Why do we have a Synod?
Given the current condition of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, I have been asking this question repeatedly during the past months. Like many of you, I delight in the worship, preaching and teaching of my church, and in her outreach to the community and commitment to world missions. I’m excited by the planting of a new local body of Christ under our sponsorship. I hear of similar satisfaction with local churches from many of you throughout our denomination. So, why have a Synod in the first place? When I looked to our Confession of Faith for guidance, I found that a synod is for the better government and further edification of the Church. How does a synod provide this? According to the Confession, a Synod is formed to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God; to set down rules and directions for the better government of [the] church; and to receive complaints in cases of maladministration.
Our Form of Government revision process speaks directly to Synod’s function to set down standards for the better government of the church. We have received cases of alleged maladministration in the form of complaints filed with Synod this year.
Each General Synod certainly deals with controversy. But whether or not it involves what the Confession refers to as “controversies of faith” is open to question. Nevertheless, we as the Church of Christ must make each controversy count – driving us to our Lord for resolution; to the Scriptures for clarity; to our knees to seek for the Spirit’s intervention; and to seek purity with peace and unity.
I recently read that controversies can be a warning to us not to suffer from doctrinal apathy and to remember the necessity of humility with a willingness to affirm that we do not debate from our own authority, nor for our own sakes, but for truth’s sake. Controversy is not the problem.
A London paper once asked, “What’s the matter with the world?” and encouraged its readers to write in with their answers. After an ongoing dialogue over several months, G. K. Chesterton wrote and said, “Sirs, you asked, ‘What’s the matter with the world?’ – I am. Sincerely yours, GKC.” The dialogue ended abruptly. Similarly, controversy is not the problem. We are. I am.
Too Much on Synod’s Plate?
We spend much of our time dealing with areas that do not fall directly under the Confession’s stated functions for a synod. I wonder why we spend so much time on what has little to do with the purpose of a synod according to our Confession.
Our Standards and our governing documents indeed establish multiple other roles for our Synod. But I can- not help but wonder if this expansion in the Synod’s role has not caused us to perform the confessionally-mandated duties poorly and has led to such a burden on Synod that we cannot support everything we are trying to do.
I listened as the nominating committee struggled to find people to serve the many vacancies on boards and committees. I heard one agency after another describe their diminishing denominational funds. I wonder how much of the disunity in our denomination has resulted from trying to be too much and do too much.
If Synod limited its work to establishing better government, determining controversies of faith and con- science, ordering public worship, and receiving complaints of maladministration, I wonder if we wouldn’t reestablish the ties that bind.
Our Confession reflects the essential things for our denomination. If these are lacking or being poorly performed, then we need to put our focus on them, and not on the less crucial activities of our denomination. Are we at the denominational level trying to do what local congregations ought to do?
Local congregations must sense a need for the Synod to enable them to do the work of the kingdom, or to do it better, if they are going to move out from the limited labor of local ministry wherein they are consumed with their local needs and the tyranny of the urgent at home. If we want to see better participation from congregations in denominational affairs – including funding – then the Synod needs to offer them something they need and get beyond the distractions of years gone by.
The ARPC Essentials
Our decade theme gives us a place to start when identifying what we really need to be doing: The ARPC Essentials – What Makes Us Who We Are? As we seek to answer this question let us consider it within the context of our Confession’s teaching on the purpose of a synod. If what makes us who we are is not according to that, then let us ask if what we are is what we ought to be.
In 2010, our theme was the Spirit-Illumined Word. This past year we have thought about the Free Offer of the Gospel. The obvious theme for the Synod this coming year would be, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ.” There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. And we have no higher calling than to know him as Lord and to make him known as Lord.
I hear repeatedly that our denomination needs transformation. For it to be transformed, we who are the Synod must be transformed individually and only then might we be transformed as a denomination corporately.
During our Pre-Synod Conference, Dr. Curt Young gave sound advice on how we might be transformed through a better understanding of the lordship of Jesus Christ. To be transformed, he said, we must live with a proper regard for the majesty of the Lord Jesus.
Brother David Vance explained that if we would be transformed and always transforming, we ought to look to the biblical and historical origins of the significance of the doctrine of lordship and seek to be faithful to the Word and our lordship tradition as it applies the Word of life to our contemporary world.
Finally, Frank Van Dalen encouraged us by saying, if we truly want to see transformation of the whole world, we should recognize the lordship of Jesus Christ over all the nations.
These transformational tasks are essentially the responsibility of individuals and congregations, not Synod. The Synod can only facilitate and encourage them by promoting better church government and discipline, settling controversies of faith and conscience, and promoting and ordering the public worship of God. If we are doing things and financing activities that are not Synod-specific responsibilities, perhaps we need to re-think our role as a Synod.
God at Work
Is there no good news? Recently, a friend and brother gave me a copy of Professor Douglas Kelly’s book, New Life in the Wasteland. In it, Kelly reminds us we “cannot always judge by the superficial appearance of the church, because historically and theologically it is so often true that God is doing the most when things look the very worst . . . Often when the church seems buried and things seem most discouraging, God is working profoundly beneath the surface.”
What is God doing to further his grace among us so that he can work his grace through us? Let us not just look at the externals – the statistics, the reports, the so-called struggles for control and blame-shifting. Rather, let us call upon our Sovereign God under whose lordship we stand and serve. Let us look for his hidden pattern of providence that works all things after the counsel of his will.
Our ups and downs are in reality God’s sovereign forward movement to his goal. And I am convinced that he who began a good work in us will perfect it as we approach the day of Christ Jesus.
What would a biblically and confessionally centered Synod look like? We need to be a fellowship of the ministers and elders of our churches who care deeply about excellence in faithful ministry to the Lord. We need to look forward to our gatherings as opportunities for soul-feedings and not gamesmanship.
We need to return to biblical discipline that is both timely and focused on repentance and reconciliation, not punishment and isolation. We need the strong pulpits that characterized the times of Robert Murray McCheyne; pulpits that preach the Word both by mouth and by manner of living. Let us heed McCheyne’s instruction and pray, “Lord, do in me first what I am asking you to do in this congregation. Apply the preaching to my life that I am seeking to have applied to this people whom you have given me.” That is my prayer for my service to you.
Everything under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is not just a slogan; it’s a reality. He is Lord! Everything is under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Will we as individuals recognize his lordship in our service to his kingdom as it is embodied in the ARPC??