The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church will meet for its annual session, beginning on June 14, with a prayer service for synod to be held the previous evening in the Westview CRC of Grand Rapids, Michigan. As usual, synod will meet on the campus of Calvin College. Delegates from 46 classes will attend—2 ministers and 2 elders from each classis, which will make a total of 184 official delegates.
What follows is a brief summary of what will be on synod’s agenda this summer, taken from the published Agenda for Synod which by this time should be in the hands of all church councils. The Agenda is divided into three main sections. The first part of some 200 pages is devoted to reports from the various agencies and standing committees of the denomination. Then there is a brief section of only 10 pages, in which Denominationally Related Agencies—all of them institutions of higher Christian education—give brief reports. And the third section consists of Overtures and Communications, of which there are 74 altogether.
A general overview of the Agenda for Synod quickly reveals that this year’s synod will be pre-occupied with one main issue: women-in-office. This is not to minimize other matters and reports with which synod will be dealing. But it’s interesting, perhaps telling, that there are no study committee reports at all coming before this synod. There are some other significant issues raised in the standing committee reports and the overtures. But it appears that the focus of this synod will be once again on the issue that has “dogged” the denomination for over 20 years—women in church office. I will save my comments on this issue for the last part of this article.
DENOMINATIONAL AGENCIES AND STANDING COMMITIEES
First let me take some selected items from the reports of the agencies and standing committees of the denomination.
Board of Trustees: This board used to be known as the Synodical Interim Committee (SIC). Its report indicates that there are quite a few denominational executives who are either retiring or leaving their positions for other employment. Included among them is Rev. Leonard Hofman who for many years has served as general secretary (or Stated Clerk) of the CRC. The person whom the board recommends to synod as his replacement is Dr. David Engelhard, currently Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Seminary. Also leaving will be Mr. Harry VanderMeer, denominational financial coordinator; Mr. Bing Goei, the executive director of SCORR; Rev. Harold Bode, executive director of the Chaplain Committee; and Dr. Ray Vander Weele, the pension and insurance office administrator.
The Board of Trustees made a study of the denomination’s support of smaller churches through the Fund for Smaller Churches Committee. It sees a number of stresses on the present system—among them the increasing financial demands on the denomination for continuing the support of smaller churches. The trustees are therefore recommending that all ministry-assistance grants from FSC are to be for a five-year maximum period. Various regulations and guidelines are spelled out for churches to be eligible for FSC support. The Fund for Smaller Churches Committee endorses the recommendations of the Board of Trustees.
The Trustees are also recommending that synod combine five of the smaller agencies -the Committee for Disability Concerns, the Chaplain Committee, the Pastor-Church Relations Committee, SCORR, and the Committee on Abuse Prevention into one agency, to be called the Pastoral-Ministries Agency.
Back to God Hour: The Board reports that Rev. Bassam Madany has retired as minister for the Arabic-language ministry of the BGH. He is being succeeded by Rev. Nassar Yassa, an Egyptian who moved to the United States in 1987.
Calvin College: Dr. Anthony Diekema, president of the college, has indicated he will retire in 1996. Calvin’s enrollment stands at 3,730 students. Tuition and room and board are increasing by $900 for the 1994–1995 academic year. One wonders about this hefty increase (6.9%) when inflation is much lower generally and enrollment projections are up quite sizably.
CRC Publications: Banner circulation is stated as being 36,300, down from 38,000 last year and a high of 52,000 in 1984. The largest publishing project is the new church school curriculum for preschool through sixth grade called LiFe (Living in Faith Everyday). It will be available for the Fall of this year. It will demand more personal sharing on the part of the teachers than the present curriculum. The fifth/sixth grade material includes a contemporary abbreviated version of the Heidelberg Catechism, somewhat like the Compendium of years past. The Worship Committee of the CRC Publications Board has developed a new baptism form and nine new Lord’s Supper forms which can be adapted by the churches. These are being recommended, along with some guidelines, for use by the churches. It’s also interesting to note that 61% of sales of CRC publications are to non-CRC churches.
Board of Home Missions: In reporting on evangelistic growth, the Board notes an increasing number of persons coming into the CRC through evangelism – 2,766 in the first nine months of 1993. Sobering, however, is the loss of many members who have left the CRC for independent churches and other denominations—so that the CRC experienced an overall decline of 10,882 persons in 1993. Total CRC membership, according to the 1994 Yearbook, stands at 300,320. The goal of “400,000 by 2,000” seems more remote than ever. But then, should we set numerical goals in the first place?
Christian Reformed World Missions: The CRC currently supports 112 long-term missionaries in 29 countries. There are now 12 Christian Reformed Churches in Cuba where attendance has grown from fewer than 1,000 to over 7,000 persons in the last three years. There may also be as many as 100 million Christians in China. And the Philippine CRC now has over 100 organized and emerging churches with some 8,500 members. Praise God that He is gathering His elect throughout the world. Note where the growth is—not in the secularized West, where even once “solid” churches are declining, but in the once “benighted” lands of Africa, Asia, and South and Central America, where many are responding to the gospel.
Pastor-Church Relations Committee: The committee reports that the CRC is facing a shortage of pastors. The number of vacant churches stands at around 120, and I hear the number is increasing. It also reports that in 1993, 33 ministers were separated from their churches, including 22 pastors who left the denomination for independent churches. The committee, in consultation with the Committee on Abuse Prevention, was mandated by Synod 1993 to come up with “a clear code of professional conduct for clergy which addresses issues of sexual and emotional abuse and other abuses of power in a congregation.” The committee is submitting such a code to Synod 1994. It includes guidelines for pastors to follow in their professional work and conduct.
Pensions and Insurance: The committee overseeing ministers’ pensions and insurance matters reports that as of December 31, 1993, the pension fund had assets valued at $68,212,000.
Synodical Committee on Abuse Prevention: This committee was appointed by Synod 1992 to educate, identify resources, and develop a prevention and treatment program for the denomination in dealing with physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Its report to Synod 1994 includes guidelines for churches in dealing with abuse by church leaders, as well as sections dealing with forgiveness by those who have been abused, chaos· ing a therapist, and pastoral care of survivors and offenders. The committee is also requesting that synod appoint a full-time staff person to serve as an “Abuse-Prevention Coordinator.” This request was turned down by Synod 1992 for financial reasons.
The Committee on Abuse Prevention offers some good counsel in its report, but also manifests a certain feminist bias and agenda. It states, for instance: “We must acknowledge that the institutional church has for centuries supported a view of the relationship between men and women and between fathers and children, which, in effect, gives implicit permission to abuse and then supports the abuser because of his position in the family and the church.” This is not only a strong indictment, but a gross and false generalization. One wonders what “view” the committee has in mind which the church has supported that allows abuse.
A little further in its report, the committee states: “We need a radical change in our thinking about relationships between men and women and between parents and children, and we need changes in church polity and practice.” One again wonders at what changes the committee is hinting.
As to the appointment of an “Abuse-Prevention Coordinator,” one can think of many other problems in the church which need attention, such as alcohol and drug abuse or marital and divorce problems. Should we appoint coordinators for those problems as well?
Youth-Ministry Committee: This is another recently-established committee of the CRC, having been appointed by Synod 1991. It serves to emphasize and promote ministry to youth in the denomination at all levels. In this year’s report, the committee is asking synod to “endorse the relational model for youth ministry.” This “relational model” is spelled out in word and diagram form in an appendix. I found it rather theoretical and complex (not untypical, however, of what many committees propose). This committee works closely with United Calvinist Youth, which is now developing a junior-high coed ministry.
Interchurch Relations Committee: This committee deals with our relationships to other denominations with whom we have special ties and with various ecumenical organizations. The report mentions that the committee will recommend to Synod 1995 whether or not the CRC should sever ties with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN). It also comments at length on the status of our relationship with the Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA). The eRC suspended ecclesiastical fellowship with the RCSA in 1989—over the issue of apartheid—and extended this suspension in 1992 until 1995. The committee reports: “The RCSA has been deeply hurt and offended by our action to suspend relations. A resumption of our ecclesiastical fellowship will be very difficult.” South African President F.W. De Klerk is a member of the RCSA. I find it both sad and ironic that we suspended fellowship with the RCSA—which is still firmly committed to the Reformed Confessions to which we hold—while we remain in fellowship with the GKN—though they have long abandoned any true commitment to those confessions.
The Interchurch Relations Committee also reports that a number of churches, such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, and the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), have all expressed concerns about our stand on women-in-office.
The last part of the Agenda for Synod 1994 deals with overtures and communications from classes, churches, and individuals.
There are 69 overtures printed in the Agenda. Of these, 49 deal with the issue of women-in-office. I will come to those later in this article. But first, let me report on what is contained in some of the other overtures.
Classis California South urges Synod to require that any change in the Church Order approved by synod must be ratified by two-thirds of all the classes before it goes into effect. The grounds for this overture appear pretty convincing.
Classis of the Heartland (formerly Orange City) requests synod to appoint a study committee to review and revise our present practice of examining ministerial students for candidacy. It wants this examination to be done by the student’s home classis. The classis also wishes synod to revise the requirement that students spend at least one year of study at Calvin Seminary.
Classis Lake Erie wishes synod to revise the Church Order in such a way that evangelists can be ordained to work not only in emerging congregations, but also within established congregations alongside the minister of the Word. Two overtures deal with the issue of naming God with feminine nouns or pronouns (such as calling God “Mother” or referring to God as “she”). Both overtures—one from Classis Hudson, the other from Classis of the Heartland—want synod to declare that speaking of or to God in this fashion is contrary to Scripture and the Confessions. The study of this matter by Classis Hudson is very thorough and convincing. This overture also does not hesitate to cite specific persons by name in our denomination or involved in its ministry who have named God with feminine nouns and pronouns. It wants synod to declare that such persons cannot serve in the CRC or its institutions. These overtures will undoubtedly occasion vigorous responses. But they touch on a crucial issue of Biblical faithfulness and whether the denomination will permit feminist theology to enter it.
On a related matter, Classis Minnesota North is overturing synod to provide gender-sensitive language in the translations of the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort, “provided the theological intent is not altered.”
Classis Chicago South wants synod to reinstitute the family count in reporting membership and for calculating ministry shares. Trinity CRC of Anchorage, Alaska, wishes to do away with ministry share giving altogether and replace it with giving guidelines to indicate the needs of the denominational ministries.
Two overtures address the issue of homosexuality. Synod 1973 adopted several statements of pastoral advice on homosexuality in which it distinguished “homosexuality” from “homosexualism.” “Homosexuality” is a “condition of disordered sexuality which reflects the brokenness of our sinful world and for which the homosexual may himself bear only a minimal responsibility.” “Homosexualism” is “explicit homosexual practice (which) must be condemned as incompatible with obedience to the will ofGod as revealed in Holy Scripture.”
An overture from Classis Atlantic Northeast wishes “synod to declare ministers who are homosexuals to be ineligible to remain or become ministers of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church.”
An overture from Classis of the Heartland goes more deeply into the issue of homosexuality and questions the distinction made by Synod 1973 between “homosexuality” and “homosexualism.” Particularly, the classis is concerned that the statement that a homosexual may only bear “minimal responsibility” for his condition is not based on Scripture. Classis contends that homosexual desires are also sinful, even if they never lead to homosexual acts. Hence, the classis urges synod to adopt a new definition of homosexuality which reads: “Homosexuality (male and female) is a condition of disordered human sexuality, reflecting fallen human nature, manifesting itself in orientation and behavior, and including sinful desires which may lead to indecent acts of sexual impurity with members of the same sex. It is a condition for which the homosexual is responsible before God (just as all are responsible for their own sinful nature) and a condition for which the grace of God is sufficient to effect cleansing and renewal.”
The classis also asks synod to revise its statements of pastoral advice on homosexuality “so that it is clearly understood that only those homosexuals who repent of their sinful lusts and indecent acts and continually, in Christ, fight against them are to be wholeheartedly received as members of Christ’s body and coheirs of the grace of life.”
Classis of the Heartland also submits an overture on the issue of creation and evolution. Its overture asks synod to drop the two notes which were appended to Declaration F of Synod 1991’s decisions with respect to creation/evolution. Declaration F says that Scripture and our confessions rule out the espousal of all theorizing that the human race has evolutionary forbears. The notes appended to this declaration, however, said it does not pertain to private research or discussion, and that the declaration “is not intended and may not be used to limit further investigation and discussion on the origin of humanity.” The classis contends that these notes, in effect, undermine Declaration F. The classis further “overtures synod not to allow those who presently espouse the teaching of biological evolution to hold denominational teaching positions,” and to declare: “That the Scriptures rule out espousal of all evolutionary theories with respect to the origin of the universe.”
One other overture relating to previous synodical decisions and positions of the CRC comes from Classis Minnesota North. It asks synod to “reaffirm” certain positions which synods of the past have adopted and which are contained in our Reformed Confessions. The positions to be reaffirmed pertain to our view of Holy Scripture, the creation of the human race, and homosexuality.
As indicated earlier in this article, the big issue to confront the Synod of 1994 is women-in-church office, and specifically whether to ratify the decision of Synod 1993 by which it changed the Church Order to allow churches the option of nominating, electing and ordaining women to serve in the offices of elder, minister and evangelist. (Synod 1984 allowed women to serve as deacons.)
First, let me offer a brief statistical overview. There are a total of 49 overtures on this issue, plus 3 printed communications. Several classes and one church sent more than one overture on this issue, asking synod to do several things. But almost all the overtures ask Synod 1994 not to ratify the decision of Synod 1994. Only 2 classes and 1 church council and I individual express themselves clearly in favor of ratification. On the other side are 18 classes and 13 church councils and 1 individual who urge synod not to ratify the change in the Church Order which would allow women in all the church offices.
I am well aware that statistics can be used to give a distorted picture. So, in the interest of completeness and fairness, let me give this further breakdown: There are a total of 46 classes in the CRC. Of these 46, 18 are overturing synod not to allow women in all the offices; 2 are urging synod to allow it; 9 classes rejected overtures from councils which urged non-ratification—which could be interpreted that these classes are for ratification (I say “could”); that leaves 17 classes which are not addressing Synod 1994 on the issue, and it could be claimed that they are either for what Synod 1993 decided or indifferent to it or could still be against.
However the statistics line up is, of course, not the key criterion for how the issue should be decided. I mention it for information. However, it certainly does have some significance—we could even say, great significance—that a sizable number of classes of the denomination are not in favor of going ahead with women in all the offices. This issue remains one of great concern to the churches, although it has been discussed year after year. We are still deeply divided over it. And it has and continues to seriously threaten the unity of the CRC. And in this, we are not alone. Virtually all denominations which have dealt with this issue have experienced trouble, discord and defections as a result of it. A case in point is the Church of England which recently allowed women into their priesthood -but not without much strife and the potential of thousands of priests leaving the church.
But as to the 49 overtures coming to the CRC Synod of 1994 on the issue, what more can be said than what has already been said through the last years?
The 2 classes and 1 council urging synod to proceed with ratification present nothing new, but just urge synod not to delay ratification any longer.
The 18 classes and 13 councils who oppose ratification do so on various grounds—many of which are not new either—particularly the Biblical grounds. They remain convinced that it is against the teaching of Scripture to ordain women to offices in the church which place them in authority over men. And yet, what more can they say than what they have always believed the Bible to say? That is, and will always remain, the basic issue. Although I must add that, how the Biblical teaching is further explained and analyzed, may offer more clarification and insight. For instance, I found the overture from Classis Northcentral Iowa (Overture 31) to be very insightful. But does this mean that the synod can simply declare all these overtures out of order because they present nothing new?
That argument will no doubt be raised at synod But it would be a tragic mistake if on that basis, synod would summarily dismiss the overtures of 18 classes and 13 councils. If synod is truly concerned about the unity of the church, it must be ready to listen once again to what so many of its classes, churches and members believe and think.
It should be added that the overtures against ratification do present some other grounds which are new. These are not the Scriptural grounds, but the Church Order grounds which are contained in many of these overtures. These latter grounds contend that Synod 1993 violated the Church Order, Articles 29 and 31. Obviously those are in the nature of the case new grounds, since they have never been raised before. Whether or not synod agrees with those grounds, it has to address them as new grounds and decide whether Synod 1993 did indeed violate the Church Order.
Article 29 of the Church Order states that: “The decisions of the assemblies shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.” Synod 1993 certainly did not prove that the decision of Synod 1992—which refused to allow women to be ordained to the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist—was in conflict with the Word of God.
Article 31 of the Church Order states that: “A request for a revision of a decision shall be submitted to the assembly which made the decision. Such a request shall be honored only if sufficient and new grounds for reconsideration are presented.” But as many of the overtures allege, on what sufficient and new grounds did Synod 1993 reconsider and alter the decision of Synod 1992?
Appeal might be made to the claim by Synod 1993 that “the 1992 decision binds the consciences of many members who are persuaded that Scripture does not forbid qualified women from serving in any ecclesiastical office.” But is that really a new ground? Hasn’t that claim been made frequently before?
Ironically, the decision of Synod 1993 has now created a problem of conscience for those opposed to women in office. That is brought out in a number of the overtures against ratification. It may sound good and kind to say that it will be left as a local option to nominate and ordain women. In other words, if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it. But how will that work in the broader assemblies? Will those opposed to women-in-office be forced to accept it at classis meetings or synodical gatherings where women will be delegated? Or must they forfeit attendance at those meetings?
It may be conceded that whatever Synod 1994 decides on this issue, it will result in further dissatisfaction and disunity in the CRC. It is my prayer and hope that the CRC will not ratify the decision of Synod 1993. For if it does, it will be heading down a road which many other churches have taken, and moving increasingly away from the Word of God. At least, that seems to be the clear pattern of all the churches which have opened all the offices to women. Which of them has grown and prospered as a result? I know of none.
To be sure, this is not the only issue which determines the direction of a church. But it is one of them. That alone makes it important.
The above summary is not inclusive of all that will come before this year’s synod. It may have omitted some other significant items. It focuses especially on issues, and does so from the perspective of the writer. I remain grateful for the many blessings of God manifested in our churches, especially in the local congregations where members continue to serve the Lord faithfully and prize His truth as taught in His Word and expounded in the Reformed Confessions. May God’s people remain committed to believing in, living by, and testifying to that truth.
Rev. Admiraal is pastor of First CRC in Prinsburg, MN, and a delegate to Synod ‘94.