RCA General Synod 2013

Highlights of Upcoming Business

The Reformed Church in America will have its annual meeting of the General Synod next week (June 20-25) on the campus of Central College in Pella, Iowa. If you want to know what the Synod will be hearing and deliberating, you can check go here for general information or check out the 542 page workbook. But since very few people will look through a 500 page workbook, including the delegates themselves, I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight several of the most important items coming before the Synod next week.

The Reformed Church in America will have its annual meeting of the General Synod next week (June 20-25) on the campus of Central College in Pella, Iowa. If you want to know what the Synod will be hearing and deliberating, you can check go here for general information or check out the 542 page workbook.

But since very few people will look through a 500 page workbook, including the delegates themselves, I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight several of the most important items coming before the Synod next week.

Before I give an executive summary, it would be helpful to understand a few things about RCA polity and history.

Unlike the PCA or the SBC or most evangelical denominations, the RCA has a delegated assembly. Anyone can view the proceedings, but only a few pastors and elders each year (around 250) are chosen as voting delegates. For the most part, this means a pastor serves every few years or more, depending on the size of his classis. I was a delegate last year and am not this year. Our associate pastor, Ben Falconer, will be a delegate.

The RCA has 45 classes (think presbyteries) and 8 regional synods. The General Synod is made up of regular delegates from the classes (and from the General Synod Professors of Theology) as well as corresponding delegates from the various commissions and denominational institutions.

The presiding officer at Synod is the President. At the conclusion of Synod the current Vice President will be elected as president. A new Vice President will be elected from among the regular delegates. The General Secretary is a permanent staff position for the Synod. Though his role may be quiet at Synod, he has much more influence in the denomination than the President or Vice President.

The General Synod Council (GSC) is the executive committee of the General Synod.

Recommendations (given as R-1, R-2, R-3, etc.) will come before the Synod as regular motions. Overtures are official pieces of correspondence from the classes or regional synods. They go to a committee and do not automatically come before the Synod as motions. Recommendations and overtures come from several sources, so it is not unusual for some to be inconsistent with others.

Two important items were passed at last year’s Synod which will come into play again this year. 1) The consciences clauses regarding women’s ordination were struck down. Since this was a change to the Book of Church Order the classes had to vote on the proposed change. They did so this spring. 2) After a long, tortuous debate, Synod approved R56 (later called, for some confusing reason, R28). This motion voiced the Synod’s strong disapproval of homosexual behavior and any promotion or solemnization thereof. The motion also called for a “Way Forward Committee” to explore how the denomination can move ahead given our position on homosexuality and our disagreements

With that as some background, let me list several of the major items on the agenda for next week. The page numbers with each item refer to the pages of the workbook. Unless I use quotation marks, assume I’m giving my summary of the item and not the official wording.

R-3 “To declare amendments 1 through 3 to be approved and that they be incorporated into the 2013 edition of the Book of Church Order” (50).

The important part here is amendment 3, removing the consciences clauses relative to women’s ordination. The amendment needed a two-thirds majority from the classes to pass. 31 classes voted in favor of the amendment; 14 voted against the amendment. This recommendation (R-3) is a perfunctory vote. The conscience clauses will be removed from the BCO.

R-8 To affirm the “missional partnership” between the RCA and CRC (56).

Our two denominations are doing more and more together, sharing resources, staff, and engaging in mission together.

R-9 GSC recommends that the RCA focus on three connected strategic priorities: cultivating transformation in Christ, equipping next generation leaders, engaging in mission (68-69).

R-15 To instruct the Commission on Church Order to clarify the authority and scope of Synod statements (134).

This is the first of three recommendations from the “Way Forward Committee.” In light of R28 from last year, the committee is asking for clarity on what exactly statements like this mean for the denomination.

R-16 To instruct the GSC to appoint a working group to tackled three things (134-35).

First, help classes understand that the superintendence for pastors and churches happens at the classis level, OR, explore fundamental polity changes which require pastors and classes to submit to General Synod statements. At issues here whether each classis is free to do as it pleases regarding homosexuality or whether statements from Synod have some measure of authority over churches and pastors.

Second, compile the results of his exploration, together with recommendations, and bring them before Synod no later than 2015.

Third, after Synod weighs whatever recommendations come from step two, instruct the Commission on Church Order to draw up constitutional changes that would “enable each congregation and/or minister to choose between grace-filled covenanting. . . .or grace-filled and accountable separation. . . .without recrimination such as forfeiture of property.” In other words, this last step encourages the RCA to make a way for pastors and churches to decide if they want to stay with the RCA after we sort through our polity (and by implication, homosexuality). If people and congregations want to leave, the recommendations asks that they be able to leave peaceably, with their property.

R-17 To instruct the GSC to develop resources to facilitate further conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity (135).

R-27 To add a new question to the annual Consistorial Report: “How have the Belhar Confession and its principles of unity, reconciliation, and justice shaped your congregational life and witness?” (173).

R-28 To adopt the following amendment into the BCO: “Does your congregation regularly engage the principles of the Belhar Confession and the other Standards of Unity” (173).

There is a lengthy report (177-210) with several recommendations from the “Task Force on Understanding White Privilege.”

On page 211, you’ll find updated statistics for the RCA. As of 2012, there were:

907 churches in the RCA (a decrease of 3 from 2011),

150,517 confessing member (a decrease of 1,299),

and a total membership of 238,493 (a decrease of 3,087)

Overtures 1, 2, and 3 all deal with gun control (215-217). For example, the Classis of New Brunswick overtures the General Synod to instruct the general secretary to write to President Obama, our federal and state senators and representatives, and all fifty state governors to “emphasize the need to swiftly pass and implement” gun control legislation. The overture stipulates that this legislation should eliminate public sale of high powered assault weapons, eliminate gun magazines with a capacity of over ten rounds, insist upon universal gun registration and background checks.

Overture 6 from Zeeland Classis asks for a change to the present system of calculating General Synod delegates (219-20). The current system over-represents small classes and under-represents larger classes.

Overture 7 from the Classis of Mid-Hudson asks that seminary students be able to perform the sacraments of baptism and communion.

Overtures 9-15 (from Albany, Holland, New Brunswick, and Schenectady) all ask, in one way or another, that R28 from last year be rescinded (222-28).  The overtures also ask for clarity on the binding nature of General Synod pronouncements and for the Commission on Theology to draft a new, comprehensive paper on human sexuality to be presented to the General Synod in 2015.

R-47 To encourage RCA congregations to engage in a letter writing campaign on behalf of the Dream Act legislation (365).

R-48, 49 To provide resources and guidelines for including children at the Lord’s Table (368).

R-50 To establish a joint RCA-CRC committee for the purpose of expressing our ecumenical understanding and commitments toward each other (376).

There is a paper tucked away at the back of the workbook called “A Historical Summary of the Actions of the General Synod with Regard to Homosexuality: 1974-2012″ (461-70).

R-59 “To remand the decision of the Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics for further hearing to resolve whether the Classis of New Brunswick properly examined and approved the installation of the Rev. Dr. Cargill, giving full recognition to the importance of Scripture as central to the faith and life of an ordained ministry of Word and sacrament” (475-479).

At issue is the ordination and installation of Ursula Cargill, a practicing homosexual, to the office of minister in New Brunswick Classis on September 28 , 2011. Five appellants challenged the action of the classis in receiving her into membership. ON May 5, 2012, the Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics uphold the decision of the classis. The appellants then appealed this decision. The Commission on Judicial Business (CJB) conducted a hearing in Newark, New Jersey on February 5, 2013. The CJB is recommending the case be tried again by the Regional Synod, stating that there was a “lack of any scriptural argument to rebut the position of the Appellants” and  “the commission believes that Scripture has been put aside in the Synod’s review of the New Brunswick Classis’s examination of the Rev. Dr. Cargill” (479).

R-60 To invalidate the work of the “Way Forward Committee” because there were no persons of color on the task force (482).

Kevin DeYoung has been the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan since 2004. Kevin blogs at the Gospel Coalition; this article is reprinted with his permission.