The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) is scheduled to meet for its annual session from June 11–21, 1996, on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The session will be preceded by a prayer service on the previous evening in the Seymour CRC of Grand Rapids. When the synod officially convenes, 2 elders and 2 pastors from each of the 46 classes, for a total of 184 delegates, will be seated to discuss and decide the matters before them.
A cursory look at the Agenda Synod 1996 might suggest that this year’s meeting should not be a lengthy one. There are very few reports. And even thought there are some significant issue before this synod, it may well be that the synod will not make any major changes in the current direction of the denomination and avoid the heated debates of the past several years.
In this brief article, I will focus first on matters of some interest contained in the reports of the various agencies of the CRC. Then will follow some comments on the study reports. And lastly, I will give a summary of the overtures that are being placed before the synod. Page references are all to the Agenda for Synod 1996.
The Board of Trustees is the governing board of the CRC. By decision of Synod 1995, the Board of Trustees is proposing guidelines for the appointment and function of ethnic advisers to synod. Up to 7 such persons from various ethnic or minority groups will serve synod beginning this year—much like seminary professors serve as advisers. From other agency reports as well as the major study report coming to this synod, it is clear that there is a great deal of focus at the present time on incorporating persons from non-white, non-Dutch backgrounds in the life and ministry of the denomination.
The Board of Trustees also reports that up to now, 11 classes have declared the word “male” inoperative in Church Order Article 3-a, thereby permitting women to be ordained as ministers by dassis and women elders to be delegated to dassis meetings. [That number has since risen to 13.]
The Trustees have also decided that none of the denominational agencies be allowed an increase in ministry shares, or quotas, for 1997.
One issue that will no doubt raise some debate and opposition at synod is that the Trustees are recommending that all the denominational boards, except for Calvin College, be composed of 16 regional representatives and no more than 5 at-large members. This will do away with the present arrangement of classical representation on the boards.
The Back to God Hour, the radio and broadcasting ministry of the CRC, reports that there has been a major turnover of personnel at the BGH in the last 5 years. “Retirements have brought about position vacancies in four of the major language groups” [p.65]. Dr. Calvin Bremer has replaced Dr. Nederhood as director of ministries. Rev. Bassam Madany of the Arabic-language ministry and Rev. Aaron Kayayan of the French-language ministry have also retired.
Calvin College projects an enrollment for 1996–1997 of 4,205 students—a large increase. Tuition and room and board costs also continue to rise [$15,815 per student for 96–97], raising the concern of whether many middle-income families can continue to afford higher Christian education for their children.
Calvin Seminary also reports a record enrollment of 257 students. The seminary board regrets that it has no ethnic-minority member on its board.
CRC Publications informs synod that the number of subscribers to The Banner continued to decline in 1995. The number stood at 36,746 in 1994, 35,306 in 1995, and was 33,056 on January 1, 1996. The Publications Board has set up a “Future of The Banner Task Force” to study this decline. One reason subscribers have given is that they do not like the stand of The Banner on issues and that it is too liberal. Hopefully this reason will be seriously considered.
A subcommittee of CRC Publications is the CRC Worship Committee which was given the mandate by Synod 1994 to “provide gender-sensitive language to name and describe persons in the translations of the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort, provided the theological intent is not altered” [pg 84). The Worship Committee is presenting the results of its work to this year’s synod and recommending adoption of the changes in the translation of these two creeds as they are printed in the Agenda for Synod, pp. 91–123.
This whole matter raises many questions and concerns. Words like “man” are replaced by “human beings,” “he” and “his” by “they” and “theirs.” Even the Bible quotes are not taken from the NIV in many cases, because the NIV retains these supposedly “male” pronouns. When the Belgic Confession states about Christ in Article 19 that He is “true God and true man,” the committee suggests changing that to “truly God and truly human.” However, was Jesus sexless? Wasn’t he a man on earth? “Gender-sensitive” language sounds nice, but it is really the product of feminist ideology. It is a step on the way to adopting a “gender-neutral” Bible which is not neutral, but anti-Biblical in its presuppositions.
Christian Reformed Home Missions and World Missions both report declines in financial support, including the amount received from ministry shares. The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee also indicates declining support. Churches are putting more of their resources into local ministries and are less committed to the denomination.
The Pastoral Ministries Committee recommends the addition of another question to be asked church councils under Church Order Article 41, inquiring into whether the church building and church activities are accessible to persons with disabilities.
The Pensions and Insurance Board has also experienced the decline in ministry-share giving, and is recommending to synod that, beginning in 1998, the funding of ministers’ pensions be by direct assessment of all churches instead of by ministry shares.
The Interchurch Relations Committee [IRC] reports on several important matters pertaining to the CRCs relationship to other denominations. Our relationship to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands [Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN)] is a matter of grave concern at present. Synod 1995 decided not to terminate our ecclesiastical ties to the GKN, but did express deep concern over positions and trends in the GKN. By the time Synod 1996 meets, a delegation from the IRC will have met with representatives of theGKN to discuss the CRC’s disturbance over the Dutch church’s stands on homosexuality, the authority of Scripture, and other matters. A report on this meeting will no doubt be presented to synod.
Ironically, while the CRC is concerned about where the GKN is going other Reformed and Presbyterian bodies are concerned about where the CRC is headed.
Another denomination in the Netherlands—the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands [Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (CGKN)]” decided to break ecclesiastical ties with the CRC last October, declaring “that it is saddened to see the Christian Reformed Church deviate more and more from the authentic, Reformed path and follow a new direction” [p.189].
The Reformed Churches inSouth Africa (RCSA) are still in communication with us, even though our ties are officially suspended, and also wish to discuss with us more about our “hermeneutical stance on certain issues” [p.190].
The Reformed Churches of New Zealand have also suspended ties with the CRC because of our recent decisions on women-in-office, creation/evolution, and other matters.
The General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] adopted a decision in June 1995, stating their desire to remain in fellowship with us, but also “we are grieved and distressed over the action of the 1995 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church to permit women to hold the offices of minister and elder. Furthermore we have instructed our Interchurch Relations Committee to use all due process afforded them in NAPARC to remove the Christian Reformed Church from membership in NAPARC, if the Christian Reformed Church does not repent of and rescind the action at the Synod” [pp.191–192].
All of these statements and decisions clearly indicate that the CRC is being looked upon as no longer the staunchly Biblical and Reformed church body it once was. It should give the CRC serious pause as it ponders its past actions and future course.
STUDY COMMITTEE REPORTS
There are only two study committee reports being presented to the Synod of 1996. And only one of them deals with a theological issue. It is the report of a committee with the lengthy name “Committee to Articulate Biblical and Theological Principles for the Development of a Racially and Ethnically Diverse Family of God.”
This Committee was apPointed by Synod 1992 at the request of the Multiethnic Conference of 1992, which is a gathering of members and leaders from ethnic and racial minorities.
The study report cites as background previous decisions of CRC synods on race, the outreach of the CRC to non-Dutch and non-white groups—such as OUT missions to the Navaho and Zuni peoples, and the establishment of the Synodical Committee on Race Relations (SCORR), which is still functioning.
Currently, according to the report, the CRC includes an estimated 15,000 persons among its 300,000 members, or 5%, who are ethnic-minority members. Interestingly however, 7,000 of these ethnic-minority members are of one group—Koreans. The CRC has some 50 Korean congregations [pp.216–217].
After offering background information, the study committee devotes the bulk of its report to enunciating “Biblical and theological principles” related to race and ethnicity. It divides these along the three-fold scheme of Creation – Fall – New Creation. A basic concept running through the entire report is that God has created both diversity and unity in the universe—and this is also reflected in the human race. Both diversity and unity are good. We must respect diversity, but must not allow it to destroy unity. This is certainly true for God’s people who are one in Christ, though they are of different races and ethnic groups.
Overall, the report gives us a good Biblical overview and framework.
Some specific questions do arise. For example, when the report states that the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel “is not meant to be an explanation of the origin of various languages and cultures,” and denies that “the existence of different languages and cultures is the result of sin” [p.225], one wonders what the basis for these statements is. Would there have been different languages, such as we have today, if Adam and Eve had never sinned?
The study report concludes with a set of recommendations, urging both adoption of its Biblical and theological principles and practical ways to implement what they imply for our church life. Two recommendations [C, 2; F, 1) raise the question of whether they are advocating some kind of quota system for inclusion of ethnic-minority persons on eRe boards and committees. Hence, one overture [Overture 49] asks synod to reject the idea of “equitable representation” suggested in these recommendations.
The second study committee report comes from a committee assigned by Synod 1995 to design a one-week meeting plan for synod. This arises from the feeling that a two-week synod, as presently held, limits delegate participation to those who can afford or arrange for such a length of time away from their jobs.
The study report outlines a possible synodical meeting from a Saturday to Saturday. It suggests various ways to streamline and shorten the work of synod. Then it recommends adoption of such a one-week meeting by synod for 1997 through 2,000, when it is to be reviewed.
The Agenda for Synod 1996 includes 77 Overtures, several Appeals, and 4 Communications from classes, councils and individuals.
The matters raised in all of these Overtures cannot be dealt with extensively. But I will summarize and group their major concerns.
Women-in-office. The issue of women-in-office will once again be on this synod’s docket. I counted 32 overtures and 2 communications which all bear on the women-in-office decision of Synod 1995. 14 of these come from classes, 18 from church councils and 2 from individual church members.
Almost all these overtures, understandably, ask synod to somehow undo the decision of Synod 1995 which allowed classes and churches to decide for themselves whether they wish to allow women to serve as elders and ordain them as pastors by declaring the word “male” in Church Order Article 3 “inoperative.” Several restrictions were placed on women chosen to these offices.
And the whole matter is not to be considered again at the synodical level until the year 2,000. This, in short, was synod’s decision last year.
What kind of responses to this decision are being placed before this year’s synod?
Let me list and summarize them:
1. Synod 1995’s decision violated the Church Order requirement in Article 29 that a previous synodical decision is binding unless it is proved contrary to the Word of Cod or the Church Order. Synod 1994’s decision denying women the right to be elders and ministers was never proven contrary to Scripture.
2. Synod 1995 violated Church Order Art. 47 which requires synods to provide churches opportunity to consider changes in the Church Order or in other major matters before finally adopting them.
3. Synod 1995 undermined and circumvented the Church Order by allowing classes and churches to disregard an article by declaring its provision “inoperative.”
4. Synod 1995 has basically said that two opposing viewpoints—the Bible permits women in church office and the Bible does not permit women in church office—to be both Biblically acceptable. How can that be? One overture [Overture 12] asks synod to appoint a study committee to provide Biblical grounds for both of these positions.
5. Synod should repent of its disobedience to God’s Word and rescind its action of 1995. The Bible clearly forbids women-in-office.
6. Synod should now allow churches who are against women-in-office to join classes where their convictions are shared. This idea came out of the Inter-Classical Conference held in Chicago in November, 1995. It would permit churches to align themselves according to their theological stance on this and other issues.
7. Synod 1995 cannot bind future synods by saying a matter cannot be considered until a certain time in the future.
8. Synod 1995’s decision has caused a breach in our relationship to other denominations, especially those in NAPARC.
The above are some of the main arguments presented in the various overtures. They are, quite obviously, weighty arguments.
Yet, they are not all new. And it will be telling to see what Synod 1996 will do with these overtures. It could face them squarely and answer them on their merits. Or, it could in one short sweeping decision put them all under the rug and wipe them off the synodical agenda on the ground that they present nothing new, or on the ground that—as Synod 1995 decided—we should leave the matter alone and not debate it until the year 2,000.
Relations with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands [GKN]. As indicated above, the ecclesiastical relationship of the CRC to the GKN, is at a very strained point; one can even say at a crossroads. The CKN has for some years become increasingly liberal and heretical in its doctrine and practice. It no longer holds firmly to the divine inspiration and authority of all of Scripture. It tolerates theologians who deny the historicity of the Fall and the substitutionary atonement by Christ. More recently, it permits practicing homosexuals to be members in good standing and even hold office in the church. The GKN is also considering whether evangelism to the Jews is necessary, since they may be saved apart from faith in Christ.
While the Interchurch Relations Committee is expressing the CRC’s deep concerns over these positions, some classes and churches wish more specific and immediate action. 8 overtures are coming to this year’s synod asking it to deal more decisively with the GKN. 6 of these overtures are asking synod to terminate our ecclesiastical fellowship with the GKN. 2 of the overtures are suggesting strict curtailment of our fellowship or immediate suspension of it.
Homosexuality. 3 overtures pertain to how the CRC deals with homosexual persons. 2 ask synod to declare that confessing members who condone or affirm homosexual practice—even if they themselves are not homosexual—are subject to the diScipline of the church. Another overture wishes synod to update its guidelines for pastoral care of homosexual members.
Classical Representation on Boards. 3 classes are overturing synod to allow denominational boards and committees to retain the practice of having one delegate from each classis on their board instead of having regional representatives. This is in response to the recommendation of the Board of Trustees, cited above, mandating all boards to adopt regional representatives.
Miscellaneous. Classis Lake Erie wants synod to terminate CRC membership in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council [NAPARC). Since some churches in NAPARC have expressed concern over the direction of the CRC and possible expulsion of it, Lake Erie wishes the CRC to leave before it is expelled. leaving NAPARC would also send a certain message, however, that we no longer wish to be united with churches that share our Reformed and Biblical heritage, and want the CRC to remain faithful to it. It would also indicate we are too proud to listen to the spiritual concerns and warnings of fellow Christians and churches.
Classis Lake Erie also wishes synod to appoint a committee to revise the guidelines on abuse, primarily on the ground that these guidelines do not do justice to the rights of those accused of committing abuse.
Classis Greater Los Angeles wants synod to approve the formation of a Korean-speaking classis from churches in their classis and Classis California South. Actually, this is a request from the Korean churches themselves.
Classis of the Heartland wants synod to approve the New King James Version of the Bible as acceptable for use in CRC worship services.
Classis Wisconsin wants synod “to declare that the book Christian Faith, Health, and Medical Practice presents a position on abortion contrary to the position of the Christian Reformed Church” [p. 315], and that Dr. Hessel Bouma must bring his position on abortion into compliance with the CRC’s position.
The above is by no means exhaustive of what Synod 1996 will have to do, discuss and decide. My focus has been mainly on issues which the synod must confront. Our desire and prayer for all the delegates is that they may be given the wisdom of God and be submissive to the leading of His Spirit through His Word.
Rev. James Admiraal is pastor of First CRC in Prinsburg, MN.