Christian Reformed Church Agenda for Synod, 2003

For those interested in the Christian Reformed Church the annual agenda provides a good read. Unfortunately most of the copies will go unread. There are some 443 pages in this year’s Agenda for Synod. One can hardly summarize them within the confines of a short article, but the following are some highlights with a bit of commentary. This year’s agenda, like other years consists of two parts. The first is the reports of various agencies and study committees. The second is overtures and communications from the classis and the churches. With respect to the reports of the various agencies and study committees the work of synod has been reduced to a ceremonial function. While we claim to be “Protestants” vigorous debate and protestation in the Synod has been largely silenced. The decisions have already been made in board meetings, committee meetings or in the collegial halls of the denominational building. Synod is simply being asked to approve the requests as presented. Vigorous debate on these reports and requests has diminished significantly in recent years.

The Board of Trustees

The Board of Trustees report notes that again, Synod will have women advisors and ethnic advisors. It is interesting that women advisors were appointed while ethnic advisors were not. It has been difficult to find ethnic advisors and the program has not been an unqualified success even though the BOT is recommending that Synod continue the practice for an additional five years.

In anticipation of Synod 2005 it is being recommended that a review committee be appointed of the “appropriate balance” of men and women to review the “classical-local” option of women in office. After eight years only twenty-one of the forty-seven classes have approved declaring the word male “inoperative” in the Church Order. Some must be distressed by the tenacity with which a majority of the churches and classes cling to the clear teaching of Scripture. After 2005 the freedom to be obedient on this issue may not be tolerated.
The Judicial Code Procedure was reviewed as the consequence of an employee termination. The BOT is recommending that employees of “an agency, board or committee”, do not have the right to use the judicial code to bring an appeal against “an agency board or committee”. This insulates the bureaucracy from ecclesiastical judicial action and makes the BOT the final arbiter in the appeals procedure. Since the BOT is also the de facto employer, this can hardly be construed as a victory for workers rights to fairness and justice. The committee on social justice was strangely quiescent on this matter.

The BOT is presently engaged in a Denominational Ministries Review with various agencies and educational institutions. The report presented to the February 2002 board meeting is being reviewed and responses will be received at the Fall 2003 board meeting. An interesting study in itself would be a review of the vision statements, restructuring documents and other grandiose plans that have been foisted on the denomination over the past three decades. Recall “Key 73” in which the burning issue was whether or not churches grow along “homogeneous” lines. It seems we spend an inordinate amount of time producing definitive pronouncements that are promptly ignored.

The BOT is presently engaged in a Denominational Ministries Review with various agencies and educational institutions. The report presented to the February 2002 board meeting is being reviewed and responses will be received at the Fall 2003 board meeting. An interesting study in itself would be a review of the vision statements, restructuring documents and other grandiose plans that have been foisted on the denomination over the past three decades. Recall “Key 73” in which the burning issue was whether or not churches grow along “homogeneous” lines. It seems we spend an inordinate amount of time producing definitive pronouncements that are promptly ignored.

of United Airlines, Kmart and Arthur Andersen, and in view of the checkered financial past of the CRC’s investments in IRM, it is puzzling why we continue to be so enchanted by the executive structures of corporate America. Endless reviews, reports and hours may be spent tweaking the bureaucracy, but will that cause our children to be faithful, our families to be strengthened. Will this increase our faith? The church is not a business. It is unlikely that a revised corporate structure will stem the denomination’s decline.

In many ways the Board of Trustees has become a surrogate Synod and has usurped the prerogatives and functions that once belonged to broadest ecclesiastical assembly of the church. For example, this past February a “pastoral letter” (Appendix K. p. 85) was sent to the church by the BOT urging the churches to reflect and discuss matters of war and peace particularly with respect to the U.S. policy in Iraq. Curiously it was signed by the chairman who is not a pastor. It was filled with the requisite platitudes about love, justice, peace and reconciliation but fell a bit short of openly declaring that the BOT did not approve of President Bush’s foreign policy. What was especially annoying was that the BOT which is not an ecclesiastical assembly presumed an authority which it does not possess.

Pastoral letters should come from consistories, pastors, classis or synod. The pulpits and members of our churches do not need pretentious pastoral letters from denominational boards.

Committee Reports

Since a number of people are now engaged in pastoral vocations not related to the parish ministry there is an extended report of the Chaplaincy Ministries Study Committee. The Office of Chaplain Ministries will be supervising the increasing number of chaplains functioning in institutional and military settings. Reports from the Office of Abuse Prevention, and the Directors of the offices of Disability Concerns, Pastor-Church Relations, Race Relations, and Social Justice and Hunger Action are also included in the Agenda There is as well a press release noting that the CRC had received a grant from the Lilly Foundation regarding Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.

Mission Boards

The Home Missions report noted the commitment of the denomination to Church Planting. The historic and most successful way this was done was through local “mother” churches establishing “daughter” congregations. There is a different approach now with new church developers planting churches that are more isolated from other established churches.

Twenty years ago in 1983 the total number of churches was 828 and the total membership was 299,685. Now there are 995 churches and the total membership is 278,798. That means 167 more churches are serving some 20,887 fewer members. The report also notes that the total net denominational growth was 542 persons, yet the total membership in 2001 was 278,944 and in 2002 it was 278,798 which translates into a decrease of 142 members. It seems these statistics are not as optimistic as they first appear.

World Missions reported on the work in Cuba, the Philippines and various field partnerships in other parts of the world. Since 9/11 there is a heightened awareness of security for our missionaries. It is apparent that this world is not a friend to grace. There remains an increased need for those who are willing to commit their lives to serving the Lord on mission fields throughout the world. CRWRC also faces many of these same challenges as it seeks to bring Christian mercy to those in need.

Pensions and Insurance

The office of Pensions and Insurance reported on some proposed changes in the Minister’s Pension Plan. One of the changes is to farm out the disability portion of the plan to outside private carriers. This relieves the trustees of the headache of dealing with questions related ministerial disability benefits. It may also relieve them of dealing with ministers who may have a touch of hypochondria. The pension plan also reported a loss of 10.5%, some 13 million (U.S. dollars), and 4.4%, approximately 1.8 million (Canadian dollars) in the market value of their portfolios. This is hardly a stellar performance on the part of the investment managers, but the market has been depressed this past year.

Study Committees

There are two sizable study committee reports. Both are worth reading. The first is on issues raised by Bioscience and Genetic Engineering and the second is on Christian Day School Education. The study committee report on Genetic Engineering deals with a broad range of ethical questions regarding issues as diverse as abortion, invitro fertilization, genetic engineering and birth control. With the progress of modern science we are increasingly confronted with ethical problems regarding reproductive technology, stem cell research and a host of other questions. Hopefully this report will be helpful in sorting out some of these issues from a biblical perspective.

The second study committee report is on Christian Day School Education. It provides a foundation why churches should seek to support our children’s Christian Day School education through covenantal giving plans. This is commendable and long overdue. One of the problems, however, is that some of our Christian Schools are losing their distinctively reformed character. Many students are from non-reformed churches and some schools are acquiescing to allowing non-reformed teachers and non-reformed members on the Board. When there are widely divergent views among the students and in the Boards, inevitably this leads to a weakening of the historic ties that have existed between the Church and the Christian School. We have not clearly defined whether the Christian School should be primarily for our covenant children or whether it should be considered an evangelistic outreach effort. The report partially addresses some of these concerns and is worthy of a careful reading. Overture 9 from Classis Lake Superior also addresses similar concerns about this committee report.

Board of Publications

The main concern of the Board of Publications report is the future of The Banner. In the past few years the magazine has declined from a weekly, to a bi-weekly, to a monthly publication. Obviously it is not generating the interest or touching the hearts of its readership as it once did. It is estimated that within five years the magazine will not be able to sustain itself. The proposed solution to this problem is incorporating the cost of The Banner into ministry shares and sending it to every household in the denomination. This would effectively turn The Banner into a mouthpiece for the bureaucracy, and provide job security for those who have failed to reach or to cultivate The Banner’s readership.

If Synod is serious about “earth keeping” it should not be looking for ways to increase junk mail. There are other alternatives which could be explored, one of which would be to hire some people trained in journalism who are more interested in good copy than in high quality paper, color pictures, graphic design and collecting awards from printers and religious publishers. If one considers the success of a magazine like World it can be done.

Overtures

There are eleven overtures in this year’s agenda dealing with issues as diverse as ”restorative” justice, reviewing the CRC’s position on women in office, birth control, Christian education, the report on genetic engineering, First Toronto and the ordination of homosexuals, withdrawing membership in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and one issue which has been dealt with in previous synods, i.e., the casting of lots in the selection of office-bearers.

The first overture from Classic B.C. on “restorative” justice reads like a term paper in an ethics class. It overlooks individual responsibility and tends to categorize crime in communal terms. With all of its talk about “justice” it offers no helpful definition. I prefer the simple yet elegant definition which the late Professor Henry Stob once offered in class, “justice is getting one’s due”. This overture sounds like a pretext for creating another denominational office.

The overture on withdrawing from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches rightly points out the incongruity of holding ecclesiastical membership in an organization that allows heretics within its ranks. Since being expelled fromNAPARC we found ourselves in an ecumenical wilderness so WARC became the alternative. One does not crawl into a bear’s den to get out of the cold.

The most pressing issue that this Synod may have to face is the question of Overture 4 and whether it will apply special discipline to the Council of First Toronto for permitting the ordination of practicing homosexuals to church office. Some will contend that the position of First Toronto is a logical consequence of the women’s ordination issue and the arguments used to support this are the same arguments used to support women’s ordination. It will be interesting to see if Synod will have the corporate will to uphold the scripture, and its own decisions and take decisive disciplinary action in this case.

Synod 2003 is not yet history. Pray that the Lord may give wisdom and discernment to the delegates, that the decisions made will be pleasing in His sight, and that He will be merciful to the Christian Reformed Church.

Rev. Richard J. Blauw is the Pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois.

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