Some synods show church unity, others show increasing divisions in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). After two years of the latter, making me wonder if the CRC could hold together, I saw Synod 2018 delegates looking for ways to stay together and deepen the church’s relationship with the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Synod is the annual leadership meeting of the CRC.
Perhaps because it was a synod bathed in prayer, delegates were trying out new ways of practicing unity.
It could have turned out so differently.
Conditions were rife for a showdown over how denominational leaders and agencies advocate to governments on issues such as immigration, poverty, and climate change. For some, those actions cross the line from advocacy to lobbying on positions church members cannot agree on rather than promoting the underlying values we do agree on.
After a rancorous discussion last year over the Do Justice blog published by the CRC’s Office of Social Justice (OSJ) and the Centre for Public Dialogue, two groups of churches (classes) brought requests to this year’s synod to put limits on the agencies that would restrict them to taking up only ecclesiastical matters.
A chance coffee break discussion turned into a lunch including delegates from the classes seeking to put limits on the social justice agencies and representatives of those agencies. That seemed to set the stage for a much more tempered discussion on the floor of synod.
In the end, synod mandated the creation of a committee to provide guidance and support for the OSJ. It will be modeled after the Committee for Contact with the Government, the body that provides the same support for the Centre for Public Dialogue, the Canadian counterpart to the OSJ.
Delegates from classes that brought the objections told me they finally felt “heard.”
Delegates were assured that the committee would include people holding a variety of political viewpoints. Time will tell if that will be enough to keep peace.
Uniting over Abuse Prevention
A surprising show of unity came from a very unlikely source, an overture (request) from an individual that was not officially supported by her church or her classis. Bev Sterk, from Lynden, Wash., asked synod to address abuse of power dynamics in the church. She wanted officebearers in the church to be required to take two or more hours of abuse prevention training and sign a code of conduct.
Rarely does an item from an individual rather than a classis gain much traction at a synod. But this one was different—perhaps because many delegates knew someone who had experienced abuse. Whatever the reason, this synod wanted abuse prevention work beefed up.
The CRC’s Safe Church ministry does amazing work with limited resources, supporting classis Safe Church teams and sharing myriad resources for churches. Synods have for decades urged churches to have Safe Church policies and classes to have a Safe Church team. In many places, that urging has been ignored. While a synod cannot order classes and churches on this matter, it will in future publish the names of classes that fail to appoint a Safe Church team. It also instructed the CRC’s Council of Delegates (which acts on behalf of synod between its meetings) to come back to Synod 2019 with recommendations to address abuse of power at all levels of the denomination.
It remains to be seen whether that will break new ground, but delegates made their wishes very clear.
Still Divided over Women in office
An area that still at times strains unity in the CRC is the role of women in church leadership. Synod 1995 recognized two official positions: oOne that includes women in all church offices and one that excludes them from serving in office. Both seek to honor Scripture.
One classis still registers its objection to seating women as delegates at synod. That can be uncomfortable for the women present. Two lengthy videos celebrating the journey of women into church leadership shown in a gathering of all delegates from the CRC and RCA was awkward for those who don’t believe the participation of women as church leaders is scriptural.
Synod 2018 allowed a church in one classis to change to another because it didn’t want to be in a classis that allowed women delegates.
Because of this and other ongoing issues that divide, Synod 2018 urged the executive director to issue a purposeful and consistent call to the entire denomination to be intentional in prayer for reconciled relationships. It urged all church members to actively seek to reconcile strained and broken relationships even if that attempt is not reciprocated.
Continued Common Cause with RCA
The most predictable actions of synod were increasing efforts to work together with the RCA. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, was the drum beat of the sermon co-preached by pastors Jena Brandsen and Jon Brown during opening night worship of a synod that included joint sessions with the RCA. Each day, morning worship continued that message of unity.
Such actions increasingly undo the damage caused more than 160 years ago when the CRC was created by four congregations splitting away from the RCA. The denominations now act on the basis of the Pella Accord struck in 2014 that requires them to “act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel [them] to act separately.”
A Pastoral Synod
Although it could have been a very divisive synod, fourth-time delegate Ray Dennis, Classis Georgetown, described Synod 2018 as the most pastoral synod he has ever attended.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be rough road ahead, especially on the topic of same-sex relationships due to come back to the CRC synod in 2021. But if delegates and churches can continue to practice these steps of unity and continue to bathe the church in prayer, there is hope that unity can prevail.