Post-Denominationalism, deinstitutionalization, and the future of the church

Like a vast majority of Protestant communions in the United States (and Canada), my church communion, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), has seen a decline in membership and participation during the past several decades. This trend, then, brings questions about the viability of denominations in general, and one’s own in particular. How long can we continue to lose members and still be in existence? How long can we continue? These are ubiquitous questions in the circles in which I operate. However, I think that we are asking the wrong questions and that “denomination” as we understand it is a result of circumstance rather than essence. Indeed, I argue that denomination and church are related yet clearly distinct. This brief essay will use the RCA as a case study for arguing that denominationalism is neither central to our ministry nor is it essential to our continued existence as an ecclesiastical communion. Indeed, those who proclaim the impending doom of the communion fundamentally misunderstand the nature and essence of the church and our communion.

Superstructure and Infrastructure

The church is established by Christ and entrusted to Christ’s people. The Belgic Confession states that the “church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end…” (Art. 27), and therefore we can neither establish nor destroy the church. We do, however, form structures, influenced by the scriptures, to help the church to operate and to live into its calling in the fullest way possible. Indeed, the church could not have continued to exist without some sort of order. This essential order of the church is the discipline of church polity, and continues to be an essential element to the mission of the church. However, in modern Protestantism, there is another structure which has been placed upon the church–denomination.

But before we can speak of denomination, we must speak of order. Order is a necessary part of the people of God and throughout the scriptures, it is apparent that God brings order out of chaos and invites God’s people into that order. The church, therefore, is inherently structural. Indeed, the Preamble to the RCA’s Book of Church Order states, “The governmental functioning of these offices takes place not apart from, but in harmony with the understanding of the mission of the church and the nature of its ministry.” Therefore, the church has infrastructure which sustains it. In my own tradition, the infrastructure is composed of the offices (deacon, elder, minister of Word and sacrament, and professor of theology) and assemblies (consistory, classis, regional synod, General Synod). These are the elements which support and sustain the church and allow it to function. These are elements which constitute the church and are therefore a part of the RCA’s Constitution. While the presbyterial-synodical system is certainly not the only system of church polity, it is the one that we claim, and therefore it is essential to our being of the church.

Above all of this, then, is a superstructure, and this superstructure is designed to support and aid the infrastructure in sustaining the church. The superstructure can be understood as staff, departments, boards, programs, and strategic goals. We might call this superstructure denomination. This superstructure is important, but it is not essential to the church, it is not a constitutive element of the church and is therefore largely absent from the RCA’s Constitution. By viewing the church in terms of infrastructure, which is the necessary base which supports the church, and superstructure, which supports and maintains (and indeed influences) the infrastructure, we can gain a better perspective on reality and the future of the church.

In order to gain a broader view of this superstructure and how it develops, a brief look to the history of the church is both instructive and enlightening.

Origin and Development of “Denomination”

The term, “denomination” finds its origin as a middle way between claiming to be the church, outside of which there is no other, and a sect, which carries with it negative and exclusivist connotations. Linguistically, denomination simply means to give a name to, or to identify by a name. The term and concept of denomination is a result of a religious plurality rather than a singular unity. As such, denomination is a sociological term, rather than a theological one.

Indeed, when the Reformed Church in America adopted its Constitution after independence from the Classis of Amsterdam, it also adopted the “Explanatory Articles” which help to translate the received Reformed theology and order to the particular situation in the newly independent United States. The term “denomination” only occurs in a handful of places, primarily in the Preface. The first occurrence actually defines the term as “descriptions of particular Churches…” and subsequent occurences use it in a consistent way, as such, it is simply a neutral way to refer to different traditions, or expressions, within the Christian Church universal. It is worth noting that the use of this term is a catch all for other churches, not our own.

While a comprehensive history of the usage of the term is not within the scope of this brief essay, it did not take long for the usage of “denomination” to begin the shift from a term primarily speaking of other “particular Churches” to our own church. The church order of 1833 (in which the Articles of Dort and the Explanatory Articles were first merged into a single order), the term occurs four times and nearly always refers to others, rather than ourselves. While much has happened between 1833 and today, by way of comparison, the 2015 edition of the Book of Church Order uses this term approximately seventy-five times, referring not only to other churches but also ourselves, speaking of “the denomination” and “denominational policy.” While the number of occurrences alone is not enough to draw conclusions, it is illustrative of the usage of the term “denomination.” This term, then, has moved even beyond its sociological origins and has become a term to speak of an organizational reality (nearly supplanting theological language), and it is this usage of the term which is most salient for our discussion here.

Increasing Institutionalization

With the continued growth of the RCA, a larger membership and more resources meant that there were both additional opportunities and additional obligations. While the RCA has always been institutional, in the late nineteenth century and onward one can observe a growth in the institutional existence and operation of and in the church.

Growth of organizational superstructure

In 1874 a further major revision of the church was undertaken, which was built on the previous church order (and subsequent amendments) and continued the work of adapting to the ever-changing context in which the RCA found itself. It was in this revision that another provision entered the government (and therefore the Constitution),

To the General Synod also belong the power and duty to institute and organize such general agencies as shall best enable the church to fulfil the command of the Lord Jesus Christ by which He has enjoined on all His disciples the duty of teaching all nations and preaching the gospel to every creature; to maintain, supervise and direct such agencies when erected in the conduct of missionary operations at home and abroad; and to recommend such methods in the churches as shall effectively sustain such agencies and tend to secure the largest possible dissemination of the gospel. (Art. 73)

Here we can see the beginnings of the superstructure that has come to be called denomination which continues to this day. In the generations since, the RCA has added staff, agencies, boards, and councils. The Stated Clerk of the General Synod has become a General Secretary and among the responsibilities was added, “articulating a vision for the church…” However, the denominational (organizational) structure that we now have really only dates back to the middle of the twentieth century.

For most of the history of the Reformed Church, the assemblies were the main agents within the church (in their respective spheres). For those things that were larger than individual churches, classes, or particular (regional) synods (such as foreign mission or theological education), the General Synod established a number of subsidiary boards which aided the church in its mission and ministry. Around mid-point of the twentieth century, there was a movement to provide for a more centralized structure to coordinate the programs of the church. The first of these was the creation of the General Synod Executive Committee (GSEC) in 1961. A significant aspect of the charge given to this committee was to carry out the work of the General Synod between sessions of the General Synod. Not long after, the General Synod approved the merger of three boards and a council to create the General Program Council (GPC) in 1967, which was formally organized in 1968, and was designed to work alongside of GSEC. This continued until 1992, when the General Synod voted to merge GSEC and GPC into the General Synod Council (GSC), which continues to this day and is the main agent of the General Synod which provides oversight and direction. Throughout this, we can see an increasing centralization of the superstructure aligning itself far more to a corporate structure than an ecclesiastical structure.

Post-Denominationalism

There is nothing sacrosanct about the superstructure of denomination. It was born as a result of need and changing cultural contexts, and it can be re-shaped in any way needed as a result to changing contexts and situations. Church polity is the infrastructure that supports the church, which in our case is presbyterial-synodical, but which is actually quite distinct from the superstructure of denomination. The denomination as an organizational reality has been so ingrained in our cultural psyche that, in many ways, it can be difficult to imagine a distinction between denomination and church.

Much of the anxiety present in the RCA regarding membership and participation numbers is rooted in the question of how long the denomination (rather than church) can be sustained. There have been assertions that the RCA cannot survive another schism or separation such as we saw in the nineteenth century. But these fears are largely centered around the viability of the denomination (superstructure), not the viability of the church communion. If we are able to separate these two concepts, it will help us as we (and other communions) look to the future to find our place amidst a changing context. As we seek to separate these concepts, perhaps a few corrective measures can be helpful to help right out perspectives and orientation.

Proposals for the RCA

As the church, we need to be concerned not only with what is efficient, but also what is right and proper. As such, the RCA has become far too hierarchical and corporately focused, that we have forgotten about how the communion actually ought to function. Indeed, many of our structures can serve to aid in the mislocation of the essence of the church. As such, I have a few suggestions for the RCA to help the church recover its ministry and mission.

Return the General Secretary to Stated Clerk

The General Secretary exists, primarily, to serve the General Synod. However, often the General Secretary is given near bishop-like authority. This is problematic not only for the functioning of the church, but also for the understanding of the essence of the church. The story of the ancient people of God show us that it is natural for the people to clamor for a king, but that natural impulse is not necessarily faithful. The Reformed have rejected the nature of prelacy, and so unless we wish to reexamine the foundations of our ecclesiology (which we are free to do), we ought to fight against this natural tendency.

But this proposal involves more than simply a change of job title. It would also involve two changes to the role of this position. First, to remove the provision in the Book of Church Order that the General Secretary shall present “a report articulating a vision for the church…” (1.IV.5.3). This provision places an inordinate amount of focus and authority on one person, and enhances the corporate tendencies of the church. The General Synod has staked much of the RCA’s future in strategic plans, but this continues the mislocation of the essence and purpose of church. Second, to remove the last half of that sentence, “…including recommendations for the future…” (ad loc). This will stop the General Secretary from presenting proposals to the General Synod and making this change will serve as a step toward removing such inordinate focus on this one single individual in the life of the General Synod and the RCA.

Dissolve the General Synod Council (GSC)

The tendency to place more authority and power into a hierarchy is not limited only to persons, but also to groups. Assemblies are not hierarchies and the same goes for subsidiary councils. In practice, the GSC is often seen as the locus of authority and it can seem as though the GSC is willing to accept that authority. There is no real check or balance on the GSC. This council has nothing to do with the essential infrastructure of the church, but rather the nonessential of the superstructure. This single council concentrates authority and further reinforces the hierarchical nature of the church.

The GSC could be dissolved and its functions returned to a collection of subsidiary boards. Returning the functions of the General Synod to a collection of subsidiary boards would allow the General Synod to continue to accomplish the things with which it is charged, while avoiding the concentration of power and authority in some imagined and artificially constructed “top.” One of these subsidiary boards could be an executive committee.

No General Synod assembly for fifty years

Synods exist for the good order of the church rather than being of the essence of the church. Christ’s presence in the church is not, in the first place, through the synods but through Word and Spirit as God’s people gather around pulpit, table, and font. The General Synod itself is also not immune to this tendency to concentrate power at a “top.” How easily we forget that our mother church in the Netherlands did not hold a General Synod for nearly two hundred years after the Synod of Dort in 1618/1619. The Reformed Church did not cease to exist, but was able to continue because a General Synod is not of the essence of the church nor does a General Synod mediate Christ to the church.

At times, a radical corrective is warranted and this, I think, is the case here. As such, I suggest that a General Synod not be called for a period of fifty years. While there is nothing special about the number fifty, I do not think that we need a two hundred year hiatus like our mother church; however, it does need to be enough time that the church can adjust and adapt to this major corrective. It can be possible to empower the new executive committee to do the necessary and essential functions required by law for the corporation of the General Synod, while allowing the lesser assemblies to take more responsibility to fulfill their charge in their respective spheres.

While none of these suggestions will be a panacea, these are steps that might help to aid us in the distinction between superstructure and infrastructure and to place the appropriate amount of focus and emphasis on each.

The Future of the Church

The decline of denominationalism and the waning importance of ecclesiastical communions is a reality with which we must deal, and it is not a trend that we can simply ignore or reverse. I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. However, neither do I think that the inevitable future is in independent, unconnected, deinstitutional, generically evangelical churches. The church requires an infrastructure, but the infrastructure does not require the sizable superstructure that is so often the hallmark of modern denominations. The Reformed Church had a ministry as a church before there was a denomination, and oversight and accountability have been undertaken without agencies, boards, or executives.

So long as we are concerned with sustaining the denomination (as a superstructure) we will be fighting a losing battle. However, if we focus instead on being church, allowing the superstructure that we call denomination to change (even drastically) to fit the changing cultural context, we will not only survive, but can even thrive. Neither the essence of the church nor its constitutive elements are found in denomination as a superstructure.

The superstructure is not bad, but it is tentative. It does not form the essence of the church, but rather it is formed out of need and can change with those needs. We need not intentionally abolish our institutions or the superstructure that we call denomination, there is much good that they can (and do) provide. With or without the denomination, a solidly Reformed way of existing as the church and finding a way to provide for mutual ministry and accountability in a connected fashion will continue. But this will involve shifting our mindset, and our behavior, from denomination to church; from a corporation to the body of Christ; from a sociological and organizational reality to a theological one.  We ought not strive to dismantle denomination. However, if our superstructure does become unsustainable, burdensome, or if it begins to crumble, we need not sacrifice the church in order to sustain it.

 

 

Reformed Church General Synod 2017: Deacons in Broader Assemblies

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

Other posts in this series:
Commissioned Pastors, Part 1: Foundations
Commissioned Pastors, Part 2: Recommendations before General Synod
Overtures on Declarative Authority

***

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

Background

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

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

The Ministry of the Deacon

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

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

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

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

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

Equality of the Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classical and Synodical Assemblies and Elder Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diaconal Assemblies

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

 

 

Reformed Church General Synod 2017: Overtures on Declarative Authority

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

Other posts in this series:
Commissioned Pastors, Part 1: Foundations
Commissioned Pastors, Part 2: Recommendations before General Synod

***

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

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

Representative Principle

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

Nature of the 1979 Judicial Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constitution, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Binding Interpretations

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

The 2014 paper continues,

What, then, can be said about the authority of the General Synod within the church? Cautioned by the conundrum identified at the beginning of this statement, the commission wishes to point to some principles that are named in the church order. Christ governs his church through the offices (BCO Preamble, pp. 2–3). Each assembly of the church is a gathering of the offices and as such receives its authority from Christ (BCO Preamble, p. 4). In a fundamental sense of authority, then, the General Synod does not receive Christ’s delegated authority more than the other assemblies do, nor, indeed, less than the other assemblies do. One of the earliest principles of Reformed church order is the one by which responsibilities among the assemblies of the church are arranged such that ‘the greater assemblies care for the ministry that extends beyond the purview of the lesser assemblies without infringing upon the responsibilities of the lesser’ (BCO Preamble, p. 3).

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

 

The Nature of Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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.