After each meeting of synod, faithful members of the churches are interested in the decisions synod took. Although some decisions may be what we label routine, others are of great magnitude. Considered routine may be approval of a budget for the mission field, or a decision to print more catechism books. Of great magnitude are synod’s call of a new seminary professor; synod’s answers to protests and appeals; or synod’s decision to establish sister-church relations, to open a new mission field, or to declare a man candidate for the ministry of the Word. These are weighty matters. These decisions determine the life of, and indicate the health of, a denomination.
Synod’s decisions have everything to do with the very life of Jesus Christ that the churches live together.
In non-Reformed churches, there may not even be a synod. These churches are congregational in their church polity. If there is some annual ‘assembly’ of all these churches (sometimes even called ‘synod’), the assembly’s decisions are not binding upon the member churches, but only recommendations. In a Reformed denomination, where churches labor together in many important areas and where synod’s decisions are binding, the members are greatly interested.
The PRCA’s 2020 Acts of Synod—soon to be published and distributed to every family in the PRCA— should be read from cover to cover. Certainly the minutes of synod should be carefully perused. These ‘minutes’ are synod’s official decisions along with synod’s reasons for its decisions. To give some perspective on the Acts, the 2019 Acts of Synod is over 300 pages, but only about 60 pages are the minutes. For 2018, the book is about 470 pages and the minutes only 90 of those. Most of the Acts is comprised of two other things: the supplements, which give background information for the decisions; and the denominational Yearbook, which lists correspondence addresses, synodical committees, information on our ministers (active, retired, and deceased), congregational and classical statistics, financial information, etc. Also these are good to read; but the minutes themselves are the official decisions of synod.
So it would not be overstating the case to say that, in a denomination where there is little interest in the syn- odical decisions, hope for that denomination’s future is not bright. The next generation just may yet remain a part of the denomination, but probably only because they were born in it, not because they know it and are able to love it.
Attitudes and actions
Being a Reformed church member implies interest in synodical decisions. It also demands a certain kind of attitude toward them. Not any kind of attitude is proper. Some attitudes are improper.
What is first required of a Reformed church member is the recognition that these decisions are settled and binding. “Settled and binding” are the words used in the Church Order (Art. 31) to describe the nature of ecclesiastical (consistory, classis, or synod) decisions. “Settled” means that the matter is finished. “Binding” means that the decision is legally in force, may be enforced or applied, and must be honored and submitted to by all parties. Even if someone disagrees with a decision, he is still required to submit, to acquiesce. He may claim freedom of conscience in the matter, but he is forbidden to agitate against the decision. He may not propagate his contrary views. This is a strong and important principle in Reformed church government.
For this reason, a church order risks cutting the nerve of Article 31 if it merely uses the word respect to describe members’ attitude toward ecclesiastical decisions. Only respect is too weak, unless the respect is the kind of respect children have of their parents. Someone may claim to respect a decision without submitting to it. He respects it but will oppose it. This is not Reformed church order.
Ecclesiastical decisions are binding upon the members of the churches.
When they make confession of faith, young people understand this—they promise to submit to church government. Among the three questions they answer is: “Do you promise to submit to church government?” No one makes confession of faith without agreeing to submit, and no one comes to a consistory to make confession of faith without having been taught that agitation or militancy is sin. They understand that church decisions—of consistory, classis, and synod—are binding upon them.
Why? Because they are the rule of Jesus Christ over him. To militate would be to militate against Christ Himself.
None of this means, of course, that a person has no recourse when he objects to a decision. The principles of Reformed church government have always shown that: 1) Assemblies can err, and have, because they are comprised of sinful men. Contrary to Roman Catholic church polity, which teaches that the church cannot err, Reformed churches teach the real possibility of it. 2) Believers have the right to protest erroneous decisions, because they hold the ‘office of all believers.’ Contrary to Roman Catholic polity, which gives voice only to the special officebearers, Reformed churches recognize the right of every believer to speak and object if necessary. But, 3) until Scripture, the confessions, or the church order convince the assemblies to change their decision, the protestant submits, because Article 31 calls the decisions “settled and binding.” This is the “decency and order” Scripture and the Reformed churches demand.
Important especially these days
These days, a spirit of disobedience and dishonor runs rampant in society. The disrespect and lawlessness that the Word predicts for the last days grows. The men Paul describes in Romans 1 and II Timothy 3 multiply. They are “full of…debate [strife, wrangling], deceit, malignity [evil subtlety]; whisperers [secret slanderers], backbiters…despiteful [full of arrogant insults], proud…disobedient to parents [and all authority]. implacable [cannot be persuaded to live in peace]….” They are “lovers of their own selves…boasters, proud…false accusers, incontinent [without self-control], fierce. heady [reckless, rash], highminded [blind with pride]….” One need only watch their protests, read their placards, hear their comments, to understand the lawlessness and the increasing chaos in our societies.
This same spirit works powerfully in the church world. Because this evil spirit finds a kindred spirit in the Christian’s sinful nature, we must be on our guard against this same sin in ourselves. One way this spirit manifests itself is in a revolutionary attitude toward officebearers and the assemblies. Then there is strife, wrangling, evil subtlety, secret slanders, and proud insults made without self-control. When these evils are not checked, soon the chaos we see in society will permeate the church of Jesus Christ.
There can be no denominational unity without this proper submission to broader assemblies’ decisions, any more than there can be congregational unity without submission to consistory decisions. A revolutionary attitude towards classis or synod is the same as revolution against the elders in the local church. That revolution would cause a congregation to disintegrate. It will splinter a denomination. So important is Article 31 of the Church Order.
The Reformed consensus
For all the history of the PRCA, this has been the strong view and unanimous opinion of our ministers and consistories. This view of assemblies’ decisions Prof. R. Decker taught me in seminary some 40 years ago. This view I have taught to my students for 17 years.
These notes are from the first edition of my class lectures in Church Polity:
What are his attitude and actions toward the decisions (and toward the assemblies) while the appeal is being considered and after the decision has been taken? (Toward the consistory and its decision which he is appealing to classis, and toward the classis and its decision he is appealing to synod—etc.)? May he oppose that decision? Publicly? Privately? May he walk contrary to it?…. The decision is binding. Binding means that the decision…(esp!) must be honored and submitted to by all parties, esp the appellant (who does not like it). The aggrieved party acquiesces! NEG: He does not have to agree, for no assembly may bind his conscience. POS: But he must acquiesce, i.e., a) SUBMIT! b) NOT AGITATE, or PROPAGATE HIS VIEWS. [In the margin of these lecture notes, I have written the word “EXAM” surrounded by large stars, reminding me to assure the students that this point will be brought up in their synodical examination because the churches want to know how ministers will respond to decisions they may not like.]
In his “Notes on the Church Order” and his “Believer’s Manual for Church Order,” Prof. H. Hanko says in connection with Article 31:
By ‘settled’ is meant that the matter is no longer a proper subject for discussion and debate…[it means] that any agitation and propaganda against the decision is improper in the church…. To assume any other position would lead to anarchy and chaos in the church…. [H]e will not militate against it publicly. [When men are confronted with the reality that the churches disagree with them]: There are, for a man of integrity, two possible courses of action. One thing he may not do is make propaganda for his position publicly and privately within the churches. Article 31 is explicit on the point. All decisions must be considered settled and binding. That is, the matters which prompted the decisions are finished, and the decisions themselves are binding upon all. A man who disagrees with certain decisions retains the liberty of his conscience by holding his inward convictions, but he must keep the matter to himself and may not do anything which would give the impression that he is acting contrary to them…. [H]e never agitates against synodical decisions…. If a believer discovers that the church which he loves is threatened by a decision taken by an assembly, he must seek to correct that error. If he considers the matter so wrong that he feels compelled to talk with other of his fellow saints about it, it is important enough to protest…. He cannot stand on the sidelines, bemoaning error to his compatriots, but refusing to do anything about it. This is irresponsible, and a violation of the ninth commandment (emphasis added).
The description is not too strong: “anarchy, chaos, irresponsible, violation of the ninth commandment.” The minister or elder who has been ‘around the block’ a few times understands the importance of this. He will also understand why Prof. Hanko concluded that section by emphasizing the evil of decisions made in “the court of public opinion.” One would read with profit his entire chapter 2, “Matters to the Assemblies.” (The reader can find this work at prca.org under ‘resources’ and ‘books.’)
Prof. Hanko does not stand alone as the voice of PRC tradition. In an editorial almost 30 years ago, Prof. D. Engelsma emphasized the same points: “Consistories and individuals submit to decisions of synod with which they themselves are in disagreement. It is accepted that synod’s decisions will be considered settled and binding by all the consistories and by all the members.” “Synodical decisions put an end to debate on controversial issues in the churches. There may not be continued agitation against the decisions.” “…[A]gitation against synodical decisions (is) radically un-reformed….” It is “sin against the unity of the church.” Unreformed. Sin.
The fundamental issue: church unity
If Reformed ecclesiastical assemblies were anything other than the manifestation of the unity of the church of Christ, and of the actual rule of Jesus Christ, agitating against these assemblies might not be so serious. But Reformed church polity has always understood that the unity of Christ’s beloved church requires broader assemblies, and that in these assemblies Christ Himself rules. Just as the unity of the local congregation requires submission to the local elders, so also denominational unity requires submission to the elders’ rule in the broader assemblies. Breaking the bond of denominational unity by agitating against the denomination’s decisions is like breaking the bonds of congregational unity by agitating in the congregation against a consistory’s decisions. Against such agitation a consistory will act quickly and decisively.
What would have happened in the early church had Judas and Silas, commissioned to deliver the decrees of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) to the churches, instead gathered a group to criticize the decisions? What would have been the result in Corinth had the apostle John written a letter to agitate against Paul’s decree that women keep silent in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34), or in the church at Thessalonica if someone promoted the view that “you don’t really have to work if you want to eat” (see 2 Thess. 3:10-12)? The unity of the churches would have been destroyed.
And for this reason, the church fathers have described agitation and militating as schism.
Schism, by definition, is dividing what ought to be united.
The unity of the church is the issue.
To militate against church assemblies, and then to gather others to join in the militancy, is to attempt to rule and change the church by an unauthorized mob. Schism is the inevitable result.
In society, where mobs attempt to overrule the ‘powers that be’ (“ministers of God”!), they must be quickly stopped, or life in that society will not be possible. Where such is found in the church, if not quickly stopped, the congregation or denomination cannot survive intact.
Understanding proper church government—and abiding by it—is essential for the existence of a denomination. Thus, the insight of Theodore Beza during Reformation times is profound: Satan thinks it easier to destroy the church by overthrowing its government than by overthrowing its doctrinal foundation.
So, when the Acts of Synod 2020 comes out soon, please read with interest the decisions that were taken. Maybe even take the time to read the decisions from the past few years. Encourage family members and friends to have an interest in denominational life. Discuss it with discernment, with the possible conclusion (although not relishing the possibility) that you disagree. But when you read, remember that you are a Reformed believer who considers himself bound by these decisions. If you cannot abide one of them but must criticize it, the “man of integrity” will not agitate, but protest. The unity of the church of Jesus Christ requires this.
May God give Christ’s church peace through the understanding of this.