>Synod: Justification

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(Photo and information credit: Glenda Mathes and Christian Renewal)
Delegates to Synod Schererville 2007
Since justification is a hot-button issue, I’ll begin my posts on specific Synod topics with it. Much of what is written here will appear in the August issue of Christian Renewal, along with several other articles detailing the actions of Synod 2007.

Yesterday’s post explained the function of advisory committees at Synod, and it’s important to bear that in mind regarding the justification issue. There was actually very little discussion regarding this overture on the floor of Synod, with most of the debate taking place in the advisory committee.

A bit of background: Overture 5 came from Classis Michigan and asked that Synod Schererville “adopt as our own” a study committee report adopted by the RCUS (Reformed Church in the United States) at its 2004 Synod.

This overture was of great interest to me since I observed the 2004 RCUS Synod at which the report was adopted, I observed the 2004 URCNA Synod at which the justification statement was adopted, and I observed the October of 2006 Classis Michigan meeting at which the overture (now known as Overture 5) was adopted.

At the RCUS Synod in 2004, delegates were united in their commitment to making a strong statement regarding justification by faith, but there was extensive debate regarding the wording in a couple of the report’s resolutions. Debate centered around the use of the word “heresy” and the propriety of “admonishing” someone outside the RCUS fold. It took some time to work out the wording in these resolutions. (The term “grevious errors” was eventually substitued for “heresy” while the phrase “we admonish” was retained.) But the report itself–with amended resolutions–passed unanimously and without dissent.

Classis Michigan was another story. Four churches presented the overture asking for adoption of the RCUS report. It is not an overstatement to say that the overture barely squeaked by. The voice vote was too close to call and the show of hands appeared tied. The hands were counted and recounted before it was finally determined that the overture had passed by one vote.

When Overture 5 came to Synod, it was assigned to Advisory Committee 6, chaired by Rev. Christo Heiberg and reported by Rev. Paul Ipema. Two men from Classis Michigan were on the committee, as well as men from other parts of the federation.

The Advisory Committee began its work by discussing what options were available as a response, and quickly decided to deal definitively with the overture. In the course of discussion, it was noted that one of the four churches originally bringing the overture to Classis Michigan has since withdrawn its support for the overture (Dutton URC).

Advisory Committee 6 held several meetings and brought multiple reports to Synod. The initial report dealing with Overture 5 had four recommendations, the first of which was that Synod Schererville not accede to Overture 5.

This recommendation was supported by four grounds. The first cited a failure of evidence to substantiate the overture’s allegations. The second states that “rendering ecclesiastical judgments” regarding a minister outside the federation “does not fall within” Synod’s “purview.” The third noted that the RCUS has accepted the URCNA as a faithful federation and has not requested our adoption of their report. The fourth questioned the wisdom of adopting lengthy reports on theological or confessional matters from another denomination.

On the floor of Synod, this recommendation passed quickly and unanimously.

The next recommendation on the Advisory Committee’s initial report asked Synod Schererville to “reaffirm” the statement made by Synod Calgary 2004 that the scriptures and confessions “teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.” This recommendation was adopted unanimously and without dissent.

The third recommendation asked Synod to affirm that the scriptures and confessions teach “that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works” and included the answer from Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 61: “Not that I am acceptable to God on account of this worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.” It also referenced Belgic Confession Articles 22 & 24. This recommendation was also adopted unanimously and without dissent.

The fourth recommendation asked Synod to “remind and encourage individuals and churches” that, if office bearers are “suspected of deviating from or obscuring the doctrine of salvation as summarized in our confessions,” they are “obligated to follow the procedure prescribed” in Articles 29, 52, 55, 61 & 62 of the Church Order “for addressing theological error.” This recommendation also carried unanimously.

Two more pertinent reports from the Advisory Committee were distributed to delegates: Report C and Report D. Report C asked for the appointment of a study committee; however, the Advisory Committee requested consideration of Report D first. Report D recommended the adoption of a nine-point statement “as pastoral advice.”

Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen spoke in favor of the statement saying, “When we discussed Overture 5 at Classis Michigan, I was not in favor of the overture because I wished we had something like this–and now we do. I think it would serve the churches well.”

“We haven’t had time to study this,” said Rev. Ralph Pontier. “Are we going to regret having hastily adopted this? We haven’t even voted on a study commitee and we are already dealing with something like the fruit of a study committee.”

When the question was raised regarding the status of this “pastoral advice,” Dr. Cornel Venema (who served on Advisory Committee 6) noted that the language of “pastoral advice” is “clearly intended to say this is not a confession.”

“We are not adding to our Three Forms of Unity,” he said. “We’re not even calling this an affirmation of Synod, but these affirmations are set in the framework of advice. We are offering…some clarifying, some succinctly stated applications of our confessions. It’s a way of serving the churches and the people of God with what we regard to be the key and clear affirmations of the confessions as they relate to this issue.”

Synod overwhelmingly adopted the recommendation of the statement as pastoral advice as well as a second recommendation that this be considered Synod’s answer to Overture 5.

Synod next considered Report C’s recommendation to appoint a study committee “to examine by the Word of God and our Confessions the teachings of the so-called Federal Vision and other like teachings on the doctrine of justification; and present a clear statement on these matters to the next Synod for the benefit of the churches and consistories.”

Speaking in favor of a study committee, Dr. Cornel Venema pointed out that, while reports generated by other NAPARC federations address the same issue, it is important for our federation to examine the issue from the standpoint of the Three Forms of Unity.

“One of the principal claims of those identified as Federal Vision has been that what might be true in the Presbyterian confessions is not clearly taught in the Three Forms of Unity,” he said. “Synod Calgary and now Synod Schererville have stated that our Three Forms of Unity clearly teach these doctrines. We would be well served, not merely to adopt affirmations like beads that fall off a string and lie on the floor, out of context, but to show how our affirmations fit within the bounds of our confessions. There is not one iota of difference between the Westminster Confessions and the Three Forms of Unity.”

Rev. Doug Barnes spoke against the motion, saying, “I’m in favor of a study committee. I think it’s a wonderful idea, but not this one. I think we’ve done a good thing in answering an overture with a series of resolutions, but a study committee should be assigned on the basis of an overture.”

Rev. Ed Marcusse (pastor of one of the Michigan churches bringing the original overture to Classis) strongly urged the recommendation’s adoption, reiterating what he had said in the Advisory Committee meeting: “When the overture was discussed on the floor of Classis Michigan, the hope was expressed that this overture might result in Synod appointing a study committee.”

The vote in favor of appointing a study committee carried overwhelmingly.

Finally, Synod also approved the study committee’s composition of 14 men, two from each classis (including Classis Pacific Northwest, which had been formed earlier in Synod action):

From Classis Eastern U.S. –

Rev. Mark Stewart and Rev. Steve Arrick;
From Classis Southern Ontario –
Rev. Dick Wynia and Rev. Christo Heiberg;
From Classis Michigan –
Rev. Brian Vos (secretary) and Rev. Rick Miller;
From Classis Central U.S. –
Dr. Cornel Venema and Rev. Patrick Edouard (chair);
From Classis Pacific Northwest –
Rev. Chris Gordon and Rev. Kevin Efflandt;
From Classis Western Canada –
Rev. Bill Pols and Rev. Eric Fennema;
From Classis Southwest U.S. –
Dr. Mike Horton and Rev. Marcelo Souza.

The study committee is to submit its report to the URCNA Stated Clerk by July 1, 2009, to allow the churches time for study prior to the report’s consideration at Synod 2010, which will be convened by Cornerstone URC in London, Ontario.
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4 thoughts on “>Synod: Justification

  1. >Hi Glenda,Just found the blog and am enjoying the detailed coverage of the discussions at Synod.I notice that you mention the 9 Points only briefly.I trust this brief mention means that you’re going to cover this important statement by Synod in more detail later. Looking forward to it.Thanks,rscOceanside URC

  2. >Thanks for your comment,Dr. Clark. This report mentions the nine points only briefly because my understanding is that they will appear in a separate box accompanying the Christian Renewal article, and I felt that this post was already a lengthy blog entry. If someone can provide a link to an online source for the nine points, I’ll be happy to edit this post and include a hyperlink to that source.gm

  3. >Hi Glenda, it was nice to meet you at Synod!Let me encourage office-bearers in the URC NOT to do what one of the delegates from Michigan admitted to doing: approving an ill-advised overture on Norman Shepherd just to “get the issue on the floor of synod.”It is our responsibility as elders and pastors to do the work in consistory and classis to make sure that the issues we deliberate over at synod have already been thought out clearly. Overtures that are sent to synod need to be clearly convincing enough and the one from Michigan was not.Blessings,Mark StewartNewton, NJ

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