The 257th annual Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) met at Eureka, South Dakota, from May 19 through May 22, 2003. The first Synod of what later was named the RCUS met at Philadelphia on September 29, 1747. The RCUS has had a continuous existence ever since, and in the good providence of God today holds just as strictly to the “Three Forms of Unity,” as did our fathers when they founded the first German-Reformed congregations in Pennsylvania in 1725.
A number of important issues and changes came before this 257th Synod, ranging from choosing a foreign missionary to handling appeals and complaints against one of the Classes by one of its congregations. Important matters of Sunday School material and seminary education also came before this Synod for consideration and resolution, as did continued work in publishing no longer available historical and theological source materials of the RCUS on CD ROM.
In recent years the RCUS has not supported foreign missionaries on the fields, but has supported and helped indigenous pastors and elders of the Reformed Confessing Church of the Congo (ERCC) and the Free Reformed Church of Kenya (FRCK). The RCUS operated as the mother Church in the founding of both of these African denominations, the ERCC in 1984, and the FRCK in 1998.
While this support of indigenous workers will continue, the RCUS Synod of 2003 adopted a proposal from its Permanent Foreign Ministries Committee (which oversees the work between Synods) to send Mr. Kurt Schimke as a teaching missionary to East Africa under a plan that will have him working with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) missionaries at Westminster Bible College in Mbale, Uganda, for part of the year and spending another part of the year among the FRCK churches in Kenya.
Mr. Schimke is a candidate for ordination in the RCUS and will have to be approved by the OPC Foreign Missions Committee before leaving for Africa as a missionary, but the plan for doing this was approved by Synod with the main purpose of training men for the ministry of the FRCK.
Should the Lord finish opening the door to Africa for Mr. Schimke, the plan adopted by Synod would renew a cooperative relationship in Foreign Missions that the OPC and RCUS operated from 1960 to 1986 when the RCUS served as the supporting church for OPC missionaries Rev. Harvie Conn in Korea, and later for Rev. Lendall Smith in Taiwan. The RCUS also has a cooperative work in the Congo with the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (Liberated), which operate a theological college in Lubumbashi, RDC.
Appeals and Complaints
The appeals and complaints brought from Covenant Reformed Church of Carbondale, PA, centered on a requirement for further information from the officials of the Covenant East Classis of the RCUS before Classis would consider dissolving the pastoral relationship between the congregation and a pastor whom they had asked to resign (the RCUS Constitution requires that such cases be laid before Classis for resolution, since the pastoral relationship is established by Classis and can only be dissolved by it, even though the pastor in this case had agreed to resign).
A special judicial committee of Synod heard all of the arguments in the case and brought its recommendations that the complaints be denied by Synod on the basis that a Classis has the responsibility to examine such a case fully as required by the Constitution of the RCUS, and as is indicated by the Constitutional provision that all records of the congregations and consistories must be made available to Classis in carrying out its functions. Synod approved these recommendations.
A number of other issues came before Synod this year that concern the future of the Denomination. The Permanent Christian Education Committee has been monitoring the challenging project of the production of graded Sunday School materials based on the four volume redemptive history, Promise and Deliverance, by S.G. de Graaf.
Over the past five years the Committee writing the materials has produced at least draft lessons for the over 1000 weekly classes (254 at each of four grade levels), and is presently writing more finished materials.
With over $60,000 invested in past years, this year’s Synod was reluctant to budget the additional approximately $40,000 needed for full production of the materials, especially since the vast majority of them have not yet been seen outside of the writing Committee.
Synod approved making CD ROM copies of the finished materials available to our congregations for $50 per CD, thus allowing the congregations to print the materials for their own use and trials.
Training of Ministers
Another issue that concerns the future of the Church is the training of candidates for the ministry. Since its emergence as a small remnant denomination in 1934, the RCUS has depended upon independent seminaries to train it’s candidates, beginning with Westminster in Philadelphia in 1955. While several seminaries have served the RCUS and other conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations well in some respects, the number of seminary graduates who are not fit for the ministry is too large. The results in broken churches and frustrated would-be ministers, also in the RCUS, have not been pretty.
This problem stems most of all from the mistaken idea that a doctor’s degree rather than competence in the ministry is the main qualification for seminary professors. The result has often been an intellectualized Christian faith with little competent training in preaching and pastoring.
It is interesting that professional training in other fields such as medicine and law is done by competent practicing doctors and lawyers, and not by an elite group of Ph.D.s who have little experience in what they are supposedly teaching.
In recent years several groups within the RCUS have been working at providing training for ministers, and this has resulted in the establishment of three seminaries.
- New Geneva Seminary in Colorado Springs, CO, has been approved by the Synod of the RCUS for a number of years. An independent seminary, it operates as a night and Saturday school with one RCUS minister and a number of Presbyterian Church in America men as professors.
- City Seminary of Sacramento, CA, began classes in 2000, and obtained approval by the Synod of the RCUS for the first time this year. It also holds its classes evenings and on Saturdays, and has as its primary aim the training of men for bible-based ministry in the Sacramento metropolitan area.
- The newest of these RCUS-involved seminaries is Heidelberg Theological Seminary in Vermillion, SD, which began classes in 2002, and was also approved by this year’s Synod as an institution worthy of support and training for RCUS ministers. Its aim is specifically to involve ministers of the RCUS in training future ministers for the denomination, and it seeks to operate under direct synodical oversight. It operates a traditional daytime class schedule and seeks to provide careful training in preaching and pastoring skills. To give time for both academic work and practical experience, Heidelberg Seminary uses a four-year curriculum to attain a Master of Divinity degree. Synod this year also continued a Special Committee that is studying the feasibility and desirability of making Heidelberg Theological Seminary a “denominational” seminary which would work under the direct oversight of Synod in accordance with the Constitution of the RCUS.
Synod also continued the approval of several other independent seminaries as “worthy of support,” including Westminster in Philadelphia, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, and Greenville Seminary. It also instructed its Permanent Christian Education Committee to reexamine Westminster Seminary in California with a view to perhaps re-including it on the list of approved seminaries; it had been removed several years ago.
RCUS students at “approved” seminaries have the advantage of being eligible for denominational aid which usually pays their tuition, or a major portion of it.
Over the years the RCUS Synods have resisted the idea of a “pension plan” for retired ministers. This resistance stems from the fact that many older Reformed ministers were coerced into joining the liberal Evangelical and Reformed merger of 1934 by the fact that they would have lost their pensions by failing to join the merger.
This left the RCUS with a meager two or three ministers to serve a Classis of almost thirty congregations during the late 1930s and World War 2 years. To help retired pastors and their widows, the RCUS has provided a special diaconal fund of “Ministerial Relief” which provides payments to such individuals according to their needs as assessed by their church elders and deacons.
In order to alleviate the need for all of these funds to come from our annual direct giving, Synod this year approved a Committee to bring forth a pension plan for RCUS ministers that will be considered at next year’s Synod. Since this plan is promised to include complete portability, it might find more favorable response than past attempts have.
The RCUS continues a vigorous Home Mission program of founding new congregations across the United States. New mission congregations in Bentonville, Arkansas (home of Walmart), and in Southeast Colorado received Synod funding, along with already established mission works in California, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Colorado.
The Vermillion, SD, home mission work, Providence Reformed Church, was added to the roll of organized congregations of the RCUS.
New ministers added to the roll of Synod during 2002 include the Rev. Mike McGee of Minot, ND, and the Rev. Kyle Sorensen of Manitowoc, WI.
Several home mission churches have been able to obtain church facilities, though not without incurring major debts. This year’s special home mission capital fund debt reduction offering on the RCUS day of prayer for missions will go to Grace RCUS at Greely, CO. The Synod also maintains a loan fund to help congregations build facilities.
The Synod continued its funding of work among Deaf Christians through Deaf Reformed Ministries, and is looking to fund at least one more deaf congregation to add to the two deaf congregations already enrolled. Our purpose is to found a separate classis of deaf Reformed congregations when three such congregations are in operation. Messrs. Mike Brabo and Chuck Snyder interpreted for the deaf elders and pastors who were in attendance at the Synod.
Fraternal delegates from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) also graced our sessions, as did an observer from the United Reformed Churches in North America.
The 257th Synod of the RCUS was an enjoyable time of fellowship and hard work for the delegates and the host congregation, Eureka Reformed Church.
God has truly been gracious to our remnant of the German Reformed heritage in North America by keeping the RCUS true to His word and the Reformed creeds, as well as giving us close fellowship with other Reformed and Presbyterian folks of like precious faith all over the world. Nevertheless the battle is far from over. History and our own experience over many years of ministry in the RCUS have proven again and again that vigilance is the order of the day for all who would maintain the marks of the True Church.
Dr. Robert Grossmann Vermillion, SD