In May of 2017, the editorial reviewing Synod 2017 was entitled, “The Pain and Profit of Protests.” I called attention to the reality that although protests and appeals are very painful, their presence and proper treatment are indications “that the churches are healthy and well.” Members who believe to have been wronged by a decision of an assembly have the right to object to the decision. Believers who are aggrieved by an action of a consistory, classis, or synod, have the right to show that the action ought to be discontinued or declared improper. The office of believer gives all church members the right to such a protest, as long as the protest is grounded in Scripture, the confessions, and the Church Order. Because no assembly is infallible and every ecclesiastical body must be willing to be corrected, the assemblies are bound to hear and treat objections to their decisions, painful as it may be to hear and judge the merits of the protests. Not to grant the right of protest and appeal would be contrary to the Church Order, historic Reformed Christianity, and a sign of something seriously amiss in the church.
At a certain point, protests and appeals become more painful than profitable. Thankfully, the delegates at the PRCA Synod of 2020 (to convene June 9, at Trinity PRC, Hudsonville, MI, if God wills) will not need to make that judgment, because they are called to judge only the merit or demerit, the legality or illegality of any document that comes before it. But they must deal with hundreds of pages of protests and appeals with supporting documentation. And that is painful.
To say that, at a certain point, protests become more painful than profitable is not to say that synod ought not treat protests, or that treatment will not be profitable. In fact, the greater the pain of treating protests becomes, the louder the caution must be issued to all the delegates, “Do not allow the pain to bring you to impatience and therefore to bad or careless decisions.” This is a caution that this editor, who is required by synod each year to attend as advisor, needs to hear. The documents must be considered, both as to legality and, if legal, as to the merit of their content. And whatever synod decides, legal or illegal, with merit or without it, the churches profit insofar as the reasons synod provides are sound.
But at some point, patience wears thin.
The reason for that, this year, is not that this is the fourth or fifth year in a row that material comes on the same few subjects. It may well be that certain weighty matters take some years to work through. The issues before us these past few years are weighty: they regard doctrine (the place of works in the Christian life) and worship (what the church will sing). On account of doctrine and worship—worship, according to Calvin, being the most basic of the two—God brought about the sixteenth century Reformation of the church. Our churches have not engaged in emotional and difficult debate for trivial matters.
The reasons, rather, have to do with the form of the documents and the goals to which they aim. If a protest’s form makes it difficult to understand, the delegates expend so much time and energy before they do the actual work of treating the document that their treatment is badly delayed and even hurt. The cumulative effect of many such documents means that synodical delegates can hardly endure.
I remind the readers what this editorial said three years ago about the wisdom of getting help to write a document that will demand the attention of the synod.
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. 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…. [M]aybe there are other reasons some have not to get advice for their protest. But they ought to.
Although a written rule cannot be added to those already adopted: “You must seek advice,” it certainly would help avoid some glaring problems in protests and appeals. Embarrassing jumps in logic, unwarranted assumptions, bold and unproven assertions…, 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.
Most writers abide by the rule that they will print nothing for the public eye except at least two others have read and reviewed it. If the peer-reviewer has even a question about the meaning of something, it must be changed to make it clear. Documents must be written as much as possible in such a way that there are no questions. If this rule is wisdom for a magazine article, it is even more important for a document that will require the devoted attention of twenty-five men at the broadest assembly of the churches.
In Synod 2020’s agenda is one protest totaling about 250 pages. The protest appeals 13 separate classical decisions which takes 28 pages to quote. It includes a 3-page summary of the case with 38 dates. The appeal itself is actually 6 separate appeals. Supporting documents are over 200 pages.
At the top of one protest is only a date, but no identification of the author or those to whom it is addressed. The protest never gets to citing the article of the assembly to which objection is brought.
One document does not identify itself. Is it a protest or an appeal? The author is aggrieved and asks synod to adjudicate, but synod needs to know what the document is. There are different rules that apply to different kinds of objections.
Another protestant objects to Synod 2019 declaring his protest “not legally before synod,” but does not object to 2019’s grounds, in fact does not even quote the grounds used to declare his protest illegal.
This editorial does not make judgment on the legality of any of the documents. But it does make the judgment that figuring them out should not be so difficult.
Most weaknesses in protests could be remedied by the careful review of the document by a capable friend, an elder, or a pastor, even if (and maybe especially if) the reviewer does not share the viewpoint of the protestant. Iron sharpens iron.
Of course, synods must be cautious not to dismiss protests and appeals because of “technicalities.” The people will lose confidence in the assemblies. At the same time, the assemblies have rules for the sake of good order and these rules must be followed. The assemblies must not be so fearful of criticisms that they treat what ought firmly and decisively to be dismissed.
No protestant or appellant ought to be offended at this. Instead, let them be strongly encouraged to find wisdom in some good counselors before burdening the assemblies with difficult-to-treat material. Besides, poor presentation is an unnecessary hindrance to the cause one is attempting to promote.
The other work of synod
Synod must also treat all the reports of its standing committees. Recommendations from the Board of Trustees (BOT) include adopting a document entitled “Affirmations Regarding Marriage, Sexuality, and Gender Identity.” Last year, Hull, Iowa, PRC overtured Synod to construct such a statement and to recommend policies “for greater legal protection in this matter.” Synod approved the overture and gave the assignment to the BOT.
The Catechism Book Committee recommends adopting a new memory work schedule for the Bible History books for Juniors and Seniors. This should be a good improvement to our catechism curriculum.
Probably the longest report is from our Committee for Contact with Other Churches (CC). The length of the report indicates the massive amount of work these brothers do for our churches. Promotion and maintenance of our sister relations with the churches in Northern Ireland, the Philippines, and Singapore; corresponding relations with the EPC in Australia; informal but important fellowship with many other churches or groups of believers in Germany, Namibia, South Africa, South Korea, Mexico, and elsewhere. And all this is only part of what the CC is involved with. The CC reports on a meeting with URCNA representatives at the URC’s request. They discussed Federal Vision theology (mostly) and the problem of money in missions (partly). The URC’s representatives encouraged the PRCA to become a ‘member’ of NAPARC, rather than mere ‘observer,’ in order to be a witness against the Federal Vision at that forum. Some years ago synod also gave the work of Psalter revision to the CC, so their report includes progress on this important project too.
The Domestic Mission Committee (DMC) reports on the work of our home missionary and the attempts to establish a specific field of labor for him. Included in the work of the DMC is the oversight of the denominational website and the partial support the denomination gives to the radio work of First PRC, the Reformed Witness Hour.
The Foreign Mission Committee (FMC) reports on the extensive work being done in the Philippines by our three missionaries, sent by our Doon, Iowa, PRC. There are reports from the missionaries themselves and from the Doon consistory. The work of the missionaries focuses on seminary training, advising a small, young denomination, and pastoring established churches, rather than what one might think when he hears ‘foreign mission work.’ The FMC also reports of offering help to Hope PRC (Grand Rapids, MI) in their work in Myanmar, and Georgetown PRC (Hudsonville, MI) in their work in India. Significantly, also the FMC wrestles with the question of distribution of money on the mission field. Synod 2018 mandated the FMC to present guidelines for this to Synod 2019. To date, their work is progressing, but waiting for the fruits of a paper being written by one of our missionaries.
The Emeritus Committee reports approving 18 requests for financial support of retired ministers or their widows. The PRCA has 37 active ministers, and supports almost half that many retired ministers or widows. We may be thankful for the foresight of wise elders some years ago who advised laying up in store sufficient monies to provide for the needs of those who deserve (‘emeritus’ is ‘from merit’) the churches’ lifelong support.
Not insignificant is the Theological School Committee’s report of the activities of our seminary. Synod will consider the advice of the TSC to admit two new students who would join the six men currently preparing for the gospel ministry. Prof. D. Kuiper and Prof. B. Huizinga make good progress in preparations for teaching full time.
Both Classis East and Classis West report on approving the examination of newly elected pastors. They submit requests for financial subsidy for needy churches in their classis, totaling almost one half million dollars. And both classes report the release of a minister in their classis, one under article 11 and another under article 12 of the Church Order. The deputies appointed by synod to concur with or dissent from these decisions both report their concurrence. Synod must yet approve.
But will Synod 2020 even meet?
With the various state governments’ restrictions on meetings, it is still a question at the time of this writing (April 26) whether our synod may convene on June 12. Michigan has one of the highest incidents of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S., and one of the more aggressively restrictive governors. I have heard men on various committees wondering among themselves whether they were in a position to initiate the question of postponing Synod 2020 to later in the summer.
With a little research I was able to learn that the following denominations have either delayed or canceled their annual synod scheduled for this summer: Christian Reformed Church, Reformed Church in America, Free Reformed Churches, United Reformed Churches in North America, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Church in the United States (“German Reformed”). If the PRCA Synod 2020 meets, it may be one of the only synods that does. If it does (and I pray we can), the difference may be that it is one of the smallest gatherings of denominational synods. Because of the church polity of our denomination, the PRCA has only 20 delegates and 5 advisors, whereas other denominations, with different view of what constitutes a synod, often have hundreds. “Social distancing” for us may be possible.
May the work of Christ among us and by us continue.