Social Distancing and Ordination

(see bottom for appendix)

There are many challenges that this season has given us, and one of them is what do we do about ordinations in a time that we cannot be physically present, particularly with the laying on of hands? Can we do ordinations when we cannot perform that significant rite? And if we can, then how do we do that?

Why do we lay hands on ordinands?

The practice of laying on of hands has deep and significant roots. While the Old Testament often poured oil to mark significant moments, such as when Samuel anointed Saul to be king (1 Sam 10), we also see Moses laying hands on Joshua to pass on the mantle of leadership of the people of Israel.

It is in the New Testament that we see the most significant examples of laying on of hands. They occur in a couple of main contexts: the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-19) and the passing on the mantle of leadership in the community (Acts 6:6; Acts 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14).*

Throughout the centuries, the practice of laying on of hands has been used in different contexts, but particularly for us, here, ordination. Some use it for profession of faith, though it is certainly not required. However, the liturgical rubric for ordination of elders and deacons reads, “Those who are to be ordained shall kneel individually before the presiding minister for prayer with the laying on of hands.” The “shall” is obligatory rather than permissive. Furthermore, when considering those ordained in other traditions, the church order reads,

A consistory shall recognize as valid only such ordination to the office of elder or deacon in another denomination as is able to meet the following conditions: intended to be within and to the ministry of the catholic or universal church; performed by a duly organized body of Christian churches, and by the authority within such body charged with the exercise of this specific power, accompanied by prayer and the laying on of hands.

BCO 1.I.2.17

And further, regarding ministers,

The classis shall appoint a time for the ordination service of the candidate. An interval of at least ten days following the candidate’s examination is required before the service of ordination. That service shall be conducted by the classis in regular or special session with proper solemnity. A sermon suitable to the occasion shall be preached, and the promises, directions, explanations of duty, and prayer with the laying on of hands shall be according to the office for ordination in the Liturgy.

BCO 1.II.13.5

And further,

A classis shall recognize as valid only such ordination in another denomination as is able to meet the following conditions: intended to be within and to the ministry of the catholic or universal church; performed by a duly organized body of Christian churches, and by the authority within such body charged with the exercise of this power, accompanied by prayer and the laying on of hands.

BCO 1.II.14.1

So this may seem to be the end of the story, an ordination requires the laying on of hands. However, this also invites us to think deeper about ordination and what actually happens.

Is the laying on of hands required?

There are two questions before us here, I think: what is good and right and what is required. The answers are often similar, but in some instances they may be different. There is no doubt that laying on of hands for ordination is good and right and ought to happen.

In our own tradition, at least as early as Emden of 1571, prayer and laying on of hands were both spoken of as a unit for ordinations, though there is a parenthetical note following that it is to be done without superstition (Art. 16). This, then, implies that the laying on of hands does not do anything magical itself. And so even here we have an affirmation that this is how things should be done, but also balancing it with avoiding of superstition. I am careful, however, in addressing Emden’s use of the term “superstition.”†

This, I think, is also an important consideration ecumenically. The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches published a significant paper in 1982, called Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM). In the definitions section, we read this,

The term ordained ministry refers to persons who have received a charism and whom the church appoints for service by ordination through the invocation of the Spirit and the laying on of hands.

BEM, Ministry, para 7c (p. 17).

And this, then, indicates that laying on of hands is an ecumenical marker of ordination. Indeed, the regulations from the Book of Church Order quoted above seek to emphasize the catholic nature of the ministry of the offices, and require prayer and laying on of hands as part of the ordination service as part of that. This is part of the catholic tradition.

However, while BEM does see laying on of hands as normative, it is not as though this, itself, is the essence of the act of ordination. The description of ordination here is significant, so I will quote it at length.

Ordination is an invocation to God that the new minister be given the power of the Holy Spirit in the new relation which is established between this minister and the local Christian community and, by intention, the Church universal. The otherness of God’s initiative, of which the ordained ministry is a sign, is here acknowledged in the act of ordination itself. “The Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:3): the invocation of the Spirit implies the absolute dependence on God for the outcome of the Church’s prayer. This means that the Spirit may set new forces in motion and open new possibilities “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).

Ordination is a sign of the granting of this prayer by the Lord who gives the gift of the ordained ministry. Although the outcome of the Church’s epiklesis depends on the freedom of God, the Church ordains in confidence that God, being faithful to his promise in Christ, enters sacramentally into contingent, historical forms of human relationship and uses them for his purpose. Ordination is a sign performed in faith that the spiritual relationship signified is pre-sent in, with and through the words spoken, the gestures made and the forms employed.

Ordination is an acknowledgment by the Church of the gifts of the Spirit in the one ordained, and a commitment by both the Church and the ordinand to the new relationship. By receiving the new minister in the act of ordination, the congregation acknowledges the minister’s gifts and commits itself to be open towards these gifts. Likewise those ordained offer their gifts to the Church and commit themselves to the burden and opportunity of new authority and responsibility. At the same time, they enter into a collegial relationship with other ordained ministers.

BEM, Ministry, para 42-44, p. 28.

And so it is important, here, as well to make a distinction between the sign and the thing signified.

In the Reformed confessions, the Belgic Confession does not speak of ordination. However, if we look broader to the Second Helvetic Confession (which, while not one of our particular standards of doctrine, is still significant in the broader Reformed tradition), we do see a section on ordination.

And those who are elected are to be ordained by the elders with public prayer and laying on of hands. Here we condemn all those who go off on their own accord, being neither chosen send, nor ordained.

Article XVIII (from the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, sec. 5.151)

It seems that “prayer and laying on of hands” is part of the rite where the church publicly affirms one’s calling and sends one to into the service of Word and sacrament. This is to, among other things, protect against those who, on their own volition, claim the mantle of ministry. This is invalid.

To this end, we read in the Belgic Confession,

So all must be careful not to push themselves forward improperly, but must wait for God’s call, so that they may be assured of their calling and be certain that they are chosen by the Lord.

Art 31.

The context of this in the Belgic Confession, of course, is regarding election to office, which also helps protect against those who claim the mantle of ministry on their own. The general principle, I think, holds true, that ordination by the church helps to ensure that the ministry of Word and sacrament is something that belongs to the church and not to individuals.

It is clear that the laying on of hands, even if not the thing which grants validity to an ordination, cannot be readily and easily disposed of during an ordination to any of the offices. Laying on of hands is not just normal, it is normative. This being said, however, what do we do in times when we cannot physically gather?

Elders and deacons

A situation like the one that we are in is certainly something other than what was intended for in this. So for those who have elder or deacon terms that are coming to an end with newly elected elders and deacons, what is to be done with people who need to be ordained to their offices?

When there is a vacancy on the consistory (e.g. if a consistory member resigns or transfers their membership elsewhere), the congregation can elect and install someone else for that unexpired term, or,

the consistory may appoint and install a member of the great consistory to the same office of his or her previous service until the next congregational meeting for the election of elders and deacons.

BCO 1.I.2.14f

A member of the great consistory holding the same office would not need to be ordained, only installed, which has no requirement of laying on of hands. This is clearly intended to be a stop-gap measure until the congregation is able to hold a meeting to elect someone (lest anyone think that this can be used in the normal course of things). So one option would be to allow the terms to conclude, and for those who have not yet been ordained to the office to which they were elected, a member of the great consistory could temporarily be appointed until such time as an ordination with the laying on of hands can happen.

There is a second possibility, as well.

The elders and deacons shall be elected for a term not to exceed five
years, the length of the term being at the discretion of the consistory.
A classis may, under extenuating circumstances and at the request of
a consistory, grant permission for an extension of the term of office of
elders and deacons, subject to classis review at least once every five
years.

BCO 1.I.2.14e

These may be the extenuating circumstances under which a consistory could ask the classis’s permission to extend the terms and install the new elders and deacons when a proper service of ordination and installation is able to happen.

There is a third possibility similar to the one discussed below.

ministers

Much of the practical discussion above has been about elders and deacons, but what about ministers, we might ask? And this situation is a bit more challenging, not only practically because there are candidates who have calls to churches and cannot for very real reasons, wait until an unspecified time to begin. But it is not only practical concerns, but deeper concerns as well. For churches who call a licensed candidate, this potentially has a significant impact on the care of the congregation. Indeed, times of vacancy are often difficult, but instances in which a consistory has extended a call which has classical approval and acceptance by the candidate, only prolongs the difficulty for the church and prevents the minister from being able to serve.

Practically speaking, this doesn’t entirely impact one’s ability to preach, as a licensed candidate is able to preach. This may, however, impact the sacraments if the church is celebrating the Holy Supper remotely.

And this, then, asks the question is preventing ordination from taking place more harmful to the church? Harmful does not mean it is something other than is preferred, but does it do harm to the church? This also asks the question of the greater and lesser harm. That is, is the greater harm to prevent a pastoral relationship from beginning because of reasons that are neither the cause of the church or the individual? Or is the greater harm the possibility of an ordination that may be less than regular? This answer is not something that can be decided as a one-size-fits-all sort of answer, but must be carefully discerned between the local church and the classis.

This also invites us to think about ordination, itself. For the Reformed, ordination is not a sacrament, though it is a rite. And so this puts it in a different category from the Holy Supper or Baptism, and the dangers of anomalies are lessened. We do not believe that the act of laying on of hands itself is required for the Spirit to work. This doesn’t make the rite optional, however, but it does, I think, speak to the concerns of superstition in the 1571 Articles of Emden. There is a point at which we so conflate the sign and the thing signified, to imply that God is restricted to working through the signs, particularly so in nonsacramental rites. And such an understanding is problematic, as we are not the ones who can control the Divine work. We simply bear witness to it. Laying on of hands does, however, carry a powerful symbolism of, among other things, public authorization for the ministry of Word and sacrament. It is the entrance into a new place in the church. Not a higher place or a more important or more special place, just a different place to serve the people of God. Therefore, the symbolism and acts of the rites cannot be simply done away with or ignored. However, if we hang the validity of ordination solely on the actions of the rite, I do think that we lose some of what is actually happening, focusing too much on the actions, and then we tread dangerously close to superstition.

However, I think, a case could be made for ecclesiastical accommodation for performing ordinations on a simultaneous two-way video conference platform. An ordination in absentia or via a streaming video would not work. Indeed, ordination requires the making of promises and the answering of questions. The questions need to be asked, the answers need to be given, and the promises need to be made all before the gathered community. Therefore, I do think that there are accommodations that can be made, but the accommodations are not without strict limits. There are ways to ensure that the intent of laying on of hands can be accomplished even if the physical act cannot. This option is not to be preferred and must be recognized as anomalous and not an ordinary way for ordinations to happen in any other situation.

APPENDIX I: I continue to stand by my work, here, though I want to add a couple of other thoughts. Can we ignore the laying on of hands? No. Nothing that I am suggesting implies that we ignore it. I’m suggesting that we wrestle with it. Is there a way to retain the essence of all that is happening even if we cannot fully perform the acts as we normally would? I think that is the case. My friend and colleague Daniel Meeter has written about how the elders might deputize someone to help perform the acts, even as the minister and elders continue to be responsible for what is happening (https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2020/05/12/untouchable-sacraments/ and https://youtu.be/xTt_56IEb8U?t=3121). It would be entirely possible, and certainly preferable to nothing, for the classis (or the consistory, whoever would be appropriate) to deputized family members to lay hands on the ordinand. What do we do in the instance of someone who lives alone? Particularly, what do we do in the instance of a person who is at a particular at-risk category who lives alone? Some have suggested that they lay hands on themselves. This could fulfill the letter, in that, there were at least two hands put on someone. But I do have questions about whether this fulfills the function of the laying on of hands, or if it further confuses things and gives the appearance of someone doing the work themselves, as when Sonny (Robert Duvall) waded into the water and baptized himself and anointed himself an apostle in the 1997 film, The Apostle. In this instance, would a self-laying on of hands convey the appropriate meaning of being called, sent, and authorized by the church? Done rightly, perhaps. On the other hand, I could even imagine, when we can gather again, doing a confirmation, of sorts, where the outward acts are done in a more regular way.

There are two particular things above that I want to reemphasize. First, is that this is not a good and right way to do things. Something which may be permissible with strict limits does not mean that it is good and right. Second the importance of the intent. How do we carry forth the intent of what the sign signifies? This is not license to just do away with this, but rather, how might we be creative in instances where creativity might be necessary (and as I tell my three-year-old, needs and wants are different).

If we can find a way around this strange video conference ordination thing, that is preferable. In most instances, there are perfectly fine ways to avoid it. That should be the case. But is it possible that there may be instances when it cannot be avoided? In doing so, we must be careful about what is happening and why, and find ways to fulfill the intent of what is happening, even if the outward acts are anomalous.


*The biblical citations in this post are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive.

† This was, of course, a short hand for describing everything that they saw as wrong with Roman Catholicism. I am not addressing that, nor am I trying to imply that any other church did or did not believe or practice in ways that may be described as superstitious.

Special meetings of the General Synod

The second part of the synodical plan that the General Synod Council decided without ever consulting the church is to call a special session of the General Synod in October. The section in question is this:

The president of the General Synod shall call a special session of the synod at a place determined by the president, vice president, and the general secretary of the synod upon the joint application of three ministers and three elders from each of the regional synods, all of them serving currently as accredited delegates to the General Synod

Book of Church Order, 1.IV.4.2

The General Synod Council has determined to make a novel reading of this, arguing that this only covers when a special session is required to be called, though the possibility remains open for the option for a special session to be called. Because, as they argue, the church order is silent on discretionary special sessions, the non-profit law of New York allows for it, they argue that the General Synod Council is authorized to call for a special session, particularly for something like this.

This is a peculiar reading for a few reasons. First, this is making a significant argument from silence. But it’s not exactly from silence, because other parts of the church order might offer insight into this in a contextual reading of the order.

Regarding the consistory:

The president shall call special meetings of the consistory when they are deemed necessary and shall do so promptly when requested by at least three members of the consistory.

Book of Church Order, 1.I.4.6

Furthermore, the classis:

The president of classis shall call a special session of classis whenever special business requires it or upon the written request of two classis members and two elder delegates

Book of Church Order, 1.II.4.2

However, the language regarding calling special sessions changes when we get to the synodical bodies.

For the regional synod:

The president of the regional synod shall call a special session of the synod upon receipt of a written request of one minister and one elder delegate from each of the classes within its bounds.

Book of Church Order, 1.III.4.2

and finally, for the General Synod:

The president of the General Synod shall call a special session of the synod at a place determined by the president, vice president and the general secretary of the synod upon the joint application of three ministers and three elders from each of the regional synods, all of them serving currently as accredited delegates to the General Synod.

Book of Church Order, 1.IV.4.2

One may of course say that the language for the consistory or the classis does not matter here, although when you read the church order contextually, with the understanding that the church order is a unit, a whole, and that there is a logic to it, reading contextually is an important apsect. One may also say that the same latitude for the president to call a special session of the synods when it is “deemed necessary” or when “special business requires it” is implied because that is allowed for the consistory and classis, and so in order to maintain the similarity between all the assemblies, that carries the implication that it is possible, even though it is not provided for. One may also argue that the church order only specifies when a special session must be called, but leaves open the possibility for when one may be called. However, all of these arguments are, I think, tenuous at best, particularly when we look theologically and historically at this question.

Theological Perspective

Synods are of a different essence than consistory or even classis.

while the synods were necessary for the good order of the church, they did not constitute its essence. Reformed churches could— and did—exist without a national synod. Reformed people understood that Christ constituted his church through Word and Spirit. That happened as the living Word, Christ, called his people around pulpit and Table. The synods existed, then, as the bene esse, for the good of the church, but not as the esse, the essence of the church.

Allan J. Janssen, Constitutional Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Reformed Church Press, 2019), pp. 215-216.

A synod, then, is not just a bigger version of a classis or a consistory. As I have written before (and repeat to anyone who will listen), the church is the most church when it gathers around pulpit, table, and font and each broader ring is church in a more derivative form. The synods are bodies without permanent memberships, and so it is questionable how a synod can be church in any meaningful sense of the term when it is not an ongoing locus of Word and sacrament.

Indeed, this is the reason why minsters who are “installed as a pastor of
a local church shall be a member of that church by virtue of installation.” and why “A minister not installed as a pastor shall become a member of a local church” (BCO 1.II.15.6). Ministers are members of the classis, however, they also have a sense of membership in the local church. Practically, this is a challenging or odd thing, but the reality is, it recognizes that ministers, too, find themselves within the church as the church gathers around pulpit, table, and font.

Because of this difference in essence between the consistory and classis on one hand, and the synods on the other, I find it difficult to so easily gloss over the differences in the order. It should, at least, give us pause. Indeed, the order offers the possibility for “if needed” optional special sessions as well as when they are called for by the requisite number from the body. I, at least, find it peculiar that this does not provide for this for the synods since it explicitly does so for two assemblies, and does not for two others.

The language for the consistory, “when they are deemed necessary” is the most broad and most permissive of the languages. In a way, this makes great sense. The consistory is where the church meets life. The local church is the most essential part of the church and it is where ministry, or at least the vast majority of it, happens. Because of the innumerable amount of things that a consistory would have to deal with, it makes sense that a special session could be called whenever it is “deemed necessary.”

The langauge for the classis is quite broad, but a bit more restrictive, “whenever special business requires it.” The word “requires” adds a sense of need rather than desire. The order does not specify what special business would have to be required. However, earlier church orders give an indication as to what type of business is in view.

It shall be the duty of the president of the Classis to call its members together by circular letter when a special meeting of the Classis is made necessary for an examination, an approval of a call, an ordination, and installation, or any other special business.”

Church order 1916, Article VII, Sec. 91.

Here we can see the list given is things that are necessary, and things that the classis must do and that only the classis can do. These are things that cannot wait for a stated session if they come between sessions. And the “any other special business” is clarified through “necessary” and things that are similarly necessary to those given in the list.

We have two words here, “necessary” used previously, and “required” used in the current church order. And so while the order allows for special sessions to be called for apart from the requisite number of members/delegates to apply for one, it is still restricted by what is “required.” However, when at least two ministers and two elders request a special session, one must be called, regardless of the reason. This allows the body to have control over this, as well.

However, when we get to the synods, we have neither the very broad discretion of the consistory, nor the more limited discretion of the classis, but we have the complete absence of discretionary special sessions, and the church order only provides for special sessions when they are called for by the requisite number of delegates. Coincidentially (or intentionally), this reflects the esse/bene esse distinction between the assemblies. While some may argue that this is an oversight, it is an oversight that has existed since the General Synod allowed for special sessions in 1800. It is hard for me to believe that a difference in language that has existed so long and with so many revisions, even global revisions, of the church order is simply an oversight.

Furthermore, there is also the matter of the fact that the synods, and in particular, the General Synod, covers a much greater geographic area with a variety of interests, concerns, views, and the like. It is easier for a president of a consistory to determine what is desired matter for a special session, it is even easier for the president of a classis to determine when a special session is required, but it is very difficult for the president of a regional synod or the General Synod to determine what matters are (a) both necessary, and (b) of a concern for the whole church. Indeed, this, I think, is why for the synods, the only provision in the church order for calling a special session is for the requisite number of delegates to apply for it.

It would be a daunting and expensive task to gather a special session of a national body. Special circumstances, however, may require the synod to meet in an extraordinary session. The order recognizes the extraordinary nature of such sessions by constructing imposing conditions for their call. Three ministers and three elders from each synod would, at the present time, mean that at least 48 delegates request a special session. And since each synod must provide six signatures, the need would encompass the entire variety of the church’s life. Thus no one theological or ecclesiastical commitment would be capable of engineering a special session.

Janssen, p. 229.

Historical Perspective

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, when the newly independent Reformed Church was beginning its organization, special sessions of General Synod were not uncommon. The Explanatory Articles of 1792 allowed for the General Synod to “make regulations from time to time, for calling an extraordinary session” (Art. 55) and the first two General Synods under the newly (at that time) adopted Constitution (1794 and 1797), the Synod determined the time that it would once again convene, but also gave permission to the President to call a special session if needed between the stated sessions, which, at the time, was three years.

In 1800, the General Synod passed a resolution,

Resolved, That if circumstances should require a meeting of the General Synod previous to the next Ordinary Meeting, the President be, and he is hereby authorized, on a joint application of six or more ministers requesting the same, to call an Extraordinary meeting…”

MGS 1800, p. 312.

This was the first time there was a standing rule for special sessions, and it is clear, even from the beginning, that the president alone is not authorized to call a special session, but must receive an application of six or more ministers. This was codified into the church order of 1833 (Chapter II, Article V, Sec. 5 [MGS Oct 1832, p. 127]).

Even in extraordinary times, this joint application was required. The session of 1803, for instance, decided to adjourn to October. Meeting in October was not possible, and the synod re-convened in May of 1804. At the beginning of the Acts of that special session we read the introduction to the meeting,

“having been prevented by the interposition of Divine Providence for holding the session in October last, according to their adjournment at Poughkeepsie, a competent number of ministers concurred to request the President to call a meeting of Synod, and the present meeting was duly called…

MGS, May 1804, p. 322.

It didn’t take long for the requirements to call a special session move from six ministers to six ministers and six elders. The church order of 1833 provides for special sessions,

If circumstances should require a meeting of the General Synod previous to the next ordinary meeting, the President shall, on a joint application of six Ministers and six Elders requesting the same, call an extraordinary meeting…”

Church order 1833, Art. 85 in Corwin’s Digest.

The language is worth paying attention to. “If circumstances should require…” allows for a contingency, “if.” That is, if there is something that requires a special session, then the President shall call for one on a joint application with six ministers and six elders. There is no provision for a special session apart from the joint application of the requisite number of elders and deacons. This language of this section of the church order remained virtually unchanged for decades. Though at the beginning of the twentieth century as the Reformed Church grew, so did the requisite number of people, it was increased at the beginning of the twentieth century to twelve ministers and twelve elders until 1960 when the current requirement of three ministers and three elders from each particular/regional synod who are currently serving as accredited delegates to the General Synod was incorporated into the order.

The matter of special sessions, then, has a pretty straightforward line from 1800 to today, and even though there have been changes, the biggest change, of course, in 1960 when the requirement was changed from just a number of elders and ministers to a number of elders and ministers from each particular synod who are currently accredited delegates to the General Synod.

David D. Demarest, however, regarded this provision in the church order as so clear, that in his commentary, Notes on the Constitution of the Reformed (Dutch) Church in America, he writes, “An explanation of this section is not necessary.”* David Demarest’s son and eminent Reformed Church polity teacher and commentator, William H.S. Demarest, who authored a little green-covered volume of the same title as his father, did not offer much detail on the special sessions of General Synod, particularly because they had fallen into disuse by the time that he was writing,

A special session of the General Synod is rarely called, has not been called in many years. It was held occasionally in the past years when the church was more compact, the synod much smaller, for the election of a theological professor.

William H.S. Demarest, Notes on the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: New Brunswick Theological Seminary, 1928), p. 143.

However, his note reveals something important. That special sessions were typically called when a theological professor needed to be elected. In the early generations, the General Synod elected all of the professors to the seminary. And so the entire faculty were Professors of Theology. Therefore, when a professor resigned or died suddenly, a replacement was needed and that could not wait until the next ordinary session, and so often a special session was called.

In surveying a number of special sessions from the nineteenth century (a list which I will not claim to be exhaustive), I looked at nearly twenty§ special sessions, of which a handful were adjourned sessions, that is, the General Synod, at its ordinary meeting decided to reconvene at a later time. Of those that were not adjourned sessions, the majority were to elect professors, and a minority were to do other things such as handle disciplinary matters. In terms of the method that was employed to call them, the adjourned sessions do not require any special method to their calling since the General Synod itself decides to do this. Of those that were not adjourned sessions, approximately three did not give indications as to the method of their calling, but the remainder began with some form of, “The President laid before the synod a constitutional request which he had received to call an extra meeting of the Synod.” Here, we can see the phrase “constitutional request” which I cannot understand as anything but an application by the requisite number of elders and ministers as provided for in the constitution.

Therefore, in nearly every instance that I was able to find, the indication is that the special session was called in the method specified by the church order.

But what about the General Synod Council?

One distinct difference between today’s Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in the times of special sessions is the presence of an executive committee of the General Synod. The administration’s argument is that because the New York Non-Profit Corporate Law allows for the board of directors to call a special session, the General Synod Council is empowered to do so. However, this does not mean that in previous years there was no board of directors. Indeed, there had to be after the General Synod was incorporated in 1819. The Board of Direction of the Corporation (though the name changed somewhat over the years) was the board of directors. In 1970, the then-separate Board of Direction was folded into the General Synod Executive Committee, by replacing members of the Board of Direction with GSEC members when their terms expired.

If, then, the board of directors was authorized to call a special session, this, too, would have been possible in previous years, as well. However, what we see, instead, is that in almost every instance when a special session was not an adjourned session type special session, that an application was made by the requisite number of ministers and elders to call such a session rather than the president calling one at his (and at the time they were all his) discretion, nor the board of direction calling one.

Why does this matter?

The General Synod has, as its charge, the interests and concerns of the whole church. A special session, then, should also be in the interest and concern of the whole church. The question of whether this special session in October is necessary is a bit open to subjectivity. However, it is clearly not required. The conditions given for calling a special session serve as a bar, and a rather low one, to be honest, to determine whether it is a concern of the whole church or a special interest within the church. If a special session in October truly is the concern of the whole church, then there should not be any problem with actually meeting the relatively low bar given in the order. If the concern of the General Synod Council is that the requirements cannot be met, the question remains of whether it is truly a matter of urgent concern of the whole church.

As with the previous concern, the question is not just what is allowed, but what is best for the church? Does the breadth of the church want to discuss the report of the 2020 Task Force in a brief and focused and emotionally intense special session, in isolation from the other work of the church, seeing only a narrow and grossly incomplete view of the work and life of the church, and in a session that cannot amend the constitution (propose or adopt) or the bylaws of the General Synod (propose or adopt)? This is a question that the church could and should wrestle with. However, again, the General Synod Council has taken it upon themselves to make unilateral decisions depriving the church of actually wrestling with these things, and has taken yet another controlling force over the General Synod, rather than being accountable to the General Synod.


Notes:

*David D. Demarest, Notes on the Constitution of the Reformed (Dutch) Church in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: J. Heidingsfeld’s Press, 1896), p. 137.

† MGS 1970, pp. 183-184.

Book of Church Order, p. 75, sec 2a; 3.I.11.

§ 1804, 1815, Jan 1823, Feb 1823, 1825, 1826, 1828, 1831, 1832, 1840, Sept 1841, Oct 1841, 1849, 1855, 1857, 1867, 1871, 1881.

Canceling sessions of the General Synod: Lessons from 1933

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, communication came from the Stated Clerk of the General Synod that the 2020 session will be “postponed” until 2021, but that a special session will be called in October. The examples of 1933 and 1935 were cited as years in which there was no General Synod, which, as we will see, is not quite correct. While the question of a special session will be addressed in a subsequent post, this post looks at the 1933 example (as it cannot be cited as precedent) to see what lessons we can learn about 1933, how it compares and contrasts to today, and if simply not holding a stated session of the General Synod in June of 2020 is even possible.

There are two things that are important to name at the outset. First, not holding a normal General Synod in June of 2020 is the wise course of action. Second, I understand that the General Synod Council and the executive staff are doing the best that they can to try to navigate these waters. I’m not trying to be problematic here, but I do think there are serious issues at stake in these decisions, and it is not simply a matter of checking boxes. After all, the church order is a theological document, it is not an instruction manual.


Before we get into the substance of this post, I think that it is worth considering why this matters. As I wrote in the previous post, the rules are not the most important thing in church polity. The rules are important, yes, but there is so much more to the discipline of church polity than that, and a church order is not simply a rule book or an instruction manual. These topics matter not because of some abstract sense of right process, they matter because church polity has to do with the shape of the body of Christ, and it is a foundational part of our covenantal life together as the body of Christ. Deviations from the church order are not just a matter of fudging abstract rules, deviations from the church order are a violation of our life together as the body of Christ. This is not to say that deviations cannot happen, but, as we saw in the previous post, we need to be very careful with them, and we need to be honest about them. It is because of this, that church polity is a matter of the shape of our covenantal life together as the body of Christ, that I think these things are more than just matters of transgressing laws, but rather are matters of violating covenant and harming relationships.


First, is the question of whether a session of the General Synod can simply be skipped.

The General Synod shall meet annually at such time and place as shall have been determined at its previous session.

Book of Church Order, 1.IV.4.1

It is important to take note of the word “shall” here. Shall is a prescriptive word rather than a permissive word. Shall describes an obligation. The General Synod must meet at the time and place as the previous session determined. At the time of the adjournment of the 2019 General Synod, it was the clear understanding to everyone that the next stated session of the General Synod would be June 11-16, 2020 on the campus of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa (MGS 2019, p. 39). Any surface-level reading of the church order obligates the General Synod to be called to order on June 11, 2020 on the campus of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. There is no possible way for this to not happen.

However, this is far more than just a legalistic obsession over rules, this is a deeply significant matter. It ensures that the body is able to stay in control of its meetings, that is, what if the President just decided not to convene the General Synod? Would it be impossible for the Synod to gather? This obligation is important because it ensures that when the Synod, itself, says that it is going to reconvene, it reconvenes. No one other than the General Synod is able to amend that. These are unprecedented times, that is true, and certainly, some flexibility is understood. However, there was no clear declaration that this is something that the GSC is not able to do, and that it should never happen again, which may give the impression that the GSC now has the ability to cancel sessions of the General Synod.

But What about 1933?

1933 and 1935 are cited as examples where regular sessions were not held. For our purposes here, I will focus on 1933 as that was the pioneering example of when this was done.

1933 was in the midst of the Great Depression. There were serious concerns about the financial situation of the the country and also the denomination. A possibility of omitting the 1933 session of the General Synod was considered because of the economic turmoil. What began as an idea became a discussion.

In March 1933, an informal discussion happened at the Reformed Church House on 22nd Street in New York City. Two possibilities came out of this discussion. The first was a reduced delegation to the General Synod, namely half the delegates as normal; and the second was to omit the session of the General Synod. The call for an adjustment came from both east and west, and that “[t]o omit a synod is indeed ‘A new and untrod path,’ attended with some difficulties, but it can possibly be done if such is the positive and clear mind of the church.”* This informal discussion included “officers of the General Synod, officers of the Boards, a group of Stated Clerks, and groups of other ministers, also laymen, and it has found virtually complete favor.”†

However, even with this gathering of people, a decision was not made, indeed, a decision could not be made, as such a decision was contrary to the Constitution of the Reformed Church. The memo from Ingram continues, “It is recognized that this action is entirely beyond the Constitution, is, in fact, contrary thereto. But if two-thirds of the Classes approve in advance, that action pledges their good faith to such necessary acts of ratification as may later be found necessary.”* Here we see a critical piece of the 1933 puzzle: asking for classical approval. As the General Synod was obligated to meet in June of 1933, the only conceivable way to do this would be for the classes to approve such a measure, and it was determined that not only a majority of classes would be needed, but a two-thirds majority to ensure that it is the “clear mind of the Church.”* We can see here that they knew that what they were undertaking was anomalous and unchartered territory, and yet sought to find creative ways for it to not just be possible, but for it to be done well as possible.

As such, the President of the General Synod, Edward Dawson, sent a letter to the stated clerks of the classes on March 28, 1933 proposing a plan and asking for the classes to consider this and take an action related to the proposal.

The proposal that was described is important to note.

The procedure proposed is that each Classis nominate its delegates as usual for appointment by the Particular Synod [n.b. at this time, delegates to the General Synod were nominated by the classes but formally accredited by the particular synods]; that there be agreement by the Classis and the delegates that the delegates not be in attendance at the General Synod; that the call for the session of the Synod be issued as usual; that, at the appointed time and place, the President and Stated Clerk (or, preferably the Vice-President and Permanent Clerk, since the place is Grand Rapids) meet and, in the absence of a quorum, adjourn to the stated time for the next meeting, 1934. It is believed that every requirement of the Constitution will be thus met.Ӡ

Finally, it was noted that “[i]t will be understood that the plan does not go into effect unless there be a prevailing vote in favor of it by the Classes.” The letter requested that the classes not only vote on the plan, but as part of that, to agree to not send their delegates to General Synod.† Indeed, it allowed for the classes to exercise their right of delegation, even if that exercise is to not send them.

A close look at this reveals several things:

  1. The Classes are to make the decision by a super-majority in favor.
  2. Delegates will still be named and accredited
  3. The call to meeting will still be issued
  4. The Synod will be opened by the President or Vice-President at the appropriate time and place.
  5. Since the classes agreed to not actually send their delegates there will not be a quorum
  6. In the absence of a quorum the meeting will be adjourned until 1934.

Above I noted that it is not quite accurate to say that there was not a General Synod in 1933, there was such a session. There are minutes of the 1933 session of the General Synod.

What About 1935?

I focused primarily on 1933 since this was the year that first considered such an extraordinary possibility. The General Synod of 1934 decided that because of the “continuing unfavorable circumstances, the session of 1935 be, in effect, omitted…”‡ This question was again put to the classes, and in the statement read by the President of the General Synod at the pro forma session in 1935, the vote of the classes was “almost unanimous” to not meet§ and so again held a pro forma session at the appointed time and place, and minutes of the 1935 session are also available.

So can the 1933 or 1935 General Synod be used as a precedent?

Despite the fact that precedent does not exist in the Reformed Church, there are clear and important differences between the way it was handled in the 1930s and today.

First, the question in the 1930s was put to the classes, whereas today, it was decided simply by the General Synod Council. It is true there is a distinct difference in that now, often, classes cannot meet to transact business. But even if a formal vote of the classes is not possible, the classes could still be engaged in a meaningful way, even without a formal vote as with 1933. The problem is not that it cannot do things exactly the same way, it is that the leadership did not even attempt to give the illusion of propriety. Instead, the General Synod Council has taken it upon themselves to make a decision that they are not authorized to make. This is also not simply a formality. Apart from nonpayment of assessments (3.I.1.1) there is no possible way for for accredited delegates to not be seated. Classical delegation at the General Synod is a right, not a privilege. A very practical reason to consult the classes is to ensure that they are in agreement with the plan, since there is no possible way for the officers nor the General Synod Council to restrict the classical right of delegation at a session of the General Synod. As has been shown above, General Synod is obligated to be called into session on June 11, 2020, on the campus of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa and unless the sending bodies agree to exercise their right to not send delegates, delegates have a right (except as noted in 3.I.1.1) to be seated at the General Synod.

Second, there were, in fact, General Synods held in 1933 and 1935. The sessions were without a quorum, they lasted only a brief time, but they were legally called to order and adjourned. This fulfills the obligation for the General Synod to be held at the place and time as determined at the previous session.

So what does this all mean?

In short, this means that it is possible to not hold a normal General Synod in 2020, but the way that is currently proposed is not only unconstitutional on many fronts, but there is also absolutely no mitigation of church order deviations, and this is all without any acknowledgment by the denominational leadership as such. To be honest, much of what happens at all levels of the church is not strictly “normal,” whatever normal means, but there is no acknowledgment that this is a departure from the Constitution and that this plan is not okay. In 1933, there was an acknowledgment that what they were doing was not clearly within the confines of the Constitution. But now, we try to present a facade of propriety when we are doing things that are grossly improper.

However, lest this all seem like some kind of church order fundamentalism, there are important issues at stake. The General Synod is the assembly, not the General Synod Council. The General Synod Council does not become the General Synod when the General Synod is not in session. It is the executive committee and the program committee of the General Synod and is accountable to the General Synod. In no way, shape, or form, is it given the powers of the General Synod. The General Synod makes the decision, not the General Synod Council. Absent the General Synod, communicating with classes is the only way to proceed to ensure that the whole church is consulted. The General Synod Council does not represent the church in any way, shape, or form. It is the executive committee of an assembly, and that is very different. It is true that many classes cannot meet and so cannot take formal votes, but there are many ways to engage the classes, and the General Synod Council has not even tried.

In a letter from the Stated Clerk of the General Synod (22 April 2020), it was acknowledged that the General Synod Council knew about the ways in which the church was able to exercise their rights and join in making the decision in the 1930s, as well as the attempts in the 1930s to follow, as best they were able, the constitution, but that they chose to not attempt a similar path at the present time. It is entirely true that the process that was followed in the 1930s was not entirely in accordance with the Constitution. However, they were honest about that fact, acknowledged it, sought to mitigate the harm as a result of it, and they sought, honestly and in good faith, to engage the breadth of the church in this consideration. Furthermore, and this is what is especially missing now, they were not concerned only with what was legal, but what was right and good for the church. There are times in which the choice is between two bad choices, and this is one of those times, but the path chosen now is incredibly perilous.

Currently, the General Synod Council has invented the idea that they have the authority to, unilaterally, cancel a session of the General Synod that is required to be called, and has removed the right of classical representation at that General Synod.

The question before us is not how do we not deviate from the church order, the times require us to do so. Instead, the question before us is how do we deviate most faithfully, with the smallest impact, with the least amount of fallout. If we pay attention to Coertzen’s conditions for deviating from the church order, there are serious questions about the way and the method with which we are addressing constitutional deviations, and the way that we are handling will likely not be without consequences down the road if we do not seek to reduce the deviations and mitigate harm caused by them.

If the General Synod Council can decide to cancel a session of the General Synod, then are we creating something that will improperly be cited as precedent later (after all, it seems that if it ever happened once before it is somehow precedent)? If the General Synod Council can decide to cancel sessions of the General Synod, this puts the General Synod at the mercy of its executive committee, and under the control. At such a point, the General Synod ceases to exist in any meaningful way.

Again, I sincerely believe that the denominational administration and the General Synod Council are trying to do what is in the best interest of the church. However, the problem is that this path opens up a number of questions, such as the degree of honesty or forthrightness from the General Synod Council or the General Secretary, as well as whether this will be cited as precedent for something similar later. Nor is this to say that the process from the 1930s has to be followed. They made that up, and there is no rule book for how these things work. That was not precedent, it was, however, an example fro which we ought to learn. However, a more meaningful engagement with the church would be a crucial aspect to any decision like this. What we are experiencing here is not a whole church trying to figure out how to navigate this together. Instead, we have an overly powerful executive committee who declined to consult the church and making unilateral decisions. The choice here is not between this or holding General Synod in June. The choice is between not holding a General Synod in a way that has great potential to be harmful to the church, or doing it in a way that has the potential to be less harmful to the church.

To sum: the General Synod Council, on its own, canceling a session of the General Synod is unconstitutional and pretending that it is okay or not clearly and publicly acknowledging the fact that it is profoundly wrong is unconscionable. Often, the choice is between degrees of bad choices. The current choice is easier but is immensely problematic.

At stake here is more than simply following the rules, and what is at stake here is the trustworthiness and honesty of the General Synod Council and the denominational communications. If we cannot even pretend to follow the clear rules that we have all agreed to follow, and if we cannot find a healthy way for broad participation in the decision to deviate, and if we cannot even be honest about our deviation, this brings up a host of questions regarding denominational integrity.


Notes:

*Memo from John A. Ingham, Memorandum for Stated Clerks and Other Ministers Meeting at 25 East 22nd Street, Monday March 20, 1933 at 10:30 am

†Letter from General Synod President Edward Dawson, March 28, 1933. It should also be noted that this was before the reorganization of the denominational staff and offices, and so the officers of the boards were not directly accountable to the Stated Clerk of the General Synod, as is now the case. Today, such a discussion with the senior staff would be largely meaningless as they are directly and solely accountable to the Stated Clerk (General Secretary) of the General Synod.

‡MGS 1934, pp. 846, 851.

§MGS 1935, p. 3

The church order in non-normal times

People who are interested in church polity often do not have the best reputations. Often we are understood or assumed to be legalistic, always trying to force rules on situations that deviate from the ideal or the norm, always causing a burden for the church by insisting that particular hoops are jumped through. And, to be honest, at times, this reputation is not unearned. However, the church order does not prevent ministry, but facilitates it. In fact, sometimes it facilitates ministry by putting boundaries and limitations on certain things. But church polity is not about the rules, certainly the rules have an importance, but if we only think that church polity is about enforcing rules, the entire point is missed. The “why” is just as important, even more, than the “what.”

The church order is not a code of laws but a theological document.

Often, people are quite surprised when I admit that I, a teacher and researcher specializing in church polity, often don’t care all that much for the rules. The rules are important, yes, but they are not the end but rather the way that we live out the theology which underlies it. When we see the church order solely as a rule book, of course it becomes a burden, and then we think that anyone who points to the church order becomes sand in the gears. I don’t care about the rules because they are rules, I care about what is in the church order because of the rich theology that embodies and that teaches those who will listen.

I can’t imagine that a surgeon likes their job because they enjoy cutting people open, nor does a pastor or teacher like their job simply because they like talking in front of people. The study of church polity is a rich and meaningful one for those who are open to it. For those who just see it as a rule book or instruction manual, it becomes sterile, dry, stale, legalistic, problematic.

In this time of a global pandemic it is entirely true that most things do not fit with the world that the church order imagines. However, as a pastor myself, I can clearly say that most of ministry and life in the church does not fit the world that the church order imagines. Indeed, people are unpredictable, and the church order cannot imagine every possible eventuality, and so the order seeks to help give our ecclesiology flesh with some structure and some regulation, not to produce a ready-made body, but to give a basic skeleton, on which muscle and fat and organs and tendons and ligaments and skin and all of the rest are hung in order to make a living body.

And in many ways, these times are unprecedented. But in other ways, much of church polity work is not just knowing what is in the book, anyone can do that, it is understanding what is in the book, and why, and then use all of that and try to apply it in the most faithful way possible.

I have deviated from the church order. Always intentionally, always knowing what I was doing, always knowing that there was no other way, always attempting to mitigate any problems with such deviation, and always working consistently with the theology that underlies the church order. The point about church order is not that one can never deviate from it, but that one must be very careful when doing so. Very few things, if anything, works “according to the book,” and so this revelation should not be that shocking. However, what this requires is a deep understanding of church polity and the theology which underlies it.

Building on the work of D. Nauta and G Pienaar, the South African church polity scholar Pieter Coertzen listed “strict conditions” under which one may, very carefully, deviate from the church order:

-they must be exceptional circumstances that make it absolutely essential
-the deviation must be as limited as possible
-the deviation must be acknowledged with a clear understanding that it does not create a precedent for further deviations
-the reason for the deviation must lie in the welfare of the church and not all kinds of personal considerations
-the interests of other churches or even that of the whole denomination must not be harmed as a result of the deviation
-the deviation must be communicated to the denomination concerned as quickly as possible in order to obtain their consent for the deviation.

Pieter Cortzen, Church and Order: A Reformed Perspective (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), p. 59.

Here, we can see the reality that deviation is possible under certain conditions, as the church order serves the church and not the other way around. This helps us find our way between two dangers: the first danger is that the church order is infallible and immutable, the other danger is that the church order is filled with guidelines that can be neglected and discarded when deemed expedient. The norm, however, is that “[w]hen a church decides on a particular order, they owe it to one another, as members of the body of Christ, to respect this order” (Coertzen, p. 58).

The church order in times of crisis

In times of crisis, it is sometimes necessary to do non-normative things, particularly in terms of the church order. There are times in which deviation from the order is necessary. Something can be wrong and necessary at the same time. What is essential, however, is being honest and forthright about what is happening.

These times are not normal. Though to be honest, very few times are anything that could be considered “normal.” And it precisely these times when more communication and greater consensus is needed as we approach possible deviations from the order.

Of Classes and Congressional Districts

There has been a good deal of discussion lately in some segments of the Reformed Church in America over concerns about a supposed “disproportionate representation” stemming from the reality that classes are different sizes (in terms of both numbers of churches and size of churches) but they each register a single vote on constitutional amendments. This claim usually originates from the classes with more confessing members in their bounds who, blinded by their own hubris, assume that their greater numbers convey greater rights in the church of Christ. There are a number of fundamental errors in this line of thought, but the one that I will discuss here is the error that assumes that a disparity in classical composition is is a deviation from Reformed polity and a problem.

A Brief History Lesson

It almost seems as if those who decry the existence of small classes seem to think that there was some mythical time of representative democratic idealism when all classes were the same size. However, such a time is just that, mythical. It has never been that way. It was never intended or designed to be that way. Never was a uniform numerical size of classis in terms of either the number of churches or the number of members ever expected or imposed.

For instance, during the time when over 80% of the classes approved federal union with the German Reformed Church (but the union was not effected in favor of the comparably small minority), the Classis of New York had over 3500 families on the rolls and the Classis of Holland had not quite 1300, and yet, the Classis of Holland was able to register the same number of votes as the Classis of New York on the matter of Federal Union.

Of Congressional Districts

The main concern about the proportionality of representation comes from the way that the United States draws voting districts. While there are civil rights considerations to take into account, the main criteria for voting districts is that they contain the same number of people. The reason for this is simple, voting districts exist for one thing and one thing alone: to elect representatives. Such a proportionality is important so that residents in the state have an equal chance at representation as other residents in the state. Voting districts exist for no other purpose.

The problem is when we take this secular legal logic and apply it to the church. While the governance structure of the church appears to reflect the secular governmental structure of the United States, appearances are certainly deceiving.

Of Classes

When times of division and hostility arise, concerns of power are always at the forefront. For some it is the concern of how others will use power against them to harm them and their communities. For others, it is how they might accumulate enough power to bend everyone else to their will. When the system breaks down (as it is now, not because the engine is faulty but because sand has been thrown into the crankcase) an inordinate of attention is given to voting, and we assume that classes function like congressional districts.

But if you look in the church order at a responsibility of the classis, you see incredibly few references to the items that are of central concern here (synodical delegations and approving classical amendments). Instead, classes exist for a very different function.

Classes exist to provide for the episcopal function in the church. Classes exist to oversee the churches and ministers in their bounds. It provides for accountability to something greater than ourselves, it symbolizes our connection to the broader church, not just spiritual but also tangible. It reminds us that we are not our own but that we belong to Christ, and by extension, to the body of Christ which includes our local church but extends beyond it.

Classes exist to ensure good order in the churches and classes are the ecclesiastical home of ministers. Classes oversee the calling of a minister, the installation of a minister, and the dissolution of pastoral relationships. Classes handle difficulties between ministers and churches, and classes help ensure that the consistory governs their church in good order.

It is for all of these reasons and more that the classis is the central unit in Reformed order. And it is this reason why classes register votes on constitutional amendments and why classes send delegates to synods. Historically, each classis sent the same number of delegates to the General Synod, though in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries delegations were apportioned based, first on number of churches, but then on the number of confessing members within the classical boundaries. Such a development was a misstep, but this is the situation that we have inherited.

Classes are not congressional voting districts. Are there classes that may be too small or too big? Most definitely. But the measure of this is the ability for the classis to fulfill its responsibilities, and the number of confessing members within its bounds is not a determining factor in this. To argue that classes need to be the same size is to simply see them as voting districts. Such arguments have nothing to do with the “spiritual order” by which the church is governed (See Belgic Confession, Art. 30) and everything to do with modern cultural assumptions of fairness, something which is foreign a gospel in which grace and mercy (things which are inherently unfair) are the foundation.

The Church and the Minority

In the late 1800s, the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America was working toward a federal union (not an organic one) with the (German) Reformed Church in the United States. Because this was a change in how the General Synod operated, it was a synodical decision. However, the General Synod desired to get the mind of the church, and so asked classes to register their votes. Fewer than 1/5 of the classes voted in the negative, which meant that 80% of the classes supported the federal union. However, the General Synod did not effect that union even though the majority clearly desired it and they had every right to do so. Why? Because such a union was very problematic for a group of recently arrived immigrants in the midwest, and the General Synod showed deference to the significant concerns of the minority. 

In 1969, the classical votes were counted for merger with the Presbyterian in the United States. The General Synod has voted to approve the merger, a majority of classes voted to approve the merger, but the supermajority was not attained, and the minority made the decision. 

In 1971, the classical votes were counted which would allow women to serve as elders, deacons, and ministers. A majority approved of those, but they did not reach the requisite two-thirds majority. In this case, the minority delayed this for several years to come. 

These are only a couple of instances where the minority was a deciding factor. And these are certainly not the only instances where there were significant moments and the minority carried the vote. 

***

Is voting divine design or an accomodation to sin?

Voting is so deep into our way of understanding the world that we can sometimes think that voting was a divinely designed and commanded method. However, this is simply not the case. 

When it comes to our understanding of church government, there is considerable contamination from the similar-looking liberal democracy of the civil government. Similar looking but very different. The foundational philosophy of a liberal democracy is that the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and so (with some boundaries, especially constitutional ones), what the people want is what is right. However, not only is the Reformed Church constitutional, but as a church it stands on a very different foundational philosophy. That is, the church is a creation not of people, but of Word and Spirit. 

Indeed, while the majority may win in the civil government (at least most of the time), the church asks fundamentally different questions. The church is concerned with what is right, the church is concerned with discerning the mind of Christ, and being attentive to the promptings of the Spirit. This leads to very different assumptions about how things ought to work. 

While a recent communication from the Synod of the Far West speaks of the “tyranny of the minority,” such an assumption is based upon values which are not theological values, or even biblical values. Indeed, such a concept is based upon unchristian values. 


Tyranny is a real thing. Not being able to do what you want because you want it does not equal tyranny.


While voting is often the default way to make decisions, voting is not divinely instituted, and voting is not part of the Kingdom of God. Voting is an accommodation to our sinfulness. When we bear this in mind, we approach it differently. 

In reflecting on the “democratic captivity” of the Presbyterian Church, Joseph Small writes this

The simplified division of substantial concerns into two opposed alternatives is further degraded by the expectation that the way to choose between them is by majority vote. Voting can work reasonably well in political arenas where winning and losing is the assumed outcome, even the name of the game. It works best, however, in situations where differences are encompassed within broad consensus regarding aims, so that balloting is about the best means to achieve those aims. Voting does not work well in situations of intractable polarity (witness the United States Congress) or when fundamental issues of faith and life are at stake.

Why a supermajority anyway?

The two-thirds requirement for constitutional amendments was incorporated into the church order revision of 1916. The Minutes of the General Synod do not provide any commentary about the particular reasons for this, but supermajorities are required for one thing: to have greater consensus for significant changes in a shared life. 

Foundational changes to our shared life ought to have greater consensus, not lesser. Indeed, this is not about a majority winning, but it is about a collective listening to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus tells us to enter by the narrow gate, for the broad gate leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13). Which shows that the minority is not necessarily wrong, and the minority ought not be discounted. Indeed, it is possible that the minority may be speaking the Word of God. 

There is nothing sacrosanct about the two-thirds threshold, that is the way that we have decided to pay attention to the minority. It could just as well be three-quarters, or even unanimity. My argument is not for the two-thirds supermajority in particular, but the concept of a supermajority for foundational changes to our shared life together.

And when we think about it, haven’t we all been in a minority opinion before? And haven’t we wanted the majority to think about us? This is even more the case with the faith we profess. 


Indeed, the minority may actually be the voice of the narrow gate.


The simple majority amendment

The amendment that classes will be voting on will be to allow fundamental changes to our shared life together by a 50%+1 vote of the classes. The goal, then, is to pass something rather than putting in the hard work of doing the right thing. This is certainly not the only significant moment that we have faced as a church, but for the past one hundred three years we have required that fundamental changes to our shared life require at least 66% of the classes (and most definitely in 1892, the classes that supported the union had the vastly more confessing members than those that opposed it). However, for some reason only now, and only for this is this requirement no longer tolerable. This amendment asserts that we must change the rules so that whatever passes the General Synod can pass easier without having to put in the hard work of greater consensus. 

Small continues, 

All too often, when a majority vote determines the matter, the unity of the church is betrayed. Presbyterian votes on contentious theological and moral issues often fall within the range of 55 percent to 45 percent, the equivalent of a vote of eleven to nine in a local church. Can it be said that the church has decided anything when nearly half of the church dissents? 

Erroneous math often used

 I’m certainly not a mathematician, but a word needs to be said about the faulty math behind the numbers that are so often tossed around. 

When a classis votes on a constitutional amendment, 50%+1 is all that is needed for the classis to register a vote one way or another. Too often, someone adds up the confessing members in all the churches in that classis and argues that this vote speaks for x many people. However, it cannot even be said that a vote fully represents the classis, when 49% of the classis can disagree. Not to mention the fact that the classis may not speak for any of the churches, and it is certain that the churches have diversity within them. So one cannot say that 50%+1 of a vote of a classical assembly speaks for anyone else than the majority of that classis at the session that the vote was taken. 

It is often noted that 2/3 of the classes do not represent 2/3 of the members evenly. This is true. And this has always been true. Never in the history of the Reformed Church has the church been so evenly distributed. Indeed, there was a time when the Western classes contained far fewer members than the Eastern classes, and each classis still was able to register a single vote on constitutional amendments. Classes are each given a vote not because they have the same number of members within their bounds, but because as the body which serves the episcopal function, they have value apart from their size or wealth.

Giving value to larger classes because they are more populous is contrary to the very foundations of Reformed ecclesiology and is patently unbiblical.

The church is called to something more

The church is called to something more than might makes right or the majority always wins. After all, we follow a savior who died naked on a cross. We profess a faith that proclaims that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16) and “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Mt. 23:12). The simple majority amendment is an exercise in power, which is not something that is fitting for the church of Christ. 

Paying attention to the minority is not tyranny. Disenfranchising a minority because you can, however, is tyranny. When we discount a minority simply because they are the minority, we have ceased listening to Christ and have begun listening to the enemy. Indeed, the minority may actually be the voice of the narrow gate. The simple majority amendment has nothing to do with seeking to live faithfully and has everything to do with a bald powerplay, which is the voice not of our savior, but of the enemy. 

Why It is Time to Disband the General Synod Council

In the previous post, I discussed the General Synod Council (GSC) and its function in the life of the Reformed Church, including what it is and what it is not, what it does and what it does not do.

In this post, I am going to look at some of the troubling aspects of the General Synod Council, and argue why this council ought to be disbanded. While the GSC seeking to accumulate more power for itself is nothing new, there are two issues right now, which show that the GSC is unable or unwilling to operate within the constitution of the church.

Coordinator of Interreligious Relations

The 2018 General Synod adopted the following

To direct the general secretary to authorize and fund a halftime position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious
relations, to facilitate the RCA’s interreligious relations
work, including equipping congregations, leaders, and
students for missional interreligious engagement; and further,

To conduct the RCA’s interreligious work through a joint committee
with the CRCNA, consistent with the Reformed Collaborative.
The committee will be comprised of the RCA coordinator for
interreligious relations, the RCA ecumenical associate, CRCNA
staff, and practitioners and experts in interreligious relations
from both the RCA and CRCNA. The joint committee will report
its work to the General Synod each year through the Commission
on Christian Unity.

Both the position of coordinator for interreligious relations
and the joint committee shall be funded for a period of five
years, at which time the effectiveness of structuring the RCA’s
interreligious work in this manner will be evaluated and the
Commission on Christian Unity will bring recommendations to
the General Synod regarding whether to continue this structure
for interreligious work.

MGS 2018, p. 97.

As typically happens, the Synod makes decisions and then addresses the financial ramifications at the end of the meeting. When this was discussed, for some reason which neither I nor anyone else that I spoke to seems to understand, the GSC decided to insist that the General Synod front-load the funding for the position, so that the entire five years would have to be paid the first year. While some have argued that this is because one General Synod cannot bind a subsequent General Synod, this is not how we deal with staff. If this was the case, then every staff position that fits within the strategic goal must be funded for the entire fifteen years in the first year, and operational staff people must be funded for an entire lifetime in a single year.

Regardless, the unexplained insistence on funding the entire five years in a single year resulted in a significant increase in per-member assessments. What followed was a rather contentious discussion where ministers and elders, knowing how their church budgets work, were trying to get a handle on the denominational budget. But because the GSC never presents a denominational budget to the assembly that oversees it, the lack of transparency means that the church is never able to get a hold on the budget.

This dynamic created an “us” and “them” mentality. “Us” being the church and “them” or “you” being the denomination–something that tends to happen when there is a lack of transparency. There was tension on the floor because assessments are an increasing burden on local churches and classes (and at some point the Reformed Church will have to deal with this, but this was apparently not that point). In response, the General Synod voted,

To approve from the unspent reserves from the year 2017 to fund a half-time position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious relations, and a joint interreligious committee with the CRCNA.

MGS 2018, p. 66.

To be clear, my personal opinion is that this was a poor and misguided decision. It is true that the General Synod didn’t have good information about the reserves, restricted and unrestricted funds, the amount of funds needed on hand, and the intricacies of the finances of a major corporation, and the rest. However, the reason that the General Synod didn’t have good information was because the GSC does not provide that information. Regardless, what the General Synod decided was possible, that is not disputed, and while it may have not been a prudent decision, it was the General Synod’s decision, and it is the General Synod’s decision to make.

Subsequently, however, the GSC directed the General Secretary to not hire that position, but to delay it until they could bring this decision back to the following General Synod for reconsideration. There were three reasons given for this, although only one stands: some delegates expressed unease about that decision on their post-synod survey. And it was based on this that the GSC invented the ability to decide that the General Synod made a poor decision and stopped it.

This is unlawful.

As we clearly saw in the previous post, the GSC “shall implement the decisions…of the General Synod…” (1.IV.7.1). In no way is the GSC able to not implement a decision simply because they disagree with it or think it unwise. The General Synod has made unwise decisions innumerable times before; however, the responsibility of the GSC is to implement those decisions, not to act as a check or balance on those.

Some may argue that the GSC is not not-implementing that decision, it is simply postponing it. However, the fact remains, nothing allows the GSC to vote to postpone a directive of the General Synod (and at some point, postponing is nullifying). This was not an unfunded mandate–there was instruction given regarding the funding, and even if ill-advised, and it is possible to fund that position in that manner.

The other related concern is practical precedent that may be derived from this. While I continue to argue that precedent is not a thing in the church (this is true), it is worth acknowledging, at least, that people believe that it is, and this belief colors the way that we function and operate. Will this allow for the GSC to determine which decisions it approves of and which it doesn’t? Will it allow the GSC to simply postpone (indefinitely?) carrying out the directives of the General Synod? Again, I did not think it a wise action of the General Synod but it is not permitted for the GSC to review the decisions of the General Synod, it is there job to implement them. Shall means shall.

Asking the Commission on Church Order to Reconsider

Another troubling action that the GSC has taken as of late is formally asking the Commission on Church Order to revisit something in its report.

In 2017, as a result from an overture, the Synod voted to

To instruct the Commission on Church Order to propose constitutionally
appropriate amendments to the Book of Church Order to accomplish the intent of Overtures 16 and 17 for report to the 2018 General Synod

MGS 2017, p. 139.

The intent of the overtures was to make classical secession easier by instructing that the classis relinquish its constitutional obligation of oversight over any permanent disposition of a church’s property. (The matter of classical oversight of church property will be the topic of a subsequent post.)

The instructions are important here, “propose constitutionally appropriate amendments.” The Commission on Church Order presented a substantive report of the matter and concluded that there were no constitutionally appropriate amendments (MGS 2018, pp. 264-266). This, of course, is certainly within their right to do. Commissions are required to receive work from the General Synod, but commissions are not simply the scribes of the General Synod.

The troubling matter is that the GSC approached the Commission on Church Order to “revisit” their conclusions. How does something like this even come before the GSC? This is a mystery that is yet to be addressed. However, it is troubling that the GSC would encourage or suggest that a commission change the conclusions after it has already reported to the General Synod and the General Synod as adjourned.

This is unlawful.

Just as the GSC is not a check and balance on the General Synod, it is not a check and balance on the Commissions. The GSC does not oversee or supervise the commissions, the GSC is “to support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the commissions” (BCO, 3.I.3.6f). Approaching a commission to change their mind is a significant overreach of constitutional authority.T

The Root of the Problem

In one session, the GSC made two significant violations, not only of the Constitution but also of the Bylaws of the General Synod. And it seems that the GSC is unable to maintain its constitutional obligations.

While one possibility would be to vacate the council. However, the true problems with the GSC is not because of its current composition, it is a systemic problem with the council itself.

The GSC was formed from two different bodies that did two different things. The GSEC and GPC had different foci and different goals. One was an agent of the General Synod, the other was the executive committee of an assembly. The program of the denomination is not the church, and the church is not necessarily the denominational program. The General Synod is far more than simply a program body. The GSEC and GPC were, in part, set up to counterbalance one another, because of the differences in foci and differences in essence. With the creation of the GSC one combined an agent of the General Synod and the executive committee of an assembly. One took an apple and combined it with a potato.

This also had the effect of distributing power. With the consolidation into a single council, however, this also consolidated power–something that the Reformed have historically been rightly apprehensive to do. The only way that the GSC can be checked is for the General Synod to do so, and the General Synod does not seem to be aware of this, that the GSC is simply the workhorse of the General Synod, that the General Synod has the ultimate say over the GSC.

When we consider both the combining of two things that are fundamentally different, and the fact that the consolidation of power ought to disturb all of us to our core, it becomes apparent that the problem is not with the people that are on the GSC, but the GSC itself. The GSC has largely become an unaccountable body which has accumulated an inordinate amount of power.

The best solution would be to disband the GSC and reconstitute GSEC, or something like it, and GPC, or something like it and return the proper responsibilities to the proper group.

NOTE: I do think it is worth pointing out that I do not see some kind of nefarious plot here. Nor do I assume bad intentions on the part of the members of the GSC. I have tried to be clear above that the problem is not with the people but with the structure. These are simply natural lines to which such a structure brings us. We have bumbled into this situation together, and we can get out together.