The Christian Reformed Church has been a part of the American ecclesiastical scene for over 135 years. Heirs of the secession (the so-called “afscheiding”) from the established slate church which occurred in the Netherlands in 1834, the immigrants to America were deter· mined to establish a church that was true to the Reformed faith as it is defined in the Three Standards of Unity (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort).
This by the grace of God they succeeded in doing, and the church they established was a model of what the Reformed faith could produce in people who consistently held to and applied its tenets.
Attendance at worship was good at both Sunday services and in the evening service, the regularly preached catechism sermon gave the people a steady fare of sound doctrine for their faith and weekly practice following. The youth were faithfully catechized at weekly catechism classes until they made their profession of faith in early adulthood. Christian schools were established in order that the covenant youth might be given a God-centered rather than secular education and these schools were sacrificially maintained in a country where no financial help from the state was given. A little later a Christian college was established so that graduates might be properly equipped to serve the Lord in the various areas of life’s activity to which He might call them. Also early in the denomination’s existence, a seminary was founded so that a sound Reformed ministry might be perpetuated. A weekly radio program called “The Back to God Hour” was established and maintained over the years and generations. Home missions and foreign missions work was faithfully performed and the Lord blessed the denomination with steady increase.
In short, the denomination, when viewed by a “jealous” outsider—as I was, pastoring a small Orthodox Presbyterian church over thirty years ago—had just about everything. Our mutual paths have diverged somewhat in the years following, after we came to Australia, first to the pastorate and then to the Reformed Theological College, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Australia and of New Zealand. We have, nevertheless, maintained a close liaison with the CRC, since it was not only a sister church of the RCA and the RCNZ but it also, over the years, gave ministerial and financial help to these smaller fledgling Reformed denominations who in Australia have, to a large extent, followed in the steps of the CRC.
It is obvious that we have loved and admired the CRC for many years. It was therefore with a sense of privilege that, following my retirement from the RTC in 1989, I accepted the invitation to teach at Mid-America Reformed Seminary (established some ten years ago with the principal aim to train ministers for the CRC), and performed this commitment in 1990–1992 as Visiting Professor of Theology. During this time I had the opportunity to have even closer contact with the CRC and to learn of the problems which are presently besetting this denomination and threatening the maintenance of its Reformed character.
Problems in the CRC are nothing new, and the same could undoubtedly be said of any church that seeks to be faithful to its heritage as the body of Christ, for the Adversary is ever active in his attempts to disrupt, divide, sow the seeds of error and if possible, bring the Church of Christ to naught.
CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES
In 1990 Edward Heerema, a retired minister of the CRC, wrote a small book entitled, Letter to My Mother,1 and in nine chapters traces the history of his denomination from the first part of the twentieth century to the present. He does this because of his love for his mother church and his concern about the development of disturbing trends in it.
He points out that this development began already with the 1924 synodical decisions on common grace. While agreeing with their thrust, he maintains that these decisions were left unfinished, and were thereafter to lead to an uncritical attitude regarding common grace and a relaxing of the antithesis between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. Prior militancy, hitherto, regarding the Reformed faith was replaced by the attitude, “God is appeased and at war no more. What is therefore proper to God’s messengers are beckonings, invitations, overtures to fellowship; and what they are called ware acts of healing, restoration, and reconstruction.”2
This new openness led to consequent modifications in the approach to Scripture; a replacement of the emphasis on ruling in ecclesiastical office (cf. the Belgic Confession, Art. 30) by the more functional emphasis on service. The next obvious step was to question whether the holding of office was to remain restricted to men, or whether women might equally be employed “in utilizing [their] gifts in all the offices of the church.”3 Over twenty years of synodical effort was to be expended over this issue, and the matter is not yet settled.
The controversy over the validity of the teaching of the theory of evolution in the light of Scripture’s teaching of divine creation entered the picture with the publication of Howard Van Till’s book, The Fourth Day.4 In his book, Van Till expressly states in support of theistic evolution, “The universe takes on a certain dependable coherence that allows for no breaks or ‘discontinuities’”[i.e., no miracles, for this would reduce God to the status of a magician]. Moreover, he adds, “I see no reason whatsoever to deny that the Creation might have an evolutionary history or that morally responsible creatures [i.e., man] might have been formed through the process of evolutionary development.”5 Van Till, a professor at the CRC’s own Calvin College, is not alone in his views which are shared by others who teach there. Consequently the matter came before synod for resolution. Synod 1992 has attempted to close the book on this issue. “There were three overtures of Synod 1991. Synod 1991, after adopting a declaration which ruled out the ‘espousal of all theorizing that posits the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race,’ had attached a note to this declaration which seemed to deprive it of any practical significance. This note reads: ‘Declaration F is not intended and may not be used to limit further investigation and discussion on the origin of humanity.”
“After a short discussion, Synod 1992 answered these overtures by merely affirming that this note does not change or take away the force of Declaration F. It was apparent that this synod had no heart to enter again into a discussion of this issue. Declaration F, as a safeguard against false teaching on origins, would seem to be as dead as the paper on which it is printed.”6
WHERE WILL IT ALL END?
In an editorial in The Banner,7 Harvey Smit suggests some reasons as to why some people think that the CRC “is sick.” “Some say it’s because we’ve left the ways of our fathers and the truth of Scripture. Others say we’ve finally come out of our Dutch ghetto at an uneasy and fearful time in world history. Still others say we suffer from an upward surge of congregationalism and a dramatic fall in denominational loyalty.”
He thinks that “maybe it [the CRC] just has a few weak spots,” and suggests that the phenomenon of church membership loss is being experienced by other denominations (notably the Presbyterian Church, USA, which conducted a study of the problem and published its findings). It seems that, rather than just leaving the church, people are increasingly “leaving the Christian faith altogether.”
He suggests, “If the CRC is sick, it will not be cured by a new agency structure or a new denominational spirit. The cure must come in the local church. That’s where the real life of the church is found and where the Spirit of God is most immediately present.”
We are left wondering, however, why is the Holy Spirit not present in the local church as should properly be the case? Is the church perhaps not preaching the Word (to which the Spirit has graciously bound Himself in saving activity) as it should? A number of factors, in addition to those already mentioned, would appear to indicate that this is the case.
A DIMINISHING REGARD FOR THE HEIDELBERG CATECHISM
In his delightful column, “Of Cabbages and Kings,” which is a regular feature in The Banner, Jacob Eppinga warns about the increasing loss of catechism preaching and teaching: “…there are a few churches among us, I am told, where there is ‘no more catechism’ in the pulpit. I’ve heard of one minister who has not preached the catechism for a half dozen years and has no intention to do so in the future. This bother me…I am thankful that I was brought up in a church in which the catechism was both taught and preached, as required in our Church Order. I would like my fellow church members, especially those in the rising generation, to have the same advantage—and blessing…”
More serious than this, however, is the evidence that the change of direction which the CRC is taking is the result of a different approach to the teaching of Scripture and its authority.
THE WOMEN IN OFFICE ISSUE
In this regard, the Women in Office issue which has troubled the CRC for the past twenty years, is a major indication. Over the years, none of the half-dozen committees which were mandated by successive synods to come up with biblical grounds to change the Church Order and open the offices to women were able to do so, though they did succeed in rendering disputable, heretofore clear passages in Scripture which taught both male headship in the home and in the wider family of God, or the church. Finally, Synod 1990, without appending biblical grounds for doing so, decided “to permit churches to use their discretion in utilizing the gifts of women members in all the offices of the church (Acts of Synod 1990,” pp.649–650).
The following synod (1991) addressed itself to the lack of biblical grounds. Then, after lengthy debate, Synod 1992’s conclusions were: 1) “That synod attach the grounds of Report 31 (ad hoc committee) to the decision of 1990 as a summary of the biblical data gathered from previous synodical study reports on this issue; 2) That synod not ratify the change in Church Order, Article 3, and that the pre-1990 wording be retained. Grounds: a. Although biblical arguments have been advanced both for and against ordaining women to the offices of the church, the biblical support of ordination presented in Report 31 is not sufficiently persuasive to win the confidence and support of the church. b. There is reason to believe that ratification would aggravate the current unrest and divisiveness in the church, and therefore ratification would not be prudent in the current polarized situation; 3) That synod encourage the churches to use the gifts of women members to the fullest extent possible in their local churches, including allowing women to teach, expound the Word of God and provide pastoral care, under the supervision of the elders.”9
Some conservatives professed satisfaction with this synodical decision. W. Robert Godfrey, a CRC minister who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, and lately has become its president, said: “For the present however, the Church Order is clear. And the actions of Synod 1992 did not change the Church Order. If we remain a denomination of churches that keeps its covenant to live by the Church Order, churches will not use women to conduct church services or to preach or exhort.”10
This, however, has proved to be little more than a wish. “At a special meeting of Classis Grand Rapids East, Eastern Avenue CRC, one of the Christian Reformed denomination’s flagship liberal churches, announced that its council has proposed that the church begin ordaining women to the office of elder. If ratified by the congregation on August 2, the church will hold an election the following Sunday to determine the new elders of the church. Describing the decision of Synod as a ‘very serious disappointment’ and ‘a strange halfway measure,’ Rev. Rolf Bouma, the pastor said…‘Even thought we want to go ahead and I believe will go ahead with the ordination of women as elders, we remain firmly committed to the denomination.’…Other churches in the Classis also indicated their support for women’s ordination at the special meeting…”
“‘I think it’s significant that Eastern Avenue is the home church of two Calvin seminary professors [Mel Hugen and John Cooper] and the interim coeditor of The Banner [Harvey Smit],’ said Rev. Paul Murphy, president of the Committee of Concerned Members. ‘These people wield wide influence in the denomination and if anything is posing a threat to the denomination’s unity, this is.’”11
From this development, as might be supposed, the next step is to have actual women “expounders.” Accordingly, we next learn that “Classis Grand Rapids East has examined and approved Ruth Hofman as a candidate for ministry in the Christian Reformed Church… ‘with responsibiLities in expounding the Word of God, teaching, and pastoral care.’”12 This, mind you, in open defiance of synod’s decision. Yet it seems that it is the conservatives who repeatedly get tarred with the brush as “the troublers of Israel.”
Conservative reaction was to be expected. Professor H. David Schuringa, another professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in California and one of the authors (Dr. Joel Nederhood was the other) of the Synod 1992 “expounding” decision, has declared in response: “‘Classis Grand Rapids East is playing games. The use of women’s gifts was explicitly stated to be exercised in the local church under the authority of local consistory. This action makes a mockery of the synodical decision and totally disregards the denominational covenant.’ According to Schuringa, tht decision was intended to allow local congregations to make occasional use if women as laymen, not allow them to be declared eligible for full-time Christian service.”13 One does not have to be a prophet, however, to see that the full ordination or women as ministers by the CRC is merely a matter of time, especially since the decision of Synod 1993 decided that “all the offices in the Christian Reformed Church should be open to women…Because of the change the decision demands in the Church Order, the earliest the offices can be opened will be 1994.”14
In 1973 the CRC Synod produced a report on homosexuality which distinguished between “homosexuality” and “homosexualism.” The former referred to simple homosexual orientation, while the latter referred to the actual practice, which is sinful. There are now those in the CRC who question this position and feel that it should be changed.
One such minister is Hendrik Han, professor at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto, Canada, who has changed his view about the apostle Paul’s teaching against homosexualism. In his renewed study of Romans 1:18–32, Hart states that he has undergone a change of view. In his studies, Hart has made use of commentators Paul Achtemeier and James Dunn who, according to Han, “have also raised questions as to whether the primary theme of homosexuality called for in the Bible is still normative today.”
Another minister is Rev. Jim Lucas who is licensed by Classis Grand Rapids East. He has openly disclosed his homosexual orientation, doing this in a speech at Calvin College on the topic, ‘“What Would You Say if You Knew I was Gay?” He also disclosed his homosexuality later to the Eastern Avenue CRC consistory, though he maintains that he has always been celibate. Nevertheless, instead of repenting of an attitude that the Bible condemns as sinful sexual deviation, he calls upon his denomination to repent of its attitude toward homosexuals. The next step of the CRC, if it follows the path of the mother church in the Netherlands, the Gereformeerde Kerken, will be to permit open homosexual practice in the church.
DISCIPLINE APPLIED TO THE WRONG PEOPLE?
Not only is discipline, according to the Belgic Confession, one of the three marks of the true church (Article 29), but history makes it clear that a church which does not practice discipline soon loses its way doctrinally and ethically. The CRC therefore is to be commended for the fact that it still seeks to be a church that practices discipline. But having said this, we must also recognized that discipline wrongly exercised is as bad, if not worse, than discipline not exercised at all. In this respect, one may wonder about some of the disciplinary efforts of the CRC.
The Rev. Steve M. Schlissel is a case in point. A converted Jew, he was gratified to discover the riches of the Reformed faith as it is expressed in the CRC’s Three Standards of Unity. Becoming a member or the CRC, he has been actively at work in Brooklyn (New York) as a home missionary and over the years has been the pastor of Messiah’s Congregation there. Lately, he has run afoul of CRC leadership whom he has criticized for being less than confessionally Reformed.
While it is true that Schlissel can be blamed for undiplomatic methods and perhaps careless language, there is no doubt that he loves the historic Reformed faith and has been an effective home missionary. It would seem, however, that his principal “sin” has been his bold challenge of the leadership of the CRC. While admittedly all leaders must have trust and loyalty if they are to be effective in their work, leaders must always endeavor to see that their actions are worthy of trust and loyalty. Criticism is never a pleasant experience and it is easy to be defensive in reaction to it. But learning from it may also be a salutary necessity.
SECESSION OF CHURCHES
Schlissel is not alone in feel ing that the general condition of the CRC is beyond correction, principally because of unwillingness by the leadership to make needed corrections. Some churches and groups within churches are therefore leaving the denomination. According to the following report: “In the two months following Synod 1992’s decision to allow women to ‘teach, expound the Word, and provide pastoral care under the supervision of the elders,’ seven more independent churches totaling over 1400 members have swelled the ranks of the thirteen conservative congregations which seceded in the two years prior to Synod 1992. The total number of seceders has now topped over 4000 in twenty churches; other churches are poised to leave.”15
Reactions of leaders to this development have been mixed. Some classes have instituted disciplinary action against the so-called leaders of “schism,” and there have been struggles between leaving and remaining groups for the property. There does not however, seem to be any prospect of a change in direction by the leadership of the CRC, either because matters have developed too far to bring about a reversal, or more likely because a reversal is not even considered as an accept· able course of action.
We conclude with the viewpoint expressed by John H. Kromminga, President Emeritus of Calvin Seminary, who was an acting coeditor of The Banner at the time he wrote the lines below in an editorial entitled, “Say Yes to Unity.” “A glimmering of commitment to unity has been overwhelmed by enthusiasm for schism. While most of us sit by as if paralyzed, a minority works for the day when we may not all be one, but two or three or more. And somehow this activity gets twisted around and advertised as the way the world will come to know that Jesus Christ has been sent by God…The delegates to Synod 1992 tried to give us a framework for [unity]. They voted not to ratify an earlier decision to open all offices to women. Then they encouraged churches to use the gifts of women as fully as possible, including that of expounding the Word…Between left and right, we came up with some sort of middle ground…some better solution will have to come later…We simply have to make it work to the welfare of the church of Christ…If there is any merit in the 1992 decision, it is that it holds us together while we search for something better…Let us pray that we may all get along with each other until that day when we can once more get on with the work of Christ.”16
1. Freeman, South Dakota: Pine Hill Press, 1990.
2. Henry Stob, Reformed Journal (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, March 1961). p.5.
3. Acts of the CRC Synod 1990, pp.649–650.
4. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
5. Ibid., p. 258.
6. C. Venema, The Outlook, July/August 1992, p.7.
7. October 19, 1992, p.7.
8. The Banner, October 5, 1992, p.11.
9. The Outlook, July/August 1992, pp.9–10.
10. The Outlook, September 1992,p.11.
11. The Outlook, October 1992, pp.2223.
12. The Banner, July 12, 1992, p.21.
13. Christian Renewal, October 26, 1992, p.7.
14. The Banner, June 28, 1993, p.7.
15. The Outlook, November 1992, p.21.
16. The Banner, February 11, 1992, p.7.
Rev. Raymond O. Zorn is Principal Emeritus of the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Australia, and is currently Visiting Professor of Theology at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Orange City, Iowa. This article first appeared in the Australian Trowel and Sword, August 1993, and is a condensation of an article with the same title which has been published in Vox Reformata, July 1993.