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When the Covid-19 pandemic appeared, it soon became apparent that most annual gatherings of Christian denominations in the USA would not meet this summer, as they usually do.
In the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a decision was made to “postpone” its annual gathering, General Synod, until summer 2021. In addition, it was announced a “special session” would be held this fall. While those decisions are particular to the RCA, they likely display trends, troubling trends, found in nearly every American denomination.
I talked with Matthew van Maastricht about these decisions, their wider impact and implications, and why he believes the decisions were wrongly and dangerously made.
SMV: Welcome, Matthew! Tell us a little about yourself, your background, current context, and your interest in church polity and governance.
MvM: I pastor the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. I’ve been here almost three years. Before that I served for six years in Wisconsin. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church in Michigan. I attended Western Theological Seminary and while there I developed an interest in church polity. Not so much in the “rules,” but the way polity reflects a theology of the church — what we believe about the way God desires the church to function, the stuff that underlies the “rules.” For several years now I’ve taught Church Polity at Western Seminary and I’m in my second year of teaching at New Brunswick. I write about polity and church order at churchandorder.org.
SMV: The word “polity” is not in most people’s vocabulary. Give us a short explanation of it. When we hear “polity” what should we think?
MvM: Church polity is the ordering of the church, the shaping of the Body of Christ. It is not so much a “code of laws,” but the structures and regulations that order the church, and the theology that underlies those.
Postponing General Synod
SMV: It is pretty obvious that the RCA’s widest decision-making body, General Synod, will not be meeting this summer in any usual manner — and I assume virtually all other denominations have reached similar conclusions. I’ve read your comments and criticisms of the decisions to “postpone” the RCA General Synod until 2021 and also to call a special session this fall. It is apparent to me that you are going out of your way to convey that your criticisms are not personal. You try scrupulously to avoid assigning motives. Most of all, your tone is always “I am not being a stickler for rules” — rules for rules’ sake. You understand we are in a very unusual situation where rules may have to be bent somewhat, adapted, or set aside. Still, there are better and worse ways to bend or set aside rules.
MvM: It is definitely not personal. There are many people I know and care about and respect who are involved in this. I’m not ascribing nefarious motives. But I also think they are wrong. And I think those two things can coexist.
It isn’t about rules for rules’ sake. People often assume that those who are concerned with church polity are legalistic, inflexible, rule-bound or things like that. That’s really not the case. Rules exist for a reason. I like to talk about how our church regulations are “answers” to questions. They are addressing real-life situations that arise and can be complex. They are not some detached, theoretical, or bloodless legal document. They are alive and arise from very real-world situations.
No doubt we are in extraordinary times. Although, I’ve been a pastor for about a decade and really a lot of the time is not quite “ordinary.” We’re always dealing with real lives and people and churches. That means we are often in situations that are not exactly what the church order may have imagined.
So there are times when there have to be deviations from the rules and order. The question is how and when to do that. There are many factors to consider — and these aren’t original to me — but things like is this truly exceptional and absolutely essential? Is there a genuine need, not just a “want”? A bending or setting aside of the rule has to be limited and not precedent-setting. The good of the wider church mustn’t be harmed for personal considerations. It has to be done in a transparent way, acknowledged for what it is, and clearly communicated to the church.
SMV: Let’s talk specifically about the decision, or maybe the announcement, to “postpone” General Synod 2020 until 2021. I put “postpone” in quotation marks because I believe your contention is that postponement is not an actual option. Of course, that doesn’t mean you believe General Synod should meet in regular fashion and who cares if everyone gets Covid-19! I hear you questioning the authority of the General Synod Council (GSC, a small, executive committee) to make such decisions unilaterally. You also look back to some unusual circumstances and unusual General Synods in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, to see how decisions were made then. So share a bit about your concerns about this decision. And given the pandemic, what might be some better options?
MvM: The church order is pretty clear that General Synod “shall” meet. So on the surface, General Synod cannot be “postponed.” But the deeper and really the true problem is that the General Synod Council is not empowered to make such a decision. GSC cannot direct General Synod — when and whether to meet. And if they take such powers, then could it happen again? Could GSC decide on its own to have General Synod not meet if they didn’t think it was conducive to its goals?
It is about authority. We govern by “assembly,” and General Synod is the assembly so only General Synod can decide when and where and whether to meet. None of that is to say that General Synod should meet in June in a typical manner. That would be irresponsible and unfaithful.
In the 1930s, especially 1933, they were concerned about doing the right things and doing them in the right way. So they put a proposal to classes (the local assemblies) for a vote about either having a “pro-forma” Synod — calling a meeting but not having a quorum and adjourning, or otherwise having a regular Synod. They wanted a clear decision of the mind of the church. They may have bent some rules, but the more I think about it, I don’t think they really broke any. They basically asked the classes “Do you agree that it is not a good idea to meet and for you not to send delegates?” That’s very different from GSC saying to the classes, “You cannot send delegates.” In the 1930s the attitude was a lot more “We are the church and we will do this together,” not “We are the leadership and we’re going to tell you what to do.”
This year, there was no meaningful engagement of the wider church. If we all know that General Synod cannot meet this summer, then who can make that decision? The only one who can make the decision is the church, and that would be through the classes. Additionally, this is more evidence of the denominational leadership acting like a closed system. Who gave input to this decision? There is a Commission on Church Order, but it was never consulted. Who came up with this plan and who might be able to engage in a longer, more open conversation about it?
A Special Session of General Synod
SMV: Let’s move on to the plan for a “special session” of General Synod this fall. Again, I think you’d suggest that GSC overreached. But if I’m understanding correctly, in this case there are clear and specific guidelines about how to do this. Nonetheless, they were virtually ignored or set aside. In other words, what to do about a General Synod in an unusual time, like a pandemic, may be somewhat fuzzy. But how to call a special session of Synod is very clear, but seemingly was disregarded. Why not go by the book?
MvM: There is a way provided to call a special session. It actually is quite a low bar, very doable. It involves having representatives from across the denomination, 48 people, from all the different regions — out of a pool of 200-250 people who are currently delegates to General Synod — call for this special session. That’s really not very much. But it is to ensure that a special session is actually dealing with a broad concern of the entire denomination. The GSC made the strange claim that this is the prescribed path to a special session, but other paths are not proscribed or prohibited. That is just weird, really a poor and very novel reading.
It is also important to remember that there are limitations on what can be done in a special session. A special session cannot amend the constitution. It cannot amend the by-laws of General Synod.
SMV: Let me interrupt. Do you think that there is a general awareness of these limits? That this special session will live within these restrictions?
MvM: I’d hope so! It is pretty clear.
SMV: But if there is a clear procedure, a prescribed path then why not follow it? I know you’ve tried to avoid assigning motives, but do you think this GSC overreach came from fear that it couldn’t reach that low bar, that representatives from some regions of the denomination would not agree to call a special session? More specifically, that perhaps some of the eastern regions might not have gone along? And even more, is the need for this unusual special session simply about the anxiety stemming from the report of the 2020 Task Force on Human Sexuality? Concern that waiting until 2021 would anger parts of the denomination that simply won’t hang around until then?
MvM: I believe it is all of that. They were, I assume, afraid they wouldn’t get to the necessary 48 people from across the all the regions of the denomination. And if you can’t do that, it raises the question whether this special session is actually an urgent need for the entire church.
The Bigger Picture
SVM: Stepping back from the specifics of this situation, it makes me wonder is there a difference between what we might call benign or innocent intentions versus more deliberate, nefarious intentions? I know you don’t want to judge motives, but what is your sense of what is going on here?
MvM: In my heart of hearts, I believe General Synod Council was trying to do the best they could. I think that they thought they were doing the right thing. Their sidestepping the rules was more-or-less innocent. That being said, there are times when innocent rule breaking becomes nefarious — when it is pointed out, yet no correction is made. There hasn’t been any engagement or interest in trying to make things right. Instead, there has been more of a doubling-down on the decisions.
This is my concern about that “closed-system” I mentioned before. If someone doesn’t know what they’re doing is wrong, but then is told, you’d hope and expect they would try to correct the mistake. GSC doesn’t need to agree with me or its other critics, but they certainly could listen and respond in a better way. That doesn’t mean they are nefarious. But it could easily set precedent for future nefarious goals. It puts us on a dangerous path. It is a significant stripping of General Synod’s authority.
SMV: Let’s talk more broadly than just the Reformed Church, and about trends that are appearing across the denominations in the USA. For example, I hear a lot in what you critique that rings of a corporate, hierarchical model. In this case, GSC is “headquarters” and the congregations are “franchises” that carry out the directives of the higher-ups.
MvM: I’d agree, that’s a huge part of what is going on. We have both lived into this idea that we need a headquarters to tell us what to do, and we also have had leadership that is more than happy to accept that role. As modern Americans, we tend to picture things as this triangle where decisions and power are at the narrow top and then filter down the broad base below. That isn’t simply antithetical to the way the RCA is ordered, it is a key part of why we had a Reformation in the 16th century! And we’ve lived right back into it. The GSC thinks it is in charge of General Synod, and much of the RCA is apparently okay with that. And until we’re not okay with that, not much will change, I’m afraid. Power is accumulated gradually. Change often happens so slowly we hardly notice. It feels benign, but GSC has been gaining more and more power, both informally and formally.
SMV: One other observation that your work brings to mind, Matthew, and that is the disdain for the “expert.” I’m thinking these days of epidemiologists, but also climate-change scientists, those who study worship and liturgy in the church, and maybe you, too. So for example, I don’t hear you being opposed to flexibility and change in church order. You are saying, however, that change is best done by those who understand, appreciate, even love what they are changing, and can knowingly make exceptions. Yet so often in society, it is those who don’t understand or appreciate, maybe even deeply dislike the subject who are making the changes and rewriting the rules. And that is dangerous.
MvM: And those who do understand something like church order, and may say “No!” to what someone wants to do, are then told that we are inflexible, rule-bound, unrealistic. No one likes to hear “No!” so we become the problem if we don’t go along. Church order people don’t want to tell you what you can’t do. People like me, and others, can help with what can be done. I don’t want to be a block. I want to help things be done properly, not only what can be done, but what should be done.
I think it is really a deeply covenantal matter. Church order is the promise we made of how we will live our life together. When we just toss it off casually it is a real violation of the essence of our life together. It often seems like we see our order either as a set of rigid laws that we have to “work around,” sometimes use instrumentally, sometimes even weaponize to accomplish our purposes, or they are merely casual suggestions — it’s nice if we can do them but no biggie if we can’t. Both of these extremes are dangerous, and neither really understands that our polity is an expression of our theology.
We often hear the refrain “our polity is broken!” It is not. We just don’t understand, or care to learn, the theological foundation on which it is built and which is embodied in it.
SMV: We are all grieving the recent death of Allan Janssen. For me, Al was the person who helped me to understand that our order isn’t a set of arbitrary and abstract rules with some holy frosting drizzled on top for decoration. It is a theological document. It expresses, it instantiates, what we believe about the church, the ministry of Christ, the role of the Holy Spirit, and much more. Talk a little bit about Al’s influence on you and the wider church.
MvM: Al was an amazing gift to the church, and one of the most significant people in my life. In this current circumstance, for example, I think he would spend a little time looking at the rules and a whole lot of time looking theologically at what is good for the church. He believed that the order exists for the good of the church and helps the church live out its ministry faithfully. His impact on the RCA is far deeper than we probably can see right now. It will become more apparent over time, I think. In addition, he was a world-renowned systematic theologian and scholar of A.A. van Ruler, a passionate advocate for justice, and dear friend to many. There’s a good chance he was more well-known outside North America than he was here. There are memorials and tributes in Dutch newspapers, and several originating elsewhere around the world because of his significant international contributions. We shall not see his like again.
SMV: Thank you, Matthew, for your time and your insights.
MvM: Thank you, Steve. I appreciate it.