Why It is Time to Disband the General Synod Council

In the previous post, I discussed the General Synod Council (GSC) and its function in the life of the Reformed Church, including what it is and what it is not, what it does and what it does not do.

In this post, I am going to look at some of the troubling aspects of the General Synod Council, and argue why this council ought to be disbanded. While the GSC seeking to accumulate more power for itself is nothing new, there are two issues right now, which show that the GSC is unable or unwilling to operate within the constitution of the church.

Coordinator of Interreligious Relations

The 2018 General Synod adopted the following

To direct the general secretary to authorize and fund a halftime position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious
relations, to facilitate the RCA’s interreligious relations
work, including equipping congregations, leaders, and
students for missional interreligious engagement; and further,

To conduct the RCA’s interreligious work through a joint committee
with the CRCNA, consistent with the Reformed Collaborative.
The committee will be comprised of the RCA coordinator for
interreligious relations, the RCA ecumenical associate, CRCNA
staff, and practitioners and experts in interreligious relations
from both the RCA and CRCNA. The joint committee will report
its work to the General Synod each year through the Commission
on Christian Unity.

Both the position of coordinator for interreligious relations
and the joint committee shall be funded for a period of five
years, at which time the effectiveness of structuring the RCA’s
interreligious work in this manner will be evaluated and the
Commission on Christian Unity will bring recommendations to
the General Synod regarding whether to continue this structure
for interreligious work.

MGS 2018, p. 97.

As typically happens, the Synod makes decisions and then addresses the financial ramifications at the end of the meeting. When this was discussed, for some reason which neither I nor anyone else that I spoke to seems to understand, the GSC decided to insist that the General Synod front-load the funding for the position, so that the entire five years would have to be paid the first year. While some have argued that this is because one General Synod cannot bind a subsequent General Synod, this is not how we deal with staff. If this was the case, then every staff position that fits within the strategic goal must be funded for the entire fifteen years in the first year, and operational staff people must be funded for an entire lifetime in a single year.

Regardless, the unexplained insistence on funding the entire five years in a single year resulted in a significant increase in per-member assessments. What followed was a rather contentious discussion where ministers and elders, knowing how their church budgets work, were trying to get a handle on the denominational budget. But because the GSC never presents a denominational budget to the assembly that oversees it, the lack of transparency means that the church is never able to get a hold on the budget.

This dynamic created an “us” and “them” mentality. “Us” being the church and “them” or “you” being the denomination–something that tends to happen when there is a lack of transparency. There was tension on the floor because assessments are an increasing burden on local churches and classes (and at some point the Reformed Church will have to deal with this, but this was apparently not that point). In response, the General Synod voted,

To approve from the unspent reserves from the year 2017 to fund a half-time position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious relations, and a joint interreligious committee with the CRCNA.

MGS 2018, p. 66.

To be clear, my personal opinion is that this was a poor and misguided decision. It is true that the General Synod didn’t have good information about the reserves, restricted and unrestricted funds, the amount of funds needed on hand, and the intricacies of the finances of a major corporation, and the rest. However, the reason that the General Synod didn’t have good information was because the GSC does not provide that information. Regardless, what the General Synod decided was possible, that is not disputed, and while it may have not been a prudent decision, it was the General Synod’s decision, and it is the General Synod’s decision to make.

Subsequently, however, the GSC directed the General Secretary to not hire that position, but to delay it until they could bring this decision back to the following General Synod for reconsideration. There were three reasons given for this, although only one stands: some delegates expressed unease about that decision on their post-synod survey. And it was based on this that the GSC invented the ability to decide that the General Synod made a poor decision and stopped it.

This is unlawful.

As we clearly saw in the previous post, the GSC “shall implement the decisions…of the General Synod…” (1.IV.7.1). In no way is the GSC able to not implement a decision simply because they disagree with it or think it unwise. The General Synod has made unwise decisions innumerable times before; however, the responsibility of the GSC is to implement those decisions, not to act as a check or balance on those.

Some may argue that the GSC is not not-implementing that decision, it is simply postponing it. However, the fact remains, nothing allows the GSC to vote to postpone a directive of the General Synod (and at some point, postponing is nullifying). This was not an unfunded mandate–there was instruction given regarding the funding, and even if ill-advised, and it is possible to fund that position in that manner.

The other related concern is practical precedent that may be derived from this. While I continue to argue that precedent is not a thing in the church (this is true), it is worth acknowledging, at least, that people believe that it is, and this belief colors the way that we function and operate. Will this allow for the GSC to determine which decisions it approves of and which it doesn’t? Will it allow the GSC to simply postpone (indefinitely?) carrying out the directives of the General Synod? Again, I did not think it a wise action of the General Synod but it is not permitted for the GSC to review the decisions of the General Synod, it is there job to implement them. Shall means shall.

Asking the Commission on Church Order to Reconsider

Another troubling action that the GSC has taken as of late is formally asking the Commission on Church Order to revisit something in its report.

In 2017, as a result from an overture, the Synod voted to

To instruct the Commission on Church Order to propose constitutionally
appropriate amendments to the Book of Church Order to accomplish the intent of Overtures 16 and 17 for report to the 2018 General Synod

MGS 2017, p. 139.

The intent of the overtures was to make classical secession easier by instructing that the classis relinquish its constitutional obligation of oversight over any permanent disposition of a church’s property. (The matter of classical oversight of church property will be the topic of a subsequent post.)

The instructions are important here, “propose constitutionally appropriate amendments.” The Commission on Church Order presented a substantive report of the matter and concluded that there were no constitutionally appropriate amendments (MGS 2018, pp. 264-266). This, of course, is certainly within their right to do. Commissions are required to receive work from the General Synod, but commissions are not simply the scribes of the General Synod.

The troubling matter is that the GSC approached the Commission on Church Order to “revisit” their conclusions. How does something like this even come before the GSC? This is a mystery that is yet to be addressed. However, it is troubling that the GSC would encourage or suggest that a commission change the conclusions after it has already reported to the General Synod and the General Synod as adjourned.

This is unlawful.

Just as the GSC is not a check and balance on the General Synod, it is not a check and balance on the Commissions. The GSC does not oversee or supervise the commissions, the GSC is “to support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the commissions” (BCO, 3.I.3.6f). Approaching a commission to change their mind is a significant overreach of constitutional authority.T

The Root of the Problem

In one session, the GSC made two significant violations, not only of the Constitution but also of the Bylaws of the General Synod. And it seems that the GSC is unable to maintain its constitutional obligations.

While one possibility would be to vacate the council. However, the true problems with the GSC is not because of its current composition, it is a systemic problem with the council itself.

The GSC was formed from two different bodies that did two different things. The GSEC and GPC had different foci and different goals. One was an agent of the General Synod, the other was the executive committee of an assembly. The program of the denomination is not the church, and the church is not necessarily the denominational program. The General Synod is far more than simply a program body. The GSEC and GPC were, in part, set up to counterbalance one another, because of the differences in foci and differences in essence. With the creation of the GSC one combined an agent of the General Synod and the executive committee of an assembly. One took an apple and combined it with a potato.

This also had the effect of distributing power. With the consolidation into a single council, however, this also consolidated power–something that the Reformed have historically been rightly apprehensive to do. The only way that the GSC can be checked is for the General Synod to do so, and the General Synod does not seem to be aware of this, that the GSC is simply the workhorse of the General Synod, that the General Synod has the ultimate say over the GSC.

When we consider both the combining of two things that are fundamentally different, and the fact that the consolidation of power ought to disturb all of us to our core, it becomes apparent that the problem is not with the people that are on the GSC, but the GSC itself. The GSC has largely become an unaccountable body which has accumulated an inordinate amount of power.

The best solution would be to disband the GSC and reconstitute GSEC, or something like it, and GPC, or something like it and return the proper responsibilities to the proper group.

NOTE: I do think it is worth pointing out that I do not see some kind of nefarious plot here. Nor do I assume bad intentions on the part of the members of the GSC. I have tried to be clear above that the problem is not with the people but with the structure. These are simply natural lines to which such a structure brings us. We have bumbled into this situation together, and we can get out together.

What is the General Synod Council

The General Synod Council is established by and responsible to the General Synod. It shall act as the executive committee of the General Synod and it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod. It shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod through proper channels and agencies. It shall support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the several commissions, boards, institutions, and agencies of the Reformed Church in America, thus seeking to increase the effectiveness of the mission and witness of the church.

BCO, 1.IV.7.1

Brief History

The General Synod Council (GSC) finds its origins in the 1990s with the merger of the General Program Council (GPC) and the General Synod Executive Committee (GSEC).

The 1960s was a significant decade for the Reformed Church, as it was a significant decade for the United States. Growing frustration with the federation of boards led to a desire to better coordinate the work and program of the Reformed Church. During this decade, two new bodies were created. The first, in 1961, was GSEC, an executive committee of the General Synod to coordinate the work of the various boards and to “implement all the actions and decisions and policies of the General Synod.” (MGS 1961, p. 272). Not long after, in 1967, the General Synod approved the merger of the Boards of North American Missions, World Missions, and Education with the Stewardship Council to create a single program arm of the Reformed Church, the GPC.

The GPC and GSEC were designed to work alongside one another, and sometimes to act as a counterbalance to the other. It was fitting for these to be separate bodies, after all, they were very different. While GPC dealt with program, GSEC primarily dealt with church. While today we tend to conflate them with little understanding of the difference between church and program, there is a significant difference. These two bodies would also, at times, have different goals and tensions would have to be worked through.

About three decades later, in 1991, the Ad Hoc Committee on Services, Structures, and Funding in the Reformed Church in America argued that these two bodies were inefficient and that there were redundancies and proposed a single body that would incorporate these two very different functions. This would be called the General Synod Council (GSC). This change was adopted into the church order in 1993.

The Function of the GSC

The Government gives three specific responsibilities to the GSC,

(a) “It shall act as the executive committee of the General Synod and it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod.”

(b) “It shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod through proper channels and agencies.”

(c) “It shall support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the several commissions, boards, institutions, and agencies of the Reformed Church in America, thus seeking to increase the effectiveness of the mission and witness of the church. “

“shall act as the executive committee”

The General Synod is a sizable assembly, and convening the General Synod is costly and takes a significant amount of time and work to make it possible. Particularly as the General Synod had begun supervising a large denominational apparatus (the denominational program: currently ‘Transformed and Transforming’), it is not possible for the General Synod to supervise and oversee that adequately. Indeed, the main expressed reason for the creation of an executive committee in the first place is to help coordinate the various ministries of the various constituent boards of the General Synod (MGS 1961, p. 271).

By the creation of an executive committee, the General Synod authorized this new body to act in specific ways on behalf of the General Synod, but always accountable to it. It did not work independently of the General Synod but always in its name. The executive committee receives its mandate, responsibility, constraints, and authority from the General Synod itself. This also contains a somewhat peculiar line, “it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod.” This has led some to the mistaken belief that the GSC is somehow ‘the General Synod’ between sessions. This is certainly not the case.

In no way does the GSC adopt the authority of the General Synod during the 51 weeks (excepting a special session) when the General Synod is not in session. The GSC is responsible for keeping the lamps burning, so to speak. If there is a legal issue that arises, it is the responsibility of the GSC to handle that. If there is a sudden and pressing financial issue, it is the responsibility of the GSC to manage that. The GSC is to oversee the denominational program which supports the church.

I think of the children’s book, Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, in which a lighthouse keeper had to leave to get needed supplies and charged his daughter with tending the light, keeping the light burning. It wasn’t her place to decide to stop tending the light in the lighthouse, to relocate the lighthouse, the build another lighthouse. Her responsibility was to keep the light burning. Similarly, the GSC is charged with keeping the light burning. It charges the GSC with maintaining that which the General Synod has put into motion. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The General Synod is the assembly–the GSC is not.

“shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod”

Ever since the genesis of GSEC, it was never intended to simply coordinate the denominational program, but also that it would be a body that would implement the decisions and actions of the General Synod (MGS 1961, p. 272).

The General Synod makes all sorts of decisions. Perhaps it will make a decision regarding the denominational program. It should make decisions regarding the church. Perhaps it may direct its stated clerk to write a letter to the President of the United States to express a viewpoint, perhaps it will seek closer ecumenical ties with other church communions, perhaps it will decide to enter the world of interfaith work with earnestness, or perhaps it will decide something as it did during Apartheid in South Africa and decide to divest thence. The entire synodical assembly is not able to carry out the details of implementation, it is so impractical to be nearly impossible for the synodical assembly to do this. This responsibility, then, falls to the GSC.

As the General Synod is the assembly and not the GSC, the GSC is not so much a check and balance on the General Synod as it is the synod’s workhorse. The GSC is charged with navigating the practicalities to turn the decision of the General Synod into a reality. The GSC, then, is charged with following directions.

Note the prescriptive language, “shall.” This means that the GSC does not have an option. It cannot decide that it does not like a decision or agree with it. The Synod is able to make bad decisions, and it often does. It is not the GSC’s responsibility to try to “fix” a wrong decision, it is their responsibility to carry out the directives that it receives. While the order is often reversed in the minds of the church, the GSC exists and works for the General Synod. The General Synod does not work for (or exist for) the GSC.

“shall support, strengthen, and coordinate”

This harkens back to one of the presenting reasons for the creation of an executive committee in the first place: support and coordination. Even with the merger of these two bodies with different foci, this responsibility still remains.

It is worth noting, however, that the GSC is to “support, strengthen, and coordinate,” not direct. That is, the commissions, boards, agencies, &c. of the General Synod do not report to the GSC and they are not to take direction from the GSC. The GSC has no authority over the decisions that they make. The Commissions, boards, and agencies are accountable directly to the General Synod.

While these other bodies do, at times, defer to the GSC, this is out of courtesy only and in no way out of duty or obligation.

Conclusion

Certainly, the GSC is an important body in the life of the Reformed Church. However, it is not in charge of the Reformed Church, nor does it oversee the Reformed Church, nor does it have broad and undefined powers. While the GSC has been expanding its understanding of its own role for years, and the General Synod has been all too compliant in the GSC’s accumulation of power, simply because something has been a particular way doesn’t mean that it must–or should–remain.

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

***

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.

 

 

Reformed Church General Synod 2017: Overtures on Declarative Authority

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

***

An addition to the General Synod Workbook was recently released containing overtures from the regional synods. There are a few topics worth discussing contained therein, but for this post, we will look at the overtures that mention “declarative authority” — Overtures 34-38.

While I have previously discussed declarative authority and how it, in no way, means what it is purported to mean in these overtures, this is certainly not the only fallacy which these overtures rest upon.

Representative Principle

The use of the representative principle in these overtures is grossly misguided. The representative principle primarily counters congregationalism, where the congregation itself is the authority. It also shows that when a consistory, for instance, makes a decision “within the proper exercise of authority,” (Preamble, p. 3-4), that decision cannot be ignored, rejected, or protested against. There is nothing in the representative principle that justifies such a broad and unlawful usurpation of church power by the General Synod — particularly because the General Synod itself, as such, is not properly church. Synods exist for the good order of the church, they are not part of the essence of the church. 

Nature of the 1979 Judicial Case

Indeed, the reasons listed in support of these overtures are substantial, and substantially incorrect.

In large part the overture is founded upon a number of combined judicial cases in 1979. These cases were initiated as judicial actions (complaints against classes that ordained women). Because the cases were initiated by means of the judicial process the General Synod had to accept it as such. It is therefore factually false to claim that the “General Synod decided that the matter could be treated as judicial business.”

The factual error is important, because they lead to the fundamental problem with the overtures: they fundamentally misunderstand the unique nature of judicial business by confusing the nature of an assembly with the nature of a judicatory.

Judicial cases function very differently than assemblies, and the scope of their decisions is therefore markedly different. “Higher” and “lower” are terms that can only be used of judicatories. The judicial ruling of a higher judicatory (regional or general synod) must be carried out by the lower judicatory from which the case originated.

The same is not the case for assemblies. Assemblies make decisions and enact policies that affect their own lives together without infringing on the responsibilities of the other assemblies. 

The 1979 action had consequences for the whole church because it was a judicial case that affected the life of the whole church. The General Synod, acting as an assembly, had previously stated (exercising proper declarative authority) that “Scripture nowhere excludes women from eligibility to the offices but always emphasizes their inclusion, prominence, and equal status with men in the Church of Jesus Christ” (MGS 1958, p. 328), but the matter of whether any narrower assembly would actually ordain a woman was left to the narrower assemblies (consistories and classes). If the General Synod’s 1958 decision had carried the church-wide authority of a judicial matter, the 1979 case never would have happened. The synodical statement of 1958 was relevant in 1979, not because it had a “declarative authority” for the entire Reformed Church, but because it looked to its own past for guidance in making its decision.

Thus, since 1979, the matter of the ordination of women has been settled de jure (in law) for the RCA. Objectors could object, but could not bring an action against the ordination of a woman, so long as the ‘conscience clause’ was in effect.

Even so, to say that the place of women in the offices of the church is settled de facto (in the way we actually conduct our life together) is simply not accurate. Women continue to struggle for their calls to be validated through large swaths of the Reformed Church. There are still churches that will not allow women to serve in church offices (and in some cases they are theoretically eligible but not in practice), and women still find the validity of their office and call challenged. If, as the overtures allege, the General Synod made such a sweeping declarative statement in the past, why does not everyone fall in line?

If even the judicial action of 1979 (which is fundamentally different from what is proposed now) could not secure uniformity, how is an action that is based on a falsehood supposed to help the church on the way toward the desired uniformity? 

The “argument from 1979” does not provide any basis whatsoever for the General Synod, as an assembly, to make declarative statements in the manner proposed in these overtures.

Constitution, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Binding Interpretations

At the bottom of pages 3 and 6, the reasons reference a report from the Commission on Church Order from 2014, yet the use of that report was misleading. 

First, a broader look at the context of that quote itself.

 

only those things that are included in our Constitution may be treated as binding upon the ministers and congregations of the RCA. The way in which something is included in the Constitution is fairly straightforward: decision by the General Synod, and then approval by at least two-thirds of the classes, after which that approval is finalized by the subsequent General Synod. That aspect of our polity has implications for the authority of what a General Synod might say… (MGS 2014, p. 241).

 

Thus, only a sentence later it goes on to say that this has “implications for the authority of what a General Synod might say…” They go on to quote a section from a 2013 paper,

Statements, pronouncements, and policies of the General Synod or its agencies are not part of the Constitution. Nor are position papers and policy documents of the denomination. Surely these all have some authority, and our practice shows that they have varying kinds of authority. Insofar as they educate and exhort, they have an influence upon the church which can be seen as authoritative. As they direct denominational staff and agencies to act in certain ways, they are binding on those persons and agencies. Yet whatever authority they have is not constitutional authority. These do not bind or control the church, its members, congregations, or officers in the same way as do things that are part of the Constitution. In short, they are not constitutional. (MGS 2013, p. 357)

No one disputes the fact that the Heidelberg Catechism is completely constitutional, but what the General Synod cannot do is to make a definitive interpretation of the Constitution and treat such an unconstitutional decree as constitutional. There is nothing anywhere in the Constitution or in our history which would give the General Synod this authority, indeed, the General Synod cannot even give itself this authority.

The 2014 paper continues,

What, then, can be said about the authority of the General Synod within the church? Cautioned by the conundrum identified at the beginning of this statement, the commission wishes to point to some principles that are named in the church order. Christ governs his church through the offices (BCO Preamble, pp. 2–3). Each assembly of the church is a gathering of the offices and as such receives its authority from Christ (BCO Preamble, p. 4). In a fundamental sense of authority, then, the General Synod does not receive Christ’s delegated authority more than the other assemblies do, nor, indeed, less than the other assemblies do. One of the earliest principles of Reformed church order is the one by which responsibilities among the assemblies of the church are arranged such 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’ (BCO Preamble, p. 3).

At the same time, as noted above, the voice of the General Synod within the church can be powerfully influential. Some might question whether something can have authority and not be binding. We find, however, that authority functions to the extent that authority is accepted (or “acknowledged,” as the 1976 statement put it). The reality is that General Synod statements and resolutions are authoritative in the various senses mentioned above—first because the synod is an assembly of office-bearers, and also because we have covenanted together as office-bearers, churches, and assemblies to accept synod’s statements and resolutions as having authority, the nature, influence, and scope of which clearly vary depending on context, intent, and the passage of time. (MGS 2014, p. 241-242).

 

The Nature of Authority

The deeper issue, however, present in these overtures and in many of the discussions about human sexuality and what the General Synod should or should not do, or can or cannot do is the nature of authority itself. The overtures are correct in noting that the General Synod has the ability to exercise declarative authority. The fact is, the General Synod exercises declarative authority in the ordinary course of its work.

When the General Synod divested from Apartheid South Africa, the General Synod made a declarative statement that Apartheid was not in accordance with Scripture. The General Synod and its corporations, boards, and agencies were required to follow this action, but this action did not require classes or consistories, for instance, from doing the same. Similarly, the General Synod has consistently spoken in favor of increased gun control. This, however, does not force everyone in the Reformed Church to agree with this. Indeed, many in the Reformed Church oppose increased gun control.

Some might say that this lacks authority, however, this is certainly not the case at all. Synodical statements are very authoritative and the assemblies of the churches would do well to take the statements of General Synod seriously. What they don’t have is a single type of authority, that is, the authority to coerce. Simply the act of the General Synod saying something or making a statement does not end discernment of a matter. One cannot say, “The General Synod said it, I have to accept it, that settles it.”

At issue, though, is the extraordinarily reductionist view of authority which seems to be present in these overtures. The above-referenced report also speaks to authority.

In response to the second question—What is the nature of the authority of the General Synod on issues of doctrine and interpretation of Scripture?—it is abundantly clear that statements and resolutions of the General Synod are authoritative. One important question, however, concerns how they are authoritative. That is, what kind of authority do these have?

For authority is not merely a binary state, so that something is either authoritative or completely lacking in authority. There are various kinds of authority. This may be seen in the varied intended meanings when we call someone an “authority.” Are we referring to an expert, or to a police officer? In the former case, the authority has knowledge and competence worth accepting. In the latter, the authority has legal standing to enforce the law. Moreover, continuing with those examples, we readily understand that each of these authorities exercises his or her authority within an appropriate sphere. The expert is authoritative within that one’s field of expertise and not outside it. The police officer’s authority is valid in a given jurisdiction and not outside it.

In looking at the historical record, the commission observes that statements and resolutions of General Synod demonstrate a variety of kinds of authority and a variety of forces of authority as the church has accepted them to various degrees…

We may find a mix of kinds and scope of authority in the case of RCA divestment in companies working in South Africa during the apartheid era. The General Synod decided to divest its assets from such companies. That action applied only to the denomination’s own investments and not to those of congregations or of the RCA colleges. It did not bind consistories or boards of trustees. It was binding only on those who made investment decisions for the General Synod. Yet that action was intended to stand as an authoritative witness to the rest of the church. It had moral authority and perhaps even prophetic authority. The biblical reasoning used to support the decision to divest was marshalled to make a powerful scriptural case for the action taken. In all these respects, the decision of synod was authoritative, even though it was binding, strictly speaking, only upon the General Synod’s own agencies. (MGS 2014, p. 240- 1).

To reduce all authority to a matter of something which is judicially binding or that has the power to coerce is little more than worldly reasoning and does nothing for the benefit or the life of the church.

Conclusion

These overtures are correct in one thing: the charge given to the General Synod is not in administering the denominational program, the primary work of the General Synod is to address and wrestle with theological issues as it fulfills its charge as an assembly of the church, a gathering of office bearers. This is certainly something of which the Reformed Church needs to be reminded as too often the General Synod functions as an administrative body which simply approves whatever the General Synod Council says or does. However, this does not mean that whatever the General Synod does ought to be binding on all the assemblies of the Reformed Church. Certainly the statements of General Synod have authority (even significant authority), but not all authority is coercive and heavy-handed as these overtures advocate. The General Synod ought to aid the assemblies in their work, not do the work for them. This is the point at which these overtures drastically go astray. 

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

 

Reformed Church General Synod 2017: Commissioned Pastors, Part 2

This is part of a series of posts about the items and topics before the General Synod 2017

***

There are several significant changes to the church order being proposed this year regarding the recently invented ministry designation of commissioned pastor. In the previous post, I addressed some foundations of office and some of the particular challenges inherent in this ministry designation. This post will address the specifics before the General Synod this year. This is contained on pages 224-232 and 267-270 of the General Synod Workbook.

Commissioned Pastor in Synods

One of the most significant changes proposed is the inclusion of commissioned pastors in the synodical assemblies. This has been a topic of discussion for several years but came to the fore as a result of a hastily thrown together “Commissioned Pastor Summit” (MGS 2016, p. 142-162). The entire basis, for the most part, for the inclusion of commissioned pastors in the synodical assemblies are based on arguments of a perceived lack of fairness, although the order comprehends no such concept. After all, no one is guaranteed a right to delegation to a synod by virtue of office or function, and further, the designation of commissioned pastor is a temporary function, not a perpetual office.

The inability to be delegated to the General Synod is not entirely unique to commissioned pastors, either. By way of illustration, I am a minister and I pastor a local church. However, I have served in a particular role at the General Synod for the past several years. While I am serving in this role for the General Synod I am unable to be a delegate from my classis. This is because when I took on the responsibility of this particular role, I gave up the privilege of being delegated to the General Synod. When I cease to function in this particular role for the General Synod, I am eligible for delegation once again. This is certainly not unique to me. For anyone who serves on staff at the denominational level, minister and elder alike, are unable to be delegated to the General Synod so long as they serve as denominational staff.

The question, then, is why are commissioned pastors not to be delegated to synodical assemblies if commissioned pastors are elders?

Ministers and elders exercise interrelated yet unique ministries. Elders are charged with the oversight of the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments, whereas the ministers actually carry out the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. Ever since the introduction of the earlier designation of “preaching elder,” it has been noted that when an elder enters the pulpit, there is a blurring of role and office that occurs. This blurring, however, is not inherently bad, “if there are appropriate safeguards in place” (MGS 1997, p. 298).

Elders have always been equally involved as ministers in the governance of the church. The Reformed have always rejected a cleritocracy, where the church is governed solely by clerics. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the particular place where the elder’s ministry is primarily exercised.

There are other important distinctions between ministers of Word and sacrament and elders as well. In one of the few General Synod reports where this distinction is addressed, the 1980 study on the nature of ecclesiastical office and ministry states that the elder stands beside the minister in connection with both sermon and sacrament, but is distinguished from the minister of Word and sacrament by virtue of the elder’s continued involvement in the world. The elder does not forsake a worldly calling to engage in ministry but represents the “sanctification of the world,” the leavening of Christian faith in all of life (MGS 1980, p. 104). While this distinction should not be interpreted to preclude a “tent-making” approach to the Office of Minister of Word and Sacrament, it does suggest that preaching elders should not be entirely dependent on the church for their livelihood but should maintain a vocation in the world…A full-time preaching ministry should continue to be exercised only by ordained ministers of Word and sacrament. (MGS 1996, p. 395).

There is a balance in church office between the ontological and the functional, the essential nature of the offices and the functions that those have in the church. As with many other things, over time there is an oscilation between these two poles. At times, office is seen as primarily ontological without much regard for function; whereas at other times, office is seen as purely function with little attention paid to the theological nature of the offices. When considering the place of commissioned pastors in the Reformed Church, we must seek to find a balance between these two poles rather than simply the continuation of the oscilation.

Not allowing commissioned pastors to be delegated to synodical assemblies is one way to find that balance. On the one hand, commissioned pastors are elders and to send them in place of ministers, as the above-referenced summit recommended, is problematic because it would neglect the place of the offices themselves. On the other hand, to delegate elders who are currently functioning as commissioned pastors would neglect the unique place of the ministry of the elder, namely that “the elder does not forsake a worldly calling to engage in ministry” (ibid).

Indeed, this balance was the issue addressed by the Commission on Church Order in 2013 when discussing this very topic. The commission writes,

While the commissioned pastor is an elder, he or she functions as a minister of Word and sacrament during the period of his or her service. The commissioned pastor takes on the role of minister during that time. That means that he or she no longer lives in the contextual world of the elder—which is, by definition, an office that “resides” in the life of a congregation. This places the commissioned pastor in an extra-ordinary position. Would he or she represent the classis, he or she would function like a minister. In that role, his or her status as delegate would skew the composition of the assembly toward “professional” pastors. This is an instance where our theology of the church’s apostolicity becomes concretely lived out: commissioned pastors, like ministers, serve a vocation different than that of elders who are not, so to speak, “professional” pastors. (MGS 2013, p. 328). 

The synodical assemblies, then, would be increasingly “professionalized” and the church would lose the “contextual world of the elder” (ibid). Indeed, the delicate balance sought between the ontological and functional aspects of the office is the reason that commissioned pastors are not able to be delegated to synods. The 2013 report continues,

The commission notes that a number of commissioned pastors have not served as elders in congregations, but have, in fact, been “fast-tracked,” in that they have been ordained elders to become commissioned pastors. That makes their presence as delegates all the more problematic. (ibid). 

Indeed, while the Commission on Theology is bringing a paper entitled, “A Theological Rationale for Commissioned Pastors at the Broader Assemblies,” this paper gives a rationale for why commissioned pastors may be delegated as elders instead of ministers, not for the reason for delegating commissioned pastors in the first place.

Broadening of Role of Commissioned Pastor

The Commission on Church Order is recommending a significant amount of changes that would further entrench this ministry designation into the order of the church, placing commissioned pastors increasingly alongside ministers and giving it a sense, though not the official label, of an office.

The commissioned pastor was previously a temporary member of classis in order to give the classis temporary oversight over the elder who is functioning as a commissioned pastor, as elders are rightly overseen by the board of elders of the local church. However, with the elimination of the category of “temporary members” of the classis, commissioned pastors were made members of the classis (like ministers), yet were to remain members of the local church (as an elder). One of the amdendments to the church order would be to further enhance the language of the commissioned pastor’s “membership” in the classis, further confusing the place of the designation of commissioned pastor, as well as confusing what it means to be a member of a body and what it means to be amenable to a body.

Finally, one proposed amendment seems fairly small but has significant implications for the relationship between a commissioned pastor and a church.

Sec. 10. The classis shall approve and disapprove calls and contracts, and effect and dissolve the relationship between ministers and churches or congregations. The classis shall approve and disapprove contracts, and effect and dissolve the relationship between commissioned pastors and churches or congregations. (GS Workbook, p. 229).

In order to discuss this, however, a bit of background on the relationships between pastors and a church is in order. The normative relationship between a pastor and a church is for a church to extend a call to a minister of Word and sacrament and the classis will install that minister as pastor and teacher of the local church. While a relationship is never strictly permanent, installation by the classis gives a sense of permanence to the relationship. Although the classis approves contracts as well as calls for pastors, a minister under contract is not installed, and therefore does not have a sense of permanence to their relationship.

Because the classis effects the pastoral relationship in installation, the only body that can dissolve such a relationship is the classis. Thus, classes have to dissolve pastoral relationships with installed ministers, but not with ministers under contract, as temporary in nature. They are intended to be temporary (the normative relationship is an installed minister of Word and sacrament), and contracts have to be renewed at stated intervals.

This amendment would strengthen and give a sense of permanence between a commissioned pastor and a local church, and in effect, would treat all commissioned pastors in a similar fashion to installed ministers. However, there is a fundamental difference between calls and contracts. Calls are open-ended, that is, there is no need for a renewal. Unless something happens, the call continues in perpetuity. Contracts, however, have specific points at which action must be taken for continuation and terminate automatically unless action is taken. This would serve as a de facto installation of commissioned pastors serving under a contract with a natural endpoint or point at which a contract must be renwed. After all, all contracts between pastors and churches must be reviewed by the classis annually (1.II.8.3). This would give a sense of permanence to a relationship which is not. This is problematic.

Another problematic element is that this would create a discrepancy of relationship with a church between commissioned pastors (who always serve under a contract) and ministers who serve under a contract rather than a call. Ministers who serve under a contract are not installed by the classis (though their contract is approved by the classis), and therefore classis action is not needed to dissolve the relationship. And so this would more firmly establish a commissioned pastor (which is, itself a temporary function) than a minister under contract.

There is no reason why this is needed, why this is helpful, and there is certainly no reason why this is ecclesiologically warranted.

***

Such critiques at more recent developments regarding commissioned pastors are dismissed as being protectionist or elitist, which is neither the case. There is a significant issue with funding theological education, and that is something that must be dealt with so that people who are called to ministry are able to be properly prepared and properly ordained to the proper office.

I am not against commissioned pastors, but I think that we must be thoughtful about changes that are made, rather than simply being taken away by the enthusiasms of the moment. Commissioned pastors have a place in the life of the church, but it is a particular and limited place, as commissioned pastors are, by nature, an anomaly in the church.

 

Reformed Church General Synod 2017: Commissioned Pastors, Part 1

For the Reformed Church, this is General Synod season. The General Synod Workbook has been released, and the church is abuzz with the variety of items and topics that will be discussed at General Synod.

The first piece related specifically to the General Synod is about the ministry designation of commissioned pastor. Because it is not just a practical or functional issue, but a deeply theological one, it may be helpful to lay some foundation work from which to build to address the various facets to the changes that are being proposed to this General Synod.

This post, then, will briefly discuss the Reformed’s rich theology of office as well as some of the challenges inherent in this still quite new ministry designation of “commissioned pastor,” and next post will address some of the more particular items before the General Synod regarding this particular designation of the elder.

The Preamble of the Book of Church Order lays a solid theological foundation for why the church operates as it does, and to frame this discussion it is worthwhile looking to it. It begins thusly (emphases in the quotations are mine):

The purpose of the Reformed Church in America, together with all other churches of Christ, is to minister to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching, and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by all Christian good works. That purpose is achieved most effectively when good order and proper discipline are maintained by means of certain offices, govenernmental agencies, and theological and liturgical standards.

The Reformed Church is governed by offices (minister of Word and sacrament, elder, deacon, professor of theology) gathered in assemblies (consistory, classis, regional synod, General Synod). The gathering of offices is not simply an organizational aspect but an essential (per the essence) aspect.

The offices meeting together represent the fullness of Christ’s ministry. (Preamble)

As such, the Reformed have located the church, primarily, at the local level, gathered around pulpit, table, and font. The offices, in which the above line of the Preamble states, are the minister of Word and sacrament, the elder, and the deacon. These offices are primarily theological in nature, that is, they come from Christ to the church. Christ delegates authority to the offices, and it is the offices that are given authority and responsibility, not the people. However, offices do not exist in a disembodied way, but are enfleshed in people. In order for people to fill these offices, God calls internally (with a felt sense of God’s call) and externally (by the confirmation of the Christian community that they are indeed called by God).

To these offices (and the people ordained into them), certain responsibilities are given. Indeed, the government of the church speaks primarily of offices and not people, and of offices and not “leadership.”

To the minister of Word and sacrament

The Office of Minister of Word and Sacrament is one of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. Ministers are called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the ministery of the Word of God. In the local church the minister serves as pastor and teacher of the congregation to build up and equip the whole church for its ministry in the world. The minister preaches and teaches the Word of God, administers the sacraments, shares responsibility with the elders and deacons and members of the congregation for their mutual Christian growth, exercises Christian love and discipline in conjuction with the elders, and endeavors that everything in the church be done in a proper and orderly way. (From the Book of Church Order (BCO), 1.I.1.4)

To the elder

The office of elder is one of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. In the local church elders are chosen members of spiritual discernment, exemplary life, charitable spirit, and wisdom grounded in God’s Word. Elders, together with the installed minister/s serving under a call, are to have supervision fo the church entrusted to them. They are set apart for a ministry of watchful and responsible care for all matters relating to the welfare and good order of the church. They are to study God’s Word, to oversee the household of faith, to encourage spiritual growth, to maintain loving discipline, and to provide for the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments. They have oversight over the conduct of the members of the congregation and seek to bring that conduct into conformity with the Word of God, thereby empowering all members to live out their Christian vocation in the world. Elders exercise an oversight over the conduct of one another, and of the deacons, and of the minister/s. They make certain that what is preached and taught by the minister/s is in accord with Holy Scripture. They assist the minister/s with their good counsel and in the task of visitation. (1.I.1.8)

And certainly not least, to the office of deacon:

The office of deacon is one 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 minitsry of mercy, service, and outreach. They are to receive the contributions of the congregation and to distrubute 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 gifts contributed for the benefit of the poor and distribute them with discretion. They visit and comfort those in material need…(1.I.1.10).

As can be seen, the ministry of each of the offices is essential to the life of the church.

It is important, however, to bear in mind that office dictates role and responsibility, not the other way around. Therefore, one preaches the Word and administers the sacraments because one is a minister of Word and sacrament. One is not a minister of Word and sacrament because one preaches the Word and administers the sacraments. Similarly, one rules with the elders because one is an elder. One is not an elder because one functions like one. The same with deacons. When we understand that office dictates role, then we can see the challenges inherent in the commissioned pastor designation and have plagued the church since its genesis.

The commissioned pastor designation is (and since its inception has been) lodged in the office of elder. That is, it was originally designed that someone would already be functioning within the office of elder, and could be trained by the classis for a particular ministry that was needed within that classis for a specific period of time. Furthermore, commissioned pastor is a temporary role designation, not an office. However, shortly after this designation was invented, it was allowed for people who are not elders to be recommended as candidates for commissioned pastor. Indeed, experience has shown that many people are ordained to the office of elder in order to become commissioned pastors — which denigrates the office of elder by treating it as a means to an end rather than respecting the unique ministry of the elder.

Since this designation was invented just over a decade ago, it has grown to the point where commissioned pastors are being “called” to serve as the senior or sole pastor of a local church. And when this happens, that local church is deprived the ministry of one of the offices that Christ has given to the church (cf. “The offices meeting together represent the fullness of Christ’s ministry” (Preamble)).

Finally, One of the most fundamental and universal principles of Reformed church polity is the equality of the ministry or parity of office. Every person exercising ministry in one of the offices is equal to all others who are ordained into that office. There are no ministers which are fundamentally higher than other ministers, there are no elders which are fundamentally higher than other elders, and there are no deacons which are fundamentally higher than other deacons.

The commissioned pastor designation has created a de facto two-tiered system of either elders (some are “just” elders while others are “more than just” elders) or ministers (some are ministers who went to seminary and can transfer between classes, others didn’t go to seminary and can’t move as freely and are not quite ministers). In either case, this designation presents particular problems for this foundational and historic principle.

When we make decisions about office and church and the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments, we are not making leadership or organizational decisions, we are making theological decisions that have implications for our understanding of the doctrine of the church — that is, what it means to be the body of Christ. At times, there are necessary changes and adaptations that must be made to meet changing contexts and situations, and the Reformed Church has adapted throughout its history. My argument is not that commissioned pastors necessarily have no place, but rather, that we must be thoughtful when we make decisions, and in adapting to meet changing contexts we must not ignore or sacrifice our understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ.

 


This post is a revision of one made previously for the 2016 General Synod, at That Reformed Blog