Frequency of Meeting
If the rule of Article 50 of the Church Order were observed, our Synod would meet every other year instead of every year as it does now. Joh. Jansen tells us that the Reformed Churches had originally desired an annual synod but due to disturbed civil conditions and intervention by the government this ideal could not be realized. This explains the provision of the Church Order stipulating that “the general synod shall ordinarily meet once every two years unless there be urgent need to shorten the time.”
For a long time the Reformed Churches in America followed the established custom of the Netherlands and held their synodical meetings every two years. In 1936 the Christian Reformed Churches revised Article 50 of the Church Order so that it now reads, “The General Synod shall ordinarily meet annually . . .” Since the organization of our Synod in 1940, we have also met annually although we have not changed the Church Order. We have adopted certain rules by which the meetings of the Synod are to be regulated. These rules were revised in 1958 and combined with other rules for parliamentary procedure that had been adopted in 1957 and the first of these states that Synod shall meet on the first Wednesday of June each year (unless otherwise designated by the preceding synod).
To hold the meetings of Synod annually is not a violation of the Church Order because insofar as Article 50 states the time of meeting, it is not definite and the very formulation of this article leaves room for more or less meetings than stipulated. It speaks of “ordinarily” meeting once every two years and it adds “unless there be urgent need to shorten the time.” Obviously our churches, and other Reformed churches too, have felt that this urgent need existed, and, therefore, make provision for the annual meeting of the synod.
We believe that this is also in the best interest of the churches. About the only arguments that we have ever encountered against this practice are: (1) financially it is not feasible and (2) it is too demanding upon the time that especially the elders must spend away from their work to attend the synod.
Now it is true that synods cost money. However, it must also be remembered that when we consider the total budget of the churches, the actual cost to hold a synod is a very small part of the whole. In our churches it amounts to about 7% of the total budget. In actual figures this would mean that if we would hold our Synod once in two years instead of every year, as we do now, the actual savings would amount to somewhere between two and three dollars per family per year. This is certainly negligible if the positive gains from an annual Synod are considered.
As far as the second objection is concerned, we may point out that the same elders do not attend the synod every year and, consequently, this objection too falls away. The elders can be remunerated for the time they spend at Synod and when this happens only once in perhaps three or four years it does not create an imposition or hardship upon any one. Very seldom do we hear the elders themselves raising this objection.
On the other hand there are definite advantages in holding a synod every year. The Synod deals with a great variety of matters that are of concern to all the churches. It is good to have these things continuously before the consciousness of the churches and this is accomplished more fully the more frequently such meetings are held. Then, too, in a certain way the bonds of denominational unity are strengthened through the meetings of Synod and this is a very necessary gain to all the churches. In 1936 Classis Sioux Center overtured the Christian Reformed Synod to hold annual meetings and gave five reasons for this request. They were:
“a. This is in accordance with the spirit of the Church Order, which favors frequent meetings, Articles 37, 41, 47.
“b. This will make for shorter meetings of Synod. Our Synods at present are too long. Delegates complain that it is difficult for them to be away from their work for so long a time.
“c. This will expedite matters in cases of protests and appeals.
“d. This will open the way for a reduction in the membership of our Boards.
“e. This will promote contact between the various parts of our church, which is in harmony with the spirit of the Church Order.”
Although all of these reasons are perhaps not applicable to our circumstances, some of them are very cogent and if consideration is given to them, it will be seen that the merits of annual synods far outweigh the demerits.
Constituency of Synods
Article 50 also has something to say about the number of delegates that shall constitute a synod. Although it does not state specifically how many these shall be, it does specify that there shall be three ministers and three elders out of each classis. And again there is no definite rule that designates the number of classes that are to be represented at the synod but the implication of this article is that it is quite a few. This is plain from the last part of the article which states that it requires at least three classes to convene an early synod. But we shall come back to this later.
The Christian Reformed Church has also changed this rule. They have two ministers and two elders from each classis delegated to the general synod. In our churches, where we have only two classes, there are four ministers and four elders delegated to synod. It appears from all of this that the number of delegates is not so very important. It is a rather arbitrary thing that is to be determined to a great extent by circumstances. It cannot be fixed by a hard and fast rule. For this very reason it would seem better not to include it in the body of the Church Order proper but to state it in a bylaw since each church body determines this for itself anyway and it appears that these decisions differ in many cases. What is more, a rule of this nature is naturally subject to change from time to time. When the number of classes increases the delegation from each would have to be reduced lest the synod becomes too large. Although our Synod in 1959 decided that “under the present circumstances it is plain from the investigation of the study committee (appointed for this purpose) that a change to a three classes system is highly impractical” (Art. 86). It is debatable whether the practical obstacles to this idea are as insurmountable as they may appear. It is also undoubtedly true that there are definite advantages to such an arrangement and should this ever materialize we would again change our rule and very likely have three ministers and three elders delegated to synod from each classis instead of the present four.
More important is the question, “How should the delegates to synod be chosen?” There is the method of voting by ballot, as practiced in our churches, and there is the method of rotation. The latter is followed by consistories when they send elders to classis but it is generally not accepted as a proper method whereby synodical delegates are chosen.
Prof. H. Bouwman of Kampen wrote, “It is not desirable to designate these delegates by rotation instead of by balloting. For indeed, not all ministers and elders are qualified to consider weighty questions of church government. This becomes very evident when very involved problems regarding the Confession are to be considered, as was the case at the Synod of Dort. For these reasons it is advisable that the best qualified and most experienced brethren be delegated” (Gereformeerd Kerkrecht, Vol. II, p. 155).
Ds. Jansen also writes about this. In answer to the question, balloting or rotation? he writes: “From the very outset, free election by ballot was the rule. As a result very often the same individuals were delegated, because they were the most capable. Complaints were sometimes made concerning this fact, for example, at the Synod of 1581, Middelburg, at which synod the question was asked, whether it would not be well that the same minister should not be delegated twice in succession, in order that the others might also learn. But the synod replied that the consistories, classes, and synods should be free to send ‘those whom they deem to be qualified’ . . . . Ecclesiastical assemblies are no schools of learning and practice but assemblies for government and discipline, at which the strongest men (beste krachten) are needed. And the danger of hierarchism is not so great that the advantages of a free election should be sacrificed” (Korte Verklaring, p. 225).
Some years ago there were evidently some classes in the Christian Reformed Church that followed the rotary system of selecting synodical delegates. This occasioned an overture from Classis Pella in 1938 requesting the synod to adopt the following resolution:
“Synod of 1938, having taken note of the fact that more than one classis has adopted the practice of delegating its ministerial delegates to synod according to the rotation plan, hereby issues a word of serious warning against the dangers involved in this method of delegation to synod, and declares that this method of delegation is not in accord with the genius and letter of our Church Order (cf. Art. 41), and furthermore resolves to urge all the classes to send its delegates to synod only by choice of ballot.”
But obviously the wording of this resolution was a bit too strong for the synod and the following recommendation of the advisory committee was adopted:
“Synod declares that there is no warrant in Articles 41 and 50 of the Church Order for synod to enjoin upon the classes a definite method of selecting its delegates to synod but, with a view to the welfare of the churches, it advises against the rotary method of selecting synodical delegates.”
This method of appointing delegates by rotation is desired by some because it avoids the possibility of the same men being delegated to synod year after year. It is argued that this may lead to hierarchism and against this evil the churches should be very careful to guard themselves. However, it is not said that the classes have to choose the same men every year, nor is the conclusion justified that because certain men attend synod regularly they are lords of the church. This danger can be combatted without sacrificing free elections in choosing synodical delegates.