A Most Surprising ARP Synod Meeting

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I approached the 2011 meeting of the ARP General Synod with trepidation.  As I have argued here, the ARP Church has recently been in the throes of an ecclesiological crisis.  Fallout from the unsuccessful attempt to replace the existing Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary Board of Trustees in March 2010 revealed deeper, already-existing problems of disunity, dysfunction, and a lack of commitment to church discipline.  In addition, the June 2010 Synod was marked by the political emergence of a center wing which then voted with the left wing of the church to step back  from the effort to replace the Erskine Board.  If the divisions evident at the 2010 June Synod meeting were to persist, the chances for harmony and progress at the 2011 Synod were not good.

 

I also sensed that the ARP Church itself could well begin to unravel, and I had shared my concerns with some colleagues about two triggers that could precipitate just such an implosion.  First, a failure by the Synod to respond appropriately to the Erskine trustees' revision of the Erskine By-Laws (which appear further to distance the institutions from the Synod) could have led to a financial crisis as churches began to withhold offerings from the Denominational Ministry Fund for reasons of conscience (the DMF funnels over a half-million dollars to Erskine every year).  Second, there was considerable talk before Synod of a proposal that Synod apologize to the Erskine trustees that the Synod had attempted to remove in March of 2010.  Such a motion would doubtless have provoked heated and extended debate on the floor, and the damage to unity would have been substantial.  Thankfully, and by the grace of God, that motion was never introduced.  Furthermore, the Synod did respond in a measured and prudent way to the Erskine Board.

 

WHAT HAPPENED?

 

In addition to the normal procedural and housekeeping matters with which each Synod must deal, along with some wonderful opportunities for corporate worship (the opening worship service, led by TE and former Moderator Dr. John R. deWitt, was splendid!), the following list of fourteen decisions and developments at the 2011 ARP General Synod meeting is likely to be of interest to a broader audience.  Items 1-7 deal with Erskine-related matters, items 8-10 with interchurch issues, and the remainder with other matters.

 

1.   Acting on a report of the Special Committee for a Policy on Board Member Removal, the Synod approved a policy whereby trustees and/or committee members of agencies and standing committees of the General Synod may be removed "for cause."  The work of this committee was authorized by last year's Synod after it became evident that the lack of such a policy had complicated efforts by the Synod to address problems on the Erskine Board (in accordance with South Carolina non-profit law, the March 2010 Synod had attempted to remove the entire board "without cause," but this action had almost immediately caused repercussions with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which accredits Erskine and which stipulates that trustees may only be removed "for cause"). 

 

2.   A recommendation calling upon the Erskine Board to revise its By-Laws (which specifically reserve the right of trustee removal to the Board alone) in light of the newly approved Synod board/committee member removal policy was approved.

 

3.   Perhaps the most significant of the Erskine-related matters was the approval of a motion presented by TE Clint Davis calling upon the Erskine Board to enter into a process of Erskine charter revision (changes to the Erskine charter must be approved by both Board and Synod).  The motion included a paragraph of suggested language that explicitly recognizes the organic relationship between the Synod and the Erskine institutions, the appropriate role of Synod in defining the mission of the schools, and the right of the Synod to appoint trustees and to remove trustees for cause.  This carefully crafted motion was ably presented by Davis and overwhelmingly approved. 

 

4.   A resolution presented by Canadian TE Jeff Kingswood commending the six Erskine professors who had publicly defended the General Synod's position on the inerrancy of Scripture in their "Good Friday Statement" was approved (without audible dissent as far as I could tell). 

 

5.   Recommendations from the Synod Committee on Erskine Campus Minister and Ministry were overwhelmingly approved.  These actions make the Erskine chaplain, TE Paul Patrick who is also the current Vice-Moderator of the General Synod, a direct employee of the Synod, and they also establish a formal affiliation relationship between Erskine Campus Ministry and Reformed University Ministries, an agency of the PCA.  These actions can be read as an affirmation of the ministry of Patrick, who is well-regarded by students and by the Synod, as an expression of Synod's intention to be more directly involved in the oversight of campus ministry at Erskine on a long-term basis, and as a recognition of the effectiveness of the Reformed University Fellowship model of campus ministry as it has been implemented by Patrick.

 

6.   The Synod referred a complaint from members of Second Presbytery (the Presbytery covering western South Carolina and Georgia) regarding that Presbytery's  handling of charges preferred against an Erskine Seminary professor who had filed a legal action against the General Synod in the wake of the March 2010 Snow Synod.  The complaint document had been properly filed by the complainants but it was not included in the Synod materials, and when this oversight became evident on the floor TE Charles Wilson moved that it be referred to the Ecclesiastical Commission on Judiciary Affairs.  This means that this case will likely not be conclusively adjudicated until at least next June.

 

7.   At last year's Synod concerns were expressed after it became known that non-Christian clergy were being admitted to the D.Min. program at Erskine Seminary (a total of 2 Orthodox Jews, 7 Mormons, and 1 Muslim).  All these were military chaplains, and seven of these ten had been admitted under provisions of a contract between Erskine Seminary and the U.S. Army Medical Command to provide graduate education for military chaplains.  Significantly, an investigation by the Erskine Board found that admission requirements for the D.Min. program had not been consistently followed, and its report concluded that "this appears to have resulted because of an administrative failure, with the result that we are not in compliance with our own admission standards." 

 

8.   A recommendation from the Synod's Inter-Church Relations Committee to sever the Synod's fraternal relationship with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) was approved.  Relations between the two churches have been frosty since 2001 when a CRC fraternal delegate chided the Synod for the ARPC's failure to ordain women to all church offices and the ARPC's NAPARC delegation voted to remove the CRC from NAPARC membership later that year. 

 

9.   A recommendation from the Inter-Church Relations Committee that the Synod discontinue its membership in the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) was approved.  This decision seems to have been prompted primarily by financial rather than ideological reasons.

 

10.  A motion was passed calling upon the PC(USA) to repent of its decision to delete the "fidelity and chastity" language from its Book of Order, an action which effectively removes the constitutional impediment to the ordination of practicing homosexuals in that denomination. 

 

11.  A Preliminary Report of the Strategic Planning Committee was approved.  This report builds on the 2007 report of the Vision Committee, which identified a number of problems and challenges facing the ARP Church.  It recognizes that the ARP Church has been dealing with an identity crisis of sorts for decades and it calls upon the church to rally around two great concerns which are taught in Scripture and "which flow directly and organically from our history and heritage," namely "the Lordship of Jesus Christ as Prophet, Priest and King over the Church, and the proclamation of a gracious gospel freely offered to all."  The report calls upon the church to implement a strategic plan that is "gospel-centered and gospel driven," that will "empower the people of God to accomplish God's purposes in God's way," and that will "marshal the resources of the church in a wise and prudent manner."  Ministry emphases that will be highlighted in the final report to be presented next year include powerful gospel-centered preaching, church planting, Christian education, multi-generational ministry, and culturally-responsive ministry. 

 

12.  A recommendation from the Synod's Minister and his Work Committee to change endorsement agencies for ARP military chaplains was approved.  Currently the ARPC is affiliated with the PC(USA)-dominated Presbyterian Council on Military Chaplains and Military Personnel (PCCMP).  The Synod approved a shift to the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel (PRJC), an organization that, according to the Committee's report, "endorses chaplains from other NAPARC denominations, such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and the Presbyterian Church in America."  This decision was rather clearly motivated by a desire for greater theological affinity with the organization tasked with support and encouragement of ARP chaplains, an increasing discomfort with the PC(USA)'s moves toward the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and the need for vigorous support of chaplains' rights to minister in a way consistent with their churches' convictions and policies regarding moral and theological issues, especially as the U.S. military establishment moves toward repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military.

 

13.  A recommendation from the Board of Stewardship that ARP congregations be expected to "tithe" their previous year's general fund giving to the Denominational Ministry Fund of the General Synod (and which cited an Old Testament passage on tithing as biblical support for this proposal) was referred to the Theological and Social Concerns Committee of the General Synod for further study.  Concerns were expressed on the floor regarding the lack of biblical and confessional support for such a policy.  It does seem to this writer that biblical tithing language is often used in a way similar to appeals to Matthew 18:15-20; that is, it is often deployed for practical reasons but rarely exegeted and employed appropriately. 

 

14.  Finally, RE Steven Suits, a physician and elder on the Session of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC was elected Moderator for next year (in contrast to many other Presbyterian churches the ARPC elects its Moderators a year in advance).  His nomination was made and seconded by TE Dr. Mark Ross of Erskine Seminary and yours truly.  Running against Suits was RE Michael Evans, an elder at the Arsenal Hill ARP Church in Columbia, SC, whose nomination was made and seconded by TE Allen Derrick and TE Charles Edgar.  Both candidates have served the church with distinction, but in the context of this Synod meeting the choice seemed to be between a forward-looking vision for the future of the ARPC on the one hand and old-guard ARP traditionalism on the other, with the former winning out.

 

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

 

After a number of Synod meetings characterized by significant conflict, it seems that by the grace of God peace has broken out.  Credit must be given here to effective moderatorial leadership.  Outgoing Moderator RE Steve Maye has worked assiduously behind the scenes during the months leading up this Synod meeting to bring the right and center wings of the church together, and current Moderator TE Andy Putnam managed the affairs of this Synod meeting with wit, good humor, and even-handedness. 

 

The net result of this was that the coalition of the right and center wings of the church was reestablished, and this right/center majority "ran the table."  That is to say, it did not lose a single vote of any ideological consequence.  In retrospect, it is now clear that the influx of ministers trained at schools such as RTS, Covenant Seminary, and Westminster Seminary is having a decisive impact on the theological complexion of the ARPC. 

 

Also noteworthy is the way that the ARPC in its external relations continues to move toward groups with which it is in essential theological agreement.  Here the new affiliations with the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel and Reformed University Ministries are significant, as are the severing of relationships with the CRC and the Presbyterian Council on Military Chaplains and Military Personnel.  All this bespeaks a greater concern for theological integrity and consistency. 

 

For all these reasons, coupled with the manner in which the ARPC is beginning to address its long-standing problem of identity, I am much more hopeful about the long-term prospects of the ARPC and its potential to surmount the challenges it currently faces.  By the grace of God, the unhappy scenario I outlined last year in "Whither or Wither" may well be averted. 

 

Nevertheless, questions remain.  Will the reestablished coalition of right and center hold as the ARPC continues to face difficult decisions?  How will the Erskine Board respond to the General Synod's overtures regarding By-Laws and Charter revisions?  As one respected ARP minister aptly commented to me shortly after the close of this year's Synod meeting, "the ball is now in the Erskine Board's court, and that ball has been well placed by the Synod."  Time will tell. 

Posted June 11, 2011 @ 9:30 PM by William B. Evans
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