On December 9, 1924, at nine o’clock in the forenoon, the classis reconvened, this time in the auditorium of the Oakdale Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids.
Public interest in the case had grown keen and the auditorium was filled.
The pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church was permitted to read the answer of the consistory before the meeting.
Classis, however, did not enter into a discussion of the consistory’s communication, nor was any attempt made to refute the arguments of the consistory. The reply was immediately referred to the classical committee that was appointed for this case, in order that it might have opportunity to confer with the theological professors. Then the classis promptly adjourned.
On the following day, December 10, the committee appeared before the classis with the advice that this body should now do directly what the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church had refused to do, and through its president place the pastor before the two questions previously mentioned. This advice was adopted.
The pastor asked the classis to give him time until the following morning, not because there was any doubt in his mind what the answer should be, but because, under the circumstances he preferred to compose a written and well motivated answer to the questions of the classis. This was granted.
In the evening of the same day the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church assembled to consider the case. In the minutes of December 10, 1924, we find the following item: “Art. 4. The Consistory decides to protest against the action of Classis, whereby, disregarding the appeal of the Consistory to Synod, it placed the pastor directly before its question.”
This protest was executed by means of a written communication to the classis, which read as follows:
“The Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, convened in special session on Dec. 10, 1924, passed the following resolutions:
“Whereas Classis Grand Rapids East, in its session of Dec. 10, 1924, decided to place the pastor, Reverend H. Hoeksema, directly, on the floor of the classis, before the questions contained in a communication of Classis Grand Rapids East to the Consistory of Eastern Avenue, and dated Nov. 24, 1924, which questions the consistory of Eastern Avenue refused to ask of its pastor, Reverend H. Hoeksema;
“Whereas Classis did not enter into a discussion of and failed to reply to the answer which the Consistory of Eastern Avenue Church brought before Classis in its communication of Dec. 9, 1924, in which communication the Consistory mentions the reasons why it denies to the Classis the right to demand of said Consistory that they place their pastor, Reverend H. Hoeksema, before said questions;
“Therefore be it resolved by the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church:
“Hereby to protest against the action taken by Classis Grand Rapids East in her session of Dec. 10, 1924, whereby Classis decided directly to ask the pastor the questions which the Consistory refused to ask of him. Grounds:
“a. This action is wholly in conflict with Reformed Church Polity and that according to the very communication of Classis dated Nov. 24, 1924, to said Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, in which communication Classis declares that any form of discipline must be exercised in the order of Consistory, Classis, and Synod.
“b. It is a form of discipline applied by a broader gathering directly to an officebearer of a congregation and proceeds from the assumption that Classis has superior authority, a certain guardianship over the churches, yea over the very persons of the churches. This is still worse than Collegialism, it is popish.
“c. Because this action was taken in spite of the fact, that the Consistory had appealed to Synod, as is evident from its communication to Classis Grand Rapids East, dated Dec. 8, 1924.
“H. Hoeksema, Pres.
“S.G. Schaafsma, Clerk.”
As to the pastor, in spite of the fact that the classis could not possibly have the right to interpellate him directly, he prepared his written answer to the classis, which he read to his consistory at that same special session of December 10, 1924.
It here follows in full:
“Undersigned respectfully submits the following to your consideration in answer to your communication of Dec. 10, 1924, in which communication the Classis Grand Rapids East requests an answer of the undersigned with respect to two matters relative to the decisions of Synod, 1924, cf. Acts of Synod, 1924, p. 145 ff.
“1. That undersigned is aggrieved by the fact that said Classis Grand Rapids East utterly failed to pay any attention to a communication received by said Classis from the Consistory of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, relative to the question whether the Classis had the right, in light of the Acts of Synod, 1924, concerning this matter, to ask said questions of the pastor of Eastern Avenue per its Consistory; which communication was not even discussed on the floor of Classis;
“2. That undersigned is aggrieved and must protest against the action of Classis, as reported in said communication of said Classis to undersigned, whereby Classis simply ignored the appeal of said Consistory of Eastern Avenue and, discarding the appeal, approaches undersigned once more with the same question;
“3. That undersigned fully agrees with all the declarations of the said Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, as contained in its communication to Classis dated Dec. 8, 1924;
“4. That undersigned, therefore, also appeals to Synod against the interpretation Classis Grand Rapids East offers of the decisions of Synod 1924; this appeal to take place in the same manner as that of the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, as contained in said communication of said Consistory to Classis and dated Dec. 8, 1924;
“5. That in the meantime, however, undersigned will submit under protest to the decision of Classis Grand Rapids East, with the right of appeal to Synod, and chooses to answer to the questions of said Classis as contained in its communication to undersigned dated Dec. 10, 1924; and he answers to these questions as follows:
“a. Considering that the Synod of 1924 interpreted our Confessions in such a manner, that no one needs to agree with the Three Points adopted by Synod 1924 (cf. Acts of Synod, 1924, p. 145 ff.) in order to be fundamentally Reformed in the basic truths as formulated in our Confessions, therefore, undersigned hereby declares that he always was and still is in harmony with the Confessions as interpreted by Synod 1924;
“b. Considering that Synod admonishes the leaders of our Churches to make serious study of the problems recently brought to the foreground, in preaching, lectures and writings, undersigned promises that he especially will heed this admonition of Synod and will co-operate in brotherly spirit in order to reach a solution of the afore-mentioned problems.
“c. Undersigned, as long as he is an officebearer in the Christian Reformed Churches, submits himself gladly to any decision of the Synod of these Churches.
In the morning session of the classis on December 11, both the protest of the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church and the answer of the pastor to the questions of the classis were read and accepted.
The classis decided to place both the documents in the hands of its committee and again adjourned until the afternoon of the same day.
Nothing was ever heard again about the protest by the consistory. As far as any definite knowledge of this matter is concerned, the committee may have thrown it in the waste basket.
With respect to the reply by the pastor, however, the committee advised the classis to declare that the pastor in his answer to classis had evaded the issue; to decide to place the pastor before the same questions directly on the floor of the classis and through its president; and to demand of the pastor of Eastern Avenue that he should answer by “Yes” or “No”!
This advice was adopted.
Accordingly the chairman solemnly asked the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church, whether or not he could declare himself in agreement with the Three Points adopted by Synod 1924; and whether or not, with the right of appeal, he would promise to acquiesce in these decisions of Synod and not agitate against them in speaking or writing.
The pastor replied that the classis was in possession of his answer to their question in the form in which he choose to leave that answer; and that this written reply was positively the final answer they could expect of him.
Thereupon some of the members of the classis began to exercise all their powers of persuasion to make the pastor submit to the demands of the classis. It was urged that the classis did not really desire a breach! It had made its demands upon the pastor as gentle as possible; they could easily be complied with. Even if the pastor of Eastern Avenue could not declare himself in agreement with the Three Points, he certainly would not force his conscience by the promise to keep still about them and not to make by public propaganda against them. In the meantime he could appeal to the synod of 1926 and bring his objections against the “Three Points” before that body in an orderly and legal manner.
Let it here be stated, eleven years after that memorable session of Classis Grand Rapids East, that if such a promise could, indeed, have been made without a violation of the truth and the dictates of conscience before God and the Christian Reformed Churches, the pastor of Eastern Avenue would certainly have made it. For, he, too, did not desire a breach.
He felt, however, that this was impossible.
He was convinced that it was absolutely impossible to preach and teach in his own congregation, without touching upon and contradicting the principle expressed in the Three Points.
And he also felt that it would be a breach of promise on his part if he should refrain from publicly warning the churches against the false doctrines adopted by the Synod of Kalamazoo. For, when he signed the Formula of Subscription he promised, that he would maintain and defend the Reformed doctrine as expressed in the Formulas of Unity.
Therefore, he could not promise to comply with the demands of the classis.
Instead, he, too, began to plead with the classis. He offered that he would be willing to take the chair of a candidate and to submit himself to an examination by classis, on condition that such examination would take place on the basis of the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions. If, then, he argued, the classis should discover any heresy in his views, he could be disciplined with justice and in harmony with the formula of Subscription he had signed.
It was of no avail.
Classis did not take the risk.
They were too well aware of the fact, that the pastor could easily pass such an examination; and that the outcome would be that also the classis, even as the Synod of Kalamazoo had been compelled to declare, would have to come to the conclusion that the pastor was fundamentally Reformed, and that, therefore, there was no ground for action.
The classis, therefore, insisted on its own demands.
When, on the following day, December 12, 1924, the classis met again, the committee had prepared a report in which it advised that the classis should declare:
“1. That the Reverend H. Hoeksema, in his answer to the question placed before him by the classis, had evaded the issue;
“2. That in the afternoon session of the classis on December 11 he had refused to answer the classical questions with an unequivocal “Yes” or “No”;
“3. That he had definitely declared that he would not submit himself to the synodical decisions in re the “Three Points”;
“4. That he had refused to promise not openly to teach, in preaching or in writing, anything repugnant to the “Three Points”;
“5. That, therefore, he was guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities;
“6. That, therefore, he was, by his own act, suspended from his office as minister of the Word of God, for the time being:
“7. That for the time being and until final determination in the case were made by the Synod, he should be denied all the rights and privileges connected with the office of a minister in the Christian Reformed Church.”
With respect to the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church the committee advised that the classis declare:
“1. That the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church had refused to carry out the decision of the classis with respect to the censure of the three members that had accused the pastor of public sin.
“2. That the consistory had refused to maintain the decrees of the synod of 1924;
“3. That it had refused to submit to the decisions of the classis with respect to the questions the classis demanded of the consistory to ask its pastor;
“4. That, therefore, the consistory was guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities;
“5. That, therefore, by this act the consistory, for the time being severed its connection with the Christian Reformed Church;
“6. That, for the time being and until final determination in the case was made by the synod, the consistory be denied all rights and privileges connected with the ecclesiastical connection of a consistory with the Christian Reformed Church.”
A motion was made to adopt the advice of the committee concerning the suspension from office of the Reverend H. Hoeksema.
Here an incident may be recorded that had no real bearing on the course of this history, but that created considerable excitement at the time of its occurrence.
Before the vote concerning the suspension of the Reverend H. Hoeksema was taken, the classis decided to offer special prayer.
The pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church arose and kindly requested to be excused from the meeting during this special prayer. He left.
His reason for this act, which by some was severely criticized as an act of profanity, may also be mentioned in this connection.
There is, first, the general reason that the pastor had always been opposed to such special prayers. At the beginning of each session a classis calls upon God’s Name and invokes His blessing and guidance on all its deliberations and transactions during that session. Unless, then, a classis feels for certain reasons that the Lord did not hear this prayer, or if special difficulties should arise from which the classis cannot extricate itself, this prayer cannot be repeated.
On that particular morning of the twelfth of December, however, there were no special difficulties of which the classis was aware. The situation was such that it was rather a foregone conclusion that the classis would vote in favor of the motion to suspend the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church. The matter in the judgment of the classis was so clear, that the only prayer the classis could in all honesty and sincerity offer was that the vote might decide the suspension of the pastor. In such a prayer, however, the pastor could not very well participate, for it was the firm conviction of the pastor that the desire of the classis was contrary to the will of God. To him the prayer the classis was about to offer was an ungodly prayer.
Besides, the pastor felt that no prayer could possibly serve as a substitute for a thorough and open discussion of the case and of proper procedure. Classis had always refused to discuss the case openly on the floor of the classis. It had followed the method of a correspondence course between the Classical Committee and the theological professors on the one side and the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church on the other. Neither the pastor nor the classis had been witness to the deliberations that led to the final advice of the committee. Only the conclusions of the committee had been brought to the attention of the classis. No apparently pious prayer could remedy this corrupt method.
Then, too, the prayer of the classis was repulsive to the pastor, because he felt that the classis understood full well that they could not justly suspend the pastor from his office as a minister of the Word of God. He had not departed from the Scriptures, nor from the teachings of the Reformed Confessions. Of this the classis was well aware. It had even refused to examine the pastor in the light of the Word of God and of the Reformed Standards. The pastor considered that prayer an act of consummate hypocrisy.
It was, then, quite impossible for the pastor to participate in this prayer of the classis. His prayer had been and still was that the Lord might open the eyes of the brethren, frustrate their evil plans, and prevent the consummation of their unjust intentions.
There was, therefore, no other course open to the pastor than to excuse himself from the meeting and offer up his own private prayer to the Most High.
And that course he followed.
The outcome of the vote was entirely according to expectations.
Almost unanimously (there was only one dissenting vote) it was decided that the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church was suspended from his office of the ministry of the Word of God in the Christian Reformed Church.
And it was further decided to declare that the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church was guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities and, therefore, had severed its connections with the Christian Reformed Church and had forfeited all the rights and privileges of a consistory in the Christian Reformed Church.
A strange procedure!
It reveals how deeply the classis was imbued with the spirit of hierarchy.
For, what else is it than the expression of the spirit of hierarchy, when the classis speaks of insubordination on the part of the pastor to the proper ecclesiastical authorities?
Does, then, according to sound Reformed Church Polity a classis have the power and authority over the pastor of a local congregation?
According to the Form of Ordination of the Ministers of the Word of God, used in Reformed Churches, a pastor at his installation is supposed to answer affirmatively to the question: “Whether thou feelest in thy heart that thou art lawfully called of God’s Church, and therefore of God Himself, to this holy ministry?” This question refers to the call by the local congregation. In this calling no classis has a part. This call by the congregation is considered God’s calling to the ministry of the Word. Can a classis, then, possibly have the power to interfere with this call of God through the local congregation? It ought to be evident that God’s call to the minister remains as long as the congregation calls him. It ought to be perfectly lucid, moreover, that only the local congregation through their consistory can have power and authority to suspend their minister from his office. Classis Grand Rapids East trampled underfoot the authority of the local congregation and its consistory, and assumed a power which it could not, and did not possess, when it declared that the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church was guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities and was, therefore, suspended from office.
It is characteristic of hierarchy to raise the authority of men above that of God, and to deny the autonomy of the local church.
That Classis Grand Rapids East became guilty of this assumption of a power which it did not possess, is also evident from Article 5 of the Church Order.
It deals with the calling of ministers who have not been previously in office, and it stipulates that this calling consists:
“First in the election by the Consistory and the Deacons, after preceding prayers, with due observance of the regulations established by the Consistory for this purpose, and of the ecclesiastical ordinance, that only those can for the first time be called to the Ministry of the Word who have been declared eligible by the church, according to the rule in this matter; and furthermore with the advice of the Classis or of the counselor appointed for this purpose by the Classis;
“Secondly, in the examination both of doctrine and life, which shall be conducted by the Classis, to which the call must be submitted for approval, and which shall take place in the presence of three delegates of Synod from the nearest Classis;
“Thirdly, in the approbation by the members of the calling church, when, the name of the minister having been announced for two successive Sundays, no lawful objection arises; which approbation, however, is not required in case the election takes place with the cooperation of the congregation choosing out of a nomination previously made;
“Finally in the public ordination in the presence of the congregation which shall take place with appropriate stipulations and interrogations, admonitions and prayers and imposition of hands by the officiating minister (and by other ministers who are present) agreeably to the Form for that purpose.”
From this article it is evident that it is the congregation through its consistory that calls a minister. The classis merely advises and approves and assists the local congregation, in harmony with the bond of fellowship existing between the local congregation and the other churches in the same denomination. There is no mention whatever in this article of any authority of the classis in calling or appointing a minister in a local congregation; neither of any such authority on the part of the classis over the minister after he has been duly called and installed into the office of a minister of the Word of God. When, therefore, Classis Grand Rapids East declared that the minister of Eastern Avenue Church had become guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities, while he lived and labored in perfect harmony with his consistory and congregation, it spoke the language of Roman Catholic Hierarchy.
That this is true may be further corroborated by referring to Article 79 of the Church Order:
“When ministers of the Divine Word, Elders or Deacons have committed any public, gross sin, which is a disgrace to the Church, or worthy of punishment by the authorities, the Elders and Deacons shall immediately by preceding sentence of the Consistory thereof and the nearest church be suspended or expelled from their office, but the Ministers shall only be suspended. Whether these shall be entirely deposed from office, shall be subject to the judgment of the Classis with the advice of the Delegates of Synod mentioned in Article 11.”
Notice that this article stipulates that a minister of the Word of God shall always first be suspended, before he is finally deposed from office; and that this suspension is a matter that belongs, not to the jurisdiction of the classis, but to that of the local consistory. That the final deposition of a minister must be submitted to the judgment of the classis, is not due to any authority of the classis over the minister or over the local congregation, but to the peculiar relation of the local minister to the entire denomination. Classis Grand Rapids East, therefore, in suspending the Reverend H. Hoeksema directly, without any action on the part of the consistory of Eastern Avenue Church, ignored the authority of this consistory.
It may be objected that the case of Classis Grand Rapids East over against the pastor and the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church was somewhat extraordinary and that extraordinary cases call for the application of extraordinary measures. For, while the classis judged that the Reverend H. Hoeksema was worthy of suspension, the consistory was of a directly opposite opinion and wanted to maintain him.
But this does not alter the case.
In such a case all a classis can do is respect the authority of a consistory and refrain from interference. A minister that is maintained by the consistory and local congregation which he serves can never properly be suspended or deposed from office.
No extraordinary circumstances can justify a classis to take the place and assume the authority of a consistory.
Classis Grand Rapids East, then, instead of proceeding to suspend the minister of the Eastern Avenue Church, would, first of all, have respected the appeal by the consistory of this church to the synod of 1926. The consistory had repeatedly informed the classis that it appealed to synod. The classis simply ignored this appeal. It took the reins in its own hands and virtually denied the right of appeal to the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church.
If this appeal had been respected and carried out, and if the synod of 1926 had agreed with the classis in the matter and had advised that the pastor of Eastern Avenue Church was guilty and worthy of deposition, the matter would still have been up to the consistory. If, moreover, even then the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church would have disagreed with the decisions and advice of the synod and would have refused to suspend its minister, the classis still would have lacked the power to take matters in its own hands and proceed to do what the consistory refused to do. All the broader gathering could have accomplished in that case is that it might have declared the recalcitrant consistory outside the denomination of the Christian Reformed Churches. The minister, however, would remain in office.
It is true, that the classis had merely declared that the pastor by his own act was suspended from office; and by this expression the classis appears to refer to the wording of the Formula of Subscription in which we read: that the minister will always cheerfully submit to an examination in regard to the matter of doctrine and will acquiesce in the judgment of the consistory, classis or synod under penalty in case of refusal, of being ipso facto, by that very act, suspended from office.
But this reference to the Formula of Subscription, evidently intended by the classis, is, nevertheless, mistaken.
For, notice in the first place, that the Formula speaks of the judgment of the consistory, the classis or the synod, which is surely to be understood in that very order. However, Classis Grand Rapids East had substituted the “Three Points” for the Formulas of Unity, and had positively refused to examine the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions.
Finally, let us recall that according to the very declaration of the Synod of Kalamazoo the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church was not guilty of a breach of promise in respect to the Formula of Subscription. For, by signing that Formula the pastor had promised that he would always teach and defend the truth of the Word of God s expressed in the Reformed Confessions; and the synod had expressly declared that the pastor was fundamentally Reformed with respect to the truths formulated in those confessions.
It is evident that the Formula of Subscription could not be applied in this case.
The act of Classis Grand Rapids East, whereby it presumed to suspend the minister of the Eastern Avenue Church from his office, must always appear in history as characterized by a wanton assumption of power and gross injustice.
Still more strange is the decision of the classis with respect to the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
As to the church-political principles from which it proceeded, it is apparently a mixture of Collegialism and Reformed Church Polity.
Collegialism is the name of a form of Church-government which attributes authority and power to a broader gathering over a local consistory. Over against this view the Reformed conception maintains that the local church is autonomous and that the only governing body in the local congregation is the consistory.
It must be immediately evident that the classis proceeded from the collegialistic conception, when it declared that the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church was guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities, because it had refused to maintain the decisions of Classis Grand Rapids East regarding a censure case in the congregation, and because it had refused to accede to the request of the classis to place its pastor before certain questions formulated by the classis. This is Collegialism pure and simple. For, there are no proper ecclesiastical authorities above the local consistory, except Christ Himself. And, therefore, no Reformed mind could think of speaking of the insubordination of a consistory to classis.
There is, however, on the other hand, an evident attempt on the part of the classis in this decision regarding the deposition of the consistory, to adhere as closely as possible to the principles of Reformed Church Polity. For, the decision regarding this matter does not speak directly of the deposition of the consistory, but merely declares that it had broken all connections with the denomination of the Christian Reformed Churches. This part of the classical decision, though by no means just and based on sufficient grounds, is undoubtedly correct from a formal church-political point of view. Classis, therefore, confused and tried to combine the Collegialistic and the Reformed conception of Church Polity.
Nor is it difficult to explain this confusion.
On the one hand it must be remembered that for years the Christian Reformed Churches had been permeated with Collegialistic principles of Church-government. So deeply had these false principles struck root that a large number of Christian Reformed people, perhaps, a majority of them, cannot even understand the correct principle that no broader gathering can exercise authority over a local consistory. It was but natural, therefore, that in as far as the classis acted spontaneously and on its own initiative, it became Collegialistic and declared itself to be the proper ecclesiastical authorities over the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
On the other hand, the classis was advised and somewhat influenced by Dr. J. Van Lonkhuyzen, who for years had advocated and fought a stubborn battle in favor of the better and Reformed view, that a classis cannot lord it over a consistory. It was under this influence that the classis merely declared the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church to be outside of the denomination.
Yet, not quite understanding this principle, and still imagining that a classis has authority over a consistory, it declared at the same time that the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church was guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities!
From a formal viewpoint it is, therefore, a Reformed decision with a Collegialistic basis.