Thursday, February 27, 2014

Interpreting the Facts

Making a list of interesting tidbits is one thing, but interpreting them and applying them is something else entirely.  What does the information mean for the RCA's present and future?

I am sure the information could be used to reach a multitude of conclusions, I want to highlight three:

1.  The RCA's current system encourages inefficiency in ministry.

Each classis necessarily performs certain functions, many of which are rather time consuming.  Each classis is tasked with vetting and preparing candidates for ministry, overseeing churches and consistories within its bounds, and a plethora of other day to day, week to week, and annual responsibilities that often take up far more time than you would expect.  Additionally classes often have various committees that oversee multiplication efforts, revitalization efforts, evangelism efforts, etc. Each classis has a clerk, a president, and most often a number of other officers with various responsibilities.

Because of this it would be more efficient if smaller classes (say classes with memberships around or below 1,000 members or with very few ordained ministers) which were in close geographic proximity merged and shared their responsibilities across a broader pool of people.  But, since each classis gets a vote of its own when constitutional changes are proposed, it would be to the classes disadvantage, politically, to merge.  Thus the RCA's current system--and current politically charged environment--encourages inefficiency.

2.  The RCA's current system grossly misrepresents the mind of the church.

The intention behind the required approval of 2/3 of the classes to effect any constitutional change is to ensure that such change would be approved of by a significant majority of the church at-large.  But, as you can see from the figures above, that is simply not the case in the RCA any longer.  When one geographic region is underrepresented by 23.82% while another is overrepresented by 15.4% it is difficult to say with sincerity that the mind of the denomination can be accurately discerned through the classis vote mechanism.  It is now possible that a change could be passed against the wishes of over 62% of the denomination's membership.  It is also possible that a change which is widely favored could be rejected by classes representing 12.02% of the members of the Reformed Church in America.

There is no obvious remedy to this scenario since reforming this process also requires approval of 2/3 of the classes.  This leads to point three which is...

3.  The RCA's current system eliminates any hope of positive constitutional reform.

It takes 16 classis votes to vote down a constitutional change.  There are 17 classes among the three eastern regional synods.  These 17 classes have demonstrated an ability to vote as a bloc, most recently on the removal of the conscience clauses and before that on the acceptance of the Belhar Confession.  If that practice continues it will be impossible to effect the sort of constitutional reforms that men like me, churches like First Church, and RCA Integrity have long desired.

This is important for a couple of reasons:

A.  The only truly effective means of reform in the RCA would be to change the constitution of the denomination.  Recent attempts at reform outside of the constitution have been painfully ineffective.  If we are going to have enforceable positions and common standards, they will need to be enshrined within the RCA's constitution (BCO, Confessions, and Liturgy).  Although the eastern synods make up just over 22% of the RCA's membership they receive nearly 38% of the classis votes.  It requires only 34% of the classis votes to deny a constitutional change.  Thus even if there was unanimous approval of a change among the other 28 classes (and there wouldn't be), even moderately positive changes could be, and would be, defeated in a vote of the classes.

B.  The RCA is in desperate need of biblical accountability in the form of church discipline.  This discipline will remain an impossibility so long as there is no mechanism for cross-classis accountability.  To create such a mechanism would require the approval of two general synods (a tall order since representation is not proportional there either) and 2/3 of the classes.  This will certainly not happen in the current system.

Yesterday I stated that I had been looking rather intently at whether positive constitutional reform was possible within the Reformed Church in America.  In short, humanly speaking, I have found reform to be impossible.  It may be (and may it be!) that the Lord will bring reform to my beloved RCA, but it will not be through the efforts of men like me, churches like First Church, or organizations like RCA Integrity.

While it is certainly right and good to continue praying for reform in the RCA, one must also question how prudent it is to stay within a denomination with so many mammoth obstacles to positive reform.  To me these facts and my subsequent interpretation of them are sobering and saddening.  But they are also, to the best of my knowledge, true. 


  1. Firstly, one of the reasons for different understandings of the statistics you bring to the fore is that there are different ecclesiologies operating. If the fundamental unit of the church is the individual and his/her relationship to God through Jesus Christ, then the one-person-one-vote principle would have significant weight. If, however, the fundamental unit of the church is seen as the offices gathered to represent the ministry of Christ to the gathered people, then the one-person-one-vote principle has less weight; in this latter case, one counts Consistories, rather than individuals.

    BTW, the BCO seems to offer at least some foothold for both interpretations. On the one hand the church is persons gathered by the Spirit.... On the other hand, the church is governed by the authority of Jesus Christ, which is mediated through the gathered offices. So one might use the same document to support either position.

    Please note that I am not claiming that one vision ought to have more standing than another. That argument would need to be undertaken on Biblical/theological grounds, not demographic ones. All I'm saying is that the two sets of assumptions are different, and yield different results.

  2. Secondly, you cite "efficiency" as an important value -- at least you seem to. Could you show me how "efficiency" is a Biblical principle? I'm not arguing for inefficiency, or ineffectiveness. But the language seems far more appropriate to the HR department than to the church of Jesus Christ. That said, I get what you're saying. It can be difficult for small classes to prepare candidates for ministry. But it is by no means impossible, and the argument you make appears to me to be based on the internal logic of your presuppositions than on actual facts on the ground. (In other words, even if one grants that 'efficiency' should be a guiding value, make your case with facts, not with a syllogism)

  3. Thirdly, you are, of course, entitled to view changes in the RCA as positive or negative. But what you (as well as I) view as positive or negative grows out of a whole host of theological convictions and presuppositions. I find it more helpful to be a bit circumspect -- for example, rather than "eliminates the hope of any positive reform", one could say "significantly diminishes the prospects for the reforms desired by those who share my point of view." Assuming what is "positive" is a classic case of begging the question.

    Finally, the push for cross-classis discipline gives evidence of a particular set of ecclesiological presuppositions. You are certainly welcome to your presuppositions, but they are not the only ones operative within the Reformed family, and stating them as such does not do your argument any favors. So, let me offer my understanding.

  4. Christ entrusts the work of the church to the offices gathered in local assemblies -- Consistories. Those Consistories are empowered by the Holy Spirit to discern what is best to represent the ministry of Christ, not only to the gathered believers, but also to the community beyond the believers. It's assumed that the Consistory of, say, Faith Dyer Indiana knows best the manner in which the Gospel needs to take shape for both the members of Faith Dyer as well as the greater community. But it's possible they get it all wrong. Thus, they are not an independent body. They are accountable to the Classis; the next broader assembly of the church. It would be odd, however, to say the least --- should Faith Dyer to be delinquent in its proclamation of the gospel, or if Classis Illiana-Florida should fail to hold that Consistory to account --- for a Classis as far removed as Nassau-Suffolk, or Central California, to inject itself into the conduct of either the Classis or the Consistory. (Or it would seem odd to me, anyway)

    So, while your statement of the facts may indeed be "true," your subsequent interpretation of them (or mine, for that matter) can not be "true." It can not be more than your interpretation (or mine), which would need to be subjected to the authority of Christ, mediated to the church through the gathered offices.

    (By the way, fliptop is Paul Janssen -- NOT Allan Janssen. I can't remember why I chose such a goofy name for my google account.)

  5. Thanks for letting me know who you are, Paul. I remembered the name fliptop, but couldn't remember who it was. You're obviously right about our different assumptions and presuppositions about ecclesiology--I'd say that those flow out of vastly different (and usually competing) worldviews. What you consider odd, is something I feel is necessary. That's a good case-in-point.

    I did define "positive" in my first post as that which is desired by myself and the leadership of the congregation I serve--as this was a project really undertaken at their behest. So I don't think I really begged the question as much as you'd say. The two posts were initially one article, and the second post is written in follow-up form. So the assumption is that the definition of "positive" from the first post will be recalled in a reading of the second.

    As I was writing these posts I thought, "I bet Paul Janssen will comment on one of these." You keep me on my toes and probably make me a bit sharper. ;)

    Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Ben: Thank you for your work on this sir...and for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us, to use as we ponder the same questions ourselves.

  7. Can I post now? I tried yesterday, but was unsuccessful.....
    In case I am (able to post), allow me to say how deeply disappointed I am that fellow believers in Christ would make such judgments (from afar, yet!) that they would believe them to be in need of missionary pastors. Because we out here in the wicked East are not followers of Christ? A willingness to make such a judgment from afar indicates very clearly why the governance of the church must be communal, but local.