by Rev. B. R. Hofford
November 25, 2006
One of the most common objections to the secession from the Lynden American Reformed Church is that the seceders "broke with the church of Christ in Lynden without following the agreed upon process of Article 31 of the Church Order." This objection by one of the ministers of the federation is representative of what many are voicing.
On the mere face of it, this criticism may seem accurate. It is indeed true that the Hofford's final appeal was to a classis, and following that response, they seceded. In our circles, given our history with Art. 31, C.O., it is not unexpected that a knee-jerk reaction would be: "Why didn't they appeal to the broader assemblies?"
It must first be noted that in our June 13 letter calling a secession from the Lynden church we gave an explanation for the above decision to not appeal further:
"You may wonder why we do not continue to appeal these matters. Under ordinary circumstances, when a new matter arises, the path of further appeal would be the proper one to follow. However, the situation in our federation and local church, regarding decisions on ecclesiastical fellowship with the churches listed above, is not ordinary. These are not new matters. The decisions reached by synods about these matters have been maintained despite years of study and countless appeals from various churches showing these decisions to be wrong. The decisions to extend ecclesiastical fellowship to the OPC, URC and RCUS have already been dealt with by two successive general synods. The consistory of the American Reformed Church at Lynden has accepted and implemented all of these unscriptural synod decisions. In this respect we believe that it is the consistory of Lynden which has the highest authority in the government of the church, and thus we have come to the end of the appeal process."
In our August 30 letter to each consistory of the federation we added this further explanation:
"At first glance, it is natural to assume that we have not followed the church-orderly route by failing to appeal our local grievances to the broader assemblies-particularly the regional synod and the general synod (since we did appeal to a classis, copies of which are available on request). If this were true, then it would be correct to dismiss our letter and material as illegitimately before you. However, it should be noted, as we explain in our letter of call, that the matters at issue are not simply local ones, but rather ones that have been dealt with by all the churches over many decades. Further, these issues have been repeatedly appealed in various ways by many churches only to have the general synods again and again affirm that there will be no change in the direction of the churches regarding ecclesiastical fellowship. Thus, the local issues that are the foundation for our secession are also the federational issues with which all the churches have been confronted repeatedly."
In reaction to the letter containing the above explanation, we have still received responses accusing us of having failed to follow the church-orderly process of appeal. What follows is a portion of the reply sent to one of these churches that further explains our actions:
"By way of further explanation, it should be noted that regarding the issue of ecclesiastical fellowship, our interaction with the Lynden consistory that led to secession was the completion of the appeal cycle, not the beginning of something new that originated at the local level. As stated above, the issues at stake had all been appealed repeatedly to the broadest assemblies. The only step left for us was to go to the highest authority-the local consistory of Lynden-to determine their final response to these matters.
In light of the above it should be clear that the appeals to classis mentioned in our letter were not appeals directly regarding the ecclesiastical relationships as though we were seeking to begin the full cycle of appeals again. Rather, these appeals were specifically focused on the procedural issue of whether the Lynden consistory had fulfilled its pastoral responsibility in responding to our letters to them regarding the ecclesiastical fellowship questions. Had the classis upheld these appeals, then we would have continued our dialog with the consistory over the issues. However, when the classis denied our appeals, the door closed by the Lynden consistory was, as it were, locked by the classis.
It is true that from a technical point of view, we could have appealed these denials to broader assemblies. However, we believe there are sound reasons for not doing so. First, it should be made clear that the appeal to classis over the procedural matters mentioned above was in itself an act of supererogation (ed. note: beyond what was actually necessary) in the broader perspective. In other words, when in its response to our letters the Lynden consistory refused to further interact over the issues and thus implicitly reaffirmed its position of support for the decisions of the synods regarding ecclesiastical fellowship, the process was finished (bear in mind that these are decisions affirmed by several synods and to be considered settled and binding on the churches). Given these circumstances, for us to continue to appeal to broader assemblies about these issues would be to pursue a virtually never-ending circular process-how many synods must one appeal to in order to be sure of the answer? It should also be borne in mind that by this time the Hoffords were placed under discipline for refusing to cooperate in upholding these decisions.
Second, we decided to appeal to classis on procedural grounds in order to provide the Lynden consistory with one further opportunity to repent of its sins and to interact with us as they had promised. We also believed that such appeals would make clear both to the Lynden congregation and to the other churches that we had gone the extra mile in seeking to maintain unity in the truth. Again, we reiterate the fact that we were not under any normal church-orderly obligation to make these particular appeals.
Third, we appealed to classis, and no further, because of the unique relationship that a local church sustains to the other churches of the classical district. Articles 44-46 of the Church Order make clear the nature of this relationship, one that does not subsist between a local church and synods. In short, our reasoning was that if there was any hope of inducing the Lynden consistory to fulfill their obligation towards us, then the neighboring churches would be the proper venue for such an appeal. When the classis denied our appeals, it was clear that the other churches of the area were standing behind Lynden's refusal to properly interact with us. Further, it was clear that this classis was implicitly affirming Lynden's upholding of the synodical decisions."
Those who reject our secession on the grounds that we "didn't follow the appeal process" must come to terms with the specific content of the above explanation. To fail to do so makes their objection appear more like an excuse for avoiding the substantive issues at stake.