Are Synodical Positions Settled and Binding?

As I Was Saying
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As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

Editor’s note: We reached out to this author to answer a reader’s question: How binding are Synodical positions/reports on pastors, members, and churches? What happens when they don't agree with an official denominational position? The author’s following response is an edited version of what is found in his Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary (Second Edition), pp. 167-169:

Christian Reformed congregations have agreed to live in denominational fellowship. They believe the Lord of the church has graced us with unity and has provided the means to maintain it, namely, the “assemblies” we call “classis” and “synod.” It is no surprise, therefore, that Article 29 of the Church Order speaks of the decisions made there as being “settled and binding.” The officebearers will respect these decisions publicly and privately, especially in their official duties of preaching, teaching, and providing leadership.

It is foreseen that some might not be able, in good conscience, to agree with these decisions because they are deemed to be “in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.” In other words, there is always the right of appeal, of proving the assembly wrong (see also Art. 30), and of requesting “revision of a decision” previously made (see Art. 31). Once that is understood, the provision that decisions must be “settled and binding” seems eminently reasonable. Without it, there is no denominational bond.

At the same time, we must recognize that synodical decisions are not on the same level of authority as our creeds and confessions. A delegate to synod who wants openly to differ with or record a negative vote on, say, the Heidelberg Catechism’s approach to the sacraments, will clearly be ruled out of order. Article 5 spells out the “given” that all officebearers have signed the Covenant for Officebearers and agreed to operate within creedal constraints. On the other hand, a delegate to a synod has the freedom to record a negative vote on any issue that is decided. The Acts of Synod are filled with such recorded negative votes. We permit that. This guarantees the right of that delegate to “respectfully disagree” and seek, perhaps, to request a revision of the decision at a later time. In the meantime, the delegate must still respect the decision made by the majority and thus the assembly as a whole. But there is a greater measure of latitude, because these decisions do not carry the same freight as creeds and confessions do.

When Synod 1996 wrestled once again with the excruciatingly difficult issue of abortion, this time in the context of challenges to the public views of Professor Hessel Bouma III of Calvin College (now Calvin University), it adopted the following interpretation of the Church Order’s provision:

Article 29 does not preclude faculty discussion, debate, or disagreement with the substance of a synodical decision or position taken (Acts of Synod 1996, p. 528).

There must be a healthy respect for what previous assemblies decided with respect to this vexing issue. But even a “settled and binding” decision does not rule out academic freedom. Synods themselves recognize that they are not infallible. They do not take a stand and muzzle all opposition. They provide responsible leadership based on Scripture and creed and are ever open to correction.

Synod expects a “healthy respect” for its decisions, not creedal attachment. Disagreement framed in that healthy respect would not automatically be met with the disciplinary actions of suspension or deposition from office.

About the Author

Henry De Moor is professor emeritus of church polity at Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s the author of Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary

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