Frustration is a feeling of disappointment and defeat which arises when a person has been stymied or thwarted in a certain course of action and in the attainment of a purpose.
It is about such frustration in connection with the process of protest and appeal in general in the Christian Reformed denomination, and in particular in connection with a concrete case at the Synod of 1968, that there has been a flurry of discussion in the March, 1969 issue of Torch and Trumpet, occasioned by an article on “The Frustration of Protest” by Mr. Henry W. Hoeksema (no relation to your editor) in the November, 1968 issue of the same magazine. In my opinion Mr. Hoeksema touches on a real problem and a sore wrong; and, in a sense, he has reason, as many have had reason, to experience feelings of frustration. However, while voicing complaints of frustration, Mr. Hoeksema suggests no solutions. In “Letters to the Editor” in Torch and Trumpet (March, 1969) one correspondent, Rev. J. Tuininga, does little more than commiserate with Mr. Hoeksema in his frustration, while the other, Rev. John Gritter, attempts to soothe Mr. Hoeksema’s feelings, but offers no real solutions.
Because this so-called “frustration of protest” is a very sore evil which has become increasingly common in the Christian Reformed denomination and others; because, moreover, it involves the walking of the “ecclesiastical way,” about which many have become disillusioned and frustrated; because too, we all may benefit from this discussion; and because theStandard Bearer desires to furnish assistance and instruction in matters of concern to Reformed people, therefore I will venture to suggest a solution to this problem of frustration. Meanwhile, I remind Torch and Trumpet and those concerned in this discussion that our Standard Bearer welcomes discussion.
A Brief Review of Events
The concrete case cited in detail by Mr. Hoeksema is one of a long process of protest and appeal by a Mr. N. Bierema against a sermon preached by the Rev. Leonard Sweetman, Associate Professor of Religion and Theology at Calvin College, at the Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church on January 3, 1965, based on the so-called parable of the sheep and the goats inMatthew 25:31-46. I do not possess a copy of the protest and am not in a position to say how well worked out it may or may not have been. However, from the synodical record it may be gathered that the protestant had some serious objections to the sermon, involving questions concerning salvation by works, the Reformed view of the antithesis, and the correct and Reformed view of the incarnation; and he asks for a determination whether the theology of the sermon is in agreement with our Reformed doctrine. I do, however, possess a copy of the sermon in question (from which Mr. Hoeksema quotes excerpts). That there were grounds for protest is putting it mildly; I assure you that the sermon was so thoroughly rotten and heretical that any consistory should have initiated suspension proceedings immediately and without waiting for protests from the congregation. In this instance, however, the only person who took action and made work of his objections was the protestant, Mr. Bierema. A year later, after protracted procedure, the consistory held that the Rev. Sweetman was not censurable. From May, 1966 to May, 1967 the matter was before Classis Grand Rapids East at various times by way of appeal, the result being again that Mr. Bierema was not upheld. Finally, in June of 1968 the appeal came before the Christian Reformed Synod. But again it was rejected. The decision was as follows:
1. That Synod do not sustain the Appeal of Mr. N. Bierema.
a. In the presence of the Advisory Committee, Rev. L. Sweetman withdrew certain unsatisfactory expressions contained in the sermon.
b. He explained to the committee his sermon method which appears to account for an inadvertent one-sidedness in the sermon.
c. He expressed to the committee his complete agreement with the three Forms of Unity.
d. The contents of one sermon are an insufficient basis for a fair judgment of a minister’s total creedal commitment.
However, the Synod did a very strange thing. It expunged from the printed Acts the “Observations” of its Advisory Committee, and it did so in such a way that this does not at all appear in the Acts. What was “D” (Recommendations) in the report of the Advisory Committee appears as “C” in the printed Acts. And what was “C” (Observations) in the report of the Advisory Committee is simply omitted in the Printed Acts without any indication that anything has been omitted. Moreover, the decision to omit this material was taken on the last day that Synod met, long after the Appeal had been treated. These observations are supposed to form the background of Synod’s decision. One can only guess as to the reason why they were omitted; but an educated guess is that the observations contradict the decision to no little degree. This Mr. Hoeksema calls “Knoeien met de waarheid, (Tampering with the truth.)” I will quote those omitted observations, so that the reader may compare them with the decision quoted above:
1. Your Advisory Committee carefully read and analyzed the sermon and came to the conclusion that the appellant did indeed have a real basis for his criticism.
2. In the judgment of your committee, the sermon contains ambiguities, very unfortunate expressions, questionable exegesis, and is an incomplete presentation of the gospel. Your committee held an interview with Rev. Sweetman in which he:
a. Withdrew certain unsatisfactory statements contained in the sermon.
b. Explained the method of the sermon which might lead to one-sided emphasis on one special word or text without intention to deny the truth revealed in all of Scripture;
c. Expressed his complete agreement with the three Forms of Unity.
The above history is cited in detail by Mr. Hoeksema as a “case in point” of the frustration of protest. His complaint comes down to this: it is absolutely useless and frustrating to follow the ecclesiastical way, the orderly way of protest and appeal. This is what he writes:
Taking its cue from the Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of Calvin College and Seminary, Synod 1968 adopted the following recommendation: “That Synod take note of the fact that our consistories and people are being subjected to illicit and undermining propaganda regarding Calvin College and Seminary, that it deplores this practice and calls attention of the churches to the proper channels of addressing complaints.”
“Proper channels” is the hue and cry in the Christian Reformed Church today. It is used most piously and fervently by the apostles of change. The mainline clerics are. ardently devoted to the “ierkelijke weg.” A precious few have recognized that while the use of “channels” is indeed proper and desirable, the channels, although open, are not channeling properly.
The position of a complainant has worsened in recent months. The concerned individual today is quickly and easily dismissed as “lacking in love;’ “a trouble maker;” “misguided and uninformed;” “too legalistic;” “a detriment to church unity;” or “a John Bircher.”
The channelers cleverly concentrate on the “individual,” his “attitude,” and his “procedure,” rather than on the issue raised. This inevitably permits lengthy delays which will hopefully dull the issue, frustrate the complainant, and allow “dialogue” and “conditioning” to pave the way for innocuous disposition of the complaint should the complainant continue to show signs of life.
Reactions To This Complaint
As has been stated, two reactions to Mr. Hoeksema’s complaint appear in Torch and Trumpet of March, 1969. Neither of them is of any real help.
That of the Rev. J. Tuininga actually does little more than express agreement and sympathy. If anything, Mr. Tuininga underscores the frustrating nature of Synod’s decision and the manner in which it was published in the Acts. The only additional element in the article is a warning against the dangers involved in appointing committees to study such matters locally, supported by a quotation from the late J.L. Schaver’s The Polity of the Churches. The latter suggestion is of no help, for there was no appointment of a committee to study the case locally in the case under discussion. For the rest, an expression of agreement and sympathy in a situation like this is of no help. It may offer some small comfort to Messrs. Hoeksema and Bierema, on the principle that “misery likes company.” But it does not remove the frustration. In fact, one might expect that if Mr. Tuininga entertains such strong feelings about the matter, he would do more than express his agreement journalistically: he should take up this ecclesiastical miscarriage of justice through ecclesiastical channels and create no small stir about it at ecclesiastical levels. But to date I have noticed no such procedure on his part.
The sum and substance of the Rev. John Gritter’s remarks in the same issue of Torch and Trumpet is that he tries to pour some oil on the troubled waters. In the twelve points of his article there is not one which is really to the point. None of his remarks serves to help the complainants in their frustration. None of them changes the fact that here was a sermon filled with heresy and that Synod did not find any heresy. None of them changes the fact that the Advisory Committee stated that Mr. Bierema did indeed have a real basis for criticism, but nevertheless advised that the appeal be rejected. None of them is pertinent to the fact that Synod hypocritically removed this ‘glaring contradiction from its published Acts. None of them explains how and why it is possible, even with the vague admissions of wrong-doing which Rev. Sweetman made, to remove before a synodical advisory committee wrongs which were committed in public before the congregation to whom the sermon was preached and under the supervision of its consistory. None of them deals with the fact that both Classis Grand Rapids East and the Fuller Avenue Chr. Ref. Consistory went unreproved for their failure to heed Mr. Bierema’s protest.
The result? The frustration remains!
And such frustration is spiritually unhealthy as far as the frustrated individual is concerned. Such an individual, if he is a serious-minded child of God, is in deep trouble. He needs help!
Nor is such frustration good for any congregation or denomination. Its presence means that there is deep, underlying disunity and lack of harmony though there may be outward and organizational unity.
Where is the blame to be assigned for this frustration?
First of all, as far as the merits of this particular case are concerned, there is no question about it that the blame lies squarely at the door of consistory, classis, and synod. Here was a clear-cut case of gross heresy in the public preaching of a minister, totally contrary to the provisions of the Formula of Subscription, completely at variance with the confessions and with Scripture; and no ecclesiastical assembly would touch it with a ten-foot pole. To all intents and purposes, the guilty office-bearer went scat free. True, he received a mild tick on the fingers from Synod’s committee. True, he made some vague admissions. But as far as the essence of the case is concerned, he was found innocent. Here was a case, moreover, of gross injustice to a protestant and appellant who was concerned to maintain purity of doctrine and of preaching in his church and denomination. Moreover, the synod took pains to remove from its published records the only hint that the appellant was right and that the minister concerned was wrong. Still more, in its unpublished records there is evidence that Synod knowingly and willfully rejected the appeal though it knew that the appeal was well-founded. Besides, this injustice and contradiction was then expunged from the published record, thus compounding the wrong-doing.
Nor is this a matter of mere injustice to the individual concerned. That would be serious in itself.
But there is more involved here.
Involved are what the confession calls the marks of the true church!
Involved is the mark of the preaching of “the pure doctrine of the gospel.” In place of the aforesaid mark of the true church by its refusal to condemn blatant heresy the synod evinced the mark of the false church, ascribing more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, refusing to submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Involved, too, is the mark of the exercise of church discipline in the punishing of sin. When the guilty are upheld and the innocent are condemned when they rebuke the church for her errors, this important mark of the true church is perverted into its very opposite.
In the second place, I call your attention to the fact that this case of Mr. Bierema is by no means an exception. What happened in this particular case is habitual. It is an ecclesiastical way of life in the Christian Reformed denomination. In every case involving a serious doctrinal issue there is either a rejection of the Reformed position, an attempted compromise, or some kind of attempted accommodation without a doctrinal decision.
Put this to the test. In every recent case involving doctrine in recent years the Synod has been afraid to make a finding of heresy, and it has refused to take a clear-cut position in favor of the Reformed truth.
In fact, the question may be asked: when was the last time that a Christian Reformed Synod took a clear-cut Reformed stand in a case of significance?
I will go a step farther: in what case of significance ever since the departure of 1924 has a Christian Reformed Synod assumed a strongly Reformed stance?
And is it a wonder, then, that those who in good faith attempt to walk the ecclesiastical way experience feelings of frustration? Is it a wonder that they complain about the uselessness of following the orderly way?
Nevertheless, I insist that this frustration is unwarranted on the part of the individual. It is wrong. One may notlive in such a state of frustration. He may not for his own sake, because it is spiritually detrimental to himself and his generations. But also he may not live in such a state of frustration for the sake of Zion, the church.
What, then, is the solution to this apparently hopeless situation? It is easy to say that a person may not live in such frustration; but what is the cure? How many one escape such frustration?
My answer is, first of all, that the ecclesiastical way by all means must and may not be abandoned. It is the right way, the orderly way, the obedient way. The way of rebellion and revolution and agitation is wrong. And the latter way is always a temptation for those who seek an outlet for their frustrations.
In the second place, I point out that the ecclesiastical way has an end, and that this end is always REFORMATION. This is necessarily the case. A way has an end. And the end of a certain way is always the same; it does not vary.
To be sure, that end of the ecclesiastical way, Reformation, may assume different forms. In the main there are three such forms. The first is, of course, that the ecclesiastical assembly heeds an appellant and acts accordingly. This means reformation within the church. Then, of course, there is no frustration. The second form of reformation is the reformation of the individual. In that case the individual is convinced by the assembly that his protest and appeal were wrong, that there was no cause for action; or at least he may be convinced that his case is doubtful or that it is possible for him to live with a given situation. In that case, too, there is no frustration.
But what if the individual walks the ecclesiastical way to the very end (and no one may do less than that in good conscience), and what if the synod, the broadest assembly, will not heed him; and what if that individual is convinced, on the basis of the Word of God and the Church Order, that he is right and that the assemblies are wrong, and that before God he cannot and may not acquiesce to the decision taken? Is he defeated? Is the only way the way of frustration?
My answer is that also then the end of the ecclesiastical way is the way of reformation. But this time that reformation necessarily takes him outside of the church that has departed from the right way, that has corrupted the marks of the church, and that will not repent. This may imply that he takes steps to institute the church anew, or it may imply that he joins himself to another communion of churches (like the Protestant Reformed) which does show the marks of the true church. But separate he must! This way of separation may be difficult and painful. It is indeed a serious step, not to be taken lightly. But if the only alternative is frustration, then that step must be taken.
This is what these frustrated brethren ought to see. They must have the courage of their convictions. When they do, their frustration will end. The alternative is spiritual damage,—to themselves, to their generations, and to the cause of the church.
Their frustration is in this sense unwarranted.
And it is needless.