By now you likely have a good idea about what happened at Synod 2023, even if you’re only remotely interested in CRC polity. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive recap, several others have put forth excellent work in reporting and analyzing the week that was (written, audio, video). This report will focus on where we ought to go from here.
What a strange feeling - to finally agree with a headline in The Banner: “Synod 2023: Incomplete and Broken.”
This accurate, albeit truncated, assessment makes it seem that the meeting was a failure, yet for those of us who support Biblical and Confessional orthodoxy, Synod was actually quite successful. Every time a conservative/orthodox position, policy or proposal was put to the test, it garnered wide support.
Well, almost every time, at least for the first six days.
Unfortunately, Synod lasts for seven days. Synod 2023 may not be remembered for the commitments to orthodoxy it made over its first six days, but it will be remembered for the stand it did not take on Day Seven. Discipline necessary to correct the insubordinate and arrogant attitudes of a small but mighty contingent of churches and classes - discipline which had already been threatened by prior Synods - was simply threatened again without implementing any reasonable accountability measures. Furthermore, corrective action needed to stem the blatant abuse of gravamen (gravamen are like kryptonite to confessionalism) was deferred till next year because the clock struck three and delegates had planes to catch. So Synod 2023 was, as The Banner put it, “incomplete.”
Synod's unfinished business will not remain so. It can’t; something has to give.
Synod's unfinished business will not remain so. It can’t; something has to give. Nobody - neither conservatives or liberals - wants what Synod 2023 has left us with. Synod doubled down on a host of solid, biblical decisions which will make the CRC a miserable place for theological liberals to remain, but it missed the mark of discipline, which results in an untenable place for conservatives to stay. Regardless of how one feels about the issues, Synod not completing its work on Day Seven was the worst possible outcome for everyone. As a result, the CRCNA is “broken.”
But we can fix it. And in doing so, we can make the CRCNA not just a place that conservatives can stay, but a place that congregations who desire solid Biblical and Confessional orthodoxy can thrive.
Step one is obvious: the work of Day Seven must be completed by bringing discipline to those who persistently refuse to bow to scripture as it has been correctly and consistently interpreted by the church for millennia.
We have the tools, knowledge and precedent to get this job done. I would argue that Synod demonstrated the corporate will to correct our wayward churches and classes. What Synod lacked this past year was the desire to punitively discipline them. Anyone who’s raised a child or supervised a youth group has wrestled with the distinction between corrective criticism and heavy handed punishment. It’s always preferable to begin with corrective criticism, but once it’s been determined the problem is insubordination and not just ignorance, discipline must become punitive.
We can make the CRCNA not just a place that conservatives can stay, but a place that congregations who desire solid Biblical and Confessional orthodoxy can thrive.
I have great confidence that this job will be completed by Synod 2024. The punitive discipline made necessary by insubordinate churches and classes will be enacted and the gravamen loophole will be plugged. The mark of discipline hasn’t been lost in the CRC, It's already begun, but it’s just not yet been fully implemented (to borrow some eschatological language). But it certainly will be.
What we need to realize is that reforming the CRCNA will take much more than just completing this one last step.
The divergent views regarding human sexuality that a small minority have expressed these last few years are not our primary problem. They’re only a symptom of our problem. And unless we want subsequent Synods to become nothing more than a discipline dispensary for years to come, we must eradicate the root that’s been producing so many errors.
The best and quickest way to resolve the current issues related to human sexuality is to make the CRC so undesirable for those who wish to continue straying from scripture on a whole host of issues that they want to voluntarily leave.
We must realign the denomination’s focus away from the horizontally oriented social issues it’s been pursuing, which so often end up weakening our Biblical fidelity, and return the CRCNA back to its comprehensively Christian roots.
To do this we must realign the denomination’s focus away from the horizontally oriented social issues it’s been pursuing, which so often end up weakening our Biblical fidelity, and return the CRCNA back to its comprehensively Christian roots. Such a shift would be kryptonite to theological liberalism.
Why this term: Comprehensive Christianity? Why not use a more popular term like gospel centered? After all, the gospel is the center of Christianity, and it’s certainly not complicated:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. - Romans 10:9
The beauty of the gospel is that even the dying thief on the cross could cling to it moments after first hearing it. Most of us have had the joy of seeing young children or new converts suddenly realize that Jesus is their Lord and that God raised Him from the dead so that they could live. Everything our denomination and churches do ought to point directly to this simple gospel message, so a church that’s comprehensively Christian will certainly be gospel centered.
But as our society continues to plunge itself into a postmodern / post Christian / post truth reality, simply being gospel centered will not be sufficient. After all, the good news of the gospel only makes sense for those who first understand the bad news, and fewer and fewer people in our world understand the problem our sin has created.
After hearing Romans 10:9, many people’s first question might be to wonder what it is they need to be saved from? As we’ve seen in the CRC these last few years, a basic doctrine like penal substitutionary atonement has little value to those who don’t fully understand the seriousness of sin.
Whereas in previous generations, nearly all of our friends and neighbors at least knew something about Jesus, now the majority of people will look at Romans 10:9 without knowing much about Him at all, and will likely have a ton of questions: Who is Jesus? Not only who is Jesus, but what is Jesus? What makes Him so special and different from anyone else? Why is Jesus alone qualified to bring salvation?
As our society continues to plunge itself into a postmodern / post Christian / post truth reality, simply being gospel centered will not be sufficient.
Potential questions about the gospel continue: what does it mean to confess that Jesus is Lord, as opposed to simply acceding to it? How can one know if he truly believes in his heart rather than just feels it for a moment? And how does confessing that Jesus is Lord affect day to day life? These complicated questions about the simple gospel require comprehensively Christian answers, and too many churches that claim to be gospel centered are not equipping their people to answer them. Even churches in the CRC. Maybe even especially in the CRC.
To simply focus on being gospel centered may cause some to devalue other components of scripture. What of the Law, for example? If the Law necessitates the gospel, and the gospel fulfills the Law, shouldn’t we know something about it, especially if the Law is to now be our guide for grateful living? Without a firm grip on the Law, the Gospel quickly becomes a meaningless, socially oriented source of ethical advice. We don’t need to look far within our own denomination for evidence of this.
We confess that our only comfort is that we comprehensively belong to Christ: in both body and soul, in life and in death. This comprehensive comfort requires a comprehensive theology. It does little good to be gospel centered if what we call ‘secondary’ issues consistently point people away from the gospel center.
Certainly I don’t wish to set myself against many solid church leaders who proudly identify as gospel centered. In fact, I’ve often described my own churches as such in the past, and we’ll likely find ourselves aligned on all sorts of good things, so it might seem silly to even argue about these sort of semantics. But words have meaning, and as theologians, words are the tools we use, so they must be accurate and sharp.
My point is simply that if we want a denomination that truly understands and promotes the gospel, we must move past debating settled and binding conclusions regarding human sexuality and recommit ourselves to a very comprehensive Christianity. Only then will we become free from the grip of theological liberalism that’s become so evident in our debates these past few years.
So how do we do this? How do we re-establish the CRC as a comprehensively Christian denomination? It’s always frustrating when politicians, business or church growth consultants paint a rosy, idealistic picture that looks so awesome, but is completely unrealistic because it depends upon a host of resources that are impossible to requisition.
This is not the case here.
Imagine opening the door to your office or shop and finding a machine that had been there for years, but had been pushed off to the side and forgotten about. Not just a dusty old gadget that had outlived its usefulness, but one that when cleaned up and put back into operation could add untold efficiency in achieving the objectives of your farm, business or even ministry.
The CRC has such a machine. Its official name is the Notae Verae Ecclesiae; perhaps you’re more familiar with the English rendition: The Marks of the True Church. You won’t read about them in the current mission or vision statements of the CRCNA, but you did subscribe to them in the 29th Article of the Belgic Confession (that is, if you’re an elder, deacon or pastor):
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks:
The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel;
It makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them;
It practices church discipline for correcting faults.
Let’s turn this machine back on in the CRC.
Let’s make our primary focus as a denomination identifying, educating, equipping and encouraging faithful men to boldly preach the gospel, which Reformed churches have always understood includes the proclamation of the full counsel of God’s Word: both the Law and the Gospel. We need more preaching that unapologetically convicts people of their sin; after all, the first thing we confess we need to know in order to experience our only comfort is just how great (massive) our sin is. We need preaching that consistently points people to a salvation that comes from Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone as it explains the creation, fall, redemption and consummation using an expository, verse by verse, chapter by chapter method. Preaching that relies on orthodox hermeneutics consistent with the Reformed tradition, rather than eisegetically derived interpretations influenced by a culture that is antithetical to God’s truth.
We need to have a serious denomination-wide conversation about the Regulative Principle, because it appears many worship leaders don’t even know it’s a thing, much less why we ought to be adhering to it.
Let’s continually improve how it is our churches are administering the sacraments, and more generally, how we’re expressing ourselves in corporate worship. We need to wind down our debate on Q&A 108 (regarding chastity) since the denomination overwhelmingly agrees on its traditional meaning and application, and turn our attention back a few clicks to Q&A 96, which compels us to not worship God in any other way than he has commanded in his Word. In other words, we need to have a serious denomination-wide conversation about the Regulative Principle, because it appears many worship leaders don’t even know it’s a thing, much less why we ought to be adhering to it. If we’re straying away from the Bible’s commands on how we worship, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn we’re straying away from scripture on all sorts of ‘secondary’ issues.
Let’s stop hiding church discipline in the back room like it’s an embarrassing relative. Let’s reintroduce discipline positively by increasing our efforts to catechize both our children and adults in order to combat the rampant Biblical and theological illiteracy within our ranks. Let’s be quick to confront sin in every form within our denomination and congregations, and work to keep the wolves out of our flock, understanding that wolves can appear from both inside and outside the Church.
Article 29 goes on to assert that if we commit ourselves to these three marks, or as it puts it, “govern ourselves according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head,” then we will have members who “flee from sin and pursue righteousness… who love the true God and their neighbors without turning to the right or left and who crucify the flesh and its works.”
The key to restoring comprehensive Christianity to the CRC is for our denomination to narrow its focus by recommitting the institutional church to implementing, promoting and perfecting these Notae Ecclesiae.
In other words, we don’t need a bunch of denominational agencies immersed in politics and cultural transformation. What we need is our institutional church (denomination, classes, councils, ministers, elders and deacons) to focus on these three marks, which in turn results in an organic church (our members) that extend God’s grace, mercy and peace to the world in a myriad of different ways.
The key to restoring comprehensive Christianity to the CRC is for our denomination to narrow its focus by recommitting the institutional church to implementing, promoting and perfecting these Notae Ecclesiae. Fulfilling these tasks well will take every resource we have, and there’s a ton of practical ways our agencies can help make this happen.
Although the Notae Ecclesiae is a powerful tool, it is not an automated machine. It takes lots of talented operators and requires constant maintenance. For some of us, it may seem like the CRC version of this machine will never run well again. It’s smoking, sputtering and wobbling badly. It’s easy to think that it might be time to finally jump ship to a denomination that doesn’t seem to have so many problems.
But don’t miss the fact that the CRC machine is running again after sitting idle for a long time. It was jump started by the grassroots efforts of groups like Abide, who've worked to maintain a biblical understanding of human sexuality these last few years.
Certainly many of our individual churches and classes have remained faithful to these three biblical principles, but the fact is this machine hasn’t been given the denominational fuel it needs for a long time. It’s going to take years of hard work to get it greased up, re-tuned and humming the way we’d like. In fact, we’ll never really be done with this work; by God’s grace our children will step in to do it when we’ve been called home.
As with any machine, there will be lots of frustrations along the way when it breaks down; frustrations like many of us experienced Day Seven of Synod 2023.
But we’re not people who are afraid of hard work, especially when it comes to fulfilling the calling God has given to us.
This reformation doesn't need an overture to begin it; It begins with you. Make sure your pulpit, your classroom, your council table and your congregation labor to fulfill these three marks. Encourage your classis to do the same. Soon enough we'll be updating our denominational mission & vision statements accordingly, and next we'll ensure our agencies and publications support comprehensive Christianity.
Right now is an exciting time to be a part of the CRCNA. It’s time to expand our efforts from Human Sexuality to restoring a comprehensive Christianity to the entire denomination; this same comprehensive Christianity that once defined the CRC and that our world now needs more than ever.
Rev. Chad Werkhoven pastors Worthington Christian Reformed Church in Southwest Minnesota, part of Classis Minnkota. He’s the primary contributor to UnfadingTruth, a daily Bible reading plan that follows the outline of the Heidelberg Catechism.