Reflections on the 2013 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

An assessment of the 2013 ARP Synod meeting

The 2013 meeting of General Synod was a very good one. I can safely say it was one of the best meetings of Synod that I have ever attended. Many good things are happening in the ARP Church, and theologically we are trending in the right direction. If we can overcome our mistakes, I expect even greater things from the ARP Church in the future.

 

The 2013 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) met on June 11-12, 2013, at the Bonclarken Conference Center in Flat Rock, NC. I have been asked to give my thoughts about this annual meeting of our denomination.

There was much to like about the 2013 General Synod meeting. Here is what I liked:

The New Schedule Worked. Please notice that I wrote that Synod ended on June 12th, not June 13th. That’s right – after two recent Synod meetings ended late on Thursday evenings with the embarrassment of failed quorums, this Synod actually ended shortly after 5:30 pm on Wednesday. This was due mainly to a change in scheduling – the meeting began earlier on Tuesday, and the scheduling was handled far more efficiently with regard to the moderator’s committee meetings, hearing from fraternal delegates, etc. As a result, we were able to devote nearly all of Wednesday to actual business.

Word and Prayer. I had the opportunity this year to preach at Synod, but the delegates and guests were truly treated to wonderful sermons prior to mine. Dr. Derek Thomas preached for the opening worship service from Romans 8, and Rev. John Shearhouse preached from Psalm 22. In addition to the exposition of the word, prayer was handled differently at this Synod. When Synod stopped for times of prayer, we were frequently encouraged to pray in small groups instead of having one person lead the Synod in prayer. While the latter also took place, I thought this was a refreshing approach to encouraging prayer among the presbyters and unity within the body.

Unity on Erskine. And speaking of unity, there was much joy at Bonclarken over two reports dealing with Erskine College and Seminary. After struggles over this dominant issue the past few years, agreement was reached on a removal policy for trustees, which had been a major item of contention. The really impressive thing, though, is that this agreement came from two sides which had every opportunity to be opposed to one another – yet did not do that. The Erskine Board of Trustees and a special Moderator’s Committee worked together and came to an agreement on the issue. The Synod appeared to be in unanimous agreement with the recommendations.

Two Special Study Committees. A recommendation from a committee and a motion from the floor dealt with two issues that may yield welcome fruit for Synod in the near future. There will be two study reports that will be coming to Synod (hopefully in 2014). The first will be conducted by the Erskine Board of Trustees, which will make recommendations about the future of my alma mater, Erskine Theological Seminary, including the possibility of making Erskine better represent the ARP Church as a denominational seminary. The second was a motion made by Rev. Mark Miller of Catawba Presbytery – a special moderator’s committee is to be formed to study the final two chapters of the ARP’s version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (two added chapters on the gospel and the Holy Spirit), particularly with regard as to whether they should be a part of our Confession of Faith.

A Joint Synod Meeting in 2015. Upon a recommendation by the Inter-church Relations Committee, an invitation is being sent to the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) for a joint meeting of the synods of both denominations in 2015. If accepted, both denominations will meet at Bonclarken that year. While business will be conducted separately, worship services will be conducted jointly. An amendment was added to the recommendation – that as part of the invitation, the RPCNA will be assured that the singing during the worship services will be psalms-only and unaccompanied by musical instruments. Hopefully, this will foster a greater sense of brotherhood between the ARP and the RPCNA – two denominations that are historically linked to one another.

Great Moderators. Synod was served well this past year by outgoing Moderator Dr. Steve Suits. The current moderator, Jeff Kingswood (Synod’s first Canadian moderator) did a fine job conducting the meeting. His emphasis for this coming year deals with the importance of being a confessional church – a welcome topic for any reformed denomination – and he emphasized the singing of psalms during the times of worship during the meeting. A new moderator was elected unanimously by the Synod – Larry Littlejohn, an elder at the French Camp Presbyterian Church (French Camp, MS). I am thrilled to say that Larry is a member of my own presbytery, and he recently served the presbytery well as its moderator. The Lord has blessed the ARP Church greatly in raising up these fine, godly men to help lead our Synod.

What I did not like about the 2013 meeting of General Synod can be narrowed down to a single topic:

The Report of the Standing Ecclesiastical Commission. The Ecclesiastical Commission on Judiciary Affairs (ECJA) presented a report to Synod detailing two cases it had considered during the past year, both dealing with presbyters who had participated in lawsuits against the ARP Church. “Detailed” is actually a rather generous word, as the report was a short three paragraphs in length – the first paragraph being an introduction, and the latter two paragraphs stating that both cases had been dismissed. I was a member of the ECJA, and I was also one of the two signers of a minority report that was taken up and debated by Synod (both reports may be viewed here: http://theaquilareport.com/arp-synod-exonerates-two-elders-who-had-sued-the-church). In the end, the recommendations of the minority report were voted down (although all the votes seemed rather close). The original report from the ECJA was then debated and eventually adopted.

Here is the issue that gravely concerns me about all of this: I can understand why delegates might have objected to the specific recommendations of the minority report. I can understand why good and godly men may not have agreed with me on this and voted against the minority report. However, I cannot fathom why in the world the report of the ECJA was affirmed. Synod was asked to act on a report of barely one hundred words, for two judicial cases in which no parties were ever heard. The commission did not even meet for the first time until the end of January of 2013 (more than sixth months after Synod last met, and only a couple of months before Synod reports are due). Yet the majority of Synod gave its stamp of approval on the commission’s report, and now it must live with the consequences of that. The only positive fruit that came out of all of this is that the third recommendation from the minority report – that General Synod refer to the Committee on Theological and Social Concerns the question as to whether it is justifiable for Christians to take other Christians to the secular courts – was offered from the floor as a separate motion and was passed by the Synod.

Despite this one concern, the 2013 meeting of General Synod was a very good one. I can safely say it was one of the best meetings of Synod that I have ever attended. Many good things are happening in the ARP Church, and theologically we are trending in the right direction. If we can overcome our mistakes (such as the adoption of the ECJA report), I expect even greater things from the ARP Church in the future.

Tim Phillips is Pastor of Midlane Park Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Louisville, Ky, and also serves as Principal Clerk of the Mississippi Valley Presbytery (ARP).