The final paragraph of the editorial, July 2018, urges readers, who are members of the PRC, to study the decisions of the PRC Synod of 2018, and are further enjoined to strive to understand the relationship of faith and good works. The editorial affirms and I believe that it is unquestionably true that the work of Christ in our salvation has eternal and everlasting importance and is by the mercy and grace of Christ alone. There is only one way to the Father. “No man cometh unto the Father but by me,” speaks Christ (John 14:6).
Regarding the suggested study of the decision of the PRC Synod of 2018, the editor concludes that thought and discussion regarding the experience of the Christian’s covenant fellowship with God is obligatory and judicious, because the connection of faith and works is a crucial facet of the settlement of this principal issue by our PRC Synod. The editor’s proposal is required because the recommendation for the study of the relation between faith and works, in this instance, is needed due to the PRC Synod’s decision regarding protests about the orthodoxy of a PRC minister’s sermons.
I read the editor as declaring that a PRC reader’s reflection or saying something about the decision of Synod will result in questioning the decision of Synod and in this way will be committing the sin of slander, a dreadfully serious sin. Slander is sin against the 9th commandment and is punishable by law. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice…” (Eph. 4:31). The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of slander as “one of the proper works of the devil,” who is the chief slanderer. Slander brings upon the child of God the heavy wrath of God.
Notice please! A minister is being examined by the synod for doctrinal error in his preaching. The PRC Synod has resolved that his preaching is orthodox but is at best in many ways and frequently quasi-orthodox.
—If one disagrees or speaks against the resolution of the PRC Synod, one of the broader bodies of Reformed churches, one commits the sin of slander?
—Candid and careful consideration of the synodical decision is slander?
—Is there not a requisite and essential time for sanctified debate and difference of opinion among PRC believing Christians?
“He who conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander [utters a slander] is a fool” (Prov. 10:18).
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I appreciate the thoughtful questions you send because they raise some issues that are not always understood and about which discussion can be profitable.
The overarching issue, first of all, is the binding character of ecclesiastical decisions. As you are aware, the Church Order binds all members to certain rules of conduct in the church. Article 31 instructs us: “…whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order…”
The force of Article 31 is that all members are required to submit to decisions taken by the ecclesiastical body. After a decision is made, if a member believes that he is able to prove (using the Bible, the confessions, and/or the Church Order) that the decision is wrong, he may attempt to do so. If he convinces the body, the decision is overturned. If he does not convince the body, he must submit to the decision. He is not free to go about declaring his opposition to it. One might—in his own mind—disagree with a decision of synod; his conscience is free to disagree. But he is not free to speak against the decision.
But your questions have to do with discussions of synodical decisions soon after they are made and when one is not sure whether or not he agrees with the decisions. The second question, regarding a “candid and careful consideration of the synodical decision,” asks, “Is there not a requisite and essential time for sanctified debate and difference of opinion among PRC believing Christians?”
My response is: There must be room for this. Members must be able to discuss decisions of ecclesiastical bodies and even debate the issues. As the editorial concluded: “Good discussions of this material will be rewarding. It will result in a better understanding of the place of Christ in our salvation—His saving work for us and in us. And that in turn will lead to even more appreciation for God’s gift of His only begotten Son for our salvation.”
And yet, one surely recognizes that both wisdom and proper motivation are important in such discussions. What is the motivation in the discussion? Is a member debating a matter with friends because he is not convinced by synod’s grounds and is testing his own arguments to discover whether he is seeing the issues correctly? Then the motivation is to seek knowledge and understanding. This is healthy and good for the church, if done wisely. Wisdom makes one to know whether this setting is proper and all the people in this group are good for such a discussion. For example, it is not wise to raise such questions in the presence of someone who is always critical of ecclesiastical decisions. Nor is it wise to raise it with new members or with those who are not members of the PRC, or simply to blurt out disagreement in the narthex of church and let everyone nearby hear the discussion. But done wisely, with responsible, thinking fellow members, it can be, as you suggest, good and helpful.
But, on the other hand, is a member fully convinced that synod is wrong and is trying to convince others of the same so they will join his cause? In this case he is promoting opposition to a settled and binding decision. This is schismatic.
Wisdom and motivation. Those discussing synodical decisions must exercise wisdom and must examine their motives.
For all that, please note that, in the particular point made in the original article, I maintain only that to accuse someone of heresy1 when the synod, in its condemnation of the teaching in question, pointedly refrained from calling it heresy, is slander of that individual. Discuss the doctrine. Debate the issues (in wisdom and with proper motivation). But do not slander members or officebearers in good standing in the churches.
Russell J. Dykstra, editor
1 See the response to the next letter for a discussion of what is heresy.