By this time, most members of the Protestant Reformed Churches have read the decisions taken at the extended session of the 2009 Synod. Each consistory was provided with the decisions and given opportunity to make them available to the members. Others, interested in the case, have also likely read the decisions. Some have not seen the decisions. But all good members of the church are always interested in careful understanding of synod’s decisions. For them I present the following description of the decisions, as one who worked many hours over two months on the committee formulating the advice and agrees with the decisions.
But that I agree with the decisions is not most important. More important is that the many misunderstandings of the decisions be cleared up. Because of the emotion and personal nature of the case, there have been misrepresentations of the decisions from both sides that disagreed with the decisions. Whether these wrong portrayals of the decisions were deliberate or not, the Lord can and will determine. These have been hurtful to the cause of the church and schools.
But at least a few who attended synod and spoke with me afterwards have testified that their misunderstandings have been cleared up and their great misgivings removed. One who thought the churches were weakening their support of the schools was relieved to know differently after he listened at synod. Another, who had been concerned that the assemblies were doing injustice to the minister, was pleased when he saw and heard synod’s conclusions.
First, Synod 2009 adopted a summary of the history of the case. This almost-six-page summary describes the case from its inception in a PRC in 2006 through the decisions of Synod 2008. The importance of this history is that it shows the concrete case out of which the issues have arisen: A minister withdrew his children from two different good Christian schools, with criticisms of the schools, and homeschooled his children. The actions occasioned serious disturbances in the congregation and, because unity could not be restored, not because he homeschooled, the congregation experienced the painful release of their minister under Article 11 of the Church Order.
Objections were brought, both by those who supported the minister’s homeschooling and by those who believed the consistory should have required the minister to use the existing Christian schools. The case evolved as protests and appeals came to Classis East and synod, beginning in September 2007, and ending in August 2009.
The particular circumstances were important. At the heart of the case, however, was the proper understanding of Article 21 of the Church Order.
Synod 2009 received from eleven men protests, appeals, and an overture regarding the matter. The overture asked that synod change the wording of the Church Order to include “home schools” in Article 21. Synod did not treat each protest individually and separately, but treated the main issues of the protests and appeals by adopting eleven main recommendations. It is very important for full understanding that the decisions of synod themselves be read in their entirety, but the following takes one through the decisions step by step.
For the largest perspective, two things must be kept in mind. First, the case dealt primarily with officebearers. Although the decisions refer to, and apply Article 21 to, all the members of the church, the primary focus is on the officebearer. Second, it must be known that synod adopted positions vigorously supporting good Christian schools, and recommending against home schools when these good Christian schools are available. Synod made her decisions over against some who wanted to make homeschooling an equally good option for covenant parents; and over against others who wanted to make the good Christian schools themselves the “demand of the covenant” and “required by Scripture.” To understand synod’s decisions, both of these perspectives, pulling in opposite directions, must be kept in mind. The reader may note that the decisions alternate between addressing each of these improper perspectives.
First, synod adopted a position as to the meaning of Church Order Article 21 (recommendation #1.). Some had contended that when Article 21 refers to “good Christian schools” we may understand home schools also. Synod disagreed. The “schools” of Article 21 are “the Christian day schools in which parents have their children instructed by others on their behalf.” The reasons for this decision were: 1) this is plain from the language of Article 21; 2) this was the understanding of Article 21 in Reformed churches historically; and 3) this position is a biblical position, because the Christian day schools arise out of biblical and confessional principles. At some length, synod showed the biblical and confessional nature of the Christian school. (This biblical and confessional defense of the Christian schools explains why synod also rejected an overture to change Article 21 to include “home schools.” See below.)
After synod maintained that Article 21 refers to good Christian schools and not home schools, synod wanted to avoid an error on the other side. Two protests wanted synod to say that the covenant demands the good Christian schools. Synod carefully distinguished between the demand of the covenant and how that demand is carried out. The “demand of the covenant” referred to in Article 21 is the covenant instructionthat parents must give. The precise mannerin which covenant instruction is given (the good Christian school or homeschooling) is not specified by Scripture. (That was recommendation #2.)
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Christian schools must not be supported and promoted as vigorously as possible, as the next decision shows. In recommendation #3, synod said that every consistory must uphold Article 21 “by word and by example.” This decision was taken because some believed that a consistory member could promote the Christian schools properly without usingthem himself, or that not all the consistory members need be “on board” with the Christian schools in order for the consistory to support them. Synod explained that Article 21 calls all elders and ministers: 1) to see to it that there are good Christian schools, 2) to instruct parents to use them and admonish them if they do not (although there may be exceptions), and 3) to use these schools themselves unless there are “special circumstances judged by his consistory to be valid.” The grounds for these included the necessity of officebearers being examples to the congregation.
Thus far, synod’s decisions already (on the one hand) vigorously promote the good Christian schools (#1, 3); but (on the other hand) do not take the position that the Church Order demands them (#2). Synod’s recommendation #4 addressed the matter of Christian liberty. Synod supported the position of Classis East that “homeschooling falls within the area of Christian liberty.” One aspect of the teaching of “Christian liberty” is that “the believer may do what God’s law does not forbid, and refrain from whatever God’s law does not require.” Freedom is given to Christians to decide in “matters not legislated by the law of God.” The manner in which a parent teaches his children is a matter of Christian liberty. So synod declared: “Although the Christian day schools of Article 21 are rooted in and are proper applications of biblical principles, they are not the only legitimate way of instructing children according to the demands of the covenant.” In some instances homeschooling is the best option.
But recommendation #4 may not be read apart from #5.
Synod declared (in recommendation #5) that Classis East was wrong when it used the doctrine of Christian liberty in the particular case of a minister. Why? Because the specific case involved an officebearer. And an officebearer’s conduct is limited by his obligations to the Church Order. Gradually zeroing in on the particular case, synod gave lengthy explanation of the limits to theexercise of one’s liberty. First, there are limits to the exercise of a believer’sChristian liberty, as I Corinthians 6 and 10 teach. Second, the Church Order restricts the exercise of Christian liberty for church members. Third, the regulations of the Church Order apply in more ways to the officebearers, who willingly bind themselves to these regulations. Fourth, one of these areas is the promotion of the Christian schools.
In recommendation #5, reference was made to a man’s conscience. If a man’s conscience calls him to do one thing, how can a Church Order require him to do another? Synod explained that the church has the right to adopt regulations that limit the exercise of a man’s liberty, even in areas that some would consider matters of conscience. And those unable to live by those regulations may not be able to serve as officebearers. Some examples may help. One man’s conscience may not permit him to preach the Heidelberg Catechism, as the Church Order requires in Article 68. This man may be orthodox. No one will question his Christianity. He may have all the gifts of the ministry. But he cannot be a minister in the PRC (and other Reformed denominations), because the churches have agreed that the ministers will preach from the Catechism. Or: another man’s conscience may not permit him to conduct worship services on special days. Because the Church Order in Article 67 requires this in the PRC, that man cannot serve as a minister in the PRC. Likewise, if a man’s conscience does not permit him to use the good Christian schools, the church does not bind his conscience in that matter. The church does not discipline him. But “his position of conscience may make it impossible for him to serve in a special office in the church.”
Members of the church may learn something very important here. Not all regulations in the Church Order are based on explicit scriptural passages. But no church member may conclude that he is not, therefore, required to abide by them. Church members agree to abide by the Church Order. Officebearers in special ways are obligated to uphold and promote it. Their acceptance of an office means that they promise to do so. Let me give just one other example. The church requires that a man be trained in the denominationally approved seminary before he may be a minister. (Indeed, the church has spelled out an exception to this and how that exception is carried out in the Church Order, Article 8.) Also, the prospective minister must take a specified number of courses, earn a minimum GPA, and pass muster at another classical gathering. But no man may say that his conscience convicts him that he is qualified to be a minister without “jumping through these hoops.” All church members understand that there are certain standards that her officebearers will comply with, even if they are not spelled out explicitly in Scripture.
The Particular Case
Then, before moving on to some various objections, synod gave careful attention to the particular case. Because homeschooling is a matter of Christian liberty, and becausesome circumstances may make it permissible and even advisable for an officebearer to homeschool his children, what about this particular case? What about the reasons that were given to homeschool, in those circumstances, in 2006?
In recommendation #6, synod applied all of the above to the particular case, and decided that the minister’s “reasons for removing his children from the good Protestant Reformed schools to homeschool them made it impossible for him effectively to carry out his obligation” in his congregation “with regard to Article 21….”
Two grounds were given: First, no unique needs were revealed that made it inadvisable for the minister to use the schools available to him. Second, the minister made clear that he withdrew his children from the schools because they had serious weaknesses. In synod’s deliberations, it became clear that this second ground—the minister’s criticisms of the schools—was by far the weightiest. “This made it impossible for him believably to promote in his congregation those schools that were not good enough for his children.”
(Next time: “Other Objections” treated: Did Classis overstep its bounds in dealing with what belonged to a local consistory? Did the ecclesiastical assemblies improperly involve themselves with a parental matter? Did the churches improperly add to the requirements for serving in church office? Summary and comment.)