CRC Synod 2017: Syncretism, Restructuring, and the Belhar (Again)

Synod 2017 of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was much less contentious than the last couple years but no less eventful.

The Synod 2017 discussions around the topic of justice revealed the underlying differences within today’s CRC.

Rev. Andrew Beunk from Classis British Columbia Northwest noticed this and perceptively spoke of it during the discussion on the Belhar Confession: “I think that we are experiencing at the synod a tension that I want to name … on one side a strong accent on gospel centered confessionally rooted proclamation, and on the other side an accent on justice and mercy.

 

Synod 2017 of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was much less contentious than the last couple years but no less eventful. A massive restructuring, a new mission agency, syncretism, water bottles, membership decline, and (once again) the Belhar Confession were all on the agenda.

Declines

An overture from Classis Southeast U.S. noted the startling declines of membership in the CRC, asking for a plan to address this. The overture listed all CRC classes showing their changes after ten and twenty years.

Deacon Greg Talsma of Classis Minnkota admitted part of the challenge is that “small communities are getting smaller.” But he continued, “There’s an underlying thing that needs to be addressed … who are we? We’re wrestling with identity. At times we feel like a confessional reformed church. Other times we feel like a church racing to keep up with mainline. Let’s not forget that twenty years ago we lost ten percent of our members. Our brothers in NAPARC by and large are not in decline.”

Synod held a time of prayer for churches and classes. Synod also noted new strategies being implemented and instructed the Executive Director to assemble resources for church renewal.

Water bottles

A unique overture came from Classis Eastern Canada, asking synod to limit disposable serve ware and cease to provide water bottles at meetings. Mentioning the waste and commodifying a resource necessary for life, it declared, “Using bottled water is unjust.” Synod quickly concluded that this “is not the forum for dealing with matters at this level of specificity.” There was no discussion.

Homosexuality: We have people on it

The prior year, synod saw a major discussion on homosexuality. This year an overture came from an individual congregation asking for pastoral guidance on same-sex marriage. It said last year’s decision “only provided us with prohibitions” and was thus an “unbalanced message” that was “hurtful.” It was quickly turned down because Synod 2016 already formed a committee to study sexuality that will also address pastoral concerns.

New Mission Agency

Christian Reformed World Missions and Christian Reformed Home Missions officially became one agency, named “Resonate Global Mission.” Many had expressed skepticism of the new name. A lengthy explanation of the name-selecting process preceded the vote. A name was sought that could be used more easily in hostile places, did not limit support and participation to the CRC, and was not already taken. Synod approved the new name.

Restructuring

A major restructuring also took place. The CRC Board of Trustees carries out the work of synod throughout the year. The representation is regional, meaning that multiple classes send only one delegate to the Board. Synod 2017 adopted a new governance handbook for a new Council of Delegates to do the work of synod throughout the year. This new council would have one representative from each classis, thus making the representation more evenly distributed. Synod dissolved the Board of Trustees and adopted a new constitution for the Council of Delegates.

Working with the RCA

Synod spent time discussing the future of the CRC and its historically closest sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America. After Rev. Kayla Fik, the RCA fraternal delegate, gave an address, everyone watched well-crafted video outlining three models for moving forward as two denominations. Delegates then broke into small groups and discussed the strengths and challenges of each model. The CRC and RCA have a shared Dutch heritage but have significant ongoing differences in theological posture. The CRC and RCA will hold their synods jointly in 2018.

Do Justice blog

Taking more time than anything else except perhaps the Belhar Confession was the Classis Minnkota overture asking for oversight of the Do Justice blog. The blog is operated by two CRC offices, the Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice. One of the four articles in question mentioned her prayer circle with Navajo people and then said, “There is only one Creator that we all worship. I believe that before any Europeans came, we Navajo people already had our relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We already had our own ways of worshipping our Maker and Creator.”

Rev. Bobby Boyd is a Navajo pastor in the CRC from Classis Red Mesa. He spoke on the synod floor with experience on traditional Navajo religion: “I come from a traditional background. I know the difference. I know Jesus and I know the service of evil spirit. If you put those two together you have syncretism. We cannot do that.”

“We did not know God until we heard the gospel,” Boyd said. When seeing these blog articles he said, “I was horrified.” What was written in the articles “is a syncretism.”

After Boyd spoke, two white delegates mentioned listening to people of first nations.

“First nations peoples of this continent have not had a voice for many generations,” said Elder Jeanette Romkema from Classis Toronto. “As a church we have taken their voice away and I can’t believe we’re trying to do it again.”

The advisory committee’s reporter, Rev. Jim Poelman of Classis Chatham also mentioned connecting with first nations people: “It breaks my heart how we have in so many ways hurt these people. It has been the burden of my heart to minister to the peoples of my homestead … that would take a whole lot of relationship building. [In the Do Justice blog] we are trying to do our best [at relationship building].”

Later on, Boyd spoke again about his people. “When they accepted the Lord they accepted the kingdom of God, the way God operates and not the way they used to operate. We kept the culture, but religion, we put it aside; no more. God is in the business of changing character.”

In the midst of the lengthy discussion, there were debates about the wording of synod’s official response. The advisory committee brought “Do not accede” to the synod floor on the grounds that “There is sufficient oversight of the Do Justice blog.”

Deacon David Harrington of Central California responded, “It’s obvious there wasn’t sufficient oversight.”

Advisory Chair Rev. John Ooms explained, “The wording [of the overture] implicates there is no oversight and there is oversight.”

Deacon Greg Talsma from Minnkota acknowledged the blog has established oversight but “the overture…implies effective oversight.”

Others argued in favor of the blog. Brian Tarpy of Classis Central Plains said, “There’s a different space for a blog, more of a dialogue of free flowing ideas. It shouldn’t be heavy handed.”

The synodical advisory committee heard from Minnkota delegates and Do Justice representatives. They recommended that synod “commend” the Office of Social Justice and the Centre for Public Dialogue. According to the report, “they have reviewed and adapted their follow-up procedures appropriately including the appointment of an ordained minister to the social justice communications team.” Additionally, “They will deliberately refer to past Synodical discussions where possible in editor’s notes” and “They will indicate more clearly that the perspectives expressed on Do Justice are not necessarily the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church of North America.” Synod also decided to, “in the spirit of Matthew 18, instruct the executive director to initiate a face to face visit between Classis Minnkota and representatives from the Centre for Public Dialogue and Office of Social Justice to discuss the issues presented in the overture.”

Synod approved these recommendations as well as others, but did not approve the first recommendation: “That synod not accede to Overture 9.” This was recommitted to the advisory committee. It was the only item sent back to an advisory committee the entire week.

As Rev. Paul VanderKlay said in his playful Synod 2017 Postgame Show a “Donald Trump moment.” The conservative concerns were underestimated.

When the advisory committee returned with new recommendations, the debate continued, pushing into the time planned for discussing the Belhar Confession. It ended with a decision, “That synod instruct those who have oversight of the Do Justice blog ensure that the articles are written in such a way that they encourage a Reformed understanding of Scripture.”

Peter Vander Meulen, the outgoing head of the Office of Social Justice, spoke with a tone of frustration and exhaustion when he addressed synod: “We never intended for you to have to spend this much time on something we thought would be helpful to the church.”

The sheer volume of time and energy spent on a handful of blog posts conveyed the seriousness of publishing such articles, even if written by those outside the CRC.

The Belhar Confession

The most notable item on the agenda was the Belhar Confession. The Belhar arose from South Africa during the Apartheid-era, calling for unity, reconciliation and justice. The source church – the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) – has offered this statement as a “gift” to other Reformed bodies around the world. Liberating theology for some and liberation theology to others, the statement has brought mixed reactions. The Reformed Church in America adopted it as a full confession in 2010. In 2012, the CRC decided to create a new category of “Ecumenical Faith Declaration” and adopt Belhar in this category. In this way the gift was graciously received but did not become binding on ministers, elders and deacons. Responding to an overture, Synod 2016 had proposed to Synod 2017 that the Belhar Confession be given more weight, on the same level as the CRC-authored Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony.

The recommendation was to create an official category called “Contemporary Testimony,” and move the Belhar as well as Our World Belongs to God into this category.

The definition of Contemporary Testimony came to the floor as “a statement that is essential for a given time period” and the final sentence began with, “It may ultimately gain confessional status…”

When the definition came to the floor, two amendments removed these parts of the definition.

Rev. Todd Hilkemann from Classis Rocky Mountain proposed both amendments from the floor. “We need to get the wording right,” he said.

An “essential” statement was changed to an “important statement that speaks to essential matters” in the first amendment.

“It is only the word of God that is essential,” Hilkemann said. “The statements themselves are not essential.”

Later on in the discussion, Hilkemann successfully made the other amendment to strike the final sentence, which said “It may ultimately gain confessional status…” Rev. Joel Vande Werken from Classis Hudson described that final sentence as one that “gives the impression of a springboard” into the category of confessional status alongside the Three Forms of Unity (the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort).

Jim Payton from the Ecumenical Interfaith Relations Committee explained that the definition of Contemporary Testimony was based on pronouncements of previous synods.

“We are not previous synods. We are this synod,” Hilkemann responded. “As my English teacher taught me we don’t define something by what it is not.”

The definition was gutted of its heaviest qualities:

A contemporary testimony is a dynamic statement of faith that serves the CRCNA—its congregations and members—as a statement that is essential for AN IMPORTANT STATEMENT THAT SPEAKS TO ESSENTIAL MATTERS IN a given time period. It is useful for study, faith formation, teaching, and worship. As such, it must periodically be reviewed if it is to speak contemporaneously and perhaps (1) be revised if authorship belongs to the CRCNA or (2) be provided newly revised accompanying explanatory material if authorship belongs elsewhere. It may ultimately gain confessional status, pending synodical approval, although such a possibility should not be considered a criterion for adopting a statement as a contemporary testimony.

With a weaker definition, more were open to Belhar being adopted as such. “Even though I have serious theological reservations about the Belhar Confession itself, the amended and passed definition appropriately manages where the Belhar Confession should stand in the church,” said deacon Liam Harrell from Classis Rocky Mountain.

The recommendation came to the synod floor:
That synod place the Belhar Confession in the newly defined category of contemporary testimony.
Grounds:


a. This is consistent with Synod 2016’s recommendation to recategorize the Belhar Confession as a contemporary testimony in the CRCNA.
b. The Belhar Confession is a gift from the churches in the global south and is “useful for study, faith formation, teaching and worship.” We receive it as a contemporary testimony, not a confession.

Then came the avalanche of speakers. At one point there were 28 delegates in line to speak.

“The way to battle evil is not with bad theology but with good theology. The Belhar is based on liberation theology,” said Rev. George Koopmans from Classis Alberta South/Saskatchewan. “The Belhar bypasses the cross.
… The Belhar threatens unity and so disqualifies itself”

“There has been a goal consistently throughout this process to have this confession raised to a status where it is binding on officebearers,” said Vande Werken. The discussion is “Backing us into a confessional corner.”

The most stirring speech in favor of the confession came from one of the only African American delegates.

“I believe the Belhar Confession is a very important document. To be theological is not just about being intellectual. It’s also about our heart. Theology is something that’s not just in my head it’s what I live,” said Rev. Wayne Coleman of Classis Thornapple Valley. “The gospel proclamation is holistic: shalom. Jesus cares about the conditions of people. Justice is the heartbeat of God.”

Immediately following Coleman came ethnic advisor Rev. David Chung. “There are valid theological concerns raised. Most of the responses do not respond theologically,” Chung said.

After listing and critiquing controversial statements from the confession, Chung asked, “Is the Belhar too peculiar to a particular situation so that it is a bit single sighted which renders it unqualified to be a global document?”

Even a fraternal delegate from South Africa, though treading lightly, spoke against the Belhar. Dr. Henk Stoker of the Reformed Churches of South Africa (GKSA) challenged one of the grounds: “The Belhar Confession is a gift from the churches in the global south.”

Stoker’s response: “None of the churches in the global south embrace Belhar except the URCSA where it originated.”  He continued, “We care deeply about the conditions of our people, deeply. But the theology of liberation in Belhar as we see is one of the reasons the global south does not embrace Belhar.”

The turning point in this discussion was an amendment that strongly limits the Belhar’s potential power. Delegates spoke their concerns that Belhar would appear on the Covenant for Officebearers, the statement of adherence to the creeds and confessions that every CRC officebearer must sign. Our World Belongs to God already appears in the Covenant, though in a nonbinding way. Since Our World is in the Covenant, perhaps Belhar would find its way into the Covenant also, since both were being designated as Contemporary Testimonies.

Elder Michael Jacobsma from Classis Heartland successfully added the amendment, “Adherence to the Belhar Confession shall not be included in the Covenant of Officebearers.”

Debate continued, but this amendment tipped the scales. Delegates were no longer asked to approve the Belhar Confession as an essential statement that can become a fully authoritative confession and might easily require a signature from every officebearer. Instead, delegates were asked to vote on Belhar being an important statement that will definitely not need a signature.

Synod voted to make the Belhar Confession a “Contemporary Testimony.” That is, an “important” statement not to appear in the Covenant for Officebearers.

Whose Justice?

The Synod 2017 discussions around the topic of justice revealed the underlying differences within today’s CRC.

Rev. Andrew Beunk from Classis British Columbia Northwest noticed this and perceptively spoke of it during the discussion on the Belhar Confession: “I think that we are experiencing at the synod a tension that I want to name … on one side a strong accent on gospel centered confessionally rooted proclamation, and on the other side an accent on justice and mercy. Everyone in this room wants these things held together all the time. We all want that. And yet we feel like these things are getting accented in ways that at times make us uncomfortable. We might use two different descriptors that capture that tension, with evangelical on the one side and mainline on the other side. We’ve always identified ourselves in the middle. We resist calling ourselves evangelical or mainline. We’re Reformed. The Belhar discussion to many of us feels like we’re accenting the mercy and justice of the mainline side and it concerns us because of a few lines in the Belhar that we’ve seen in other circles used in certain ways. We don’t want that for our denomination.”

Earlier in the week, a series of recommendations came to the floor, titled “Remembering, Reaffirming, and Reinvigorating Our Response to Global Humanitarian Challenges.” Quoting prior synods’ decisions on hunger and poverty, the escalating recommendations began with asking synod to urge all CRC members and agencies “to remember and renew our passion to serve God by serving the poor and oppressed in ministries of relief, development, proclamation, and advocacy for justice.” The recommendations culminated in a request for increased financial support. Synod agreed to reaffirm its commitment to help those in need but stopped short at increasing financial support.

While discussing these recommendations, Rev. Craig Hoekema from Classis Eastern Canada spelled out the concerns:

“There are lots of us in this CRCNA family who are very passionate about justice…for which we as a denomination are much richer. There are also those of us in this church family, like myself, who find ourselves feeling a certain level of discomfort with the language that’s in this recommendation. And I’d like to articulate, at least from my perspective, why that is.

It’s not because we don’t like justice; it’s not because we don’t think the church is called to do justice. It’s because in this recommendation, for example, there’s very little language that connects these activities to the unique mission of the church—which is to make disciples.

And the reason that gives us reservations is because the enemy of the church is quite OK with the church doing all kinds of good things in society…as long as those good things distract us from doing the most important thing.

Now, let me say very clearly, I am not accusing this committee of trying to distract us. I am not making a judgment about the hearts of those who drafted this language. The reporter of this committee is a man I know and love dearly. What I’m trying to do is explain some the reservation that exists when we talk about justice in this way.

I think I speak for many of us when I say that what we’d like to hear more of in a recommendation like this is how we engage in these kinds of efforts in order to bear witness to the kingdom of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ. That would more clearly connect this call to justice with what is the unique mission of the church…and why this is a recommendation, not just for a secular social agency, but for an ecclesiastical body.

So, I think I can vote in favor of the motion. I just have a passion a) that we understand each other as brothers and sisters, and why there can be a bit of tension among us when we talk about justice in this way; and b) I’m passionate that we, like the fraternal delegates we’ve heard from today…that we keep the main thing the main thing…which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”

As Hoekema stepped away from the microphone, clapping erupted across the floor. It was the only speech by a delegate that received widespread applause the entire week.

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is Pastor at North Blendon Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Hudsonville, Mich.