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by Thomas Goodhart
When a Minister of Word and Sacrament is ordained in the Reformed Church in America, as well as installed, she will make this declaration:
I…in becoming a minister of the Word of God in the Reformed Church in America…sincerely and gladly declare before God and with you that I believe the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and as expressed in the Standards of the Reformed Church in America. I accept the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and life. I accept the Standards as historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God. I promise to walk in the Spirit of Christ, in love and fellowship within the church, seeking the things that make for unity, purity, and peace…
The declaration continues, but for now, this is a good intro to some themes of the 211th General Synod of the Reformed Church in America as it met on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Michigan from June 8 to 13:
- The nature of declarations in the church, particularly “declarative authority.”
- What makes for unity, purity, and peace?
- Holy Scripture and the Standards
I’d like to add the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. but I’m not entirely sure it was a constant theme of synod. It should also be noted, that beyond Ministers of Word and sacrament, there are two other offices that make up the General Synod: General Synod Professors of Theology (who make similar declarations in their installation as Minister do) and Elders who make up almost half of the delegates. Regarding elders, this year a rather unique occurrence unfolded, at least in recent history: the General Synod elected elders to the role of both President and Vice President.
The Role of Declarative Authority
The Book of Church Order’s Preamble speaks to the nature of the church’s authority, one part of which is declarative.
Declarative authority is the right to speak in [Christ’s] 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.
An “Orientation to General Synod, A CHURCH ORDER PRIMER,” an introduction to the Workbook of General Synod goes on to explain under the heading of: Scope and Limits of General Synod’s Responsibilities:
Because assemblies are not the same as the church, it is seen that General Synod speaks and acts above all for itself, the General Synod, within the church and world. When General Synod determines policy, the synod instructs itself and its agents in its work and offers its wisdom to the world, to other churches, and to the other assemblies. General Synod can direct its boards, commissions, officers, and agencies. Because General Synod is the broadest assembly in the church, it alone has the authority to speak on behalf of the entire church. It speaks for the whole church frequently in areas like ecumenical relations and vis-à-vis the state and society. It can also encourage and offer wisdom to other assemblies and the local churches, such as it does through papers and resolutions. As with the other assemblies, the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. The Scriptures are understood as summarized in the Standards, which stand as the teaching of the church. As a part of the church’s constitution, the teaching of the church can only be determined by the entire church through the procedures for amending the Constitution as outlined in the Book of Church Order. General Synod is charged with interpreting the Scriptures and the Standards in those instances outlined in its responsibilities in the Book of Church Order, such as in judicial deliberation and in its relationship to the seminaries.
This may seem confusing. And to many in the Reformed Church, even (or especially) those at Synod, it is! And far be it for me to explain it all here. Suffice it to say however, it speaks to the complexity and the importance that the Reformed place upon order and office as well as to responsibility and authority of various assemblies at the various levels of the church.
The confusion however was a dominant theme both leading up to and throughout General Synod. How does the church make an ultimate or final declaration? Outside of the Standards, Liturgy, or the Book of Church Order, often she does not. And within that constitutional route the means to get there is complex. As such, it leaves many with a lack of the clarity that they so desire.
Let’s get specific. Much of the tension and consternation in the denomination right now has to do with what we are calling issues of human sexuality, most specifically, we are talking about how the church ministers/functions/welcomes/excludes/affirms and otherwise lives with LGBTQ persons. Some fall on particular and opposing “sides” of this debate (and I would note, this binary approach is an insidious cultural value that has overtaken the way the church deals with diversity and difference). Various overtures to synod wanted the synod to act decisively in making “declarative acts” about homosexuality. These, the synod voted down as not being consistent with our church order. Nevertheless, the desire was still very strong and urgent for the church “to make a statement.” For more on this you can see R-34, 35, and 36.
Unity, Purity, and Peace
If the theme of declarative authority was a present reality to synod, then even more so was the call to unity, purity and peace. Like many synods before, when the church is facing division, the call to unity is lifted before it. To some, this is seen as propaganda. To others it may come across as deaf to the real differences we face. But I think this year was different. This year’s synod delegates heard a constant reminder of our call and promises of unity to one another, from the General Synod President’s and General Secretary’s reports, to the various worship leaders, and in contrast to synod’s past and the behaviors experienced then, we heeded unity a little more closely.
Sometimes there is a desire to make expression through contrast and comparison, with the occasional focus on making unity the opponent of purity or vice versa. This synod I experienced less of that. I think various approaches, and dare I say camps, back downed a little from this way of coming at our differences too. Nevertheless, the binary is still very strong in our language, and we are less for it.
Unity and purity were particularly engaged in the discussion of various overtures sent to synod, e.g. the nature of discipline across classis lines, the process by which regional synods may create new classes, and the process by which a church may leave the denomination. (Here is a list of the various recommendations from synod.) For the most part we have chosen to go slow, stay together, and not push the boundaries.
Beyond human sexuality, the RCA once again discussed our ongoing and future relationship with the Christian Reformed Church. Options included the status quo, to a partnering, to a third option of basically merger (without ever saying merger) with an outcome of creating some sort of tertiary synodical denomination. To be fair, that was merely table discussion, but no formal actions were taken.
As much as the RCA may be moving ever closer to the CRC, the consternation over human sexuality led to much discussion about our role in the “Formula of Agreement” and cutting ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and United Church of Christ. This aspect of unity came up repeatedly and ultimately lead to an action, R-17-44:
To direct the GSC to create a task force, including members of the Commission on Christian Unity, the Commission on Church Order, the overturing bodies, and other parties deemed appropriate to review the RCA’s commitment to the Formula of Agreement, including its role in ecumenism and exchange of ministers, and report back to General Synod 2019 with recommendations for future General Synod action.
As is our life in the church. we are often dancing–one step forward and one step back.
Holy Scripture and the Standards
The spirit of unity was very real at synod. But so were our differences, and those differences simmered all week until our final full day of synod where we discussed the results of an overture regarding human sexuality and the Heidelberg Catechism. At the least the Standards ARE still relevant, if not necessarily consistently practiced. The overture in committee ultimately came forward as R 17-61:
To affirm that the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 and 109 categorically states that God condemns “all unchastity,” which includes same-sex sexual activity, and that faithful adherence to the RCA’s Standards, therefore, entails the affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman.
So what does this mean? You may have to decide because I can tell you right now there is great disagreement about what it even means.
Of course, there was much more going on than just this. We said goodbye to our General Secretary, Tom DeVries. We welcomed interim General Secretary Donald Poest, and we await a year of going through the search process. That should be an easy task!
Honestly, this synod was not nearly as contentious—even with our real differences—as past synods have been. The Declaration of the Minister of Word and sacrament continues with the line, “I will submit myself to the counsel and admonition of the classis, always ready, with gentleness and reverence, to give an account of my understanding of the Christian faith.” There was a little more gentleness and a little more reverence this year, and I think we earnestly attempted to understand one another a little bit more. We certainly recognized Christian faith even if there is a lot of confusion at times.
The Declaration ends this way:
Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God.
I ask God, and you His servants, to help me so to live until that glorious day when, with joy and gratitude, we stand before our great God and King.
We pledge our lives to this task. I get the passion. I get the emotion that is invested in the work of the church. This is about real life. Church order and governance is about real life. I think that means it’s allowed to be confusing.
Thomas Goodhart was an original blogger here on The Twelve. He pastors Trinity Reformed Church of Brooklyn, New York.