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

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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.

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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

 

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

In Part I, we laid a foundation for what representation means in the church. In Part II, we are going to look at how this exists in practice, particularly regarding the General Synod.

The General Synod apportions delegates proportionally. Every classis is able to send two ministers and two elders, and larger classes are able to send additional delegates following the formula in BCO, 1.IV.1. Delegates are apportioned by confessing membership within a classis. While this seems a right thing to do, and we may assume that it has always been this way, fewer things could be farther from the truth. In fact, apportioning delegates by confessing membership is a relatively recent introduction into the order.

The church order of Dort in 1619 called for the General Synod to be composed of two ministers and two elders from each Particular Synod (1619, Art. L). Of course, this never happened, but it is worth noting because the Dortian order served as the basis for the church order of the newly independent Reformed Church in North America, and remnants of Dort can still be seen to this day.

When the newly independent (what would come to be called) Reformed Church in America first established its constitution, it took the church order of Dort as the basis, and appended the Explanatory Articles to address the nuances of its context. Because of the context and situation that the Reformed found themselves in, they determined that an alternative arrangement for the General Synod would be required. As such, in the earliest days, the General Synod functioned as a convention, that is, “all the Ministers, with each an Elder; and also, an Elder from every vacant congregation” (1792, Art. LIII). This was to be maintained until it was desirable to organize it in a different way.

That new way to form the Synod began in 1800, when a new particular synod was formed, the classes were rearranged, and the General Synod became a delegated body, with eight ministers and eight elders from each particular synod, providing that no more than two ministers and elders come from the same classis. (MGS 1800, 279, 303).

This plan, however, did not last long, and in 1812 it was determined that three ministers and three elders from each classis would be nominated to the particular synod as delegates to the General Synod. This was brought into the church order of 1833 (II.V.82). In 1874, the concept of proportionality was first introduced.

In the church order of 1874, each classis was to nominate three ministers and three elders to their particular synod for appointment as delegates to the General Synod (as before), but this time, classes with more than fifteen churches were given one additional minister and one additional elder for every five additional churches. (1874, IX.70). Proportionality by churches continued to be the practice into the beginning of the twentieth century. It was not until 1909 that proportionality was based on confessing (communicant) membership.

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This brief historical overview shows that proportionality is not the historical practice of the Reformed, nor ought it be a given. Indeed, apportionment of delegates by confessing membership is just over one hundred years old, which considering the life of the Reformed Church in North America, is a relatively recent addition.

But even beyond this, there is something more fundamental at stake. To focus on numerical representation, and accusations of over- or under-representation is a symptom of moving our gaze off of Christ and embracing the values of the world, not of the Kingdom of God. 

It is at this point that we must be careful to be able to distinguish the different value systems at play: values that we embrace as citizens of nation-state and values that we must embody as members of the body of Christ. At times these values may be similar, many times they are divergent, but they are never synonymous.

A representative democracy finds its authority, its mandate, in the consent of the governed. Which is why we espouse (even if we do not act in accordance) in a principle of one person-one vote, and that larger populations should have a larger influence. Further, with a few notable exceptions, the assumption is that the will of the majority ought to prevail. However, the church does not operate via the consent of the people.

The church, on the other hand, finds its authority, its mandate, from Christ and through the Scriptures, as they witness to Christ. Indeed, the rule of the majority is never a value of either the Reformed tradition nor of the Gospel. The Belgic Confession is, at least, cautious about a majority as we read,

And this holy church is preserved by God
against the rage of the whole world,
even though for a time
it may appear very small
to human eyes–
as though it were snuffed out.

For example,
during the very dangerous time of Ahab
the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand
who did not bend their knees to Baal. (Art. 27).

But even more significant, the Scriptures never hold that a majority is necessarily rightly guided, indeed, very often the reverse is true. Many times a majority is wrong.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Mt. 7:13-14).

Thus, we ought to be, at the very least, cautious of claiming righteousness because of a majority, whatever the issue, topic, or concern at hand.

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Additionally, focus on over- and/or under-representation misses the point of what we do together when we gather as a church. While it is true that our assemblies vote, voting is not the point of coming together, it is a side effect. The assemblies of the church are, at their core, deliberative bodies. They are made up of office bearers who represent Christ, while at the same time standing in the stead of the people in caring for the church. Assemblies gather to discern the mind of Christ, to seek the leading and prompting of the Spirit, and to listen to one another and to God.

Indeed, concerns about proportional representation find their root in worldly reasoning. When we spend so much time focusing on voting blocs, numbers of delegates, claims of righteousness due to a majority, and claim unfairness in the system because some are “over-represented” and others “under-represented” we are well on the road of forgetting the essential identity of the church as the body of Christ.

A focus on majority gives more power to the powerful, but a focus on the Gospel actually seeks to empower the weak.

 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor 12:14-26)

Therefore, in the church, what matters is not what the majority says or thinks, what matters is who is speaking the word of God.

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This is the problem with this idea of proportional representation which entered the order in 1874, but which became particularly problematic in 1909.

The very first synod of the Dutch Reformed tradition was held in Emden in 1571. This was a synod that was held outside of the Netherlands, because the Reformed were still persecuted there (another example of how the concepts of majority or power do not always equal righteousness). The church order which came from this synod, the very first church order in our tradition began with a foundational and anti-hierarchical principle, “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…”* Indeed, as the Commission on Church Order notes, “No particular church, and we might add, no particular part of the church, has precedence by virtue of size, age, reputation, etc.”† After all, “Delegates from a classis with a smaller number of communicants may have crucial things to add as the body acts in prayer for the Spirit’s guidance.”‡

***

This is why, additionally, proportionality in delegate apportionment is problematic at all levels, including classis, as it confuses our values as citizens of nation-states with particular values with our values as Reformed Christians and our values as members of the Body of Christ.


*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.

† MGS, 214, p. 237. http://images.rca.org/docs/mgs/2014MGS-Order.pdf (pp. 236-238).

‡ Ibid.

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?

***

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.

The General Synod and the Certification of Candidates for Ministry

The Reformed have always understood the importance of an educated ministry. A gift of the Reformed tradition is that it has emphasized both learning and piety, both loving God with our hearts and with our minds.

In the early days of the Reformed Church in the North American colonies, ministers had to receive their theological education in the Netherlands. This was quite difficult and a significant barrier, but it was done. This was not readily embraced by the churches in the colonies, however, as the first significant division in the Reformed Church was largely on this point.

In 1792, when the Explanatory Articles were established (the Explanatory Articles, along with the Church Order of Dort from 1619, formed the government of the Reformed Church until 1833), those who desire to be examined for the ministry must present three things.

  1. A diploma, or certificate of his having passed through a regular course of studies in some College or respectable Academy. 2. A certificate of his having been a member in full communino of the Reformed church, at least two years. And 3. A testimonial, under the hand and seal of a Professor of Theology, declaring such student to have studied Theology with him (or with some person expressely authorized for that purpose by the Geneal Synod,) for the space of at least two years; and recommending said student as well qualified for becoming a candidate in the holy ministry. (Article III).

This is the origin of the “Professorial Certificate” which has become the “Certificate of Fitness for Ministry.”

But what is the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry (also referred to here as a “Certificate of Fitness”), and what role does it really play in the process which leads to ordination to the ministry of Word and sacrament?

Since the beginning of the Reformed Church much has changed. We now have institutional theological schools with faculties and buildings. There are now degrees granted which testify to one’s competency in these matters. So why does such a certificate continue to exist?

It is these two questions that I will seek to address in this relatively short space.

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Candidates for the ministry of Word and sacrament have several forms of evaluation on several different levels — from consistorial to synodical. This is important to judge a candidate’s character, fitness, capacities, and abilities. Because the classis has oversight over ministers, a consistory alone cannot make that determination. But because the consistory is closest to the individual, they must first recommend them. And because the training and formation of candidates for the ministry is a concern of the whole church, the General Synod, through the boards of the Reformed Church seminaries or the Ministerial Formation Certification Agency supervises and certifies their fitness.

Even after the advent of more formal forms of theological education, the requirement for a Professorial Certificate and later the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry remained a part of the process. In the Explanatory Articles of 1792, it can almost seem as though the professorial certificate is little more than a testimony that a candidate has completed studies in theology. However, there is also the point that this certificate also has the purpose of “recommending said student as well qualified for becoming a candidate in the holy ministry” (1792/3 Art. III). And beyond this, subsequent church orders have required this certificate to be granted before one is able to be examined by their classis.

Formation for the ministry is far more than just intellectual formation. The intellectual and academic component is important, but it alone is not sufficient. Formation for ministry includes transformation as well. And how better to gauge fitness than for those who are involved in one’s education and formation?

As the Reformed Church historian and polity authority, William H.S. Demarest, wrote in his Notes on the Constitution, 

The church’s interest in the matter is not so much that he has graduated from the school as that he is qualified for appearance before classis. It is a forward look toward the ministry, the church’s great objective. (1946, p. 23)

This is the essence of the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry. First, the candidate is granted the degree of Master of Divinity, and this attests to their academic competencies and abilities. After this is granted, the Certificate of Fitness can be granted, and this attests to the individual’s overall fitness for the ministry of Word and sacrament. But, even still, the process is not yet complete. The Master of Divinity does not guarantee a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry, and a Certificate does not guarantee ordination.

After the granting of the Certificate of Fitness, a candidate is now entitled to an examination by the classis in which the candidate is enrolled. Ultimately, then, the final decision rests with their classis whether or not to grant them a Certificate of Licensure, which is required before one can be ordained to the ministry of Word and sacrament.

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So, then, what power does a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry have? What role does it play?

We must avoid two temptations, as is the case with many things regarding the church order — we must avoid both overstating and understating.

A candidate cannot be examined for licensure and ordination without a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry. The order is clear that this is required for the classis to examine for licensure. Indeed, after the granting of the Certificate of Fitness, the classis is obligated to admit the candidate to the examinations prescribed in the church order. However, its function is limited. Once a Certificate of Fitness is granted and the classis acts upon it, namely, examines the candidate and grants a Certificate of Licensure, the Certificate of Fitness is of no more use. Its only function is to certify fitness for classical examination. It is, one may say colloquially, a ticket to classical examination for licensure and ordination — no more and no less.

 

Relationship, Punishment, and the Problem of Ecclesiastical Discipline

The Belgic Confession of Faith lists three marks by which one can discern the “true church.” The third of these marks is that “it practices church discipline for correcting faults” (Art. 29). It is this mark that serves as a particularly problematic point in the life of the church.

The Reformed Church has always had provisions for ecclesiastical discipline, because of the above article of the Confession of Faith. Because the Confession of Faith does not present a complete church order but only the most basic of foundations, it does not specify how discipline is to be handled.

In the Reformed Church, discipline has always been as local as possible. This means that members of churches are accountable to that church’s board of elders, a minister is accountable only to their classis, and consistories are accountable only to their classis. In all of these instances, discipline is as local as possible. Of course, discipline is not always handled in a just and proper way, and so there are procedures for redress if something is improperly handled or the presence of manifest injustice. But as a rule, discipline is intended to be local. This also means that the more local bodies (the board of elders and the classis) are the bodies charged with interpreting Scripture in its determination of what things are offenses and what are not.

This has been problematic for some within the communion. There are those who are bothered by the possibility that someone, somewhere might be doing or thinking something they don’t like, and if the proper assembly or judicatory does not see the actions in question as an offense, of if they choose not to administer discipline for any given reason, there is nothing that can be done by those who are accountable to other assemblies or judicatories. For those who insist on lock-step uniformity on all matters, this is troubling.

As a result, several attempts have been made to allow anyone to charge and discipline anyone else. All of these attempts have been rightly rejected. While it is true that this would create a nightmare scenario where everyone is suddenly judicially accountable to everyone else, this is not the most troubling aspect of this. These attempts stem from a gross misunderstanding of both the church and the nature of ecclesiastical discipline itself.

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The Book of Church Order, when speaking of discipline, gives three purposes of ecclesiastical discipline: “to promote [the church’s] purity, to benefit the offender, and to vindicate the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2.I.1.1). Noticeably absent is punishment. Punishment is never a purpose or a goal of discipline, especially ecclesiastical church discipline. The ideology which underpins the civil justice system in the United States is fundamentally different and irreconcilable with the principles that underlie ecclesiastical discipline.

As we consider discipline, it is also worth looking at the word itself. Etymologically, the word discipline is related to the word disciple. Indeed, we still use the word discipline to speak of a field of study. So discipline has absolutely nothing to do with punishment, and everything to do with guiding and instructing. As such, the goal of discipline in the church is always restoration and reconciliation. An offense is not simply a break in a rule or a law, it is the break in covenantal relationships, and discipline is needed insofar as the relationship is still in need of mending. This, of course, requires effort by both parties.

And this is why discipline is always primarily local. Because it is those people with whom we live and minister. It is those people that with whom we share experiences, it is those people who are closest to us. It is those people who know the particular circumstances, who know what is going on, and who know what might be needed to bring reconciliation and restoration. If it became possible, for example, for an assembly on one coast to discipline someone on another coast, it would cease to be discipline and become simply punishment. It turns restoration into retribution and the church will have lost its way.

But what about those assemblies who do things improperly? Those who do not follow the proper legal procedures or are clearly unjust in their task? This is why there is oversight over the process of discipline, and why there are procedures for appeals and complaints. This allows for there to be accountability with assemblies as well. So while discipline, as a rule, is always local, the local assemblies are, too, accountable to the broader church in the exercise of its task.

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Discipline in the church is based upon relationships and the goal of always healing relationships — punishment is never the goal. Indeed, neither the word “punish” nor any of its derivations occur even once in the church order. Discipline being local, then, is not a flaw in the order, it is actually the design of the order.