The agenda items for this year’s Christian Reformed Synod were fewer by comparison with the agendas of recent synods. In fact, earlier this year the General Secretary of the CRC, Dr. David Engelhard, even suggested that this year’s synod meeting be canceled in view of the lighter agenda, a suggestion which was turned down by the CRC Board of Trustees. The published Agenda for Synod 1998 contained only 19 overtures (supplemented by about another half dozen overtures by the time synod met) and no reports this year of synodically-appointed study committees. Nevertheless, whether the work load be light or heavy, this is the work of the church of Jesus Christ, and one may never approach such work lightly.
The CRC synod met from Saturday, June 13, to Friday, June 19, again staying within the desired period of one week. Elected president of synod was veteran delegate Rev. Howard Vanderwell of Classis Georgetown. Vice-president this year was Rev. Jack Vos of Classis Toronto. Serving as first and second clerks were elder Stanley Koster (Classis Holland) and Rev. Peter Nicolai (Classis Chatham), respectively. Having served as synodical president before, Rev. Vanderwell brought to bear both his humor and knowledge of procedure to largely good effect in keeping the delegates focused on the work before them.
Six overtures in the printed Agenda came from Classis Lake Erie, and these overtures generally provided the material for some (although not exclusively all. of course) of the weightier subjects discussed this year.
CRC INVESTMENTS IN THE IRM CORPORATION
It has been reported in The Banner and in the public press (e.g., Grand Rapids Press) that CRC agencies invested about $11.5 million in the IRM Corporation of Concord, California. In October, 1997, the IRM Corporation informed its investors that it was experiencing cash-flow deficiencies and that all principal and interest payments were being suspended. Several overtures were prompted by this situation, overtures that addressed The Banner’s editorial freedom to report and comment on the IRM situation as well as ones that addressed the CRCNA’s investment policies, especially in light of the fact that much of this $11.5 million may well be lost The situation was described as “a messy thing.”
Classis Grand Rapids North overtured Synod 1998, asking that a committee be appointed to “review and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure and functioning of the Board of Trustees” of the CRC. Behind the overture was a concern over the centralization of power within the CRC as well as concern for the financial management of denominational funds. For example, in addition to the IRM investments, there was substantial spending over budget in connection with the “Free to Serve” rallies. The Board of Trustees of the CRC was established precisely to prevent this kind of thing from happening. The GR-North overture said, in part: “The investments in IRM and IRM’s default raise questions as to the board’s effectiveness in adopting and supervising investment policy.”
The advisory committee was divided in its recommendations on the GR-North overture. The majority (13 out of 20) favored an independent review, while the minority (7 members) recommended that the Board of Trustees be instructed to review itself in terms of its “policies, programs, goals, and performance,” and then report to the 1999 synod. But after debate, the synod voted 97 to 86 to reject the GR-North overture calling for an independent review. Instead, the CRC’s Board of Trustees is instructed to review its current procedures and report next year.
REVISING THE FORM OF SUBSCRIPTION?
Overture 2 (Classis Thornapple Valley) asked synod to revise and modify the Form of Subscription in three areas: I) in its statement that “all the articles and points of doctrine” in the Three Forms of Unity “fully agree with the Word of God”; 2) so that the responsibilities of elders and deacons may be distinguished from those of ministers, evangelists, and professors of theology with regard to teaching and defending the confessions’ articles and points of doctrine; and 3) in the matter of those who subscribe but who come to a difficulty with a doctrine or doctrines stated in the confessions. Currently, the CRC requires that all officebearers sign the Form to indicate their unreserved agreement with the teaching of the Reformed confessions as well as their promise to promote Reformed teaching and to refute all errors regarding them.
The advisory committee recommended that synod not accede to the overture, citing in the grounds to this recommendation the fact that Synod 1976 had already addressed the concerns raised in the Thornapple Valley overture.
But in the ensuing debate it became evident that overture 2 had much support. A Wisconsin delegate said he was glad that Job didn’t sign the Form, because there is vitality when one wrestles with Scripture and the creeds. The Form currently squelches this. Vice-president Jack Vos was happy the overture was before synod, because the CRC was no longer “confessionaliy creative.”
People fear any change as deterioration. A church can flourish with loose confessional subscription, while at the same time it is possible to go downhill with tight subscription. Nevertheless, Vos supported the advisory committee’s recommendation because, he said, now is not the right time to address the question.
Ethnic advisor Rev. Dante Venegas said that the ethnic advisors favored overture 2. “Even whites can’t understand the Form. Let’s begin to move!” Elder Martin LaMaire (Classis Northern Illinois) noted how today many Reformed churches participate in crusades that are Arminian.
Delegates come to classis these days, they sign the Form of Subscription, but they have no idea of what they’re doing, he said. “We must always be open to reforming.” Semper reformanda! In a lengthy speech in defense of his classis’ overture, elder Cornelius Korhorn (Classis Thornapple Valley) stated that in his congregation not one elder or deacon had ever read the Canons of Dort or the Belgic Confession. If this be the case, what does it mean that these officebearers must diligently teach and defend these doctrines? Are they able to reject and refute all errors in doctrine? Is the Form prescribing a job for the elders and deacons, a job that they are unable to perform? Only theologians can do that, he said. Korhorn pleaded for integrity and honesty when officebearers sign the Form, something which can be achieved much better were the Form to be revised.
Another delegate from Classis Northern Illinois claimed that the creeds are ambiguous. Science (which he had taught for years) requires precision. He wondered if the ministers present had ever preached on reprobation, for example, or if any delegates had ever heard a sermon on this doctrine. In his opinion the Bible doesn’t really teach it. and we don’t really believe it. Elder Ezequiel Romero (Classis Hackensack) argued that the CRCs doctrine puts home missions workers in a difficult postion. “To gain numbers, we have to lower our standards,” he claimed. “There is no other way. We need a multi-ethnic church with common doctrine.”
In defense of the committee’s recommendation, elder Steve Baas (Classis Wisconsin) reminded synod that the Form was not a “gag order.” Everyone signs it, not simply of the times when we all agree, but in anticipation of those times when disagreements might arise. Signing the Form is analogous to marriage vows in the sense that the Form of Subscription provides boundaries and a context for working out differences that may arise later. Responding to the assertion that many elders and deacons have never read all the confessions and, therefore, they do not know what they are doing when they sign the Form, advisory committee reporterDr. William Koopmans (Classis Ouinte) said that it sounds like we need a better educational program for office bearers.
In the end the committee’s recommendation was adopted by a vote of 98 to 85.
REMOVING Q/A 80 OF THE HEIDELBERG CATECHISM?
Overture 16 (Classis Lake Erie) called upon synod to remove Question and Answer 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism and place an explanatory appendix at the back of the Catechism. Answer 80 explains what the Roman Catholic Church teaches concerning the Mass (its necessity and the worship involved in it), and Answer 80 compares the Mass with the Reformed and evangelical teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper. The last sentence of this Answer reads this way: “Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.”
In its grounds Lake Erie argued that increasing contacts with Roman Catholics (not the least of which is via marriage) as well as perceived changes in Roman teaching should cause the CRC to revisit Q/A 80 and now remove it from the Heidelberg Catechism as held in the CRC.
The advisory committee’s recommendation was that synod not accede to Lake Erie’s overture. In the discussion which followed, it became clear that many simply bypass Q/A 80 when preaching or teaching through the Heidelberg Catechism. Other speakers, often with Roman Catholic backgrounds or who work in Roman Catholic contexts, argued forcefully for retaining Q/A 80 because it was accurate. Dr. John Bolt of Calvin Seminary noted that even the New Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church continues to use the language of sacrifice in reference to the Mass. At the conclusion to the debate the recommendation not to accede to the Lake Erie overture carried by a strong voice vote.
The second recommendation which came out of the advisory committee called for the Interchurch Relations Committee “to make an attempt to dialogue with the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church to clarify the official doctrine of that church concerning the mass.” This passed easily.
THE STATUS OF MINISTERS WHO LEAVE THE CRC
Classis Lake Erie sent Overture 15 to synod so that it might examine the “declarations regarding ministers who resign.” In the overture’s discussion, specifically singled out were The Outlook and the leadership of the South Holland Conference. Lake Erie accused The Outlook of having a “long history of encouraging secession” and cited two statements from 1990 and 1995. This classis wondered how ministers who allegedly advocate secession from the CRC, can be granted “honorable release” from the ministry of the CRC. Lake Erie called upon synod to honor the 1993 synodical decisions concerning release, demonstrate that “the church speaks with integrity,” and demonstrate “sensitivity to the remaining members of the denomination, especially to its female members.”
The situation before synod this year upon which Lake Erie’s overture had immediate bearing was the recommendation that synod approve the work of the synodical deputies in their concurrence with the unanimous action of Classis Grandville in granting honorable release to Rev. Tom Vanden Heuvel who had accepted a call from the Presbyterian Church in America to be engaged in a church-planting work in the HoIland, Michigan, area. In fact, Classis Grandville granted him honorable release on two separate occasions, and Synod 1998 was now called upon (again) to approve the deputies’ work with regard to Rev. Vanden Heuvel’s honorable release.
On Wednesday evening, June 17, this matter produced a lively debate as delegates discussed the matter of declarations of the status of ministers who leave the CRC and are granted “honorable release” or “release” by their classes (with concurrence of the synodical deputies), but who have, in the opinion of some, engaged in schismatic activity before and during their withdrawal. At the conclusion of the debate, the chairman, Rev. Vanderwell, halted procedural business and called for a time of prayer. A n’umber of delegates prayed for forgiveness and for reconciliation, and many delegates were moved to tears.
The next day the matter was before the synod again, having been recommitted to the advisory committee the evening before. The advisory committee again recommended that synod approve the work of the synodical deputies in the matter of the honorable release of Rev. Vanden Heuvel. Many delegates rose to say that it is important at this point to be “pastoral” and to “reach out to a brother who has left us.” “We need to get this behind us,” said committee reporter, Rev. John Zantingh (Classis Hamilton). This recommendation was approved by a vote of 121 to 56. But then synod voted (114–62) to attach a note which said that in this situation the category of simple “release” was probably more appropriate than “honorable release.”
ABORTION AS AN AMERICAN “HOLOCAUST”
Classis Zeeland (Overture 3) came to this year’s synod to urge the CRC to declare to the people of North America that abortion is an ongoing holocaust and that we are challenged to oppose it boldly.
When this came to the floor initially from the advisory committee, Rev. Joel Kok (Classis Hackensack) opposed the recommendation. He argued that this public statement from synod might well arouse violent passions. He would hate it, said Kok, if one person were moved to acts of violence against abortionists or abortion clinics. Rev. Jack Vos felt discomfort over the word “holocaust,” and therefore could not vote for it. Upon motion to amend from the floor, the word “holocaust” was replaced with “catastrophe.” Some delegates felt that by using the word “holocaust” the CRC might be causing offense to the Jews who use the word to describe what happened to them in World War II.
When this amendment carried (thus replacing the word “holocaust” with “catastrophe”), Rev. Bernie Tol of Classis Zeeland told the synod that Zeeland withdraws the motion. Synod then voted to send the matter back to the advisory committee. When the advisory committee came back to synod, it had done a complete turnabout. The advisory committee now recommended that synod not accede to Overture 3. In its grounds it said that “synod had previously expressed the denomination’s strong opposition to abortion” and that “no further statement is needed at this time.” First to speak was Rev. Bernie Tol. He pointed out that he and others had spoken prophetically at this synod. He warned synod not to be like the priest and Levite who saw someone in need but who hurried on past to get home. “We have done some wonderful things at this synod, but we are missing the boat” said Tol. We are inconsistent if we quote Abraham Kuyper in his statement that every square inch of life belongs to Christ the King, but we cannot speak out strongly on behalf of the unborn. “This is heavy, but it is on my heart,” he added. “We’ve mollified those who beat up the prophets.”
Rev. Gil Kamps (Classis Arizona) spoke in favor of not acceding to the overture. Zeeland should come back to spell out how to minister in an active and positive way in the abortion issue, not merely speak in a negative manner. Others agreed, again isolating “holocaust” as the objectionable word.
At this point in the proceedings, chairman Vanderwell reminded the synod that abortion is such a powerful issue. “How can we not take a stand? The world is watching.” Dr. Henry de Moor, professor of church polity at Calvin Seminary, noting that Zeeland was upset by the direction synod was taking, wondered if the chair could “put the procedures aside” to move back to the earlier recommendation. After the chair asked for a show of hands, and having seen a large number of hands go up, the officers conferred together. Synod then voted to table the recommendation not to accede to Zeeland’s overture, and it moved back to its earlier recommendation, favorable to Zeeland’s overture. One amendment regarding the change of wording (“holocaust” now replaced with “atrocity”) was accepted by common consent. The earlier recommendation from Zeeland then passed, an action which was greeted with applause by many delegates.
OTHER ACTIONS OF SYNOD 1998
• Met together with the CRC’s Multiethnic Conference on Saturday evening, June 13. Grand Rapids North elder delegate and former SCORR director. Mr. Bing Goel said that the CRC needs to make a “paradigm shift” in order to experience “a taste of heaven here on earth.” The current “building” is not adequate; its site must be cleared in order to raise up a new structure. Synod later passed a number of recommendations dealing with ethnic diversity within the CRC and how to encourage more multi-ethnicity as well as becoming more multicultural.
• Interviewed Dr. Dean Deppe and Dr. Ronald Nydam for appointments to teach at Calvin Seminary.
• Clarified the matter of The Banner’s editorial freedom as the official publication of the CRCNA. The Banner was initially prohibited from publishing news comment about the financial difficulties of the IRM Corporation when those difficulties became public last fall. Rev. Peter Borgdorff said that The Banner was not the best way to communicate to CRC members the difficulties which the IRM Corporation was experiencing. As the official publication of the CRCNA, The Banner was subject to potential “legal risks” in making public comment on this. Classis Lake Erie (Overture 17) asked synod to ensure that The Banner was under the control of the synod through CRC Publications, as well as to ensure the “editorial freedom” of The Banner. In the end, synod adopted the 1993 policy statement “The Banner’s Accountability and Freedom,” in order to clarify The Banner’s role within the structure of the CRCNA.
• Used for the first time in history an electronic system of voting in those instances where the voice votes appeared too close to call or where the chair’s ruling on a particular vote was challenged. This procedure tended to speed up the business of the synod, but more than one observer noted that the “drama” of the roll call votes by classes is now gone.
• Approved 29 candidates for the ministry in the CRC. Four of the 29 candidates are women.
• Encouraged the Calvin CRC of Rock Valley, Iowa, and Classis Lake Erie to wait until the year 2000 in the matter of women and ordination to ecclesiastical office. Calvin CRC (Overture 13) asked this year’s synod to review the 1995 decision, to remove Church Order supplement Article 3-a (placed there by Synod 1995), and to instruct CRC agencies and churches to comply with e.0. Article 3-a. Lake Erie, on the other hand, had urged that CRC agencies use women pastors, because not to do so would be discriminatory on the basis of gender, among other grounds.
• Decided that a synodical regulation prohibiting CRC agencies from appointing women as ministers or asking local churches to ordain women as ministers, does not apply in the case of In SoonGho. Gho is a recent graduate of Calvin Seminary and needed the endorsement of a denominational body before she could be appointed as a military chaplain. The advisory committee was itself split on this matter, but the majority recommendation prevailed on the floor of synod through an overwhelming vote. Following the vote synod gave Gho a standing ovation.
• Heard John De Haan, retiring director of the CRWRC, speak words of farewell to Synod. Mr. De Haan served the CRC in this position for over two decades.
• Approved three categories of reporting church membership. This came in response to Overture 6 (Classis Atlantic Northeast). The classis suggested that the Reformed Church in America’s policy, as described in the RCA’s Church Order, serve as the model for the CRC. Now churches are to report baptized, confessing, and inactive members. The last category may be subdivided into inactive baptized and inactive confessing members. Ministry shares and pension assessments will be based only upon the number of active confessing members who are 18 years of age and older.
• Approved the work of the synodical deputies in releasing James Lucas from the office of minister of the Word. This approval came after a vigorous speech by elder Philip Quist (Classis Grand Rapids East), in which he said that the grounds for Jim Lucas’s release bordered on “insulting.” Mr. Lucas is openly gay, albeit celibate. He was pressured by the council of the Eastern Avenue CRC to admit that he believed that faithful, monogamous, same-sex unions could be within the will of God. Eastern Avenue declined to continue holding his ministerial credentials. Technically, the CRC has released Mr. Lucas from ministerial office because for eight years, he has not received a call, and thus he was not released because of his views. Said Quist, “Here is another minority (i.e., the homosexual, MVH) that needs care.” Furthermore, the question was asked, “Maya minister disagree with the CRC Report of 1973?” This has never been answered.
• Accepted the invitation of the First CRC of Orange City, Iowa, to hold Synod 2003 at Dordt College. The synod last met at Dordt College in 1991. Next year’s synod will meet in Ancaster, Ontario, at Redeemer College.
• Decided that new or financially dependent churches need not adopt the CRC’s “new model articles of incorporation.” Banks attach strings to the money that they loan, but “that’s a tactic of the world, not of the church,” said Rev. Warren Lammers (Classis Dakota).
• Heard a farewell address by Rev. Arie Van Eek, retiring from his work with the Council of the Christian Reformed Churches in Canada. He served the CCRCC for three decades.
• Approved a draft outline of a pastoral letter which will be sent out to member congregations of the CRC. According to the Official News Office of synod, the letter will address “the pain caused by recent departures of churches from the denomination and the internal strife that continues to exist in many congregations.” This pastoral letter will also be published in The Banner and in the Christian Courier.
• Approved the appointment of a committee, recommended by the officers of synod, to prepare a report for Synod 2000 to assist in the review of the 1995 decision regarding women in ecclesiastical office and the Church Order Supplement which permits classes to declare the word “male” in Article 3 to be declared “inoperative.”
SOME CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS
At this point in my report, I wish to make some personal comments and observations about what happened at the CRC Synod of 1998.
First of all, it is a tribute to good planning and organization that this year’s CRC Synod was able to accomplish its work in one week’s time. Yet, some delegates felt that, even with a relatively light agenda, the process is speeded up to the point where adequate time for debate, reflection, and consideration of the more difficult issues is not always there. Adequate committee reports must be prepared and properly grounded in fewer days time. Synodical agendas in 1999 and 2000 promise to be much weightier than this year’s agenda.
Secondly, everyone hopes and prays that the monies involved in IRM’s troubles can be adequately retrieved. Not only does the CRC stand to lose perhaps much of the $11.5 million dollars which several of its agencies have invested in the IRM Corporation, there are also the many individuals and other Reformed institutions which are waiting to see how the situation will reach resolution. The CRC Synod has mandated the Board of Trustees to be engaged in a self-review of its own procedures. Many adequate guidelines were already in place when these investments were made. As one delegate put it, “There is the appearance of a ‘good ol’ boys’ network in place here.” One hopes, therefore, that this does not become a matter of “the fox guarding the chicken coop,” to quote another observer.
The subjects of schism, separation, and continued membership losses were discussed at some length at this particular synodical gathering. It became, for some delegates, a moment of some emotion. All in all, I think that this was good, although we must remember that emotions are fickle, unpredictable things. Furthermore, while expressing one’s emotions is healthy, we should always remember that emotions are very poor foundations for determining what one should do. One cannot always help what one feels, but we can help how we think and act.
Personally, I experience a mixed reaction to all of this. This reporter was present as an observer at the synodical meetings of 1992, 1993, and 1995. At those synods the work of the synodical deputies was routinely approved in many cases where ministers were leaving the CRC, sometimes with all or portions of the congregations they served. In fact, any reader can check out such matters in the Acts of Synod from the years 1992 to the present. At the synodical meetings where I was present, such departures were noted with hardly a comment and all eyes appeared to be dry. In other words, pastors and members have been withdrawing by the thousands over the last several years, and so, why the emotional notice now? To be sure, an overture from Lake Erie prompted this year’s discussion, but didn’t anyone at previous synods “feel the pain” before?
We should acknowledge that not every separation or departure from the CRC was done in the most pastoral or honorable way. Nor are people with drawing for all the same reasons. Often local circumstances playa dominant role over concern for the decisions and directions taken by recent CRC synods. Let it also be noted that pain and grief are deeply felt also by those who have withdrawn to seek church fellowship elsewhere. Most people who have separated from the CRC did so after careful consideration and prayerful thought.
Did previous synods actually realize that several of their decisions offend the consciences and the Biblical convictions of thousands of Reformed believers, many of whom are still within the CRC? And this is more than being a “one issue” matter, for example, the ordination of women to ecclesiastical office. These things, coupled with instances of brutal actions by local classes, are not unnoticed by many people, CRC and non-CRC alike. Everyone must be careful to act responsibly, in accordance with what God’s Word says, between the opening and closing prayers of any church assembly.
Having said all that, we should also be thankful for a number of good decisions that were made by the 1998 CRC Synod. Many readers of this magazine can applaud the decision not to appoint a committee to revise the Form of Subscription and the decision not to remove or to place Q/A 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism in an appendix. Nevertheless, in listening to the discussion as well as noting the relatively close votes, this observer noted that the Form of Subscription and the Catechism’s statement about the Roman Mass do not really function in many circles of the CRC. When statements are made to the effect that elders and deacons “have never read the Canons of Dart or the Belgic Confession” or that insigning the Form, “they have no idea what they are doing,” one might almost conclude that the Form is a virtually dead-letter.
This should not lead to any spirit of self-righteousness or bitterness and certainly not to a complacent attitude. Every day confronts us with the call to be an even more Reformed Christian. Every generation is challenged to lay hold of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is for that Reformed faith that we work with joy. May the King of the church keep us all faithful to that calling.
Rev. Mark Vander Hart is Professor of Old Testament and teaches Hebrew at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.