What General Synod Decided, Why It Was Bad, and How Bad It Was

A few days ago, the Reformed Church in America concluded its annual assembly, the General Synod.

The above image nicely conveys the result.

What has always been the best thing for me about synod continues to be what gives me joy: the deepening of old relationships and forging of new ones with gifted and loving colleagues.

But this synod will be remembered for three decisions that, from my perspective, were very poor. Indeed, they were deeply bad decisions.

In the wake of those decisions, social media lit up Monday evening. And as the blaze has continued even as I write this, I have seen a number of replies from people who were not at synod asking, “What’s going on?” Just this morning a friend of mine called me to ask for details.

After all, it isn’t easy to intuit the underlying specifics when all you read is lament, protest, and expressions of profound loss.

Many people also are asking, “What does this mean?” Because it really isn’t clear what these decisions do. We know it’s bad. But how bad is it?

Here I will describe each of those three bad decisions, and I will say why they are bad. I will also try to indicate the degree to which they are bad decisions, and suggest that they may not mean the imminent demise of the RCA — although they may have made its eventual demise more certain.

I will not describe the origin of these decisions. The question of how we got here (the convening of a “Special Council,” etc.) has been thoroughly covered elsewhere. Answering that question is not of immediate help in my intended task in this post, and that is to explain what Synod actually decided and why those decisions are regrettable.

Decision 1: Liturgy

The first of these bad decisions was to make the 2002 marriage liturgy “constitutional.”

R 16-43 – Approved

To adopt the “Order for Christian Marriage” that was approved and commended for use in the church by the 2002 General Synod (MGS 2002, pp. 181-192) for recommendation to the classes for approval as part of the Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America.

What this means is that the classes will vote on whether to include this particular order of worship for a wedding service in our collection of liturgies that are part of our constitution. If enough of them do, then it will.

Why this liturgy? Quite simply, it’s because it contains this sentence: “Christian marriage is a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman.” This is important to some because it describes marriage as taking place between a man and a woman. And so it appears (again, to some) to define marriage in a way that would exclude a similar covenanting between two women or two men.

Why make it part of the RCA’s constitution? The reason why is that it appears (to some) to make binding upon ministers the above affirmation in this liturgy, that marriage is (properly?) between a man and a woman, excluding unions of same-sex couples. And this is important because then there would be a way, it is thought, for a disciplinary action to be brought against a Reformed Church minister who officiates at such a service.

There are a few reasons why this is a bad decision.

First, R 16-43 (the decision) makes the whole marriage liturgy “constitutional.” But the intent is really to enshrine and to make binding only one part of that liturgy, the part that says “Christian marriage is a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman.” But because R 16-43 does not specify this (how could it?), and because intent usually does not easily remain attached to church law, then this decision appears to suggest (although it really doesn’t, as we shall see) that ministers must use this marriage liturgy without alteration. And that is patently ridiculous.

Are ministers really supposed to tell their pre-marriage counselees that they must use these prayers, and vows, and blessings, and scriptures, excluding all others?

Second, to include a marriage liturgy, and I mean any marriage liturgy, in The Constitution of the Reformed Church in America advances the clearly un-Reformed notion that marriage is somehow essential to the church, that it in some way “constitutes” us. But marriage is not part of the essence of the church. It is not one of those things that constitutes the church. Only those things constitute the church that are given by Christ to create, sustain, nurture, and discipline the church: the means of grace, Word and sacrament, by which Christ joins us to himself and feeds us. To make marriage another of these “marks of the church” would be to make a sacrament of marriage and to make lesser citizens of single persons.

Third, making this liturgy constitutional would, by itself, be unenforceable. Just because an order of worship or a liturgy is included (by the constitutional process of approval by the classes) in The Liturgy does not in itself make its use mandatory. What makes use of a liturgy mandatory is a statement in the Book of Church Order (BCO) requiring its use. This goes for the liturgies for communion, baptism, ordination, and installation. For each of these acts of worship, there is a provision in the BCO requiring the use of a constitutional liturgical form. Yet this synod did not send to the classes any such proposed change to the BCO. Without it, the marriage liturgy, if made part of the constitution, would in effect be just a specimen. (h/t Daniel Meeter)

Besides, as I said earlier, it isn’t really this liturgy that others want binding, but only one sentence of it.

So, if it is without force, how would this change solve anything? Before long, won’t we still be on the verge of schism anyway?

Decision 2: Order

The second bad decision on these matters came in approval of “R 16-16 (Second Substitute).” This sends to the classes for approval a change to our order adding to the requirements of the consistory in providing services of worship the following:

  1. The consistory or governing body shall assure that marriages solemnized in a church or congregation are between a man and a woman.

This action would put into the BCO a requirement that consistories make sure that no weddings other than those between heterosexual couples are taking place in their churches or congregations.

Yes, I have problems with this, too.

Let me start with a point worthy of the most annoying grammar pedants (like me). “Assure” is a transitive verb, which means that it requires a direct object. In the proposed change, “assure” is incorrectly used without a direct object.

(I told you I was annoying.)

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But this grammatical error indicates a deeper problem with the proposed change. Who or what body is the consistory/governing body to “assure”? Are they to assure the classis? Their members? The General Synod Council? Tom DeVries? Themselves?

Or perhaps “ensure” is the proper word. But that doesn’t really solve the problem. It still is not clear who or what body is to receive the word from some elders and deacons to the effect of, “Nope, no gay weddings here” or “Oops, we did it again.”

But actually it is certain who is to be assured. Because the consistory’s requirements in providing services of worship are one of the things the classis is to ask about each year: “Does the consistory or governing body provide for worship, including the celebration of the sacraments, in accordance with the requirements of Chapter I, Part I, Article 2, Section 11 of the Book of Church Order?”

In other words, the classis is already supposed to ask each consistory about whether they follow the requirements concerning worship as laid out in the BCO. Adding the requirement concerning “assuring” that no “gay-marriages” are performed would mean that this, too, would be among the things reported yea or nay to the classis.

But only as bundled with other items. A consistory would not be able to say, “We’re good with everything except the gay weddings” just as there’s no way currently for them to report “Thumbs up on almost all items, but we never use the baptism liturgy.” It really is all or nothing.

If a consistory does say “No” to this annual question, it’s up to the classis whether to issue a follow-up and ask the ministers or the elder delegate for more information. But there is no requirement for them to do so. And if they do, it might not go anywhere.

In the end of all such scenarios, the classis would need to be concerned enough about this issue to pursue it. Some classes would not. And those that would, do they really need this change to the BCO in order to discipline pastors who officiate at weddings not deemed acceptable?

Yet my deepest problem with this proposed change are these: it takes out of the hands of the consistory, and particularly the board of elders, their proper authority to decide a matter of pastoral significance; and it binds the consciences of deacons, elders, and ministers in a matter very much in dispute, biblically and theologically.

Such overreach by the 2016 General Synod is based on a faulty understanding of the authority of General Synod. It is grounded in a false and untenable separation of cultural, ethical, and personal matters from biblical and theological matters, with the former assigned to classes and consistories and the latter given to the General Synod. And it was advanced on the floor of synod with flimsy and tendentious interpretations of scripture, biblical ignorance parading as biblical knowledge, and a piously dressed anti-intellectualism.

One good thing is that this bad decision was affirmed by only 59% of those voting. This gives me hope that it will not get the necessary support of 2/3 of the classes.

But if it does not, what will the purists do next year?

Decision 3: Spirit, Assemblies, and Office

The third bad decision of the 2016 General Synod was a decision not to approve something.

James Brumm offered the following truly brilliant and entirely praiseworthy motion:

To declare that the General Synod of 2016, trusting in the sovereignty of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and through all assemblies of the RCA, affirms the authority of every classis over the formation and care of all churches and ministers within its bounds, and the local authority of every consistory over the worship and life of the congregation entrusted by God to its care.

Understand, there is nothing objectionable here. At least, there shouldn’t be, if we’re talking about the Reformed Church. A distinctive affirmation of the Reformed tradition (but not exclusive to it) is that the Holy Spirit does indeed choose to work, not only through inspired individuals, but also through assemblies. Moreover, the RCA, with other Reformed and Presbyterian modies, has affirmed that the Spirit’s activity is not limited only to the “highest” assembly but is given, graciously, to all, even to the consistory. It’s also deeply part of our church order (which is biblically and theologically grounded) that classes do have authority over the formation an care of their churches and ministers, and that the consistories have authority over the worship and life of their own congregations.

These are not in dispute.

Or, they shouldn’t be.

But apparently they are.

This General Synod showed that most delegates don’t accept historic Reformed convictions about the Holy Spirit, the means of grace, and the nature of the church that are grounded in our confessions.

That’s appalling.

The one bright spot is that only a slim majority of those voting, 52%, rejected this motion. Which perhaps means that things are not so far gone as it might have appeared.

From Here

I suggested this above: there’s no guarantee that anything has really changed, or even will change. I believe that it is uncertain that the change to the Liturgy will be approved by 2/3 of the classes, and that it is unlikely that the change to the order will get such approval.

If either of them does get approved, I don’t see how this will really satisfy the purists, some of whom really want, it seems, to purge the RCA of LGBTQ persons and, especially, their allies among the clergy.

And if either of them does not get approved, then it becomes highly likely that all those purist ministers and congregations who, prior to this Synod, were threatening to bolt if things didn’t go their way will be threatening the same thing next year. There may be no stopping them.

Last year’s GS president set in motion the process that led to this result. It’s the gift that keeps giving.

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Commission on Theology Presentation

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My remarks in presenting the report of the Commission on Theology to the 2016 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America; June 13, 2016.

 

Thank you, Mr. President.

The Commission on Theology exists to serve the General Synod, and thereby the church, by reflecting theologically on matters of interest or concern to the RCA. Those two things lie at the heart of what we do: serving the Synod, and theological reflection. And it is those two things that members of the commission take delight in doing.

But what is theological reflection? What should it do?

Some say it’s about giving answers. Others say it’s about asking questions.

Some say it’s about stating eternal truths. Others say it’s about responding to the moment.

Some describe the work of theology as a passing on of what has been received. Others say it’s a fresh act of expression.

Some see it as a divine gift. Some understand it as a human work.

Theological reflection may be all of these, and more. Or, at times, perhaps none of them.

Often, theology finds that it cannot say definitively what something is. It has to be content with saying what it is like, and what it is not. But the “is” sometimes eludes theology. Karl Barth said that the work of Christian theology is like painting a bird in flight. The painter can’t capture the flying of the bird, but only suggest it. Theological reflection often must humbly recognize its limits, as the reality of God transcends those limits, and “the finite cannot comprehend the infinite.” God is infallible, but theology and theological reflection are not.

So those who serve through theological reflection often find that the best they can do is place some rough boundary markers, or plant some tent poles, that mark a territory in which a variety of faithful Christian witness and practice can all reasonably exist.

This happened in the fifth century, when the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon wrestled with the mystery of how the two natures of the Lord Jesus Christ should be understood. Jesus is divine. Jesus is human. But how, exactly? Rather than a very specific formula that spelled out exactly how, the bishops in Chalcedon instead sketched a territory that said what was “out” without being too clear about what was “in.” They did that with a series of negative statements: Christ is (quoting now) “recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”

I believe that Chalcedon has something to teach us about theological reflection, including the theological reflection that the Commission on Theology does in service to the General Synod. And it is this: rather than issuing pronouncements that purport to settle all questions and solve all mysteries, perhaps what we ought to try doing more often is to sketch the boundaries of Christian witness on difficult issues, including human sexuality.

That might not be satisfying to some. A number of my brothers and sisters in the RCA appear to yearn for short, definitive statements that can then be placed on the web site, easily quoted, and thereafter used in disciplinary and judicial actions.

But here’s the thing: the biblical, theological, pastoral, ethical, and scientific realities resist the formulation of such pronouncements.

Yet if not short statements, it’s fairly clear that the church doesn’t want lengthy statements, either. In truth, most papers of this commission and others are read by very few who are not delegates … and perhaps by not all of the delegates. As my friend Matthew van Maasstricht put it, “The Minutes of the General Synod are where good papers go to die.”

At the 2013 General Synod, the delegates were debating a motion to direct the Commission on Theology to write something on human sexuality. And some of the language used in overtures and advisory committee reasons and floor discussion anticipated a “comprehensive paper” on human sexuality.

A “comprehensive paper.” On this topic. Help me out here: Isn’t that a book?

I’m no pessimist. But anyone who expects that such a lengthy treatment on this topic by the Commission on Theology would be widely read is far more optimistic than I.

Serving the Synod through theological reflection is the task and joy of this commission. Last year we presented “The Word Became Flesh: Setting the Context for the Church’s Discussion of Issues Involving Sexuality.” It was a theological statement on human sexuality focused on what we in the RCA affirm, unwittingly antitipating what General Secretary Tom De Vries said in his report on Friday, “What unites is far greater than what divides us.” It was the hope of the members of this commission that we in the RCA can be better prepared for difficult conversations about our differences as we first state what we have in common.

We intended “The Word Became Flesh” as a first step, to be followed by another, (sorry) more “comprehensive” paper. But two things led us to reconsider, and, in reconsidering, to ask this Synod for more direction.

First, we all knew that the Special Council would be meeting. None of us could anticipate what exactly the Special Council would produce. So we couldn’t anticipate what work the delegates of this synod would have to do here in response to the Special Council. We believed that a paper from us would either distract from your work of processing the recommendations of the Special Council or be swallowed up in all that work. We were concerned that it would be viewed as conflicting with the Special Council report. It was clear to us that a new paper on sexuality sent by us to this synod would not help the synod but rather make its work much more difficult.

In the end, the members of the Commission felt it best to place ourselves, in a sense, under the “Season of Restraint” that last year’s Synod implored of assemblies and office bearers, and so decline to offer a report at this time.

But to be honest, and with regret, we do not know what the Synod would like us to do, if anything. We thought that last year’s paper was good and helpful. But we do not know how helpful the Synod found it to be, nor do we know what was lacking in it that would require another paper.

For these reasons, the Commission on Theology has suspended its work on the topic of human sexuality until the General Synod gives it more specific direction.

Even as we stand ready to respond to such direction, we continue working on topics that have been assigned to us (these are noted in the written report in the workbook), and we will eagerly take up the items assigned to us by this Synod.

It is joyful work. Scripture teaches us neither to fear work nor to worship it, but rather to take on the work God gives us as a response to God’s great love for us.

As I and the other commission members anticipate that work, I am reminded of the words of John Henry Newman:

May [God] support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in [God’s] mercy may [God] give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.

Mr. President, this concludes my report.