United Reformed Churches in North America 2001 Synod Report
Three o’clock in the morning the alarm rang. It was time to get ready for the URC Synod in Escondido, California. The forecast for flying was sunny. The forecast for Synod was not as promising. Different parts of the Agenda for Synod had been greatly debated ever since they had been made public. Pre-synod discussions proved that views on creation and covenant greatly varied within the federation. Synod promised to be a hostile environment. Some feared that the URC would witness a split after this synod was over.
Bored with the in-flight movie, I decided to read the Agenda once again, highlighting points of interest. I woke up to the sound of the highlighter hitting the floor. Another minister on the same flight was also trying to read the Agenda. I could hear him whisper under his breath, “That’s not right!” and “This will never do.” I couldn’t help but think that the next three days would seem very long.
We arrived in Escondido just as synod was convening. The Rev. Phil Vos, chairman pro-tem, led the delegates in singing and prayer. One of the first items on the agenda was the admission of four congregations into the federation: Covenant in Byron Center, Michigan; Dutton, Michigan; Grace in Kennewick, Washington; and Wellsburg, Iowa. Synod also noted with joy the addition of two former OCRC congregations, one in Abbotsford, the other in Surrey, British Columbia. In addition, Synod was informed of two new congregations in California, one in Fresno and the other in Pasadena, formed under the supervision of our churches.
The body elected the Rev. Ralph Pontier as chairman and Rev. Dennis Royall as vice chairman. The chairman read from Ephesians 4 and encouraged the delegates to “make every effort to the keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and to “consider others better than yourselves.” The desire of the delegates to adhere to this passage became clear throughout the discussions on the floor of synod. Most debates were polite and courteous, keeping the feelings of others in mind. The very capable chairman and vice chairman kept things moving.
A moment of thanksgiving and praise came as synod approved entering into Phase 2 of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the Canadian Reformed Churches. Three joint committees were appointed to look at a Song Book, Church Order, and Minister Training. Upon approving this new phase of fellowship, the brothers at synod paused to give thanks and sing a rendition of Psalm 133 from the Psalter Hymnal.
In addition to moving into closerrelationship with the CanRC, the synod also approved entering into Phase-1 Corresponding Relations with the RCUS.
Two overtures asked synod to caution the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity [CERCU]. These overtures came from classes that felt the CERCU had overstepped its bounds in explaining some of the theological stands of the URC. One of the overtures sent a lengthy supplement that questioned some of the theological formulations presented by the CERCU concerning the covenant. That supplement and the CERCU report were greatly debated on the URC email list and in some reformed publications.
A committee of twenty-six delegates, led by Rev. R. Scheuers, was given the task to present to synod an equitable solution. Instead of debating the theological concerns expressed, the committee decided that the heart of the overtures was the role of the CERCU. This led the committee to propose the following statements which synod adopted:
1. The committee recommends that without bias synod remind CERCU to remain faithful to the mandate of the committee “to correspond and dialogue on significant factors in the two federations’ history, theology, and ecclesiology.”
2. The committee recommends that synod note that the Statements of Agreement published in the 2001 Agenda for Synod by the CERCU do not exhaustively reflect the full spectrum of theological (doctrinal) positions of URC congregations in some of its formulations, and that these Statements of Agreement have no official status in the URCNA.
Another committee struggled with statements concerning Genesis. After meeting for a day and a half, one committee member was asked privately how things were progressing. He replied: “So far we are in agreement that there was a creation and that God did it.” After meeting a bit longer, the committee presented their report.
Synod went on to affirm the following concerning Biblical Interpretation and Genesis:
1. The authority and perspicuity of Scripture (B.C. V; H.C. VII).
2. The necessity and sufficiency of Scripture (B.C. VII and H.C. VII).
3. God the Father almighty created the heavens and the earth and all things visible and invisible (Apostles’ and Nicene Creed).
4. The Father created the heavens and the earth out of nothing (H.C. LD IX).
5. God gave every creature its shape and being (B.C. XII).
6. The creation and fall of man. “God made man of the dust of the earth; man gave ear to the devil” (B.C. XIV).
7. The historicity of Adam (L.D. VII.20; C.O.D. III/IV.1).
8. Man was created good, in a garden, and tempted by the devil, committed reckless disobedience (H.C. III and IV).
9. God’s words to the serpent in Paradise are noted as the first revelation of the Gospel (H.C.L.D. VI).
10. Adam plunged himself and his offspring by his first transgression into perdition (B.C. XVI).
11. Adam’s fall into sin and our connection to it (C.O.D. 1.1)
12. God came seeking man when he, trembling, fled from Him (B.C. XVII).
13. God created all things good in six days defined as evenings and mornings (Genesis 1 & 2 and Exodus 20:11). This means that we reject any evolutionary teaching, including theistic evolution, concerning the origin of the earth and all creatures (L.D. IX). As expected, this matter was the most debated item on the floor of synod. Throughout the debate, however, two things became very clear. The first was that, for the most part, we are pretty much agreed as a federation.
Most of the debate centered around whether or not synod had the right to make pronouncements like the ones listed above. Some felt that synod was overstepping its bounds because, by affirming any statements, synod would be saying something beyond the creeds and confessions adopted by the federation. Others felt that the federation needed to make the above statements in order to explain our interpretation of the confessions.
The second thing that was very clear at synod was the body’s desire to promote the Kingdom of God. While there was much debate, sometimes lengthy, sometimes repetitive, it was wonderful to see the Christian brotherhood among the delegates and the desire to work together for the glory of God. Instead of a “my way or the highway” attitude there was a wonderful effort to be the body of Christ, making “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
It was an enriching experience to see the body work together to express the federation’s commitment to the historicity of Creation as recorded in the Scriptures and confessed in our Three Forms of Unity, without attempting to go beyond the confessions which bind our churches together. The statements adopted by synod illustrate a Spirit led wisdom that should be good for the churches because they reaffirm and strengthen the positions already adopted by the churches.
Not all of Synod 2001 was work. Delegates were invited to spend an evening on the beautiful campus of Westminster Seminary. Dr. Michael Scott Horton and Dr. Heywel Jones, both members of the URC and seminary faculty, gave inspirational messages from the Word of God.
I traveled home with three other delegates. We marveled over the way God had worked at Synod 2001 taking some divisive issues and, instead of separating us, drawing us together. Psalm 133 begins with the words “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” Delegates to Synod 2001 got to see this verse exemplified in two very different ways. First, by moving into a new phase of fellowship with the CanRC and the RCUS. Second, by working through some very difficult issues, the federation was drawn closer together as a group of churches.
May the Lord of the Church be praised through the events that took place at Synod 2001.
Rev. W. H. Oord
CanRC Ecclesiastical Fellowship The Theme of General Synod 2001
Four times during the ten days of General Synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) in Neerlandia, the chairman, Rev. Cl. Stam of Hamilton, Ontario rose and led the body and attending audience in prayer and thanksgiving for a decision about the establishment of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with a church federation.
Having been a member of this synod it is impossible to report about it objectively. At the same time as a member of synod who has expressed hesitancy about the establishment of Ecclesiastical Fellowship, it seems appropriate to give some explanation of what Synod considered. It is no secret that all the decisions to enter into Ecclesiastical Fellowship were (eventually) unanimous.
I am sure that most, if not all, of our readers can rejoice together when they hear that the Canadian Reformed Churches have established Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the Igreja Reformadas do Brazil. This very young church federation was established on July 5, 2000. At its constituent synod it was decided to offer the relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship to the Canadian Reformed Churches. Such a decision seems very natural when we remember that the Lord used missionaries from the CanRC to spread the seed of the gospel in Brazil. Still it is wonderful to receive the offer to enter into this relationship as one of the first decisions of these very young churches. In our prayer we commended them to the Lord as they will have to continue to deal with oppression, lack of knowledge and poverty. At the same time it is wonderful to see and hear the Reformed sounds that come from such a relatively young federation. May our Lord grant them abundant blessings and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit as they continue to travel the road of faith with all the struggles and triumphs that will undoubtedly come across that path.
It was a wonderful moment at Synod Neerlandia when the CanRC’s accepted the offer of Ecclesiastical Fellowship, made in 1997, by the Reformed Churches in the United States (RCUS). It was good to have Rev. G. Syms and elder D. Stelpstra representing those churches in our midst. They have been at our synodical meetings before. They begin to know and appreciate the CanRC. The contact committee report, as well as the personal discussions for about a week at synod, confirm that there is also good appreciation for the RCUS among the CanRC. Although some significantly different practices remain between the federations, the report as well as discussions with the delegates make it very clear that the principles in those areas are the same. It can and must be said that the RCUS is a federation experiencing ongoing reformation (doorgaande reformatie). The Canadian Reformed Churches can learn from the dedication and humility displayed by the RCUS in some of the areas of difference.
Of particular note was the fact that in the RCUS not all the congregations meet in worship twice on the Lord’s Day. At the same time it became clear that in the RCUS there is great emphasis on keeping the whole Lord’s Day holy. It is not unusual to have a worship service followed by some time of fellowship, catechism instruction and Bible study. In many cases there is also the participation in a meal together. It appears that the practice of one service is a hold-over of the impracticality of the long distances some had to travel to church. At the same time it can not be denied that there are still some instances of Sunday work and going to restaurants for meals.
Something that may also need some attention in the CanRC. It is interesting to note that the report of the Comm. for Contact with the Churches in the Americas (CCCA) indicates “The RCUS has an article against the profanation of the Sunday in its constitution” (p. 53). A part of one of the considerations of Synod reads as follows: “The introduction of a second formal worship service is considered desirable, but having one formal worship service does not preclude the RCUS churches from keeping the Lord’s Day holy. The report indicates that the Biblical principles of worship, teaching and fellowship are alive and well in the RCUS.” (Acts, art. 59, 4.3)
Rev. G. Syms addressed Synod after the decision to accept the offer Ecclesiastical Fellowship had been made. Elder B.Gortemaker, a member of the Committee for Contact with the RCUS responded to the words of Rev. G. Syms. Both speeches can be found in the appendices of the Acts of Synod, soon to be available.
The contact and discussions with the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) have come to the point that both committees appointed for detailed discussions have reported progress to their respective synods this year. They have decided on a proposed plan of action and have suggested a strict time frame. Synod Neerlandia decided to accept the proposed plan, but has taken the strict time frame away from the agreement. Although Synod did consider time of the essence it also reckoned with the very real possibility that three years might be too constrictive in coming to final federative unity proposals.
The suggested rules for Phase II, called Ecclesiastical Fellowship by the URCNA, were adopted. Synod failed to adopt the term Ecclesiastical Fellowship for this phase even though the rules for Phase II are remarkably similar to our rules for such a relationship and the term is used by the URCNA. In order to deal with some particular areas that need discussion before federative unity, Synod decided to appoint a committee to discuss theological education. A separate committee will deal with discussions toward a mutual church order, while the Standing Committee for the Publication of the Book of Praise will serve as our committee to deal with discussions about the song book.
After the decisions regarding the URCNA had been approved Rev. Stienstra retired minister of the URCNA and member of their committee for contact spoke words of thankfulness and encouragement. Rev. R. Aasman responded on behalf of Synod.
With regard to relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) Synod decided, once more to offer Ecclesiastical Fellowship. According to the report of the CCCA “there is no need to address again the person, the statements, and the status of Rev. Hofford. In the meantime it would be helpful and much appreciated if our next General Synod would declare unambiguously to reject the disqualification of office bearers of the OPC as false shepherds, and to distance itself from such labelling…” (page 18 of the report).
Synod 1998 had understood there to be an agreement on the matters of fencing the Lord’s Table and Confessional Membership between the Committee for Contact with the OPC (CCOPC) and the Committee for Establishment of International Relations (CEIR). However it added some wording to ensure that it was truly understood that a verbal warning was not sufficient fencing of the Lord’s Supper Table. At the same time they added a small word to the agreement on Confessional Membership to indicate that the Confessional Membership means accountability of the church member to all the confessions of the church.
Synod Neerlandia did not stray far from the work of Synod Fergus. Rather than alter the words of the agreement between the two committees it went back to the original wording. But it did clarify in its Considerations, which form part of the decision, that the agreement Lord’s Supper.” The Consideration continues, “There is therefore agreement on the principle, while admittedly there is a difference in practice. Our concern is that both keys of the kingdom be exercised in connection with all participants at the Lord’s Table, members as well as guests.”
With regard to Confessional Membership Synod considered, in part, “The office bearers of the OPC have a responsibility in dealing with the members of the Church to uphold the doctrine of the Church, and the members, according to this fourth vow [of the OPC Form for Public Profession of Faith – PdB], are accountable to that authority.”
In addition to the foregoing the decision to extend Ecclesiastical Fellowship to the OPC also contains the following statement regarding the Church: “Both the CanRC and the OPC reject the legitimacy of the pluriformity of the church (see Biblical Principles of the Unity of the Church @ www.opc.org/relations/unity.html).”
Member of the CEIR and retired minister of the OPC, Rev. G.I. Williamson addressed Synod after the decisions regarding the OPC had been made. Rev.J.deGelder, member of the CCOPC responded on behalf of Synod.
Other highlights of synod include the following:
– Rev. L.Bilkes of the Free Reformed Churches of North America stopped by for an afternoon and addressed Synod on behalf of his church federation. Rev. B.Slomp, advisory member of Synod (being chairman of the Consistory of the hosting church), responded on behalf of Synod.
-Regional Synod East overtured Synod to establish a study committee about whether women should vote for office bearers in the local congregations. The main new ground they brought forward was that the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands had recently decided to allow such a practice. It was also pointed out that women have been voting for a long time in the Free Church of Scotland. This overture, thus, falls in line with the Ecclesiastical Fellowship theme. It appears that some in the CanRC want to introduce new practices on the basis that they are present in church federations with which they have that fellowship. Synod decided not to establish such a committee.
-Synod mandated all the contact committees with federations who maintain the Westminster Standards to re-introduce the discussions of the “divergencies” between those Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. A listing of those divergences can be found in the Acts of Synod 1971, Appendix, pp. 64-71 and Acts of Synod 1986, p.151.
– Synod appointed Rev. G. H. Visscher of Burlington, ON as professor in New Testament Studies to replace the retiring Prof. J.Geerstsema.
-In response to an appeal from a brother and sister with regard to the use of juice at the Lord’s Supper Table, Synod decided “that Regional Synod was incorrect in not interacting more closely with the clear and consistent language of our confessions, which indicate that the norm is to use wine at the Lord’s Supper.
Synod lasted ten days in total. A brotherly spirit was maintained throughout. And no amount of praise could sufficiently describe the wonderful care that was taken by the ladies of the Church of Neerlandia to provide for the delegates. May the work of Synod Neerlandia be used by God to further the coming of the kingdom of His Son through the working of the Holy Spirit.
Mr. Pete De Boer is a member of Canadian/American Reformed Church in Abbotsford, B.C, and editor of Reformed Polemics, and delegate to the CanRC Synod.