Occasionally the comedy series “Car 54 Where Are You?” is rerun on cable television. The show’s premise involves two police officers, Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon, who seldom answer their squad car’s two-way radio because they are either asleep, want to end their duty day quietly so they can go bowling, or, alternatively, more often than not they are afraid to respond to calls for fear that they will foul things up only to be criticized by their peers and supervisors.
“Car 54 Where Are You?” is a hilarious program often voted to be one of the best written television programs of all time because of its portrayal of human nature.
During the effort to advance the goal of forming at least four theologically identified classes within the CRC, I have come to wonder whether we elders as a group have in some ways emulated the “human nature” shown by the officers of Car 54. We have to at least consider the prospect that we have been “asleep,” or are hoping that since our duties end in three years we can “just-get-by-until-then”; or, perhaps worst of all, the sense that to act is to invite criticism.
As Synod 1997 approaches, the modified phrase, “CRC Elders Where Are We?,” is an appropriate question for the sake of unity within our beloved denomination.
THE TC OVERTURE
Synod 1997 will be discussing an overture put forth by Classis California South which will, if approved, establish at least four theologically identified classes within the CRCNA. In brief, such classes will end the congregationalism prevalent today, end the tensions present at so many classis meetings which are brought about by differing theological convictions, and help prevent the further erosion of members and congregations. Most importantly, TC’s will provide the only available arena for many CRC congregations to help re-establish the historical, Reformed convictions of our beloved denomination.
I am hopeful that this examination of the discussion points I have heard surrounding the theological classes overture will be instructive both to consider the overture itself and to serve as reflection of our activity (or non-activity) as elders in the past. May it also serve as a reminder that we must answer our call to service “for such a time as this.”l
HAVE WE BEEN ASLEEP?
A common reaction to the TC approach that I’ve heard is, “There are not enough churches concerned about the issues to take action of any kind, much less the route of TCs.” This response implies that the issues upon which the TCs are based are not important enough to be troubled some.
Is that really true? Over 40 CRC congregations and 30,000 members have already left the CRC within the last few years over issues related to the direction of our denomination. We are at the lowest membership level since 1971.2 Have we elders noticed this and objectively wondered why?
From the reverse angle, we also need to consider those who have not left the CRC. For example, few of those supporting abortion issues, the “new hermeneutic,” women in ecclesiastical office, homosexual rights, or universalism have seen a need to leave the CRC. One can only assume they are comfortable with its direction.
Others of us are saying, “While issues of concern to most of us are being advocated within the CRC, it is only a small minority. One should not judge the entire CRC by the actions of a few.” Fair enough.3 But if that is true, while we slept a minority has institutionalized changes to our long-held Reformed tenets. So much so that denominations which are members of NAPARC (the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches) are considering sanctions against the CRC.
We need to be thinking about such things and our role in the process. For as much as we would like to think that these new directions are being set only by a minority, and since we like to think that it is not the general eldership, that leaves us with our pastors and/or the denominational leadership. Right? Not so fast! We elders make up at least 80% of each elder body and 50% of any deliberative body at classes and synods. We have as much culpability as any—if not by our actions, by our silence.
One more interesting reaction to TCs falls in this category. It is, “If the ‘conservatives’ would just quit complaining and start doing ministry, we would all be the better off for it.” This reaction may be proof enough that we elders have been sleeping.
Are we better off as a result of the CRC’s substantial membership loss? Will we be “better off” to follow in the footsteps of those denominations who have taken the CRC’s current direction and who are now losing membership? And how about the pending sanctions against the CRC coming from sister denominations? If that is being better off, may I suggest that we’re not only sleeping, elders, we’re dreaming.
OUR TERM LIMITS
If we have not answered the call to action because we have been sleeping, perhaps we have Car 54’s Toodys and Muldoon’s “Let’s-just-get-by-until-our-terms-are-up” attitude. This sentiment is often advanced by the response, “Let’s not take time even to think about these issues. They are so laden with emotion and will take us away from our focus on bringing people to Christ.”4
There is no doubt that the issues before us are tough to face and emotionally draining. But beyond that, the statement’s conclusion ignores two facts. First, no denomination within the Presbyterian/Reformed family which has taken the direction the CRC is taking has gained membership as’ a result. None. What was done with promises of expansion has led only to implosion.
On the other hand, the memberships of those denominations which have closely guarded their Reformed distinctions, such as the Presbyterian Church in America (a denomination now nearly as large as the CRC and one of the sister denominations calling the CRC to reverse itself on the women in office issue are growing rapidly both within established congregations and via evangelism efforts.
This information can only lead to the conclusion that defending Reformed Biblical truths must be one of our priorities now, not later, if the CRC and our local congregations are interested in bringing people to Christ. But must it be a primary concern? Yes, fellow elders within the CRC. In our day. During our watch. The CRC’s stand for the truths of the Reformed faith is in peril.
Other leaders before us clearly saw this peril. But they are now either battle weary or have already left us for other successful ministries. If we—the reserve troops if you wish—do not step up to the plate, who will? And if not via TCs, how? Can we be so bold as to hope that Synod 1997 will, as a denomination, affirm each principal of the Affirmations of Faith and thereby return the denomination to its historical roots to its great advantage? If so, that would be wonderful! Failing that, we must at least approve TCs as a way to refresh the weary, and more importantly, to stem the tide of those leaving so that we can work together to reclaim the heart and soul of the CRC. It is a call that we must answer not only for the sake of gaining new converts to Christ but for the sake of our children and our children’s children as well.
“Well,” it is said, “maybe the call should be answered, but let us do so within the current classical structure. If we grant TCs now united around the Affirmations of Faith, what will stop the forming of other classes at some future date based upon other issues?” This reaction, too, sounds correct at first glance. But it suggests that we can expect change for the better via individual congregations or classes, a hope that has no historical precedent. More importantly, such a reaction fails to acknowledge that the Affirmations Of Faith simply affirm the official commitments of the CRC since its founding and, most would argue, until 1995.5 They are not just a few fine points of practice to which only a few agree. In fact, those of us elders (and those ordained as pastors ) prior to 1995 have already publicly committed ourselves to them in faith and practice when we were installed. The Affirmations Of Faith contain nothing new.
And this leads me to my final comparison between CRC elders and the typical reaction of Toody and Muldoon when they received calls to action.
FEAR OF ADVERSE REACTION
Could it be that we are hesitant to exercise authority as we ought out of fear of adverse reactions? I often hear, “If Synod passes TCs, we’ll join. But for now we’ll just wait and see. If we stand up now we may lose our influence in the future.” Maybe this would be a good place to again remind ourselves that silence indicates acceptance?
But a variation to the above is even more common. It goes, “Perhaps what you are saying is true, but things are not that bad yet. Our congregation is fine, and we expect it to be for a long time to come. What’s the harm in letting others do what they want? That does not mean we’ll ever do it here.”
I respectfully suggest that that line of thinking gave false comfort to many throughout other denominations when they faced similar issues. But again, experience does not support that hope.
There simply is no precedent of any denomination governed in a manner similar to the CRC that gives any encouragement that the leaven of unorthodoxy will not eventually pervade the whole—that is, to all congregations and to all members.
Others say, “Why do we need TC’s when synod will allow transfers to neighboring classes?” The key to this approach is the word neighboring. Given the current situation, how many churches can answer an unequivocal “YES” to these questions: Would a transfer to your neighboring classis support your Biblically directed convictions over the long (or even short) term? Would your neighboring classis affirm the Affirmations Of Faith as common ground? Would you be assured of synodical deputies who join your vision for ministry? Would you be making any progress to ensure that your Biblical convictions (and those of many like-minded churches!) are secure within the CRC for generations to come? If you can answer “yes” to all of the above questions you are blessed. Most churches can’t. TCs provide a method for all churches within the denomination to be well served within either new or existing classes which support their Biblically directed convictions.
A final note in this category of fearing adverse reactions. It is said, “Let’s accentuate the positive within our denomination! Let’s not dwell on the negatives!” That is a fair statement which all of us should seek to follow.
But consider this illustration: Good dairy farmers and other agriculture operators rightfully pride themselves in being able to spot problems and take corrective action before the herd or the entire operation becomes affected. Take, for example, the problem of mastitis in dairy cattle. Which dairyman would criticize a hired hand for pointing out that very contagious ailment? Would he say, “Oh how tired I get of you always pointing out the isolated incidents of mastitis in my herd! Today it’s cow #123. Last month it was cow #345. Before that it was #764. Enough already! Can’t you see how good the rest of the herd is? Focus on milking and quit complaining!” No, good dairy operators are constantly on the lookout for indications of such problems and take immediate corrective action when they do occur for fear of losing the entire herd to the infection.
My fellow elders, we need to do the same for our beloved denomination. If we have been sleeping, we must be awakened.
If we have been hesitant to take action for whatever reason, we must do so now. We’re losing too many good members and congregations.
If we are afraid of adverse reactions, we must proceed with the confidence that our Lord will bless faithfulness to His Word as we seek to be a witness within our beloved denomination.6
1. I do not mean to be so presumptuous as to suggest that approval of TCs is the only faithful call to service. I only mean to suggest that a review of our recent denominational history compels us to take action -and from where I sit at this point in time, TCs are the only hope we have to keep as many congregations within the CRCNA as possible.
2. United Reformed News Service, NR 970020
3. In fact, the statement is supported by a 1994 survey of CRC members conducted by a group of Calvin College students which showed that 67% of the laity within the CRC agrees that the ordination of women is unbiblical (The Banner, March 13, 1995, p. 6).
4. It has been curious to note the admonitions from some who seem to think that a congregation is wrong for even discussing the issues of the day within its own council and membership. It’s as if some believe that ignorance is a badge of honor.
5. This also puts to rest the notion that the Affirmations are “supra-creedal.” If they are, it must also be argued that those taking its positions between 1857(the CRC’s founding year) and 1995 were also being supra-creedal.
6. I can not resist this final footnote. Some say that the TC effort is a method to organize a secession. I would welcome hearing from anyone who can advance a remotely plausible reason why any group of churches wishing to secede would take the trouble to seek TCs first.
Mr. Vander Pol has served as a CRC elder for several years. His work entails travel to communities throughout the denomination. He is chairman of a committee delegated to disseminate information about theological classes within the CRC in preparation for Synod 1997, to which he will be a delegate.