The Final final (maybe…?) report of the Vision 2020 Task Force was released. You can read it here. This series of posts will look deeper at the recommendations not just from a pragmatic lens, but also through a theological lens. While many have given up on the reality that the church order is theological, I cannot accept that. If we cannot see the church order as a theological document, then this entire enterprise is lost. While we may value things like ease and efficiency, this cannot be the driving values. If they are, we have lost sight of what we are about.
From the outset, I want to affirm the hard work of the task force. It was an impossible task with which they were charged, and I think they have done their work faithfully. There are parts of the report that I affirm, and more parts that I critique. But my desire is that critiques are to be understood not as attacks (personal or otherwise), but rather, my desire to contribute to the discussion in what I hope will be a constructive way.
You can read other posts in this series on restructuring, on the concept of affinity, on the new mission agency, and on the assumptions in the presentation of generous separation.
Beginning with affirmations
I am grateful for the Task Force’s intent, here. While I disagree with the appropriateness of the use of this provision, the intent, here, is something laudable. That is, to try to make sure that everyone is treated justly. There are many scenarios that I can think up that would be problematic. A church that clearly wants to leave, and the classis evicting them from their property to make money on it. That goes against the classical oversight of church property, and has, at best, questionable morality. The classis, in most cases, does not own the property. But neither do the members own the property. So either side claiming that it belongs to them is incorrect. On the other side, however, I can also envision a church that is divided almost down the middle. What if 51% of the congregation wants to withdraw, but 49% do not? What if that 49% could maintain a viable ministry? At what point does a church want to leave, and at what point is there an old-fashioned church split in the works? Similarly, because of the way assessments work, it is only proper, at the least, for churches to pre-pay the next few years worth of assessments so that the classis is not left holding a vastly higher bill for its churches than it should have.
This is the kind of nightmare that, I think, the Task Force is seeking to avoid. And seeking to avoid that is good! No one is served in scenarios like the above, and so many others. In this, I think, we agree. Where we differ, and the difference is rather significant, is the best way to go about this. Do we trust the classes and churches to do the right thing, and deal with issues as they come; or does the General Synod dictate terms because we cannot trust the classes to faithfully fulfill their charge?
Category of Rules and Regulations
In order to prescribe generosity, the task force has decided to attempt a novel and, I argue, unconstitutional pathway to dictate how classes are handle things, despite the constitutional responsibilities given to them. I think I understand what the task force is trying to do, that is, trying to make a way for these things to go smoothly, easily, and relatively painlessly, as well as consistently across the denomination. In presenting this, they are attempting to find a way to be fair and just to everyone, though whether or not that is actually accomplished is a matter for another discussion, and I do not think that the task force has any malicious intent. But since “precedent” in the Reformed Church means anything that has ever happened before, we must be very carful with such a novel interpretation of such a provision of which there is no living memory. This entry will look at the category of rules and regulations, and how what is being proposed is a misuse of this zombie provision.
What, even, are rules and regulations?
The General Synod shall have power to make all rules and regulations necessary to put into effect any and all articles of the Government, the Disciplinary Procedures, the Formularies, and the Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America.BCO, 2019, p. 75.
This provision has existed in the church order, in essentially the same form, since at least the church order revision of 1833. This is largely a zombie regulation—one of those regulations for which the reason for its inclusion in the church order no longer exists. As such, it has largely been ignored. The task force noted that “this approach is somewhat unconventional and has not been used recently.” To say that it has “not been used recently” is a bit of—quite—an understatement. To be honest, I do not know the last time the General Synod appealed to this provision, and I don’t even know where such rules and regulations would even be today. William H.S. Demarest in 1928 in Notes on the Constitution wrote, in essence: there was once something like this. Nearly a hundred years ago, then, this was already something of the past. Simply being old does not invalidate a regulation, not at all, but in something that no one has touched for generations, while at the same time the church order has undergone massive revisions, requires some hard work to try to understand the function of that regulation and that for which it was intended. The task force directed people to Constitutional Theology for “helpful commentary and historical precedents.” However, it is important to look at the source for ourselves.
Such a body of rules is neither currently in common circulation nor is there a general awareness that it even exists! In fact, one doubts that the General Synod of recent memory knows how it would go about providing such rules. The articles of the Government and the amendments to the Discipline or to the Liturgy or the Formularies are effected through the process outlined in the following section. Thus there appears to be little for the General Synod to do to put the provisions of the Constitution into effect.Allan J. Janssen, Constitutional Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Church Press 2019), 245.
Janssen does go on to note that bound together with the Constitution of 1876 was an appendix, “Digest of the Laws of the General Synod.” Janssen continues to provide a greater context by speaking about the church order of the old Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK) which had a church order proper of a dozen pages, which presented to the essential things, and a code of ordinances which dealt with the practical things and were much easier to change. Interestingly enough, Janssen notes attempts to distinguish the RCA church order into “Constitution” and “Canons” which would have reflected the church order of the old NHK, and may have provided this regulation have a new life. This, obviously, did not happen.
In order to understand the history, however, we have to understand the difference between the church order of today and the church order of previous eras. In examining the orders of prior eras, we can see the reason that this provision came into existence and why it is a zombie regulation today. The Constitutions of these previous eras were tiny little pamphlets. It did not include much at all by way of process and procedure. However, over time, we have included a lot of processes and procedures into the Constitution. This, then, makes this whole provision moot.
For instance, when discussing the “Digest of the Laws of the General Synod,” Janssen speaks, for instance, about receiving a minister from another denomination. I do not have the church order of 1876 but I do have the 1879 church order and the constitution did not change as rapidly then. Here is the provision about receiving ministers from another denomination:
Sec. 18. The Classis shall receive no Licentiates or Ministers under their care from any body of professing Christians who maintain doctrines different from those of the Reformed (Dutch) Church, without an open and explicit declaration, on their part, that they have renounced such doctrines, as contrary to the Holy Scriptures, and the standards of our Church.
Sec. 19. If any application be made for the admission of a Licentiate or Minister from other churches, it shall be the duty of the Classis to subject him to such examination as shall enable them to proceed with freedom in this case.Constitution, 1879, Art. II, Secs. 18–19.
One can clearly see the importance of including more practical matters to put this into effect. Thus the regulations necessary to put the articles of government into effect. However, looking at this same topic in the church order today, one will find an entire article that is two full pages long filled with regulations and processes and procedures. In many ways, then, the church order, itself, was expanded to include regulations, processes, and procedures which largely made this provision irrelevant.
One can certainly argue that processes and procedures are out of place in a constitution, and that has been argued, and I have done so as well. Legislating via constitution is never a good thing (Prohibition, for instance, bears witness to this). However, this is how we have chosen to find our life together. We can certainly have the conversation about what the constitution should include and how it should function (it would be a very fruitful conversation!), but that is a different conversation than the one that is being presented here by the task force.
That little word “necessary”
The reason that that this provision has largely become irrelevant is because of the word “necessary.” This provision does not allow the General Synod to make any laws that it wishes, but rather, “The General Synod shall have the power to make all rules and regulations necessary to put into effect any and all articles of the Government…” (emphasis added). That word “necessary” is very important. If we look at the above example from 1879, one can see how regulations would have been necessary to put those articles into effect in a decent and orderly way. Today, however, there are not additional regulations which are necessary to put into effect the articles of government. This provision does not allow the General Synod to create a code of laws as it wishes, it allows the General Synod to make necessary regulations needed in order to put into effect the articles of the order. Necessary to put into effect, that is, not even things that we think may be good ideas, but necessary in order for the articles of the Government to be enacted.
Contrary to the clear wording of the regulation, this does not put into effect the articles of government, but rather seeks to find an easy way to enact new ones.
The task force is clear that this is a way to avoid the constitutional amendment process. It is clear that the appeal to this provision is not because additional rules and regulations are necessary to put into effect the church order, but rather, the constitutional amendment process is long, cumbersome, and not certain, not to mention, that these kinds of things that are proposed do not properly fit within the church order. This would make it quicker and easier. It is, however, unconstitutional and violates not only the spirit, but also the letter, of the Constitution.
Where are these rules and regulations?
If this was to be enacted, there are a number of important questions about the category of “rules and regulations.” Where would such a rule or regulation be? If this is a living and active provision which is still meaningful today, then where is such a code? There is no legal code for the RCA apart from the Constitution. Does the General Synod just have to say something? Then what about the other things the General Synod has said? Is there a special magic formula for how something becomes “rules and regulations?” What is that special magic formula? Who says so? Those things which were included in the old “Digest of the Laws of the General Synod” included no special formula. It would seem, then, that everything that the General Synod has said would have the force of law until it is repealed? I do wonder if we are willing to go back to the 1833 and construct a code of rules and regulations and check which ones have been repealed and which ones would still be in effect? If not this, then do we assume that this provision did not mean anything until now?
The task force also notes that if such rules and regulations are passed by a supermajority, then they have a special authority (formal or informal). This, of course, has no basis in any kind of constitutional reality and is simply an invention of the task force. It is hard to say what this would mean. Extra special rules and regulations?
But what about consistories who feel aggrieved?
I am most certainly not oblivious to the fact that there may be consistories who feel (and sometimes rightly so!) aggrieved by their classis’s handling of their request. While the goal of the task force, and it is a laudable and important one, is to allow consistories a recourse in such an event, such rules are not needed in order for an aggrieved consistory to seek recourse.
The complaint process still remains open as it is now! “Grounds for complaint include any action or decision that is harmful to the church, whether the alleged error of the assembly or its officer is procedural or substantive, and specifically would include, but are not limited to…” (2.II.1.2, emphasis mine). Truthfully, there is a distinction between not liking a decision, and there being something wrong with how the matter was handled. A complaint provides for recourse of the latter, while the former is simply a reality of a life together. As things stand now, the classis mishandling the request or there being something wrong would not preclude a consistory for complaining against their classis.
But what does this matter?
The task force is almost certainly trying to make the process less messy and streamlined, so that we all can get through it as easy as possible. The intent is, I think, a good one. However, this is not just a matter of me being a legalistic curmudgeon–of which I am sometimes wrongly accused–but this is a matter of integrity, what it means to be the church, and what it means for the future. First, I want to touch on the integrity piece.
When ministers are received into a classis anew, whether it be through ordination or being received from another, they read the formula, where they promise, among other things, to “conduct the work of the church in an orderly way and in accordance with the Liturgy and the Book of Church Order” (Formulary 3). We make this promise to one another and before God. The promises in the formula are significant, and I think that too often we don’t give them the weight they deserve. This is one of the reasons why I think that we ought to abide by the church order, because this is what we have promised. I don’t think that our church order was divinely inspired, but I think that God desires us to keep the promises that we make. This also means that the church order can certainly be changed, and our promises, then, continue with that changed church order. Our promise, then, is not a static promise, but a living promise. I am often insistent that we pay attention to the church order not because I’m legalistic, but this is what we have promised to do, and we are responsible for fulfilling that promise, or if we cannot, to seek demission from office. And so this, which is unconstitutional, brings us to a place where our integrity is questionable since we have promised to do one thing, and we seem to be doing another.
Second, this matters because it impacts how we view the church. A church order is never theologically neutral, and always reflects what we believe about the church. This does not mean that it is unchangeable, or that this way is the only “right way.” But we have to understand that when we are handling the church order we are handling a theological text. The Reformed tradition have not only been non-hierarchical, but have historically and traditionally been anti-hierarchical. It is true what the Preamble says,
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. Consistories, classes, and synods work together in mission and ministry within their shared boundaries.p. 3
The question, though is what this clause means: “without infringing upon the responsibilities of the lesser [assemblies].” Especially since the introduction of the reserve clause (“The classis shall exercise all ecclesiastical functions in accord with the Government of the Reformed Church in America which are not specifically delegated to other assemblies.” [1.II.2.11]), the classis has been the heavyweight in terms of assemblies, and the classis is the body which fulfills the episcopal function of the church. As the Commission on Church Order noted in their report in 2018,
Classes are not accountable to synods (regional or general) in the same way that consistories are accountable to classes. … Perhaps most notably, the synod is not charged with enforcing “the requirements of the Government of the Reformed Church in America” (compare BCO Chapter 1, Part II, Article 2, Section 2 [2017 edition, p. 29] with BCO Chapter 1, Part III, Article 2, Section 1 [2017 edition, p. 61]).MGS, 2018, 268
Our arrival at our constitutional system is not divinely instituted, but we also believe that the Spirit works through the gathered community, not just in the moment, but also through history. We seek to listen to the leading of Christ. Can we discern that Christ is leading us to a change? Most definitely! But if it is the will of God, then we have to trust that a few votes can’t thwart it. This makes two significant assumptions, however, that I don’t know if everyone can live with. The first is that the community (and, in the case of classes, communities) are seeking the leading of Christ; and the second is the trust that others are doing that in earnest. I’m not about to say that everything that doesn’t happen is not God’s desire, and that everything that happens is God’s desire, but this is the work of discernment, a task that has been given to the church.
Thirdly, I am concerned about what this means for the future of the church. In the RCA, we cite as precedent anything that has once happened before. So even if we decide that now the General Synod can legislate in a binding manner apart from the Constitution, then what about next time? Will this be cited as precedent for other extraconstitutional regulations which bind the conscience and strip bodies of ecclesiologically appropriate responsibilities? I’m concerned that this might be a Pandora’s box. And perhaps the legislation that comes in the future might be more problematic, even, than these. Once we crack open this possibility will we be able to control what happens? We’ve seen this with the modern iteration of non-geographic classes and we’ve seen this with commissioned pastors–unless there is an intentional tight rein, it will morph, rather rapidly, into something which is far beyond the initial design or intent.
What is the alternative?
I do not think that the General Synod has nothing to say on this matter. In fact, I do think that the General Synod does have much that is proper to say. While the General Synod, all on its own, cannot create law, this does not mean that the General Synod is meaningless. Indeed, There is much between these two poles, and it is between these that the most proper perspective resides. We are not bound by what the General Synod alone does, but this does not mean we are to disregard it, either. The General Synod carries with it a moral and spiritual authority, even if its proclamations don’t have judicial or legislative authority.
As such, the General Synod ought to, in the strongest way possible, implore classes and churches to be mutually generous with one another–and allow them to determine what the best expression of that generosity is for their specific situation and context. I may be a bit idealistic in this, but we must also begin with the fact that we, together, are a church. It is astounding to me sometimes to sit back and look at all of this and say to myself, “this is a church.” We have to trust that people are approaching this in good faith. Do I think that everyone does? Of course not. Indeed, this is why there is the ability to complain if a party feels aggrieved. I am also particularly sensitive to those who find themselves as outliers in their classes, for in the first six years of my ministry I was an outlier in many ways in my classis. But we cannot allow ourselves to be so taken by the ways of the world of polarization and mistrust. We are called to be different. We must be different. And we have the opportunity to be truly generous–with generosity that arises from freedom.