CRCNA/RCA Synods strengthen denominational union
When the Synods of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) met in mid-June of 2014, they narrowed the increasingly thin 157-year-old gap between the two denominations.
Both Synods met during the same time frame on the campus of Central College in Pella, Iowa, sharing many activities, including meals, fellowship, plenary sessions, and worship. Opening worship services set a tone that focused on love and permeated subsequent meetings.
About 900 people attended a joint worship and communion service held at Third Reformed Church on June 12. Rev. Denise Kingdom-Grier spoke about “the famine in the land,” using 2 Corinthians 1:3ff as her text. The famine, she said, was not of “wheat or grain,” but—as in the days of the Apostle Paul—a famine of love.
“We have forsaken the great commandment for the Great Commission,” she said, urging hearers to “love your neighbors” and “love your enemies.” She quoted Maya Angelou: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
“Can the CRC and the RCA commit to this kind of love this week?” she asked, noting that “we have been afflicted for these 157 years.” Rev. Kingdom-Grier pastors Maple Avenue Church and Ministries in Holland, MI, which she called “the first union church” to affiliate with both the CRC and RCA.
Rev. Ryan Faber, pastor of Faith CRC in Pella, IA, spoke at a joint worship service the following morning from 2 Corinthians 2:1-11. He noted that if Facebook had existed in the first century, the relationship status between Paul and the Corinthians would have said, “Complicated.”
He noted how “discussions at synods can get passionate” as “we think we’re speaking for Christ and his church, but speak harshly.”
“Who do we have in this sad world except our sisters and brothers in Christ?” he asked. “The Ark has often been thought an image of the church. It can stink to high heaven inside, but there’s no place worth being outside.”
During Saturday morning’s joint worship service, Rev. Marijke Strong, Minister of Congregational Care and Community Life at Fellowship Reformed Church (RCA) in Holland, MI, read from 2 Corinthians 3. After sharing stories about sitting by bedsides of saints about to depart for their heavenly home, she noted the “most astounding thing” about the passage was Paul’s use of the plural and singular in Greek. “It is literally when we (plural) with unveiled face (singular)…. Many different people gathered by the Spirit, united in Christ, and transformed into one image. One face turned out to the world, beaming with grace.”
On Saturday evening, delegates from both denominations met in a joint plenary session to unanimously pass the “Resolution on the Relationship between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America.”
The document includes three parts: The Past, The Present, and The Future. The first section on recognizes a history “marked by division” and acknowledges actions have often “fallen short of the mutual love and bonds of unity desired by God for the church of Jesus Christ,” causing “pain and suffering” within generations of families and others as well as a “distorted witness within society.” The section concludes by asking churches to reflect and “prayerfully ask” for healing.
“The Present” section notes the growth in cooperation during the past two decades, affirms a relationship of “full communion” (expressed in ministerial exchanges and congregations belonging jointly to both denominations), and welcomes a “growth of trust” and the “greater effectiveness” that frequently results from cooperation. It celebrates the “new realities being created through expanding initiatives of partnership” and thanks God for current work together “for the sake of God’s kingdom.”
The section on “The Future” emphasizes God’s call to “deepen bonds of unity” and “strengthen…[a] common witness” while acknowledging “land-standing differences.” It expresses understanding of the relationship as part of a “broader ecumenical journey…to make more manifest our unity in Christ, which is both God’s gift and our obligation.”
The resolution concludes: “Therefore…we declare that the principle that guides us, and the intention that motivates us, is to ‘act together in all matters except those in which deep differences compel us to act separately.’” It further instructs the Board of Trustees of the CRCNA and the General Synod Council of the RCA to be “guided by this principle” when “looking to the future relationship” between the two denominations.
Members of local congregations were invited to attend a Sunday evening service, held at Vermeer Pavilion. A crowd of approximately 1,700 gathered for a service of praise and worship. Participants included a choir of RCA seminarians and CRC young adults at synod. Rev. Liz Testa, newly-appointed as the RCA Coordinator for Women’s Transformation and Leadership, led the liturgy. Rev. Peter Borgdorff, CRC Deputy Executive Director, preached and led a memorial-building ceremony, in which 12 people stacked up 12 stones on stage.
He said, “In building a memorial we confess that we are the children of God, called to be his disciples, loved by him, embraced by him, sent by him because he has a message worth sharing.” He added, “I’m grateful that together we are part of a multitude that no one can number, of generations before us who told us the meaning of these stones, that prepares us to tell the story to our children and our grandchildren.”
The RCA Synod concluded on June 17, while the CRC Synod adjourned on June 18.
CRCNA Synod discusses structure and perspectives
Although the denomination that became the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) left the Reformed Church in America (RCA) 157 years ago, CRCNA Synod 2014 moved closer than ever to restoring denominational ties. While Synod focused on that increasing fellowship, it also acted on other CRC-specific business.
Delegates spent considerable time discussing denominational structure and perspective, which some overtures questioned, particularly regarding the CRC’s magazine and schools.
Concerns about recent articles in the denominational magazine, The Banner, had led to six overtures and two letters objecting to the articles, three of the overtures requesting removal of Banner editor, Rev. Robert DeMoor.
While Synod did not ask Rev. DeMoor to step down, it did express “lament” about the articles and directed the Board of Trustees to review The Banner’s mandate and report in 2015. It also unanimously adopted a resolution stating the articles had caused “harm and created confusion” within the denomination, and that Synod had “higher expectations” for “discernment, insight, clarity, and direction” regarding complex current issues.
Rev. DeMoor offered his “deep and heartfelt” apology to delegates, after which he received a standing ovation.
Synod 2014 accepted a Calvin College report on “confessional commitments and academic freedom,” which had been requested by synods in 2011 and 2012 in response to debate about evolution and human origins. Rather than a position statement, the report explains the context of academic work.
During an optional lunch meeting, Calvin’s associate professor of physics, Loren Haarsma, spoke of Christian doctrine as compatible with biological evolution. He said that within the church, there exists a “range of views on biblical hermeneutics, the age of the earth and biological evolution.”
Delegates declined an overture requesting a study committee on a historical understanding of the creation account in Genesis. Calvin’s President Michael LeRoy assured delegates that the school’s confessional guidelines for faculty are accomplishing their purpose. Remarking on rapid scientific changes in the last 25 years, he said that “simplistic options…aren’t very helpful.”
After the CRC’s executive director and director of denominational ministries resigned in 2011, Synod 2011 created a task force to examine the denomination’s administrative structure. Because synods delegate authority to both the Board of Trustees and to boards of denominational agencies, confusion exists regarding authority and accountability.
The task force has requested feedback on three options: 1. Keep things the same, 2. No longer delegate synod’s authority to agencies, only to the Board of Trustees, and change agency boards to advisory councils reporting to the Board, or 3. Replace the Board of Trustees with a Council of Delegates, with one member elected from each classis and 12 to 15 at-large delegates. This Council of Delegates would meet twice per year, with an executive committee of 12 meeting more frequently. The boards of some or all agencies would become advisory committees.
Church members can provide input on these options by emailing the task force: TFRSC2014@crcna.org.
Synod appointed Dr. Steven Timmermans as the CRC’s new executive director. This is the first time a non-ordained person has been appointed to the position. Dr. Timmermans has served as an elder and deacon and for a decade as president of Trinity Christian College. Synod additionally appointed Rev. Darren Roorda as Canadian Ministries director.
A recent synodical decision increased the amount of support missionaries are required to raise from 60 percent to 90 percent, effective in 2020. Synod did not accede to two overtures requesting Synod to reassess or remove that new mission model.
Rev. Rod Gorter raised total support prior to his more than eight years as a missionary with ITEM in Ukraine, and found the experience helped his family develop closer relationships with supporting churches and individuals. But he recognizes that not every missionary has as many connections and said, “It’s important for World Missions to offer support by connecting them with churches and individuals that might be interested in supporting them.”
Although this was the first CRC Synod with deacon advisors present, it was also the first in 18 years without ethnic advisors.
That’s because this year’s delegates identified as ethnic minorities exceeded the goal (25) Synod 1996 had determined as the point at which ethnic advisors would no longer be necessary. Early in Synod 2014’s proceedings, delegates were informed that the position of ethnic adviser would no longer exist in accordance with that earlier decision.
Synod President Rev. Scott Greenway noted a new decision would require an overture or Board of Trustees action. Members of the advisory committee considering the issue were counseled similarly. In the final hours of Synod, however, a motion from the floor to reinstate ethnic advisors was adopted.
Women in office
Six of this year’s 49 candidates for ministry were women and 43 were men. Prior to Synod, The Banner’s Gayla Postma noted that none of this year’s female delegates were pastors or had been appointed to chair or report for advisory committees.
One of this year’s women candidates was Sarah Steen Scheiber. After an interview on the floor of Synod that included lively questioning from delegates, she was approved to an appointment as assistant professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary.
After extended debate and a close vote (90 to 85), Synod moved into its closest level of ecumenical fellowship with the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PCN). The relationship between the two denominations had become strained some years ago, when the PCN position on same-sex marriage and other issues conflicted with the CRC’s.
Synod approved a request for Classis Pacific Hanmi to divide in two classes. This southern California classis consists of primarily Korean congregations, which have grown from 11 to over 50.
The suffering of Christians in Nigeria was brought to the attention of Synod when it received news of the deaths of three church leaders. The following day, Synod sent a resolution of support to Nigerian churches.
Attendees at past CRC Synods may recall Rev. George Vander Weit, a passionate advocate for women’s ordination who continued to contribute to The Banner in his retirement. Sadly, Rev. Vander Weit disappeared last summer. A delegate reminded Synod of his absence, and another delegate led Synod in prayer.
Synod approved a one percent ministry share increase for 2015, bringing the per adult confessing member assessment up to $336.12. Synod declined an overture requesting a study committee to develop investment guidelines for CRC agencies and institutions.
This was the first year Synod offered delegates a choice of over 20 workshops on Sunday afternoon. Titles ranged from Immigration Reform to Sticky Faith to Social Media: The New Church Greeter.
RCA General Synod: Committed to change
For all but about 50 of the 208 years the Reformed Church in America (RCA) General Synod has met, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) Synod has met separately. Although this year’s General Synod was characterized by significant cooperation between the two bodies, including the unanimous and joint approval of a resolution aimed at an even closer relationship, the RCA dealt with several uniquely-denominational issues.
Two years ago, General Synod adopted a resolution calling advocacy of homosexual behavior or performing same-sex marriage a “disciplinable offense,” but last year’s General Synod decried that action, stating it had been done with “a lack of decorum and civility” and declaring it “usurped the constitutional authority” of classes.
This year an overture from Classis Zeeland sought clarification regarding constitutional authority. In response to that overture and because two reports on the issue are anticipated in 2015, delegates voted 121 to 98 in favor of a motion to instruct the Commission on Church Order to begin incorporating into the Book of Church Order (BCO) a definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.
Delegates did not accede to several overtures asking General Synod to rescind the resolution from two years ago.
Transformed and Transforming
Last year’s General Synod overwhelmingly approved a 15-year strategic goal program called, “Transformed and Transforming: Radically Following Christ in Mission Together.”
This year both General Synod’s president and the RCA’s general secretary promoted the program in addresses to delegates. General Secretary Tom De Vries noted that last year’s Synod set the denomination on a “15-year journey on which we are 6.67% complete.”
“Transformed and Transforming was a 15-year commitment to perpetual change.” He called the process a “transformational journey,” saying, “Either we are being changed or we are engaging in change in the name of Christ and for the sake of the world.”
President Carl Boersma spoke of the privilege of reviewing responses to the initiative from churches and witnessing the “consistency of the themes from across the denomination, from east to west, from small and large, liberal and conservative” congregations. “This all confirmed our conviction the Holy Spirit was leading us into God’s preferred future for us.”
The initiative lists three primary strategies: cultivating transformation in Christ, equipping emerging leaders of today and tomorrow, and engaging in Christ’s kingdom mission.
Children at the Lord’s Table
Last year’s General Synod had mandated the development of additional resources and guidelines regarding children at the Lord’s Table. The year, the Commission on Christian Discipleship and Education recommended and General Synod approved several resources that will be available free of charge on the RCA website. Several PDF documents on the website encourage participation of children in communion, including suggested guidelines for Boards of Elders.
Children were also the focus of an overwhelmingly-approved recommendation to more intentionally support ministry to children with disabilities. The proposal will be incorporated into Transformed and Transforming goals.
The Commission on Christian Action presented a report calling mass incarceration “the most critical social issue of our time,” and delegates approved the Committee’s eight recommendations related to education, advocacy, and reform. Patricia Sealy, from the Commission, said, “The tentacles of mass incarceration reach deep” and noted that discussions on the subject “inevitably lead to discussion of race.”
Eighteen advisory committees presented one report on the concept of holding General Synod every two years. The report indicated lack of support for proposed changes, but also a desire for change. It recommended the formation of a committee to create a concrete plan. Delegates approved the formation of a committee to develop a plan and report next year, including proposed changes to the Book of Church Order.
RCA elders who have been specially trained and approved by their Classes may be individually commissioned as pastors for a specific ministry need. The person retains the status of “commissioned pastor” only for the time of active service and must be evaluated annually by Classis.
This year’s General Synod approved changes to the BCO to allow such persons to supervise a consistory, when no Minister of the Word is installed and if Classis approves. General Synod also asked the Commission on Church Order to recommend BCO changes to allow commissioned pastors to serve as delegates to ecclesiastical meetings.
In response to three overtures regarding gun violence and gun control legislation, General Synod deplored such violence during a time of prayer and encouraged churches to pray about it through the coming year.
The initial recommendation for individual assessment called for a $4 increase to fund Transformed and Transforming initiatives. After concerns were expressed about the hardship this would pose for many churches, an amendment eliminated that increase. Later, however, a second amendment added a $2 increase. With increases for other funds, the assessment for 2015 will total $51.73 per confessing member. The amount for a full mission share was raised to $6,300.
The above three articles by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 8-12 of the July 16, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.