The April 15 deadline for submitting material for treatment at synod has passed.1 The material for synod’s work has now been distributed to consistories. With the exception of a few items that may come through supplements, synod’s agenda is fixed. It is a large agenda, larger than average both in bulk and in the number of individual matters synod must deliberate. The subjects range from the mundane (but necessary) to the most profound and weighty. They vary from recommending approval of one minister’s retirement to the examination of seven young men who seek that office. From financial support of needy churches and emeritus ministers to serious doctrinal controversy. The delegates (and their alternates, who may be called to sit in for one unable to attend) must gird up their loins for some very intense labor, and likely a couple of week’s work. Are the elder delegates fully aware of how long this synod could last?
What threatens to eclipse everything else on the agenda of Synod 2017 are ten protests and appeals synod must address. Ten objections to decisions made or actions taken by Protestant Reformed assemblies. Although they are significant, even vital, the protests and appeals ought not to overshadow the other important work of our denomination’s annual broadest assembly.
Front and Center
After the opening worship service, the election of officers, and the business of appointing committees to offer “pre-advice,” synod will put front and center the momentous work of examining seven men who have finished their training in the seminary, the largest single class the PRC has ever examined. These men have been recommended for examination by the seminary pro fessors and the Theological School Committee. They have studied for at least eight years preparing for this final gate through which they must pass to be declared candidates for the ministry of Word and sacrament in the PRC. Because there are seven, the unusual procedure approved at last year’s synod will be to divide both students and delegates into two separate groups and have two exams running concurrently. Both groups of students will be examined in public, and both groups of delegates will see all the students. Separating the students in this way enables synod to finish the exam in almost half the time that the rules normally would require—even then, still most of three days—and still give the students an examination that will reveal their knowledge, abilities, and the convictions of their hearts. May God be with these good brothers!
The Normal and Expected
Nor may protests diminish the significance of all the other work of synod—the normal and expected work that synod does every year. That includes the denominational work of missions. Both the Foreign and Domestic Mission Committees report and bring recommendations. What is significant in the DMC’s report is that there is so little to report. The PRC have no domestic missionary. What is significant in the FMC’s report is how much: the massive amount of work in the Philippines, the efforts to obtain a third missionary for this field, and the good work of the two who are presently laboring. It will not be a surprise to hear that synod will even treat a recommendation (from the Contact Committee) that the PRCA enter into official sister relations with the churches in the Philippines. May the Lord direct the synod so to decide, on the basis, of course, of unity in faith and life between the denominations.
The Committee for Contact with other churches has been tasked with a mountain of work and brings to the agenda a fair share of its bulk. Synod will examine our existing relations with the CPRC Northern Ireland, the CERC Singapore, the EPC Australia; and the labors to investigate relations with churches in Namibia, South Africa and Germany. The Contact Committee also brings a significant recommendation that, after a number of years as “Observers” at NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council), the PRC not join this council of churches. Membership in this organization, the Contact Committee judges, does not fit the guidelines established by Synod 2016. Finally, the CC brings recommendations with regard to synod’s mandate to work on the revision of the Psalter.
The Theological School Committee (which oversees the life and work of the seminary) brings a mostly routine report. The notable exception is their presenting a nomination of three ministers from which synod will choose to appoint one to replace Prof. R. Dykstra. Prof. Dykstra, then, will retire when his replacement finishes his preparations to teach and can take on the full load of responsibility—as long as five years. The TSC presents the names of Rev. Garrett Eriks, Rev. Douglas Kuiper, and Rev. Andrew Lanning. The churches may be reminded that a few years ago synod adopted a procedure for replacing the three professors that differs from the norm. The rule is that the year in which a professor reaches the age of 65, synod begins the process of his replacement. But since all three current professors are only 18 months apart in age, and it would not be wise to replace all three in such close succession, an exceptional process was adopted. The replacement process would begin early, be spread out, and a man would be called in 2017 for Prof. Dykstra (present age 63), in 2019 for Prof. Cammenga (present age 62), and 2021 for Prof. Gritters (present age 61). Pray that God will provide able and faithful men for our seminary.
Then there are other committee reports, none of them insignificant, such as the Catechism Book Committee that polled consistories for input on possible improvements in the catechism curriculum, the Emeritus Committee that oversees support of our retired pastors, the Finance Committee, the Board of Trustees, the Stated Clerk, the Student Aid Committee that supports our seminarians, and the reports from each classis.
The Painful but Profitable Protest
And then there is the matter of the painful but profitable (we hope) protest.
A protest or appeal, that is, an objection to a decision or action of an assembly, is painful in the very nature of the case. It indicates disagreement, serious and significant disagreement. So, they are painful to write (one would imagine). And painful to treat. They are objections after all, weighty objections. Members of the church are aggrieved by some decision or action. For no one may write a protest or appeal unless he has been truly wronged by a decision.
But however painful protests and appeals may be to write and treat, their presence and proper treatment indicate that the churches are healthy and well. If protests were non-existent, or were treated with contempt and summarily dismissed, it would indicate a fatal illness. Without the right of protest and appeal, and without serious consideration of these objections, a Reformed church has lost her identity as Reformed. We have seen such churches in our contacts with small pockets of Reformed believers over the world. Some of them have been compelled to leave their denomination because, although the process of protest and appeal was still permitted in their denomination, the process had a “form of godliness,” but only the form.
Even if one disagrees vehemently with the content of a protest, he shows himself to be soundly Reformed if he willingly hears it and respectfully treats it. That’s the Reformed way.
That also happens to be one of the central articles of the Church Order of Dordt. In the PRCA Church Order, Article 31 reads, “If anyone complain that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly.”
It is worth reminding ourselves of all that in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. We are not Roman Catholic. That is, first, we believe that the church can err, even with a multitude of counselors in an assembly. The only church that believes itself to be infallible is the Romish church, and we are not Romish. We can err, and protests are permissible and sometimes necessary to correct an erring church.
Second, to be Reformed is to recognize the position of the believer in the church. The Roman Catholic Church taught that the common members did not have a voice. They were merely ‘laity,’ not ‘clergy.’ Thus, Rome locked out all objections and protests because of her embrace of two errors—the church is infallible and non-officebearers have no voice in the church.
Now, it may be said that the protests and appeals coming to the PRC Synod 2017 are, in fact, mostly from officebearers—ministers and elders. Nevertheless, the fact that a few come from those who hold no special office indicates that the PRC recognizes the prophetic and priestly office of all believers. We also recognize that consistories, classes, and synods can err. Maybe they have. Synod will take its time to consider the reasons proffered by the protests.
One more thing ought to be said about protests and appeals. They must be in proper form. Sadly, sometimes objections come to assemblies in such poor form that they almost defeat themselves. So the PRCA has adopted a short and helpful explanation of what pro tests and appeals are, and how they ought to be written. No one ought to write a protest without reading this explanation. Among other things, the explanation reminds protestants that:
- Synod’s deadline for material is April 15. Material presented after that will not be treated at that year’s synod.
- Protests and appeals must come to the next possible meeting of that assembly. For example, objections to decisions of Synod 2015 are not appropriate for Synod 2017.
- One must know and deal with the history of an issue before he or she speaks about it: “Previous classical and synodical decisions must be researched and referenced.”
- A protest must contain confessional and biblical grounds for its objection. Personal preference, bare logic, and mere emotion carry no weight.
- Brevity ordinarily is best.
- Humility, mutual respect, and love for the church and her King are above all necessary.
One other rule is not written but ought to be considered. I call it the rule of common sense: “Get help.” That is, a protestant should get advice from others before submitting a protest or appeal. Over the years, I have seen enough objections to assemblies fail miserably or falter badly, at least in part because of the obvious blind spots of their authors. Sometimes pride, or isolationism, drives a protestant to write a protest without getting someone else’s objective opinion. Others might assume that to speak to anyone about their protest would be violation of the rule of Article 31 to consider decisions “settled and binding” until they are changed. This is a laudable motive, in light of the fact that some people suppose that stirring up the denomination’s members to oppose a decision is not schism, which it in fact is. But asking for help from a person or two is not schism, nor a violation of Article 31’s mandate. And maybe there are other reasons some have not to get advice for their protest. But they ought to.
True, a written rule cannot be added to those already adopted: “You must seek advice.” But it certainly would help avoid some glaring problems in protests and appeals. Embarrassing jumps in logic, unwarranted assumptions, bold and un proven assertions, badly obscure and unclear sentences or paragraphs— sometimes not even understandable after three readings—are all enough to tempt even the most patient and reasonable delegate to dismiss the protest or appeal out of hand. Add to the mix that a document might be interminably long, and you could probably be convinced that synod should say more about length, more, that is, than the soft reminder that brevity is “in the best interests” of all involved. The counsel of the “multitude of counselors,” through whom is wisdom, should be sought before coming to the assembly. Even the most capable has a blind spot, or two.
The protests and appeals coming to Synod 2017 include an objection to a consistory’s decision allowing guests to the Lord’s table, a protest against the project of Psalter revision, and eight objections relating to a charge of false teaching. There is little more serious in the church of Christ than contention over doctrine. There is little more important than getting it right in the eyes of God. Synod has work to do, to understate the matter.
By the proper treatment of these objections, and all the other labors of Synod 2017, may God mercifully keep the PRCA in the way of truth and right.
1 The annual PRC Synod will be held at Hudsonville PRC beginning June 13, D.V.