Previous article in this series: October 1, 2009, p. 5.
This past August, Synod 2009 concluded its work in answering protests, appeals, and an overture regarding Article 21 of the Church Order. Article 21 calls the consistories to “see to it that there are good Christian schools in which parents have their children instructed according to the demands of the covenant.”
In the last editorial, I summarized and explained synod’s answers to these protests. Although I explained them, it is important that the decisions themselves be read carefully. (They are available to the PRC members from their consistory.) Synod was very careful in its language. Even though the advice that was adopted was not the fruit of a year-long study, it was the result of many days of work for five men appointed by synod. The advice was almost all adopted by synod. It maintained what Synod 2008 and Classis East had already decided. The wording and some details were different, but the direction was the same. Synod identified the main issues involved and answered them in 11 major decisions.
The first six decisions (explained in the previous editorial) alternated between cautioning against error first on one side and then on the other:
1. The “schools” of Article 21 are the Christian day schools in which parents have their children instructed by others. Thus, Article 21 does not refer to Christian home schools.
2. Nevertheless, the covenant demand referred to in Article 21 is not the schools themselves, but the Christian instruction that is to be given.
3. It is the calling of each consistory member to uphold Article 21 by word and example.
4. Homeschooling itself “falls within the area of Christian liberty” because Scripture does not specify the precise manner in which parents give covenant instruction to their children. 5. Classis East was wrong, though, when it used “Christian liberty” as the basis for declaring that a minister’s conscience gives him the right to homeschool, since a minister is limited in his conduct by the regulations of the Church Order.
6. In the specific case, the minister’s reasons given for homeschooling (including criticisms of the Christian day schools) made it impossible for him effectively to carry out the mandate of Article 21. That is, he could not “believably…promote in his congregation those schools that were not good enough for his own children.”
The above decisions of synod addressed the main issues. However, more objections were presented to synod than were treated in these main recommendations. The objections were, in the main, objections against aspects or implications of assemblies’ previous decisions. Synod responded to these objections. Some of these issues repeat subjects already treated, but were judged important enough also to treat separately.
First, a claim was made that classis and synod improperly added to the scriptural requirements for an officebearer. That is, only the Bible, not an assembly, may spell out qualifications for a minister or elder. Synod’s answer was that the protestants confused biblical “qualifications for office,” which may not be added to, and other “requirements laid upon an officebearer by the Church Order to serve in our churches.” Synod gave examples of other such requirements. Some are found in the “Call Letter” each minister receives. Unwillingness to carry out these requirements closes the door to the office. All churches have such requirements—written or unwritten, codified in a church order or elsewhere—willingly agreed to by those seeking office. This objection essentially was already answered in main “recommendation 5” when synod spoke of a man’s conscience and the limits of the exercise of his liberty.
Second, a claim was made that Classis East overstepped the bounds of its authority when it passed judgment on the validity of the minister’s actions of withdrawing all his children from two good Christian schools and homeschooling them. The objection claimed that the assemblies violated the autonomy (self-rule) of the local congregation. That is, classis and synod have very limited spheres of authority, and had no business judging in this sphere. Synod’s answer was in the form of three main grounds: 1) the consistory itself made the matter the business of classis; 2) Classis did not violate the autonomy of the local congregation but simply exercised jurisdiction that the Church Order (Art. 36) gives it; and 3) that membership in a denomination of churches involves mutual supervision and oversight, which is not hierarchy but what all expect as members of a denomination. The “autonomy of the congregation” must not be understood to mean that a congregation is independent. Reformed church government judges the principle of denominational unity as important as local autonomy.
Third (objection #3), a claim was made that classis and synod improperly involved themselves in a matter that belonged exclusively to the authority of the parents. That is, does an ecclesiastical assembly have any business at all in the realm of parental responsibilities? Synod referred back to her previous decisions: the question was not that of the authority of a parent, but that of the actions of a parent who was an officebearer, committed to meeting the obligations of the Church Order. Also, synod explained that the church has an obligation to oversee the spiritual welfare and training of covenant children.
Fourth, a claim was made that Classis East improperly publicly questioned the effectiveness of the minister (objection #4). Here, synod agreed with the objector. Classis East should not have made its investigations and conclusions public. Classis was not wrong in raising with the consistory the question of the pastor’s effectiveness, but caused unnecessary offence in making the evaluation public.
Finally, synod answered an overture that asked for a change in the wording of the Church Order, so that it would add to the expression “good Christian schools” the words, “be they parental communal schools or parental home schools.” Thus, the overture proposed modifying Article 21 to put home schools on a par with the Christian day schools. Synod’s answer, first, was that the five grounds for the overture did not support the proposed change. More importantly, synod defended the wording of Article 21 for two reasons: the calling of the covenant community and the importance of trained teachers. It was apparent, though, that everything synod had already adopted in its main recommendations loomed large in the minds of the delegates when rejecting the overture.
Some likely will label synod’s decisions imbalanced. But the churches may be grateful that synod kept its balance in dealing with a very emotional, personal issue that holds major significance for a body of churches.
First, the churches have adopted a strong call to covenantal, parental, Christian education. Consistent with Reformed history, the elders are to promote vigorously the good Christian schools. There is need for this in these last days. Covenant youth are threatened in a multitude of ways. God forbid that we lose our schools, or our support for them. May no member, in any way, diminish the support these schools require. May all members, young and old, join the school societies, and give liberally so that the tuition does not go out of reach for God’s people. May deacons labor mercifully, opening wide their hearts (and hands!) to the members whose tuition bills are great and cannot make ends meet. And may our good God be merciful to our children, and to the churches, by preserving among us these invaluable institutions. And may He bless our homes, our parents, and the teachers who labor on our behalf.
Second, the support of the good Christian schools is not a blind support of just any Christian school, or all the Christian schools. Implied in synod’s decisions is the calling for elders to urge parents to establish, support, and maintain good Christian schools. If the schools lack or fail in any way, let the elders take the lead in their own lives as members of the school societies, and then use their office to call all the parents to make the necessary improvements. May no member, in any way, shield the schools from legitimate criticism. May our God open the hearts of the faithful school board members, who sacrifice themselves for the covenant cause, to be willing to listen, wise to judge, and able to vote with their biblically-formed consciences.
Third, synod’s decisions do not discourage homeschooling where there is not a good Christian school, or when there are special circumstances. A man who homeschools his children in these cases is not ineligible for serving in office. As synod expressly stated, homeschooling may in fact be the best choice where there is not a good Christian school option. The decisions of synod do not condemn homeschooling. Homeschooling is not wrong. Clear enough. But if a good Christian school is available, the elders of the church will discourage homeschooling, urge the members to use the good Christian school, instruct them in the reasons for its preference, and use the schools themselves. Fourth, the Protestant Reformed Churches are not alone in these convictions. They are not the only denomination that has special requirements for her officebearers regarding Christian education. A local Christian college requires that its professors use the local Christian schools for their children. More significantly, until very recently an area United Reformed Church had “local regulations” that required every elder to use the good Christian schools that the church supported.
Though it was very distressing to deal with such differences of opinion, I pray the Lord will use the decisions of Synod 2009 for the peace of the churches. Precious peace and unity. More so, may He use the two years of deliberation, and the fruit of those deliberations, to maintain His covenant.
And let all the consistories see to it….