Incoming Moderator’s Address to the Associated Reformed Presbyterian 2012 General Synod

We will spend the bulk of our time over the next two days dealing with areas that do not fall directly under the Confession’s stated functions for a synod. I wonder why we spend so much time on what has little to do with the purpose of a synod according to our Confession.  At the Synod level, we are doing more than the Confession calls for.

 

(Editor’s note:  Dr. Suits has authorized The Aquila Report to reprint the entire text of his opening address to the meeting of General Synod of the ARP on June 6.  Excerpts had been quoted in a previous story.  Our thanks to Intern Daniel Wells for tracking this down for us.)

 

Fathers and brothers, last year Moderator Andy Putnam laid before us a statistical picture of the health of our denomination.  His presentation made it quite clear that the trajectory of the ARPC in terms of numbers is not positive.  Now, the Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) identifies in its report to us this year what is eating at the fabric of the ARPC, echoing to a large degree what was said by the Vision Committee over five years ago.

Not only are we experiencing declining membership, diminishing giving, and dying congregations, but, according to what these two committees have reported, apathy and mediocrity characterize much of the attitude of our work, at least in the sphere of denominational affairs. Coming out of this is what the SPC called, “blame-shifting and conflict for control.”

Such negative attributes are probably not as apparent to those among us who do not spend much time in denominational activities, but rather are working hard to serve their local congregations.  Nevertheless, this is what has been said by the members of these two committees, who have thought long and hard about our condition.  What underlying problems are responsible for this state of affairs?

Again, according to these committees, biblical illiteracy and theological confusion are commonplace among us.  They tell us that this has led to moral decay, lack of vision, and ineffective leadership – especially seen in weak pulpit ministries.

So we read in the reports. And so I have heard in meetings since you elected me last year.

What I am hearing too frequently is along the lines of the conflict for control that the SPC mentions in its report.  I have heard many placing the blame for the condition of our denomination on the make-up of this board or that committee.  And now we know that a conflict over control has so impeded an entire presbytery that the Executive Board has recommended we cut ties with it.

Given this situation, I have been asking repeatedly during the past months, “Why a Synod in the first place?”  Like many of you, I delight in the worship, preaching and teaching of my church, and in her outreach to the community and her commitment to world missions. I am excited by the planting of a new local body of Christ under our sponsorship and hope we will continue to do this. I hear of similar satisfaction with local churches from many of you throughout our denomination.  So, why a Synod in the first place?

When I looked to our Confession of Faith for guidance, I found that a Synod is for the better government and further edification of the Church.  How does a synod provide for better government and further edification of the Church?

Specifically, according to the Confession, a Synod is formed to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God; to set down rules and directions for the better government of [the] church; and to receive complaints in cases of maladministration.

We will find ourselves carrying out such functions over the next two days.  Our Form of Government revision process speaks directly to Synod’s function to set down standards for the better government of the church.  We have received cases of alleged maladministration in the form of complaints filed with Synod this year.

Now, we certainly deal each General Synod with controversy.  Whether or not it involves what the Confession refers to as “controversies of faith” is open to question. Nevertheless, we as the Church of Christ must not waste any controversy. Let us make each one count.

How can we do this? By letting each controversy drive us to our Lord for resolution; by letting it drive us to the Scriptures for clarity; by letting it drive us to our knees to seek for the Spirit’s intervention; and by letting it drive us to seek purity with peace and unity. God’s call to purity and his call to strive for peace and unity are not antagonistic, but complementary. In fact, peace and unity can only exist where there is purity.

I recently read that controversies can be a warning to us not to suffer from doctrinal apathy and to remember the necessity of humility with a willingness to affirm that we do not debate from our own authority, nor for our own sakes, but for truth’s sake. We must not believe that taking a stand on anything is inherently arrogant and unloving.

The most loving thing we can do for a brother is to speak the truth, not try to avoid all controversy. How we speak is important. But speak truth we must.  To be complacent about any or all controversy is to be complacent about truth itself. Controversy is not the problem.

A London paper once asked, “What’s the Matter with the World?” and encouraged its readers to write in with their answers. After an ongoing dialogue over several months, G. K. Chesterton wrote and said, “Sirs, you asked, ‘What’s the matter with the world?’ I am, Sincerely yours, GKC.” The dialogue ended abruptly. Similarly, controversy is not the problem.  We are. I am.

We will spend the bulk of our time over the next two days dealing with areas that do not fall directly under the Confession’s stated functions for a synod. I wonder why we spend so much time on what has little to do with the purpose of a synod according to our Confession.  At the Synod level, we are doing more than the Confession calls for.

The rest of our Standards and our governing documents indeed establish multiple other roles for our Synod. But I cannot help but wonder if this expansion in the Synod’s role has not caused us to perform the confessionally-mandated duties poorly and has led to such a burden on the Synod that we cannot support everything we are trying to do.

I listened as the nominating committee struggled to find people to serve the many vacancies on boards and committees. I heard one agency after another describe their diminishing denominational funds.  I wonder how much of the disunity in our denomination has resulted from trying to be too much and do too much. I wonder. If Synod limited its work to establishing better government, determining controversies of faith and conscience, ordering public worship, and receiving complaints of maladministration, I wonder if we wouldn’t re-establish the ties that bind. I wonder.

If we dared to look at our agencies, boards, committees – all that we do – and sought where they fit in to a confesionally-crafted Synod, would we find a place for them all? I wonder. Most if not all the things we are trying to do are good things. But we are not always doing them well as a Synod. I wonder if perhaps it’s because we ought not to be doing them at the Synod level. I wonder. Our Confession reflects the essential things for our denomination.  If these are lacking or being poorly performed, then we need to put our focus on them, and not on the less crucial activities of our denomination.  Are we at the denominational level trying to do what local congregations ought to do?

Local congregations must sense a need for the Synod to enable them to do the work of the kingdom, or to do it better, if they are going to move out from the limited labor of local ministry wherein they are consumed with their local needs and the tyranny of the urgent at home.  If we want to see better participation from congregations in denominational affairs – including funding – then the Synod needs to offer them something they need and get beyond the distractions of years gone by.  The churches must see that all we do as a synod is necessary, not just tradition or the way we’ve done it.  And it is the essentials that are necessary.

Our decade theme gives us a place to start when identifying what we really need to be doing: The ARPC Essentials – What Makes Us Who We Are? As we seek to answer this question let us consider it within the context of our Confession’s teaching on the purpose of a synod.  If what makes us who we are is not according to that, then let us ask if what we are is what we ought to be.

We entered the decade with a multi-year focus on the Word of God, wrapping it up in 2010 with Moderator Steve Maye’s theme, the Spirit-Illumined Word.  This past year we have thought about the free offer of the Gospel.  The Word and the free offer of the Gospel are part of our legacy in the ARPC.  The obvious theme for the Synod this coming year would be the lordship of Jesus Christ, another one of our historical emphases.  And so it will be.  There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ.  And we have no higher calling than to know him as Lord and to make him known as Lord.

I hear repeatedly that our denomination needs transformation.  For it to be transformed, we who are the Synod must be transformed individually and only then might we be transformed as a denomination corporately.  Taking the lead from brother Curt Young’s advice, our Pre-Synod Conference looked at how we might be transformed through a better understanding of the lordship of Jesus Christ, applied in our lives.  In the initial presentation, Dr. Young laid out that to be transformed we must live with a proper regard for the majesty of the Lord Jesus.  Our PCA brother, Dr. Rick Phillips, showed us that if would see the Church transformed, it will come only through expository preaching as an expression of the lordship of Jesus Christ.  Brother David Vance explained that if we would be transformed and always transforming, we ought to look to the biblical and historical origins of the significance of the doctrine of lordship and seek to be faithful to the Word and our lordship tradition as it applies the Word of life to our contemporary world.  Finally, Frank Van Dalen encouraged us that if we truly want to see transformation of the whole world, we should recognize the lordship of Jesus Christ over all the nations and seek to call his elect throughout the world as we are going into all nations making disciples.

These transformational tasks are essentially individual and congregational responsibilities, not synod tasks. The Synod can only facilitate and encourage them by promoting better church government and discipline, settling controversies of faith and conscience, and promoting and ordering the public worship of God.  Where we are doing things and financing activities that are not a part of these Synod-specific responsibilities, perhaps we need to re-think our role as a Synod.

After last year’s statistical review and this year’s report of the SPC, is there no good news? Recently, a friend and brother, who is a member of this court, gave me a copy of Professor Douglas Kelly’s book, New Life in the Wasteland.  It is a compilation of messages based on 2 Corinthians that he gave throughout Scotland under the sponsorship of Rutherford House. In it, Kelly reminds us that we “cannot always judge by the superficial appearance of the church, because historically and theologically it is so often true that God is doing the most when things look the very worst . . .  Often when the church seems buried and things seem most discouraging, God is working profoundly beneath the surface.”

Fathers and brothers, what is God doing to further his grace among us so that he can work his grace through us? Let us not just look at the externals – the statistics, the reports, the so-called struggles for control and blame-shifting.  Rather, let us call upon our Sovereign God under whose lordship we stand and serve. Let us look for his hidden pattern of providence that works all things – yes, even General Synod meetings – after the counsel of his will.  Our ups and downs are in reality, according to Professor Kelly, God’s sovereign forward movement to his goal. And I am convinced that he who began a good work in us will perfect it as we approach the day of Christ Jesus.

What would a biblically and confessionally-centered Synod look like? In order to carry out the functions enumerated by our Confession, we need to be a fellowship of the ministers and elders of our churches who care deeply about excellence in faithful ministry to the Lord. We need to look forward to our gatherings – at both Presbytery and Synod levels – as opportunities for soul-feedings and not gamesmanship. We need to return to biblical discipline that is both timely and focused on repentance and reconciliation, not punishment and isolation.

We need the strong pulpits that characterized the times of Robert Murray McCheyne; pulpits that preach the Word both by mouth and by manner of living.  Let us heed McCheyne’s instruction that we pray, “Lord, do in me first what I am asking you to do in this congregation. Apply the preaching to my life that I am seeking to have applied to this people whom you have given me.” That is my prayer for my service to you.

Everything under the lordship of Jesus Christ. This is not just a slogan; it is a reality. He is Lord! We need not try to determine how to put everything under his lordship; everything is under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Will I recognize his lordship in my service to his kingdom as it is embodied in the ARPC? I pray I will.

Heavenly Father, promote the purity, peace and prosperity of your church as it is embodied in the ARPC, I pray.  And guide our deliberations over the next two days during this 208th annual meeting of the General Synod of the ARPC, I ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

(Editor’s Note:  The Aquila Report would love to receive articles from members of other denominations and faith groups as to whether these ideas would also apply to their denomination.  Send material to [email protected])