We attended many, though not all, of the sessions of the Christian Reformed Synod held last June and feel inclined to record our impressions.
As far as we could judge a fraternal spirit prevailed. This was also the testimony of delegates to whom we have spoken. There was no manifestation of bitterness and differences of opinion were expressed in a courteous way. The only incident that marred the sessions, while we were present, was the applause by those who were elated with their “victory” in the matter of the Seminary presidency. Such manifestations of partisanship may be in place at political gatherings and at contests in the world of sport but are not fitting in church assemblies.
Some of the decisions that were made pleased us greatly, for example the one dealing with the new method of computing quotas for Calvin College and Seminary, the refusal to set aside the Conclusions of Utrecht, the election of Dr. L. Praamsma as professor of church history, et cetera.
One of the weaknesses of past Synods, a serious one, we believe, characterized also the present assembly, namely, the small number of experienced and seasoned delegates. This was not Synod’s fault, naturally; the responsibility rests with the Classes that elect the delegates. We know that not a few of the younger ministers who attend Synod give a good account of themselves. They are by no means as shy, inconspicuous, and incompetent as we were in our younger years when we were among the occasional younger delegates. They have also had a better education. Nevertheless, they do not have the experience in ecclesiastical affairs and the mature judgment of the older men. We still hold to what we have written before, that every Classis should make sure that one older and one younger ministerial delegate is chosen to represent it. The lesson of Rehoboam’s rejection of the counsel of the old men who had been his father’s counselors has not lost its meaning for the present day.
Another problem which confronted this as well as preceding synods was the superabundance of overtures and reports which required the attention of the delegates. When the members arrive at Synod with their well-studied Agenda they find another packet of such material which came in too late to be sent to them before they left home. Some of these communications, we happen to know, were dated after Synod convened! Few if any of the delegates have the time to read this material since they serve on committees which meet every evening and often in between sessions. Only the advisory committees among whom this material is distributed know the contents. The result is that the delegates must cast their votes on matters in which they cannot have an independent judgment. Our Synods have far too big a program. The result is that many recommendations are adopted without discussion while others, of real importance, are voted on when the president still has a list of as many as ten men who indicate their desire to speak.
It seems to us that drastic measures are in order to reduce the size of Synod’s docket. We favor the radical provision that only such matters as appear in the printed Agenda shall be considered legally before Synod, with the possible exception of emergencies. Synods meet annually. Many of the proposals that are made can wait a year without any harm being done. Besides, those who now rely on Synod’s leniency in considering belated material would then give timely and early thought to those matters which they wish to present to our highest judicatory.
Such a rather drastic measure has more appeal for us than the suggestion that the delegation to Synod should be cut in half—to one minister and one elder instead of two of each. It is said that Synod has become unwieldy. At present it is composed of 124 delegates and a number of Faculty and Board advisers. But if that number is cut down to 62 delegates while the work load is rwt reduced the advisory committees would have to be fewer and smaller and their load would be still heavier.
Few of the matters that now demand Synod’s attention are so urgent that they cannot wait a year before action is taken. As our Church grows and its activities increase, our Synods face an ever-widening task. The danger confronting them is to grind out a large number of decisions without due thought and deliberation. It is amazing how many recommendations are adopted with practically no discussion. In this way important decisions are sometimes made whose implications are not seen till afterwards. We are thinking, for example, of Synod’s approval of a recommendation by the Board of Trustees that “each pre-seminary student shall be required to take three years of Dutch or German...with the option of eliminating the third year if he can at the end of the second year pass an examination demonstrating reading competence in the language.” The more we think about this action the more we are baffled, especially after having learned that there was no discussion of the Board’s recommendation. The decision simply means that if they so choose our seminarians can enter the ministry without having any knowledge of the Dutch language; consequently without being able to read those major untranslated works of the Dutch theologians which are the principal source of a renascent, revived Reformed theology. We have a dim view of the future of the Christian Reformed Church if it is left to the discretion of our pre-seminarians whether the door to this incomparably rich heritage, for example the works of Dr. Abraham Kuyper and Dr. Herman Bavinck, not to mention others, shall be open to them. Our pained puzzlement increased when we read the recommendation as it first appeared in the report of the Board of Trustees and noticed that not a single argument is adduced why such a rule should be made. We can think of no reason for such a recommendation except that some students find foreign language study very difficult. But we opine that if a prospective divinity student does not have sufficient mental stamina to learn to read books in at least a couple of modern languages, besides acquiring some knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, he is unfit for the ministry. Or was there perhaps a fear that some might decide to enroll in another seminary which has no such requirement? We admit these are only guesses but what else can we do seeing no reasons are offered in the recommendation either of the Board or of the Advisory Committee at Synod. At all events we cannot see how our Church can remain a truly Reformed Church if its leaders will not be able to read the best works of former or contemporary Dutch theologians.
By far the most important matter before Synod was the one pertaining to the presidency of our Seminary. The handling of this mattter left a bad taste in the mouth of some of the delegates who requested that the reappointment of the President and the question whether he should have indefinite tenure should be considered in closed or executive session. The rules of Synod provide that when· ever matters of a personal and delicate nature come up Synod shall exercise the right to meet in closed or executive session. Those who favored the reappointment of the present incumbent and his indefinite tenure were determined that the issue should be dealt with openly. Their intention was carried out in spite of the urgent request of several delegates for a closed meeting. The only plausible reason we can think of for their opposition was the de· sire to discourage delegates from giving free expression to their misgivings. The reason given, that the matter was not a personal one, flew in the face of the fact that seven overtures, three appeals, and one letter dealt with this issue and that two of them even spoke of a lack of confidence in the present incumbent. We know of no similar instance in actions of past Synods in which a request for a closed session under similar circumstances was refused. At this very same Synod non-delegates were excluded when a professor of Church History was appointed. Other personal matters, of less moment, were also discussed in executive session. In our opinion Synod’s action in the mutter was not only unprecedented but unwarranted and hardly courteous toward those who felt the need of a confidential discussion. And it is not to the credit of the chairman that he lent the prestige of his office to the demand for an open session.
In this connection one other matter may be mentioned. When the recommendation for indefinite tenure had been passed, two delegates, from two different Classes, complained that the arguments in their overtures for a limited tenure had not been answered by the Advisory Committee and by Synod. The fact is that in recent years some advisory committees give scant attention to the overtures whose adoption they do not favor. We do not believe that this is intentional but it is the easy way out, especially since these committees are exceedingly busy. It often happens that the reports of such committees conclude with the statement that, with the adoption of their recommendations, overtures number so-and-so have been answered. But the adoption of a proposal contrary to an overtime together with its grounds constitutes no answer to the overture unless the contentions of the overture are refuted.
This leads us to the observation that in recent years we have become more and more impressed with the tremendous power wielded by Synod’s advisory committees. It cannot be denied that an overture or even a number of overtures of the same character have little chance of being adopted by Synod if the advisory committee to which they are referred happens to be of a contrary opinion. The present rules for synodical procedure (VI, 9) provide that the chairman and the reporter of such a committee “shall have precedence over every other speaker and shall not be limited as to the number and length of their speeches.” We deem this an unwise provision. It gives especially the reporters an enormous advantage over other delegates. Why, for example, should they have more right to speak on an overture than the delegates from the Classis which has fathered the overture? Reporters naturally take advantage of the privilege to reply to all objections raised against the recommendations of their committees. And what is the result? That in several instances question is called for and Synod ceases debate while a number of delegates who asked for the floor are still on the chairman’s list of speakers! We believe that the rule should be repealed, the sooner the better. We should not become a Church like so many others which are ruled by boards and committees instead of by their lawful assemblies -in our case, consistories, classes, and synod.
Some years ago our Synods made it a point to take up certain matters directly without referring them to advisory committees. It seems that this excellent method has fallen into disuse. More time may be needed to follow this method but if Synod should decide to discuss only matters printed in the Agenda more time will be available and we shall have more assurance that our Synods really reflect or at least give serious consideration to what is the mind of the churches.
One more thing. We were confirmed in our opinion while attending Synod that a recent decision (1961) that the Classes, not Synod, should decide whether a minister who is called for service outside of the ministry in the local church may retain his ministerial status, was a mistake. Experience has proved that the tests laid down by Synod are not interpreted in the same way by all the Classes. One Classis decides that a minister who leaves his church for special Kingdom service may retain his status while another decides in a very similar case that this status cannot be retained. For example, the minister who serves as president of Dordt College may continue in his ministerial office while another who was slated for a ca11 to head Trinity College would have had to lose his office upon acceptance of the appointment. Such conflicting decisions do not promote good order in the church. After all, ministers hold office for the entire Church and only the ecclesiastical assembly which represents the Church as a whole should make decisions pertaining to that office.
In conclusion, we wish to say that we were not actuated by a desire to criticize our Synods in writing this article. We have a very high regard for our broadest assembly and wish to see it rise to the highest possible peak of efficiency in the performance of its important tasks.