John P. Galbraith
The 1996 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 11-19. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was represented at the Synod by two fraternal delegates, the Rev. Douglas A. Felch and the Rev. John P. Galbraith.
The Synod was characterized by its usual free debate in an atmosphere of sharp differences, but devoid of acrimony.
Several matters considered by the Synod were of special interest to members of the OPC:
The 1995 Synod's decision to open the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist to women faced and continues to face widespread opposition in the CRC. However, by a margin of 122 to 54, the Synod voted to "not accede to the overtures which ask for a revision of the decision of Synod 1995 regarding women in office, but that Synod 1996 affirm the 1995 decision." Technically, the decision will be reviewed by the Synod in the year 2000.
The advisory committee had been divided sixteen to four on the recommendation. However, even the minority report recognized the 1995 decision as a fait accomplis, and accepted the heart of the 1995 decision: "that Synod recognize that there are two different perspectives and convictions, both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God, on the issue of whether women are allowed to serve in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist," and that individual classes (presbyteries), "in response to local needs and circumstances," may declare "inoperative" the requirement of the Church Order that such officers be "male" and "ordain and install women" in these offices.
Later in the meeting, three women were approved as candidates for the ministry and declared eligible for a call from the churches. Calls are expected to be issued to all three shortly.
For a number of years, the CRC has had an ongoing discussion with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN) about the latter's acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle as a valid Christian alternative. As a result, in 1983 the CRC suspended certain mutual privileges that belonged to the ecclesiastical relationship of the two churches.
This year, Synod determined to expand the restrictions on the relationship "for a minimum of two years": "exchange of fraternal delegates at major assemblies" and "in initiating joint action in areas of common responsibility." The CRC intends for discussion of the homosexual issue to continue through personal meetings of representatives of the two churches.
The Interchurch Relations Committee of the CRC had recommended to the Synod that no discussions be permitted on matters already decided by the CRC. On the recommendation of the advisory committee, however, the Synod decided that on such matters the CRC "is willing to discuss these positions in response to the OPC's requests," and that if the OPC should have study committees on such matters, the CRC would be "willing to serve in a consultative capacity" to such committees, thus keeping dialogue open between the two churches.
The OPC's General Assembly had, on its last daytwo days after the opening of the CRC Synodadopted a communication to that Synod. However, the lateness of the action made delivery of the letter to the Synod and action on it by the Synod awkward. It was carried by hand to the Synod the next day, but by that time the Synod's appropriate advisory committee had completed its work pertaining to the OPC. As a result, our fraternal delegates had no opportunity to discuss the letter with the advisory committee or the Synod.
The letter was of crucial importance to OPC-CRC relations. It informed the Synod that because we can no longer assume that the CRC is a church of "like practice" with the OPC, our General Assembly had decided to suspend several provisions of the relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship between our two churches. Furthermore, that relationship would be terminated at the close of our 1997 General Assembly unless it should determine that other action is warranted.
According to the terms of the suspension, the CRC could no longer assume that the seating of their fraternal delegates ("corresponding members") at presbytery meetings would be automatic. (That is, a presbytery would not seat a female ruling elder or minister from the CRC.) Also, "occasional pulpit fellowship" is discontinued except at the discretion of individual sessions. Finally, "intercommunion" for the purposes of the reception, removal, and erasure of members can no longer be assumed.
After several days, copies of the OPC's letter were distributed to the members of the Synod, but it took no action with regard to the letter.
The Synod was both discouraging and encouraging to this reporter. It was discouraging that the previous decision on women in office was confirmed, if only for a minimum of four years, and that a significant barrier has been erected between us. It was encouraging that the CRC is taking a firm stand on the acceptance of homosexuality by the GKN.
The OPC needs to pray, not only for itself, but also for the CRC.
Mr. Galbraith, an OP minister since 1937, has served the OPC in many capacities. He currently serves on a number of committees. Reprinted from New Horizons, August-September 1996.