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Let the Church Decentralize!

Walter Lippman, just a year before the outbreak of World War II, accurately described the modern trend toward centralization of authority. He said: “So universal is the dominion of this dogma (that is, of collectivism and centralization of power) over the minds of contemporary men that no one is taken seriously as a statesman or a theorist who does not come forward with proposals to magnify the power of public officials and to extend and multiply their intervention in human affairs. Unless he is authoritarian and collectivist, he is a mossback, a reactionary. at best an amiable eccentric swimming hopelessly against the tide. It is a strong tide.”1

If one didn’t know the actual subject which the author was developing, we might very easily suppose that he had in mind the trend which has swept over and changed the face of the Protestant churches in our country. Time was when the doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and the autonomy of the local churches were by and large taken for granted and appreciably practiced in this land. In opposition to the centralized government of such denominations as the Roman Catholic and Episcopal. the majority of Protestants insisted on keeping the official program of the denomination within the limits of the knowledge and criticism of the average intelligent member.

       

         

But, sad to say, these conditions have changed and with them the temper of life.

Where once Protestants criticized the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church relentlessly, today the majority have fallen well in line with its apparently su ccessful and efficient policy of delegating power to the few.

Indeed, there is still a difference between Roman Catholic dictatorship over all of life and Protestant versions of hierarchical rule. Whereas the former openly maintains and defends its form of church polity, the latter have

with apparent success obscured their drift towards centralization by labeling their key men “secretaries,” “chairmen of committees,” “presidents of boards” and other seemingly mild names. Yet everywhere the drift has become unmistakably apparent. In nearly every denomination, the small as well as the great, a few individuals heavily freighted with commissions and power wield the “big slick” and shape the policies of their churches.

As ministers of the Christian Reformed Church the writers of this article are gravely alarmed at similar tendencies in the church which they love and serve. Also in this denomination which strives to remain true to its Protestant, Calvinistic heritage. certain ominous signs have appeared which make it imperative to sound the alarm. In recent years God has given us rich and glorious opportunities for increased service. Our numbers have increased markedly. Our people have unstintedly given for the support of denominational enterprises. Our program of education, missions and philanthropy has been almost unbelievably expanded. But in spite of all that we are still organized quite the same as when we were but half our present size and enjoyed only one tenth of our present wealth. Instead of having augmented the number of our boards and committees, dividing the necessary labors among a larger number, we have without realizing the consequences of our policy assigned additional labors to those already overburdened and thus greatly augmented their powers in the interests of efficiency.

Now a halt has been called to the church on the march. At the Synod of 1950 an overture of Classis Kalamazoo “to take the necessary steps preparatory to the realization of the institution of Particular Synods” received favorable consideration. That synod appointed a committee to study the matter and report back within the next two years on the desirability and feasibility of introducing such major assemblies. The committee has also urged that this subject be given serious consideration by our people and discussed in our periodicals.

That many in the Christian Reformed Church are deeply disturbed by the present trend is a hopeful sign. Perhaps before it is too late we will retrace some of the steps which we have unthinkingly taken and return to a thoroughly Reformed type of denominational organization.

Current Christian Reformed Practice

In this church today there are three recognized governing bodies. They are the consistories of the local congregations, the classes consisting of delegates of neighboring congregations, and the synod representing the entire denomination and composed of four delegates from each of the twenty existing classes.

In distinction from the churches which are hierarchically governed. the Christian Reformed Church is committed to the position that the basic unit of government is the local consistory. This body, consisting of the pastor and the elders, controls and directs the affairs of the local congregation. Properly speaking, all power of government in the church has been assigned by Christ the Sovereign Head of the church first of all to the local consistories.2 The authority of classis and synods is a delegated power, exercised by the lawful representatives of the local churches.

Classical meetings are held two or three times each year. They are constituted by two delegates of each local church, usually the pastor and an eIder, or in case of pastoral vacancy two elders. Here only two types of ecclesiastical business may be transacted; first of all. those matters which could not be finished in the minor assemblies, and secondly, those matters which pertain to the churches in common. Thus the sphere of their labors and power is definitely restricted by ankle 30 of the Church Order. Advice is given to the consistories on the discipline of erring members, mutual supervision of the churches is exercised according to article 41, and the broader program of the church is regulated. Here, too, the members of the denominational boards are usually elected, so that each classis is adequately represented on all the important boards and committees of the church. For the promotion of denominational unity the classis should be considered the outstanding assembly of the church.

The synod meets annually. Here again the provisions of article 30 are regulative. Only ecclesiastical business may be transacted, and that in the ecclesiastical way according to the rules of the Church Order. No business which could have been adequately dealt with on consistorial or classical level should be acted on here. Furthermore, all matters of concern to the denomination as denomination should be officially determined.

Precisely on this last matter great difference of opinion has arisen within the Christian Reformed Church. On the one hand there are those who insist that the program of missions, evangelization and higher education fall properly within the scope of synodical labors. These matters it is argued, concern the church as a whole. On the other hand, there are not a few who argue with equal vigor that all these matters are as such a consistorial responsibility first of all, and only when it is proved that the consistory cannot properly deal with this aspect of its spiritual responsibility may these matters be acted upon classically and synodically.

The present picture is further complicated by the fact that our ecclesiastical organization is not complete. Very clearly the Church Order specifies in articles 47, 48 and 49 that there shall be particular synods composed of delegates of neighboring classes. These are designed to take care of matters of interest to the churches in certain regions and thus definitely restrict the scope of synodical labors. The question which we face today is whether the installation of particular synods is desirable and practicable at the present time.

What is a Particular Synod?

Before this question can be satisfactorily answered we will have to define precisely the nature of particular synods.

This question is by no means superfluous, since the Christian Reformed Church has never organized them. This is quite contrary to the organizational pattern followed by churches closely akin to ours. The Reformed Church in America has instituted them more than a century ago, when that denomination was far smaller than ours today. The Reformed (Gereformeerde) Churches in the Netherlands have made use of them for many decades. Even our comparatively small sister denomination, the Reformed (Gereformeerde) Church of South Africa, whose total membership is less than half of ours, has recognized the need for these bodies, in order that the good order and spiritual welfare of that denomination might be promoted.

As an ecclesiastical assembly the particular synod occupies a position between the classis and general synod. It consists of a sizable number of delegates from each of its classes. This body is convened not less than once each year. It is empowered to carryon correspondence with neighboring particular synods, in order that the welfare of the churches may be promoted.

Such correspondence involves much more than writing a few letters and exchanging fraternal greetings. Rather, it implies that delegates are sent to each other’s sessions. Thus these assemblies serve each other with advice and counsel and may cooperate in certai n ventures which are specifically ecclesiastical and cannot be conducted independently of each other with profit. This body has also the right to appoint executive committees to carry out its decisions. The examination of prospective ministers of the Word in the denomination is properly speaking part of its responsibility, as well as the right to examine and judge those whose conduct and doctrine is suspect. In other words, the same principle obtains here which governs the work of the classis. All business which pertains to the general welfare of the denomination and which cannot be finished in the classes is to be discharged by the particular synods.

Why did the Reformed churches almost from the beginning make provision for such assemblies? Several weighty reasons may be assigned for this action. First of all, the Dutch Reformed churches were too numerous and their problems too many and complex without some major assembly ‘ between the classes and the general synod. To refer all the business which classis could not competently perform immediately to general synod would have greatly overburdened the broadest assembly in the denomination. Too much time would be consumed by considering the practical program of the churches, with the result that matters of principle, whether doctrinal, church governmental or liturgical, would be forced into the background. Thus an instrument was created which could properly handle all matters of comparatively local or regional character.

Should We Institute Particular Synods Now?

In order that we may properly assess the question which today faces the Christian Reformed Church, we should review several arguments in favor of completing our organizational pattern.

Needless to say, in this article it will be impossible even to mention all the arguments which have been adduced from time to time. However, we will attempt to consider a few.

First of all, we should be realistic in facing the actual situation. Our church has grown, for which we are deeply grateful to God who alone gives the increase. When in times past the church faced similar situations, additional classes were organized. In 1868 when we numbered less than six thousand members the churches were organized into two classes. Then there was a close relation between the local consistories and the assembly. This is no longer the case today. We number nearly 375 congregations in 20 classes, some of them much too large to do effective work. Our total membership is more than 150,000.

Still more, there is a growing tendency to ignore the basic Reformed principle of the autonomy of the local congregation and its inherent right to prosecute the work of missions, education, etc. It has become too easy for us to refer all kinds of questions to the synod and thus evade basic consistorial responsibility. We have almost reached the point where it is taken for granted in our denomination that all mission work, even the work of evangelization, is primarily the concern of synod.

In addition, the classes which should be the most influential broader assemblies have largely degenerated into bodies where lengthy reports are read and but seldom openly discussed.

Whenever a major problem arises the temptation is strong to refer the matter immediately to synod for disposal. The argument used is that synod meets annually and therefore should be able to make a binding decision for all the congregations and classes. Thus, not altogether without practical justification, many ministers and elders treat classical sessions disdainfully, absenting themselves without good excuse. They have to a large extent become channels through which much undigested material is passed on to synod. Small wonder that our synods today arc swamped with work.

As a result we face a growing problem of performing good work at synod. The “steamroller” method of doing work, which we have so greatly deplored in other denominations. has been noticed in our church. And this can hardly be avoided. if classes consistently refer so much material to the annual synod. When annual sessions of synod were introduced, the argument was advanced that the synodical sessions would be briefer and their work more efficient. But has this actually been the case? Far from it, for although we meet a few less days, evening sessions have increased. As a result many decisions have been taken without adequate discussion and clarification. We have even suffered from the tragic condition of having synods reverse weighty decisions from year to year. In the minds of many there is a growing fear that pressure groups have been seeking majorities to force through their opinions. Synods are publicly labeled “strong” or “weak,” depending on the type of delegates, with the result that respect for synodical decisions in several quarters has been appreciably declining.

An even greater evil has arisen. Since synod meets annually and always in Grand Rapids for the sake of convenience, the broader assemblies are increasingly removed from the actual life and temper of the local congregations. All of our boards are located here, and it need not surprise us that in many parts of the denomination this has been widely resented. With the growing program of the church more work has been given into the hands of the boards, thus removing the activities of the church away from the local congregations into the hands of hoards and committees in Grand Rapids. The argument has been widely employed that this promotes efficiency. Although this perhaps should be granted, the question may well be asked whether the price we are paying is not too large. After all, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. also functions very efficiently through her boards and committees. But where is her loyal testimony to the creeds which she professes? Where is her defense of the Reformed faith? When and where is the voice of her sessions and presbyteries taken seriously, if these clash with the efficient program of the boards?

Thus we do well to be warned against the growing power of the boards which arc getting farther away from close contact with the members of the churches which they represent. In his delightful autobiography the Rev. Idzerd Van Dellen has included. what he considers a much-needed warning to our churches: “The Christian Reformed Church at present has strong Boards which are constantly gaining in power. I consider this a great danger. We plainly see in our American churches to what this ultimately leads.”

Especially with reference to this growing centralization of power in the boards, the whole matter of the desirability and feasibility of particular synods deserves our most careful attention.

There are at least two reasons why the current pattern of church government leads to increased centralization. The first is that under present circumstances proper supervision of the work of the church at large is made practically impossible. Today this supervision amounts to little more than hurried synodical consideration at the top level and a general report from the classical delegate at the secondary level. The boards operate too much at a distance from the people on whose behalf they have been appointed. The work of the church belongs properly to the members through their representatives. The former are committed by Scriptural principle to practice the duty of mutual supervision. And only when there is sufficient time and opportunity and frankness in the discussion of the actual work of the committees and boards will this be possible.

Closely associated. with this is the false assumption under which the church then labors. We are apt to assume that because these boards are manned by Christian ministers and members who profess the Reformed faith we need have no concern that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few. Is this not a practical denial of what we actually profess and preach when we say that even the regenerate man has “but a small beginning of this new obedience?” Not even the very best ought to be considered beyond the scope of the restraint and correction of others in his official work on the grounds that he is immune to error and corruption. Church history abundantly proves where such an unwarranted assumption leads.

First of all, the local congregation loses interest in the official program, because while she is expected to pay, she has little to say about policies. Then, with the loss of sustained interest, occasions are created by which enemies of Christ’s cause can take over positions of leadership and actually pervert the program which was originally set up. The history of the foreign mission enterprise in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is an indubitable example of this very process. Without a doubt those who originally set up the board in that church determined that it should be an efficient instrument to promote the preaching of the pure gospel of the crucified and risen Savior as set forth in the Westminster creeds. But after some years those who still championed the official doctrines of the church found to their utter dismay and eventual dismissal from that church, that their money was being used to salary modernist missionaries who frankly denied the very gospel which the church claimed to believe.

Let us not suppose that the Christian Reformed Church would be immune to such a development. It is time today for us to stem the tide of growing centralization by completing our church governmental pattern, thus to prevent any possible movement in such a dangerous direction.

One of the greatest benefits which accrue from the organizing of particular synods would be the rearrangement of our denominational program of education and missions in such a way that the activity would be spread over the greater part of the denomination. Instead of having but one board of missions, for example, each particular synod should and could have its own board to take care of one part of the work. At the present we are committed to laboring among the Navaho and Zuni Indians, in China, Africa, South America, Ceylon, Japan, India and Indonesia. There is no reason why various fields could not be assigned to various particular synods as is done in the Netherlands. Although certain basic policies would still have to be determined by general synod, practically all the work could be performed under the supervision of such regional boards. And by bringing this glorious enterprise closer to the individual classes and local consistories, our church at large would reap a blessed harvest of greater missionary zeal and support. What could be done with this board, could with proper rearrangement be done with practically everyone of our denominational enterprises.

Here we would stem the growing tendency to centralization. Today there is a rising number of full-time ministers called and salaried by the denomination through its synod, but to all practical purposes not supervised by any consistory or group of consistories. Because of increased pressure of work the cry for more of these workers is heard repeatedly. That these men, who have been carrying on valiantly, need more help goes without saying. But why move in the direction of growing centralization? Why not divide the work of the boards among several synods? Then the amount of work will be so greatly reduced that in most instances it can be performed by ministers serving regular congregations and responsible directly to their consistories. Until 1920 we were able to work that way with a reasonable degree of efficiency, and there is no good reason why we cannot continue to labor efficiently and more in harmony with the principles of Reformed church polity by spreading the work to be done among many instead of a few.

Our present method is bound to have serious repercussions for the welfare of the churches. Whenever anything goes wrong in one of the denominational enterprises, as it does go wrong from time to time—we are in an imperfect world!—the confidence of the whole church in her boards is rocked to the foundations. Let’s get back to the Reformed position that the prime responsibility for prosecuting all ecclesiastical work lies with the local consistories. And instead of making the leap immediately from consistory to synod, and then forcing synod to work through centralized boards, let us delegate whatever work the local church cannot perform alone first of all to the classis, thereafter to the particular synod, and only as a last resort to the general synod and her boards. In this way will we be able to safeguard proper supervision over the work and retain full confidence in those who man the boards on behalf of the churches.

Can Such Synods be Properly Organized?

A final question ought to be answered now. It concerns the practical implementation of the principles which require particular synods. We should face the issue whether the geographical and numerical distribution of our membership will enable the Christian Reformed Church to introduce particular synods.

Although we full well realize that in certain areas we have a much heavier concentration of churches than in others, we are convinced that the proper distribution of congregations and members can be made. This is, of course, of great importance. Since synodical delegates are elected to represent classes, an attempt should be made to keep the several classes to approximately the same size. Only in this way will the representation be proportionate and fair. Today there is altogether too much difference in the size of the respective classes, largely because in certain areas our church has grown much more rapidly than in others. As a result several of our classes are overly large. In the Reformed (Gererormeerde) Churches in the Netherlands, classes are much smaller than here in spite of the geographical proximity. As a rule classes average about eleven or twelve churches there, while here we number in excess. of eighteen with several consisting of twenty-five or more congregations.

Thus we would suggest a geographical redistribution of our churches and classes at the time when particular synods are instituted. Although several other plans for rearrangement may be presented, we would suggest the regrouping of our congregations into seven particular synods: Atlantic, Michigan, Western Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pacific, each with four or five classes having approximately the same number of congregations. On the basis of this plan there would be the following particular synods and classes:

I. ATLANTlC –

the Eastern states and Ontario

Classis         Churches      Members

Hackensack      11                3,430

Hudson              15               7,013

Hamilton            17               3,497

Chatham            11               3,295

TOTAL                54             17,235

II. MICHIGAN –

Central and Eastern Michigan, Ohio Classis Churches Members

Classis                    Churches      Members

Detroit                          10               2,350

Grand Rapids, East      11               8,965

Grand Rapids, North     14              7,278

Grand Rapids, South     11              6,955

Grand Rapids, West        9               8,095

TOTAL                            55             33,643

III. WESTERN MICHIGAN –

Western and Northern Michigan

Classis                    Churches      Members

Cadillac                        12               3,195

Holland                         12               8,656

Hudsonville                   10               4,923

Muskegon                     15               7,234

Zeeland                         11               5,549

TOTAL                           60              29,547

IV. ILLINOIS –

Illinois, Indiana, and Southern Michigan

Classis                    Churches      Members

Chicago, North             11              4,958

Chicago, South            10              7,355

Illiana                           10              5,408

Kalamazoo                   10              4,993

TOTAL                          41             22,714

V. IOWA –

Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico

Classis                    Churches      Members

Colorado                         6              2,495

Orange City                   10             4,263

Ostfriesland                   12             2,682

Pella                              13              4,912

Sioux Center                 10              4,384

TOTAL                           51            18,736

1. Walter Lippman: The Good Society, p.4

2. L. Berkhof: Systematic Theology, p. 584. Monsma and Van Dellen: Church Order Commentary, p. 138

3. Several synods have considered the matter, in 1898, 1904, 1914, 1918 and 1928.

4. Heidelberg Catechism, p. 114

Peter Y. De Jong is pastor of the Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids.

John H. Piersma is pastor of the Franklin Street Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids.