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. 

Reformed Church General Synod 2017: Commissioned Pastors, Part 2

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

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

Commissioned Pastor in Synods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadening of Role of Commissioned Pastor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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