Judging from the Agenda of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, Sydney, Australia, 1972, one might expect that there would be some ecclesiastical fireworks on an ecumenical scale. For, as we shall see, there were before the RES some serious challenges to the right of the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands to membership in the RES. These challenges were based in part on the doctrinal liberalism which has swept the GKN like an irresistible tide, and in part on the fact that the Gereformeerde Kerken are members of the World Council of Churches.
Judging, however, from the decision taken on this matter by the Reformed Ecumenical Synod when it met in Sydney during August, the fireworks never got off the ground. True, the RES News Exchange speaks in its report (Special Issue, Sept. 5, 1972) about the RES passing a “crisis in membership.”
But the decision is a complete “fizzle”—like fireworks which fail to detonate. In fact, as we shall see, a reading of the decision fails to indicate that there even was a crisis. For the decision fails completely to face any issues whatsoever.
The RES News Exchange mentions the fact that there were six communications which had placed this matter on the agenda. Of these six, three appear in the printed Agenda; and these three alone are serious enough to have precipitated a crisis. Let us look at these communications. I shall not comment on them in detail, though various remarks could be made about them. But I shall let these communications speak for themselves, so that the reader can see just how clearly and simply the issues were brought before the RES.
The Reformed Churches of New Zealand took the following decision:
That me following motion be conveyed to the Interim-Committee of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod to be acted on at the 1972 meeting of the R.E.S.:
a. That the Reformed Ecumenical Synod consider whether the resolutions adopted by the Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, in its meeting of 5 November 1970, regarding the teachings of Dr. H. M. Kuitert and others, who share his convictions, do not conflict with the requirements for membership as set out in Art. IV of the Rules and Standing Orders of the R.E.S. (or art. V of the Constitution, should it be adopted), and
b. that the Synod should it find that there is conflict, request the Gereformeerde Kerken to withdraw from the R.E.S. or alternately make provisions for the exclusion of these Churches from the membership of the R.E.S. in order that a situation in which the basis of the R.E.S. becomes ambiguous be avoided.
We may note that the above resolution does not ask for definitive action. It asks only for consideration of the question whether the GKN are in conflict with Article IV of the Rules and Standing Orders of the RES, though it may be granted that it surely suggests that there is ground for suspicion. And it makes aconditional request for termination of membership: “. . . should it find that there is conflict. . . .” Hence, the resolution is a weak one; but it does indeed bring up the issue.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church brought two communications to the RES on this matter of membership, especially the membership of theGereformeerde Kerken. (We may note, incidentally, that the issue of membership in the World Council of Churches involves not only the GKN, but also the Reformed Churches of Ceylon and of Indonesia.) The first communication (Agenda, p. 107) from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is as follows:
To the Reformed Ecumenical Synod
Meeting in Sydney, Australia 1972
c/o Dr. Paul G. Schrotenboer
The Thirty-seventh General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, meeting in Portland, Oregon, July 6-10, 1970 determined by vote of the Assembly to submit the following Overture to the 1972 Synod of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod:
That this General Assembly overture the Synod of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, meeting in Sydney, Australia in 1972, to declare that its Rules and Standing Orders, especially its articles on Basis, Purpose, and Membership, make membership in the World Council of Churches and other religious organizations which allow unbelief to be uncensured incompatible with membership in the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, and to provide two years from the 1972 meeting of the Synod for Reformed Ecumenical Synod member churches which are in such fellowships (1) to decide in which they wish their membership to remain, and (2) to notify the Reformed Ecumenical Synod secretariat of their decision.
Cordially yours in Jesus Christ,
Robert E. Nicholas
This Overture is very forthright and to the point. It requests the RES to take a stand, and that, too, an unequivocal stand. My only criticism of this overture is that it is too lenient in proposing that churches which are members of the W.C.C. be given two years to make up their minds. I call this “too lenient” in the light of the fact that this question of W.C.C. membership has been before the RES previously more than once. In 1968 the RES-Amsterdam decided “that Synod reaffirms the advice which previous Synods have given to member churches ‘not to join the W.C.C. in the present situation.'” (cf. Articles 95, 105) Nevertheless, this Overture of the OPC is a solid one.
From the same denomination came a more extensive communication dealing specifically with the question whether the Gereformeerde Kerken are faithful to their confessional commitment and are in harmony with the confessional Basis of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. This, too, is a sound and forthright communication. It mentions specific deviations of the Dutch Churches. If the RES had forthrightly faced up to the matters mentioned in this communication, it might have accomplished something worthwhile. We quote this Communication No. 7 in its entirety (Agenda, pp. 130-132), and we urge the reader to pay careful attention to it:
The Reformed Ecumenical Synod The Rev. Paul G. Scbrotenboer, General Secretary
1677 Gentian Drive, S.E.
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49508
FATHERS AND BRETHREN:
The Thirty-eighth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, meeting May 24-29, 1971, in Wilmington, Delaware, determined to address the Reformed Ecumenical Synod as follows:
In view of the deviations from the apostolic teaching cited in the letter from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands dated April 6, 1971 and appended hereto, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church respectfully requests the Reformed Ecumenical Synod to determine whether the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands does, in fact, substantiate its contention that it still maintains its confessional commitment and thus submits to the authority of Christ through his Word. In making such a request, we call the attention of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod to the statements concerning this matter in the Rules and Standing Orders of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod to which all member churches are committed. The section on membership indicates that all denominations of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod “profess and maintain the Reformed Faith” and “therefore subscribe to the Basis as expressed in Article II” of said document. And the Basis itself states as “a fundamental requisite” that Reformed Churches stress “the headship of Christ and the marks of the true Church: the pure preaching of the Gospel, the Scriptural administration of the Sacraments, and the faithful exercise of discipline.” It is difficult for us to understand how the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands can on the one hand declare that Dr. H. M. Kuitert’s “negation of the historicity of the fall of man” is not in agreement with the confessional statement of the Scriptural truth which “must also be maintained as authoritative by the church as having importance for the proclamation of the Gospel” and then on the other hand proceed to resolve that “the unity of the confession of the church is not (niet) so much threatened that special decisions would be necessary.”
The Assembly further determined that a copy of this letter be sent to each member church in the Reformed Ecumenical Synod.
Your brethren in Christ,
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE
ORTHODOX PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Richard A. Baker,
April 6, 1971
The General Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands
c/o Rev. K. J. Schaafsma,
Prof. v. Bemmelenlaan la
Utrecht-5, The Netherlands Esteemed Brethren:
The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church instructed its Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations to communicate with your Synod providing examples of the serious differences between our two churches and indicating further our continued conviction that the difficulties of the sister-church relationship require this termination.
This action was prompted in part by your gracious letter to us in response to our indication of intention to end the sister-church relationship. In particular, we noticed that you indicated that you were aware only of our difference with reference to the World Council of Churches, and stated that no other objections have reached you. The following items are an attempt to provide examples of those serious differences.
1. The World Council of Churches—The action of the Thirty-second General Assembly, 1965 (Minutes, pp. 93-100) in response to your earlier decisions, now put into action by your application for membership.
2. Women in the Teaching or Ruling Office—The action of the Thirty-fourth General Assembly, 1967 (Minutes, pp. 100-102) in response to your report The Place of Women in the Ministry of the Church, which views of yours have now been put into practice by the admission of women to this office.
3. The decision that the declaration of the special general synod held in Assen from January 26 to March 17, 1926 respecting the interpretation of
is no longer in force in the churches. It was an overture on this matter which served as the occasion for the decision of the Thirty-sixth General Assembly, 1969 (Minutes pp. 104 and 112) to indicate its intention of bringing to an end the sister-church relationship between our two churches.
4. The Doctrine of Scripture—Exception has been taken by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands to the declaration of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod of Potchefstrom (1958) (See especially, The Acts and Reports of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, 1968, pp. 60 307f), stating that your Synod cannot itself provide that which the Reformed Ecumenical Synod of Grand Rapids, 1963 asks for because of “a number of questions concerning the scope and nature of this authority which are still very much in discussion.” (p. 308). The communication from your Synod refers to several writings of your professors on the Scriptures which seem to us to contain repudiation of the historic Reformed view of the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures. The Thirty-Seventh General Assembly, 1970 (Minutes, pp. 123ff.) has asked your Synod to clarify its original objection and has at the same time briefly declared our own commitment.
These are examples that can be officially documented from actions of our Assemblies. In addition the Christian Reformed Church in North America has specified more in length and in detail these serious differences. Acts of Synod, Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1970 Art. 99, pp. 50-53.
A more recent example is the declaration of your General Synod of Sneek, November 5, 1970, concerning the letters of protests against Dr. H. M. Kuitert’s views in
The Synod acknowledged Dr. Kuitert’s “denial of the historicity of the fall into sin, as man’s turning away from God at the beginning of human history” and at the same time declared “that the unity of the confession of the church is not (niet) so much threatened that special decisions would be necessary.” The Synod acknowledged that one had denied the apostolic teaching but then took no disciplinary action. We regard this as a serious failure to follow the Scriptural demand that the church must discipline those who deny the apostolic teaching.
For the sake of the cause of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, we pray that you will heed the admonition of your sister churches throughout the world and thus demonstrate that you are truly catholic and reformed in your subjection to the Lord and his Word.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church
per The Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations
LeRoy B. Oliver, Chairman
For the rest, I do not know what other communications were on the docket of the RES concerning this matter. I do know that the Christian Reformed Synod of 1972 gave instructions to their delegates to the RES on this matter. In Article 46 (Acts, 1972, p. 61) the following was adopted:
4. That synod counsel our delegates to the RES to oppose any definitive action by the RES re termination of the membership of the Gereformeerde Kerken at RES Australia 1972.
a. The situation is still in flux in the churches of the Gereformeerde Kerken, and the matter is being dealt with by the Synod of Dordrecht (1971-1972).
b. An evaluation of trends cannot be completed until it is clear which trends will prevail and which positions will finally be adopted.
The contrast between this decision and that of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church can hardly be missed. Moreover, one has to be blind in order to think that the above Christian Reformed motion is true. Certainly, the situation is not “in flux” as far as the World Council is concerned in the GKN. They have made up their mind long ago; and they did so in flagrant disregard of the warning of the RES itself. Nor is it difficult to evaluate trends in the GKN: all the trends are plainly liberal. And besides, positions have already been adopted one after the other. About the only difficulty there is with respect to the GKN is that of keeping up with the rapid changes which are taking place.
As we mentioned, the decision of the RES is reported by Dr. Paul Schrotenboer in the RES News Exchangeof September 5. In this report, the decision is introduced by the following comments:
Seldom if ever since the RES was established in 1946 has there been such a thorough and basic discussion on qualifications for membership as was held in Sydney in connection with the developments within the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Six communications had placed the matter on the agenda and some had called in question whether the Reformed Churches still qualified for membership.
In the discussions within the advisory committee which included representatives of the churches which had sent the communications as well as the Dutch Churches, the issues were thoroughly explained and considerable clarification and some drawing together of minds was reached. Although the advisory committee submitted two reports, neither report suggested that the Dutch church be placed before the ultimatum of withdrawing from the WCC or becoming ineligible for continued membership in the RES.
And then follows the decision on this matter:
The RES welcomes the concern of member churches in the spiritual welfare of, and theological developments within other member churches, since the unity of the body of Christ, the witness of the RES in the world, and the Scriptural truth that the welfare of the body depends upon the welfare of every member of that body, demand an abiding interest in one another’s wellbeing.
As an advisory ecumenical body the RES itself is concerned with the spiritual welfare and the Scriptural government of the Churches. Certainly this includes the duty to encourage and admonish member churches where matters of concern to other member churches are involved.
The RES expresses its deep concern about the theological views of Dr. H. M. Kuitert and some other theologians, and accepts the assurance of the delegates of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands that their churches are giving their serious and continuing attention to these views. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands are assured of the prayers of the other member churches in these days.
The RES also takes note of the fact that correspondence between the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and at least some of the churches that have expressed their concern in overtures and communications, is being continued. (RES News Exchange 9/5/72)
This decision I described as a “fizzle.” A complete failure! A disappointment!
Please do not misunderstand my figure. It is not that I desired fireworks in the sense of controversy and an ecclesiastical explosion at Sydney merely out of a delight in such things. There is always a distasteful aspect to such controversy and a sad aspect, certainly, to any ecclesiastical explosion—even though ecclesiastical controversy and explosions may be both necessary and salutary.
But this is not my point in using the figure of a “fizzle.”
Fireworks are supposed to produce. Any boy knows that when you light the fuse on a “cherry bomb,” you wait a few seconds in tense expectation for it to go “ka-boom!” If you light the fuse, and that fuse sputters and sizzles and finally goes out, and no explosion comes, then you have . . . a “fizzle.” The “cherry bomb” did not produce as it was supposed to produce. And a “fizzle” is, of course, a disappointment, a big let-down. Or if you light a rocket and send it whistling into the air, you expect it to explode in a brilliant and vari-colored star-burst. But when the fuse is lit, and the rocket whistles into the air, and all you behold is darkness—then you have a “fizzle,” witnessed by the disappointed “aw’s” of those watching the display.
Well, that is what happened at the RES—Sydney.
From all over the world the delegates of many denominations—doctors of theology, ministers, elders—gathered in the land “down under” in the interest of Reformed ecumenism, according to their own avowals.
There was a matter of great importance laid before them. It concerned the largest and most influential of the member churches of the RES, one of their own sisters. Regardless now of whether the charges were true—and they were, of course—sisters of theGereformeerde Kerken, fellow members in the family of the RES, were saying (with documentation) that their sister was erring spiritually. Moreover, the matter was one of the utmost importance. Not only did it concern the flouting by the GKN of a repeated warning sounded by the RES, but it also concerned the very foundation, the very confessional Basis of the RES.
Here was a golden opportunity for the RES toproduce!
Here was a crucial point at which the RES could show that it is indeed interested in, vitally concerned about, being REFORMED, and genuinely interested in helping all its member churches to be Reformed and to practice genuinely Reformed ecumenism.
Should not the RES have called to the GKN loudly and unequivocally and unambiguously: “Repent! Return from the unholy way of liberal error in which you are walking”? Should not the RES have sounded to the GKN with respect to her membership in the W.C.C. the prophet’s word of warning and reproof to Jehoshaphat, “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord?” Should not the RES have done exactly what the overture of the OPC asked, namely, to warn the Gereformeerde Kerken that two cannot walk together, except they be agreed?
Or if—God forbid—the RES was of a mind that theGereformeerde Kerken were not guilty of serious error and misconduct and that the serious charges made against them were unjust, should they not have expressed this?
But what did they express?
The decision is a fizzle!
The mountain labored, and brought forth a mouse!
Not even the advisory committee dared suggest that the RES stand behind its own previous warnings against membership in the W.C.C.
And the decision itself has no substance. It is nothing but an aggregation of bland truisms and pious mouthings.
“The RES welcomes the concern. . . .” Well, one would hope so! If not, why should there be any RES? But if the RES “welcomes” the concern of member churches, where is the evidence of that welcome? Did not the OPC express such concern very definitely and concretely? And how does this decision evince welcome of that concern—concretely now? Well, frankly now, by ignoring it and by not even giving the OPC a specific answer to its communications.
“As an advisory ecumenical body the RES itself is concerned. . . .” Again, where is the concrete evidence of this concern?
The RES is even able to decide that “Certainly this includes the duty to encourage and admonish member churches where matters of concern to other member churches are involved.” Notice, by the way, that bland “matters of concern.” There is no reference to heresy, no reference to departure from the confessions, no reference to break-down of doctrinal discipline, no reference to the forming of ungodly alliances with unbelieving churches. But if the RES knows so well that this concern includes “the duty to encourage and admonish member churches,” where is the word of encouragement and/or admonition, pray tell? It is nowhere to be found in this decision!
“The RES expresses its deep concern about the theological views of Dr. H.M. Kuitert and some other theologians. . . .” What is the nature of that concern? And why speak of “theological views” instead of heresy? Is the RES in doubt about this? And why single out Dr. Kuitert and some theologians? Is it not much greater cause of concern that the Dutch Synod has failed to exercise any kind of doctrinal discipline? Why not mention the Gereformeerde Kerken and their official decisions? Why not express concern about the reversal of Assen, about the Laodicean decision of Sneek, about the repudiation of reprobation, about the replacement of the Formula of Subscription—all official decisions of the GKN?
“. . . and accepts the assurance of the delegates (of the GKN) that their churches are giving their serious and continuing attention to these views.” Translated, this means that the RES is satisfied with the manner in which the GKN are handling affairs by the method of dialogue and failure to take definitive and disciplinary action.
“The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands are assured of the prayers of the other member churches in these days.” What kind of prayers? Prayers for what? That the churches may repent of all their evil deeds? That they may be delivered from their false teachers? That they may have grace to return to the Reformed faith which they have forsaken? That they may put off the unequal yoke with the W.C.C.? You see, God is not mocked! Nor is He fooled by pious words about prayers! And wicked prayers are an abomination to Him. If prayers are to be offered for the GKN in the present situation, they certainly must be prayers for repentance and reformation!
Finally, “The RES also takes note of the fact that correspondence . . . is being continued.” Now there is a decision worthy of an ecumenical synod! Men must travel thousands of miles at an expense of thousands of dollars to take note of continuing correspondence when the very Basis of the RES is threatened and flouted? By all means, make a ponderous pronouncement about on-going correspondence, but say nothing about important issues, and especially not about anything offensive to the GKN!
What a fizzle!
And how do you explain it?
Partly, I suppose, from the fact that the Christian Reformed delegates must have persuaded many to follow the counsel of their Synod not to take any definitive action with the respect to the membership of the Gereformeerde Kerken. Partly, it seems, from the fact that the RES has learned some lessons from the GKN about how to conduct a Synodical meeting without exercising any kind of doctrinal discipline. The language of this RES decision reminds me, at least, of the ecclesiastical style of the Gereformeerde Kerken.
And as far as the W.C.C. is concerned, partly, I think, from the fact that the RES itself, through its Interim Committee, is playing a highly dangerous game of consultations with W.C.C. leadership.
But it will be interesting to learn whether those denominations which brought overtures to the RES about these matters will now be satisfied. I can hardly imagine that possibility. But then, it seems to me, they will as denominations have to take a stand as to their own continuing membership in the RES.
Time will tell.