Every now and again a synod is remembered for one particular issue. The 1981 Synod in Holland, MI, is known to many as the “Baptism on the Mission Field Synod.” The 1987 Synod in Hudsonville, MI, is remembered as the “Marriage Synod.” There have been others. The unusually thick Acts of Synod taking more than its share of space on one’s shelf will bring back memories of other synods where one issue overshadowed the others. Synod 2008 of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, held in Hope PRC, Walker, MI, was another such synod.
To many, Synod 2008 will be known as “The Synod of Article 21,” where the sharp differences of opinion on the Church Order and its application were debated and decided.
Because of this dominance of the one issue, other important issues, which should be revealed in the sun’s full light, lie in the shadows. Let me highlight some of them and call the churches and the friends of the PRC to rejoice over them, too.
So much more than Article 21
This year the Lord gave to the churches another candidate for the ministry of the Word and sacraments, Mr. Heath Bleyenberg. Mr. Bleyenberg is a son of the Edgerton, MN, PRC. As he witnessed to synod and to a goodly number of visitors in the last hour of his two-day public examination, he heard and heeded God’s call to prepare for the ministry after he had worked for a few years as a mechanical engineer. Now the brother has a very dif ferent aspiration. May the Lord make a place for this brother, whose examination, synod declared, revealed that he has the gifts necessary to serve as a faithful pastor in the churches. He is eligible for call on July 12. The conclusion of the blessing was the stirring graduation speech by Prof. Engelsma, “The Courage of the Minister,” heard joyfully by a large gathering of Mr. Bleyenberg’s friends and members of the PRC. Later that week, synod admitted two new students to the seminary: Mr. Stefan Griess, another son of our Loveland congregation who prepares for the ministry; and Mr. David Mahtani, whose twin brother began seminary last year, and whose father, Rev. J. Mahtani, was delegate to synod this year. Nothing may overshadow these great blessing of God to the churches.
Nor should it be missed that Synod 2008 approved of establishing a corresponding relationship with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Australia, whose warm friendship with the PRCA began already thirty-three years ago. Yet to be approved by the EPC, this relationship will include the exchange of observers at the broader assemblies, exchange of all the official documents of both denominations, committee visits, and conferences. From the PRC’s side, it also includes an invitation to the EPC to send their students to our seminary for training, tuition-free. What synod did not approve was that seminary students from the EPC be allowed to speak a word of edification in the PRC congregations when the seminary professors would license them. As much as the PRC and EPC are alike, Synod judged the differences between the two denominations too significant for this: “Allowing on PR pulpits seminary students who differ with the PRC on such significant doctrines as divorce and remarriage and the regulative principle in its applications to such matters as musical accompaniment could be divisive in the Protestant Reformed Churches.” The importance of public practice preaching for seminary training did not outweigh the importance of maintaining unity and peace in the PRC. We pray that the EPC brothers and sisters, who also value unity, will understand this.
It must not be lost in the shadows either that Synod 2008 approved the emeritation (retirement), effective September 1, of Professor David Engelsma, who served the churches faithfully for 45 years. The first 25 years were in two pastorates; the last 20 years as seminary professor. By his preaching ministry, by his many books, by his lengthy editorship of this magazine, and by his share of instruction of the eighteen PRC ministers (and not a few non-PRC ministers) who graduated since 1988, the Lord used this brother for the good of the church of Jesus Christ, and not only in the PRC. Synod expressed thanks to God for Prof. Engelsma’s devotion to the churches in so many different ways, and expressed the hope that God would maintain the brother’s strength so that he could continue in writing and preaching. Prof. Engelsma plans to maintain an office at the seminary, which his colleagues appreciate.
Let light shine also on the good work of the three home missionaries approved by Synod 2008: missionaries W. Bruinsma (Pittsburgh), A. Brummel (Sioux Falls), and T. Miersma (Spokane). Significant to this writer, but almost unnoticed from Missionary Bruinsma’s report, was that he had found “extremely valuable” a course on the history of missions he audited at the RP seminary in Pittsburgh. May God bless all the missionaries and their families!
For too long, in our judgment, the foreign mission work in the Philippines has awaited a missionary to carry on the labors of Rev. A. Spriensma. Now, Synod 2008 approved, as a standard manner of working on foreign fields, that twomissionaries work together. If the Berean PRC in the Philippines approves, the calling church (Doon, IA) and the Foreign Mission Committee will seek to have two missionaries work together in that land. (If the Lord wills, by the time this issue arrives in your mail, the present writer will be preaching and lecturing in the Philippines, accompanied by the Filipino student in our seminary, Mr. Vernon Ibe, and his wife Melody.)
Even synod’s rejection of a couple of significant proposals should be noted by the churches. The Theological School Committee (TSC)—synod’s committee to oversee the work of the seminary—proposed a significant remodeling of our seminary building. Encouraged by large gifts to the seminary, the TSC thoroughly investigated a number of possible changes to the seminary building to enhance its looks but especially its functionality. After watching an impressive presentation by the TSC’s building committee, synod rejected the proposal. The one ground was the significant rule of synod that “No proposals of importance shall be presented to synod that have not appeared on the Agenda, so that consistories and classes may have opportunity for previous deliberation.” The delegates had no opportunity in advance to study the matter. The rule protects the churches from proposals that have not been carefully studied by all parties involved. Apart from this rule, the proposal may well have been approved, and partly because funding was not through higher synodical assessments but through individual gifts.
Synod also rejected an overture that proposed adding procedures to the Church Order that would regulate the discipline of unfaithful members who are not confessing members. A study committee was appointed last year to bring advice on this significant matter. Synod adopted the special committee’s advice to reject the overture because 1) it essentially, but improperly, equated excommunication (the discipline of confessing members) with “erasure” (the discipline of non-confessing members); 2) because “a specific procedure is not necessary for the correct practice of discipline to take place;” and 3) because “each case must be judged on its own merits, depending especially on the knowledge and level of rebellion on the part of the baptized individual involved.” Synod reminded the churches of some old decisions on the subject taken by the Christian Reformed Church in the years 1896, 1918, and 1926. Clerks of PRC consistories would do well to photocopy the page when the Acts of Synod is printed (or find them in the Agenda, pages 286, 287), and distribute copies to all the elders.
Many other important decisions were made over the course of six long days of deliberation and voting. By the good work of our faithful Stated Clerk, Mr. Don Doezema, the Acts of Synod will appear soon. You can read all the decisions there. For good participation in the life of the church, all of us ought to do that.
“The Synod of Article 21”
But what overshadowed these important decisions was the difficult work of synod as it treated five appeals from individuals against decisions of Classis East. Synod sustained only one of the appeals. All of them related— directly or indirectly—to Article 21 of the Church Order.
Any attempt to explain synod risks misrepresenting synod’s decisions themselves. But simply quoting the decisions is not helpful, either. I am confident that readers will study the decisions when the Acts of Synod appears, and compare them with the explanations here, which, it must be admitted, cannot do justice to all the appeals and all the issues.
The PRC’s Church Order, Article 21, which every officebearer promises to abide by, says: “The consistories shall see to it that there are good Christian schools in which the parents have their children instructed according to the demands of the covenant.”
Although some of the appeals wanted to make (and, in fact, did make) the issue homeschooling itself; and although much discussion of the issue both within and without the denomination assumes that the issue is homeschooling itself; the fact is that homeschooling per se was not the issue. The issue rather was the matter of an officebearer who had withdrawn his children from the existing good Christian schools because of criticisms of the schools. It must be clear: the essential issue was not any memberhomeschooling his children; the issue was an officebearer homeschooling. It must be clear: the issue was not an officebearer homeschooling his children where no good Christian school was available; the issue was an officebearer who withdrew his children from the existing good Christian school without giving adequate explanation to the congregation.
The history of the case
After examining the matter, the consistory of the minister approved his actions and notified the congregation. Protests against this approval were lodged with the consistory by members of the congregation. When the protestants did not receive satisfaction, they appealed to Classis East.
Classis East did not sustain the appeals but, over the course of some months, did make important decisions with regard to an officebearer homeschooling when there are good Christian schools available. These decisions include: 1) Article 21 is binding on all officebearers in the PRC. 2) The article mandates consistories to see to it that there are good Christian schools maintained by the community of Reformed believers, and to see to it that the parents of the congregation have their children instructed there according to the demands of the covenant. 3) The article refers, historically, to parental Christian day schools, not home schools (a protest was eventually lodged against this decision). 4) An officebearer who does not send his children to the available good Christian schools, and does not give valid reason to the satisfaction of the consistory cannot effectively fulfill the duties of an officebearer required by Article 21: he cannot promote the existing good Christian schools when his own children are elsewhere (see #2 above). 5) If he cannot use the good Christian schools, the pastor’s conscience is not to be decisive; but he must have good reasons, judged by the consistory.
These basic positions of Classis East the synod did not modify.
Protests against the decisions of Classis came from two sides of their position.
First, in the course of their decisions, Classis East maintained that “homeschooling falls within the area of Christian liberty.” Classis made this statement because one early protest asked the consistory to require the officebearer to use the good Christian schools. Classis judged that it would be wrong to require a man to act against his conscience on a matter of Christian liberty because homeschooling is a matter of Christian liberty (even though, in certain instances, exercising this liberty might jeopardize his office because he would not be upholding Article 21). This assertion of Christian liberty by Classis was protested, and the protestant eventually appealed to Synod 2008. The appellant denied that homeschooling could be a matter of Christian liberty, contending that Scripture requires the use of the schools. Synod 2008 did not agree, but declared that Classis was correct to say that “Scripture does not specify exactly how the instruction of covenant children is to be accomplished. God gives covenant parents the freedom of their sanctified judgment to determine the best way to educate their children.”
So synod refrained from making themanner of carrying out one’s covenant calling to rear his children a scripturaldictate. Indeed, Synod understood thecovenant’s demand to be Christianeducation. Implied is that if a man does not carry out this covenant calling, he is to be disciplined. On the other hand, synod understood Article 21’s requirement to be the existing good Christian schools (not home schools), which the consistories must urge upon every Christian parent. And implied is that this urging is to be strong and reasoned, but that it will stop short of discipline.
On the other side of Classis East’s decision were those who defended homeschooling. Although Classis had said that the manner of Christian education was a matter of Christian liberty, Classis had also made clear 1) that an officebearer may jeopardize his office if he does not use the existing Christian schools, and 2) that the “schools” referred to in Article 21 are not home schools. This position of Classis was objectionable to some. One maintained that a “good Christian home school…maintains the demands of Article 21.” Synod did not uphold his appeal. Another maintained that the matter of Christian education is not “an ecclesiastical matter,” that Article 21 of the Church Order requires only Christianeducation, and that to require of an officebearer that he send his children to the good Christian school is legalism. Synod declared that Article 21 makes Christian education an ecclesiastical matter, and that Article 21 calls consistories to promote schools, not merely education. Synod said:
Article 21 requires that consistories promote “good Christian schools”—which, as VanDellen and Monsma point out, has always been understood to mean “good Christian Day Schools.” Article 21 not only sets forth the principle that the children of the church are to be instructed according to the demands of the covenant; it also specifies how this should be done.
Nor is it legalism to require of an officebearer to use the existing good Christian schools, for the Church Order lays many demands on officebearers that are not expressly required by Scripture, but arise out of the principles of Scripture and are an application of biblical principles.
There were other matters treated in the five appeals. Read the Acts. Pray for the parents, the children of the covenant, all those who are involved in carrying out the demands of the covenant. And pray, as did almost every delegate at synod when he led in devotions, for the welfare of the congregation, consistory, and officebearer involved. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. They shall prosper that love thee.”
And note well: Synod did not address those who homeschool where no good Christian schools are available. At the same time, where the good Christian schools are established, Article 21 mandates the consistory to call the congregation to use them, to maintain them, to do nothing to undermine them. All the members of the congregation are bound by Article 21. Willingly so. Willingly Reformed parents have joined the churches that maintain Article 21. Officebearers must take the lead. And where there are no good Christian schools, Article 21 implies the calling of parents to establish these schools when that is possible and wise.
God bless our homes, our schools, and the covenant rearing of the covenant’s seed.