At the time of this writing, Saturday, June 13, our synod has not yet completed its labors, and there are still a few important items to be dealt with. Hence, my report cannot be complete. The fact that synod has not yet finished its work is not due to a large amount of disagreement and wrangling, however, but due to the fact that synod had a very large agenda, filled with important matters, and due to the fact that synod labored very thoroughly and carefully in dealing with the business of the churches.
For the first time in our history Holland was the site of synod’s meetings, and the calling church was the First Protestant Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan. Rev. John A. Heys, president of last year’s synod and minister emeritus of our Holland church, led the pre-synodical service. The text of his sermon was Hebrews 2:1, “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.” A transcript of this sermon will appear, as usual, in the printed Acts of Synod for your later perusal. By the way, there is nothing official about this report, it must be remembered; it is written partly from notes and partly from memory. If you want the official decisions in their literal form, you must consult the printed Acts when they appear in a couple of months.
The Rev. G. Van Baren functioned capably and long-sufferingly as synod’s president, allowing ample opportunity for discussion but reminding the delegates of the need of making a decision when the time was ripe. The other functionaries were: Vice President, Rev. D. Engelsma; First Clerk, Rev. M. Joostens; Second Clerk, Rev. M. Kamps. As usual, after the various matters on the Agenda were apportioned among the four advisory committees, synod recessed on Wednesday, June 3, to allow the committees time to prepare their advice. The actual deliberations of synod began on Thursday, June 4. I have one comment in this connection. Synod could have been a bit more equitable in dividing the material among the advisory committees. As it turned out, Advisory Committee I had an unduly large share of the work and also some of the most difficult items. Committee III finally volunteered to help Committee I by taking over some of the items assigned to the latter. I mention this not only from the point of view of equitable division of labor, but also from the point of view of the fact that if synod expects good work from its advisory committees, they should not be overburdened with work.
On Thursday, June 4, the synod began its deliberations.
One of the most important items on which synod had to decide was the spate of items related to the subject of baptism on the mission field, a subject with which our churches have been busy—and to an extent, troubled—ever since 1975, when the matter was first brought up. Last year’s synod had taken several decisions in this area with which considerable dissatisfaction was expressed, and several individual protests had been filed, some of which came to synod with the approval and support of consistories and of Classis East. Not only so, but this whole question was intimately connected with our mission work. Also from a practical point of view, therefore, it was important that this question be dealt with definitively. With regard to the protests, synod decided to sustain them as far as their church political aspect was concerned. This meant that Synod of 1980 erred in renewing the motion of Article III of Synod of 1977 (the original (negative) decision concerning baptism); and it also meant that Synod of 1980 erred in not giving preferential treatment to the Study Report of the committee appointed in 1979. In a way, however, that also meant that this year’s synod was back to “square one” as far as the baptism question was concerned.
When synod turned back to the Report of 1979’s committee, it became apparent in the process of the discussion and debate that harmony was not to be found along these lines. However, the discussion centering about that report also helped to focus synod’s attention on certain areas of agreement as well as areas of misunderstanding. And it also served to focus the attention on the question of what constituted the main problem area in which a decision had to be reached. The result of a rather long and sometimes tense discussions was that synod referred the matter back to Advisory Committee I for new advice. This committee returned with new advice somewhat later, and this advice was adopted by unanimous or near-unanimous votes. Needless to say, everyone at synod was glad and thankful when finally this agreement was achieved. Because of the importance of the decision, I shall quote it in full.
Our committee felt that after many years of discussion and debate the Synod of 1981 has come to a significant state of agreement. We therefore present our advice based on this agreement as a succinct statement on Baptism on the Mission Field.
A.We advise Synod to declare that Scripture and our Confessions (major and minor) charge the missionary with the task of preaching and baptizing. Grounds:
Matt. 28:19 and 20 Mark 16:15 and 16
Acts 2:38 and 44,8:12,13,16 and 38,9:18,10:47 and 48,16:14,15,and 33,18:8,19:5
B. We advise Synod to declare that the command of the Lord to baptize is clearly expressed in the 2nd duty of the Form for the Ordination of Missionaries, “… thou art holden if it pleases God to make thy work fruitful unto the gathering of a church (gemeente) ( = congregation, HCH), to administer the Sacrament of Holy Baptism according to the institution of the Lord and the requirement of the covenant.”
1. The question remains what is the meaning of this limiting “if” clause, viz. when may the missionary baptize?
2. Re this question we advise Synod to declare that this means:
a. When the preaching and teaching of the missionary is fruitful and there are proper candidates (and their households) who are Reformed in doctrine and walk.
b. This must be determined by the calling church upon solid evidence furnished by the missionary, in conjunction with the Mission Committee (Foreign or Domestic).
C. Synod declares that it is clear from the Scripture cited above and from the second duty of the missionary that this baptism must be done unto the gathering of a church (gemeente). Therefore it is crucial that a church be instituted as soon as feasible.
1. With respect to a specific field this can only be determined by the calling consistory upon the advice of the missionary, in conjunction with the mission committee.
2. The precise moment of readiness for institution cannot be legislated by Synod.
Once this important matter was out of the way, synod could turn its attention to other matters related to our foreign mission work. One of the main questions was that concerning the institution of the church in Singapore. At this writing only a partial decision has been reached on this matter, and I do not deem it wise to publish only a partial decision on a matter which was discussed long and carefully. In this matter, by the way, brother Lau Chin Kwee was given the privilege of the floor to speak in behalf of the GLTS.
From the above account, it will be clear that synod did not remain with the report of Committee I all the time, and my report is not chronological. When a committee is sent out for new advice or there are other reasons to depart from the order of the day, synod frequently turns to reports of other Advisory Committees which may have part or all of their reports ready.
Advisory Committee II had as its chief assignment matters of domestic missions. I cannot enter into all the details of routine mission matters in this connection. Let me briefly mention a few more important matters. 1) The work in Lansing, Michigan (Rev. Steven Houck) and the work in Birmingham, Alabama (Rev. Ronald Van Overloop) is to be continued. Synod passed a motion of commendation and encouragement to these two missionaries who, by the way, were present at synod and addressed us concerning their work. 2) The efforts to call a missionary for the Lynden, Washington area are to be renewed. 3) Synod decided to give partial financial support to the work in Bradenton, Florida. 4) Much attention was given to the work in Jamaica. There were many housekeeping details to be attended to. Synod decided that a policy to guide a missionary must be adopted before any missionary is sent to that field. Authorization to send emissaries on a longer term basis was given. 5) The Mission Committee was instructed to investigate whether there is a viable field in Wellington, New Zealand.
Committee II was also charged to advise Synod concerning an appeal of the decision of a consistory and of Classis East in a censure case. I cannot and need not report on this, because it was dealt with in closed session. Without violating any rule, however, I may report that this matter was given full and careful attention, that the appellant was given a full hearing, that it struck me that synod dealt pastorally with this matter and that especially the elder delegates spoke out very clearly in this regard, and that the decision unanimously upheld the decision of Classis East.
The main task of Committee III was to deal with Theological School matters. Much of this material was routine. The one matter which was not routine is the fact that synod approved the granting of a partial sabbatical to this writer the coming school year. The purpose of the Sabbatical is to give me time to do research and to write, especially in connection with the history of our churches. This proposal was initiated by me colleagues, to whom I am grateful both for my proposal and for their willingness to take over some of my school work in the coming term.
This brief report has touched only on the highlights. There were many other things before this busy synod. And there are still, at the time of this writing, a good many things to be treated. May the Lord bless the decisions reached unto the welfare of our churches and of His cause.