Monday, July 8, 2013

General Synod Recap 2013

General Synod Overview: 2013

In the days immediately following the 2013 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America I was asked by a number of friends and colleagues if I would write a recap of what happened at General Synod.  I have agreed to do so and would put before you the following observations before I begin.

1.    This is not a comprehensive assessment.  If you want a more comprehensive assessment you can order the DVDs from synod and watch all the proceedings.  You are also free to browse for more information on what happened. I am not intending to give an account of all the proceedings.

2.    This is written from my perspective and will include my commentary.  I wrote the commentary largely for the elders of my own congregation, but I also kept in mind that this may well be read by others.  Personally I felt that this synod did not go well at all, I am sure that my ensuing comments reflect that perspective.  If you’d like another perspective you are free to seek one out.

3.    I have done my best to confirm my facts with those who were present at the Synod (I watched online through the Livestream) and through the’s coverage and commentary on Synod 2013.  If you notice factual errors please inform me immediately and accept my sincerest apologies.  It is my intent to give a fair account of what transpired and to add personal commentary when I feel compelled to do so.  My commentary is in the regular print, copied materials are in italics.

4.    You will notice that frequently I have cited the adopted recommendations in the form of “R-1 (Adopted)”.  You can see all recommendations that were either approved or rejected here.

Synod 2012 Revisited

Let’s start with the worst of it.  Last year’s synod narrowly voted to affirm that “any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.”  This was, of course, a rather significant event as it affirmed discipline as a legitimate consequence for those who are in active rebellion against the Word of God concerning human sexuality.  Because of the significance of this decision those who were opposed to it were rather motivated to repeal it—they were successful.

R-83 (Adopted)
To acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, in the proceedings that led to the adoption of R-28, demonstrated a lack of decorum and civility, and a general atmosphere in which delegates were not always treating one another as sisters and brothers in Christ; and further,
to acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, usurped the constitutional authority reserved for the classes when, in R-28, we stated that “any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.”

Of course parts of last year’s statement on homosexuality were left intact.  The declaration that homosexuality is a sin according to the scriptures was not removed, and some would count that as a partial success.  It’s not.  Under the RCA’s current position on homosexuality we have seen the emergence of a well-funded, well-organized, very public movement in favor of full inclusion of active homosexuals in the life of the church.  We have also seen a General Synod Professor of Theology author a book laying out a theological case for God’s approval of monogamous homosexual relationships.  At this year’s synod there were many officers of the church (elders, ministers, and General Synod Professors by all accounts) who wore pins advocating for full inclusion.  All of this has transpired under the current status quo.  A position void of discipline is no position at all—which is what we reverted back to this year.  As in the days of the judges so it is now in the RCA, everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes.

To top it off the 2013 synod repented of the actions of the 2012 general synod.  A few thoughts:

1.    The delegates from last year’s General Synod had nothing to repent of.  Confusion and frustration were rampant, but that was due to lack of clear and objective leadership not due to attempts from anyone on either side of the issue to sow discord or lack of decorum.

2.    I suspect that if the vote had gone the way it was “supposed” to go as far as the powers-that-be are concerned we wouldn’t have heard much this year about the lack of decorum.

3.    It’s always easier to repent of someone else’s sins, isn’t it?  Not many of these delegates were at last year’s synod (I was as an observer), not many of them (I’m sure) watched last year’s synod (I have copies of the dvds).  They simply took some else’s word for it.  This seemed reckless and inappropriate to say the least—it felt, quite honestly, like bullying.

4.    The policy wonks among us would certainly say that since General Synod is a continuous body that the repentance of the General Synod is not “repenting of someone else’s sins.”  And while they may technically be correct (as evidenced by the “we, the General Synod…”) that is only true in a technical sense.  In a personal sense it could not be further from the truth.

Way Forward Committee’s Re-Covenanting Recommendation is Rejected

Perhaps the most attention at this year’s synod revolved around what would come of the “Way Forward Committee’s” recommendation to allow for a “re-covenanting” period where churches would be permitted to leave the RCA without consequence after a time of redefining the RCA’s position on homosexuality.  The recommendation failed.

“A second recommendation--made up of three parts--dealt with the authority of General Synod statements as well as constitutional changes that would enable congregations and ministers to separate from the RCA "without recriminations such as forfeiture of property." The advice of the Advisory Committee on Church Order and Governance was to deny the second recommendation, noting that the BCO already provides a means for leaving the RCA and preferring a focus on dialogue rather than an exit strategy. After several failed amendments during an hour of debate, the recommendation was denied.” –

Their other recommendations, however, passed.  We are now entering our 3rd decade of “dialogue” about homosexuality in the RCA.

To instruct the General Synod Council to appoint a diverse working group representative of the constituencies of the RCA and the varying understandings within the Reformed Church in America regarding sexual orientation and gender identity to identify, design, and/or develop resources for use in congregations and other RCA settings that will encourage grace-filled conversations among those holding varying understandings; and further,
To identify, design, and/or develop resources for use in congregations and other RCA settings to assist the RCA in the development of strategies to preserve unity, purity, and peace.

The conversation was overwhelmingly positive in regards to R-17.  Many spoke from the floor in favor of "continued dialogue" and a desire to be "open to what the Spirit might be doing on this issue."  One delegate even commented that Paul was wrong on slavery so we need to be cautious on this issue as well.   It was clear that a majority of the room had little desire to cease discussion on the issue of human sexuality. 

Homosexuality Cont’d

Ursilla Cargill

Rev. Dr. Cargill has been installed by the Classis of New Brunswick to serve as an active minster of the classis.  Rev. Dr. Cargill is an active homosexual.  The decision was challenged and appealed to the General Synod, the General Synod sent the case back to the Regional Synod to be retried there on biblical grounds.  I suspect the case will end up back at General Synod next year.

While the vast majority of people agreed with the recommendation to send the case back to the Regional Synod, it was disappointing to hear from the President that the GS was not even prepared to address the case if the Synod delegates decided to move in that direction.  This action seemed to be a predetermined outcome.

R-59: Adopted
To remand the decision of the Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics for further hearing to resolve whether the Classis of New Brunswick properly examined and approved the installation of the Rev. Dr. Cargill, giving full recognition to the importance of Scripture as central to the faith and life of an ordained minister of Word and sacrament.

R-81: Adopted
To instruct the Commission on Theology to draft a paper on human sexuality from a Reformed perspective to be presented to General Synod 2015. (In response to overture 15.)

Room for All

Once again, Room for All had a significant presence at this year’s Synod.  Second Reformed Church (RCA) of Pella, IA hosted the official RFA gathering on the Sunday of Synod from 11:30AM to 1:00PM.  One of three GS vice-presidential candidates, Rev. Sophie Mathonnet-VanderWell, is the co-pastor at Second Reformed and hosted the event.  This groups continues to be well organized and influential at Synod.  In fact, their pride hearts could be seen worn by GS professors of theology, elder delegates, pastor delegates, seminary student delegates, and corresponding delegates.

Book Signings

Two RCA authors, Dr. Allan Janssen and Dr. Lynn Japinga, were present to do official book signings at General Synod.  Both authors openly support Room for All whose objective is the full inclusion of active homosexuals in the church.  General Synod Professor of Theology Allan Janssen was wearing a rainbow heart in his name badge at synod.  The rainbow hearts were distributed by Room for All as the official sign of LGBT support.  Hope College professor Lynn Japinga has previously been a speaker at Room for All’s national conference. Kevin DeYoung, an evangelical and the RCA’s best known author/speaker (including “The Good News We Almost Forgot” a book on the Heidelberg Catechism), has never been invited to sign books at synod

Removal of Conscience Clauses

While it was a foregone conclusion that the Conscience Clauses (which permitted complementarians to serve in the RCA without fear of persecution of any kind) would be removed from the BCO it still merits a mention.  We now enter a time when complementarians are fully dependent upon the grace of the seminaries and the MFCA for ordination.  In an environment that many complementarians already found to be rather hostile the one constitutional protection that was enjoyed has now been removed.

R-3: Adopted
To declare amendments 1 through 3 to be approved and that they be incorporated into the 2013 edition of the Book of Church Order.

New Strategic Goal

The RCA’s most recent strategic goal, “Our Call” has expired and Synod 2013 approved a new one.

Culminating a years-long process of discernment, prayer, and discussion that began in 2010, "Transformed and Transforming" calls on the RCA to focus on three strategic priorities during the next fifteen years:

·   cultivating transformation in Christ,

·   equipping emerging leaders of today and tomorrow, and

·   engaging in Christ's kingdom mission.


Curious about how much your congregation will have to pay per assessing member to the General Synod next year?  Here it is.

The synod voted to fund RCA mission and ministry with a per-member assessment of $49.29 in the coming year, an increase of $1.67 (3.5 percent). –

Many people believe that if they don’t give extra money to the seminaries that no money from their congregation goes to support the work of WTS, NBTS, or MFCA.  That is incorrect.

R-13: Adopted
To approve the $5.68 per-member assessment for theological education in 2014.

R-19: Adopted
To allocate an assessment for theological education to the RCA seminaries and to the Ministerial Formation Certification Agency (MFCA) at the level of $840,000 for a period of three years, with this amount not to decrease but to increase at a percent equal to potential GSC assessment increases during this period;

President’s Address

Tom Smith, the General Synod President, gave a speech.  You can read the full text here.

Here’s some things to highlight.  These come from pages 9-10 in the report.  I recommend that you read the context thoroughly.

--“Can we live in unity, purity, and peace when we draw lines in the sand?  Must we live by ultimatums?”

I delivered one of these lines in the sand to Tom when I met with him along with other pastors this past year in Fulton, IL.  I said that I simply could not see myself living in a denomination that is void of the third mark of the true church, church discipline.  It is important, even vital, for me that the church takes orthodoxy seriously and calls those who have strayed from it to repent.  The church has always drawn lines in the sand, we must resist the cultural pressure to say, “’peace, peace’, when there is no peace.”

--“Can we live together when one classis wants to ordain gays and lesbians and another classis wants to ordain only males?”

It has become quite common in the RCA to refer to complementarians as the moral and theological equivalent of the open and affirming crowd.  But I want to vociferously refute this understanding.  The clear majority of the worldwide church today, and the vast (nearly unanimous) majority of the history of the church has embraced Paul’s teaching concerning male headship in the home and church as authoritative and good.  The open and affirming crowd does not have any historical support from the universal church, nor does it enjoy support from the church of the majority world.  To equate the two is a form of historical ignorance and seems to discount the witness of the majority church from the majority world.

The answer to his question is, “no.”  Isn’t it?

--“In the RCA today the Holy Spirit is evident in healthy, growing, complementarians congregations.  In the RCA today the Holy Spirit is evident in ministries where LGBT folks are welcomed. And there are people on both sides saying, “The Holy Spirit is there?  With those guys?”  People are saying this on both sides!”

A few thoughts:

--Again the comparison and implied equality between ministries which embrace biblical manhood and womanhood and those which embrace rebellion against God’s design for human sexuality is disturbing.

--LGBT folks are welcomed in complementarian ministries just like all other sinners.  Their sin will not be coddled or excused or ignored, but they are welcome to come and find forgiveness and healing in Jesus Christ!

--I wonder how the author of Romans 1 would feel about this statement.


Congregations will now have to report on how they are being shaped by the Belhar Confession. 

R-27: Adopted
To request General Synod Council to add to Part II of the Annual Consistorial Report the following question: How have the Belhar Confession and its principles of unity, reconciliation, and justice shaped your congregational life and witness?

I have no problem with confessional integrity and confessional consistency, but I’d like to know how our congregations and seminaries are being shaped by the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well.  I’ve talked with more than a few RCA folks who express more than a little discomfort with the theology of those documents.  My confessions professor through MFCA told our class (before Belhar was included among our confessions) that he had a “love-hate relationship with the confessions.”  I suppose my wondering has at its root the question of why we felt the need to add accountability in regards to the fourth confession when it seems most of us don’t really take the first three all that seriously.


As with most General Synods there was significant discussion of various political agendas.  Generally speaking I think the General Synod should focus more on its own problems, like 40 years straight of shrinking membership and serious theological conflict with no end in sight, and spend less time on contemporary political issues.  There are exceptions to this, particularly when issues of grave significance are involved such as holocausts.  But for the most part I think the church should pick its battles when it comes to engaging the state.  The RCA’s General Synod doesn’t typically agree with me.

White Privilege

R-29: Adopted
That the General Synod Council develop an online and interactive RCA resource for freely discussing, understanding, and dismantling white privilege.


R-46: Adopted
To post the Christian Churches Together "Statement on Immigration Reform" on the RCA website.

R-47: Adopted
To encourage congregations of the RCA to engage in a letter writing campaign and other advocacy efforts in getting Dream Act legislation passed on the federal and state levels.

Children at the Lord’s Supper

For those who are interested in the debate over children at the Lord’s Table here’s a few adopted resolutions. 

R-48: Adopted
To direct the General Synod Council to prepare an interpretive resource for the use of A Place at the Table in RCA congregations, in order to renew the resourcing of RCA congregations considering the inclusion of baptized children at the Lord's Table.

R-49: Adopted
To direct the Commission on Christian Discipleship and Education, in consultation with the Commission on Theology, to revise and update the procedural guidelines for inclusion of children at the Lord's Table and present the updated guidelines to the 2014 General Synod.

Representative Delegation

Zeeland Classis overtured the General Synod to make changes to its own composition to reflect the size of the classes in the RCA.  Each classis currently gets representation at General Synod based on size but not in direct proportion to the number of members within the classis.  Some classes, particularly those on the east coast, have fewer than 1,000 confessing members while others (such as Zeeland) have over 10,000 members.  This has been a source of frustration for the larger classes which tend to be more evangelical for quite some time.

R-79: Adopted
To instruct the Commission on Church Order, in consultation with the Commission on Theology and the Commission on History, to study the assumptions and implications—theological and constitutional—of the allocation of delegates to General Synod from the classes, and to report back to General Synod 2014. (In response to overture 6.)

Even if the commission on Church Order recommends these changes (which they almost certainly will not do) they will not pass.  To pass a change to the Book of Church Order requires ratification by 2/3 of the classes.  The problem with this is that over 1/3 of the classes lean considerably towards the theological “left”.  This 2/3 ratification is the immovable object which threatens to impede any and all reform in the RCA.  Ratification of an amendment like this one simply will not happen.  I suspect the authors of this overture were aware of that when they wrote it.

Rev. Ben Kappers 1st Reformed Church, Lansing IL

*With special thanks to my eyes on the ground, Rev. Jeremy Visser.