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. 

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

In Part I, we laid a foundation for what representation means in the church. In Part II, we are going to look at how this exists in practice, particularly regarding the General Synod.

The General Synod apportions delegates proportionally. Every classis is able to send two ministers and two elders, and larger classes are able to send additional delegates following the formula in BCO, 1.IV.1. Delegates are apportioned by confessing membership within a classis. While this seems a right thing to do, and we may assume that it has always been this way, fewer things could be farther from the truth. In fact, apportioning delegates by confessing membership is a relatively recent introduction into the order.

The church order of Dort in 1619 called for the General Synod to be composed of two ministers and two elders from each Particular Synod (1619, Art. L). Of course, this never happened, but it is worth noting because the Dortian order served as the basis for the church order of the newly independent Reformed Church in North America, and remnants of Dort can still be seen to this day.

When the newly independent (what would come to be called) Reformed Church in America first established its constitution, it took the church order of Dort as the basis, and appended the Explanatory Articles to address the nuances of its context. Because of the context and situation that the Reformed found themselves in, they determined that an alternative arrangement for the General Synod would be required. As such, in the earliest days, the General Synod functioned as a convention, that is, “all the Ministers, with each an Elder; and also, an Elder from every vacant congregation” (1792, Art. LIII). This was to be maintained until it was desirable to organize it in a different way.

That new way to form the Synod began in 1800, when a new particular synod was formed, the classes were rearranged, and the General Synod became a delegated body, with eight ministers and eight elders from each particular synod, providing that no more than two ministers and elders come from the same classis. (MGS 1800, 279, 303).

This plan, however, did not last long, and in 1812 it was determined that three ministers and three elders from each classis would be nominated to the particular synod as delegates to the General Synod. This was brought into the church order of 1833 (II.V.82). In 1874, the concept of proportionality was first introduced.

In the church order of 1874, each classis was to nominate three ministers and three elders to their particular synod for appointment as delegates to the General Synod (as before), but this time, classes with more than fifteen churches were given one additional minister and one additional elder for every five additional churches. (1874, IX.70). Proportionality by churches continued to be the practice into the beginning of the twentieth century. It was not until 1909 that proportionality was based on confessing (communicant) membership.

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This brief historical overview shows that proportionality is not the historical practice of the Reformed, nor ought it be a given. Indeed, apportionment of delegates by confessing membership is just over one hundred years old, which considering the life of the Reformed Church in North America, is a relatively recent addition.

But even beyond this, there is something more fundamental at stake. To focus on numerical representation, and accusations of over- or under-representation is a symptom of moving our gaze off of Christ and embracing the values of the world, not of the Kingdom of God. 

It is at this point that we must be careful to be able to distinguish the different value systems at play: values that we embrace as citizens of nation-state and values that we must embody as members of the body of Christ. At times these values may be similar, many times they are divergent, but they are never synonymous.

A representative democracy finds its authority, its mandate, in the consent of the governed. Which is why we espouse (even if we do not act in accordance) in a principle of one person-one vote, and that larger populations should have a larger influence. Further, with a few notable exceptions, the assumption is that the will of the majority ought to prevail. However, the church does not operate via the consent of the people.

The church, on the other hand, finds its authority, its mandate, from Christ and through the Scriptures, as they witness to Christ. Indeed, the rule of the majority is never a value of either the Reformed tradition nor of the Gospel. The Belgic Confession is, at least, cautious about a majority as we read,

And this holy church is preserved by God
against the rage of the whole world,
even though for a time
it may appear very small
to human eyes–
as though it were snuffed out.

For example,
during the very dangerous time of Ahab
the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand
who did not bend their knees to Baal. (Art. 27).

But even more significant, the Scriptures never hold that a majority is necessarily rightly guided, indeed, very often the reverse is true. Many times a majority is wrong.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Mt. 7:13-14).

Thus, we ought to be, at the very least, cautious of claiming righteousness because of a majority, whatever the issue, topic, or concern at hand.

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Additionally, focus on over- and/or under-representation misses the point of what we do together when we gather as a church. While it is true that our assemblies vote, voting is not the point of coming together, it is a side effect. The assemblies of the church are, at their core, deliberative bodies. They are made up of office bearers who represent Christ, while at the same time standing in the stead of the people in caring for the church. Assemblies gather to discern the mind of Christ, to seek the leading and prompting of the Spirit, and to listen to one another and to God.

Indeed, concerns about proportional representation find their root in worldly reasoning. When we spend so much time focusing on voting blocs, numbers of delegates, claims of righteousness due to a majority, and claim unfairness in the system because some are “over-represented” and others “under-represented” we are well on the road of forgetting the essential identity of the church as the body of Christ.

A focus on majority gives more power to the powerful, but a focus on the Gospel actually seeks to empower the weak.

 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor 12:14-26)

Therefore, in the church, what matters is not what the majority says or thinks, what matters is who is speaking the word of God.

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This is the problem with this idea of proportional representation which entered the order in 1874, but which became particularly problematic in 1909.

The very first synod of the Dutch Reformed tradition was held in Emden in 1571. This was a synod that was held outside of the Netherlands, because the Reformed were still persecuted there (another example of how the concepts of majority or power do not always equal righteousness). The church order which came from this synod, the very first church order in our tradition began with a foundational and anti-hierarchical principle, “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…”* Indeed, as the Commission on Church Order notes, “No particular church, and we might add, no particular part of the church, has precedence by virtue of size, age, reputation, etc.”† After all, “Delegates from a classis with a smaller number of communicants may have crucial things to add as the body acts in prayer for the Spirit’s guidance.”‡

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This is why, additionally, proportionality in delegate apportionment is problematic at all levels, including classis, as it confuses our values as citizens of nation-states with particular values with our values as Reformed Christians and our values as members of the Body of Christ.


*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.

† MGS, 214, p. 237. http://images.rca.org/docs/mgs/2014MGS-Order.pdf (pp. 236-238).

‡ Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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