In the age of the Internet where most news travels “faster than a speeding bullet,” it’s hardly necessary for an SB editorial to report the decisions of Synod 2014. The student examination (the bulk of synod’s first two days) was streamed live, and summaries of each day’s business were given by synod’s clerk, so that for those who are interested (and have access to a computer) the news of synod is old by now. For those who would yet like to see the daily reports—and many pictures of the delegates of Synod 2014—please go to prca.org, click on “About” and then “Synod.”
The climax of the churches of the PRCA working together is their synod. One of the most beautiful evidences of the wisdom of Reformed church government is the synod. If she labors as she ought in “ecclesiastical matters only” and in an “ecclesiastical manner” (Church Order, Article 30), synod displays a richness of Christ’s church greater than any local congregation can by herself.
The PRCA have always emphasized that they are churches, plural, not the “Protestant Reformed Church,” singular. Each local congregation is autonomous; each is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ. Yet it is a misunderstanding of Reformed church government to suppose that the denomination is only a loose collection of independent churches that at times assemble in a classis (regionally) or synod (as a whole) to discuss matters of common concern. The local Protestant Reformed churches show their real unity in these assemblies—in synod particularly. At synod, Protestant Reformed churches are doing the work of Jesus Christ as one body. The churches federate as one body in a denomination, and the federation becomes visible and active especially at synod.
Regrettably, some churches that have been abused by rogue synods overstepping their authority or departing from truth and right have rejected synods altogether. These churches remain independent. They want nothing of synods. Other churches, knowing that independency is not Reformed, have maintained denominational ties in synods but liberated themselves from synod’s real authority. Both of these reactions to abusive synods do injustice to the importance of denominational authority and to the work local churches are called to do together. Together.
These things were running through my mind as I observed with joy the workings of Synod 2014, especially as student Joshua Engelsma was being examined and then was declared a candidate for the ministry of the Word and sacraments in the PRC. Together our churches have established and together they maintain an institution to prepare Protestant Reformed ministers. The seminary’s governing authority is the synod’s Theological School Committee. Admission into the seminary to any student is granted by the churches working together in the synod. Professors are chosen by and then overseen by the churches working together in the synod. That is, the seminary is a denominational seminary. Even the final examination of prospective PRC ministers is conducted by the synod in one of her public meetings (the examinations and graduation ceremonies took about 12 hours—over 30%—of the synodical delegates’ time in public assembly).
The beauty of this way of working together—and so publicly—is that all the churches and all her members can have confidence that the graduates of the seminary are properly prepared to take up the work of a Protestant Reformed pastor: PRC pastors have had PRC training by PRC professors chosen by PRC synods for their commitment to PRC doctrine and life. In this way the unity of the PRC is protected. Churches without pastors can have strong assurance of the kind of pastor they may call.
At a conference recently I had opportunity to talk to a member of an independent Reformed church. He told me about their efforts to replace their pastor who had taken a call elsewhere. His problem: he did not know the ministers who might be called and was not certain where they had been trained. Granted, his consistory can (and will) interview men, listen to their sermons, invite them to their pulpit, and even find reports about the men they might recommend to the congregation. But the reality for them is—without a denominational seminary—the new minister may come from any one of a number of seminaries, probably non-denominational seminaries themselves, may transfer from any number of other Reformed denominations or another independent church, and then may or may not come with some sort of recommendation from a church whose consistory they do not know. The conversation made me thankful for what God has given us in the PRC. Synod’s actions with brother Engelsma bolstered my gratitude to God.
The Protestant Reformed Churches now have spoken, together: “Candidate Joshua Engelsma, eligible for call on or after July 12, 2014. Congratulations, brother!”
In connection with the church’s working together in the seminary, synod instructed her Theological School Committee to report to next year’s synod about what preparations are being made to ensure long-term stability of and continuity in the seminary’s work, given the fact that the three present professors, according to the regulations now in force, must begin the replacement process in three successive years—2019, 2020, and 2021. The present rule is that when a professor turns 65, synod begins seeking his replacement, and when he turns 70 he must fully retire. The TSC will need to convince synod that, for the good of the seminary, and in light of the many factors to be considered, it will be wisest either to abide by the present rules or depart from them. In one scenario, one professor’s replacement could begin a year or so before he turns 65, and another a year or so after his 65th birthday—thus spreading out the transition process. What will govern synod’s decision is the welfare of the school—what is best for the training of PRC ministers. (We commit to the Lord the matter of the future health and strength of the men who must be replaced.)
The PRC also work together in missions. It’s not that no congregation does mission work on its own, but when the PRCs work together to spread the gospel, they do so synodically. The churches together rejoiced to hear Rev. Bruinsma’s oral report of the work in Pittsburgh— work that the denomination does through the calling church, Southwest PRC in Grandville, MI, and oversees through its all-volunteer Domestic Mission Committee (DMC). It must have been encouraging to the DMC to hear some delegates of synod openly express their encouragement to the DMC to go forward with a proposal to call another missionary for domestic missions. The PRC work together in the task of foreign mission work in the Philippines with two full-time missionary-pastors and their families: Rev D. Kleyn and Rev. R. Smit. Synod approved the decision that Rev. Richard Smit return to North America in July 2015. They also gave the go-ahead to the FMC and the Doon congregation to begin already to call a replacement for him. These PRC foreign missionaries— Smit and D. Kleyn—were intimately involved in the work of forming a new denomination in the Philippines, where two Filipino pastors and consistories now labor together for the Reformed faith, and other congregations are looking to join her. They are training men, both within and without the new denomination, to be Reformed officebearers.
Not to be sneezed at is the references, by the FMC, to two other possibilities. First, they have discussed with the missionaries in the Philippines, with our minister-on-loan in Singapore, and with our seminary professors, what might be the possibilities of PRC seminary-training in Southeast Asia—an exciting prospect. Second, they are considering asking the churches of the PRC to send a third foreign missionary to Southeast Asia. Their eye is on Myanmar (Burma) and India and the contacts the Lord has given there.
Together the PRC seek to establish contacts with other churches of like faith. Seeking relationships with other churches outside of the denomination is a work no local congregation is free to do. We have agreed that the work of manifesting the catholicity of the church is a work of the “churches in common,” as our Church Order puts it in Article 30.
Together the PRC have established sister-church relationships with the CPRC Northern Ireland, and the CERC Singapore—both of which sent delegates to speak to the PRC Synod. The thrust of both delegates’ speeches was the beauty of our denominations working together. Synod heard that these two denominations are now meeting each other for possible formal relationships.
Jointly we have established corresponding relations with the EPC of Australia. There is a relationship with these saints “down under” because of the close agreement we have with them; it cannot be a full sister-church relationship because of the differences. Synod is sending another delegation to Australia, as well as to the BERG in Germany. The contacts are developed by carrying on important theological discussions. And synod instructed the Committee for Contact with Other Churches to send another delegation of observers to the 2014 meeting of NAPARC, to study further the constitution and by-laws of this organization, and to recommend principles and guidelines for participation in such organizations. All this the churches do together.
Together we support the needy churches of the denomination. Seven churches have not the means to maintain themselves with a full-time pastor. By this action, the smaller churches are reminded of the interest the PRC has in bestowing abundant care upon every member of the body. In concert we support the retired ministers and their widows.
And through probably the least known of all the denominational committees, the PRC together even produce and approve instructional materials for use in the catechism classes for the churches’ children. The unity of our denomination is primarily a unity in truth, a truth imparted to our covenant children also in the catechism room. All the members of the denomination, in answer to all the important questions of the gospel, give the same answers, that is, they speak with one voice…together.
We labor while it is day, till the night comes when no one can work.
And we resist every effort of the devil to divide us. In truth, we labor together for the Lord Jesus Christ.