Is the Church Becoming a Political Machine?

A Delegate’s Complaint

One of the most significant remarks made about the 1977 C.R. Synod in Rev. John Piersma‘s excellent August report on it was the comment,

Many issues were dealt with procedurally rather than substantively. Those who were prepared to debate the issues surrounding the ordination  of Dr. Allen Verhey or the gravamen registered against the doctrine of reprobation never really had a chance to speak their minds. These things were pushed off rather than faced—in my opinion to the hurt of the churches.

This was the observation of a seasoned delegate who was himself involved in the varied business of the synod. It ought to be noted, further, as it may be even more apparent to an interested bystander than it might be to a delegate, that the frustrating inability of delegates to “get at” basic matters facing the synod was no “accidental” result of the growing size of our denomination, the multiplication of today’s problems. etc. It is the result of a development—at times apparently the calculated result—of a development in the way in which our synods are coming to operate, or to put it more accurately (and bluntly) are being operated. And this is no mere minor procedural matter; it concerns the essential character of the church itself. Our churches in these developments in our synod operation are becoming something quite different from what they were called by the Lord and designed according to our Reformed Church Order to be.

The EldersRule

What is the basic principle of our Reformed (or “Presbyterian”) church structure and order? It is that the Lord has given the responsibility to conscientiously look after the affairs of His church to elders. Such elders were appointed “in every church” (Acts 14:23) established by the early missionaries, and the Bible gives us instructions about the qualifications and responsibilities of those elders. This is the church structure found in the inspired Bible. Therefore our Reformed Church Order states in the first article about church assemblies that “the authority of consistories” is “original, that of major (or larger) assemblies being delegated” (Article 26). Our larger assemblies exist as elder delegations of these local churches and consistories to deal with common problems that have been referred to them by local elders and consistories. Therefore when a delegate has to observe about the synod “Those who were prepared to debate the issues . . . never really had a chance to speak their minds. These things were pushed off rather than faced” this does not indicate only some minor weakness in procedure. It shows that the synod is not doing the job for which it is supposed to meet. The representatives of the churches are frustrated because they are unable to do or even to talk about the business for which they have come. Something is going completely wrong with what this representative body of the churches is supposed to be doing and even with what it is.

Two Procedures

How has it come about that delegates at the Synod must complain, “We cant even get at it and discuss the issues we are supposed to be deciding.” A little acquaintance with the recent history of our synods will show that this situation about which delegates have to complain has been brought about by especially two changes in the way in which the synods work. It has been accomplished largely by (1) the curtailment and manipulation of the Synod agenda, and (2) the appointment and assignments of advisory committees. Let us look more closely at these two procedures.

Agenda Control: How It Started

(1) The first of these, the curtailing and manipulating of the materials that come officially before the Synod has been developing especially out of what appeared to be a little decision about procedure in 1971. This decision apparently came not out of any consistory or classis action but as an overture proposed by the First Clerk of the Synod! He moved that

Synod urge our assemblies and members to refrain from overtures, appeals, or communications which are repetitious, or mere expressions of agreement with matters already on the agenda of Synod.

Synod authorizes the Stated Clerk to omit such items from the principal agenda at his discretion. In such cascs they shall merely be listed and accepted as informative communications. The senders shall be notified and their materials shall be given to one of the advisory committees of Synod to be received as information. Matters received as information will not ordinarily be mentioned in advisory committee reports or the Acts of Synod. Grounds:

1. Such materials contribute no additional light, and tend to obscure the deliberate character of Synod.

2. The materials that are printed in the Agenda and Acts of Synod should meet the demands of intrinsic value and good stewardship in the elimination of needed expense. Acts 1971, pp. 46, 47.

This motion the Synod adopted.

Its Speedy Abuse

The consequences of giving the Stated Clerk the authority to “at his discretion” exclude materials from the printed Agenda (under certain conditions) did not wait long to appear. In the interval between the Synods of 1971 and 1972 the churches were asked to study and respond to the report on The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority.” A number of the clmrches and classes decided to send overtures to the following Synod dealing with this matter (“Report 36”). These were all refused placement in the Agenda on the ground that they could not deal with the new revision of the report (“Number 44” which did not appear until shortly before the Synod of 1972) even though the thrust of the revision was the same as that of the earlier version. Our consistory was one of the relatively few that then sent in an overture dealing with the revision. It asked the Synod “not to accept the Report on the Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority” (Report Number 44) giving as grounds: “1. The time between the appearance of the Agenda at the beginning of May and the meeting of the Synod is much too short to permit the consistories, classes and church membership to give the revised report the careful study that a matter of such importance demands. 2. The Synod‘s Interim Committee refused to accept for the printed Agenda any overtures which criticized the report on the grounds that they could not deal with the new revision. The result of this decision has been further restriction of the opportunity of the churches to consider objections to the report.”

This overture was never given to the Synod delegates and does not appear in the Acts of 1972 as an overture. Under the “discretionary” authority given the stated clerk in 1971 to omit “repetitious” material from the printed Agenda it was merely listed (with six others on p. 66) under the informative communications” which only the committee saw. T1lis was kept out of the hands of the delegates even though its second ground was not found in any of the printed overtures. An overture of Classis Grandville was mishandled in the same way even though it also contained new material.

In other words when the Synod had to decide the critical matter of the churches’ official stand on the Bible’s authority, the delegates who had to make the decision were denied even the right to see seven out of the ten items that the churches and classes had sent to them regarding the later report and all of the items that had properly been sent in on the earlier version of it!

A Frustrated Effort at Correction

The Dutton consistory decided to overture the classis in effort to correct this flagrant denial of the rights of churches to address the Synod by way of overtures.

When the classis after extensive discussion failed to support the overture, the consistory decided to bring the matter to the 1973 Synod as an overture, “to restrict the authority given the Stated Clerk to remove items from the agenda so that only those matters whose grounds as well as content are identical with those already on the agenda may be so removed.” This overture too was refused placement in the Agenda by the Stated Clerk on the ground that it was not the same as the form in which it had been brought to classis and that in his judgment the classis had not completed dealing with the matter. A year later the classis did submit this matter to the Synod as an overture ( Acts 1974, Overture 7, p. 635). That Synod decided not to accede to the overture giving as ground, “It is the present practice of the office of the Stated Clerk to include in the printed Agenda and Acts of Synod all new materials” (p. 40). Thereby the Clerk‘s “discretionary” control over the rights of overture and appeal was in fact sustained.

The Abuse at the 1977 Synod

Now consider how materials properly sent in by classes, churches and individuals were kept out of the hands of the delegates who had to decide regarding them at the last Synod. This procedure was especially evident in the Synod’s dealing with the case of Dr. Allen Verhey. So many churches and classes were upset by the 1976 Synod’s close decision to sustain his ordination after he had questioned and denied events of biblical history that at least 34 reactions were addressed to the Synod. Only three of them appear in the printed Agenda and only five in the Acts. What most of the others were or said, the delegates, except for a few in the Advisory Committee had no way of knowing. One of the delegates moved that these materials be duplicated and put in the hands of the members of Synod who had to vote on what to do with them. How can one vote intelligently if he isnt even permitted to see on what he is voting? The Stated Clerk hastily and at considerable length explained that such a procedure was out of order since it was contrary to the rules under which the Synod operatesl What rule is there that could possibly justify refusing to consider such a motion?

The only “rule” which could conceivably bear upon this would appear to be that about the clerk‘s “discretionary” authority over what he prints in the Agenda. That “rule” though it controls the clerk can by no stretch of imagination properly be understood to tie the hands of the Synod so that it is forbidden access to its own Agenda! But in spite of rights and Church Order, the delegates never saw on what they were voting!

Another striking case of the Synod being prevented from seeing the matters on which it had to vote arose in connection with the old Report 44 on Biblical Authority. Classis Zeeland submitted two overtures (numbers 6 and 7) on this subject. The matter had been brought to its attention by an elder, Mr. Thomas Spriensma, who was also appointed to the Classis’ Study Committee. The Rules for Synod Procedure list among “matters legally before Synod” “D. Overtures, or communications which have failed to gain the endorsement of Classis but which the Consistory or individual sponsoring the same desire to submit for Synod’s consideration.” When Mr. Spriensma was not satisfied with the Classissomewhat weaker overtures to the Synod, he decided to submit his own overture to the Synod, asking Synod to repeal the 1972 decisions. This was clearly his right under the Synod rule just mentioned. The Stated Clerk, however, refused to print this Overture, arbitrarily deciding to list it merely as a “Personal Appeal” (Agenda, p. 79). THE OUTLOOK in June, 1977. pp. 17, 26, called attention to this case and Rev. J. Tuininga referred to another on p. 27).

Are further examples needed to show the Synod Agenda is increasingly being curtailed and manipulated to keep members, churches and classes from exercising their right to bring matters properly to the synods and synod delegates are being prevented from seeing matters on which they have to make decisions?

Control of Committees

2. A second way by which delegates are being prevented from dealing responsibly with matters properly sent to the Synod is through the appointment and assignment of advisory committees. In the past when the Synod met one of the 6rst items of business was the appointment from among its members of advisory committees who would each have to take up part of the materials appearing before the Synod and advise the whole body how to deal with each item. The suggestion arose that each committee could do better work in giving its advice if it were appointed several weeks earlier and the members of each committee could make special study of the materials assigned to them. Since the Synod which formerly made such appointments was not yet meeting, who could arrange this earlier assignment of committees? In 1970 that advance appointment of committees was put into the hands of the officers of the previous Synod and the Staled Clerk (Acts 1970, pp. 56–58). The advantage of such advance appointments are obvious. It ought to be observed, however, that this procedure puts a tremendous amount of power and influence in the hands of five men who appoint the committees, their chairmen and reporters. It is no overstatement to observe that by their appointments these five men can not only influence. but even largely predetermine the actions of the Synod!

The possibilities for abuse in this kind of procedure are many and obvious. My attention was called to one set of significant committee appointments. The churches have for some years been struggling with the knotty problem of divorce taken up in the reports on “marriage guidelines.” Many may have forgotten that that matter was originally raised by Classis Toronto (Agenda, p. 307) which was agitating for a change in the churches’ traditional strong stand against divorce. In view of that history, what must the observer say about the wisdom and objectivity shown in appointing two of the four-man delegation from Toronto to be the chairman and reporter of the committee which had to advise the 1977 Synod on what to do with this matter. especially when one considers that one of these two men assigned key positions was one of the five men who appointed the committees? Could partisanship or the opportunity this system gives to it be more clearly demonstrated than it is in this case?

Is it surprising that with materials coming to the Synod increasingly curtailed and manipulated and the personnel and leadership of advisory committees so open to partisan appointment even an experienced delegate has to complain that “those who were prepared to debate the issues … never really had a chance to speak their minds. These things were pushed off rather than faced”? Is it surprising that a large proportion of the delegates. attending for the first time and unfamiliar with Synod procedure. facing this kind of manipulation, sense that they have little control over what is happening and being decided? When one considers, beside these two procedures we have been observing, other parallel developments such as (3) the Synod’s almost invariable practice of meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. (4) the presence of seminary professors on all advisory committees and their freedom to speak to the Synod on all matters. (5) study and standing committee appointments normally made up of people from this geographic area and often including a number of Calvin professors, (6) committee memberspractice of nominating their own successors, and (7) the way in which church boards and their executive committees operate more and more independently of the churches and their synods, should anyone be surprised to observe that decisions being made and the course being chosen for the denomination appear to be less and related to the real mind of the churches? With the development of such procedures as these the Church Order and its representative assemblies simply cannot work as they were intended to do.

The Efficiency Excuse

The argument for curtailing the agenda and preappointing committees, as well as for many of these other procedural developments is that they increase efficiency. Eliminating overtures and appeals saves money since it saves paper required for the Agenda and Acts. When one considers the number of long study and standing committee reports–some running to 80 pages of material which although it may not even have originated in the churches is printed without any question, the argument that we must deprive dozens of churches and classes of their Church Order rights to appeal to synods in order to save half a dozen pages of printing appears to be an improper excuse rather than a valid argument.

But, arent these procedures, letting the Clerk cut the Agenda and letting five men assign committees and their jobs, more efficient ways of getting the work done? Of course, they are. But if efficiency of operation is to be our over-riding critcrion, an even more sensible and efficient procedure is to skip having the delegates meet at all. Why not elect the five men who increasingly control the procedure, by mail and let them handle all of the business? Think of all the time and expense that that would save. And the results might not be appreciably different. A further improvement on that procedure in the interest of evcn greater efficiency is not inconceivable. Why not let one man take care of everything? Then we would not even be burdening five men with it. Such suggestions are not absurd fantasy. They have a long history of practice in the annals of the Christian Church. And they were in many ways undeniably efficient. There was only one major objection to them. When oligarchy and monarchy became the accepted structure and order in the church that church organization had moved so far from the Lord’s direction and pattern for His Church that our Reformed fathers had to denounce the institution in the Belgic Confession as no true church at all (Articles 29–32). Anyone who is at all familiar with that Roman Catholic history and structure will observe some remarkable parallels between the way it developed and the way our church organization is increasingly developing. The Roman Catholic development, however. took centuries. Our movement in that direction is happening in a much shorter time, in mere decades and years.

This is not to charge many of the men involved with deliberate deception. Many in the past were and in the present may be able business men and practical politicians trying to efficiently run a big business in the process of developing into something vastly different from what Christ’s Church was called to be.

The Road to Reform

Can’t anything be done to make our church assemblies function again as they were designed and supposed to do? Of course, much can be done. By God‘s grace reform is possible, as it has occurred in the past. Correction will not come, however, until church members and officers are willing to notice what is happening, become concerned about it and begin to pray and work for correction and improvement. What contributes most heavily to these procedural abuses, as well as to the more directly spiritual demoralization of the church which underlies them, is the general indifference of members and officers who just do not want to be bothered. The Lord is not going to bless a church which doesn’t care about His Word and about whether and how it is obeyed in His Church. When churches, like governments, begin to degenerate into political machines, aroused people must seek reform and be willing to pray, work and fight for it.