When Synod Schererville 2007 convened on Monday, July 9, at Trinity Christian College, its delegates raised their voices in psalms extolling the unity of God’s people. An exhortation by Rev. Paul Ipema called delegates to remember the blessing of the unity which they have – and which they must cultivate – in Christ.
But exhortations notwithstanding, the agenda before delegates to the URCNA’s Sixth Synod evidenced a fair degree of disunity. A great bulk of the disagreements centered around ecumenical matters. Of the seventeen overtures facing delegates, two sought to change the URC’s guidelines for ecumenical relations, two sought to tighten the required ratifications for entering ecumenical relations, and two sought to re-focus the Songbook Committee on producing a songbook for the URC, rather than one for the URC and Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) together.
Ecumenical Rules and Church Unity
Arguably the matter with the greatest potential to divide at Synod 2007 was the call – from two classes – for revising the URC’s guidelines for ecumenical relationships. Prior to synod, the URC’s Guidelines for Ecumenicity and Church Unity were matters of intense debate. Those guidelines included three phases.
1. Phase One called for correspondence and dialogue between the URC and another federation, so that mutual understanding and appreciation might grow between them.
2. Phase Two brought another federation into a “sister-church” relationship in which the URC recognizes it as a true church and encourages closer relationships between the two federations. In its pre-synod form, this phase was explicitly declared to be “in preparation for and commitment to eventual integrated federative church unity.”
3. Phase Three called for movement into full integration between the two federations.
A pair of overtures sought to alter Phase Two by removing the phrase “in preparation for and commitment to eventual integrated church unity.” Supporters of these overtures argued that this explicit “commitment” to full unity was akin to being engaged to marry several women at once. Such a weighty commitment was said to cause confusion about the nature of a sister-church relationship; and some blamed it for what they regarded as excessively rapid progress in uniting with the CanRC.
Along with removing the commitment language from Phase Two, the overtures called for Phase Three to become a multi-step process of preparing for and entering into full unity. After significant debate, and with input from those both strongly favoring and strongly opposed to the proposed changes, the advisory committee offered a precisely worded compromise.
Phase One remained unchanged. The new rules for Phase Two declare that: “The intent of this phase is to recognize and accept each other as true and faithful churches of the Lord Jesus, in acknowledgment of the desirability of eventual integrated federative church unity, by establishing ecclesiastical fellowship.” Although the language of commitment was removed, yet the biblical mandate calling for the reunion of separated churches was preserved.
The rules for Phase Three then were amended to create two steps. In the first step, a plan of ecclesiastical union would be developed to outline the timing, coordination, and integration of six broad areas of the structure and life of the two federations. The second step would involve implementing the plan of union. Ratification by the consistories, according to Church Order Art. 36, would be required to enter Phase Two and to begin both of the steps in Phase Three.
Having adopted those changes, Synod 2007 addressed a point of possible confusion: the work already performed with the CanRC. Since 2001, several committees have been laying the foundation for union with the Canadian Reformed Churches. Under the new rules, the work of those committees properly belongs to the first step of Phase Three – yet the URC has only approved Phase Two relations with the CanRC. To clarify the relationship and safeguard the work of the committees, Synod 2007 approved an exception to the newly adopted guidelines. That exception allows the current committees to continue working with their corresponding CanRC committees while the two federations remain in Phase Two. This would pave the way for when the URC does move to Phase Three with the CanRC.
The URC Church Order requires ratification by a majority of Consistories for decisions to enter into ecumenical relationships with other federations (Art. 36) and ratification by two-thirds of consistories for decisions to change the church order (Art. 66). However, these requirements have occasioned debate because the Church Order never specifies the basis for calculating the required majority or super-majority. Should the majority be calculated on the basis of the total churches in the federation, or from the total number of those who voted?
Those who argue for basing the majority count on the total number of churches in the URC said ratification is a positive action. For a consistory to decline to vote is, in effect, a vote against ratification – because the consistory has opted not to express its favor of the action. However, those who favored basing the majority count on the number of churches that vote argued that participation in such a process is a responsibility of member churches. They said those which fail to respond ought not to be “rewarded” by having their inaction counted as a vote.
In answer to three overtures, Synod 2007 approved amendments to Church Order Art. 36 and Art. 66 that specify that the number of consistories required for ratification shall be judged according to the number “of the synodically-approved Consistories in the federation.” With these changes, a consistory which declines to ratify a measure under Art. 36 or Art. 66 effectually counts against ratification. Before taking effect, however, these changes will require ratification by two-thirds of the churches.
Ecumenicity and the Canadian Reformed Churches
Synod also addressed a number of matters related to the committees tasked with creating closer ties to the Canadian Reformed Churches.
The greatest amount of time was spent clarifying the mandate of the URC’s Songbook Committee. Synod St. Catharines 1997 created the Songbook Committee, mandating it to begin exploring what would be needed to obtain a new songbook for the URCNA. That mandate was refined by subsequent synods. Notable among those refinements was the decision by Synod Escondido 2001 to have the Songbook Committee work with the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise Committee and consider for inclusion the 150 Psalms in metrical settings used by the CanRC. Since that time, there has been some debate concerning whether the committee was to produce only a joint songbook for the URC and CanRC, or a URC song book that is developed in consultation with our Canadian sister churches. The measure adopted by Synod Schererville answered the debate by calling the committee to work with and consult the CanRC committee, but to produce a new song book specifically for the URCNA. At the same time, Synod affirmed the URC’s commitment also to continue dialoguing with the Canadian Reformed Churches regarding a song book.
The Theological Education Committee also received clarification on its mandate. The committee had been working with a CanRC committee in an attempt to find agreement regarding the means of educating ministers. To date, the committees have been at an impasse, with the CanRC committee maintaining that Scripture mandates at least one federationally-controlled seminary, while the URC committee maintained that it does not. Synod Smithers 2007 of the CanRC recently removed that roadblock. While affirming their “strong preference” for at least one federationally-controlled seminary, Synod Smithers acknowledged that this is not a matter of principle, but of application. Therefore, it declared that this matter should not impede movement toward unity between the URC and CanRC. Synod Schererville 2007 delegates affirmed six points of agreement between the URC and CanRC committees and affirmed the URC committee’s position that a federationally-controlled seminary is not Biblically mandated.
Other Ecumenical Avenues
The URCNA’s ecumenical endeavors are not directed only toward the CanRC. The URC also has “corresponding relations” – its lowest phase of active ecumenical relations – with five federations of Churches; and it is in Phase Two, Ecclesiastical Fellowship, with not only the CanRC, but also the Reformed Church in the US.
Synod Schererville 2007 took steps to draw closer to several like-minded federations. The most weighty step was a move to enter Ecclesiastical Fellowship – the second of its three phases of ecumenical relations – with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The URCNA has been in Phase One, Corresponding Relations, with the OPC since 1997. That phase is intended to be one of exploration through correspondence and dialogue. By agreeing to enter Phase Two with the OPC, the URC would formally recognize that denomination as a true church and would encourage closer relationships between the two church federations. Before this action becomes official, however, it will require ratification by a majority of the URC’s consistories.
Synod 2007 also asked its ecumenical committee begin dialogue with the Korean American Presbyterian Church and the Heritage Reformed Congregations. These two join the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America as federations on the “todo list” of the URC Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity.
Looking abroad, Synod Schererville 2007 agreed to enter Phase One, Ecumenical Contact, with two oversees federations. The first of these is the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (vrijgemaakt), the Dutch parent-federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches. The second is the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.
Delegates also voted to ratify the entrance of two denominations – the Free Reformed Churches and the Heritage Reformed Congregations – into the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).
Current Controversies Concerning Justification
Over the past few years, a number of Reformed and Presbyterian federations have expressed concerns about the movement known as the “Federal Vision.” That matter was brought before Synod Schererville 2007 via an overture requesting the body to adopt a 2004 report of the RCUS. That report focused on the teachings of Rev. Norm Shepherd, a retired CRC minister who often is identified with the Federal Vision movement.
At the advice of its advisory committee on the matter, synod declined to endorse that overture. However, delegates then adopted without dissent two affirmations regarding the URCNA’s understanding of the doctrine of justification. The first of these was simply the restatement of a statement adopted at Synod Calgary 2004: “that the Scriptures and confessions (Heidelberg Q/A 59-62) teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.” The second offered further clarification by affirming: “that the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works (Heidelberg Catechism answer 61, ‘Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.’ Cf. Belgic Confession Articles 22, 24).”
Synod also agreed to remind and encourage both individuals and Churches of their responsibility to follow the Church Order’s procedure for addressing office-bearers who are suspected of deviating from or obscuring the doctrine of salvation as summarized in our confessions.
Synod then adopted as pastoral advice a series of nine “rejections of error.” That statement said:
Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:
1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);
2. who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17, 18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60);
3. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall;
4. who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11–19, 21, 36–37, 60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1);
5. who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);
6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29);
7. who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22–24; HC 21, 60, 86);
8. who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);
9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC affirmations regarding the URCNA’s 37).
Finally, Synod 2007 appointed a Federal Vision and similar teachings regarding the doctrine of justification. The committee was asked to bring a clear statement concerning this matter to the next synod.
Doctrine and Membership
Synod also agreed to form a second study committee, this time to examine the level of doctrinal commitment advisable for those seeking communicant membership in URC congregations. The study proposal arose from questions being faced especially by congregations involved in Church planting. Overseeing consistories have had to wrestle repeatedly with whether to admit prospective members who agree in most doctrinal points but disagree on several key areas. The overture before classis noted that the practice of historically reformed churches has not been uniform.
Two actions of Synod Schererville 2007 were of distinct interest to the Canadian churches. The first item involved the addition of a phrase to Church Order Art. 48, governing the solemnization of marriage. While the article itself would remain unchanged, it would be prefaced by the statement that “Scripture teaches that marriage is designed to be a lifelong, monogamous covenantal union between one man and one woman.” Those who proposed and favored the overture noted how advocates for same-sex “marriage” have become increasingly hostile toward those who oppose them. This is so especially in Canada, where the law currently permits the practice.
This new phrasing in the Church Order is intended to demonstrate that ministers who refuse to solemnize such relationships are acting in agreement with what the URCNA as a whole has stated concerning the Bible’s teaching on marriage.
A second measure aims to ensure that the URC’s Canadian congregations are complying with Canadian laws for transferring funds between churches in different nations. That was accomplished through the adoption of a Joint Venture Agreement for the URCNA (Canada) and the URCNA (US). This agreement creates a legally recognized connection between URC congregations in both nations. In line with the terms of this agreement, Synod 2007 appointed five members to the U.S. Board of Directors of the URCNA. A Canadian Board of Directors had already been appointed. Synod appointed the Consistory of Bethany URC in Wyoming, MI, to implement the Joint Venture Agreement.
Other Actions of Synod
There also were a number of actions that fall into categories of their own. These actions include the following:
1. Military Chaplaincy
Synod approved a measure intended to enable URC ministers to become chaplains in the U.S. military.
2. URCNA Website
Synod 2007 took fairly decisive action by appointing the consistory of Grace URC of Waupun, WI, to be the oversight consistory for the Website Committee. It also adopted a number of recommendations to guide the Website Committee as it builds an Internet presence for the URCNA.
3. Classis Pacific Northwest
Synod agreed to a request to form a new classis from 12 Churches that had been part of Classis Southwest US and Classis Western Canada. These congregations are located in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
4. Synodical Rules
Synod provisionally adopted its newly drafted Regulations for Synodical Procedure. These new rules for how URC synods are to operate will be used until amended or adopted by the next synodical meeting.
Looking to the Future
Despite a number of significant issues – including several that could have been divisive – God’s guidance was evident. Although the assembly convened with the possibility of deep disunity, it adjourned in the wake of principled compromises – and a renewed sense of unity.
The officers of Synod Schererville 2007 were used in fostering that unity. Synod was ably chaired by Rev. Ronald Scheuers of the First URC in Chino, Calif., with Rev. Ralph Pontier of Redeemer URC in
Review of Synod 2007 of the URCNA Orange City, Iowa, as Vice-Chairman. In addition, Elder Edwin Kreykes of Cornerstone URC in Sanborn, Iowa, served as First Clerk, while Rev. Doug Barnes of Hills URC in Hills, Minn., as Second Clerk.
Keeping things running smoothly behind the scenes was Mr. Bill Konynenbelt, whose role as stated clerk for the federation was re-affirmed with election to a second term. Rev. Dennis Royall of Cornerstone URC in London, ON, was elected as alternate stated clerk.
And without a doubt, the glue that held it all together was Community URC of Schererville, IN, which served as the convening Church. Consistory and laity alike worked countless hours to ensure that the delegates were able to perform their business with ease and efficiency.
The next synod is slated to occur in the summer of 2010, under the supervision of Cornerstone URC in London, ON, which was named as the next convening church.
Rev. Doug Barnes is the pastor of Hills URC in Hills, Minn. Although he served Synod Schererville as clerk, this summary reflects not his official role, but his personal observations as a delegate.