Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
One is no longer surprised at the growing apostasy in the churches of the land. One is not even surprised at the evidence of this in Reformed churches. Yet when articles appear indicating the extent of this within our “mother” denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), one cannot help but be discouraged and disappointed. The issue this time (not unexpectedly) is homosexuality.
The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN), sister church of the Christian Reformed Church, has accepted practicing homosexuals not only as members within the congregations, but also in the offices of the church.
Now one congregation of the CRC has officially done this as well. In a report by John Van Dyke in Christian Renewal, December 16, 2002, the following was written:
It was at one time a Dutch immigrant-based congregation under a confessionally Reformed minister Rev. Louis Praamsma (late father of Christine Farenhorst who writes for this magazine). Rev. Praamsma served in Toronto from 1958-1962. Things, however, changed. As ministers came and went, the church became more firmly entrenched in a rapidly changing urban, metropolitan city. And over the years First CRC of Toronto has become something of an advance weather vane in the Christian Reformed Church. It was a leader for the inclusion of women into the offices of elder and deacon. It was the first congregation in the CRC to call a woman minister, Ms. Ruth Hofman. It has now become the first church in the denomination to open its ecclesiastical offices to practicing homosexual members. It’s been a long road from the 1950s to 2002.
During and since the departure of Ruth Hofman who accepted a call to a Grand Rapids CRC in 1999, First Toronto has struggled with the “full inclusion” of homosexuals in its midst. Last year the congregation considered calling an openly homosexual minister. The votes fell short, but not by much.
In October the council of the church sent out a letter to the churches of Classis Toronto and to the denomination’s synodical officers informing them of First Toronto’s decision “to become an inclusive congregation.” By “inclusion” the council means allowing full participation in the life of the church, ecclesiastical offices included, to practicing homosexuals “in committed relationships” according to an editorial in the Christian Courier (Dec. 2).
In its open letter signed by council chair, Henry Hofstra, the council states that “our con-gregation’s identity and future was on the line,” over the issue of whether to be “an inclusive congregation, or not.”
The letter, written as an “Open Pastoral Letter to Our Brothers and Sisters in Classis Toronto,” makes no attempt to justify the decision on biblical grounds. Its appeal is on what could be considered pastoral grounds — short on detail, but high on emotion-laden words. “We are … asking for grace and understanding for our small congregation.” “We have a beautiful and cherished history here in urban Toronto….” “Not being courageous enough to make a decision … could have easily led to the spiritual death of our congregation.”
The council has also effectively closed the door to debate on the issue. “We are actually not very interested in debating the subject any longer or delving into it on some repeated basis,” the letter states. “For us we are actually past that point…. We are a church, not an issue-resolving club. We want to worship God. That has always been our deepest desire.”
It goes on to express a hope that the church can remain in the CRC despite breaking a denominational position on homosexuality, by becoming “a safe congregation.” “A safe congregation is one which is accepted within the broader fellowship as a parish that is admittedly somewhat out of sync because it has become completely inclusive.”
It further holds out the hope that “we as a congregation might actually be a helpful resource to the classis and denomination as it eventually, perhaps inevitably, moves into a deeper grappling with the issue of homosexuality.”
The final plea of the letter is to be allowed to remain in the CRC. “We have no desire whatsoever to leave the CRC. We are not a schismatic people. Many of us serve on boards of various Christian organizations filled with CRC members…. We have no desire to go casting about looking for some other ecclesiastical tradition within which to set up our tent. We are sincerely Reformed in our outlook and theology, and we feel badly that some will take our recent decision on inclusivity as a painful betrayal.”
The first test of the CRC’s willingness to either look the other
way or to take action in response to the Toronto church council’s decision will come at the upcoming meeting of classis in January. Already area churches in and outside of the classis are urging action on the matter; and there are a number of individuals within the First CRC congregation who are troubled enough by what is taking place in their church to ask for help from neighbouring CRC councils.
For his own part the church’s pastor, Nick Overduin, has decided not to comment on the matter, at least publicly.
In an interview with Christianity Today, the CRC’s general secretary David Engelhard said the decision of the Toronto council “seems to go contrary to the Christian Reformed Church’s established position, and contrary to biblical teaching.” And in response to CT’s probe regarding possible consequences, he agreed that the removal of the congregation from the denomination was a possibility. But he also suggested that the process of dealing with First CRC could be a lengthy one.
By the time this report appears in the Standard Bearer, the Classis in which First Toronto CRC resides will have taken action. It will be interesting to see what that response will be.
There are, however, several things in the report above that indicate the sad decay in the spiritual life of that church.
1.It is more than passing strange that a council should claim to be “not a schismatic people,” and “sincerely Reformed,” while taking this sort of action. Is it not schism to make a decision that is obviously, deliberately, knowingly contrary to the synodical decision of the CRC—and that, too, without appealing to synod to show the error of their decision? And how can one claim to be “sincerely Reformed” when making a decision obviously contrary to what Reformed churches (until recently) have always taught?
2.How can officebearers who have signed the Formula of Subscription (as, I assume, they still do at First CRC in Toronto) make a decision that violates one’s promise in signing this?
3.How can such a momentous decision be made without one iota of proof from Scripture or from our confessions? They write: “We are a church, not an issue-resolving club. We want to worship God. That has always been our deepest desire.” And: “We are actually not very interested in debating the subject any longer or delving into it on some repeated basis.” The concern seems rather to maintain the congregation at all cost: “Not being courageous enough to make a decision … could have easily led to the spiritual death of our congregation.”
4.At the same time, they believe they can be a kind of bellwether congregation for the denomination: it further holds out the hope that “we as a congregation might actually be a helpful resource to the classis and denomination as it eventually, perhaps inevitably, moves into a deeper grappling with the issue of homosexuality.” It was the first CRC congregation to call and install a woman as minister. Now the council states that it can serve in the same way to lead the CRC as a denomination to full acceptance (also in the offices) of practicing (but committed) homosexuals.
5.General secretary Engel-hard’s response to the questions from Christianity Today, if he is correctly quoted, is very strange as well. He says that the decision “seems to go contrary to the Christian Reformed Church’s established position, and contrary to biblical teaching.” Seems?? The decision is so obviously contrary to both, that Engelhard need not mince words. And “the removal of the congregation is a possibility??”
6.Perhaps (I say with “tongue-in-cheek”) the CRC Synod can make a decision like this: “We maintain our position against accepting practicing homosexuals as church members and officebearers; however, we give permission to local Classes to suspend this decision where they consider it warranted for such congregations to survive under such circumstances as those faced by First Toronto CRC.” This would prevent lengthy debate and many protests — and hopefully satisfy those on both sides of the issue.
Indeed, all of this is a sad commentary on the state of the church today.
Many have applauded the proposal of government funding to religious charities. The reasoning seems correct: government is very inefficient in distributing assistance to the needy. Religious organizations with low or no overhead can do so much more efficiently. Not all agree. Cal Thomas, in a column in the Grand Rapids Press, October 10, 2002 states his disagreement clearly and correctly. He mentions Pat Robertson, well-known TV evangelist, who had insisted that to receive such government grants would open a Pandora’s box. But Robertson changed his view after receiving $500,000 of this government aid for his “Operation Blessing.” Cal Thomas explains:
While the intent of this program is noble, the idea of government aiding charity (which used to begin at home, but will now apparently begin in Washington) is fraught with problems. First is the purpose of charity. The Scriptures in which Robertson and other conservative Christians say they believe teach that charity is a means of demonstrating God’s love to needy people so they might seek Him. Many liberals view charity as a type of religious welfare and “salvation by works.”
There is also a political dimension. The Bush administration is smiling favorably on a small percentage of applicants for federal largess (there were 500 grant applications, but only 25 received the government’s blessing, though more awards are likely). A future Democratic administration might deny grants to organizations that lean Republican and shift the money to those with leanings more to that administration’s liking. Charities will then become another special interest, selling their political allegiance to the higher bidder.
…The purpose of charity is to not only benefit the recipient but to bless the giver. That is what Jesus meant when He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
If givers, or people who might give, see government supplanting their calling, the human tendency will be to give less, or not at all. If government wishes to bless charities, it should either cut taxes—enabling individuals to give more money to the charity of their choice—or provide other tax incentives, such as allowing double deductions for charitable giving.
Government should not decide who deserves funding and who does not. That is an endorsement of one religion or religions over others. The day will come when religious groups will be required to remain silent about their beliefs if they want to continue receiving government checks.
…Robertson was right to warn of a “Pandora’s box.” But he has now opened that box and is taking the money. It doesn’t take a prophet to see trouble ahead.
Government is increasingly involving itself in tasks that, strictly speaking, do not belong to government. We must recognize that when government gives money to support religious “charities” (and also when it gives monies to support Christian schools), it will also and inevitably insist on governmental controls. When it comes to money offered by government (which isn’t even theirs to begin with), an individual easily and eagerly can accept that—and end up as the fish that grasps the bait offered by the fisherman. May we not be so foolish.