It wasn’t a quiet week in Palos Heights, Ill., when Synod 2017 convened at Trinity Christian College. With a fairly light Agenda for Synod 2017, observers couldn’t be faulted for thinking it would be a quiet synod. There were no big, contentious study committee reports. No hot-button issues like same-sex relationships on the agenda.
Despite that, fault lines continue to become apparenti in the Christian Reformed Church. This year they showed up in several discussions about how the church carries out its mission to “do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with God,” particularly how and when to do justice.
In his state of the church address, executive director Steven Timmermans passionately defended the denomination’s social justice activity. “Some say the CRC doesn’t need an Office of Social Justice or a Centre for Public Dialogue. Or World Renew. I disagree vigorously,” he said. “We have a faithful track record of speaking the gospel in Word and in deed to a hurting and broken world.”
How to Do Justice
The discussion of how to categorize the Belhar Confession as one of the denomination’s statements of faith brought out tensions. With its emphasis on justice for the poor, some called it “bad theology,” while others defended it. “It is the letter of the law that caused some of the pain and suffering that churches were involved in. The Belhar Confession is about the Spirit of God,” said delegate Wayne Coleman. Synod declared it to be a contemporary testimony, a dynamic statement of faith, but one that is nonbinding on officebearers. It was an artful compromise: one that satisfied the Belhar supporters by declaring it a Contemporary Testimony, while allowing those who have issues with the Belhar to avoid having to sign off on it.
Perhaps the fault line became most apparent in the discussion about Do Justice, a blog sponsored by the CRC’s Office of Social Justice and the Centre for Public Dialogue. What started as an overture from Classis Minnkota (a regional group of churches), caused in part by a missed email, galvanized delegates like few other issues. In particular, blog posts in which authors reported on and explored participation in First Nations religious ceremonies, including a new moon ceremony and prayer in the name of the Great Spirit, were alleged by Minnkota to violate the second and perhaps first commandment. Bobby Boyd, a native American, called putting together worship of God with evil spirits syncretistic. Jeannette Romkema of Toronto, Ont., called the blog “a gift.” Some delegates wanted synod to instruct editors to ensure that the articles conform to Scripture and the Reformed confessions. Others said it is sufficient to encourage staff to ensure that content of the blog articles encourage a Reformed understanding of Scripture. Synod went with the latter choice, but it was clear that there is tension between what previous synods have instructed staff to do and the objections in some churches to how the instructions are carried out.]
In affirming the denomination’s historic commitment to the poor and the hungry, delegates had trouble agreeing. Supported by a long list of initiatives made by the CRC going back nearly 40 years, synod urged members, congregations and agencies to renew the passion to serve God by serving the poor and oppressed. Some delegates wished for more emphasis on the gospel in these commitments.
Even a simple matter of approving which organizations receive the CRC’s seal of approval for offerings from the churches, there was disagreement. Operation Christmas Child (Samaritan’s Purse) was denied that approval because its mission approach is not consistent with that of CRC mission agencies. Doug Aldrink, Classis Wisconsin, defended the organization, saying it is making a valiant attempt in joining the addressing of needs with gospel proclamation.”
Synod 2017 did encourage setting aside an annual Day of Justice, preferably the third Sunday of August, beginning in 2018 to coincide with the United Nations designated World Humanitarian Day.
An old fault line regarding women in ecclesiastical office remains. Even as women attended a dinner celebrating women in denominational leadership, three classes (regional groups of churches) continue to disallow women as delegates. A church in Wisconsin was permitted to change classes to one that doesn’t allow women delegates. And vice president of synod Thea Leunk was the only female pastor delegated to synod this year.
Resonate Global Mission
This year marked the official end of two historic CRC mission agencies, Christian Reformed Home Missions and Christian Reformed World Missions. The two were legally joined in what will now be known as Resonate Global Mission. The agency has a new director, Zachary King, and the two agencies’ former directors, Gary Bekker and Moses Chung, will move on to news roles.
The relationship between the CRC and the Reformed Church in America (RCA) continues to grow. Synod 2018 will be a joint synod with the RCA. Delegates watched a video in which delegates were asked to imagine increased collaboration with current ministries, building new ministries and programs together, or even the creation of a new denomination together.
Presentations by ecumenical guests to synod always give delegates a view of the wider Reformed church within which the CRC operates, including churches that face far more existential issues than the CRC in North America. Delegates welcomed the Christian Reformed Church in Sierra Leone into a closer ecclesiastical relationship, rejoicing that the church survived a brutal civil war. And it heard the struggles faced by other churches in Africa, particularly South Sudan, still enduring poverty and civil war.
We Need Each Other
Will all these fault lines cause the church to fracture, or will they prompt people to reach across the divides to stay united?
As delegate Mike VanderKwaak tweeted during deliberations, “There are those concerned with orthodoxy and there are those concerned with justice. Both need each other.”
It brought to mind the words of retired Calvin Seminary professor Henry DeMoor, Church Order expert who was a fixture at many synods. “Dr. John Kromminga said an airplane doesn’t fly without a left wing and a right wing,” he said, referring to a former Calvin seminary president. “Keep the wings in place. Sit on the plane. Remember who is on the flight deck, the only one in command. Love him with all your heart.”
Despite tough discussions, synod president Cor Pool closed synod by urging delegates to “keep moving forward with humble hearts. Listen more. Speak less. Build oneness and unity.”