What Happened at the RCA General Synod?
The short answer is: a lot. Some of it was incredibly heartening–making new friends with some dear brothers and sisters, laughing with old friends, and having sweet times of prayer and fellowship outside of Synod. Some of Synod was goofy, like putting sticky notes on paper cubes and walking by the massage tent (no joke). It was an exhausting week, one from which I still have not recovered. I’m glad I don’t have to go back for five years.
But while there are many experiences and frustrations to share, let me cut to the chase and summarize the two biggest issues. Both items are not being described entirely accurately in the outside press.
The RCA has been embroiled in the homosexuality issue since 1978. Since that time the General Synod has consistently said that homosexuality is a sin according to the word of God. Increasingly, this understanding has being challenged and sometimes outright ignored. The denomination is clearly divided.
This spring several classes (think: presbyteries) sent overtures to the General Synod urging the Synod to restate and strengthen its position on homosexuality. One of those overtures came from our church, through our classis (South Grand Rapids). Overtures do not automatically make it to the floor of Synod. Instead, they go to an overtures committee, and then that committee makes a recommendation to approve or deny the overture, or they can recommend something else. In this case, they essentially denied the overtures from the classes and offered a new recommendation. On Monday morning, the Advisory Committee on Overtures and New Business put the following R-56 before the Synod:
To instruct the General Synod Council to appoint a study group of up to twelve members, representative of the diverse views of the denomination, and including at least two members of the Commission on Theology, and one General Synod professor, to prepare a paper and study guide that provide a biblical, theological, ethical, and pastoral perspective on homosexual persons and relationships, and to recommend next steps in the church’s ongoing discernment, for report to the 2014 General Synod; and further,
during this time of study and discernment, the General Synod calls upon members of the church to regard one another with the love of Christ, and that the church’s office bearers and assemblies exercise mutual forbearance by refraining from:
- ordaining or accepting the ordination of persons in same-sex relationships
- performing same-sex marriages, civil unions, or blessing ceremonies
- disciplinary actions against persons in same-sex relationships
- disciplinary actions against office bearers and assemblies that support the ordination and union of persons in same-sex relationships
- deliberative debate and policy decisions relating to persons in same-sex relationships.
1. The RCA is committed to careful, comprehensive study of all matters that impact the life and ministry of the church. The most recent studies concerning homosexual persons and the church were received by General Synod in 1978 and 1979, thirty-four and thirty-three years ago. During this time, our socio-cultural and ecclesial contexts have changed:
- In the U.S., some states have legalized civil unions and same-sex marriages.
- In Canada, the Civil Marriage Act defined marriage, for civil purposes, as the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others, thus legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, while also protecting the right of the church not to perform such marriages.
- In some contexts, God is drawing large numbers of homosexual Christians into RCA congregations.
- The General Synod has received and heard a request for help and guidance as we respond to our changed situations.
2. Restating the interpretive position of the General Synod by resolution is unnecessary, and asking the General Synod by resolution to direct classes concerning the discipline of their members is a violation of the church’s order.
3. As the body of Christ, we are called to mutual love and accountability and to make manifest the unity of the church which is both gift and obligation.
This recommendation was a major disappointment to conservatives in the denomination. We argued that we do not need another study committee or more dialogue. We know what the Bible says and two more years from a study group like this will only muddy the waters. More importantly, we felt we were being asked to suspend the third mark of the church by refraining from disciplining in the situations outlined above. Had this recommendation passed, it would have been disastrous for the RCA and could have precipitated a number of departures from the denomination. This recommendation did NOT pass.
Instead, we offered a substitute motion:
While compassion, patience, and loving support should be shown to all those who struggle with same-sex desires, the General Synod reaffirms our official position that homosexual behavior is a sin according to the Holy Scriptures, therefore any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.
And further, the General Synod Council shall oversee the creation of an eight member committee made up of representatives appointed by each of the regional synods to pray and work together to present a way forward for our denomination given the disagreement in our body relative to homosexuality. The purpose of the committee is not to revisit our stated position, but shall operate with the understanding expressed earlier in this recommendation and issue a report with practical recommendations to the General Synod of 2013.
The debate on this substitute motion was, according to many long time observers, the most torturous they had ever seen. The Synod had to vote to substitute the motion and then vote to approve the motion itself. Along the way, more liberal voices challenged that the motion was out of order. The chair ruled in their favor. Each time, we had to appeal the ruling of the chair and put it to a vote before the house. At one point in the parliamentary confusion, the motion survived by a vote of 109-108. All told, there were four votes taken just to overturn the ruling of the President. Several good men and women spoke articulately and courageously in favor of the motion. In the end, despite opposition on the floor from the a seminary president, a General Synod Professor of Theology, the Past-President of Synod, and the two previous General Secretaries, the motion PASSED by a vote of 120-91.
I’ve seen it reported that what we mainly did was appoint another committee. This is not accurate. The discussion centered around the first paragraph, especially the language about a “disciplinable offense.” And the committee, it should be noted, is not an open ended study committee, but one that is to make recommendation for a way forward in our denomination given our established position and the continuing diversity of theological opinion.
In 1980, the Synod approved a set of amendments to the Book of Church Order (BCO) which have become known as the “conscience clauses.” These clauses, later adopted by more than two-thirds of the classes, were designed to protect women seeking ordination as well as those in support or in opposition to women’s ordination. On a number of occasions, various commissions or classes have wanted to remove the conscience clauses. At this Synod several different bodies were aiming for their removal, most directly the Commission for Women.
After about an hour of debate on Monday night the Synod, by a margin of roughly 2-1, voted to remove the consciences clauses from the BCO. This does not mean the clauses have been officially removed. The change still needs approval from two-thirds of the RCA’s 45 classes. Last time the Synod voted to remove the conscience clauses (2004), the classis vote was 28-17 in favor of removal, just short of the two-thirds necessary for approval.
If the clauses are finally removed–and we won’t know that until next spring–it’s unclear what all would change for complementarians in the denomination, but at the very least it would make it difficult for them to continue in the denomination and to continue to raise up men with similar convictions for ministry in the RCA. And given the fact that complementarians are the ones on the front lines laboring to maintain a biblical stance on homosexuality, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of the RCA rests on razor’s edge.
NOTE: There has been some confusion about the so-called conscience clauses and what they do. The clauses refer to a series of amendments added to the BCO in 1980 to “maintain peace in diversity in the RCA concerning women as church officers.” The conscience clauses were designed (a) to protect women by prohibiting classes from obstructing their ordination which would now be legal, and (b) to protect those who did not agree with women’s ordination by not forcing them to participate in the ordination of women. One key section reads:
Ministers shall not be pressured in such a way as to lead either one who supports or one who opposes, on scriptural grounds, the ordination of women to church offices to offend against one’s conscience; nor shall any minister be penalized for conscientious objection to or support of the ordination of women to church offices; nor shall any minister obstruct by unconstitutional means the election, ordination, or installation of a woman to church offices. (BCO Chapter 1, Part II, Article 12, Section 15)
Although the clauses were designed to protect both sides, as the denomination has become more thoroughly egalitarian, the clauses are now seen chiefly as a protection for those opposed to women’s ordination. Many egalitarians see the clauses as inconsistent and demeaning to women. Complementarians see the clauses as giving them a home in the RCA.