IRC Committee of Commissioners Hears Explanations from Interchurch Relations Committee
Colorado Springs, CO (June 9, 1997)--For the fifth consecutive General Assembly, the report of the Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) is generating controversy. Overtures from four presbyteries asked for a full investigation of the IRC. Those overtures focused particularly on the failure of the IRC to present to the November 1996 meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) a motion to remove the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) from membership; and the favorable vote by the PCA delegation to admit the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) to membership. The IRC Committee of Commissioners (C of C), since it began meeting this afternoon, has been closely questioning members of the IRC regarding its work over the past year.
One of the first items which the C of C had to deal with was a motion which requested TE K. Eric Perrin to recuse himself from voting on any matters with which he had been involved. Mr. Perrin, who up through 1995 had been IRC Chairman for several years, is mentioned in several places as having participated in the IRC's work; for example, he is listed in one set of minutes as being an "advisory" member of the Committee. The chair, while expressing his own concern about Mr. Perrin's being on the C of C after having been evidently involved in the work of the IRC this past year, ruled the motion out of order, in that Palmetto Presbytery had elected Mr. Perrin as its representative..
Much of the time was taken up today with current IRC Chairman Robert Ashlock presenting his Committee's report, including the recent concern of the IRC regarding the direction of the Christian Reformed Church; and fielding numerous questions from members of the C of C. One of the items of particular interest was the position of the IRC in voting in favor of the admittance to NAPARC of the EPC, which ordains women to ruling and teaching office; while at the same time acknowledging that the IRC was under mandate to "use all due process to remove the Christian Reformed Church [from NAPARC]" if the CRC did not repent of opening all church offices to women. Several members of the C of C expressed their view that such action was inconsistent.
Reacting to statements in the IRC's report regarding the Assembly, TE Arch Van Devender stated that "the Committee is out of line in making these statements to the General Assembly." Addressing Chairman Ashlock, Mr. Van Devender said, "You give direction to the General Assembly [in your report] in that you tell the General Assembly to be 'cautious' and not to 'micro manage'. The IRC exists at the will and the pleasure of the General Assembly, and General Assembly is free to micro manage if they desire." The Maryland pastor suggested to Dr. Ashlock that his Committee would be better served if it modified those statements.
This evening, Dr. Paul Gilchrist, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, ex officio IRC member, and head of the PCA's delegation to NAPARC in 1996, presented his perspective regarding the actions of the IRC. He replied to a question by saying that the PCA delegation would have presented the motion to admit the EPC to NAPARC if no one else had. Dr. Gilchrist argued that the situations of the EPC and the CRC are different. He said: "We work on the principle of judging situations based on the direction rather than the static. In the case of the CRC, it is my personal opinion it is just deteriorating and going very neo-orthodox." He was quick to add that the CRC is not neo-orthodox, but is going in that direction. He cited the adoption by the CRC in 1972 of Report 44 on the authority of Scripture as an indication of Prof. Berkouwer's influence on that denomination. According to Dr. Gilchrist, when he and others went up to Grand Rapids in 1993 to investigate what was going on in the CRC, he asked for a copy of Report 44. He stated, "Quite frankly, I didn't see anything particularly wrong or bad or critical" with it. However, last year, he began to read articles by PCA pastor Dr. Carl Bogue which demonstrated that the influence of Berkouwer on the CRC "was much more extensive than we had ever anticipated. With that, I went back myself and read Report 44, and all of a sudden it was just like the clouds rolling back. . . . There were what I would call, for want of a better term, 'weasel words', in Report 44, talking like a lot of neo-orthodox people about infallibility of Scriptures. . . . It became rather clear to me that that was the Achilles heel of the whole situation; that the whole house of cards was coming down on them, because that's where it started." Dr. Gilchrist said that the NAPARC studies on hermeneutics from the early 1980s "had identified at that point that one of our NAPARC churches was moving in a direction of a weak view of Scripture."
Dr. Gilchrist defended what he called the "judgment call" by the PCA delegation to NAPARC that it proceed with suspension rather than termination of CRC membership in that body. He said that he felt that the Assembly "wanted us to remove them"; but added, "But what process do you begin with?" When asked why a handwritten motion was presented to NAPARC, he said: "Because at the September meeting we failed to address the matter. . . . It just fell through the cracks--we're sorry. . . . But no intention, as some people have tried to say, no intention of disobeying the mandate. We were very conscious of the mandate [of the 1995 Assembly]." He later added, " I think we're beginning the process to expel [the CRC from NAPARC]." In his view, he does not see the IRC waiting until the year 2000 to seek that removal of the CRC.
With regard to the way that the CRC establishment has represented matters in that denomination, Dr. Gilchrist said, "Now, we feel somewhat betrayed."
With regard to a May 28th meeting between four PCA representatives and four CRC representatives, he said: "I feel that we got nowhere in terms of the issues. . . . Three of them were very gracious. [One of them] was the classical Dutch uncle. And I have to say he was very harsh. . . . 'You are wrong. You haven't studied our documents.' He used some very harsh language. . . . It was rather clear [that his position is], 'We are not going to change.' . . . There's been a real, real serious change in direction in the CRC. And part of that also is expressed by the fact that a couple of years ago we had [the CRC fraternal delegate] in Dallas who was apparently not speaking politically correctly, and he really got it from the establishment, because he was encouraging us precisely along these lines that we are talking about. And when we heard reports that he was being harrassed or whatever . . ., it seemed to us that the establishment was already drawing the circle around themselves . . ., and they were very defensive. My own personal opinion is that they are in denial."
The PCA Stated Clerk stated that one of the things that "helped me change my mind is that . . . so many churches are leaving the CRC," particularly since the 1995 Synod which opened the offices of minister and elder to women. "Personally, I thought that's just the beginning of the break--and that's very, very sad."
Dr. Gilchrist opined that the notion of what is a church council is in the process of changing, in both liberal and conservative contexts. He believes that there is a narrowing focus to NAPARC: rather than the earlier focus on seeking the possibility of organic union, much time is now being spent on "who can we leave out, and who can we kick out". The Stated Clerk stated, "There are several people in NAPARC who have expressed that sort of thing." In his estimation, the PCA is going next to be a target of expulsion from NAPARC. He stated that the International Council of Reformed Churches (which is an organization of staunchly Reformed churches--Ed.) looks on the PCA "as a bunch of Arminians. . . . At what point will NAPARC say, 'The PCA is not Reformed'? And there are some people in the PCA today who say, We have to prove that the PCA is not Reformed before we can go out of the PCA and start our own denomination without being accused of being schismatic."
Regarding the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), Gilchrist stated that some in that body have "said in the past we're not sure if we can have fraternal relations with the PCA." (The RCUS, a small German Reformed denomination, was admitted to NAPARC in 1995; the PCA's Interchurch Relations Committee had for several years opposed its membership in the Council, but then reversed its position when the CRC dropped its objections.--Ed.)
For the second time in two years, TE William H. Smith of Pittsburgh Presbytery is Chairman of the C of C. Chairman Smith wondered how the PCA at the NAPARC meeting in Pittsburgh could "get caught in such a disadvantageous position" and "apparently ill-prepared"--especially given the fact that the IRC had had from June 1995 to November 1996 to prepare. He said, "To me, it doesn't look so much like insubordination as some sort of incompetence"; and hastened to add, "I don't mean that as a judgment I've arrived at--that's sort of my feeling."
Dr. Ashlock responded: "At the September 1996 meeting of the IRC, the Committee did not address the whole issue of how did we want to go about making this motion."