Christian Reformed Synods on the Question of the Relation of Church and School

The relationship of the church to the field of education in general and particularly the right of the church to maintain a college has been a question of perennial interest and intermittent debate in Reformed circles. That general education does not belong to the task of the church is commonly accepted, or has been generally agreed upon until now. But in practice, for the sake of expediency, the Church has often assumed the responsibility of educating its members, especially in the field of higher education. All the church-owned colleges of our country bear mute evidence to the latter statement.

However, from time to time voices of protest are raised against this practice. There arc those in every generation who would recall the church to its primary task of preaching the Gospel to every creature. Others would have her recognize the basic Calvinistic principle of sphere sovereignty. Reverberations of such protest were heard at the 1956 synod of the Christian Reformed Church through various overtures calling for society-owned junior colleges. Other overtures asked synod to move slowly in its expansion program for Calvin College and to consider severing the connection between the college and the church which owns and supports it.



Only three years ago synod decided in response to a request for reduction of quotas in an area where a junior college was being organized that “as long as Calvin College and Seminary remain the property of the denomination, every church in the denomination is obliged to pay its proportionate part of its maintenance. This policy had been established by preceding synods” (Acts, 1953, p. 146). To a request for a study committee which would seek a way in which Calvin College could be turned over to a society without jeopardizing her existence or orthodoxy, synod answered that it questioned the validity of the premise behind this overture, namely, “that the church can maintain a college only in an emergency.” This premise was disallowed “since past synods have repeatedly asserted that the church has the right to maintain a college” (Acts, 1953, pp. 145, 146).

The same synod was also confronted by an overture requesting that steps be taken toward separating Calvin College and Seminary, “in order that the college may be turned over to a parental society, established for that purpose” (Acts, p. 544). To this synod replied, “Our church and its people are not ready for such a drastic action at this time” (italics added) and, “Past synods have time and again faced this issue and upheld the present arrangement maintaining the right of the church to maintain a college, and the grounds then given have not been invalidated” (Acts, 1953, p. 145).


That is one side of the picture. The present practice is upheld on the ground of tradition and necessity, and gradually we are becoming unwilling to face the force of the principle involved. On the other hand, the Synod of 1955 approved a statement concerning a philosophy of education which contradicts this practice. We arc told, in this statement, that the “Christian Reformed Church considers the family the foundation of all educational efforts and charges the parents, on the basis of the covenant promise and mandate, with full educational responsibility” (italics added). The church’s responsibility is summarized in one sentence, “And she employs catechesis to instruct the youth of the church in the fundamentals of the Christian faith” (Acts, 1955, p. 196). Later, when this report outlines the basic commitments in Christian education it repeats, “The responsibility for education rests upon the parents (Deut. 6:6–9). In parents has been vested the authority and upon them rests the responsibility to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and to do this in wisdom (Eph. 6:1–4; Col. 3:20–21)…Parents have the right and duty to avail themselves of assistance in the education of their children by means of social institutions which are able and willing to carry forward their God-given task.” (Ibid, p. 198). Although the church serves as an agency in the education of youth, her instruction is said to be moral-spiritual in character for the development of covenant consciousness and voluntary profession of faith. And since the Christian school is the only social agency that can provide a Christian education “the church is duty bound to encourage and assist in the establishment and maintenance of Christian schools” (Ibid, p. 199. Italics added).

Thus the basic disjunction between principle and practice stands before us. It is not my purpose in this introductory study to analyze critically the issues or to debate them, but simply to go back in the archives of the church and to give ourselves the benefit of a little historical survey on this question.

1912—Important Decisions

Happily it will not be necessary to canvass all the Acts from the beginnings of the church a hundred years ago, since our synods faced the issues on two separate occasions, and the synodical committees of pre-advice made a survey of previous decisions in the matter. I refer to the synods of 1912 and 1926. It is true that in 1934 Classis Hackensack reopened the matter with an overture (Cf. Agenda II, p. IV) but this was quickly rejected on the grounds that “Previous synodical decisions referred to do not necessarily mean that college and church must eventually be separated,” and, “Although the church does not have the positive task of maintaining a college of liberal arts, nevertheless it has the right to do so” (here reference is made to the Acts of 1926), and “There are serious practical objections to the proposed separation.”

Since the reference point here also is the past, let us go to the past and listen to the traditions of the elders.

The year is 1912, two years before the holocaust of World War I. Our fathers are still debating in the language of their native land. Synod was convened in Roseland, Chicago, Illinois. Grand Rapids had not yet become the Jerusalem of the Christian Reformed Church. In article thirty-six the report of the committee re Theologiselle School en College is presented by the Reverend W. P. Van Wyk. The first point of business concerns the relation of church and school (seminary) and college. The synod decided according to the advice of its committee:

(1) That the principle—namely, that the college (preparatory school and college proper) proceed from a society—is pure; further, that the church neither can nor may transfer the college until a society has been organized which is able to guarantee the Reformed quality and the scientific standard of the instruction, and her financial capacity to maintain such an institution.

(2) That the church is ready to transfer the school (preparatory school and college proper) to a society as soon as it can offer such guarantee.

(3) That the church is willing to turn over the literary education of the future ministers of the word to the college, provided:

(a) The society which maintains and directs the college is willing to place the college under ecclesiastical supervision, which is to be determined later.

(b) The society offer sufficient warrant that the instruction given at her college be solid and Reformed.

(c) The society shall be bound to consider the interests of the church, and its special demands of those who seek to be admitted to the study of theology;

The third point is thus formulated since your committee judges that thus;

a) The church will have the necessary guarantee that her interests will be recognized in the literally training; b) the college can best develop itself according to its nature; and c) unnecessary expenses will be avoided.

This report was accepted by the synod. Synod also decided to appoint a committee composed of one representative from every classis to serve the following synod with advice concerning, “(1) The organization of a society for both secondary and higher education, and, (2) The transfer of the college (preparatory school and college proper to the society to be established with further stipulations.” Finally the synod, holding to the opinion:

(1) That the college at present is wholly the property of the church,

(2) That the church has brought the college to its presently attained stature under the blessing of God,

3) That the church will not transfer the college to a society without safe provisions,

(4) That the development of the college may not be hindered but must be advanced even in the period of transition, earnestly urges that the entire church by word and deed indicate that she is ready to cooperate for such a development (Cf. Acta 1912, pp. 20, 31).

1926—Pattern Set

The work that came to fruition in 1926 was spark-plugged by two overtures in 1924, one from the Classis Pella and the other from Ostfriesland, asking the church to take steps toward the separation of church and school on the basis of decisions of previous synods and on the basis of the principle repeatedly enunciated by our synods (Cf. Acts 1894, Act. 48; 1896, Art. 114; 1898, 1900, 1008, 1910, 1912, 1914), that secondary and higher education ought, on the basis of principle, to proceed from a society. Synod decided against the recommendation of its committee on pre-advice, namely, not to enter into the question but to maintain the college temporarily as an ecclesiastical institution. Instead it appointed a committee to study the whole matter, both as to the principle and the practical problems involved, and to serve the following synod with advice. This answer was considered sufficient for both Iowa overtures.

So we come to the work of the synod of 1926. The place is Englewood, Chicago, lllinois. The languages spoken indicate the time of transition, for both English and Dutch appear in the Acts. The Reverend I. Van Dellen preached the synodical sermon and we find the following ministers on the podium: Van Wyk, Keegstra, Hylkema and Zwier, all since gone to their reward.

Concerning the separation of church and college we read that the synod adopted the advice of its committee (Cf. Agenda, p. 41). Since the rest of the decisions made at that time How from and are subservient to the main decision, I shall pass these by for the present and give the materials in paraphrase from the Agenda of 1926. Here we find a broad appraisal dealing with the history of the problem as former synods had discussed it, a consideration of the principles involved, and a reference to the practice of Protestant groups in the past. Upon the basis of its analysis the committee came to a definite conclusion, namely, “that the acknowledgment of the principle of the free school does not invalidate the question concerning the practical advisability of separating Calvin College from the church and transferring her to a society” (Agenda, 1926, p. 39). Such a radical change would involve practical difficulties of preponderant nature. Synod’s attention was called to the fact that in general it would be considered ill-advised to bring about radical changes in a historically developed situation, unless it became absolutely necessary. The ground for this profound philosophical statement is that from such a radical change all kinds of difficulties would most likely arise. Therefore the principle does not necessitate a change in the present circumstances. Furthermore, we are in line with the usage of the land. Moreover, the church would not save much money unless it also decided not to take charge of the literary training of its prospective ministers.

Besides all this, no small difficulty would arise concerning the question of property, transfer of professorships, salaries, pensions, etc.

Secondly, all the foregoing was subsumed under one heading: it most likely would be very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to organize throughout the whole land a society which would be able to support and care for the college.

The case of our cousins in The Netherlands is mentioned. They have their difficulties although the area is small and constant contact is maintained with the school through the deputation work of the faculty. In practice it usually happens that the society will seek the support of the congregations, and as a matter of fact during the years 1912–1914 earnest efforts were made to prepare for the transfer of the college, but to no avail.

In the third place, the college was born out of the need of the church for properly trained ministers of the Word and the desire to save for the church the young people who went on to study. This need is still with us. Hence it is not advisable to transfer the school to a society, “unless it appears that there is a society which is able to give sufficient warrant for the continuation and further development of our institution and for the thoroughness of the instruction” (Agenda, 1926, p. 40). Even if such a society existed, the desirability of such a transfer would still be a question, since it naturally could not feel the same responsibility for the thorough training of the future ministers that the church has, and at any time it might find itself forced to discontinue.

To which it must be added that the times require a more solid cohesion between church and school, because on all sides there is fanaticism about modern science and a consequent misunderstanding of the truths of Scripture and a despising of the ecclesiastical standards. It is conceded by the committee that no absolute guarantee against apostasy can be given, yet, all things being equal, a church will give more warrant for confessional purity than a society, since the latter does not have the same interest in this matter that the church has. And, in the final analysis, it is the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth.

Professor H. Bavinck is quoted to substantiate this last point. To say that the church can exercise supervision of instruction does not mean much, since the society would appoint the professors and this is the critical point at which the watch must be kept.

Taking all these matters together, the committee did not dare to plead for separation of church and school, even though the school would be placed on a purer foundation in principle. The only consideration which commends this radical change to some is a practical one, namely the attempt to reduce the financial obligations of the church, and also to keep those who support a junior college in the West from being taxed twice. But, so it is argued, the financial burdens of supporting the college and seminary are not unbearable, would be very little less if taken over by a society unless, indeed, the literary training of the future ministers were also relinquished. Even so the matter would have to be paid out of the same pockets. In any case, the committee judges that the church ought to obviate these objections before coming to such a radical measure as the transfer of the college. This advice was adopted by the Synod of 1926.

Now that the results of the investigation have been briefly stated, let us also paraphrase the evidence on which this decision is based. First of all, the decisions of previous synods were consulted, beginning with those of 1896 and carrying through to 1920. Four general propositions were gleaned from this historical investigation.

First, it was repeatedly expressed that it flabby preaching. And the fault will be that of our parishioners fully as much as of our preachers.

This is also a time for re-dedication.

God has done great things for us, whereof we are glad. But the grace which he has bestowed upon us required humble and diligent devotion and obedience to his revealed will. A faithful pulpit has been the channel of blessing which he has been pleased to employ to make our church what it is today. Let us then purpose to keep the pulpit central in our worship and our work. The proclamation of the divine Word is the primary, the sole duty of the believing church in the world. All other labors arc subsidiary to and dependent upon this. They serve merely to implement the preaching by applying its glorious truths to the variegated areas of human experience and aspiration.

Such a spiritual appraisal of past blessings and present challenges will enable us to commemorate our centennial with fear and reverence. We will glorify him who has been the source of all the favors we have experienced, applying the words of the national hymn to our ecclesiastical history and hopes:

“Thy love divine has led us in the past; In this free land by Thee our lot is cast; Be Thou our Ruler! Guardian, Guide and Stay; Thy Word our aw; Thy paths our chosen way.”

Knowing what we have become by grace and understanding our calling to a world that lies in the chains of darkness and to many a church around us that has lost the luster of the true pulpit and therefore the experience of divine favor, we will confess:

“How blessed. Lord, are they who know the joyful sound. Who, when they bear Thy voice, in happiness abound! With steadfast step they walk. their countenances beaming. With brightness of the light that from Thy face is streaming.Exalted by Thy might from depths of desolation, They praise forever Thy Name, Thy justice and salvation.”

This and this alone gives hope to a church, pressed on every side by secularism and sin, by unbelief and heresy. As a church we need not fear the future; this is in the Lord’s hands. And we may be assured of his abiding favor over us as long as we preach and practice humbly but believingly what we so often sing,

“Thou art, O God, our boast, the glory of our power; Thy sovereign grace is e’er our fortress and our tower. We lift our heads aloft, for God, our shield, is o’er us; Through Him, through Him alone. whose presence goes before us,

We’II wear the victors crown…!”