Two Major Decisions Of Synod

We had a wonderful Synod!

From every point of view, our synodical meetings this year were some of the most pleasant that this writer can remember. Our churches have much reason for gratitude to our covenant God in this connection. The delegates worked hard. They worked carefully and thoroughly. Under the capable and firm guidance of our president, Rev. G.J. VanBaren, Synod worked persistently and discussed and debated matters to the point that there was a large degree of unanimity. In fact, there were very few matters which were decided by a close vote, and no decisions of major importance were reached by a narrow margin. In other words, there was like-mindedness of the healthiest sort at our1971 Synod. Moreover, this year’s synod was positive and forward-looking. Sometimes, unavoidably, a synodical agenda can be loaded with matter of a rather negative and unpleasant nature. That was not the case this year. There was much before the 1971 Synod which pertained simply to the work of our churches in common—chiefly matters connected with our mission endeavors and our seminary. To the latter Synod devoted a large amount of careful attention. And after thorough discussion and debate—a discussion which was at all times objective and brotherly, but which nevertheless met argument with argument—Synod reached two far-sighted and far-reaching decisions of major importance. The first was to call a second missionary, who will labor in the United States and/or Canada. The second (closely related) was to make the addition of a pre-seminary department to our seminary permanent, and therefore to call a third professor.

There can be no doubt about it that these two decisions were some of the most significant decisions of our 1971 Synod. 

There can also, I think, be no doubt but that these two decisions will come as somewhat of a shock to some of our people. Perhaps some might even be inclined to characterize these decisions as being bold to the point of being foolhardy. 

But there can also be no doubt but that Synod, after having weighed these matters carefully, was fully able to say, “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us” thus to decide. 

I could wish that all our people might have had the opportunity to be present and to witness the proceedings and discussions of Synod, particularly with respect to these mission and seminary matters. I believe that there would have been the same degree of unanimity among our people as there was at Synod, had they been present. 

But since all could not be present, I will try to shed a little light on the decisions and on the thinking of Synod behind these decisions.

Preliminary Observations 

It should be borne in mind that there is a very close relationship between our home mission work and our seminary. The two go hand in hand in a large degree. This was very much in the thinking of Synod also, and was brought out in the course of the discussion. 

On the one hand, our seminary does not merely exist for the sake of our established congregations. Its purpose is not merely to maintain the status quo as far as the supply of ministers is concerned. The latter is, of course, necessary; as the old warriors fade from the picture, there must be replacements, so that as much as possible all our congregations may have their own pastors. In this respect, the outlook for our churches is favorable at the present time. The Lord has heard the prayers of our churches; and in recent years He has given us more students (potential ministers) than we have had in many years—going back all the way to the early 1950s. And let me say right here and now: they are good, dedicated, hard-working young men, too! There is reason for gratitude, but also for sanctified optimism in this respect. There will be, the Lord willing, four more graduates from our seminary in June of 1972, and two more in 1973; and we already have a new student enrolled for the beginning of school this fall. Yes, the outlook is good! 

But our seminary also exists for other reasons. For one thing, replacements in and additions to the faculty must come from within our own churches and from among the trainees of our own seminary. In this regard, the seminary must be self-sustaining. But I have in mind the fact that we cannot go out in the home mission field and labor toward the organization of new congregations without the seminary. Not only must missionaries be trainees of the seminary, but we must be able to say on the mission field, “If you organize as a Protestant Reformed congregation, we can and will supply you with faithful men who will be your pastors and who will faithfully preach the whole counsel of God and instruct you according to the Scriptures.” This is, of course, necessary for any congregation; but it is especially necessary for newly organized congregations. No congregation likes to organize unless there is hope that eventually they will have their own pastor. Hence, our seminary must serve as the source of supply of ministers also in this regard. We must have a broader outlook than that of our own internal and parochial needs. This is also one of the reasons why our churches have for years been offering urgent prayers that the Lord will give us young men. And mind you, the Lord has heard and is continuing to hear our prayers! Not only will we have seven young men in the seminary next fall, the Lord willing; but there is a goodly number of young men in our churches who are either committed to attend or are seriously considering attending the seminary in the future. 

On the other hand, the future of the seminary is closely tied in with our mission work. To put it bluntly, there is a certain law of supply and demand at work in this matter. This is due to the fact that the Lord works through means. It goes without saying that if the only function of our seminary is to keep our presently existing churches supplied with ministers, then there is only a very limited demand for students. In fact, in the foreseeable future that demand will be met and could conceivably be filled for several years to come. The result of this would be that there would simply be no room for more seminary graduates. And the result of the latter would be that there would be no incentive for new students to begin their seminary training. In other words, our churches and our seminary would then be turned entirely inward; and the final result would be stagnation. 

But if our churches are obedient to their mission calling, and if the Lord grants us an open door, and if, therefore, new fields are opened and new congregations are organized, then there will obviously be the need of more ministers. And then there will be incentive and encouragement for young men to train for the ministry of the gospel: for then they will know that once they have completed their training, there will also be room for them to labor in the ministry of the Word. 

Hence, these matters go hand in hand. 

There are a couple of other considerations which should be mentioned. 

In the first place, there is the fact that our churches have in the past never allowed themselves to be deterred either in mission action or in seminary matters by the so-called minister shortage. That minister shortage is, of course, a varying thing. Right now, for example, some might call it a severe shortage—though this again depends on the point of view. But if my memory serves me correctly, there has been only one occasion in our history when there were more candidates for the ministry than there were vacant churches—in 1947. And yet we called missionaries at times when we had churches without pastors; and these calls were accepted also, thus adding to the shortage. Of necessity, both of our present seminary professors were called at times when there was a shortage of pastors; yet neither the synod nor the congregations concerned nor the ministers concerned were deterred by this. And although our 1971 Synod gave long and careful consideration to this problem of a minister shortage, also this Synod came to the conclusion that the shortage might not be a deterrent to these forward-looking actions. 

In the second place, it should be kept in mind that there is something healthy about a certain amount of shortage. Not only does this allow room for change in our churches and among our ministers; but it also serves as an incentive for students. I realize that every congregation desires to have a pastor; and no congregation likes to be vacant for a long time. This is to be expected, and it is quite understandable. In due time, too, our vacant congregations are supplied with pastors—with the result that another congregation must be without a pastor for a time. But anyone can see that a certain degree of shortage is a much more healthy situation than a situation of surplus. More candidates than vacancies would be an unhealthy and abnormal situation for our churches and for our seminary. 

These observations should serve as the back-drop against which we view Synod’s decisions to call a second missionary and a third professor.

The Decision To Call A Second Missionary 

Why and how did Synod reach this decision? 

The proposal came from our standing Mission Committee, which last year had been urged by Synod to give more attention to home missions. I will quote the proposal as adopted by Synod. Advisory Committee No. 1 proposed the addition of the fourth ground quoted below: 

“B. We propose to Synod that a man be called to serve as missionary to labor within the area of the States and/or Canada. We request the approval of Synod. Grounds: 

“a. Our calling as churches is to send forth the Word outside of our Churches. 

“b. There is the rapidly worsening situation within the church-world in our land. 

“c. There is the probability that shortly, additional men will be graduating from seminary – and if we wish to encourage additional men to prepare for the ministry, there must be prospective fields of labor. 

“d. This proposal is in harmony with the Synodically adopted Preamble of the Constitution of the Mission Committee: ‘. . . our present duty lies primarily in the field of church extension and church reformation.’ 

“C. We propose that Synod designate the Hope Prot. Ref. Church of Grand Rapids the calling church for this second missionary.” 

I believe that the above grounds speak for themselves.

But I wish to emphasize that Synod did not simply rush pell-mell into this decision. 

First of all, it was discussed at length and from every conceivable angle in the Advisory Committee. In fact, the Advisory Committee spent more of its time on this one proposal than on any other single item that was before it. Next, the matter came before Synod itself. There was a lengthy discussion of the proposal on the floor of Synod. I believe it is correct to say that everyone was in favor of the proposal from the outset,provided it was workable. No one doubted that if at all possible, we ought to have such a missionary in the field. In fact, it was emphasized by more than one delegate that especially today, in view of the rapidly increasing apostasy round about us, it is our God-given duty to let our voice be heard in testimony to the Reformed faith outside the pale of our churches. It was felt, too, that the best possible way to accomplish this witness was through a second missionary. It was recognized that asking churches to release their pastors for this work for a couple months does not enable our churches to accomplish the kind of consistent and persistent work that is necessary. But the question which received lengthy consideration was: is it possible from a practical point of view? There was lengthy discussion of this question in connection with the fact that we already have several vacant churches. There was also discussion of the financial feasibility. The facts were weighed. Our calling was weighed. The delegates spoke freely. 

The result? Synod passed this proposal without dissenting votes! 

Personally, I am very happy with the decision. I believe that our churches have taken a step in the right direction, and that the Lord will bless us as we implement the decision.

But let us not imagine that from now on this is merely a matter for the Mission Committee and for Hope Church. 

In the first place, let us continue to pray that the Lord will give us an open door, and that He will in due time point out one of our men for this labor, a man who will then go out and labor vigorously. The task before us is no easy task! The cause of our Reformed faith, the truth of the gospel, is not by any means becoming more popular in our times. One of our churches will have to give up its pastor for this work eventually. And one of our men will have to devote himself to this work and will have to sacrifice considerably to go out into the field. But if we go in obedience to the Lord of the church, we may also go in the confidence that He will prosper us. 

In the second place, let all our consistories give full cooperation to our Mission Committee in seeking areas where interest may warrant contact by our missionary, and where possible definite fields of labor may be explored and developed. 

In the third place, let those outside the pale of our churches—such as may read this—be assured that in the midst of the apostasy of our times our churches stand ready to provide assistance and leadership in the work of church reformation. This decision is concrete evidence. And above all, our churches stand ready to provide what has become an extremely scarce item in the ecclesiastical marketplace: the pure preaching of the Word—good, sound, Reformed, expository preaching of the Scriptures! Do not hesitate to turn to us with your cries for help. By the grace of God, we will come over and help you. And if congregations are organized, we will be able also to provide you with young men with a sound and thorough seminary training, young men able and willing to preach the Word purely and with zeal! This is the pledge of our Protestant Reformed Churches.

The Seminary Decision 

The decision is only partially and incorrectly referred to as a decision to call a third professor. Fact is that the decision under discussion is much broader, and its implications are much more far-reaching for our school and for our churches. And the decision to call a third faculty member is but a logical and necessary consequence of that broader decision. 

The broader decision is to enlarge the seminary curriculum and add a pre-seminary department permanently. From my seminary vantage-point and- my acquaintance with our students’ education and educational needs, I would not hesitate to call this one of the most important, if not the most important, step that our synods have taken in many a year. It was, moreover, something that was under consideration as long ago as the late 1940s and something which was strongly favored by our two original professors (Revs. Herman Hoeksema and G.M. Ophoff) down through the years. 

But let me present the matter before I say more about it. 

Three years ago the faculty and Theological School Committee proposed and Synod adopted on a trial basis the addition of a basic pre-seminary program to our seminary. It was understood and stated already at that time that no two-man faculty could handle the complete teaching load of the new program on a permanent basis. But it was decided to give the thing a trial. 

This year the major portion of the trial period was completed; and the Theological School Committee began a thorough study and evaluation in order to report to the 197 1 Synod and to make recommendations for the future. The result was that the Committee came to Synod with a rather carefully worked out Master Plan concerning pre-seminary courses. This plan included some grounds in its introduction; and these I would like to quote. They are as follows: 

“Whereas the Synod of 1966 has gone on record favoring the establishment of a pre-seminary department in our seminary, and adopted proposals for operating such a department in our seminary, and adopted proposals for operating such a department on a trial basis, Acts of Synod 1966, Art. 29-30; Acts of Synod 1967, Art. 67; Acts of Synod 1968, Art. 77-79; Acts of Synod 1969, Art. 33-36, 

“And whereas the trial period for this pre-sem instruction shows that it is feasible; and that the quality of instruction is equal to, or better than, that obtained in local colleges, 

“And whereas the urgency for such pre-sem instruction, in light of the apostasy of our day, is greater now than it was only four years ago, 

“Therefore, we propose. . . .” 

These are really the grounds for the entire decision. 

From the above, it is plain, in the first place, that we are interested in having our students under our own, Protestant Reformed, instruction also in their preparatory work. Synod recognized that the pernicious influences which are at work even in religiously-oriented colleges today are cause for increasing alarm. This was stressed again and again on the floor of Synod. Besides, even from a positive point of view, what is more consistent for us who believe in Protestant Reformed education than that our future ministers also have Protestant Reformed education at the upper levels? 

In the second place, we want our students to have a high quality education from an academic viewpoint as well. We want them to be well-founded, for example, in the languages. We do not want academic slouches. Even in this respect the products turned out by some of the colleges are far from ideal. Personally, I told the Synod that I would not talk about my own instruction, but that I would not hesitate to recommend highly Prof. Hanko’s instruction in New Testament Greek from observing the results firsthand. And it was the judgment of the School Committee that even under the adverse circumstances of a heavy load the trial period was a great success also from an academic point of view. 

Hence, if we want to have good students in our seminary; and if we want to have students with positively Reformed instruction even in their pre-seminary subjects; and if we do not want to run the risk of having our students corrupted or even to fall by the wayside before they ever reach the seminary, it was strongly felt by the Committee and by the Faculty, and finally by Synod, that the introduction of our own pre-seminary program must be begun. 

Space does not permit the quotation of the entire program proposed. Let me sketch the highlights. 

First of all, the committee proposed the establishment of a 4-year pre-seminary program for entrance into our seminary. Of the total of 125 credit hours to be required, 85 hours of various basic pre-sem subjects will be stipulated, and the additional 40 hours will be electives. As a beginning, 71 of the 8.5 required hours will be included in our curriculum and taught in our own school; for the time being the rest will have to be obtained elsewhere. But this is a beginning, and a rather large and important one. In the second place, the committee proposed some regulations as to entrance requirements for our seminary. In the third place, the committee proposed the calling of a third professor from among our ministers. This third professor will, like the others, teach both pre-seminary and seminary subjects. And he will begin his instruction in September of 1972, the Lord willing, with a year granted for preparation—a luxury the present faculty could not enjoy because of the circumstance that they were called on short notice as replacements. In the fourth place, in a supplemental report the committee proposed some guidelines for an orderly division of the various subjects among the three-member faculty. And, finally, the committee proposed that Synod instruct the School Committee to make necessary revisions in the constitutions and in the school catalogue, subject to approval at the 1972 Synod. It also, of course, recommended a budget in connection with all this. (For the full details of the proposal, some of which would undoubtedly be of little interest to our readers, you will have to wait for the printed Acts.) This is the substance of the matter.

Now what happened at Synod? 

Fortunately, the Advisory Committee was divided on this proposal; and the result was that Synod received two reports, one in favor of the above proposals land one which recommended that Synod reject the entire pre-seminary proposal. 

I wrote “fortunately” because this compelled the delegates of Synod to consider carefully all the arguments which could be marshaled against this proposal. Again, space does not permit quotation of the entire report. I will cite the three main grounds adduced by the negative report, without supplying the details. They were as follows: 

“1. Calling a third, full-time professor would be an over-reaching of the limitations of our churches, as far as the availability of ministers is concerned. 

“2. Calling another professor would be the imposition of an additional, sizeable, financial burden upon our people, many of whom are now laboring under a financial load that strains their capabilities. 

“3. Much, if not all, of the pre-seminary (college) instruction of our students, which makes a third professor necessary, can be obtained by them in existing colleges.” 

How did Synod proceed when faced by these two reports? 

First the positive report, which followed the recommendations of the School Committee, was considered and debated for a considerable length of time. Then the positive report was tabled, and Synod took up consideration of the negative report. This was debated in one of the most thorough-going debates of the entire Synod, but, let me hasten to add, in an entirely objective and brotherly spirit: there was no hint of rancor whatsoever. When the debate was finished, the report was overwhelmingly rejected—I believe, by all but one vote. Then Synod returned to the positive report, gave it further discussion, and adopted it without dissenting votes. 

Thereafter, as many already know, Synod proceeded to vote for a third professor. The Rev. G.J. VanBaren was elected, with the Rev. D.J. Engelsma as alternate. Our hope and prayer is that the Lord may soon provide our seminary with the man of His choosing for this important post. I know by experience the crisis involved both for the minister and the congregation concerned in a call of this nature. So also does my colleague, Prof. Hanko, know. But again, the need is great—the greater because it involves the school of allthe churches. For the good of our churches in common, some man will have to take his place in the school; and some congregation will have to bid fond farewell to its minister!

The Financial Picture 

Much concern was expressed at Synod about the possible increase in synodical assessments occasioned by these two major decisions. Nor was this matter taken lightly. Appreciation was expressed at Synod for the dedication of our people in meeting the financial needs of the work of God’s kingdom. It was felt that our people have always showed themselves willing to give when the need was there, when that need was important, and when the Lord provides the means—as He always has. This has been characteristic both in the sphere of church and school. 

Yet when the figures were tallied, all were surprised. The total annual per family assessment for the coming fiscal year is $154.50, only $11.50 more than the budget adopted by the 1970 Synod. This is about the average increase one might expect from inflation only. And yet this will amply meet our denominational needs. And remember: last year the budget was cut. In comparison with two years ago, the new budget of i $154.50 represents an increase of only $4.00. This is amazing when one considers that this will provide for a second missionary and a third professor.

What About The Building Program? 

This is a question several have asked me personally. I will leave it to the Drive Committee to furnish details. I will only say here: 

1) That this program is outside of our assessments and is to be met by voluntary contributions. 

2) Synod authorized the School Committee to prepare and submit plans to the 1972 Synod for final approval. This means, by the way, that more time is provided to meet the goal of our drive also, and that contributions can be spread over a longer period, thus lightening the burden. 

3) There is no question about it that the expansion of our Seminary, apart from any other considerations, makes it important to go full speed ahead on this program also!