The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church will gather for its annual meeting on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on June 8, 1993. A prayer service for synod will be held the previous evening in the Mayfair CRC of Grand Rapids.
For the first time, synod will devote its first afternoon and evening session to “a time of celebration, planning, and worship” (Agenda, p. 29; from now on only page numbers will be given when quoting from the Agenda for Synod, 1993).
This time is intended to better acquaint the delegates with the ministries of the CRC before they begin their deliberations, and to “establish a sense of unity and singleness of purpose for delegates” (p. 28), as well as offer praise to God. Many classes of the CRC are adopting this kind of approach also in their meetings. In my view, it can be helpful and inspirational; but it can also take away needed time to deal with the matters before the body and lessen careful deliberation.
The Synod of 1993 is meeting after a stormy and difficult year in the CRC. In the wake of the 1992 synodical decision regarding women in office, the CRC has suffered splits and membership losses of “about a thousand families” (p. 179). As a result, the Christian Reformed Church experienced a decline in membership of 5,213 members in 1992. “Total CRC membership stands at 311,202” (p. 107). Whether this downward trend will continue, and to what extent, is hard to tell. It is clear from the Agenda that this remains a real concern for many in the denomination. It is also clear that the ferment and differences present among us remain.
What is not so clear is whether the Synod of 1993 will bring more healing or more division within the CRC. On the one hand, it seems that this synod does not have as much “on its fork” as many previous synods have had. On the other hand, one never knows what potentially momentous decision or direction may issue from a synod.
I would like to deal with what is on this year’s synodical agenda in three categories: 1) Study Reports; 2) Overtures and 3) Miscellaneous.
Synod has two study reports before it. One deals with the matter of public profession of faith for covenant children. The other concerns regional synods.
Profession of faith and Children’s Communion
The study committee reporting on profession of faith for covenant children was actually appointed to clarify how such professions should be handled for younger children who are given admission to the Lord’s Supper. The Synod of 1988 declared that younger children may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper if they “give evidence of faith and are able to discern the body and remember and proclaim the death of Jesus in celebrating the Lord’s Supper” (p. 237). In effect, this opened the door to “children’s communion.” The same synod also declared that such children should make a public profession of faith before partaking, and it asked the Worship Committee of the CRC to review our present forms for public profession of faith as to how they could be made to fit profession by younger children.
The Worship Committee did present a trial form for profession of faith by younger children to Synod of 1989. But there remained questions of how this should be handled by the churches.
The present study committee is endorsing “children’s communion” and wholeheartedly supports professions at a younger age. It is recommending that for younger children however, the process of making such a profession should be modified (from the traditional process). A young child who expresses a desire to partake of the Lord’s Supper could be interviewed, not before the whole council, but in his home, in the presence of his parents and an elder and/or pastor. If satisfied, the pastor and/ or elder would recommend to the council that the child be permitted to partake. Before the child partakes however, the committee insists he should make a public profession before the church. This public ceremony may take different forms as decided by the local church. The child could give a personal testimony of faith in Jesus, or sing a song expressing his faith, or a form could be used. As part of this profession, the child must also commit himself to further instruction in the faith. But, says the committee, “the Simplest expression of faith by a younger child should be adequate for admission to the Lord’s table” (p. 243).
In advocating this approach, the committee recognizes that a young child cannot be expected to assume adult responsibilities in the church nor give assent to the creeds and confessions of the church at such a young age. Therefore, the committee recommends that at age 18, or at a time specified in the Articles of Incorporation, a young person should publicly declare his acceptance of the creeds and willingness to assume adult responsibilities in the church (a second “profession of faith”). If a person refuses to take this step but is already partaking of the Lord’s Supper, he must receive permission from the council to partake on an annual basis.
In accordance with this new approach, the committee also recommends “that membership in the CRC be counted in three categories:
1) Baptized members – persons who have been baptized but not admitted to the Lord’s Supper; 2) Communicant members – persons who participate in the Lord’s Supper but who have not yet indicated their agreement with the church’s creeds and confessions and have not yet committed themselves to service in the ministry of the church and to acceptance of adult responsibilities in the church; 3) Voting members persons who have made a public commitment to the creeds and confessions of the church and have committed themselves to service in the ministry of the church and to acceptance of adult responsibilities in the church” (p. 245; italics mine, JA).
I have several reactions to this study committee report. The first relates not only to this report but to the movement in the direction of “children’s communion”: Why are we pushing this? Do small children who can certainly say and sing “Jesus loves me, this I know,” truly know what the Lord’s Supper means and can they properly prepare for it, as the Bible commands? I recall sitting next to my parents as a child and watching them partake of the bread and wine. I knew it was a solemn act, requiring a certain level of maturity of faith and understanding for which I was not yet ready. Is it not much better for our small children to watch and observe until they become at least high schoolers before they themselves partake?
A practical reaction I have is: if one church allows a child of 5 or 6 years to partake, but another church does not—will that lead to problems between our churches? And will it cause confusion in a child’s mind if he is allowed to partake in one church, but not in another? Or must all churches accept communicant members at the table—even if they are younger children?
The second study committee report before Synod 1993 is one dealing with regional synods. The impetus for this study came from 7 overtures—all from Canadian classes—presented to the Synod of 1990 asking for the implementation of regional synods in the CRC. Actually, the 7 overtures were sent to Synod 1990 at the prompting of the Council of Christian Reformed
Churches in Canada (CCRCC), an organization representing the Canadian churches, which had already done a study on the issue of regional synods.
In response to the Canadian overtures, Synod 1990 appointed a committee to study the advisability of having regional synods in the CRC. The report of this committee is now before Synod 1993. After detailing the history of regional synods in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, and then describing what the CRC has decided on the matter in the past, the committee deals with the current interest in forming regional synods and offers some possible solutions. Among the various options it presents are: dividing the denomination into two regional synods—one of Canadian churches, the other of US churches; having four regional synods—one in Canada, three in the US; having ten regional synods—three in Canada and seven in the US; maintaining the status quo or maintaining the status quo (no regional synods), but with an enhanced Council in Canada.
In the end, the committee decides in favor of the last option. It recommends that synod declare that introducing regional synods is “neither advisable nor feasible at this time” (p. 271). And then it proposes “that synod enhance the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada by giving it direct access to synod and by having its representatives take part in the planning and coordination of denominational ministries, particularly those in Canada” (p. 272).
The question at synod with regard to this report will probably focus on whether the Canadian churches are satisfied with such an arrangement. Five overtures from four Canadian classes contend that the recommendation to “enhance” the CCRCC will actually do the opposite, and that some form of regional synod structure is needed to give the Canadian churches more standing in Canada. Discussion of this whole matter could become sticky and exasperating, as questions of church structure often become.
The Agenda for Synod 1993 contains 51 overtures from classes and churches. As always, these deal with a variety of issues and concerns. In what follows, we call attention to the most significant ones.
Women In Church Office
Women in church office will again be an important issue before synod. Of the 51 overtures, 23 deal with this issue—18 from classes, and 5 from churches. Five classes and three churches are overturing synod to revise the decision of Synod 1992 which kept the offices of elder and minister closed to women. These overtures ask this year’s synod to undo that decision and ratify Article 3 of the Church Order, thus allowing women to be ordained to all the offices.
Some of the arguments presented in these overtures by those favoring women in office are not at all new, such as the argument that there are no compelling Biblical grounds which forbid women to be ordained. That of course touches the nub of the issue and has been the point of debate all along between those for and against. Other arguments presented are very flimsy, such as the lament of Classis Muskegon that “two of our churches now find themselves in the unfortunate position of either defying the decision of synod, as many churches in the denomination are already doing, or being forced to conduct their ministry in ways which are unfaithful to God’s Word” (p. 301). If churches have gone ahead to ordain women as elders before synod allowed it, they cannot now fault synod with putting them in an “unfortunate position.” The churches have put themselves in that “unfortunate position.”
Still other arguments put forth in the overtures favoring women in office do have some merit, however. These relate to Synod 1992 allowing women to “expound the Word of God.” Aren’t all persons who bring God’s Word from the pulpit supposed to be licensed? Is “expounding” another category? Can men also “expound the Word of God” without being licensed? Whereas I certainly do not favor women’s ordination, Synod 1992 left itself open to question on this point. In an attempt at compromise, it made a decision which fully pleases no one.
Over against the overtures asking synod to overturn its decision of 1992 stands another group of overtures which asks synod to maintain its present stand or even toughen it. Eight classes are overturing synod to instruct those churches and classes which have ordained women to cease their ecclesiastical disobedience and bring their practices in line with the 1992 synodical decision. One classis, Classis Hudson, would even have synod declare that those churches which continue to defy Synod 1992’s decision by the time Synod 1994 meets “will have excluded themselves from ecclesiastical fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church” (p.308).
All the above overtures indicate that the battle over women in office is by no means over in the CRC. In fact, these overtures show that the battle lines are even more firmly drawn now. Synod 1992, by its compromise decision, sought to quiet the unrest and restore unity in the denomination. It did neither—at least not in the past year. A fair number of conservative churches and members have left the denomination, including some key conservative leaders. And liberal churches are fighting back, with some ordaining women contrary to synod’s decision. And churches in between probably the great majority—are weary of the whole issue and wish war to cease, and move on with other business.
How will synod handle this contentious issue? Will it reverse Synod 1992’s decision and open the offices to women? Will it compromise further by allowing some exceptions as is being asked by the Church of the Servant? Will it get tough on churches going contrary to the Church Order? Or will it appoint another study committee? Whichever road it takes, the issue will not go away any time soon.
Uniformity for ministers leaving the CRC
Among the overtures to synod this year are also five from five different classes asking synod to bring about some uniformity and fairness in how ministers who leave the denomination for other churches are dealt with and regarded. Some ministers who have left the CRC recently to lead dissenting groups or churches have been declared as being deposed from office in the CRC—a harsh and disciplinary statement. In other cases, classes have acquiesced in their resignation or used terminology that was of a kinder spirit. It seems obvious that there is an inequity here which needs to be resolved. Ministers who have left are being treated differently, depending on the classis or synodical deputies.
Some of the overtures on this problem suggest that ministers who resign from the CRC because of theological differences should be regarded as “honorably-released.” If synod adopts this terminology, it would do much to heal the wounds inflicted on some faithful servants of God who have served our denomination well in the past but can no longer be part of us. It would also acknowledge that they remain fellow servants of Christ with us in His kingdom. Wouldn’t it be ironic if ministers can leave for liberal denominations and be considered honorably released, while those who leave for more conservative groups are considered as deposed?
As to other overtures coming to synod, let me summarize as follows: 5 overtures take issue with the report on regional synods, as already noted above. Three overtures ask synod to retain classical representation on synodical boards—at least in the case of the Board of World Missions. Classis Kalamazoo is asking for a committee to investigate clergy abuse by CRC ministers. Classis Hackensack is asking for a restudy of the issue of abortion to produce a more current statement of our position. Classis Hudson is asking synod “to augment its previous statements on homosexualism by declaring that the Christian Reformed Church accepts the historic position of the church that a man cannot be a minister in good standing in the CRC if he practices or espouses the practice of homosexuality or fails to accept the biblical teaching that the practice is sinful” (p. 279). Could this last overture lead the CRC into its next major debate: homosexuality?
Much of the Agenda for Synod 1993 consists of reports from the various agencies of the CRC. Let me glean some items from these reports some of greater, others of lesser importance.
The Synodical Interim Committee is recommending to synod that ministry-shares (formerly: quotas) be computed, beginning in 1994, on the basis of the number of professing members who are 18 years and older. Synod 1992 already decided that quotas will be calculated in the future, not according to families, but according to professing members. In light of this changeover, it is very difficult this year to evaluate the quota requests of the various agencies and how they compare with previous years. It also remains to be seen how the changeover will affect the total quota obligations for individual churches. (Some may be sadly or gladly surprised!)
The CRC Publications Board is recommending that synod appoint Rev. John Suk as the next editor-in-chief of The Banner. (Note: a resume of Rev. Suk appears to have been mistakenly omitted in the Agenda.) The Banner continues to lose subscribers—3,000 last year—so that there are now about 38,000 subscribers. The Worship Committee of the board has developed a number of “shorter, more flexible” forms for baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and is recommending their use in the churches. Publications also hopes to come out with a new church school curriculum for the elementary level in the fall of 1994.
CRWRC comes to synod with a report by a Task Force on World Hunger which was established by the Synod of 1991 to “increase church member involvement in responding to hunger” (p. 140). The Task Force calls its report “Freedom to Serve.” The report notes repeatedly that the church’s concern for hunger and poverty needs to be revitalized. It offers many ideas and recommendations to accomplish this, involving denominational agencies, classes, diaconal conferences, churches, families and individuals. Included in its recommendations is the appointment of “a fulltime person to coordinate the implementation of the vision described in this report” (p. 147). Should the report of the Task Force be adopted as is, we can expect to see a strong emphasis on hunger and poverty in the denomination. Hopefully this will not overshadow the even more critical commibnent that needs to be made to missions, especially since CRC World Missions reports having to cut 20 long-term positions and reduce its 1993 budget by 10 percent because of a decline in support
The Committee on Disability Concerns asks synod to declare that the US government’s Americans with Disabilities Act and its accompanying regulations applies to “all portions of the CRC” (p. 173), although under the law churches are largely exempt. Before synod makes such a decision, it ought to be given opportunity to read and analyze the new Disabilities Act. In fact, the Committee on Disability Concerns might well forward a copy of this law to all the churches for their evaluation. To bind oneself to government laws and regulations when not required to do so may invite a bureaucratic headache churches don’t need .
The Interchurch Relations Committee reports that “the CRC is now the only North American denomination remaining in the REC” (Reformed Ecumenical Council) (p. 209). The CRC will host the next REC meeting in 1996. A report on hermeneutics and ethics adopted by the REC in 1992 is presented to the churches. Its summary statements on how Scripture must be understood and interpreted and applied to the ethical problems of our times deserve to be carefully studied. The relationship between the CRC and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN), the Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA) and other denominations continues to pose serious difficulties and challenges.
I recognize that the above report on what is coming up at the CRC Synod of 1993 is offered from my own perspective and with some of my own reactions, although I have sought to be accurate. My prayer is that the Spirit of wisdom and truth may lead our denomination ever closer to His Word of truth. May He direct the delegates to synod to seek and discern God’s will in all their deliberations—for Christ’s glory and the church’s blessing.
Rev. James Admiraal is pastor of the First CRC in Prinsburg, Minnesota.