Prof. Herman C. Hanko
Table of Contents
The Offices in the Church
Bringing Matters to the Assemblies
The Believer and Discipline
The venerable Church Order of Dordrecht has served the Reformed churches throughout the world well as a book of rules for the government of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. While it has undergone some minor changes over the years, and while decisions have been appended to the articles, these are intended to apply the regulations of the Church Order to local situations; they have not altered its substance. Only within the last 50 years or so have Reformed Churches subjected the Church Order to extensive revision, and these revisions have almost always done harm to the principles on which the Church Order is based.
What I have just said is not to be construed as meaning
that the Church Order itself contains the principles of Reformed church government. For the most part, it does not. But the Church Order, composed mostly of
regulations, is based squarely on fundamental principles derived from Scripture
and held by Reformed believers as regulative in the
In the Standard Bearer numerous articles have appeared which are intended to serve as commentaries on the Church Order, and whole series of articles have been devoted to an explanation of this set of rules which regulate the life of the church. However, one aspect of the Church Order has not been given extensive treatment. That lack is in the practical application of the principles and regulations found in the Church Order by those who occupy the office of believers. Ministers and frequently elders have made the Church Order an object of study and have mastered its principles for the most part. But those who occupy the all-important office of believers are frequently left with various misunderstandings about the book, which make their participation in the government of the church difficult.
example of this difficulty is the fact that many protests and appeals are rejected
by the assemblies on the grounds that “they are not legally before the
body.” Confusion of terms (such as
protest, appeal, overture), misunderstanding of proper procedure, and lack of
knowledge of proper formulation of documents sent to the ecclesiastical assemblies
have stymied the effective participation of believers in the carrying out of their
responsibilities. Some have become so
discouraged that they have vowed never to participate in any way in these
activities, a vow which can only be detrimental to the welfare of the
There are also other responsibilities that fall upon believers by virtue of the office they hold. I refer to such activities as confession of faith, preparation for the Lord’s Supper, family visitation, and participation in congregational meetings. Further, in the all-important exercise of Christian discipline, the believer also must function in his or her office. What is that function? And, how can it be carried out?
This “Manual” is intended to fill a lack. It is not intended to discuss principles of Reformed church polity, although some principles will have to be briefly discussed. It is not intended to be a commentary on the various articles of the Church Order; such commentaries are readily available. It is intended to be a help to those who serve in the special offices Christ instituted in the church to carry out their work more correctly and efficiently; and it is intended especially to help those who occupy the office of believers in their calling to be active in the rule and government of the church.
I am aware of the fact that no fixed rules can be laid down for various aspects of a believer’s participation in ecclesiastical matters. For example, no fixed rules can be laid down for the formulation of protests and appeals. Varying circumstances make hard and fast rules impossible and impractical. But certain boundaries within which proper protests and appeals can be made would certainly be of help to all concerned. Although it is not always easy to fix the boundaries with precision, and although there may be those who disagree with what I have to say on certain points, I am convinced that some attention paid to some basic principles and their application will encourage reluctant believers to be more active in their role in the church and will facilitate ecclesiastical processes to the advantage of the cause of Christ.
If the book accomplishes this purpose, even in part, the author will be thankful to God.
The Offices in the Church
It is not surprising that our Church Order devotes no fewer than 27, out of a total of 86, articles to the offices in the church. Because of the nature of the Church Order, these articles are devoted to the special offices: minister, elder, and deacon. This is as it should be. The Church Order lays down regulations for the church institute, and the special offices are an essential part of the church institute.
Scripture makes clear that the most fundamental office in the church is the
office of believers. This is an office
which all believers hold by virtue of the fact that to them is given the Holy
Spirit of Christ, through whose anointing believers occupy the office of
prophet, priest, and king in the
So fundamental is the office of believers that the special offices proceed out of the office which believers hold: the office of the ministry is the carrying out of the prophetic office of believers; the office of elder is an outgrowth of the kingly office; and the office of deacon proceeds from the special office of the priesthood of believers. All authority in the church belongs to Christ. Christ exercises His authority through the offices He has ordained in the church. The most fundamental office is that of believer. The lawful call to the special offices, therefore, always comes through the office of believers.
Yet the church is not a democracy in which the majority of the congregation rules in ecclesiastical affairs. The relationship between the office of believers and the special offices in the church is unique to the church: one will not find anything similar to it anywhere in the world.
It is clear from Scripture that only male members are permitted to participate in the governing of the church. That is, only confessing male members are given the right to hold a special office in the church. Scripture makes this clear in I Timothy 2:9-15 and I Corinthians 14:34. Because Scripture insists on this as important for the church, women are not permitted to vote in congregational meetings, for the right to vote is the right to rule. Yet, all God’s people, including women and children, hold the office of believers, but each in his or her own place.
Scripture is equally clear that, while the fundamental authority of Christ exercised in the church is held by believers, nevertheless believers are obligated to be in submission to their officebearers. Not only is this injunction given to God’s people in Hebrews 13:7 and 17, but it is also found in I Thessalonians 5:12, 13. This is a strange situation from every human point of view: those who hold basic authority in the church are told to submit to the authority of those men whom the congregation votes into office; that is, believers who hold authority are told to submit to the authority of the ones answerable to believers. The believers in their office receive their authority directly from Christ in the anointing of the Spirit. They do not receive their office from Christ through their fellow believers as those holding the special offices.
Yet, as strange as that may seem, the Scriptures are quite insistent on that point. The Scriptures apparently not only recognize this relationship between the office of believers and the special offices, but also make it clear that this is the will of Christ, and, being the will of Christ, this is the only way in which the rule of the church can be effectively carried out.
The relation between the special offices in the church and the office of believers is a somewhat delicate balance, which will work properly only where both members of the congregation and the officebearers fill their responsibilities in a godly way, are conscious of the fact that they serve the Lord Christ, and seek each others’ good. In other words, the balance is properly maintained where there is love, trust, confidence, and willingness mutually to seek the unity of the Spirit.
Where such a relationship as I have defined is lacking, nothing is going to work properly in the church. Specifically, where officebearers rule as lords (I Pet. 5:3) over the flock, the principles of church government will not work. And where believers forget that the fifth commandment applies to the relationship of church members to officebearers in the church, no kind of church government will be successful. Submission to one’s officebearers in the church means, according to our Heidelberg Catechism, that believers show all love, honor, and respect to those in authority over them. Believers pray for their officebearers, submit to them, make their work as easy as possible, and always put down their own individual interests in their concern for the welfare of the church.
Officebearers must work so that they seek the spiritual welfare of each individual member and the spiritual growth and strength of the congregation as a whole. They are, in their positions of authority, servants to the flock who spend themselves in the cause of the salvation of the souls of God’s people.
When these things are present, the delicate balance between the office of believers and the special offices is a blessing to the church.
Because the office of believers is the basic office in the church, those who hold this office carry out the responsibilities of their office through the special offices Christ has ordained in the church. That is, the final authority to preach the gospel, to rule in the name of Christ, and to care for the needs of the poor rests in the office of believers. But that there may be order and decency in the church and that Christ may be fully revealed as the one great Officebearer in the church, Christ instituted special offices.
The principle as it applies to the minister of the gospel
is concretely and explicitly set down in Scripture in Colossians 4:17: “And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry
which thou hast received in the Lord that thou fulfil it.” The point is obscured in the English
translation, but Archippus was the minister of the
The point is that the congregation preaches the Word through its ordained ministry. It is also, therefore, ultimately responsible for the work of its minister. This is not to deny that the elders are also responsible, for they have the oversight of the church and are responsible to see to it that the minister discharges his office faithfully (Art. 23). But Article 23 does not refute the point I am making, for the congregation also functions through the office of elder and the office of deacon. Holding the kingly office conferred on them by the Spirit of Christ, the believers rule in the church, although they do so through the elders. The same believers, as priests of Christ, help the needy, but do so through the office of deacon.
The implications of this are far reaching.
In the first place, the tasks and responsibilities of the officebearers are identical to those carried out in the church among the saints mutually. The saints come together to study God’s Word, through which study they mutually instruct each other, admonish each other, and encourage each other. They are called to let their light so shine before men that others, seeing their good works, may glorify their father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). Discipline is carried out among the saints apart from the work of the elders, as Jesus Himself makes clear in Matthew 18:15, 16, though it is something which is the final responsibility of the elders. Galatians 6:1, 2 gives us a concrete instance of the work of believers among themselves, but ultimately exercised through the elders: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” And the work of mercy cannot be properly carried out by the deacons unless, behind their work is a congregation in which the saints bear each other’s burdens and assist each other in need.
Additionally, there is always the silent approbation of the congregation as it is witness to the work of its officebearers. Its approbation is sometimes merely implied as it submits to the preaching, opens its homes to the elders, and provides the deacons with the alms necessary for the care of the poor. Sometimes this approbation is specifically required, as in the case of the approval of those making confession of faith, the approval of those elected to the special offices, and the approval of various disciplinary steps, including, if necessary, excommunication.
The responsibility of approbation must be taken seriously, and the people of God must assume this responsibility before God. If things go wrong in a congregation because officebearers are not faithfully performing their duties, the congregation itself is responsible. So much so is the congregation responsible that, if officebearers fail totally in their work, the congregation itself may take matters in hand. This is extreme and most unusual, but it remains true nonetheless; and within the fellowship of a federation of churches, a congregation can and must seek the help of its sister congregations represented in the classis.
The male membership of the congregation is obligated to come together for certain matters in the work of the church. Usually these congregational meetings are called for purposes of electing men to the special offices, choosing one to be the pastor of the congregation during a vacancy, and deciding on matters of the operation of the church which are submitted to the congregation for its approval or disapproval.
The voting of men for the special offices is a serious and important calling. If anyone should doubt the seriousness of this matter, let him read Acts 13:1-3: “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” While we do not believe that fasting is required under these circumstances, the whole passage underscores the importance of the call to any office in the church. After all, the Lord calls to these special offices, as our forms for the ordination and installation of officebearers make clear (see the questions and answers which are put to those about to be installed into office). The congregation must recognize this fact and vote in this consciousness. Do the men nominated have the qualifications required by Scripture necessary for the work of their office? And among those nominated, all of whom may have the qualifications, who is the one most likely to be able to serve the church in its present circumstances? Such choices as believers must make must be made with much prayer. All tendencies to make the elections popularity contests, matters of individual preferences based on likes and dislikes, and mere haphazard voting are to be condemned.
Christ is present in the church through the officebearers, and the work of the church flourishes when believers take their calling in elections seriously.
the Office of Believers
and the Special Offices
in Congregational Meetings
Congregational meetings are a unique illustration of the delicate balance between the special offices and the office of believers. While I will discuss this somewhat more in detail later, we ought to notice now that the authority of the elders over the congregation is evident in the fact that nothing may be treated at a congregational meeting but what is brought to it by the elders. The elders must bring matters to the congregation in the form of positive proposals, with grounds. Mere suggestions, ideas, alternative courses of action may not be brought. The elders to whom is entrusted the rule of the flock must consider what matters are to be brought to the congregation on the basis of what is most edifying for the congregation. These matters are recommended as most beneficial for the congregation. Careful consideration of the elders precedes the discussion and vote of the congregation.
However, the congregation votes on the recommendation, and once a congregation has decided an issue, the decision is binding on the officebearers. They may not change what the congregation has decided to do. The decision of the congregation is final. Thus the elders submit to the office of believers, and the office of believers is in submission to the elders.
As a footnote to this, if someone believes that a matter ought to be brought to the congregation, but the elders refuse, such a decision of the elders is always subject to protest and appeal. But an individual or a group of individuals may not introduce matters on their own initiative. The elders must control the agenda of congregational meetings.
A part of the responsibility of the male membership of the congregation is to prepare themselves to hold office in the church. Paul says in I Timothy 3:1 that “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” That statement carries with it several implications.
Surely, in the first place, it means that service in the three offices in the church is a privilege, a blessing, a desirable calling.
It means in the second place, that the very desire for such an office is a good work. This could stand some emphasis. There is an attitude sometimes that one shows genuine piety and a proper attitude towards the work of the officebearers when one shows reluctance to serve and when one humbly claims that he is unfit for the office and ought not to be called to it. While it is certainly true that no one may seek the office for personal gain or for the honor that comes to him personally, we ought to put more emphasis on the fact that it is a great privilege to serve in the church of Christ, and that we should consider it to be such.
I Timothy 1:3 means, in the third place, that one who truly desires the office of bishop (minister and elder, though the office of deacon is also included by implication when the apostle mentions the qualifications for this office in the verses that follow) also prepares himself for that office. He makes himself ready by studying what Scripture requires in the office, by immersing himself as much as possible in the Scriptures so that he may truly be apt to teach, and by living an exemplary life in the midst of God’s people.
This also is part of the responsibility of those who hold the office of believers.
I have spoken of the fact that the congregation has the responsibility to see to it that those holding special offices in the church carry out their tasks faithful to God’s Word. I have pointed out that those who hold special offices in the church must take the office of believers seriously and gain the congregation’s approval, approbation, or choice (when a nomination is presented).
It is possible that these things be misinterpreted, as indeed they frequently are.
On the one hand, the officebearers must not look with disdain on believers. They must never take a superior attitude towards them. Ministers must listen to their sheep and pay attention to what these sheep have to say, even when these sheep may make suggestions to a minister to improve his work. Elders must not lord it over a congregation and consider the members to be beneath their notice and insufficiently informed to judge properly what is going on. Deacons must not think that they have the last word on the high calling Christ has assigned them and that they can learn nothing beyond what they already know, especially from the members of the church. To hold an office is to serve. To have authority is to listen carefully and willingly to those over whom authority is exercised.
But, on the other hand, believers are not to take the duties of their calling to mean that they must be constantly critical of their minister, that they must listen with a view to detecting heresy, and that they must be guardians of orthodoxy. He who humbles himself before the preaching of the Word is in the best position to fulfill his responsibility towards the preaching.
The elders and deacons cannot work if believers in the congregation are constantly looking over their shoulders to examine every decision, weigh every proposal made with a certain air of suspicion, and constantly presuppose that the officebearers are unable to do a satisfactory task.
I said at the outset of this discussion that trust in those responsible for the work of the church is the one virtue which will make Reformed church polity work, and the delicate balance between the office of believers and the special offices can be maintained only when such trust prevails.
That brings up one very practical matter.
Generally speaking, the members of the congregation need not know, and indeed have no right to know, every decision which the consistory makes. Some have maintained that open consistory meetings are necessary and appropriate in the church. This is a wrong view of church polity. Mutual trust implies that the believers in the congregation are confident that their officebearers will do what is right. Only when it becomes evident that a decision of the consistory is contrary to God’s Word and/or the creeds of the church ought believers to question it. I word the matter this way because the consistory must frequently make decisions which are simply matters of judgment. The question of right or wrong does not enter in. The question is one of wisdom. If a believer considers such a decision to be unwise, he ought to give serious consideration to the matter before he brings a protest against it. It is not a matter of Scripture and the confessions; it is simply a matter of judgment. The collective body of elders must be trusted to do what is wise.
What then is the procedure to follow if one finds a decision to be contrary to God’s Word and/or the confessions of the church?
Step 1 in such procedure requires of a believer that he consult with the consistory at one of its meetings concerning the matter, to learn precisely what the consistory has done. He may, after all, be mistaken and may have wrongly interpreted some action. He may not consult an individual elder and ask such an elder about a matter. No individual elder has any right to divulge consistorial action on his own initiative or authority. Not even in matters which belong to the council may an individual speak for all the members of the body of which he is a part.
Example. A council may have a rule on its books that no moneys in excess of $5000.00 are to be spent by the council without prior approval of the congregation. A member witnesses that new floodlights are being installed in the parking lot and on the church property. He is quite convinced that the total cost exceeds $5000.00. He may, without too much thought about it, ask a member of the Building Committee why the council is spending over $5000.00. That member of the Building Committee ought not to answer the question on his own initiative. There may be good reasons. A certain amount may have been donated for that purpose. A real bargain may have been found which kept the amount below $5000.00. Because of a handicapped member in the congregation, the need may have been urgent. But the lone member may not, even with the best of intentions, speak for the whole council. If the decision itself, as it appears in the minute book of the consistory, is not presented, the decision may not be correctly quoted, and the result may very well be serious problems.
Step 2 requires that, if a man believes the consistory has done wrong, he ask for a copy of the pertinent minute. This is all he needs. He may not make a general request to the consistory to send him all the minutes relating to a case and all the documents which are connected to the case. He may ask for further information and specific decisions or documents, but he must show that he needs them. And if he intends to protest a decision, he must make the consistory aware of his intentions.
Step 3 requires that if in his judgment the decision is wrong, he bring his objection to the consistory. I will not deal further with this here because this belongs under our discussion of protests and appeals. But the point that needs emphasis is that the consistory is under no obligation to give copies of minutes when there is no good reason, and in fact may not give one who requests material anything beyond the pertinent minute or material to which objection is made. On the other hand, the consistory must do all in its power to give the believer who comes to its body all the help he needs to make his point.
The matter is one of wisdom, but also mutual trust.
Whether the congregation is voting for new elders and deacons at a congregational meeting, or whether it is voting to call a pastor, the consistory presents to the congregation a nomination. This is done for purposes of approbation. The approbation is given by the congregation.
This approbation by the congregation implies several obligations.
If anyone in the congregation knows of any reason why one ought not to be considered for any of the special offices in the church, he is obliged to go to the consistory to present his objections. The objections which one may have to a man being nominated are of two kinds: 1) In the judgment of a member of the congregation, one on nomination does not possess the necessary qualifications for the office. 2) A member of the congregation may know of some sin of which a nominee is guilty which disqualifies him for office.
Both possible objections present some problems.
With regard to an objection on the basis of lack of qualifications, several points must be considered. First of all, such objections would almost certainly be brought against one nominated for elder or deacon, not for minister. A minister has been approved by the churches in common as having the qualifications for the office, and his nomination on a trio or duo is simply a reflection of the judgment of all the churches. One may not object to a consistory concerning what a synod and a classis has decided.
It is possible that one may consider a minister as being unsuited to a particular congregation, even though he is qualified for the office. A minister may, for example, be an older man who is, in some respects, not at the peak of health. And the congregation calling may be one of over one hundred families. It would not be wise to nominate a man nearing retirement to take over such a congregation.
However, generally speaking, the consistory considers carefully the matter of qualifications, and presents men who possess the qualifications Scripture gives in I Timothy 3. To question this is difficult for a member of the congregation. It is a matter of judgment in many cases. If one should nevertheless be convinced that a nominee lacks the biblical qualifications, he must come to the consistory, but he must come with specific objections which define carefully the particular qualifications which a man may lack and specific proof that this is the case.
If, on the other hand, an individual knows of a sin on the part of one on nomination, which disqualifies the nominee, he must also be very careful. If the sin is one that has been present for some time, the individual should have, long before the nomination was published, gone to see the brother concerning his sin, following the procedure outlined by the Lord in Matthew 18. If he has not done this, he must still do it before he goes to the consistory with his information. If, however, he discovers the sin only immediately before the nomination is published, or in the two weeks between the publication of the nomination and the election, he may go to the elders to inform them, but he is still required to follow Matthew 18's requirements. In such a case as this, the consistory is wise to postpone the congregational meeting until the matter is properly settled.
A member of the congregation may think a brother whose name does not appear on the nomination to be qualified for a special office in the church. He has the right to go to the council and ask that an individual’s name be included in the nomination. The council, however, must decide whether the brother suggested possesses the necessary qualifications for the office, and whether, therefore, his name ought to be included on the nomination. But a name may not be submitted on the floor of the congregational meeting.
Bringing Matters to the Assemblies
In this chapter we shall be dealing primarily with Article 31 of the Church Order, which, more than any other article, defines the believer’s responsibilities towards the church of which he is a part. The article reads:
If anyone complain that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by the general synod.
A footnote appended to this article by a decision of the Protestant Reformed Churches is also important for our purposes.
Appeal to a major gathering against any decision of an ecclesiastical body must be made upon the immediately following meeting of the body to which appeal is directed, at the same time giving notification to the secretary of the body by whose decision he is aggrieved. Of every judgment rendered in the case, those concerned shall receive a notification.
In a way, the article defines a believer’s responsibility in the church by implication, for its main thesis is the binding character of the decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies. But it speaks of the fact that the Word of God and the Reformed confessions as ex-pressions of the truth of Scripture are the final authority in the church in all the decisions that are made. In seeing to it that decisions are in keeping with the Word of God as interpreted in the Reformed confessions, the believer, in his office of believer, plays a role.
When the Church Order speaks of “ecclesiastical assemblies,” it refers to synods, classes, and consistories; although some larger denominations add a fourth level, provincial or regional synods, between classes and synods. It is to the believer’s responsibility over against the decisions of these bodies that we call attention in this chapter.
The relation of the major ecclesiastical assemblies to the consistory has frequently been a point of dispute in Reformed churches. The question really resolves itself into the question of the nature of the authority of the major assemblies. The local congregation is established directly by Christ through the calling of men whom Christ appoints to the special offices in the church. The officebearers in the local congregation possess original and directly conferred authority. Their authority is the authority to perform the one great task of the church, which is also the reason for the church’s existence in the world: the preaching of the gospel. No other assembly may do this.
Nevertheless, the major assemblies also have authority. It is not my purpose to discuss this issue here, for it is a problem which must be discussed and solved in debates over the meaning and implications of Articles 30, 31, and 36 of the Church Order. It is my purpose to point out once again that Reformed church polity is unique. In this question of the relation between consistories and major assemblies there is authority in both: original and basic authority in the consistories, and derived authority in the major assemblies which must be observed. Again, it is not unimportant to emphasize that such a relation can function well only where there is mutual trust and a mutual desire to seek the good of the church.
I mention, though only in passing, therefore, that the authority of the major assemblies is basically to maintain the unity of the denomination. Whatever can and must be done to maintain this unity without intruding into the particular work of the local congregation is within the rights of major assemblies. This is the reason why believers may appeal to major assemblies to press their case.
Reasons for Article 31
We can find two reasons why Article 31 is in the Church Order. The first is that, because the church here on earth is sinful, assemblies sometimes make decisions which are contrary to the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. This has happened throughout the church’s history; it happens today; it will happen to the end of time. These errors have to be corrected for the good of the church.
second reason is the individual right of the conscience of the believer in the
The believer has a responsibility towards the welfare of the church of which he is a member. That responsibility is to see to it, in so far as that is possible for him, that the church is faithful to God’s Word and to the precepts of the Christian’s life. His responsibility arises out of his calling, found in Article 28 of the Confession of Faith, to be a member of the true church. He desires the church of which he is a part to be faithful in the preaching, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline. For a denomination to lose the marks of the true church is for it to become the false church. No believer may be in a false church for himself and his children.
Protests, Appeals, Overtures, Gravamina
I shall, first of all, describe the differences between these four ways of addressing the major assemblies, and then deal with each method separately to explain how they are to be used.
As a matter of fact, none of the four terms mentioned here are found in our Church Order, although the verb form of the word “appeal” is found in Article 31. They are ways devised by Reformed churches in the past to deal with matters which could come up in the believer’s right to freedom of conscience. They are tried and true ways, although confusion in their implementation frequently arises. A brief description of each will help us understand our responsibilities in implementing Article 31.
A protest is an objection to a specific decision of an assembly on the grounds that the decision violates Scripture and the confessions.
While we make a great deal of protesting, there is actually no mention made anywhere in the Church Order of a protest. Its use in the church is really based on and implied in Article 30 of the Church Order, which reads,
In these assemblies ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted and that in an ecclesiastical manner. In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or such as pertain to the churches of the major assemblies in common.
It is a general rule that no major assembly may treat a matter unless it cannot be finished in a minor assembly. A protest is an effort to settle a matter over which there is disagreement in a minor assembly. If efforts have been made to come to agreement on a matter, but have proved unsuccessful, the matter cannot be settled in a minor assembly, and the way is open for appeal to a major assembly.
The rule is good and ought to be observed. It is good not for practical reasons only, although there may be some of them; but it is good for spiritual reasons. Wherever a disagreement arises between brethren in the church, the fewer people involved in the disagreement the easier it is to settle the matter. This is why Jesus instructs us to deal on a personal level with matters of spiritual concern that arise between brothers. Jesus is saying to us, “Do everything you can to settle the matter that has come up between yourselves, before you bring it to your elders.” We must do this to the point where we even take one or two witnesses along in our determined effort to settle what has become a source of friction between brethren (Matt. 18:15-20).
The principle is, therefore, thus: it is easier to settle a matter between two or three brethren than between a brother and the consistory. It is easier to settle a matter between a brother and the consistory than between a brother and a consistory and a classis. It is easier to settle a matter between a brother and his consistory and a classis, than between a brother and a consistory and a classis and a synod. And the goal in any dispute is always to settle a matter if possible.
Hence, one comes to an assembly with a protest. He objects to the decision of an assembly on the grounds of Scripture and the confessions. But his purpose from the outset is to come to agreement on the issue on the basis of the Word of God and the Reformed confessions.
An appeal is a request of an individual or a minor assembly directed to a major assembly to decide the rightness or wrongness of a particular decision.
Example: An individual objects to a fellow member’s life because he believes that his fellow member, in becoming a conscientious objector in a union shop, has sinned because he has, in fact, become a member of a labor union. He has talked with the individual about the matter and attempted to show the individual that such conduct is contrary to the Word of God. He has failed and has officially informed his consistory of the “sin” in the congregation. The consistory, after investigating the matter, decides that the conscientious objector is not, in fact, a labor union member and that no sin is involved. The decision is made and all concerned are informed. But the individual, after carefully examining the consistory’s position, is not persuaded that the consistory has done correctly. He protests the decision and gives his biblical and confessional grounds. The consistory, in turn, carefully weighs the arguments and informs the protestant that they will not reverse their decision, for they are convinced it is correct. At that point, the protestant has the right of appeal to classis.
This appeal is nothing more than a request of classis to judge between the position of the appellant and the consistory. Classis must weight the evidence and decide.
If either the appellant or the consistory is not satisfied with the decision of the classis, either one has the right of appeal to synod.
Overtures are requests from individual believers, groups of believers, or minor assemblies, directed to a major assembly to take action on a matter of concern. Overtures may request action on new matters (such as alterations in the order of worship in the congregations), amendments of existing decisions (such as changes in a constitution of a synodical committee), or reconsideration of past decisions because of changes in circumstances (such as requests for classical meetings to be held four times a year instead of the prescribed three times a year).
We will deal with the method of presenting overtures to the major assemblies later.
In a way, gravamina are similar to both appeals and protests. They are, however, strictly limited to matters of the confessions of a church, including the liturgical forms and the adopted Church Order. They are presented to ecclesiastical bodies when an individual (or, in rare cases, an assembly) finds something in either the major or the minor confessions which he considers to be contrary to the Word of God.
It is clear that a gravamen must go to synod, for synod is the assembly which deals with confessional matters that bind the local churches together and maintain their unity. But anyone presenting a gravamen must go to synod by way of his consistory and the classis in which his consistory resides.
They must go to synod by way of consistory and classis. There is good reason for this, even though a gravamen is synodical business. The reason is that both at the consistorial level and the classical level opportunity is given to examine the objection to the confessions which one might bring. If in the light of Scripture, the objection has merit, these ecclesiastical assemblies can add the weight of their study to the document sent to synod. If, however, in the judgment of the consistory and classis, the gravamen has no merit, opportunity is given to these assemblies to persuade the brother that presented the gravamen that he is wrong. If they are successful, synod will not have to spend its time dealing with the matter.
If the one submitting the gravamen cannot obtain the approval of his consistory and/or classis, he may bring the matter to synod without this approval. He ought, however, to consider carefully what his consistory and classis say. If he brings the matter to synod without approval, the gravamen becomes also an appeal. That is, the consistory and/or classis have the right to bring to synod why they did not approve.
Specific Treatment of Protests, Etc.
Any time an individual has serious objection against a decision of a consistory, he must submit a protest in which he outlines his objections. If a person has an objection against a decision of a classis, he need not bring a protest. I word it this way purposely. If an individual has appealed to classis from a consistory and is not satisfied with the classical decision, he need not protest the classical decision before he appeals to synod. But there is an exception to this: if he protests a classical decision which did not originate in a consistory, he must protest it first before appealing it. The reason is that a matter cannot be said to have been fully evaluated by a minor assembly unless that assembly has had opportunity to consider objections to it. Nor must a protestant who disagrees with a classical decision first bring his protest to his consistory. It is exclusively a classical matter.
Example: A matter may be decided upon at the classical level without being at a consistory when it involves a report of the church visitors, for example. In that case, a protestant may protest directly to the classis by whose decision he is aggrieved.
Example: When a consistory decides to alter, on its own, the article the Church Order which requires services on religious holidays, an individual, convinced that an alteration of the minor confession may be done only on the synod, protests against this decision of his consistory. Note: He does not protest the alteration adopted by the consistory, but he protests the method of adoption, the single-handed alteration of a minor confession which belongs to the churches in common. His protest must be lodged with the consistory, and only if the consistory maintains its position does he appeal to classis. If he wishes to protest the content of the decision, this would require another protest.
Frequently, the debate on the level of a consistory may go on for weeks and weeks, and sometimes months and months. Much correspondence is exchanged, committees from the consistory meet with the individual protestant and bring their reports, elaborate lines of argumentation are employed, frequently with lengthy quotes from other writers, and only when the disagreement has become rancorous is the matter finally appealed. This is not necessary. A matter can very well be appealed after a protestant has lodged his or her objection to a decision, and a consistory, disagreeing with the protest, answers the objection. It is necessary on occasion for an additional exchange of documents and/or face-to-face discussion if there is obviously misunderstanding or some hope of resolution. But when it is clear that a disagreement exists and continues to exist, the matter ought to be appealed. Lengthy treatments open the door to confusion, complicated cases, hard feelings, and increased difficulties in resolving the matter. Continued correspondence and discussion are not usually desirable. If one has set his mind to “prove” his case by continual correspondence and discussion, he frequently includes in his material many things which in the end only make the case murky. He will then quote, frequently at some length, other authorities on the subject. He will attempt to prove his consistory wrong by pointing out errors in which the consistory, in dealing with the case, has done many things which indicate that the consistory has been wrong in all its dealings. But what is gained by all this? One ought to demonstrate from Scripture and the confessions why a decision is wrong. And the consistory ought to demonstrate from Scripture and the confessions why its decision is correct. But it ought to be soon obvious that where disagreement continues, the time has come to seek the wisdom of the major assemblies.
I do not mean to deny that every effort ought to be employed to settle the matter on a consistorial level, but when it becomes obvious that both the protestant and the consistory (or the classis) will not reach agreement, the matter ought to be appealed. Many cases grow rapidly because of a long exchange of documents and innumerable face-to-face meetings.
Example: An individual protests to his consistory a
change in the order of worship to include a public confession of sin. He protests this on these grounds: 1) It is contrary to accepted practice in the
Protestant Reformed Churches, and is thus a break in the unity of the churches
in their worship. 2) Public confession
of sin in the corporate worship of the church has no warrant in
Scripture. 3) Corporate confession of
sin ought not be a separate element in the worship, because such confession of
sin is usually made in the congregational prayers. The protest must include the pertinent decision
of the consistory, the fact that a believer objects to it, and the three
grounds which I have listed above. The
consistory examines the matter closely, but comes to the conclusion that the
protestant is wrong. His protest is
rejected on the grounds that: 1) The
order of worship in the local congregation and the various elements to be included
in the worship are matters to be decided by the local congregation, and are not
the concern of the denomination as a whole.
2) The inclusion of corporate confession of sin was an element in Calvin’s liturgy
It is possible that certain matters that are included or implied in the grounds are of some controversy, and through further discussion are altered. But the substantive issue remains the same. When it becomes clear that disagreement persists, appeal is made.
Protests ought to be a short as possible. It is not inconceivable that a protest be only one page in length and fill all the requirements of a protest. It is possible that an answer of a consistory be only one-half page in length and be sufficient for a proper answer. It is worth pondering that an appeal might someday come to classis which is only two pages long! The opposite frequently is the case, and a major assembly is confronted with the imposing task of wading through hundreds of pages of material in order to resolve a case. This is unnecessary and frequently is to the disadvantage of the protestant. What happens is obvious from cases that have appeared on our assemblies. A protest is treated far too long by a consistory. The result is that papers multiply. Correspondence is exchanged, reports are submitted and challenged, other reports are drawn up, decisions by the dozens are made on the consistory, authorities are quoted in support of one’s position, elaborate lines of argumentation are spun out, some relevant, some irrelevant, and duplicates of much of the material are added to the pile. Soon the entire pile goes to the major assembly.
In addition to that, either the protestant or the consistory detects in the conduct of the other party additional “sins” which need to be addressed. And so case gets piled on case, frequently inextricably woven into the warp and woof of the original case, and the matter is so complicated that it is impossible to sort it all out and do justice to any one matter. I have been on enough committees of pre-advice to know that there is almost always an inverse proportion between the amount of material presented and the thoroughness of the decision ultimately rendered. That is, the greater the amount of material, the less thorough the decision.
The solution to this problem is simplicity and brevity. A protestant who genuinely wants to correct error in his consistory for the welfare of the church and who considers always the possibility that he might be wrong and that there just might be wisdom in numbers, can find it sufficient to formulate a protest which includes the following:
1) A verbatim quote of the decision of the consistory against which he objects.
2) A statement of the reasons, first from Scripture, then from the confessions, major and/or minor, (if it is a confessional matter) why the decision is in error.
Although in the subsequent discussions and correspondence the documents may multiply, it is not necessary that all this material be brought to the major assemblies. Other documentation, quotations from authorities and other sources, and additional material which is considered relevant by the protestant can always be used on the floor of the assembly. Most of the time, such material is not convincing nor helpful. And if anyone considers them to be helpful, only the references need to be included in the protest and interested parties may look them up. Any protestant or any representatives of a body against which a protest is filed may take additional material along to the body considering the matter. It can then be consulted if the need for such material is thought important. However, the protestant may not include in material he presents verbally on the floor of the assembly anything which has not been before his consistory.
If additional matters of disagreement arise in the course of the case, it is better to let these matters fall by the wayside in order to concentrate on the main issue over which there is disagreement. Why multiply issues? Cannot both parties exercise forbearance and overlook more minor matters? Usually the more minor matters solve themselves if the major source of disagreement is resolved.
reason for censure arises during the course of a disagreement (such as a
brother speaking inappropriately to his officebearers), that must all be dealt
with separately and not in the main case.
A protestant may, in the course of a disagreement, speak disrespectfully
to and of his elders. This is a sin
against the fifth commandment and a violation of Scripture’s injunction to
submit ourselves to those who have the rule over us in the
It happens on occasion that a man, in the course of a dispute with his consistory, finds a reason which, in his judgment, makes it impossible for him to worship in that church any longer. While his protest is being considered, therefore, he worships elsewhere. Such conduct is wrong and gives the consistory a reason not to deal with his material anymore. The Dutch were wont to call such a person e’n wegloopende protestant, a departed protestant. The reason why a consistory cannot treat that man’s protest anymore is simply that he refuses to submit to the authority of his officebearers and put himself under their rule. That refusal is indicative of 1) his prior determination not to listen to his elders and give them opportunity to show him where he is wrong; 2) his refusal to give any attention to their instruction of him as one of their sheep with respect to the disputed point or anything else.
The same is true of the broader assemblies. A man who leaves the denomination while protesting loses his right to protest.
An appeal is a request of an individual to a major assembly to adjudicate a disagreement between the individual and the body by whose decision he is aggrieved. An appeal presupposes that a protestant has brought his objection against a decision of a body and has received an answer. He is not persuaded by the answer and considers his own argument to be valid. He has very carefully considered whether he might be wrong in his protest, but has come to the conclusion that he probably was not. He appeals to a major assembly, whether to a classis from a decision of the consistory, or to a synod from the decision of a classis.
When a person appeals a decision of a consistory or a classis, he must notify the body whose decision he is appealing. This is necessary so that the delegates from that particular consistory or classis may come to the meeting of the major assembly prepared.
An appellant must not bring anything new to the classis or the synod. His appeal is simply a statement of the fact that he has protested the decision of a consistory or classis, has studied and pondered their answers to him, and has found them unconvincing. He asks the major assembly to judge between the position he has taken and the position taken by the body to whom he has brought his protest. His appeal is, therefore, no longer than his original protest with a cover letter informing the body to whom he is appealing that he comes with his appeal to them. Any new material is entirely out of order. This includes any reiteration of his argument or any repetition in different words of his original protest. An appeal is not an occasion for additional proof, more documentation, agonizingly long arguments to persuade a major assembly of the correctness of the appellant’s position. He simply submits a request for a broader assembly to weigh the evidence on both sides and decide who is right according to Scripture and the confessions. Even if an assembly includes grounds in its decision which were not a part of the original material, he ought not to argue the grounds an assembly might make. The case is sufficiently complete for a major assembly to adjudicate the matter.
It is usually better, if at all possible, that the appellant be present at the meeting treating his appeal. He can then answer questions, present his case orally, and supply the body treating his material with additional documents if they should choose to see them.
If a case is decided by the synod, that is usually the end of the matter. A man is permitted to protest against a synod’s decision at the following meeting of synod, but this is not recommended procedure, and an appellant ought to give serious thought to the matter before doing any such thing. The only good reason for protesting against a synodical decision is the discovery of entirely new material which 1) alters the case significantly; 2) was not, therefore, considered by the synod; and, 3) could not have been known prior to the original treatment of the case. But, even then, it is almost always the case that, should such new light come, the case be reconsidered in consistory and classis before it is once more brought to synod. It is possible that the minor assemblies would be convinced that their original decision was wrong by the new light. If this should happen, the major assemblies should be so advised and these assemblies should take appropriate action.
A synod may not be bothered over and over again with the same material. Sometimes appellants use the ploy of protest to stave off their own just discipline.
Overtures are of three different kinds. 1) They may be requests to initiate some action which has not previously been part of the life of the church. 2) They may be requests for some modification of previous practices. 3) They may be requests that a former decision of an assembly be altered or declared null and void.
Some remarks about overtures of all three kinds ought to be made.
Overtures must be addressed to the body concerned with the action being requested. That is, if the request involves only the local consistory, an overture to that body is sufficient. An example of such an overture would be some suggested improvement in the church grounds of a significant kind. If an overture concerns only a classis, it need go only to classis. An example of this sort would be a request for the classis to carry out church visitation in a way different from the way it is being done; or a request to meet four times a year instead of three times a year. Or an overture may be addressed to synod if it involves all the churches in common.
However, in every case, all overtures to synod must go to the consistory first, to classis via the consistory, and to synod via the consistory and classis. The reasons for this are: 1) a minor assembly must see to it that the requirements for an overture are met. 2) Minor assemblies must be given the opportunity of either attempting to stop the overture or adding their approval to it. In the case of the former, the overture may be concerning a trivial and frivolous matter and minor assemblies ought to have the opportunity to attempt to persuade the individual sending it not to do so. 3) If the matter is important and the overture a request for something that would be of edification to the church, the minor assemblies could and should add their weight to what is proposed.
An overture must, according to the requirements of the Church Order, show that the one presenting it has made a detailed study of past decisions which dealt with identical or similar matters. This is an essential requirement, the reason for which will become evident below.
Again, just as with protests and appeals, the overture ought to be as brief as possible. A good suggestion may get lost in a welter of words and a bad suggestion may persuade others of its worth simply through the means of a drowning cascade of argumentation. An overture contains therefore these three parts: 1) A statement of the request in short and terse form. 2) A description of past decisions, if any, and how they apply to the present request. 3) The reasons for the request, grounded on Scripture, the confessions, and the edification of the church.
The three kinds of overtures in particular require somewhat different contents.
An overture to modify some activity in which the church presently engages would require the following. The one presenting the overture would demonstrate that the present way of doing something can be improved by some alteration. Such an overture would most likely show what the church in the past actually decided and why it is better to change such policy or activity. An example would be some change in the constitution of a synodical committee or a revision of the 1912 Psalter.
An overture suggesting some new action would have to give the body to which the request is directed all the information from past decisions. If such decisions had been taken, it falls to the one presenting the overture to show that the decisions are no longer enforceable or for the edification of the church.
If an overture requests that an old decision be rendered null and void, this must be done carefully. It must be shown that such a decision is contrary to God’s Word and the confessions, or it must be shown that times have made the former decision no longer applicable.
On occasion a person may bring an appeal to synod from a classis and have his appeal rejected. Rather than submit to the decision of the synod, he may bring an overture to the next synod or perhaps to a synod one or two years later, asking for the action rejecting his appeal to be overturned. This is wrong. He is protesting a synodical action under the guise of an overture. No one may do such a thing.
These matters of protests, appeals, and overtures are important matters and must be treated with the seriousness they deserve.
Gravamina are different from protests, appeals, and overtures. Gravamina are specifically concerned with the confessions. The confessions include the major confessions (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dordrecht). The confessions also include the liturgical forms which are considered minor confessions. They are confessions because they contain, especially in their didactic part, what the church believes concerning certain doctrines. The Form for the Administration of Baptism, for example, contains much on what the church confesses concerning the doctrine of baptism
Gravamina presuppose that the confessions of the church are not on a par with Scripture in authority. Scripture is the sole rule of doctrine and life. It alone contains what the church must believe and how the church must live. The confessions are statements by the church in the past which contain what the church believes to be the truth of Scripture. These confessions are not to be despised or considered unimportant. Several reasons may be cited.
1) The church is, in the nature of the case, inwardly constrained to write confessions. Scripture is the record of the revelation of God in Christ as God revealed Himself through Christ in history. Scripture is full of doctrine. But it is not a systematic exposition of doctrine. The church, in order to appropriate the truth, must systematize the doctrine of Scripture. This is the only way the church can and does appropriate Scripture’s truth (II Tim. 3:14, 15).
2) Such a task would be impossible if Christ did not give the church the Spirit of truth, who leads and guides the church into the truth. This work of the Spirit is the main subject of the Lord’s teachings in John 14-16. The Spirit leads the church into the truth through the means of the sacred Scriptures.
3) These confessions are from ancient times. This is a great blessing. It gives the church the assurance that all the saints, one body in Christ by the Spirit, have their unity in the truth of God’s Word. And as the church continues to perform that glorious calling of developing the truth, it does so on the foundations laid by the church in the past.
But the church is composed of sinners, and the productions of sinners, even with the Word of the Spirit, remain sinful. Gravamina recognize this fact, and open the way for a believer to point out to the church where the church in the past has erred in understanding the truth of the Word of God.
Gravamina ought to be carefully formulated. They must contain the specific doctrine in the specific article of a specific creed against which an objection is lodged. One may not, for example, submit a gravamen against the doctrine of infant baptism in general. Specific statements in the creeds must be addressed.
A gravamen must very carefully spell out both why a specific doctrine is, in the judgment of the objector, not in Scripture or that it is in conflict with Scripture, usually by demonstrating that the proof texts used in support of a doctrine are not proof texts at all. It must also be shown what is the positive doctrine of Scripture which the confessions omit or deny. If, for example, the matter of infant baptism is the subject of the gravamen, the protester must demonstrate that the Scriptures teach adult or believers’ baptism.
Upon one who submits a gravamen lies also the responsibility to trace the history of that doctrine in the confession of the church in past centuries. Almost every doctrine has a long and illustrious history. That history will show that a doctrine was frequently formulated in controversy and through struggle. History will show that it was repeatedly attacked and frequently defended. History will show a particular doctrine did not emerge fully in any given year, but that usually such a doctrine developed over the centuries. History will show how the church came to confess a given doctrine and why the church was persuaded that the doctrine was biblical. And history will show why a given doctrine stood the test of time. At this point in the world’s history one must demonstrate that the church today has a correct understanding of a doctrine that is contrary to that of the church of the past.
This is not impossible. Our confessions do not include in them a doctrine of the covenant of works. But if they did, that would be a proper matter to be taken up in a gravamen. One could demonstrate that the idea arose out of a wrong conception of the covenant, that it was held in different forms by different men, and that the biblical grounds for such an idea are totally lacking. Such a gravamen would serve the church well.
A person, however, who undertakes the preparation of a gravamen, assumes a considerable responsibility. No one may take the work of the church in the past lightly. Everyone who loves the truth ought to reckon with the fact that to challenge a doctrine in a venerable confession puts a man in the precarious position of claiming, as an individual, greater insights into Scripture than the united church of the past. Gravamina are seldom attempted.
One more statement ought to be made. Because confessions are man made, there are statements in them which are not necessarily true. An example of this is a statement in the Confession of Faith, Article 3, that the two books of Chronicles are commonly called “Paralipomena.” Most today have never heard the word, except in the Confession of Faith. Matters such as this are not proper material for gravamina. They do not contain doctrines of Scripture.
Gravamina must be carefully considered when and if they do appear on the ecclesiastical assemblies. One wonders, nevertheless, whether in the light of the illustrious history of our creedal heritage, and in the light of the nearness of the coming of our Savior, whether a gravamen is any longer possible. And, considering how carelessly and flippantly our confessions are treated in our day, one wonders whether a denomination has sufficient spiritual strength even to deal effectively with a gravamen.
But this is certain: it belongs to the office of believers to know, treasure, and defend the priceless creedal heritage of the church.
Some people have great burdens on their consciences in matters of protest and appeal. Individuals bring matters of deep concern to them to the assemblies. They are convinced that the churches have done violence to truth and righteousness and that that can only bring about serious consequences in the church they love. Yet, after carrying their “case” as far as possible in the church judicatories, they are confronted with the fact that the churches in common disagree with them.
There are, for a man of integrity, two possible courses of action.
One thing he may not do is make propaganda for his position publicly and privately within the churches. Article 31 is explicit on the point. All decisions must be considered settled and binding. That is, the matters which prompted the decisions are finished, and the decisions themselves are binding upon all. A man who disagrees with certain decisions retains the liberty of his conscience by holding his inward convictions, but he must keep the matter to himself and may not do anything which would give the impression that he is acting contrary to them.
Such a position may involve a curtailing of his activities in the church. He may have brought a protest, for example, against some activity of the Committee for Contact with Foreign Churches, but his position was rejected. He may feel so strongly about his position that, while he never agitates against synodical decisions, he cannot in good conscience serve on this synodical committee.
But all this assumes that he remains in the denomination. This is his calling if at all possible. And, generally speaking, it should be possible as long as no confessional doctrine is at stake. Most thinking people of God have some areas of disagreement with the denomination of which they are a part, but they do not leave the denomination simply because things do not always go their way. They stay within the denomination, but consider the decisions of the assembly settled and binding.
The other course of action is to
leave the denomination. That may become
necessary, especially when the matter at issue is one of sound doctrine. A believer may not stay in a denomination
which in its assemblies starts on the path of false doctrine. But one who chooses to leave the denomination
had better be sure of what he is doing, for it is a grievous sin to leave a
denomination which is the
When God’s people take seriously their responsibilities towards the church, and when the church in her assemblies takes seriously the office of believers, not only do peace and unity prevail in the church, but, under divine blessings, the church prospers and grows spiritually.
There are, of course, differences of opinion over the question of what ought to be protested, and, if necessary, appealed. What is important to one person may not be important to another. What is morally reprehensible for one individual may very well be within the bounds of godly living for another. This is a matter of judgment in many instances, sometimes involving the boundaries of Christian liberty.
in considering whether to bring a protest against an assembly, ought to ask
himself some questions which, if answered before God, could save the church a
lot of grief. He ought to ask: Is the
decision of the assembly contrary to Scripture and the confessions? Is the decision detrimental to the welfare of
One will notice that these questions have to do with the welfare of the church. So frequently, people have personal views, petty gripes, private opinions which launch them on a course of protest and appeal. These frequently are not matters of substance, of biblical or confessional integrity, or of matters which affect the edification of the saints. They are personal notions and narrowly held opinions within the church. One protests more for personal reasons than out of the motive of the welfare of the church. Of course, one can always convince himself that his own personal ideas are so important that the church may very well stand or fall on its willingness or unwillingness to agree with one’s own personal ideas. But it is essential that a potential protestant prayerfully lay aside all motives but those which have to do with his love for the cause of Christ.
Generally speaking, matters of protest have to do with doctrines or conduct expressly dealt with in Scripture and the confessions. An individual who comes with a protest must cite Scripture and the confessions as proof of his position. Nor ought the “proof” from Scripture and the confessions be a long and involved line of argumentation by means of which the protestant has deduced his opinion. The wrong of a decision ought to be fairly obvious from Scripture and the confessions to which the protestant appeals.
On the other hand, the office of believers weighs one down with certain responsibilities within the church. One who holds this office of believers is bound by a solemn obligation to seek the welfare of the church of which he is a part. That requires of him that he be on guard for departure from truth and righteousness in the assemblies. These assemblies are composed of men who are able to err. Mistakes are not uncommon to them. If a believer discovers that the church which he loves is threatened by a decision taken by an assembly, he must seek to correct that error. If he considers the matter so wrong that he feels compelled to talk with other of his fellow saints about it, it is important enough to protest. If he is concerned about the consequences of such a departure for his church, himself, and his family, he owes it to the church to point out the wrong. He cannot stand on the sidelines, bemoaning error to his compatriots, but refusing to do anything about it. This is irresponsible, and a violation of the ninth commandment.
There is corporate responsibility in the church. One is responsible for what happens within the church of which one is a member. That responsibility will surely become clear when a man in an apostatizing church finds that he goes lost in his generations as the church departs farther from the ways of God.
It is of
no little concern that when a course of protest and appeal is followed, sometimes
the result is strife, polarizing of opinion, and not infrequently, bitterness
and hatred. There are, it seems to me,
reasons why this happens. Many people,
whether in the pew or in an assembly, have a view of protests which gives them
a confrontational character. Some people
learn of a decision of an assembly and immediately alarm bells go off in their
heads, danger signals fly, and they see the church lying in ruins at their feet
unless something is not done immediately. They take the position that an assembly has
made a major breach in the walls of
The assemblies are deliberative bodies. This is especially true of the major assemblies, but it is also true of consistories. Consistories, however, have the responsibility of ruling in the congregation, and their concerns are immediate and direct. They must make decisions affecting the life of those over whom they rule. They are not usually, in the normal course of their work, confronted with various options arising out of disagreements. They are called to make decisions regarding the spiritual welfare of the saints. Nevertheless, when the occasion requires it, they too are a deliberative assembly.
That an assembly is a deliberative body means that it must carefully weigh the different positions which are presented in a given case. Although a delegate may have formed a preliminary opinion on the matter prior to his coming to the assembly, he must remain open to the points his colleagues make and the arguments presented against the position which formerly seemed to him to be right. He must reckon always with the possibility that he might be wrong. He must not let a pride which refuses to allow him to change his position get in the way of what is right and just.
This deliberative character of the assemblies is frequently a forgotten element. It is possible that an issue of no little importance remains only briefly within the walls of the consistory room, and soon becomes public knowledge. The word spreads like wildfire. Opinions are immediately and hastily formed — with or without complete and accurate information as to the issues involved. The entire denomination is galvanized into action and seemingly compelled to take a stand. The lines are drawn, decisions are made unofficially in the public square, and the whole matter settled in the court of popular opinion. By the time major assemblies meet to determine matters, the issue is settled and little if any deliberation is possible.
Several things must be remembered when protests are filed, appeals are made, overtures are brought to the assemblies, and gravamina are submitted.
1) As I already emphasized, one must not use ecclesiastical procedures to advance his own cause. One must be very sure that he has the welfare of the church at heart.
2) Anyone who brings any kind of protest or appeal to an assembly must consider the possibility that he might be wrong. This is obvious, yet forgotten. It follows from the injunction of Scripture itself to esteem others in the church better than ourselves (Phil. 2:1-3). No one of us has a corner on truth and righteousness. Each one of us is able to err in his thinking and understanding. Something appears wrong to us, but we must seriously consider the possibility that a broader assembly of men, themselves officebearers, will find reasons why we are wrong and will be able to show us that we are wrong. We speak frequently of considering our protests and appeals prayerfully; but prayerfully means that it is just possible that we are making a horrendous mistake. Such an attitude will ensure that we receive the decision of an assembly with the motive of being instructed, not with the motive to gain more ammunition for our case. I have heard protestants tell assemblies: If you do not agree with my protest or appeal, be informed that I am appealing to the major assembly. This is wrong.
3) Assemblies must take the same attitude. It is to be feared that individual believers frequently become discouraged because they gain the distinct impression that their material is not taken seriously, nor seriously considered by an assembly. Consistories, classes, and synods may not dismiss a member’s objection with an attitude of superiority. They may not say to themselves or to each other: “He doesn’t really know that much about affairs in the church”; “His Reformed understanding of things has always been suspect”; “He is a born trouble-maker and here he is again.” They must consider what is brought to them in all seriousness, and if indeed it is true that the material brought is seriously flawed for one reason or another, they must deal patiently with such a protestant to show him where he errs.
4) The whole of
Reformed church polity is built on trust.
I mentioned this earlier when I discussed the relation between the office
of believers and the special offices in the church. The same is true of the relation between the
assemblies mutually and an appellant and the assemblies. Specifically, the trust which ought to
characterize all concerned must be a firm belief that all are truly seeking the
welfare of the
5) It may be too much to expect in this world of sin, but the members of the church ought to play a role which is more godly and upright than mere speculation, discussion about things of which they know nothing, and dangerous polarizing of the church on substantive issues. Assemblies could, of course, keep matters coming before them secret. Absolute secrecy would stop a lot of idle chatter. But such secrecy is certainly not desirable, for believers have every right to know what is happening in the church. Unless a matter involves discipline, the assemblies must acquaint the people with what is being discussed and debated if such matters affect the church at large. But people must not themselves hurry to make decisions, frequently come to conclusions without any knowledge of the arguments pro and con, talk disparagingly of those who are directly involved in such discussions, and make cutting and cruel remarks which hurt the souls of those who fight for truth and godliness.
The Church Order speaks of three ceremonies that are performed in the church as part of her worship. They are the two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and public confession of faith. In all three ceremonies a form is provided which has been adopted by the churches for use in the local congregation. The form for confession of faith is very brief, and is usually accompanied by a short pastoral homily given by the presiding minister.
All three ceremonies involve specific activities on the part of the people of God in the pew. To these we turn.
The Church Order includes the following articles on baptism:
Article 56: “The covenant of God shall be sealed unto the children of Christians by baptism, as soon as the administration thereof is feasible, in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached.”
Article 57: “The ministers shall do their utmost to the end that the father present his child for baptism.”
Article 58: “In the ceremony of baptism, both of children and of adults, the minister shall use the respective forms drawn up for the administration of the sacrament.”
Article 59: “Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church, and are accepted as members of the church, and are therefore obliged also to partake of the Lord’s Supper, which they shall promise to do at their baptism.”
Article 60: “The names of those baptized, together with those of the parents, and likewise the date of birth and baptism, shall be recorded.”
It is well to reiterate briefly the truth that a baby born of believing parents does not become a member of the church by baptism. Our vocabulary, unfortunately, leaves that impression: we speak of “members of the church by baptism,” or “baptized members.” Strictly speaking this is not a correct designation.
A child, by virtue of the fact that he or she is born of
believing parents, is a member of the
Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are
included in the covenant and
The Heidelberg Catechism makes clear
that children are baptized because they are included in the church, not in
order that they may be included in the
It is obvious that believers to whom God has given a covenant child are obligated to present that child for baptism.
When I first entered the ministry, it was customary for
new parents to make arrangements with the pastor to have their child baptized,
and when a suitable date had been agreed upon, the janitor was informed so that
water could be put in the baptism font.
But this deprived the elders of the control of the sacrament, which is
part of their responsibility in ruling the
The elders do not make this a time to arrange a suitable date. The elders must be assured that the parents requesting baptism are prepared to answer in the affirmative the questions that will be put to them. These are important questions, and great care must be taken in asking and answering them. They are expected to express their agreement with the Reformed doctrine of the covenant, and specifically to express their agreement that God sovereignly establishes that covenant in the line of generations. They express such agreement when they confess that their children, though by nature totally depraved, are “sanctified in Christ” and are “members of Christ’s church.”
and equally important, parents are asked to express their agreement with the
truth as it is contained in the Scriptures, set down in the Reformed confessions,
and taught in the congregation of which they are members. This latter was even one of the reasons for
the Secession of 1834 under De Cock.
Many in the
It is not even sufficient in our day of doctrinal departure to profess agreement with the truth of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, because other Reformed churches who claim to hold to the Reformed confessions differ on fundamentally important points with “the doctrine which is taught here in this Christian (Protestant Reformed) church.” Those who answer this question from the Baptism Form must be aware of the fact that on several crucial issues our churches have officially expressed in the Declaration of Principles what the confessions teach. These teachings are certainly implied in question 2 which is asked of parents, and an affirmative answer needs to be given. Specifically, the Declaration of Principles officially sets down the confessional truths of God’s sovereign and particular grace (over against the error of common grace) and the doctrine of an unconditional covenant established with the elect alone in Christ (over against a conditional and universal covenant established with all the children baptized).
Finally, parents are required to promise solemnly before God and God’s church that they will do all in their power to have their children instructed in the truth of God’s Word and the Reformed confessions, as taught in their church. This promise is based on an awareness of the truth that God uses covenant instruction to continue His covenant in the lines of generations, and that covenant parents, who love their children as children of God, eagerly assume this responsibility in the covenant.
These are solemn and significant statements and promises which parents make. It is well that parents go over together these questions and discuss them prior to seeking the consistory’s permission for baptism of their children.
The congregation as a whole also functions in its office of believers during the administration of the sacrament of baptism. Believers are more than mere witnesses of the statements and promises made by the parents. They also answer, though silently, in their hearts, to the questions publicly asked the new parents.
This answer on the part of all those present means two things. It means that those present who are parents, grandparents, or great grandparents renew their own vows before God’s face with respect to their own children, grand children, and great grandchildren. This is indeed for all present a solemn moment.
assent of all present to the questions addressed to new parents means also that
each member of the congregation assumes responsibility for the covenant instruction
of the child being baptized. The
To fulfill this responsibility the congregation agrees to encourage the parents to be faithful when such encouragement is necessary; to admonish parents when the parents are remiss in their duties; to help financially in Reformed education in the day schools, and to take these children under its own care if, for some reason, the parents are unable to do so.
It is well to stress here how important it is that all support Christian day schools. So many times parents think that they are relieved of the responsibility of supporting the schools when their children have graduated. Yet, the fact is that these same parents are fi-nancially able to support the schools in larger measure after the children have left their homes. But, whatever may be the financial resources of people, they are responsible that the schools are supported financially.
Such support includes constant prayers for the schools, the teachers, and the school boards, as well as for the parents who sometimes have to struggle to make ends meet with the high costs of tuition. And it includes constant encouragement to those upon whom falls the task of making the schools truly places of Reformed education.
It only infrequently happens that, through the sudden death of parents or through total apostasy of parents, the children are left without anyone to care for them. The courts of our land have made it increasingly difficult for the church to exercise its responsibility in such situations. It is well that parents consider this and make arrangements for someone in the church to serve as guardians of their children should God take them out of this life.
The ceremony of public confession of faith is an anomaly in Reformed churches. No mention of it in Scripture points to the need to include such a ceremony in the worship service. Nevertheless, it has a long tradition in Reformed churches, and it is an important and valuable ceremony. Public confession of faith itself does have a strong scriptural foundation. Paul is emphatic about it that “with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:10). While Paul refers to the life of the believer in general, the church, in introducing the practice of public confession of faith into the worship, expresses the importance of obedience to the biblical truth Paul speaks of within the fellowship of the church itself, where all true confession begins.
The line of reasoning is easily understood if one gives some thought to the way in which God works in the lives of covenant children. Though these children are brought into the world without knowledge of God and His truth, God continues His covenant with them through covenant instruction. This covenant instruction is provided by the home, the school, and the church. God works in such a way that as the child grows, he or she gains not only physical maturity, but along with physical maturity also psychological maturity. All covenant instruction is geared to that. The result is that a covenant child reaches a point in his development where he is also spiritually mature, because he understands the doctrines of the church and believes them to be the truth of the Word of God and the Reformed confessions.
In fact, all instruction must be geared to that end. Gradually, through instruction in Bible history, Bible doctrine, and the confessions of the church, a covenant child learns what the church believes and learns why the church believes what it does. If he agrees with the church, such a child is then a young adult and is ready to take his place in the church as a responsible member.
Confession of faith is made first of all before the consistory. The one appearing to make confession of faith is asked a number of questions. These questions have almost exclusively to do with doctrine. This is denied by some who hold to the notion that all that a person need do to make public confession of faith is confess that one believes that he or she is saved by Christ. But this is not so. The elders want to know why a young adult wants to make confession of faith in this particular church, and not in the Baptist church up the road a bit, or in the Christian Reformed Church around the corner. That this is indeed the meaning of public confession of faith is evident from the questions which are asked in the church service.
1. Do you acknowledge the doctrine contained in the Old and New Testaments and in the Articles of the Christian faith and taught here in this Christian church to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation?
2. Have you resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine; to reject all heresies repugnant thereto; and to lead a new, godly life?
3. Will you submit to church government, and in case you should become delinquent (which may God graciously forbid), to church discipline?
In brief, the one making confession of faith must know and believe: 1) What the church in which confession is made teaches. 2) Why it maintains the particular truths it does. That is, what is the biblical foundation for the truths which are contained in the confessions and why they are important. 3) How these truths differ from other denominations so that it is necessary to maintain a separate denomination to which one must belong in obedience to Christ.
The children of the church also function in the office of believers. This ought, from childhood on, to be impressed upon them. But their functioning in the office of believers is primarily learning. This is an exciting and important part of life, and much could be said about it. But suffice it to say that the home is primarily responsible for fostering in the hearts of the children of the covenant a desire to learn. So frequently, catechism lessons are considered an additional burden to be borne and the young people look upon learning them as an odious task. The danger always exists that catechism is considered relatively unimportant and neither the parents, the minister, nor the children take it too seriously. Children must be made to understand that they are exercising the sacred duties of the office they hold in the church by making growth in the knowledge of the truth a priority in their lives.
Looking at confession of faith from another perspective, public confession of one’s faith opens the way for participation in the administration of the Lord’s Supper. A battle rages today, even within conservative congregations and churches, over the question of paedo-communion, i.e., whether children may partake of the Lord’s Supper. If one understands properly the role of children functioning in the office of believers, one will have no difficulty understanding why children do not belong at the Lord’s table. The specific reasons for this will be explained in connection with the discussion of the believer’s obligation to join the congregation in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is the second sacrament which Christ has instituted in the church. It, along with the sacrament of baptism, is for the strengthening of our faith (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 25). It is added to the preaching and gives to believers certain signs and seals of the promises God gives His people in the preaching.
It is not necessary in this manual to go into the meaning of the sacrament. It is necessary to emphasize one point which needs emphasis in our day. Increasingly the emphasis in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper falls on the celebration of the sacrament rather than on the administration of the sacrament. Increasingly one reads on bulletins: “The sacrament of the Lord’s supper will be celebrated…,” while some years ago a similar announcement would read, “The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be administered….”
To speak of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not wrong. The Form our churches use on this occasion speaks of celebration. But the title of the form is, “Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper.” A shift in terminology, seemingly so minor and innocuous, frequently indicates a shift in emphasis and in thinking. To emphasize the celebratory nature of the sacrament is to put the emphasis on what we do, what man does. To speak of the administration of the Lord’s Supper is to put the emphasis on what God does through Christ. Our celebration is of what God Himself does. He ordains the sacrament for the strengthening of our faith. Just as Christ preaches, so Christ administers the sacraments. He is the Host at the table where the signs and seals are set before God’s people. He makes the sacrament effective to the strengthening of our faith by His Spirit in our hearts. We celebrate this great work of God and do so in remembrance of what Christ has done.
The believer, functioning in his office, has obligations laid upon him with respect to the Lord’s Supper. These obligations are three.
The first obligation is his calling to come to the Lord’s table and receive the sacrament from Christ. This should be obvious, but it is not. Many in Reformed churches do not consider this to be an obligation at all. People may be born in the church, make confession of faith in the church, and die in the church, and never partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They are of the opinion that they are unworthy, and they lack the assurance that they are people of God who have a rightful place at the Lord’s table. If they come to the Lord’s table at all, frequently when they are advanced in years, they come hesitantly, with some fright in their hearts, almost in need of being pushed to their place, and partake as if they are fearful that heaven may open and judgment fall upon them for partaking.
It is not my purpose to discuss the question of assurance. Nevertheless, the biblical and creedal position of the Reformed churches is that the child of God lives in the confident assurance of his salvation in Jesus Christ. He comes to the Lord’s table seeking the God-ordained means for the strengthening of his weak and wavering faith. He does so in obedience to the command of Christ Himself, who says to His church: “Take, eat; Take, drink! Do this in remembrance of me!” If a believer does not come to the table of the Lord, he sins.
The second obligation which rests on the believer is to come examining himself. Scripture enjoins the believer to perform this act of faith in the institution of the Lord’s Supper as found in I Corinthians 11:23-29. Verses 27-29 read:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
We must call attention to a few important teachings in these verses.
It is clear that the text speaks of worthy eating and drinking and unworthy eating and drinking. The former is our calling; the latter is a dreadful sin, so serious that it brings down on the unworthy partaker damnation. This makes our participation in the sacrament a very important act.
Eating and drinking unworthily is carefully defined. It is said to be a failure to discern the Lord’s body, by which one becomes guilty of the body and blood of Christ.
Thus eating and drinking worthily is also defined, partly by implication and partly with specific language. We eat and drink worthily when we discern the Lord’s body. And the only possible way to discern the Lord’s body is through examining ourselves. If we come to the table of the Lord examining ourselves, therefore, we will not be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, and we will escape damnation.
The obligation, then, of the believer in his office in the church is to come to the table of the Lord examining himself. This is crucial. It is reason for gratitude that both Scripture and our Form give us help in how to examine ourselves as preparation for the Lord’s table.
What our form teaches is based on Scripture. In II Corinthians 13:5 we read:
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?
The text does not say that we must examine ourselves “whether we have faith.” This is the way many would interpret the passage; and it is not surprising that interpreting it that way leads many to conclude that they do not have faith and that they do not belong at the Lord’s table.
Such an interpretation is impossible. Examining ourselves is itself an act of faith. Without faith one cannot engage in this spiritual activity. That necessity of faith as the source of self-examination is not only objectively true, but also subjectively true. That is, it is not only true that faith as the bond which unites us to Christ is the power by which we are able to examine ourselves; but our consciousness of belonging to Christ enables us to ask whether we are in the faith.
Another reason why the interpretation that we examine ourselves whether we have faith is wrong is in the text itself: “Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you?” The examination in which the believer is called to engage has its starting point in knowing ourselves, how that Jesus Christ is in us.
What is then the reason for examination of ourselves? The text speaks of examining ourselves “whether we be in the faith.” We must examine ourselves whether our daily walk is in the sphere and power of faith. Is our walk in conformity with our faith? That is the question.
The next question, which follows from this, is: What is a walk in conformity with one’s faith? This question is answered by our Form. We need not, therefore, go into detail here. A few points are worth noticing.
In defining proper self-examination, the Form follows the same outline as the Heidelberg Catechism in its explanation of attaining the true comfort in life and in death, for body and for soul, in time and in eternity: I belong to Jesus. We must, says the Catechism, know our sins and miseries, know our redemption in Christ, and know how we are to be thankful. So the Form tells us that proper self-examination includes: 1) Our need to humble ourselves before God in the knowledge that our sins are so great that we cannot do one thing to save ourselves, but need Christ. 2) Our firm faith that Christ has accomplished such a full and complete salvation that all our sins and guilt are paid for and all righteousness earned for us. 3) Our purpose to walk in gratitude to God by loving God, living in holiness, and loving our neighbor as God commands.
The third responsibility that rests on us is to discern the Lord’s body. This too is done by way of self-examination.
To discern the Lord’s body means to understand the things signified in the signs and seals. That is, it is the spiritual ability to see, in the broken bread and the wine, the body of Christ broken on the cross and blood of Christ shed for the sins of His people. In short, it is to understand the atonement of Christ. It is to understand the atonement of Christ by faith, so that the partaker appropriates that sacrifice of Christ for himself.
Many doctrines are implied in that one truth, for the sacrifice of Christ is the central and essential doctrine of the Christian faith. The worthy partaker must have knowledge of these doctrines — not exhaustive knowledge, a knowledge which he will never attain in this life, but a knowledge in which, if he is faithful, he will grow continuously.
This knowledge is always the personal knowledge that one possesses for himself the sacrifice of Christ for His salvation. To come in any other way to the Lord’s table is to eat and drink judgment to oneself.
Children do not belong at the Lord’s table because the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is for those who are able to discern the Lord’s body. To discern the Lord’s body requires spiritual maturity. Children usually reach spiritual maturity when they reach physical and psychological maturity, but only when they have given diligence to the instruction they have received in the home, the school, and especially the church.
The Scriptures command us not only to engage in the activity of self-examination during the week prior to the administration of the Lord’s Supper, but also to come to the table of the Lord examining ourselves: But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup…” (II Cor 11:28). That is, the worthy partaker must come to the table of the Lord conscious of his own unworthiness and of his full and complete salvation in the cross of his Savior. He must come in faith which lays hold on Christ and trusts in Him alone.
A consideration of self-examination brings up another point. We call the Lord’s Supper “communion,” and properly so. The Form points out why this is a proper designation of the sacrament.
Besides, that we by this same Spirit may also be united as members of one body in true brotherly love, as the holy Apostle saith, “For we, being many, are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread.” For as out of many grains one meal is ground, and one bread baked, and out of many berries being pressed together, one wine floweth, and mixeth itself together; so shall we all, who by a true faith are ingrafted into Christ, be altogether one body, through brotherly love, for Christ’s sake, our beloved Savior, who hath so exceedingly loved us, and not only show this in word, but also in very deed towards one another.
The communion which the saints receive at the table of the Lord in connection with the sacrament is a communion made possible by a unity in Christ, a unity which is, most basically, a unity in truth. Children cannot express that unity until they have come to understand and know that truth as it is taught in the church of which they are members.
Confession of faith is the door to the Lord’s table.
for the Administration of Baptism warns against superstition. This same warning may very well be applied to
the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Our forms were very conscious of the error of
That we may be now fed with the true heavenly bread, Christ Jesus, let us not cleave with our hearts unto the external bread and wine, but lift them up on high in heaven, where Christ Jesus is our Advocate, at the right hand of His heavenly Father….
When the minister speaks the words: “The cup of blessing which we bless,” the meaning is not that the wine is being blessed, and that, through this blessing, some special power is given to it; the meaning is that Christ has ordained the wine as a sign and seal of His blood; that in His blood is to be found blessing; and that those who are at the table of the Lord confess blessing alone in the blood of their Savior.
There is nothing magical or automatic about celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It is a busy time for the believer, requires great concentration and constant activity of faith, and is, if it may be put that way, hard work. But the one who comes in faith is blessed.
Family visitation is, of course, a part of the elders’ work in the congregation. It is not my intent to call attention to this aspect of their work, for the Church Order commentaries deal with this matter at length. But the believers, functioning in their office, have also a role to play in this important part of the work of the church. I want to deal, though briefly, with this latter.
The purpose of family visitation is defined in our Church Order as follows:
The office of the elders … is, both before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand, for the edification of the churches, to visit the families of the congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian religion (Article 23).
While Article 23 connects family visitation with the administration of the Lord’s Supper, in more recent times the purpose of family visitation has been broadened considerably, and the frequency of family visitation has been sharply reduced. We are interested in its broader purpose.
Family visitation is, within our churches, conducted once per year. It is a time for the elders to visit the families and individuals of the congregation in their homes, with their children when children are in the home. Its purpose is to make the rule of the elders over the congregation more directly applied to the individual needs of the family by inquiring into their spiritual well-being. In this way the rule of the elders can be specifically applied to the life of the individual families and members by comfort, instruction, and exhortation— to use the words of Article 23.
This broadening of the purpose of family visitation does not preclude the necessity of elders inquiring into the spiritual preparation of the family for the administration of the sacrament. But it does give the elders wider scope in this aspect of their work.
The believers have certain responsibilities in family visitation, and it is well to speak briefly of it.
Quite obviously, believers are to open their homes eagerly for this annual visit of the elders. It is part of their calling to submit to those who in the church have authority over them. They ought to be conscious of the fact that in the rule of the elders is to be found the rule of Christ Himself, whose rule is gracious and loving. Opening their homes to the elders, the family ought also to be open and frank with the elders when questions concerning their spiritual welfare are put to them. They ought not to take an attitude in which they view the elders’ visit as an unwarranted intrusion into private matters and motivated by sheer curiosity. They ought not to be reticent in expressing themselves openly concerning the spiritual well-being of their family life.
The elders are, according to the pertinent article in the Church Order, to comfort, instruct, and exhort the members. Family visitation is a wonderful opportunity for the elders to do this. But their work in this area will be much more effective if the members speak freely of their own lives as they attempt to live it in obedience to God. Members are not to be alarmed about speaking of their failures and their weaknesses, their sorrows and their disappointments, but also their joy in God’s goodness towards them and their thankfulness for God’s rich grace. Such frankness will open the way for the elders to address themselves directly to the needs of the family.
The members of the family ought not to “save up” various items which they want to discuss at family visitation. If the family as a whole, or any individual members of the family, have problems of one sort or another, it is never good to wait for family visitation. Their elders are always there to help them in the problems of life. It is well to emphasize that God’s people ought more readily to seek the help and guidance of their elders when they are uncertain as to what their calling is in the circumstances in which God has placed them. In fact, it is frequently preferable for believers to seek the help and counsel of their elders rather than their minister. Various reasons underscore this point. 1) Elders are frequently in a better position to give counsel than the minister because their acquaintance with the members and the circumstances of their lives is broader than that of the minister, especially when the minister has been in a congregation only a short time. 2) The work of the minister is concentrated in the ministry of the Word, and it is not profitable for the congregation for the minister “to leave the Word of God and serve” other needs — to apply the apostles’ word to our present situation (Acts 6:2). More pastoral work can be done from the pulpit by strong preaching than in countless pastoral visits which take a minister from his study. When a minister gives himself to the preaching, he lays a foundation for the work which elders can then perform in fulfillment of the responsibilities of their office. 3) It is sometimes thought by believers (and, perhaps, some pastors) that pastors are the “experts” in advice and counsel, while elders are not as skilled in pastoral work as one trained for the work. But we must be careful with such reasoning. The sole calling of ministers and elders is to bring the Word of God. Elders can do that in the rule of the congregation as well as, and sometimes better than, ministers. If attention is paid to that one qualification Scripture lays down for elders, “apt to teach,” the congregation does not need “experts.”
But family visitation is especially an opportunity for the elders to comfort, instruct, and exhort. And the family as a whole ought to be submissive to this work of the elders.
Sometimes matters of a more private nature may come up on family visitation. A husband and wife, for example, may be having some problems in their marriage, but wisely do not want to discuss these problems in the presence of their children. Or parents may be having problems with one of the older children, but do not want to discuss them in the presence of the younger children. The elders ought to be informed of this prior to family visitation, and arrangements made for the parents to discuss these matters privately with their district elders or with elders who come on family visitation.
Children have the same right. If they have problems they would like to discuss with their elders, they have the right to do this. Generally speaking, especially when children are still quite young, they must discuss these matters with their parents, and they ought to talk with their elders only with the knowledge and consent of their parents. But when children become young adults, they too should be free to seek the comfort, instruction, and exhortation of their elders.
Family visitation can be of great blessing to the congregation.
Perhaps it is well to add here a note concerning proper practice in family visitation. It is becoming increasingly characteristic of this work that the consistory decide, when family visitation is to be conducted, what text will be used. The minister preaches a sermon on the text; the consistory discusses the passage at a meeting; and the elders go from home to home delivering a brief exposition of the passage to the family visited. This is not family visitation.
The elders must inquire into the spiritual well-being of the family, and they must take the opportunity to instruct the family in various aspects of their walk and calling in the world. Certainly it is proper and necessary to read from a select passage of Scripture and to use it as the basis for instruction in some aspect of the believer’s walk. Many such aspects of the believer’s life in the world suggest themselves: prayer and its importance in family life, personal devotions, worship services, etc.; Christian stewardship, including discussions of such things as debts (and the growing tendency of people to refrain from paying them), support of Christian schools and other causes of God’s kingdom, etc.; family life, emphasizing the responsibilities of fathers, mothers, older children, etc.; the problems which teen-agers confront in their lives; the proper way of worshiping God in spirit and in truth, including listening to and receiving the preaching — the list could go on. Nor need children be excluded from these discussions, for not only are the problems of children in relation to their parents, classmates, and siblings important, but all the different aspects of a life of godliness and piety apply to children as well as young people and adults.
It is even an enrichment of family visitation if it is possible to engage the entire family, including the children, in discussions concerning these and other subjects. While this goal of discussion is easier with some families than with others, it is a goal desirable to pursue.
In the use of a method such as described, the elders have opportunity to learn of the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of God’s people, to instruct them in the Scriptures, to encourage the struggling saints in the difficulties of their pathway in life, and to rebuke when the occasion requires it.
Such family visitation will prove a blessing to God’s people and the church.
The Church Order proper never mentions congregational meetings. Rules concerning them are to be found only in the decisions appended to various articles. It is worthwhile to quote these rules so that we may have clearly before our minds the calling of believers in this regard.
Article 4, which deals with the lawful calling of a minister to a congregation, has these decisions appended to it. In “A, 3” the decision reads:
From the nomination [made by the consistory] the male members assembled on a congregational meeting which has been announced on two successive Sundays shall elect by secret ballot. The majority of votes cast shall be decisive. No members under censure nor adult baptized members have the right to vote. Blank votes must be subtracted from the total votes a candidate must receive to have the majority which is required to his election.
In “B, 3" of the same article, the rule is laid down:
That the congregational meeting upon which the election takes place shall be presided over, if at all possible, by the counselor. Likewise, the calling issued by the consistory, the composition of the call-letter, and the signing thereof by all the consistory members shall be under his supervision.
In the footnote to Article 22, which deals with the election of elders, the rule is laid down:
Nominations and congregational meetings shall be announced upon two successive Sundays.
Article 24 requires that the same procedure, involving congregational meetings, be followed in the election of deacons as was followed in the election of elders.
In Article 37, which defines the composition of the consistory, three decisions are appended which have to do with congregational meetings.
A. The president and the secretary of the consistory shall function as such on the congregational meeting; the minutes shall be entered in the consistory’s minute book and confirmed by the consistory.
B. No matters shall be treated on the congregational meeting which are not brought there by the consistory.
C. When members desire to have a matter treated on the congregational meeting, they shall previously have requested of the consistory the right thereto, and it shall be the prerogative of the consistory to determined the extent and the manner to which their request shall be granted.
Finally, Article 38 deals with the matter of constituting a consistory for the first time (in the case of a group of people about to be organized into a congregation) or anew (in the case of a congregation in which most or all of the consistory members have become unfaithful). The congregation itself plays a role in both matters. Two decisions are appended to the article.
C. In order to organize the congregation the committee of the local church meets with the persons concerned, who have meanwhile requested their certificates of membership, or if it be impossible to have their certificates transferred, those present shall give testimony one of another that they were members in full communion and of good report in the congregation from which they are now separating. After a service of worship shall have been conducted under the guidance of the committee, the latter shall request those present to tender their certificates, in as far as possible. The committee having found the certificates in good order and having accepted them, they shall proceed to election of officebearers, who shall immediately upon their election be installed in their respective offices.
D. The election of officebearers shall be from a nomination made by the local calling church council (or by the church council appointed by a classis to supervise the organization of a new congregation). The church council shall make a nomination from the male membership of those who signed the letter requesting organization. This election shall take place in harmony with Articles 22 and 24 of the Church Order. Those chosen by majority vote at the organizational meeting shall be considered elected.
If we may sum up the responsibilities of believers in congregational meetings, we can construct the following list:
1. Although it is possible, according to the Church Order, for the council to present the names of men whom they have chosen to be elders and deacons for the approval of the congregation, usually the council presents a nomination from which believers vote. The actual calling of officebearers is, therefore, done by the congregation.
2. Although it is possible, according to the Church Order, for the council to present one minister (or a candidate for the ministry) to the congregational meeting for approval to call such a man, usually the council presents a trio or a duo from which the congregation calls one. Whether the congregation approves of the one presented by the council, or whether it chooses from a trio or duo, the actual calling of a minister is done by the congregation.
Because the elders, deacons, and minister are called by the congregation, the officebearers, when installed, answer affirmatively to this question: “I ask thee, whether thou feelest in thy heart that thou art lawfully called of God’s church, and therefore of God Himself, to this holy ministry (these your respective offices)?”
3. In the organization of a new congregation, those requesting organization have the following responsibilities:
a. Giving a good testimony of each other in the event that membership papers could not be obtained from a congregation.
b. Nominating men to form a slate from which elders and deacons will be chosen. This is to be done by the supervising consistory or by the classis (Art. 38, footnote D), but it may be done from the floor of the meeting if necessary.
c. Voting for men to serve in the office of elder and the office of deacon.
d. Voting on any other matters that need to be decided upon immediately. An example of such a matter might be the voting on a place of meeting for worship services, if several possibilities were being considered. Also the time of the worship services could be decided at such a meeting.
4. Generally, the
same procedure as with the organization of a new congregation is followed when
a congregation is constituted anew. Such
a reconstitution of a congregation becomes necessary when officebearers, especially
elders, are unfaithful and leave the congregation and denomination, but a
number of faithful believers remain. New
officebearers have to be chosen before the believers are once again a
5. Any matters that have to do with the financial aspects of the life of a congregation are submitted to a congregational meeting for approval. The only financial matter which is not submitted for approval is the distribution of the alms to the poor. This is emphatically the work of the deacons, essential to their office, a confidential matter, and not open to congregational approval. But all other matters, including the pastor’s salary, are submitted for approval to a congregational meeting.
These matters listed here are matters which are officially brought to the congregation for official action. Sometimes the elders see the need to call the congregation together because of some crisis in the congregation. The elders call such a meeting for informative purposes, that is, to give the congregation information of what is happening and why the consistory has acted the way it did. But such a meeting is not an official congregational meeting. In fact, frequently the entire congregation is asked to attend, including women and non-confessing members.
The Relation Between Congregational Meetings and the Elders
The relation between a congregational meeting and the consistory is an important matter and one that needs some discussion.
We have already defined the relation between the office of believers and the special offices in the church. That relationship is one in which final authority rests with the office of believers, but operating authority, if I may call it that, rests with the elders. The latter is so true that Scripture calls believers to submit to the rule of the elders as to Christ Himself (I Thess. 5:12, 13; I Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17). The manner in which congregational meetings are organized and operated are a reflection of that relation between officebearers and believers.
confessing members alone are eligible to take part in the activities of congregational
meetings. Male members only are eligible
because the activities of congregational meetings are the rule of believers in
Anyone who is under discipline loses his right to participate in congregational meetings.
look at the work of congregational meetings from the viewpoint of the believer,
we can see how the decisions of this body are indeed part of the rule of the
The decisions of the congregational meeting are final, and no consistory may override them or alter them at will. They must be implemented.
The consistory, however, rules at congregational meetings. Reformed church polity is a system of church government totally foreign to the world and incomprehensible to those versed in secular law. The reason for this “strange” character of church polity within the Reformed churches is that it is based on fundamental principles of the Word of Christ, the Head and King of the church. It is, when one stops to think about it, an amazing system. It is one in which any unbeliever could never feel comfortable, and which he would dismiss as being entirely unworkable. But it is a system developed since the time of the Reformation which carefully adheres to and puts into practice biblical principles, as strange as they may appear to those outside the church. A group of believers whose authority is decisive, who do not function as a democracy, who themselves are subject to the authority of officebearers — what an anomaly.
That the elders exercise their rule in congregational meetings is evident from the role they play before, at, and after congregational meetings. According to the decisions appended to Article 37 especially, no matters may be brought up at congregational meetings which are not brought there by the consistory itself. This is an important rule which does justice to the role of the elders and must be observed. It means several things.
1. It means that only the elders may determine the agenda for congregational meetings. No member of the church may bring something up for discussion and decision at the meeting. He is out of order if he does so.
2. As a general rule this means that the elders must come to the congregational meeting with definite proposals. The elders may not come with various choices which they submit to the congregation on a given matter.
Example: The consistory may propose the erection of a new place of worship for the congregation. The consistory ought not to bring three or four choices of location and three or four choices of a building plan; but ought to come with definite proposals. The consistory must take into account various circumstances, such as the nearness of the location to another congregation of the same denomination. The consistory must weigh the type of building proposed in the light of the economic circumstances of the congregation and the responsibilities of Christian stewardship.
This is not a hard and fast rule. On occasion the council or consistory may want to bring a matter to the congregation which could involve options, and both or all the options are feasible and proper. In such a case, the council or consistory may present different options and give the congregation the choice between them.
The exception to this is, of course, that the consistory comes with a trio or duo for calling a minister and a double slate for calling officebearers. But in these cases as well no nominations may be made from the floor of the congregational meeting.
3. Any member of the church may come to his consistory to submit a proposal to be brought to a congregational meeting. He may even come to suggest names to be placed on nominations. But, in the latter case, the consistory determines whether this ought to be done; and in the former case, the consistory determines “the extent and the manner” in which the matter is brought.
4. Further, the president and secretary function as such also at the congregational meeting, and the minutes of the congregational meeting must be incorporated into the minutes of the consistory. This too evidences the fact that the consistory exercises its rule even at the congregational meeting.
Our discussion of the relative authority of the elders and the believers at a congregational meeting brings up the question whether a congregational meeting may do nothing else but vote yes or no on a consistory’s proposal. The answer to this question is that in some matters, especially those which have to do with the financial and material aspects of the church’s life, some leeway must be given. This is frequently a matter of judgment on the part of the chairman.
Example: The consistory proposes that a minister be given a raise in salary. The congregation, rather than voting to raise his salary, votes the proposal down, so that the salary reverts back to the original amount. Or the congregation may also may amend the proposal so that the salary is raised by half as much.
Similar alterations may be made in the budget as presented, or in building plans that are proposed. It is not possible to make rules concerning what may be done at a congregational meeting and what may not be done. Usually there is no problem, but on occasion a question may come up. If the chairman is in any doubt whether an amendment is legitimate, it is better to declare the matter out of order. If, during the course of the discussion, the amendment appears to have some value, but there is a question of its legitimacy, the chairman may postpone treatment of the matter to a later date so that the consistory has opportunity to discuss the matter.
The work of congregational meetings must be taken with utmost seriousness, especially the matter of calling a minister or candidate as pastor, or electing elders and deacons. The choice of deacons as recorded in Acts 6:1-6 was conducted with the utmost gravity and dependence upon God. The choice of a missionary to the Gentiles by the church in Antioch was done with fasting and prayer — even though the Holy Spirit ordered the church to call and even designated the men to be called (Acts 13:1-3). The presence of officebearers in the congregation is the presence of Christ Himself, who chooses to work through men whom He calls. The congregation conscious of this and doing its work dependent upon Christ will also be blessed.
The Believer and Discipline
Although the exercise of the keys of the kingdom of heaven is the work of the elders, whom Christ has appointed to have the rule in the church, the office of believers also has a role in the work of discipline.
We have noticed before that the office of believers functions in and through every special office in the church. The congregation preaches through its ordained ministry. The congregation provides the money for the deacons to care for the poor. And the believers engage in the work of discipline, performed through the elders. In fact, the congregation performs the work of discipline, but the believers in the congregation do so through the elders.
It might be well at this point to emphasize not only that every task of the special offices is a task performed by the congregation through the special offices, but also that this fundamental truth of Reformed church polity has two other important implications.
The first implication of this work of the office of believers through the special offices in the church is that the believers who occupy their office are responsible for all that is done in the church. They are responsible for the pure preaching of the gospel and for the administration of the sacraments according to the command of Christ. They are responsible for the care of the poor. They are responsible for the faithful exercise of Christian discipline.
The second implication of the functioning of the office of believers through the special offices is that all the activities of the special offices are carried on among and by the saints mutually. The saints are called not only to preach through the ordained ministry, but also to witness to the truth which they believe. They are to witness to that truth to one another, but also to the world about them. They are not only called to exercise discipline through the special office of elder, but they are to admonish, exhort, and encourage each other. In fact, as we shall see, the Church Order calls special attention to this obligation. While the believers, in the functioning of their office, care for the poor through the special office of deacon, they are to help each other in gifts of charity on a personal level and among themselves.
But it is time for us to call attention to what the Church Order itself says about this aspect of the calling of believers.
The Believer’s Role in Private Sins
The believer has certain responsibilities towards his fellow saints when they fall into sin. These sins are, in the Church Order, divided into private sins and public sins. Private sins are sins of which only very few are aware — perhaps only one or two. Public sins are those which have become public knowledge. If a believer has any doubt whether a sin which concerns him is public or private, it is better to deal with it as a private sin. Some doubt may arise because those that are aware of the sin are more than the individual himself. Circumstances can often determine whether a sin is public or private. In a congregations of a thousand people, a sin is private if ten know. In a congregation of 20, ten constitute half the congregation. If more than one person is aware of a sin, each one who has knowledge of it has the responsibility to see the sinner and attempt to bring him to repentance. If witnesses are needed to carry out the instructions of the Lord, witnesses ought to be from those who know the sin has been committed.
The point is important. Because the congregation of believers is the gathering of saints, sin is an intrusion and a divisive element, which has the potential to destroy the communion of the saints. Although all the saints are sinning saints, the sins of the saints are not an obstacle to communion, because they are confessed and forgiven by Christ. But unconfessed sin carries with it the lethal poison that could in time destroy the fellowship of the people of God. It has to be taken away, either by confession or by the expulsion of the sinner. The church will be destroyed if one of these two does not take place.
A private sin is, as long as it
remains private, not the threat that a public sin is. But it is dangerous and potentially fatal for
the congregation. We need only think of
Achan’s sin in taking for himself the forbidden thing from
The purpose of the saints and the elders in exercising discipline is always the removal of sin, for on sin’s removal hangs the spiritual well-being of the congregation.
If a sin is private, the most edifying way for the sin to be removed is to bring the sinner to private confession. No one else in the congregation knows about it and it is not a trouble and grief to the saints at large. This is most satisfactory and it is the way in which reconciliation is most easily brought about.
The articles in the Church Order that deal with this matter are Articles 72 and 73.
In case one errs in doctrine or offends in conduct, as long as the sin is of a private character, not giving public offense, the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18 shall be followed.
Secret sins of which the sinner repents, after being admonished by one person in private or in the presence of two or three witnesses, shall not be laid before the consistory.
The office of believers must function in such a situation. The following are guidelines for a believer who is faced with such a calling.
1) He must himself be a witness to the sin which has been committed by one of his fellow saints. He is not a witness to the sin if he is aware of the sin because unseemly gossip has come to his ears.
2) He must go to the sinner. That is his sole responsibility. To talk to others of the sin of which he has been a witness is to do great evil and cause harm in the congregation.
3) He must go to the sinner in a spirit of meekness and sorrow. He must not exalt himself above the sinner, nor leave the impression that he is more holy than the one who has fallen. He must attempt to lead the sinner to the cross, not by sending him there, but by going with him. This is Paul’s unmistakable teaching in Galatians 6:1, 2.
4) If the sinner refuses to repent, the believer must pursue the matter further by taking with him one or two witnesses. These witnesses are not themselves witnesses of the sin. That could hardly be, because, if they were, they too should be visiting the sinner. But they are to serve as witnesses that a brother went to see the sinner, and that the sinner refuses to confess his sins. It follows, of course, that these witnesses must be made aware of the sin, and the witnesses must understand that this knowledge is to be kept in strict confidence.
It is also possible that the presence of two or three people will persuade the sinner to confess his sin and seek forgiveness.
A problem sometimes rises in connection with carrying out Jesus’ instructions laid down in Matthew 18. Sometimes, when there is only one witness to a sin, the sinner may deny that he has done what he is charged with. He may give a different and innocent interpretation of his conduct. In this case, the matter reaches a stalemate, even though one may be 95% certain that the sinner is indeed guilty. There is no actual proof. It is the word of one man against another. The matter must then be dropped, and God alone must judge.
Example: A married man is seen with a strange woman in a town other than the place of his residence. When confronted with the charge of adultery, he may deny that he was with the woman for immoral purposes, but was simply engaging in a business deal. No proof of sin can be submitted. The matter must be left to the judgment of God.
If the sinner, while admitting the action of which he is accused, denies that it is in fact a sin, the witnesses can assist in attempting to persuade a man that his conduct was wrong.
Example: A member of the congregation may learn that one of his fellow members is a member of a labor union, something not known to anyone else in the church. He may bring the matter to the sinner, but the sinner may deny that union membership is in fact a sin. Witnesses may be able to help persuade the sinner that indeed his conduct is contrary to God’s will. If they fail, the matter will have to go to the consistory.
When sin is confessed, the whole matter is dropped; sin has been removed from the congregation. All is well.
It is not difficult to see that if indeed sin can be removed on this personal level, the greater benefit of the church as a whole is served. Believers must strive for this in private sins.
The Believer and Public Sins
A believer’s role in public sins of a brother or sister is defined, first of all, in Article 74 of the Church Order.
If anyone, having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed, or otherwise has committed a public sin, the matter shall be reported to the consistory.
Two kinds of sins can be called public. The first kind is a sin, once private, but which the sinner refuses to confess. It becomes a public sin because it is like a cancer in the body of the congregation which, if not removed, will eventually destroy the entire congregation. And it is made public by informing the consistory of the sin and of the refusal of the sinner to repent.
The knowledge of the sin on the part of the consistory does not in itself make a sin public, but the consistory must now deal with the sinner and, if the sinner continues to be unrepentant, must inform the congregation of the sin and the sinner.
Once again, if the sinner is brought to repentance by the work of the elders, the congregation will benefit. The fewer who are aware of a sin the better for the congregation – especially if the sinner is brought to repentance. I have laid down the principle earlier that the “higher” one is forced to go with a matter through ecclesiastical channels, the more difficult reconciliation becomes. If one man and a sinner can settle a matter, that is far and away the best. If one man, two or three witnesses, and a sinner can settle a matter, that is very good. If a consistory can settle a matter through the repentance of the sinner, this will benefit the congregation. If the matter has to go to classis, and then to synod, along the way of ecclesiastical processes, the difficulty of reconciliation increases. The believer must strive earnestly to keep the matter of sin in as narrow a compass as possible. He will also do this if he truly loves the church.
A private sin which remains unconfessed must be brought to the consistory. It is at that point that the believer who first witnessed the sin drops out of the picture as far as his own personal involvement is concerned. It is now a matter of the elders who rule in the church.
A public sin must be immediately taken in hand by the elders. The rule of our Lord in Matthew 18 does not apply to a public sin. The sinner whose sin is public knowledge threatens immediately the welfare of the entire congregation and perhaps even the denomination, if his sin is known in the congregation or throughout the churches. This latter, in fact, is likely to happen in the case of a gross sin of a minister.
The question is sometimes asked whether or not an individual has a responsibility to see the sinner alone when the sin is a public sin. The answer to this question is clear from Scripture.
If the sin is public, the individual believer has no obligation to follow the rule of our Lord in Matthew 18, as I already pointed out. Sometimes an ecclesiastical assembly requires that an individual believer follow Matthew 18 even when the sin is public. He is asked whether he followed Matthew 18; and if his answer is in the negative, the assembly refuses to treat this matter until Matthew 18 has been followed. This is wrong.
Example: A minister preaches something from the pulpit which is not in accordance with Scripture and the confessions. A believer brings the matter to the consistory and is asked whether he followed Matthew 18. If his answer is negative, he is told to do this. This is incorrect.
Nevertheless, the believer does have an obligation to go to the sinner personally, but not on the basis of Matthew 18. More than one situation can arise in this connection. A believer may be aware of a sin on the part of a brother or sister, but does not know whether it is public or private. In that event, he must go to the sinner and deal with the sinner as if it were a private sin.
A believer may be aware of the fact that a sin is public, but not know how many in the congregation know of the sin, or whether the elders are aware of it. Then also he ought to go see the brother alone.
A believer, in visiting the brother, whether the sin is private or public, may discover to his pleasure that no sin at all was committed, but that there was misunderstanding, a false report, or even a misinterpretation of one’s conduct. One may read in the newspaper an article about one of his fellow saints that seems to indicate that his brother was involved in sin. The fact that the item appeared in the newspaper makes it a public matter. But upon discussing the whole incident with his brother he learns that the newspaper report was wrong (as it frequently is) or that there is a perfectly good explanation for what seemed in the report to be sin.
One ought always to go to a brother before going to the consistory. If a sin is public, the consistory is probably aware of it, and he need not go to his elders to inform them of what they already know. Only when it becomes apparent that they do not know, ought he to go.
In any case, a brother always has an obligation to go to his brother, even in cases of public sin. This is so even when the consistory is working with the brother to bring him to repentance. I’ll have a bit more to say about this.
The Believer and the
Exercise of Discipline
When discipline becomes a matter of the exercise of key power by the elders, the responsibility of the believers is by no means over. The responsibilities of the believer are outlined in Article 77 of the Church Order.
After suspension from the Lord’s table, and subsequent admonitions, and before proceeding to excommunication, the obstinacy of the sinner shall be publicly made known to the congregation; the offense explained, together with the care bestowed upon him, in reproof, suspension from the Lord’s Supper, and repeated admonition; and the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him. There shall be three such admonitions. In the first the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned that he be somewhat spared. In the second, with the advice of the classis, his name shall be mentioned. In the third the congregation shall be informed that (unless he repent) he will be excluded from the fellowship of the church, so that his excommunication, in case he remains obstinate, may take place with the tacit approbation of the church. The interval between the admonitions shall be left to the discretion of the consistory.
The article defines congregational involvement in the exercise of the keys as receiving various announcements from the consistory concerning the actions of the consistory. There are two reasons why such announcements need to be made. They are not made just “to keep the congregation informed.” They are made, first of all, so that the congregation may approve of the actions of the consistory.
This approval is not a mere “rubber stamping” of the consistory’s action. The congregation must understand that the action of the consistory is the action of the congregation and that the congregation is responsible for what the consistory does. The congregation must be involved in and approve of the discipline. If anyone in the congregation does not approve, he must make his reasons for withholding approval known to the consistory so that the elders may seriously consider whether they are doing wrong. And, as I said earlier, such a one has the right of appeal, if he considers it necessary. It ought to be obvious that such a course of action is not possible until after the second announcement by the consistory, for in the second announcement the name of the sinner is mentioned.
The second reason why such announcements are made is mentioned in the article itself: “the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him.” Obviously, when the first announcement is made and the name of the sinner is not mentioned, the members can only pray for the sinner. But when his name is mentioned, they are in a position to visit him as well. They are solemnly obligated to do this. Every member who loves the church and seeks the welfare of the church wants a sinner to be brought to repentance. He will do everything he can to attain such a goal. At the same time, every member is vitally concerned for the purity and holiness of the church, and does not want to see sin go unconfessed in the congregation. The presence of unconfessed sin can only lead to troubles and greater sorrows for the congregation.
Two more points must be made. The Form of Excommunication mentions one of these in passing. When giving the reasons why the elders are proceeding to excommunication, the Form says: “…that no one has yet appeared before us, who hath in the least given us to understand that he, by the frequent admonitions given him, (as well in private as before witnesses, and in the presence of many), is come to any remorse for his sins, or hath shown the least token of true repentance.” The meaning of this clearly points us to the fact that if any believer, in visiting the sinner, should observe any indication of repentance or remorse for his sin, he should report this to the consistory. If a believer has truly detected this and is not simply making “his wish father of his thought,” the elders will be happy to visit the sinner to learn if such evidence is indeed leading to true repentance. But the sinner’s confession must, of course, be made, not only to an individual in the congregation, but also to the elders.
The second point that needs to be
made is that the presence of a sinner in the congregation is an occasion for
the entire congregation to humble itself before God. I already called attention to the fact that
the whole nation of
So the church prays not only for the
sinner, but for itself. Just as also the
Sometimes a sinner who comes under the discipline of the church asks for his papers before excommunication can be pronounced. This is frequently done to escape the final penalty of excommunication. He cannot in this way, however, escape the discipline of Christ. The reasons are as follows.
1) When one leaves thinking to escape the discipline of the church, the discipline of Christ still follows him wherever he goes.
2) He breaks a promise which he made at the time of his confession of faith that he would submit to the government of the church. It is a serious thing to break a vow one makes before God and the church.
3) One deprives himself of the God-ordained means to bring him to repentance. Indeed, he flaunts these means and thus shows his disrespect for Christ who appointed elders over him.
and Excommunicated Members
When a sinner is cut off from the congregation the responsibility of the believer does not end. The Form of Excommunication calls the believers’ attention to their responsibilities. We here sum up what the Form has to say.
1) The believers are to keep no company with the sinner. This is frequently ignored out of a wrong spirit of helping the sinner through kindness. These people have the sinner over to their house. If the sinner comes to church in spite of his excommunication, some go up to him, shake hands with him, and express their delight to see him in church.
This conduct actually does more harm than good. It stands in the way of other Christians fulfilling their calling and it gives the sinner a wrong sense of well-being. It leaves him with the impression that his sin is not all that bad.
2) Yet, though not having fellowship with the sinner, the believers are instructed to refrain from counting one excommunicated an enemy. They are to admonish him as a brother.
3) Each believer is to “take warning by this and such like example; to fear the Lord, and diligently take heed unto himself if he thinketh he standeth, lest he fall; but having true fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, together with all faithful Christians, remain steadfast therein to the end, and so obtain eternal salvation.”
4) Believers are to see how subtle Satan is, how what is only the beginning of sin leads to greater sins and ultimately ruin. They are to guard against the beginnings of evil and to run with patience the race set before them. They are to cling to Christ, seek strength from Him, and pray that they may be guarded from temptation.
5) And, as I mentioned above, they are to humble themselves before God, bewail their sins, and repent of them with true sorrow.
It is striking and important that the Form concentrates most of its attention in this section on the calling of believers to examine themselves and to take warning from a brother who has fallen.
Believers and the Return
of Excommunicated Members
78 of the Church Order speaks of the believer’s responsibility at that
time when an excommunicated sinner is brought to repentance by the grace of God
and seeks readmittance to the
Whenever anyone who has been excommunicated desires to become reconciled to the church in the way of repentance, it shall be announced to the congregation, either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or at some other opportune time, in order that (in as far as no one can mention anything against him to the contrary) he may with profession of his conversion be publicly reinstated, according to the form for that purpose.
The Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons tells us the role of believers when a sinner is brought to repentance. In that form is included what the Church Order has to say about this.
Before such readmittance actually takes place, the first part of the Form is read to the congregation, in which the congregation is informed of the repentance of the sinner and is told that the readmittance will take place just prior to the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper. That part of the Form which is read at this time informs the congregation that the members are bound to receive such a member with joy. That this should indeed be done is evident from the Lord’s parables in Luke 15, where we are told that even the angels rejoice when a sinner is brought to repentance. And the sour and disapproving elder brother is held up as an example of a dreadful sin which could manifest itself in the church towards a repentant sinner.
The congregation is also told that the believers have the responsibility to go to the elders if they are able “to show just cause why [readmittance] ought not to be done.” Thus the believers once again are summoned to approve of the action of the consistory in preparing for the sinner’s readmittance. This approval is of the work of the elders, the confession and repentance of the sinner, and the action of the elders in making preparations to readmit the sinner to the fellowship of the church. Such approval implies that if any member knows a reason why such a one ought not be readmitted, he is solemnly obligated to bring the matter to the consistory. It is for the welfare of the church that this be done, for if a sinner who is not truly repentant be admitted, great harm is done the congregation.
While this time of approbation passes, every one is admonished to “thank the Lord for the mercy shown this poor sinner, beseeching Him to perfect His work in him to his eternal salvation.”
After readmittance takes place, the congregation also has responsibilities according to the Form.
1) The believers are told that the church had always hoped for the repentance of the sinner, and kept its bosom open to receive the penitent. While this conduct on the part of the congregation takes place before readmittance, it is a reminder of the believer’s attitude towards the sinner.
2) The believers are admonished to receive their brother, “with hearty affection; be glad that he was dead and is alive, he was lost and is found; rejoice with the angels of heaven over this sinner who repenteth. Count him no longer as a stranger, but as a fellow-citizen with the saints and of the household of God.”
3) In the prayer, the petition is made that the believers “learn from this example that with Thee is mercy, that Thou mayest be feared; and that we, counting him for our brother and co-heir of life eternal, may jointly serve Thee with filial fear and obedience all the days of our life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
People who terminate membership in a Protestant Reformed Church must not expect anything else but a certificate of dismissal. This certificate indicates that the elders consider leaving a Protestant Reformed Church to be a sin. That the elders consider it to be a sin is right, because our Confession of Faith binds us to this position when it requires of believers to join themselves to the true church.
Some request their papers when they are put under discipline and refuse to repent. They hope in this way to escape excommunication. Their hope is, however, a vain one, for, not only is it true that they cannot escape the discipline of Christ by leaving, but they add to their sin by breaking the vow they made at the time of confession of faith, namely, that they will submit to the government of the church even when they become delinquent.
Last modified: 30-Oct-2006
These are all aspects of the functioning of the office of believers. They are essential to the welfare of the church. In a church in which believers carry out their responsibilities, God’s blessing comes in rich measure.