When the Synod of Dordt met in 1619 it became the butt of considerable ridicule. Despite the fact that it affirmed the Biblical doctrines of grace, cartoons appeared depicting the delegates at Dordt standing around cheering as the reprobate are cast into the fiery pit of hell. Much public sympathy was obviously with Armenius, the irenic professor in Leyden, whose teachings were condemned by the delegates to Dordt. Their views were not politically correct but their biblical soundness was expressed in the Canons. It was a defining moment in the history and development of Reformed thought.
The Synod of the CRC which met in Sioux Center, Iowa, at Dordt College, on a more modest scale could have made some significant statements to the churches. To its shame, it did nothing. For that it may be inviting the judgment of God. At the least, it merits no praise.
The information for this article comes primarily from the e-mail reporting of Synod and a brief discussion with a synodical delegate. I did not attend Synod nor did I observe the proceedings via the internet. If, however, the reporting is correct, this Synod ought to cause the churches some grave concern.
The Officers of Synod
The officers of Synod were president, Rev. Wayne Brouwer, pastor of the Harderwyk CRC in Holland, Michigan. Rev. John Witvliet, pastor of the First CRC, Sioux Center, Iowa was the vice president. Elder Don Dykstra of Hammond, Indiana CRC and Rev. Henry Kranenburg, pastor of Immanuel CRC in Hamilton, Ontario served respectively as first and second clerks of Synod.
On Monday evening a new Denominational Ministries Plan was unveiled that calls for “aggressive effort to plant up to 30 new churches a year.” John Rozeboom, long time executive director of CR Home Missions, noted, in support of the new plan, that this was “the most effective way of reaching unbelievers for Christ in North America.” Whether or not that is the case is open to debate.
What was not addressed was the question of how these churches are to be supported and staffed. Last year some 28 ministers retired. An additional 14 ministers (half the number of retirees) left the ministry for various reasons (discipline, release from office, etc.). That makes became inactive. This does not include ministers who were placed on loan to other denominations. On Tuesday morning 39 people were approved as candidates for the ministry. If every one of them entered the ministry there would still be a net loss of at least three ministers. If Home Missions plants 20 new churches a year there would be a shortage of 23 ministers and the denomination has not yet begun to touch the serious problem of staffing existing vacant churches. It is difficult to find a pastor to call in the CRC. The average length of vacancy now is 18 months. If Home Missions pursues this ambitious new plan and there is not increase in the number of candidates the CRC will face a serious ministerial shortage.
The Rev. John Suk, editor of the Banner for the past decade retired. Quoting Kenneth Burke he noted that “nothing can more effectively set people at odds than the demand that they think alike.” A nice quote but what the outgoing editor fails to understand is that this is precisely the reason why people join a church, a community of faith, because people do think alike about God, about salvation, about the authority of scriptures, about the creeds, about worship, about ordination and about a host of other issues.
The problem in the church is not that people don’t think alike, but that they are not thinking alike about issues they had once communally agreed upon and articulated in their creeds, confessions, and in their ecclesiastical life.
Disagreement about significant issues is in fact being soundly squelched. This was illustrated on the floor of Synod itself. Under Suk’s leadership the Banner declined from a weekly to a bi-weekly to a monthly publication. The Rev. James LaGrand, delegate from Classis Illiana, made a motion to the effect that every effort be made to restore the Banner to a weekly periodical and when the Board of Publications presents its findings on a successor to Rev. Suk, at least two nominees be presented for Synod to choose from. Such threats to the peace and tranquility of the bureaucracy are not lightly taken. The editor may pay lip service to the merits of disagreement but the chair ruled the motion out of order.
Candidates for Ministry
Another example of how dissent is squelched and consciences are compromised could be seen in the vote to approve the candidates for ministry. It is possible that there may have been some delegates that had valid Biblical reservations about voting to approve women as nominees for ordination to the ministry. Synod had little concern for their consciences. Unlike former years the candidates were not presented individually but “en masse” for Synod’s approval.
Two study committees were authorized this year. One was in response to an overture from Classis British Columbia North-West regarding “restorative justice”. The other synodical study committee was mandated to study issues of “war and peace”. There are some who think that it is incumbent upon Synod to make pronouncements about every issue. It is interesting that when the Pharisees tried to draw the Lord into a political statement about paying taxes to the hated Roman government he replied simply, “Render to Caesar the things that Caesar’s.” Synod would have probably authorized a study committee on “methods of equitable taxation” to give Caesar some unsolicited advice.
The study report on issues raised by bio science and genetic engineering raised considerable discussion. The report from Synod noted that Synod “affirmed life, but refused to say that the destruction of frozen embryos is murder.” There was some disagreement about when life begins and Synod disagreed with the report’s conclusion that all human embryos must “be given an opportunity to implant and develop into a child.” Perhaps Synod should have spoken out against the practice of Petri dish fertilization. It is rife for scientific abuse such as attempting to grow test tube babies to harvest their genetic material for medical treatment, and raises some serious moral questions.
The other study report Synod considered dealt with the matter of Christian Day School Education. One of the hallmarks of the CRC has always been its unqualified support of Christian schools. One of the questions church visitors were to ask church councils under Art. 41 of the Church Order was “Does the consistory diligently promote the cause of Christian education from elementary school through institutions of higher learning?” In some CR churches if a family did not send their children to the Christian School they could count on a visit from the elders. In many churches it was an unwritten rule that if a father did not send his children to Christian school he would not be nominated to serve as an office bearer.
With that history one would have thought that endorsing this report would be like endorsing motherhood or apple pie. The debate, however, was described as “lengthy and often critical.” The committee was told to add to its study the relationship between a “church’s commitment to missions and to Christian Day Schools; how smaller, isolated churches can fulfill their baptismal vows regarding Christian education; and brokenness in churches where not all families have equal resources or commitments to Christian Day Schools.” (The latter concern was precisely what this report was trying to address).
I suspect that the debate on the floor of Synod came as somewhat of a surprise to those who drafted this report. Our unqualified support of Christian education is clearly waning. Synod turned down a recommendation of the committee that CRC Publications work in conjunction with other organizations to develop materials that “will help promote Christian schools.”
When Christian schools were established it was understood that if the church and the covenant community were to survive and flourish it needed to begin with our families training covenant children in the way they should go. This growth was never taken for granted. It involved commitment, time, treasure and sacrifice. In retrospect they were right. Studies have shown that if a church simply manages to keep its own children it will grow (25 – 30% in a decade).
In the seventies there was a shift in emphasis in the CRC. Covenant growth, or internal growth, was not considered real “growth” in a church. Consequently the historic emphasis on Christian education was gradually diminished. What has replaced it is a kind of fundamentalist emphasis that sounds alien to reformed ears. We no longer stress our reformed covenantal heritage but look for leadership in mega church leaders who have no ecclesiology and we use strange phrases like “God’s heart is broken for the lost.” The consequence of this emphasis can be seen in the comments regarding this Christian education report. Underlying these comments is the unspoken yet real shift that has taken place.
In some measure Christian schools are now being viewed as impediments to true evangelism. Money spent on Christian education is money spent on “ourselves” and really doesn’t count as money invested in true outreach efforts. In fact, to promote Christian education is something that should be avoided since the cost of Christian schools discriminates against the poor (even though grandparents and great grandparents who established these schools were also poor).
Christian schools are now declared a hurdle to evangelism because they may demand a level of financial support and commitment that many are unwilling to make. Whether or not this was fully articulated in the discussion on this report,
I do not know. This attitude, however, does exist and represents a major shift in emphasis in this denomination.
Ministers’ Pension Plan
Synod approved a change in the funding of the minister’s pension plan. Under the new arrangement smaller churches will have to pay approximately $4,500 for their ministers participation in the denominational pension plan. Larger churches (over 250 professing members) will pay an assessment based on membership. Thus the pension assessments for larger churches will not increase as much as they would have without this amended plan for funding.
Finally, however, this Synod will not be measured by what it said, but by what it did not say. Classis Yellowstone overtured Synod to apply special discipline to the council of First Toronto, CRC who made the decision to carry out a congregational vote considering “nominations of gay and lesbian members, including those living in committed relationships, for all elected (church) offices.”
At the very first plenary secession Synod decided to withhold action on this overture on the grounds that Classis Toronto is addressing this matter and plans to make a decision on June 25. What an extraordinary opportunity was lost. Synod could have addressed a word to those who are gay and lesbian in First Toronto. It could have been a word of kindness, a word of encouragement, a word of warning, a word of rebuke, a word of forgiveness, a word of grace. Synod could have communicated to them that the church is not first of all interested in their sexual preferences but in their salvation – that in response to God’s grace we strive to live lives pleasing to the Lord. At the very least Synod could have said this is what the Bible says. They are entitled to hear the word of the Lord. Instead Synod said nothing.
Or, Synod could have addressed the Council of First Toronto. They are responsible for the spiritual care of the flock. To present a proposal such as this to the congregation represents a calloused indifference to the spiritual welfare of God’s people. It suggests that living as the catechism notes “decent and chaste” lives both inside and outside of marriage is not a requirement for office. It sends a message, particularly to children and young people that an “alternative lifestyle” is pleasing in the Lord’s eyes when it is not. To the Council of First Toronto, Synod said nothing.
On June 14, 2003 the Synod convened ministers and elder delegates from forty seven classes in the Christian Reformed denomination. The next day the Rev. Tim Ouwinga in a worship service issued a call to faithfulness – that we be in submission to God and His Word. Was anyone listening?
Perhaps the office bearers there should have been reminded of the form for ordination of elders. They are “to rule in the Name of the ascended King, and as servants of the Great Shepard, caring for His flock.” They are to maintain the purity of the Word and sacraments, uphold the good order of the church, carefully guard the sacredness of the office and faithfully exercise discipline. Would anyone suggest that the Council of First Toronto by its actions even remotely sought to live up to these standards expressed in their vows as office bearers in Christ’s church? Is it enough to hide this matter under a pietistic mantle of prayer? Since when does one pray about being disobedient? The writer of Proverbs says an open rebuke is better than concealed love. (Proverbs 27:5) The Lord disciplines those whom he loves. (Hebrews 12:6) Was there any shred of discipline or love shown by Synod? Was it wiser than the Lord? What did Synod say to other office bearers in the church? It said nothing.
A few days after Synod adjourned, two significant stories were headlined in the newspapers. One concerned a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning a Texas anti-sodomy law. The other concerned the Canadian government joining the Netherlands and Belgium in approving the legislation of “gay marriages”. This radical redefinition of marriage is now incorporated into Canadian law. It is ironic that the CR Synod can direct the general secretary to send letters to President Bush and to send similar letters to the Canadian government to “Provide a choice in education without financial penalty to families of school age children.”
It is ironic that we can appoint study committees to consider the matter of “restorative justice” and the inadequacies in our penal system. It is ironic that we can have a study committee to address matters of war and peace and perhaps influence foreign policy. But when it comes to addressing a church council that has flagrantly ignored the Scriptures, the church order and the decisions of Synod itself, the silence is deafening. What did Synod say to the world? It said nothing.
The legacy of this Synod will be grief for the churches. We now have a year of “discussion and prayer” in which the wolves can be turned loose in the flock. Perhaps next year’s Synod will apologize to Classis Yellowstone – but that is unlikely. There are those who love the Christian Reformed Church who may shrug their shoulders or shed a tear. Is this the way the church will end, not with a roar, not even with a whimper, but with stone cold silence? The poet T.S. Eliot once observed that “April is the cruelest month of the year”. For those who love the CRC this year it was June.
Rev. Richard Blauw is pastor of the First Chistian Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.