The Reformed Church and the Problem of Hierarchy

From time to time, more frequently as of late, there have been calls for the General Synod to make authoritative scriptural interpretations and insist that everyone act in accordance with statements of the General Synod (well, a select few statements). The reasoning is that if the General Synod is the highest assembly, the rest of the Reformed Church is obligated to follow it, like binding precedent (which will be discussed in a later post). This reasoning that the General Synod sits atop the church, however, is fundamentally wrong.

A cursory look at the structure of the Reformed Church can lead one to think that the Reformed Church is hierarchical with the General Synod on “top” and the local churches at the “bottom.” Compounding this is the language that we use when speaking of the relationships between the various assemblies. Some use “higher” and “lower,” others use “broader” and “narrower.” Still others use “greater” and “lesser.” Depending on the terms used, we can easily be led to believe that the General Synod has a greater level of authority, a higher type of authority, or a fundamentally different type of authority. This, however, is would be a gross misunderstanding.*

The differences between the assemblies are not in authority but in breadth of scope.

Reformed governance understands that the greater assemblies care for the ministry that extends beyond the purview of the lesser assemblies without infringing upon the responsibilities of the lesser. Preamble, p. 3.

The consistory need concern itself, primarily, with the local church and its local area. Concerning itself with other churches will detract from its focus on its own ministry and the people that God has entrusted to its care. A consistory does not need to worry about other churches, because the other churches also have consistories that oversees and cares for its local church.

Similarly a classis, generally, does not need to concern itself with all the particularities of every local church, but with what the churches share in common. The classis concerns itself with things which are beyond the scope of any particular consistory. The classis does have superintendence over the consistories, but this is to ensure that they are doing their work properly, rightly, and in good order. The classis does not have the right to overturn a decision made by a consistory simply because the classis may not like it.

We can follow this down the line. The regional synod concerns itself with what the several classes in its region share in common, and while the regional synod is an appellate body, it cannot infringe on the prerogatives of the classes. In the same way, the General Synod is not the assembly that has the greatest amount of authority or a weightier type of authority, but rather, it has the broadest purview, it is concerned with the interests of the entire ecclesiastical communion.

There have been several attempts over the past several years, some have failed and some have succeeded, to turn the General Synod into a body which interprets Scripture for the church communion. This is understandable, as the ancient people demanded a king (1 Sam 8), so also are we tempted to seek authority at some imagined “top.”

While some Christian traditions have a hierarchical structure, the Reformed Church does not. The General Synod is not “higher” than the local consistory, its scope is simply broader and more general. The local consistory is not “lower” than the General Synod, its scope of responsibility is simply narrower and more particular.

The General Synod is not the teacher of the church, nor can the General Synod determine the teaching of the church. The General Synod is not the corollary to the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and, outside of judicial cases, it cannot forcefully impose its will on the lower assemblies. This is not a flaw in the structure, this is a design.


Postscript: This is to speak about hierarchicalism only. This, in no way, is to justify separation, which is a completely different topic, and I have addressed a bit of that foundation here.


*This misunderstanding was even reflected in the report of a task force to the General Synod in 2016, erroneously claiming that consistories and classes are concerned with cultural, personal, and ethical matters while the General Synod is concerned with biblical and theological matters (MGS 2016, p. 80). This is simply false.

3 thoughts on “The Reformed Church and the Problem of Hierarchy

  1. Thanks for writing this. I received it from a friend. Given that I’m going to GS this year I am glad to read what you have to say about some of the issues that are current in our denomination. While GS is not the teacher nor can GS determine the teaching of the church, what is, should, or could be the role of GS when the teaching of the church conflicts with the confession of the church? For example, it could be held that those advocating for a certain position on issues of human sexuality are seeking an end that denies articles 5 and 7 of the Belgic Confession. Would it be right for GS to say anything about that? Or our partners in the Formula of Agreement would seem, in practice if not in actual fact, to deny those same articles by their respective positions on human sexuality. I don’t think that we should expect the FoA partners to hold to our confession but when they act contrary to our confession would it then be the time for GS to act to end the FoA?


    1. Thanks for reading, and for engaging.

      When we think of “the teaching of the church” in the Reformed Church, we speak of the four standards of doctrine. They form the teaching of the church.

      The General Synod can and does offer a significant amount of guidance on a variety of topics. The churches would be wise to take this guidance seriously. But we cannot assume that the General Synod can force everyone to follow its guidance, and nor can we assume that “The General Synod said it, that settles it.” My point is that we tend to see the structures of the Reformed Church as a hierarchy, and whatever the General Synod says or does reign supreme in the church communion. However, this is not the case. Classes have far more power than the General Synod, the classical scope of responsibilities is simply narrower. Statements of the General Synod carry a significant amount of spiritual and moral authority, and this ought to be taken seriously, but it is not the top of a hierarchy.


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