The general synod shall be held once every three years. Each regional synod shall delegate to this synod four ministers and four elders. If it appears necessary to convene a general synod before the appointed time, the convening Church shall determine the time and place with the advice of regional synod.
The general synod shall be held “every third year.” That is how it is phrased in the Latin text of the Church Order. It should not be the second or the fourth year, but the third year.
Various ecclesiastical bodies have an annual general assembly or general conference or general synod. The Canadian Reformed Churches have a general synod only once every third year. To have one more often would not only lay a heavier financial burden upon the churches, it would also lead to considering a general synod a sort of permanent board. Increased frequency would result in general synods taking more and more matters and activities into their sphere, with all the disastrous results of this. We can see it when reading the Acts or Proceedings of various annual general assemblies or general synods. The importance and function of regional synods is thereby diminished. In some instances regional synods are simply not there. There is no need for them as there is an annual general assembly.
The Canadian Reformed Churches still maintain that the essence and center of the life of the church is to be sought in the local churches and that broader assemblies, although useful and beneficial where they are assigned their proper place, cannot add anything which is not already there. They also are convinced that the broader the assembly, the fewer the matters that should be dealt with by them, as may be recalled from our discussion of Art. 30.
Once every third year a general synod is to be held. When, therefore, a general synod determines the time of the next one, it should take care that the date for the next general synod is fixed at no more than three years hence, give or take a few months. What happened in the past, namely, that a general synod added matters to its agenda over a period of three years and then decided that the next general synod should be postponed for a year, was completely un-Reformed in more than one respect. We are referring here to events in the Netherlands.
The various classes send delegates to a regional synod; delegation to a general synod is done by regional synods. Although there is no rule for it, usually the good custom is observed to choose the brothers equally from the classical areas. This is not done to give all areas “equal representation,” for the brothers represent no one else but the churches. This equal representation is done in order to show that indeed all the churches are involved when a general synod is held. It is impossible to have a brother from each and every
church sent to general synod; besides, the most able and knowledgeable brothers should be sent, and these qualifications are not determined by the question of which church one is a member. Yet care should be taken that as much as possible the delegation is taken from the various districts.
Four ministers and four elders comprise the delegation from each regional synodical district. At present there are two such districts, so that a general synod has sixteen members. Even if, at some time in the future, the Canadian Reformed Churches should have three such regional synodical districts, it still will be better to leave the number at four plus four, which will divide the workload at general synod more evenly and might even make for shorter general synods. However, at the moment it does not appear that there is any prospect of having an increase of that kind.
When a regional synod chooses delegates to general synod, it is not restricted in its choice to those who are members of that regional synod. Not every elder at regional synod may be able to be absent from home and work for the whole duration of a general synod, and although it is to be preferred that such are delegated as are at regional synod and have taken part in the discussions there, it is not an absolute requirement and it may be necessary to choose others.
Frequently the members of regional synod are asked who of the local office- bearers could be delegated. The names are mentioned and a list is prepared from which four brothers and their alternates are to be chosen.
There are serious drawbacks connected with this method. Several members of the regional synod may not know the brothers but go by the number of votes someone collected in the first round of balloting. Others may remember having seen and heard a brother once or twice at a classis, and, because of the favourable impression at that time, may decide to vote for the brother. Again others may remember having heard the name of a brother being mentioned in the past more than once, and conclude from this that he must be capable.
It is our experience that the election of elder-delegates takes quite a few ballots and that, in the end, sometimes in what appears to verge on desperation, it is decided to take the ones who collected the most votes as delegates and their alternates. Thus it could happen that one became an alternate and so perhaps even a member of general synod, although he received only five or six votes of the sixteen. We remember the puzzled looks on the faces of members of regional synods and the shrugging of shoulders when they looked over the list from which they had to choose the elder-delegates.
Should not a better method be sought and introduced? The question usually asked is: “Who from your congregation would be able to go to general synod?” The result is a list of brothers whose only known qualification is that they will be able to break away from family and work for up to four weeks, but nothing is said about their ability, their insight, their knowledge, their being familiar with all that is going on in the life of the churches. Thus sometimes brothers were chosen who had the reputation of being pious, God-fearing, and faithful men in every respect, but whose only asset at a general synod was that they were there and voted on the various proposals.
They contributed very little if anything to the discussions and were of little help in preparing matters for discussion at the various sessions.
Could a solution not be found in inquiring of the brothers not only whom they know that could go from their own or from another congregation, but also whom they would recommend and for what reason? True, then only brothers from those congregations that have members in regional synod might be mentioned, and there might be a large personal element in the presentation of certain names. But in the first place, the mentioning of names would not necessarily be limited to one's own congregation, and in the second place the members of regional synod would have something more substantial to go by than the simple “Brothers A., B., and C. would be able to go.” It is better to have something than to have nothing at all.
The convening church for a general synod is appointed by general synod. It knows that it has to convene a general synod three years after the previous one. It is to determine the time and place with the advice of regional synod if a general synod is to be convened before the scheduled date. For the regularly scheduled classis, regional or general synod we have made a provision in this respect in Art. 34. It is to be deplored that the latest general synod deleted the provision that a general synod can be convened if, according to the judgment of a regional synod, this appears necessary. Now we are left in the dark as to the question upon whose judgment the convening church is to act.
The churches are appointed on a rotating basis, alternately from east and west. It was customary to choose them according to the order of their institution, although a small church with relatively few facilities and limited manpower might for that reason be bypassed. Should a smaller church have sufficient capable brothers to properly take care of the considerable preparatory activities, this church might still be chosen, although it may convene synod in another place, where sufficient facilities are available.
A general synod should preferably not be convened in an isolated place from where the ministers could only at great expense serve other churches on the Sundays they have to be away from their own churches because of synod. It is beneficial for ministers when they can sit in the pew and listen to their colleagues proclaiming God's Word. But if at least six churches will have "reading services" because so many ministers cannot get away from the place where synod is held, one should consider whether it is warranted to cause synod to be held in such a place.
The convening church usually publishes a date at which it will compose the first provisional agenda to be sent to the churches. A second and third provisional agenda follow, the last one a few weeks before the date of synod.
It is also the convening church that has the meeting called to order, on whose behalf the meeting is opened, and by whom the credentials are examined. Usually the minister of the convening church does this, assisted by the clerk and perhaps one other office-bearer of this church.
On the eve of synod a prayer service is held. This is just a custom and one might ask why it is done only for a general synod and not for a regional synod or classis. The reply may be that the work of a general synod directly and immediately affects all the churches, as it is the broadest assembly they know. For this reason it is appropriate that it and its work be brought before the throne of grace during a worship service called specifically for this purpose.
For this service the convening church customarily invites the minister who presided over the previous general synod. This, too, is just a custom, not a rule or inherent privilege.
Upon the examination of the credentials, and when they have been found to be in order, synod is constituted after a moderamen has been chosen. Everything proceeds approximately the same way as at a regional synod. There is a difference, however, in the size of the moderamen. It consists of four members: a chairman, a vice-chairman, a first clerk who takes care of the Acts, and a second clerk who conducts any correspondence resulting from synod’s decisions.
Another difference is that a general synod usually sets a date as the deadline after which no more submissions will be received to be added to the agenda.
Is this correct? Should we not insist also with respect to a general synod that after the adoption of the provisional agenda no more submissions are admissible? The date for a general synod is made known months in advance. Should not everyone who takes things seriously see to it that his submissions are with the convening church at least a day before the opening of synod? What makes a general synod so different from a regional synod or a classis except that it is representative of the whole federation? Why should then a different rule apply regarding the last day on which submissions will be accepted? We are convinced that the practice of the deadline date should be reconsidered and should be changed. Only what is present at the opening of synod should be declared admissible, if it is admissible at all, that is.
A custom which is found in foreign sister churches was never introduced in the Canadian Reformed Churches. We refer to the custom that upon constitution of synod the chairman asks the brothers to rise, so as to express their agreement with the Confessions of the church.
At the Synod of Zwolle 1854 of the Christian Seceded Church the following declaration was introduced:
Among all the marks by which the true church is distinguished from all human associations the confession of the truth may be mentioned in the first place. For this reason our Saviour said: “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples,” John 8: 31. And again: “Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men I shall also confess before My Father who is in heaven,” Mt. 10: 32.
In obedience to the Lord and for the instruction of everyone the meeting
of Overseers delegated from the Christian Seceded Reformed Congregations in the various provinces of the Netherlands deems it proper that it be declared openly what is the confession of the aforementioned congregation.
All these congregations recognize the Confession of Faith of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Catechism and the Canons of the Synod of Dordrecht in the years 1618 and 1619, as the complete expression of their faith.
In agreement with these congregations and as their general ecclesiastical assembly, we gladly testify that we wholeheartedly feel and believe that all the articles and parts of doctrine contained in the aforementioned Three Formulas of Unity agree in everything with the Word of God; wherefore we reject any doctrine conflicting therewith; that we wish to cause all our actions to be in accordance with it according to the adopted Church Order of Dordrecht of 1618 and 1619; and that we wish to receive into our ecclesiastical community every one who agrees with this confession.
May the King of the Church work and increase this faith in the hearts of many and may they who have obtained an equally precious faith with us show the grace given to them in practising the communion to the glory of Him who prayed that all His own may be one…
The chairman asks this declaration of all the members and all give it solemnly as in the presence of the Lord. It is signed by the chairman and clerk.
It all sounds very impressive, but here we find a “meeting of Overseers” who act as if they had no credentials with a well-defined mandate to fulfil a specific task. Their credentials stated what the basis, the confession of the churches was; there was no need for them to make any statement about it. They indeed acted as if they were together as “Overseers” instead of as simple delegates sent by the churches who needed not make any declaration “solemnly as in the presence of the Lord,” but only had to do what they were sent to do in faithfulness to their mandate.
And when, in 1893, upon the constitution of general synod, “the chairman invites all members of synod by rising from their seats to express their wholehearted agreement with the Confessional Formulas of the Reformed Churches,” we identify it as a gesture and action which was wholly superfluous and incorrect. When this is to be done at a general synod, why not at a regional synod and a classis as well? What distinguishes in this respect a general synod from any other broader assembly?
It may have been understandable in the given situation, still the gesture as such is to be rejected. Brothers who are members of a broader assembly are bound by their credentials and should not be tested on their own personally expressed agreement with the church’s confessions but on their faithfulness to their mandate at the meeting itself.
When the convening church for the first general synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches placed the point “Expression of Agreement with the
Confessions” on the provisional agenda, objections to this were raised at Classis West of July 29, 1954.
“Upon overture by the Church at Edmonton, classis declares that it objects to point 5 of the provisional agendum. It is not necessary that the delegates declare at the meeting that they agree with the Three Forms of Unity of the Canadian Reformed Churches, since the fact that they have been delegated proves that they do agree with them, because they are delegated by churches which live with each other in one federation on the very basis of these Formulas.”
Synod Homewood 1954 unanimously declared its agreement with this classical statement and it was decided not to ask express agreement with the Three Forms of Unity.
A few times an attempt was made to have the procedure introduced in the Canadian Reformed Churches, namely, in 1968 and in 1971, but both times the requests were denied. It will be extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible, to come with new arguments which would compel the churches to come to a different decision or would permit a general synod even to discuss the matter again.
How Does a Synod Work?
Most people who never saw a general synod at work may wonder how a general synod operates. They read of advisory committees, but may not know what this means. For this reason a few remarks be made about it here.
A general synod has to deal with proposals by the churches, with reports by standing committees or by committees appointed by the previous general synod for a specific purpose. There may also be some appeals.
“Standing committees” does not mean that always the same persons form the membership of these committees, although a large measure of continuity should be preserved, but it means that they are permanent committees whose members are appointed by each general synod anew. Such “standing committees” are, for example, the Board of Governors of the Theological Seminary, the Committee on Correspondence with Churches Abroad, the Committee for the Book of Praise, and so on.
A special committee is appointed for a one-time task. If, for instance, a general synod cannot come to a responsible decision in a certain matter, it may decide to appoint a committee to study the matter and to report to the next general synod on the result of its research and conclusions.
Such committees report to general synod, not to the churches, although they may be instructed to send copies of their report to the churches. This is to enable the churches to take note of the reports, the conclusions and proposals they contain and, if they wish to do so, to send their thoughts and/or proposals about them to general synod.
When the committees are to send copies of their reports to the churches, this should not be construed to mean that the churches decide about the matters dealt with in these reports. It bears repeating that committees
appointed by broader assemblies report to the next similar assembly and not to the churches.
Now we go back to the question how a general synod operates. Upon adoption of the agenda, the sixteen men that form a general synod are divided into four separate advisory committees, whose task it is to study the agenda items assigned to them, to draw up a report with conclusions and proposals and to provide each member of synod with a copy. A deadline is set before which the members of synod will have to have studied this report, familiarized themselves with the conclusions and proposals, and prepared themselves for a discussion on the floor of synod and possible decisions. If the report and its conclusions find general acceptance, or can be made acceptable with minor changes, the matter can be concluded in a relatively short time. If too many objections are raised, the report can be given back to the committee for further study and consideration.
As for the appointment of these advisory committees it would be advisable to bring brothers from different areas together. For the assignment of points of the agenda it would be prudent to designate specific matters preferably to brothers who have no previous knowledge of them or whose delegating assembly did not deal with them. This applies particularly in the case of appeals. To rule out bias it may even be wise to form a special committee composed of brothers from another region when a specific appeal is to be considered. When, for instance, the “De Haan Case” was dealt with at the General Synod of Edmonton 1965, a committee consisting solely of brothers from the East prepared the advisory report with its conclusions and proposals.
During the first days in the life of a general synod not many things take place that are of interest to church members. The days are mostly used for committee meetings, although some matters may not require many hours of preparation and be ready for discussion and decision already on the first day. Especially during the first week a general synod will schedule plenary sessions for the evenings so as to give the brothers and sisters the opportunity to sit in and see and hear a synod at work. Later on more reports will be ready and also in daytime full sessions will be held in order to complete the task in the shortest possible time.
Only those who were delegated are members of synod. It is customary, in case the minister of the convening and receiving church has not been delegated, to invite him to serve synod with advice.
In our Netherlands sister churches the custom exists to invite also the professors at the Theological University to attend synods in an advisory capacity. This custom was introduced, as far as we know, when the chairman of the Synod of Zwolle 1854, on his own initiative, invited the appointed professors at the newly established Theological College to do so. The Canadian Reformed Churches have never known this custom and suggestions to introduce it were rejected by one of our general synods. No synod or committee is forbidden or prevented from asking advice in specific instances, but to introduce the custom that all professors shall be invited to attend synods in an advisory capacity on a regular basis would be to establish a rule which in the past has shown to be more to the detriment of the churches than to their benefit.
Once a general synod has completed its agenda, it is closed and exists no more. If, for the execution of certain decisions, personal attention is needed and further actions are to be taken, a committee will be appointed to execute the task, with the mandate to report to the next general synod. The task of such a committee is restricted to this one matter. In no way should it try to act as a sort of “synodical committee,” such as are known from the past and such as do exist in other organizations, and function as a sort of “interim synod” to bridge the time between two synods. Whatever committee is appointed is appointed to a specific task, namely, to execute decisions made by synod.
It may be necessary to close synod provisionally, which means that synod can be reconvened. When this is done, it is permissible only in case a point of the agenda might prove not to have been concluded. This was the case in 1968, when it was not certain whether the Rev. F. Kouwenhoven would accept his appointment as professor of Old Testament at the Theological College which was to open in 1969. Rather than close synod definitively and then, in case another appointment was to be made, to go through the whole machinery of having classes and regional synods, of appointing delegates to a general synod whose only task it would be to appoint another professor, it was decided to close synod provisionally, so that the same brothers could be called together again for this one point. However, when the Rev. Kouwenhoven accepted his appointment, the closure became definite and even if the brother had been taken away by the Lord one day after having accepted the appointment, a new synod would have to have been called to deal with that situation.
No synod, having been closed provisionally, may be reconvened to take on new matters. It may be reconvened only to complete its original agenda.
The Acts of our general synods are printed. This is a good custom. It renders the Acts more readable and also makes it possible to have more copies at a relatively modest cost.
When the first general synod, the one of Homewood-Carman 1954, decided to have the Acts printed, it was also resolved to have a sufficient number printed to supply each family and single member with a copy. This was not done to make general synod appear as a generous benefactor, as if the brothers paid for it from their own pockets, but the reasoning behind it was that since cost of typesetting and printing was to be borne by the churches anyway, the additional cost of having extra copies made would be relatively low. Providing each family and single member with a copy, stimulated the interest of the membership and made clear that a general synod is not something remote, but that the old adage tua res agitur, YOUR cause is at stake, still applies.
Ever since that first synod a sufficient number of copies has been printed and distributed over all the churches. Time and again it appears that many
members do read the Acts and show a lively interest in what goes on and is decided at the broadest assembly.
Most times we find various reports included in this booklet in addition to the Acts. These are reports which were sent to general synod and usually not the reports of advisory committees at synod. We mention the reports by the Board of Governors, the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise, the Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad, etc. In 1958 it was considered wise and beneficial to also include the report of the advisory committee on the “Hamilton Case,” so that all members might be able to see what injustice had been done to faithful brothers. However, the Acts would become too voluminous if all advisory reports were printed. In general, it is sufficient when these are kept in the archives, so that anyone who wants to make a special study of them can consult them.
To prevent any semblance of permanence the churches do not have a synodical treasurer. During synod the convening church takes care of the financial aspects. To offset the cost incurred by deputies synod appoints a church to reimburse the various committees and empowers it to request the churches to submit a certain amount per communicant member to defray these expenses. This church submits a report to each general synod, and has to be appointed from synod to synod.