A friend lent me the March, April, and May 1991 issues of the Outlook, which contain articles called “Synod-ocracy: Cause and Cure.” The writer’s complaint is that the synod of his church (the Christian Reformed Church) had opened the doors of local church office to women. His solution is virtually a modified form of independency, unless I read him wrongly. . . . Have you read the articles in the Outlook? I would value a response to “Synod-ocracy: Cause and Cure,” unless you agree with the articles, of course.
This was the request of a correspondent in Liverpool, England in a letter that was published in the February 1, 1992 issue of the Standard Bearer. The request refers to three articles in the religious periodical, Outlook, entitled, “Synod-ocracy: Cause and Cure,” by Dr. Lester DeKoster. In these articles, Dr. DeKoster offers advice to Christian Reformed congregations that oppose the decision of the CRC synod of 1990 approving the ordination of women to the offices of minister and elder. The advice treats the church political aspect of the difficulty of these aggrieved congregations: How can they live in the denomination?
As our English correspondent recognizes, the issue in the Outlook articles is whether synodical union has a rightful place in the life of Reformed churches.
It is the fundamental claim of the three articles in Outlook (hereafter, “SCC-1, 2, or 3”) that the Reformed synod has no authority over the local churches. Although DeKoster attempts a description of the strange word, “synod-ocracy,” that links it with Roman Catholic hierarchy, “synod-ocracy” for him is not that synod abuses its authority or that synod usurps authority that does not belong to it, but that synod has, and exercises, any authority at all. The sin of “synod-ocracy” is simply that synod is synod.
The Word gives no authority to synods (“SCC-2”).
Authority in the church, the marks of the true church, the offices of the church, the keys of the kingdom are all lodged in the local congregation. None belongs to classes, synods nor all trappings of bureaucracy built up by them. Let us be so clear about it, that synodocracy will wilt on the vine it has intruded among us (“SCC-3”).
Synods do not have, and can never attain, authority on their own; nor can the churches loan it to them (“SCC—3”).
This last reflects on the Reformed explanation of the authority of synod as derived from the local churches themselves who delegate ministers and elders with authority to classis and synod, so that the authority of synod is the authority of the local churches themselves thus assembled. DeKoster denies this categorically.
You cannot (he says, speaking to the local church – DJE) delegate divinely assigned authority to any other body; it is not yours to pass around (“SCC-1”).
A congregation cannot give a delegate any authority to lord it over anybody, nor even to join in lording it over the congregation itself. Delegates do not come trailing clouds of authority to be manipulated by bureaucrats for their own ends (“SCC- 2”; the language is pejorative, but the reference is to the local churches’ authoritative delegation of men to the major assemblies – DJE).
They (the local churches- DJE) have no authority in and of themselves to delegate to classes and synods (“SCC-3”).
This denial of all synodical authority over the local churches brings DeKoster into conflict with the Reformed church order of Dordt, which church order in revised form is also the church order of his own denomination. DeKoster’s resolution of this conflict is radical. First, he denies any and all authority to the church order.
Of necessity a Church Order is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is because it has no authority, cannot command obedience with, “Thus saith the Lord!” . . .church orders do not enjoy divinely endowed authority. They describe, not prescribe (“SCC-1”).
That article of the church order which is of crucial importance for the denominational union, Article 31 (Articles 29 and 30 in the revised church order of the CRC), DeKoster charges with the capital crime of challenging the sole authority of Scripture:
Note, then, how the Church Order (in Art. 31 of the church order of Dordt – DJE) not only sets itself on a par with the Bible, but wishes to be viewed in place of the Forms of Unity. This. . . is a boulder for synodical autocracy (“SCC-2”).
He holds up Article 31 to ridicule:
All the Church Order allows is that churches, mind you, come crawling to synods, mind you, begging to be heard. . . . You come; you kneel; and perhaps his excellency will grant you an audience (“SCC-2”)
Thus does Dr. DeKoster, all on his own, by mere declaration, set aside the long, honorable, well-argued Reformed tradition, shared by the Presbyterian churches, that the Reformed church order is based on Holy Scripture, so that its authority at bottom, like that of the confessions, is the very authority of the King of the church, Jesus Christ.
But so clear and strong is the language of Article 31 of the Dordt church order against DeKoster’s denial of synodical authority that he thinks it necessary to combat the article in yet two other ways. Article 31, after all, states that the decisions of synod “shall be considered settled and binding, unless (they) be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the church order . . . .”
In the first assault upon this article (which has no authority in any case, since the entire church order lacks authority), DeKoster offers the novel explanation that “settled and binding” does not refer to the local churches and their members, but to the following synods who might otherwise waste time discussing matters already decided.
“Settled and binding” . . . once was useful, not for laying edicts upon the churches but for obliging synods to discipline themselves. . . . Synods meeting in such circumstances had absolutely no time for repetitious talk. And thus a decision became “settled and binding, “not upon the churches but upon following synods.
But even as regards the subsequent synods, decisions of a previous synod are settled and binding “only as precedent, for synods have no authority over each other either” (“SCC-2”). All of this is to say that decisions of Reformed synods are “settled and binding” upon absolutely no one and upon absolutely nothing.
To his credit, Dr. DeKoster has in the past shown himself a staunch opponent of the “new hermeneutic” as a way of interpreting the Bible. It is not to his credit that he now permits himself the use of a “new hermeneutic” in order to explain away the clear rule for denominational life found in Article 31 of the church order. Treating as it does of the right of appeal by a member against a “minor assembly” (consistory), Article 31 states, in clear, unmistakable language, that the decisions of synod shall be considered settled and binding by the appellant, by the consistory, and by every congregation and member in the denomination.
The second additional assault upon Article 31, after declaring it (as ljart of the church order as a whole) to be without any authority whatever, consists of pitting Article 84 of the same church order against it. (This has become Article 95 in the revised church order of the CRC.) Article 84 is the grand anti-hierarchical article of the church order of Dordt: “No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons.” This, says DeKoster, means that synods possess no authority over the local churches and that synodical decisions are not settled and binding for the churches. If a synod has authority over the local churches, it would be lording it over the churches. The ministers and elders at synod would then be lording it over the other ministers and elders (“SCC-2”).
His error, of course, is that he confuses “lording over” with “exercising legitimate authority.” Also, he fails to see that the attempt by al local church to dominate other local churches is not at all the same as the mutual exercise of their authority by all the churches in assembly through ministers and elders duly appointed.
Dr. DeKoster had done well to leave Article 84 of the Dordt church order out of his polemic against the Reformed synod. Indeed, he might well have hoped that no one would think of this article. For this article demolishes his case. The article has always been of vital importance to the Reformed churches. In the original draft of the church order, the fathers put this article first. It was Article 1. Abominating the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church from which they had just been delivered, the Reformed churches in The Netherlands were determined to avoid all hierarchy in their own life. No fiercer enemies of hierarchy existed than these churches. But it was these very churches with their antipathy toward all hierarchy that included in their church order the articles that required synods (Art. 29); gave synods “jurisdiction” (Latin: “auctoritas,” that is, ‘authority’) over the consistories (Art. 36); and stated that the decisions of synod on matters of appeal against consistories “shall be considered settled and binding” (Art. 31).
The explanation is that the Reformed churches have always understood that synodical authority is not inherently hierarchical. Synod is not ” synod-ocracy.”
There is no need to introduce Article 31 to Article 84. They have known each other well, and been good friends, now for almost 500 years.
Dr. DeKoster diagnoses the cause of “synod-ocracy,” and prescribes the cure. The cause of “synodocracy” is the existence itself of synod according to the Reformed church order. The cure for “synod-ocracy,” accordingly, is the annihilation of synod. The conservatives in the CRC have brought to physician DeKoster a sick patient, their synod. By the virus of common grace, it has lost its immunity to the disease of worldliness and is presently ravaged with feminism. The cause of the problem, says the doctor, is that the patient exists at all. The cure? “Kill the poor fellow!” Henceforth, no broader, or major, assemblies. Only independent congregations.
Thus DeKoster dissolves the denominational bond. Our Liverpool correspondent shows shrewd insight when he says that DeKoster’s advice “is virtually a modified form of independency.” It is, in fact, actual, complete, and developed independency. DeKoster is even willing to embrace the name: ti Congregationalism is, historically, Calvinism steering shy of synodocracy” (“SCC-3”).
This is bad enough. For, as I have shown in earlier articles, independency abandons that which is essential to Reformed Christianity. Congregationalism is, principally and historically, Calvinism committing suicide. Independency sins against the unity of the church.
But for Dr. DeKoster and the conservatives for whom and to whom he speaks, the advice in “Synodocracy: Cause and Cure” is even worse. Recommending that those aggrieved by the synod of 1990 remain in the denomination, DeKoster urges that local churches in the CRC refuse to recognize any synodical decision as settled and binding (“you decide to take it or leave it”); refuse to send delegates to classis and synod; refuse to pay the synodical quota; refuse to receive the classical church visitors; and receive ministers without any denominational regulation or examination (“SCC-3”). This is revolt against the church order that is still binding upon all congregations and members in the CRC. The result is anarchy.
Not one voice, to my knowledge, has been raised in the conservative CRC press, including Outlook, against this manifesto for independency.
Synod does not have many friends today. The denomination has fallen out of favor.
The fact remains that the Reformed denomination of churches, united in the truth set forth in the “Three Forms of Unity” and cooperating in accordance with the church order of Dordt, is a wonderful thing. It is not man-made. It is the creation of the Spirit of Christ.