The action by the Reformed Church in America's General Synod last spring that restated the synod's "official position that homosexual behavior is a sin" and declared that advocacy of homosexual behavior is a "disciplinable offense" raised anew the issue of the authority and reach of General Synod statements. It is a question that has been raised before.
In the late nineteenth century, the Reformed church struggled with the issue of Freemasonry. At the heart of the issue was the authority of the General Synod to determine whether consistories could admit Freemasons to the membership of the church. That the synod consistently refused to do so may serve to illumine contemporary practice.
When second-migration Dutch settled in the American Midwest and their churches had united with the already-established Americanized Reformed church, it became evident that the Americanized church, centered in the eastern seaboard, admitted members of secret societies into the communion of the church. In the European context, Freemasonry was experienced as anti- Christian, indeed as highly political. Americans, including many church members, viewed Freemasonry as a benevolent organization that also supported religious belief (for a fuller treatment of the matter see E. Bruins and R. Swieringa's Family Quarrels, and M. E. Osterhaven's contribution to Word and World). Two classes from the Midwest—Wisconsin and Holland—overtured the General Synod to "deliver a distinct utterance" manifesting the church's disapproval of membership in Freemasonry by church members "in order that the moral power of our whole Reformed Church may be against a great and growing evil."
The synod responded by stating that the practice of the church "has been to abstain upon all abstract questions which are not purely ecclesiastical or which may involve the exercise of consistorial discipline..." and consequently declined to act.
That response satisfied neither Wisconsin nor Holland. They were back the following year with a further overture. This time the synod formed a special committee that returned with a much more detailed response in 1870. The committee acknowledged that their "brethren" were sincere in what they perceived to be a "serious evil." However, the committee replied, "we cannot think...that they expect from the Synod such a deliverance as would authorize Consistories to exclude Free Masons from church fellowship for this would be to establish a new and unauthorized test of membership in the Christian Church and would interfere with consistorial prerogatives" (emphasis added). Nonetheless, the committee went on to add that "the path of prudence and safety lies outside of all oath-bound secret societies, in connection with which obligations may be exacted which conflict with the liberty of the individual Christian conscience."
With that, the matter laid dormant in the synod minutes. But the synod's decision did not put the matter to rest. The issue remained very much alive on the ground—in the Midwest. Thus, in 1880 the synod was to receive "memorial" from four classes (Grand River Classis and Illinois Classis joined Wisconsin and Holland), making it clear that the question of membership in the Freemasons was not at all an "abstract question," and that for a number of reasons.
Most importantly, Freemasonry was claimed to be anti-Republican, anti-Christian, and anti-Reformed. The memorialists conceded the point that admission to church membership is a matter left to consistories, but added that problems arose when they entered fellowship with Reformed members from other parts of the country, particularly in synod meetings, and were required to accept both elders and ministers who were themselves Masons—even Masons serving at the Lord's Table. Moreover, this was not an "abstract question" inasmuch as the churches from the four classes requesting action faced a severe loss of membership if the General Synod did not act. However, Classis Grand River was quick to point out that it had no desire to see schism in the Reformed church and would see such as a "crime and misfortune to ourselves and the whole Church."
The synod's committee took great pains in responding to the memorials, and the synod itself took some pains in its deliberations. The committee would reassert the previous synod's statement that it is "eminently proper and desirable for the Synod to declare that no other tests of church membership, and of Christian and Ministerial fellowship should be applied than those which are set forth in our standards, and that church discipline, in all its shapes, must be taken in conformity with the Word of God and the established order of our Church." This position would be reiterated the following year (1881) in perhaps clearer terms, when that synod declared "that it has neither the power nor the disposition to interfere with the prerogatives of the lower bodies in the exercise of discipline, except only in the manner prescribed by the Constitution."
However, the synod of 1881 was to add a further reason, one having to do with liberty of conscience: "no decision ought to be made upon it which does not respect the personal liberty, the rights of conscience and Christian obligations and privileges which are guaranteed to every minister and member of our Reformed Churches by her Constitution, her doctrinal symbols, and her historical loyalty to freedom and to faith."
That being said, while the synod refused to rule on Freemasonry as such, it did go on to declare that "no communicant member and no minister of the Reformed Church in America ought to unite with or to remain in any society or institution, whether secret or open, whose principles and practices are anti-Christian, or contrary to the faith and practice of the Church to which he belongs." The synod went further stating any religion or moral system that "hides" or "supplants" Jesus Christ should "receive no countenance from his followers."
The purpose of this short historical exercise is not to unfold the entire history of this episode. Such a history would show, for example, that many Reformed church elders and ministers were members of Freemasonry. Undoubtedly, this colored their deliberation. Furthermore, as Bruins and Swieringa make clear, while many from the Midwest disagreed with and voted against the synod's actions, hoping for a bolder statement, they did not find the matter of such gravity that it would permit schism. Strong voices from Holland Classis, for example, were clear that they would not themselves join a secret society, and did not favor such. Nonetheless, they acknowledged the synod's response that such matters were properly left to consistories.
What is to be noted in the brief review of the General Synod's actions is that on the one hand the synod could sympathize with those who desired the synod to take a stronger action, and indeed synod was clear that participation in any group that conflicted with discipleship to Jesus Christ was to be condemned. On the other hand, the synod was clear as to the limits of its authority.
Nor was the synod's action without basis in the church's order. Already in the first church order of the Dutch church (Emden, 1571), the first article is clear that "no church shall exercise rule over another church." By the time the church order from the synod of Dort (1619) was instituted, this notion would become Article 30: "A greater Assembly shall take cognizance of those things alone which could not be determined in a lesser, or that appertain to the churches or congregations in general which compose such an assembly." There are clear limits to what the greater body (including the synods) can do.
This has its further basis in the nature of both office and assembly. Office-bearers are authorized to interpret Scripture. They do so within the stricture of the confessions, the church's understanding of Scripture's story. The assemblies, as gatherings of the offices, also interpret Scripture in the governance of the church. But the assemblies do not have the authority to interpret Scripture as a matter of determining the doctrine or the teaching of the church. The synods of the late 1880s attempted to do two things: to state with clarity the synod's own understanding concerning secret societies and at the same time to allow the consistories (office-bearers) to execute their proper responsibilities. Whether they succeeded is a matter of historical evaluation.
Allan Janssen is pastor of Community Church of Glen Rock, New Jersey, and a General Synod professor of theology in the Reformed Church in America.