The past couple of weeks have been fairly busy and crazy for people in the Chicago area, as the Cubs won the World Series and the presidential election took place last week. In the midst of that, many people may not be aware of another event that happened in the life of Faith Church last week, as the Regional Synod of Mid-America of the Reformed Church in America unanimously voted to create a new classis, called the New Thing Classis, the members of which are Faith Church, Living Springs Church (Glenwood, IL), and Calvary Church (Orland Park, IL).
Your first thought on hearing that might very well be, “How did that not make the nightly news?!” :) Actually, I suspect that your first thought may very well be — what in the world is a synod and a classis? At its root, a classis is a collection of churches, often regionally based, that seek to hold each other accountable in ministry and work together. Classes (plural of classis) do things like examine candidates for pastoral ministry, read through minutes of meetings of church leaders to make sure nothing goofy is happening, intervene in conflicts that occur in churches, help start new churches, and support and encourage each other in ministry. A Synod is functionally a collection of classes, that seeks to help oversee the classis.
That definition of a classis and a synod may not totally answer the question of why someone should even care about these bodies. Some people (including Christians) will say that organizations and structures like this make church and the Christian faith too complicated; they may say that Jesus and the early church weren’t this organized! However, I would say that these organizations are not just helpful but really essential in the call to follow Jesus. We tell people that we cannot follow Jesus on our own, that we need other people in our lives (to hold us accountable, and to have people to help us live out the “one another” commands, like love one another). Similarly, I would say that churches also need each other, to hold each other accountable and to learn to be better together. We actually see the precedent for gatherings of churches through the gathering of church leaders in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, as the leaders of the church from various cities came together to help solve a problem (the question of whether Gentiles, that is, non-Jews, need to keep the Jewish Law in order to follow Jesus). This event sparked the idea for classis and synods, with other traditions sometimes using different titles for these bodies (for example, Presbyterians have presbyteries).
These bodies make sure that the churches are doing things “decently and in order,” being faithful to the Scriptures, in line with our Reformed tradition, in obedience to the set of policies that we have developed and pledged ourselves to keep. Something important to note about the Reformed tradition (which Faith Church is in) is that we have bodies (groups), not individuals, who help to oversee other bodies; there is not a person who oversees all the churches in a region, but a gathering of those churches together. In the local church, there are a number of leaders who work together (see this post on elders, pastors, and deacons), and in these bodies, it is a vote of the members or those to whom the members elected into positions to make decisions.
A critique of these organizations might be that you do not need a body like this to work with other churches. And that is totally true — we work with other churches in our community and learn from other churches and organizations. However, just as there is a difference between going to a church and hanging out with Christians and being a member of a local church, taking vows to help and support each other, so there is also a difference between working with other churches and being in an accountable relationship with each other, in which you ask each other to help you and are expected to do so. That is why I love the idea of a classis (or whatever a denomination might call them); it is like churches being “members” of a wider body. If they see us drifting from the truth, they are to call us out on it!
The question still might remain why this new classis was formed. These churches desired to form the New Thing Classis to be a catalyst for multiplying and reproducing disciples, churches, and even classes; we believe that if it is alive, it is meant to multiply, and we are hoping that this new group will help spark that in our churches and in our denomination. In many ways, the formation of this classis reflects the same reason for the gathering at Jerusalem, as we want to see the gospel move forward and work together to see how we can do this faithfully and effectively. It is our hope and prayer that the existence and work of this classis will help people come to faith; classis are means to an end, which is the spread of the gospel for the glory of God.
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