Significant CRC Synod 1976

Rev. Peter De Jong, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan, attended the recent CRC Synod as a reporter for THE OUTLOOK. His forthright review, herewith presented, clearly reflects the seriousness of the CRC Synod‘s refusal to disapprove of the decision of Classis Grand Rapids East and of the concurrence of the synodical deputies to allow the ordination of a candidate who denied the literal and historical factuality of certain clear statements of the Bible. Be sure to read this report with the utmost care. Fervent prayer and also further action are obviously now sorely needed.

It should he evident that Dutton‘s pastor and consistory have done all that may be expected of them to counteract the wrong view of Scripture that is gaining ground also in the CRC. Unless other consistories are now willing to lodge their protests against the action of the 1976 CRC Synod, they will have themselves to blame if the CRC will no longer hold to the pure preaching of the Word as the first mark of the true church.

NOTE: It is also of interest to know that Candidate Allen Verhey, whose ordination was approved by Classis Grand Rapids East, has served for three years as a lecturer in ethics at Calvin Seminary.

This year’s CRC Synod has come and gone. Its officers were: Henry Vander Kam, president; Rev. William Vander Hank, vice president; and Rev. Louis Tamminga and Elder Hero Bratt, first and second clerks. Confronted by a somewhat smaller (if not appreciably shorter – 541 pp.) Agenda than usual. Synod from the first, as someone observed, did not seem to incline to radical innovations, and proceeded with its business somewhat more rapidly than usual.

The explosive issue of women in church offices, which provoked so much discussion last year and was settled with a decision that the church‘s present practice would continue unless compelling biblical reasons could be brought for a change, drew little attention this year although Classis Lake Erie tried to raise the question again. The committee dealing with this matter in its bearing on licensing women to exhort is discharged leaving them unlicensed, but the committee appointed last year to encourage the legitimate use of women‘s gifts in the church is continued for another year.

Ministers – Synod approved a procedure, through the Ministerial Information Service Committee, for the exchange of pastorates provided both ministers and both congregations involved agree to the exchange.

Synod approved the temporary loan of CRC ministers to other churches with the approval of Classis, the synodical deputies, and the observance of a number of regulations regarding the objectives of such a loan and its time limits.

Contrary to an overture of Classis Quinte, the concurring advice of the synodical deputies must still be obtained in each case of ministers called for extraordinary duties.

The minimum salary of ministers serving in subsidized churches is raised to $11,000 for 1977, pillS S500 per child, plus an $800 car allowance from the Fund for Needy Churches to be matched by an equal amount to be paid by the church. This is an increase of $1,500 in the base salary.

Lapsed Membership – A baptized or confessing member who for two years has neglected his own church, but still claims to be a Christian and to be worshiping elsewhere and is not otherwise subject to discipline, may by consistory action be declared to have his membership “lapsed.” This rule formerly applied to those who moved to other localities. Now it applies also to those who have not.

New Classes – The eastern churches, until now included in Classes Hudson and Hackensack, are to he organized into three Classes. That will mean, among other things, that the number of Synod delegates will increase from 148 to 152.

Synodical Interim Committee – A number of rules were adopted for the functioning of the synodical interim committee especially in its relationship to other church agencies. It is hoped that this will reduce friction and promote efficiency.

Budget – The budget‘s per family quotas for next you are generally changed little from those of this year. The major change is a new extra $10 quota to support the Backto-God Hour’s venture into Cable TV, an experiment which will get—and will need watching. About the budget committee’s proposal to reduce the Race Committee (SCORR) quota from $1.40 to $1.00. Despite a number of speeches seeking to restore the cut, a proposal to do so lost by a vote of 70 to 75. What evidently influenced the decision was the lack of specific programs for which the money was to be used and the budget committee’s report that 45% of that quota was being spent on administrative costs.

The “Battle for the Bible” in the CRC – It has been observed from time to time in the pages of this magazine that what is increasingly emerging as the underlying issue, bringing division within our ranks on all kinds of other matters, is an erroneous, “liberal” view of the Bible. As Harold Lindsell in his recent book, The Battle for the Bible, has clearly pointed out, the issue is the denial of the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible. Denial of that teaching of the Bible about itself must sooner or later result in a difference on every other matter of doctrine or life. That issue gave rise to some of the most extensive debates at this Synod.

An Editorial Appointment – Debate first arose regarding the Board of Publications recommendation of the appointment of Dr. Edwin Walhout as a single nominee for the job of editor for Adult Education. One delegate, Rev. John Kruis, called the attention of the Synod to an article written by the nominee in The Reformed Journal of May-June 1972 under the title of “Some Theses on Biblical Authority.” This article, working with a philosophical rather than on a biblical basis, makes a number of generalizations about authority and without a single reference to the Bible, proceeds to say such things as the following:

“The Bible manifests the authority of God as a verbal witness to that authority . . . . In itself, it is not God, nor the second or third person of the Trinity, nor the power or truth of God. As human language, it points to and describes God in his exercise of authority, in his Word and Spirit. the authority of the Bible is to be found in its unique witness of Jesus Christ . . .

If the witness of the Bible to Jesus Christ does not, as a matter of actual fact, result in the conversion of sinners, the authority of the Bible has not been exercised . . . Like the authority of God, the Word of God is manifested universally.

“So the authority of the Bible is not higher or more essential than any other finite object . . . .The word ‘infallibility’ describes that quality of God’s authority by which his truth does as a matter of fact produce some result. Its (the Bible’s) infallibility does not lie inherently in the language or in the words, but in the authority of the Word and Power of God . . . . the question of to what extent the Bible is authoritative must be seen in this larger perspective of the universal authority of God. As a literary document inspired by God, the Bible is a witness to the creative and redemptive truth and power of God culminating in Jesus Christ and productive of our salvation . . . To discover inaccurate, prescientific viewpoints in the Bible on other matters does not threaten this purpose. Both science and that Bible are infallible in the measure and to the extent that they truly reflect the absolute authority of God . . . . The Bible and science form a kind of system of checks and balances for each other . . . . The data that science discovers are as truly infallible as the data of the Bible . . . .

“The question of the nature and historicity of Adam is to be determined by the cooperative input of all relevant sources . . . . If there were conclusive proof that the human race had more than one progenitor, it would have to be accepted.”

Synod, recognizing the importance of this article, duplicated it for every delegate. A lively debate arose when the discussion was resumed. Dr. William Hendriksen cited a number of the already quoted statements as neither enhancing one’s respect for nor showing a high regard for the Bible, and observed that this is not the kind of leadership to be desired in this post. Dr. John Daling rose to defend the views expressed on the basis of the Belgic Confession’s statements on God’s general revelation. Dr. A. Wolters, professor at the AACS Toronto Institute for Christian Studies, also defended these views and was followed by others who expressed a similar reaction. (This defense hardly comes as a surprise to any who are familiar with the AACS leadersoften expressed downgrading of the Bible in favor of other “forms” of the Word of God such as that in Creation.) Rev. W. Postman expressed enthusiasm for a view which he said would once have alarmed him. A number of other speakers expressed uneasiness about such a view of the Bible. Rev. J. Kruis pointed out that although the article said a number of good things which we all appreciate about general revelation, it also said that science can correct Scripture. Many were unhappy over the lack of choice offered by the single board nomination although assured by board members that others could have been nominated. Despite the extended debate the appointment was approved.

While, as some delegates argued, one must not attach too much importance to one article, the view of the Bible it clearly expresses, the attention given to it by Synod and the decision taken after such full discussion do not inspire confidence in the curriculum materials to be expected from our publication office. The curriculum as a whole is now found usable by only 41% of our churches (Agenda, p. 145). Neither does the decision inspire confidence in the course which the denomination is taking when it deliberately chooses this kind of leadership to explain God’s Word.

The Dutton Appeal – Whether the denomination will permit its officers to question or deny events recorded in the Bible, and therefore deny the Bible’s claims to its own inerrancy, came out even more plainly in the Synod’s treatment of the Dulton appeal.

That church appealed against a Classis Grand Rapids East decision to approve the ordaining of a candidate after he had said under examination that he did not believe that the serpent spoke to Eve as reported in Genesis 3 and that the earthquake reported in Matthew 28 should be understood as an eschatological symbol and not necessarily as a fact. The grounds for the appeal of Dutton were as follows:

1. This view plainly contradicts what the Bible states as simple facts. (See Gen. 3:1–5, 13, 14; II Cor. 11:3; Matt. 28:2, “And, behold there was a great earthquake . . . .” 2. It is in conflict with Article V of the Confession of Faith in which we confess that we “receive all these books [of the Holy Scripture] . . . believing without any doubt all things contained in them . . . .”

3. It does exactly what the Synod of 1972 warned must not be done. It uses a “method of biblical interpretation which excludes or calls into question . . . the event-character . . . of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God” (Acts 1972, p. 69, Art. 52, 3e, decision of Report 44).

4. If we admit to the ministry of our churches men who, however well qualified they may be in other respects, yet at some points hold and teach what contradicts the Scripture, we in principle give up the biblical authority for our faith and no longer have any valid ground on which to deny to others the right to hold and teach further departures from it. 5. The history of our mother churches in the Netherlands shows how the permission to question or deny the events of Genesis 3, explicitly rejected by them . . . in 1926 and conceded . . . in 1967, has opened the way to tolerating denials of all kinds of biblical doctrines, including those of the creation, fall and atonement.

The Dutton appeal together with a somewhat similar one from Cascade church hadbeen at the January classis meeting where it was received for information, and the consistories’ right to appeal the matter to Synod was recognized.

The Cascade church appealed to synod against the failure of the synodical delegates to report to Synod the conditions under which they gave their approval of the Classis decision. The Bethel Church of Sioux Center overtured the Synod supporting the Dutton appeal and requesting that the appealing consistory be given the privilege of the floor when the matter was discussed.

Early in the sessions of Synod, the Cascade appeal was rejected since the synodical deputies said that their expressed misgivings about the examination where not to be taken as a condition for their approval but as pastoral advice which need not be reported. The Bethel request that the appealing consistory be given the privilege of the Roor was also denied.

The advisory committee, in an effort to get a compromise that might prove acceptable, recommended that the Dutton appeal be not sustained because of insufficient evidence, and that the Classis be instructed to further counsel the minister in question regarding his methods of using the Scripture, which seemed to be in conflict with Report 44, report back to the Synod of 1977.

The report produced a long debate in which many delegates took part. There were questions which seemed to be in conflict with Report 44, and about what was meant, questions about procedure, questions about how one could hold such contradictory views, and questions about what could be done.

Finally the matter was referred back to the committee with instructions to interview the examinee regarding the examination in the presence of the officers of synod.

The Long Debate Later in the Synod sessions the matter returned to the floor and provoked an all-day debate. After the interview (with the examinee) the committee which had been united in its earlier recommendation divided. A minority, assured by the man interviewed that he had said what the appeal alleged he had said (and as far as I know no one who was present at the examination has questioned that) therefore recommended that the Synod sustain the Dutton appeal against the Classis decision.

The majority, preferring to deal with the matter as especially one of procedure recommended that the Dutton appeal be not sustained because it was not brought before the man was ordained and because after he was ordained any procedure against a minister must follow the route of the Form of Subscription. It added also the grounds that the Classis, synodical deputies, his consistory, and most of the interviewing committee were satisfied that the man was orthodox.

After the day-long debate exposing practically every angle of the matter, Synod by a majority vote accepted the recommendation of the committee majority but rejected the grounds which made any judgment about the man‘s orthodoxy. In other words, it said that the candidate’s ordination had been approved after proper examination, no protest had been received before his ordination took pJace, and after the ordination any procedure against a minister must be by the way outlined in the Form of Subscription and Church Order.

Meaning of the Decision – What does it mean? It means that Synod ignored the fact that the appeal was not against a man but against a decision of the Classis Grand Rapids East on an issue that threatens our continued right to be regarded as a Bible-believing and preaching church. Awareness of that fact became evident in the long debate. If Synod had not felt this it would not have wasted a whole day to tell a church that one must charge a preacher with heresy in order to remove him from office.

The fraternal delegate from South Africa, J. H. Coetzee, in one of the most pointed of the many speeches made, called attention to the fact that if a minister may deny or question the earthquake mentioned in Matthew 28:2 he may also question the fact reported in the immediately preceding passage of the same book, that Christ died for our sins. As he said, this is not just a question about an earthquake 2000 years ago, but it touches the heart of the gospel of Christ.

The Dutton church, following proper procedure, appealed to Synod, not against a man, but against a decision of the Classis it believed was wrong. Synod had to decide whether the decision of the Classis was right or wrong. Synod, made aware of the seriousness of the matter by the clearly worded appeal and many speeches of its delegates, rejected the appeal and thereby, in fact, said that the Classis decision was right. Even though it deliberately rejected the several proposed grounds which said the candidate’s views were orthodox; it sustained the decision to ordain him.

This has developed into a test case. Even the Grand Rapids Press sensed the importance of the decision, it headlined its report, “Dutton Appeal Provides the Drama As Curtain Falls on CRC Synod.” What does the Synod‘s decision tell the church and the world? (1) It says that the Christian Reformed Church will permit a man to enter its ministry even when in his examination he denies facts reported in the Bible. (2) It says (as the grounds of the appeal intimated) that one entering our ministry may interpret his confession (Belgic Confession, Art. V) that he believes “without any doubt all things contained in” the Holy Scriptures to mean that he need not believe all things contained in them. (3) It means that the warnings the 1972 Synod issued even in the controversial and at some points ambiguous “Report 44” “against the use of any method of biblical interpretation which excludes or calls into question . the event character . . . of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God” (Acts 1972, p. 69, Art. 52, 3e) is not maintained by the Christian Reformed Synod today. (4) It means that our churches in officially permitting men who deny or question matters taught in the Bible to enter office, therefore have no valid ground on which to deny to others the right to hold or teach further departures from Bible teachings. (5) It means that we are well on the way toward catching up with our increasingly liberal mother churches in the Netherlands, perhaps where they were in 1967?

That many delegates were uneasy about this decision appeared in a last surprising development. The approval of the work of the synodical deputies, usually given as a matter of course, in this case was carried by only a 3 vote majority 72 to 69. Almost half of the delegates voted against it! Some suggested that this vote might encourage other deputies to oppose pressures to approve ordinations in other similar cases.

One delegate, Rev. Stuart Pastine, after the decisive vote had been taken, proposed a motion that Synod declare that the event-character of the serpent in Genesis 3 and the earthquake in Matthew 28 must be regarded as facts.

The chairman, somewhat arbitrarily, it appeared, ruled this out of order.

Inconsistent Decisions – As has been observed, Synod’s rejection of the Dutton appeal has these disturbing implications as to what it thereby in fact tolerates on the part of a candidate entering the ministry. Another case, coming before the same synod points in a different direction. The Peoria church wanted a study committee to determine whether one may as a Reformed Christian deny the actual historical factuality of events in Genesis 1–11, alleging that some ministers do so. Synod rejected this request saying that the church in its creeds (Belgic Confession V, XII, XIV, Heid. Catechism, Q‘s 6–8) “has expressed itself on the actual historical factuality of events recorded in Genesis” and that the same is expressed in Report 44 (Acts 1972, pp. 68 and 69) which speaks of “the historical reality of the events therein recorded and “warns against the use of any method of biblical interpretation which excludes or calls into question either the event-character or the revelational meaning of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God.” If ministers deny this the consistory must take proper action against them.

In other words, Synod tells consistories to take action against ministers who hold such views at the same time as it rejects the appeal of a consistory against a classis’ approval of ordaining a man who holds such views! Is Synod exempt from the requirements it places upon others? Or may a candidate enter the ministry holding views which a minister is forbidden to hold?

Ecumenical Relations – The previously mentioned decision will certainly have serious repercussions on our relations with other churches who are defending the inerrancy of the Bible.

Our Interchurch Relations Committee recommended that we recognize the Reformed Church in America as a church in ecclesiastical fellowship with us. Synod was faced with a majority and minority report from its advisory committee. The majority recommended postponement of such action in view of its possible effect on relations with other churches and the expressed concern of some of our churches about the RCA’s loyalty to the Reformed confessions and practices. Especially some of the Eastern delegates fear this action will handicap our evangelistic efforts in areas near liberal Reformed Churches.

In the discussion such matters as the RCA’s toleration of lodge membership, membership in the World Council, open communion, lack of confessional loyalty and discipline, neglect of preaching doctrines of election and limited atonement were raised.

Despite these considerations Synod decided to follow the recommendation of the minority report and recognize the RCA in this way, because we have in fact long been doing this.

Editor John Mitchell, in the May Presbyterian Journal expressed the opinion that if the CRC entered such relations with the RCA “the effect” on the newly formed North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) is likely to be mortal. “If the CRC chooses to align itself more closely with the RCA, the long-term result is likely to be a strengthening of ties among the conservative Presbyterian bodies to the exclusion of any improvements in relations with the Reformed churches.”

A representative of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Rev. George Haney addressing the Synod on the day when the Dutton appeal was debated expressed his own and his churches’ deep concern about the infallibility of the Bible. He could not predict the effect of our present decisions on future relations with them.

Our Synod decided to invite the churches involved in the NAPARC to hold their major assemblies on the premises of Calvin College and Seminary in June 1978.

We are to continue negotiations with the RCA regarding a united effort at Hessel Park, at Champaign, Illinois even though the RCA has insisted that all such negotiation must envision a united congregation.

Grand Rapids East‘s overture to put pressure by way of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod on the South African Churches to object to severe police regulations against terrorists produced a decision to send a letter to the South African Churches who are members of the RES about this matter. Despite the careful wording of the letter and the courteous remarks of the South African delegate, this impertinent inquiry about other churches’ dealing with police regulations passed 9 years ago, of which they apparently know little and we know Jess, is not likely to enhance their respect for our Christian common sense or our ecumenical relations with them. These churches will not be much affected by this solicitude regarding their country’s laws as it comes to them from a land whose lawlessness is proverbial throughout the world.

The Form of Subscription – A study committee reported to Synod strongly urging that our Form of Subscription for officers in the church, which had been attacked by Dr. Harry Boer three years ago and which a previous Synod attempted to amend, be retained in its original form.

Synod decided to keep our present form and resisted another effort to revise it. It also, however, adopted certain explanations and regulations which significantly change the way in which it will function. It recognized two kinds of “gravamens” or formal objections to the creeds, one a confessional difficulty gravamen to be handled pastorally and personally without being publicized and in which the “burden of proof does not lie on the subscriber to defend his sentiments, and the other a confessional revision gravamen which does place the burden of proof on the subscriber who wants to change the creeds and which must be handled in a more judicial way. If this objection to the creed is accepted by consistory or classis it becomes an overture which is open to public discussion.

Applying this new procedure to the case of Dr. Harry Boer, who last year publicly attacked the Canons of Dort by way of “questions” about their biblical proof, Synod decided that his case should be considered the first kind of gravamen, (a “confessional-difficulty” gravamen) which will be handled by a special four-man committee appointed to deal with him in a pastoral and personal way. As such, it is not a matter of public debate and discussion by him. In effect, Dr. Boer, by his attack on and violation of the form of subscription and creed has effectively changed the functioning of that form in a way in which the consequences are not yet clear. These things may well need improvement, but no man may be permitted to break his promises and disregard church rules at will if the church is to be preserved from anarchy.

Liturgy – The new forms for infant and adult baptism and for public confession of faith and the new revision of the old infant baptism form have been accepted despite the number of objections to them mentioned in overtures and last month‘s issue of this magazine.

Other Social Matters – The report favoring a laxer view of divorce which was to have been taken up at this Synod is carried over until next year because the advisory committee, overburdened with the Dutton appeal, lacked the needed time to prepare its advice for this Synod.

A “human life amendment” to the U.S. Constitution was endorsed and our churches are encouraged to promote it to oppose the growing atrocity of abortion.

The matter of supporting capital punishment, coming to the floor by way of two reports—a majority report favoring appointing a study committee and a minority recommending some immediate decisions expressing approval—was settled in favor of a study committee.

The Road Ahead – Although the Agenda was smaller than usual and the debate was calmer and usually more courteous than it has at times been, the rift in the church to which I referred in last year‘s Synod report becomes plainer than ever. And the rift is not a superficial matter of background, temperament, or age, but it is the result of two diverging views of the Bible. It is the difference between those who acknowledge its own claimed inerrancy and absolute authority as God’s rule for their faith and life and those who appeal to it only as long as it can be cited to support their own ideas or those of today’s culture. It was that difference that came to expression throughout the controversial examination, as well as in Synod’s discussion about it. That difference the divided Synod tried ineffectively to patch over.

What course must the large number of people throughout the denomination—ably represented also at this Synod—who pray, work, and will fight for a church governed by the infallible Word, take in our present church predicament?

We can no longer get dependable guidance from our now divided church assemblies from which most of us since childhood were taught to expect it. The times drive us, like our Reformed fathers who faced the same kind of problem, straight back to the Word of God and to His Spirit for guidance and help. We will have to base our faith and life squarely and solely on them.

We will have to seek the fellowship and support of likeminded Reformed Christians. The Reformed Fellowship and its magazine arose 25 years ago as one effort to achieve this. The need for an interest in such fellowship and mutual support appear greater now than they did in the 50s. The fact that THE OUTLOOK has more than tripled its circulation in the last five years suggests something of that growing interest. We must do more than organize and read, however.

Each one in his own church and community must pray for God’s help to deal with the responsibility for God’s truth and church that confronts him there. Some are asking, “What will Dutton do after the Synod has failed to support its appeal?” “That is the wrong question,” to quote a familiar phrase. The right question is, “What are you going to do?” An outcry from all churches and classes who oppose the compromise of God’s truth that we have seen, can with God’s help change the course of the denomination.

We must examine candidates more carefully. We must examine more closely their training for the ministry. We must also insist on the biblical discipline of officers as well as members. That is what our friends, the Missouri Lutherans have had to do in a situation similar to, but probably somewhat more advanced than ours. Their success encourages us to realize what God can and may still be pleased to do with those faithful to Him. Every consistory, elder and member will have to fight the spiritual battle ahead with love and patience, seeking to win rather than to alienate those who differ, but refusing always to compromise the basic commitment to God’s Word.

When we are charged with arrogance, we must reply that it is God’s truth, not our stubbornness that makes us stand. When we are charged with negativism, we must show positiveJy the “whole counsel of God,” with its infinite potential for “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We must also expose the shoddy substitutes that are depriving the old and especially the young of what they “must know to live and die happily.” Our object is not the antiquated vision of a few old people; it is the spiritual heritage that we hold in trust for the coming generations. This merits the enthusiastic commitment of both young and old. United in this godly faith and life, we must continue to seek a Bible-believing church fellowship both within and ecumenically beyond the CRC we love.