What I Heard at Synod

Let’s remember how we are the church together.

“We are the church together.”

As I pen these words, Synod 2016 has just concluded. Synod is a primary way the Christian Reformed Church comes together to make important decisions, setting the tone for ministry in local settings and in settings far away. To take the pulse of synod is to feel the heartbeat of the CRC.

Truthfully, there were times during synod when our words and actions suggested we are the church divided. “Us” and “them” language popped up often. Delegates spoke of “the denomination” as some impersonal bureaucracy, at odds with their local ministry. Suspicion and mistrust were evident throughout the hours spent on financial matters.

The atmosphere of mistrust made it hard to work through difficult issues. Until nearly the last moment of synod, delegate after delegate asserted his or her opinion and asked for proof that these opinions would be honored in post-synod actions. Trust was in short supply.

Let’s remember how we are the church together.

In the CRC, authority arises from local congregations. Some of this authority is delegated to local assemblies called classes. Once a year, authority is delegated to synod—the broadest as opposed to the highest assembly of the church. Between synods, the Board of Trustees is entrusted with exercising this responsibility. And the board hires people to perform the day-to day-work. All of this is the church—the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Notice that this way of organizing provides countless feedback loops. Yet what I heard at synod is that there are a lot of disconnects.

Why? In this age of information overload it’s easy to skip over the stories in CRC News or in The Banner, to miss the emails sent regularly to pastors and congregations, to ignore the discussions happening on The Network. It’s difficult for a congregation in Abbotsford to pay attention to the awesome things happening in Allendale, and vice versa. 

Yet the causes go deeper than just the challenge of paying attention. We don’t agree on the place of the Belhar Confession in our life and witness; on matters of human sexuality and same-sex attraction; about whether and to what degree colonial and imperial attitudes were at play in our earliest missions efforts.

Even worse, as we face these challenging topics, we mirror the polarization we see in disturbing ways in society all around us. 

The problem isn’t that we disagree. That’s inevitable when we live as a body together. But the attitude of the body of Christ must be different. In Romans 15 we are reminded of the desire we should have: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Despite the evidence of disconnectedness and mistrust, I’m hopeful—not that we’ll suddenly change, but that a number of things are emerging that will draw us closer, and in so doing help us to better understand how we are the church together, and how together we can intentionally manage the disagreements that we encounter.

I’ll mention just a few:

  1. Classis renewal: making classis meetings places of ministry exchange and encouragement.
  2. The new ministry plan, Our Journey 2020—a tool that integrates our many resources in a way that supports congregations.
  3. New strategies from a pilot project called Connections, in which congregations in regions of four classes experiment with ways of connecting resources for ministry. 

In addition, synod has instructed the Board of Trustees to evaluate and prioritize our various ministries and the costs associated with each. As we move toward a Council of Delegates—fusing four boards into one—the work we do together will become better integrated.

These efforts, plus many more, should help us better demonstrate to each other and to the world that we are indeed the church together. By God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, our steps will be directed, helping us to address our differences so that we may reflect the light of Christ to a world that is desperately in need of him.

About the Author

Steven Timmermans served as the executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America from 2014 to 2020.

Steven Timmermans se desempeñó como director ejecutivo de la Iglesia Cristiana Reformada en América del Norte de 2014 a 2020.

Steven Timmermans는 2014 년부터 2020 년까지 북미에서 기독교 개혁 교회의 집행 이사로 재직했습니다.

See comments (4)


First of all, I agree with Steve on the need for classis renewal efforts. The RCA has done some interesting things with their "Transformed and Transforming" initiative and perhaps the CRC should look at something similar.

As to the issue of distrust, this did not happen overnight. The Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action has often been seen as promoting a narrow partisan-political agenda in the U.S. The Banner has editorialized not only against official CRC positions, but on behalf of issues that would divide us from 95% of the global, ecumenical church. Finally there have been a number of unexplained high level resignations in recent years.

Hopefully, the personnel issues are behind us. There are some early signs that the 2 ministries I mention may be starting to take a more moderate tone. In due time, Lord willing, trust in the denomination agencies will be restored. I would contend that  senior officials and BOT members need to remember how we got to this place, however.

I do not know why the dissention and distrust is so hard to understand.

Our local churches are comprised of an equal number of conservatives as liberals, as many Republicans as Democrats if we are generally representative of our society. Therefore, if a pastor advocates social views from the pulpit that are primarily identified with one party or the other, a significant portion of the congregation will pack up and join another church rather than fight because from the pew there is no recourse.

Likewise, when one faction is successful in getting Synod to approve their social views ie. global warming, open borders, same sex unions etc. half of the membership is disenfranchised and will either leave or withhold ministry shares. 

Many pastors have learned the hard way to hold their tongues on the issues that divide us and focus instead on the spiritual joys we share as the body of Christ. When that happens, individual members are given the tools to decide for themselves the most loving and Christ-like approach to social issues. It is time the denomination learns the same lesson.   

Thank you to both commentators. Each has a good perspective. I have written in this forum (as have others) about OSJ in the US and the Committee for Dialogue with the Government in Canada. These "ministries" make comments about the CRCNA that are not officially Consistory, Classis or Synod approved. The are approved after the fact by an executive decision by the  BOT  at Synod.  The two ministries should form an independent organiztion like CPJ in Canada.

Steven Timmermans' editorial is not strong in mentioning of how scripture impacted the decisions of this synod. Distrust more easily sets in than it is to remove. Fundamentally what holds us together is Scripture. The CRCNA leadership and its ministries must speak in unison with what the CRCNA broadest assembly has made statements on. Where there are disagreements we have a Church Order.  

I have some reservations about the new 30 member BOT. One change that I believe may work better is that the Executive Director of each agency has more incentive to work with their colleagues and the ED of the Denomination should have a keen sense that these ministries follow the approved decisions of synod.

The United Reformed Churches of England have recently allowed each congreagetion to decide for itself how to deal with same sex unions.This will be the end of that denomination as it is known to day. For a  North American example refer the Unted Church of Canada. These churches become highly individualized and social groups who simple follow the "ways of the world".

I have some fear of the use of symbols in our churches that clearly state an opinion (contrary what the the CRCNA position is) just to ensure people attending these churches know where they stand. Edward Gabrielse make a very good point about pastors not being able to voice an opinion in their congragtions but when they attend classis or synod they vote in a way that surprises many in the pew. This lack of integrity (of both churches and pastors) is a large part of what causes mistrust.

To Steven Timmermans last comment I would add tafter "the light of Christ ... as reflected in the scriptures....... Many religions have Chrust as a prophet but do not believe in the "word made flesh".

What would make people discuss the "degree colonial and imperial attitudes" may have affected missionaries?

I've read missionary biographies. They were led by the holy spirit to see the mission field as ripe for harvest.

They responded to Jesus with self denying devotion.  You can't better that.

This smells fishy... is some one trying to paint them with the rhetoric of Colonialism?   That is not fair.