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Council of Delegates Comments on Justice Overtures

Two overtures (requests) are going to Synod 2018 asking that denominational staff be constrained from issuing statements on political issues on behalf of the Christian Reformed Church. Synod is the annual leadership of the CRC. The denomination’s Council of Delegates (COD) has the right to comment on overtures going to synod, and for these overtures, it did.

The overture from Classis Columbia (a regional group of churches) noted “that when the agencies and offices of our denomination take stances and engage in political lobbying on these complex issues on behalf of the entire denomination, they are purporting to speak with one voice for every member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.” It wants synod to instruct ministry agencies to stop political lobbying on behalf of the denomination and instead “encourage the denominational agencies to continue to use their resources to help members of the Christian Reformed Church think biblically about matters of biblical justice” (Agenda for Synod 2018, pp. 323-330).

Similarly, Classis Minnkota wants the CRC’s Council of Delegates to instruct agencies to “take up ecclesiastical matters only and to refrain from political advocacy,” stating that stepping beyond that violates the denomination’s Church Order. The overture states that political advocacy “brings the divided world of politics into the church, creating further division; arrogantly asserts only one political solution into gray areas where godly Christians can disagree; and confuses the pure preaching of the gospel with mere human opinion.” Further, the overture states, political advocacy applies general principles approved by synod to specific policy positions and elevates those positions to that of the Christian Reformed Church (Agenda for Synod 2018, pp. 319-323).

A report written with input from staff of several denominational agencies, at the request of the executive director, commenting on the overtures was subsequently endorsed by the council. It pointed out that statements issued over the name of a ministry agency or the executive director are not intended to be representative of the denomination. It pointed to CRC’s Office of Social Justice website FAQ section that explains it this way: “When the CRCNA articulates a view on a social or political matter (or when it is silent on those matters), it does so as a broad association of church members, not as a collection of individuals who all agree on everything.”

The report also noted that synod has a long history of providing the instructions for the activities found inappropriate in these overtures. “The COD may wish to remind synod that most often synod has provided the initial instruction behind CRCNA social justice activity. . . . CRCNA ministries . . . have faithfully responded to these instructions and have stepped into the political realm, without partisan commitments, as a result.” It also noted that “our denomination has a history of leaning into an ecclesiology that embraces justice and reconciliation work. When synod provides an instruction relative to social justice action to its ministries, for example, the church assumes that such matters have moved into the ecclesiastical realm given their doctrinal and/or ethical gravitas.”

Delegate Susan Hoekema, Classis Muskegon, said the request for endorsement of the report  “came about partly because of the overtures and because staff has really been under fire this year about the work they are doing.”

Tim Bosscher, Classis Grandville, said that it is possible for a [church] member to take a different view, and it’s possible many people do. “At the end of the day, I don’t question the rightness of what you’re doing. I question the wisdom. I don’t think this will cause a breakaway of churches, but dribs and drabs of people saying ‘I didn’t leave the Christian Reformed church, the CRC left me,’ if they don’t feel they have a voice.”

The COD endorsed the report and is sending it to synod, but only to the advisory committee dealing with the overtures. That means that other delegates will not see it, and it will not be included in the supplementary Agenda materials.

In setting this precedent, COD chairperson Paul DeVries said, “By making our comments directly to the advisory committee (as opposed to public comments through the agenda supplement), the COD can forward appropriate and helpful communications without unduly influencing the process. This allows synod itself, through its advisory committees, to be fully informed while maintaining the right of synod to determine what to do with the information.”

This story was changed on May 11, 2018 to clarify the authorship of the report commenting on the overtures.

About the Author

Gayla Postma is news editor for The Banner.

See comments (8)

Comments

For the life of me, I can't figure out why the COD wouldn't consider the covenant/rule of CO Art 28 in its "comments" (but maybe it does and that is just not reported here?).

If those in the CRC who want the denomination to take up political lobbying for, as an example, the Senate Agriculture Bill over the House Agricuture Bill (as OSJ did), each over 1000 pages in length I recall, they should be up front about it and seek a change in CO Article 28, which in its present language prohibits taking up matters that are not "ecclesiastical."

Synod 2018 may represent a critical point in CRC history, possibly deciding whether being of a very particular political perspective, or being willing to tolerate that expressed perspective from your church, is a criteria for being a part of the CRC.

I would suggest we not only consider our own Church Order rules when deciding these answers but also consider the effect of what happens to churches that "move toward becoming political lobbyists,"  but also the example of other denominations that have done just that, and have thereby become institutions of a severely reduced membership, even if politically aligned (which they perceive as a good thing perhaps?).  Indeed, when the political (e.g., House Bill or Senate Bill, yeah or nay on a proposed national budget of billions or trillions, staking out positions on the Paris Accords or the decades long and infinitely convoluted Palestian/Israeli conflict) takes front and center, the theology of that denomination tends to bend to accommodate and align with political allies. 

At least that's what history teaches us.  

The COD needs to include their report in the supplement to the agenda. Moreover, the COD and the executive staff need to make publicly available the supplement to the agenda on the crcna.org website the day that synod convenes so that all members of the CRCNA can read all supplemental materials. To do any less than this is to make it appear as if the COD/staff are trying to hide discussion and information from the delegates to synod and the church at-large.

The COD argues that "statements issued over the name of a ministry agency or the executive director are not intended to be representative of the denomination." 

This seems to be an important assertion that lies at the heart of much of the disagreement of late surrounding the church's engagement in political and social issues. To what extent do the denominational agencies and leaders speak for the denomination? Is it representing the denomination when our leaders sign petitions or advocate specific policies? The COD seems to be saying no, and I think that's simply incorrect. For example, suppose a person visits our church a few times and then decides to learn a little more about the CRC. They visit the CRC website, poke around a bit, and find out that the OSJ has advocated for a particular piece of legislation, or the ED has signed a petition that includes his title, and the denominational label, that person will amost certainly conclude that these are "Official positions" of the CRC.

Or, look at this another way. How do these agencies/offices/leaders decide which positions to take? They concede that they may not represent the whole denomination -- but do their positions represent a majority? A specific geographical region? An age demographic? Do they survey members to decide what position best reflects the CRC membership? Of course the answer is no -- and so, they are de facto deciding in an official capacity what positions the CRC represents.

It's also troubling that this report will not be made available to delegates. Transparency is what is needed in this conversation -- and I fear that this only reinforces the idea that the COD is an exclusive group that keeps hidden what it is doing.

First off, THANK YOU to Gayla and The Banner for covering this. It's much appreciated!

If I'm reading this article correctly, the report was not actually written by the Council of Delegates (CoD). It was written by a handful of denominational employees. The employees sent the report to CoD. And CoD forwarded it along, not to the full Synod, but to the advisory committee that will handle these Overtures.

This raises several questions...Who wrote the report? Was it a large, representative group of denominational employees? Or was it just a few? Do they claim to speak for all their fellow employees? The article makes clear that COUNCIL OF DELEGATES (not employees) have the right to comment on Overtures. Did CoD forward the entire report, verbatim, as it was given to them? If so, is that really CoD commenting, or is it really a few employees using CoD as a means to pass their own opinions on to the advisory committee? Why isn't the report being sent to the entire Synod? Why only the members on the committee?

In order to clear things up, and provide for honesty and transparency:

1) The report should be made available to all CRC members. If employees of the CRC are using CRC resources to write reports that give their opinion on Overtures, it only makes sense that the report should be available to all professing members of the denomination. There is no good reason to keep it hidden.

2) The authors' names should be included in the report. This will add needed context to the opinions expressed in the report.

3) Either CoD or Synod should address (for future reference) the practice of employees using CoD to forward the employees' ideas to Synod: whether this is acceptable or not.

In the fourth paragraph of this article, the original sentence made it appear that the staff report was written only by OSJ staff. It was in fact written by staff from several offices, at the invitation of the executive director. The text now reflects that. I apologize for the error.

Gayla Postma

I'm feeling the need to clarify a couple of things based on the comments here. I already corrected the error that made it appear that only OSJ staff wrote that report. 

1) It is rare for the Council of Delegates to actually write a report. Those are assignments give to staff, which are then subsequently received by the Council for endorsement, to be received for information, to be amended, etc. In this case, several offices (staff) had input into the report. There was no back door activity here. I am sorry if my article gave that impression.

2) Supplementary agenda materials for synod are generally posted on the Synod web page as soon as it is completed. 

LESS

The last paragraph says that this use of a confidential communication to an advisory committee sets a precedent. They don't want to "unduly" influence the process. The reasoning is odd to me. Classis Columbia publicly overtured synod. Now the staff is allowed to privately frame or influence the discussion in the advisory committee, without anyone knowing the framing. Classis Columbia has no way to suggest another framing because the framing is a closely held secret. The very fact that the staff communication is a tightly held secret not only influences the process, but appears to me even more likely to "unduly" influence the process because no one can challenge the framing of their response.

I'm glad the Council is standing by the excellent work of our denominational staff and agencies. 

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