The Reformed Ecumenical Synod

The Reformed Ecumenical Synod met in Lunteren, the Netherlands from August 12-23. The Synod got off to a very slow start taking a whole morning to elect a Moderamen. Thereupon the Modefamen appointed personnel to the various committees then went to work preparing their reports. Procedure is always the difficulty in international meetings of this kind and it takes patience and wisdom to be fair to all and still make progress. But the Synod made an excellent choice in electing as its Moderator, Prof. K. Runia, who has experience in both the Continental and English ways of doing business. Except for occasional plenary sessions the first week was largely taken up by committee meetings.

The issue drawing the greatest interest was the race issue. I was so fortunate to be appointed to this Committee on Race Relations together with Dr. J. D. Vorster, brother of the South African Prime Minister, and Prof. J. Verkuyl, leader of the “anti-apartheid” forces in the Netherlands. There were eleven of us on the committee all together and from the outset the clash was on. The two parties were friendly but firm in their opposition and two reports, a majority and minority report, were eventually sent to the Synod.

The majority report, which I supported, does not mention “apartheid” by name or “South Africa” by name but urges all member-churches to put forth renewed efforts to live wholly in accord with the biblical norms of love and righteousness; to reject every form of racial discrimination and racism; to reject every attempt to maintain racial supremacy by military, economic, or other means; to reject the subtle forms of racial discrimination found in many countries today with respect to housing, employment, education and law enforcement; and to pray for themselves and for one another that God may give wisdom and faithfulness in every circumstance.

The minority report, which was defeated, called for specific condemnation of specific conditions in specific countries. While the minority report was indeed specific this was an argument against it rather than in favour of it. Ours was a church meeting not a political one. When a Synod speaks it must say “Thus saith the Lord.” And to speak with this authority a church gathering must remain within its area of competence. In effect the adoption of the minority report would have reduced the Synod to the level of a political pressure group. I am glad that the Synod did not yield to this temptation of being relevant at the expense of its ecclesiastical character.

The discussion of this issue at the Synod attracted wide attention in the press and was covered as well by radio and television. During much of the debate more visitors than delegates were present. Some 25 journalists, several from foreign countries, reported the decisions.

Unfortunately, however, the race question occupied two full days of debate and, in my opinion, this issue, which is just one of many politico-social issues that might have been discussed, took up far too large a proportion of the Synod’s time and energy. As a result, such important spiritual matters as “the Sabbath” were simply referred to an international study committee with hardly any discussion at all. This is one of the things we have to watch very carefully at the present time, it seems to me. The Church does have a social responsibility, but let it not be absorbed in its social concerns.

The Synod did spend a whole day discussing ecumenicity and at the end again advised member churches not to join the World Council of Churches. The “NO” was softened a bit with the addition of the words “in the present situation” which seem to hold out some hope that the W.C.e. will change. I am happy about this decision, of course, but T must say that I was unhappy about the debate. Much of the debate turned on whether or not it was wise to join the W.C.C. I informed the Synod that for us in New Zealand it was not a question of wisdom at all, but one of obedience (Romans 16:17). We are separatists by conviction. Whereas the World Council stands for doctrinal inclusivism, we declare that unbelief has no right to exist alongside the Gospel. The delegates from the Gereformeerde Kerken and the Reformed Churches in Indonesia stood up again and again to defend the World Council. (The Reformed Churches of Indonesia are the only churches who are members of the RE.S. and the W.C.C. at the present time). Professor Berkouwer gave an impassioned plea in favour of the World Council. Dr. Runia spoke out clearly and convincingly against it. When the vote came, the World Council was rejected by a large majority.

With respect to the I.C.C.C. the Synod reaffirmed the 1953 Edinburgh resolution that reads as follows: “While commending many features in the statement of .faith constituting the basis of the I.C.C.C. the Synod recognizes in the constitution and practice of this body certain features to which exception may be taken and therefore does not at this time recommend membership in it.” The Edinburgh Synod included the words “but leaves such membership to the judgment of the several churches.” These words were deliberately omitted by the Synod this year and this indicates the somewhat more critical mood of this Synod toward the I.C.C.C. A number of delegates objected to recent I.C.C.C. activities in Pakistan and the Cameroons and suggested that the R.E.S. appoint a committee to look into the matter. On substitute motion the R.E.S. churches affiliated with the I.C.C.C. were asked to do so and report to the next meeting of the R.E.S.

In a move that rather surprised everyone, the Synod by a narrow margin (I believe it was 25 to 22) swept aside the advice of the study and advisory committees and went on to approve a motion from the floor made by Scottish delegate Clement Graham. His motion was that it is the plain teaching of the Word of God that women may not hold the office of elder and minister. The closeness of the vote seemed to contradict the words of the motion that the matter was “plain.” And besides, on the day that this close vote was taken, the delegates from Indonesia were absent celebrating their National Day of Independence, and it was common knowledge that they favoured “women in office.” The following morning, therefore, there was an attempt made to re-open the matter, but this failed. Had the matter been reconsidered, it is likely that the presence of the Indonesian delegation would have swung the vote in favour of “women in office.” At this point the delegates from the Gereformeerde Kerken requested to have their “declaration of regret” recorded in the minutes.

To sum things up one might ask, “What was the value of the Synod and was it worth the great expenses involved?”

Well, the answer to this question need not be sought in the degree to which we were successful in changing the other’s mind. As far as I can see, the Gereformeerde Kerken are still just as determined as ever to join the World Council of Churches. And, as to “women in office,” the Gereformeerde Kerk in Baarn, for example. is right now in the process of ordaining eight women elders and two women deacons.

But, the R.E.S. is important and it is right that our denomination was represented there. Not only does the R.E.S. give member churches the opportunity to discharge their spiritual obligation to each other as part of the Body of Christ, but we are “Sister Churches” of many of the denominations that make up the Synod. And the fact that we are sister churches of other denominations assumes that we have basic confidence in each other to the extent that we can exchange ministers and members without examination. As far as trust is concerned, the same relation prevails between sister-denominations as that which exists between the congregations of one denomination. So full and intimate is the mutual endorsement that forms the foundation of the sister relationship.

Obviously, this places a large responsibility upon us for our sister churches, for we are involved with them in their basic attitudes and actions just as though they were our own. What happens now when decisions are taken or books are written that strain and even seem to break this confidence? You can either ignore these things or make an issue of them. If you ignore them you make meaningless nonsense out of the sister relationship. So there is only one right thing to do. The matter must be brought to an issue, discussed and eventually, depending upon the outcome, the sister relationship will be continued or else it will be reduced and perhaps even ended. One thing is certain, churches cannot go on accepting each other’s ministers and members without basic confidence in each other.

This is the situation that I see developing in the Netherlands at the present time and this is one of the reasons why it was important to be at the R.E.S. Our sister relationship with the Gereformeerde Kerken is at present under very serious strain and I have the feeling that instead of growing closer and closer together we are drifting farther and farther apart. Traditional viewpoints on important matters like Genesis, and the Inspiration of the Bible, are just being cast aside by prominent leaders who, with their extreme statements, capture the headlines but bewilder the people.

And take the recent Ascension Day Youth Congress in Barneveld. Besides Dr. Verkuyl, a champion of the W.C.C., the speakers held up to the youth of the church were Monsignor Ernst van Breda, a bishop of the Roman Catholic church, and Dr. Visser’t Hooft, past president of the W.C.C. Well, things like this make one feel worlds apart from our brothers and sisters in the Netherlands. One may ask, “Is there not a cause?” What has happened to the militant spirit of De Cock and Kuyper and their love of truth that led to the establishment of the Gereformeerde Kerken in 1834 and 1886? Why this willingness now to be regarded as just another “variety” among the churches of the world?

I will not try to analyze the Gereformeerde Kerken any further. I just want to point out that now is the time to seize every opportunity to speak with and to speak to our brethren in the Heformed family of churches. The R.E.S. was just such an opportunity. 1 hope that as your delegate I succeeded in expressing your love toward as well as your concern for all the brethren.

The RES will hold a 7-day South Paci6c Regional Conference in May 1970, the Lord willing, in Seoul, Korea with the Presbyterian Church of Korea (Hap Dong) as host. This will be a study-conference on the theme “Christian Faith and Life in the Modern World.” Approximately 15 churches will be invited to send 3 to 4 man delegations, one of which must be a layman.

The next Reformed Ecumenical Synod will be held, the Lord willing, in Australia in 1972.

Rev. Carl Reitsma is pastor of the Reformed Church in Christchurch, New Zealand.