The Best and Worst Method of Church Government

“So…this whole thing just works on the honor system?” One of my students asked.

***

For the third year it has been my privilege to journey with the youth delegates to the General Synod both being a teacher and instructing them on what they need to know to participate in the General Synod, as well as serving as a way station in their ongoing process of vocational discernment. I will also be entering my second year as an instructor of church government (with an additional one year as a teaching assistant).

The General Synod is the broadest assembly in my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, and it is a delegated body with delegates sent from the lower (less broad) assemblies: the classis and the regional synod.

My role at General Synod has been that of resource person for the youth rather than a delegate (which means I cannot speak or vote). However, this has afforded me a particular perspective as I am present annually.

Our form of church government is confusing, particularly when we compare it to the way the liberal democracy of the United States functions. In the secular United States government, there are three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. There is a separation of powers, so that no one branch can on its own rule the government, and there are checks and balances. If the legislature passes a bill which is unconstitutional there can be a judicial review by constitutional scholars and experts (judicial branch) who have the power to overturn legislation. In order for a bill to become law, the executive branch must sign off on it. Our form of church government can be confusing because we send delegates from the classes (plural for classis; most particular of the regional assemblies) are sent to the General Synod and the assembly votes. It can look much like how congress operates, but it could not be further from the truth.

I could go on for quite some time about the differences between the government of the Reformed Church and a liberal democracy (far longer than you would be interested), but one difference is always rather striking to my students: there is no separation of powers. There are no branches of government and no checks and balances, there is only one branch which functions as an administrative body, a legislative body, and a judicial body. They are surprised there there is no separate body which reviews decisions which may violate the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America.

Regardless of whether it is the college students in my charge at the General Synod, or the seminary students in my charge learning about church government, some questions are similar.

“So what happens if the General Synod does something which it can’t do?”

I shrug my shoulders. “It can’t”

“But what if it does?”

“It can’t be enforced.”

A somewhat puzzled look comes across their faces, and another one speaks up.

“So…this whole thing just works on the honor system?”

***

It’s a great observation, and a great point. I appreciate the mildly confused looks on their faces, I have the same one dwelling inside of me. For people who are steeped in the praises of a liberal democracy, the church government of the Reformed is confusing, dated, inefficient, ineffective, and to some may even feel it to be oppressive (remember the rule is by delegated elders and ministers, not elected members).

While it certainly does look like this whole thing runs on the honor system, it doesn’t, it operates by discerning the leading of God.

One of the most unfortunate things that can happen in our church government is that people see the similarities in form between our assemblies and structures and those of a liberal democracy and begin to behave accordingly. We devolve into representatives who are present to speak the will of a constituency, rather than the truth that the delegates represent Christ. We devolve into analogues of political parties and the recesses turn into meetings of caucuses. We spend time with those with whom we agree, and we stay away from those with whom we disagree. Even more foundational than the honor system is trust, and when these things happen, trust breaks down, and the assemblies condescend to functioning like a liberal democratic body rather than an ecclesiastical body.

Despite all of this, however, it never ceases to amaze me is that, even when many members of the assembly begin to function as if we were a liberal democracy, the ecclesiastical assembly is, at its heart, significantly different. It’s heart is of substantial significance that even when we try to transform it into something different, it always returns to its home as an ecclesiastical assembly.

***

Continuing on my conversation with my students both college and seminary, I remind them that it is not so much the honor system, but that we rely on two things: trust and God.

“In all that we see about church order which can read like law, in all the votes we will take, in all the impassioned speeches that we will hear, in all of the differences of opinion, we cannot forget this one thing: The General Synod (like the other lower/particular assemblies) is a body of the church, a part of the body of Christ, and God has a way of showing up, even when we may not expect it.”

I remind them that the General Synod has a way of self-correction, even if it takes some time. I remind them that although we have a constitution (which uses a similar word as the nation’s the secular constitution) the Constitution of the Reformed Church is not the highest authority, sacred scripture is of the highest authority. We do not try to discern the desires of our founding fathers and mothers (as we do in a constitutional republic), we try to discern the desires of the Word-made-flesh. We cannot forget that what keeps and preserves the church is not the idea of a representative democracy and a separation of powers with checks and balances and the control of parties and caucuses, but rather the providence of God.

***

There is something significant to assembling people to discern God’s leading for the church. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read about the Council at Jerusalem in (Acts 15), we remember significant councils in the history of the church: Nicæa, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon. Discerning God’s desires and leading in community has a long and significantly history within Christianity.

***

Church governance of the Reformed is inefficient (for example: the Belhar Confession was introduced to the General Synod of 1985, stating that the confession demanded “quick response” and we finally figured out what to do with it at the General Synod of 2010).Our form of church governance is centered on trust — trust in each other, trust in our covenant together, and trust in God — and when that trust is broken, it ceases to function properly.

I have seen it function poorly, and I have seen it function well. I have even seen times when the General Synod has said, “we were wrong,” as it did this year about a decision that was made last year. Even without checks and balances, even without a separation of powers, even without multiple branches, the General Synod has a surprising way of self-correction.

When we think about our form of church government, we must decide what is most important. If efficiency is what is prized, the ability to make decisions and take action quickly, then there is no worse form of governance. However, if discerning God’s leading is what is prized, then, in my view, there is no better form of governance. We believe that God speaks most clearly in community, and we trust that God is present in all of the mess and warts.

I firmly believe that the essential function of the assemblies of the church is not to be efficient, it is not to make decisions, it is not to rapidly lead the church into change. The essential function of the assemblies of the church is to discern God’s desires and leading. At times this takes years, at times this happens by taking two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps back, at times this happens by making bad decisions and then correcting them.

The church is not perfect, and the church’s assemblies are not perfect. We cannot flawlessly discern God’s leading, and periodically we do mess up. However, we are not in this alone, God is with us, leading us, moving us, inspiring us. What I try to impress upon my students, most of all, is that we do not ultimately depend on human reason, we do not depend on having the majority voting bloc, or having more political power than someone else. We ultimately depend on God and the trust that God will not abandon God’s church, and that we are a part of the body of Christ, with Christ as its head.

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9 thoughts on “The Best and Worst Method of Church Government

  1. The misunderstanding of which you write, Matthew, is nothing new. In the “Centennial Discourses of the Reformed Church in America” (a set of speeches given in RCA churches during the US Centennial in 1876, published in 1877) there is an essay which discusses how Reformed order mirrors US government, even suggesting that it inspired the US Federal system. In his General Synod president’s report in 1996, I. John Hesselink acknowledged that being Reformed is, in a way, counter-cultural for Americans, although he concluded that God had called us all to this effort. John Bardslee, III, was always talking about how we needed to be patient with the movements of our shared governance; no matter how wrong it seemed at any moment, the broad sweep of history showed the providence of God. The question for us, I believe, is whether we are willing to be patient, to do the work, and to remember that it is God’s work, which God has brought all of us together to do.

    • Thanks, James, for reading and for sharing this great historical perspective. In many ways, it does not surprise me that it is an old misunderstanding, as I increasingly learn that the things with which we deal are not new at all, but are things that we have wrestled with before (sometimes several) in our denomination’s long history. This is one of the wonderful things about having the opportunity to serve on the Historical Commission!

  2. Thank you for this piece, Matthew. It is a good reminder, especially to those of us who so often feel overlooked, kept away, or misrepresented. It reminds us that patience is precious and God is faithful ~ all the time and without fail.

  3. Matthew, good stuff to remember,especially the significant roles of covenant and trust. I think the latter is especially, excruciatingly hard for a lot of folks and that tends to undermine the good intentions and sincerity we have (or once had) upon entering into such covenant relationships. At least I know my own baggage well enough to know that is the way it works for me.

    I do have to ask though do you find any tension between these two statements: “sacred scripture is of the highest authority. We do not try to discern the desires of our founding fathers and mothers (as we do in a constitutional republic), we try to discern the desires of the Word-made-flesh”?

    I wonder if the latter rules parts of the former partial and perhaps at times even contrary to his indwelling among us.

    • Thanks, Wayne.
      Perhaps I should have rephrased that statement a bit. Christ remains the highest authority, and sacred scripture is the only rule of faith and life. Scripture in-and-of-itself (words on a page) doesn’t have any authority, the authority comes from the fact that it is God’s revelation of Godself which points us to the Triune God.

      When we think, however, about our secular government in the United States, the Constitution of the United States is the highest authority, and we seek to interpret the Constitution to discern the desires of our nation’s founders. Not so with the church, however. Scripture is always superior to our constitution and we interpret scripture to help discern the desires of Christ. My contrast doesn’t quite work out exactly. But yes my term “highest authority” would better have been “only rule of faith and life”

  4. Nice post Matthew. This is one reason why it was important to me that General Synod 2013 not ‘rescind’ part or all of GS 2012’s R-28. Without something like a Supreme Court, if something GS does is unconstitutional, how would you know? GS rescinding R-28 would have been to employ the same authority GS 2012 used in passing it in the first place– an authority vis-a-vis the Constitution it’s not clear GS has. And because actions of GS aren’t ‘law’ in the democratic legislative sense (not least because there’s no executive branch), it was appropriate for GS 2013 simply to say something for itself re R-28. Which it did. GS 2013 didn’t do something TO R-28; it said something ABOUT it.

    • Matt and josh
      Thank you both…Matt, this is a very helpful post. Josh, I heard your explanations at the start of GS and was/am so grateful for your careful and gracious words then!

      These statements/thoughts remind me that while I can play the parliamentary game, the essence of things is the process of spiritual discernment.

  5. Matt,
    As frustrated as I can get with the RCA, my conviction that God guides and leads everything we do gives me hope. This is a post I’ll be referring to again and again as I struggle to understand and explain the RCA and how it operates on a governmental level to others.

    I sometimes wonder why God (or perhaps God’s people?) move so slowly, and it can be so aggravating that one just wants to leave. But, if I do leave, I’ll never get to be a part of the change I want to see, however long it may take. What I just said is cliche, but it’s true.

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