Over the past several months, I have frequently been asked to say more about my comments to Synod last year, regarding a Confessional Synod. I have continued to think about this and still have not come to any conclusions as far as particular recommendations.
My comments at General Synod were meant as planting the seed of an idea about how to assess what we are doing as a synod. Throughout this year, I have continued to share these thoughts in hopes of beginning a conversation.
I remain convinced that 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 labor of local ministry (where they are consumed with their local needs), and give attention to denominational affairs.
Local churches (and presbyteries) do not exist for the sake of the Synod. Rather, the Synod has confessional and biblical warrant if, and only if, it serves the local church. How, then, could we identify what we ought to be doing at the Synod level? In other words, why a Synod in the first place?
As I told General Synod last year, when I look to our Confession of Faith for guidance, I find that a Synod has two primary purposes: providing for the better government of the Church and working to further the edification of the Church.
How does a synod provide for better government of the Church? A Synod provides for better governing of the Church by establishing the fundamental rules and directions which determine the structure of church government at all levels.
We do this through the Form of Government and the Book of Discipline, which are both currently being revised. The Synod, as the highest court of the Church, also receives complaints in cases of maladministration. The purpose of the Synod, in terms of providing for better government, is pretty straightforward – though not at all simple!
Also, according to the Confession, a Synod is formed to edify the church in specific and limited areas. Specifically, the Confession includes under such edification, determining controversies of faith and cases of conscience, and setting down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God.
It would be easy to subsume almost any activity under the rubric of edification of the church and thus to so broaden the work of the Synod that it could take on almost any function – and perhaps we have done this in the ARPC. But the Confession does not suggest that the Synod should provide all types of edification to the church. It establishes the limited roles of determining controversies of faith and conscience, and giving direction for the proper worship of God.
If we have a denominational ministry that does neither of these two things, should we be doing it? I am not trying to apply a “Confessional Regulative Principle” to our functions as a Synod. To do so would be anachronistic, and would jettison the characteristic of a reformed body to be always reforming. Today’s church in today’s world may require new tasks of synods that the crafters of the Confession could not have envisioned.
Nevertheless, I do question the appropriateness of many of our activities on a confessional basis. I do not, thereby, judge any of these programs as worthless. Many of the things we are trying to do are good things. But we are not always doing them well as a Synod. I wonder if it’s because we should not be doing them at the Synod level. In other words, is it work that’s essential for a Synod according to our Confession? If not, why are we doing it?
I have been asked which Synod activities do not fit under the essential functions according to the Confession. I do not have the ability to single-handedly determine which Synod functions do not fit under the confessional directives, but I have been thinking about where we might apply the question, “Is this a confessional function?”
We must begin subjecting all of our ministries and activities to the Confession and ask if they are essential in nature. Only then can we ask, “Should we do this?” I hope you will think with me about being a confessional synod and join in such a conversation.