The 1966 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church

The Dekker Case . . .

The most talked-about item on the agenda for the 1966 synod of the Christian Reformed Church (held in Pella, Iowa, June 8–16) was the “Dekker Case.” Some two and one-half years ago Prof. Harold Dekker, teacher of missions at Calvin Theological Seminary, had asserted that an obvious deficiency in missionary zeal in his denomination was traceable to a theological tradition regarding the love of Gael Dekker has extensively written on this and related subjects, asserting the singularity of the love of God and its applicability, even in terms of its redemptive character, to all men without qualification.

This aroused considerable comment and reaction leading to the appointment of a synodical study committee in 1964, The mandate of this committee can be summarized as follows: “to study in the light of Scripture and the Creeds the doctrine of the limited atonement as it relates to the love of God, the doctrinal expressions of Professor H. Dekker beginning with and relative to his article entitled ‘God So Loves…All Men’ and other related questions which may arise in the course of their study…and to evaluate its findings and study and make every effort to bring a report to the Synod of 1965.” Although “every effort” was no doubt expended, the Report did not appear until the Spring of 1966.

The appearance of the Report brought immediate reaction. The Reformed Journal was able within days of its public distribution to include three in its May, 1966 issue very extensive articles (by Prof. Henry Stob of Calvin Seminary, Dr. Harry Boer of the Theological College of Northern Nigeria, and Dr. James Daane of the editorial staff of Christianity Today). The practical suggestion made by Dr. Stob and echoed by groups scattered throughout the denomination was that this Report not be accepted for discussion and decision by the 1966 synod, but be referred to the churches for consideration. Stob went so far as to recommend that it be postponed indefinitely, and simply turned over to the church’s combatants for interminable discussion in the theological arena.

Many at Synod felt that the Dekker Case was very obviously on the minds of delegates and advisers. One could hear observations by some of synod’s visitors that concern for the outcome of this matter was evidently influencing early balloting and planning. Be that as it may, it can only be said that synod from the outset seemed less than eager to plunge into the matter and achieve some kind of settlement. Postponement was predicted, and such predictions were not put to shame.

The heart of the decisions that were taken is t.o be found in the first material motion adopted:

That Synod recommit this report to the Study Committee for further reflection and improvement, taking into account the above considerations, and that the Committee report to the Synod of 1967.


1. The grounds of the recommendations fail to reflect adequately the Biblical and confessional support found in the report and may necessitate reformulation of the propositions.

2. Additional problems in the context of this discussion need to be articulated.

Two things ought to be said here for the sake of clarification. First, the “recommendations” referred to under Ground No. 1 are those of the Doctrinal Committee. These synod was asked by the Committee to adopt as synod’s answer to the situation.* Second, that the “above considerations” which must be taken into account are these:

The Advisory committee desires to make four ob· servations concerning this report:,

A. The report expresses substantially the Re· fanned tradition in the areas discussed.

B. The grounds of the recommendations fail to reflect adequately the Biblical and confes· sional support found in the report and may necessitate reformulation of the propositions.

C. There are related problems which arise out of this context which need theological clarification and precise statement, such as the following:

1. The relationship and distinction between the love of God and the grace of God.

2. The relationship between election and the sincere offer of salvation.

3. The specific role which each Person of the Trinity has i,n the atonement and its effectuation in the lives of men.

4. The universal implications of the atonement.

What does Synod’s postponement mean? Where arc we now? I suppose that no one can really say. On the one hand it would appear that the trend of affairs is con· trary to the positions of Prof. Dekker. The study committee’s report is emphatically opposed to Dekker’s views, and this report synod has now adjudged to express “substantially the Refonned tradition in the areas discussed.” Synod was evidently satisfied with the quality and viewpoint of the study committee’s work since it decided to entrust this same group with the assignment to reflect further and improve—which seems to mean that the study committee ought to continue in the way begun.

On the other hand, it might also be argued that synod was apparently unconvinced of the essential wrongness of Prof. Dekker’s writings and sentiments. It was willing to continue him in his office for at least another year as a teacher of such opinions as he has expressed. This can only raise questions in some minds. Is it possible that the Christian Reformed Church is placing more emphasis upon live theological debate than upon creedal and Biblical purity? Is there evidence of clarity of judgment and strength of conviction with respect to the distinctive doctrines of the Calvinistic, Reformed tradition? One is tempted to multiply such questions. To this kind of query the Christian Reformed Church will have to settle with good answers in 1967!

Part of the 1966 decision calls for study and evaluation on the part of the churches. The second main motion passed reads:

That synod refer the report to the churches for study and evaluation, urging the churches to submit their responses to the study committee by January 30, 1967.


1. This will give the churches opportunity to express their responses to the complex doctrinal issues involved.

2. Several overtures request time for reflection on this report.

This demands of our consistories that they really study this matter, and anything that will get our elders to reflect seriously upon matters of doctrinal significance for the church must be welcomed. We hope that this request will not be ignored, for that would reduce this recommendation of the 1966 synod to something insincere. Our elders must not allow themselves to be scared off by the expression “complex doctrinal issues.” All doctrinal matters are complex, since all relate to every other doctrine in the Christian spectrum, and all root in the mysteries of the faith. But there is a Holy Spirit of Christ and He has been given to the churches, especially and abundantly in this new dispensation.

The presses will have to groan this year, and the consistory meetings will have to last a little longer or be held more frequently. But let there arise a common testimony to the faith once-for-all established, the faith for which our fathers fought, and the faith which is always victorious. This is the Reformed Faith of sovereign grace, the Faith which dares to hear and to profess the whole counsel of God.

The CRC and RCA . . .

Even the Christian Reformed Church cannot escape the ecumenical spirit of our age, and significant things were discussed and decided by this synod. It may seem incidental, but it appears to this observer that the standing committee on Ecumenicity and Inter-Church Correspondence is gaining in prestige and power as time goes by. It now has a new name:

Committee on Inter-Church Relations.** And it has a new and additional assignment: it has now the responsibility to appoint fraternal delegates to the assemblies of the churches with whom we have official fraternal relations. It is our judgment that the Christian Reformed Church ought to be alert to the possibilities for difficulty which can develop when a few members of the church are given power which slowly creeps to larger and larger proportions.

One of the matters brought to synod’s attention this year by its former Ecumenicity and Inter-Church Correspondence committee was a report of its contacts with representatives of the Reformed Church in America and its recommendations for future activity of this kind with this church. One of these recommendations, adopted by synod after some debate, reads:

Synod encourages closer fellowship between our Church and the Reformed Church in America by commending such fellowship to our congregations and urging our classes to exchange fraternal delegates at classical meetings.

Objections to this recommendation were voiced in terms of its vagueness and its apparent desire to ignore or to remain unaware of previous synodical decisions on this score. This writer objected vigorously to this recommendation on the ground that it failed to define the nature of the thing it was recommending (“closer fellowship”), and that it could not help therefore but result in embarrassment for all concerned. It is always uncomfortable to invite someone to your home whose sensitivities are hurt by things that you take for granted and which the children are bound to mention no matter how carefully father and mother try to avoid such subjects. And to suggest that Reformed Church people are not often offended, for example, by our passionate love for the Christian School is quite naive, it seems to me.

But synod rather unanimously went ahead with this motion, and authorized its Committee on InterChurch Relations “to continue discussions with the Reformed Church in America.” This means, I suppose, that certain people of the Christian Reformed Church and certain people of the Reformed Church in America will talk, and these people will presume to speak for all concerned. I’m sure that no one opposed to the suggestion that the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America ought to proceed in this fashion to find common ground and common faith will ever get within a country mile of such meetings.

I know that this will appear somewhat extreme, but I am nevertheless going to insert a story here from my own personal experience. Some years ago E. Stanley Jones, outstanding Methodist leader of his day, was entertained in our parsonage. Stanley Jones was one of the more energetic ecumenical leaders, and at the time that we met him was engaged in a nationwide movement which called for large mass meetings of Protestant Christians in America’s larger cities. We discussed this project, and in the course of the conversation asked this question, What is the real objective which you are seeking with these great meetings? Jones’ answer was quick: “We are going to build a fire under the preachers in order to compel them to hurry along with this great movement to unite the churches.”

It seems to me that the ecumenically-minded are often very impatient or worse with those who wish to raise questions as to the precise Biblical character of church fellowship. I pray that such an attitude will never ride rough shod over any part of our beloved church in the future.

One more thing: I believe that the church has a right to know what is being talked about at these discussions with the Reformed Church in America representatives. In addition: 1 would find it very helpful if the Committee on Inter-Church Relations would issue some kind of statement as to the basis on which they are proceeding. For example: How do the members of this committee feel about decisions of previous synods? From one of the members of the committee on the Boor of synod during the discussion the suggestion was heard that the last twenty years or so have shown us that the kind of people one finds in other denominations is such that previous attitudes will have to be modified. If this is true I suppose that earlier synodical decisions are not really regulative for today’s ecumenical discussions. If our committee members hold to such opinions I believe that we of the church have a moral right to hear them.

The CRC and WCC . . .

The World Council of Churches also came into our discussions.

And how could it be avoided, in view of the discussion and decisions of the Gereformeerde Kerken in The Netherlands? This can be seen very plainly from synod’s advisory committee which offered the following:

Historical Synopsis (comp. Acts, 1962, pp. 392–393). From 1914 to 1924 the Christian Reformed Church was affiliated with the Federal Council of Churches. In 1924 Synod voted to withdraw on the following grounds: (1) Ecclesiastical alliances between orthodox and liberals are contrary to God’s Word. (2) Liberalism is strongly in evidence in the Federal Council. (3) The Federal Council has broad programs in industrial, national and international affairs which do not belong to the proper work of the Church as an organization.

In more recent years the official attention of Synod has been drawn to the World Council of Churches largely through the actions taken by the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, which made pronouncements in 1949, 1953, 1959 and again in 1963. Presently one member of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod is affiliated with the WCC (Indonesia), and the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands have announced that they have no principal objection to membership in the WCC. In a number of instances the Synod of our Churches has shown to be in substantial agreement with the RES’s position regarding the World Council of Churches.

The motion adopted on this matter reads as follows:

Synod appoint a special committee including members of the standing committee on ecumenicity to

(a) define our position with respect to the World Council of Churches,

(b) prepare a statement which could serve as our reply to the resolutions of the Gereformeerde Kerken,

(c) report to the Synod of 1967, if at all possible. Crounds:

a. Synod has never explicitly defined its position.

b. The Gereformeerde Kerken in The Netherlands are awaiting our reaction to their decisions before they will take any further action.

c. In order to promote a helpful confrontation at the meeting of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod in 1968 our position should be articulated and published in 1967.

“Synod has never explicitly defined its position.” This, I think, is the interesting and possibly very serious concession of the ‘66 synod. It means, I suppose, that our previous decisions relate to the old Federal Council of Churches rather than to the World Council. Is there really a distinction in principle between these two which would allow us to assert so unqualifiedly that the Christian Reformed Church has never offered explicit definition of its position?

Here again we see that the church is not entering upon a quiet and easy period of history. The issues involved in World Council, of Churches membership are basic and numerous. We can only hope that the spiritual vigor of the members of the Christian Reformed Church is up to such a discussion.

In our opinion synod appointed a very impressive committee to study this matter. It is to be convened by Rev. Clarence Boomsma of Calvin Church, Grand Rapids, a member of the standing committee on InterChurch Relations. Other members are: Rev. Marvin Baarman of the Home Missions office, Dr. Peter Y. De Jong, professor of Practical Theology at Calvin Seminary and editor of this journal, Rev. Henry Evenhouse of the Foreign Missions office, Dr. Fred Klooster, professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Seminary, Dr. John Kromminga, president of Calvin Seminary, Dr. Joel Nederhood of the Back-to-God Hour, Dr. Louis Praamsma, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Fruitland, Ontario, and Dr. Richard Wierenga, a Grand Rapids elder.

The CRC and OPC . . .

A more definite ecumenical move was occasioned by recommendations from synod’s committee on Relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a denomination of some 12,000 members in which the Christian Reformed Church has always had a strong interest. This committee was instructed by synod “to define the remaining areas of disagreement between the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Christian Reformed Church,” and “to suggest ways in which progress might be made towards ‘organic union of the two denominations.’”

Someone commented at synod that if we could be in favor of actual merger with any church it might be the O.P.C. This is certainly true, but in our opinion the serious consequences of such union for both denominations arc not obliterated by the fact that a strong kinship exists between these communions. Again, Christian Reformed people are going to be tested in the years ahead, being required to face head on such questions as, Is the church polity of the C.R.C. something merely traditional, or does it rest upon considerations of truth and principle which we may not lose? Simply at the point of church government we differ rather fundamentally from both the Reformed Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and it is our opinion that these differences are important.

Deacons, too, at Major Assemblies?

Should major assemblies (synod, classis) include representatives from the deacons as well as elders? Traditionally in the Christian Reformed Church synodical delegations have been formed by an equal number of pastors and elders chosen by the classes, and classical delegations have been an elder and pastor from each constituent congregation. Again, the influence of the Gereformeerde Kerken, sister church in The Netherlands, is to be noted. This influence is not reduced by the presence of thousands of new members and scores of new congregations in Canada, composed almost entirely of Dutch immigrants and shepherded in many cases by a pastor called from Holland. The G. K. has altered its system of synodical delegation to include deacons, and that is more than enough to get the subject on the table in the Christian Reformed Church.

The study committee report presented to synod asked that the church declare that there arc no lawful objections to prevent deacons from being delegated to major assemblies. Synod was not ready to go along with these recommendations, and this matter, too, was re-committed. Some of the questions the study committee is asked to consider are: (1) Is the nature of the major assemblies characterized by a representation of all the offices and does it, therefore, demand the delegation of deacons? (2) How will the distinctiveness of the offices be maintained if deacons should be delegated to the major assemblies with identical mandates and credentials along with elders and ministers? (3) Does the principle that no office-bearer may “lord it over” another demand equal representation of deacons with ministers and elders at major assemblies?

Again, it seems to me that the very basic structure of Christian Reformed theory and practice is being challenged. We have placed heavy emphasis on synod, for example, so much so that we have been called “a synodical church.” We have worked out of the idea that the Christian Reformed Church is a unity, and that synod has real authority in its own way. Maybe we want to go in a more generally congregational pattern, and emphasize representation more than delegation, conference and discussion more than synodical legislation. Can we avoid minimizing or altering Our particular view of these things if we change our emphasis along these lines?

I have always pleaded for the autonomy of the local church and its consistory. It would not be the end of the world for me if the Christian Reformed Church wished to carry out its work more expressly in that fashion and according to that idea. There is, I feel, Biblical warrant for such an emphasis. But I would prefer to see it done self-consciously rather than any other way.

Why Do They Leave Us?

An alarming fact in Christian Reformed Church life is the relatively large number of people who leave the denomination to join other churches. Millions are being spent on Horne Missions and the Back-to-God Hour, not to mention other evangelistic efforts, and yet the number of people leaving is usually considerably larger than the number entering the church in a given year. Why?

Synod was asked to face this question, and consequently appointed a study committee to see what it might learn. The committee appointed consists of Rev. Nelson Vander Zee of the Home Missions office, Fred H. Baker and Norman Ozinga of Chicago, Rev. Bernard Pekelder of Calvin College and Rev. Harold Bossenbroek, Bible instructor in Grand Rapids Central Christian High School.

It will be very interesting to see what this committee discovers.

The Movie Question

The Christian Reformed Church has since 1928 had a rather specific view of the proper use of facilities for recreation and of the place of amusement in the Christian life. The church roots in a tradition which has always condemned vigorously the evils associated with the dance, the stage. and with games of chance. As a result “going to the show” was not an ordinary or casual feature of Christian Reformed practise. the dance has been resisted as a desirable form of Christian social activity, indiscriminate card-playing was not usually viewed by the more serious members of the church as something conducive to spiritual growth.

The principle at stake, it was averred, is that of consecration and separation. But these terms are meaningless except they be seen in terms of a larger perspective, more specifically, that of the antithesis. The antithetical principle sees life as a conflict between church and world, and sees the ever-present need for separate, peculiar, unique, indigenous development of the principle of Christian obedience to Christ in every sphere of life.

But, let’s face it, this antithetical vision is not strong in the church today. I have talked with young people (even young ministers) who cannot define it, and when told about it regard it as something really un-Christian. Except in the area of Christian education and philanthropy. there is very little concern for a separated Christian testimony in labor, politics, etc. As a result isolation from that which is world is ridiculed, and penetration by way of participation and influence is considered to be the extent of a Christian’s calling. The mood of the church is to be noted in the fact that “separation” and “isolationism” have become the foulest of terms!

In the face of this alteration in our life-view the old idea of an effective separation from certain things as representative of the wicked world could hardly be expected to survive. The opponents of the synodical decisions of 1928 and 1951 have never wearied of telling us that our young people were going to the movies (either in the cinema houses or at home via television), were playing cards, and arc already involved in various forms of the dance more than the preachers would care to recognize.

The ‘66 synod was asked to consider an extensive report on the Christian’s relation to the film arts and adopted a set of directives. These directives were formulated out of an extensive report in which just about everything imaginable and relevant was included. Needless to say, it says many. many things that are very good! In substance these recommendations were adopted by synod.

It is, we would judge, just about impossible to oppose these decisions. And yet we felt a little sad as we studied them, and as we took note of synod’s work with them. The word now is discrimination. A member of the Christian Reformed Church ought not to sin indiscriminately in using the film arts. If that sounds a bit ironic, it is intended to be.

It is our fear that the effect of these decisions will actually be the very opposite of that which is so well proposed and recommended by the study committee and by synod. I think that it will mean that the very idea of a careful, identifiable Christian life of opposition to the world by a church devoted to the ideal of true re-form will disappear. In my pastoral experience I have never seen a member or family stubbornly insistent upon the right to play cards. attend movies and dance which held out for long in terms of the Christian Reformed program.

Creation and Evolution

Anyone who reads Christian Reformed publications knows that there is unrest concerning the matter of creation and evolution. The development of Christian colleges among us forces facing of the questions here relevant. Three overtures came to synod calling for action. The questions raised by these overtures included these: Are Genesis 1, 2 and 3 to be regarded as historical or as being symbolic? Are the creation days of Genesis 1 and 2 ordinary days or may they be interpreted to be long periods of time? Was Adam really the first man created by God, or is he an end-product of evolutionary development (under God’s direction ) with whom God began a work of grace?

A California overture requested synod to remove from the Board of Trustees of Calvin College and Seminary a member who had written rather pointedly in favor of certain evolutionary views. Synod declared that such removal from the Board of Trustees was not a proper procedure. In addition, it was decided to appoint a study committee whose task it shall be to define the area if discussion here properly the concern of the church and to recommend to synod names of competent men to serve in such a study. The committee appointed includes Prof. John Stek, teacher of Old Testament at Calvin Seminary, Dr. Edwin Roels of Trinity College, Chicago, Dr. Remkes Kooistra of Toronto, Dr. Enno Wolthuis of the Calvin College faculty, Dr. Ernest Feenstra of Kalamazoo, and Dr. Harry Vander Laan of the University of Western Ontario, London.

Other items took up synodical attention. of course, but these serve as well as any to give our readers a taste of things as they happened in Pella.

* No small factor here was the admission by Rev. Adam Persenaire, study committee spokesman, that these recommendations were hastily composed.