What Happened at the CRC Synod?

The CRC Synod 2001 is now history. It completed its work Thursday evening, June 14. Although it had a fairly light agenda, it was in many ways a pivotal synod – not because of significant changes in policy, but because of major changes in personnel particularly in Calvin Seminary. The effects of these changes will become more clear in the coming decades.

Dr. John Timmer convened the Synod Saturday morning and noted that in the context of Pentecost it is the Spirit that gives life to the church. The officers of Synod were: President, The Rev. Morris Greidanus, pastor of the 1st CRC of Grand Rapids; Vice President, The Rev. Joel Boot, pastor of the Ridgewood CRC in Jenison, Michigan; First Clerk, Elder Donald Dykstra from Classis Illiana and member of the Hammond CRC; and Second Clerk, The Rev. Henry Numan, pastor of the 1st CRC in Vancouver, B.C. The latter two were both nine time delegates to Synod. Sunday afternoon a service of Prayer and Praise was held in the Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids.

 The plenary sessions on Monday were devoted to Seminary matters. Dr. James De Jong, presi-dent of Calvin Seminary, presented 22 candidates for ministry which included four women. The students were from Russia, Cuba, The Netherlands, Canada and the United States. Since Dr. De Jong plans to retire from Calvin Theological Seminary, this would be the last time he would be introducing the candidates.

Dr. Cornelius (Neal) Plantinga, Jr. was approved Monday evening to replace Dr. De Jong as the new president of Calvin Seminary. He will take up the position on January 1, 2002. Plantinga indicated that he wanted to develop a collegial community to think together on issues facing the church and society. His desire for Calvin is to provide a classical education for contemporary ministry. He noted that the world needs the witness of Christ from the church and that the Seminary should provide an education that “models Christ”. He observed that Christ came “full of grace and truth” and that we should not separate the two and emphasize truth at the expense of grace. He hopes to structure his new responsibilities in such a way that will allow him to continue his research and writ-ing.

Rev. Duane Kelderman, copastor of the Neland Avenue CRC, was ap-proved for the new position of Vice President of Administration at the Seminary. He will assist the president and handle much of the day to day operations of the Seminary. He indicated that he would like to make the Seminary a resource for the churches.

Three other appointments were made to the faculty due to the retirements of the seminary’s chief operating officer and Professor of Missions, Dr. Roger Greenway, and Dr. Henry Zwaanstra who for some 38 years introduced generations of students to the joy of studying church history. His career set a new record for length of service on the faculty – a remarkable achievement.

Synod interviewed and appointed Rev. Pieter Tuit from Australia as Assistant Professor of Missiology and Dr. David Rylaarsdam to teach Historical Theology. Rylaarsdam is a graduate of Dordt College, Calvin Seminary and the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Mariano Avila, a native of Mexico with degrees from Juan Calvino Seminary, Calvin Seminary, Temple University, and Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) was appointed as Assistant Professor of New Testament. All appeared to be competent scholars and acquitted themselves well in their interviews. This represents a significant change in the make up of the faculty.

Official Acts of Ministry

An issue which consumed considerable time was discussion of the overture on “official acts of ministry.” Initially there were those who wanted some sort of ordination for youth workers, directors of education, music directors and other ministry staff people. Synod decided that where appropriate these may be ordained as evangelists with the approval of classis and the concurrence of the synodical deputies. According to Article 24 of the Church Order evangelists are already permitted to engage in official acts of ministry such as the preaching of the Word and the Administration of the Sacraments. In congregations where there are no ministers or evangelists, elders may be granted the right to exercise “official acts of ministry.” The General Secretary wisely noted that there was another study committee considering alternative routes to the ministry so perhaps this report could be tabled or incorporated into that report study committee’s report. Unfortunately his advice was ignored.

It should be noted that if this view of ordination prevails it will considerably diminish the significance of ordination in the life of the church. Ministerial ordination historically was closely tied to the liturgy of the church, particularly the administration of the means of grace, i.e. the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Ordination for youth workers, directors of music, etc. was never considered necessary because preaching and the sacraments belonged to the official work of the church under the supervision of the elders through ordained clergy. Ordinarily the way to ordination in the office of minister was through seminary training. Synod has now noted that “ordination is not a way of recognizing a person’s academic credentials”. That is true and Article 7 of the Church Order provided for such ordination by way of exception. However, what is omitted is that seminary training was not geared simply to provide an academic credential but to ascertain whether a person had the gifts for ministry. It was the church as a whole putting its imprimatur on such people by recommending them for call upon completion of certain academic requirements. Because of the centrality of preaching in Reformed worship the church has placed a high value on an educated clergy. What has now emerged is a kind of fundamentalist ethos on this issue. Recommendations for ordination will come from a plethora of sources. Rigorous theological training will be circumvented and since there are no set standards for ascertaining “gifts” there will emerge a wide variety of ordained persons in the churches. Certainly it will diminish the significance of ordination as well as the importance of seminary education.

Interdenominational Matters

Synod voted to enter into ecclesiastical fellowship with the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa and also with the Christian Reformed Church in Cuba. It also asked the Interchurch Relations Committee to begin exploring the possibility of renewed fellowship with the Protestant Reformed Church. This is long overdue. In fact it was even suggested from the floor of Synod that we apologize for the split of 1924.

Dr. Douwe Visser addressed Synod on behalf of the GKN (Reformed Churches in the Netherlands – RCN). The GKN is moving toward unity with the Hervormde Kerk and the Evangelical Lutheran Church (the Samen op Weg movement). For several years the CRC has had restricted fellowship with the GKN. Synod now instructed the Interchurch Relations Committee to report to Synod 2003 to either recommend restoration of full ecclesiastical fellowship or provide reasons why this would not be appropriate at this time.

Internal Matters

Two new directors were ratified for denominational agencies. Rev. Calvin Bremer was appointed executive director of the Back to God Hour and Dr. Gary Bekker as executive director of World Missions. These men were not interviewed for these positions but rather Synod ratified these appointments which were made by the Board of Trustees.

Formerly there was a fund for needy churches which assisted churches in need to maintain a witness in their communities. This was later changed to the fund for smaller churches. Currently it is administered by Home Missions. Now in order to continue receiving help churches must apply for “Heritage Church’ status. If classis declares a congregation is a Heritage Church it will receive two dollars from the denomination for every one dollar contributed by classis to maintain support for the church. Formerly size was a criteria for Heritage Church status. Synod decided this was not essential for such a designation.

Smaller churches have played an important role in the life of the denomination. They have been a source of ministers. They have provided pulpits where recent seminary graduates could be introduced to parish ministry, and have closely identified with the denomination and its causes. Keeping them viable is relatively inexpensive when compared to the cost of a new church plant. It appears, however, that Home Missions is assigning its resources to new church plants which have a very high rate of attrition. In fact the old formula of mother-daughter churches has proven to be far more successful in establishing viable churches. Instead of building on our strengths we seem to accentuate our weaknesses in this area.

When synods are described it is often in terms of the mood that seemed to prevail. Some used the words “harmonious”, “grace-filled”, “considerate”, “forward looking”, and “inclusive”. Certainly it was one of the shortest synods on record and the chairman, Rev. Morris Greidanus, should be complimented for conducting the proceedings efficiently and with good humor. But a synod cannot be evaluated only in terms of its mood, but will be ultimately measured in terms of its decisions and their impact on the church.

The ideal of being ethnically inclusive is commendable and it was good to see Native Americans, African Americans, Korean Americans and a variety of ethnic background represented as delegates. In large measure, however, we continue to think in terms of Dutch ethnicity. In a discussion on relations with the GKN one delegate referred to this denomination as our “mother” church when in fact the GKN was established some three decades after the CRC in North America broke from the RCA in 1857. While there has been a concentrated effort to shed our “Dutch” identity, we have not been as focused in maintaining a distinctively reformed identity. This has muted our witness in the cultural milieus which we encounter in North America.

With the innovation of computerized voting synod has become much more efficient. This is a welcome change although it is difficult to assess the support or lack of support for some proposals since the numbers are not announced on the tallies. With a shorter schedule the opportunity for deliberation has been curtailed. For example, some significant appointments (e.g. in World Missions and Back to God Hour) were merely ratified by the Synod without an interview. Even when there are interviews single candidates are presented to Synod. Care must be taken that Synod not become a staged event like a political convention for the benefit of the churches.

Thunder Clouds

There are certainly some thunder clouds on the horizon. One is the issue of women in office. A pane of women advisors was allowed at Synod perhaps in anticipation of the church order being changed in 2005 and women being seated as delegates. There is a “gift” theology that is being promoted as a kind of egalitarian ideal for the churches. If a person has certain gifts they are entitled to be office-bearers in the church. Gender is not a consideration.

However, when it comes to offices in the church the Scriptures do take gender into account. When confronted with passages such as 1 Corinthians 11 & 14, or I Timothy 2 there has been no compelling argument that the ordination of women to ecclesiastical office is not contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. While the votes may be in Synod to move toward women in office, the case has not been made in the churches. After six years a majority of the classes have still not ratified changing Article 3 of the Church Order. It is also true that even though there are a number of vacant pulpits, women candidates are not getting calls. There are a limited number of jobs that can be created to accommodate these women. Perceptive observers that favor women in office seem to be discovering that it is more difficult than first anticipated to change strongly held views on the authority of Scripture and dismiss a 2000 year tradition of biblical obedience. The denomination, while pressing for women in ecclesiastical office (which some think the Bible expressly forbids) paradoxically allots virtually all of its significant bureaucratic positions (e.g. Editor of the Banner, administrative heads of our schools and agencies of which the Bible says nothing) to middle aged white males with Dutch surnames.

The second cloud on the denominational horizon concerns church growth. While this synod may have ushered in the new millennium as an era of good feeling we cannot escape the undeniable fact that the denomination is not growing appreciably and, in fact, over the past decade has experienced a considerable decline in church membership. There are three reasons for this. The first is the exodus of individuals and congregations for the United Reformed Churches. The second is the fact that we are not keeping our children. The third is our inability to compensate for these losses through our mission and evangelism programs. We cannot escape taking a good hard look at these matters in the future.

The third cloud on the horizon is the state of the pulpit ministry, the calling of the local pastor. The pulpit ministry is no longer being viewed as an honorable and attractive vocation and calling. Many of our brightest and best young men are choosing careers in medicine or law or business while our pulpits go begging to be filled. Increasingly our churches will suffer from a lack of dynamic reformed preaching and effective pastoral care.

How can we address the gathering storm? This is a question that does not admit of an easy answer. The first thing we must do is to think corporately and critically about the future. If Synod evolves into the business meeting for the denominational structures we must develop alternative deliberative forums. There once was vigorous dialogue in publications such as the Reformed Journal, Torch and Trumpet and the Banner. Reformed Journal ceased publication, Torch and Trumpet (now The Outlook) greatly enlarged its denominational purview, and the Banner has become a kind of People Magazine for the denominational Dutch sub-culture. Virtually all of the material emanating from the denomination comes from public relations departments and can hardly be considered models of intellectual objectivity. We need a new ethos, we need to get beyond our feelings and reassert a reformed intellectual heritage that was theologically focused and biblically informed Secondly, we should not get side tracked. We need a clearer understanding of what the church is about and we need more focus in pursuing the basic tasks of the church, of proclaiming the Scriptures as the whole council of God, disseminating the good news of salvation by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to reaffirm the church’s role as the guardian of the holy sacraments and we need to be faithful in the painful and difficult task of exercising ecclesiastical discipline. To assist in this the denomination is a servant of the churches. The churches are not servants of the denomination.

Also, the denomination must beware of becoming side tracked by special interest groups. For example, historically the denomination has allocated its resources in carrying out its task into two major areas, education (primarily Calvin College and Seminary) and missions (primarily foreign missions since home missions were considered classical matters). In the last four decades we have supported committees for Abuse Prevention, Disability Concerns, Race Relations, Social Justice and Hunger Action. We have a board of publications, manage a pension fund, have a committee to stay in contact with the Canadian government, manage a foundation, have a youth ministry committee and the list seems to be getting longer every year. That is not to suggest that these concerns are unimportant. The questions we have failed to confront are whether the denomination allocating its resources to address these various causes becomes side tracked from its primary calling. Could these concerns be addressed by other Christian organizations than the denomination? The bureaucracy cannot keep expanding without confronting these questions.

Finally, we must recognize that the Lord of the Church will accomplish his ends and his purposes. That was evident in a moving presentation of the work in Sierra Leone by Rev. Paul Kortenhoven, a long-time missionary in this troubled country in West Africa. The civil strife there brought indescribable suffering, but through it all is the confidence that the Lord will preserve his church. Clouds on the horizon can bring refreshing rain or devastating hail. Calvinists know that they are the Lord’s clouds, it is the Lord’s rain, and it is the Lord’s hail. Our responsibility is to be faithful. That is the measure by which the success of Synod will ultimately be judged by the Head of the Church.

Rev. Richard Blauw of First Christian Reformed Church in South Holland, Ill. served as a delegate to Synod.