CRC Synod ‘78 – A House Divided

Rev. H. Vanden Heuvel, pastor of the Bethel Church of Sioux Center, Iowa, member of our Board and delegate to the CRC Synod, was asked to report on Synod actions for THE OUTLOOK.

The Christian Reformed Synod met on the campus of Calvin College and Seminary along with four other member churches of NAPARC – North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. It was an historic event in that for the first time in history, five churches met in Ecclesiastical Assembly at the same time and place. There was a wonderfully thrilling experience when all five churches met together for worship in Calvin’s Field House to hear Dr. Joel Nederhood and to hear brief greetings from the presidents of each of the five assemblies. The other NAPARC churches meeting at Calvin College were the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church evangelical Synod, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and the Presbyterian Church in America. It was an interesting experience not only to worship together, of Course, but also to eat together at the noon and supper breaks, and to have fellowship with others of Reformed conviction from different parts of the country and different cultural backgrounds.

In many ways the Christian Reformed Synod acted decisively. Sometimes synods have been described as acting only to put off issues to another year. But this Synod acted, although in my opinion, it did not always act wisely or in keeping with the spirit of Scripture and Church Order. The fact that struck me as the crucial issues dealing with opening the offices to women were decided is that our church is a divided church. Every crucial issue dealing with the life of the church was decided on an extremely narrow vote. Such issues as opening the office of deacon to women, permitting the candidacy of Mrs. Marchiene Rienstra, creating a new office of Evangelist in the Church were all decided with a large minority vote being cast. While a minority opinion is usually a sign of healthy difference of opinion, in the case of the CRC Synod, I am afraid that it points rather to a house divided. Furthermore. what was also most apparent is that the differences always were seen at the same point. That is, the Canadian classes with very few exceptions, always were on the same side of every issue. And a sizeable number of U.S. classes were also found on that same side. One wonders how long a church divided can continue to stand. We know that a house divided cannot stand, as the Lord Jesus stated. How long our church can continue to exist with such deep division on such crucial issues is becoming an increasingly gnawing question being asked by many people.

The best way to look at these issues as they were decided by Synod is to take up some of the activities of each day of Synod, commenting on them as they are reported. Obviously the opinions and comments are my own as one who witnessed the proceedings. Others who were there as delegates or observers might have come to different conclusions.


The first full day of Synod began with the election of officers. Synod proceeded to elect Rev. Clarence Boomsma as president, Rev. Andrew Kuyvenhoven as vice-president, Rev. Howard Spaan as first clerk, and Rev. Alvin Venema as second clerk.

On this first day of Synod thirty-seven candidates for the ministry were approved. The way in which Synod has handled this matter has often been criticized since Synod no longer interviews each candidate. But this year Synod approved a system which will go into effect next year in order to make the declaration of candidates a more personal procedure. Each delegate at Synod will receive a consistorial recommendation, a one-page statement of faith, a one-paragraph statement of reasons for seeking candidacy, a picture and personal data, the report of the visit by a board member. and the board’s recommendation. Hopefully this additional information will help Synod expedite what is perhaps the most important decision that is made by any synod.


Synod last year had appointed a Study Committee to study “the way that we Christians of Reformed faith, as individuals, and as a denomination can most effectively speak to the issues of social justice in our world.” This Study Committee recommended that Synod “appoint a Committee on Social Justice to provide a Christian educational vehicle. grounded in the Bible and the Reformed faith, to stimulate mutual awareness of, knowledge about, and active response to, issues of social justice.” Synod rejected this recommendation, and instead adopted the following decision: “That synod urge each congregation to establish a social justice committee to gather information and to recommend action on social justice matters of local concern, and to initiate procedures for consideration of broader social justice issues at broader ecclesiastical assemblies. That synod through the Synodical Interim Committee call up its Christian Educational Institutions and Agencies, its Board of Publications, CRWRC, and SCORR to enlist the skills of knowledgeable people to speak and to write publicly so that the church will be alerted to issues of social injustice that challenge a Christian response.”

Synod approved an ambitious ten year cycle of course material for the Bible Way Curriculum in the church educational program.


Classis Hudson had overtured synod to reorganize the Back to God Hour Committee “in such a manner that it will be constituted as a denominational board comprised of one representative from each classis plus a number of members-at-large chosen by the newly constituted board from our constituency and approved by synod.” This was quite an emotional subject because the Back to God Hour Committee has been organized according to its present status for the last 40 years. Those who are part of the Radio and TV work of the Back to God Hour were not happy with the suggestion made by the overture. And they found an ally in elder William Boer from Class is Holland. Elder Boer made a ringing plea for keeping the Back to God Hour Committee as it is, and for bringing all the other agencies and boards of the Christian Reformed Church in line with the organization of the Back to God Hour. Apparently Synod was convinced of the wisdom of the present organization of the Committee, because when the vote was taken Synod rejected the Overture from Classis Hudson.

Synod’s activities were also the interest of the TV people on Thursday. And the reason was the endorsement of the Koinonia Declaration. This declaration was written by a group of persons from the Reformed Churches in South Africa, calling for justice in the area of race relations. Synod was asked to “declare that it considers the Koinonia Declaration to be an excellent enunciation of biblical principles and a significant reformation statement on South African race relations by Reformed Christians of South Africa.” This decision was taken without much debate, although the TV cameras were buzzing about.

FRIDAY, JUNE 16 Synod approved the proposed revisions of Articles 11, 12, 13, 14 of the Church Order as recommended by the Study Committee on Church Order Article 13a. The concern of Synod in approving these changes was to recognize the importance of the work of the Ministry of the Word, and thus to attempt to regulate what kind of tasks could he done by the minister in keeping with his calling. Recognizing that Synod could not simply list all the kinds of professions which could or could not be in accordance with that call ing, Synod did instruct classes and consistories to be very careful in their decisions to approve the calling of ministers for extraordinary positions. Synod handled several items dealing with the church’s confession and liturgy. It approved the recommendation of the Overture from Classis Pacific Northwest to request the Bible Translation Committee to study the New American Standard Bible with a view to its approval for usc in the worship service. It rejected the overture from Classis Sioux Center to instruct the Liturgical Committee to prepare a new form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in nursing homes, old people’s homes, and in private homes. Synod adopted a new translation for the Baptism of Adults, being careful to make several changes from the proposed form as presented by the Liturgical Committee. Synod also approved a new form for the Lord’s Supper to be used provisionally for three years. This decision brings the total number of forms for the Lord’s Supper to four, one for every liturgical taste. Wh en objections were raised questioning the need for still another form, the usual answer was, “You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.”


Although Synod met during the morning of Saturday, June 17, I am skipping the discussion because what transpired then is covered by the decisions made on other days.

One of the most interesting decisions that faced Synod was the election of a man to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Dr. Hoekema from the seminary. The Board of Trustees had presented Synod with two nominees for this position, Dr. Gordon Spykman and Rev. Neal Plantinga. On Monday Synod interviewed both men, and made its selection. The position to be filled was in the area of Systematic Theology, and both men spoke of their interest and their relative strengths which they could bring to this department. After some discussion, Synod elected Rev. Neal Plantinga to the chair of Systematic Theology in the Seminary.

Synod heard from the fraternal delegate from the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, Rev. Mok. He called upon the Christian Reformed Church to be much more concerned about the arms race and the attitude of the U.S. on social matters. Following his address, the Rev. Raymond Zorn brought greetings from the Reformed Church of Ne.w Zealand and Australia. He encouraged the CRC to remain close to their brothers down under and to hold to the Reformed faith which we both have in common.

The Canadian Council of the CRC came up before Synod in an interesting discussion. Recently the Canadian Council decided to appoint a full time Executive Director. Classis Eastern Canada disapproved of this decision, and decided to withdraw from the Canadian Council. The issue before Synod was, first, to define the nature and authority of the Canadian Council of the CRC, and, second, to decide whether the action of Classis Eastern Canada was to be allowed. Synod responded to these requests first by stating that Synod of 1966 had already spelled out the nature and authority of bodies such as the Canadian Council of the CRC, and then by observing that the appeal regarding the withdrawal of Classis Eastern Canada could not be rightly handled by Synod since it had not yet been taken up by that Classis itself.

Synod approved the work of synodical deputies with respect to five ministers: four released from their congregations, and one deposed from the ministry. Synod also heard reports on two resignations from the ministry. It was observed that there seems to be an increasing number of releases and! or resignations from the ministry. One wonders whether this is a larger problem in recent years or if it has always been a problem in the CRC.


One of the decisions that Synod took capped more than 30 years of struggle and discussion. This had to do with the matter of lay workers in evangelism. The problem all these years concerned the status of these lay workers who bring the Word of God in the Back to God Chapels maintained by the churches of the CRC. In some ways, the CRC has brought this problem on itself by establishing such chapels in the first place. We have never really decided just what their place is within the structure of the CRC. At any rate, the problem arises regarding those who labor in these chapels. These faithful men bring individuals to the knowledge of salvation in Jesus Christ, and when baptism is administered they must step aside for the ordained minister of the sponsoring church. When the Lord‘s Supper is administered in the “chapel,” again the lay workers must step aside for the ordained minister in the supporting church. For more than 30 years synods have been asked to settle this problem.

Synod in 1977 again appointed a committee to study the problem relative to lay workers in evangelism. This committee came to Synod 1978 with a divided report. A majority recommended that Synod allow the churches to ordain men who are especially gifted in the work of evangelism as elders in the supporting church, and then to give these elder-evangelists a licensure to exhort in that classis. The emphasis in the majority report is on the strong tie between the evangelist and the consistory of the supporting church. The minority report recommended that Synod approve the ordination of the layworkers in evangelism to a fourth office in the church, that of evangelist. The minority report also recommended that the function of the evangelist would be to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.

The Advisory Committee of Synod dealing with this report brought a report which took parts out of both the majority and the minority reports. The advice was that “synod establish the office of evangelist with authority to administer the Word and Sacraments in the work of evangelism of this calling church; that synod declare that the evangelist be acknowledged as an elder of his calling church with corresponding privileges and responsibilities; and that synod declare that one who is ordained to the office of evangelist shall function under certain regulations.” One of these regulations states that the ordination of the evangelist shall correspond to his appointment by the local church. Thus the new office of evangelist is not an ordination for life as is the case with the minister of the Word. The advice of the Advisory Committee was adopted by Synod, and the Church Order will be changed accordingly to correspond with the decision regarding a fourth office.

The afternoon of June 20 was spent on the extremely long report of the Task Force on WorId Hunger. It was apparent from remarks of a number of speakers at Synod that the manner in which the Task Force on World Hunger was dealing with this very complex problem was filled with frustration. There is no doubt that the issue is complex. Questions arose as to whether this was the business of the institutional church, whether the church has the task of first seeking to change the life style of those who worship cows and rats, and then bringing them the necessary food, and whether the kinds of proposals suggested of the Task Force on World Hunger will help at all to alleviate that hunger. After hours of discussion, Synod finally adopted the proposals as presented by the Task Force, and to continue the Committee for one year to monitor the implementation of its program.


In many ways the decisions taken on Wednesday mark the heart of Synod 1978. Just as synods in the past are remembered for the decisions taken then, as for example 1928 suggests “Worldly Amusements,” so Synod 1978 will be remembered as the synod that permitted the ordination of women to be deacons in the Christian Reformed Church. In my opinion, this decision was a “water-shed”; that is, a decision which will have ominous results for the CRC. Before making further comments on the results of this decision, I wish to report on how the decision was made.

Report 31 in the Agenda is called “Hermeneutical Principles Concerning Women in Ecclesiastical Office.” This Committee was appointed in 1975 as the third committee appointed by various synods to deal with the matter of women in ecclesiastical office. The previous two reports were not adopted by their respective synods. Therefore synod in 1975 appointed the present Committee to study “the hermeneutical principles concerning women in ecclesiastical office.” The committee came with a divided report. Four of the members of the committee recommended that consistories be allowed to ordain qualified women to the office of deacon as delineated in the Church Order, Art. 25. The majority committee further recommended that the church continue to reflect upon the question of admitting women to the office of elder and minister. Their grounds for this second recommendation touch upon a very important matter. The first states, “the evidence from the Bible is not as clear-cut on this issue as one might wish and requires the ongoing reflection of the church.” And the second says, “the desire of the church to use all of the gifts of the Spirit given to all of its members should be an ongoing concern of the church.”

The minority report on the hermeneutical principles recommended that “consistories be allowed to ordain qualified women to the office of deacon, provided that their work is distinguished from that of elders.” And their second recommendation is that the “offices of elder and minister not be opened to women” on the ground that there is no evidence in the Bible for opening the offices of elder and minister to women.

The Advisory Committee of Synod tried to present a recommendation that would be most in harmony with the report of the Study Committee. The reporter, Rev. Wilbert Van Dyke, observed that when the Advisory Committee first began working on the report, they were divided equally between those in favor of admitting women to the office of deacon, and those opposed. But the more they talked and discussed, the more unified they became, until at last they were able to come with a unified report. In seeking to prepare the delegates of Synod for their recommendation, the Advisory Committee made several “Observations.” One of these was a paragraph dealing with the matter of “unity in diversity.” The Committee states that some churches do not permit women to vote at congregational meetings; others do allow this. Yet both kinds of churches live together in unity within diversity. So, argues the Advisory Committee, we as a denomination can live together with this decision on women in ecclesiastical office. Each consistory has to decide the matter for its own congregation. (However the matter of women in ecclesiastical office is a different thing from allowing women to vote in a congregational meeting. The kind of unity expressed by the advisory committee is a unity that forces a position upon the church which a segment is convinced is contrary to Scripture. Such unity is a false unity.)

The recommendation of the Advisory Committee was “that consistories he permitted to ordain qualified women to the office of deacon as delineated in the Church Order, Article 25.” This recommendation obviously was debated at great length. It was also debated before a paced gallery. Every seat in the Fine Arts Auditorium was taken. It was learned later that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church had adjourned a session of its Synod to permit its delegates to hear our discussion on this issue.

The debate centered primarily on two issues. First there were several voices claiming that the recommendation did not go far enough. Rev. Jacob Kuntz of Classis Chatham spoke with enthusiasm for the recommendation, but urged the Synod to go beyond the report and open the offices of elder and minister to women. He argued very logically from the report on the nature of office as adopted by Synod in 1973, that the offices are one. There is no difference in authority or importance between the three offices of the Church Order. To be consistent, he said, if we open the office of deacon to women, we must also open the other offices to women. And of course, he was right. The decision of Synod 1973 opened the door to the decision facing the church in Synod 1978. The nature of office was declared in 1973 to be primarily function, and since many women are already functioning as “deaconesses,” there is no reason why they should not also be given the office of deacon. Most of the Canadian delegates also spoke strongly in favor of the recommendation.

On the other side of the issues, many speakers brought out the important matter of the authority of the deacons. The Committee referred to Article 25 of the Church Order, but Article 35 of the Church Order says that the consistory has charge of the government of the congregation, and the consistory is compromised of elders and deacons, together with the minister of the Word. But the issue of authority did not meet with much favor in the minds of the Advisory Committee or Study Committee. The point that was stressed again and again was that women and men are equal before God, and ought to be treated equally in the church. One delegate speaking against the recommendation of the Advisory Committee, told of a conversation he had had with a member of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), a church which recently had broken away from the liberal Presbyterian Church in the U.S. This mall from the PCA said in response to the discussion on the matter of women in office, “Brother, that’s why we left the mother church!”

Toward the end of the discussion, Rev. Andrew Kuyvenhoven, vice-president of Synod, spoke movingly for recommendation. He suggested that hermeneutical principles of interpreting the Scriptures call for an understanding of the continuing working of the Holy Spirit in the church. He referred to 1 Corinthians 11:2–14 which speaks of women in the church. There the apostle Paul says that women must have their heads covered when they are worshipping God. But, Kuyvenhoven said, the hermeneutical principles by which we interpret Scripture lead us to see that that rule was for a local situation and is no longer relevant among liS today. The same understanding must be used to deal with the question of women in ecclesiastical office. We continue to be led by the Spirit. And the Holy Spirit leads us to see that the message of Scripture must be understood in a different way from the way in which we have always previously understood it. This argument regarding the working of the Holy Spirit came up again and again in various contexts during Synod. The fact that the Spirit gives gifts to women proves that they must therefore be ordained as deacons, elders, and ministers. Never mind that the Bible speaks clearly on this subject: the Holy Spirit leads us to new truths through the gifts that He gives, and through our ever new understanding of Scripture. Oh, the subjectivism of such logic! It will be the downfall of our church.

At last Synod was ready to vote. The roll was called and the chair announced that the recommendation carried by one vote! Pandemonium broke out in the galleries. Someone remarked that it sounded like all the women there had just received a free trip to Hawaii on a game show. But alas! The vote was miscounted. An elder from Classis South asked for the floor and said that he had also been counting, and his count showed that the recommendation had lost by one vote. So the chairman asked for a recount. And sure enough! The elder was right. The recommendation had indeed lost by one vote.

But that did not end the matter. At once a motion was made to go to the minority report of the Study Committee. The minority report had recommended that consistories be permitted to ordain qualified women as deacons provided that their work be distinguished from that of elders. Now a motion was immediately made to approve that recommendation. But was that procedure legal according to the rules of Synod? The rules of Synod state that a motion is not acceptable if it is verbally or substantially the same as a motion already rejected by Synod. Many delegates believed that there was no substantial difference between the motion that was defeated, and the recommendation of the minority report. It was therefore brought to the chairmans attention that this new motion was out of order. But he ruled that it was in order, that it was substantially different from the motion already defeated. And his ruling was sustained in the face of the challenge.

The recommendation of the minority Study Committee was adopted by a vote of 87 to 64. Apparently the provision which was added to the minority recommendation persuaded the minds of some who had previously voted against the first motion.


This was not the end of the matter of women in ecclesiastical office. That evening Synod took up the appeal of the Church of the Servant regarding Mrs. Marchiene Rienstra, and her desire to be declared a candidate for the ministry. The Advisory Committee of Synod recommended that Synod “declare that the Board of Trustees acted properly when it decided that it could not permit Marchiene Rienstra to become a candidate for the ministry of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church.” The ground for this recommendation was Church Order Article 3.

The discussion regarding this recommendation brought out some very revealing insights into the thinking of the CRC in general, and the seminary professors in particular. Every delegate, for example, was given a document signed by Dr. Melvin Hugen, professor of Pastoral Theology at Calvin Seminary, in which he pleaded for Synod to “accede to the appeal of the Church of the Servant and present Marchiene Rienstra to the churches as a candidate for the ordained ministry.” It would he enlightening, I think, to look briefly at this document prepared by Dr. Hugen in order to see how he reasons regarding this matter.

Thus the logic of Dr. Hugen is that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church beyond Scripture. Whereas the Bible clearly speaks of the authority of the man over the women, an authority rooted in creation and in the fall (I Tim. 2), Dr. Hugen says that the Holy Spirit is leading us to this new understanding of Scripture? We know this by the fact that He has given the gifts of ministry to such a woman as Mrs. Marchiene Hienstra.

Dr. Hugen was not alone in coming out so boldly in favor of the appeal of the Church of the Servant. The president of the seminary, Dr. John Kromminga, also spoke of his fervent desire that the church would very soon open the office of the ministry of the Word to women. It is amazing that two men from our seminary should come out so openly and forthrightly for a position which is so clearly opposed by Scripture on the ground of that woman is not to have authority over a man, and that she is to be in submission to him.

When the vote was called on the appeal of the Church of the Servant, Synod ruled not to accede to that appeal. For the time being Mrs. Hienstra is not a candidate.

The dance issue was up before Synod that night once again. The Board of Trustees had been bombarded with negative reaction to their decision to allow social dancing at Calvin College. Several Overtures and communications were addressed to Synod, urging Synod to instruct Calvin College not implement this decision on dancing. The Advisory Committee of Synod recommend “that Synod appoint a study committee whose mandate shall be to study the matter of the dance in the light of Scripture, including the question whether and in what way the dance is a cultural area which is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ, making use, where appropriate, of the Film Arts Report of 1966 and of Overture No.1 of Classis Hamilton to Synod of 1971; and the Report on Worldly Amusements of 1928 and 195] ; and to submit guidelines and recommendations to the Synod of 1980.” The Advisory Committee also asked Synod to “instruct the Board of Trustees to withhold implementation of its position on the matter of the dance until Synod shall have taken action on the study report: This recommendation was adopted by Synod.


The last day of Synod saw a very lengthy debate on the appeal of Rev. Rodney Westveer against Classis Zeeland. Classis Zeeland had deposed him on ground of his unbiblical divorce. The Synodical Deputies did not concur with Classis Zeeland in its decision because of insufficient evidence. So the matter was brought to Synod. Rev. Westveer appealed to the Judicial Code Committee, and thus became the first case brought before Synod by way of the Judicial Code. It was however, a very unsatisfactory experience because the Judicial Code Committee was divided in its recommendations. The result was the appointment of a Pastoral Concern Committee to deal with Rev. Westveer and the Classis regarding the matter of his divorce.

The last major issue before Synod was the change to be made in the Church Order now that consistories will be permitted to ordain women to the office of deacon. The Church Order Article 3 states, “Confessing male members of the church who meet the biblical requirements for office-bearers are eligible for office.” Obviously this must be changed now that women may be ordained to the office of deacon.

One of the most amazing things about tho government of the CRC is that the Church Order can he changed right there on the floor of Synod. I spoke with one of the officers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church which was holding its Synod at Calvin College too. He said in regard to the decision to permit women to he ordained as deacons, “But surely the churches must ratify this decision! You cannot just change the Church Order like that, can you?” But the amazing fact is that Synod can indeed change the Church Order just like that.” So the Advisory Committee came with its proposed change: “Article 3: a. Confessing male members of the church who meet the biblical requirements are eligible for the offices of ministry and elder. b. All confessing members of the church who meet the biblical requirements are eligible for the office of deacon. c. Only those who have been officially called and ordained or installed shall hold and exercise office in the church.”

But the Church Order says something else about such substantial changes. Several of the delegates immediately reminded the chairman of Synod that Article 47 says, “No substantial alterations shall be effected by Synod in these matters unless the churches have had prior opportunity to consider the advisability of the proposed changes.”

These delegates moved to refer the entire matter of women as deacons to the churches for such consideration until Synod next year has an opportunity to review the response of the church. But the chairman of Synod ruled that the churches do not have the right to change the decision which was adopted yesterday. They may speak and respond only to the wording of the change as it would appear in the Church Order, but not on the substance of the change.

An elder delegate obviously pleased with yesterday’s decision then accused those who were appealing to Article 47 of dishonesty and dishonorable behavior. He said that those who were seeking to bring the matter to the churches’ attention were merely attempting to change the decision that Synod had made. It was indeed an unfortunate accusation. At any rate, the decision was made by Synod to send the matter of the Church Order change to the churches, but only as it concerned the wording of the change.


So ended the Synod 1978. I began by observing that Synod 1978 could be called a “house divided.” I believe that is an accurate description. The matters of such importance as women in ecclesiastical office and the candidacy of Mrs. Rienstra were not just minor differences of opinion. The authority of Scripture is at stake in these issues. The division of Synod over these issues was a deep division. I am personally convinced that the question of women elders and women ministers is just a short time away for the CRC. With our position regarding the Church Order and the ease with which changes can be made in it, we will have women elders and ministers before such a denomination as the Reformed Church in America.

Another thing that I observed was the way in which the Bible was sometimes used in the devotions before the session of Synod. At crucial times during the debates, when Synod recessed for noon lunch, and then began with devotions before the afternoon session, those who led in Scripture reading sometimes chose passages which seemed to promote their particular position. In my opinion, this was a poor use of Scripture, and should be discouraged at any time, but especially during the heat of discussion at a Synodical session.

One final observation: It has been observed in the past that Canada strongly influences the CRC. This was certainly evident at Synod 1978. As has been stated above, the majority of Canadian delegates were strongly in favor of the ordination of women to the office of deacons, as well as of the candidacy of Mrs. Rienstra. One cannot help but wonder where this heavy influence of Canadian churches is leading us. I cannot help feeling that the direction to which they are leading is not a good one. Time alone will decide.