Going into the 2016 General Synod (the broadest assembly in the Reformed Church in America), much has been made of the special “council” which was convened to “settle” the “issue” of human sexuality in the Reformed Church and to propose a “constitutional” “way forward”. The report can be read elsewhere and has serious problems in terms of ecclesiology and the way that the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America actually works. But this is not what I am most concerned about.
There is another issue that is being brought to the General Synod which is just as, if not more, important than sex and marriage — the report of the “Commissioned Pastor Task Force” can be found here on pages 93-102. This cuts to the core of how we understand that God works in the church and how Christ desires the church to function.
The Preamble of the Book of Church Order lays a solid theological foundation for why the church operates as it does, and to frame this discussion it is worthwhile looking to it. It begins thusly (emphases in the quotations are mine):
The purpose of the Reformed Church in America, together with all other churches of Christ, is to minister to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching, and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by all Christian good works. That purpose is achieved most effectively when good order and proper discipline are maintained by means of certain offices, govenernmental agencies, and theological and liturgical standards.
The Reformed Church is governed by offices (minister of Word and sacrament, elder, deacon, professor of theology) gathered in assemblies (consistory, classis, regional synod, General Synod). The gathering of offices is not simply an organizational aspect but an essential (per the essence) aspect.
The offices meeting together represent the fullness of Christ’s ministry. (Preamble)
As such, the Reformed have located the church, primarily, at the local level, gathered around pulpit, table, and font. The offices, in which the above line of the Preamble states, are the minister of Word and sacrament, the elder, and the deacon. These offices are primarily theological in nature, that is, they come from Christ to the church. Christ delegates authority to the offices, and it is the offices that are given authority and responsibility, not the people. However, offices do not exist in a disembodied way, but are enfleshed in people. In order for people to fill these offices, God calls internally (with a felt sense of God’s call) and externally (by the confirmation of the Christian community that they are indeed called by God).
To these offices (and the people ordained into them), certain responsibilities are given. Indeed, the government of the church speaks primarily of offices, and not people, and of offices and not “leadership.”
To the minister of Word and sacrament
The Office of Minister of Word and Sacrament is one of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. Ministers are called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the ministery of the Word of God. In the local church the minister serves as pastor and teacher of the congregation to build up and equip the whole church for its ministry in the world. The minister preaches and teaches the Word of God, administers the sacraments, shares responsibility with the elders and deacons and members of the congregation for their mutual Christian growth, exercises Christian love and discipline in conjuction with the elders, and endeavors that everything in the church be done in a proper and orderly way. (From the Book of Church Order (BCO), 1.I.1.4)
To the elder
The office of elder is one of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. In the local church elders are chosen members of spiritual discernment, exemplary life, charitable spirit, and wisdom grounded in God’s Word. Elders, together with the installed minister/s serving under a call, are to have supervision fo the church entrusted to them. They are set apart for a ministry of watchful and responsible care for all matters relating to the welfare and good order of the church. They are to study God’s Word, to oversee the household of faith, to encourage spiritual growth, to maintain loving discipline, and to provide for the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments. They have oversight over the conduct of the members of the congregation and seek to bring that conduct into conformity with the Word of God, thereby empowering all members to live out their Christian vocation in the world. Elders exercise an oversight over the conduct of one another, and of the deacons, and of the minister/s. They make certain that what is preached and taught by the minister/s is in accord with Holy Scripture. They assist the minister/s with their good counsel and in the task of visitation. (1.I.1.8)
And certainly not least, to the office of deacon:
The office of deacon is one of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. In the local church deacons are chosen members of spiritual commitment, exemplary life, compassionate spirit, and sound judgement, who are set apart for a minitsry of mercy, service, and outreach. They are to receive the contributions of the congregation and to distrubute them under the direction of the consistory. The deacons give particular attention and care to the whole benevolence program of the church. They have charge of all gifts contributed for the benefit of the poor and distribute them with discretion. They visit and comfort those in material need…(1.I.1.10).
As can be seen, the ministry of each of the offices is essential to the life of the church.
It is important, however, to bear in mind that office dictates role and responsibility, not the other way around. Therefore, one preaches the Word and administers the sacraments because one is a minister of Word and sacrament. One is not a minister of Word and sacrament because one preaches the Word and administers the sacraments. Similarly, one rules with the elders because one is an elder. One is not an elder because one functions like one. The same with deacons.
Christ gives offices to the church to help the church live out its ministry in the world and calls people to exercise those offices. In the Reformed tradition, this three- (or four-) office ecclesiology worked for nearly five hundred years. Until, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the communion was gripped by a fear of a coming ministerial shortage created a designation of “commissioned pastor”.
The commissioned pastor designation is (and since its inception has been) lodged in the office of elder. That is, it was originally designed that someone would already be functioning within the office of elder, and could be trained by the classis for a particular ministry that was needed within that classis for a specific period of time. Furthermore, commissioned pastor is a temporary role designation, not an office.
Since this designation was invented just over a decade ago, it has grown to the point where commissioned pastors are being “called” to serve as the senior or sole “pastor” of a local church. And when this happens, that local church is deprived the ministry of one of the offices that Christ has given to the church (cf. “The offices meeting together represent the fullness of Christ’s ministry” (Preamble)). That much is established.
Indeed, the designation of commissioned pastor has been transformed into an easier way to enter professional ministry.
Equality of the Ministry
One of the most fundamental and universal principles of Reformed church polity is the equality of the ministry, or parity of office. Every person exercising ministry in one of the offices is equal to all others who are ordained into that office. There are no ministers which are fundamentally higher than other ministers, there are no elders which are fundamentally higher than other elders, and there are no deacons which are fundamentally higher than other deacons.
Role and function derive from office, not the other way around.
The recommendations being brought by the task force separates commissioned pastors from the office of elder, and giving it an office-like existence all its own. Instead of speaking of the broader assemblies (classis and synods) being made up of ministers and elders, it is recommended that we speak of “members and elders,” forgetting the fact that “member” is not an office and it fundamentally shifts away from the assemblies as the gathering of offices.
As commissioned pastors are elders, it is fitting that they are counted among the elders. This is not an issue of status, but an issue of office. However, it is being recommended that commissioned pastors are to be counted among the ministers of Word and sacrament — ignoring the fact that commissioned pastor is indeed an elder, and that elders have a unique and valuable ministry which is entrusted to them. Indeed, with the recommendations as they are, it could be possible for a synod to be held without a single minister present. No longer, then, would assemblies be gatherings of offices, but they would become a gathering of functions, or even worse, of “higher” and “lower” elders. And this is problematic.
A final recommendation is to create a new definition of commissioned pastor which declares that commissioned pastors are “commissioned by the classis to ministries that extend beyond the normal role of elders, overlapping to a large extent with the roles typically exercised by ministers of Word and sacrament.” This threatens the fundamental and foundational principle of parity of the ministry (in that it seems to advocate for being “higher” than “just an elder”) and it rejects the foundation of offices as given to the church by Christ and instead settles for jobs and people to simply fill those jobs.These recommendations detach function from office, allowing function to exist independently of office, and places the offices (which are of central importance to the life and ministry of the church) secondarily to job and role and function.
The task force was charged with, among other things, to ” explore the theological foundations of office in the RCA as they pertain to the commissioned pastor.” Unfortunately, the report displays a lack of theological exploration of office in the Reformed Church and deals primarily with role and function and reading the formula backward (function should determine office, instead of office determining function).
So what does the future hold? It is unclear, but I hope that these recommendations will receive the full attention of the General Synod as a deliberative assembly composed of offices of the church gathered together to discern Christ’s leading through the Spirit. I hope that the Synod will be able to be aware of and explore the deep implications of the decisions that they make instead of the recent trend of relying on piecemeal pragmatism. And most of all, I hope that the delegates are able to overcome the spirit of partisanship and “us vs them” so that they are able to, together, as a gathered assembly, wrestle with these deep and serious issues which often go much deeper than appears on the surface.