Thoughts on Synod 2012

I was a delegate from Classis Rocky Mountain to the 2012 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. It met from June 8-14 at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. Several major items were before Synod this year: the Belhar Confession, a new Covenant for Officebearers to replace the old Form of Subscription, and the report of the Creation Stewardship Study Committee. I’ll comment on each of these and a few other issues that were before synod.

While Synod 2012 had many potentially contentious issues before it, it is remarkable that there was not a single minority report from any of the advisory committees. Apparently, the advisory committees reflected the composition of the synod and they worked hard to tweak the recommendations that originally came from the various standing committees, special committee, and task forces so that there could be one largely united voice from synod. This resulted in significant changes made to all the major reports, but in the end Synod 2012 followed the advisory committees’ advice.

The Belhar Confession

Synod 2009 had proposed adoption of the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession equal to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort to be voted upon at Synod 2012. The Ecumenicity and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC) helped the church study the Belhar in the intervening years and advocated for its adoption. The Belhar Confession arises out of the Reformed churches in South  Africa in the context of divisions in the church on the basis of racial and ethnic differences caused by apartheid. The Belhar focuses on themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice. Interestingly, the anticipated vote on whether to make the Belhar Confession a fourth confession for the CRC generated a near record number of overtures from the classes and from individual church councils. Overwhelmingly, the overtures came in opposed to adopting the Belhar as a fourth confession and many calling for its adoption as a testimony (something official, but less binding than a confession).

So, what were the criticisms of the Belhar? One criticism was that it was too narrow in scope to have the status of a confession. It does not contain a comprehensive summary of the Christian faith or of the gospel of Jesus Christ like the other three confessions/catechisms. Also, it is very much rooted in the South African situation. While it is clear that it is their confession, it was not so clear that it would be our confession even though we fully support the general themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice. There were also some questions about some particular sentences/phrases in the Belhar. One statement causing some concern was “…we reject any doctrine which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.” This statement in the Belhar has been used by one of the authors of the document to promote the acceptance of practicing homosexuals and same gender marriages in the church. Synod 2009 disavowed this application by saying “the Belhar Confession does not negate the biblically derived statements of synod on homosexuality, including those of 1973 and 1996.” But the concern remained. Other statements causing some concern was “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged” and that “the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” To some these statement sounded like Liberation Theology which interprets the Christian faith “in terms of liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions” (Wikipedia). Most theologians in the CRCNA would regard Liberation Theology as a theological error.

In the end the Advisory Committee sensed that if Synod 2012 were to take a vote on whether or not to adopt the Belhar as a fourth confession that it would fail. But they also sensed that Synod 2012 wanted to endorse the Belhar in some manner, so they took up one of the recommendations that came in one of the overtures, that the Belhar Confession be adopted as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, a newly created official category. This would be similar, although not identical to the status of the Contemporary Testimony “Our World Belongs to God” — adopted by synod as a faith statement but less than a confession to which officebearers must agree. Synod 2012 adopted the Advisory Committee’s recommendations, creating the Ecumenical Faith Declaration category and adopting the Belhar Confession as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration. Interestingly, while some of the materials that were to accompany the Belhar Confession if adopted as a confession (according to the original EIRC recommendation) accompany it as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, the prefatory sentences

Synod further observes that, as a faithful witness to Scripture, the Belhar Confession does not negate the biblically derived statements of synod on homosexuality, including those of 1973 and 1996. Finally, synod recognizes that injustice and enmity between peoples are two dimensions of all-pervasive human sinfulness, for which every human being needs Jesus Christ as Savior.

are now not included.

The Advisory Committee also recommended that Synod form a Task Force to study exactly what we mean when we adopt something as a confession to report in 2015 at which time we would reconsider the Belhar Confession in light the findings of the Task Force. That recommendation was not adopted by Synod 2012.

Covenant for Officebearers

The current Form of Subscription that officebearers (ministers, ministry associates, now commissioned pastors, elders, deacons) in the CRC sign has been unchanged for nearly 400 years. Several years ago the church determined to update the language so this document would be taken more seriously and would be more useful to the churches. Two major revision committees, several synods where there was intense debate on the revision committees’ recommendations, and discussion in the classes and in the churches have now resulted in a new Covenant for Officebearers finally being adopted by Synod 2012. The second revision committee came back with a proposal in 2011 that was very similar to the original form of subscription but in modern, more celebratory language and much more pastoral toward those officers who have some disagreements with the confessions of the church. Synod 2011 asked that the new Covenant for Officebearers demonstrate even more commitment to the creeds and confessions of the church.  The revision committee made some of the suggested changes but not all, the Advisory Committee put in the remaining changes suggested by Synod 2012. The new Covenant for Officebears as adopted by Synod 2012 now contains a very strong commitment to the creeds and confessions.

The Form of Subscription Revision Committee II made a few changes at the request of Synod 2011. These were incorporated into the final adopted document:

which proclaims the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of all things in him.

in the opening sentence was replaced by

which proclaims the good news of God’s creation and redemption through Jesus Christ.

because the former was thought to suggest universalism.

Grateful for these expressions of faith, we promise to be formed and governed by them, conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.

in the fourth paragraph was changed to include the stronger language

Grateful for these expressions of faith, we promise to be formed and governed by them. We heartily believe and will promote their doctrines faithfully, conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.

The Advisory Committee made a few additional changes all of which were incorporated in the final adopted version.

The phrase

whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God

was added after the list of the three Reformed confessions (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort).

The statement

We heartily believe and will promote their doctrines…

was changed to

We heartily believe and will promote and defend their doctrines…

The word “affirm” was changed to “recognize” in reference to Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony slightly weakening the commitment there.

In the sixth paragraph that talks about what to do when an office bearer disagrees with one of the doctrines of the confessions

is irreconcilable with God’s Word…

was changed to

is not the teaching of God’s Word…

Finally, the sentence

If the church asks, we will give a full explanation of our views.

was added as new penultimate sentence in the sixth paragraph.

Remarkably, one amendment was made from the floor of synod upon the advice of one of the young adult representatives and one of the faculty advisors. The opening sentence that declares our commitment to scripture

We believe the inspired Word of God as received in the Old and New Testaments of Holy Scripture

was thought to be open to liberal and neo-orthodox interpretations. It was changed to

We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God.

In the end the new Covenant for Officebearers passed unanimously. It seems to me that the changes that were made make the new Covenant for Officebearers quite similar to the old Form of Subscription in regard to the degree that office bearers are bound to the church’s confessions.

Creation Stewardship Task Force

In response to the Board of Trustees’ adoption of the Micah Network’s “Declaration on Creation Stewardship and Climate Change” Synod 2010 asked for a Creation Stewardship Task Force to report to Synod 2012 with a mandate

to identify a biblical and Reformed perspective of our position on creation stewardship, including climate change, applicable to this millennium, for congregations, society, and our global gospel partners.

In part the issue was raised out of a concern that the Board of Trustees ought not adopt statements on matters outside the expertise of synod delegates. One of the grounds was

There is an urgent need to focus on the biblical and Reformed perspective so that we may unify our community around common ground and enable the formulation of concrete positive action strategies.

The recommendations of the Creation Stewardship Task Force were somewhat controversial with there being five overtures leaning against the recommendations (with one overture asking for adoption). Synod’s Advisory Committee modified the original recommendations to make them less controversial. Even with these modifications, the recommendation stirred up much debate requiring an entire evening session and some time the next morning. In the end the recommendations as presented by the Advisory Committee passed. The Task Force report included a 27 page appendix entitled “A Climate Change Primer” that spelled out the current scientific consensus among climatologists concerning the matter of human-induced climate change. Interestingly, I could have used that document as the textbook for the greenhouse gases and energy units of my Chemistry 103 “Chemistry in Context” course for non-science majors that I taught this past spring at Colorado State University. It was somewhat surprising to see such a scientific treatise in the Agenda for Synod.

The Advisory Committee changed the order of the original recommendations of the Task Force so that the first recommendation was an affirmation of Biblical and theological principles. Synod 2012 adopted the following:

That synod re-affirm biblical principles of responsible dominion, care, and stewardship of creation as articulated in Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony and referenced in section IV, A of the Creation Stewardship Task Force report (Agenda for Synod 2012, pp. 295-301; Contemporary Testimony Pars. 7-10, 13, 15, 18, 23-25, 43, 44, 50, 51, 55-58, also paragraph 16).

The original Creation Stewardship Task Force asked Synod to state the following:

That synod declare that both Scripture and continually emerging scientific knowledge are necessary and valid ways of knowing that should guide our response to creation stewardship issues, including climate change.

Many regarded this as putting science and the Bible on equal ground. The Advisory Committee’s recommendation was adopted instead after a small amendment from the floor of synod:

That synod reaffirm that continually emerging science is a valid and necessary source for knowledge about God’s world and should therefore guide us, along with scripture, in our love of God and neighbors, including care for the creation (cf. Par. 50 of the Contemporary Testimony).

Then we got to the crucial recommendation where the Task Force asked Synod to

Affirm the following findings concerning climate change and that it commend them to the churches as guides to prayer, discussion, direct action, and advocacy:

  1. Climate change is occurring and is very likely due to human activity.
  2. Human-induced climate change is a moral, ethical, and religious issue.
  3. Human-induced climate change poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.
  4. Human-induced climate change poses a significant challenge to us all.
  5. Urgent action is required to address climate change. This includes actions at the personal, community, and political levels toward reducing human causes of climate change and mobilizing ourselves to urgent assistance of those who are forced to adapt to its negative effects.

Many delegates, including me, appeared to be concerned that Synod was being asked to make scientific and political statements concerning the question of human-induced climate change. Is this really the task of the church? Is it really an ecclesiastical matter (as the Church Order restricts Synods to considering)? (See the discussion later about Church as institute vs. Church as organism.) Even if human-induced climate change is true and will wreak havoc with the world’s economic and political systems, is it the work of the church to make such scientific, economic, and political declarations? Some delegates were global warming skeptics and even more alarmed at the recommendations of the Task Force. Thankfully, the Advisory Committee had members that shared some of these concerns and tweaked the original recommendations in such a way as to make them more acceptable to delegates that had concerns. The Advisory Committee recommendations were adopted by Synod. The Synod “recognized” that there was a “near-consensus of the international scientific community” concerning human-induced climate change “recognized that human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue, and that the “precautionary principle compels us” to take action. The precautionary principle is the idea that even though there are uncertainties involved that it is wise to take action in light of the potentially catastrophic consequences. Then Synod adopted a series of recommendations calling the churches and members to action promoting stewardship, protecting the poor and vulnerable, protecting future generations, and reducing our carbon emissions, and educating our churches and members on the issue.

While I personally am not a climate change skeptic (I taught a lot of the science that was in the report to my Colorado State University Chemistry 103 class) and I am grateful for the Advisory Committee’s adjustments, I still question whether or not the church should be making these sorts of recommendations. I don’t question that Christians who are scientists, climatologists, environmentalists, economists, politicians, and relief workers ought to be active in this area. Of course, they should be–as we should be in all areas of life, bringing the truths of God’s Word to a broken world. But the church as church has no expertise in these areas. It was clear that very few of the ministers and elders voting on this had any competence to judge the merits of the science or the economic policies presented. It was also clear that there was disagreement on the science, the economics, and the politics. We can agree on the need for Creation care. We can agree on the need for the church to do good deeds in the name of Christ to help the poor and vulnerable. Beyond that requires special expertise that the church does not have. Individual Christians do have such expertise and need to wield that expertise in Christ’s name in their vocation.

At one point a speaker argued that Synod’s decision in 2010 about human evolutionary ancestors was an example that should make it clear that the church makes these sorts of declarations all the time. Since I was involved in that matter directly I would suggest that that is not at all the lesson one should take away. Declaration F from Synod 1991 which said that there could be no evolutionary ancestors was an example of the church making a scientific declaration outside of its expertise and authority as church. There are ways, for example, for the church to maintain the Biblical and confessional witness for a historical Adam and Eve and a historical Fall, and allow for some kind of evolutionary ancestry. Synod 2010 rightly undid the error of 1991 by keeping the church’s declarations on appropriate matters, i.e. interpretation and application of scripture and theology. In no way did Synod’s decision declare that any particular scientific view was correct.

A speech I wish I had given at Synod but only conceived of after the fact was along the same lines. What if the Task Force, the Advisory Committee, and Synod had been populated by a majority of climate change skeptics? What if the final word would have been that all the concern about climate change is based on a hoax? What if there had been declarations that the economic and political concerns were really about leftists’ attempts to regulate our lives, restrict our freedoms, and redistribute wealth? I guarantee to you that many of the scientists in our denomination would have been outraged. The church has made mistaken scientific pronouncements before (i.e. Declaration F from 1991). It’s not the church’s place to make such pronouncements. It is the church’s place to call us to Creation care (whether human-induced climate change is true or not), to call us to care for the poor and vulnerable (no matter what is the cause of their need), and to call us to work for justice, especially in the church, but also in society at large.

Despite my misgivings, the Primer on Climate Change is a good survey of the issues written by practicing scientists with Christian and Reformed perspectives on their work as scientists. The precautionary principle leads us on a very wise course on this issue. We all need to be reminded of moderation in our life-style especially when we live in a society of extravagance, over-abundance, and waste. Finally, loving our neighbor, especially in the modern globalized context that we find ourselves, means that we use our abundance to help those in need.

Church As Institute vs. Church As Organism

The Report of the Creation Stewardship Task Force (and the situation which prompted it) and perceived implications of the Belhar Confession have potentially non-ecclesiastical (i.e. scientific, economic, political, etc.) aspects. The CRC Office of Social Justice tackles all sorts of similar topics (immigration, abortion, poverty, fair trade, millennium development goals, Middle East conflict, etc.). Some question whether or not the church should be involved in these matters (again, without questioning whether or not Christians should be involved in these matters). See my article “Whatever Happened to Sphere Sovereignty?” ( ) written about a year ago. Two overtures came to Synod expressing concern about the increasing tendency for the church to address these alleged non-ecclesiastical matters. One of the overtures asked for a study committee to study the distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism. Synod declined to create a study committee, but in response to the overture adopted the following recommendation

That synod instruct the Executive Director to draft a pastoral letter:

  1. Urging the church on all levels (congregations, classes, and denominational agencies and officers) to reflect on the issues and concerns that Overture 3 raises.
  2. Urging the church on all levels (congregations, classes, and denominational agencies, and officers) to take note of the full range of ethical positions that the CRC has adopted through the years (readily available on the CRC’s website).
  3. Admonishing all those who speak on behalf of the church to speak with discernment as to how their words will be received by those on whose behalf they speak.
  4. Admonishing all members to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19), seeking the unity in Christ, which is both the gift and calling of the church, and the love by which, according to Jesus, all people will know that we are his disciples.

with grounds

  1. Discernment is better found through continued respectful conversation, rather than through attempting to formulate prescriptions as to how the church speaks on issues of the day.
  2. Out of these multiple conversations, the church may find various ways to address the concerns raised in the overture, and move toward greater unity in its witness to the world.

I plan to do some reading and research in the coming year on this issue to give heed to Synod’s advice. Interestingly, the preliminary report of the Office of Deacon Task Force ( ) addresses some of these issues, although in a matter that actually expands the work of the institutional church rather than narrowing it as many would like to see.

Lift Up Your Heart Hymnal

The new hymnal from Faith Alive Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the CRCNA, is nearly finished. Faith Alive asked synod to endorse the new hymnal for use in the churches, which it did. The only controversy here was that neither Synod nor one of its Advisory Committees had actually reviewed in detail every hymn. This concern was dispelled by reminding Synod that it was not a replacement for the Psalter Hymnal and that it was a project of Faith Alive and not the Synod (like other songbooks and secondary hymnals in the past) and that Faith Alive had a thorough review process involving musical review and theological review. Songs from the new hymnal were used in all of synod’s worship services and a special hymn sing on Sunday night. Marketing research by Faith Alive shows that there is still a significant number of churches in the CRCNA and in the RCA that use hymnals rather than projection systems in their worship. There will be numerous electronic resources with the new hymnal that will be valuable even for those congregations that use projection systems primarily.

Name Changes

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2012. Synod approved a request from CRWRC that its name be changed to World Renew with a tag line of “Living Justice Loving Mercy Serving Christ”. Some questioned the removal the word “Christian” or the identification with “Christian Reformed” but these concerns did not carry the day. CRWRC’s ministry has moved beyond relief which is only about half of what it does–community development is another significant aspect of its ministry. Also, having the word “Christian” in the name makes it impossible to serve in some parts of the world. Canadian Director, Ida Kaastra-Mutoigo said “We don’t lose our Christian faith by what we are called. Once we gain entry, we continue to live out our values as a Christian ministry.”

The term “Ministry Associate” was changed to “Commissioned Pastor”. Ministry Associates are pastors, church planters, youth pastors, worship pastors, campus pastors, etc. that are called to serve in full-time church work in local congregations. Ordinarily, these individuals do not have a seminary degree and have not been approved for service by the seminary or the Synod for service across the denomination. Yet they are gifted and called by God to serve in their churches in full-time staff ministry. This category of ordained officer in the CRC used to be called “Evangelist”. The term “Commissioned Pastor” was regarded as being a more accurate descriptor for what many of these people do, especially those involved in pastoring churches.

Calvin College Matter

Concern about some writings of Calvin College religion department professors on Adam and Eve had been expressed at Synod 2011. One of Synod’s advisory committees met with Calvin College representatives on this matter receiving a progress report of sorts. The advisory committee made the following recommendation

That synod take note that Advisory Committee 3 received an update from representatives of Calvin College on the progress of their study on “the limits of academic freedom within the bounds of confessional fidelity” which Synod 2011 asked them to submit upon completion of the study (cf. Article 49, D.2 in the 2011 Acts of Synod). They indicated that they will continue their conversation with further input from other Reformed colleagues, and could, if requested, have a report ready for Synod 2014. They have an interim report entitled, “Evolution, Human Origins, and Confessional Parameters,” available on the Calvin web site ( ), which they encourage people to read and provide feedback.


That synod request Calvin College to submit to Synod 2014 a report on the study about academic freedom and the confessions referenced in the Acts of Synod 2011 (Article 49, D.2).

Doctrine of Discovery

Included in the Report of the Creation Stewardship Task Force was a discussion of the notion of “dominion” which is part of the Biblical teaching on Creation Care (Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8:6-8). In a discussion of the misappropriate of dominion the Task Force considered the “Doctrine of Discovery” which was the basis of European and Western domination of indigenous peoples during the “Age of Exploration” often for the cause of Christian missions. This resulted in indigenous peoples having their land taken away, being relocated to reservations, having lands and resources taken by the explorers, etc. In the USA and Canada, children of native Americans and First Nations peoples were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were educated with total disregard of their native culture. In light of this the Synod adopted the following recommendation (which was a reworked version of one of the recommendations of the Creation Stewardship Task Force):

That synod affirm the necessity for the CRC to examine, better understand, and respond to the “Doctrine of Discovery” and related legal instruments—particularly in their origins, their historical effects, and their continuing effects on indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States. To that end synod instructs the Board of Trustees to form a small task force with a clear mandate, process, and time frame composed of knowledgeable CRC staff, board members, and appropriate resource persons. The task force will be expected to keep the church informed throughout its work and to conclude its work with a summary report of its findings and, if appropriate, recommendations to the Board of Trustees and synod for further action.

Ground: This responds appropriately to the Creation Stewardship Task Force report’s conclusions that, although a deeper understanding of the “Doctrine of Discovery” and related legal instruments could be very helpful in clarifying our cultural attitudes toward caring for creation, the issues raised by the “Doctrine of Discovery” and related instruments cut deeply across the entire spectrum of the church’s life and ministry in Canadian and U.S. society and, therefore, merit a separate effort.

Certainly, injustices were carried out against indigenous peoples by western Europeans, Americans, and Canadians as they explored the rest of the world and took control of many parts of the world in many cases making it their own in disregard of the original inhabitants. What appropriate restitution looks like is a vexing question in light of the unfolding of modern history. Often these injustices were performed by Christians more influenced by the spirit of the age rather than a Biblical sense of justice. As obvious as these things are I am still left with some nagging questions. In the mystery of his providence God has used this mindset to evangelize the nations. The modern missions movement followed on the heals of western colonialism with the result that the church was brought to the nations and peoples of the world. Often this has been done with a blatant disregard of the indigenous culture–it’s unsettling to hear Chinese Christians in China singing “This Is My Father’s World”–at least they are singing in Mandarin. Nonetheless, Christ has been made known to the nations and the nations are now worshiping the triune God. In addition, those who have come to Christ have turned from their idols and false religions to worship the true and living God. While much in these cultures is to be celebrated and preserved, part of turning to Christ is turning away from cultural practices that are contrary to God’s ways. God has used our foolishness and our injustice to further his kingdom. In retrospect we can confess these things and set them right, especially in the church. One other question is that about our fundamental identity. The dividing wall has been broken down and our fundamental identity is our identity in Christ as the one people of God. Racial, ethnic, national identity are all subservient to that new identity in Christ. Again, this does not mean that we ignore our cultural heritages, but it does mean that they take second place to our common cultural heritage in Christ. His story is our story. His ways are our ways. His kingdom is our kingdom. His work in the world is our work in the world.

Joys of Synod

Worship at Synod was a treat. The Lord’s Prayer was used to structure our worship times and we were led in song by members of the new hymnal committee. It’s fantastic to see and hear the diversity and worldwide presence of God’s people. Prayers in many languages. Greetings from ecumenical delegates from all over the world. Renewing old friendships, making new ones, amazing conversations are all part of the unofficial synod business. Having the joint worship and prayer time with the young adults conference was a great experience. I wanted to hear more of what they were doing. We heard educational and inspiring interviews with the incoming Calvin College president, Dr. Michael Le Roy, and a new Calvin Seminary professor, Michael Goheen. We heard the reflections of outgoing Calvin College president Galen Byker. We heard greetings and challenges from Tom DeVries, the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Although we started meetings at 8 am every day and worked till 9 or even later on a couple of nights, there was good food at meal times and breaks mid-morning and afternoon with refreshments. This was my second CRCNA synod and it was a delight to see the church at work once again.