From “neat and tidy” to “graciously messy”
The following blog post was written by Syd Hielema. Dr. Hielema serves as the chaplain for Redeemer University College. He is also a member of the CRC Faith Formation Committee, that was established by Synod 2007.
Synod 2007 formed the Faith Formation Committee with the mandate to shepherd the denomination towards a fresh understanding of the place of children at the Lord’s table and the role of a public profession of faith within this place.
To our knowledge, this is the first time synod has ever formed a “shepherding” committee, and as we explored this calling, we realized it has three dimensions: listening to the denomination, making recommendations based on distilling this listening through Scripture and the confessions, and then providing guidance in implementing whatever recommendations were approved by synod. Originally we were given a five year mandate, and we were instructed to report to synod every year.
Years one and two were listening years, and during those years we visited 2/3 of the classes of the denomination, more than thirty of them. In year three we were ready to bring our principal recommendation to synod, which was centered on this paragraph:
All baptized members are welcome to the Lord’s Supper for age- and ability- appropriate obedience to biblical commands about participation, under the supervision of the elders. The elders have responsibility to nurture grateful and obedient participation by providing encouragement, instruction, and accountability in the congregation. Requiring a formal public profession of faith prior to participation the Lord’s Supper is one pastoral approach to consider, but is not required by scripture or the confessions.
Synod 2010 approved this principle, and synod 2011 ratified it, along with its implications for the church order. Synod 2011 also added a year to our mandate, recognizing that one final year was not sufficient for shepherding the church through the implementation process. We as a committee heaved a collective sigh of relief, and, with this recommendation approved, saw synod 2012 as an “off-year” in terms of how much it meant to our work.
But what seemed like a minor oversight at synod 2011 reminded us forcefully that phase 3 of our shepherding work also involves significant challenges. As the church order implications of our recommendation were discussed in 2011, a motion was made from the floor to delete one sentence from article 59 of the church order: “This public profession of faith includes a commitment to the creeds and confessions of the Christian Reformed Church.” That motion was discussed and approved without comment from our committee, but the instant it was passed we realized that we had blundered in our silence.
The relationship between our new manner of welcoming children to the table and this sentence from the church order illustrates the “gracious messiness” we have gotten ourselves into. As a committee we are convicted that (a) it is not biblical to require a formal, public profession of faith before welcoming anyone to the table, and (b) sturdy denominational identity and life includes strengthening our character as a confessional church; thus, participation in the CRC involves receiving instruction in the creeds and confessions.
This year we asked synod to reinstate this sentence in the church order while being aware of the somewhat paradoxical nature of the two above statements. And it was precisely this paradox that animated the 45 minute discussion of this one sentence on the floor of synod.
I was very thankful for both the discussion and its conclusion. During the discussion, one pastor said something like, “I’m currently working with some fourteen year-old boys who love the Lord and desire to come to the table and become active participants in the life of our congregation. Must they first become fluent in the creeds and confessions?” Another pastor asked, “I’m a church planter working with seekers who know nothing about the Reformed heritage. Must I walk them through the confessions before welcoming them into our community?”
Synod honored these concerns by both (1) reinstating this sentence within the church order, and (2) instructing the FFC to provide more guidance concerning the relationship between welcoming persons to the table and instructing them in the creeds and confessions. I thought the decision was very wise.
A week after synod I was able to have coffee with the pastor who was working with the fourteen year old boys. We agreed that it was possible to welcome them wholeheartedly to the table while they continue to participate in discipleship which includes learning more about what it means to be part of a centuries-old confessional tradition whose strengths still bless us to seek first the Lord’s kingdom in the 21st century.