What Must the Church Declare?

One of the current synodical study committees of the Christian Reformed Church has a mandate “to provide the church’s membership with guidelines for making ethical decisions about war. The committee shall, inter alia, (a) take account of previous synodical decisions, especially the Report on the Problem of War (Acts of Synod 1964, pp, 312–316) and the actions of other denominations of Reformed persuasion, (b) provide pastoral counsel for those who arc conscientiously opposed to all war, (c) study the responsibilities of councils, classes, and Synod of the church in helping its members to determine whether a specific war is just or unjust” (Acts 1973, p. 70).

This synodical recommendation lists two grounds. One of these is to the effect that synodical actions of 1939, 1969, and 1972 do not provide guidelines for making ethical decisions about war for those individuals who have real difficulties about participating in a certain war. The other ground is that there are some in our fellowship who are conscientiously opposed to all war, and these look to the church for further guidance. These grounds evidently bore sufficient weight for Synod 1973 to appoint a study committee. It should be added that the Report on the Problem of War of 1964, listed above, was written to provide some guidelines, but it was never adopted by Synod. Needless to say, said committee has a gigantic task if it is going to do meaningful work.

Statements On War

A Testimony Regarding the Christian’s Attitude toward War and Peace was adopted by Synod 1939 and was reaffirmed in 1969. This in general is an excellent declaration on the Christian’s attitude toward war. I recall how it was occasioned at the time by the pacifism of such liberal church leaders as Harry Emerson Fosdick and Ralph W. Sockman. The statement breathes a stand against that brand of pacifism, referring to Romans 13:1–7, and Article 36 of the Belgic Confession.

This Testimony was reaffirmed in 1969 when there was considerable opposition to the Indo-China war, and then we were urged to “extend Christian love and concern to all the draft eligible, including those who struggle with the decision regarding selective conscientious objection and its consequences” (Acts 1969, p. 99).

At the 1969 Synod there was a certain spirit of conciliation to various voices in our denomination that denounced the war in the Far East as an unjust war. Somehow the idea was given that these were born of a sincere conscientiousness together with a super-sensitive spirituality about the horrors of war. Consequently we had to bend toward them and give an open ear to their objections. There was not much of an effort made to answer these voices from the Word of God.

The Amnesty Decision

This was a step in the wrong direction on the part of Synod 1973. By such an unwise decision the Synod of 1973 has lessened the distance between us and the World Council of Churches. The reason for favoring amnesty for those who acted as they did is given “by reason of their Christian conscientious objection to the Vietnam conflict” (Acts 1973, p. 80). The decision goes out of its way to favor these objectors by urging the President to grant amnesty “at the earliest opportunity” to those who “are in exile, at large, incarcerated, or deprived of full rights of citizenship.” It speaks about “respect for individual conscience, in the interest of national reconciliation, and in the name of Christian love and justice.”

All this sound pious and humane, but what about those who have convictions about honoring Romans 13? What about those who fought in Vietnam and had convictions about defending people against Communism? Does Christian conscientiousness apply only to the objectors? Are not the military heroes and patriots of America interested in national reconciliation also? How about some “love and justice” for them? I regret with all my heart and soul that the Synod of the church I love has put that kind of pressure on the President of the United States of America!

Oh I know the decision concludes with: “This request does not’ dishonor, but respects the consciences of those who fought and died.” However, such an ineffective sentence is not worthy of a Synod. It is like giving one boy a sucker to stay home while the other lad is taken to a fine restaurant for a steak dinner. The impression is given that it is a bit naive to obey God-ordained authorities in such matters. Too bad he was taught that way and that he believed what he was taught! He suffers from inferior spiritual sensitivity!

The reason I mention this matter of amnesty is that it may be appealed to as a guidepost for an eventual decision on the Declaration of War. Let’s hope the committee steers in a better direction.

We should not forget that our beloved America honors conscientious objectors and has a c1assiflcation for them. If one is so “conscientious” he has ample opportunity to register in that status before he is called to duty, and then he will not have to bear arms. All through the Second World War, I lived and worked with medics who did not bear arms. Others were in work camps for a while, or performed some other service for their country. One does not have to protest by skipping the country or burning his draft card! What kind of “Christian conscientiousness” is that?

Then there is the matter of God’s providence. We like to console ourselves that nothing happens outside the will of our heavenly Father. We like to appeal to Romans 8:28. Is it wrong to say that such an assignment from our government may be God’s will for my life? In my own case, I volunteered for the service, as all our chaplains did, but all my life T thank God for having had such an experience.

Scripture or Conscience?

Are there some Scriptures to guide our committee and Synod in phrasing this Declaration on War? There may not be so many, but let us look at Romans 13:1–7. In the various statements that are made of late on this issue, one does not read many references to that chapter. However, there is a lot about “conscience.” This is travelling in a dangerous direction. Since when does the individual’s conscience become his guide? Doesn’t it need to be enlightened and guided by the Bible?

Before resorting to my or someone else’s conscience I like to know what the Word has to say. Before submitting to declarations and resolutions I like to know if there are Scriptural principles to guide me. At times I am tempted to disrespect our leaders in Washington, but then I read: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves . . . Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’s sake” (Rom. 13:1, 2, 5, N.A.S.B.). It is plain that this “conscience” has a sensitivity toward the government.

Perhaps we are quite disgusted with our leaders at times. Our confidence is shaken repeatedly. But that does not alter Romans 13. What is more, Paul wrote those words in the days of Nero, who was one of the most bestial men ever to occupy a throne. In fact, Paul was very likely killed by him. But the Holy Spirit did not change Romans 13.

However, the 1939 Testimony docs speak of Scripture and the Confession. “Both Scripture and our Confession place a restriction upon our duty to obey the government. Peter at one time refused to obey the civil authorities and appealed to a higher loyalty to God in doing so. And our Creed restricts the duty of the citizen to the state to ‘all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God.’ From this it is clear that the church must not only recognize the right of Christians but even their duty under certain definite circumstances to refuse obedience to the civil magistrate” (Acts 1939, p. 246).

My difficulty is not with 1939 at all, but rather with the way in which these later declarations use it. The Scriptural passage re Peter is Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” Why did Peter say this? Because he was called to fight in an unjust war? Hardly! He said it because he had a clear mandate from Jesus to preach the Gospel, and the authorities had forbidden him to do it. Those civil rulers had stepped outside their domain. They had no right charging him to refrain from preaching. Thank God, our rulers do not do that! Those who disobey the government on the issue of war do not do so because they want to preach the Gospel! Such a comparison makes for fuzzy thinking. As far as Article 36 of the Belgic Confession is concerned, let the objectors show us where and how such draft calls are “repugnant to the Word of God,” but let them resort to one’s conscience!

The Road to Pacifism?

Let us not travel this road. There seems to be a real inclination in that direction, and we had better look where we are going before arriving. Pacifism is the refusal to defend the country that gives one protection. It is an outrage to refuse to defend one’s country, loved ones, and the spiritual and moral values for which it stands. This is not in keeping with Romans 13.

All such appeals to “Christian” attitudes and sentiments contribute toward the backwardness of our defense program. I learned quite a bit about the horrors of war, but I don’t believe I have to wait until the enemy sets foot on American soil to defend my country.

Let the Church be the Church

During the last few years the Christian Reformed Church has made some real strides in the direction of social action of various kinds. This is not all bad if we keep the Gospel of God’s saving grace as the foundation, starting point, and center. However, it is not all good either.

Rev. John D. De Jong has written concerning this in a very timely manner. “I think it is not the business of the church to deal with such a matter [Amnesty], and make decisions on it. A Synod is an ecclesiastical body and should deal only with ecclesiastical matters. By following many of the larger church bodies in our country which make pronouncements on all kinds of political and social subjects, we are on the wrong track and can no longer appeal for our decisions lo Scripture and our Church Order” (The Banner, Oct. 19, 1973, p. 20).

A Declaration on War is quite an order for a church and her leaders to fill! Who will define the responsibilities of consistories, classes, and Synod in helping their members determine whether a specific war is just of unjust? With all the ramifications of political, national, and international issues, with all the disagreements among political leaders, how are churchmen to gain competency for such a staggering assignment? Who will decide whether the conscientious objector’s judgment on a certain war rests on intelligent and adequate grounds? Will the church endorse each member’s opinion on such an issue of gravity because he has a “Christian conscientiousness” about him? Is the church able to discern whether such a conviction is a wholly moral and spiritual one, or perhaps partly political?

As mentioned above, the proposed Report on the Problem of War of 1964 was never adopted, but it contains some excellent advice. I am glad the committee will study it. “The church recognizes that the problem of war has political, military, and technical dimensions which it has no special competence to measure. It must therefore speak to this problem with due reticence” (Acts 1964, p. 315). May God grant our committee, Synod, and church that wisdom.

May our gracious God lead our church by the Holy Spirit in these critical days to “continue in the things we have learned and become convinced of.” What can we do for our country? We can stand by our government. We can learn and speak carefully and wisely about issues. We can keep close to the Word of God. Above all, we can pray! “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (I Tim. 2:1–3).

Fred W. Van Houten is pastor of the historic Ninth Street Christian Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan.