Reformed Church General Synod 2017: Overtures on Declarative Authority

This is part of a series of posts about the items and topics before the General Synod 2017

Other posts in this series:
Commissioned Pastors, Part 1: Foundations
Commissioned Pastors, Part 2: Recommendations before General Synod

***

An addition to the General Synod Workbook was recently released containing overtures from the regional synods. There are a few topics worth discussing contained therein, but for this post, we will look at the overtures that mention “declarative authority” — Overtures 34-38.

While I have previously discussed declarative authority and how it, in no way, means what it is purported to mean in these overtures, this is certainly not the only fallacy which these overtures rest upon.

Representative Principle

The use of the representative principle in these overtures is grossly misguided. The representative principle primarily counters congregationalism, where the congregation itself is the authority. It also shows that when a consistory, for instance, makes a decision “within the proper exercise of authority,” (Preamble, p. 3-4), that decision cannot be ignored, rejected, or protested against. There is nothing in the representative principle that justifies such a broad and unlawful usurpation of church power by the General Synod — particularly because the General Synod itself, as such, is not properly church. Synods exist for the good order of the church, they are not part of the essence of the church. 

Nature of the 1979 Judicial Case

Indeed, the reasons listed in support of these overtures are substantial, and substantially incorrect.

In large part the overture is founded upon a number of combined judicial cases in 1979. These cases were initiated as judicial actions (complaints against classes that ordained women). Because the cases were initiated by means of the judicial process the General Synod had to accept it as such. It is therefore factually false to claim that the “General Synod decided that the matter could be treated as judicial business.”

The factual error is important, because they lead to the fundamental problem with the overtures: they fundamentally misunderstand the unique nature of judicial business by confusing the nature of an assembly with the nature of a judicatory.

Judicial cases function very differently than assemblies, and the scope of their decisions is therefore markedly different. “Higher” and “lower” are terms that can only be used of judicatories. The judicial ruling of a higher judicatory (regional or general synod) must be carried out by the lower judicatory from which the case originated.

The same is not the case for assemblies. Assemblies make decisions and enact policies that affect their own lives together without infringing on the responsibilities of the other assemblies. 

The 1979 action had consequences for the whole church because it was a judicial case that affected the life of the whole church. The General Synod, acting as an assembly, had previously stated (exercising proper declarative authority) that “Scripture nowhere excludes women from eligibility to the offices but always emphasizes their inclusion, prominence, and equal status with men in the Church of Jesus Christ” (MGS 1958, p. 328), but the matter of whether any narrower assembly would actually ordain a woman was left to the narrower assemblies (consistories and classes). If the General Synod’s 1958 decision had carried the church-wide authority of a judicial matter, the 1979 case never would have happened. The synodical statement of 1958 was relevant in 1979, not because it had a “declarative authority” for the entire Reformed Church, but because it looked to its own past for guidance in making its decision.

Thus, since 1979, the matter of the ordination of women has been settled de jure (in law) for the RCA. Objectors could object, but could not bring an action against the ordination of a woman, so long as the ‘conscience clause’ was in effect.

Even so, to say that the place of women in the offices of the church is settled de facto (in the way we actually conduct our life together) is simply not accurate. Women continue to struggle for their calls to be validated through large swaths of the Reformed Church. There are still churches that will not allow women to serve in church offices (and in some cases they are theoretically eligible but not in practice), and women still find the validity of their office and call challenged. If, as the overtures allege, the General Synod made such a sweeping declarative statement in the past, why does not everyone fall in line?

If even the judicial action of 1979 (which is fundamentally different from what is proposed now) could not secure uniformity, how is an action that is based on a falsehood supposed to help the church on the way toward the desired uniformity? 

The “argument from 1979” does not provide any basis whatsoever for the General Synod, as an assembly, to make declarative statements in the manner proposed in these overtures.

Constitution, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Binding Interpretations

At the bottom of pages 3 and 6, the reasons reference a report from the Commission on Church Order from 2014, yet the use of that report was misleading. 

First, a broader look at the context of that quote itself.

 

only those things that are included in our Constitution may be treated as binding upon the ministers and congregations of the RCA. The way in which something is included in the Constitution is fairly straightforward: decision by the General Synod, and then approval by at least two-thirds of the classes, after which that approval is finalized by the subsequent General Synod. That aspect of our polity has implications for the authority of what a General Synod might say… (MGS 2014, p. 241).

 

Thus, only a sentence later it goes on to say that this has “implications for the authority of what a General Synod might say…” They go on to quote a section from a 2013 paper,

Statements, pronouncements, and policies of the General Synod or its agencies are not part of the Constitution. Nor are position papers and policy documents of the denomination. Surely these all have some authority, and our practice shows that they have varying kinds of authority. Insofar as they educate and exhort, they have an influence upon the church which can be seen as authoritative. As they direct denominational staff and agencies to act in certain ways, they are binding on those persons and agencies. Yet whatever authority they have is not constitutional authority. These do not bind or control the church, its members, congregations, or officers in the same way as do things that are part of the Constitution. In short, they are not constitutional. (MGS 2013, p. 357)

No one disputes the fact that the Heidelberg Catechism is completely constitutional, but what the General Synod cannot do is to make a definitive interpretation of the Constitution and treat such an unconstitutional decree as constitutional. There is nothing anywhere in the Constitution or in our history which would give the General Synod this authority, indeed, the General Synod cannot even give itself this authority.

The 2014 paper continues,

What, then, can be said about the authority of the General Synod within the church? Cautioned by the conundrum identified at the beginning of this statement, the commission wishes to point to some principles that are named in the church order. Christ governs his church through the offices (BCO Preamble, pp. 2–3). Each assembly of the church is a gathering of the offices and as such receives its authority from Christ (BCO Preamble, p. 4). In a fundamental sense of authority, then, the General Synod does not receive Christ’s delegated authority more than the other assemblies do, nor, indeed, less than the other assemblies do. One of the earliest principles of Reformed church order is the one by which responsibilities among the assemblies of the church are arranged such 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’ (BCO Preamble, p. 3).

At the same time, as noted above, the voice of the General Synod within the church can be powerfully influential. Some might question whether something can have authority and not be binding. We find, however, that authority functions to the extent that authority is accepted (or “acknowledged,” as the 1976 statement put it). The reality is that General Synod statements and resolutions are authoritative in the various senses mentioned above—first because the synod is an assembly of office-bearers, and also because we have covenanted together as office-bearers, churches, and assemblies to accept synod’s statements and resolutions as having authority, the nature, influence, and scope of which clearly vary depending on context, intent, and the passage of time. (MGS 2014, p. 241-242).

 

The Nature of Authority

The deeper issue, however, present in these overtures and in many of the discussions about human sexuality and what the General Synod should or should not do, or can or cannot do is the nature of authority itself. The overtures are correct in noting that the General Synod has the ability to exercise declarative authority. The fact is, the General Synod exercises declarative authority in the ordinary course of its work.

When the General Synod divested from Apartheid South Africa, the General Synod made a declarative statement that Apartheid was not in accordance with Scripture. The General Synod and its corporations, boards, and agencies were required to follow this action, but this action did not require classes or consistories, for instance, from doing the same. Similarly, the General Synod has consistently spoken in favor of increased gun control. This, however, does not force everyone in the Reformed Church to agree with this. Indeed, many in the Reformed Church oppose increased gun control.

Some might say that this lacks authority, however, this is certainly not the case at all. Synodical statements are very authoritative and the assemblies of the churches would do well to take the statements of General Synod seriously. What they don’t have is a single type of authority, that is, the authority to coerce. Simply the act of the General Synod saying something or making a statement does not end discernment of a matter. One cannot say, “The General Synod said it, I have to accept it, that settles it.”

At issue, though, is the extraordinarily reductionist view of authority which seems to be present in these overtures. The above-referenced report also speaks to authority.

In response to the second question—What is the nature of the authority of the General Synod on issues of doctrine and interpretation of Scripture?—it is abundantly clear that statements and resolutions of the General Synod are authoritative. One important question, however, concerns how they are authoritative. That is, what kind of authority do these have?

For authority is not merely a binary state, so that something is either authoritative or completely lacking in authority. There are various kinds of authority. This may be seen in the varied intended meanings when we call someone an “authority.” Are we referring to an expert, or to a police officer? In the former case, the authority has knowledge and competence worth accepting. In the latter, the authority has legal standing to enforce the law. Moreover, continuing with those examples, we readily understand that each of these authorities exercises his or her authority within an appropriate sphere. The expert is authoritative within that one’s field of expertise and not outside it. The police officer’s authority is valid in a given jurisdiction and not outside it.

In looking at the historical record, the commission observes that statements and resolutions of General Synod demonstrate a variety of kinds of authority and a variety of forces of authority as the church has accepted them to various degrees…

We may find a mix of kinds and scope of authority in the case of RCA divestment in companies working in South Africa during the apartheid era. The General Synod decided to divest its assets from such companies. That action applied only to the denomination’s own investments and not to those of congregations or of the RCA colleges. It did not bind consistories or boards of trustees. It was binding only on those who made investment decisions for the General Synod. Yet that action was intended to stand as an authoritative witness to the rest of the church. It had moral authority and perhaps even prophetic authority. The biblical reasoning used to support the decision to divest was marshalled to make a powerful scriptural case for the action taken. In all these respects, the decision of synod was authoritative, even though it was binding, strictly speaking, only upon the General Synod’s own agencies. (MGS 2014, p. 240- 1).

To reduce all authority to a matter of something which is judicially binding or that has the power to coerce is little more than worldly reasoning and does nothing for the benefit or the life of the church.

Conclusion

These overtures are correct in one thing: the charge given to the General Synod is not in administering the denominational program, the primary work of the General Synod is to address and wrestle with theological issues as it fulfills its charge as an assembly of the church, a gathering of office bearers. This is certainly something of which the Reformed Church needs to be reminded as too often the General Synod functions as an administrative body which simply approves whatever the General Synod Council says or does. However, this does not mean that whatever the General Synod does ought to be binding on all the assemblies of the Reformed Church. Certainly the statements of General Synod have authority (even significant authority), but not all authority is coercive and heavy-handed as these overtures advocate. The General Synod ought to aid the assemblies in their work, not do the work for them. This is the point at which these overtures drastically go astray. 

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