In this article, we will look for a while at those closely around us, our mother church, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and their synodical meeting this past June. The July/August issue of the Banner reported decisions taken at this year’s synod. I write this not at all to look down our nose at those churches, but rather in a great lament for the people in their churches, and as a warning to ourselves. When I sought to become a pastor in the PRC, a person said to me, “those churches are only 25 years behind us in their practice.”
In this article, what I want to address is found under the rubric, “Denominational Life.” The headline reads, “Synod Proposes Dropping the Second Service Requirement.” We read,
Synod 2019 has proposed dropping two long-standing and fiercely defended worship requirements from the Church Order. One is the requirement that churches host two distinct worship services on Sunday; the second is that churches on an annual basis preach through the Heidelberg Catechism. The two are related.1
This came by way of an overture from Classis Atlantic Northeast. The feeling was that the Church Order ought to reflect and be in harmony with the current practice of the vast majority of the congregations of the denomination. Is this the case? Is current practice normative or is the Church Order normative? Should not and must not the practice in the churches then be in harmony with the Church Order?
Clay Libolt in his article in the Banner wrote,
The question before Synod turned on whether to recognize what churches and members have already done—leave behind the old practice of holding a second service—or to continue to insist on requiring a second service and the preaching of the catechism because the requirement lies at the heart of the Reformed faith.2
The problem is that already in 60–75 percent of the CRC churches, there is only one worship service. As delegates at the CRC Synod stated, “This train has left the station.” Why were there two worship services on Sunday? The second service was not intended to be a repetition of the first service, but totally different, typically focused on the Catechism. Classis Atlantic Northeast wrote in their overture that “Christian Reformed congregations have held to a deeply embedded practice of assembling for worship twice each Lord’s Day, reflecting the biblical practice of morning and evening sacrifice (Num. 28:4; Psalm 92:1) and patterns developed in church history.” My memory of church history is indeed that Reformed churches have held two worship services on Sunday, tied to the Synod of Dordt 400 years ago. In that Synod, the Church Order that was adopted required the instruction in the Heidelberg Catechism each Lord’s Day. As we read in our Church Order, Article 68, “The ministers shall on Sunday explain briefly the sum of Christian doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism, so that as much as possible the explanation shall be annually completed, according to the division of the Catechism itself for that purpose.”
The CRC Synod voted for the proposed deletion of their Church Order Article 51, which originally read, “The congregation shall assemble at least twice for worship on the Lord’s Day to hear God’s Word, to receive the sacraments, to engage in praise and prayer, and to present gifts of gratitude.” In 1995, the CRC Synod decided to enter the word “ordinarily” into their Church Order. Article 51 (a) now reads, “The congregation shall assemble ordinarily twice for worship on the Lord’s Day….” So already in 1995, their Synod recognized that many of their churches, especially mission churches, were not meeting twice on Sunday for divine worship. Synod 2019 voted to propose to Synod 2020 that C.O. Article 51 (a) be dropped completely. Changes to the Church Order require two synods before they can be adopted.
Classis Atlantic Northeast also proposed to the CRC synod the elimination of C.O. Article 54 (b), which requires the preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism. Their ground given for eliminating this article was, “Though it is important for our preaching to reflect the instruction of the Reformed confessions, the current Church Order Article 54 (a) already requires that preaching be guided by the creeds and confessions and a specific obligation for catechetical preaching (Art. 54(b)) is an unrealistic expectation when a single Sunday worship service is already our denominational norm.”
There are at least two things that I want to point out in that ground. The first is the claim that our preaching must only be guided by the creeds and confessions. Reformed churches have in the past insisted on preaching the Heidelberg Catechism! The second item that I come back to is this “denominational norm.” Do current practices and sin in the congregations become a norm that forces the church to change its Church Order?
A CRC pastor, Phil Reinders, wrote in a blog dated May 17, 2012,
At the church I served in Calgary, I conducted an informal survey at a meeting of about 40 of our CRC leaders (elders, deacons, ministry leaders). I asked everyone there (remember, these were the core of our church, the highly committed) to review the past four weeks. I asked, how many attended our church’s Sunday worship service for the past 4 weeks? How many 3 weeks? For 2 of 4? And how many just 1? The results surprised everyone in the room. Of these core leaders, the clear and dominant majority (over 60%) had attended our church’s worship services only two of the past four weeks.
My question is: Shall this new church normal be used to rewrite the Church Order again?
How sad in this 400th-year anniversary of the Synod of Dordt that the CRC is so seriously departing from the importance of divine worship as well as from Catechism preaching that instructs and comforts God’s people. Although the PRC does not have a specific C.O. article requiring at least two worship services on Sunday, it is assumed in C.O. Article 68 that calls for Catechism preaching. It is also the first question asked by the church visitors each year of each of our church councils: “1. Is the Word administered at least twice on the Lord’s Day? 2. Is the Heidelberg Catechism regularly explained in the services for divine worship, so that no doctrine is left untreated?”
I conclude with these questions: Do we today need more or less worship services for the working and strengthening of our faith? Do we as Reformed people need to be instructed and comforted in our faith? Are we thankful for our Reformed heritage, the requirement of the Synod of Dordt that congregations meet twice on Sunday for divine worship and instruction by what one of my previous pastors called affectionately, “the old Heidelberger”?