After two days of painful debate, Synod 2008 ended the Christian Reformed Church’s formal relationship with the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PCN), but it also declared a desire to keep talking.
The problem delegates ran into was that under the CRC’s new ecumenical charter, there are no formal options between moving closer to the PCN (full ecclesiastical fellowship) or moving further away from it (a category called “churches in dialogue”).
Some delegates wanted the CRC to move into full ecclesiastical fellowship with the PCN, the closest relationship possible with another denomination.
Others felt that was moving too close to a denomination with which the CRC has important theological disagreements. Those delegates sought some kind of restricted relationship, not as close as ecclesiastical fellowship but not as distant as the category of churches in dialogue.
Once synod turned down both options, there were no formal categories left.
So synod instructed the CRC’s Interchurch Relations Committee to figure out some way to keep the two denominations talking.
The PCN is a new denomination of 3.2 million members, formed after the merger of three Dutch churches. One of those three is the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN), or the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, considered by many to be the mother or sister church of the CRC in North America.
Prior to the merger the GKN was in ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRC, but with restrictions. That status was continued with the new denomination until this year, although the new ecumenical charter does not allow for such distinctions.
Many delegates urged the CRC to enter into full ecclesiastical fellowship with the new denomination. They pointed out that despite problems with theology in the PCN, many people in that church are working toward spiritual renewal.
“When renewal is happening, that is not the time to drop a closer relationship,” said Rev. Lynn Likkel, Classis Grand Rapids East. “We need to walk alongside people, love people into the kingdom.”
Elder Victoria Gibbs, Grand Rapids East, also spoke in favor of a closer relationship. “It’s hard work to hang out with people on the other side of the fence, but it feels more rewarding to be a testimony to God’s grace than running away from those opportunities.”
Or Move Apart?
The sticking point for many other delegates about moving into such a close relationship is that the CRC’s relationship with the former GKN had been strained for more than two decades over differences about biblical interpretation and acceptance of homosexual practices by the GKN. Many pointed out that those differences were never resolved.
“Is there really a change in the GKN in their hermeneutical understanding?” asked Rev. Reginald Smith, Classis Grand Rapids South. “If it hasn’t changed, why should we now restore [a relationship]?”
With no options between moving closer or moving further apart, delegates were left with having no formal relationship at all.
While Synod 2008 cut the CRC’s formal ties with the Dutch church, it asked the CRC’s Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) to develop a “mutually acceptable process to work with the PCN toward a long-term relationship.”
No one is sure what that kind of relationship would look like, or if it would be acceptable or desirable to the PCN.
Rev. William Koopmans, chair of the IRC, characterized the new relationship as a tenuous one. “They are not in the boat [with us], but we’re still hanging on,” he said. “Our hand is out of the boat, and we’re holding them by the wrist, and we’re saying we are trying to find a way to travel together and work together.”