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.

 

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.