Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of talk within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) about the Constitution of the RCA and the role that it plays in the life of the church. Indeed, this culminated with a directive from the General Synod of 2015 which formed a large task force to find a constitutional pathway forward to deal with the different views of human sexuality within the communion. This, then, has brought the issue of constitutionality to the fore of the discussion of the communion, and it is a discussion that we are oft ill prepared to have.
What is a constitution? The word “constitution” is itself derived from the Latin term constituere, which means to set up, establish, arrange. So, then, a constitution refers to those basic things on which a body stands. It refers to the basic establishment or arrangement, it provides a framework to set up a body. Indeed, the very first Constitution, which was first printed in 1793 spoke of the nature of itself in its preface, “To the Constitution of a Church appertain its Doctrines, Mode of Worship, and government. When these are known, its true and distinguishing character is sufficiently ascertained.”
A constitution, then, speaks to the foundational elements, the constitutive elements, of a body.
In this way, a constitution is fundamentally different from a code of laws. A code of laws is derived from a constitution but are not themselves constitutive. This is part of the reason why constitutional amendments are (ordinarily) more difficult. Constitutions are by no means permanent, they can be amended, but the requirements to amend are higher than a code of laws.
In the RCA, amendments to the constitution have to be passed by a General Synod, need to be passed by a supermajority (2/3) of classes, and then passed by a second General Synod. In this way, no one assembly can make sweeping changes to the essence of the church on their own. However, as the RCA developed over its long history, the Government and Disciplinary and Judicial Procedures (one part of the Constitution) had grown to include other things which may be good procedural items but may not be essential to the church.
Therefore, in many ways, our Constitution has begun to function like a code of laws instead of a constitution. However, it remains a constitution, and as such, it is, primarily, to include and address the constitutive elements of the church.
To amend the Constitution, then, is not just a matter of procedure but is to amend the foundational essence of the body. Sometimes, this change is relatively inconsequential, but other times this significantly impacts our very understanding of the church, as in 2014/2015 when the Constitution was amended to allow an elder functioning as a commissioned pastor to serve as the supervisor of the consistory without a minister, therefore depriving that particular church of the representation of the fullness of Christ’s ministry (Preamble, p. 3). However, the discussion of “what makes a church?” was never had, and one of these essential elements was rewritten as little more than a matter of procedure.
So, then, what is fitting for the Constitution? The Belgic Confession, one of the Doctrinal Standards, speaks to the marks of the true church: Pure preaching of the gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline (Art. 29). It is for this reason that elements such as ecclesiastical office and assemblies of the church are included in the Constitution, as well as the liturgical forms for the celebration of the sacraments, ordination, and church discipline.
The Constitution is to provide the skeleton for the church (Meeter). Not to address every possibility imaginable. The assemblies of the church are empowered to discern the Spirit’s leading within the sphere entrusted to that assembly. The Reformed Church does not rule “top-down.”
The Constitution does not include everything, nor does it intend to. It includes those things which constitute the church, those things which are essential (per the essence) to the church.
Meeter, Daniel J. Meeting Each Other. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.