Are the RCA 2019 General Synod’s decisions unethical and (un)reformed

The 2019 general synod is over and there are two general feelings taking place across our denomination. Either, a sense of relief and hope that the denomination is moving the “right way”. Or, a sense of despair that things will fall apart for “our” side. It has gotten tense on this portion of God’s garden.

Perhaps one of the most controversial decisions of this year’s synod was the passing of this overture:
to amend the RCA’s Book of Church Order so that only a simple majority of classes—rather than the current two-thirds majority required—would need to approve any amendment proposed to implement the 2020 General Synod’s in response to the Vision 2020 Team’s final report.

The response was intense. While many support the proposed amendment (that must be approved by 2/3 of classis), others spoke about how this move is not “reformed”. Some even made moral judgments about the proposed amendment (this amendment is an immoral way to do church; it’s shady, mean and fleshly). These comments were made from RCA pastors, professors and elders. Both conservative and liberal. Are they right?

This week, I went and read book 4, in particular chapter 10, of Calvin’s Institutes seeking to answer two questions:

1) Is the proposed amendment “reformed”?
2) Can a procedural process change be immoral or ethically wrong?

At the heart of reformed polity according to Calvin is Paul’s admonishment, “All things should be done decently and in order” 1 Corinthians‬ ‭14:40‬ ‭ESV. ‬‬Good polity provides “safety for the church”. Calvin continues,

we hold that the removal of them would unnerve the Church, deface and dissipate it entirely. For Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, cannot be observed unless order and decency be secured by the addition of ordinances, as a kind of bonds.

So was this vote that must now be approved by 2/3 of the classis and return for a vote next year, not reformed? Did this synod demolish reformed polity? Is chaos now ruling? The answer is no. The overture was presented to general synod based upon observations of 2020 team of delegate feedback, debate ensued and a vote followed. Each classis will consider the proposed amendment and vote on its acceptance. It will only be enforced for the recommendations of the 2020 team. This seems like the very definition of doing the business of the church in good order. It seems over the top—bad faith—to claim that the reformed polity has been toppled. It makes me wonder if people actually know what words mean?

It might me argued that making a change from the regular way of doing business is not reformed. Our tradition, the argument goes, protects us from making rash decisions. But Calvin seems to make room for exceptions to normal polity as well. He writes that we must, “always attend to the exception”. The general synod acted within its authority and sent a proposed amendment to the classis for their approval or rejection. There is a valid argument to be made that this is a time for an exception to be made. The 2019 general synod should be very proud for living up to epitome and good of reformed polity.

Well maybe it was done in a reformed way but maybe the policy itself is immoral. To enact such a change has moral implications. In other words, if you voted yes you’re a bad person. Calvin speaks directly to such a charge (no doubt this is an old accusation):
these ordinances, must not be thought necessary to salvation, nor lay the conscience under a religious obligation; they must not be compared to the worship of God, nor substituted for piety.
In other words, polity practices concerning process are not moral or immoral. They don’t speak of hijacking the debate or bad people. They are the best effort of the church to move the right way. They are important but they say little about ethics.

So according to John Calvin, the father of our polity, what was done at General Synod, 2019 was reformed and can be embraced with a clear conscience.

12 thoughts on “Are the RCA 2019 General Synod’s decisions unethical and (un)reformed”

  1. Ron, I was there. I heard disagreement, but no language of “bad” people or “unethical” practices. While I voted to keep the 2/3 majority for the 2020 proposal, my concern is not good or bad, but how to move ahead on mission together. I feel sad about the decision. I believe that our polity shows our theology. What theology might this show? Different, it seems to me, than how to move forward together in mission because together feels more like 66% than 51%. And I believe that the RCA needs “together” now more than ever. The east needs the west’s evangelistic passion, and the west needs the east’s call to justice. The east needs the west’s strong leadership, and the west needs the east’s compassionate solidarity. Be that as it may, my trust is that this is Christ’s body, and ultimately we will all stand before him.

    1. I am glad you haven’t heard these things. You obviously run in better crowds than I do. 😉 I do think what is being seen is that for a large section of the rca, the idea of moving forward together seems impossible.

      1. I realize that a large part of the RCA does not want to move forward on mission together, and I would say that that is the larger ethical issue, especially according to John 17.

  2. I realize that a large part of the RCA does not want to move forward on mission together, and I would say that that is the larger ethical issue, especially according to John 17.

  3. Ron- I respect your views, but I was present at Synod as a guest. From my “bird’s eye view” of the plenary hall, it was easy to see the political machinations going on. You speak of “bad faith” in your piece. Every bit of the proposed amendment reeked of scheming. From what I saw on the plenary floor to the words I heard spoken between friends and the thinly veiled threats made at meal times…Jesus weeps. It was not the decently-done or ordered event your blog is speaking of, and I certainly had a different experience of things than Mr. Buurstra did above.

    1. Hi Cameron. Thanks for engaging. It’s important. It sounds like you heard lots of meanness. No good. As you know, individuals say many things personally and some of it sinful. The purpose of polity is to channel both the good and bad tendencies of all of us into process, procedure and rules; by doing so, it restrains us. My point is not whether the amendment is a good idea or not but that the system worked exactly as it ought. Now the classis will consider the proposal.

  4. This is what I was thinking to write: Are we to believe that those who have been crying for years about the 2/3 rule for amendment just happened to spontaneously think the same thought about this proposal in the small group gatherings? Like, “Whoa, yeah, I never thought of that before, but now that a whole bunch of us just happened to think the same thing in a bunch of different discussion groups dispersed all across the campus at the same time, I guess maybe I should do something about it?” And are we to think that the method of amending a constitution should be proposed to the denomination without being vetted by the commission whose job it is to vet such things? Sorry, but your arguments aren’t plausible. And to say that the system worked exactly as it ought is to avoid the fact that, while new business can be brought to the chair at any time – there clearly can be no restriction of that right – the manipulation of the process by pre-cooking business but not sending it through the overture process means that proponents of the 51% proposal had plenty of time to consider it and strategize about it, while detractors had no time at all to do so. Clearly there is a hole in the order that allows this sort of shenanigans. Let’s hope the wider constituency of the RCA sees this for what it is. (And so far this discussion is taking place without any reckoning of the very real damage that was done, and continues to be done, by those who keep pushing the Puritan agenda in the RCA.)

    1. Sounds like you feel it was a sneak attack? Even if true, polity is designed to channel discontent and broken humanity; this was one of Calvin’s primary motives in the creation of our form of polity. It forces it into a system. Now, each classis will have a chance to judge its merits or not.

  5. Perhaps, if one is to begin quoting Calvin, one might want to offer the following quote: “We have continually found, however, that there is by no means universal agreement even among those who have not been found wanting in zeal for godliness, or piety and moderation in discussing the mysteries of God. God has never so blessed His servants that they each possessed full and perfect knowledge of every part of their subject. It is clear that His purpose in so limiting our knowledge was first that we should be kept humble, and also that we should continue to have dealings with our fellows. Even though it were otherwise highly desirable, we are not to look in the present life for lasting agreement among us on the exposition of passages of scripture. When, therefore, we depart from the views of our predecessors, we are not to be stimulated by any passion or innovation, impelled by any desire to slander others, aroused by any hatred, or prompted by any ambition. Necessity alone is to compel us, and we are to have no other object than that of doing good.”
    -from the dedicatory letter to Simon Grynaeus in Calvin’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans

  6. What a great article Ron! Loved it Thanks for putting it well. Everyone wants to stand up for their rights. Few people want to take responsibility. The road to good and greatness is often lined with complaints of evil. Thanks again for taking the time to write this. I loved it!

  7. Ron, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, just because something is permissible does not mean it is beneficial. This vote was not beneficial. It was perceived by many as last-minute, scheming, acting in bad faith, moving the goalposts during the game. Worse yet is that the Synod officers and senior staff chose not to follow the usual protocol, and in a wink-wink-nod-nod sort of move allowed it to go directly to the floor for a vote. This tips their hand, breaks faith, and displays a win-at-all-costs mentality. Trust the process, we are told. But actions like this erode trust and make many think the process is broken.

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