Why Should I Read the Acts of Synod?
That's a good question. After all, the Acts of General Synod are not exactly riveting reading. They won't win the Giller, Nobel, or Booker prize and they definitely won't be on the New York Times Best-Seller list. The Acts are not a novel with characters you can relate to or a short story which might grip you. They aren't even like a Wikipedia article which explains something of general interest. What they are is a series of decisions made by the broadest assembly of our church federation (try not to yawn). They are – let's be honest – a dry read. Very dry, at times. So why should an average church-going person like you read them?
Well, sometimes it's important to force ourselves to read things which may have little natural appeal and this is one of them. Let me give you my top five reasons why you should put the Acts on your Kindle or your side-table and work through them. In descending order, they are:
# 5: To keep your promise
When your church makes promises, you make promises. The church is, after all, you plus all the other members together – not just the consistory. You are part of that local family of God and that family has made a number of promises. I'm referring to all the agreements each church voluntarily makes to work in harmony with all the other churches in the federation.
These agreements are spelled out in the Church Order (see the back of the Book of Praise). In Article 44, we promise to honor "the decisions of the major assemblies." That means we are committed to abiding by them (unless they need to be appealed – see #3 below). Our promise implies that we have to make ourselves aware of those decisions and put them into practice.
# 4: To engage yourself in church life
When you made public profession of faith, you promised to be a "living member of the church." A living member has to know what's going on in church, what is being discussed, what is in under consideration, what may be in the process of changing. For example, over the last twelve years, general synods have mandated the testing of new hymns as well as new rhymings for the psalms in the Book of Praise. Testing involves seeking feedback from individual members (to be submitted to your local consistory) and consistories alike. In order to give that feedback or make suggestions for new hymns, you need to know the criteria and principles for hymn selection decided upon by a past general synod (i.e. Synod Chatham 2004). Synod Carman 2013 has since changed the method for how to make new suggestions for change to any part of the Book of Praise – but you need to check out the Acts in order to know how!
Let me give a couple more examples. In 2007, Synod Smithers approved a new Bible translation for use in the churches. Would you or your church be interested in using it? You'd only know of it by reading the Acts. In that same year, we entered into Ecclesiastical Fellowship with two more Reformed church federations. Knowing this gives you opportunity to praise God for developing unity among God's people as well as to pray for these new sister churches. Also, this knowledge opens prospects for further fellowship and just might affect your travel plans (i.e. choosing to worship in one of their churches on a Sunday away). These sorts of synod decisions (and many others) have a direct impact on local congregational life and call for the awareness, discernment, and involvement of all members – you included!
# 3: To prevent error or abuse
General synods, like all meetings of human beings, can and do make mistakes. Though great care is taken and usually much caution is exercised, sometimes synods get decisions plain wrong – either against the Bible or against the agreements pledged in the Church Order. If church members don't read the Acts, these errors may go undetected and, worse, uncorrected! Article 31 of the Church Order points out our obligation in this respect, for there we promise that
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.
Once a general synod (or, for that matter, a consistory, classis, or regional synod) has completed its agenda and published its decisions (Acts), it is up to the members to review, study, and test those decisions according to the criteria of Article 31. If concerns are raised in your mind, invite your elders over to discuss them. If it becomes clear that those concerns are indeed valid and weighty enough, then formally approach your consistory with a letter providing a clear argument as to how one (or both) of the grounds in Article 31 was violated by a particular decision and urging consistory to launch an appeal.
Although only a consistory may make a formal appeal against a synod decision (unless such a decision involves someone's personal situation), members may and should give input and direction to the consistory about such things. We all need to be watchmen on the wall of Jerusalem – not that we go looking for trouble but rather that we humbly seek to prevent it. Elders will be well served by a respectful, clearly written letter which reasons out for them why it is necessary to make an appeal.
# 2: To educate yourself
Our general synods are made of Reformed men ministers and elders – who spend much time thinking through the issues on the agenda. Many of these men have been formally trained in Reformed theology and many have trained themselves in it through their personal reading and study. Collectively, they have a great deal of experience in these matters. Further, the churches which offer submissions to the synod on committee reports (and many, thankfully, do write such letters) also take their time deliberating in consistory/council in order to arrive at biblical, Reformed responses. Every church assembly prays for God to provide wisdom and guidance by his Spirit. The end result is that the decisions of the general synod often distill and present the best of Reformed thinking on the topics at hand – and we can learn from that reflection.
The decisions of the Acts are set up in a simple four-part format: Materials – Observations – Considerations – Recommendations (i.e. Decisions). "Materials" is simply a listing of the documents (usually committee reports and letters from churches) from which all the basic information which follows is taken. "Observations" is a straightforward listing of facts taken from the documents. These facts often include statements or arguments made by a committee or church. Here you can begin to see the issue coming to light. The most important part is "Considerations," which is what the synod itself thinks about the issue. "Considerations" is a list of arguments which lead up to the decision(s). Under this section you can see the synod weighing the various facts and arguments presented under "Observations" and arriving at its conclusions. "Recommendations" is the conclusion of those arguments and contains the actual decision(s) of the synod. Reading through these arguments and rationale can train our minds how to think in a richly biblical, Reformed way – a valuable education!
# 1: Because you love the bride of Christ
If you love Jesus Christ then you must love his bride too, which is the church. A true Christian cares what is happening in and to the bride of Christ. Reading through the Acts keeps us abreast of developments within the church where we hold membership. It makes us aware of concerns as well as beautiful developments, both of which we may bring to the Lord in prayer. The Acts also give much information on the church-gathering work of Christ in the rest of the world (many articles deal with inter-church relations), as well as on our humble efforts as a federation in working toward unity with some of those churches closest to us. If you read the Acts from the point of view of what the Lord Jesus is doing among us and in the rest of the world, you may even become excited and find reason for great joy!
So, there you have it – five good reasons to download or pick up the Acts and read! The Acts of Synod Carman 2013 contain 199 articles (of varying lengths, to be sure). If you take fifteen minutes and read just ten a night, you could read through the Acts within three weeks. Really, it's not that bad! For the sake of the preservation and building-up of Christ's church, I urge every communicant member to become informed and get involved!