationships with other churches through them.5 This is a case in which the BOT has the “cart [classis] before the horse [congregation].”
What is most unsettling, then, about the BOT’s proposal to change Article 38 of the Church Order is that it would enshrine in the Church Order a principle that is neither historically nor biblically true, namely, that churches depend for their right to exist as organized churches upon the judgment and action of the broader assemblies.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the BOT adds to this change in the Church Order a series of guidelines for councils that disaffiliate from the CRCNA that include several glaring instances of classical interference and meddling in the affairs of the local congregation. For example, among the guidelines proposed, the BOT wants to insist that councils must invite classical representatives to meetings of the council and congregation in order to “dissuade the council from such action [disaffiliation] .”
A little reflection upon what this might mean in the actual life of a local church is instructive. Let’s say there were a local church council and congregation that enjoyed a great measure of peace and unity respecting their continued affiliation with the denomination. The council was unanimous and the congregation by a large majority was in agreement with the council’s proposal that they disaffiliate from the denomination. Under such circumstances, what good purpose, biblical, confessional, or otherwise, could possibly be served by inviting to meetings of the congregation classical representatives whose presence could only serve to promote dissensions, factions and division in the local congregation. The whole idea is not only foolhardy; it is also schismatic! What faithful body of elders who have reached, upon careful and prayerful deliberation, the painful conclusion that, for the well-being of the congregation under their care, they should separate from the CRCNA, would invite representatives to a congregational meeting to seek to defeat and frustrate their leadership in the congregation?
In short, the proposals of the BOT would radically alter the nature of the relationship between local churches and the denomination, making the churches subordinate in their existence and life to the authority of classis and synod. Churches would be treated as though they existed or ceased to exist, only at the permission and by the authority of classis. Furthermore, when it comes to perhaps the most significant actions any council could take in respect to the denomination, the decision to disaffiliate, the congregation would be subject to the worst kind of classical and synodical intervention in its life. Such intervention could only damage in most cases the well-being and unity of the local churches. For the BOT is proposing something that would be an open encouragement to the worst kind of “interloping” on the part of denominational officials in the affairs of local churches.
Regarding the Articles of Incorporation
To put further “flesh and blood” on the bones of my evaluation, let me turn now to the BOT’s proposals regarding the model Articles of Incorporation. Here the implications of what the BOT is recommending are even more obvious. Though the adage is true which says that there is “none so blind as he who will not see,” I hope that careful readers of the BOT’s report will see clearly what its recommendations will mean for the local churches.
Since one of the primary interests that local congregations have in the matter of incorporation relates to the distribution and disposal of jointly held property, in the event of the corporation’s dissolution or division, the BOT’s proposal to change Article VII (dealing with “Property”) strikes close to the heart of the whole matter of incorporation. Whereas in the previous model, property was “vested exclusively” in the local church as corporation, in the proposed model things are dramatically different. No longer do the office bearers of the local church council serve as “trustees” who have “exclusive control” over all of the congregation’s “temporalities.” In the proposed model, the local church’s property is “held exclusively in furtherance of this church as a member church of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and in furtherance of the principles of doctrine and ecclesiastical government outlined under Articles III and V of these Articles of Incorporation and interpreted by the Classis of which the church is a member…” (emphasis mine).
The implications of this language become clear in the related provisions of the article on property in the BOT’s proposed model. Not only do those provisions call for direct classical involvement in formulating a “proposal for property distribution.” But, in the event of “irreconcilable division” within the congregation, we read that the confessing members of this church who, according to the exclusive determination of the classis (or synod on appeal), remain true to the purposes of this church as a member church of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the principles of doctrine and ecclesiastical government outlined under Articles III and V of these Articles of Incorporation, shall be the lawful congregation of this church and shall have the exclusive right to hold and enjoy the real and personal property of this church (emphasis mine).
When you consider this language and review what is required in Articles III and V to which it makes reference, it becomes evident that the proposed Articles of Incorporation would make the local churches and their councils little more than franchises of the denomination whose resources in property and assets are subject to the control of classis and synod. The language used in this Article effectively removes the officebearers as “trustees” of the local congregation’s assets.6
To illustrate the radical implications of this proposal, consider any number of ways in which it could be used in different cases of disaffiliation or irreconcilable division. In every instance, those who chose to remain affiliated with the CRCNA, even were they to represent a minuscule portion of the congregation (perhaps as few as a membership of one!), could be declared by classis the “lawful” council and congregation and be granted all of the assets! Furthermore, the property and assets of the local churches would belong in perpetuity to the denomination however far it may have strayed from its original confession and practice. Indeed, these proposed Articles would permit the denomination known as the CRCNA, though it were to become a “synagogue of Satan,” an entity openly opposed to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, to retain possession of all the properties and assets of all its member congregations.7
But it is not only in cases of councils disaffiliating from the CRCNA that the proposed model Articles of Incorporation have striking implications for the control and distribution of the properties of the local churches. So far as I am able to determine, these Articles would permit a classis or synod, among other things, to do the following: refuse to permit a local congregation from selling its building, should the classis judge that it might be a useful building in which to carry on a classical ministry; insist that a congregation merging with another congregation turn over all or a portion of its assets to the classis; seize the assets of a congregation that had entered the CRCNA only a few years previously, but whose property was largely obtained during the period prior to its entrance into the denomination or advise how the assets of a congregation which disbands should be disbursed. Now I am not suggesting that anyone of these scenarios will likely occur, were synod and the churches to adopt the BOT’s proposals. I am only saying that there is nothing in the proposals being submitted to Synod 1997 that, were they adopted, would prevent anyone or another of these things from occurring.
There can be little doubt that the occasion for the BOT’s report is a certain nervousness in the denomination regarding the continued prospect of membership loss, including congregations or portions of congregations that are separating from the denomination. Though one cannot judge motives, it seems fairly transparent that the proposals of the BOT are intended to make it more difficult for disaffiliation to occur and to prevent councils who disaffiliate from being able to retain control over the assets of the local church.
The problem with the approach of the BOT at this level is that very few of those who have left the CRCNA or who will leave in the future are likely to be deterred by these proposals. With the exception of those councils and congregations that have left the CRCNA intact, most of those who have left, even many who left with sizable portions of their congregations, have not contested the distribution of congregational assets. These are brothers and sisters in the Lord, even congregations of our Lord Jesus Christ, who can sing with real poignancy the closing words of Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” (“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever”). Perhaps the most pathetic feature of the BOT’s recommendations is the implicit charge that those who are disaffiliating from the denomination either have or will carry off properties and assets that are rightly the possession of the denomination.
However, the real problem with the BOT’s proposals lies at a deeper level: the problem with these proposals lies in the doctrine of the church that they reflect. These proposals assume that the denomination is the church and that what we call the “local council and congregation” is dependent for its origin, right to exist and to continue to exist, upon the denomination. Christ does not call officebearers through the church locally such that those officebearers are finally accountable to Him for the discharge of their office (Belgic Confession, Articles 30–32). The denomination alone has the final right to determine not only which congregations are “lawful” but also which officebearers are “lawful.” Though a local church might approve and consent to the faithful leadership of their officebearers, should they propose disaffiliation from the denomination, this approval and consent, as well as the recommendation of a lawfully constituted and elected body of officebearers, can be effectively annulled and denied by denominational authorities at a “higher” level.
Consequently, these proposals would permit an ungodly tyranny within the CRCNA. This tyranny would be made the more reprehensible by virtue of its being exercised by churches and believers against other churches and believers. But even that is not the worst of it. What the BOT is recommending would make it possible for classes and synods of the CRCNA to thwart the faithful work of local church councils and congregations, frustrating and impeding them in their efforts to protect (for Christ’s sake) flocks under their care from savage wolves and destructive teaching. Were these proposals to become the official position of the CRCNA, the denomination will have taken one more step toward encouraging the kind of behavior described in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession when its speaks of the “false church”:
As for the false Church, it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry (emphasis mine).
1. Initially, I intended to entitle this article, “Why Not Call Them Christian Reformed ‘Mc-Churches,’” in order to underscore the implications of the Board’s proposals. I was moved to change the title by two things: one, when I ran it by my two teenage daughters, it became apparent that somehow the point was less than clear!; and two, the Board’s proposals do not grant congregations even the respect due a “franchise” like a local McDonald’s restaurant. As I shall argue, these proposals would permit a denominational assembly to deprive a local council and congregation of its name and its property.
2. The members of this special committee were: Dr. Henry De Moor, Rev. James De Vries, Dr. David H. Engelhard, Mr. John Roels, Rev. Lambert Sikkema, Dr. John Van Schepen and Mr. Loren Veldhuizen.
3. One interesting feature of the BOT’s report is that it provides a model Articles of Incorporation in an appendix but the proposed model is not placed alongside of the older model. As a result, it is difficult to determine the nature and extent of the changes proposed.
4. The older model Articles of Incorporation were written, it should be noted, to prevent the need for litigation over property, in the event of a congregation’s dissolution or schism. Nothing in the new model makes this any less likely in the future. The only impact this model will have is to insure that the group “loyal” to the denomination will have exclusive control of the congregation’s property. It should also be noted here that, whereas the BOT implies that litigation has been and threatens to be a grave problem in the future, only one or two instances of such litigation has occurred in the recent past. In each case of which I am aware, the litigation was initiated or threatened by parties unwilling to act according to the present model Articles of Incorporation.. .
5. Even in the broader history of the catholic Christian church, it seems clear that the calling of councils and church assemblies has always been upon the assumption of the pre-existence of the churches who join together in conciliar form.
6. One of the arguments offered in the BOT report for this kind of approach is that churches would otherwise be able to take with them assets which they received from the denomination through classical aid and grants-in aid. Though this may be a legitimate consideration in a relatively small number of cases, it is interesting to note that it does not consider another possibility, namely, a congregation disaffiliating shortly after joining the denomination could be deprived of property obtained over a long history prior to the denominational affiliation. Apparently, the BOT believes that councils and congregations in such circumstances should not be protected against the possibility of being deprived of their property by the decision of a classis or synod.
7. Undoubtedly, some readers may be offended by my language. However, before too much offense is taken, it needs to be remembered that Christ, in His speaking to the churches in the book of Revelation, nowhere lends credence to the Idea that churches cannot become synagogues of Satan (indeed, He affirms it) and we are frequently warned in the Scriptures to beware of the sin of pride. The biblical warning, “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall,” holds true for denominations just as it does for individual believers.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.