The 1966 synod of the Christian Reformed Church has come and gone. Elsewhere in this magazine is a brief, factual report of some of the decisions. A few comments, however, may also be in order at this point.
What kind of a synod was this?
Such a question, commonly and often seriously asked, may be a very unwise and even dangerous one, To describe a gathering of official delegates solemnly convened and seriously engaged in the business of our Lord is usually a highly subjective judgment and, unless done as carefully and circumspectly as possible, may rightly lay one open to the charge of unfairness and rashness. Without in any way reflecting adversely on delegates, advisors or committees we would suggest that the synod of 1966 was characterized by a kind of colorlessness. Although the Agenda was larger than ever before and included some of the weightiest matters which can be considered by the broadest assembly of the church, comparatively few issues were settled with finality. Some matters were decided without much discussion; others were postponed until next year’s assembly; still others referred to the churches or to committees for further study.
Now such a procedure isn’t always and altogether bad. To act within and as Christ’s church means to act responsibly on the basis of common conviction and concern. And for us as confessional Reformed church this needs emphasis. Decisions on crucial issues taken by a slim majority, although legally and morally binding, often do not produce salutary spiritual effects. A church which lives by the word of God and understands its heritage should rarely have to acquiesce in bare majorities. If ever our churches need a strong sense of direction, it is in our day of widespread spiritual and ecclesiastical confusion. To insure this we have long since adopted our common stance in faith—the holy Scriptures as these are interpreted in the Three Forms of Unity. Clear and convincing appeals to these in our ecclesiastical discussions and deliberations seem at times to be somewhat muted. And in so far as this may be true, we should be challenged to anew to hold fast that which has been given us by God.
This synod was not characterized by much spirited discussion. Perhaps this is evidence that many of the delegates—in spite of having had the Agenda in their hands for more than five weeks before the synodical gathering—were not sure in their own minds which direction the churches should take.
Some delegates suggested that a large reason for this may have been the unsatisfactory building in which the official gatherings were held. Although a good sound-system had been provided by the host church, it was at many crucial times quite impossible for all the delegates to hear clearly what was being said from the floor. That this played a significant role in contributing to hesitation and division of judgment may well be true.
We would, however, look for a deeper cause.
In recent years Christian Reformed synods have been compelled to deal with so much business within the short span of ten or twelve days, that responsible decisions on a wide variety of matters of principle and practice can hardly be expected. Yet this is necessary. Especially those delegated to synod for a first or second time find the material overwhelming. Even five weeks of sustained reading and reflecting on the Agenda, in so far as this is possible amid the pressures of everyday business, is hardly likely to convince the average delegate that he is now prepared to speak before God’s face and to and for the churches authoritatively on doctrine, missions, education, administration, discipline and finances. But precisely this is expected. And this is what the churches need in our fast-moving and ever-changing years.
All this requires that the individual classes give most careful and prayerful attention to the election of their representatives. Attendance at synod is no occasion for an outing or vacation; it demands the best of the Christian office-bearer in the way of time and interest and prayer. The Church Order specifies that “two of the more experienced and competent ministers” shall be selected for the work of visiting the churches annually. Similar qualifications would seem to be necessary for delegation to synod. It is therefore always a surprise to note that so few classes see fit to delegate the same minister or the same cider for two or three years in succession. We are rightly averse to any kind of hierarchicalism within the churches. But without a larger measure of continuity than we have had in recent years the synods may find it increasingly impossible to deal appropriately and adequately with the large issues which must be resolved.
This magazine has argued often, as early as in one of its first issues in the spring of 1951, for the introduction of regional or particular synods, in order that some of the mounting business which now compels the attention of general synod may be properly adjudicated in such a minor assembly. Time and again the churches have repudiated this proposal, even though it has a time-honored place in Reformed church polity. Likely its last defeat was in large measure due to the inability or the unwillingness of synod to spell out precisely how such a regional synod could and should remove a growing burden of spiritual and administrative responsibility from general synod itself. To do this would demand a rather radical reorganization of our present structure of boards and committees. For this the churches did not seem ready. It is still our conviction that unless we are willing to move in this direction after a more exhaustive study of the questions and problems involved than has been given hitherto, we shall find our synods increasingly unable to do their work thoroughly and deliberatively. And if our synods are no longer deliberative bodies, then the Reformed character of our churches and their assemblies will be in grave jeopardy.
In addition we would suggest that with some regularity at our consistorial and classical gatherings time be devoted—be it only by way of general discussion—to those matters of principle and practice which involve all the Christian Reformed churches. Here pastors and experienced elders can render valuable service to those with whom they work most intimately for the edification of our Lord’s church. Indeed, no binding decisions can or may be attempted here on these matters. But in order to keep alive knowledge of and prayer for the Lord’s work throughout the churches something like this seems imperative, the more so since many pastors and elders seem conspicuously absent from the occasional elders’ conferences which are held.
The synod of 1966 now belongs to history. May the advances which have been made encourage and hearten us with the assurance that God’s word is not bound. May the failures, of whatever sort they may have been,’be graciously forgiven and overruled by his immeasurable mercies. And may all Christian Reformed members, congregations and classes pledge themselves anew to keep the unity of the Spirit who leads Christ’s own into the fulness of his word of grace and salvation to the praise of God and for a testimony to the world.
Since we are on the matter of church government anyway, it is appropriate to refer to a splendid work which deals with this matter and can provide invaluable help in showing how the Biblical principles of keeping the church of our Lord in good order have been applied in a concrete situation. This is The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the time of Calvin, translated from the Latin and French and edited by Philip E. Hughes. Although not begun until 1546 and kept rather irregularly, this important document provides all those interested in church history and polity with unique insights.
Here we see a sizeable congregation under its leadership striving to be and become ever more true church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many of the matters which demand our attention today were of concern to Reformed leadership at that time. Here lie the historical roots of Reformed patterns concerning the church’s relationship to marriage, burials, church visitation, discipline, the sacraments, festivals, and the civil magistrates. Especially the last ought to challenge and confute the widespread notion that Calvin ruled Geneva with an iron hand and demanded subservience of the city officials to himself and his colleagues. In some detail the Bolsec and Servetus affairs are signalized. This document amply demonstrates that Geneva through its ecclesiastical leadership was a dynamic center of missionary concern and activity. No less than eighty eight men are mentioned as having been sent out to preach the gospel between 1555 and 1562 from that city. Undoubtedly there were many, many more; but their names are not recorded because of the fearful dangers to which they would have been exposed before and after those dates on account of the religious wars. The Register is introduced by the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541 to which the leaders were pledged and in accordance with which their decisions were based.
The “Introduction,” written by Dr. Hughes, is especially helpful. Here we can really learn to know the man John Calvin in his struggles and successes as teacher of the holy gospel. Many of the disparaging and dishonest charges laid against him are competently disproved. Every minister, consistory member and student of church history should make his acquaintance with this volume. We are deeply in Dr. Hughes’ debt for this excellent piece of work. It is obtainable from the publishers, Wm. B. Eerdmans Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich., who through the years have provided us with so much fine material by and on Calvin.
The times, so men say, are out of joint.
For the Christian such a statement is only part of the truth. Indeed, as we reRect on what is taking place in our changing, confusing and seemingly chaotic world, not much seems to make sense. Sensitive souls, painfully aware of the agony suffered by millions because of wars and race riots and crime run riot, regard the troubling round of events into which the world has been catapulted as meaningless. From all this there seems to be no hope of escape.
Not so may it be among us. The apostle Peter, whose readers lived in a world much like ours, charged them and us, “And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts” (II Pet. 1:18, 19).
Some decades ago Dr. William Hendriksen penned a brief tract which still has a powerful and precious message for the church today, Preaching Prophecy in a World at War. More recently the publishers of “The Reflector” have presented in translation an address by the late Prof. Dr. B. Holwerda of the Kampen Theological Seminary, under the title The Church in the Last Judgment. This is an urgent call to Christ’s church everywhere to live and witness as true church in today’s world, especially in the light of God’s word in Revelation 17. The keynote of the message is struck in a paragraph which reads,
“Revelation 17 gives us at a glance all of world history and enables us to understand the times. Often we find ourselves unable to keep up even with the best news review. World events are frequently so confusing and chaotic. But God sets John above the international situation and causes him in the spirit to see it all and then describe it for us in the Scriptures. This is the style of the New Testament time, and this shall surely come to pass.”
Since this address was delivered in 1949, the references are to the great events of those days. This, however, does not detract from the challenging and comforting message which it presents to all who love the Lord and his word.
Since a limited number of copies are available, those interested do well to contact the publishers soon –“The Reflector,” P.O. Box 7321, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
PETER Y. DE JONG