The 258th meeting of the Reformed Church in the United States opened on the evening of Monday, May 10, 2004 with worship. The president of the Synod, Rev. Vernon Pollema, preached the Word of God from Joshua 23 and 24. Therein the delegates and members of the Manitowoc, Wisconsin congregation were instructed to maintain faithfulness to God. Particularly in a time when the difference between the world and the church is increasingly apparent, the church must be certain to know Joshua’s command in chapter 23:11 “Therefore, take careful heed to yourselves, that you love the LORD your God.”
Although we may not usually think of committee meetings, speeches and voting as acts of love for our God, Rev. Pollema’s stricture was apt not only for the RCUS in general, but also specifically for the work of May 10-13. The genius of Presbyterian church government is a mutual submission in the love of God whereby the decisions of the broader assemblies are used to promote and advance the cause of Christ in local congregations. Therefore it is of utmost importance that “careful heed is taken.” The love of God must not only be evident in well reasoned deliberation, it must also be promoted by careful decision. The following review will focus on four particular reports and their decisions in which the synod attempted such careful heeding.
The following review of the synod is not intended to be comprehensive. There were many other decisions made which also affect our congregations. It is expected that by the time the members of the RCUS read this report pastors and elder delegates will have reviewed the events of the synod with their congregations. Additionally there will be the abstract of the minutes of the synod available in printed form or on the RCUS website (www.rcus.org) soon enough. Interested parties from outside of the RCUS may also consult those resources with a thorough account of all the particulars.
The Special Committee to Study Justification
The most significant report which came before the Synod this year was a partial report from a special committee which had been assigned the task of studying the doctrine of justification. This assignment had been given not because of a lack of clarity in the Three Forms of Unity or our common understanding of the Scriptures, but rather because of a pair of uncertainties which have arisen in evangelical Christianity.
The first of these uncertainties centers on former professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Rev. Norman Shepherd. Since 1975 there have been questions about Rev. Shepherd’s doctrine of justification. Particularly, some have wondered about his understanding of the relationship of our good works to God’s work of justification. In 1982, Rev. Shepherd was dismissed from his teaching position at Westminster Seminary because of these uncertainties.
Since his retirement in 1998, Rev. Shepherd has published a small book entitled The Call of Grace, authored various periodical articles, and spoken at a number of conferences. These occasions have made his particular understanding of justification more apparent; and these clarifications have not only caused some limited difficulties in the RCUS, but a number of denominations with which we have fraternal or corresponding relations have ministers and elders who are convinced that Rev. Shepherd’s view of justification is biblically accurate (even if not in full accord with the Reformed Confessions). Therefore at the 257th meeting of Synod there was a general consensus that a report would not only be helpful to our congregations, it could prove necessary for our continuing relationship with various other denominations.
Time has made it apparent that Rev. Shepherd commits some grievous errors in his formulation of the doctrine of justification. He dismisses the concept of merit including the meritorious work of Christ on the cross, even though the Confessions
(e.g. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A’s 1, 21, 37, 60, 63 etc.) teach that Jesus’ work merited our eternal life. Rev. Shepherd further teaches that faith and good works are parallel, in that what is true of faith is also true of good works. Our Confessions, however, summarize the Scriptures in telling us that faith is the only means by which we receive new life while works are the fruit thereof
(e.g. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A’s 21, 63, 86 etc.). Finally, Rev. Shepherd dismisses the active obedience of Christ, even though this is clearly taught by the Confessions (e.g. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A’s 35, 37, 44 etc.).
After some minor additions and corrections to the committee’s report the Synod adopted the following four resolutions:
Resolution 1: That we reaffirm the truth of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone including the necessity of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience as a necessary element of our righteousness before God as it is expressed in the Three Forms of Unity.
Resolution 2: That we find that Rev. Norman Shepherd for many years has taught a confused doctrine of justification, contrary to the Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt.
Resolution 3: Therefore, we also resolve that the teachings of Rev. Norman Shepherd on justification by faith are another gospel and we admonish Rev. Shepherd and call upon him to repent of his grievous errors.
Resolution 4: That the Reformed Church in the United States recognize these Romish, Arminian, and Socinian errors for what they are and urge our brethren throughout the world to reject them and to refuse those who teach them.
It bears noting that there was an evident unity in the adoption of these resolutions by the Synod. The discussion about the report was limited to minor additions and corrections; no one gave evidence of opposition to the resolutions because of a different theological persuasion. For this agreement we must be thankful for the convincing and convicting work of the Spirit, through whom our Savior continues to keep his promise to the church (John 16:13,14).
The full report of the committee, as well as all of their recommendations, will be published in the forthcoming abstract as well as will be available on the RCUS denominational website (www.rcus.org). The committee was also continued to consider the New Perspective on Paul for next year’s meeting of the synod.
The Special Committee to Study the Establishment of a Denominational Seminary
At the 256th meeting of Synod, an overture was received which requested the establishment of a denominational seminary. Synod then established a special committee to consider that request - a study which was not completed until this year’s meeting.
Two reports were received. The majority report recommended that the RCUS move ahead with the immediate establishment of a denominational seminary, designate which seminary that would be, and then create a committee to determine how to fund the institution and what the relationship of the seminary to the denomination would entail.
The minority report recommended that the Synod consider other ways of training students beside a denominational seminary and give the Permanent Education Committee the responsibility to suggest when the time might be right to establish a denominational institution.
There was vigorous debate on both sides of the issue. Those who favored the establishment of a seminary argued that the Bible requires the RCUS to have its own seminary. Further, our denomination has gone too long relying on independent institutions providing us with able men. Now that we are capable of having a denominational seminary, we should proceed with doing so.
Those on the other side of the issue countered that the system we have in place is doing a better than credible job. We have received men into the pastorate from independent institutions who are orthodox and capable. Additionally, the yearly funding required for a denominational institution could be in the range of half (around $300,000) of our yearly synodical budget. And it was also suggested that the biblical case for a denominational seminary was overstated.
In the end, on a 37 to 35 vote, it was determined that we would approve the concept of establishing a denominational seminary. At next year’s synod meeting a committee will bring information about the proposed structure and funding of a denominational seminary. At that time it will be determined whether to proceed with the establishment of a particular institution.
Neither side in the debate questioned the potential effect of a denominational seminary on the future of the RCUS. The RCUS seminaries of the past have done some good but a great deal of harm. It is important for all of the members of the RCUS to be in prayer for the decision anticipated at next year’s synod.
The third report that we will consider together came from the Standing Committee on Home Missions. We currently have nine home mission works which receive funding from the synod and their respective classes. In addition there are a number of other works which do not receive funding, but continue to bring the gospel to places which do not yet have that light.
Even though our established churches are not involved in the day to day work of these mission works, yet in a very real sense we are striving together for the sake of the gospel. Approximately a quarter of our yearly synodical guidelines are sent to home mission works. This is in addition to the amount that each classis provides to the works within its borders. These works rely on the spiritual and financial support of each member of the RCUS.
Later on in this year there will be a Sunday dedicated to prayer on behalf of these works with an offering collected for the home mission work of Calhan, Colorado. We should give generously of our prayer and money to support these works.
In connection with the work of home missions it was also decided at Synod to fund the creation of a series of radio programs. These programs will be designed for play on radio stations in cities where we already have established RCUS churches and are capable of at least another church. It is the hope of the Home Missions Committee to focus on four or five cities, buy time on radio stations to air the series of programs, create additional interest in a RCUS work in another part of the city, and then work with the established church to create a new work. Although this is somewhat different from our recent approach to home missions work, the committee was of the opinion that using this strategy in select areas might assist us in being more faithful to our missionary command.
The last report was from the Foreign Missions Committee. Many of the readers of this periodical will be familiar with the work that has taken place in Kenya and the Congo.
Perhaps the greatest need that is evident in those places is orthodox Reformed teaching. It had been hoped in previous years that we might meet this need through the sending of a missionary. However this year the permanent committee brought a recommendation to send two sets of two men to Kenya for one month each to provide instruction to these brothers and sisters.
At the time of this writing it has yet to be determined who will be sent to do the work. It will not be easy for any of our pastors to leave his church and family for an extended period of time. Yet our God has given us the privilege and responsibility of working with those across the world of the same faith. We do ask that God will raise up men from our churches who will be willing and ready to do this work. Perhaps a word of encouragement to your pastor or a capable elder would be the way in which God would provide for this need.
At the end of each meeting of synod there is always a sense of accomplishment mixed with expectation. There is gratitude for work finished. There is also a relying upon our God to bless what has been decided. May our God establish the work of our hands (Ps. 90:17).