An astute reader of the Standard Bearer in England asks some penetrating questions about Reformed church government (cf. the letter, “Reformed Synods and Independency,” elsewhere in this issue). Basically he asks for a defense of the synod, or general assembly as it is called in the Presbyterian churches, in the system of Reformed church government. He is moved to do this by the attack on the synod within Reformed circles today and by instances, real or alleged, of the abuse of their authority by synods to the detriment of the local churches and their members. He also asks the practical question, whether the apostasy of a Protestant Reformed synod would not force the faithful congregations into independency.
These questions about synod and independency are timely. About the same time that the letter from our correspondent in Liverpool arrived, the Evangelical Times, a leading evangelical paper in England, ran an article entitled, “Biblical Presbyterianism” (January 1992, p. 6). The author, Eric Alexander, attacks the position that holds that presbyteries (classes) and general assemblies (synods) are an essential aspect of true Presbyterianism, that is, essential to genuinely Presbyterian, or Reformed, church government. For him, the essence of biblical Presbyterianism is a body of elders governing the independent congregation. True Presbyterianism is perfectly compatible with independency. Alexander rejects the connection of local churches in authoritative broader assemblies as unbiblical. He notes that the Westminster Confession of Faith supports its teaching of “synods and councils” in Chapter 31 with only one biblical passage, Acts 15. He concludes with a call to Presbyterians in the British Isles to “look again at what makes us biblical Presbyterians.” This is a challenge to do away with the denominational bond. The Evangelical Times thinks that this is a ” thoughtful and challenging article.”
As our English correspondent observes, with reference to articles that have recently appeared in the (Christian Reformed) Outlook, those Christian Reformed people who are now threatening secession advocate independency as the solution to their problem with synods that adopt unbiblical decisions.
Rejection of synodical union for independency becomes more and more common in the United States and Canada. Individuals leave Presbyterian and Reformed churches for the large, flourishing, popular, independent churches. Congregations break away from apostatizing denominations and decide to remain independent. Or congregations begin with the determination to exist outside of any denominational connection.
There is talk that we are seeing the end of denominations. Like the dinosaur, the denomination becomes extinct. Many are ready to say about the passing of the denomination, as about the extinction of the dinosaur, “Good riddance!”
What is called for by these ominous developments is a clear, strong testimony that synodical union is basic to the Reformed, or Presbyterian, view of the church. Since the Reformed view of the church is biblical, synodical union is a fundamental aspect of the Bible’s teaching about the church.
It is passing strange, some would say wildly incongruous, that this testimony must come from the Protestant Reformed Churches. Throughout their history, for almost 70 years, the PRC have vehemently insisted on the autonomy of the local congregation within the denomination. Each local congregation is a complete manifestation of the body of. Christ. Through the body of elders chosen out of the congregation by the congregation herself, each congregation is self-governing (autonomous). It is the congregation that preaches, administers the sacraments, and disciplines.
The jealousy of the PRC for the rights of the local congregation is evident in the name of the PRC. The name of the denomination is Protestant Reformed Churches (plural), not Church (singular). If I had a dollar for every time that the former editors of this magazine patiently corrected those who referred to the denomination as Protestant Reformed Church and explained why the name is Churches, I likely could take my wife to dinner at a fancy restaurant.
The local congregation is the instituted church of Jesus Christ. The denomination is the federation, or union, of autonomous churches, which do not surrender their autonomy by membership in the denomination.
With an urgency born of their own suffering at the hands of hierarchical major assemblies, the PRC have unceasingly warned against the evils of denominational hierarchy. These include the major assemblies’ exercising the key power of discipline, the usurpation by synodical committees (boards) and personnel of power that belongs to the congregations, a tyrannical, sheep-scattering manner; and the intrusion of the major assemblies into the life of the congregations by taking up matters that are not rightfully before the assemblies. Underlying all this is the notion that synod is the church, whereas the local congregations are merely branches and parts of the church.
Thus a hierarchical “Reformed” denomination comes to resemble the Roman Catholic Church. Not only does the synod with its increasingly intricate machinery, its permanent personnel, and its all-powerful committees lord it over the congregations from the top down, but also the synod is the church to which the congregations ought to be subject and which they must serve as members of a body serve the head.
Against this departure from Christ’s government of His church, the PRC have protested, even though their protest has fallen on deaf ears. But the protest of the PRC has always been against synodicalism, not against synod. Therefore, today, when a clamor for independency arises from Reformed churches that have lately come to realize the evil of synodical hierarchy, there is no incongruity in the PRC’s rising to the defense of synod, and thus of the denominational bond. The deepest concern of the PRC, as a Reformed denomination, is neither for the authority of the local congregation nor for the authority of the broader assemblies, but for the government of the true church by “that spiritual policy which our Lord has taught us in His Word” (Belgic Confession, Art. 30).
Synods are Reformed. General assemblies are Presbyterian. Rejection of authoritative broader assemblies is un-Reformed. Refusal by congregations to unite with like-minded congregations in a church federation that is realized in presbyteries and general assemblies whose decisions have binding authority is un-Presbyterian, even though the congregations rule themselves by a body of elders. The loose association of local churches in an organization that meets sporadically and whose decisions are not binding on the local churches is no different and, therefore, no better.
This is not even a debatable issue. It may not be. For the standard that determines what is Reformed, or Presbyterian, is the creeds and church orders. And they plainly affirm that genuine Presbyterianism is synodical. The Reformed church order of Dordt declares that good order in the church of Christ requires classis and synod as well as consistory (Art. 29); ascribes to classis and synod a jurisdiction (Latin: auctoritas) over the consistory (Art. 36); and states that the decisions of the major assemblies are to be “considered settled and binding” (Art. 31).
In addition, the Dordt church order so structures the life of the churches that the major assemblies have an authoritative role in vital aspects of the life and work of the congregations. One instance is that the congregation may neither call nor dismiss a minister without the advice, or approval, of the major assemblies (Articles 4, 5, and 11). Another is that the congregation may not excommunicate a member without the advice of classis (Art. 76).
This defines Reformed church life and government.
The Westminster Standards define Presbyterianism similarly. Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “for the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils” (Art. 1). Article 3 of the same chapter affirms the authority of these denominational assemblies:
It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same . . . .
The Westminster Assembly’s “Directory for Church Government” (not to be confused with the “Form of Presbyterian Church Government”) states that “it is lawful, and agreeable to the Word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are presbyteries and synods; or assemblies congregational, classical and synodical.” The “Directory” explicitly condemns and forbids independency:
To gather churches into an independent form of government out of churches of a presbyterial form of government, upon an opinion that the presbyterial government is unlawful, is not lawful and warranted by the Word of God (for this “Directory,” cf. Wayne R. Spear, “The Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Church Government” in Pressing Toward the Mark, ed. Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble).
It is possible that Reformed congregations renounce synodical union and thus the denominational bond. It is also possible that they do this because they suppose synods to be unbiblical and independency, or congregationalism, biblical. They are mistaken. Carrying out this erroneous idea, they sin against the unity of the church of Christ. Still it is possible that formerly Reformed churches make this decision. But it is not permitted that they yet consider themselves Reformed, or Presbyterian. The creeds and church orders, official standards, judge that by forsaking the synodical union they have abandoned Presbyterianism and are no longer Reformed churches.
I do not refer to congregations that find themselves temporarily alone because a denomination has wickedly expelled them, or because faithfulness to the Head of the church has compelled them to separate from an apostatizing denomination. But I refer to congregations that repudiate synodical union as a matter of settled policy.
To be Reformed, or Presbyterian, is to be synodical.