The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church is scheduled to meet for its annual session from June 13–20, 1998, at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Delegates from 47 classes – 94 pastors and 94 elders – in addition to denominational personnel and advisors, will meet for a maximum of one week. The one-week session was begun last year. It begins on a Saturday, and the Prayer Service for Synod is held on Sunday, and by the following Saturday Synod should have completed its business.
Judging from the Agenda for Synod 1998 (hereafter referred simply as the Agenda), one might well conclude that this year’s Synod should have no difficulty completing its work within a week. It is one of the shortest Agendas in recent years. For example, there are no Study Committee Reports coming before this Synod, and there are only 19 overtures from classes and councils printed in the Agenda.
On the other hand, some of the issues contained in the overtures and in the reports of the denomina· tional boards and agencies are weighty, controversial, and could lead to extended debate. I will touch on some of them below.
To offer a brief summary of what is coming up at Synod, I will first glean a few matters from the reports in the Agenda, provided by the various denominational agencies. Then I will proceed to some of the issues contained in the overtures. Bracketed numbers are to pages in the Agenda.
Board of Trustees: The overall governing board of the CRC is the Board of Trustees (BOT). One the major matters it has had to deal with in the last year is the IRM Corporation problem. This problem has been well-publicized. IRM Corporation, which has invested in real estate in California, is in financial trouble and cannot at this time pay any interest or principal to its investors. Agencies of the denomination have a total of $11.4 million invested with this corporation. Christian Reformed Home Missions alone has $7.9 million in IRM. No doubt this problem will elicit a lot of questions at synod, especially the concession by the BOT that these investments were made outside of previously·established synodical guidelines. The BOT is submitting a set of more specific guidelines to govern future denominational investments.
There are also 2 overtures coming to synod in response to the IRM problem. One asks that all denominational agencies be required to offer the churches “a full detailed statement of investments” [p. 212]. The other asks for an independent committee to review and study the IRM matter. The latter overture raises another, more fundamental question: Should church agencies be investing large sums of money donated for ministry purposes, in secular causes?
Calvin Seminary: The major recommendations coming from the seminary board pertain to the appointment of two new professors. Retiring from the seminary are Professors Melvin Hugen and David Holwerda. To replace Dr. Holwerda in the area of New Testament, the seminary board recommends the appointment of Dr. Dean Deppe from Prinsburg, Minnesota. To replace Dr. Hugen in the area of Pastoral Care, the board recommends the appointment of Dr. Ronald Nydam from Denver, Colorado.
CRC Publications: Two key developments reported by this agency are the publishing of the first volume of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in the Russian language, and the switch to a biweekly publication of The Banner.
Serving under Publications is the CRC Worship Committee. This committee was assigned by Synod 1996 to study a request to approve the New King James Version of the English Bible (NKJV) as acceptable for use in worship services. The Worship Committee enlisted several Old and New Testament scholars to do this study, and based on their evaluation, the committee advises synod not to recommend the NKJV for use in worship. The grounds for this recommendation are that the NKJV is based on an inferior Greek text of the New Testament, contains many “misleading and even ungrammatical English renderings” [p. 88], and is not used widely enough in the church world. Two appendices contain further documentation.
I am not generally in favor of using a multiplicity of versions in our churches. Nor have I personally used or studied the NKJV. It is my understanding, however, that the NKJV, is basically a modernization of the KJV, doing away with many of the latter’s archaisms. If that is the case, one might think it a little inconsistent that we do allow the KJV but not the NKJV for use in worship.
Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC): The work of this committee is always significant. not only because the unity of the church is important, but because how the CRC relates to other denominations is also a measure of its own theological direction.
One of the sad developments in interchurch relations is the recommended suspension of the CRC from NAPARe. NAPARC is comprised of several conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in North America, including the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). The latter two denominations have already terminated their ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRC. All the NAPARC member churches will now be voting separately whether to remove the CRC from NAPARC. All this has resulted primarily from the CRC decisions on women-in-office.
At the same time, the IRC is continuing to dialog with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN). with whom our relations are tense. The CRC is also working to restore good relations with the Reformed Churches in South Africa (GKSA), after a time of suspension was lifted.
One recommendation from the IRC is approving the concept of “union churches” with the RCA, meaning that, under certain circumstances, a CRC congregation and RCA congregation can organize as one congregation. The committee offers guidelines for how this can be implemented and work.
The Agenda contains 19 Overtures, although no doubt more will come to synod which could not make the deadline for inclusion in the Agenda. Several of those overtures are of potentially great significance for the CRC and its future.
Revise the Form of Subscription: Classis Thornapple Valley is overturing synod to appoint a study committee to revise the Form of Subscription. The classis then proceeds to suggest three lines along which the present Form needs to be revised.
One is the statement in the Form which claims that all the articles and doctrines set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort fully agree with the Word of God. The classis takes issue with the words “fully agree,” and wants them changed, claiming that the creeds are by nature human documents and therefore not infallible. This wording, says the classis, also makes some persons sign the Form with mental reservations and others not to sign it at all, because they don’t agree with it.
A second change classis wants in the Form of Subscription is that it should distinguish as to who should promise to teach and defend the articles of our faith. Ministers, evangelists, and professors of theology should do so, but elders, deacons, and others — not trained theologically — shouldn’t be required to make this promise.
A third change the classis proposes is in the requirement of the Form that those who disagree with the doctrines of the church should not publicly or even privately advocate their views until their disagreements are properly adjudicated.
It is obvious that these kinds of changes being suggested by Classis Thornapple Valley carry many implications and if implemented would have serious consequences for the church.
The way the class is has worded its overture clearly indicates it wants not just a study committee to look into these matters, but a study committee that would actually be asked to make revisions in the Form of Subscription along the lines the classis has outlined.
Each of the points the classis makes needs to be thoroughly discussed and questioned before a study committee is mandated to make such revisions. The “bottom line” of the classis overture is quite obviously to weaken the strong commitment to our Reformed Creeds the Form of Subscription currently demands.
Abortion Statement: Classis Zeeland urges synod to make a bold statement decrying and opposing the continuing “holocaust of abortion” [p. 210]. Whereas synod has spoken on this issue before, 1998 is the 25th year since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, and abortion continues. Certainly this would be an appropriate time to again proclaim the church’s stand to our society.
Inactive Members: Classis Atlantic Northeast is proposing that for membership reporting, synod establish a third category of members, besides baptized members and confessing members — namely, “inactive members” [p. 214].
Who would be “inactive members”? They would be baptized or confessing members who have been declared by the consistory to have had no relationship with the congregation for one year due to no justifiable reason. These members would still be subject to discipline by the church. The reason for establishing the category of “inactive members,” according to classis, is that it will encourage churches to report their membership more accurately. The underlying reason, however, appears to be financial. Churches allegedly do not report their full membership because they have to pay ministry shares on a per member basis. If “inactive members” need not be counted for ministry shares, churches would report their membership more accurately.
This overture goes in the direction of the Reformed Church of America’s method of membership counting. The question is: Will it create more problems than it attempts to solve?
Question 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism: Classis Lake Erie wants Question and Answer 80 removed from the Heidelberg Catechism. This is the Q. & A. that describes the Roman Catholic mass as a “condemnable idolatry.” The classis feels this terminology is offensive to Roman Catholics who wish to join the CRe. and hinders Christian unity. Appeal is also made to changes in the Roman Catholic Church on justification by faith.
This is not the first time Q.&A. 80 has been challenged Synod 1977 decided, however, to retain it in the Heidelberg Catechism. Part of the reason given then was that the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on the mass has not changed. That reason still holds. Classis Lake Erie quotes from the Baltimore Catechism, a Roman Catholic document. It is plain, however, from the international Catechism of the Catholic Church, that the Roman Catholic Church still firmly believes that the mass is a sacrifice of Christ.
Property Division: Four Overtures are coming to synod dealing with the matter of who should get the church property when a church leaves the denomination. Synod 1997 adopted a revised Model Articles of Incorporation. The main change occurred in an article pertaining to property, which included a section of what should happen in cases of division in a church. In such an instance, the revised model states that the group which remains Christian Reformed — according to the exclusive determination of classis or synod — shall have exclusive right to the church’s property. The overtures wish synod to revise this section so as to recognize the final authority of the church council in property matters. More fundamentally, these overtures are concerned about Reformed church polity, and whether classes and synods may lord it over local church councils.
Women-in-Office: Whereas the issue of women-in-office is not on the “front-burner” of the CRC at the present time, overtures arising from this issue continue to come up, and will also at this year’s synod. One council wishes synod to review its 1995 decision opening all the offices to women, instead of waiting until the year 2000, and to undo that decision.
On the opposite spectrum is an overture which wants synod to delete its 1995 regulation that synodical agencies “not appoint women as ministers of the Word to any field of labor within their jurisdiction nor seek to have them installed by a local church” [p. 226].
In that same direction, an overture asks synod that when seminarians are declared candidates in the CRC by vote of synod, voting separately on male and female candidates not be allowed.
This has been done in the years since 1995 so that delegates conscientiously opposed to women-in-office are not compelled to vote for women to be ministers.
This latter overture shows clearly what some in the CRC are intent on: force everyone to accept women-in-office. It even compares the women-in-office issue to racial discrimination. In so doing, it shows the very lack of Christian sensitivity it accuses others of demonstrating.
As the Synod of 1998 meets, it is my prayer that it will seek God’s guidance through His Word and Spirit, and that in times of continued stress and conflict within the CRC, it will lead us to renew our commitment to love and serve Christ.
Rev. James Admiraal is pastor of the First Prinsburg (MN) Christian Reformed Church.