For There The Blessing God Commands: ARP General Synod 2024

It is hard to imagine a more pleasant experience of fellowship with God’s people on earth than to set them in a temperate mountain environment, overlooking a lake, with morning dew rising into a mist, and the saints vigorously singing the Psalms of David a cappella on a porch before they enjoy a delicious breakfast. That is exactly how each day begins at the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) at her private conference grounds called Bonclarken in Flat Rock, North Carolina. The delegates of this 220th General Synod met June 11–13, and even as the broadest court of the denomination had weighty matters on her agenda, the environment was one predominated by glorifying God in worship and enjoying the love he sheds abroad to his people.

The ARP is a NAPARC member denomination of roughly twenty-three thousand members primarily in the American Southeast, but also stretching up the East Coast into Canada and including a handful of congregations on the West Coast. She was formed when men from the Associate Presbytery (the 1733 seceders from the Church of Scotland (CoS) amidst the Marrow Controversy) joined the Reformed Presbytery (the Covenanters who separated from the CoS a decade later). Once in the Americas, the Associates and the Reformed joined together as a synod in 1782.

On Tuesday morning, several presbyteries took advantage of the assembly and called meetings to undertake business which had come up in between regular stated gatherings. Some of those included ordination exams, so for a handful of men who were approved for the ministry, this was a very special Synod indeed. At 1:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday, the Synod was called to worship, opening with a setting of Psalm 99. After Synod was constituted, a brief memorial service was held for ministers, ruling elders, and former moderators who had died since the last Assembly. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that two of the men remembered in the service were in fact not dead, and were present as delegates of the assembly, which led to great rejoicing! Outgoing moderator, Rev. Rob Patrick preached from Hebrews 12:18–29. This was followed by the administration of the Lord’s Supper. The Word of God was preached prior to each session of business, twice Tuesday, three times Wednesday, then again twice on Thursday. Christ’s glorious gospel was skillfully heralded as the court was treated to fine preaching from diverse voices from around the denomination.

Ruling elder Alan Broyles was elected moderator and was well aided by the clerks and parliamentarian seated beside him. The ARP maintains a precious humility in that almost none amidst the rather impressive group of churchmen take themselves too seriously. Small procedural errors were covered over on occasion by a loving brother or dealt with through self-deprecating humor.

The unity of the broader Reformed churches was well displayed at this gathering. The Canadian Reformed Churches, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the United Reformed Churches in North America, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America all sent fraternal delegates who gave warm greetings and honest reports of the joys and sorrows in their respective bodies. Special attention was given to the visitors from the Iglesia Presbiteriana Asociada Reformada de Mexico, the ARP Church in Mexico which traces its roots to the sending of ARP missionaries in 1879. These brothers rejoiced for the Lord’s provision of a shared heritage and gave thank-filled speeches informing the synod of the increase of the Reformed faith in Mexico and progress in their own theological school. As a response to reports of the success of the gospel throughout nations, the 117th Psalm was sung in melody by both English and Spanish tongues. Lastly, the court heard a report from Rev. Zeeshan Sadiq, a longtime indigenous ARP minister in Pakistan. The ARP sent missionaries to Pakistan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the Lord has highly favored the seeds of this work, bringing this daughter denomination to surpass her mother by numbers, swelling to well over 100,000 members. Pakistan remains a difficult place for followers of Christ, yet Rev. Sadiq was enthusiastic for the gospel and mercy ministries which ARPs from two different continents are partnering in.

Three special committees of the Synod presented reports. The first was a committee charged with studying the compatibility of church officers participating in secret societies, an inquiry requested by the Canadian Presbytery in 2019. The committee focused a great deal of attention on Freemasonry and mined the existing work of other Reformed bodies on the matter, citing the reports of the OPC (1942), CRC (1977), and PCA (1988). The committee composed a helpful list of questions that a church officer should ask regarding how participation in a given society might affect his vows, theology, stewardship, and witness, but a motion was quickly brought from the floor with even more concrete language stating, “That the 220th General Synod explicitly and forthrightly declare that Freemasonry is incompatible with Christianity.”1 The motion passed.

The Special Committee to Study the Work of the Office of Deacon report was also presented. The summary of the report focused in on authority saying,

Those whom Christ is calling to exercise spiritually-centered authority, he sets apart by gifts including an ability to teach (Ephesians 4:11; James 3:11). In order that those officers might focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer, Christ calls others to serve as deacons and care for the physically-oriented needs of the Church (Acts 6:3–4; 1Timothy 3:8–13).2

Robust discussion took place, and ultimately the report was rejected as an official statement of the denomination by a small margin. This follows last year’s sidelining of Dr. Robert Cara’s exegetical paper memorialized (synonymous with overtured) by First Presbytery to the Synod.3 It really is hard to diagnose what it is that unites the small majority eager to preserve a local option for women deacons. The support seems much more to come from a theological middle reluctant to execute an uncomfortable decision than from any feminist left eager to usurp the offices. Herein is a subtle distinctive of the ARP—preserving brotherly charity even in difficult tension. That a large and passionate minority in the Synod believe that the most loving thing is to bring the Form of Government into greater agreement with the Pastoral Epistles certainly ensures that the debate will remain before us for the foreseeable future.

The third committee matter was indeed the weightiest—the special committee to investigate Second Presbytery’s handling of the allegations against Mr. Chuck Wilson. This matter was precipitated by the self-excommunication of a former minister prior to the Synod of 2023 taking jurisdiction of his trial, as well as questions that were raised from charges and circumstances surrounding that disruption of ecclesiastical justice. The committee clearly had conducted hundreds of hours of investigation, interviews, and depositions, which were officially summarized in twenty statements of fact. Numerous violations of the Book of Discipline and a culture of intimidation, retribution, fear, and inaction were noted with great sorrow. The committee made eight recommendations, the first of which was to dissolve Second Presbytery due to her irrevocably broken condition and inability to function as a court of the church. This prompted vigorous debate and further statements on the floor by many who affirmed the recommendations and added sad anecdotes regarding Mr. Wilson’s deficient character, as well as references to individuals in the presbytery who had come under his influence. Ultimately, the Synod voted 254 to 43 to dissolve Second Presbytery by September first, 2024. Additionally, a commission was set up to distribute the assets of the presbytery, the bounds of Catawba and the Tennessee-Alabama presbyteries were redrawn, the member churches were reassigned to the neighboring court, and ministers were encouraged to transfer their credentials into the nearest body. When certain figures involved seek transfer, there will be opportunity for their individual conduct in the culture and proceedings of Second Presbytery to be examined. The investigative committee’s report included sufficient information to bring certain individuals under future scrutiny. This debate caused numerous delegates to move motions or inquire if there was direct charging action that could take place. The parliamentarian repeatedly reminded the court that they are presbyterian, that the authority to charge rests in the presbyteries, and that the Synod is a court of appeal. Because the only cases that were pertinent had been disrupted, in one case by Mr. Wilson’s self-excommunication, and in another by a minister transferring to the PCA, there was in fact no judicial matter before the court, only a series of recommendations by a moderator’s committee to investigate the handling of a previous assortment of judicial actions and inactions in Second Presbytery. According to the Form of Government, the Synod has authority to hear appeals originating in the presbyteries and to create, merge, or dissolve presbyteries. Having no relevant appellate case to hear, the court exercised her power to dissolve a presbytery which had been proven derelict in her duties.

Some of the lengthy backstory on these matters involves layers of personal difficulties and private sins. For that reason, one delegate rose after the dissolution of Second Presbytery and moved that the Synod seek public forgiveness from those directly, or peripherally harmed, for neglecting duties as spiritual fathers and brothers, citing Westminster Larger Catechism 130. The motion passed unanimously.

The 220th Synod was not only an historical one for the need to dissolve a presbytery, but also important for having begun the labor of birthing a new national Synod. Canadian Presbytery memorialized the Synod to be released to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Canada. This was precipitated by numerous difficulties in being a bi-national Synod. Training and retaining indigenous ministers, differences in banking and pension law, and the expense of synodical travel were among the grounds. The prevailing sentiment on both sides of the border was a recognition of how much we will miss each other, but an expectant joy for how the Lord will use the refocused energy and resources in the Canadian context, and in our new and different fraternal relations in the future. The Canadian brothers will now begin the process of establishing their own national ARP Synod to be formally established on September 1, 2025.

Interspersed between worship, business, and fellowship were reports of the agencies that are flourishing, finances that are stable, churches that are being planted, ministers being raised up, and missionaries being sent; and then there were the warmest reunions and the forging of new friendships. The ARP with her long history of observing and preserving the Reformed faith and practice, in a synodical environment of real familial love is truly a wonderful thing. As the Canadian Reformed Churches’ fraternal delegate, the Reverend Jeff Temple said in his warm remarks, “The ARP is like a family picnic!”

The ARP Synod again proved to be a fruitful branch of the Vine who is Christ Jesus. The spirit was both joyous and humbly reverent. The Synod bore the marks of the church, faithful use of the means of grace and the gravity of church discipline, set amidst the natural beauty and the supernatural unity. Synod ended with the customary closing Psalm, the 133rd as it was rendered at the Westminster Assembly for the 1650 Metrical Psalter, and still in use today as #197 in the ARP Psalter.

Behold, how good a thing it is, and how becoming well,
Together such as brethren are in unity to dwell! In unity to dwell!

Like precious ointment on the head, that down the beard did flow,
Ev’n Aaron’s beard, and to the skirts, did of his garments go, did of his garments go.

As Hermon’s dew, the dew that doth on Zion’s hills descend:
For there the blessing God commands, life that shall never end, life that shall never end.

Notes

  1. Susan Tanner, “General Synod 2024 Brief Summary,” ARP News, June 15, 2024.
  2. Tanner, “General Synod 2024.
  3. Robert J. Cara, “Justification of Ordained Office of Deacon Restricted to Qualified Males,” Reformed Faith & Practice: The Journal of Reformed Theological Seminary 5, no. 3 (December 2020).

Once available, official minutes will be published here.

©Aaron De Boer. All Rights Reserved.


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  • Aaron De Boer
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    Rev. Aaron De Boer is the minister at Friend of Sinners Reformed Church (ARP) in rural Washington state. He earned an MA from Calvin Theological Seminary and is a ThM candidate at Erskine Theological Seminary. @DutchPresby on X/Twitter.

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5 comments

  1. “That a large and passionate minority in the Synod believe that the most loving thing is to bring the Form of Government into greater agreement with the Pastoral Epistles certainly ensures that the debate will remain before us for the foreseeable future.”

    This is begging the question, and it uncharitably punctuates a paragraph praising the synod for its charity. The disagreement is not “should we follow the teachings of God’s word?” but “What does God’s word teach?” I believe that the office of deacon is for men and not women, but I’ve heard godly men and women argue otherwise from God’s Word.

    • Praise God for the ARP and pastor Aaron De Boer in rural Whatcom county, one of the only Psalm singing (perhaps the only) confessional, twice on the Lords day, and two times during the week congregation’s. Praise God, He is doing magnificent things here!

    • Greetings, Rev. DeBoer. We spoke briefly at the Mississippi Valley Presbytery meeting in Springfield last fall. Thank you for your synodical report.

      Don’t be too worried about your statistical mistake. Before I became aware of the issue, I also publicly cited official numbers for the ARP that were being publicized in various sources but were very much out-of-date and showed the ARP to be significantly larger than the current and more accurate numbers show.

      This isn’t just an ARP issue. Church statistics are often problematic, though Reformed denominational numbers tend to be better than those in broad evangelicalism because church membership is considerably more important in Reformed doctrine. Most of the NAPARC denominational numbers are solid and the ARP deserves credit for working to improve its reporting.

      Since you’re a former CRC member, you may be aware that I’m the one who “called out” the CRC Yearbook back in the 1990s for statistical reporting issues during the heyday of the Christian Reformed secession. The short version is that the CRC was reporting the individual church claims for increases or decreases in their membership, adding them up, and claiming the denomination was growing, when in fact the denomination was losing large numbers of members. The local statistics sometimes had significant problems, and when an entire church seceded, that drop in members was omitted. This should have been a simple issue of comparing the total denominational membership from one year to another and showing the increase or decrease, but that wasn’t being done. Eventually the CRC General Secretary added what the stated clerk of Classis Lake Erie decided to call the “Darrell footnote,” noting that the reported numbers didn’t reflect unreported withdrawals from the denomination, and then began reporting numbers more accurately when the secession got large enough that it could no longer be ignored.

      As I said, Reformed denominational numbers tend to be pretty accurate, and exceptions to the norm typically get handled when attention is called to them. Our view of church membership causes us to take these matters seriously, unlike some evangelical groups which routinely have large numbers of “members on the roll” who are minimally involved in the church or perhaps have not been involved for years.

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