I have been to eleven synods now, not quite as many as Banner Editor Bob De Moor (see p. 53). I have heard many delegates at many synods talk about unity. I have watched synods craft odd solutions in attempts to create unity. It often seemed like so much lip service.
So it was immensely gratifying to watch this year’s synod not just talk about unity but put it on display as a model for our churches.
Synod watchers knew this had the potential to be an explosive, divisive gathering. After all, as the Christian Reformed Church celebrated its 150th birthday (p. 40), it was poised to finally remove the word male from the Church Order requirements for our ordained leaders (p. 28). But at what cost?
The debate about women in church office has been going on most of my adult life (nearly 30 years). It has divided families and fractured churches. We have wept over the loss of many members from our ranks.
Two leaders of our denomination who hold opposite positions on this issue were both delegated to Synod 2007. Rev. Joel Nederhood, Classis Illiana, has publicly and consistently opposed the ordination of women on biblical grounds. Rev. George Vander Weit, Classis Grand Rapids East, has just as consistently and publicly fought for full inclusion of women at all levels of the church, also based on biblical grounds.
So the stage was set. But what could have been a pitched battle was instead a quiet, respectful resolution to decades of strife.
Putting unity ahead of all else was evident when Nederhood supported a recommendation to take the word male out of the Church Order, and when Vander Weit supported a recommendation to allow individual classes (regional groups of churches) to refuse to seat women as delegates at their meetings.
Several times delegates set aside differences on a variety of issues, making room for the views of others:
- Making room meant allowing a church in Minnesota to switch to a classis that doesn’t allow women to be seated as delegates (p. 29).
- Making room meant repenting of a past synod’s decision that had racist overtones, and renewing a commitment to racial reconciliation (p. 39).
- Making room meant a classis apologizing to Hispanic brothers and sisters when a report it released had the opposite effect of what was intended. (p. 34) As Rev. Ken Baker said, “It has become painfully evident that our desire to be God’s diverse, unified family is difficult to implement. Even in our best moments we hurt each other. . . . We pray that through this we will become a stronger family.”
- Making room meant asking the new committee of Faith Formation to look at how to deal pastorally with people who request infant dedications and waiting until that same committee has done its work before deciding whether baptized children may take communion without a profession of faith (p. 32).
- Making room meant allowing pastors and church planters of emerging churches to have a vote at classis (p. 37).
- Making room meant expanding the role of ministry associates to allow more leaders to fill pastoral roles without traditional theological education (p. 36).
On Sunday afternoon, almost 13,000 people tasted that unity as they worshiped and took part in the Lord’s Supper together.
Nederhood opened synod’s Monday-morning session with a brief meditation on Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, stressing the unity of the body of Christ. The president of synod, Rev. Joel Boot, closed synod on Friday afternoon with the same passage.
That thread of unity, that sense of being one, ran through the whole week. “Despite divergence of opinion . . . we were one in [Jesus’] love,” Boot said. “We go home exhausted from our work of unity. Jesus died on the cross for it. Never ever did anything cost this much. But we have it.”
Elder Henry Baron, who served as synod’s First Clerk, addressed delegates at the end of the week. He told them he’d been asked, “Why do you want to go to synod? That’s like spending a week in Purgatory!”
Baron quipped that there were indeed some purgatorial moments over the past week, but continued, “I want to tell those people, ‘You should have been here because you missed a taste of [God’s] kingdom. You missed a taste of kingdom people . . . reaching across all the divisions of skin color, gender, and convictions in our common mission of bringing the good news to the world.’”