The Authority of General Synod

(The following was discussed at the recent CI meeting. Those in attendance encouraged me to put it on the website.)

The authority of the General Synod while extensive is limited. It is limited in the following ways:

  1. Following a generally accepted principle of Reformed church order, the preamble states that “greater assemblies care for the ministry that extends beyond the purview of the lesser assemblies without infringing upon the responsibilities of the lesser.” The authority of the General Synod is thereby limited to those responsibilities given to it by the church order itself (1.IV.2).
  2. The General Synod cannot, in its role as an assembly, instruct a lesser assembly. It can only do so in a judicial matter and then in certain prescribed ways.
  3. The General Synod does have the authority to set “denominational policy.” This was established to curtail the authority of boards, commissions and agencies from setting policy for the entire church. In positive terms, this means that the General Synod statements, e.g., have authority for its own agents. More contested is whether the General Synod’s policy statements have authority with lesser assemblies.
  4. It is clear, I think, that General Synod does not have magisterial authority. That is, the synod cannot establish the teaching of the church. That authority is reserved for the confessions of the church. However, the synod does have a certain authority when it sits as a judicial body. In some cases the synod may be called to discern the teaching of the church (as, e.g., in the case of a General Synod professor). Even then, however, it is the interpretation of the confessions that is at issue.
  5. The General Synod does have the authority to govern, and governance perforce means an interpretation of Scripture through the lens of its confessions. Moreover, it has the authority to offer its judgment on a variety of issues. The synod, however, speaks only for the synod as it sits. Its decisions do not automatically bind succeeding synods. It can be argued that as successive synods act in a similar manner, that a certain force accrues to the series of decisions that have been taken.
  6. The General Synod has certain authority that is reserved to it, such as:
    1. It alone establishes ecumenical relationships with other churches.
    2. It can form agencies and boards to assist the church in its mission.
    3. It has original authority over “all matters pertaining to doctrine and denominational polity” in the theological seminaries; and it is responsible for the standards for preparation of candidates for the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
  1. Janssen, 5/13
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