Previous article in this series: October 15, 2013, p. 29.
The October 15 editorial made a beginning in answering the question, somewhat controversial, “whose is the work of missions?” Does mission work belong to the local congregation or to the denomination? After the editorial urged us to unite behind the work of missions for the cause of God, it pointed out the official stance of the PRC. The constitution for missions is clear: “…mission work is the calling of the local church.” And “some mission work may also become the work of the churches in common” (emphasis added). The important and complete first sentence under Definition in the Constitution of the Domestic Mission Committee is, “Although mission work is the calling of the local church, by virtue of the voluntary church federation some mission work may also become the work of the churches in common.” For this editorial to be understood, this statement is crucial. Every word of it.
Knowledge of this statement will help church members be careful in judging the propriety of consistories’ engaging in mission activities that do not (yet) involve the denominational committees.
The last editorial included a promise to show how the PRC came to this position. I do that now, not only because the history itself is interesting, but especially because the history of this statement’s adoption shows the strength of conviction in the churches about the position.
The Most Basic Point: Synods Do Not Do Mission Work
Mission work is not the work of the synod or classis. The broader assemblies do not do missions. Only local churches do missions. How our churches came to this conviction is also important, and it relates to the statement quoted above.
It is worth noting, even if it may not be a point worth quibbling over any longer, that the original statement for the constitution adopted by the PRC synod did not give to synod any of the work of missions. Originally adopted, the statement read: “Although mission work is the calling of the local church, by virtue of the voluntary church federation some mission work may also become the concern of the churches in common.” How the word “work” rather than “concern” came into the constitution was likely an innocent mistake. And whether it ought to be changed is a good question. But it is of consequence that synod gave the work of missions to the local congregation, and gave to herself as synod only a concern regarding missions. Synod did not want to take to herself the prerogatives of the local congregation. Broader assemblies do not do missions.
That broader assemblies do not do missions is the practical outworking of proper Reformed ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). I should say, a specific strain of Reformed ecclesiology refuses to give broader assemblies—classes and synods—the right to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, or exercise discipline. Whose is the right to preach and administer sacraments? Who may exercise discipline? Members and friends of the PRC know that these questions lie at the very origin of the PRC as a denomination, when two broader assemblies of the CRC (wrongly, we believe) took upon themselves to exercise the discipline of deposing officebearers. Early in PRC history a great deal was written about the question, “May a classis depose a consistory?” Google the three words classis depose consistory and find the first seven entries are writings by PRC authors about the authority of ecclesiastical broader assemblies.
PRC understanding of ecclesiology is that the power and authority of broader assemblies is limited.
Broader assemblies certainly have power and authority. But it does not include the power and authority to preach, exercise discipline, or administer the sacraments. This power belongs to the local congregation alone. Not all Reformed churches embrace this doctrine of the church. The CRC did not when the PRC was yet a part of her.
That incorrect ecclesiology in the CRC not only allowed their broader assemblies to exercise discipline. Applied to missions, the doctrine also allowed the CRC in 1912 to decide: “The calling and sending of missionaries is the task of a local church. If, however, the circumstances demand it, the calling and sending is to be done by a combination of churches….” In CRC ecclesiology, the power and authority of the broader assemblies includes the power to preach, send ministers, and exercise discipline.
This is not the ecclesiology of PRC history.
If any hint of that incorrect ecclesiology remained in the PRC, it was finally swept away in the 1970s when an overture was brought to synod to change what appeared to be a remnant of it in the Mission Committee Constitution. At that time, the constitution gave to the Mission Committee the right to “send” missionaries, the power “to engage in mission activity,” and the right to “serve in” and “officiate at” the organization of new congregations (Acts 1976, 116). The overture succeeded in having synod remove that right from the synod, and to emphasize that the right to preach, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline is the exclusive domain of the local congregation. Denominational committees have only a supervisory role.
To come full circle, perhaps now we can better understand the relatively significant difference between the present wording in our constitution that gives synod some of the work of missions and what was originally decided, a concern over the work. But that wording probably does not matter now because just about everyone knows that synod does not do missions, even if she does have a work that concerns missions.
The Present Question: What is the relation between denominational committees and mission work?
That same 1970s overture spurred synod to appoint a study committee to draw up principles on the basis of which new language could be used in the constitution, language that would express proper ecclesiology. I now condense three synods (1976-1978) into one short story.
The study committee, after having worked for a year, proposed to synod that the Mission Constitution should declare: All mission work is the concern of the synod. The local church will perform the work, but synod will supervise all of it. During synod’s discussion of the study committee’s proposal, an amendment to the motion was made that significantly changed the direction of the proposal, and resulted in the wording the PRC has in 2013. The amendment reworded the constitution to allow some mission work to be performed without synod’s oversight.
Taken aback, one of the seminary professors—advisors at synods who participate in deliberations but not in the decisive matter of voting—quickly prepared a written objection to the new language and convinced synod to enter his objection as a part of the official record (Acts 1977, 112). Then, at the following synod, the brother brought formal protest against the change. He objected both to the manner in which the change was made—an amendment from the floor and without any grounds—and also to the change itself, which he labeled independentism. But at both synods—the first synod that adopted the amendment, and the next synod that heard the protest—the new wording was retained (see synod’s answer to the protest in 1978 Acts, 39, 40). After careful thought and deliberation, synod concluded: All mission work is performed by the local church. Some missions may become the concern of the denomination.
And that’s that. Synod decided. The matter is settled and binding in the PRC.
Some Mission Work Becomes the Concern of the Synod
Some mission work does become the concern of synod. But at what point? For what reasons? What would compel a local congregation, doing the work of missions, to ask a denominational committee to oversee what is properly their work? And from the other side, would the denominational committee ever say to a congregation, “We would like to concern ourselves with your mission work”?
At least two factors are involved in determining whether or not there is denominational supervision in mission work: expertise and finances. Theoretically, if a local congregation has both the expertise and the financial ability to do the mission work God gives her, there might not be denominational involvement. Remember, “some mission work may become the work (concern) of the churches in common.”
All the local congregations should, and most do, perform the work of missions called local evangelism. Very few local congregations have the denomination supervising that work. The exception to this is a struggling church that has asked synod for assistance and then must give to synod an account of the money they spend. But most local churches usually have the financial ability and know-how to bring the gospel to their own locale.
Matters are different when the Lord blesses that witness so that a full-time missionary is needed. Local congregations usually would not be able to afford supporting the large enterprise of a missionary and his work. The local church then asks the churches in common (synod) to help them in the mission endeavor, at which time the synod, through her Mission Committee, oversees the work where these monies are used. That is, the mission work of the local congregation becomes their “concern.” Rightly so.
Hypothetically, however, a local congregation may have the financial wherewithal to support a missionary and his work. But even in that case, it is highly questionable whether she ought to perform missions with a full-time missionary all on her own. Missions is a difficult work that involves dozens of complex issues that confront a missionary and perplex even the wisest of them. The questions, coming with the regularity of ocean waves, need to be answered, and often without much delay. It is a rare (and perhaps naïve) church that supposes she can properly carry out the high calling of supervising a full-time missionary without the help of a ‘multitude of counselors.’ The committees have collective experience, which is invaluable.
The difficulties are increased when one thinks of missions in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language and culture. That was brought home to the PRC less than a decade ago when one of our mission committees wrote a sad report to synod of a failed mission work, and concluded their findings with these sobering words: “While it could remain a possibility to work in another area…we are convinced that we are not capable of undertaking such a work at this time.” So vast were the difficulties of this foreign work that even the synodical committee who had experience was overwhelmed by them. Missions in a foreign country takes strength, experience, maturity, wisdom.
But even pastors who have undertaken the work of domestic missions will testify of the great difficulties of this work, and increasingly so as American society itself becomes multicultural, more secular, pagan, and post-modern. Is there a congregation that would have everything it needs to do even domestic missions on her own?
Let us work together: Unity in Missions
The PRC’s mission constitution may be clear in declaring missions to be the work of the local church, and in its allowing only some mission work to become synod’s concern.
Certainly, some work ought to remain for a time the concern of the local congregation only. When it should become synod’s concern the local consistory will struggle with, seeking the best for the work. Important questions need to be asked, such as, Is the work only “contacts” that are best developed by the personal work of a local consistory? Does the synodical committee have experience in this area of the world? Do they have manpower to help us at this point?
I am confident of the wisdom of the elders to judge all the circumstances and do what is right for the cause of God’s gospel.
And when the work grows to the stage at which, according to the judgment of the local church, the gospel is best served by the churches working together, then let us work together.