Notes on the General Synod by David D. Demarest

I have not written much here lately. In part because the demands of pastoral ministry have been high, in part because my doctoral research is demanding, and in part because I recently finished work on a book discussing the foundational principles of Reformed church polity, I will announce more about that when there is more to say.

However, as we move closer to General Synod in October 2021, I wanted to share some notes on the General Synod from David D. Demarest (the father of William H.S. Demarest). While the latter Demarest’s volume Notes on the Constitution is well known to Reformed Church in America ministers as being the standard commentary on the church order until the year 2000 when Allan Janssen’s Constitutional Theology was published, lesser known was his father’s–David’s–book of the same title, published in 1896. While the version of the church order upon which he was commenting is long gone, much of the substance of his book remains valuable for understanding the church order and the theological convictions which underlie it as well as the historical understandings and developments. And as much of my work is centered around the General Synod, I think that some of what he says can be important for us today.

On an authoritative interpreter for the Constitution

But it may be claimed that the General Synod, which is the highest of our judicatures, and which represents the whole church, must be such an authoritative interpreter of the rules of government. We say No–the General Synod is the creature of the constitution, and has no powers but those given to it by this instrument, and we do not find this authority of interpretation among them. The Synod is not a standing tribunal to which constitutional provisions may be referred abstractly, or in thesi for authoritative explanation.

The view of some that the General Synod has very large independent powers, and is well nigh omnipotent in church affiairs, is unwarranted and full of danger. Jealously guard the rights of the lower bodies and of the membership of the churches. The General Synod is not supreme; it is not the fountain of church power.

David D. Demarest, Notes on the Constitution of the Reformed (Dutch) Church in America, 1896, 20-1.

On the Powers and Responsibilities of the General Synod

The “general superintendence over the spiritual interests and concerns of the whole church” covers a very wide field, embracing the work done through various boards and other agencies for the promotion of true religion at home and abroad. The zeal with which this field is cultivated, should, however, be equalled by a care not to trespass by crossing its boundaries and occupying territory that belongs to another. Special care should be taken not to intrude on the lower bodies by doing that which a consistory or classis is competent to do, or which it has been authorized and charged to do. The General Synod is a constitutional body equally with the others, and its powers and prerogatives are defined by the constitution as well as theirs. Service intended to be helpful may be resented as meddlesome.

In the Presbyterian Church, immediately after the civil war, questions arose in the border states about church property and discipline that tempted the General Assembly to exercise original powers of jurisdiction. This course seemed to be necessary in order to overcome certain difficulties. It was regarded by many good men as a sacrifice of essential principles to temporary expedients, under great pressure yet unconstitutional and exceedingly dangerous. Dr. George Junkin wrote much with his characteristic vigor against what he called the “doctrine of the omnipotence of the General Assembly” (Life of Geo. Junkin, D.D.).

It is to strange that some who have never studied the subject should have exaggerated notions of the powers of the General Synod, and should also think that its wisdom is commensurate with its powers. Happily, men are always at hand who exercise a jealous watch and who know just when the brake should be put down.

Demarest, 134-5.

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