The Binding Decisions of a Reformed Synod
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Prof. David J. Engelsma in the 6/1/1991 issue of The Standard Bearer.
It cannot be said that Protestant Reformed people are wrapped up in the annual meeting of synod. Unless there is a case of special interest to the churches, visitors at synod are few. Seldom is the church building packed at the worship service with which synod begins. It is doubtful that the members wait with bated breath for the decisions of synod in the Acts.
Nevertheless, it lives in the congregations that synod is an important part of our church life. There is understanding that synod settles matters of dispute in the churches. The churches carry out the decisions of synod that bear on the denominational life. 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.
This is as it should be. This is healthy. This is Reformed. The broader assembly of the churches, synod now in particular, is the necessary expression of the unity of the church of Christ. In keeping with the purpose of the unity of the church, synod serves for the mutual help of the congregations and represents the cooperative labor of all the churches of the denomination on behalf of Christ their common Head.
The Reformed Church Order
Basic to this unity and essential for this service and cooperative labor is the binding character of synod’s (and classis’) decisions. Article 31 of the Reformed Church Order of Dordt, which regulates church life in the PRC, establishes this: “Whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding. . . .” Synodical decisions put an end to debate on controversial issues in the churches. There may not be continued agitation against the decisions. Consistories and members must submit to the decisions and carry them out. This is what they have willingly agreed to do by virtue of their membership in the denomination. Minorities willingly agree to yield to the vote of the majority of delegates.
The binding character of synod’s decisions implies real authority. The synod has authority. Synod has authority over consistories. Article 36 of the Church Order of Dordt expressly states the authority of the broader assemblies over the consistory: “The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the particular synod has over the classis and the general synod over the particular.” “Jurisdiction” in the original Latin of this article is “auctoritas,” that is, “authority.” The Dutch has “zeggen,” that is, “say-so”: The synod has “say-so” over the consistory.
This authority of synod is derived from the local churches themselves by way of the churches sending duly authorized pastors and elders to conduct the business of the churches in common. It is greater than the authority of the individual consistory, not because it is of a higher order than that of the consistory (there is no authority in the churches higher than that of the consistory), but because it represents the authority of all the consistories cumulatively for the oversight, help, and work of all the churches. It is peculiarly, subtly, and significantly Reformed to call ‘classis and synod “broader assemblies,” not “higher assemblies,” or “higher courts,” in order to do justice to their greater authority without jeopardizing Christ’s government of the local congregation through the body of elders.
In order to safeguard the rule of the local congregation by the body of elders, the Reformed Church Order sharply restricts the authority of synod to matters that could not be finished in minor assemblies and to matters that pertain to the churches in common (Article 30). Besides, synod does not have the authority to preach, administer the sacraments, or exercise discipline. Christ has given this power to the church; and the church is not synod but the local, instituted congregation.
Nevertheless, synod has ecclesiastical authority—the authority of Christ’s church—for the authority of synod is the authority of the churches that assemble in synod. The authority of a Reformed synod is the authority of the risen Christ Himself, for He is the author and source of the authority of His church, as He is the author and source of all authority. The binding character of synod’s decisions for individual member and local consistory alike expresses this real, ecclesiastical authority. Synod’s decisions are not considered settled and binding merely because of a “gentlemen’s agreement” on the part of the churches and members of the denomination.
The Reformed Tradition
This is the Reformed tradition. The great Dutch authority on Reformed church government, Dr. H. Bouwman, expresses this tradition when he writes, “The theory of the absolute sovereignty of the individual churches has always been opposed by the Reformed” (Gerefomeerd Kerkrecht, Vol. 2, 1934, p. 15; my translation of the Dutch). Bouwman goes on to assert that the Reformed view of the life together of the churches of Christ is that the local church subjects herself to the decisions of the broader assembly. Bouwman then observes:
Such a subordination is not the introduction of a hierarchy in the church, but a subjecting of itself (on the part of the local church–DJE) to the yoke of Christ, a practising of the unity of the body of Christ, and a seeking of the maintenance of Christ’s kingship (Geref. Kerk., Vol. 2, p. 66).
It is the independent churches, mostly Baptist, that deny the binding character of the decisions of synods or councils, as Article 26 of their Savoy Declaration states: “These Synods so assembled are not entrusted with any Church Power properly so called, or with any Jurisdiction over the Churches themselves, to exercise any Censures, either over any Churches or Persons, or to impose their determinations on the Churches or Officers.”
The Reformed churches held the decisions of the Synod of Dordt to be binding upon all the churches. It was the Arminians who repudiated the idea of denominational authority and of binding synodical decisions.
What Says the Scripture?
This principle of Reformed church order is biblically based. First, it is taught in Scripture’s account of the Jerusalem synod in Acts 15. The local church at Antioch appealed to the broader assembly of apostles and elders at Jerusalem a matter that could not be finished in the local church. This doctrinal question was at the same time a matter that pertained to the churches in common. The decision taken by the broader assembly was considered settled and binding. The report that went out to the churches did not speak of advice that the churches were free to accept or to reject at their pleasure. In full consciousness of its authority, the synod declared, “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things” (Acts 15:28). When the apostles brought the decision to the local churches, “they delivered them the decrees (Greek: dogmata) for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).
Second, the New Testament makes plain that the autonomy of the local churches did not mean that each church could go her own way and do her own thing in disregard for the other churches. There was an authority that bound upon all the churches the common faith, a common order, and a common life. This authority over all the churches was necessary for the unity of the churches. When Paul gives instructions to Corinth concerning marriage matters, he says, “And so ordain I in all churches” (1 Cor. 7:17). The apostle is at pains to point out that the order in home and in worship services that he requires of a particular local church holds for all the churches (cf. 1 Cor. 11:16; 1 Cor. 14:33). It is true that this “denominational” authority was then the office of the apostle, which office is no longer found in the church. But this authority remains inasmuch as the unity of .the churches, served by this authority, is still important to the Head of the church. The local churches possess this authority. They express and exercise this authority by banding together in a synod whose decisions are considered settled and binding.
The Controversial Exception
The exception allowed for by Article 31 of the Church Order of Dordt, “unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the church order,” does not permit a member or a church to ignore or to agitate against a decision of synod. It recognizes the fallibility of the assemblies. It expresses the infallibility and, therefore, the sole authority of Holy Scripture as the Word of God. The article grants to the aggrieved member or consistory, not the right of disregarding or agitating against a decision of consistory, classis, or synod, but the right of appeal against the decision to a broader assembly of the churches. The appeal must prove that the decision conflicts with Scripture or with the Church Order. While one is appealing, he may not agitate against the decision, but must submit. His conscience is not bound; but his speech and behavior in the churches are bound.
It must be acknowledged that authorities on Reformed church polity have explained the exception of Article 31 of the Church Order ("unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God. . . .") as referring to the person or church that has been wronged by synodical decision. To the question, “To whom must it be proved that the decision is in conflict with the Word of God?,” Joh. Jansen answers that Article 31 intends to say “that we are bound by the decisions of the majority unless someone esteems it proved to himself that one or another decision is in conflict with God’s Word” (Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening, p. 147; my translation of the Dutch). Decisions of synod are to be considered settled and binding unless the local consistory itself or brother so-and-so himself is convinced that the decision is contrary to Scripture. But even these authorities, rightly fearful of the disorder, uproar, and chaos to which this explanation may lead in the denomination, quickly add that a dissenting consistory or member, rather than raise discord in the denomination, should leave the federation of churches (cf., VanDellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary, p. 146; also, H. Bouwman, Geref. Kerk., Vol. 2, pp. 56ff.).
But the exception-clause in Article 31 undoubtedly refers to the broader assembly: “unless it be proved to the broader assembly that the decision being appealed is contrary to the Word of God,” etc. This is proved by the article’s use of the word, “proved.” It must be proved that the decision of synod is contrary to the Word of God. One does not prove something to himself. It is the right and duty of a believer or of a consistory wronged by a decision of one of the assemblies to prove that the decision is contrary to the Word or to the Church Order. The appellant must prove this to the synod. Had the intention of Article 31 been that decisions of church assemblies are settled and binding unless members or consistories suppose them to be erroneous, the exception clause would read this way: “unless one is convinced that the decision conflicts with the Word of God.”
The main concern of Article 31, after all, is not the freedom of conscience of the individual, but living together in a denomination of churches. Article 31, like Article 36, concerns the unity of the churches as expressed in the ecclesiastical assemblies.
Rejection of synodical authority, refusal to consider synodical decisions settled and binding, and agitation against synodical decisions are radically un-Reformed. This thinking and behavior are contrary to the Reformed tradition; violation of Articles 31 and 36 of the Reformed Church Order of Dordt; revolt against the authority of Christ; and sin against the unity of the church.
We stand aghast at what we are hearing from Reformed men and churches today. “No decision of synod will be considered settled and binding unless this consistory ratifies the decision!” “We consider ourselves perfectly free publicly to damn synodical decisions as heretical even though we do not appeal these decisions!” “If we are appealing decisions that we consider evil, we are not obligated to submit while we appeal, but may stir up opposition to the decisions throughout the denomination!” “Every church and every member may decide for itself and himself to withhold the money that synod has budgeted for denominational work!” “Synods have no real authority over the local consistory in the Reformed system, and never have had!”
I wonder whether consistories now encouraging members to disregard synodical authority, if only the members judge the decisions of synod in error, will be just as supportive when presently these members show the same contempt for the decisions of the consistory. Will these consistories allow their members to run through the congregation agitating against consistorial authority, if only the members prove to their own satisfaction that a decision of the consistory is contrary to the Word of God?
The members now enthusiastically joining in the work of tearing down synodical authority as the Great Tyranny might well stop for a moment to remember that one important purpose of the broader assemblies is to serve as a check against the tyranny of the local church and of the local pastor. Hierarchy is not a temptation only of synods. Local consistories have tyrannized their members. Some of the worst despots in the church are lordly pastors whose will is law in the church and who brook no opposition. It now becomes fashionable in Re Reformed circles to revile synodical authority with the barbarous epithet, “synodocracy.” But let Reformed people keep in mind that there is also a “dominie-ocracy” and a “consistocracy.” Classes and synods have been salvation for the people of God from the hierarchy and tyranny of consistories and pastors.
Often synods have themselves to blame for the violent reaction against synodical authority and for the disregard of synodical decisions. They infringe upon the authority that Christ has given to the consistory. They ride roughshod over the church order. Worst of all, they make decisions that conflict with Scripture and deviate from the confessions. These decisions they then attempt to bind upon the congregations. Thus synods, intended to express and safeguard the unity of the churches, destroy the unity of the churches. But the reaction against this abuse of authority that consists of rejecting synodical authority altogether is no better. It also is destructive of the unity of the church of Christ.
The Better Way
The PRC may be thankful that the King of the church has preserved us from this reactionary repudiation of synodical authority. The churches came into existence through the hierarchy of the broader assemblies. A synod adopted doctrines that conflict with the teaching of Scripture and of the Reformed creeds that the grace of God is sovereign and particular. Classes then tried to bind these doctrines upon the consciences and ministries of Reformed preachers. When this failed, the classes took to themselves power that belongs to the consistory and deposed both the preachers and their consistories. The synod approved the exercise of discipline by a classis and promptly dispossessed consistories and the overwhelming majority of the congregations of their physical properties.
If any group of churches had reason to renounce all synodical and classical authority as hierarchy, it was the PRC.
But there is a better way than the hierarchy of the broader assemblies on the one hand or the independency of the local churches on the other hand.
This is the Reformed way: the autonomy of the local congregation as the church and at the same time the binding character of the decisions of synod as the authoritative assembly of churches.
May the synod of the PRC 1991 decide on all matters rightfully coming before it in accordance with Scripture and the Church Order of Dordt. May it consciously do so as servant of Christ and the congregations.
May the consistories and members consider synod’s decisions settled and binding in recognition of synod’s authority and in regard for the peace of the churches.
That is to say, may the PRC continue to express and enjoy the precious unity of the church of Jesus Christ.