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, on the assumptions in the presentation of generous separation, and the basic and fundamental errors in the category of rules and regulations.
Beginning with Affirmations
As with the previous installations, I want to begin with some affirmations. While I think that the recommendations in this report are fundamentally flawed, this does not mean that there is nothing of good benefit in it, and it does not mean that the hard work of the task force was for naught. One of the guidelines—and I say guidelines intentionally, since constitutionally that’s all these can ever be—is the threshold by which the consistory and congregation must vote for separation. A problem that I mentioned in the previous post was what if the vote was a simple majority, with a significant minority opposing the separation from the classis? The guidelines presented here avoid that. The consistory should vote three-fourths in favor, and the congregation should vote three-fourths in favor. While it is short of unanimity, the three-fourths supermajority is sufficient to prevent a slim majority from deciding the course. As such, this helps make it clear that the church itself wants to separate, rather than simply a church split in the works. In fact, I think that this would be a positive thing to add this threshold into the order as it is. Additionally, the assessments guideline are certainly a good guideline, that I hope will be followed, not because the church must be punished, but as a way to provide a small financial cushion rather than drastic changes. These are good to encourage and recommend.
Unconstitutionality of the Category and Substance
As laid out in the previous post, this use of the rules and regulations provision is clearly unconstitutional. It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the Constitution, the church order, and the history of the church order. I think that it is incumbent upon the Task Force to demonstrate the constitutionality of this approach, to show where such a code is, why some things are and some things are not binding synodical legislation, and how we determine this. After all, the Task Force is really inventing something. But not only this, it is hard to argue that these regulations are “necessary to put into effect any and all articles of the Government,” but rather, it is clear that these contradict the articles of government, and the Task Force is asking the Synod to make legislation to supersede the Constitution.
Stripping of Classical Responsibility
The classis shall give deference to the decision of the consistory and congregation regarding the question of how Christ’s Kingdom may best be served in the matter. The classis will accept that the church can no longer function effectively in its present relationship and that the effectiveness of such congregation as a local church could be enhanced if it were to affiliate with another denomination on the basis of the petition.B.1.a
The Constitution gives the Classis the task of discernment in terms of what is best for Christ’s kingdom (which extends far beyond the Reformed Church in America). Why is the classis given this responsibility? The Classis exercises the episcopal function in Reformed order. Again, the Commission on Church Order noted the same in 2018. The Classis is the body which forms churches, it is the body which dissolves churches, it is the body which approves calls and contracts, effects and dissolves pastoral relationships, and the classis has “original and appellate supervisory power over the acts, proceedings, and decisions of the boards of elders and consistories, both in temporal matters and in those relating to Christian discipline” (1.II.2.3). A church does not form itself, and a church does not dissolve itself. A local church is brought into existence by a force greater than itself, by the broader church, which in Reformed order is given tangible expression in the classis. A church, then, is not simply in a voluntary federation with the classis, it is in an essential, organic union. Additionally, the classis has a view a step broader than the local church and is able to take a more objective (note the qualifier) stance to have a clearer view. The classis is both close enough and distant enough to be able to make this determination.
The classis, in making this determination, is not simply the result of process, but also part of what it means to be the church, and how we understand what it means to be the church. Therefore, the classis making this determination is no small feat. As with all things, the classis is always seeking the leading of Christ in its decisions. This does not mean that everyone will agree, but generally we trust that the Spirit works in and through the gathered assemblies. Therefore, the classis neither tries to hold onto something that it owns (for it doesn’t truly own the church), nor is it looking out for its own interests, financial or otherwise, but are called to look at what is best for Christ’s Kingdom. Indeed, some times, what is best for Christ’s kingdom is for a church to separate from the classis and become attached to another classis or to another denomination altogether. But it is important that the classis is the body who is given the responsibility to discern and make that determination with all the various inputs of data that the church order requires.
This regulation, however, strips the classis of this responsibility. I think that the goal of the Task Force is to try to streamline the process and to make the process consistent throughout the denomination, and to avoid contentions between the classis and the church. However, this assumes that what the church wants is what should happen. There are legitimate reasons why a classis might opt to not transfer a church. Perhaps a church is objectively dysfunctional, and not simply in its present relationship, and not something that would be remedied by a transfer, and the classis does not wish to simply pass on a problem but rather to work through it. Perhaps a consistory is seeking to avoid discipline for something. There are a number of good and legitimate reasons why a classis may determine that it is not in the interests of Christ’s kingdom to transfer a church, and/or that the church’s effectiveness would not be enhanced by a transfer. Never in our understanding of church, is there the principle that someone should get what they want. That is not the point. This is one significant way in which these regulations to not put into effect the articles of government, but attempt to override them.
Complaints and Appeals
The regulations allow for consistories to complain against a classis if a petition is denied. In fact, this possibility is present now, already. The consistory would file a complaint against the classis with the regional synod. However, what is new is allowing a consistory complain against the regional synod. This is another place where these regulations seek to supplant the Constitution because a complaint may be filed by, “An assembly against that assembly having immediate superintendence over it” (2.II.1.4(a)). This is a substantive change. Ordinarily, if a classis denied a consistory’s petition, the consistory could complain against its classis to the regional synod. If the regional synod upheld the classical decision, the consistory could appeal the ruling to the General Synod. A complaint is the filing of an original case, whereas an appeal is the transfer to a higher judicatory something on which judgement has been rendered in a case. In an appeal, the substance of the case is not addressed, but rather, the appellant has to show that there was something improper with the way that the case was handled. As such, it is not a re-hearing of the original case. However, this would allow for an original case to be filed against the regional synod in which the General Synod would consider the merits. This up-ends the judicial procedures.
Additionally, there is the introduction of something brand new: a General Synod panel. The regulations note that this panel is to hear appeals, so I am unsure whether complaints filed against the regional synod (3.b) will be heard by this panel since a complaint is not an appeal. Notwithstanding, one has to wonder why there is a separate panel which is established for this, after all, there is a Commission on Judicial Business that handles judicial business. How is this panel to be constituted? How is it to be formed? How large will it be? Why does it need to exist? Why can we not handle judicial business in the prescribed way? Where in the Constitution or the Bylaws and Special Rules of Order of the General Synod does one see an opening for the establishment of such a panel?
As this usage of rules and regulations is unconstitutional and the regulations themselves violate the Constitution, there is no way that mandating this can be conceived of as right and proper in any way. Could many of these be recommended, urged, implored? Of course. I think that many of these are very good guidelines for handling things. But the Constitution is not just something that exists for easy times, it exists for difficult times as well. There is theological significance to the church order, it is not simply pragmatic items. The judicial process is available to consistories that feel aggrieved by their classis, and they should feel able to use it. But at the same time, there are times in which there are decisions that are made that we do not like or agree with, this does not make the decision necessarily wrong. What these regulations do is to make the denomination no longer an organic entity, but rather simply a voluntary association like any other congregationalist association.
Too often we take the reality that one cannot appeal or complain against any action or decision of the General Synod as a statement that somehow the General Synod is in essence, above being complained against, or above being appealed. However, this is not the case. The reason for this is so there is a terminus at some point for judicial actions and they do not get caught in a perpetual loop. This does not, then, give justification for the General Synod to adopt things which are unconstitutional, out of order, and wrong simply because there is no recourse.