Thank you so much for the excellent lengthy set of reflections, including the helpful historical summary, regarding denominational governance (“Denominational Governance: Time to Get Back to Reformed Basics,” June 2011). I have watched these developments from a distance in recent years and share your concerns.
I fully agree that the time has come for the Christian Reformed Church to launch "a more fundamental study," with a focus on "a Presbyterian/Reformed way of doing church."
We emphasize the theological significance of the local church.
The one thing I would add to that assignment, however, is the need for serious attention to the theology of the church. Polity has to be based on careful ecclesiology, and new explorations in this area are desperately needed, with special attention to our own strand within the Reformed-Presbyterian community.
We must carefully keep in mind that our version of the Reformed tradition has always viewed polity and doctrine of the church somewhat differently than the Presbyterians and other Reformed groups. A key reason for that is our strong traditional emphasis on the theological significance of the local church.
As the Scottish historian Alastair Duke has pointed out, "The Calvinist churches in the Low Countries, as in France, came into existence as individual congregations: the presbyterian or synodal framework followed”—a pattern that is somewhat different from Scottish Presbyterianism, in which the idea of a strong “national church,” organized along the lines of a parish system (inherited from the Catholics and Anglicans), was present from the beginning.
Our "localist" impulse has meant that many of our forebearers refused the language of "higher" and "lower" assemblies, noting that the Synod of Dordrecht itself avoided such terminology. Rather, they preferred to speak of “broader” and “narrower.”
Abraham Kuyper is a case in point. Here is a pithy comment by him: “The Synod does not stand above the Churches; rather, the Churches stand above the Synod. And over both is God’s Word.” On this view, as another advocate observes, the authority of broader assemblies is “fundamentally different from the authority the consistory has over the congregation—which is an ‘official’ kind of authority, by virtue of the office of the officebearers. . . . The major assemblies are not ‘higher authorities.’ A major assembly is just an assembly of delegates from a larger number of churches. But this does not cause their authority to accumulate."
As a member now of a mainline Presbyterian denomination, I have been pleased to see the PCUSA move—albeit as a kind of pragmatic drift, without much theological depth—in a more decentralized direction, while the CRC has gotten increasingly "higher-lower." Much irony in this!
We would do well to think together, as the heirs of Kuyper, about what all of our past theology of the church means today for the exploration of adequate structures for Reformed denominational life.