“Peaceful, lighthearted” mood characterizes 265th RCUS Synod

Some people pronounce “RCUS” as “ruckus,” which means a noisy commotion, but nothing could be further from the truth when delegates of the Reformed Church in the United States meet at their annual Synod.

The 265th Synod of the Reformed Churches in the United States met in Mitchell, SD, from May 16-19, 2011. As usual, the atmosphere at this year’s Synod was characterized by both careful deliberation and lighthearted camaraderie. RCUS business is conducted in good natured good order.

“This was a very peaceful, almost lighthearted Synod meeting,” explains Rev. Jim Sawtelle (Redeemer RCUS in Golden Valley, MN), who presided over Synod.

Rev. Ralph Pontier addresses delegates

Rev. Ralph Pontier and Rev. Bill Pols, who attended as fraternal delegates of the URCNA, report that this Synod reflected a “deeply rooted sense” of the RCUS history and the continuity of its churches.

“This sense of history and continuity made the election of one of their younger ministers, Rev. Jim Sawtelle, as president a significant transition,” they write. “For more than three decades, the president of Synod had been Rev. Vern Pollema.”

Other officers serving at Synod were Rev. Frank Walker as Vice President, Rev. David Fagrey as Stated Clerk, and Mr. Ted Griess as Treasurer.

When Rev. Pontier greeted the assembly on behalf of the URCNA, he spoke of unity in Christ as a “bold confession,” particularly for Protestants who have often been accused of
destroying unity by multiplying denominations.

“We believe it is a sincere confession,” he said, “…based on the clear teaching of Scripture….  When we confess the unity of the Church, we are confessing that there exists a profound spiritual unity among all true believers. And despite the visible brokenness of the church, we have all experienced blessed sweet communion with fellow believers, even some from different cultures and distant places with whom we share no organizational unity.”

He added that churches work toward cooperative efforts and federative unity, recognizing that Christ commands His churches to cooperate together “as much as language, culture and geography allow, as they carry out His mission on earth.”

Other fraternal delegates present at the RCUS Synod were Rev. Joe Poppe of the Canadian Reformed Churches and Rev. Tom Tyson of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

A report regarding the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN, aka GKNv) raised concerns about the denomination’s interaction with the more liberal NGK, particularly as that relates to women in office and homosexuality.  Another concern was the GKNv plan to revise its church order. RCUS delegates adopted a motion to send a letter to the GKNv through its ecumenical committee, admonishing it and stating the confessional parameters under which the RCUS will continue their sister church relationship.

According to the URCNA delegates, a report by a Special Committee to study Article 9 of the Belgic Confession generated lengthy discussion. The Committee addressed the question whether the language of the translation used by the RCUS is inaccurate and misleading when it states that the Holy Spirit “appeared in the shape of a dove” at the baptism of Jesus. The concern was that the language specifies a dove-like appearance rather than a dove-like nature of the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus. The Committee favored the latter view and recommended changing the Article to directly quote Luke 3:22 from the American Standard Version “and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form, as a dove.”

The URCNA delegates view the important issue as whether the Belgic Confession goes beyond Scripture, and might hinder subscription to the Confessions by some. A motion to recommit this to Special Committee while seeking comment from sister churches was defeated. The main motion of the Committee to adopt the change to the Belgic Confession (requiring a two-thirds majority) was also defeated.

Revs. Kyle Sorensen, David Fagrey (at table), Jim Sawtelle (standing) and Tom Mayville (at microphone)

“The Committee was concerned that the accuracy of the phrase in question was debatable enough to warrant removing it and replacing it with the text of scripture itself,” explains Rev. Sawtelle. “In the end of the debate, a sizable majority of delegates did not feel compelled that the issue rose to the level warranting a change to an historic phrase in the confession.”

On the mission front, RCUS delegates adopted an official agreement to consider the Philippines as a mission field for cooperative efforts with the United Reformed Church of the Philippines in establishing churches, spreading the gospel, and making disciples.

“We have been working unofficially with these churches for several years,” relates Rev. Sawtelle. “But it was judged that it is important to make this relationship official since there has been excellent progress in the organization of a few churches there and the raising up of a plurality of ministers and some elders.”

The Foreign Missions committee of the RCUS will seek to work closely with these churches and move toward eventually establishing a sister church relationship as partner churches in this mission task.   

RCUS delegates heard reports from denominationally supported seminaries and causes as well as a report from the Benevolence Committee regarding the support of needy retired ministers, particularly those with health concerns. This matter was referred to the Diaconal Ministries Committee for further investigation. Delegates additionally voted to provide funding for two needy RCUS churches.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 14 & 23 of the June 29, 2011 issue of Christian Renewal. Photos courtesy of Rev. Ralph Pontier.

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