Some history

Here are two historical perspectives on the Missional Structures report, one from a long view and one from much shorter.

First the longer view. It was 1816 and the King of the Netherlands (this was new, they hadn’t had one before) issued a new church order for the “Netherlands Reformed Church.” It was a “royal” order that centralized the administration of the church. It retained synods and classes, but they were little more than administrative bodies. This centralization of the church order threw that church into a confusion that lasted until at least 1951. It was the occasion for the “Afscheiding” or “Separation.” That split would lead to the emigration of a number of folk to the US — this becoming the basis for most of our midwestern church.

It is interesting to note that those who first left the Dutch church did not claim to be seceeding. In fact, they claimed to be the continuation of the true church. While I do not agree with their assertion, it is clear that they knew separation itself to be intolerable.

This longer view is evidence that the order of the church as centered in the classes and consistories lies deep in Reformed identity. A centralization of authority and power will raise deep antipathy. And for what reason? Because a report asserts that the current order isn’t working?

Now the shorter historical report. It was just five years ago that a committee on the revision of the church order reported (I moderated that committee). That committee attempted to “listen” to the church. There was no claim of scientific validity to the time spent speaking with persons across the church. However, it was clear that there was no energy for a complete overhaul of the church order. There was some frustration with “alignment” of the regional synods and the general synod in terms of policy and program. This frustration came, as I recall, almost exclusively from staff, and mostly denominational staff.

What did result was further reflection on the nature of the church and the introduction of what has come to be called “missional” elements. It was clear, however, that the order was not and is not a function of what the synod decides the policy of the church to be. Rather, with the preamble (and with the confessions) the order is part of the very nature of the church. It is helpful to hear the two paragraphs on the “Nature of the Church on Earth”:

“The church, which Scripture represents with many images, is a gathering of persons chosen in Christ through the Holy Spirit to profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in order to embody God’s inetnions for the world. Gathered by the Spirit around Word and sacrament, the chuch fulfills its call within the expectations of the reign of God as it participates in mission, in calling all persons to life in Christ, and in proclaiming God’s promise and commands to all the world.

“The Reformed churches confess that the church of Jesus Christ in the world is one church, the ‘Holy Catholic Church.’ The church is the living communion of the one people of God with the one Christ who is their Head. Their oneness in him is a ‘communion of the saints’ with Christ and with one another in the divine blessings.”

As these paragraphs make clear, the church is not simply “missional,” but is “one people” in communion with Christ and one another.” This communion is not simply functional. The first paragraph introduces the impulsion to mission. And in fact, the order was changed to give to classes and consistories the responsibility to live in mission to their respective and shared worlds.

As the church considers a new order (this is not a “restructure.” That’s a category mistake.) it must do so from a shared understanding of the nature of the church. What I’ve put forth in this post is some history of the struggles within the Reformed church to come to terms with its nature.

Al Janssen

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7 thoughts on “Some history

  1. Great post, Al.’What I’ve put forth in this post is some history of the struggles within the Reformed church to come to terms with its nature.”But you’ve done more than that, I think. Haven’t you also shown, in part, that a change in our order would entail a change in our understanding of the Church?Also, I am intrigued: what do you mean that it is a “category mistake” to call it “restructure”? (I think I know, but it might help to hear you spell this out.)Dan

  2. It’s a category mistake because it uses the category “structure” when in fact the proposal is a change in order. Structure and order are not synonymous. We restructure the synod when we move the committees and such things around. The reconfiguration of the General Synod Council was messing about with structure. But we didn’t have to go through constitutional changes because it wasn’t about order. Order, on the other hand, gets into the very nature of the church itself. It has to do with what is essential. That is, it starts fooling around with what is at the essence of the church, viz., Word and sacrament, office and assembly. A fuller explanation?

  3. That’s helpful, Al.What we have with these proposals, then, is a radical rejection of our understanding of the Church, and a radical attempt to alter that understanding. Presenting these as changes to the “structure” hides that radical goal.As a rhetorical strategy, that’s pretty effective on their part, and makes our work that much more difficult.Dan

  4. I have been thinking that the MSTF Report was calling for us to dismantle the covenant, that the Constitution is the tangible expression of our covenant, and the covenant is what makes us the Church together, so “setting aside” the Constitution was the same, on some level as unmaking the Church (or, at least, the church).If, I’m reading Al correctly, however, it is beyond the power of the GSC or the staff–or even the whole RCA–to un-make the covenant; only God can do that. But I am despairing. I hear more and more stories around the RCA about theology and discernment being replaced by personal attacks and inuendo as we approach this GS. WE are reading this discussion, but aren’t we preaching to the choir? Maybe the RCA can’t throw out the covenant, but what if nobody cares, and they do it anyway?

  5. “Maybe the RCA can’t throw out the covenant, but what if nobody cares, and they do it anyway?”Indeed, that’s a concern of mine, too. After all, we’ve seen in recent General Synods how something plainly contrary to order or parliamentary procedure can be approved, regardless.So, picture this scenario:A recommendation comes to the floor, to the effect that we suspend the Constitution.A point of order is raised, to the effect that the GS has no authority to suspend the Consitution.The president, on the (terrible) advice of the parliamentarian, rules against the point of order.A challenge is raised against the ruling of the president.A vote is taken, and the assembly votes to uphold the ruling of the president.It seems to me that this scenario is likely. Frighteningly so.Dan

  6. Appreciate the historical perspectives about my church of origin: I was taken under care of the ‘Hervormde Kerk’ in 1971 (by Van Ruler as signatory, no less…).Yes, the present developments can be traced directly to the neo-calvinist school of thought that has little thought for ontology and ecclesiology.As to the point of ‘structure’ and ‘order.’: as one who has thought a lot in recent years about ‘structure’ (albeit of theology), the ‘category’ mistake is expressed in the distinction between ‘etic’ and ’emic’ perspectives. ‘Etic’ focuses on characteristics of a ‘system’ with disregard of the internal structure (treating it as a ‘black box’). ‘Emic,’ on the contrary, approaches understanding and analysis of a complex system by an analyses and incorporation of inner characteristics and structures. The ‘etic’ approach is a reduction and a simplification. We see it in medicine when patients are reduced to ‘cases,’ etc. Our world is full of this perspective.If the RCA continues to be Trinitarian, the etic approach is a heresy that should be rejected in all guises.What the RCA VSM statement offers is an etic form of the Incarnation. The etic heresy has consequences!PS Where else can I express such ideas without being ignored?

  7. The MSTF report never makes up its mind as to what it means by “restructure”. The recommendation for merging classes and regional synods is one type of “restructuring” that it puts forward. Al is correct that this is a reordering–a changing of the essential nature of our church. But within the body of the MSTF report and in ancillary writings such as RCA web articles and “Words from Wes” columns],”restructure” is applied to changes that some classes have made in their operations, either by changing or suspending their by-laws. Thus they have reorganized agendas, committee structures, and the like—changes that any classis can make at any time by simple majority votes. In not one of those cases cited as the favored “missional” behavior did a classis seek to merge with a regional synod in order to accomplish such a reorganization. Yet the Report and the staff who helped birth it insist on labeling such reorganization as “restructuring.” At best, this is muddled thinking. Given their apparent failure to define the term by which the Task Force is named, I doubt that the category mistake between restructuring and reordering would be one that would be apparent to the Report’s authors. Jim

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