The 1995 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, meeting from June 13 to June 21 in Grand Rapids at Calvin College, marks a definite watershed in the official direction of the CRC. The procedures used in arriving at certain decisions and the policies adopted will have, in the opinion of this writer, a profound effect in both the short-term and long-term life of the churches. The issue which often grabs peoples’ attention and interest was again dealt with at synod, namely, women and ecclesiastical office. But there were other matters considered which have their own importance. Being an observer at this year’s synod gives one the ability to gauge something of the CRCs temperature and to hear in the discussions “what’s going on out there” in the various areas of the denomination. This is not to say the composition of any given synod provides a perfectly parallel picture of the CRC’s membership. Nevertheless, as one listens to the CRC’s leadership, especially at Synod 1995, one who loves and seeks to promote historically Reformed beliefs and practices cannot help but be very disturbed.
Official deliberations began on Tuesday morning, June 13, following the synodical prayer service the evening before. The synodical officers this year were Rev. Calvin Bolt, president; Rev. Jack Vos, vice-president; Rev. Howard Vander Wel, first clerk; an Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, second clerk. Rev. Bolt is to be commended for his able chairmanship as he steered the other delegates through a very full agenda, thus enabling the synod to adjourn on Wednesday evening.
The rest of this report will deal with the various issues that came before synod, mentioning significant points that arose ill the debate, the important recommendations adopted, and some personal observations.
APPOINTMENTS AND REAPPOINTMENTS
Synod heard two interviews and then formally appointed the men interviewed to significant positions. Dr. Gaylen Byker Will become the new president of Calvin College, and Dr. Gary Bekker will become the new academic at Calvin Theological Seminary, as well as teaching 10 the area of missions. While it must be admitted that one usually does not learn a lot when listening to only one interview, and most of the evaluation has already been done by committees, nevertheless both men did well in responding to the questioning they received before synod.
Synod also arproved the reappointment of Rev. John Suk as editor of The Banner for a new term of four years. This decision did not occur without comment by some of the delegates. Objection was raised concerning the editorial policy for The Banner in publishing an article by Letha Scanzoru in the issue focusing on the ascension. Another delegate questioned the statement that The Banner was “well-received by readers” seeing that the subscription rate continues to fall. In response some delegates noted that more teenagers are reading it, and the rate of subscription decline has slowed from about 3000 per year to about 1500 per year. “It is something like the Canadian national debt: the debt continues to increase, but now at a slower rate,” said one.
One wonders about the wisdom in judgment when The Banner openly criticized the 1994 synodical decision on women in office, editorialized about removing two of the CRC’s confessions (doesn’t signing the Form of Subscriphon obligate an officebearer publicly to uphold, defend, and promote what the confessions teach?), and publish CRC news articles that highlight some questionable beliefs and practices in the various Christian Reformed churches. In any case, the voice vote reappointing Rev. Suk was not unanimous, but it was overwhelming.
Another matter discussed by synod was the very sensitive matter of abuse awareness and prevention in the churches, with particular focus on abuse (both real and alleged) by pastors and church leaders and the guidelines for dealing with such when people come forward to complain of such abuse. In November 1994 Ms. Beth Swagman began her work as the denominational director of a committee dealing with abuse cases in the CRC. In her remarks to synod she said that she could not have imagined the sheer volume of abuse cases alleged involving pastors. By the time of synod the cases had risen to 40! About 90 churches had responded with comments to the proposed guidelines, which had been redrafted several times. Some “squeaks in the machinery had appeared, she reported, requiring some fine tuning. Confidentiality remains an important issue, but in the main, Ms. Swagman affirmed, the guidelines are solid, people want them, and they are working.
Some delegates, while agreeing that the guidelines are necessary to address a real and extremely painful problem, wondered about the wording and the procedures to be followed. For example, the phrase “hearing panel” has a certain legal connotation that the guidelines do not necessarily intend. One elder delegate from Classis Toronto, one who is the Canadian legal counsel for the CRC, claimed that Canadian legal input was not adequately consulted. Furthermore, delegates claimed that the report gives church councils no help since they will not be the ones doing the investigative “hearing.”
In response Ms. Swagman explained that the panels were to be composed of experts in psychology and counseling, people trained to investigate cases of alleged abuse. They would serve as filters for the elders to help understand what is being said by people claiming abuse. Church councils are not trained for this, shesaid. Nevertheless, Church Order articles 81-84 were not being taken away from church councils: the elders would still have to decide the nature of the discplinary action to be taken, whether a leave of absence, suspension, or deposition of the church officebearer.
An obvious thought comes to mind: while the council is the one left to carry out the requisite discipline, whoever controls and interprets the evidence largely determines the outcome of the matter as well. For example, if the judge and jury in the O.J. Simpson trial were kept out of the courtroom, a legal panel heard the evidence, itself evaluated that same evidence, informed the judge and jury of its findings, and then left the verdict and sentencing to the judge and jury, one can easily see that the panel’s opinions will necessarily carry a great deal of weight in determining the outcome. One delegate wondered whether this panel would stand between the accuser and the accused, whether these guidelines would really reduce the chance for lawsuits, was there a statute of limitations, and what about the presumption of innocence until guilt was proven? May a council ever determine the truth of the allegations? Are these truly “guidelines” when synod is told that churches should not deviate from them without specific consultation with legal counsel? One wonders ifour elders are being unnecessarily slighted in the process. Could there not be increased training of elders in the spiritual care of people who tragically have experienced abuse? Is this not, in part, an important elementin the calling of an elder? These questions are there, while admittedly some guidelines may very well be helpful for councils and congregations which face claims of abuse.
Synod finally approved the proposed procedures and guidelines contained in Sections IV and V of the report. It declared that the function of the “hearing panel” is non-judicial in nature; its purpose is only to consider “gravity and probably veracity,” not to decide on the guilt or innocence of the accused. Councils will need further guidance about procedures, especially when the accused maintains his or her innocence.
INTERCHURCH RELATIONS WITH THE GKN
For several years the CRC has placed restrictions on the pulpit and Lord’s Supper elements of the ecclesiastical relationship maintained with the Gereformeerde Kerk in Nederland (GKN). Nevertheless, such ecclesiastical ties with the GKN have not been severed or even suspended. Synod did however, continue its suspension with the Reformed Churches in SouthAfrica, to be reviewed again in 1997.
The advisory committee dealing with our relationship with the GKN came with a majority and a minority report. The majority recommended not terminating ecclesiastical fellowship with the GKN, although the table and pulpit restrictions placed by the 1983 synod remain. Furthermore, the Interchurch Relations Committee was mandated to discuss with the GKN “the issues and trends in the life and practice of the GKN that are of deep concern to the CRC and trouble our ecclesiastical relations,” and that the IRC regularly report to synod whatever progress was being made in these discussions. The minority (Roger Sparks, lakota; John Noordhof, Chatham) recommended termination of ecclesiastical fellowship with the GKN.
The debate (Friday evening and Saturday morning, June 16-17)was made especially lively because it followed in the wake of the address of the GKN’s fraternal delegate, Rev. Richard Vessinga, who is also the most recently elected president of the GKN’s synod. Among other things that usually typify fraternal delegate’s remarks, Vessinga said the following (and I quote at some length):
It is a real challenge to be a church of Jesus Christ in a secular context. To many, the words of the faith have become strange. The obviousness of believing and belonging to a church has been lost….The major question for the church is, how we are to translate the strong and ancient words, or the classic words of the Christian faith in such a way that men today recognize themas the Word of the living Lord? For we ourselves are part of this context, and are in a measure ourselves inflicted by the spirit of these times….
There is much “atmospheric disturbance” in the words and deeds of the Church. Not only do we bear the blessings, we also bear the burdens of the past. Many people have disturbing memories of the compulsion, the narrow-mindedness, the conservatism, and the dread of freedom. Besides all this, there is the present confusion. We are living in a pluralistic church with a broad spectrum of voices. Believers have different emphases. So different at times, that it becomes difficult to recognize each other in the light of the Scriptures and the Creeds…The times of strong synodical pronouncements to church and nation are over. Believers today are better served with deliberations that help them to make their own choices in the questions that confront them…
The remarks of the GKN’s delegate which provoked strong reaction were his report to the CRC that the GKN (with other churches) has accepted. a report regarding the treatment of seriously handicapped newly-born babies in which with “reverence for the Creator, for life, for those concerned, and with great care, the study notes that in exceptional cases it may not be irresponsible to terminate life.” In other words, the GKN has stepped in the direction of accepting active euthanasia for seriously handicapped infants. The other issue which drew sharp comment at this year’s synod was the following concerning homosexuality:
You know our position. In my own congregation in Kampen homosexual men or women participate in task-forces, committees, and consistory. When they live with a partner under one roof, they are faithful to each other in love. In faith we accept one another as a gift of God. Where believers are true to each other in love, and are committed to the edification of Christ’s church, the apostle’s words become true that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free man, Jew nor Greek—and, I might add, neither hetero nor homo. Homosexuals experience the room which the church has come to respect as theirs as a boon and a gift. Unfortunately, this room is not found everywhere among us.
After some initial discussion of the majority report, a motion was made and carried (93–75) to table the majority and move to the minority report (terminate relations with the GKN). In the debate several themes were sounded in one way or the other by delegates: “I was born in the GKN, baptized there; they need us; perhaps we can change them, so let’s have faith; we can learn from them on how to minister in a secular, missions context; they are our brothers and sisters whom we can’t abandon (“Friends you make, but family remains,” said Rev. Morris Greidanus of GR East); abrupt termination is not right; you can’t put a gun to their head saying, “If you don’t agree with us, then we can’t talk.”
On the other side of the argument it was pointed out that this would not be an abrupt termination, since we have been dialoguing with them for 21 years. We’ve been talking, but they haven’t been listening. Furthermore, the GKN will not discuss with the CRC the matter of homosexuality except in relationship to hermeneutics, so much of that dialogue has been referred to the REC. Dr. Godfrey (CA South) commented on the much used word “family” to say that we’re not an ethnic body; we are a spiritual family. Neither is this a discussion about whether there are good people or ministers still in the GKN. “Lovingly but firmly we must say this to them [i.e., termination]. Otherwise we become co-dependent with them.” Rev. C.J. den Dulk (GR North) made several references to Scripture in his remarks, including the words of the Apostle Paul not to associate with the sexually immoral who call themselves brothers.
In the end the vote to terminate relations lost 89–80. The debate then switched back to the majority report (continue relations and increase the dialogue) the next morning (Saturday). Rev. Clarence Boomsma and Rev. Ed Van Baak of the IRC spoke vigorously to defend maintaining relations with the GKN. “We believe that we can effect change in the GKN,” said Van Baak. “After all,” he said, “who would have believed several years ago that the Berlin Wall would come down or that communism would collapse in the Soviet Union? Several delegates attempted to amend the recommendations so that perhaps at some point in the near or distant future, termination might have to happen if there were no change in the GKN’s positions, but all such motions to amend or even to express synod’s dismay and pain at the remarks of the GKN’s delegate, failed.
The readers will allow me the following observations: the Presbyterian Church in the USA does not officially allow preaching homosexuals in the ordained ministry, and yet we do not have ecclesiastical relations with it. The same position is true for the Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA). Also, they officially permit believers of all races to worship and have membership in their congregations; I know, because I worshiped there for two years! Yet suspension of relations continues with the RCSA But the 1995 synod continued our ecclesiastical ties (albeit with limited sanctions) with a church, the GKN, which claims to be truly Reformed in both faith and practice, but which is officially more immoral than the PCUSA. In 1973 the CRC said that homosexual practice was sin, and many delegates said that our stance on this was firm. But now, what truly is our ongoing ecumenical responsibility with the GKN after over 20 years of dialogue on several important issues? Romans 16:17–18 says, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” Paul does not warn about pagan teachers from outside the church; he is speaking about those who claim to be within the ranks of the church.
ETHNIC ADVISORS AT SYNOD
Synods in. recent rears have had delegates from the native American, African-American, Hispanic and Asian ethnic communities. This year synod approved a concept coming from Overture 31 (Chicago South) to include up to seven members from the various ethnic communities in the CRC to serve as advisors to synod. The Board of Trustees will implement this for a five-year period. The grounds for this lie in the CRC’s ethnic minorities desiring to be “at the table of polity and decision-making at the synodical level.” The “multi-ethnics” also want to own the CRC as well.
It seemed clear that all those who spoke to this issue rejoiced in the continued inclusion of the various ethnic communities in the life of the CRC, but were not agreed that having advisors (who may speak but not vote) at synod was really the right direction to go. Rev. Freswick (Hudson) wondered if ethnicity as a criterion would set a precedent for having women advisors, disabled advisors, etc., present at future synods as well. Elder Henry Docter (CA South) pointed out that his classis makes sure that Koreans are delegated each year to synod. After all, an advisor is still outside the assembly; a delegate can actually vote. Synod is composed of delegates who represent the churches, not ethnic communities.
A NEW KOREAN CLASSIS?
Related to the above issue, Overture 47 (Greater LA) brought before synod the matter of the formation of a Korean-speaking classis in California. This idea has been studied and discussed already in classes Greater LA and CA South, although Greater LA endorsed the idea while CA South did not adopt the recommendation. A further complication is that not all Korean-speaking congregations are agreed on this issue. In any case, synod withheld action on Overture 47 and instead encouraged these two California classes, including the Korean-speaking churches there. In consultation with Home Missions and the Korean Council, to present to the 1996 synod a recommendation for just such a Korean-speaking classis. The recommendation is to have worked out the concerns raised in the observations made at synod.
PROFESSION OF FAITH AND COVENANT CHILDREN
Beginning in 1984 and in several years subsequent to that, synods have had to deal with the matter of covenant children at the Lord’s Supper and whether a profession of faith was requisite for them to participate in holy communion. The most recent discussion was in 1993, when a very confused discussion on the floor of synod prompted it to return the matter to a study committee for further refinement. This committee reported this year to synod but it brought two reports. Report A advocated that a profession of faith was required for participation in communion while Report B argued that one’s covenant status alone was adequate for admission to communion.
Although the advisory committee was itself initially divided in its discussions, it was able to present a unified set of recommendations. Synod approved a four-step procedure that churches may use to welcome children to the Lord’s table. These steps are as follows:
1. The child expresses interest in participation in communion with a parent(s), a church school teacher, or another “faith mentor.”
2. The parent(s) discusses with the child the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and seeks to evaluate the child’s motives. If the parent(s) is convinced that the request arises “from a genuine stirring of the Spirit” in the child, then an elder or the pastor is contacted.
3. An elder and/or pastor meets with the child and parent(s) to hear the child’s testimony. A short preparation process for the child is recommended, with focus on the Apostles’ Creed, Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer (the basic structure of the Heidelberg Catechism). When the elder and/or pastor are satisfied with the faith commitment of the child, the recommendation goes to the council that such a child be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. If there is no such recommendation, clear counsel and advice will be given to the child and his or her parents.
4. The child makes profession of faith in a regular worship service with the use of a new form which synod adopted this year.
Synod also changed Article 59 of the Church Order to reflect the following membership categories: baptized, confessing, and then confessing members who are accorded the “full rights and privileges of such membership” in the CRC. The new Article 59-b says that confessing members will be asked at the age of 18 to express a commitment to the creeds of the CRC, then they are accorded “full rights of membership.”
Historically the Reformed view has been that expression of faith was requisite for participation in the Lord’s Supper (see Heidelberg Catechism, LD 30, Q/A 81–82; Belgic Confession, Article 35). Also, Article 59-a of the Church Order has said that public profession of Christ was to be “according to the Reformed creeds.” Of course, this never meant that communicants have an exhaustive knowledge of the Reformed faith, but it did presuppose that an adequate knowledge of the Reformed, Christian faith was present in the one making profession of faith. The genius behind requiring a public profession of faith “according to the Reformed creeds” was that it ideally steered the CRC toward having a membership, and not just officebearers, being confessionally Reformed. Admittedly, this was a goal, an ideal, never perfectly realized. What synod has decided in 1995, it seems to me, is to move somewhat hesitantly in the direction of slightly loosening this connection between the profession of faith being a profession of the “Reformed religion” (to use much earlier language).
Time will tell, but there may well be some theological and pastoral “sleepers” which will begin to emerge as more churches begin to move in this direction, For example, many delegates in 1988 understood adult responsibilities to be in the area of voting (a legal matter) and payment to the church’s budget (which presupposes some source of income). Adult responsibilities did not mean (at least it did not for many delegates in 1988) having a sophisticated knowledge of Reformed theology. There is no such thing as generic Christian faith, with the Reformed faith being some kind of esoteric brand of Christianity. Reformed Christianity is the most consistently Biblical expression of the Christian faith. This is what we confess when we come together at the Lord’s Supper to remember and proclaim the death of Jesus.
Furthermore, what are councils to do if, at age 18 (or even 20 or 25), a confessing (i.e., communicant) member wishes to continue to attend and participate in the life of the congregation but neglects or even refuses to make a commitment to the CRC’s confessions? What may happen if the number of such members begins to increase? If there be no evident ungodliness, do such members continue to commune indefinitely? If such confessing but not CRC—confessionally committed members should become parents, are the children of such confessing parents to be baptized or not? If not, why not? Perhaps I am mistaken on this one, but I suspect that before the next decade is over, synod will again be asked to address any number of theological and/or pastoral concerns on this issue.
WOMEN AND ECCLESIASTICAL OFFICE
The issue which many thought should have been put to rest after the 1994 synod, but could not be, was that of women in church office. The 1994 synod said that the clear teaching of Scripture was that women were not to be ordained to the offices of minister, elder, and evangelist. But the 1995 synod was presented with a host of overtures requesting that Article 3 be changed to delete the word male and/or that the 1994 decision be set aside.
The advisory committee this year was almost evenly divided. A majority of 10 (John Kerssies, chairman; John Van Schepen, reporter) advocated the position which eventually prevailed at this year’s synod, namely, that the Church Order Article 3, be left unchanged in its wording, while the Church Order Supplement for Article 3 allow classes to declare the word male to be inoperative for the churches within that classis in response to local needs.
A minority report was filed by 7 members (Charles Steenstra, chairman and reporter; Adrian Dieleman, recording secretary) which recommended no change in Church Order, Article 3. To support that recommendation were five grounds:
1. The texts cited in favor of women in office do not in fact support such a position.
2. The most evident teaching of Scripture is that women should not hold these offices.
3. The general analogy of Scripture supports the exclusion of women from the offices of minister and elder.
4. Historically the Catholic and Reformed position has been that Scripture opposes women in the offices of minister and elder.
5. “No sufficient and new grounds have been presented by the overtures and communications to Synod 1995” (C.O. Art. 31).
Although there was a motion to table the majority report and move to the minority report, this was strongly defeated, with only about a third of the delegates voting for the motion to table. Some delegates who claim to be personally opposed to women in office and who may even have argued thus in 1994, gave their support to the majority position in the hope that this so-called “compromise” would bring peace to the CRC after over 20 years of debate and division with this issue. In any case, the minority position which basically sought to maintain the 1994 decision never made it to the floor of synod for discussion. It was buried because this year there were sufficient votes present to get some kind of approval of the ordination of women in all church offices.
In strongly but carefully stated remarks, Dr. Godfrey said that the majority recommendations open all offices to women. Therefore, this was not a compromise, as so many were saying, but it was a defeat for those who believe that the Scripture did not permit the ordination of women. The Belgic Confession reminds us that the whole manner of our worship of God is dearly revealed in the Word of God, though admittedly not in detail. Godfrey said that he did not doubt people’s sincerity on this matter, but the majority committee acts as if the CRC has no position. The 1994 synod said it was dear. Have “new new and compelling” arguments come forward to change the CRC’s stance? Simply to say in the grounds, as the majority committee did, that there are adequate texts in this year’s overtures and in previous synodical study reports, is not sufficient. Godfrey pointed out that The Banner recently reported that a survey of the CRC’s membership revealed that about 71% are against women in office. What is going to be the pastoral damage to those people? “I’m pained by the indifference of those who favor women in office,” said Godfrey. If synod passes this, it will be changing the Church Order without changing the Church Order, and this synod’s actions will be perceived as a ruthless act, he believed. If the synod favors women in office, then be fair to them and permit them to be delegates to synod, serve as synodical deputies, and exercise all the other prerogatives of the offices. This request, coming as it does from only one congregation (Woodlawn, GrandRapids) to this year’s synod, will create a “muddle” throughout the denomination and endless scenarios of problems.
Proponents argued that passing the majority’s recommendations will give room for one another in the CRC. It will be a “win-win” solution. Article 3-a will not be changed, but where a classis, in response to local needs, believes that women in office is good and necessary, it can declare the word male to be inoperative. Some overtures speak of “disputable matters.” “Let’s let an agreeable spirit prevail We need God’s wisdom, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the mind of Christ,” said Rev. John Kerssies (AB South). Rev. Howard Vander Wel (Georgetown; first clerk) pleaded for passing the recommendation which said that “there are two different perspectives and convictions, both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God, on the issue of whether women are allowed to serve in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist.” He argued that it is impossible that we will become agreed on the issue, and therefore, “what is this doing to the denomination I love?” he wondered. Tolerance serves the kingdom of God best, and so passing the majority’s first recommendation will help build a consensus.
Not all proponents of women in office were happy with the majority’s recommendations. In their minds it did not go far enough. This synod, said Rev. Roger Van Harn (GR East), has the chance to answer the prayer of our sisters, “Lord, give us the opportunity to match our capacity.” He added that the recommendation is not nearly what he wanted, but he would go with it. Elder Wietse Posthumus (Toronto) believed that, though the majority report was flawed, he would support it. “It’s not a matter of theology; it’s a matter of justice.” He added that it was time to “come close, to move on with our ministries. Pain is shared by all. Two decades have yielded a harvest of bitterness,” he and others said.
After being asked by an elder delegate to speak, Dr. James De Jong of Calvin Seminary addressed synod on the issue. He thought that a lot of sloppy, unthinking work has been part of the discussion to this point. He outlined four theological correlates on the issue:
1. Doctrine of Scripture: the Holy Spirit used Hannah’s and Mary’s words in Scripture to bind male preachers for centuries.
2. Calvin argues that authority resides in the Word, not in the person who brings the Word. Therefore, the person’s gender does not matter.
3. Heresy: “I’ve searched my heart, and I can’t find anything of our Christian faith that unravels if women are ordained,” said De Jong.
4. God’s immutability: Calvin considers Deborah and Huldah to be exceptions. But, De Jong pointed out, they were a judge and a prophetess. God wouldn’t change or play games about who could serve in office.
So, De Jong told synod, theology helped him to tip the scales in favor of women in office. He then added that this perhaps helps to free the consciences of those who oppose the ordination of women.
In the end, by means of the regulations spelled out in the newly drafted Church Order Supplement, a classis may, “in response to local needs and circumstances, declare that the word male in Article 3-a of the Church Order is inoperative, and authorize the churches under its jurisdiction to ordain and install women in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist.” By putting the question before the classes, it becomes a regional option which supposedly “avoids the danger of congregationalism.” Women officebearers may not be delegated to synod, serve as synodical deputies, or be appointed by synodical agencies “as ministers in any field of labor within their jurisdiction, nor seek to have them installed by a local church.” No synodical delegate or synodical deputy will be required to act against the dictates of their consciences. If a dassis should decide to retain the word male as operative in Article 3-a, nevertheless, any church within that classis retains the right to ordain women as elders (their role being restricted to the local church in which they hold office).
The reader should understand that this anomaly now exists: while the Church Order still retains the word male in speaking about the offices of elder, minister and evangelist, yet every one of the congregations in the eRC could, theoretically, ordain women as elders. Of course, the vast majority will not, yet, but they all could—and without the Church Order being altered! In addition, synod was not presented, certainly not in the floor debate, with new and sufficient evidence to set aside the position adopted in 1994. One wonders what ever happened to the rules by which we are supposed to live. Are there any finn rules left in regards to church orderly procedures? Do we change the rules to get what we want? Has the Church Order become “a wax nose”? The irony of all this is that Overture 62 (Woodlawn, GR East), which “inspired” the approach taken by synod this year came before synod over the Signature of the Woodlawn CRC council’s clerk, Mrs. Ina De Moor, wife of Dr. Henry De Moor, professor of church polity of Calvin Seminary.
One need not be a rocket scientist to anticipate the muddled scenarios that may well develop in wake of this year’s decision.
What happens to a congregation, firmly opposed to women in office, but existing within a classis which has declared the word male inoperative? Do its delegates leave a classical meeting every time a women elder is seated? If so, they will become increasingly disenfranchised. Or should this congregation request transferral to a classis which retains the word male as operative? Will pastors, opposed to women in office, be likely to accept calls to congregations within classes that have declared the word male inoperative? Are we going to witness a significant number of delegates at synod, say 40%, who will refrain from voting on the names of women candidates for the ministry? If so, what does that do to the notion that “Synod declares the following persons candidates for the ministry in the CRC”? What about ministers, conscience-bound against women in office, who are assigned to lead worship as classical appointments in vacant churches that have women elders?
In seeking to quiet the debate in the CRC over this tiresome issue, this synod, it seems to me, has given added momentum to things which will continue to widen the cracks and gaps which have eroded the Christian Reformed Church. Hasn’t this synod’s decisions sought to heal the CRC lightly, saying “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace? It is certainly not my purpose to question the motivations and heartfelt desires of those who were looking for “the middle way” out of this. But I am asking our readers to think long and hard about the effect the decisions will now have in many classes and congregations around the Christian Reformed Church. For many of us who are bound by consciences informed by the Word of God not to favor women in office, this decision leaves us no room in the CRC, not only by the decision itself, but also by the manner in which the decision was arrived at in presenting no new and sufficient evidence to set the 1994 decision aside.
STRUCTURE OF MINISTRY IN CANADA
On Tuesday, June 20, synod took up a discussion of the structure of ministry in Canada, a discussion in which most American delegates became quiet observers, for obvious reasons. Dr. John Bolt (Calvin Seminary) began the first round of the debate by warning his fellow Canadians to avoid “the poison of Canadian nationalism” in the discussion, seeing that we are one church with a binational character. Although a previous synod has said “no” to regional synods, yet the discussion on the floor of this year’s synod seemed to reveal that sentiment for such regional synods still lies dose beneath the surface, at least for some Canadian CRC people.
For many years the Canadian CRCs have worked together through the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada (CCRCC). Its composition has been comprised of a minister, elder and deacon from every Canadian CRC classis. This is also why there is strong sentiment in Canada for delegating deacons to all the broader assemblies of the CRC, but synod defeated a proposal to appoint a study committee that would look at the matter of delegating deacons to broader assemblies. The CCRCC has, in effect, functioned very much like a regional synod in order to address the questions of Christian ministry and witness in Canada.
In the recommendations which synod adopted, the CCRCC is asked to reconstitute itself as a “Board of Canadian Ministries” (BCM) at the CCRCCs November 1995 meeting. Its plans and projected costs are to be submitted to the Synod of 1997. Synod also appointed a Director of Canadian Ministries (something in Canada parallel to the position held by Dr. Peter Borgdorf, Executive Director of Ministries), who will coordinate the CRC’s ministries in Canada and also c0ordinate his work with Rev. Borgdorff in Grand Rapids.
OFFICIAL ACTS OF MINISTRY
The Bible, the Reformed confessions and the CRC have never specifically defined what the “official acts of ministry” are. A general understanding of what they are exists in the church based on comments by Monsma and Van Dellen in their commentary on the Church Order (Zondervan, 1967, p. 208). They classified the following as official ministerial acts: administration of the sacraments, pronouncing the salutation and benediction, installation of officebearers, receival into full membership by public profession of faith, and excommunication from the fellowship of the church. But is it true that if they are nowhere defined, therefore, they don’t exist?
Part of the concern is that with about 130 pastoral vacancies in the CRC, performance of the traditional official ministerial acts gets “short-shrifted” said one delegate. Classis Red Mesa feels this crunch in particular. Could people licensed to exhort perform these acts? What about the elders of the local church? May they perform sacraments? Is there something to be learned from church history or from other Christian communions in this respect? The advisory committee split on this matter as well. The minority position (Bradd Nymeyer, chairman; Harold Westra, reporter) sought to define what the official acts of ministry are, using basically the list offered by Monsma and Van Dellen. The majority report John Zantingh, chairman; lambert Sikkema, reporter), however, recommended rewording Church Order articles 53-b and 55 so that “those who have been authorized to preach or exhort” may conduct worship services and administer the sacraments.
The discussion which ensued showed that a great variety of opinion exists in the CRC as to the place, role and duties of the office of the minister of the Word. In the end, synod decided to appoint a study committee, whose mandate includes not only giving greater definition to what constitutes an “official act of ministry,” but also to give a closer look at the work of elders, evangelists, youth pastors, and others in specialized ministries, people who probably have not had a traditional seminary training. Classis Red Mesa, however, was permitted a three-year exception to the current regulations regarding official acts of ministry.
“SETTLED AND BINDING”
Article 29 of the Church Order reads (in part), “The decisions of the assemblies shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.” Overture 2 (Wisconsin) had asked for clarification of the phrase “settled and binding” in the wake of the 1975 Synod’s attempt to clarify it. Apparently Classis Wisconsin’s concern arises especially over certain views on abortion that were espoused by a certain Calvin College professor, although Wisconsin had other issues in mind as well. How much toleration of public disagreement is permitted to someone over a synodical pronouncement? Are all non-CRC employees of the CRC and its agencies bound by a synodical decision? What are the boundaries to academic freedom in this area? Classis Wisconsin received a communication from the Calvin College Board of Trustees (see Overture 2, ground 2) in which it is revealed that the Calvin Board tolerates/allows faculty members to hold positions that “may present some probing questions in the light of synodical decisions.” Wisconsin came to synod seeking greater clarification on the Article 29 phrase.
The advisory committee, with the lone exception of Rev. Ronald De Young (Holland), recommended that synod declare the phrase “settled and binding” means “that synodical decisions are the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church, not that full agreement with those decisions is required of all members of the church.” Rev. De Young’s concern was that this recommendation falls far short, in that it allows too much individualism and congregationalism. The synod defeated the recommendation of the advisory committee, but it withheld action in declaring this was its answer to Classis Wisconsin.
FUNDING FOR SMALLER CHURCHES
The Fund for Smaller Churches (FSC) currently gives financial support to 108 congregations; the FSC’s annual budget is about $1 million. A very high percentage have received help for over 10 years, with 5 churches receiving monies for at least 90 years. Synod decided that, beginning January 1, 1996, the grants from FSC will extend for a maximum of 10 years. The financial help will decrease by 10% per year, thus allowing the congregation time to plan the shape of its ministry in the future. Congregations may apply for continued or additional assistance, but with the classis then taking on more of an active role in the support of the needy church. If assistance goes beyond the 10 years, then the classis must be willing to provide one dollar for every two dollars contributed by the FSC.
SECOND SUNDAY WORSHIP SERVICE
Overture 6 (AB North) raised the question about requiring all CRC congregations to have two worship services on the Lord’s Day. The overture also asked for a Church Order change that would encourage preaching from the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Contemporary Testimony (which, by the way, is not an official confessional standard of the CRC). The overture and several delegates said that “Scripture nowhere indicates the frequency of worship on the Lord’s Day,” that there are no “proof texts” that specify the number of Sunday worship services. Rev. Lambert Sikkema worship services. Rev. Lambert Sikkema (Northern IL) revealed to the synod that about half of the congregations in that classis have only one worship on the Lord’s Day, but that one must remember that many of those churches are “multi-ethnic” in composition. The move to make the requirement of a second worship service on Sunday less binding was simply trying to face the current realities. One delegate argued that there must be freedom for churches now in this post-Christian age.
After all, he said, the second service survives in places where Christianity is assumed. Other delegates spoke of small congregations where some members live a great distance away and a second service for such members is virtually impossible to attend.
Proponents of maintaining the current reading of Church Order Article 51-a (“The congregation shall assemble for worship at least twice on the Lord’s day…”) argued that a regular second worship service historically contributed to the strength of the denomination. They also said that any loosening of the Church Order would be perceived as an erosion of our piety, a “slippery slope” accommodation to the current culture.
Synod, after some rewording work by the advisory committee, approved the following reading of Church Order Article 51-a:
The congregation shall assemble for worship, ordinarily twice, on the Lord’s Day, to hear God’s Word, to receive the sacraments, to engage in praise and prayer, and to present gifts of gratitude.
In the Supplement to this article it will be affirmed that worshiping twice on Sunday is a “rich tradition” which congregations should continue and that new congregations are encouraged to embrace. Where “alternatives” to the second service are explored, such alternatives are to be “part of a strategic ministry plan with full accountability to their classis.” What this last point means is not clearly specified.
“EXPOUNDING” THE WORD
The 1992 synod allowed women to “expound the Word of God,” but a question arose as to whether this meant that women could lead official worship services or whether they were restricted from this. A study committee, appointed in 1994, to clarify the meaning of “expounding” concluded that whatever expounding means in the CRC setting, it does not mean that they may exhort and preach in official worship services.
The advisory committee recommended that this conclusion of the study committee be rejected. Instead, synod withheld action on the recommendation. It then went on to decide that churches have the option of “having a woman bring a message she has prepared in official worship services.” Synod defeated a recommendation to say that the 1992 decision on expounding was no longer in effect because it was no longer needed. After all, said Rev. Jack Vos (Toronto; vice-president), what if Classis Toronto does not undo the word male in Article 3-a, then what about Ruth Hofman (official “expounder” in the First eRe, Toronto)?
Furthermore, women M.Div. graduates from Calvin Seminary who have met all the requirements may apply for candidacy until the year 2000 when the synod will revisit the women in office question. The synod also votes (113–63) to extend its Monday evening decision (male in the Church Order Article 3-a may be made inoperative) to Article 43 (licensure for exhorting). In other words, women may be licensed to exhort in classes that declare the word male inoperative; apparently in all other classes they may expound in official worship services.
Finally, having received overtures from classes Hudson, Niagara, Heartland, and Minnesota South that called for some kind of discipline or at least admonition regarding churches or classes that violate the Church Order (particularly, though not exclusively, Article 3-a) and synodical decisions on women in office, the advisory committee John Hofman, Jr., chairman; John Ooms, reporter) brought its recommendations to the floor on Wednesday, June 21. Because the synod had decided on June 19, 1995, to declare in the Supplement to Church Order Article 3-a that classes may have women elders, ministers and evangelists, therefore, such churches and classes (GR East, Muskegon) which have women elders and/or who have declared the word male inoperative, are no longer in ecclesiastical “non-compliance” (the word disobedience is too harsh, it seems). In other words, change the ground rules, then there are no more violators, and allis forgiven! Thus the “actions contemplated by the overtures” are no longer warranted.
One delegate compared the church to an ocean liner. “It’s not a motorboat; it can’t turn on a dime.” He was right, to a certain extent.
The CRC has been slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) turning. But what is the direction? Moreover, once it sets a new direction, does not a boat then have the chance to pick up speed? Many of us believe that the ship is taking on water (to extend the analogy); not a few will even say that it has (this year? earlier?) struck an iceberg.
I have provided a rather lengthy review of this year’s synod. I invite others to come forward to provide analysis and more indepth discussion of what has happened. No one doubts that there are many faithful people and pastors still on the liner known by the name Christian Reformed. Many good and faithful works and services continue going on. Yet that could be said, I suppose, about many other Christian communions and denominations.
Nevertheless, several of this year’s decisions have made many more of us become increasingly alienated about the direction of this denominational ocean liner, and marginalized in terms of its life. To speak only of the women in office issue, the actions of GR East following the 1994 synod became the model or paradigm for the entire CRC in 1995. Now we are all permitted to do via the Supplement what the Church Order itself prohibits. This will set a precedent down the road that many will regret. Those who rejoice today about a supposed compromise will rue the day when they allowed rules to be violated so that an unbiblical practice might be tolerated throughout the CRC.
Synod 1995 dealt with many issues that surround some aspect of the office of the minister of the Word and the official ministry and leadership of the church. Such a subject certainly falls with the province of the work of a church assembly. But the formal principles followed as well as the material contents of several key decisions made at the 1995 synod, grieve the souls of another significant constituency in the CRC Consciences informed by the Word of God on, for example, the issue of women in office, cannot be bruised forever and still stay spiritually viable, let alone healthy within the Christian Reformed Church. Of course, we have a God who has, and still can, work miracles. But such consciences cannot remain at home in the CRC in its current direction.
May God guide His faithful people in a ship that turns in a right direction.
Rev. Mark Vander Hart is professor of Old Testament studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, now relocated in Dyer, IN.