Evaluating the Work of General Synod

I have here tonight a copy of a paper called, “The Lutheran News.” The date is Nov. 15, today. The head on the lead article reads: Michigan Congregation leaves Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Charges that Missouri Synod tolerates attacks on Bible. Officials disagree—defend Seminary professors. The congregation is the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church of Wayland Michigan. On Reformation Day, Oct. 31, 1965, they held a congregational meeting. Officials of the Missouri Synod were invited to be present to refute the charges of the Wayland Pastor that the Missouri Synod denomination tolerates heresy. By more than a 2/3 majority after a three hour meeting the congregation voted to leave the Missouri Synod denomination.

Why should this concern us when our topic is the General Synod of ’65? Because we must view the events and circumstances that prevail in our denomination, not as something which is peculiar to us nor limited to us. The battle is far larger than that. The Christian Reformed Church is also deeply troubled by the writings of at least some of her seminary professors and by many other disturbing circumstances.

What am I trying to say to you then? The defection is widespread. Missouri Synod has been a bastion of the faith. If there was one church in America that we thought could be counted on to stand, it was Missouri Synod. And Missouri Synod has been shaken to the very foundations. We are in troubled times. Merger is not the issue that confronts us first of all. Our problems run deeper than that, and they cut across all denominational lines. A battle is raging today. It is not the battle of denominationalism. It is the battle between those who would maintain the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and those who cry, “God is dead.”

A new book has recently been published by the Rev. Herman Otten, the editor of “The Lutheran News.” He calls it God or Baal? It is available in paper back for 75¢. God or Baal? He discusses the issues that are confronting not only Missouri, but all the denominations in America: Barthianism, Neo-Orthodoxy. The New Modernism, the universalism that underlies ecumenical theology, the new morality which is simply the old immorality, civil disobedience which simply another form of anarchy.

God or Baal? This is the ultimate issue with which we are confronted. Nor dare we minimize the power of the enemy or the gravity of the issues. In the final analysis, we battle not against flesh and blood: But against principalities and powers, against Spiritual wickedness in high places, against the world rulers of this darkness. This is the nature of the enemy against whom we must fight.

With this as a prelude, consider the issues that confronted us at General Synod last spring, issues which continue to confront us.

Church Merger

When the issue of church merger came to the Boor of synod, at least some were prepared to oppose it. The Rev. Joe Eernisse, Fifth Reformed Church of Muskegon, was the first man to speak against merger. The Rev. Dr. Clarence Dame spoke at length, pointing out that in merger after merger among other denominations, the consequences have been most unsatisfactory. The number of missionaries on the field decreased. The amount of money, per capita offerings. decreased. The rate of growth declines; conversions are fewer. Further, Dr. Dame had the figures from various mergers, so that he could say, “This is where they stood at the time of merger, and this is where they stood five years and ten years after their merger.”

You must understand that the issue before Synod was not merger as such. The issue before Synod was whether to give permission to frame a plan of union. This distinction must be kept in mind. We were not voting on merger, but upon whether to draw a plan of merger. To be sure, if the drawing of a plan could have been defeated, that would have ended the matter. But had you known the temper of this Synod, had you witnessed how the vote was running, you would have known that that was an utter impossibility.

Secondly we have been told repeatedly, those of us who are known to Oppose merger, you have no right to make a decision until a plan is presented. Bear in mind that some of our classes from this area sent up overtures a year ago, saying, “Either get on with it or stop the negotiations.” Why? Because we were concerned about the possibility that one day we would be presented with a fait accompli. Our Synod and their general assembly had ordered the various boards of both denominations to seek for closer cooperation with each other. The day could have come, just by letting negotiations drag, when denominational officials might have come to us to say, “All of our boards are now one. Since we are already fully integrated in every department, our two denominations are already merged in fact.” The question would have been answered and the issue resolved before we had even had an opportunity to vote upon it. For this reason many of us felt we must prosecute the matter of merger as rapidly as possible.

As a digression on the matter of cooperation between the boards, at Synod I spoke at great length with editor Ben Hartley of the official Presbyterian paper and also with Arthur H. Matthews, assistant editor of “The Presbyterian Journal.” Both of them said this to me at different times and individually, “You know, one thing stands in the way of merger in the minds of many of our more conservative people. It is the liberalism of your Board of Foreign Missions.” Chew on that for a little bit. They fear the ecumenical policies of our Board of World Missions.

At any rate the thing we must do is to bring the merger to a vote, so that it would not be accomplished in fact before a vote was ever taken. When therefore the vote was taken on the plan of merger, I voted for the framing of a plan. Only 16 voted against it. This was misinterpreted by many people. One of our denominational secretaries was jubilant. He was ecstatic. He did not realize that many of us had talked this over very carefully, and we knew from the beginning that we would vote to formulate a pIan. In the back of our minds was this thought, “Draw your plan. The sooner you complete it, the sooner we’ll defeat it.” This was our reason for voting for the formulation of a plan of merger.

Well, where do we stand? Our General Synod and their assembly will meet jointly, or at least in the same city with some sort of liaison between them, in Bristol, Tennessee in ’67. Then in ’68, if plans materialize, the joint committee of 24, along with their consultants, will present a plan of union. The question will come to the classes in ’69.

The big question in the minds of many people is that of property from the point of view of the congregation and penSions from the point of view of the preacher. There are four possibilities. First, the classes may defeat it. After all, a year ago we had the signatures of 116 ministers, not one from beyond the Mississippi, because no endeavor was made to get them. 116 men from Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin represent a very sizeable block. The first possibility, therefore, is that we may defeat it at the classical level. If so, you have no problem.

Two, the merger could indeed pass, though I think you’ll be interested in a remark that Dr. Harry Hager made when this merger was first proposed. He’s relatively confident that it will be defeated. He said, “You can bank on this, when a Hollander isn’t sure, he just doesn’t move.” It is his opinion that enough won’t be sure, and they will defeat the merger. But if it passes, there’s always the possibility that the congregation will go along. Some congregations will, and then you have no problem. Whether I agree with that action or not is scarcely the point. You have no problem.

Three, the merger may take place, but there may be adequate provisions, similar to those of 20 years ago when merger was proposed with the old, small United Presbyterian Church. We had a provision that, in the event merger had been consummated, any congregation by a 2/3 vote of its membership could withdraw and retain its property. So there’s always this possibility. And then you still don’t have a problem.

It is, of course, the fourth possibility that creates the real problem. If the merger were to take place, and a congregation wanted no part of it, and no adequate provision had been made, the result, just as in some other mergers, might be padlocked churches and congregations with no place to worship. The Northern Presbyterian Church has been ruthless in this respect. When I talk about padlocked churches, I mean it literally. There are today in the United States buildings with a padlock on the door. Padlocked by court order. And the people who built them and prayed over them and paid for them are not permitted to use them. So that is the fourth possibility.

Women in Church Offices

Now to a different but related matter, the ordination of women. This question has been before the Reformed Church repeatedly. It was defeated by the classes in ’59. Just last year it was defeated by General Synod. Bear in mind that the complexion of General Synod depends upon the delegates who are present at any particular session. Those who are interested in manipulating a synod spent long hours reading the lists of delegates to determine where the delegates stand. In this particular Synod, the delegates were such that the vote was overwhelmingly against us. So in this case the ordination of women to the offices of elder and deacon was approved. A single word was deleted from the constitutional requirements for office. Our constitution limited ordination to “male members.” That one word was deleted: “Male.” Now don’t misunderstand; everyone there knew perfectly well what was happening.

This applies only to elders and deacons and not to the ministry. Had we the time, it would be no problem to show you that this is an unnatural division on the basis of the Bible. But these two, ordination to the ministry and ordination of elders and deacons, are found in different parts of the constitution. And it would have been much more difficult to pass the ordination of women to the ministry than simply to pass the ordination of women for the

office of elder and deacon. Why was this so important: Drought before Synod, passed, sent down to the classis, defeated, brought back before Synod again, defeated, brought back again? What is the motivation, the driving force, behind this desire to nominate women? The answer is not Scriptural or even idealistic. It’s purely practical and pragmatic. Many churches, particularly in the Eastern sector of our country, do not have men to serve. This is not a secret. It was said repeatedly on the floor of Synod, “We must have it.” If you vacation about the country and worship in various churches, you will have become aware that there is a mark, a symptom, of the church where the Gospel isn’t preached. The symptom, the mark, is this: they don’t have men. In a liberal church, you’ll find women, children and elderly people. They do not have men. I have said to the men of our congregation and how much more should I say it to you tonight with this tremendous gathering of men; For all the problems that confront us in the Reformed Church, when you can fill a sanctuary like this with concerned men, we aren’t dead yet. And that, I believe.

Twenty years ago when another merger was under consideration, a consistorial union meeting was held in Bethany Reformed. One or more United Presbyterians spoke to us there. One of their men said, “I have never seen a gathering of men such as this.”

Well, now, the answer to getting men and keeping men is preaching the Gospel and preaching it hard. If you won’t accept that as the answer, then you substitute women, because men won’t listen to a lot of drivel and pap. And that I believe. If you aren’t prepared to preach and preach hard, you’ll never have men. The men we see here tonight are a tribute to the kind of preaching in the main that we have had in our pulpits across the years.

On the floor of synod one man made a magnificent speech on the ordination of women. He was an immigrant elder out of Canada. He did not speak the English language very well, but this man knew the Bible. He began in Genesis with man as an office bearer and women as his complement and took us all though Scripture. We heard nothing comparable to it in the entire Synod. Soon I shall point out that that was a hallmark of Synod—the Bible for all practical purposes was irrelevant. But here was an immigrant elder out of Canada who proved to be an outstanding exception.

What did he get for an answer? A seminalY professor replied, “This has been studied by two trusted servants of the church, and they find nothing against it.” Some of us were hurt for that elder’s sake. We felt that a very worthy man had been dealt a low blow, as much as to say, “You poor ignorant fellow. This has been studied by people of stature.”

To me there is one real issue. The question is not whether Scripture forbids the ordination of women, but whether Scripture positively prescribes their ordination. In the time of the Reformation, Calvin and Luther differed on their approach. This is why to this day the Lutheran Church, even in its external forms, differs from us who stand in the Calvinistic tradition. Luther said, “We will retain anything which is not forbidden in Scripture.” Calvin said, “We will start over, and we accept only what Scripture explicitly teaches.”

If we follow Calvin’s train, we shall not be interested merely in the question of what Scripture forbids. Scripture most certainly does not prescribe the ordination of women. Nowhere in Scripture is it indicated that women held the only offices given to the church, the office of the elder and the deacon. If we intend to stand where our Reformation forefathers stood we can accept only what Scripture explicitly teaches, and we have no further questions to answer.

The Church and Socio-Political Issues

Third, I have been asked to talk about the matter of civil disobedience. Actually, this too must be seen in a somewhat larger picture. ‘Ibis was the part of the Report of the Social Action Commission, and what a report that was. At one point I stood on the floor of Synod and said, “Before God. how can you do it?” And they did it!

One aspect of the report dealt with Viet Nam. This was the only point in the entire Synod where a committee recommendation was changed from the Boor. The report of the committee was such that, in effect, the policy of our country in Viet Nam was condemned. At this point the opposition was so strong that it was put back into committee. When it was reported back out of committee, it was a dual-sided thing, but at least the President was commended for his stand.

If you were to ask me how I analyze that particular situation, why were we able to change this one item and only this one, I would say that, if many delegates were lacking in theology, they did display their patriotism. An elder from Brooklyn, for example, was on the wrong side of every question. When it came to this issue, however, he was on the right side, because he’d been with Patton and the 3rd Army in World War II. Directly in front of me was a little Italian elder out of Philadelphia. He was on the wrong side of every question, until we got to this. Then he turned around and said, “We ought to drop the big one now.” Then end result was a change made from the floor.

Then came the item which led me to ask, “Before God, how can you do it?” This was a resolution from the Christian Action Commission “concurring” in the action of the Supreme Court in denying prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. In the first place, the Supreme Court couldn’t care less what the General Synod of the Reformed Church thinks, so that the resolution was pointless. And this I pointed out to them. But what an amazing thing, to commend or approve the decision that put prayer and Bible reading out of the schools. And it was passed by an overwhelming majority.

Now we weren’t alone. A tremendously strong elder out of Patterson, N.J. spoke to this issue, and he made sense. And there were others. Nonetheless, they passed it with a strong majority.

On civil disobedience, General Synod passed a statement that it was proper for people, Singly or in concert with others, to disobey any Jaw which in good conscience they could not obey. But this statement was hedged about with certain qualifications. One was that it should be peaceful disobedience. Another was that he who broke the law should be prepared to pay the price.

In this connection, all interesting thing happened while we were at Synod. A certain young man out of the Reformed Church, Peter Muilenberg, was arrested and jailed in Selma, Alabama. He broke the law. He was arrested. He was jailed. Now the interesting thing: We were given daily reports, multiplc reports, on what Reformed Church leaders were doing for Peter Muilenberg. We have a man on the payroll for this purpose, by the way, Howard Schade. He is the secretary for integration or something like that. He would report to Synod, “I was on the phone this morning talking to the SheriH of Selma, Alabama and I told him this, etc.” Now the point is, I question the consistcncy of our denominational leaders. If one who defies the law is supposed to be willing lo pay the price, why do our denominational leaders spend your money and mine to effect the release of a man such as this?

The problem, of course, is just this: We have a totally different basic philosophy about what the church ought to be doing. The question is not, even, whether certain socio-economic proposals are right or wrong. The question is, “When the fields are white unto harvest, and the laborers are few, dare we invest our time in these temporal things when we ought to be presenting men with the message of eternity?” That’s the issue.

Now I raise a question without casting any other aspersions on the name of Martin Luther King. I choose him, simply because he certainly has been in the news. Let me ask you a question, ‘When you have seen Martin Luther King on television, when you have read about him in the daily papers, when you have read the stories week after week in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report everything that you have heard and read about Martin Luther King—have you ever heard that he stood in front of any group, anywhere and said, “You are sinners who need a Savior”? Never. Never. This becomes the issue: What is the task of the church?

Suppose, for example, that we were in a position to ameliorate all the inequities that exist. Suppose that we were able to adjust the social structure and the economic structure and the interrelationships of society, but we have not told men that Christ died for their sins, what would we have done for them? If we have not told them that Christ died for their sins?

I’ll deal very briefly with the question of civil disobedience. The civil disobedience movement simply fails to take into account the Biblical view of government as ordained of God. “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and Caesar had a miserable government. Paul sent back the runaway slave, Onesimus, and said to Philemon, Receive him as a brother in Christ. But he didn’t say, “Set him free.” Not one specific instance in Scripture speaks contrary to this point of view, because our task is to deal with eternal things.

Even that text so often quoted, “We must obey God rather than men,” is misused, because the context is disregarded. This was not a civil court. This was not a civil or political situation. Read it for yourself in the Book of Acts. Peter was talking to the leaders in Israel. It was an ecclesiastical situation. Further, one must obViously take into account the issue before them.

Peter and John were forbidden to preach in the name of Jesus any more. This was the specific prohibition. To this I would agree. If anyone should say to me, “You can’t preach Christ any more,” I’ll be ready to rebel. But the people who talk about disobedience now won’t be with us then. Because they aren’t preaching Christ now.

We are confronted with certain basic considerations. Earlier I said that Scripture was to all practical purposes irrelevant to the deliberations of Synod. As an illustration, the chairman of the social action commission was asked from the Boor of synod to give the scriptural grounds for the ordination of women. He said, “We’ll send them to you after Synod.” That’s right! Your minister got the booklet in the mail the other day. Just vote on it now, and we will send you the reason in a few weeks. Three months later we got the reason. And a mighty poor one, of course. Scripture was virtually irrelevant.

This brings me to the question that Dr. Jerome De Jong put in front of the Fellowship of the Concerned a few days ago. He said, “Suppose you win the battle, suppose you defeat the merger, what do you think you have saved?” Now the point is simply this: we’re sick, or we wouldn’t be confronted with these situations. And I mean, Side! Sick! Sick! Did I say something hopeful earlier because of you men? I tell you, you are our hope. You laymen, you men who sit in the pew, you’re the only hope we’ve got. I think that’s just the way I’ll close. You’re the only hope we’ve got.