Some notes on appeals and the authority of the elders in Christ’s church

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It was at one of the first consistory meetings of Bedfordale Church[1] that, in a discussion involving a Church Order matter, a brother remarked: “Oh, the Church Order! You can drive a truck through it.”

Not an encouraging statement, for sure!

And then, someone else exclaimed: “But it works on trust!”

What that brother meant is that we trust our office bearers to understand the workings of the CO and apply its provisions correctly and consistently.

And then? Well, then ‘a hole’ in the Church Order can do no harm.

The question

A recent article on this website[2] asks what a church member should do if he finds a synod decision to be contrary to God’s Word, and continues:

“Could he send an appeal direct to synod? Well, that used to be possible;[3] but not anymore. At least, it is no longer possible in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.”

The website article goes on to say:

“FRCA Synod 2018 received three appeals direct from church members, all of whom appealed Synod 2015’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.”

The article then reviews a variety of interpretations of the Church Order, which together could not agree on whether the Church Order allows an appeal on a Synod decision to be directed to the next Synod.

That disappointing outcome would suggest that we do have a ‘hole’ in the Church Order – a ‘hole’ caused by the Church Order’s failure to deal with that question.

So, was the speaker in that consistory’s meeting right when he said: “You can drive a truck through it”?   No, he was not! As regards the subject of appeals, the Church Order has no ‘hole’. That ‘hole’ is to be found elsewhere – as will be shown.

Why then did these interpretations fall into a ‘hole’?

They fell because the commentators were looking for the answer in the wrong place. That so-called ‘hole’ is not a shortcoming of the Church Order, but the user’s failure to understand and / or apply the principle that underlies the workings of our bond of Reformed Churches – a failure that is so clearly demonstrated in this case by the opposing judgments of consistories telling members to send their appeal to Synod[4] and Synod 2018 telling these members that such appeals are inadmissible.

Synod’s judgment

It is therefore a great step forward that, with a previous Synod’s decision in the background, Synod 2018 decided to include the following judgment with its final decisions on the three appeals[5] as follows:

There is … an apparent precedent set by Synod West Kelmscott 2006 in articles 19 and 62. Synod 2006 admitted some appeals from individuals about matters in common. However, Synod 2018 judges that admissibility must be governed by reference to the Church Order,[6] not historical precedent.

Applying that Synod judgment

Faithful application of this Synod judgment means, first of all, that the flood of comments, views, advices and opinions offered by commentators, local and foreign ecclesiastical assemblies, other office bearers, and so on, which in the past have often clouded controversial issues, can be swept off Synod’s table as being ‘extra’ to the Church Order and a temptation to support whatever seems to be best of many guesses.

Faithful application of this Synod judgment also means that Synod’s own decision to declare these appeals inadmissible (because they had not gone via Classis), is invalid as it cannot be referenced to the Church Order.

As will be shown, the Church Order decides on the basis of the nature of an appeal which of the two major assemblies (Classis and Synod) must deal with it.

The key to understanding the workings of the Church Order

The key to the right understanding of the principle that underlies the workings of our bond of Reformed Churches and its Church Order lies in the acknowledgement that the Head of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ, placed the care of His congregation into the hands of its local elders.

Noteworthy is, that this divinely prescribed form of church government knows of only one level of authority – that of the local elders in consistory.

As the churches send their delegates to a Classis or Synod meeting, these assemblies do their work under ‘delegated authority’. Their decisions are provisional and subject to the ratification process (acceptance, approval) of the elders of each local church. After having finished their agenda these major assemblies (Classis and Synod) are no more. The consistories (known as ‘the minor assemblies’) are the only permanent ecclesiastical assemblies. Their elders work directly under Christ’s authority, taking care and responsibility that everything done for and by and in the congregation accords with God’s Word and the Reformed Confessions as well as with the provisions of the agreed Church Order.

As these brothers examine the work that was done by the major assemblies,[7] each decision they approve (ratify) changes ‘ownership’. ‘Synod’ decisions so ratified become ‘consistory’ decisions or, in terms of the Church Order, ‘minor assembly’ decisions, which means that a consistory has taken responsibility for approving, defending and upholding such decisions.

Thus, if a church member, coming along under Article 31, wants to appeal a ‘Synod decision’ which in the meantime has been ratified to become a ‘minor assembly decision’, Article 31 grants him that right. In fact, a church member has the right to appeal any ecclesiastical decision for which the churches themselves have taken responsibility, since all of them have so become minor assembly decisions.

This, then, is the way of responsibilities and actions that was implemented by our forefathers in Article 31 of the Church Order.

Now the question …

Does the Church Order allow an appeal on a ‘Synod decision’ (now a ‘minor assembly decision’) to be directed to the next Synod?

Synod 2018 said: No, you must take it to Classis.

But let’s see what the Church Order says.

After an appellant has completed his appeal he writes its address on the envelope. What shall it be? Classis? – Synod?

Taking the ‘church-orderly’ way, he goes looking through the CO’s Articles. What kind of authority does Classis have? What kind of authority does Synod have?

Then he reads in Article 30 that a major assembly shall deal only with matters … that belong to its churches in common. And because his appeal deals with a matter that belongs to all of the Free Reformed Churches in common, Article 30 of the Church Order directs him to Synod.

Continuing his search, he reads in Article 46 that the relationship with other churches shall be regulated by Synod. And since his appeal deals with the FRCA – RCNZ relationship Article 46, too, tells him to send his appeal to Synod!

So, Synod said No. And the Church Order says Yes.

But the appeals are off Synod’s table for at least three years!

Article 31 CO misinterpreted and misunderstood

Synod 2018 misinterpreted Article 31 of the Church Order when it said (in its decision that declared the three appeals inadmissible): When the consistory accepts a decision of a synod, the individual’s appeal is against the consistory and, therefore, article 31 directs his subsequent appeal to the broader assembly of classis, and then synod.

Contrary to that Synod decision, Article 31 does not direct appeals. It does not have the word Classis in it. All the Article does is grant a church member who complains … the right of appeal.

When the Church Order has to decide to which major assembly a particular appeal has to go it looks at the nature of that appeal. A major assembly shall deal only with matters which belong to its churches in common (Article 30 CO). A Classis matter is sent to Classis and a Synod matter to Synod. Matters that ‘belong’ to all the churches in the bond go to Synod. Matters that ‘belong’ to the churches in a particular Classis go to that Classis.

Article 46 of the Church Order is proof that Synod 2018’s decision: … article 31 directs his subsequent appeal to the broader assembly of classis is invalid. That proof is also given by Synod 2018’s judgment. Synod’s decision cannot be referenced[8] to the Church Order.[9]

That same Synod 2018 judgment condemns also the claim of some that ‘while Article 31 does not say that an appeal has to go to Classis, that’s what it means anyway’, as well as the claim that the words ‘to the major assembly’ are to be read as ‘to the next assembly up’. While these claims may well originate from respectable sources, they have no standing as they cannot be referenced to the Church Order. No commentary, opinion, reasoning, tradition, or whatever, can make Article 31 do what it is not designed to do.

Finally

As said before, Synod 2018’s judgment that … admissibility must be governed by reference to the Church Order is a great step forward. It uses clear language and is easy to apply. It has also proved useful in testing whether Synod’s own decision (to declare the three appeals inadmissible) can be referenced to the Church Order. 

As mentioned, the outcome of that test is No! That Synod’s decision cannot be referenced to the Church Order. It stands condemned and invalid as being in conflict with Article 31, which does not direct appeals, and Articles 30 and 46 which direct appeals on inter-church relations to Synod.  

Let us however not be fooled by the impression that Synod’s judgment is ‘declaring’ something new. On the contrary, Synod’s judgment is merely expressing what our consistories, in setting up the bond of churches, promised each other: that they would faithfully observe the rules of the agreed Church Order.

Synod 2018’s judgment declares nothing new. What it says has always been said in Reformed churches.

The Church Order decides. Not opinion.

Now there’s only one question left.

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[1] The Free Reformed Church of Bedfordale (now Mt Nasura)

[2] https://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2019/02/frca-synod-2018s-interpretation-of-the-co-about-appeals/

[3] In 2006 a FRCA 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).

[4] “We believe that consistent with Article 30 of the Church Order this matter should be addressed directly to Synod (i.e. it is a matter which belongs to the churches in common).” – advice given to at least one of the appellants by his Consistory and conveyed to the Synod in writing.

[5] Acts of the 2018 Synod of the FRCA, Articles 76, 77, 78.

[6] … by reference to the Church Order, that is: the decision must agree (be in line) with the rules and provisions set by the Church Order.

[7] Church Bulletins of 23-12-2018 and 17-2-2019, under FRC Kelmscott consistory meeting reports, mention such activities.

[8] See Synod’s judgment on admissibility (shown earlier in this article): Synod 2018 judges that admissibility must be governed by reference to the Church Order.

[9] The Church Order does not prescribe definite appeals procedures.