The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church is scheduled to meet for its annual session from June 14–21, 1997, at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This will be the first time that the synod will meet for just one week – from Saturday to Saturday. This was decided by the Synod of 1996 to enable a greater number of elders to attend synod. In the year 2000, synod will evaluate how well a one-week synod has worked.
To give a brief overview of what is on the agenda for Synod 1997, I will divide the matters to be considered into three areas: Study Committee Reports, Overtures and Miscellaneous Matters. Page references are all to the Agenda for Synod 1997, hereafter referred to simply as Agenda.
STUDY COMMITTEE REPORTS
Four study committee reports will be placed before Synod 1997 – one on the use of inclusive language for God, another on the structure of ministry in Canada, a third on worship, and a fourth on abuse guidelines. The last two are published under denominational agency reports in the Agenda.
Inclusive Language for God
The report of the Committee to Study Inclusive Language for God was appointed by Synod 1994“to examine the biblical, confessional, theological, cultural, and pastoral dimensions of the use of inclusive language for God” [p.265].
Inclusive language for God refers to the increasingly common practice, especially in liberal churches, of referring to God as Mother as well as Father, and using feminine pronouns for God such as “she” and “her.” It may also be reflected in using neutral language for God, i.e., words or titles that can refer to either gender, and avoiding those referring only to the male gender. For example, instead of referring to God as “King,” he is called “Monarch.” Or instead of speaking of the Trinity as the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” advocates of inclusive language might propose we speak of the Trinity as the “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.”
The Committee mandated to study this matter has produced a very thorough and lengthy report, occupying some 107 pages in the Agenda. In many respects, it is a rather technical study.
From a layman’s point of view, the question may well be raised: Do we need to take a 100 plus pages to determine whether we should be addressing God as “Mother” or “she”? It seems very obvious that this is contrary to what the Bible teaches. And it is also very obvious that this entire issue has arisen from feminist theology and thinking.
To a large extent I share that reaction. The report could have been much shorter and to the point. If someone could write a concise pamphlet, summarizing this report, it would be much more helpful to church members.
At the same time, I do appreciate the thorough analysis the report provides and the convincing Biblical arguments it advances to not only defend how the Bible itself speaks of God, but to also expose that gender-inclusive language for God violates Scripture and contradicts how God has revealed Himself to us.
In its recommendations, the committee urges synod to recommend its report to the churches “as a sound and helpful analysis of gendered language for God as found in Scripture and in contemporary inclusive language practices” [p. 372].
The key recommendation of the committee, however, is: “That synod declare that the endorsement and/or use of contemporary inclusive (gender-egalitarian and/or gender-neutral) language for God is unacceptable to the Christian Reformed Church…” [po 372].
The committee also recommends a policy to be used by the denomination when using language for God, such as in its publications, which urges the use of the Biblical names for God, while at the same time recognizing the varied Biblical imagery used of God.
The Worship Committee was mandated by Synod 1994 to deal with the whole matter of what constitutes proper Biblical worship in light of the dramatic changes that have taken place in CRC worship services since 1968, when the last denominational study of public worship was done and adopted by synod. Hence, the committee’s report is entitled “Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture.”
After summarizing the 1968 report and expressing basic agreement with it, the 1997 report divides its study into three main parts.
The first deals with “Contemporary forces affecting worship.” It cites such forces as the charismatic movement and the praise-and-worship movement, as well as the movement “to consider public worship to be a primary vehicle for evangelism” and the “cultural diversity” within the church.
The second major section-and, no doubt, the heart-of the report is entitled “Theological reflection.” Here the report focuses on Biblical principles that should guide our worship, and delves into more specific matters, such as worship and evangelism and worship and children.
Many good points are made in this section of the report. At the same time, it also raises some important questions. One is the role of preaching and the sacraments in worship. Both are mentioned as being part of the “enduring structure” of worship. But no clear indication is given of the centrality of preaching in worship, while the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is given much greater weight than we have traditionally given it. One also wonders why relatively little is said about the role of prayer in worship.
The committee was asked to consider what is “nonnegotiable” in Reformed worship and how our Reformed Confessions determine our approach to worship. The committee prefers to speak of “the particular gifts that the Reformed tradition has made to Christian worship,” and cites eight of them.
This manner of speaking, however, seems to lessen the importance of such things it cites as the emphasis on doctrinal preaching and congregational singing as our primary musical offering. Are these “gifts” negotiable or not?
The third section, entitled “Questions and answers,” is a practical part of the report, and deals with questions like: Is it good to have two kinds of morning services—one traditional, the other contemporary? Is applause appropriate in worship? The answers given provide food for thought, but will likely not resolve differences of viewpoint.
The study report recommends that synod endorse a number of principles and suggestions “as guidelines for evaluating worship” [p. 142]. It also recommends that the report be disseminated among the churches for study and discussion [p. 144]. I would prefer that synod adopt just the latter at this point.
Structure for Ministry in Canada
A third major study report on synod’s agenda deals with how the CRC should structure its ministry in Canada. This will no doubt be the most complex matter before synod. Even to summarize this report is difficult. Basically it recommends the establishment of a Canadian Ministries Board to coordinate and oversee all CRC ministries in Canada. In addition, the committee calls for establishing regional ministry centers and classical ministry committees.
It appears to offer a very bureaucratic and hierarchical structure. One strong emphasis of this committee is the need to incorporate deacons into the major assemblies. Adoption of this committee report might well be postponed till more reflection can be done by both the Canadian and American churches of our denomination.
The fourth study committee report coming before Synod 1997 is actually a revision of guidelines proposed to Synod 1996 on dealing with abuse by church leaders. A Committee on Abuse Prevention has worked on these guidelines for several years, and now the Pastoral Ministries Board is recommending approval of them by synod. A detailed set of procedures is outlined in this report for use by persons alleging to have been abused, church leaders accused of abuse, and consistories which must handle these cases. At least four overtures are coming to synod-reacting to these guidelines and suggesting either revision or postponement of their adoption.
The Agenda lists 35 overtures on synod’s docket. Following are what some of these overtures are asking synod:
Classis California South is requesting synod to appoint a committee to work out the formation “of at least four theologically identified classes.” This idea was discussed and approved by conservative churches attending the South Holland, IL, conference last year. It is a way of enabling churches opposed to women-in-office to remain in the CRC without violating their convictions by having to serve in classes where women may be delegated. Classis Heartland, on the other hand, is overturing synod not to allow this, judging it will further fragment the denomination, and that churches can join neighboring classes for “greater theological compatibility.” It would be interesting to learn how many churches have declared themselves in favor of “theological classes.” If synod does not approve the concept, there is the real possibility of more churches leaving the CRC.
Classis Zeeland wants synod “to reaffirm its commitment to the sanctity of life and condemn the practice of partial-birth abortion” [p. 443]. Classis Heartland wants synod to revisit Dr. Hessel Bouma’s position on abortion and declare it to be contrary to the official position of the CRC. Classis Wisconsin asks synod to appoint a study committee to examine and provide the Biblical and creedal grounds which support our stand on abortion as adopted by Synod 1972.
Classis Heartland and a few other overtures are asking synod to reject the 1995 synodical decision allowing women in church office. Classis Lake Erie wants to go further in the opposite direction by having synod lift the restriction on synodical agencies to appoint women as ministers of the Word. Does anyone have any doubts as to what will happen in the year 2000 when synod is to review this matter?
Deacons at Classes
Classis Muskegon wants synod 1997 to revise the Church Order to allow classes to seat deacons as delegates to classis. As noted above, the study committee on Structure for Ministry in Canada is also pushing for this. Classis Lake Erie has sent a communication to synod announcing it has already gone ahead to implement this. Incidentally, isn’t it hypocritical for this classis to overture synod to remind churches that they should operate within the rules of our system of Reformed church government—taking to task those churches which met at the South Holland, IL, conferences out of concern for the direction of the CRC—but then Lake Erie openly violates the Church Order and delegates deacons to its classis meetings?
The following items are gleaned from the agency reports to synod in the Agenda.
Ecumenical relations of the CRC with other churches continue down a rocky road. We are seeing that the opening of the offices to women has had some predictably sad consequences. A proposal to suspend the CRC’s membership in NAPARC will be considered later this year. Our fraternal relationship with the OPC may well terminate this year. The CRC is seeking renewed fellowship with the Reformed Churches of South Africa, but the latter doesn’t seem very eager to do so.
The membership of the CRC declined by another 6,000 members last year. The Banner, the denomination’s weekly, will become a biweekly publication in September, 1997, as its number of subscribers continues to decline. Nearly a third of former subscribers indicated that they are “unhappy with the CRC and The Banner direction.” Is The Banner listening?
It is clear that there is great concern over the numbers of churches and members which have left the CRC. The Board of Trustees is therefore proposing revisions to the Church Order to spell out that before churches leave, they must seek the approval of classis, and follow a lengthy process. The Trustees are also proposing a new model of the Articles of Incorporation for churches to adopt which, in the event of a schism, would give the property exclusively to those members who wish to remain Christian Reformed. Whether these proposals would diminish the flow of churches and members leaving the CRC remains to be seen. Whether they will promote greater love within churches that are divided, however, is doubtful.
Rev. James Admiraal is pastor of the First CRC in Prinsburg, MN.