Q. Three of our elders, one of whom was re-baptized as an adult, have indicated opposition to infant baptism. Can we still call ourselves a Christian Reformed church? In terms of the Church Order of the CRC and our church doctrines, what would be an appropriate course of action?
Q. The Christian Reformed Church has stated its position on a variety of topics (abortion, birth control, worldly amusements, and more). These statements are subordinate to our confessions and certainly to Scripture. Over time some of these positions have been reversed or disregarded. Does our Church Order allow a church to be expelled from the CRC because the council does not discipline members who do not live in accordance with a particular position?
A. Both our confessional positions and synodical pronouncements are subordinate to Scripture. Church Order Article 1 confesses that the Reformed creeds are “a true interpretation of the Word,” and Article 29 states, “The decisions of the assemblies shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.”
CRC members are expected to respect doctrinal statements and synodical pronouncements. The denomination is also committed to revising any doctrine or synodical pronouncement that does not reflect our current understanding of God’s Word.
We regard our confessions and synodical pronouncements a bit differently from one another. All church officebearers are required to sign (or assent to) the Form of Subscription (Psalter Hymnal, p. 950) as a condition of their participation in the meetings of council, classis, and synod. In so doing they declare that the CRC’s doctrinal statements “fully agree with the Word of God,” and they “promise to teach…and defend…them and not to contradict them publicly or privately, directly or indirectly, in [their] preaching, teaching, or writing.” In the Form for Profession of Faith (Psalter Hymnal, p. 964), all members declare that the CRC’s confessions faithfully reflect God’s Word.
The CRC allows more latitude in terms of synodical pronouncements. A 1975 study committee on this matter observed, “Subscription to synodical decisions is not required. Registering a negative vote with regard to a synodical decision is permissible, although this is not tolerated with respect to the confessions” (Acts of Synod 1975, p. 595-604).
However, the committee’s report says, “officebearers are expected to ‘abide by’ certain specific deliverances of synod as well as by the synodical decisions in general. The well-being of the church is fostered when there is substantial unity with respect to all the decisions of synod.”
How much latitude actually exists depends on a number of things, such as the nature of the issue, the way disagreement is expressed, whether our interpretation of Scripture has changed, and how many people can embrace/live with that change. For example, the pronouncement of Synod 1936 that discouraged birth control was altered by Synod 2005 with little opposition because the majority of our members no longer believe that Scripture prohibits birth control.
The change of our position regarding the use of women’s gifts was quite different. Repeatedly synod denied requests to permit women to serve in the offices of the church. Finally a number of church councils, believing that Scripture allows such service, ordained women as elders. Synod was asked to “declare that churches which refuse to bring their practice in line with the Church Order without delay will by their refusal have separated themselves from the CRCNA.” And it was asked to direct classes “to take disciplinary action against churches that [have ordained women as elders]” (Agenda for Synod 1993, p. 314; Agenda for Synod 1994, p. 338; Agenda for Synod 1995, p. 387).
Synod had the authority to take such actions, and our assemblies have exercised that authority in the past. But instead of doing so, synod attempted to encourage church members to live together while holding differing interpretations of God’s Word.
Our assemblies have the authority to discipline councils who ordain officebearers who oppose infant baptism or who do not support a synodical position. As is true with discipline exercised by elders in the local congregation, how and when that authority should be used is the difficult question. Christians, even Christians in the same denomination, need great wisdom as we seek to live out our faith together.