Report on the Synodical Decisions
The mountains that were waiting for the delegates to the 5th Synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America meeting in Calgary, Alberta Canada were of two kinds. The one kind, called the Rocky Mountains, were visible to all and rose majestically in the distance just west of the city. The other kind of mountains were visible to all who saw the Agenda for Synod. For those who looked, this kind of mountain was no less imposing. As the delegates arrived they knew their work was difficult, detailed, and demanding. They also knew the Lord of the church actively gathers, defends, and preserves His church. These truths would be born out in the activities of this broadest assembly of the URCNA as it met June 15 - 18, 2004.
It bears mentioning up front that any church which plans or hopes to host a meeting of our Federation’s broadest (and thus largest) assembly should strive to emulate what Bethel, Calgary achieved. The logistics of the meeting were carried out without a hitch. Within Bethel’s beautiful and highly functional facilities the delegates carried out their duties in comfort and with very little delay. Even the twenty-something minute rides from the hotel to the church and back again were made convenient by a pre-arranged shuttle service.
Meals and snacks were all excellent and one could not help notice the “Dutch” (that is, “strong”) character of the free-flowing coffee. Of course, with all that strong coffee the septic-system company was called out late on Wednesday afternoon to relieve the tanks, but the meetings went on un-hindered.
The 151 delegates filled the foyer with warm greetings on Tuesday morning as well as the spacious sanctuary with robust singing throughout the week. Indeed, the camaraderie and Esprit de Corp was one of the highlights of the meeting, especially given the difficult and sometimes contentious issues that were dealt with. The delegates always handled themselves and others with the honor and dignity which befits office-bearers of the Church. Congregations should be very proud and indeed thankful for the level of godly maturity witnessed at the meeting and that each man strove to always speak the truth in love and to serve wholeheartedly, as if serving the Lord, not men. This Christ-like attitude was joy to behold and to be involved in.
Eighty-four congregations had some representation at synod. Three new congregations, who were provisionally accepted by their respective classes, were ratified by the delegates of synod: Covenant Reformed of Pella, Iowa; the United Reformed Church of Thunder Bay, Ontario; Grace Evangelical Church of Torrance, California. Another congregation, the Evangelical Reformed Church
of Tacoma, Washington which was also provisionally accepted byClassis (Western Canada) became a question to the delegates at Synod. More on this congregation later. Synod noted that two congregations had no delegates at Synod and nine congregations sent only one delegate. Much of the rest of the first afternoon (Tuesday) was spent nailing down functionaries and committee assignments. Chairman pro tem, Rev. Joel Vander Kooi of the Bethel congregation handled his duties with grace and precision. He peacefully handed over the chairmanship to the man elected by the delegates, Rev. Ron Scheuers. An Elder, Mr. Chuck Dykstra was elected as the Vice-Chairman. As noted by the Chairman and acknowledged by the delegates, the Federation was well and faithfully served by her former and long-time Stated Clerk Rev. Jerome Julien. Also, Synod gave hearty approval to the work of the interim Stated Clerk, Rev. Bill De Jong. The Federation was saved several thousands of dollars by using electronic means of transmitting and producing the many pages of documents the delegates would need. The delegates got a glimpse of some of the tense struggles that were ahead of them during the time of assigning committee responsibilities. Since the convening Consistory (in this case Bethel, Calgary) is tasked with arranging these assignments before Synod begins these duties are somewhat “set” when the delegates arrive. However, several motions and amendments kept the delegates and the new chairman busy shifting and clarifying who would serve on which committee and, indeed, if each delegate would serve on some committee.
The delegates wrestled with how to direct the committees charged with advising Synod regarding the appeals that appeared on the agenda. The question with which they wrestled was this: do the pre-advice committees need to first decide the admissibility of the appeals which were brought to Synod? It was decided to task the pre-advice committees with answering just that question of each appeal – the committee would bring advice to the whole body saying yea or nea, this appeal is properly before Synod. By the time these issues were sorted out it became clear to the delegates that much wisdom, patience, and forbearance would be in order in coming hours and days if everything was to be done decently and in good order. Further, the need for the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit was apparent.
Fraternal and Ecumenical Observers
Synod noted with joy the participation of several Fraternal and Ecumenical observers including representatives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church in the United States, the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches, the Free Reformed Churches in North America, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Liberated (GKNV), the Reformed Churches in South Africa (GKSA), the Reformed Church in New Zeland (RCNZ), the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Church of Jesus Christ Among the Tiv (NKST of Nigeria).
There was one Official Observer in the Independent Christian Reformed Church of Ancaster and one Fraternal Delegate in the Canadian Reformed Churches. These delegates spoke at various times during the week and in addition to them several greetings came from other groups by way of letter.
All of this before a delicious dinner on the first day! Your delegates were very busy. But we were also very blessed with excellent food and fellowship, not only at that meal but indeed every meal. After that first meal break Synod reconvened for an inspirational meeting of song and the Word with Rev. Vander Kooi of the Bethel church preaching from Isaiah 52.7 “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings good news.” The delegates returned to their lodgings full and tired. Day one was over.
The delegates began their second day by making it longer. At the chairman’s advice a motion was adopted to shorten the lunch break time to an hour rather than an hour and a half. This effectively lengthened the delegates work day. Later Synod would also lengthen the evening work session from 9:00 p.m. to 9:30.
The first committee to chime in with completed work brought two recommendations regarding an appeal about the text of the New Testament (Appeal 4 in the agenda). The appellant argued that it should only be legitimate for the URCNA to use but one New Testament text, the “Received” text. This member had previously brought his concerns before Classis Southwest U.S, who denied his motion and he was now appealing that classical decision. The committee of pre-advice advised synod in these two ways: First, that the appeal was legally before synod, noting that article 31 of the church order grants the appellant the right to take his concerns to the broader assemblies. Second, the pre-advice committee advised that synod not sustain the appeal of the member. In a very pastoral way the committee said, and synod agreed that
- The brother is confused as to the difference between the inspiration of the original writings and the divine preservation of the text.
- He assumes that providential preservation has ceased with the Received Text.
- His arguments assume that all copyists of the Received Text are infallible and no other could be.
- It renders all non-Received Text based translations heretical.
In this way synod put to rest the concern of the brother that the URCNA ought only to use one text of the New Testament.
Having dealt with the first of five appeals, synod had yet four difficult complaints on it’s agenda. Before the end of the second day each pre-advice committee brought to the delegates advice that each appeal was properly before synod. One of the pre-advice committees was given duties to sort out three of the appeals (and one overture), since these agenda items dealt broadly with the same matter, young children coming to the Lord’s Table.
This same committee was also given the duty to bring advice to synod regarding the Evangelical Reformed Church of Tacoma, Washington (as mentioned above). When this congregation was provisionally accepted by classis Western Canada that classis alerted the Tacoma church about two matters that needed attention by her Elders: one was adherence to Article #37 of the URCNA church order which says that The Consistory shall call the congregation together for corporate worship twice on each Lord’s Day.
Three men from Tacoma were present at Synod. They gave the pre-advice committee a variety of reasons why they were not currently able to be in full compliance to article #37 and assured the committee that they were moving toward full compliance. The second issue of concern for the classis in accepting the Tacoma church had to do with her Elders interviewing young children for admission to the Lord’s Table.
The committee of pre-advice looked at the issues and brought to the floor of synod a recommendation not to receive the Evangelical Church of Tacoma, and gave as it’s grounds: They are not in current compliance with the requirements of Church Order Article 37, which requires two services each Lord’s Day. However, a motion was made and adopted on the floor of synod to table a decision about the Tacoma church until the issue of admission of young children to the Lord’s Table is addressed. Thus it became somewhat obvious that the issue of young children coming to the Lord’s table weighed heavily on the minds of many of the delegates.
As already mentioned three of the remaining four appeals dealt with young children at the Lord’s table. The appeals numbered 1, 2, and 3 in the agenda were studied by a pre-advice committee which brought recommendations to the floor of synod.
Appeal #1 came from the consistory of the Covenant Reformed Church, Grand Prairie asking Synod to declare that its classis, Western Canada, erred in sustaining the appeal of a member of the Grand Prairie congregation who had earlier appealed a decision of his consistory. As you read this you can begin to realize that this was a complicated matter for the committee and synod to sort out. The Grand Prairie consistory had earlier decided to interview young baptized members who desired to profess their faith. This action of the consistory was questioned by a member of the congregation. Having received an answer not satisfactory to him from the consistory, the member appealed to classis. Classis sustained the appeal of the member against the consistory. Thus, the consistory appealed the decision of the classis to synod, seeking to have the classical decision overturned. The pre-advice committee agreed with the appealing consistory and advised the body of synod to sustain the appeal of the Grand Prairie appeal.
The discussion on the floor of synod about this matter took two separate tracks: one was the question asked by some delegates about what authority the classis had to overturn a decision of the consistory on a matter not clearly defined in our church order. There was concern that such a decision of classis intruded on the freedom of the local consistory. The other issue the delegates wrestled with was that of “at what age may a baptized member be granted access to the Lord’s table. The delegates seemed to want to say “not as young as Grand Prairie has done” (as young as 10 years old or perhaps younger). A motion to empower a study committee to bring advice to the consistories as to what age would be appropriate was not approved and the body also defeated the motion of the pre advice committee. Therefore, the appeal from the Grand Prairie consistory was not sustained by synod.
Appeals #2 and #3 were of very similar substance. Both appeals sought to have synod declare that Classis Western Canada erred in regards to the status of a statement of advice given to a man during a candidacy exam in 2000. During the exam, the examinee asked a question for clarification. He asked if signing the form of subscription meant that the signatory was confessing that the Reformed confessions exclude non-professing members from participating in the Lord’s Supper. The advice given was exactly that “the Confessions exclude non-professing members from participating in the Lord’s Supper.” Then Classis Western Canada (Salem 2003) was asked to clarify the status of the advice given to the examinee. Was that advice to be seen as prescriptive and thus binding? Did the advice assume the status of “extra-confessional”? The answer which classis Western Canada composed was that:
This decision is not an “extra-confessional” statement that somehow has special status alongside of our Confessions. It is rather an affirmation of the Confessions themselves on a specific point of their teaching. Therefore, agreement with this teaching of our Confessions as recognized and affirmed by classis has a bearing on Confessional Subscription. Any candidates or office bearers who cannot affirm what classis has affirmed regarding the Confessions on this point cannot properly subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity.
The pre-advice committee agreed with the above statement of the classis, saying also that it does clarify that status of the Classis 2000 decision. Thus, the pre-advice committee advised synod not to sustain appeal #2 from the Grand Prairie consistory, nor appeal #3 from the Grace Reformed Church of Leduc, Alberta Canada. Each of these motions from the pre-advice committees to not sustain the appeals was adopted on the floor of synod.
Having then dealt with four of the five appeals on the agenda, there was but one more difficult matter for synod to adjudicate. This was an appeal regards the Confessional accuracy of a sermon. In answering Appeal #5 synod said the following:
1. Synod affirmed that the Scriptures and Confessions (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 59-62; Belgic Confession articles 20-23) teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.
- Synod declared that the sermon under consideration is unclear and confusing on the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone.
- Synod advised the consistory of the minister who wrote the sermon to work pastorally with him to bring any divergent view that he may have on this issue into conformity with what Synod here affirms.
- That this be Synod’s answer to the appeal.
It seemed as though Synod had already “said” a great deal in answering the five appeals. But the delegates would need to say quite a bit more. As they were prayerfully deliberating the five appeals they were also dealing with 13 overtures, standing committee reports, and financial matters. The men still had more mountains to climb.
[continued next month]
Rev. Harold A. Miller, Jr. is the Pastor of the United Reformed Church in Wellsburg, Iowa.