Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Visit To The Synod Of The United Reformed Churches

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
The External Relations Committee delegated me to visit the 2004 Synod of the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA), held June 15 to 18, 2004 at Calgary, Alberta.
Church-Orderly Issues
The 170-page agenda that was before the fifth Synod of the almost ten-year old URCNA indicated that a Church Order is still very much a work in progress. Among these rather business-like agenda items were overtures dealing with questions such as, should the local consistory examine men aspiring to the ministry or should other consistories be involved as well? Must the consistory assume supervision of all aspects of training, including licensure to exhort and to ensure that the training is thoroughly Reformed? The assumption is that the examination of students regarding the call to the ministry is the responsibility of the consistory of the church to which the applicant belongs. There is within the URCNA federation a great fear that synodical committees will take on too much power at the expense of the authority of the local church. This has everything to do with their experiences in the Christian Reformed Church, which in their opinion has become too hierarchical so that many decisions are made Òfrom the top down.Ó The problem is, however, that many consistories are beginning to see that they have taken on responsibilities that are too difficult for them to handle and they are now looking for a system somewhere between synodical and local authority.

Theological and Spiritual Issues
Paedo-Communion: One overture from Classis Western Canada dealt with the controversial issue of paedo-communion. The background to this overture was the practice of some congregations to allow children as young as ten-years old to partake of communion. Although these children are first interviewed and asked to make some kind of public profession of faith, some members of the congregation of Grand Prairie, Alberta, objected to this practice on the grounds that a ten-year old has not come to the years of discretion. After a very lengthy discussion Synod voted not to sustain the advisory committeeÕs recommendation, thereby agreeing with ClassisÕ judgment to sustain the appeal against the Grand PrairieÕs practice of interviewing children as young as ten on the ground that such children are not yet in a position to make a credible profession of faith as is required by the Church Order and the Reformed Confessions.

Although I was pleased with the final decision, which had the support of the overwhelming majority, I felt rather disappointed with some of the arguments pro and con the issue of child communion. Those advocating the practice seemed to do so on emotional and sentimental grounds and those opposing it could only fall back on the Church Order and tradition (ÒweÕve never done this, thereforeÉÓ). My impression was that the discussions did not reflect a very deep understanding of the spiritual meaning of the LordÕs Supper and the requirements for partaking of it as spelled out in 1 Corinthians 11, the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly LordÕs Days 28 to 30, and the Form for the LordÕs Supper.

Justification by Faith Alone: Another important issue concerned the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This matter came before Synod via an appeal, requesting Synod to judge the orthodoxy of a sermon preached by a URCNA minister, based on Daniel 6:22. Classis Western Canada judged it as being basically sound and not in conflict with Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. The appellants strongly disagreed with this ruling. In their view, the sermon taught that we are not justified solely on the ground of ChristÕs imputed righteousness but that God also takes into account the believerÕs intrinsic righteousness before declaring him or her righteous in His sight.

Because this matter was dealt with in executive session (which I and other official delegates were allowed to attend), I cannot report details of the discussion, except to say that it was a very lengthy discussion that showed this issue is a very sensitive one within the URCNA. It was remarkable that although everyone knew that in the background were the views of Dr. Norman Shepherd regarding justification, his name was not even mentioned once during the entire debate.

The advisory committee produced a majority report that argued against, and a minority report, which sustained the appeal. After a long and heated discussion Synod declared that it would neither sustain nor reject the appeal. Instead, Synod strongly affirmed that both Scripture and the Reformed Confessions teach, Òjustification is by grace alone, through faith alone, based on the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.Ó

While it was gratifying to see that this affirmation had the support of virtually all the delegates, I was disappointed that Synod refused to declare the sermon in question unscriptural. All Synod said was that the sermon was unclear and confusing on the doctrine of justification. Synod advised the consistory of the minister in question to work pastorally with him in order to bring Òany divergent view that he may have on this issue into conformity with what Synod here affirms.Ó I have read the sermon in question and am convinced that it is not just unclear and confusing on justification, but definitely not in harmony with the Reformed understanding of justification by faith alone.

Creation: Synod was requested to affirm the biblical creation account as historical and accurate, while another, similar overture asked Synod to declare as false any teaching that says that death of humans and animals existed before the fall. The background here is the teaching of the so-called framework hypothesis, which allows for a non-literal interpretation of the Genesis account.

Synod, however, did not accede to these requests on the ground that the Reformed Confessions are sufficiently clear on what we are to believe regarding the issues in question. While I agree with the formal principle that we should not make extra-creedal pronouncements on all kinds of issues, it is nevertheless troublesome that there are those within the URCNA who do not wish to be bound by a six-day creation account. While affirming the teaching of the Confessions on this subject, they also want to have the freedom to interpret them in ways that raise serious questions as to where this approach will ultimately lead.

Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity
Of special interest to us is the progress made toward unity between the URC and the Canadian Reformed Churches. The latter were well represented at this Synod. While their respective committees are making good progress on the issue of the church order, a common Psalter is still a hot button. Many in the URCNA are not about to exchange their Psalter-Hymnal for the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise. From talking to various delegates it appears that support for federative union with the Canadian Reformed is concentrated mainly in the Canadian branch of the URCNA, while the Americans are not so eager to team up with this denomination.

Many more issues were on the agenda but the above from a FRC point of view were the most important.

My Impressions
I left this Synod with some misgivings. On the positive side I saw that these brothers take Scripture and the Reformed Confessions very seriously and in my address I commended them for this. What is noticeable, however, is that they are still quite Kuyperian in their approach to soteriology (doctrine of salvation). In my address I pointed this out and reminded them that we have a common heritage that goes beyond the Doleantie to the Afscheiding (Secession) and the Nadere Reformatie (Second Reformation). This heritage is still waiting to be discovered.

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