It is of no small significance that in Menno, SD, the Reformed Church in the United States recently held its 269th Annual Synod meeting. There are historical, constitutional, and Biblical reasons for this practice.
Each of the four classes sent delegates to Menno. The synodical roll consists of a pastor and ruling elder from each congregation as well as all the retired pastors. For myself, it was the 45th such meeting that I attended. It is always a blessing to attend these meetings, not only for the personal fellowship, but to see issues debated (sometimes with great gusto), to bow our heads often in prayer for particular matters, and, when all is finished, to leave with a warm embrace from brothers who go back to the work in their congregations. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)
Some synods are delegated, where each classis sends a limited number of delegates. Our synod format is sometimes referred to as a general convention since all the congregations are represented, but that does not quite accurately describe our synod. Our members at synod are delegated. Since we are small in size, the various classes simply delegate each pastor and ruling elder. As delegates, there is parity among the brethren – an equality, not of office, but of authority. Synod is not a hierarchy where one or just a few rule, but all may speak and vote as equal members of one body.
Technically the Synod does not exist between meetings, but the work of Synod is delegated to particular committees to perform and report on at the next meeting of Synod. Between meetings, the Executive Committee of Synod may propose recommendations which may arise in the course of the year to each delegate by way of an executive circular. If two members from two different classes object to such action within 30 days, these recommendations have failed but may be dealt with at the next synodical meeting.
In some areas the Synod has original jurisdiction (eg. foreign missions, Christian education, ministerial relief, and publications), and in other respects the various classes bring overtures from matters that they have dealt with and for which they are seeking synodical approval. Furthermore, complaints or appeals are sometimes not satisfied at the classis level, and are sent to Synod for adjudication. Any individual, Consistory, Spiritual Council, or Classis may bring an appeal through the church courts to the Synod to be heard and acted upon as the final court of the church.
The RCUS began in 1725 with John Philip Boehm serving 13 congregations. While Boehm was not an ordained minister, he was a Christian school teacher. He was ordained in 1729 as a pastor under oversight of the Amsterdam Classis of the Dutch Reformed Church. On September 29, 1747, the first official meeting of the “coetus” (or classis) was held and it reported its actions and statistics to the Dutch synod. The RCUS remained under the Dutch oversight and support until 1793. The German church had grown enough by 1793 to seek its own government.
The first synodical meeting of the German Reformed Church (later named Reformed Church in the United States) was held in Lancaster, PA, April 27, 1793. Statistics revealed that there were then 78 congregations and about 15,000 communicants. By the grace and help of God, we are still meeting annually (269 years and counting) as the Synod of the RCUS.
A classis in the RCUS has oversight of the congregations within its boundaries. Elders from each congregation are each asked to answer a list of questions (Constitution of the RCUS, Article 81) to assure that the three marks of the church are upheld and to indicate that the congregation is supporting the work of the church as a whole. Classis will send overtures to Synod as needed. The synod’s function is not so much directly connected to each particular congregation, but it assures that the various classes are functioning in harmony, and in many cases helps support work within a classis.
But what are these “synod” meetings all about? Who attends these meetings and why? What is its purpose? What authority does a synod have? How should we regard its decisions?
First, let us be clear what a synod is not. It is not just a conference to share mutual interests or discuss topics. It is not just advisory so the local congregation can reject synod’s ruling. It is not just a broader meeting of the church where more delegates attend, but rather a higher court of the church which affects the life of all the churches in the denomination. When a synod speaks on an issue it is saying that this is the position of the denomination, whether it affects its individual congregations or denominations outside of the RCUS. Constitutionally, it is the highest of the judicatories of the church and the last resort in all cases respecting the government of the church (Consistory, Spiritual Council, Classis, and Synod). This church government is called “presbyterian” which means that the government of the church is entrusted to the teaching elders (pastors) and ruling elders who are properly elected, installed, and delegated to do this work.
Each meeting is conducted by an elected president who follows a strict agenda which the Synod has approved. Business is conducted by very precise rules of order and decorum. Careful records are kept for the historical record by the stated clerk at each meeting. As the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthian church, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor. 14:40)
While the interests and needs of the people are addressed, a Reformed Synod does not assemble to do the will of the people, but to do the will of God for His glory and the benefit of the people. John Calvin wrote of this many years ago in his commentary on Acts 15, “All the holy synods have been convened from the beginning for the same purpose, that men who are eminent and well-versed in the Word of God might put an end to controversies, not in accordance with their own opinion, but in conformity to the will of God.” When a delegate attends a Synod meeting it is properly and importantly the work of the church – not just for himself or the local congregation, but to benefit the denomination as a whole. While it is a distinct honor to serve as a delegate to Synod, the highest honor must always be given to the Head of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has called mere men to serve in this high calling.
A Synod is not above the Word of God in its authority. But it does have God-given authority. It is not an inerrant group with papal-like power. When errors in judgment are made, they need to be corrected to be in conformity to the Word of God. History will show that many Synods have erred terribly and misled the church – mostly because they sought to follow the world instead of the Word. Our own history shows how destructive a Synod can be when it departs from the confessions and doctrines of the Reformed faith (cf. the decision to merge with another denomination in 1934 without a uniform Reformed confession as the basis or motivation). The validity of a Synod can be seen when every decision flows from and is subject to the Word of God as the Holy Spirit gives the assembly wisdom and understanding. Anything less does not deserve the title of “synod.”
THE ORIGIN IN ACTS 15
While the RCUS has been holding Synod meetings for many years, the origin of these meetings did not begin with the RCUS in the 1700’s. We meet because we follow a principle that was established in the New Testament church in Acts 15. Calvin says that this meeting of the church at Jerusalem establishes the “form” and “order” in convening a synod.
The problem described in Acts 15 was a matter of internal discord which threatened peace in the churches and taught a different path to salvation. The apostles knew about the external conflict the church faced from both Jew and Gentile persecutors who hated the church. Yet internal divisions within the church would not only cause schism, but the light of the Gospel of the grace of Christ itself would be overshadowed with unbiblical requirements for the Gentile Christians. The issue at hand was simply that some who had come from the sect of the Pharisees (but now were members of the church) were teaching that the Gentile converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised if they were to be saved (15:1). The Apostle Paul saw this as a serious problem which would need to be settled by an assembly of all the apostles and elders. The Christian Church coming together as one body must resolve this issue and speak with one voice.
The meeting was held in Jerusalem. The matter of circumcision for salvation (and likely some other matters which the converted Pharisees still clung to – 15:5) was on the agenda for the meeting. Paul and Barnabas were delegated by the churches of Pisidia (15:2) to meet with the brothers in Jerusalem. This meeting was known as the Jerusalem Council, where delegated men gathered to adjudicate a problem within the church. Our thoughts might go to the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 where doctrinal controversy also brought an international synod together to set forth the doctrines of grace in the Canons of Dort. There were other important international synods before that (eg. Nicaea in A.D. 325, Constantinople in A.D. 381, Ephesus in A.D. 431, and Chalcedon in A.D. 451, to mention a few).
As with any good meeting of the church, at the Jerusalem Council there were questions (debate) over what was being falsely taught and what the Word of God said to the contrary. This reveals the benefits of holding a synodical meeting such as this where many brothers may bring evidence from the Scriptures of what God has said. When it is taught in the Bible, the discussion has a pathway that must lead to the truth and resolution of the problem.
Peter first addressed the body about what God had revealed to him about the salvation of the Gentiles (see Acts 11). God commanded that the Gospel be preached to the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit was given to them, “purifying their hearts by faith.” (15:8-9) Peter is careful to restrict his ministry to what God had commanded him, and circumcision was not commanded.
Paul and Barnabas are given the floor (15:12). They recounted how God performed miracles and how God worked through them among the Gentiles in Antioch and surrounding cities to bring them into the Christian Church. They were not required by God to circumcise Gentiles, but only to baptize them.
James now rises to make the necessary connection between what Peter (Simon) had said and proceeded to show that this was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos in the Old Testament concerning the conversion of the Gentiles. Likewise he said that the church should not burden the Gentiles with requirements that God had not given, the result of which would destroy the Gospel message of grace. The ceremonial law was fulfilled by Christ and the sign and seal of the covenant was now water baptism.
James wisely went on to address some moral issues. The Gentiles now in the church would live alongside of the Jewish believers and should take care not to offend them or follow their own pagan customs: “but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” (15:20)
Not only were records kept of this meeting, but the decision was contained in the official correspondence (15:23-29) which was sent to Antioch by the hand of Judas (Barsabas) and Silas. This was wise, for it might otherwise appear that Paul and Barnabas were answering the problem instead of the greater church which had made the decision.
The council recognized the validity of the Gentile complaint – that the circumcision requirement being propagated was “unsettling their souls” with the potential of destroying the pure message of the Gospels (15:24). In the history of the RCUS Synod, there are often studies performed and positions taken to warn church members of some false teaching which could potentially harm the souls of God’s people. These position papers, as they are called, exist to guide and protect the church from error and keep the sheep from being prey to the wolves of false doctrine and its teachers.
The words that were needed to quell this controversy were sent by the Jerusalem council as an official communication stating a unanimous decision (15:25). When our present Synod composes an official letter at the direction of the Synod, it bears the seal of the Synod of the RCUS, indicating that it represents the decision of the whole Synod.
But, more than the official character of this decision was the humility of the council. First, they acknowledged that this decision was guided by the Holy Spirit – so much so that He is named as the primary author: “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us ….” (15:28) This is a principle to remember in all ecclesiastical judicatories. What appears “good to us” must first be good with God. Secondly, the council acted with restraint. It was not the council’s intent to place a “greater burden” on the church than was necessary. The burden was only in the four areas mentioned in verse 29. It is important to note that the actions of a synod must be uncompromisingly firm and yet gentle to the lambs in its care.
So, how should people respond to synodical action whether it be a practical or a doctrinal matter? In the case of the Antioch Christians, they responded to the council’s decision with joy for the encouragement it offered to the church, and sent grateful greetings back to Jerusalem (15:33). That was a godly response to a troubling issue both on the side of the council and those who were counseled. We do not read that any, in Jerusalem or Antioch, rejected, grumbled, or undermined the decision that was made. Not only was this issue resolved doctrinally, but a joyful harmony resulted. It was good for the church and its purity.
An essential element for the functioning of a synod is submission to the brethren. This is not always an easy thing to do as pride and personal agendas must first be cast aside. A synod meeting is not first about us, but about the work of Christ and His Church. Once a vote is passed on the floor of synod, it is incumbent upon all the members to joyfully submit to the decision regardless of how they may have voted on it.
In the history of denominations, not all synods are faithful to the Word. If a synod pursues an unbiblical pathway, after all biblical and constitutional remedies are exhausted, a person or a church may have to leave the denomination and form another. Martin Luther did it, along with our Reformed forefathers in the 16th Century. This sort of departure has happened in various denominations, even in recent history. But a word of caution is necessary. Any inability to submit must be based on the fact that some action was contrary to the Word of God and the confessions of the church. Any other grounds for insubordination may well be termed schismatic (the sin of causing unbiblical division within the body of Christ).
It is truly a remarkable work of God that He uses mere, imperfect men to govern and guide His Church. As He does this, He constantly impresses upon our hearts that it is Jesus Christ who is the Head of the Church, which exists for His glory. Every delegate to Synod must begin with that submission of his own will to the Lord’s will.
“The church shall never perish! Her dear Lord to defend,
to guide, sustain, and cherish, is with her to the end.
Though there be those that hate her, and false sons in her pale,
against or foe or traitor, she ever shall prevail.”
Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation,” 1866
Rev. Paul H. Treick