Reformed Church General Synod 2017: Deacons in Broader Assemblies

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
Overtures on Declarative Authority

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While human sexuality will be the topic on everyone’s mind (even if it is not the majority of the business before the General Synod), there are many other topics which are of great significance for not only the functioning of the church, but also how for how the church understands itself.  The Report of the Task Force on Diaconal Ministries is one of those such areas which is far less divisive or emotionally charged but is quite significant. This is contained on pages 76-85 of the General Synod Workbook.

Background

Deacons are members of the consistory of the local church and participate in the governance and oversight of the local church. However, this is, currently, the extent of their participation in the government of the church. All of the broader assemblies, classical and synodical, are composed solely of ministers and elders. The reason for this will be discussed below, but there has been a renewal of the movement, as of late, to provide for deacon participation in broader assemblies. If we are striving to renew a focus on mission, then why, the question goes, do we exclude the deacon, which is the office charged with (what is often thought to be) the most missional ministry? (See MGS 2007, pp.88-103).

While the General Synod in 2007 did not approve recommendations to bring deacons into the classical and synodical assemblies, they did request the Commission on Theology “to prepare a study on whether there is a theological basis within a reformed and missional ecclesiology for the inclusion of deacons as full members of classes, regional synods, and the General Synod…”(MGS 2007, pp. 102-103). The Commission brought a paper to the 2011 General Synod (pp. 289-304). In 2015, the General Synod authorized the creation of a task force to bring recommendations to the General Synod regarding diaconal ministries and assemblies (MGS 2015, p. 242). The report in the workbook this year is the work fo this task force.

The Ministry of the Deacon

To begin the discussion, we must consider the unique ministry with which the office of deacon is charged.

The office of deacon is once of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. In the local church deacons are chosen members of spiritual commitment, exemplary life, compassionate spirit, and sound judgement, who are set apart for a ministry of mercy, service, and outreach. They are to receive the contributions of the congregation and to distribute them under the direction of the consistory. The deacons give particular attention and care to the whole benevolence program of the church. They have charge of all gits contributed for the benefit of the poor and distribute them with discretion. They visit and comfort those in maerial need and perform such other duties as the consistory may assign them. (BCO, 2016, 1.I.1.10). 

Whereas elders are “set apart for a ministry of watchful and responsible care for all matters relating to the welfare and good order of the church” (BCO, 2016, 1.I.1.8), Deacons are charged with a ministry of “mercy, service, and outreach.” One might say that the elders are charged with care over the household of faith, whereas deacons are charged with care for the greater community. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but one can see that when elders, deacons, and ministers serve together, the “fullness of Christ’s ministry” (BCO, 2016, Preamble, p. 3) is present.

The history of diaconal membership on the consistory is interesting, as well. The church order of Dort (1619) mandated the office of deacon, however, the consistory was made up of ministers and elders. The Articles of Dort did allow for deacons to be members of the consistory “where the numbers of Elders is too small” (Art. 38). However, as the church order of 1833 observes, the deacons have always been joined to the consistory “in America, where the congregations were at first very small…” (Art 50). And so the Reformed Church is somewhat unique in the universal practice of membership of deacons on the consistory.

The understanding of the role of the deacon, however, has been somewhat problematic throughout history. In my own experience, deacons were treated as “junior elders.” In the church in which I grew up people would often serve a couple of terms as a deacon and then they could “progress” to elder. This experience is not unique to me but is a common experience. So in practice, deacons are often reduced to “junior elders” as well as the people who collect and count the money. Therefore, the lived understanding of the ministry of the deacon is often tragically shallow.

Equality of the Ministry

A common argument for including deacons in the broader assemblies is that of the equality of the ministry, often called “parity of office.” This principle, in many ways, is an ecclesiastical Rorschach. It is used as a basis for a multitude of things. So, then, let us look at what the Constitution says about this historic and foundational principle.

The Reformed Church in America uses the term “parity” to describe the concept of the equality of ministers. It is not meant that authority can never be exercised by one over another. But in every instance this authority will be delegated by the proper body, and the authority will cease to be exercised when the need for it is no longer demanded. The principle of equality pertains also among churches, among elders, and among deacons. The principle of the equality of the ministry, conceived now in its broadest sense as including the functions of the elder and the deacon, is based upon the fact that the entire ministerial or pastoral office is summed up in Jesus Christ himself in such a way that he is, in a sense, the only one holding that office. Every ministerial function is found preeminently in him. By his Holy Spirit he distributes these functions among those whom he calls to serve in his name. (BCO, 2016, Preamble, pp. 4-5). 

There is, of course, a great deal condensed in this paragraph. The essence of this principle is as old as the Reformed. At least as far back as the Synod of Emden in 1571 this principle was the very first article, “No church shall lord over another church; no minister of the Word over another minister, no elder over another elder, neither any deacon over another…”* The essence of this is the rejection of hierarchy. There are no cathedrals (more important churches) nor are there bishops (more important clerics). The purpose of this principle is to talk about equality in standing, not lack of distinctness in ministry.

This principle does not intend to say that there are no distinctions between the offices, or that there are no particular ministries given to the specific offices. Indeed, there are particular ministries that are given to the minister that are not given to the elder or deacon; particular ministries given to the elder that are not given to the minister or the deacon; particular ministries given to the deacon that are not given to the minister or the elder. Naturally, these are not clear distinctions, there is overlap. The point is not clear difference, but nuance of calling. Because these offices are given different central ministries means that the people that are called to these offices will often have unique gifts which may be different from one another. A gifted minister may not be a very good deacon, and so forth.

And so when we consider the concept of parity or equality, we must understand that this first means equality among offices — all ministers are equal, all elders are equal, all deacons are equal — and among churches. However, we might be able to expand this concept even further and say that one office is not fundamentally more important than another. All of the offices are needed and essential for their various ministries. But even if we stretch the principle of equality this far, there is still no grounding for the argument that all offices are the same.

And so when we think about this, we must consider what the principle of parity or equality is saying as well as what it is not saying. It is saying that the deacon is not less important than the elder. It is not saying that the deacon and the elder are the same.

Classical and Synodical Assemblies and Elder Participation

To understand the appropriateness of deacons in classical and synodical assemblies, we must first understand why elders are part of these assemblies and the reason that these assemblies exist. And herein lies much of the issue about deacons in broader assemblies. Classes and synods are often seen as “higher” or “more important” assemblies, and so it seems unjust that elders participate in these but not deacons. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Much of this rests on the question of the reason that classical and synodical assemblies exist. As I have written about previously, the church is at its fullest expression in the local church, as the people of God gather around pulpit, table, and font — around Word and sacrament. The local church is the beating heart of the Church. In fact, if we want to create a hierarchy with the most important body at the top, the local church would be at the top. The local church is where ministry happens. It is where the people of God gather, worship, live the faith in the community in which the church has been placed. The deacon currently participates only at this level because this is the core of where the ministry of “mercy, service, and outreach” lies. The local church is where ministry happens.

The broader assemblies, classical and synodical, are not agents of ministry themselves but they oversee and enable ministry. The broader assemblies, both classical and synodical are not strictly church. Therefore, much of this question hinges on the function of these broader assemblies. Are they agents of ministry or do they oversee and enable ministry? Historically they have been understood to oversee and enable ministry. This is why elders and ministers participate in these broader assemblies, because their work is the work of governance and oversight — which is the ministry of the elder. The elder is “set apart for a ministry of watchful and responsible care for all matters relating to the welfare and good order of the church” (BCO, 2016, 1.I.1.8).

Elders, then, participate in these broader assemblies because this is the ministry which is given to this office. Deacons do not participate in the broader assemblies because oversight over the household of faith is not the ministry of the deacon. This in no way implies that a deacon is less important or “lower” than an elder, but that they are different.

We may want to rethink the purpose of the assemblies, and perhaps we are backing into doing so. But if we are going to do this, we must discuss this rather than the piecemeal approach which has been so common as of late.

Including deacons in classical and synodical assemblies in the way proposed by the recommendations before the General Synod, namely that the assemblies consist of ministers and elders or deacons, are simply distorting the unique ministries given to the elder and the deacon. Namely, that the deacon may now be involved in governance, oversight, and discipline instead of their crucial ministry of mercy, service, and outreach, and it is quite possible that this may make the problem of seeing deacons as junior elders even worse. While the goal, I think, is to make the assemblies more missionally-minded, the likely outcome is that deacons will simply be doing the work of elders.

This is not to say that there is no place for deacons in broader bodies, but those ought to be bodies which are specifically geared toward the ministry of the deacon, which leads to an excellent recommendation, to encourage the creation of diaconal assemblies.

Diaconal Assemblies

There certainly is a place for broader collaboration between deacons, and this is where deacons participating in some way in broader assemblies would be proper, helpful, and right. The creation of diaconal assemblies opens a world of possibilities for deacons to collaborate and work together on shared ministries in a way that respects their unique ministries.

The shape of these diaconal assemblies are limited only by the imagination and this avoids the problem of reducing or eliminating the disctinctives of the office of deacon and also goes further to remedy the problem of seeing deacons as junior elders. One might even envision diaconal assemblies parallel to the classes and synods, which are given real and important responsibilities in ministries which relate to mercy, service, and outreach. This is the more difficult path because, in many places, this would involve beginning something that is not yet existent (although nothing at all prevents its creation, and in some places such bodies exist). This is the more difficult path, but it is the best path.

Conclusion

There would certainly be a benefit to the church for deacons participating and collaborating in broader bodies. In addition to diaconal bodies, however, there may be a place for deacons in broader assemblies, but this is not it. Because the Government is constitutional, such a change is not simply an operational change but a change in the foundation of how we understand how the church functions. I do not oppose such changes, quite to the contrary, however, these changes must be carefully thought out and the consequences must be acknowledged. Changes of this magnitude ought not be done hastily or quickly, and these proposed amendments do not offer sufficient rationale or substantive change toward a way of rightly and fully incorporating deacons into the broader life and ministry of the Reformed Church.

Indeed, if we would wish to truly and rightly include deacons in the ministry of the broader church, we might consider thinking bigger than simply making deacons delegates to the broader assemblies. Perhaps we might even rethink how these assemblies work and how they might work in the future to better reflect the ministry of the deacon.


*Coertzen, Pieter. “Dordt and South Africa.” In Protestant Church Polity in Changing Contexts I, edited by Allan J. Janssen and Leo J. Koffeman, 137-53. Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2014, 141.

 

 

Declarative Authority and the General Synod

The Book of Church Order, in its Preamble, notes three types of authority that Christ has given to the church: ministerial, declarative, and spiritual.

Ministerial authority is the right to act as Christ’s servants. Declarative authority is the right to speak in his name within the limits set by Scripture. The church shall declare what is in the Word and act upon it, and may not properly go beyond this. Spiritual authority is the right to govern the life and activity of the church and to administer its affairs. The church shall not exercise authority over the state, nor should the state usurp the authority of the church. (p. 2-3)

The type of authority at issue, here, is declarative. From time to time, particularly as of late when many in the Reformed Church have lost sight of the doctrine of the church, we try to see a hierarchy where there is none, and we become confused about what is meant by the term, church.

In our tendency to abandon that to which God has called us and to demand a king (1 Sam 8), we periodically look to the General Synod to form a definitive teaching of the church. That is, the argument goes, that because the General Synod is the “top” or the “highest body” they ought to be the body charged with making scriptural and doctrinal interpretations that must be followed.

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This error was seen at last year’s General Synod when, considering questions of human sexuality, the special task force stated in their report that the question must be answered whether human sexuality is “a cultural, ethical, and personal matter (and thus an issue for local classes and consistories to deal with), or a biblical and theological matter (and thus the purview of General Synod to speak to the whole church)” (MGS 2016, p.80). This distinction presented that “cultural, ethical, and personal” matters are the responsibility of classes and local consistories, while “biblical and theological” matters are the responsibilities of the General Synod is a distinction that was invented in this place at that time, and had absolutely no grounding in our polity, the church order, our understanding of church, or history. In fact, this distinction becomes problematic because it strips consistories and classes of their responsibilities in biblical and theological interpretation and application, it seeks to create a single body (akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) that has the ability to deal with biblical and theological matters, and it makes a division between the personal and ethical and the biblical and theological.

The General Synod does deal with the biblical and the theological, it is an ecclesiastical assembly, after all. And because it concerns itself only with the interests of the entire communion, it won’t deal with the personal, at least in the ordinary course of its proceedings. However, the biblical and theological are not only reserved for the General Synod, because whenever a local consistory or board of elders or a classis does its work, it also does scriptural interpretation and application and deals with theological matters. The point, however, is that they wrestle with it for their particular area of charge, not the entire communion.

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Thus, we already have a tendency toward this error, and we have a tendency toward the error of a hierarchy and it is not uncommon to read about declarative authority and assume that this is a special property of the General Synod, after all, how can a local church declare “what is in the Word”? Isn’t this a matter for a higher authority? Should not the General Synod have the ability to make declarations on biblical and theological matters that all must follow?

It is easy to see how one can fall into this spiral, and it makes a certain degree of sense. However, the logic of this line of thinking is not the logic that is consistent with the Reformed understanding of church. This is far closer to a monarchical episcopacy, even if expressed collegially. The difference between episcopacy and Reformed governance is not only that the Reformed gather to govern the church, it is also that Reformed church government does not understand or recognize a higher or lower form of authority.

And thus, to reserve declarative authority solely, or especially, for a synodical assembly establishes a higher and lower form of authority. Indeed, the Explanatory Articles of 1792/3 state,

All Ecclesiastical Assemblies possess a right to judge and determine upon matters within their respective jurisdictions (Art. XXXI). 

Therefore, consistories, boards of elders, and classes exercise declarative authority in an equal way to a synodical assembly, just with a different scope of jurisdiction.

Indeed, in describing the authority of the assemblies, the Church order of Dort (1619) states,

A Classis hath the same jurisdiction over a consistory, which a Particular Synod hath over a Classis, and a General Synod over a Particular (Art. XXXVI).

While there have been some changes, the principle remains the same, the type of authority remains the same between assemblies, and there is no “higher” or “lower” in the typical sense of the terms.

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But what about the question of the rightness of the General Synod exercising declarative authority to make binding and authoritative scriptural and doctrinal declarations that must be followed by all assemblies and the office bearers who are accountable to them? After all, wouldn’t that be fitting for the General Synod in the exercise of its authority, to make decisions for the entire communion?

Indeed, the Articles of Dort does not envision a General Synod that makes decisions for the entire church. The Explanatory Articles expanded a bit on the General Synod and brought in the concept of “represent[ing] the whole body” (Art. LI). But with this, one must also balance Article XXX of Dort,

A greater Assembly shall take cognizance of those things alone which could not be determined in a lesser, or that appertain to the churches or congregations in general, which compose such an assembly.

This, then, shows that a greater assembly does not have the right to interfere with the lawful workings of a narrower, or lesser, assembly. Indeed, the record shows that the General Synod has always been cautious when making statements so as not to slip into the trap of speaking ex cathedra and going beyond the constitution. Indeed, the General Synod has never been given the authority to “establish the definitive teaching of the church” (MGS 2007, p. 306).

The General Synod does not have among its powers the determination of what, finally, is the ‘teaching of the church.’ In Reformed church order, the teaching of the church is determined by the creeds and confessions of the church” (MGS 2005, p. 91). 

Indeed, the only way that the church communion can make binding declarative statements is through the Constitution, which requires far more agreement than simply a General Synod. The General Synod is not charged with making constitutional changes on its own. Constitutional changes require the concurrence of a supermajority of classes, and thus, it is not the General Synod making declarations, but it is the church communion making declarations. The General Synod, all by itself, making declarations and interpretations that are binding on all the assemblies and office-bearers of the church is a massive usurpation of church power.

 

Governance by Assembly and the Problem of Representation (Part I)

Few concepts cause more difficulty than the principle of representation and what this means in the church. This is particularly the case with those of us who are used to a representative democracy because similar terms are often used to address very different concepts.

The Representative Principle. The power which Jesus Christ bestows upon his church is mediated by the Holy Spirit to all the people. Since not everyone in the church can hold an office, and since the offices differ among themselves in function, some persons will always be subject, within the proper exercise of authority, to the decisions of others. Since the whole church cannot meet together at one time to deliberate, representative governing bodies must be established on the various levels. The unity of the church is preserved in acceptance of the fact that all are governed by the decisions made in their behalf by those who represent them. (Preamble, p. 3-4).

In a liberal democracy, constituencies elect representatives to the government who they think will best represent their interests and desires. Votes cast by these representatives are public because this is how they are accountable to their constituencies, and if their constituents are unhappy with the way that they are representing them in government, then they can be voted out and replaced with someone else.

In the church, elders and deacons are elected by the congregation, but the function of their office is far different than a representative or senator in a liberal democracy. Indeed,

“…elders are chosen members of spiritual discernment, exemplary life, charitable spirit and wisdom grounded in God’s Word.” (1.I.1.8).

“…deacons are chosen members of spiritual commitment, exemplary life, compassionate spirit, and sound judgment…” (1.I.1.10).

Whereas representing constituent’s desires is the responsibility of a representative in a liberal democracy, representing Christ is the responsibility of an office-bearer in the church. Elders and deacons are chosen not because they will speak for a particular population or constituency or faction within the church, but because they exhibit the above traits and are seen by the members of the congregation to be fit for these particular ministries.

The concept of representation becomes more problematic in broader assemblies. When a consistory sends an elder (or elders) to classis (remember, ministers are members of classis and are therefore not sent by their churches or consistories), is the elder there to represent their church or the perspective of their church? Indeed, what if the elder’s view is very different from the majority of their church?

The same thing can be said of synods (which are wholly delegated bodies). Are the ministers and elders there to represent (in the liberal democratic sense) the desires, wishes, and perspectives of their classes? What if a minister or elder is vastly out of step with the perspective of the majority of their classis?

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To get to the logic, we must understand the source and nature of authority. In a liberal democracy, the understanding is that the representatives derive their authority from the people who elect them. However, in the church,

“All authority exercised in the church is received from Christ, the only head of the chruch. The authority exercised by those holding office in the church is delegated authority. Their appointment to their special tasks is by the Spirit of the Lord, and they are responsible first of all to the Lord of the church.” (Preamble, p, 2).

Therefore, from this, we can see that the authority comes not from the congregation or from the classes or from constituencies or factions, but from Christ, and as such, those holding office first and foremost represent Christ. Secondly, office bearers do represent the people, but not in such a way that they are to express the desires of the people, but that they act in the place of the people and on their behalf.

And so the question often comes, do ministers or elders have to vote the way their consistories or churches or classes would desire them to vote, or in the way that they would vote? That is, can their votes be bound by the desires of their sending body? Certainly not.

To do so would be a violation of the very foundations of our understanding of how God desires the church to work. We trust that God works in the gatherings of the offices themselves. The assemblies are not simply places to record votes, they are places to wrestle and to listen and to discern, together, the leading of the Spirit. By binding an office bearer to speak and/or vote in a particular way, this completely misunderstands the very foundation of the purpose of assemblies and why we gather in assemblies.

Thus, office bearers do not speak or vote in a way consistent with their sending bodies (consistory, classis, or regional synod), but in a way consistent with their conscience and how they discern the Spirit of Christ leading them.

And so with all of this, then, we can see how representation means something very different in the church and when it comes to the assemblies.

 

Coming in Part II: Representation and the concept of proportionality and the General Synod…

 

The Reformed Church and the Problem of Hierarchy

From time to time, more frequently as of late, there have been calls for the General Synod to make authoritative scriptural interpretations and insist that everyone act in accordance with statements of the General Synod (well, a select few statements). The reasoning is that if the General Synod is the highest assembly, the rest of the Reformed Church is obligated to follow it, like binding precedent (which will be discussed in a later post). This reasoning that the General Synod sits atop the church, however, is fundamentally wrong.

A cursory look at the structure of the Reformed Church can lead one to think that the Reformed Church is hierarchical with the General Synod on “top” and the local churches at the “bottom.” Compounding this is the language that we use when speaking of the relationships between the various assemblies. Some use “higher” and “lower,” others use “broader” and “narrower.” Still others use “greater” and “lesser.” Depending on the terms used, we can easily be led to believe that the General Synod has a greater level of authority, a higher type of authority, or a fundamentally different type of authority. This, however, is would be a gross misunderstanding.*

The differences between the assemblies are not in authority but in breadth of scope.

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. Preamble, p. 3.

The consistory need concern itself, primarily, with the local church and its local area. Concerning itself with other churches will detract from its focus on its own ministry and the people that God has entrusted to its care. A consistory does not need to worry about other churches, because the other churches also have consistories that oversees and cares for its local church.

Similarly a classis, generally, does not need to concern itself with all the particularities of every local church, but with what the churches share in common. The classis concerns itself with things which are beyond the scope of any particular consistory. The classis does have superintendence over the consistories, but this is to ensure that they are doing their work properly, rightly, and in good order. The classis does not have the right to overturn a decision made by a consistory simply because the classis may not like it.

We can follow this down the line. The regional synod concerns itself with what the several classes in its region share in common, and while the regional synod is an appellate body, it cannot infringe on the prerogatives of the classes. In the same way, the General Synod is not the assembly that has the greatest amount of authority or a weightier type of authority, but rather, it has the broadest purview, it is concerned with the interests of the entire ecclesiastical communion.

There have been several attempts over the past several years, some have failed and some have succeeded, to turn the General Synod into a body which interprets Scripture for the church communion. This is understandable, as the ancient people demanded a king (1 Sam 8), so also are we tempted to seek authority at some imagined “top.”

While some Christian traditions have a hierarchical structure, the Reformed Church does not. The General Synod is not “higher” than the local consistory, its scope is simply broader and more general. The local consistory is not “lower” than the General Synod, its scope of responsibility is simply narrower and more particular.

The General Synod is not the teacher of the church, nor can the General Synod determine the teaching of the church. The General Synod is not the corollary to the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and, outside of judicial cases, it cannot forcefully impose its will on the lower assemblies. This is not a flaw in the structure, this is a design.

 

Postscript: This is to speak about hierarchicalism only. This, in no way, is to justify separation, which is a completely different topic, and I have addressed a bit of that foundation here.

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*This misunderstanding was even reflected in the report of a task force to the General Synod in 2016, erroneously claiming that consistories and classes are concerned with cultural, personal, and ethical matters while the General Synod is concerned with biblical and theological matters (MGS 2016, p. 80). This is simply false.