A History of the Protestant Reformed Churches
OF A CONGREGATIONAL MEETING AND ITS RESULTS
There are times when a consistory may deem it necessary and expedient to supply the congregation with official information about the important matters and decisions.
There are especially times in which the consistory apprehends that the congregation may be compelled to take a position in matters that are of momentous importance to them, such as a possible deposition of their pastor and consistory and separation from the denomination in which they have a place.
In such matters the congregation is vitally concerned.
And it is, of course, essential that when the moment of decision arrives in such deeply important matters, the congregation should have all the information and light necessary to choose and to take a position consciously.
Besides, it is often at such times that the congregation is exposed to the danger of obtaining their information from unofficial and very unreliable sources. The air is often filled with rumors that are as wild as they are false. And malcontents, apprehending a separation and split in the congregation, do not hesitate to make propaganda for their views in order to gain the largest possible number of adherents to their side. And, as is always the case in such times, a goodly number of members know not what it is all about and are agitated and kept in suspension.
Such were the days following the sessions of Classis Grand Rapids East on August 20, 1924.
The consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church clearly understood the implications of the classical decisions regarding the censure of the three protestants. And their duty in the matter was to them not a matter of doubt. They never considered the possibility of submitting to the decisions of classis and thus profaning the Lords Supper. Still less was it necessary for them to deliberate on the question whether or not their pastor were guilty of a public sin according to Artt. 79 and 80 of the Church Order.
On the one hand, the consistory realized the momentous and fatal import of the classical advice. They understood that to refuse to carry out this advice implied the first step of separation from the fellowship of the Christian Reformed Churches, an important matter, indeed, in which not only they but the whole congregation were vitally concerned.
Besides, many members of the congregation had been present at the evening session of classis on Aug. 20 and had followed the proceedings. Several had expressed their indignation at the injustice of the classical decisions and their intention to protest against them.
Malcontents did a good deal of talking, as might be expected under the circumstances and tried to keep the congregation in a state of agitation.
Small wonder, then, that we read in the minutes of the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church the following decision:
"The act and attitude of the classis concerning the censure of the three brethren were discussed. After a long discussion it was decided to call a congregational meeting and to inform the congregation about the status of the case. Several members of the congregation request that they may protest against the action of the classis. The congregational meeting will be held on Sept. 2. It will be a meeting of all confessing members, male and female. Information will be given at the meeting and opportunity offered to protest against the action of classis" (Minutes of the consistory of Eastern Avenue, Aug. 22, Art. 2).
The opposition was not very well pleased with this step of the consistory. This is evident from the severe criticism to which it was subjected. Cries of indignation were heard everywhere. The Reverends Manni and Van Dellen took the consistory to task in De Wachter. Doctor Van Lonkhuyzen gave vent to his feeling about it in Onze Toekomst. And even Doctor V. Hepp of the Free University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, could not refrain from expressing his opinion of this congregational meeting in De Reformatie. With one accord, and in language that was indicative of their indignation, they condemned the action of the consistory to call such a meeting of the congregation as in conflict with every principle of Reformed Church Polity.
But was this decision of the consistory actually a violation of any Reformed principle of Church government?
It might have been if the oppositions representation of the character of this meeting were in harmony with the truth and with the facts.
But this was not the case.
The two principle objections the opposition party raised were: 1. That at this meeting a case of censure was submitted to the vote of the congregation, an act whereby, it was alleged, the consistory divested itself of its own authority and allowed the congregation to rule. 2. That at this meeting woman suffrage was introduced in the Church, since "women and girls" were invited to be present and to "vote" on the matter.
But neither of these objections are valid for the simple reason that no such meeting as described by the opponents in raising these objections was ever held. At the particular congregational meeting that was held in the Eastern Avenue Church on the second of September, 1924, no censure case, nor any other matter was submitted by the consistory to the vote of the congregation. The consistory felt no need of advice, still less of a congregational decision in the matter of the censure of the three protestants. They were quite decided and fully determined as to their own calling in this case. Nor was the meeting that was called considered a body with the power to decide anything by majority-vote. It was merely a gathering of the individual members of the Eastern Avenue Church.
That this is a correct presentation of the matter is evident from the minutes of the consistory as quoted above. The purpose of the meeting is described in the following sentence: "Information will be given at the meeting and opportunity offered to protest against the decision of Classis."
And this purpose was strictly carried out.
A large number of members responded to the call of the consistory. And the meeting was as orderly as the gatherings for public worship on the sabbath. The pastor, speaking for the consistory, informed the congregation about the entire controversy, chiefly by reading from the Acts of Synod, 1924, and from other official documents. Not even the opponents that were present could complain that the truth was not presented as objectively as possible. Besides, the congregation was admonished to maintain the spirit of Christian love and to avoid all strife and disorder at a time of trouble and disturbance. There was no discussion. Neither was there voting by any acclamation or by ballot. No decision of any kind was taken by the meeting. And since no vote was taken at all it is evident that also the charge that woman suffrage was introduced is ridiculous. Opportunity was given to all present to register their protest by the distribution of cards on which the following was printed:
"Undersigned, member in full communion of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, hereby desires to protest against the decision of Classis Grand Rapids East, whereby brethren were sustained in their attitude against the pastor and consistory, and the latter was advised to admit the brethren to the table of the Lord.
"At the same time undersigned hereby expresses that it is his (her) wish that the consistory do not carry out the decision of Classis, since he (she) could not celebrate the Lords Supper with these brethren under the circumstances."
It would be rather difficult for the critics to prove from the Church Order that the congregational meeting in question was, indeed, in conflict with all the fundamental principles of Reformed Church Polity. To be sure, it as a bit uncommon; perhaps, we may say irregular. But it can hardly be shown that it is against the Church Order that a consistory takes the congregation into its confidence, and supplies it with much needed information in an official way, especially in a matter in which the congregation is so vitally interested as a step that may result in a separation from the denomination. Nor would it be easy to prove that a congregation has no right to protest against the action of a classis; or to deny the expedience of affording the members of a congregation an opportunity to protest against such action in an orderly way, that is under the direction of the consistory. And what could be urged against the right of the members, to express their wish in a certain matter of importance, or against the right of the consistory to ascertain the wish of the congregation? Does not the consistory follow the same method when it asks the members of the congregation to call the attention of the consistory to certain names, before a nomination for office-bearers is made?
It may be admitted, that the criticism of the opponents relative to this particular meeting of the congregation of Eastern Avenue, mistaken though it may be, is perfectly explicable. They, too, could even at that time easily foresee that matters were coming to a head, and that a separation would be the final result. Nor was it more than human in their case to desire that as large a number of the congregation as possible would be gained for their side, and, in case of a split, remain loyal to the denomination. Their ultimate aim was the deposition of the pastor, if necessary also the consistory, but not the loss of the congregation. And in order to reach this aim, it was desirable that the consistory should leave them free play, to influence as many members of the congregation as could be approached in their favor. The decision of the consistory, however, frustrated all such plans and efforts. The congregational meeting served the purpose of enlightening many that might otherwise have remained more or less ignorant of the truth in the matter, and enabled the congregation to take a conscious stand against the unrighteous acts and corrupt practices of the classis. In every respect the congregational meeting had a salutary effect; and the consistory might well be thankful to the Lord, because He directed them to take this step, which certainly was wholly within the limits of Reformed Church Polity.
The outcome of the meeting was encouraging beyond all expectations.
That evening of Sept. 2, 1924, more than eight hundred members signed the cards and registered their protest against the classis. And this number was greatly augmented during the days following the meeting. The congregation certainly revealed that they stood on the side of the consistory as one man, and in this position they were established through subsequent activities of the opponents and decisions of the classis. How solidly they were united may be gathered from the fact, that, when ultimately they had to abandon the church property to the comparatively small number that remained with the denomination, they remained unmovable to the very last man.
There is, therefore, nothing inexplicable in the fact that the congregational meeting infuriated the opponents and roused them to further action.
This soon became evident.
Before the meeting of the consistory held on Sept. 12 there was a protest, signed by eleven members of the congregation. It is curious that this protest had been prepared before the congregational meeting was held, for it was presented on the evening of Sept. 2. However, because on that evening no consistory meeting was held, the protest was not officially received till the evening of Sept. 12.
The document is here printed in its entirety:
"The Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Sept. 2, 1924.
"Undersigned, members of this congregation, most emphatically protest against the decision of the consistory to convoke a congregational meeting on the evening of Sept 2, 1924. According to the announcement this meeting will be held to give the congregation an opportunity to express itself, whether in the controversy between the classis and consistory, it will choose for the former or for the latter.
"We consider this movement an act of mutiny and rebellion and to be in conflict with every sound principle of Reformed Church government. It can only be interpreted as an attempt, deeply sinful, to arouse the congregation, that will hear only one side of the case, against classis and synod. Our Church Order knows of no right to appeal except to classis or synod. To appeal to a congregational meeting is illegal, disorderly and can only be conducive to disharmony and schism.
"Our protest is also directed against the admission of women and girls to this meeting. Our congregation never gave women the right to vote, and now such a critical case as this is to be decided, liable to have far-reaching results, we consider it very careless, arbitrary, and an act of mutiny, that the consistory on its own authority gives to women the same rights as to the men.
"Believing that the consistory is making itself deeply guilty of unreformed actions and wanton assumption of power, we remain," (was signed by: Henry B. De Haan, Peter Van Hekken, E. De Haan, William Holwerda, T. Vander Lugt, S. Jolman, B. H. Ritsema, John W. Holwerda, George Bylsma, Jan Datema, John Koorndyk.)
The extremely strong language of this protest witnesses rather of the fact, that feelings ran high than of calm deliberation. It would hardly have been necessary for the protestants to declare expressly that they protested "most emphatically, in as far as mere strong terms can be considered emphatic. The brethren speak of mutiny and rebellion, and assert that the decision of the consistory is in conflict with every sound principle of Reformed Church government; the consistory makes a deeply sinful attempt to rouse the congregation against the classis and the synod; and is deeply guilty of unreformed acts and wanton assumption of power! In view of these high sounding phrases and strong indictments one might expect some proof, at least, to substantiate the charges made. But, except the general statement "our Church Order knows of no right of appeal except to classis and synod," one cannot even discover an attempt to prove the accusations. Besides, partly due, perhaps, to the fact that the protest was presented before the meeting of the congregation was held, the protestants reveal their ignorance of the purpose and character of the proposed congregational gathering. The protest, at least, is a gross misrepresentation. The consistory was not appealing to the congregation, no matters were to be decided at the meeting at all, no vote was to be taken, and, therefore, no woman suffrage was introduced whatsoever. This total want of proof and gross misrepresentation in the protest does not serve to make it more "emphatic."
The consistory decided to invite the protestants to appear before its meeting of Sept. 25. According to its sound custom, however, the consistory refused to acknowledge the existence of a body of eleven in the congregation and requested that each of the protestants appear individually. This, however, they refused to do, and the matter was dropped.
Nor was there any further need of treating the protest of the eleven members. The opponents had not been idle since the congregational meeting, as was evident from the fact that at the consistory meeting of Sept. 12 there was also presented a second protest, signed by fifty confessing members of the congregation. Also of this protest we here print the text in full:
"The Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
"Undersigned, members of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, feel urged to bring the following matters to the attention of the consistory:
"1. We request the Consistory to demand of our pastor, Reverend H. Hoeksema, the promise that henceforth, both in preaching and writing, he shall abide by the Word of God and the Confession, especially by the three points recently established by the Synod of Kalamazoo, concerning the favor of God toward mankind in general, the restraint of sin and the civil righteousness. We also ask that it be announced from the pulpit that the pastor will submit to these three points, since we are convinced that only in this way peace and harmony will return to the congregation.
"2. We ask of the Consistory that it submit to the decisions of our larger gatherings, particularly to the decision, already taken twice, that the censure of the three brethren be lifted. Since this decision of our Classis is based on a Synodical decision, it is ecclesiastical rebellion not to submit to it. If our consistory will not submit to this decision, our conscience will forbid us to celebrate the Lords Supper with a consistory that lives in rebellion and we shall be compelled to bring our accusation against the Consistory to Classis.
"3. We protest against the meeting of the congregation that was held on Sept. 2, on the following grounds:
"(a) Appeal to the people over against the classical decisions regarding matters that concern the government of the church is a thing directly conflicting with all principles of Reformed Church Polity.
"(b) Women and young girls were also urged to attend and to vote, entirely in opposition to the old rule that only male members have the right to vote.
"We ask the consistory to treat these matters as quickly as is convenient. We ask to deliver and answer before or on Oct. 1, 1924, at the address of W. Holwerda, 9000 Baxter Street, or of F. Boerkool, 634 Fulton Street. The untenable condition in our congregation must soon come to an end, if necessary through the convocation of a special classis. To quote the words of our pastor: This cannot possibly continue.
It is noteworthy that this protest revealed an organized movement in the congregation. Without the consent of the consistory four copies of this protest had been circulated through the congregation by the leaders of this movement. In this way the fifty signatures had been obtained. This is worthy of note, first of all in view of the fact that these same leaders loudly complained of the rebellious attitude of the consistory because it refused to execute the decisions of the classis, and they accused the consistory of mutiny because of its convocation of an orderly meeting of the congregation. And, secondly, it proves that the consistory had not misjudged the situation, when it considered it necessary to call a congregational meeting and to furnish all the members with direct and truthful information rather than leave them exposed to misrepresenting propaganda of individuals.
As to the contents of the protest, we may note first of all, that it proceeds from an erroneous, viz., a collegialistic conception of Church-government. That the consistory refused to carry out the decisions of classis it characterizes as an act of rebellion. Now, rebellion is possible only against authorities. The protest conceives of the classis, therefore, as a kind of higher court with relation to the consistory. And this is contrary to sound Reformed Church Polity, according to which the sole ruling body in the Church is the consistory. A classis is a broader gathering, not a higher court. It has advisory, no judicatory power. In the case under consideration the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church certainly had the right to refuse to follow up the advice of the classis to lift the censure of the three protestants. And, as we have seen, it had good grounds for this refusal. This persistent refusal might, indeed, ultimately lead to separation; in fact it was such an act of separation in principle; but even an act of separation is no rebellion. Any consistory must certainly be conceded the right to separate, when the decisions of the broader gathering are contrary to the Word of God. And it would have been contrary to the Word of God, had the consistory allowed the three members that manifested a spirit of hatred against their pastor and decided to maintain their accusation of public sin against him, to partake of the Lords Supper together with him.
Secondly, we may also note that these protestants, on their part, here begin to separate themselves from the congregation. for, they openly declare that they refuse to celebrate communion with the consistory, unless their protest is decided in their favor and their requests are granted.
The lines of demarcation were being drawn; the wedge of separation, inserted by the synod, and struck a severe blow by the classis of Aug. 20, was driven in more deeply.
We are, therefore, not surprised that in this protest, for the first time, the main issue is brought to the foreground. For, the protestants requested that the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church be compelled to submit to the "Three Points."
It may also be remarked in this connection that these fifty protestants were bold to declare far more than the synod of 1924 had decided. For, they assert by implication that it is impossible to abide, in teaching and preaching, by the Word of God and the Confessions, unless one submits to the doctrinal declarations of the "Three Points"; while the synod had declared that those whose teachings deviated from the "Three Points" were, nevertheless, fundamentally in harmony with the Confessions. But to take this step in advance of the synod the protestants had undoubtedly, been encouraged by the decisions of the classis of Aug. 20, by which the three censured members had been sustained in their accusation of public sin against the pastor.
For the rest, we may be thankful that at this time God used these fifty protestants to bring the doctrinal issue to the foreground. This was after all the main issue. All other matters, such as the censure of the three protestants, were, indeed, the outcome of the doctrinal controversy; yet, they were secondary in importance. At the root of all the trouble lay the doctrinal question of general or particular grace, with its corollary in the question concerning the confession or denial of the total depravity of the natural man. After all, in the midst of much confusion and ambiguity, the synod of 1924 had adopted three doctrinal principles that were a corruption of the Reformed doctrine of particular grace, as well as of the truth that the natural man, apart from the regenerating grace of the Spirit, can perform no good works. Deplorable it would have been if this main issue had been side-tracked and the attention had been concentrated upon secondary matters. This danger certainly existed until the Lord Himself forced the main issue to the foreground once more through the means of this protest by the fifty members of the congregation of Eastern Avenue.
No church-political differences but doctrinal principles of fundamental significance were at stake in the conflict of 1924. and that this should become clearly manifest was, evidently, the will of our God.