Pete deBoer A Review of the 2004 Canadian Reformed Churches Synod (Chatham)

General Synod Chatham 2004 of the Canadian Reformed Churches existed for two weeks (Feb.10 – 21, 2004). The delegates had been chosen by regional Synods East and West, but most certainly felt themselves appointed by God to deliberate and decide on all the issues put before them. Surely each individual member felt themselves inadequate to deal with such weighty matters but yet the Lord gave them collectively the strength and wisdom to observe, consider, and make recommendations for adoption concerning many matters of interest and concern to the whole federation of churches in Canada and the United States.

Based on the interim Acts that were provided on the internet we want to provide our readers with a general overview of the decisions taken at this synod and provide some editorial comment at the same time.

Modis Operandi

To start off with we want to deal with the modis operandi (the method of operation) of synods in general and thus also the most recent one. As already mentioned above, Canadian Reformed synods operate by observing incoming material, considering the material and by making recommendations about the material. After this process has been completed a vote is held and the recommendations are either adopted or defeated. By using this method it is not always clear on what basis a decision has been made.

It is of particular importance that decisions taken at a major assembly should be based on solid grounds, on God’s holy Word. Often it is also helpful to use the Confessions and the Church Order and/or even the Forms adopted by the Churches, to provide grounds for decisions. In that way the Churches and their members can be informed and even educated about the matter(s) being dealt with.

In a time when much emphasis is placed on Ecclesiastical Fellowship and its benefits, the Canadian Reformed churches could do well to learn from two federations with which it has had the longest relationships (the Dutch and Australian Churches) where the modis operandi is specifically used to provide grounds for all decisions.

One of the first decisions made by Synod Chatham was to reverse a decision of the previous synod, Synod Neerlandia. The matter at hand was the relatively minor matter concerning the number of delegates that should make up a General Synod. In the past the rule has been that each regional synod would delegate four ministers and four elders to synod, thus producing a general synod of sixteen (16) delegates. At Synod Neerlandia the overture of Regional Synod – East to increase the number of delegates to six ministers and six elders from each regional synod was defeated. As a result the church at Guelph appealed this decision to Synod Chatham.

It is interesting to note how Synod Chatham dealt with this appeal in its considerations. Having first ‘observed’ the content of the appeal from Guelph it ‘considered’ five aspects.

1 First synod considered that “…Guelph is correct in asserting that there is an ‘indirect representation’ of churches to a general synod…”

2 Next it considered that Synod Neerlandia was correct when it considered that “’an increase of delegates cannot ensure proportionate representation.” But in the same consideration it includes, “On the other hand, the church at Guelph is also correct in stating that the likelihood of proportionate representation from the various classes and churches could result. However, the argument for proportionate representation is not a relevant consideration within Reformed church polity.”

3 The third ‘consideration’ reads, “The argument of Synod Neerlandia ‘that General Synods are not representative assemblies …but that Reformed Church Polity works with the principle of delegation does not exclude the possible increase in numbers of delegates.” 4 At the same time Synod ‘considered’ that the Church at Guelph did not prove that a major shift in direction can be avoided by increasing the number of delegates to such an assembly. 5 Finally it was ‘considered’ that Guelph was correct in observing that it is unlikely that more regional synods will be added to the two thatpresently exist. Thus, the number of delegates to synods will not increase in that manner. After these five Considerations, Synod made two recommendations. The first was to rescind the decision of Neerlandia to leave the number of delegates as they were and the second was to increase the number of delegates to six ministers and six elders from each regional synod. We have very little argument with the end result of this decision as it is a minor matter in our view, but the point of this detailed review is to point out the failure of the modis operandi. For who can say why the number of delegates waschanged? Was it because it is unlikely that there will be more regional synods in the foreseeable future? Was it because there is an ‘indirect’ proportional representation when delegates are chosen regionally? But that consideration was contrasted by the following one. In fact, if one reads through the considerations the opposite con-clusion from what was finally de-cided could easily be expected. If someone wanted to appeal this decision what would they appeal? They cannot really appeal the recommendation as it is merely a statement, a decision without reasons. An appeal could be launched against one of the considerations, but how is one to know that it was the basis for the decision. Perhaps a following synod might agree with an appeal against a consideration but not overturn the recommendation or the decision to adopt the recommendation because there is no proof that the decision was based on any one or all of the considerations.

It would be far better and much more edifying if the decision was based on certain grounds. Perhaps the real reason the decision was made to increase the number of delegates is that at least half of the federation was in favor of doing so. Perhaps delegates felt that since the federation has grown in membership that the request to increase the delegates to synod was reasonable and acceptable. It is certainly not clear from the Considerations why the decision was made to increase the number of delegates.

We hope that the regulations for synods will soon be changed to fall in line with those of the churches in Australia and the Netherlands so that the Biblical/Church Orderly grounds are provided along with the decisions.

A New Professor

Due to the illness of Dr. J. de Jong Synod needed to appoint a professor to the Theological College. Although technically it is correct to say that Synod, upon the advice of the Board of Governors, who propose a name on the advice of the Senate of the Theological College, appoint a minister to the position of professor at the Theological College, the process for these appointments leaves much to be desired. We hope to elaborate more about this at another time.

At Synod Chatham, Dr. A. J. de Visser was appointed to and accepted the position of Professor of Diaconiology and Ecclesiology. Together with all the churches we pray that the Lord will bless this brother as he takes up this new position with weighty responsibility in the midst of the Church of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Appeals

As a result of the statement by Synod Neerlandia that, “individuals who wish to interact with decisions of Synod should begin by addressing their consistories (Articles 30 & 31)” two churches sent in an appeal. These appeals were denied by Synod Chatham. As part of the deliberations about this matter the following quote will indicate the direction synod wants to provide to the churches. “Individual members must follow the way of the Church Order by addressing their concerns to their local consistory that, should it concur with the concerns, direct an appeal to general synod. Consistory, unlike individual members, has the right to deal directly with the matters that belong to the churches in common. Consistory may do so because these decisions are to be considered settled and binding by the consistory. A consistory cannot appeal a decision of a major assembly to a minor assembly. If the local consistory does not take over the individual’s appeal, he can appeal the local consistory’s decision to classis and thus begin the appeal process in accordance with Article 31 of the Church Order.”

Appeals against a Decision of Synod Neerlandia re: the OPC

Five churches and an individual member sent in appeals against the decision of Synod Neerlandia to the establish Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the OPC. [The appeal of the individual member was denied based on the rule that a member should address his/her consistory about an appeal about a synod’s decision.] The focus of this review does not allow for a detailed review of the appeals and the considerations pertaining to them. Suffice to report that Synod Chatham decided that Synod Neerlandia 2001 did not err when it took the decision to establish Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the OPC.

Appeal Against a Decision of Synod Neerlandia re: Phase Two with URCNA

One church appealed two components of Phase Two [adopted by Synod Neerlandia] of the unity efforts with the URCNA. The two components under appeal were the requirement to accept one another’s attestations and the openness of the pulpit to ministers from one another’s federations. This church also noted the confusion between the terms Ecclesiastical Fellowship, ‘sister churches’ and Phase Two. For some these terms are synonymous and for others they are not.

Synod ‘considered’ that if Synod Neerlandia would have used the term Ecclesiastical Fellowship in place of Phase Two, the appealing church would not have had any dif- ficulties. Therefore it decided to declare that Phase Two is the equivalent of Ecclesiastical Fellowship as it is maintained under the adopted rules (Acts of Synod Lincoln 1992, Art. 50, IV.B.1-7). At the same time, Phase Two clearly includes the purpose that the churches involved move forward from Phase Two (Ecclesiastical Fellowship) to Phase Three (federative union). Hence the appeal was denied.

We empathize with the appealing church with regard to the confusion in terminology. Some time ago an article has appeared in Reformed Polemics (Vol.8, No.5) that deals with the terms Ecclesiastical Fel lowship and sister churches.

Appeal Against a Articles 22, 34, 36, & 45 of Synod Neerlandia

In essence this appeal deals with the contention that “some formulations in the Westminster Standards are not in agreement with the Three Forms of Unity, ‘and therefore should be reckoned as divergencies that must be resolved outside the bounds of Ecclesiastical Fellowship.’” The example of the Scriptural understanding of the covenant was given as an example. It was felt that Ecclesiastical Fellowship opens the door to false preaching on this topic.

Synod decided that this was more correctly an appeal against a decision made by synod Lincoln and pointed out that both synod Abbotsford and synod Fergus denied appeals concerning the same matter.

Appeal Against Regional Synod West: re Status of Rev. Boersema

The appealing church provided a history of correspondence that indicates that they properly took the Church Orderly way in dealing with the fact that the Church at Surrey maintained the status of Rev. Boersema while he became a member of the OPC. This event took place prior to the churches having established Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the OPC.

Synod decided that the appealing church is technically correct but that the Church at Surrey was justified in providing an exception in Rev. Boersema’s case.

Ecclesiastical Fellowship

A large portion of Synod’s time was taken up with correspondence, appeals, speeches and reports regarding federations with which the Canadian Reformed churches have Ecclesiastical Fellowship. At this time we will not go into detail about any of the specific federations with which Ecclesiastical Fellowship has been established but merely give a quick overview of the decisions made with regard to each.

In every case Synod Chatham expressed appreciation for the fact that the federations with which the Canadian Reformed Churches have Ecclesiastical Fellowship continue to uphold Scripture and that Ecclesiastical Fellowship ought to be maintained.

Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS)

Thankfulness was expressed regarding the positive developments within our contact with the RCUS. At the same time the churches were encouraged to pursue actively our Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the RCUS via pulpit exchanges, visiting RCUS churches, and via invitations to youth camps and conferences held in the various church communities.

L’Eglise Reformee du Quebec

Contact with this federation has been ongoing for some years. From time to time an overture has been sent by one or other church to establish Ecclesiastical Fellowship with this federation. At this synod there was also a letter from a church with such a recommendation. Synod, however decided not to do so, but rather to continue the mandate provided by Synod Neerlandia. In short, that mandate is to work towards the establishment of Ecclesiastical Fellowship by discussing the differences between the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards as found in the “Evaluation of Divergences” received by Synod 1986.

The ERQ is a very small federation and thus has limited human resources for this kind of work. For this reason both Neerlandia and now Chatham prioritized the mandate by indicating that pulpit supervision, fencing of the Lord’s table and confessional accountability should receive the highest priority.

Korean Presbyterian Churches in North America (KPCNA)

Seeing that the Canadian Reformed Churches already have contact with the Korean Presbyterian Churches (Kosin) in Korea, Synod Neerlandia considered it logical and wise to agree with an overture to seek contact with that same federation in Canada and the United States. The Committee for Contact with Churches in the Americas (CCCA) had difficulty establishing contact with representatives of this church federation and recommended that their mandate be discontinued. Synod, however, was of a different mind and adopted the recommendation that it decide to mandate the CCCA to contact the North American Kosin federation with the help of the churches in Korea.

The Independent Presbyterian Churches in Mexico (IPCM)

Synod declared that at this time there is no reason to pursue actively an ecclesiastical relationship with the IPCM as the committee was unable to establish meaningful contact.

The North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council

As Synod Neerlandia had mandated the CCCA to send (at their own discretion) an observer to future meetings of NAPARC to investigate its usefulness and possible membership in it, the committee provided a report. It presented history, membership, basis, purpose and function of NAPARC. The Committee suggested to Synod that membership might be useful to provide support to the OPC and the RCUS who are already members of NAPARC. At the same time it would also help to express greater unity with the ERQ.

Synod, however, agreed with one of the churches who sent a letter with regard to the Committee’s report. They considered their submission to be correct when it questioned the need for another organization beside the ICRC as there is significant duplication in the purposes, function and membership of both groups.

The Free Reformed Churches of South Africa (FRCSA)

In addition to continuing the relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with this federation Synod recommended these churches as worthy of financial assistance to aid them with their extensive mission work and in their labors among the concerned in other church federations.

The Board of Governors of the Theological College in Hamilton was also invited to seek ways to offer assistance for theological training. The Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad (CRCA) was also mandated to request the reasons why the FRCSA have revoked their relationship with the Korean Presbyterian Churches (Kosin).

The Free Church of Scotland

The CRCA recommended to Synod that contact with the Free Church Continuing be discontinued and that the mandate to discuss divergences with the Scottish churches should be rescinded. However Synod adopted its own recommendation to decide that due to the lack of clarity about the division between the Free Church and the Free Church Continuing the CRCA ought to be mandated to continue to monitor the situation in the hope of gaining greater clarity. Synod also mandated the committee to continue the discussion on the existing differences in confession and church polity.

As part of the considerations about the recommendations of the CRCA the following was noted: “The CRCA is correct that Synod Neerlandia brought something new into the contact with the FCS. Synod Neerlandia did consider, however, that previous synods have consistently declared that the differences between the Westminster Confessions and the Three Forms of Unity need to be discussed within the bounds of Ecclesiastical Fellowship.

The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) (GKN)

Rule # 1 of Ecclesiastical Fellowship requires churches in such a relationship to watch out for one another to see if they stray from Biblical teachings. In this case the CRCA requested that the mandate for their committee would include:

  1. The suggestion that the proportion of Psalms and hymns in the Gereformeerd Kerkboek should reflect the importance – and even the priority – of the Psalms.
  2. The consideration that the decisions of Leusden and Zuidhorn about the fourth commandment are based on unconvincing argumentation.
  3. An address to the next Synod of the Dutch churches to the effect that their recent decisions pertaining to the Marriage Form weakens the Scriptural teaching about marriage.

Synod agreed with the CRCA about concerns regarding the proportion of Psalms and Hymns and mandated the committee to convey these concerns to the Dutch churches. The CRCA was also mandated to study the results of the deputyship “Fourth Commandment and the Sunday” and report to the churches.

In addition, the discussion with the Dutch churches regarding the new Marriage Form is to continue. In its considerations, Synod Chatham did leave open the possibility that some change in wording does not necessarily have to mean a diminishing of the Scriptural teaching. At the same time it warned about the wording used to describe the propagating of children.

The committee was also urged to seek clarity into the legitimacy of the recent “Vrijmaking” and to monitor further developments. At the same time the committee is to inform the Dutch churches as well as those who have liberated themselves that they have our prayerful support. The Canadian Reformed churches were also urged to remember both groups in their public prayers.

The International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC)

It was decided to maintain membership in the ICRC and to send delegates to the next conference scheduled for 2005 in South Africa.

In addition the CRCA is to inform the Secretary of the ICRC that the Constitution Art. IV.1.a. should be left unchanged since there are no new grounds.

Orthodox Christian Reformed Church (OCRC)

As not much new has developed in the contact with this federation Synod included in the mandate of the Committee for Promotion of Ecclesiastical Unity (CPEU) to specifically address with the OCRC whether it shares a mutual desire for federative unity with the CanRC.

United Reformed Churches of North America

A sub-committee of the CPEU was established at the previous synod to pursue theological training for the ministry in a proposed united federation with the URCNA. This subcommittee was called the Theological Education Committee. The committee and its mandate were extended, but with the reminder that at least one federational theological school at which the board of governors, the professors and teaching staff are appointed by synod should be maintained.

A second sub-committee of the CPEU was established at the previous synod to deal with a proposed revised Church Order of a united federation. Synod continued its mandate for another three years and made specific mention of the need to continue in the evaluation of the differences between the current church orders of the federations in light of the Scriptural and Confessional principles and patterns of church government of the Church Order of Dort; to propose a common church order in the line of the Church Order of Dort; to formulate a draft proposal of regulations for General Synod; and, to provide the CPEU with a report in sufficient time for them to produce the comprehensive report for Synod in a timely fashion.

A third committee involved with the CPEU in contact toward federative unity is the Common Songbook committee. Our Committee for the Book of Praise serves in this capacity. Synod received a progress report of the work of this committee. In one of its ‘considerations’ synod encouraged the churches to address this committee directly with suggestions, etc. In the renewed mandate for this committee Synod made particular note of the need to continue to produce a songbook that contains the complete Anglo-Genevan Psalter and other suitable metrical versions of the Psalms, including hymns that also meet the standard of faithfulness to the Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.

Synod mandated the CPEU to work closely with its sub-committees and to present a single comprehensive report that has been prepared jointly with the CERCU of the URNCA to the next Synod. They are to include a recommendation for a definite time frame for federative unity.

A discussion on the ‘Framework Hypothesis’ and the support that this theory has within the URCNA have been added to the mandate for the CPEU.

Free Reformed Church of North America (FRCNA)

The mandate for the CPEU with regard to this federation is to continue meeting with them with a view to pursuing Ecclesiastical Fellowship, while at the same time promoting and maintaining the desire for federative unity, discussing whatever obstacles there may be on this path. A suggestion was made to make use of a document entitled “Foundational Principles of Reformed Church Government”. This is the same document that is being used as a working document in the unity discussions with the URCNA.

Orthodox Presbyterian Church

In addition to the report of the CCCA, Synod also received letters from seven churches in the federation. In summary, the report of the committee indicated that they had met only one time since the last Synod. Further the committee expressed the opinion that many of the issues it was mandated to discuss with the OPC had already been dealt with.

The churches that sent in letters, on the other hand, felt that they had not received much about the issues being discussed. At most they recall the Acts of Synod Burlington 1986.

They are also disappointed about the lack of meetings between our committee and the one from the OPC. They ask that the committee receive a more specific mandate regarding goals and items for discussion.

Synod decided to be more specific in its mandate to the CCCA when it decided to refer to its ‘considerations’ in its decision. Specifically it referred to the consideration that the goal of the discussions should be to determine whether the unity of the faith regarding the church, the covenant and the sacraments is adequately and faithfully expressed in our confessional standards. The focus of the discussions should be two-fold: on the one hand, the scriptural faithfulness in the confessions and, on the other hand, the actual application in the reality of church-life, i.e. how the principles are put into practice, or should be put into practice.

Indonesian Churches, Reformed Church in New Zealand, and the General Mandate of the CRCA

With respect to the Greja-Greja Reformasi di Indonesia and the Greja-Greja Reformasi Calninis in East Nusa Tengarra, synod decided to mandate the CRCA to continue correspondence to make more information available to the churches and to report to the next synod in the hope that Ecclesiastical Fellowship can be established. Synod also decided not to enter into Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the New Zealand Reformed Churches at this time.

Standing Committee for the Publication of the Book of Praise

The committee is encouraged to continue in its various mandates including a printing of the Book of Praise in 2006. Synod also decided, upon the request of minor assemblies and a number of churches, to mandate the committee to present a proposal with the inclusion of the Apostle’s Creed in the baptismal forms to the next General Synod. The committee was also mandated to submit a final proposal for a Form of Subscription, one for the local congregation and one for Classis, to the next General Synod.

The mandate of synod Fergus to the committee to prepare the prose section of the Book of Praise with the NIV Bible references but not to proceed with the requested changes to the Psalm and hymn section at this time was extended by this synod.

Synod instructed the committee to deal with submissions regarding the hymn section by maintaining the current structure of hymn section; propose changes, additions or improvements where deficiencies and/or weaknesses are found; select suitable hymns using the Guide lines and Principles agreed upon by the committee and the representatives of the URCNA.; limit the number of hymns to 100; and, publish a revised hymn section for testing by the churches.

Finally, the Committee was recommended to proceed with the Overleaf Musical Notation Edition.

Mr. Pete deBoer is Coeditor of Reformed Polemics. He is a member of the Willoughby Heights Canadian Reformed Church in Langley, Alberta. His email is pete@preta.ca

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