Is the RCA a hierarchical church?

The civil court case by the Classis of Central California against the Consistory of the Miraloma Community Church (founded in 1942 as Grace Reformed Church in San Francisco) resulted in a ruling on September 15, 2009 by a California Court of Appeal that affirmed the decision of a lower court. In 2008, in a 21 page (6886 word) decision, the San Francisco Superior (lower) court had upheld a decision of Classis to supersede the Consistory because the proper procedures as set forth in the RCA Book of Church Order were followed. Ergo: without classis’ explicit approval the Miraloma Consistory as such was ruled as having no authority to dis-fellowship from classis and to incorporate itself as an independent body identical to the original body, including its assets, except for the existing by-laws.

The court takes great pains to say that it cannot rule in matters of doctrine, but under California State law can only review and take into account the ecclesiastical procedures and structures of authority as outlined in the Constitution and bylaws of the Reformed Church in America on all its levels. It found that classis had acted appropriately and that the Miraloma Consistory had taken their actions without regard for the Book of Church Order, and had done so after the classis had announced its intention and had begun its process to supersede.

The denomination posted the decision as a link on its main website, with the opening web page itself giving an overview with liberal quotes by Kenneth Bradsell. The elephant in the room for both parties is ignored in this web article. It is safe to say that a large part of the elephant was not only the $400+K bank account (classis had approved the sale of a parsonage a few years earlier), but also the value of the property on which the church stands (put as high as $3+ million), as well as a $900K guarantee by GSC as bond for legal fees.

In reviewing the BCO, the court found that the term “polity” refers “to the general governmental structure of a church, the organs of authority and the allocation and locus of its judicatory powers as defined by its own organic law.”

It then goes on to define a hierarchical Church as one “in which individual churches are ‘organized as a body with other churches having similar faith and doctrine, with a common ruling convocation or ecclesiastical head vested with ultimate ecclesiastical authority over the
individual congregations and members of the entire organized church.’”
It is worth noting that the court contrasts “hierarchical “ with “congregational” which is
defined as one “strictly independent of other ecclesiastical associations.”
In its decision, the court quotes copiously from recent cases about turf conflicts in various denominations.

What is missing is the view of the legally trained John Calvin, who knew a few things about church troubles. When Calvin writes the Institutes of Christian Religion he devotes Book III and Book IV to ecclesial and ecclesiastical matters. Book III describes the Church as the realm of the Holy Spirit, while in Book IV we find matters of governance and structures, such as his innovative and parity of Offices, linked with Jesus’ office of prophet, priest and king. It also develops the three-fold structure of executive, legislative and judicial realms in governance of larger-scale organization. Here he also deals (in the very last chapter) with the question whether or not there is a conflict between the realms of Religion and of Society. Or, more to the point of the case at hand, is the ‘Holy Order’ (the hière archè) of Religion at odds with the civic order in Society? Calvin’s conclusion is that both civic Society and church Religion are best served when each recognizes the integrity of the realm of the other. That is not a conflict position, but a rather positive stance! [It must be added that Calvin, on a city scale, though an oligarchy the best practical solution, provided it was willing to be guided and admonished in ‘righteousness’ i.e. honest and dependable, with transparency and accountability in all things].

The question of the integrity of the Miralomar case is thus two-fold when seen through Calvin’s lens:
-Did the court respect its civic boundaries, even while ascertaining that the Church had followed its own right processes and by-laws?
-And likewise, did the Church live by its own rules and will it accept the verdict of the legal authorities of Society?

It seems to me that, given the deliberations and the review of the case, the answer —biblically speaking— is a cruciform ‘yes.’ The Sanhedrin and Pilate observed their bounds.

But then, in the biblical story, the people speak the final verdict. And that is where things go terribly wrong! At the very moment that the justice pronounced must be executed, the case is turned over to the people! And Pilate washes his hands.

Who are “the people?” In biblical Greek there are many words that fine-tune the distinctions of different sorts of people. We have not only ethnos, but also ochlos (populace), phyle (tribe), genos (related by birth), demos (associated by region), plethos (crowds) and, of course, laos (qualified citizen). It is not the Classis people (or their hired lawyers) not the people of the Miralomar congregation and their lawyers. The Court did the right thing and remanded the case back into the court of the Classis and Consistory.

This is where it gets tricky in RCA polity. With Calvin, we must remember that the Church must get it right, never mind the civic powers.

Remember, when Servetus (the Roman Inquisition in Lyon had already condemned him to the stake) was judged to be a heretic by the civic court and a danger to public order in Geneva for his incendiary views? Calvin was not a citizen yet, and had no vote in the City Council. The judgment was to be executed the next day. Even though Servetus’ work (“Restitution of Christian Religion”) was a not too subtle dig at Calvin’s own work, Calvin went to visit Servetus in prison. His question was, Would Servetus be willing to modify his aggressive stance and recognize the Creed, with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity? [It is worth remembering that Calvin himself in his younger years had refused to sign the classical formulation of the Creed, precisely because of the Trinitarian formulations. “I rather sing than sign them,” had been his motto, thus seeking refuge in liturgy.] Servetus refused to ‘sing,’ and died at the stake.

So what is to happen now? How are we going to execute the verdict? What is the way of righteousness?

—As a cool execution: it’s the law!? We win, you lose?
—No! That would be a denominational response. To be sure, an organization has an order. But it cannot substitute for a Holy Order. What is needed is the hierarchy, the Holy Order, of a Church. There is a chance to get it right. The Miraloma Consistory could repent of their action, and then sit with classis around the Table of the Lord and celebrate the Resurrection feast. It worked for Peter! Yes there will be a doubting Thomas or two, but all that is needed is a minyan of witnesses.

Been there, done that? I don’t think so! For one thing: it is now after the cross bearing – for both sides. To gather and truly con-sist (i.e. sit together) as a Consistory and as a Classis, would be a witness to the community, the Church at large and the world.

The RCA has qualified mediation teams. I see nothing in Classis reports about such a discernment process. Clearly the hardball of legal maneuvering falls short of a holy order.

Is the RCA a hierarchical Church? I wish to God it truly were in this case! The Court’s understanding of hierarchy is not enough! It is never too late for reconciliation. The Reformed tradition knows that a dogmatic ontology of holiness applies only to God, but a pragmatic holiness is inevitable if we let the Paraclete do what the Spirit does best: create all things new!

2 thoughts on “Is the RCA a hierarchical church?

  1. Amen to your analysis. While it is recognized that Calvin was speaking in a particular context while we are in another context there are some similarities. However, I have another question. Is the Classis the top of the hierarchy? It seems that in matters of practice the RCA has been giving that to each of the Presidents of The General Synod with the approval of the General Synod but in matters of church order everything stops with the Classis. In other words, the Classis is expected to follow the motions passed by the General Synod at the recommendation of each of its one year Presidents and, as you report, the Synod staff is expected to support the Classis in legal matters. Is there an inconsistency in all of this? Is this really what the people want? As for me, it is not what I swore to when I was ordained. I see little hope for the return of true order in the RCA and have little interest in continuing to be a part of this spiritually dysfunctional policy.

  2. Dean, thanks for the response.
    An update: An appeal was filed for a hearing at the California Supreme Court (bond provided by members of the congregation). General Synod Council has extended yet an additional line of credit (Executive Privilege consent)to the Classis to push the total to well over a million dollars…
    Still no mention anywhere that the court did not take into account a THIRD form of denominational structure, other than ‘heirarchival’ and ‘free’, namely the four-hundred-plus-year old organization as a ‘connectional’ church. RCA history is replete with examples of such orderly separations, e.g. the Classis of Geneva, NY (as a whole!!, churches in PA (aftershocks of the decision not to merge with the (German) RC USA, etc. The RCA certainly recognizes such a self-understanding of Church through its Formula of Agreement pact with regard to the UCC. Even more to the point, the fact that we ‘have’ Churches in Canada is not a manifestation of the ‘hierarchical’ nature of our denomination, but is clearly a connectional (federated) feature.

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