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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Reformed Church and the Problem of Hierarchy

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

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

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

Reformed governance understands that the greater assemblies care for the ministry that extends beyond the purview of the lesser assemblies without infringing upon the responsibilities of the lesser. Preamble, p. 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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