From a historical point of view, it was perhaps one of the more poignant moments in the sessions of the 1996 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. In the context of this synod’s debates regarding interchurch relations and the contentious issue of women in ecclesiastical office, a portion of a letter from the 63rd General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was read. In this letter, which appealed to the synod to reverse the actions of Synod 1995 in permitting churches and classes to ordain women elders and ministers, the Assembly concluded with the words, “It is our earnest prayer that you will withdraw from the precipice, repent, and again contend for the biblical order Christ has commanded for his church.”
These concluding words of the letter of the General Assembly of the ope were preceded by the communication of two actions of the Assembly—to suspend relations with the Christian Reformed Church during the next year and to sever all fraternal relations in 1997 should the synod of the CRC not reverse itself on the issue of the ordination of women.
The poignancy of this moment, from a historical view, points, time-wise in two directions: past and future. From the point of view of the past, it was noted in the letter of the OPC that at its fourth General Assembly in 1938, shortly after the founding of the OPC in the struggle with liberalism in the old Presbyterian Church, that the Synod of the CRC communicated its best wishes in the words, “May grace, mercy and peace be multiplied to your denomination, in standing for the old time religion, as expressed in the standards of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches.” This was a reminded to synod of the significant and meaningful fellowship that the CRC has enjoyed with the OPC in the past.
However, from the point of view of the future, it suggested that the CRC was at a point of crisis in its history, at a precipice from which it was urged to withdraw. Subsequent events at Synod 1996 would suggest that, at least for now, the CRC is not of a mind to turn back from the course on which it has embarked in recent years. Not only did Synod 1996 not withdraw from the precipice, but it also overwhelmingly demonstrated that this course will continue. Synod 1996, to extend the language of the OPC General Assembly’s letter, decided to plunge over the precipice.
A REVIEW OF THE MAJOR DECISIONS OF SYNOD 1996
Though it is difficult to evaluate in a report such as this the significance of the actions of a particular synod, any such evaluation must begin with a review of the major decisions taken. What matters finally, when it comes to the meeting of any synod are the decisions that are made. Sometimes interpreters of synods are tempted to try to read between the lines or discover the hidden motives and implications of decisions that are made. However, it is always best to note carefully what was actually decided and to analyze only subsequently the meaning of these decisions.
Consequently, I will divide my report as an observer for The Outlook into two distinct parts. I will begin with a review and summary of the major decisions of Synod 1996. Then I will turn to an analysis of some of these decisions, seeking to interpret their significance for the present and future direction of the Christian Reformed Church. In this second part, I will hazard—for it is indeed hazardous to do so!—a few comments about the future course for those who wish to be historically and confessionally Reformed but are still members of Christian Reformed congregations.1
A Diverse Family of God
A prominent agenda item for Synod 1996 was the issue of the diversity of the family of God, the church of Jesus Christ. In various ways, including a multi-ethnic service of worship on Sunday evening, this synod was asked to face the challenge of racial and ethnic diversity and the gospel promise of reconciliation and unity between nations and peoples in the one Lord Jesus Christ.
Among the first actions of this synod was the adoption of a series of recommendations to approve and implement the decision of Synod 1995 to have “ethnic advisors” appointed to serve synod with advice and counsel from the perspective of various racial and ethnic groups (e.g. African American, Native American or Aboriginals, Korean, Hispanic and others). Synod decided to appoint five ethnic advisors who were responsible to serve on synodical committees, were given the privilege of the floor but not the right to vote, and were to attend the plenary sessions to advise synod either by their own request or that of the president.
In addition to the appointment of such ethnic advisors, Synod 1996 also adopted a comprehensive statement of “Biblical and Theological Principles for the Development of a Racially and Ethnically Diverse and Unified Family of God.” Structured according to the historical sequence of creation, fall and redemption, this statement begins with an affirmation of God’s original purpose in creating one, though diverse, created reality and human race. Noting how the fall into sin has ruptured this unity, the statement gives sustained attention to the way in which God is reconciling all things and all peoples in Jesus Christ. After adopting these principles, synod also adopted a series of recommendations that were directed to the implementation of them among the churches and classes of the denomination.
In a related action, synod adopted a recommendation to accede to an overture from Classis Lake Erie, asking the Board of Trustees to appoint a small subcommittee to “maintain a database of gifted and/or trainable people, concentrating primarily on those who reflect the gender, ethnic, and racial diversity of the denomination, including those with disabilities….” This committee is mandated to assist in ensuring that committee appointments in the Christian Reformed denomination be sensitive to and inclusive of the various ethnic communities.
Finally, among the items relating to the ethnic diversity of the Christian Reformed denomination was a proposal to form a Korean-speaking classis in California. This proposal was the subject of an extended debate, since many delegates were concerned that the Korean churches be fully integrated into the denomination. Synod gave its approval to this proposal, but stipulated that it would be for a maximum period of fifteen years. It should be noted that not all the Korean churches will be members of this new classis. At present, twelve churches have expressed their desire to join.
Another item that captured synod’s attention and consumed a considerable amount of its time, was the matter of interchurch relations. Since the fellowship of the Christian Reformed denomination with other churches is such an important indicator of its sense of identity and purpose, it is not surprising that synod faced the challenges on this level that it did.
Once again this year’s synod faced the nettlesome question of fraternal relations with the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN). Since 1983, when synod suspended two of the six features of inter-church relations, pulpit and table fellowship, there have been continuing discussions with the GKN regarding its positions on women-in-office, homosexuality, euthanasia and the exclusiveness of salvation through Jesus Christ. At Synod 1995 the relations between the two denominations had been strained further by the candor of Rev. Richard Vissinga, fraternal delegate of the GKN, who spoke in defense of his denomination’s willingness to tolerate homosexual practice, euthanasia, and other views at odds with the historic consensus of the Reformed churches. Rev. Vissinga addressed this year’s synod again, though in a more conciliatory manner, even apologizing for the offense that he might have occasioned by his speech the year prior. However, he did not apologize, as some of the delegates noted later in debate, for the things that he had said, noting that the Dutch churches have to struggle within the context of the secularism of modern European culture.
Subsequently, on Monday of the second week of synod, a lengthy debate took place regarding the Christian Reformed denomination’s relations with the GKN. The first and most significant recommendation adopted further restricted relations with the CKN by discontinuing the practice of exchanging fraternal delegates at major assemblies and placing a moratorium on new joint ministry projects. After passing this recommendation by a margin of nineteen votes, synod also decided to intensify its conversations with the CKN through the Interchurch Relations Committee.
Closer to home, Synod 1996 had to address a number of issues relating to its fellowship with the member denominations of the National Association of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches (NAPARC). Notice was taken of the communication from the 63rd General Assembly of the OPC, in which synod was informed of its decision to suspend fellowship with the CRC and to terminate relations in 1997, should the 1997 General Assembly determine that intervening actions of the CRC do not warrant a reversal Synod also adopted a recommendation to declare the CRC’s willingness to discuss several disputed issues (women in office, homosexuality, church discipline) with the OPC. However, the language of this recommendation noted that the CRC was “not inclined to reopen issues already decided….” Among other decisions in respect to NAPARC and its member churches, synod also reminded the churches of the “Golden Rule Comity Agreement” (not to compete but to cooperate in the establishing of new churches); disapproved a proposed change in NAPARC’s constitution that would permit the discipline of member denominations; refused to accede to an overture from Classis Lake Erie to “terminate CRC membership” in NAPARC; and approved a letter, responding to a communication from the PCA, in which synod expressed its disagreement with the PCA’s call for it to “repent and rescind” the action of Synod 1995.
In the midst of these evidences of strained relations with other denominations, Synod 1996 was able to act to restore relations with one denomination with which relations have been strained in recent years. At the recommendation of its advisory committee, synod decided to lift the suspension of relations and to reinstate all provisions of fraternal fellowship with the Reformed Churches in South Africa. This decision was based upon the grounds that the circumstances in South African society and in the RCSA have changed suffiCiently to warrant the re-institution of fellowship with this denomination.
Education and Ministerial Training
Recent synods of the Christian Reformed denomination have confronted in a variety of forms the problem of providing for the training and preparation of ministers. This problem has been aggravated by a number of factors: the increase in ministers, often from ethnic minority backgrounds, seeking admission into the ministry of the CRC; the reception of ministers from other denominations by way of Article 7 and Article 8 colloquia docla (“doctrinal conversations”); the existence of other Reformed seminaries where students can be prepared for the ministry; the growing number of vacancies in the denomination due to the drop-off in the number of candidates for the ministry and the large number of demissions from the ministry in the CRC. Synod 1996 was compelled to face this problem for several reasons. Not only did Synod 1996 have to approve the entry of seventy-seven people into the ministry through some other route than the normal program of training at the denominational seminary,but it was also faced with an overture from Classis llliana, asking for the revision in the present requirements to allow students the freedom to obtain their education at other seminaries.
Amidst expressions of concern byJames De Jong, president of Calvin Theological Seminary, and Henry De Moor, professor of church order at the same seminary, synod appointed a study committee “to examine routes presently being used to ordained ministry in the CRC and related denominations, to define standards for effective ministry…in the CRC, and to propose any changes in present policy that they judge to be necessary.”3 The concerns of De Jong and De Moor were that the CRe, though historically committed to the principle of a thoroughly (academically, vocationally) and uniformly (in knowledge of CRC distinctives, history and polity) trained ministry, was tempted to downgrade the requirements for ministerial candidacy. The decision to appoint this committee is potentially of great significance, not only for the admission of ethnic minority candidates to the ministry (as noted in the decision’s grounds) but also for the training of students at seminaries other than Calvin Seminary.
This year synod delayed its action on declaring the candidacy of students for ministry until after the debate regarding women in office. After its decision on Tuesday June 18) to affirm the decision of Synod 1995 to permit the ordination of women ministers and elders by way of exception, synod approved twenty-one men and three women as candidates for the ministry. When synod made this decision, the question was divided and the male and female students were voted upon separately. This permitted those opposed to the ordination of women on biblical grounds to vote no, which many of them did, despite the recommendation of Synod 1995 that they simply abstain. President James De Jong of Calvin Seminary noted, in something of an understatement, that the presentation of these candidates to synod on Wednesday was a “historic moment.”
Matters As has been the experience of many synods in recent years, Synod 1996 was compelled to address a number of Church Order matters, some of more long-term consequence than others. Since one of these—the legitimacy of forming classes along lines of theological affinity rather than geographical proximity—is of special importance, I will consider it separately after simply noting a series of Church Order decisions made by this year’s synod. The Church Order decisions of this year’s synod that are worthy of some notice were the following:
• Synod declined to change the provisions of Article 47 in the Church Order, so that changes in the Church Order, its supplements, the Form of Subscription and the creeds and confessions could only be made after the approval of the majority of consistories in the denomination.
• Synod amended the supplement to Church Order Article 47 by adding as item “f” the following: “If a proposed change is rejected by a following synod, that change (or one substantially similar) is not available for adoption by a succeeding synod unless it has been first proposed once again by synod.” This supplement was added to clear up an ambiguity in the present rules which might permit synods to alter the Church Order immediately, without giving prior notice to the churches, by acting upon an action of a previous synod that had in the interim been revised or left unratified by an intervening synod.
• Synod acceded to an overture asking that Article 36a be amended so that councils, consistories and diaconates could elect any member of their body to be president. The present reading of the Article says that “[a] minister shall ordinarily preside at meetings of the council and the consistory.”
The most far-reaching church order issue that faced this synod was one presented in several overtures, namely, that synod permit churches to form classes according to theological affinity rather than geographical proximity. This proposed change was discussed and recommended at the Inter-Classical Conference held in South Holland, Illinois, in the fall of 1995, at which representatives of churches throughout the denomination debated their responses to the actions of Synod 1995. Synod was asked to change Article 39 and/or its supplement to permit churches the freedom to align themselves with and be members of classes in which the word “male” in Church Order Article 3 remains operative. Since many churches whose councils are opposed to the ordination of women on biblical grounds may find themselves in classes where this practice is permitted, synod was asked to make allowance for such churches to transfer to classes more congenial to their biblical convictions on this and perhaps other matters.
Synod’s response to these overtures was two-fold. On the one hand, synod chose not to accede to the requests to make a change in Church Order Article 39. On the other hand, this synod reminded the churches “that any request for transfer to another classis may include grounds that go beyond the sole matter of geographic proximity and that synod is at liberty to consider such grounds in its disposition of the request.” In connection with this second response, Synod 1996 also placed a supplement to Article 39 in the Church Order, noting that synods have this latitude in dealing with requests for transference to another classis. Judging from these decisions and the discussion on the floor of synod, it would seem that the idea of classes formed along lines of theological affinity was resoundingly rejected, though individual churches were given some freedom to transfer to another classis, should they find themselves in strong disagreement with the actions of the classis relative to the ordination of women. One interesting feature of this decision is that it might permit a kind of “two-way traffic” between classes. Just as a “conservative” church might transfer to a more “conservative” classis, so a more “progressive” church might transfer to a more “progressive” classis.
For some time, it has been argued that the next controversial issue to trouble the Christian Reformed denomination will be that of homosexuality and ministry to homosexuals. Some have suggested that the kind of approach to the Scriptures that has characterized the CRC’s handling of the women in office issue will render the denomination vulnerable when it confronts this issue. Others have argued that the one issue has no real connection with the other. The actions of this year’s synod relative to the issue of homosexuality indicate that there may be further troubled waters for the CRC, but now with respect to a different issue.
Synod 1996 was asked by Classis Wisconsin to declare that the advocacy of homosexual practice, even within the context of a committed, monogamous relationship, was a form of false doctrine that would merit for its advocate the admonition and discipline of the church. The classis wanted synod to strengthen its actions in 1973, when “homosexualism” or homosexual practice was “condemned as incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Holy Scripture” (Acts of Synod 1973, p. 52), by declaring the advocacy of such sinful practice to be a disciplinable offense. Synod refused to accede to this overture, though it did note that “[a]dequate provisions for dealing with denial of biblical teachings are made in Articles 65 and 78–83 of the Church Order.”
However, synod did respond favorably to an overture asking that a study committee be appointed “to give direction about and for pastoral care of homosexual members in a manner consistent with Synod 1973.” Not only did the decision to appoint such a committee evoke considerable discussion among the delegates, but it also proved to be a contentious issue when, toward the close of the synodical meeting, the delegates were asked to approve the committee’s membership. After a surprisingly lively debate (synod was about to adjourn when the issue of the committee’s composition came up for discussion), the whole matter of the committee’s membership was referred to the Board of Trustees for their action. Two things complicated the debate of synod at this point. First, the chairman and reporter of the advisory committee made their recommendation without consulting the whole committee membership and without ascertaining whether the names proposed were of individuals who agree with the decisions of Synod 1973 on this issue.4 And second, synod narrowly defeated an amendment to add the name of Rev. James Lucas to the committee, though uncertain as to his agreement with Synod 1973, only to decide subsequently to refer the whole matter to the Board of Trustees.
Observing the actions and decisions of Synod 1996 relative to the matter of homosexuality, it seems fair to conclude that this issue will be the next to test the resolve of the denomination in respect to its biblical and confessional commitments. What the outcome of this new study process will be remains to be seen, but it is likely that new and more vigorous voices will be raised, asking the denomination to consider forms of ministry to homosexuals that do not insist upon celibacy or repentance within the context of a believing response to the gospel promise of forgiveness and mercy.
Revising the Confessions and Gender-inclusive Language
One of the more hopeful and surprising decisions of synod was its non-acceptance of a “Report Regarding Gender-Sensitive Language in the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort.” Without any significant dissent, synod judged that the CRC Worship Committee had violated its mandate by “in some cases” changing the theological intent of the confessions. Such changes were cited in the confessional descriptions of the creation and fall events, as well as in the citations of Scriptural references. At one point in the debate, a motion was made to place an asterisk by these confessions with a note, indicating that the language of the confessions is “not gender-sensitive by twentieth-century standards.” Wisely, synod withheld action on this motion so that the matter is presently off the synodical agenda.
Women in Office: Case Closed
Tuesday of the second week of Synod 1996 was devoted, at least for most of the morning and afternoon sessions, to deliberating the issue of women in office and synod’s response to a variety of overtures relating to the decision of Synod 1995.
As has customarily been the case throughout the history of the CRC’s debate regarding women in office, synod was confronted with a choice between a majority and a minority advisory committee report. The majority asked synod to affirm the actions of Synod 1995 relative to this issue. The minority asked synod to return to the position of Synod 1994, when the ordination of women was declared to be in conflict with the teaching of the Word of God.
It became apparent already at the end of the morning session that the majority recommendation would be adopted. Before the noon break, a motion to go to the minority recommendation was overwhelmingly defeated, 51 yes to 128 no. This vote was prophetic of the afternoon’s decision, when the first, and decisive, recommendation of the majority was adopted, again by a similar overwhelming margin, 122 yes to 54 no. The main motion adopted with its grounds was as follows:
That synod not accede to overtures which ask for a revision of the decision of Synod 1995 regarding women in office, but that Synod 1996 affirm the 1995 decision: “A classis may, in response to local needs and circumstances, declare that the word male in Article 3a 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.” Grounds: a. Previous study committees…have established viable biblical grounds for this position.6 b. It has not been proved that this action is in violation of the Church Order. c. The denomination is not well served by continual reversals on this issue.
Though I will reserve further comments on the significance of this decision until later, the reason this motion was adopted was readily evident from the synodical debate. Those who genuinely advocate the ordination of women on what they believe to be adequate biblical grounds were joined by many others who believed this was the only way to bring “closure” to this divisive debate. The sentiments expressed in a speech by I delegate Cal Compagner perhaps caught best the thinking of this latter group. Compagner mentioned a conversation with lay people who were conservative and even opposed to the ordination of women. However, these people thought it “wise to leave 1995 alone.” We must remember, he added, that the “mission of the church is most important” and Synod 1995 had found an “ingenious and creative” way for permitting people to live together with integrity, despite their disagreements over this issue.
A Miscellany of Synodical Decisions
In addition to these synodical decisions and debates, Synod 1996 dealt with several other important matters. Though no report on the meeting of a synod or general assembly can claim to be complete, the following miscellany of synodical decisions and actions is offered in the attempt to be as complete as possible:
• In its opening session. synod elected the following officers: Rev. John Van Ryn, president; Rev. Gordon Pols, vice-president; Rev. Ken Koeman, first clerk; and Rev. Henry Admiraal, second clerk. Rev. Van Ryn proved to be a fine choice, leading the deliberations of synod with a calm, fair and yet adequately firm hand.
• Synod refused to accede to an overture from Classis Wisconsin, asking that the book, Christian Faith, Health and Medical Practice, edited by Calvin professor, Hessel Bouma III, and authored by the 1985–86 team of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, be declared in opposition to the position on abortion of the CRC.
• Synod decided to continue the tradition of holding a denominational day of prayer for crops and industry on the second Wednesday in March, noting that churches were free to observe this purpose in conjunction with the US National Day of Prayer if they so desired.
• Synod approved a proposed constitution and bylaws of the Board of Trustees of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (formerly known as the Synodical Interim Committee). However, the proposed Article V was not adopted, but a recommendation passed to provide for an election procedure for board members that would be similar to that used presently for the election of Calvin Seminary board members. It was judged that the proposed procedure removed the process of nomination and election from the classes in their respective regions.
• In a complicated and puzzling debate, synod first considered the adoption of the proposed change in Article 51a to read, “The congregation shall assemble for worship, ordinarily twice on the Lord’s Day, to hear God’s Word….” Then synod reconsidered the matter with a grammatical change. When it was pointed out that the proposed change amounted to a substantive change in the Article, synod returned to the original language and approved it for inclusion in the Church Order. It was noted in the debate that this change in Article 51a not only removes the requirement of two services on the Lord’s Day, but also it makes it possible fora church council, without violating the letter of this new Article, to choose o hold no services on the Lord’s Day should local circumstances and their judgment lead them to do so.
• In adopting a recommended ministry share (formerly “quotas”) for 1997, synod chose to leave the amounts the same as they were for 1996 ($244.99 per professing member, $567.29 per family).
• Synod heard a farewell speech from Dr. Joel Nederhood, emeritus director of ministries of the Back to God Hour.7
• Synod decided to permit all the boards of the denomination’s agencies to retain their present structure and classical representation.
• A schedule for a one-calendar week synod was adopted, calling for synod’s sessions to begin in the afternoon of the second Saturday of June and adjourning by noon on Saturday of the following week.
• After a lengthy debate, synod “provisionally adopted” a new set of abuse guidelines which set aside the guidelines presented to Synod 1995. These guidelines are to be reviewed and revised for final adoption by Synod 1997. Among the concerns cited in the debate were the applicability of the guidelines in various states or provinces whose legal requirements vary widely, and the danger of the presumption of guilt in the instance of unsubstantiated accusations of guilt.
ANALYZING SYNOD 1996
Having summarized the decisions and actions of Synod 1996, I would like to turn to some comments of a more interpretive nature. What significance do these decisions have? What do they portend for the future of the CRC? Obviously, various interpreters of Synod 1996 will give differing answers to these questions. But they are questions that cannot be avoided.
The Wrong Approach to Diversity
My first observation has to do with the emphasis at this synod upon ethnic diversity and representation. I am somewhat hesitant to make these comments, but they relate to what I regard to be the wrong approach to diversity.
I am hesitant to make these comments because they could easily be misinterpreted. There were many things said and ‘done at this year’s synod regarding ethnic diversity with which all in considerable agreement. The Christian Reformed denomination is in fellowship of churches whose membership is more ethnically diverse than was once the case. There are predominantly Hispanic, Korean, Native American, Afro-American, Laotian and Vietnamese congregations.Though only comprising approximately five percent of the membership of the CRC, the existence and growth of these congregations is an occasion for thanksgiving. It is also an occasion to be reminded that the church is a people comprised of believers from a multitude of tribes and tongues and nations. In Christ not only has the dividing wall of partition been broken down between Jew and Gentile, but also between diverse peoples and nations.
Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the Christian Reformed denomination has often confused its ethnic heritage with its confessional and biblical heritage. There have been many—and there are still too many—who think of the denomination in ethnic and cultural terms, and whose conduct betrays an unwillingness to embrace a diversity of ethnic groups within the denomination. Much of what Synod 1996 declared and affirmed in these respects can be applauded and approved. In my own experience, some of the most blessed occasions of my life are inextricably joined to the Friendship House Christian Reformed Church, an inner-city mission congregation to Native Americans, where my father was a missionary pastor in the 1960s. To worship as a teenager in a Reformed congregation which confessed its “only comfort” in belonging to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, comprised as it was of members from various Native American tribes, was a grand and delightful experience. SimilarIy, as a pastor for a number of years in southern California, friendships with and opportunities to work with many Korean congregations was also a wonderful thing.
I can say, therefore, with conviction and from experience that the Reformed churches must be multi-racial and multiethnic in their composition. Nothing less answers to our heritage in theScriptures and the confessions. When Reformed churches have been sinfully ethno-centric and racist, whether overtly or more subtly, they should humble themselves in shame and repentance before the Lord.
However, there was in the actions of this year’s synod a tendency to address the issue of ethnic diversity in ways that are problematic. For example, it was hardly acknowledged in the synodical deliberations that, though the Korean churches represent today almost fifty percent of the ethnic membership of the CRC, they have been deeply troubled and divided by the actions of synods respecting issues like women in office. Almost one-half of the membership of these Korean churches has seceded in recent years from the denomination.
One of the ironies of the recent history of the CRC is that, by the standards of the denomination as a whole, the ethnic churches and members tend to be more conservative and traditional in their convictions than many others. Indeed, the CRC has enjoyed the greatest “success,” if I may use this term advisedly, in attracting new members of ethnic communities because of its strong tradition of biblical and confessionally Reformed preaching and teaching. The likelihood of any great continuing success with such ethnic peoples diminishes as the denomination becomes more progressive and liberal on a variety of issues. Rev. Randy Young, a Chinese-American pastor in Southern California, made a similar point in the debate regarding women in office, when he noted that it is often the “new” believer who is most disturbed to hear that the denomination of which his congregation is a member permits the ordination of women and the like.
However, in addition to this irony, Synod 1996 on several occasions fell prey to the temptation to redress past wrongs in racial and ethnic relations by moving in the direction of employing quotas and forms of “affirmative action” that are troublesome. Not only did synod appoint ethnic advisors, none of whom represent in the Church Order sense the churches or classes of the denomination, but it also appointed a committee to serve as a kind of clearing-house to gather the names of ethnic persons who would be able to serve on a variety of denominational agencies or committees. In the consideration of proposed committee assignments, delegates went so far as to ask for a breakdown of the racial and ethnic composition of the names being recommended. In all of this, the fine line between a legitimate desire to provide for fair and meaningful representation and a kind of reverse racism was not always acknowledged. When, in the interests of racial and ethnic diversity, people are considered and appointed primarily for reasons of race and ethnicity, the specter of new forms of racial discrimination begins to loom large.
In summary, Synod 1996 would have served the cause of racial and ethnic diversity better by calling for a more vigorous missionary proclamation of the gospel according to Reformed convictions among the diversity of people groups in North America. Only through the development and growth of Reformed congregations which participate fully in the life of the denomination will the legitimate goal of diversity be realized.
Indecision is the Key
A second observation about this year’s synod is that it continued a tradition of indecision that has characterized recent synods of the CRC. The indecisiveness of this synod was evident on a number of fronts.
When confronted with the request that fraternal relations with the GKN be terminated, Synod 1996 hesitatingly restricted relations further, but did not finally agree to this request. The retention of fraternal relations with the GKN was not based upon any clear biblical and confessional grounds, but upon the grounds of sentiment and past history. Two delegates well summarized the indecisiveness of the CRC in its relations with the GKN. One asked the obvious question, what would the GKN have to do or what views could it tolerate before the CRC would actually sever interchurch relations? Another observed that, were the arguments used by many delegates for maintaining ties with the GKN to be used with respect to other denominations, there would not seem to be any reason why the CRC should not have inter-church relations with Lutheran, Baptist and Presbyterian churches (PCUSA), many of which have true believers and congregations in their midst.
Similarly, when synod was given an opportunity to make a clear declaration regarding the issues of abortion and homosexuality, indecision again was the key. As long as Calvin College remains a parochial school, whose employees are formally employees of the Christian Reformed denomination, it is difficult to understand why, when a professor contradicts the official stand of the denomination, he is not liable to some form of censure or discipline. Why should “ministry shares” go to pay the salary (even if it be only a minuscule portion of that salary, or to offset other costs so that tuition monies can be used for this purpose) of such a professor? Synod also had the opportunity to declare that the teaching of the permissibility of monogamous, homosexual relations is a form of false teaching that makes the teacher liable to the church’s discipline. But it declined to do so.
As is often the case in such circumstances, synod found a variety of reasons to avoid doing what it was asked to do. Some of these reasons may even have a measure of validity. However, it is impossible to suppress the conviction that these instances of indecision on Synod’s part are symptomatic of a pattern of indecision and uncertainty to speak directly to the controversial issues of the day. At no previous synodical assembly that I have observed was the appeal to the text of the Scriptures or the confessions as absent as it was at this synod. The reason for this absence is not hard to discover—the Christian Reformed denomination is no longer marked by an exegetical and confessional consensus on the issues before it. The glue that holds the denomination together is increasingly composed of historical and institutional ingredients, decreasingly of biblical and confessional ones.
No Turning Back on Women in Office
Not much needs to be said by way of interpretation regarding the issue of women in office. Whatever cliche comes to mind—“the die is cast,” “the case is closed”—it is evident that the CRC has no desire to turn back from the course set for it at Synod 1995. There are several observations, however, that 1believe need to be made here regarding the consequences of this decision.
First, let no ink or paper be wasted on writing overtures or appeals to synod on this issue asking for a revision and a return to the historic position. The time for battling the issue of women in office in the Christian Reformed denomination is, humanly speaking, over. Here conservatives can almost agree with the progressives in concluding that a continued fight about this issue would be a fruitless diversion of the churches’ energy and resources.
Second, it should be observed that Church Order Article 3 will likely soon be changed to bring the Church Order into conformity with the denomination’s practice. This may even occur before the year 2000 which Synod 1995 declared to be the year for reviewing its decision. As I noted to one observer of synod (somewhat facetiously), “If you believe Synod 2000 will reverse the action of Synod 1995, I have a lovely 1983 Olds I would like to sell you…”! No one should be so naive as to believe that there is any turning back on the issue of women’s ordination in the CRC.
Third, the manner in which this decision was made and re-affirmed suggests that the CRC has no Church Order on which conservatives can rely for protection or redress of wrongs. I have no doubt in my mind that the decision of Synod 1995 was made in direct contravention of the requirements of the Church Order and good order in the church. As one delegate to this synod wisely observed, the supplement added to Church Order Article 3a does not provide for all exception to the requirement of this Article but for an “option” to do the opposite of what it requires! No amount of posturing or rhetorical flourishing will change the fact that two successive synods of the CRC have violated, in all unconscionable and ruthless fashion, the terms of the Church Order, the only meaningful glue that call hold a body like the CRC together. No new or sufficient grounds were presented either in 1995 or 1996 for this decision. No provision was made to allow the churches to approve or “ratify” the change that has been effected in the Church Order. The basic dictates of honesty and integrity (“let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’”) would demand that the present supplement to Article 3a be unanimously rejected by every assembly (whether council, classis or synod) of the CRC. However, Synod 1996 chose to follow the precedent of Synod 1995 (and now fourteen classes, at last count) in declaring, so far as this issue is concerned, the Church Order of the CRC to be of no effect.8
And fourth, it should not be lost upon anyone that the CRC has altered its historic position on the ordination of women without so much as a shred of synodically approved biblical evidence to warrant this alteration. Neither in 1995 nor in 1996 were the decisions relative to the ordination of women made upon the basis of biblical arguments. Admittedly, broad allusions were made to grounds ostensibly set forth in previous study committee reports and overtures. But none of these grounds has ever been endorsed or approved as a ground for the synodical decisions that have permitted the churches the option to ordain women. In short, the actions of Synods 1995 and 1996 on the issue of women in office were made in violation of the Church Order and without any explicit biblical warrant.
I make these observations here in order to underscore the futility of attempting to reverse the course of the denomination on this issue. What new or sufficient evidence or grounds could be produced? Why should anyone confidently expect future synods to honor the Church Order rules relating to changes in its articles?
For the Historically Reformed (“conservatives”) – What Now?
If the preceding analysis of Synod 1996 and its significance has merit, it raises rather directly the question—what now, for those who desire to be biblically and confessionally Reformed, but still remain members of the CRC? In my view, there are, broadly speaking, only two possibilities, the one irresponsible, the other responsible.9
First, conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church ca ll always pretend that things are not as bad as they seem. Perhaps some may find decisions of this synod that show promise of a continuing biblical and confessional commitment in the CRC. Others might point (with genuine merit) to the many good things that still belong to the CRC, its institutions and agencies. Still others might think that they can simply learn to live with the ordination of women to office. There are a variety of avenues that could be taken, in other words, to go on with “business as usual” in the CRC. But to do so would be the height of irresponsibility.
Second, conservatives in the Christian Reformed denomination could meet together in order to determine what course is now demanded of them.10 The only question on the agenda for such a meeting would be: how can we responsibly secure for ourselves and those in our sphere of responsibility (our children and congregations), the prospect of a vital Reformed witness and ministry for years lo come? To this question, there are only two answers that begin to answer to the need of the hour.
One would be for the conservative churches of the denomination to join together in a provisional fellowship which would remain within the CRC for the time being, but under terms that would be clearly delineated. At the least, such a provisional fellowship of churches would have to inform the assemblies of the denomination that their participation in the denomination’s life and ministry would henceforth be selective. They would have to inform the denomination that they could not recognize or support the unbiblical ordination of women ministers, elders and evangelists. This fellowship of churches would also have to inform the denomination that they reserve the right to declare inoperative those sections of the Church Order and its supplements that restrict the freedom of access to their pulpits of men who meet the biblical requirements for office and have been examined by their churches.
The other responsible course for these churches would be for them to resolve to enter into discussions with e sting or newly emerging Reformed denominations, who share their historic biblical, confessional and church order commitments. The purpose of such discussions would be to separate from the Christian Reformed denomination and join a more biblical and confessionally Reformed communion of churches.
1. I use the language “historically and confessionally Reformed” as an admittedly cumbersome way of referring to those who are usually termed “conservatives.” Though “conservative” is the common and unavoidable term, it does connote something that I believe confessionally Reformed people should always repudiate—traditionalism, a way of thinking and acting that unthinkingly prefers the ways of the past to those of the present and future. A true “conservative” rejects traditionalism but affirms a way of thinking and acting that seeks to honor the supreme authority of Scripture and the subordinate authority of the historic creeds and confessions of the Reformed churches.
2. The two recommendations adopted by the General Assembly were: 1 . That the Assembly suspend the relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church in North America. 2. That, unless the 1997 regular General Assembly determines that intervening actions of the Christian Reformed Church in North America warrant a reversal of this action or a continuation of the period of suspension, the relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church in North America shall be terminated with the dose of that assembly.
3. Late in its sessions synod appointed the following members to this Committee: Bill Van Groningcn, Ricardo Orellana, Pat TIgchelaar, Alan Breems, John T. Kim, Emmett Harrison, Ernest Benally, Edna Greenway, John Bolt, Robert den Dulk, David Engelhard (ex officio) and James Dejong (ex officio).
4. The original names proposed for this committee were: Don Bergman, Cornelius Dc Boer, Yong Ju Oh, Peter Hogeterp, Mel Hugen, Elaine Postema, Annette Tcnscn, Fred Wittevecn and Gerald Zandstra.
5. The first recommendation of the Minority with its grounds (abbreviated) was as follows: “1. Thai synod delete Church Order Supplement, Article 3a. Grounds: 3. Synod 1994 adopted extensive biblical grounds which preclude the ordination of women as ministers, elders or evangelists. Synod 1995 did not demonstrate that those grounds are incorrect, which means that in the synodical records the only current extensive biblical grounds that have been adopted on this matter arc those of 1994. b. Although Synod 1995 asserted that previous overtures and reports adduce good biblical grounds for both positions, it did not demonstrate any biblical support which would allow or necessitate women’s ordination… c. The only explicit Scriptural ground provided by Synod 1995 is a reference to Romans 14, which is presented to advocate a position of tolerance on non-confessional issues. d. Synod 1995 adopted a supplement to Church Order 3 which sets aside the principle stated in this article. Supplements are meant to clarify and explain the meaning of an article; they are not meant to negate an article. Rather than promoting harmony in the denomination, the provisions allowed in Church Order Supplement Article 3a have further fractured denominational unity.”
6. During a later session of synod, the chairman, prompted by the encouragement of Rev. Bernie Haan of Classis Illiana, directed that a note be added to this ground, referring to the grounds for the ordination of women adduced in Communication 2 from Classis Arizona (Agenda for Synod 1996, pp. 338–342).
7. If my report seems short on details relating to the work of CRC agencies and institutions, this is partially due to the restructuring of the administration of their work. Many of the details of agency programs are no longer directly approved or governed by synod.
8. Perhaps a footnote is the place to ask, if the Church Order of the CRC has not been changed on the matter of the ordination of women (as this synod sought to pretend), how is it that synod declared three women candidates for the ministry? Or, why was synod atone point in its deliberations asked to make editorial changes in the Church Order (where it uses the masculine pronoun to refer to ministers and ciders), until an alert delegate reminded the delegates, to their discomfiture, that the Church Order had not in fact been changed?
9. My synod report is already too long and, therefore, my comments here will be very brief. I hope to have occasion to elaborate upon these comments in some future issue or forum.
10. The likeliest and most appropriate forum for such a meeting would be a reconvening of the churches at a meeting like that held in South Holland in the fall of 1995.
Dr. Venema, professor of Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN and contributing editor of The Outlook, served as reporter for The Outlook at CRC Synod 1996.