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Synod Reflections (2): Appeals

Synod Bunbury 2018 had to deal with a number of appeals. Usually, appeals are being dealt with in closed session because the character of an appeal is, that it is about personal matters. Article 31 of the Church Order states: ‘If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly he shall have the right of appeal to the major assembly; …’

However, Synod Bunbury 2018 had three ‘appeals’ on the agenda from individual church members, ‘appealing’ the decision of Synod Baldivis to enter into a sister church relationship with the RCNZ. Synod declared these ‘appeals’ inadmissible. When we look at the grounds of this decision to declare it inadmissible, we notice that Synod argues that an individual can appeal a decision of a minor assembly to the major assembly; it is not possible to appeal a decision of one synod to the next. In this situation, the ‘appellant’ should have appealed the decision of the local consistory to accept the decision of the previous synod, to the classis and then if necessary to the synod. While this is technically correct, I believe that the way of reasoning in these grounds makes the matter unnecessarily complicated. I don’t disagree with the decision of the synod, but it could have been said so much easier: an appellant has the task to show that he has been wronged by a decision of the minor assembly, and that was not the case here. The FRC Launceston correctly stated this in its letter to Synod regarding one of these appeals.

In fact, these members presented their case as an appeal, while it was nothing else than bringing up again a matter on which Synod Baldivis had made a decision. In this case, article 33 of the Church Order applies: ‘Matters once decided upon may not be proposed again unless they are substantiated by new grounds.’

Article 31

A few comments about appeals in general. This means that in the following comments I am not commenting on this specific situation.

Article 31 is compact. There are several elements in this article that need our attention.

First: the word ‘wronged’. Being wronged is not the same as disagreeing with a decision. It means that we have suffered an injustice by a certain decision. In that case, a member has the right to appeal to the major assembly. He does not need to do it but may do so. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul encourages us to be willing to suffer wrong, rather than pursuing our vindication. This humility is the right attitude, certainly if it is about minor issues. Therefore, for someone to appeal to the major assembly, he will have the duty to show that he has personally been wronged and that this wrong leads to severe suffering.

Second: the words the major assembly. The major assembly of the consistory is the next classis after the decision was made by the consistory. Classes and Synods are not continuing bodies. A classis meets and after it is closed, it doesn’t exist anymore. That is the same with a synod. The Church Order does not speak about a major assembly but the major assembly. That means first that you can’t go from consistory to synod. You have to go to the classis first. It also means that you can’t wait and see if the delegates at the next classis are sympathetic to your cause, and if not, wait for another classis. There is a time limit. If you read the literature on this matter (you can find a lot of resources on the Dutch site, then there is a broad agreement that indeed, an appeal should be going to the next major assembly. A church must have the certainty that its decisions are not going to be overturned in the far future because someone some time later disagrees with a decision. If someone is wronged, he should appeal as soon as possible. It is reasonable for a consistory to wait with the implementation of that decision, if it is being appealed, until the meeting of the next classis, but you cannot demand from a consistory to wait until the appellant has made up his mind to which classis he is going to appeal and until that classis, maybe one or two years later, will have met. If someone can wait that long, then that already indicates that he can bear the injustice and then the rule of 1 Corinthians 6 should apply: Why not rather suffer wrong?

Third, the words: and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding. If someone appeals a decision of a consistory to the classis, and the classis does not sustain his appeal, he can go to the synod. If synod doesn’t sustain his appeal either, he should accept that he may be wrong, or that what he requests is not in the best interest of the churches. If a major assembly does sustain an appeal, then a consistory should be willing to accept the judgment of that major assembly. If it is a classis that makes this decision, the consistory can still appeal to the next synod, but then also the consistory has the duty to prove that it has been wronged by the decision of classis. Often it is best for the sake of peace, for a consistory in such a case to just accept the decision of the classis and work on reconciliation. Only if the classis has been blatantly unfair or the consistory believes that accepting such a decision of the classis is detrimental to the congregation, then it should appeal to the next synod. And any decision made by the synod shall be accepted as settled and binding.

The words shall be considered settled and binding in article 31 apply to decisions about appeals. However, this is also a general principle within reformed church polity for the churches within a federation for any decision made by the synod. Synod decisions do not always apply to all the churches, but when they do, then with that they are settled and binding. It does not depend on whether churches ‘ratify’ decisions of synod or not. If a church refuses to ratify a decision, then with that decision it in fact breaks the bond with the other churches.

So many decisions are being made by our assemblies, and I don’t always agree with those decisions. But whatever is decided by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding (later I will come back to the last words of the article: unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order.’) We should have the humility to accept that we don’t always have the highest wisdom and that others, and certainly a majority, can know it better than we do. I have disagreed with decisions in the past, but still accepted them, and later I had to admit that those decisions were right and I was wrong. There is a saying that says that wisdom is found in the counsel of many (some claim this comes from Proverbs 15:22, although this text has a different wording). If several assemblies have discussed this matter and it has come to a conclusion in the general assembly of the churches (i.e. synod), then we should have confidence that it is a wise decision. If we are still not convinced, we can ask our consistory for guidance. If even the consistory says that it accepts this decision, then we should put it to rest.

Article 33

What if we disagree with a decision of a synod, even though we are not personally wronged by it? Then it is our first task to study the decision of synod and all the material that was available to the synod and on which it based its decision. Synods mention the material on which their decision is based, in the acts. Synod considered that material and made a decision, based on the grounds formulated in the Acts. If we believe that the synod has failed to consider the material properly and based on that material should have come to other grounds, or if we believe that there are new grounds, which haven’t been considered by the synod at all, then we can request our consistory to bring the matter to synod again, and request synod to reconsider a previous decision. Article 33 states that Matters once decided upon may not be proposed again unless they are substantiated by new grounds.‘. We can’t keep bringing up matters which have been decided, in the hope that one time there will be enough delegates in favour of our viewpoint. That is not the way we work within the Church of Christ.

Who can bring a matter up again? Only consistories. Not individuals. We are a federation of churches. Not one national church with individual members. Every member is a member of the local church and not of a national church. The local churches put matters on the agenda of the synod via the ecclesiastical way (unless it has been decided by a previous synod that something is a matter for the churches in common and synod appointed deputies: then these deputies can put matters on the agenda through their report). Individuals don’t have the right to submit matters to a synod for consideration. They have to go through the local consistory.

Unless …

Article 31 ends with the words unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order. In this context, these words are about decisions on appeals, but they also apply to decisions of major assemblies in general. Churches and individual church members cannot be forced to do something against the Word of God. Even a decision of synod cannot force them to do so. In that case, decisions made by a majority vote should not be accepted. However, this is about matters which are clearly contrary to God’s Word or the Church Order. It is not about matters of interpretation of certain texts. It is not about matters where the Church Order is not clear and synod needed to give clarity. It is only about matters where God’s Word is clear, or where the adopted rules in the Church Order show one direction and synod goes a different direction.

The three appellants mentioned at the beginning of this article claimed that based on a precedent set by the synod West Kelmscott 2006 they had the right to appeal a decision of the one synod to the next synod. I’m not going into detail about this decision of West Kelmscott 2006, whether it was right or not. There is no need for that. Even if that decision is wrong, then still it doesn’t create any precedent because the Church Order is clear: appeals only if you are personally wronged. Full stop.

Should the churches then come with a proposal to rescind West Kelmscott 2006? No, that is not necessary. If that decision was wrong, then still, article 31 of the Church Order supersedes this decision of West Kelmscott 2006. There is no need to rescind this decision, although it may still be helpful to do so.

Assemblies may decide once in a while, notwithstanding article 31, to admit an appeal of someone who doesn’t prove he has been wronged by a decision, or a submission which calls itself an appeal but is actually a matter under Article 33. However, such a decision is often unwise, and if they do deem it necessary, they must be extremely careful in doing so and consider that it is not in line with the adopted order. Such a decision can never be used as a precedent.

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