A History of the Protestant Reformed Churches
THE CALLING OF A SPECIAL MEETING OF CLASSIS
Anyone can readily understand that it is difficult to treat a protest that is signed by fifty members of a congregation, without recognizing them as an organized body. Perhaps, in view of this almost insurmountable difficulty, the consistory of Eastern Avenue Church would have been perfectly justifiable if it had refused to receive the protest mentioned in the preceding chapter.
The fact is, however, that it did receive the protest and proceeded to treat it.
The consistory decided, first of all, to express its disapproval of the action of the fifty protestants with regard to the manner in which the fifty signatures had been secured. As stated before, the protest had been circulated through the congregation and members had been urged to sign it. And such action the consistory could not tolerate. It cannot be denied, that a group of members have the right unitedly to sign a certain protest, provided it be clearly understood that in such a case the individual signers of the protest remain personally responsible for their protest, so that they cannot be received as a body by the consistory. But in this particular case the matter stood out quite differently. Here it was not a case of fifty members all agreeing on the same matter and voluntarily, without persuasion and coercion, signing a certain protest. On the contrary, the protest had been composed by a few of the signers and had been circulated in the congregation without the consent of the consistory. And the latter was informed of the fact, that certain members, though ignorant of the matter of the protest, had been urged to sign. This was, indeed, an act of schism and mutiny. The consistory could not possibly approve of or tolerate such action.
And it adduced sufficient grounds for its decision to disapprove of the way in which the signatures of the fifty had been obtained. From the minutes of the consistory it was shown that in the past similar action by a certain party had been condemned, the guilty party had been censured, and the censure had been sustained by the classis. Again, the same minutes revealed that a certain member had been refused his request to circulate a petition in the congregation. And, finally, the consistory produced evidence from the Acts of Synod, 1924, p. 91, showing that this stand was also supported by the broadest gathering of the churches.
The expression of disapproval by the consistory in regard to the action of the fifty protestants was, therefore, by no means unprecedented.
In spite of this disapproval, however, the consistory did not refuse to receive the protest, but decided to treat its contents and to serve the protestants with an answer.
To the first part of the protest, requesting that the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church openly declare, or be demanded to declare, his agreement with the "Three Points" and to promise that in preaching and teaching he would abide by them, the consistory replied:
1. That the consistory was convinced that the pastor in his preaching and instruction abode by the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions; and that this conviction was supported by the very declaration of the synod, that the pastor was fundamentally Reformed.
2. That they positively refused to demand of the pastor that he sign or express submission to the "Three Point." And they pointed out that also this refusal was sustained by the decisions of synod, which clearly showed that this body had not contemplated any such demand upon the pastor.
3. That they were convinced, that if there were, indeed, strife and unrest in the congregation, the protestants must not look for the cause of such disturbance in the stand taken by the consistory, but rather in their own action.
With reference to the demand of the protestants that the consistory should follow the advice of the classis and lift the censure of the three original protestants, the consistory decided to answer:
1. That they must needs refuse this request, seeing they could not permit the Lords Supper to be profaned by allowing members to partake that had their hearts filled with hostility against their pastor.
2. That it was their perfect right to differ with the classis on this point. The classis is only an advisory body, and not a ruling body in the local congregation at all. The act of the consistory with respect to this matter, therefore, could not properly be styled an act of rebellion.
3. That, moreover, at the meeting of classis on Aug. 20, the consistory had appealed the matter to synod, so that, at all events, the case would have to rest till synod had expressed itself in the matter.
As to the part of the protest that was directed against the congregational meeting of Sept. 2, the consistory decided to reply:
1. That the purpose of this meeting had been clearly announced from the pulpit, so that the entirely erroneous conception the protestants appeared to have formed of this meeting could hardly be attributed to misunderstanding on their part.
2. That the meeting as it had been announced and was conducted was perfectly justifiable in the light of sound Reformed Church Polity. The protestants certainly had not adduced any proof to the contrary.
3. That the protestants presented the matter in a wrong light, when they stated that even women and girls were invited to vote at that meeting, seeing that no vote was taken at all.
But how was the consistory to inform the protestants of these decisions? To follow the suggestion of the protestants and deliver a copy of these decisions to one of the two addresses mentioned was to recognize them as an organized body, which the consistory had refused to do. This difficulty the consistory met as follows. They decided to express that they could not recognize the existence of the separate body of protestants in the congregation; and that the protestants, no matter how their names had been secured, would be held individually responsible for the protest. It was decided, therefore, to ask the protestants to appear individually before the consistory. Further, it was decided that the consistory would demand of each of the protestants to confess that it was wrong to circulate a protest through the congregation, for the purpose of obtaining signatures, without the consent of the consistory. If they would confess this sin, the consistory would read to them their decisions in the matter of the protest. And, lastly, it was decided to demand of the protestants a retraction of their baseless accusation that the consistory lived in rebellion, as they had asserted in their protest.
It is evident that it was quite impossible to receive all the fifty protestants at one meeting of the consistory. To expedite matters, however, the consistory notified fifteen members at a time that they were expected to appear before the meeting. Of the first group of fifteen that had been invited to appear before the consistory meeting of Oct. 9, 1924, only three appeared. At the next regular meeting of the consistory, that of Oct. 24, only four appeared of the fifteen that had been notified. After this no one responded. Those that did appear revealed plainly, as might be expected, that they were not very well acquainted with the contents of their own protest. Separated from their fellow-protestants and instigators of the matter, they appeared rather helpless. They sought refuge in a stubborn silence, and all refused to answer any questions relative to the contents of their protest. All refused, besides, to confess their wrong or to promise to refrain from similar actions in the future. They left the impression upon the consistory, that they were instructed to act as they did.
More and more it became evident that the consistory was dealing with an organization in the Church.
And now matters were hastened.
At the consistory meeting of Oct. 23, there was presented a request, signed by eighty-six members of the congregation, men and women this time, that the consistory apply to the Classical Committee for an early meeting of the classis. While the consistory was busy treating the protest of the fifty members, the leaders of this movement had, evidently, been preparing this request for an early classis.
The request reads as follows:
"The Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.
"Undersigned, members of the Christian Reformed Church of Eastern Avenue hereby request, that the Consistory decide upon the necessary measures for the convocation of a special classis. Reason for this request is, that it has become impossible for the faithful members of Eastern Avenue Church who constitute the congregation proper, to co-operated with the present pastor and consistory. With the pastor co-operation is impossible, because, according to the first issue of the Standard Bearer, he purposes to maintain the standpoint that was condemned by the Synod.
"And with the Consistory co-operation is impossible because they will not subject themselves to the classis; and because, by the convocation of the congregational meeting for the purpose of seeking support with her against the classis, they actually separated themselves from the denomination. It needs no further argumentation, that under the present circumstances co-operation of the congregation proper of Eastern Avenue with such a pastor and consistory is simply impossible.
"We hope, that the Consistory, too, will realize the necessity of a special classis. In case they should be thus inclined, we expect that they will apply to the Classical Committee to convoke a meeting not later than November 18. In case, however, that within a week, neither the Classical Committee, nor any of us has been notified to the effect that the Consistory is taking steps towards the convocation of such a special meeting of classis, we, as the faithful members of the congregation will turn with our request to obtain such a special meeting of classis to the Classical Committee or, if necessary, to other congregations of the classis, in order that the Reformed doctrine and the principles of Reformed Church Polity may be maintained."
The reader will have noticed that the petitioners in their request make mention of The Standard Bearer.
A word or two must, therefore, be said about this magazine.
Although the first issue of this periodical appeared in October, 1924, the purpose to publish a paper devoted to the development and dissemination of the Reformed truth, was conceived much earlier. In fact, in their brochure: Om Recht en Waarheid (For Justice and Truth), the Reverends Danhof and Hoeksema already announced their intention to publish a monthly paper in which they might develop the truth. Even before the monthly was published several brethren, interested in the cause of Reformed truth, had organized a society under the name "Reformed Free Publishing Association" for the purpose of making possible, from a financial aspect, the publication of literature, prepared by the two above-mentioned ministers. Through the efforts of this association the first issue of The Standard Bearer, then edited by the Reverends H. Danhof, G.M. Ophoff and H. Hoeksema and Mr. G. Van Beek, appeared in October, 1924. The paper was published as a monthly, later as a semi monthly; and at this writing is still being published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association.
In an editorial appearing in the first number the announcement was made that the editors were co-responsible for the entire contents of the paper.
The same editorial contained the following statement: "Our view underwent no change and we do not think of retreating. The editorial staff of this paper judges, that no Reformed person is able to sign the declarations of Synod (the reference is to the "Three Points"), according to their real import and tendency. It will attempt, therefore, to make the reader understand the real sense of these declarations; in order that, after sufficient study, each and everyone may act with true knowledge of his act and its consequences."
The reader will now be able to understand the remark by the petitioners in the above request concerning The Standard Bearer.
For the rest, it can hardly have escaped the attention of the reader, that while the petition is virtually an act of separation from the Church of Eastern Avenue, it is characterized by a contradiction as glaring as it is strange. On the one hand, the signers of this document declare themselves to be the faithful members of the Eastern Avenue Church, yea, the congregation proper! These are, first of all, bold statements. The reader must know that the eighty-six petitioners constituted approximately only a twenty-fifth part of the entire congregation proper. Now, we do not deny, that such a small part can, under certain circumstances, actually be the congregation proper. But notice, that they did apparently not have the courage of their conviction, and that they did not act as if they really were the congregation. They were not organized and duly instituted as a congregation, nor had they put forth any effort to become so instituted. On the contrary, this congregation proper applied to the consistory that was then in office, which these faithful members refused to recognize, and yet did recognize, as their consistory; which they declared to be outside of the congregation proper, yet addressed as if they were the duly functioning consistory of the congregation proper; and they requested this consistory, which, according to their statements, they adjudged outside of the denomination, to ask for a special session of the classis! They recognized the consistory which they refused to recognize; and they denied by this very action their own contention that they were the congregation proper!
What, in view of their contention that they were the congregation proper, would have been the proper mode of procedure for them to follow, cannot be a matter for doubt to anyone that is acquainted with Reformed Church Polity. They should have submitted their contention to classis, together with the request to be duly instituted as the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Chruch. The classis should then have aided them in the election and installation of officebearers. And in order to be able to take this step properly, they should have called a meeting of all the "faithful members," prior to any other step, in order to declare themselves the congregation proper and to depose the consistory that was then functioning.
However, the evident contradiction between their strong statements and their action does not seem incapable of explanation. Many of them, it may be granted, acted ignorantly, knowing no more of Reformed Chruch Polity than a press reporter understands Einsteins theory of relativity. Besides, it is evident from the wording of the request, that they received and listened to advice from two sharply opposed groups of leaders in the Christian Reformed Churches, that entertained divergent views on the question of church government. On the one side there was the group, headed in those days by Doctor J. Van Lonkhuyzen, according to whose conception the consistory is the sole ruling body in the church, and neither classis nor synod have judicatory power over the local church. They hold that a consistory is not subject to a classis and that the latter cannot depose the former. On the other hand there was the view far more generally held, defended by the late professor W. Heyns, as well as maintained by the Reverend G. Hoeksema, brother of one of the signers of the petition, according to which classis and synod are higher powers and a consistory is in duty bound to submit to their decisions. Now, the signers of the request printed above were, evidently, influenced by both these opposing conceptions of church government, and, not clearly distinguishing the two, combined them into one glaring contradiction. Under the influence of the former view they declared themselves to be the faithful members and the congregation proper, even before they had a meeting or had petitioned classis to be duly instituted as the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, and before the consistory, then in office and functioning, had been deposed. But they followed the latter view of the Reformed Church Polity when they still recognized the consistory then in office, demanded of them that they should submit themselves to the classical decisions and petitioned them to ask the Classical Committee for a special session of classis.
While, therefore, they did not have the courage of their convictions, they nevertheless presented to the consistory what was, in effect, an act of separation from the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
The consistory decided to answer the petitioners that they felt no need of calling an early or special session of the classis especially in view of the fact, that they were still busy treating the protest of the fifty members, who, as the reader will understand, were also signers of the request for a special classis. They also decided to inform the Classical Committee about this matter, and in case the petitioners would appeal to this committee, to ask them not to accede to the request.
A few days after the consistory had taken this decision with respect to the request for a special meeting of the classis, someone brought to the attention of the consistory a printed pamphlet, which he had found on the street, and which was a copy of a request the same eighty-six petitioners had drawn up, even before they could possibly have received an answer from the consistory on their first petition. This printed request was addressed to the Classical Committee and urged them to convoke a special meeting of classis. The copy that was found on the street was not signed, but later the Classical Committee informed the consistory that the petition as they received it was signed by ninety-two members.
In this petition several reasons were offered why such a special meeting of classis should be called by the Classical Committee. We shall here enumerate them:
1. They tried to prove to the Classical Committee that they could not possibly co-operate with the pastor and consistory of Eastern Avenue Church. They alleged that it was spiritually impossible for them to listen to the preaching of the pastor; that many of them refused to send their children to catechism; that some of them refused to present their children for baptism; that they all refused to celebrate the Lords Supper with the pastor and the consistory. All of which was true in a limited sense of the word; all of which revealed that they could not and would not co-operate; but none of which proved that the fault of all this lay with the consistory, which it certainly did not.
2. They alleged that communion of saints had become impossible for the congregation of Eastern Avenue Church. There were, they declared, two parties in the congregation, and the party that was opposed to them, the petitioners, would gladly, if possible, extinguish them, the faithful members and congregation proper, with their looks of hatred and enmity. They declared that they were being slandered terribly, and that they received nasty and even threatening letters. The atmosphere in the congregation simply had become suffocating! All of which presented a very distorted view of the congregation, in whose midst, but for the attitude of those that considered themselves the faithful members and that were comparatively few, peace, love and harmony reigned supreme. There were no parties, and the slanderings and nasty letters of which the protestants spoke as if they were general and daily occurrences, certainly belonged to the extreme exceptions. It may rather be considered marvellous that the congregation as a whole behaved so well over against those that openly declared themselves to be the only faithful members and the congregation proper!
3. There were, the petitioners alleged, still people in the congregation that might be saved for the Church, if classis would only not delay to act. In this they revealed their ignorance of the actual condition and stand of the congregation; and in this they were sadly disappointed; when the classis acted the effect on some, that probably were not stable, was decidedly in the opposite direction.
4. As long as the then present conditions continued, they alleged, the minister and consistory were in power and could arbitrarily censure members, whose chief sin was, that they defended the truth of the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions! Which was altogether untrue, as one may read on the very face of the assertion.
5. To protest, they declared, had become impossible with the consistory of Eastern Avenue Church. Not one protest had been treated! They had been set aside because of some technicality and the protestants had been placed under censure. All of which is quite untrue. It certainly could not be blamed to the consistory, that the protestants disregarded all rules of Christian love and good order in the Church; that they accused the pastor of public sin; that they circulated protests in the congregation without even asking the consent of the consistory; that they accused the consistory of rebellion and mutiny for calling an orderly congregational meeting; that they delivered their protests to the consistory in such quick succession, that the consistory would have been compelled to meet almost every evening at the pleasure of a few dissatisfied members, in order to treat them properly. Surely, the consistory persistently refused to treat their protests in their way; but they treated them all in the proper way, nevertheless.
6. The consistory, they boldly stated, refused to treat the chief cause of all the trouble, the matter about which all the rest was concentrated. Here the protestants evidently referred to the pastors attitude to the three points and their own demand that he should be requested to sign them. And, therefore, also this statement of theirs was a plain untruth. The consistory had clearly answered the protestants. That they would not demand of the pastor that he sign the three points. The only trouble had been with the protestants themselves, for they had refused to appear in the proper way before the consistory to receive the answer to the protest.
7. The honor of the Christian Reformed Churches demanded that the classis would take action. They, the faithful brethren and congregation proper, were struggling and being oppressed, because they sought to maintain the Reformed truth. It was but proper that they should be aided against the arbitrary actions of a rebellious consistory! While the truth of the matter is that they were not being oppressed at all.
8. Several leaders of the Churches expected that the classis would take action. And in this they spoke undoubtedly the truth. But as to whether this could properly serve as a reason for calling a special session of classis, let the reader judge.
Now, what might a Classical Committee, receiving such a petition, from a comparatively small group in a congregation, be expected to do?
We would be inclined to judge that it might have been expected that they would have severely reprimanded these ninety-two petitioners for their self-confessed disorderly conduct in the congregation of Eastern Avenue Church; that they would have taken them to task, because they declared themselves to be the congregation proper, because they admittedly refused to partake of the Lords Supper, because they neglected the baptism of their children, because they failed to send their children to catechism; and that, thereupon, they would have informed them that they refused their request.
But let us not be extreme!
Let us not ask, what at the very most, but what at the very least might be expected of a Classical Committee under the circumstances.
And then there is no reason to fear that the answer will be judged unfair by any unprejudiced tribunal: they should, at least, have applied to the consistory concerned for further information.
But even this they did not do.
Although they had a notice from the consistory that the condition of the congregation demanded no special session of classis, they took no cognizance of the consistory at all; they merely considered the request of a small group of dissatisfied members; and upon that basis they decided that the condition of the Eastern Avenue Church was sufficiently critical to justify the calling of a special session of Classis!
And of this decision they sent notice to the consistory!
What else can be said of such action of a mere committee than that it was an act of high-handed hierarchy?