First Reactions to Synod’s Decision on Nigeria

By “Synod’s decisions on Nigeria” we refer, of course, to those that pertain to the proposed union seminary, whose official name will be “Theological College of Northern Nigeria” (TCNN). For brevity’s sake we shall use in this article only the initials to designate the proposed school.



There are those who hold that when Synod appoints a committee to study a controversial issue, the matter should not be discussed in our periodicals until the committee has reported. We do not agree. No synod has ever decided that such a policy should be followed. Moreover, it is a mistaken policy for more than one reason. For one thing, the study committees concerned and the Church as a whole may profit from interim discussions. For another, the reports of such committees nearly always are published so late that by the time they are read and digested there is little or no time for discussion before Synod meets.

Because of its exceptional importance the Nigerian issue will be discussed in this and possibly the following issues of TORCH AND TRUMPET.


Our Foreign and Indian Mission Board yielded to the strong urgings of Dr. Harry Boer at its Spring meeting this year and, reversing the stand in its 1957 report, recommended that our Church should accede to the request of the Nigerian missionaries to “participate” in the united seminary. A strong Minority Report against that decision went to Synod. It was signed by Rev, Peter De Jong and Rev. Peter Vander Weide, two members of the Board. A number of overtures, classical and consistorial, also went to Synod, urging non-participation or the appointment of a committee of investigation. There was not one overture which took a stand in favor of the Board’s recommendation to support the proposed school, We were among those who favored immediate action by Synod to refuse approval of the TCNN. We saw no reason why it should not declare at once that it would be impossible for us to participate in such an interdenominational venture. However, the general expectation was that Synod would at least withhold approval of the proposed school, refuse to give financial aid, and appoint a committee to study the matter thoroughly and report next year. Synod did what no church or classis had requested it to do. To be sure, it did appoint a study committee, for which we are thankful; but at the same time it adopted certain resolutions which come very close to nullifying a real and unbiased investigation. For it decided to “continue Dr. Boer as a teacher in the TCNN” and to “permit special gifts to be solicited for the native church which desires to participate in the particular cause concerned.”


The decision of the Synod in its entirety is as follows:

1. Synod continues Dr. Harry Boer as a teacher in the TCNN under the terms of the 1955 and 1957 decisions of Synod. Grounds:

a. Former Synods have committed the Church up to this point, and we are morally bound to honor this commitment.

b. The present commitment satisfies the urgency of the situation.

2. That a study committee be constituted of nine members (in which both the minority and the majority opinions are represented), in consultation with the Nigerian General Conference, to define and clarify certain matters which follow, and that c1ear·cut recommendations be made to the Synod of 1959 on these matters:

a. The implications of our ordination vows with respect to missionaries who serve in a united theological enterprise.

b. The relation of the Christian Reformed Church to the TCNN, taking into account our church polity as well as theological distinctiveness.

c. The relation of Nigerian General Conference to the TCNN (for example, appointment of members to the Board of Governors ).

d. The relation of the Benue and Tiv churches to the TCNN.

e. The relation of the teachings of our . Missionary Professor to the distinctive positions and practices held by the Benue and Tiv churches.

f. The relation of the MissionaryTeacher to the Nigerian General Conference (for example, such matters as supervision of his teaching at TCNN and problems that arise for him at TCNN).

g. Further investigation of the need for a distinctively Reformed theological training on the Benue and Tiv field.


(1) The present recommendation of the Board is somewhat ambiguous. The term “participate” can be construed in such a way that the Christian Reformed Church becomes one of the sponsoring and operating churches of the TCNN which would violate the clear statement which Synod gave to the overture of Classis Sioux Center. Or this term might have a far weaker meaning.

(2) There are many aspects of this problem that have not been defined, or that have not come to sufficient clarity.

(3) Several Classes have requestcd such a study.

3. That Synod permit special gifts to be solicited for the native church which desires to participate in TCNN and that it be understood that this does not further commit the Christian Reformed Church to the TCNN at this time inasmuch as the support is given to the native church and the responsibility for expansion of TCNN at this time is the responsibility of the native church. Grounds:

a. The Benue church has requested such help.

b. The Christian Reformed Church has on other occasions allowed the solicitation of gifts without thereby committing itself to actual participation in the pm’licular cause concerned.

4. That this be considered Synod’s answer to the overtures nos. 16, 26, 35, 41, 48, and 52; also Protest No. 4 and the Protest of Rev. J. De Jong. The above recommendations were

adopted after Synod had refused to approve the recommendations of a minority of three members of the Advisory Committee, which recommended (in brief ): First, that Synod should not accede to the request of the Board of Foreign Missions to participate in the program for united theological education in Northern Nigeria; second, that Synod instruct the Board and the Nigerian Mission to help the Benue and Tiv churches develop their own Reformed theological training.


We must acknowledge that we feel intensely dissatisfied with Synod’s decisions on the TCNN. We are convinced that many office-bearers and members of the Christian Reformed Church can say the same thing. Let us state our reasons.

1. Synod’s decisions are a compromise which will involve the Church more deeply in a controversial institutIon. Compromises on practical issues are sometimes unavoidable and may even be useful. But compromises in matters in which important principles are at stake are always bad. Synod refused to “participate” in the TCNN, as our Mission Board had requested; yet it continued Dr. Boer as a teacher in that school. That was inconsistent. Again, Synod permitted the Mission Board to solicit offerings for the TCNN for a year; yet it declared that it should be understood that by contributing to its financial support we are not “further committed” to such support. However, by authorizing the Board to ask for offerings for TCNN Synod is making it exceedingly difficult for future synods to refuse financial support. And do not words almost cease to have meaning when we furnish a teacher for an institution and authorize a contribution of thousands of dollars for its support and still say that we are not “participating” in it?

Again, Synod’s committee was charged with investigating whether there is need for a distinctly Reformed theological training in our Nigerian field ; yet it turned down (by a vote of 60 to 45) the motion to investigate the possibility of providing such training. How inconsistent! Think of it: the Study Committee is not even charged with investigating whether it is possible to establish a school for future ministers in Northern Nigeria based on the Reformed faith! The proposal to do so was fought tooth and nail by Dr. Boer; and he prevailed! Again, a compromise! Moreover, by appointing a committee to investigate whether the future ministers in our sister Church in Nigeria need Reformed training Synod was actually saying that Reformed training might appear to be unnecessary! Mark well, that was said by the Synod of a Church which holds to the Reformed faith as the purest interpretation of the Bible, as being synonymous with the Christian faith at its best, and as being the indispensable basis for all education!

We wonder, and doubtless many readers wonder with us, how such hesitation and such inconsistencies were possible. The explanation, we believe, is two-fold. First, Synod felt it was in a sort of predicament. It felt hamstring by the decisions pertaining to the proposed School in 1955 and 1957. Second, anyone who was present at this year’s Synod when the Nigeria issue was discussed can testify to the persuasive influence of Dr. Boer, who, to save the School which he, perhaps more than anyone else, has fathered, “pulled out all the stops,” as they say. Dr. Boer is doubtless sincere in his convictions; for this we admire him. He is courageous and lets the chips fall where they may. For this too we admired him…until he began to use threatenings. For example, at one point he declared passionately that if Synod should “send a committee” (a delegate had just loosely spoken about “sending” a committee) they would be “on a wild goose chase” since the Christians there “have said what they want and will not change.” We have attended many synods of the Christian Reformed Church, as delegate and especially as reporter, but we have never heard anyone plead his cause at our highest ecclesiastical assembly with such determination and even audacity as Dr. Boer at the Synod of 1958.

Synod’s action in withholding formal endorsement of the proposed school and at the same time giving it the teacher and the support it wants, for the time of the investigation, reminds us of a man who makes a down payment on a car but also assures the seller that he has not made up his mind whether he intends to keep it.


Second, the decision of Synod, unless it leads to ultimate withdrawal of all connections with the TCNN, will imperil the unity and peace of our Church. Synod was concerned about a possible unfavorable reaction in our African field to withdrawal from the proposed school; but let us not fail to be concerned about unfavorable reactions in our own Church to possible participation in TCNN! Such eventual formal participation, by whatever name it would be called, would cause intense dissatisfaction and could have very serious consequences. The very fact that 35 of the delegates to Synod demanded that their negative vote against the decisions made should be recorded and that several sent in written protests, to be included in the minutes, reveals the tenseness of the situation. It meant that the opposition could not be reconciled to Synod’s action and therefore will feel free to continue its opposition in every legitimate way. We do not recall that there has ever been such strong reaction among synodical delegates against decisions made as at this meeting. And that reaction is an index to an equally, if not more, intense opposition in our churches.


Third, up to the present time our mission work in Nigeria has received the enthusiastic support of all in our churches. It is certain that if our missionaries and our sister-Church in Nigeria had requested our help for the establishment of a Reformed theological college among them, our entire denomination would have stood solidly behind the project. How tragic that the training of its future ministers, at a proposed union school, is becoming a bone of contention in our own Church! We wonder if our Mission Board thought of this when it departed from its 1957 stand by recommending participation in TCNN.

Why could not Dr. Boer and others in the Nigerian field have agreed to continue and expand the work already begun at Lupwe in the training of future ministers for the native church, and that on a Reformed basis? It is true that our sister-Church there has close connections with the Church of Christ in the Sudan and that a measure of cooperation is necessary. We are not so narrow as to be opposed to all fellowship with other evangelical groups. We believe in such cooperation with all our heart, as our past pleas for retention of our membership in the N.A.E. testify. But fellowship and cooperation are one thing; establishing and operating a union theological school is quite another thing. A seminary is the taproot of the denominational and theological distinctiveness of a Church. A denomination, whether in America or in Africa, which does not have such a school of its own is bound to suffer from theological impoverishment and blight. We believe that if this had been made plain to the leaders of our sister churches in Benue and Tiv provinces they would have been glad to see a distinctive training-school for ministers established among them.


Fourth, the determined effort to make our Church one of the sponsors and suppOiters of the TCNN (let no one imagine that the African churches interested in TCNN can in any foreseeable future sustain that school without help from the outside; on the contrary, increasingly heavy expenditures will be necessary) has a wrong doctrinal basis. It is the same basis on which the widespread ecumenism of our day rests. Modern ecumenism is rooted in and fed by doctrinal indifference. Behind and underneath it is the view that outward unity is more important than truth; that creedal and denominational differences must be suppressed, if not destroyed, because they are the roadblocks to external unity and unrestricted cooperation between the churches. This entire movement fits in more or less with Dr. Boer’s known view that denominationalism is a sinful thing and with his public advocacy of admitting any and all Christians to membership in in churches even if they do not hold to the Reformed faith.


It can be understood that doctrinal distinctiveness and denominational consciousness are likely to be weaker in missions than in the home Churches. We need not explain why this is so. Emphasis by the missionaries on the spiritual oneness of all Christians and the need of cooperation with other Christian groups is quite natural and can be very beneficial. But as we in the home Churches are easily tempted to be too exclusive, missionaries easily go to the other extreme by ignoring or minimizing differences in doctrine, church government, worship etc. It is a known fact that the gigantic ecumenical movement of today had its beginning in mission fields and from there spread to the home churches. If ecumenism is proper for churches in the mission fields it must also be good for the home fields. Let us not imagine that the spirit embodied in TCNN will not affect our own church life, if we become one of its sponsors. In fact, that spirit already has a point of contact in the anti-denominationalism which sometimes finds utterance among us, as for example in occasional expressions of pro-World Council sentiment, and in the plea to receive even non-Reformed members in our churches and not to exclude all lodge-members from membership in the Christian Reformed Church.


Fifth, no one, as far as we know, has given an answer to the two most weighty objections against an interdenominational seminary. The first is that within the faculty of such an institution there is bound to be either compromise or conflict on doctrinal matters. In a seminary, matters of faith and doctrine naturally play a leading role. They cannot be ignored. They require daily treatment. If the teachers represent various types of Christian faith—for example, Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal—all could conceivably expound their own views, thetically and antithetically—that is, positively and in opposition to contrary views. TIns is theoretically possible but actually out of the question for the simple reason that such a practice would lead to hostility and estrangement in short order. A house divided against itself cannot stand. In order to avoid bitter conflict and preserve the peace), the teachers would either avoid discussion of differences in doctrine, or declare that doctrines are not important and vital (the “liberal” point of view), or they would muffle their convictions and seek to harmonize what cannot be harmonized.

For that reason the argument that the Reformed witness can best be given in a united school, as was stated recently in The Banner, is just a bit of wishful thinking. Let us be sober remain ignorant of such differences, at least if they diligently study the Scriptures.


A few years ago Dr. Harry Boer wrote a pamphlet severely criticizing the mission work and policies of our Navajo and Zuni fields, especially on the ground that we were failing to apply the celebrated principle of the indigenous church; that is, that the mission church must be self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting. There was no room, it was said, for Christian schools or Christian hospitals unless the converts could establish them. Our Church went along with Dr. Boer’s plea to some extent. Now suddenly we are urged to do what amounts to a repudiation of the principle of “indigeneity” (or “indigeny”, as some call it. Neither term is found in my dictionaries). Not only are we building a hospital on our African field; we are also urged, in cooperation with other groups, to help establish and support a theological school for the Benue, Tiv, and other churches! Mark well, we personally are not opposed to the erection of hospitals and schools on our mission fields by the sending Church. We would be wholeheartedly in favor of giving financial and moral support to a Reformed theological college in Northern Nigeria.

But where is the consistency in the mission philosophy of Dr. Boer? We have much admiration for the brother. We like his enthusiasm, his courage, his sincerity. But one can be as wrong as sincere. If Dr. Boer W,lS right in his chief criticism of our Indian field he is wrong in his advocacy of TCNN. If he is right in the latter he was wholly mistaken in the former.

There are other important aspects of the present controversy which this paper will probably touch on in future issues. Synod has just met. All we could do now is to state our first reactions to its decisions on Nigeria.

Many other actions were taken at this year’s Synod. So far we have information concerning only a certain number of them. We believe some fine things were done. Let us mention them later on.