Suppose a church member finds a synod decision to be contrary to God’s Word. What should he do? Could he send an appeal direct to synod? Well, that used to be possible; but not anymore. At least, it is no longer possible in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA). FRCA Synod 2018 received three appeals direct from church members: one signed by a married couple and two signed by individuals. All appealed the previous synod’s decision to enter a sister relationship with the RCNZ. All supported their appeals with reference to God’s Word. Yet all three appeals were declared inadmissible. How is that possible? It is possible, first, because there is no general agreement among commentators about the appeals procedure; and second, by reading into Article 31 of the Church Order something it does not say.
First, no general agreement among commentators
If we listen to the commentators, we get a variety of interpretations. There are those who interpret the Church Order in a way that denies individual members the right to appeal a matter of a previous synod direct to the following synod. For example, Rev W van Oene says that the Church Order “does not speak of an alleged right of such a member to ‘appeal’ to … general synod”.[i] Likewise, Rev E Kampen says: “Nothing comes to the table of a Classis or Synod except via the consistories. Also matters that pertain to the churches in common must come via a consistory.”[ii] Rev A Souman appears to restrict it even further, saying that not only may an appellant not write direct to synod but, even if the appeal does go via the consistory and classis, the appeal may only relate to a personal injustice: “an appellant has the task to show that he has been personally wronged by a decision of the minor assembly … Personally wronged is not the same as disagreeing with a decision. It means that we have suffered injustice by a certain decision.”[iii] That would seem to cut out appealing a synod decision altogether.
However, A Witten refers to Rev. J.D. Wielenga (Clarion Sept. 11, 1987) who “defended the view that the right of appeal is given with the responsibility of all the members of the churches to see to it that the churches are governed by the pure Word of God.” Witten adds, “Prof. K. Deddens (Clarion Jan. 20, 1989, p.35) maintains the same position. He wrote: ‘Now the question is, is an appeal to a broader assembly inadmissible when it comes from someone who is not personally wronged? Not really! If there is injury, injustice, wrong in the church, everybody must have the right to appeal with regard to that evil.’ Prof. S. Greijdanus (quoted by Dr. Deddens) also highlighted that the freedom of each member must be honoured in the Church. This freedom or right according to the Church Order Article 30, to directly approach a broader assembly in an ecclesiastical manner about matters that pertain to the churches in common, has been a proper biblical position held by many for many years. To correct a wrong is an obligation, consistent with 1 Corinthians 12: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you…’ We are one body, if one member suffers, all suffer together.”[iv] Likewise Rev Joh. Jansen, long considered a reliable Dutch authority on the Church Order, says (translated): “It is possible that someone who is not convinced by a decision of synod, in the case of a serious and difficult matter, to appeal to the following synod. This is formally justified, though there must be good grounds.” [v] Here, then, we hear commentators saying that individuals are obligated to appeal direct to synod.
The variety of interpretations of the Church Order in relation to the appeals process does not inspire confidence in applying any of them in the (often) critical matters confronting our church assemblies. The problem is compounded when synods are not consistent in relation to the appeals process. This is evident from Consistory advice to appellants based on some commentators and previous synod decisions.
When the consistory of two of the appellants gave them the advice to write direct to synod, Consistory spoke in accordance with the views expressed by several reputable commentators. They also acted in accordance with precedents in the FRCA. Just look at all the correspondence, for example, from individuals to the FRCA synods from 1985 to 1990. Moreover, in 2006 a synod declared that “Appeals, whether from a church or an individual church member, are admissible [direct to synod] if they deal with decisions of the previous synod” (Synod West Kelmscott 2006, Art. 62. See also Art. 19).
Synod 2018 was made aware, first, of Consistory’s advice to two appellants; second, of Synod 2006’s decision that appellants should write direct to synod (a decision which had never been repealed); and third, that there are differing interpretations by commentators (mentioned at synod by one of the synod delegates). Nevertheless, Synod 2018 declared the appeals inadmissible. It decided that, to allow individual members to appeal direct to Synod, contravenes the Church Order. But does it? Or did Synod 2018 read into the Church Order something it does not really say?
Reading into Article 31 of the CO something it does not say
ARTICLE 30 – Authority of the assemblies
These assemblies shall only deal with ecclesiastical matters and in an ecclesiastical manner. A major assembly shall deal only with matters which could not be finished in the minor assembly or which belong to its churches in common. A new matter may be put on its agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it.
ARTICLE 31 – Appeals
If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly he shall have the right of appeal to the major assembly; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order.
Notice that Article 30 says, “A major assembly shall deal only with matters which could not be finished in the minor assembly or which belong to its churches in common.” The three appeals at issue related to a matter that belonged to the churches in common (sister relations with the RCNZ).
Now consider Article 31. It deals only with the process of appeals by those who have been wronged by decisions of the minor assembly. It says nothing about a decision of a major assembly. It simply does not cover such an appeal. So what Synod 2018 has done (as do VanOene and the Canadian Reformed Churches), is to provide an avenue whereby appeals about synod decisions can be covered by Article 31. And therefore Synod says, “individuals who wish to interact with decisions of Synod should begin by addressing their consistories”. Notice, however, that Article 31 does not say anything about interacting “with decisions of Synod” (a major assembly). Article 31 speaks only about appealing the decision of a minor assembly. So, to make an appeal about a synod decision (a major assembly) into an appeal about a minor assembly (to fit the wording of Article 31), Synod 2018 needs to make the minor assembly the alleged ‘culprit’. The appellant must find fault with a decision of the minor assembly (e.g. consistory).
How can the minor assembly be the one appealed against? Synod 2018 says, if synod makes a decision which you believe to be wrong, then tell the local consistory. If consistory does not agree with your concern about the synod’s decision and refuses to appeal that decision, then appeal consistory’s refusal to classis. That is, appeal consistory’s failure to agree with your concern about synod’s decision and its unwillingness to appeal that decision. What ought to be a straight-forward appeal to synod about an earlier synod’s decision has become an appeal about a consistory’s failure to appeal that synod decision.
This is evident from 2018 Synod’s declaration: “The local consistory, if they concur with the concerns, may direct an appeal to synod. 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”. In this way an appellant is not appealing a synod decision but the unwillingness of his consistory to appeal that synod decision. This interpretation presents a way around a problem (the individuals’ right to address synod directly about a concern relating to a previous synod’s decision) which the Church Order does not clearly address.
However, even if we believe, as Synod 2018 does, that Article 31 is intended to cover also appeals about synod decisions—by a process whereby appellants complain that their Consistory refused to appeal the synod decision—even then, we would have to say that Synod 2018 has read into the article a meaning it doesn’t say. It has interpreted Article 31’s words “to the major assembly” as meaning “to the next major assembly up from the one you’re appealing” (i.e. someone appealing his consistory’s refusal to appeal would go first to classis, then to synod. However, notice that Article 31 does not say that. It says nothing about which major assembly (classis or synod) should deal with a particular appeal. And the reason is obvious. It is the nature of the material in the appeal that determines where it should go, whether to the Classis or to the Synod. If, for example, someone felt that his consistory had wrongly disciplined him, he would appeal to classis. However, if someone appeals a synod decision that relates to “other churches”, that person would appeal direct to Synod on the ground that CO Article 46 says the “relationship with other churches shall be regulated by synod”.
The appellants expected that, even if Synod discovered some perceived technical flaw in the process, the awareness that the churches must above all be governed by God’s Word would obligate Synod to take the appeals seriously. After all, the appellants claimed that Synod 2015, by establishing sister relations with the RCNZ, was not acting in conformity with God’s holy Word. And since obedience to God’s Word must govern all decisions at Synod, any claim that an earlier synod acted contrary to God’s Word must surely be taken very seriously.
Moreover, Synod 2018’s decision to declare their appeals inadmissible was, as shown above, a clear departure from past practice in the FRCA. Randomly browsing through some earlier Acts of FRCA synods (1985-1990) reveals quite a few appeals directed to Synods – and accepted by Synods. Indeed, some years later Synod 2006 officially declared that “Appeals, whether from a church or an individual church member, are admissible [to synod] if they deal with decisions of the previous synod” (Synod West Kelmscott 2006, Art. 62. See also its Art. 19, 63, 116). Based on that 2006 Synod decision, the consistory of two of the appellants rightly advised them to send their appeals direct to synod.
The Church Order says nothing about what an appellant has to do with an appeal relating to a synod decision. The fact is that there are no rules in the Church Order about this. Synod 2018 has given us a new interpretation. It follows an interpretation similar to that established by the Canadian Reformed Churches who appear to draw on the commentary of Rev van Oene and who consolidated that interpretation in 2004.[vi] However, it is an interpretation which certainly deviates from past FRCA practice and from that of some very distinguished commentators. Moreover, a clear, face-value reading of the Church Order does not support the interpretation given by Synod 2018. In declaring Scripturally-founded appeals inadmissible, Synod 2018 has elevated a disputable interpretation of the Church Order above the immediate need to take seriously claims that a previous synod acted contrary to Scripture. Possible technical flaws in the Church Order should never be an obstacle in defending the truth or otherwise of past actions and decisions.
[i] With Common Consent, p. 154.
[ii] E. Kampen, “A Question of Admissibility: Who has the right to address the broader assemblies?” (Clarion, March 8, 1996).
[iii] A Souman “Synod Reflections 2” (Reformed News website, June 29, 2018.
[iv] A Witten, “Who may address a broader assembly?” (Clarion, July 26, 1996).
[v] Joh. Jansen, (Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening, Amsterdam, 1976, p. 143).
[vi] Canadian Reformed Churches Synod Chatham 2004 (Article 20).