One of the most significant issues decided at the recent meeting of the synod of the Christian Reformed Church concerned its evaluation of the World Council of Churches as a possible avenue of witness and work for a confessional Reformed church. Earlier the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken) had judged there were “no decisive impediments” to joining that ecumenical organization. Its request for the judgment of sister-churches led the synod of 1966 to appoint a Study Committee which presented to this year’s assembly a majority and a minority report.
By an overwhelming majority synod reached a decision on this matter. Because of its significance for the life of the churches it is reproduced here with the supporting grounds.
“Although fully aware of the ecumenical calling of Christ’s church as expressed in the Synodical Report of 1944 (Acts 1944, pp. 330–367), and therefore of the responsibility to contact all those churches in which some traces of the Catholic Church of Jesus Christ are still to be found, Synod declares with regret that it is not permissible for the Christian Reformed Church to join the fellowship of the World Council of Churches because of its present nature, its inadequate basis, the maintenance and functioning of that basis, its socio-political activities and declarations, and the implications of membership in this Council.
A. Concerning the Nature of the WCC: The WCC claims to be, and is in fact, substantially more than a forum for the discussion of differences. It is a ‘Council of Churches’ which defines itself as a ‘fellowship of churches,’ and thus claims to be at least a provisional manifestation of the unity for which Christ prayed (John 17). Furthermore, the ecclesiological character of the WCC is ambiguous and is regarded differently by various member churches.
B. Concerning the Basis of the WCC: Although the words of the Basis are in themselves a summary of the Gospel, the Basis is inadequate for ecclesiastical fellowship in view of the doctrinal errors within the churches today. In the light of history and contemporary theology, the Basis is inadequate for excluding radically unbiblical interpretations of the Gospel. Hence the basis admits to membership in the WCC such churches with which we may not have ecclesiastical fellowship (koinonia).
C. Concerning the Maintenance and Functioning of the Basis: The WCC does not maintain the Basis in a meaningful way since it does not consider it within its jurisdiction to judge whether member churches are really faithful to the Basis. The WCC declares that, if it were to judge whether an applicant or a member church was actually living in harmony with the Basis, the WCC would become a ‘superchurch.’ That the Basis does not function meaningfully is evident from the admission that there are churches within the WCC ‘to which the qualification “modernist” is fully or partly applicable.’
D. Concerning the Socio-Political Activities and Declarations of the WCC: The activities of the WCC in the social, economic, and political areas involve it in pronouncements and programs which are not the immediate responsibility of the church. The type of action taken in these areas is frequently an embarrassment to a Reformed church.
E. Concerning the Implications at Membership in the WCC, The general character of the WCC is ambiguous. Its membership is diverse ecclesiastically and doctrinally. In this light the Basis is equivocal and its functioning inadequate. By joining this organization a genuinely Reformed church endorses the ecumenical methodology of the WCC, give a measure of recognition to churches with a radically different interpretation of the Gospel, and thereby becloud or relativize our own witness. ‘Scripture forbids such association with unbelievers and with those who preach another Gospel. Cf. II Corinthians 6:14–18 and Gal. 1:8–9.’ (Acts 1958, p. 92).”
During the past several months not a few in the Christian Reformed Church argued in favor of membership in the W.C.C. Although recognizing serious weaknesses in that organization, they were convinced that the Reformed churches because of their rich theological and ecclesiastical heritage have a calling to witness there and so hopefully influence churches which have drifted from the Christian gospel to a greater or lesser extent to undertake the work of reformation. As a result some were concerned that synod might adopt a rather vague and conciliatory position, the more so since prominent leaders in the Dutch churches are enthusiastic about membership. Those who feared that this might happen now seem to be at ease. No such “entangling alliances” appear to be in the offing for the Christian Reformed Church in the immediate future.
But if such taking of comfort by the opponents of the W.C.C. means for them that the church is minded to retreat into safe isolation, they are completely misreading the decision.
Whether one likes it or not, the days of apparent indifference to and isolation from others who name the name of our Lord Jesus Christ are over. Both majority and minority reports submitted to synod underscored this heavily. Not only is it impossible but also illegitimate for the churches to live and speak and act as if they have no spiritual responsibility for promoting the unity of all who are truly Christ’s. On this score no difference of conviction and commitment is allowable among us. The issue at stake was simply that of the proper method of seeking unity among the Lord’s people.
This, however, is not solely a matter for official pronouncement. It is a calling for everyone who seeks to live in obedience to the Savior according to his Word. The promotion of true unity should begin in the hearts and lives of all who are living members of the one, holy, catholic church.
Synod also addressed itself in some sense to this matter, be it obliquely and not nearly so fully and frankly as many of us may have wished. The chief avenue of our ecumenical contact will remain the Reformed Ecumenical Synod which next year will meet in Amsterdam. This body of twenty-seven constituent churches with a membership approaching three million has been in existence some twenty years. During this period it has rendered valuable services. Studies on such basic issues as the nature and authority of the Scriptures, race relations, and ecumenicity have been submitted and deserve far more attention than Reformed people, including many leaders, have been giving them. It is also responsible for the organization of a conference on missions to be held next year at Baarn. Besides pursuing these relationships by appointing delegates to the next session of said synod as well as to the missions conference, this year’s synod decided to send two observers to the Fourth Assembly of the W.C.C. to be convened next July at Uppsala, Sweden, and to forward a transcript of the recent synodical decisions to the Secretariat of that body.
But much, much more needs to be done.
In the majority report a few tentative suggestions were made, indicating that its signatories are convinced that the church has a spiritual responsibility to many churches which are not and cannot become members of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. These should be seriously discussed, refined, amplified and pending synodical approval implemented. Voices are again being raised to reconsider membership in the National Association of Evangelicals with which the denomination was affiliated from 1944 through 1951.
For all this time is needed. Synod meets but once each year. And before any ecumenical affiliation can be undertaken in obedience to Christ and with proper enthusiasm and cooperation on the part of all the churches, an appropriate climate of conviction must be created among the membership. Too many denominations in this country have involved themselves in ecumenical associations and activities by top-level representatives in the face not only of persistent opposition on the part of a vocal minority but also of the most appalling ignorance of and indifference to true oneness in Christ on the part of many of the members. This happens when the church refuses to be truly church and to act in accordance with its God-given character and task.
What we would urge is that every member of the Reformed churches become deeply interested in the true union and communion of all those who seek to serve the Lord according to his Word. And such we may and should find far beyond the confines of a confessional Reformed church, even as John Calvin when exhorting the Duchess Renee of Ferrara to maintain concord with all men to the best of her ability wrote, “Meanwhile I shall always cherish with an undisturbed mind those in whom I perceive the seeds of piety, and even should they not reciprocate my feelings, I shall never suffer myself to be alienated from them.”
Too many among us seem quite content with denominational isolation which they identify with uncompromising loyalty to Christ. Too easily they forget that this can spring from indifference to fellow Christians, complacency with the church to which they belong, and even spiritual pride which is the deadliest of all sins. Others within the Reformed churches seem afflicted with a loss of all sense of true Scriptural distinctiveness, possibly because they don’t seem to know or care much about God’s truth as confessed among us. To them one church is just as good as another. But neither of these two groups understands what it means to be a truly Reformed church which seeks always to reform itself in obedience to Christ who is Lord of the church. As members of the church they make poor witnesses of Christ whose concern for drawing men of all ranks and races unto himself should be reflected more consistently in our lives.
The true oneness which all believers, and through them also the several churches which seek to honor Christ, should pursue zealously begins indeed in our own hearts and homes, in our local congregations and denomination. But those who love the gospel of grace and lament the brokenness of the church soon will find innumerable occasions to speak to others who claim to be Christian about the fulness of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. Without such “grass-roots” activity all official pronouncements and practices will to a large extent be frustrated.
Are we willing and eager to sit down with our Baptist, Congregational, and Roman Catholic neighbors to talk over those things which are dearest to our hearts? Can we do this simply, intelligibly and convincingly, constrained by the wonderful love of God in Christ for us and our families? Are we more concerned that they shall truly know and rejoice in our Lord than that they shall belong to the church of which we are members, even though membership in a church which faithfully proclaims the full counsel of God is by no means a bagatelle? And shall we do this honestly, learning to listen with patience to others even when, rightly or wrongly, they point out what seem to them weaknesses in us and our churches?
The ecumenical road is not easy to travel successfully. It is beset by many a pitfall and peril. Always it is easier to break up than to restore the unity of Christ’s church. On this road we find ourselves today as toddlers who are just beginning to stretch their legs a bit. Yet these difficulties may never dissuade us from our duty. This we should undertake cheerfully in the assurance that our Savior continues to pray for the unity of all who belong to him. “Neither for these only (his disciples) do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and 1 in thee, that they also may be in us; that the world may believe that thou didst send me” (John 17:20, 21).
Such ecumenical conversation and conduct yields rich spiritual dividends. By it our life in Christ will be daily enriched and strengthened. Our understanding of the truth announced in and by the Scriptures will be deepened. Our Lord himself will be glorified as his word is spoken and his children draw more closely together. And thus the counsel of the covenant God and Father, who seeks through the pre-eminent Christ as his Son and our Savior “to reconcile all things to himself” (Col. 1:20), will be increasingly realized.
Synod was by no means minded to rest content with a negative decision. It also decided to request “the assistance of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands to make their contribution in working out a positive statement on our ecumenical calling, in the context of our common confession of Articles 27·29 of the Belgic Confession. This Confession demands of us (1) fellowship with all who confess and obey Jesus Christ, and (2) separation from all those who reject, deny or pervert the truth of the Gospel.” Some time will elapse before this decision is so implemented that the churches can officially agree on the steps which can and should be taken by them unto a clearer and fuller expression of the unity which all true believers enjoy in Christ. Meanwhile this should spur us as individual believers to witness to and work for that oneness which the Scriptures extol as among the precious benefits which Sow to us from our crucified and risen and glorified Lord.
By this time it is widely known throughout the Christian Reformed Church that the synod of 1967 has decided to recess until August 29. At that time it expects to finish the work for which it was called together.
This was an unusual and surprising procedure, one never before followed so far as we can recall in the history of the denomination. Yet in the mind of a large majority of delegates this was deemed necessary to do the work well. Although unusual, the legitimacy of this action cannot be questioned by any appeal to the Church Order. The decision, however, deserves some careful reflection, since it points up a great and growing problem which faces our annual synods.
Year after year the Agenda swells in size and scope, the consequence of the increasing responsibilities which face a Reformed church in the modern world with its complexities and challenges. Rightly we have regarded our ecclesiastical assemblies as deliberative bodies. This demands careful study of the many issues which must be faced as well as sufficient time for the delegates to discuss and debate matters properly presented to them before a decision is reached.
All this becomes more and mOre difficult. For the delegates to involve themselves in depth in synodical matters requires long hours of reading and reflection. Hence also this synod received an overture which urged earlier publication of the Agenda. But even mare pressing is the difficulty of attaining to careful and balanced decisions on so many varied matters within the compass of ten days. Unless the Christian Reformed Church intends to allow its boards and committees decisive powers with respect to policy and practice (something fraught with grave dangers for the interest, unity and spiritual maturity of the churches, as the history of several denominations in this land should abundantly demonstrate), new ways to discharge the responsibilities resting upon a church which desires to be consistently Scriptural and Reformed will have to be adopted and implemented. Not a few delegates, especially among the elders, find it impossible to stay beyond the time ordinarily allotted to synodical sessions. Such elders, with the pressures of family and business affairs heavy upon them, should not be replaced by others who are in “retirement.” Today more than ever we need at synod also those who are by daily experience acquainted with the complex and hurried environment in which Christ’s church is called to work. Nor may congregations and classes rest content when a sizeable number of delegates are compelled to be absent during the last and often the most crucial days of synodical session.
Is there, then, no way out of what is fast becoming an impasse?
There is, indeed, and the way is by no means novel or untried. Regional or particular synods, which have always had a time-honored place in the polity of the Reformed churches, could be introduced.
Voices have been raised also in this magazine since its first publication for their introduction. Repeatedly synods have faced this question. Overtures have been received, studied, referred to committees for further reflection, debated, and finally rejected by ensuing synods. It is not our intention to review this history here. Yet it may be well to remind the readers that in addition to the well-worn argument that such assemblies could “undermine the unity of the denomination,” one of the chief reasons why they were not introduced may be found in the fact that their assigned tasks and authority were never spelled out by any of the Study Committees. Hence no answer was forthcoming to the pressing question how these regional synods could lighten the work of general synod. This question must and can be answered satisfactorily, we believe.
Undoubtedly some revision and reorganization of our denominational structure would then have to be made. But are the churches so enamored of the “status quo” which has developed among us in this part of the world, that we desire no change at all? Or do we want the annual synods to work with even greater speed and for longer periods, even if this means from year to year the absence of several delegates during the last days? Or is it the intention of the churches to allot the boards greater liberty to determine basic policy and practice for the work of the churches? Such and similar questions should not be lightly dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Perhaps we are again “vainly beating the air with words.” Yet sooner or later the churches must face the problems created by an ever-expanding agenda. We hope that this will be done before our synods lose their distinctiveness as truly deliberative assemblies.
The Rev. Herman Bel, who more than once served as president of synod, has remarked that seemingly when the Christian Reformed Church is faced with a matter of some great weight and novelty, it tends to discuss for years on end only at long last to reach a decision which may well come with too little and too late to be truly advantageous to the churches.
This assessment came to mind when the synod of 1967 dealt with the issue of delegating deacons to its broader assemblies.
The discussion of this question, which was raised some four years ago, was illuminating. Although comparatively brief, it was animated especially when objections were raised to the recommendations of the Study Committee. And this is proper and profitable in any ecclesiastical assembly which aims at being truly deliberative. Only in this way of mutual consultation can the mind of the churches come to clear expression in official and public declarations. Synod decided first that “the delegation of deacons to major assemblies of the church is neither prohibited nor demanded by Scripture and the Reformed concessions” and thereupon that “Synod do not move in the direction of delegating deacons to major assemblies at the present time.” The final phrase was an amendment proposed from the floor and adopted by the assembly as an addition to the recommendation of the Advisory Committee. It at least leaves the door open to further consideration in the future and perhaps suggests that a large number of delegates were not completely convinced that all is well with the manner in which the diaconal responsibilities of the church are carried out among us. Yet synod also decided that it would “not accede to the recommendation ‘that Synod urge all the churches, but especially the larger churches, to acknowledge and to reactivate the office of the deacon on the local level and according to Biblical principles.’” Thus the matter is settled for the time being.
What has surprised and in some measure disappointed us is the comparatively little weight which the delegates (consisting of ministers and elders ) gave not only to the evidence adduced by the Study Committee that the unique contributions which the diaconal office can and should make to the church’s life are being obscured but especially to the statements made by the director of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee concerning difficulties encountered in awakening diaconal interest and cooperation for the work of Christian mercy beyond the local level. Even his statement that during 1966 more than $70,000. less had been received from the churches than during 1965 failed to make the impact which it should have had.
Seemingly there is still a large lack of awareness on the part of many why this question was raised and seriously studied. Many among the ministers and elders apparently are of the opinion that the only concern was that of enhancing the diaconal office by giving it the same function and authority in major assemblies as now rests upon the present delegates. Objections to the proposals were raised quite consistently on this score.
Yet the intention of both the overture which introduced the issue on synodical level and the report of the Study Committee was precisely the reverse. It aimed at emphasizing the unique contributions which the diaconal office can and should make in our day of such great opportunities to “work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of faith” in the name of our compassionate Savior, and that far beyond the confines and competence of the local congregations.
But cannot this be done without delegating deacons to major assemblies? Of course, this can and to some extent is being done. No one has argued that our major assemblies are improperly constituted and composed. Ministers and elders delegated to such gatherings discharge their responsibilities there by virtue of being lawfully delegated; not by virtue of their offices as such. But can the churches, especially in view of the voluminous agendas which confront synods each year anew, expect that the delegates who are ministers and elders will be as knowledgeable about and sympathetic to the diaconal tasks of the church as they are to matters which pertain to doctrine, discipline, liturgy, and related matters? This is not to blame them for any conspicuous negligence but simply to point out what to us appears to be an undeniable fact.
Apparently the synod of 1967 was quite satisfied that aU the demands of Scripture and the Reformed confessions concerning the diaconal office are being met in our churches today. We regret that we cannot share this confidence. Isn’t it true that too often the diaconate is still regarded among us as simply a “stepping-stone” to the more important and elevated office of the eldership? Aren’t there many churches who do little more for the poor and distressed in a world which is bleeding from a thousand wounds than take a quarterly Communion offering for “benevolences?” May this be considered a proper love-response to the sympathetic Savior who said also for our instruction, “The poor ye have always with you?” Can we close our eyes to the fact that not a few of our diaconates are far busier with administering the finances of the congregation than they are with their God-given calling? Or have we reached that stage in the history of the Reformed churches wherein we do best to let that which makes the diaconal ministry truly unique in a world of sin and sorrow languish until it is finally obliterated from our minds and hearts? We raise these questions only to counter any false impression that may be current that all is well with our diaconates and with the diaconal responsibilities which rest upon everyone of our congregations. If any of the present offices in the church needs a measure of revitalization and reformation among us, we believe it is that of the deacons.
Synod has decided not to deal further with the matter at this time. But this decision, we believe, should not be interpreted as excluding further reflection by every consistory—thus by each minister and elder and deacon—on how the diaconate of the local church can more consistently and continually and completely do the glorious work which our Lord has laid upon it in these days. And if this is done throughout the churches, then the question of delegating deacons to major assemblies—a large share of whose work is and should be diaconal—will be considered again.
– PETER Y. DE JONG