This article is about the character of decisions by the major church assemblies (synod etc), ratification of decisions and the dangers of synodocracy and independentism.

Source: Clarion, 1985. 3 pages.

The Acts of Synod

Going through the different Church Bulletins, we notice that most consistories are dealing with the Acts of General Synod Cloverdale 1983. In the press releases and in private conversations all kinds of names are used for this "dealing with the Acts." Some speak of reviewing the Acts, others call it approbation or ratification and again others say that they have approved or accepted a certain part of the Acts. Because questions have been raised about the proper procedure and the proper name for this "dealing with the Acts," we will make some remarks on this issue.

Some argue that the decisions of a general synod have to be ratified by the consistory, before they are binding for a certain church. We have heard the statement that a specific decision of synod was not yet applicable to a certain congregation, because the consistory had not yet ratified that part of the Acts. Others say that every decision of synod is settled and binding from the very moment the decision has been taken, and does not need any "ratification" by a consistory. Some consider the latter point of view a matter of synodocracy that is giving too much power and authority to a synod, at the cost of the consistory.

What is the right approach? Does a decision of a synod become effective for a certain congregation only after the consistory has ratified the pertinent articles of the Acts? This "ratification" can take quite a while. Especially controversial issues might delay the procedure. A consistory is probably so busy with other things that they simply do not have any time at all for ratification of the Acts. Does that mean that the decisions of a synod will never become "settled and binding" for that congregation? That would be an easy way out.

We have to be careful that we do not fall in the trap of synodocracy, but we have to be on our guard for independentism as well. Independentism in this respect means that a consistory feels free to go its own way without being bothered by the decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies. To them the decisions of a synod are only suggestions they can follow, but are free not to adhere to whenever they wish not to do so.

Let us first consider what kind of issues a general synod is supposed to deal with. That is not just the regular business of a consistory. A general synod is not a kind of "super-consistory." In Article 30 of the Church Order rules are set and restrictions are made for the agenda.

  • In the first place it says, that these assemblies shall deal with no other than ecclesiastical matters and in an ecclesiastical way.

  • In the second place, they shall deal with those matters only which cannot be finished in the minor assembly or matters which belong to the churches in common.

  • In the third place, a new matter which has not been presented previously to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only after the minor assembly has dealt with it.

That determines the agenda of a general synod and all other "major assemblies." A synod cannot deal with every issue which members of a synod should like to tackle. A synod does not freely set its own agenda, but is bound by what the churches have put on the table. The delegates have to stick to their mandate.

Basically three types of issues can be found on the agenda

  1. Matters which belong to the churches in common;

  2. Matters which could not be finished in the minor assembly;

  3. Matters of appeal.

All three points are closely related. Number 1 and 3 are special cases of number 2. A matter which belongs to the churches in common, for instance, is the Theological College. This cannot be finished in one classis or a regional synod. Appeals are also matters which could not be finished in a minor assembly because the appellant was apparently not satisfied with a previous decision.

Article 37 of the Church Order speaks about the "jurisdiction" of the major assemblies. The expression "major" in this respect does not mean more important or with greater authority. The distinctions "major" and "minor" refer to the greater or smaller number of churches involved in constituting such an assembly. Therefore a general synod is "major" with respect to a regional synod and a regional synod to a classis.

What kind of "jurisdiction" does a major assembly have? We believe that Christ has ordained office-bearers in His church and that therefore the consistory is the prime ruling body in the church. With authority received from Christ the Head of the church Himself. From whom does a major assembly have its "authority"? The answer is: it is based on mutual agreement. The churches are working together in a confederation. The delegates to major assemblies are appointed and instructed via the consistories. They receive their mandate, their instruction, and their restriction from the churches. In the credentials we always find a clause like:

The Consistory will abide by decisions taken in harmony with Holy Scripture, the Creeds and the Church Order" or a suchlike statement.

Article 31 of the Church Order sets rules and limits for the acceptance of the decisions of major assemblies as follows:

whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order.

Although this article refers in the first place to matters of appeal, it counts for every decision. We have to notice carefully what it says! It does not say that a decision is settled and binding as soon as it has been ratified by the consistory, but that it shall be considered settled and binding. Neither does it say that a decision has to be adhered to and upheld until a next synod has granted the appeal. That would be synodocracy. It says "… settled and binding unless …" That means that, when a decision has been made and a church (or a person) does not agree with it. There are basically three options.

  1. One can (more or less grumbling) say: "I do not agree with it, but it is the best we can get. Within a community you have to give and to take. You cannot always get your way. Sometimes you win, sometimes you loose. I have to live with it."

  2. When the matter is too important to be taken this way, a decision of a classis or a regional synod can be appealed to a major assembly, or a revision can be requested when it concerns a decision of a general synod. In the meantime the decision is considered to be valid. That can happen, for instance, with certain psalms or hymns or changes of the liturgical forms.

  3. A third possibility is that a person or a consistory considers a decision to be in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order. According to Article 31 such a decision is not binding. It has to be disapproved or rejected. However, that is a last resort. It is a kind of "Doleantie" or "Liberation." The consequence is that, if the decision is upheld by the churches, it leads to a separation or a secession from the confederation.

We will try to come to a conclusion. We do not want to fail in the trap of synodocracy. Neither do we advocate independentism. We are living as churches in a confederation. We have to help, to assist, and to serve each other. We have made commitments and we have to honour our commitments. The prime authority lies with the consistory, but in our confederation we have promised to adhere to decisions of the major assemblies, with the exception as set out in Article 31 of the Church Order. A decision of a general synod does not need ratification or approval of a consistory before it becomes effective. A decision is formally valid from the moment the decision has been taken.

However, to abide by a decision you have to know the decision. All church members are provided with a copy of the Acts of a synod and are supposed to read them. Those who have sent an appeal to a synod or any other communication about a certain issue, have received a personal answer from that synod with a copy of the pertinent article of the Acts. These letters are oftentimes mailed within 24 hours after a decision has been taken. It is important that all church members, and especially the office-bearers, study the Acts. In order to give an incentive to study these matters and to do it in an orderly fashion, it is a good idea to make it a point on the agenda of the consistory to go successively through all the articles of the Acts. However, it is not a necessity. Neither does it mean that a decision only comes in effect after it has been ''ratified." It stands to reason that it takes time and study to implement all decisions. It is, e.g. difficult to use the new psalms, hymns, and liturgical forms before all churches have received the new Book of Praise, and unfortunately that can take more time than was expected. But the validity of a decision does not depend on a ratification.

Let us be aware of both extremes in this respect. No synodocracy and no independentism, but a Reformed church life.

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