Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
One reviews the decisions taken at the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church this past summer with concern and alarm. The course of that denomination, as reported by conservative CRC observers, appears to follow unrelentingly a downhill course.
Some of the significant decisions of the Synod are reported in The Outlook, July/August 1996. The reporter, Cornelis P. Venema, mentions some of the following with his own comments about the decisions.
1) The Synod made decisions relating to the diversity within the church (5% are other than white). According to Venema, though the church is rightly reminded of the need to be tolerant and to recognize racial and ethnic diversity, the Synod was inclined to follow the practice adopted within our own country. There appears to be a deliberate attempt to establish a quota system assuring that minorities receive their fair share of appointments within the denomination — appointments based not necessarily upon qualification but on race. A committee composed of racial and ethnic minority members was appointed. The committee “is mandated to assist in ensuring that committee appointments in the Christian Reformed denomination be sensitive to and inclusive of the various ethnic communities.”
2) In decisions relating to inter-church relations, the Synod further distanced itself from the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN). It decided to “discontinue the practice of exchanging fraternal delegates at major assembles and placing a moratorium on new joint ministry projects.” But despite overtures to break relationships, despite grievous doctrinal errors in the GKN, the CRC refused to break the relationship.
The Synod further dealt with correspondence from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) informing it of the decision of the OPC to suspend relationships with the CRC, and break them completely in 1997 if the CRC maintains its stand on “women in office.” The Synod also answered correspondence relating to the Presbyterian Church in America’s decision to call the CRC to “repent and rescind” the action of Synod 1995 (re women in office).
3) Synod appointed a committee to examine the question of the routes followed for entrance into the ministry of the CRC. Present policy requires at least one year of training in the CRC Seminary (or acceptance of ministers from other denominations by way of Arts. 7 and 8 of their Church Order). Because of many defections in recent years, there are many of the churches without ministers.
The Synod declared 21 men and 3 women to be candidates for ministry of the Word in the CRC. The vote for the women was separate from that of the men.
4) Synod dealt with various overtures concerning changes in the Church Order. It refused to allow a Classis (or Classes) to be established without regard to geographic boundaries but rather on the basis of doctrinal confession (i.e., those who refuse to declare the word “male” inoperative in their Article 3a.). It did, however, decide that there could be legitimate grounds for a church to be transferred to a more “conservative” Classis (or a more “progressive” church to a more “progressive” Classis).
5) Synod dealt with overtures concerning the issue of homosexuality. Venema states, “Observing the actions and decisions of Synod 1996 relative to the matter of homosexuality, it seems fair to conclude that this issue will be the next to test the resolve of the denomination in respect to its biblical and confessional commitments….
6) Synod refused to adopt the recommendations of one of its study committees to change the three forms of unity by making them more acceptable with “Gender-Sensitive Language.” Synod judged “that the CRC Worship Committee had violated its mandate by ‘in some cases’ changing the theological intent of the confessions.”
7) The Synod reaffirmed its decision of last year concerning women in office. A majority and minority report from its advisory committee was presented. The majority report was adopted by an overwhelming vote of 122 yes to 54 no. The motion with its grounds was:
That synod not accede to overtures which ask for a revision of the decision of Synod 1995 regarding women in office, but that Synod 1996 affirm the 1995 decision: “A classis may, in response to local needs and circumstances, declare that the word male in Article 3a of the Church Order is inoperative, and authorize the churches under its jurisdiction to ordain and install women in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist.” Grounds: a. Previous study committees … have established viable biblical grounds for this position. b. It has not been proved that this action is in violation of the Church Order. c. The denomination is not well served by continual reversals on this issue.
8) The Synod took also various decisions on other issues. It refused to declare the teachings of Calvin professor Hessel Bouma III to be in opposition to the position of the CRC on abortion. It adopted a change in Art. 51 of their Church Order to read, “The congregation shall assemble for worship, ordinarily twice on the Lord’s Day, to hear God’s word….” It adopted a schedule for a one-calendar week synod beginning next year. It “provisionally adopted” a new set of abuse guidelines which set aside the guidelines presented to Synod 1995.
Venema accuses the Synod of indecision in key issues before it. His conclusion is this:
As is often the case in such circumstances, synod found a variety of reasons to avoid doing what it was asked to do. Some of these reasons may even have a measure of validity. However, it is impossible to suppress the conviction that these issues of indecision on Synod’s part are symptomatic of a pattern of indecision and uncertainty to speak directly to the controversial issues of the day. At no previous synodical assembly that I have observed was the appeal to the text of the Scriptures or the confessions as absent as it was at this synod. The reason for this absence is not hard to discover — the Christian Reformed denomination is no longer marked by an exegetical and confessional consensus on the issues before it. The glue that holds the denomination together is increasingly composed of historical and institutional ingredients, decreasingly of biblical and confessional ones.
Venema concedes that the battle with respect to the “women in office” issue is over. He states, “Let no ink or paper be wasted on writing overtures or appeals to synod on this issue asking for a revision and a return to the historic position. The time for battling the issue of women in office in the Christian Reformed denomination is, humanly speaking, over. Here conservatives can almost agree with the progressives in concluding that a continued fight about this issuewould be a fruitless diversion of the churches’ energy and resources.”
Editors Thomas and Laurie VandenHeuvel agree: “But what makes me feel so utterly betrayed now is that the majority has determined something to be right without compelling Biblical warrant. The majority can put into a supplement to Church Order Article 3a something which contradicts Article 3a without providing the church with any opportunity for ratification. We are betrayed because we are not playing on a level field. The majority gets its way. So, confrontation is over and we lost, not because we failed to debate properly, but because the rules were changed to give the other side the advantage. So the fight is over.”
Now what? The Outlook, I think rather sadly, does not present a clarion call to reformation. The editorial of the VandenHeuvels speaks of “Confrontation” (which, in their judgment, is now over); “Consolidation” which must now take place especially at the “Inter-Classical Conference” which will be held in South Holland, IL in November; and “Continuation” which really presents no recommendation. In fact, one wonders whether the intent of the editors is to recommend remaining and continuing the fight in the CRC, or something else:
The future of the Reformed faith is bright, however. It might not flourish any longer in the CRC as it once did. But it will flourish. Those who have pledged their lives to uphold this faith are not going to withdraw into a small hurt minority which licks its wounds. Not at all. We will hold forth the great truths of the Reformed faith, probably with others who share this great heritage. There are people who must hear the gospel. There are children and young people to be taught and inspired. We must get on with the Great Commission both in terms of the cultural mandate and the spread of the gospel. The work must be done. We are eager for it.
Venema also expresses opinions on the course the “conservatives” ought to take. He insists that it would be “irresponsible” to continue with “business as usual” in the CRC. However, his proposal is that the “conservatives” remain for the time being in the CRC, gather in “provisional fellowship,” and “inform the denomination that they reserve the right to declare inoperative those sections of the Church Order and its supplements that restrict the freedom of access to their pulpits of men who meet the biblical requirements for office and have been examined by their churches.”
He recommends, secondly, that the “conservatives” enter into discussions with existing or newly emerging Reformed denominations “who share their historical biblical, confessional and church order commitments. The purpose of such discussions would be to separate from the Christian Reformed denomination and join a more biblical and confessionally Reformed communion of churches.”
That seems hardly a clarion call either. Doubtlessly, there must be a high degree of frustration by “conservatives” because of the illegal and unbiblical action of the CRC Synod. But ought “conservatives” then “level the playing field” by declaring also parts of the Church Order to be “inoperative”? If the “liberals” can run roughshod over their Church Order, does that justify “conservatives” doing the same thing? And what of “corporate responsibility”? Or is there no such thing? The official decisions of the Synod are the decisions of the Christian Reformed denomination. How long can one remain, in good conscience, under those decisions?