The 2016 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America affirmed marriage as “a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman,” but Synod’s atmosphere was more melancholy than joyful. And a similar level of disunity would strain any marriage.
Some delegates, who anticipated difficult decisions regarding denominational affiliation, felt a sense of reprieve.
“God showed His right arm of mercy upon the RCA, in my opinion,” said Rev. Mark Jicinsky, a delegate who pastors Ebenezer Reformed Church in Leighton, IA. “Many of us arrived thinking we needed to prepare to part ways with the RCA when Synod would finish, but not many left with those same feelings.”
Other delegates experienced Synod from a very different perspective. Rev. Jacinsky believes it was “an extremely difficult Synod, if not devastating” for many who were “shocked and saddened” by decisions. He said, “One thing was clear, the grief the last day of Synod was palpable as we all felt it.”
The lack of unity was recognized by denominational officials. “We do not have agreement as a denomination, and we do not have consensus,” reported General Secretary Dr. Tom De Vries. “[T]he decisions of General Synod illustrated how much diversity of thought there is within our denomination. For those looking for a more traditional view of marriage as between a man and a woman, the results of Synod were welcomed. However, those who sought to move the RCA to a fully open and affirming denomination experienced a General Synod that was not willing to go in that direction.” Regarding the mood of delegates, he added, “Synod ended on a somber note, with a recognition of nearly all delegates that the decisions of Synod brought pain to brothers and sisters.”
Still he expressed his hope in the future of the RCA, challenging its members to love one another “fully and completely” and through that “commitment to love…figure out how to find resolution and reconciliation that is God-honoring, and a witness to our faith in Jesus Christ.”
General Synod met from June 9-14, 2016, on the campus of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL. In addition to actions related to marriage, delegates paved the way for commissioned pastors to become ordained ministers, approved matters related to mass incarceration, encouraged classes to develop family leave policies, and celebrated the RCA’s Transformed and Transforming ministry goal.
General Synod took multiple actions related to human sexuality this year. Delegates voted in favor of elevating the Order for Christian Marriage liturgy to constitutional status. The liturgy had been recommended for use in the churches in 2002, however, becoming part of the constitution would make it the approved form for marriages within the RCA. The document states: “Christian marriage is a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman.”
The recommendation was one of five presented by a special council that met in April, at the direction of the 2015 General Synod, to find “a constitutional pathway forward” regarding human sexuality issues related to “ordination and marriage.”
The other four recommendations called for a report on the church order and past synodical statements, defined marriage as “between two persons,” suggested the establishment of “affinity classes” for like-minded persons, or recommended the appointment of a task force to explore “options and consequences…for grace-filled and orderly separation over time, should the different perspectives regarding human sexuality keep us from remaining as one.” Although delegates debated these four recommendations at length, none were adopted.
The recommendation to make the Order for Christian Marriage liturgy part of the constitution must be approved by two-thirds of the classes and ratified at the 2017 General Synod.
Another action requires the same ratification process because it would amend the RCA’s Book of Church Order. The approved amendment seeks to “assure that marriages solemnized in a church or congregation are between a man and a woman.”
When the original form of this amendment came before the 2015 General Synod, it suggested only that consistories or governing bodies should “determine what marriages may be solemnized in a church or congregation.” Synod 2015 deferred that initial amendment to Synod 2016 to allow the special council to work with it in April. The special council recommended no substantive change, although it suggested emphasizing the authority and responsibility of classes and consistories.
On the floor of Synod this year, a substitute motion was adopted that introduced the language “between one man and one woman.” That substitute motion was reviewed by a committee before coming back for vote. Delegates approved this final form: “The consistory or governing body shall assure that marriages solemnized in a church or congregation are between a man and a woman.”
Again, the above two actions require approval by two-thirds of classes and then synodical ratification in 2017.
Before Synod dismissed, delegates demonstrated compassion by passing this resolution:
No matter what position we as Christians have taken on the moral status of same-sex behavior, we reject all forms of mockery, degrading words and thoughts, economic oppression, abuse, threats, and violence made against members of the LGBTQ+ community, and we call on anyone involved in such behavior to repent and immediately begin walking in obedience to Jesus’ command to love.
A related matter dealt with reparative therapy, which encompasses the spectrum of treatments aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation. Last year, the General Synod answered an overture by directing a committee to study the issue and report this year.
In its research, the study committee discovered documentation of reparative therapy’s adverse effects, but no data supporting its effectiveness.
General Synod responded to that report with a two-pronged approach. All statements regarding the use of such therapies will be removed from the denominational website. General Synod also declared “that the RCA does not support the use of reorientation/reparative therapy but does affirm the power of the Holy Spirit to transform all lives.”
Delegates also approved a motion directing the General Synod Council to “develop processes and guidelines for forming future special councils and RCA-wide groups so that the full diversity of the church may be accurately seen and represented.”
In recent years, the RCA has been defining and developing the role of commissioned pastors. These are elders trained and approved by their classis and commissioned for specific ministry needs such as church planting, ministerial staff, or hospice service.
The 2016 General Synod approved an effort to facilitate the ordination of commissioned pastors as Ministers of Word and sacrament. The action calls for a meeting between the Commissioned Pastor Advisory Team and the board of trustees for the Ministerial Formation Certification Agency in order “to clarify a more seamless path from commissioned pastor training to the Approved Alternate Route process.”
The Approved Alternate Route permits ordination eligibility without a master of divinity degree. The person must meet certain requirements, which are more extensive than those for a commissioned pastor and are listed in the BCO.
Another continuing discussion within the RCA is the subject of mass incarceration. This year’s Synod approved a document, “The Church and Criminal Justice: A Brief Exhortation,” for posting on the new “mass incarceration” page of the denominational website. Churches are encouraged to make use of the document, which laments multiple issues related to incarceration and injustice, including the evils of racism. Among several other things, it affirms a “biblical witness to God’s rich vision of love and justice for all humanity” as well as God’s providence in our lives. It recognizes “our own sinfulness” and the need for a “humane, fair, and appropriately limited” criminal justice system. It calls for a perspective “shaped by the prodigal grace and mercy of God in Jesus” and for prayer that remembers those in prison.
Synod also approved a meeting of persons “interested in the study and work of mass incarceration as the beginning of a learning community.” According to a report on the RCA website, the estimated cost of the proposed meeting will be over $11,000.
General Synod encouraged the classes “to develop and adopt family leave policies, commensurate with other professional positions in society, for ordained clergy serving in churches within their boundaries, as soon as practicable.”
While the recommendation came from the Commission for Women, based on a ministerial survey, the proposal would allow either women or men to devote more time in providing care for loved ones.
Transformed and Transforming
The RCA’s ministry goal, Transformed and Transforming, was highlighted throughout the 2016 General Synod with stories of positive transformation in individuals and churches. An interactive online tool, the Transformed and Transforming dashboard, is now available and shows at a glance how many churches, classes, and regional synods are involved with different aspects of the goal.
While the RCA General Synod met from June 9-14 at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL, the CRCNA Synod met from June 10-16 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. As a symbol of the denominations’ desires to continue working toward closer fellowship, the RCA’s General Secretary, Dr. Tom De Vries, and the CRC’s Executive Director, Dr. Steven Timmermans, communicated via a video dialogue.
The RCA Synod also committed $5,000 for a survey regarding worship practices, to be conducted in partnership with the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, which is located at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.
The RCA will attempt to address the lack of unity within its ranks by beginning a denominational conversation regarding a Reformed perspective of the Bible. The General Synod Council is to consult with the Professors of Theology to develop “a process of denomination-wide discussion centered on a Reformed understanding of the nature, purpose, authority, and interpretation of Scripture; and further, to identify existing and/or develop new resources in support of this process.” A report on this effort will be presented to the 2017 General Synod.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-8 of the August 24, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal. NOTE: Mark Jicinsky has since become the lead pastor at Crossroads Fellowship, the CRC in Des Moines, IA.