In a letter published in the previous issue of this magazine, a correspondent in Liverpool, England asked for clarification of an earlier editorial on “The Binding Decisions of a Reformed Synod” (cf. the Standard Bearer, June 1, 1991). Aware of the attack on synods (or general assemblies) in Reformed circles in our day, he was really asking for a further defense of churches banding together in synodical union.

Reformed and Presbyterian churches have always grounded synodical union in the unity of the church of Christ. The spiritual unity of the body of Christ must come to visible, institutional manifestation. This is not exhausted in the local congregation, even as the local congregation does not exhaust the reality of the church. Congregations that share the Spirit of Christ, as evidenced and expressed by oneness in the truth of the Word of God, unite in the assemblies known as classis (or presbytery) and synod (or general assembly). By this synodical union, the congregations show the oneness of the church before the world to the greater glory of Christ their Head. They themselves enjoy and benefit from this unity in fellowship and mutual help. They cooperate in the Lord’s work, doing together what they could not do alone, or doing better what no one church could do as well on its own. In unity there is strength.

When the Reformed churches of The Netherlands meeting at Wesel in 1568 advised the forming of the classis, their purpose was the unity of the church:

. . .for the establishing and preserving of consensus in doctrine, ceremonies, and church discipline, and for common actions and mutual consultation in matters of importance regarding common interests.

Likewise, the purpose of the original organization of the Dutch Reformed churches in a synod at Emden in 1571 was “in order to institute the unity of the churches in outward form.”

The biblical basis for denominational union in a synod, therefore, is not only one passage in the New Testament, namely, Acts 15. The importance of this one passage for the denominational connection, however, must not be minimized. Every Reformed and Presbyterian defense of the broader, or major, assemblies appeals to this passage. This is the passage adduced by the Westminster Confession of Faith in support of its statement that “for the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils” (31.1). The Christian Reformed authorities on Reformed church order, Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, faithfully transmit the Dutch Reformed tradition when, in support of authoritative synods, they appeal first of all to the Jerusalem assembly of Acts 15.

Is the exercise of ecclesiastical authority as provided for in Article 36 (of the church order of Dordt – DJE) based on Biblical example? Yes. We read in

Acts 15

. . . . This meeting at Jerusalem . . . clearly partakes of the character of major assemblies. It may be regarded as a forerunner of what became well-organized and regular later on (The Church Order Commentary, Zondervan, 1954, p. 161).

It will not do for the Rev. Eric Alexander, writing in the Evangelical Times of England (January 1992), to dismiss this appeal to Acts 15 in support of synods on the ground that there is “only one passage of Scripture” that mentions synods or councils. The Holy Spirit does not have to repeat a truth a dozen times in order for it to be binding doctrine in the church. It is enough that He clearly teach something once.

In Acts 15, the Holy Spirit teaches that a doctrinal dispute in a local congregation was referred to a broader assembly for judgment. This broader assembly did not consist only of the apostles. But is consisted of the apostles and elders (vss. 2, 4, 6, 22, 23. Nor was the authority of this assembly only that of the apostles. The decision taken was authoritative, and its authority was that of the Holy Spirit working through the apostles and elders. Verse 4 of Acts 16 speaks of “the decrees . . . that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem.” In addition, the decision of the Jerusalem assembly was binding upon all the churches (cf. Acts 15:28, 29Acts 16:4). This was an assembly broader than the consistory (or session) of the local church that ordained decrees for all the churches to keep. This was also a broader assembly that was recognized and accepted by all the churches as Acts 16:5implies. For it was an assembly that expressed the unity of the churches.

Acts 15 is only one very clear and concrete aspect of the biblical ground for the denominational union. The biblical basis for the denominational bond is the massive testimony in Scripture to the unity of Christ’s church. The denomination is implied in Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His church in John 17:20ff.; for the inward, spiritualunity of believers must be manifested and expressed outwardly and institutionally as the Lord indicates when He says, “that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them . . . .” Denominational union is demanded by the apostolic concern that all the churches teach the same doctrines, practice the same order, and cooperate in the proper work of the churches (cf. I Cor. 7:17I Cor. 11:16I Cor. 14:33;Rom. 15:25-33).

It is not the case, therefore, that membership in a denomination is purely a voluntary matter for a congregation. It is true that the congregation freely joins herself to the denomination of like-minded churches. But it is also true that she does this by virtue of the Spirit’s working within her to obey His command to seek the unity of the church. Membership in a denomination is a duty and a necessity for the local church, as membership in a local church is a duty and necessity for the individual believer.

Refusal by a congregation is visited by God with judgments. These are the “perils of independency.” The independent congregation is tyrannized by a lordly pastor. Or, congregation and minister fall into the hands of dictatorial elders. If the church escapes these disasters, she is liable to be torn apart by internal strife, since there is no remedy for local troubles in appeal to broader assemblies. The independent church deprives herself of the safety of the multitude of counsellors (cf. Prov. 11:14). Often, when the dominant minister retires or dies, the church is at a loss where to find a good, well-trained pastor. It is common that the independent church is so dependent upon a particular, gifted preacher that the church virtually passes away with him. There is, besides, the danger that the church turns in upon herself, concentrating all her attention and energies upon herself, as though the kingdom of Christ were no broader than this one congregation.

But is there not the equally great, or even greater, danger of the hierarchy and apostasy of synod? And does this not spell the ruin of all the churches in the denomination? Our English correspondent raises this question, not so much because of his own fear of synod (for he confesses that he is “strongly persuaded that only connectionalism leading to synod is Scriptural”) as because of the anti-synodical sentiment that is afoot today.

There are curious misconceptions about the Reformed synod in our day. One is that synod is inherently an evil or the threat of evil. On the contrary, the rule is that the synod is a good thing. Such was the Jerusalem synod. The effect of the Jerusalem assembly upon the churches was beneficial: “And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily” (Acts 16:5). Such were the ecumenical synods that confessed the truths of the Trinity and of the Person and natures of Christ against pernicious heresies. Such was the Synod of Dordt. I myself have seen broader assemblies rescue beleaguered pastors; fl save” sorely troubled congregations; deliver wronged and oppressed saints; uphold faithful consistories that were attacked by mistaken or wicked members of the congregation; and restore, or maintain, peace in the denomination by wise, biblical judgments on issues of controversy.

To be sure, synod is subject to the evil of hierarchy. But this is the abuse of the synod, not its necessary quality. The consistory of the local church is also liable to become hierarchical, as is the individual pastor or elder. But no Reformed man for this reason repudiates consistories or pastors or elders.

Another curious notion that gains currency is that synods become apostate overnight apart from the apostasy of the churches in the denomination. Thus, suddenly, the “good” congregations are confronted by the “evil” synod that has materialized out of nowhere. This is pure myth. Synods that set aside the authority of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, adopt false doctrines, and approve unrighteous behavior only show that the churches of these denominations have been falling away from Christ for a long time. After all, where do the ministers and elders that make up the erring synods come from? From the local congregations. And all the congregations share responsibility for the falling away of the denomination from the truth. At the very least, they tolerated the departure. The truth of this is illustrated in the issue that now threatens to split the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the ordination of women as ministers and elders. Conservatives excoriate the synod of 1990 as an evil synod for approving the ordination of women to the offices of minister and elder. But already 35 years ago the CRC approved women voting at the congregational meeting. This is rule in the church by women and a concession to the spirit of feminism in the world. In 1978 the CRC approved the ordination of women to the office of deacon. This too is rule in the church by women. The decision to ordain women as ministers and elders is the inevitable end of a long process. All the congregations have been well aware of this process and were involved in it. All are responsible for it.

This leads to the interesting question with which our correspondent in England closes: “Just suppose that the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches became corrupt and handed down a decision contrary to the Word of God. I assume that you are going to tell me that local presbyteries and local churches need not, indeed must not, accept such decisions. That turns your local churches into independents, does it not?”

No synod of the PRC is going to become apostate, so that it decrees unrighteous decrees, apart from a long history of gradually increasing unfaithfulness on the part of the congregations themselves. Against this, every congregation, every pastor, every consistory member, and every church member is called by Christ to fight daily, in every lawful way. God grant that we are doing this!

If a synod of the PRC should make a decision that corrupts the gospel or transgresses the law, there are certain actions that the faithful congregation may not take. She may not form a “little church within the church” with other faithful congregations. Then she stays in the now apostate denomination, but tries to live her own separate life within the organization of the denomination. This makes a mockery of the denominational bond, that is, of the unity of Christ’s church. Nor may she publicly agitate against the decision, stirring up opposition against it wherever she can. This is forbidden by Article 31 of the church order of the PRC, the venerable church order of Dordt. It is revolution in the sphere of the church.

Certainly the faithful people of God will never accept decisions that contradict the Holy Scriptures and that approve wickedness, even though these decisions are adopted by synod. Their sole recourse is to protest the evil decision to synod. And if synod on behalf of the denomination upholds the evil decision, the faithful congregations must sever their connection with the PRC.

This does not turn them into independents. For as soon as possible, they will either establish a new denomination on the basis of the Word of God and the Reformed confessions or they will unite with an existing denomination of faithful Reformed churches.

They must.

They cannot do otherwise.

For it is Reformed to seek the unity of the church.

– DJE