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.

 

What do we mean when we say “church”?

“Every church is like a stream,” the minister’s speech began, “and each stream flows into a large body of water called the Reformed Church.”

This speech was in support of a motion to radically shift the lines of accountability. Rather than the clear and generally local accountability that has been historic to the Reformed, there has been a movement to make everyone accountable to everyone else, eliminating the clear lines of accountability and risk plunging the whole system into chaos.

“So if one church pollutes their stream,” the minister continued, “it pollutes the whole body, and there is no way that anyone can stop them from polluting in the first place.”

It can sound like a reasonable statement, however, this shows a view of the location of “church” that is not correct.

So when we say “church,” to what are we referring?

Broadly, the term “church” can refer to the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” as the Nicene Creed phrases it. However, we cannot only see the church in this massive and ethereal way, after all, the church is lived out in a real and concrete way, “at the place where it manifests itself in action.” [1]

In contrast to “monarchical episcopacy” [2], where the basic manifestation of the church is the diocese and the diocesan bishop’s connection to the Bishop of Rome, the Reformed identify the basic manifestation of the church as a “local church,” that is “a body of baptized Christians meeting regularly in a particular place of worship…properly organized, and is served and governed by a regularly constituted consistory” (BCO, 1.I.1.1).

In the Reformed tradition, then, the church is fundamentally local. That is, the church is gathered around pulpit, table, and font.

Indeed, for the Reformed, the local church — which is served by the offices, and which has the ministry of the Word and sacraments — is truly an ecclesia completa, or complete church. However, this does not mean that local churches are completely independent or autonomous. Just as foundational as the local church being an ecclesia completa is the principle that no church stands on its own, and that there must be real and concrete ties with other churches. [3] Indeed, churches cannot be autonomous and completely independent not sharing real relationships with one another, for “the need for relationships…stems from the essential nature of the church.” [4]

Or, put another way, “every local church is therefore simultaneously an independent manifestation of the body of Christ and part of a larger whole.” [5]

Therefore, in the Reformed Church, when one speaks of the church there is the simultaneous reference to the universal church and the local church. One does not refer–at least primarily–to a communion. In this, the Reformed navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, between episcopacy and independency.

But what about the greater assemblies? Do not the greater assemblies have a greater authority than the lesser assemblies? Not at all. The greater assemblies do not have a greater authority or an authority which is different in essence from that which is given to and exercised by the consistory (or classis). [6] Indeed, “greater assemblies care for the ministry that extends beyond the purview of the lesser assemblies without infringing on the responsibilities of the lesser” (BCO, Preamble, emphasis mine).

The greater assemblies are, then, not in a clearer sense more “church” than the local church. “Church” begins with the local church and then moves up, not the other way around.

***

So to return to the faulty analogy quoted at the beginning. This minister got the order and movement backwards. The church is not a basin into which the ministries of the local churches flow. The church is most clearly church around pulpit, table, and font — around Word and sacrament as it gives life to the community, and therefore to the world.

So to offer a more correct analogy, there is a rich and limitless aquifer of Scripture, as well as doctrine, liturgy, and polity which helps us to interpret and live out God’s desires through Scripture. And it is this aquifer which feeds countless streams which spread out and give growth and nourishment and life to the dry and parched land.

The streams flow out, not in. Therefore, yes, the streams are the churches. But the flow is not into a basin, but out into the world.

 


Notes:

[1] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 4.373.
[2] Long, Edward Le Roy. Patterns of Polity: Varieties of Church Governance. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001.
[3] Plaatjies van Huffel, Mary-Anne. “The Relevance of Reformed Church Polity Principles: Revisiting the Concept.” In Protestant Church Polity in Changing Contexts I, edited by Allan J. Janssen and Leo J. Koffeman, 29-47. Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2014.
[4] Coertzen, Pieter. Church and Order: A Reformed Perspective. Leuven: Peeters, 1998.
[5] Bavinck, 4.374.
[6]Koffeman, Leo J. In Order to Serve: An Ecumenical Introduction to Church Polity. Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2014; Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology.