NAPARC Votes, 6-1, to Suspend the Christian Reformed Church

East Point, GA (November 19, 1997)--In a move that has long been anticipated, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) voted this morning to suspend the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) from membership. The vote was 6-1, with the CRC delegation voting "No." The proposal, which needed a two-thirds affirmative vote in the Council, now goes to the highest judicatories of each of the seven member churches, two-thirds of which must vote in favor within three years for the measure to take effect.

The key issue was the 1995 decision by the CRC Synod to open all ecclesiastical offices, including minister and elder, to women. The CRC, along with two other NAPARC churches, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), has for years allowed women to hold the office of deacon. But allowing female ordination to the ministry and eldership had prompted the other three NAPARC denominations which had fraternal relations with the CRC-the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC)-to break those ties. Moreover, the moves by the CRC in recent years to go in that direction had brought expressions of concern from NAPARC itself.

An Awkward Moment

The presentation of the question to "initiate the process of suspending the CRCNA from membership" clearly constituted an awkward moment for the conciliar body. After Dr. George Knight of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) asked the Clerk to read the constitutional proviso under which the matter was being proposed, CRC delegate Ed Van Baak queried, "Does the [NAPARC] Constitution make any provision for a statement of reasons . . . for the action that is being proposed?" He continued, "I'm interested, Mr. Chairman, in the matter of reporting to our own constituency. . . . [T]he question is whether the Christian Reformed Church has been in violation of any of the provisions or criteria for membership in the organization." The Chair responded simply by stating that the motion was in order.

Presenting the CRC Position

Leading off the actual debate was CRC delegate David Engelhard, his denomination's General Secretary (equivalent to a Presbyterian General Assembly Stated Clerk). He declared that his church remains fully committed to the Bible and the Reformed standards. He noted that the move to suspend the CRC, which had been proposed by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), had no reasons attached to it. He charged that the PCA's Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) report to the 1997 PCA General Assembly had offered "not one shred of evidence" that the CRC was "moving away from" the historic Reformed view of Scripture. He reiterated what he said in Colorado Springs at the June PCA Assembly in evaluating the IRC report regarding the CRC: "That is scandalous." He stated that the IRC's view "is a conclusion. . . . And a conclusion should follow on the laying down of evidence. And the PCA did not grant us that much respect. Now, that statement, by itself, if it were true, . . . would be grounds . . . for suspending the CRC. . . . There are certain self-evident truths, . . . but this is not one of them."

Reacting to the fact that the PCA Assembly had felt constrained to answer him regarding his candid remarks and his objection to the characterization that the CRC had abandoned a Reformed understanding of Scripture, he commented, "They repeated what they had said before: 'We believe this to be true.' Well, I didn't doubt that they believed it to be true. I had only asked that they show the Christian Reformed Church."

Engelhard: PCA is Not Speaking Truthfully

Dr. Engelhard referred to the reference in the PCA report to the 1983 NAPARC Hermeneutics Report, which, the IRC suggested, had indicated more than a decade ago that the CRC was moving away from Scripture. Engelhard said that "two of our members of the Christian Reformed Church signed that report, . . . and they also had signed the 1973 Report on the Authority of Scripture [the CRC's Report 44, which has often been cited as early evidence of a weakening view of Scripture-Ed.]." He said that the PCA's reference to the 1983 Hermeneutics Report is "disingenuous": it "sounds pretty good-it even implicates NAPARC-but it's not accurate. . . . I know the PCA has said that they are speaking in a loving way. We're not denying that. But they're not speaking truthfully."

Wanting to Remain at the Table

Dr. Engelhard contended that "being let go from an organization also obligates that organization" to give reasons for the suspension. The General Secretary said: "We understand why the PCA and the OPC broke bilateral relationships. . . . We . . . can understand that. And we regret that-and we think that it could have been handled in a different way. . . . But in multi-lateral relationships, where we are . . . around the table for discussion, encouragement, and even for rebuke, to be sure. . . . In this setting, churches can and should be able to get together. The Reformed faith in North America is in need of all the strengthening and working together and cohesiveness that we can get. . . ."

He remarked that "several of the churches are re-thinking their ecumenical charters and what they're going to do. It's not an easy issue in this time to deal with churches on those different issues where they seem to have some differing opinion. . . . What we want to do is to have a place, a forum, where we can talk together, pray together. . . . The Christian Reformed Church would like to continue to be at the table. . . . Sometimes it's been charged by individuals but also more publicly that the Christian Reformed Church doesn't listen to other churches or to NAPARC. . . . [T]hat is just not true. . . . On this particular issue, regarding women in office, the Christian Reformed Church has heard it. They have factored into their discusions what the churches in eclesiastical fellowship have said to them, . . . but we have not on this matter [ordaining women to ruling and teaching office] agreed with the conclusion."

He concluded by saying that "the future of the Presbyterian and Reformed faith in North America . . .requires that we all be together. . . ."

Defending the PCA Proposal

Rick Perrin, Chairman of the PCA's IRC, responded to Dr. Engelhard. "I appreciate our brother's remarks," said Perrin. "This obviously is a very difficult thing that we have proposed to NAPARC. This is not something which we have wanted to do at all." He stated that the PCA had been begging and urging [the CRC] to turn away from the course that they have taken [regarding women's ordination]." Mr. Perrin stated that "fellowship . . . would not necessarily . . . come to an end. Nevertheless, we have been greatly disturbed by the actions that the CRC has taken. . . . The problem we face is that NAPARC as a Council implies that all of the members of that Council share a common basis for membership."

Chairman Perrin continued: "It's particularly difficult to come to a point of seeing precisely what's happened. It's a very subtle thing." Women's ordination "in and of itself might not be an indication that there's a departure from a position on Scripture. . . . A denomination may simply be mistaken. . . ." He stated that the PCA had a concern deeper than confessional fidelity per se, viz., a concern regarding the CRC's commitment to Scripture.

Mr. Perrin referred to the "manner in which it [the CRC] made its change. I would expect the Christian Reformed Church would express its commitment to the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. . . ."

However, there are "things which disturb us"; though, admittedly, "it's difficult to lay out in proof. This is not necessarily a court, where charges and proofs are being laid out." He argued that the CRC Synod 1995, in effect, had set forth that there were two Biblical positions regarding female ordination; and that, because the denomination was no longer able to tell which was right, it would allow both positions. "In our opinion, that put them into the place where the Scripture no longer governs the CRC. . . ."

"Secondly, we were concerned that they then approached their church government by saying that the operative provisions . . . can be suspended. . . ."

'Subtle' Apostasy from Scripture

Referring to Report 44, Perrin maintained that, in retrospect, one can see a "subtle undermining of the orthodox position on Scripture. . . . There's a subtle turn away [from Scripture]. We think that a look at these matters begins to indicate that there are very serious changes which have taken place."

Perrin said: "We are not suggesting that the Christian Reformed Church has suddenly ceased to be an evangelical body or that its people are somehow second-rate Christians or unfaithful to the Lord. But, to us, at any rate, we see the sense in which there is a fundamental change and therefore they no longer stand with the rest of us, too. . . . I'm not certain that this is the place for a thorough study of this-it is so subtle and so in-depth."

Veteran CRC Churchman Speaks

Leonard Hofman, CRC General Secretary Emeritus, next spoke. Declaring that "we did not come here with a strategy," Mr. Hofman said, with great emotion, "This is the fifteenth NAPARC assembly that I've attended in a row. . . . I've become acquainted with many people. . . . We've cherished a common faith even though there's been some variation in practice. . . . We pray together, we sing together, we engage in missions alongside of one another. . . . But when we speak about having a conciliar relationship, for fellowship, for exchange, . . . then it appears we cannot be together any longer. . . ."

Acknowledging that "we differ," Mr. Hofman recalled the days when the CRC was concerned about the OPC's position regarding the Masonic lodge.

". . . In '72, our Synod made the decision that to be in office was to be set apart for service. . . . We have discussed the issue of women in office for twenty-seven years, longer than NAPARC has been in existence. . . . Sometimes I get the impression that our contributions are no longer wanted."

Mr. Hofman expressed his delegation's amazement that the PCA voted in favor of admitting the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which ordains women to all church offices. He also expressed his sadness at the action by the Korean American Presbyterian Church to break fraternal ties, especially since no official word, he stated, has yet been received. "This is not a court. What are you hoping to achieve in a vote to suspend? Are you hoping to discipline us? . . . Are we within our confessions? . . . We've looked hard at these confessions, in recent years. . . . We intend never to bow under social pressure. . . . My commitment to the Word of God is the same as when I took my ordination vows. . . ."

Hofman said that the CRC delegation was told to "'work at membership in the NAPARC organization.'" He ended his remarks by asking rhetorically, "What do you hope to achieve by voting us out?"

The Confessional Basis of the Council

Rev. Ron Potter, Vice Chairman of NAPARC and Chairman of the Interchurch Relations Committee of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), spoke next. He declared: "When the gavel came down in the CRC . . . that set in motion the events today." He quoted from the NAPARC Constitution the basis of the Council, which includes the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity of Dutch Calvinism. He then cited the Belgic Confession, Article 30, which speaks of "faithful men" being chosen to proclaim the Word.

With respect to Dr. Engelhard's comments, Pastor Potter stated that the reference by the PCA to the acts of the CRC Synod was sufficient proof. He summarized by saying that the CRC's violation of the Belgic Confession on this point "does break the fellowship."

A CRC delegate responded by saying that in the 1980s his denomination struggled with that. He stated that the use of "men" in the Belgic Confession was a bad translation of the French word, "persona."

OPC delegate Mark Bube stated that the CRC's version of the Belgic Confession "has not been changed officially."

Van Baak replied: "I'm delighted with this kind of conversation . . . that we discuss the nature and authority of Scripture and talk about the details of the confessional standards that bind us together." He noted that the question raised regarding Belgic Confession Article 30 was "a matter of translation." He averred: "Let me assure you that in an assembly of 180 delegates [the number at each CRC Synod-Ed.] you're not going to effect a violation of church order."

Differences in Church Order and Views of Ordination

Van Baak noted that the terms "Presbyterian" and "Reformed" are not exact synonyms: "There are differences between Presbyterian and Reformed in our system of church government. . . ."

One of the key issues, according to Van Baak, is the question, What is ordination? . . . [S]ince there are seven different churches represented here, there are at least seven different opinions on it, and I think that you would find most of them are supported by Scripture." He suggested that differing views of ordination could lead to different views on whether women should be ordained. "But whether different means, in this instance, that it is mistaken, or . . . whether it is sinful, or . . . whether it is a sin against a clear teaching of Scripture, those are very distinctively different progressions. . . ."

Drawing on his fifty years of experience as a missionary in Asia, Van Baak declared that "the relationship of church and state is the biggest issue that we're going to face. . . . We have to have a procedure in order to come to grips with these issues. . . . We would be supported and strengthened by having your input and your resources. . . ."

Move for More Study Defeated

Accordingly, Van Baak moved a substitute motion: "that this Council establish an Ad Hoc Committee of member churches of NAPARC to examine the PCA statement concerning the CRC for its position on the ordination of women to the offices of minister, elder, and deacon; after developing a position regarding the consistency of varying positions on such ordinations with the NAPARC criteria for membership to report to NAPARC at its meeting in 1999."

The PCA's Rick Perrin immediately opposed the substitute motion. "I have no difficulty at all with examining the basis of the PCA's statement." However, since the thrust of the motion was to delay action, "I oppose it."

Jonathan Merica of the RCUS also spoke against the substitute: "Why two years? Why not ten years or fifteen? . . . This body knows full well what's before us."

The substitute overwhelmingly failed, receiving apparently only one vote in favor.

'You Made a Choice'

Jack Peterson of the OPC next carried the debate. "I don't want to take a vote on this, but we have to. . . . I'm as close a friend to the brethren in the CRC as, I think, anyone in here. . . . Our church has benefited greatly from our relationship with them. . . ."

The female ordination issue, Peterson maintained, "is not a salvic principle. But if you take a more covenantal-redemptive approach, it's where the rubber meets the road. Who's proclaiming the Word? . . . It's not a peripheral issue, but it's right at the heart of the church doing its work. . . . What do you do when you go to the church and the one who's serving the Lord's Supper [or proclaiming the Word] you feel is disqualified from office?" Speaking directly to the CRC delegates, Peterson said, "You made a choice. . . . I say that to you with breaking heart, because I love you, brothers, and I love your church."

Leonard Hofman spoke again, this time with regard to the Reformed Church of Japan, a denomination which was founded through both CRC and OPC efforts. "Now the parents of that church are divorced and it makes it difficult for the children to know where to go."

The Historic Vote

After a brief recess to allow for the constituent delegations to caucus, the historic vote was taken. Proceeding in alphabetical order, the Clerk called the name of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Speaking for the ARP was Dr. William Evans, professor of Bible at Erskine College. He took a moment of personal privilege to say that "this is a profoundly difficult decision for our delegation. I have a deep, personal regard and respect for our brethren in the Christian Reformed Church. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to the Christian Reformed Church for support of our application to this body in the mid-1980s. Further, I have a deep sense of personal gratitude: my children were baptized in the Christian Reformed Church. Nevertheless, our delegation has had considerable concerns about the overall direction of the CRC. . . . Report 44, we feel, is significantly flawed. . . . It is with considerable regret and even anguish that the delegation of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church casts its vote in the affirmative."

The roll call proceeded through the list of churches: Christian Reformed Church in North America, NO; Korean American Presbyterian Church, YES; Orthodox Presbyterian Church, YES; Presbyterian Church in America, YES; Reformed Church in the United States, YES. When the Clerk called the name of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, its spokesman, Dr. Bruce Stewart, President Emeritus of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, also took a moment to speak: "We have deep affection for our brothers in the Christian Reformed Church and deeply appreciate the many ways in which we have worked together in the past but we are constrained to vote 'yes.'"

The voting began at 10:36 AM. It was all over in a matter of minutes. And the church council had spoken decisively regarding the CRC and its view of female ordination.

Giving Reasons for the Action

However, it had not spoken definitively in that no reasons had been attached to its action. To try to rectify that situation, Elder Richard Barker, former OPC General Assembly Stated Clerk, moved that a committee comprising the Chairman, Vice Chairman, and Secretary "be requested to formulate from the actions of the major assemblies of the NAPARC churches pursuant to the matter of the ordination of women to ecclesiastical office in the Christian Reformed Church of North America, reasons for the suspension; those reasons to be sent to the NAPARC churches . . . together with the information concerning the proposed suspension of the CRCNA from membership in NAPARC."

William Evans spoke in favor of the motion: "I think it is not only appropriate but it is necessary under these circumstances. We owe our brothers in the Christian Reformed Church nothing less."

Dr. Engelhard reacted to that speech by saying: "It's not going to take the committee very long because the CRC has not heard from any church other than the OPC. . . . If that's what Mr. Evans thinks is owing the CRC something, then it falls very far short."

Dr. Evans replied that he was "not suggesting that the Clerk simply mail a copy of the OPC letter. There is, I believe, . . . a fairly significant paper trail on this from a number of the member churches."

An Emotional Farewell

Leonard Hofman, evidentally emotionally affected by the vote to suspend the CRC, asked for a moment of personal privilege. He began, "You have known me for many years and you've known that I have endeavored to be extremely fair with respect to issues." He spoke of the fact one of his daughters had some time ago told him and his wife that she was going to get the Master of Divinity degree [the standard degree for one going into ministry-Ed.] "This past spring the Board of Trustees at Calvin Seminary gave her a license to preach." He said that, when he first had opportunity to hear her preach, he went "literally trembling" into the church.

"She's not a feminist," Hofman declared. He continued: "I am just wondering what's going to happen when your daughter comes to you and says that [i.e., that she wants to study for the ministry-Ed.]. . . . I'm glad Kathy's not here this morning. . . . She'd say it more effectively than I that she believes she's in the will of the Lord."

Just prior to adjournment about a half hour later, Dr. David Engelhard spoke to the Council. He said that "this is likely the last NAPARC meeting" which the CRC would be attending. He expressed "our repeated sadness at this point and wish you well. The energy the last three years has largely been spent on keeping the EPC out and getting us out. That's not a good focus for a council. We wish you well."