The RCA and CRC Synod’s Working Together

It is the season of Synods and General Assemblies. With this post I call attention to the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America and the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. I write about the assemblies of these two denominations in one post because they not only held their assemblies at the same time in the same city (Pella, Iowa) but also because they met together in a joint-session.

At the joint-session the representatives adopted this resolution: “the principle that guides us, and the intention that motivates us, is to ‘act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel [us] to act separately.’” This resolution was adopted after another important and revealing statement was read at the joint session that explained how much the two denominations are already acting together: “Affirming our relationship of full communion, the exchangeability of ministers of the Word and sacraments between our congregations, and examples of new congregations belonging jointly to both our denominations.” Although the two denominations have not merged yet, they are clearly moving on a path that will likely end with a merger.

This is a movement of great historical significance. The split between the RCA and the CRC was necessary when it occurred in 1857. The issues that divided the two denominations were vitally important. Those who started the CRC rightly found it intolerable that the RCA approved of lodge membership, practiced open communion, and contradicted the Church Order by neglecting the practices of family visitation and regular preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism and by introducing hymns that were not approved by the Church Order. There were some other serious issues that divided the two denominations at the time of the split, but these are sufficient to demonstrate that the church fathers who started the CRC had solid grounds for leaving the RCA.

It is important to understand why the CRC split from the RCA because these reasons are not being discussed in 2014 as the two denominations draw closer to each other. The adopted resolution speaks of “deep differences.” But what are these deep differences? I don’t recall them being mentioned during the joint session that lasted over two hours. Some petty differences were mentioned, such as when a Korean participant explained that he thought the division was mainly due to infighting between Dutch people. If the other delegates disagreed with this analysis they did not voice it, but it was evident that a good number of them found this analysis amusing.

If the split was over trivial matters (such as infighting between stubborn Dutchmen) then it was sinful, which is how the split was characterized during the joint session. Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, representing the RCA, favorably used a quote from Pope Francis (!) to characterize the division between the two denominations as from the devil. In their comments many of the delegates indicated they agreed the division was unfortunate and sinful.

But the division was NOT sinful, at least not on the part of the CRC in 1857. The CRC of 1857 is to be commended for breaking away from an apostatizing church to begin a soundly Reformed denomination.

The movement of the CRC of 2014 to seek unity with the RCA indicates that it has fallen into the errors of the RCA. The deep differences that divided the CRC and RCA in 1857 don’t exist anymore because the CRC has fallen into the same errors as the RCA. The CRC approves of lodge membership, tolerates the practice of open communion, and neglects regular Heidelberg Catechism Preaching and the practice of family visitation.

If the CRC and RCA were seeking to join together on the basis of the Reformed Confessions, and if their joining together indicated a firm conviction of the truths of the Confessions, it would be worth celebrating. But the closer unity between the RCA and CRC in 2014 is the act of two denominations joining hands as they slide down together into further apostasy.

That the RCA has fallen more deeply into error since 1857 is the reason one of its conservative congregations is seeking to leave the denomination. That congregation is the University Reformed Church, located in Lansing, Michigan and pastored by Rev. Kevin De Young. The congregation voted 282-9 to leave the RCA and join the Presbyterian Church in America. Rev. De Young reports that the congregation still belongs to the RCA and the process of leaving could take 6-8 months. The full explanation for why the congregation wants to leave the denomination is not available. But Rev. De Young provides a brief explanation: “From the adoption of the Belhar Confession, to the removal of the conscience clauses related to women’s ordination, to the growing acceptance of homosexual practice in the denomination, we believe the RCA has changed significantly in the last several years. The denomination has moved away from churches like ours. Our request is that we may be able to move too.”

That the CRC is willing to join hands with the RCA indicates then that it has not only fallen into the errors it repudiated in 1857, but it has also walked almost in lockstep with the RCA in adopting or tolerating its more recent errors. Thus, there is unity between the RCA and the CRC. But it is not unity in the historic doctrines and practices of the Protestant Reformation, which means it is not unity in the truth of Scripture, which means it is not true unity in Christ Jesus.

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Synods and General Assemblies: Christian Reformed Church (part 2)

Homosexuality to be Studied Again

The Decision

The 2013 Synod of the CRC approved the creation of a committee to study the issue of homosexuality and report to Synod 2016. The grounds for the creation of this study committee are two:

  1. The reports from 1973 and 2002 have served the denomination very well by laying out the biblical principles and foundations clearly, where read and applied. Nevertheless, they could not take into consideration later political, legal, and social developments. Such developments include legalized same-sex marriage and the significant shifting of public opinion, which also makes an impact on the membership of the denomination.

  2. In light of these developments, it is prudent for the denomination to expand the applications of the teachings and conclusions of 1973 and 2002 in order to give guidance and clarification on how members, clergy, and churches can speak prophetically in a loving fashion within North America.

The Reports

The 1973 report, referred to above, explains the CRC’s official stance regarding homosexuality and provides pastoral advice for how the churches should deal with homosexuals. The report distinguishes between homosexuality and homosexualism. Homosexuality is defined (in the report) as “a condition of personal identity in which the person is sexually oriented toward persons of the same sex.” Homosexualism is defined as “explicit homosexual practice.” The report repeatedly condemns homosexualism (homosexual acts) as sin. Its stance on homosexuality is not as forthright. Although the report speaks negatively about homosexuality as a “sexual disorder” and a “result of sin,” it deliberately avoids saying that homosexuality is a sin. And although the report encourages the “reorientation” of homosexuals, it nowhere calls for the discipline of those who remain “oriented toward persons of the same sex.” The report speaks about non-practicing homosexuals as “Christians” and “fellow servants of Christ.” Preferably homosexuals will change their orientation, but if they don’t, even “in their orientation [they] are like all Christians called to discipleship and to employment of their gifts in the cause of the kingdom.” Thus, in 1973 the CRC approved of homosexuality in the sense that non-practicing homosexuals who never change their orientation are not considered impenitent sinners and are able to remain members in good standing in the church.

When the synod of the CRC adopted another report in 2002, it did nothing to change the official view of homosexuality adopted in 1973. The 2002 report evaluated the implementation of the 1973 report’s pastoral advice by the congregations in the CRC, and it gave further direction to the churches about caring for homosexuals pastorally.

Now in 2013 the CRC Synod has appointed a third committee to study the issue of homosexuality. As in 2002 it does not appear that the purpose of the study committee is to evaluate and possibly recommend changes to the CRC’s official position regarding homosexuality. Because many things have changed since 2002 the synod believed there is a need to give more direction to the churches on how to handle homosexuality.


More to the Story

The CRC’s publication of the Acts of Synod does not give the full story of what happened at synod when the formation of this study committee was discussed. A more complete report is given in this Banner article. The article mentions that several people spoke of their dissatisfaction with the decision to condemn practicing homosexuality in 1973. They wanted the committee to restudy the CRC’s position and recommend accepting not only those who have homosexual desires but also those who practice homosexuality. “But,” according to the article, “delegates decisively rejected proposals to re-examine the CRC’s 40-year-old stance. The new committee’s mandate does not include new biblical or sociological studies.”

The article also mentions, and no report of the 2013 CRC synod should overlook, the antics of Joseph Bouwman, an elder in a Toronto CRC congregation. Bouwman declared on the floor of synod, “I stand before you as a 40-year-old, single, celibate and chaste yet openly gay man, no longer willing to be silent.” He thanked the “denomination for being affirming of somebody like me.” What was the reaction to this outburst? “Delegates gave him a standing ovation.”


Even More to the Story

Even though the 2013 Synod refused to revisit the 1973 decision, I do not hesitate to state that in 2013 the CRC is moving in the direction of officially approving of “homosexualism” as well as “homosexuality.”

In 2011 the CRC Synod rejected an overture to revisit the 1973 condemnation of homosexualism. In response to that decision members of the CRC formed a group called All One Body. The mission statement of this revolutionary group reads: “All One Body . . . promotes the unrestricted membership and full participation in all dimensions of chruch (sic) life by all persons who confess Christ as their Savior and Lord, whether they are single or faithful partners in a committed, monogamous union, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender ( emphasis mine - CS).” This group is aggressively seeking to spread its rebellion against the CRC’s official position on homosexuality. It has a website, a Facebook page, and gives presentations wherever and whenever possible in CRC congregations to promote its agenda.

As far as I can tell no effort has been made to stop the All One Body’s rebellion against the CRC’s 1973 “settle and binding” synodical decision. Those who want the total acceptance of homosexuality are allowed to promote their views in the CRC. Allowed to stay and promote their views, these people will work tirelessly until they get their way and overturn the 1973 decision.

And it just may be that the study committee appointed by this year’s synod will lead the way to the acceptance of practicing homosexuality, according to this report by Rev. Aaron Vriesman. Vriesman makes some interesting comments about two of the members of the study committee.

The selection of names included some notable left-leaning leaders. Rev. (sic!) Wendy Gritter is the Executive Director of New Direction Ministries of Canada, an organization dedicated to reach out to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people who have been disenfranchised from Christianity by “nurturing generous spaciousness in the church.” In explaining this concept she says, “Generous spaciousness costs us our security in our exegesis, our hermeneutics, our interpretations (especially when such exegesis and hermeneutics result in prohibitions for others that do not personally affect ourselves).”

Gritter was also the main speaker at a seminar for ministers and seminarians put on by All One Body (A1B), a group that is more or less the gay lobby within the CRC. Gritter chimed in on A1B page the next day: “My prayer is that through the shepherding model the study committee will be able to open dialogue rather than narrowly seek to answer such closed ended questions.”

Also on the study committee is Joseph Bowman, the delegate who stood up during the June 12 synod debate and admitted to being a celibate but openly gay man. His June 13 comment on the group page also suggested a slant: “I made a specific point to say that both sides of this issue (i.e, “full inclusion/welcoming” and “celibacy only”) need to talk to each other. ALL OUR STORIES need to be told.

Vriesman also reports that some of the synodical delegates interpreted the mandate synod gave to the study committee to be broad enough to restudy the whole issue of homosexuality. He writes:

Young Adult Representative, Cedric Parsels, noticed an agenda at work. “When I was at Synod a couple of weeks ago, a number of the more ‘liberal’ delegates at Synod came up to my table to re-assure some of us young adult representatives that the mandate for the new study committee on same-sex marriage was broad enough to permit a wholesale re-evaluation of the denomination’s position on homosexual behavior.

Conclusion

The CRC should revisit the 1973 decision. It should overturn that decision. It should repent of its sin . . . of approving homosexual desires. The Bible condemns the sinful thoughts, intents, and purposes of man’s heart and mind as well as his sinful acts. It is true that homosexuality exists only because of the fall into sin. If mankind remained in a state of perfect righteousness there would be no homosexuality. But that does not mean that homosexual orientation is merely the “result” of sin. Homosexual orientation is itself sinful.

In its pastoral advice concerning the care of people who are of a homosexual orientation the CRC has encouraged its congregations to be “tolerant” and “loving” in an unbiblical way toward homosexual people. Rather than calling people with sinful desires to repent the CRC has accepted them “as they are” for 40 years. That toleration has given way to celebration. Now standing ovations are given to those who don’t want to be silent about the fact that they are homosexual and do not want to change! This has led to a very logical question, if we can except and celebrate people who hold onto their homosexual desires, why can’t we accept and celebrate people if they put their homosexuality into practice? Today that question is being logically answered by a faction within the CRC that says, “Let’s love and give generous space in the church to everyone who confesses faith in Jesus, even if they are practicing homosexuals.”

It is possible that the current study committee will not propose approving of practicing homosexuality in 2016. But there will probably be another study committee in the near future. Like the Synod of 1973, I cannot predict the future. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the next study committee is mandated to restudy the CRC position on homosexuality. And I would not be surprised if the report recommended approving of homosexual acts as well as desires. Would the CRC synod approve that recommendation? We will probably find out . . . in the next decade?

[Note: When I left the CRC in 1998 I was aggrieved by the 1995 decision of synod to allow women to hold church office, but I did not know about the 1973 decision to approve of homosexuality. My ignorance of the 1973 decision may in part be due the fact that I was born 5 years after the decision was made. Yet, I remain surprised by the lack of vocal opposition to the 1973 decision by “conservatives” in the CRC. I sometimes wonder why they were even still in the CRC when women in office became an issue. If they took the Bible’s teaching seriously why didn’t they leave when the denomination twisted Scripture to approve of homosexuality.]

 

Click here to read Part 1 on the CRC Synod 2013.

 

Other blog series by Rev. Clayton Spronk:
Click here to read about the RCA Synod 2013.
Click here to read a chapter-by-chapter study of The Fruit of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

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This article was written by guest blogger Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Peace Protestant Reformed Church in Lansing, IL. Rev. Spronk will be blogging for us several times a month, taking us first through a brief study of Richard Smit's newly released book, The Fruit of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If there is a topic you'd like to Rev. Spronk to address, please contact us.

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Synods and General Assemblies: Christian Reformed Church (part 1)

Women-in-Office Issue Continues to Cause Division in the CRC

The 2013 Synod of the CRC received an overture from two congregations requesting permission to form a new classis. The congregations desired to form a classis made up of congregations that share the conviction that the ordination and installation of women into church office are unbiblical. In response to this overture the synod made three decisions. These decisions demonstrate that the CRC continues to be troubled by deep divisions over women’s ordination. What follows are the three decisions with their grounds and my response.

Decision 1:

That synod not accede to Overtures 3 and 4, requesting an affinity classis [a classis where the congregations share the conviction that women’s ordination is unbiblical].

Grounds:

  1. The creation of a separate classis based upon and restricted to a single theological conviction will create a fixed uniformity that runs contrary to biblical principles and practices of unity in the CRC (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

  2. This is consistent with the past decision of synod not to accede to the “formation of a classis based on theological affinity” (Acts of Synod 1996, Article 76, C, 4, p. 561).

  3. The creation of such a classis may address the issues of conscience and the discomfort of protesting the presence of women officebearers at the classical level, but this does not resolve those same issues at the synodical level.

Response

The key to understanding this decision and its grounds is the CRC's understanding of the women-in- office issue as an issue "of conscience." The CRC refuses to view the women-in-office issue as an “either or” issue – either the Bible forbids women in office or it doesn't. Rather, the CRC maintains women-in-office is a “both and”issue – scripture can legitimately be interpreted both against and in favor of women's ordination. The CRC refuses to grant, therefore, that opposition to women in office is grounded on the correct interpretation of scripture. The opposition to women in office cannot claim that the issue is a matter of faithfulness to the Bible. Both sides are faithful to scripture. Both sides ought to be able to accept that the other side is holding to a correct interpretation of scripture. If an opponent to women's ordination cannot accept the other view, his objection cannot be based on scripture but is merely a matter of an overly sensitive conscience.

The CRC is committed to the idea that people who fall on both sides of the issue should be able to live together in harmony in the same congregation, classis, and denomination. Does that mean that those who are in favor of women's ordination should be silent and happily accept a situation in which their congregation won't ordain women, that they should be silent and happily accept that classis and synod won't allow women delegates? No, it means that those who are opposed to women in office should be silent and happily remain members when their congregation installs women office bearers, and be silent and happy when women delegates show up at classis and synod. Even if you are convinced that it is contrary to scripture, the conservatives are told, you shouldn't have a problem if it is a woman who hands you the collection plate, administers to you the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, or stands before you in the pulpit.

This thinking is the basis of the CRC's refusal to allow the formation of a classis that is made up of churches opposed to women in office. Those churches should not have any problem enjoying unity with churches that practice women's ordination.

It is noteworthy that the CRC admits in this decision that it does not believe unity requires uniformity of "theological conviction." This is an admission that the CRC believes that unity can be enjoyed without agreement on the truth. There is a difference between unity and uniformity. Absolute uniformity means sameness in all things. Absolute uniformity is not necessary for unity. For example unity does not require the same ethnicity, gender, etc. But in one area there is a need for uniformity – that is in the area of the truth. Of course it is true there is freedom to interpret scripture in different ways where the meaning is not clear to us (although our interpretation must always be in harmony with our Reformed confessions). But where scripture's teaching is clear there must be uniformity of conviction. And scripture's clear condemnation of women in office means that there is only unity when there is a uniformity of conviction that women's ordination is unbiblical.

The CRC's contention that unity is possible when there is disagreement on the issue of women's ordination is wrong. The congregations that want uniformity of conviction in the classis that women’s ordination is unbiblical are correct.

However, in ground "c" above, the CRC synod demonstrates a grave and embarrassing error in the thinking of the two congregations that requested the formation of a new classis. Synod made a very keen insight when it said, "The creation of such a classis may address the issues of conscience and the discomfort of protesting the presence of women officebearers at the classical level, but this does not resolve those same issues at the synodical level." This ground rightly argues that the formation of an "affinity classis" will not change the fact that these congregations will have to live in a denomination that does not share its theological convictions. Thus the synod exposes the shortsighted thinking of those who are opposed to women's ordination yet remain in the CRC. For years they have wanted theological agreement (read unity) in their own congregations with regard to women’s ordination – perhaps we can call them “affinity congregations.” Now they want theological agreement on this issue in the classis – an “affinity classis.” From a classis where they do not have this affinity they are ready to withdraw! But what about an “affinity denomination?” Obviously they are not so concerned about denominational unity. From a denomination that promotes the unbiblical practice of women’s ordination, in which they do not have unity with many congregations and classes, they will not withdraw! The CRC's decision implies, and rightly so, that any congregation that is willing to live in a denomination that accepts women in office ought also to be willing to live in a classis that accepts women in office. Indeed these congregations should even be willing to live with women office bearers in their own church.

The synod's thinking in ground c is correct. The only way to escape the wicked practice of women's ordination is to withdraw from the Christian Reformed denomination. And anyone who is willing to stay in the CRC (thereby accepting women in office on a denominational level) should drop the issue and allow women's ordination everywhere, including in their own congregations. There is no unity or peace available in the CRC for those who oppose women’s ordination.

Decision 2

That synod grant Trinity CRC in Sparta, Michigan, and Second CRC in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the option to move to the classis in closest proximity that is willing to receive them and which they are willing to join.

Grounds:

  1. After Synod 2010 did not accede to the overture to allow the move to Classis Minnkota, these churches exhaustively explored geographically closer options. They have satisfied Synod 2010’s concern that they explore classes of closer proximity.

  2. In view of the diligent efforts of these two churches, the desire of their classes to help them move forward, and the desire of these churches to end the hurt and tension within their classes, this decision offers grace into this reality.

  3. This is consistent with the synodical precedent that allows the transfer of churches to another classis (see Acts of Synod 1995, 2000, 2006, 2007).

Response

In this decision the synod admits that there is “hurt and tension” in the classes because of the disagreement over the issue of women in office. There is no unity and peace between the congregations who are on opposite sides of the issue. Yet the synod refuses to acknowledge that the issue needs to be decisively decided one way or the other. So the synod has made a pragmatic decision. Since these two recalcitrant congregations find it difficult to live in a classis where women’s ordination is accepted, synod will let them join other classes, even if they won’t allow them to form a new one.

The obvious irony is that although the CRC won’t allow the creation of a so-called “affinity classis” such classes already exist in the CRC. There is added irony when one considers that it was the 1995 synod that encouraged the creation of “affinity classes.” That synod gave to each classis the right to declare the word male “inoperative” in the church order article that speaks of the qualifications for officebearers. That decision made every classis in the CRC an “affinity classis.” After each classis made a decision to drop or keep the word male, the CRC was made up of what we could call A and B classes. The congregations in the A classes agree (affinity) that women may not be ordained. The congregations in the B classes agree (affinity) to allow and practice women’s ordination. Having created a situation in which there are A and B classes, the CRC has decided it won’t allow the creation of a new A classis, but it will begrudgingly allow two congregations in B classes to move to A classes.

Synod’s admission that there are A and B classes in the CRC is proof that there is deep division in the CRC over the women-in-office issue.   Its decision to allow churches to withdraw from their classes and join a different one only encourages that division to continue.

Decision 3

That synod communicate the following to Trinity CRC, Sparta; Second CRC, Kalamazoo; and their respective classes:

  1. We commend these two churches for their faithful perseverance in these matters and for their desire to remain in the CRC.
  2. We encourage these churches to seek ways to continue in their current classes.
  3. We encourage these churches and classes to engage in some process of reconciliation, healing, and blessing.
  4. We also encourage these churches to seek ways to continue to work together with local CRC churches to communicate and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in their regions.

Response

This decision is a futile attempt by the synod to maintain and to foster unity despite sharp disagreement over the women-in-office issue. At the same time it demonstrates that synod is not really interested in defending and promoting unity. This decision is an implied charge of schism against the two congregations that want to depart from their classes. If synod wanted unity it would charge the two congregations with sin and call them to repent. But instead of bringing charges of sin, the synod commends the congregations for remaining in the denomination. This commendation for staying in the denomination comes even though synod views the two congregations as the cause of a situation where there is need for “reconciliation, healing, and blessing” on a classical level.

By commending the congregations for staying in the denomination even though they are causing division on the classical level, synod’s decision promotes unity in name only. Unity in name only exists when there are congregations that are deeply divided but decide to stay together in one denomination anyway. That means unity in name only is actually schism. Synod 2013 followed the lead of Synod 1995 that promoted unity in name only when it allowed the classes to disagree with each other over the issue of women’s ordination.

It is sin on the part of the CRC synod to promote unity apart from the theological conviction that only men may be ordained as office bearers. It is also sin to stay in the CRC on the part of those who are convicted that women’s ordination is unbiblical. It is good that they know that unity is impossible for them in a congregation or classis that allows women’s ordination. But when they stay in the CRC despite their theological disagreement with the denomination’s allowance of women’s ordination, they show themselves willing to accept the sham unity of unity in name only. The result is continued tension and disharmony in the CRC.

 

Resources:

The Acts of the 2013 CRC Synod are available here.

The Executive Director of the CRC’s summary of the Acts is available here.

A report by John Van Dyk can be found in Christian Renewal (July 21/August 21) 18-19.

 

Click here to read Part 2 on the CRC Synod 2013.

 

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This article was written by guest blogger Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Peace Protestant Reformed Church in Lansing, IL. Rev. Spronk will be blogging for us several times a month, taking us first through a brief study of Richard Smit's newly released book, The Fruit of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If there is a topic you'd like to Rev. Spronk to address, please contact us.

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