Playing by the Rules

Vantage Point

In 2009 our denomination’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee recommended to synod that we adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession. To give the churches adequate time to respond to this recommendation and to study and discuss the confession, the committee also recommended that synod make a final decision by 2012. In response to this recommendation, for the past three years individuals, church councils, and classes have discussed the Belhar Confession, and articles have been written about it in various publications.

Recently I received an email stating that all CRC officebearers could sign an online petition informing Synod 2012 that they could not “formally subscribe to the Belhar Confession as a rule for life and doctrine.” The email also encouraged all recipients to “pass the word on to others. Each one reach two or more.” The organizers of this effort hope to secure 200 signatures by June 1, 2012, and will present the petition to the synodical advisory committee “that is assigned the responsibility of making the recommendation to synod itself.”

This is not the first petition directed to synod. Another was circulated before Synod 2007 in response to an overture on undocumented workers—an overture considered by the advisory committee of which I was a member.

Though petitions are fairly common in the secular world, they have no place in the church of Christ as we seek to make decisions on a variety of matters. Instead, individuals, church councils, and classes have agreed to express their perspectives through overtures and communications to synod. It’s disturbing that some resort to petitions instead of honoring these church-orderly processes.

Even more disturbing is the role that denominational leaders play in these efforts. The 2007 petition was written, signed, and circulated by a Calvin Seminary professor and also signed by the head of one of our denominational agencies. The email I recently received was sent by a Calvin Seminary professor, and he and an emeritus seminary professor signed the petition.

Some encouraged the 2007 synodical advisory committee to meet with the author of the petition. It didn’t, and its officers did not distribute the petition to its members or to the synodical delegates. Hopefully the 2012 advisory committee that formulates a recommendation on the Belhar Confession will do the same with this current petition.

About the Author

George Vander Weit is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.

See comments (19)

Comments

I suspect part of the reason that petitions are disturbing, is that they imply a lack of control by "leadership". When the church order was written, there was no such thing as the internet, websites, blogs, facebook, twitter, etc. This enabled those whose time could be dedicated to process, such as overtures, classical meetings, and synodical meetings, and coffee kletses with people in GR offices, to control the process and the discussions. Whether we have petitions or not, this is obviously changing.

It seems that petitions can only be accepted for information in any case. And whether they are officially accepted for information or not, they make their point.

As far as appealing to church orderliness is concerned, it should be kept in mind that the church order is not just a matter of order, but also of "control", and yet in many cases, when "control" is not an issue, then the church order is not enforced. You can check out the Church order for my comments on that, as well as some of Henry deMoor's responses.

I would agree that there is no obligation for Synod to distribute petitions, but on the other hand there is nothing stopping the petitioners from distributing the petition themselves to members of synod or classis.

In my comment below, I said you could check out the church order, but I meant you could check out the church order Forum.

In my comment below, I said you could check out the church order, but I meant you could check out the church order Forum in the CRC Network Forums.

I, too, am uncomfortable with petitions as a mode of action within the church.

Part of the problem I have with recent activities and decisions by the Board of Trustees, Synod, and in particular the OSJ is the politicization of the Church. The Belhar, heavily influenced by Liberation Theology, is in fact a part of that politicization process (as is the inclusion of the Contemporary Testimony in the revised Form of Subscription), tying the Church not to a theological, but to a political ideology.

I have a hard time resorting to a political tactic - a petition - as the answer to this politicization. It seems to me rather a surrender to it.

This particular "petition" is not, however, a petition in the usual sense of the word and it is unfortunate that the authors of it should use that label. A petition makes a request, but this document doesn't. It merely informs Synod that the undersigned office bearers (or former office bearers) would not be able to sign the Form of Subscription should the Belhar be adopted. While this is not something that should control Synod's action, it is useful information for Synod in considering the matter. We should know that, if adopted, we would effectively be evicting several hundred office bearers in the CRC.

I have not signed it, and won't. But neither have I signed on to the Belhar, and I won't do that, either. I'm not so certain but this might actually inspire some to vote for it rather than against it. :-)

I find it interesting that this article is entitled "Playing by the Rules," having been written by George Vander Weit. It is well-known to many in the denomination (and now outside of it) that this author, who now trumpets playing by the rules, was unwilling to play by the rules back in the 90's when it came to one of the issues he felt most passionate about, that of women serving as officebearers in the church. He was MORE than willing and eager to press for Synods to keep taking up that matter, even though no new grounds had been established. So much for "playing by the rules." This is why the author's argument here is yet another example of all bluster and no substance. Sorry, George, but your credibility was long ago shot as you now seek to claim some moral high ground on how things are properly or improperly conducted in the CRCNA.

I'm not sure about Rev. Vander Weit's point. I thought that individuals and groups are permitted to address Synod directly, bypassing council and classis. As observed in a previous posting, the correspondence to Synod is less a petition and more a communication of information.

It is possible that our due process can be manipulated with the result that the outcome is opposite from what was intended.

The petition reminds the delegates that adding the Belhar as a 4th form of unity puts those who strongly disagree with it in a difficult position. Unless the Form of Subscription is also changed to allow room for non-compliance, there will be disunity. And disunity means leaving the denomination, as one of the four forms no longer unites us.

These are serious matters, and we'd do well to err on the side of caution.

George, your complaint would carry more force if you had complained about the silent protest of women in white at earlier synods. I await your companion article criticizing the lobbying of All One Body. Selective outrage quickly loses all credibility.

I'm thankful for the publicity this editorial gives the Belhar Petition that it otherwise wouldn't have. I'm actually quite surprised that some are this concerned about. But for those interested, you can Google "Roots and Renewal" and find a link or just scroll through Returning Church posts on facebook.

Since the article mentions this petition, I thought it would be appropriate to provide the actual link to the petition, for those who would like to check it out and sign it. All you have to do is "copy" and "paste" this link into your web browser to get to the petition site:

http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/crcna-belhar-petition/

Perhaps the Banner will now give (or ought to give) someone like Rev. Chad Steenwyk an opportunity to "respond" to the charges leveled at ones like himself. I think it would be appropriate to let him (or one of the other initial minister signatories) provide the rationale behind the need for such a petition, and how it does not violate the letter or spirit of our "church order."

I'm extremely new in ordained ministry. So, please help me understand this a little better. As I look at things moving forward, I believe the question is valid: What difference will it all make?

It does seem that, in some cases, synodical decisions in favor of certain practices are made precisely because people are NOT playing by the rules. The Church Order, the Confessions (+Belhar?)... how tightly are office bearers (including Calvin College professors?) held to any of it?

I'm not trying to be incendiary here. However, it does seem to a recent initiate that the Order and the Confessions are having less and less practical, in-the-trenches value for the in the denomination, except in a political sense.

This articles contradicts itself. The author says "individuals, church councils, and classes have agreed to express their perspectives through overtures and communications to synod," but he himself expresses his perspective in this space make available to him by the Banner. Okay. This isn't an official communication to Synod 2012 but neither is a petition. Both will be read by many who are delegates to Synod 2012.

The denomination has a very slick pitch video for the Belhar on its website. See http://crcna.org/pages/belhar.cfm. In it, lots of people express their perspective, all in favor of the Belhar. And yes, many who will be delegates to Synod will have watched this video and reviewed the abundance of other pro-Belhar material on the CRCNA website. All quite one-sided.

Certainly, Synod 2012 will have the right to ignore this petition (really, its just a statement), as they will have the right to ignore Banner articles, slick videos, and this specific article by George Vander Weit.

What I think violates our CO rules more than anything else are the efforts of the denominational bureacracy (eg., by its website material) in blatantly promoting the Belhar during a time when congregations are supposed to be considering it. That offends CO Article 85. It would be like the federal government spending tax dollars campaigning for the sitting president. Even "secular" institutions (as this article's author might refer to it) realize how blatantly unfair and inappropriate that would be

Of course, this author says not a peep about pro-Belhar communications. As others have noted, the protests of this author would be a bit more convincing if he was consistent.

By the way, the link to the petition condemned by this article is: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/crcna-belhar-petition/ I recommend it as a means of expressing that is NOT outside CO rules.

This articles contradicts itself. The author says "individuals, church councils, and classes have agreed to express their perspectives through overtures and communications to synod," but he himself expresses his perspective in this space make available to him by the Banner. Okay. This isn't an official communication to Synod 2012 but neither is a petition. Both will be read by many who are delegates to Synod 2012.

The denomination has a very slick pitch video for the Belhar on its website. See http://crcna.org/pages/belhar.cfm. In it, lots of people express their perspective, all in favor of the Belhar. And yes, many who will be delegates to Synod will have watched this video and reviewed the abundance of other pro-Belhar material on the CRCNA website. All quite one-sided.

Certainly, Synod 2012 will have the right to ignore this petition (really, its just a statement), as they will have the right to ignore Banner articles, slick videos, and this specific article by George Vander Weit.

What I think violates our CO rules more than anything else are the efforts of the denominational bureacracy (eg., by its website material) in blatantly promoting the Belhar during a time when congregations are supposed to be considering it. That offends CO Article 85. It would be like the federal government spending tax dollars campaigning for the sitting president. Even "secular" institutions (as this article's author might refer to it) realize how blatantly unfair and inappropriate that would be

Of course, this author says not a peep about pro-Belhar communications. As others have noted, the protests of this author would be a bit more convincing if he was consistent.

By the way, the link to the petition condemned by this article is: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/crcna-belhar-petition/ I recommend it as a means of expressing that is NOT outside CO rules.

Each congregation should have studied the Belhar Confession. After studying most have made up their minds either to make it a fourth confession or to embrace it as being on par with the Comtemporary Confession "Our World Belongs to God". It is I believe the Denominations duty to inform it's members of both the pro and con regarding the Belhar. It is wrong to push only one side of this issue. I believe the majority of our Congregations can make up their minds without Headquarters telling them why the Belhar should be adopted. Therefore, I trust that there are a number of Overtures to Synod telling that body the other side.
After studying the Belhar Confession and comparing it to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Belgic Confession, I fail to see how we can honestly place it on the same level.

As some have said already, I find it interesting/surprising that informing people about your convictions is so inflammatory and against CO. There has been quite the discussion on Facebook about this very thing.

The comment was made that the signers were trying to hold a gun to the head of Synod in an effort to get their way. Let me remind you that this petition is a response to an arsenal leveled at those in the church who do not agree that the Belahr should be a fourth confession. The signers are trying to inform the CRCNA that if the Belhar confession is adopted as a fourth confession they are bound by conscience and will not be able to ascribe (for a wide variety of reasons). Thus, the singers will have been marginalized and put out of unity with the CRCNA.

Perhaps there should be some discussion on what happens to office-bearers who cannot ascribe to the Belhar.

@ Aaron

Too there should be discussion as to whether a denomination should even consider adding something as monumental as a fourth confession by a mere majority vote of synodical delegates to a particular synod.

I know from other posts by this article's author that he rejects out of hand any suggestion that a super-majority be required for ANY kind of decision. In my mind, it would make as much sense to allow the US Consitution to be amended by a majority vote of the
House and Senate as it does for our denomination to add another 'form of unity' via a mere majority vote of a particular synod.

By the way, it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate PLUS the acquiescence (by majority vote) of three-fourths of all states to amend the US Constitution. If that was converted into the CRC template, we would require a two-thirds vote from a particular Synod plus the majority approval decision by three-fourths of the classes.

In this case, I think our government is wiser than our denomination. Of course, there was a lot of Calivist influence in those early days of America.

@Doug-

I think it worth emphasizing that this is not, in fact, a petition. It does not ask Synod for anything. As you say, it is really just a statement. Those who sign it are saying they would not be able to sign on to the Belhar in good conscience and would thus be ineligible for office in the CRC should Synod adopt the Belhar. This is, I think, worthwhile for Synod to know - who are we kicking out if we adopt this?

I agree with George that a petition would be problematic and I would rather it not occur (and all similar political protest type activities - I think they have no place in the deliberations of the church). But this isn't a petition, so it's not a problem.

Not only is Rev. Vander Weit's outrage very selective, as pointed out by others, it is also highly hypocritical.

As to the selectivity of his outrage, consider that in the same issue of the Banner there is an article about a group in the CRC that is dissatisfied with a position and decision of Synod and is taking action (no mention of church order or overtures), including giving presentations on different interpretations of key Scripture passages. Doesn't sound at all like Rev. Vander Weit's article where he says all individuals "have agreed to express their perspectives through overtures and communications to synod." Can we expect to see Rev. Vander Weit publicly express dismay at the lack of church order?

As to Rev. Vander Weit's hypocrisy, not long ago Rev. Vander Weit (on the pages of the Banner) expressed his displeasure with the actions of synod and advocated for a change of position (in Re: Abortion). What happened to Rev. Vander Weit's desire for all individuals to express their perspectives through overtures and communications to synod? So, while Rev. Vander Weit feigns disgust, his disgust is selective and really disingenuous, because he fails to apply the same standard to himself.

If anyone is interested in the rationale behind the "petition" you're welcome to visit the site and read the "Overview."

http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/crcna-belhar-petition/

It was crafted by several of the initial signers as a way to add to the deliberations of Synod. This is a serious issue that has serious consequences in the CRCNA. Is the Belhar the best way to go?

Is not prayer a petition? That's a religious use. It also can create a moral voice to the supporters, as in the case of a petition signed by millions to release Nelson Mandela. As to church order, as the earlier post rightly points out, our simple majority in Synod creates the necessity of petition. The majority can railroad any directive it wants without any consideration for the minority. Petitions give voice to the disenchanted and the disfranchised. Belhar opponents have every right to be concerned about the heavy-handed treatment they have been given over the three year "study". In fact, under the current rules, Belhar proponents could change the rules of procedure to make future change of the BC impossible. Mr. Vander Weit should know that our church order is subject to the same desires and passions as any government. Petition is a fair way to engage those primal appetites.

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