SIOUX FALLS, S. D. (November 19, 1998) URNS-The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has finally been suspended from the fellowship of conservative Reformed denominations which it helped to start two decades ago.
Hosted this year in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, by the German-heritage Reformed Church in the United States, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council met in foreign missions and home missions
consultations on November 16 and 17, and in full session on November 17 and 18. The first item of business on the full session agenda was the announcement of votes by member denominations on last year's proposal to suspend the CRC's membership because of its 1995 decision to allow the ordination of women ministers, elders, and evangelists.
Under NAPARC rules, a vote to suspend a member denomination requires ratification by two-thirds of the national governing bodies of the member denominations. Of the seven NAPARC member denominations, only the Christian Reformed synod voted against suspending the CRC; the general assembly of the Korean American Presbyterian Church failed to vote on the proposal. All other member denominations-the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Reformed Church in the United States, and Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America-voted to suspend the CRC.
NAPARC has never before suspended a member denomination and therefore has no history of how to deal with suspended members. The rules state only that suspended members may send delegates to NAPARC and that they may not vote, and until the meeting convened, a number of NAPARC members didn't know whether the CRC would send delegates. Each NAPARC member is entitled to send four voting delegates and the CRC has generally sent its full delegation, but this year the CRC sent only its General Secretary, Dr. David Engelhard, and former synod president Rev. Peter Brouwer, a prominent conservative minister who prior to retirement spent many years as pastor of a large southwest Minnesota church.
After the announcement of the votes, Engelhard read a letter to NAPARC from the CRC's interchurch relations committee expressing regret that the CRC's appeals to member churches to vote against suspension were unsuccessful. In the CRC's view, suspension is unwarranted because it continues to adhere to the doctrinal standards of NAPARC-the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort from the Dutch Reformed tradition and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms from the Presbyterian tradition-which do not address the matter of women's ordination.
In previous years, NAPARC delegates noted an item in the Belgic Confession which speaks of "faithful men" being ordained to office. The CRC responded that its synod voted years ago to change the translation to gender neutral language and that NAPARC hadn't objected at the time to the change in the translation of the confessions.
During the treasurer's report, Elder Richard Barker, the former stated clerk of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), noted that neither the CRC nor the Koreans had paid their annual dues to NAPARC. Barker moved that the dues be increased to $300 per year and that "a church suspended from NAPARC be excused from paying dues for the year in which the suspension becomes effective and in any year in which the suspension continues in effect."
"It just seems to me that if they can't vote they shouldn't be expected to pay dues," said Barker-an argument which received unanimous support from NAPARC.
Speaking after the session, Engelhard said the CRC's Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) had debated what to do about the suspension and had decided to send delegates anyway. "We had heard that the majority of the churches had voted to go with the suspension; the IRC then debated whether we should send representatives," said Engelhard. "I had argued for the position that this is what suspension means. We should continue to have a presence at NAPARC until such time as our membership should be terminated."
"That wasn't a hard decision to make, at least this first year," said Engelhard.
Engelhard emphasized the point made by the CRC in previous years, that the CRC was being suspended from NAPARC based on a matter which isn't addressed in the doctrinal standards of the organization. "Rev. Brouwer leaned over to me and said there's nothing in the constitution we don't stand for, and I said, 'Exactly!' It's extra-constitutional grounds that's driving this agenda."
While the suspension didn't affect the Interchurch Relations Committee's willingness to send delegates, Engelhard said it was the reason only two rather than four delegates were sent. "Probably because of the suspended status, and because of the cost, we had one of our [Interchurch Relations Committee] members in the area, and it seemed best to send two," said Engelhard. "We are entitled to four votes on some issues, but it seems less important to send four people here when we can't exercise that vote anyway."
The CRC issue didn't come up again until the end of the NAPARC meeting, when the Interim Committee proposed that "member churches and/or their respective interchurch relations committees discuss and draw up concrete proposals as to how NAPARC can fulfill its 'purpose and function' (cf. Constitution, Section 3), for discussion at the NAPARC 1999 meeting and that these proposals be sent to the secretary by the six-week deadline so that they can be distributed for the meeting."
The invited official observer from the United Reformed Churches, Rev. Ralph Pontier, asked for permission to speak to the motion. "As a first-time observer, I'm shocked by this motion," said Pontier. "Am I to understand that the Interim Committee believes this body is not presently fulfilling its constitution?"
"I am the person who wrote this proposal, in response to the gentleman from the United Reformed Churches about what we are all about," said the Rev. Andrew Schep from the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA). "I've been here for the last five years, and we've had a lot of debate about who's in and who's out, but not much else."
The newly-elected stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America suggested that NAPARC's purpose could include discussing how the member denominations could or should address pressing social issues in the North American context. "We're all concerned about the inroads of the contemporary worship movement in the evangelical churches, we're all concerned about the homosexual lifestyle, but what are we doing pastorally to deal with that?" asked Dr. L. Roy Taylor, noting that one of the PCA's large churches has an associate pastor dealing specifically with pastoral ministry to homosexuals.
Taylor also noted the role of NAPARC in promoting ecclesiastical union among NAPARC's own members. "It seems to me that NAPARC had a large role to play to promoting the union of two denominations, the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod and the Presbyterian Church in America, and the almost-union between the PCA and the OPC."
The former OPC stated clerk reminded delegates that not all member denominations dealt with contemporary issues in the same way, and moved to have each denomination submit its study papers on various issues to NAPARC, along with a statement about the authoritative weight which the study papers carry within the respective denominations. "It is my perception that our denominations have very different approaches to these big social questions in our culture, homosexuality, abortion, and so forth," said Elder Richard Barker.
That led to questions from the two Christian Reformed delegates about whether they should also submit papers and reports on mission works to avoid unnecessary competition. "In addition to putting study committee reports together, it would be helpful to have a list of mission works," said Rev. Peter Brouwer. "If one of us is doing mission work in Pakistan, for instance, why should we have another work side-by-side
doing the same thing?"
CRC General Secretary Dr. David Engelhard noted that the CRC does submit its study papers but they are contained in the synodical acts. "I think part of the problem is that we are trying to do all of these things with insufficient staff; we have asked [NAPARC secretary Rev. Donald] Duff to do far more than his $200 honorarium is worth."
RCUS delegate Rev. Paul Treick questioned whether the CRC delegates should submit position papers or address NAPARC as regular members given their suspended status. NAPARC chairman Rev. Ron Potter, also an RCUS pastor, reminded NAPARC that the CRC is still a member of NAPARC despite being a suspended status, and that the only limits on the CRC's membership are that it cannot vote, cannot send delegates to the Interim Committee, and need not pay membership dues.
That interpretation didn't meet with the favor of the invited observers from the United Reformed Churches or the Free Reformed Churches, both of which were encouraged to attend by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
"NAPARC allowed the CRC to redefine suspension," said Pontier, speaking after NAPARC adjourned. "People didn't expect them to show up, but they not only showed up but also took an active part and had a good time," said Pontier. "I think we cannot approach this pragmatically, we have to approach this principially, and as long as the CRC is in NAPARC we cannot belong."
However, both Pontier and the Free Reformed delegates made clear that they could speak only for themselves and not for their respective interchurch relations committees.
Rev. Lawrence Bilkes, chairman of the Free Reformed interchurch relations committee, noted that their interest in NAPARC paralleled their interest in the International Council of Reformed Churches, which the Free Reformed mother church, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, joined after leaving the Reformed Ecumenical Council.
The REC lost a number of its conservative members after it failed to expel the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, the CRC's mother church, despite the GKN's affirmation of gay marriages. "We've been present at three ICRC meetings, we joined five years ago with the OPC and due to their stance for truth against problems in the REC," said Bilkes. "To me it does not make sense that we churches which are akin doctrinally and spiritually would not be able to submit papers, but suspended members can submit papers which are at variance with a confessional and scriptural stand."
Free Reformed interchurch secretary Rev. Hans Overduin concurred that it seemed strange that conservative invited observers could not submit papers while suspended members could do so, but suggested that pragmatic considerations might lead his denomination to overlook questions about the CRC's status in NAPARC.
"I appreciate the OPC's involvement in these organizations and fighting for the Reformed truth, while we sit on the sidelines and wonder if we're going to take part," said Overduin.