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.
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.