CRC Synod ‘77: Old Issues Never Die

John H. Piersma served as a delegate to the CRC Synod of 1977 from Classis Illiana while he was still pastor of the Bethany CRC of South Holland. Illinois. Since then he has been installed as pastor of the First eRe of Sioux Center, Iowa. His willingness to write this day-by-day review of Synod is truly appreciated.

To write a report on a session of the Christian Reformed synod is never easy, but this year its difficulty has to be greater than ever. From any angle the ‘77 synod is hard to describe; so far as the volume of business (scores of items of business, several involving two or more decisions, plus reports, greetings from representatives of other churches, etc.), and, still more, so far as the weight of many of the things dealt with is concerned (can you imagine one synod dealing with the doctrines of Scripture, divine reprobation, the amusement question, the lodge issue, the matter of divorce and remarriage, the Sabbath question, etc?). Surely we must say, “Old issues never die, in fact, they don’t even fade away!”

If I had to characterize the ‘77 synod I’d say that it was not marked by decisive and courageous action. Many issues were dealt with procedurally rather than substantively. Those who were prepared to debate the issues surrounding the ordination of Dr. Allen Verhey or the gravamen registered against the doctrine of reprobation as stated in the Canons of Dort never really had a chance to speak their minds. These things were pushed off rather than faced in my opinion, to the possible hurt of the churches.

I don’t really know how best to present the full spectrum of synodical actions and decisions. I have decided simply to record the actions of every day (skipping some that are of little importance to a report like this), and to append a brief note here or there. It seems to me that we of THE OUTLOOK will have to spend a great deal of time during the next months on some of these on-going controversies, and so perhaps this will give us a kind of introduction to the discussions which no doubt lie ahead of us.

Tuesday, June 14

1. Thirty-seven seminarians were approved for candidacy by synod. The chair tries to congratulate them, but none seem to be present! Later in the week Elder Kersten (Classis Huron, Canada) makes a ringing speech calling for more meaningful synodical participation in the examination of candidates for the ministry. This meets with general approval by synod, but ends in nothing of concrete alteration of the current procedure. We must “trust” the Seminary faculty and the Board of Trustees as our delegated representatives to do this job well, we are told.

2. Synod adjourns to give advisory committees opportunity to work.

Wednesday, June 15

1. The special committee on Hermeneutical Principles on Women in Ecclesiastical Office, appointed in 1975, asks for, and gets an additional year. Some of us feel that three weeks rather than three years would be enough time for that matter! 2. Classis Grand Rapids North overtures for adoption of a rule that changes in the Church Order be adopted only after an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the classes. This is defeated. This ought to make it easier, I suppose, for some future decision calling for the admission of women to office to become the “settled and binding” decree of synod. 3. A Dayton, Ohio consistory asks that synod declare that evil lusting of a homosexual character be declared sinful as it is between humans of opposite sexes. Synod refuses. “Homosexual Christians” are said to have sound “guidelines” in the 1974 decisions.

4. The Chaplain Committee was given three years to explore, design and initiate business and industrial chaplaincies.

5. 1n the Detroit area there is a church which desires to belong to two denominations simultaneously, the CRC and the Reformed Church of America. Synod accepts a few strange, very pragmatistic recommendations of its advisory committee:

That synod take note with rejoicing that the joint ministry of the Detroit Community (CRC) and the Nardin Park (RCA) is meeting a local need and judge that no further action by synod is necessary at this time. “That synod mandate the Interchurch Relation Committee to study the Detroit Community (CRC) and Nardin Park (RCA) relationship ill consultation with that local fellowship. Classis Lake Erie, the Christian Reformed Board of Home Missions, and the appropriate agencies of the Reformed Church in America.”

Please note that the committee and synod saw no problems of principle with this arrangement. Or a “ground” for the latter motion the committee observed: “Church-policy issues raised by the question of potential union-churches should be resolved in the context of experience as well as theory” (my italics, JHP). On that kind of basis it is not hard to predict what the next decision will be!

6. Ministers are asked to stay with the Ministerial Information Service. 7. The Synodical Committee on Race Relations (SCORR), in spite of a dismal report in the Agenda, was continued without debate! 8. The World Mission Board (once known as Foreign . . .) was instructed to pay the way for fraternal delegates from some.; “national churches” beginning in 78. 9. Bangladesh was opened as a mission field, and two missionaries will be recruited for that service.

10. The Australian Reformed churches were encouraged to call CRC ministers (maximum of five). Synod promises to subsidize to the tune of $5,000 per rear to cover travel costs, social security payments, pension, health insurance.

11. The Central America mission was enlarged to include Costa Rica, EI Salvador, Guatemala, Panama. We are now in Honduras and Nicaragua.

Thursday, June 16

1. A policy calling for expanded distribution of Christian Reformed Board of Education materials outside the CRC was approved. Note: this has many implications as can be seen from pp. 97, 98 of the Agenda. 2. Another decision casually reached (in our opinion) which will have enormous consequences was approval of the Young Adult Curriculum Plan (pp. 105–118 in the Agenda). For example: we have traditionally held that catechism classes had as their ultimate purpose the preparation of Covenant youth for profession of faith. This is now changed to “the major purpose of church education is to enable a person to engage in the work of ministry.” To this whole business THE OUTLOOK ought in the future to devote serious consideration. 3. A whole batch of Calvin College faculty appointments was okayed. Again: without much meaningful involvement on the part of the average synodical delegate. 4. Seminary professors Hugen (with tenure), Snapper (two years) are reappointed. Dr. Ford Lewis Battles, “a convinced Calvinist,”affiliated with the Congregational denomination,” is given a three-year appointment as Visiting Professor of Church History. 5. An interesting, spirited debate took place in connection with the appeal of R. Timmermans, former elder in First CRC, Hamilton Ont. He owns a laundromat in operation seven days a week. A family of the congregation protested to consistory that this was Sabbath-desecration, and therefore unworthy of an officebearer. The consistory, and class is maintained the position that the laundromat operation was not necessary, and thus ought to be discontinued. Synod decided “not to sustain Mr. R. Timmerman‘s appeal.” Synod voted to reject (75 to 74) one ground which stated that “the fact that his business is open docs contribute to the growing secularization of the Lord‘s Day. All members and especially officebearers should resist rather than add to such secularization.” (You can easily imagine the range of remarks heard in the debate. Many did not reflect a strong sensitivity to the sanctity of the day.) 6. Another “hot debate” surrounded the matter of the appeal of Classis Grand Rapids East regarding the Synodical Deputies’ Report concerning the propriety of Rev. Terry Hager‘s work with the Community Counseling and Personal Growth Ministry, “an ecumenical program” in Grand Rapids. The issue was simple: Maya CRC minister work for an organization which has a doctrinally un-Reformed and unbiblical basis and statement of purpose? One of the delegates, Rev. Jacob Eppinga (LaGrave Ave. CRC, Grand Rapids) was also a delegate to synod. In a most lucid and convincing way he defended the decision of the deputies not to approve of this ministry but nevertheless the majority of delegates voted to overthrow their recommendation and to approve of Rev. Hager’s affiliation with this project. I thought this was a very clear indication of a radical shift in the conception of corporate responsibility which, ill my opinion, is a strong feature of historic Reformed ethical thinking! Accord· ing to more than a few voices, one can work with and even for any organization “if only one is free to do his own thing.” 7. That the CRC has entered upon a new kind of relationship with the Reformed Church in America was indicated repeatedly. On pp. 435 ff. of the Agenda we find An Evangelism Manifesto drafted by a committee composed of ten members, five from the CRC, five from the RCA. Its key word is kingdom. This was adopted “as a guideline for further study and action by the churches, classes and denominational agencies.” (When the committee’s representative, the venerable and congenial Grand Rapids dentist, Dr. Richard Wierenga, was questioned as to whether kingdom meant Christian day school education, the answer was No.) 8. A very important decision was the one which advises “the consistories, under normal circumstances. to grant transfer cf membership rather than a certificate of dismission to members seeking to affiliate with a church in ecclesiastical fellowship.” This had real significance primarily for members of the CRC asking to go from the CRC to the RCA. In the past we have “dismissed” such members because we felt that the RCA was not a denomination whose practices (open communion, doctrinal liberalism, indifferences to church discipline, permissiveness with respect to lodge membership, rejection of the Christian school) did not warrant approval en our part of the joining of that church. (This has never meant that CRC attitudes denied the existence of thousands of dear and sincere Christian brothers and sisters in Reformed churches, nor the fact that certain Reformed congregations and pastors were obviously concerned to held fast to Reformed principles and practices.) The important consideration here is the fact that under the influence of that powerful Interchurch Relations Committee we are now importing into “ecclesiastical fellowship” all that we used to reserve for “church in correspondence.” I think the Reformed Church in America ought to serve us as a good example here: all letters of membership from them, so far as I know, bear the superscription: Certificate of Dismission. Still more: it seems that some among us are determined to break down the moral defenses of the CRC against the differences represented by the RCA Church polity, tradition and practice. No wonder that we are losing members to the RCA at an alarming rate. Why not?

9. A rather innocent matter provoking considerable debate was the approval of a change in the constitution of the National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, cf which we are a member. The first draft of the basis of this constitution read:

“. . . the basis . . . is full commitment both to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the infallible Word of God . . .”

The new version reads:

“we affirm the basis of the fellowship of Presbyterian and Reformed churches to be full commitment to the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God written, without error in all its parts . . .” (italics inserted, JHP)

Prof. Bastiaan Van Elderen of Calvin Seminary was quick to speak in objection to approval of this change. He argued that the Reformed tradition” does not hold to the interpretation of inerrancy herein described. He went so far as to say that he couldn’t subscribe to this statement, since there were (in his opinion) errors in the Bible. He mentioned grammatical errors, as illustration, and added that other types of things could be noted. He contended vigorously that the word inerrant as used in this statement is not part of the Reformed tradition. Prof. J. Kromminga, president of Calvin Seminary, replied by saying that the 1959 synodical decisions, taken from the Reformed Ecumenical Synod report on this matter, reiterated by synod in 1961 speaks of “the infallible and inerrant Word of God.” By a roll call vote of 82 to 66 approval was granted. (Observation: the precise meaning of the infallibility and inerrancy ef Scripture is not a common understanding in the CRC. Report 44 has not laid this disturbing difference of opinion to rest.)

Friday, June 17

1. With respect to “women’s liberation” in the CRC two major proposals were before the house: the first calling for “a service committee” empowered to “identify barriers, both organizational and institutional, to the church‘s use of the gifts of all its members and to recommend to synod and to local congregations ways consistent with Scripture in which these barriers can be removed,” etc. A charming lady, Mrs. Karen De Vos, with restrained, dulcet tones pleaded that “gender, not gifts” now determines appointments, etc. She unnerved’ the anti-feminist prejudices latent (at least) in an all-male synod by pointing out that this committee would be concerned to encourage the enlistment of all gifts, male and female, in and by the church. Although the advisory committee did not recommend this proposal, arguing no demonstrable need, it was adopted by a vote of 84 to 66. We now have another standing committee mandated to assume responsibility for the promotion of a cause, a committee that has access to synods not only, but the right to approach consistories as well.

From the debate it was evident that many delegates (especially Canadian) are willing any day to go along with the current practice in the Dutch Gereformeerde Gerken (our closest ally traditionally in that country) which allows for the ordination of women to both offices of elder and deacon, even to the ministry. When I suggested to one of these that this was another step toward that practice his answer was ready, “I hope so!” Those of us who are convinced that Scripture does not allow for this had better be alert to the fact that same machinery is being erected to make things very difficult for us to hold our ground.

A second proposal calling for “a study committee to examine how the church can and should respond to the problems and changes created by changing sex roles in our society” was defeated. The vote was 93 to 54.

2. It was interesting to hear the greetings from representatives of churches with whom we are in ecclesiastical fellowship. Dr. Rietveld, senior pastor in The Hague, represented the Gereformeerde Kerken. He delivered a moving address which was, in my opinion, full of dangerous suggestion. Addressing himself to the uneasiness which many in the Reformed world community feel about developments in his church (to meninga is enough!), he pleaded for recognition of the names of Baarda, Kuitert, Augustijn, Wiersfact that everything today (including moods) is changing, that we don‘t know how the church of “the new world” will be led by the Spirit to do its business, that the Spirit has more ways than church discipline to accomplish His purposes, that ‘legalism’ (which I understood to be the way of the churches in the past, and of somewhat backward churches like the CRC in the present) is not a good solution to current problems, that truth always triumphs in the end anyway (dont panic!), etc. This message gained a standing ovation from synod. 3. The Judicial Code was adopted with a few minor revisions. This is a very complicated document calling for the application of regulations borrowed from the legal world to important church disputes. I confess that I doubt if such elaborate demonstrations of fairness can overcome the tendency of churches to be very unfair toward certain types of persons (the Presbyterians were not lacking in judicial apparatus, but J. Gresham Machen still received unfair treatment by his liberal colleagues). This is a matter requiring further thought. 4. More “guidelines:” this time on how to make Christian ethical decisions when your government goes to war. Going to war seems now to be more emphatically a matter of personal decision than governmental. It is curious to speculate how many American young men would be willing now to fight for their country in case of international conflict, no matter what the nature of such a war. 5. The Task Force on World Hunger will report in 1978. Overture 14 from Alpine Ave. CRC and Classis Grand Rapids North asking for an ambassador from the CRC to deal with international poverty was referred to this committee. Please note that the scope of ecclesiastical effort is not expressed in modest terms!

Saturday, June 18

1. John De Haan of Denver is appointed to replace the retired director of CRWRC, Louis Van Ess. (Van Ess deserves a real vote of thanks from all CRC people for many things well done during his years when this agency was developed!)

2. Something which ought to merit the attention of the concerned in the church is the fact that synod adopted certain proposed changes in the church order dealing with the office of the ministry. Maybe the most important change comes in these words:

A minister of the Word may be loaned temporarily by his calling church to serve as pastor cf a congregation outside of the Christian Reformed Church, but only with the approval of classis, the concurring advise of the synodical deputies, and in accordance with synodical regulations. Although his duties may be regulated in cooperation with the other congregation, the supervision of his doctrine and life rests with the calling church.

Another trace of altered thinking with respect to the office of the ministry is exposed, I think, by the provision that “a minister of the Word may also serve the church in other work which relates directly to his calling” (my emphasis, JHP). I prefer the kind of emphasis which distinguishes between the desire to be called as a minister from the actual calling to the ministry by a given church.

Monday, June 20

1. Synod approved the work of synodical deputies with respect to eight ministers: four released from their congregations, two depositions, two resignations. This must represent considerable pain!

2. A communication on race relations prepared by the Interchurch Relations Committee is approved for presentation to the Potchefstroom Conference on Race scheduled for 1978. Churches are invited to submit reactions by Nov. 1, 1977. 3. Synod withheld action on a proposal to change the constitution of CRWRC, a change which would have broadened conSiderably the scope of its mandate. 4. Another standing committee in the e RC is the Liturgical Committee. Its proposal that they be mandated “to present to the Synod d 1978 recommendations (1) for motivating the membership of the CRC to study the history, theology, and practice of Reformed liturgy and music, and (2) for assisting in liturgical and musical matters those who desire such assistance” was passed. (Have you ever suspected that these committees seem to gather more hay on their respective forks with most every passing year?) This committee has a new form for the baptism of adults which was recommitted for improvement in style and language! Perhaps its most important proposal was a new Form for Marriage. Considerable debate took place with respect to the fact that all suggestion of obedience on the part of wife to husband is obviously toned down if not virtually eliminated, and the prayer (composed by the CRC poet, Sietze Buning), which has some rather high sounding expressions (“Oppose with Pentecostal wind whatever in this marriage opposes you”). Synod voted approval for two-year trial use. 5. Synod appointed a committee to prepare a new translation of the Belgic Confession. 6. Synod decided against making changes in Answer 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism. 7. Synod decided against the idea of “a tentmaking ministry,” i.e., a category of ministerial service in which the officebearer is employed in some type of nonministerial work while holding office.

Tuesday, June 21

1. A lengthy debate took place in connection with the matter cf inter-agency relationships and cooperation. It is not a wellkept secret that some irritation has resulted from overlapping, etc. between the various boards. Perhaps the most important decision was that the Synodical Interim Committee was instructed to convene the heads of staff and beard chairmen of Home Missions, World Missions, Back to God Hour and CRWRC at least twice a year for the sharing of pertinent board actions, projected plans and goals and discussing the resolution of difficulties which may arise between the agencies.

2. Back to God Hour news is relatively easy to come by, and so we’ll just say here that it looks as if we are going to make a real effort to use television as a Gospel medium. A pilot show was pre-viewed by synod, a documentary on the history and character of the Bible. Although not as expert as a Hallmark production, it was quite interesting. Costs in this area are staggering, and the churches will be asked to raise additional funds on a free-will offering basis.

3. The biggest debate of the day was stimulated by a report from the Calvin College trustees on social dancing on the campus. The trustees had adopted a lengthy statement on the “Dance Issue” which includes:

“the Board instructs the Administration to implement immediately the development of social dancing in a Christian manner . . . . .

“the Board accepts the recommendation included in the report of the ad hoc Committee on Dancing that Calvin College allow for social dancing as an acceptable and wholesome, on-campus, recreational activity for Calvin students and staff . . .”

The debate centered around two issues: Is the social dance an edifying addition to our lifestyle as Reformed Christians? And, Since cur young people are dancing anyway, isnt it better to control and direct this activity? A detailed report of the debate is not practicable here. The crisis in the discussion was met when Dr. Harry Holwerda of Classis Illiana moved that “synod disapprove of the Board of trustees policy on social dancing.” This motion was defeated.

As things now stand, congregations and classes are invited to send in their reactions to the Trustees’ policy by February of 1978. These findings are to be presented to the 1978 Synod, and, if synod feels so inclined, Calvin will implement its new policy in September of that year.

Wednesday, June 22

1. I’m not sure if the greetings were heard on Tuesday or Wednesday, but synod heard Rev. Bilkes from the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in The Netherlands, who was delegated with Prof. W. Vant Spijker to visit cur synod. Bilkes’ address was solidly Reformed in what I believe to be the best sense of our tradition. On the same day synod heard a second voice from thc RCA. Earlier the eloquent voice of the Temple Time broadcast, William Brownson was heard. Later Dr. Charles Wissink, freshly returned from the RCA synod in Sioux Center, Iowa, brought greetings. He reported that synod had for the sixth or seventh time voted to admit women to ecclesiastical office, and that he hoped the classes would ratify since 481 of the incoming class at New Brunswick Seminary was female! 2. So far as I recall and my notes can be read, all efforts to get something done about Report 44 of ‘71 regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture were to no avail. It is obvious, I think, that some in the church feel that something in that Report must be kept, no matter what. 3. Synod appointed a committee of five members to study the need for a contemporary testimony in view of the secularization of modern life and culture. This committee is to report in 1979 on matters pertinent to such a testimony. The current New Confession Committee will be discharged after completion of its new translation of the Canons of Dort. (This must be watched to see if this “testimony” gets to become some kind of new creed!) 4. The lodge question was before us again! And will be, if voices announcing that Classis Lake Erie would be back next year if it did not get satisfaction are reliable. Here again anything like a complete report of the debate is impossible. The day was saved, temporarily at least, by the efforts of four elders: Haarsma (Orange City), Kersten (Huron), Visser (Central California), Vos (Sioux Center). Their minority report on this issue contained this poignant observation: “we find it frustrating that the traditional, tested and constantly reaffirmed position of the church must be defended by a minority comprised exclusively of elders.” Their recommendation at a crucial point was passed (79 to 71):

that synod maintain that if there should be a case of extreme hardship which makes it difficult for the lodge member to terminate formal membership in the lodge, the church has a duty to deal with this person compassionately and pastorally, and do everything possible to remove the obstacle, thus allowing the lodge member to formally terminate his lodge membership and take the necessary steps to becoming a communicant member in the CRC.

The heart of the matter here is whcther a person may hold membership in a lodge and in the CRC simultaneously (under exceptional cases, of coursel). By this motion that was ruled out. Perplexing in the discussion was the willingness of many to urge that synodical policy be based on the fact that some people may join a lodge not only in unawareness of its principles and teachings, but also in a state of insensitivity to the meaning and implications of these things.

5. The Verhey Case: this matter was handled, in my judgment, in a very strange and almost casual way. My reactions are predicated on the conviction that Dr. Verhey’s views are very wrong, and that it is not really tolerable for a confessionally Reformed church to allow its officebearers to hold to the kind of things he so brilliantly, candidly and vigorously teaches. The advisory committee‘s report to synod was marked by such sentences as: “Theology is a special study, with its own language and experience. We must give our theologians trust and room to do their work obediently before God. But the church that gets worried about certain results of doing theology may properly ask how a theological method functions within a Reformed understanding of the nature of Scripture.” Such observations mean something which frightens me, or they reveal a strange lack of appreciation for what our kind of church has always understood by theology within and upon the basis of the right of the church authoritatively to express in her dogmas that which all must believe.

Much more will be written about these things. The decisions taken leave the whole matter of Dr. Verhey’s views in the hands of his consistory ( Neland Ave., Grand Rapid.. ), which has a committee working on these matters (Dr. Spoelhof, Professor Bandstra and

C. Kromminga). Some asked for a synodically appointed committee. And for obvious reasons. After all, the Neland Ave. consistory formally declared already on June I, 1976 that “Allen Verhey was at the time of his examination, and is now, firmly committed to the sound doctrine of the scripture as set forth in the Reformed confessions and the doctrinal deliverances of the synod of the CRC.” If I were Verhey I would like very much for such a consistory to adjudicate my case!

Thursday, June 23

7. The H. Boer gravamen against divine reprobation as taught in the Canons of Dort occasioned some debate, but the results were not very encouraging to people convinced that the Canons are a true and faithful representation of the Bible. The main decisions taken were as follows:

that Synod accept the confessional-revision gravamen of Dr. Boer as legally before synod.” “that synod publish Dr. Boer‘s gravamen in the Acts of Synod 1977 and declare that it is before the churches for their consideration.”that synod appoint a committee to receive the reactions of individuals, consistories and classes, to study the gravamen in the light of Scripture, and to advise the Synod of 1980 (italics mine, JHP) as to the cogency of the gravamen and how it should further be dealt with by synod.”

Please note the schedule proposed, and you will realize that synod felt that this matter could comfortably be left in the synodical mill for a long, long time. Doesn‘t that already say something?

2. A vigorous debate took place on the Marriage Guidelines matter as occasioned by a report so entitled in the Agenda. The result was a new committee to study what the previous committee had offered! “Old issues never die.” The debate saw Prof. Van Elderen speak at length about the teachings of Scripture to the effect that Scripture does not really teach that there is a so-called innocent party in a divorce situation, that all re-marriage while one’s original partner(s) is living is condemned, etc. This, too, must be discussed further. It seems to me that we are making a radical alteration in our understanding of biblical teaching at this point, as the late Adam Persensire has pointed out in his minority opinion. 3. A committee will solicit and evaluate the reactions of the churches to Report 37, “Implications of the Guidelines for Office and Ordination of Layworkers in Evangelism.”

From the above anyone can see that the ‘77 synod was faced by a host of issues, many of which were of no ordinary importance. I’m not sure that synod itself always faced up to these issues. In fact, I feel that very little progress was made in any direction this year.

P.S. These are personal reactions!