No one, not even the classis that had deposed the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church and suspended the pastor, expected that the deposed consistory and suspended pastor would submit to the decisions of the classis concerning them and refrain from functioning in their respective offices.
This is plainly proven by the events subsequent to the decisions of the classis on December 12, 1924.
The classis made no provisions to pay a stipend to the pastor that was suspended pending the final determination by the synod of 1926. It is customary to make such provision in case a pastor is suspended from office and he submits to such suspension. That Classis Grand Rapids East neglected to provide for the pastor’s temporal needs in the interim of his suspension plainly shows, that it acted on the assumption that neither the Consistory of Eastern Avenue nor its pastor would submit to the classical decisions.
Nor, on the Sunday following the deposition of the Consistory and the suspension of the pastor, was any attempt made by the classis to conduct the services in the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. If the Consistory that was deposed had not provided in this matter, no services would have been held at all.
Nor did the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church consider themselves legally deposed and their pastor properly suspended. It did not enter their minds for a moment to bend their necks under the yoke of hierarchy the classis attempted to impose upon them. They continued to function as the legal and only consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church and the pastor continued to preach for the congregation regardless of the classical bulls.
And although from the viewpoint of the classical ecclesiastical “authorities” this attitude of the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church and of its pastor was necessarily condemned as rebellious, as soon as we view the matter in its proper light it must be conceded that the course the consistory and pastor decided to take was principally correct and practically the only possible course open to them.
For, then we will acknowledge, first of all, that the classis had assumed a power and authority which it did not and could not possess. The classis had referred to itself as “the proper ecclesiastical authorities” over the Consistory and pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church. But in this respect it had spoken presumptuously or, at least, mistakenly. They had no such authority. And where there is no authority there surely can be no rebellion or mutiny.
It can never be mutiny to obey God rather then men. The consistory and pastor were duly called by the Church, and, therefore, by God, to function in their respective offices and to minister unto the congregation that had called them. No classical decisions could possibly relieve them of their calling and responsibility before God.
And even if the classis had actually possessed the ecclesiastical power it assumed, so that it could exercise authority over a local consistory and depose it from office, the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church would still have been obliged to resist its deposition, for the simply reason that it had always adhered to the truth of Scripture as set forth in the Reformed Confessions. Materially as well as formally the deposition was unjust and illegal.
And from a practical viewpoint, submission to the classical decisions was an impossibility.
On the part of some that alleged to be in favor of the Consistory of Eastern Avenue and opposed to the classis in this matter, it was occasionally suggested that, with a view to an ultimate amicable settlement of the controversy, it would have been a matter of expediency if the consistory and pastor had submitted to the decisions of classis, and refrained from functioning as officebearers until the synod of 1926 would have finally determined the matter.
But how utterly impossible such a course would have been for the consistory to follow, even if they had been willing to consider it! A congregation of four hundred and fifty families stood behind the consistory and was opposed to the classical decisions. This large flock could not be neglected until the synod should have met, that is for a period of one year and six months, but must be shepherded. With the consistory they had been expelled from the fellowship of the Christian Reformed Churches, and the classis had made no provisions for them at all. To acquiesce in the decisions of the classis and submit to the decree of deposition and suspension, would have meant that the consistory would have become the cause of the dissolution of the congregation. From a practical viewpoint this course of action was closed. It is folly to think that the consistory and pastor might, for the time being, have submitted to the classical decisions.
They, therefore, decided to act as if there were no classical decrees against them.
And in this they were faithfully sustained by the congregation. They stood as one man, united in the truth and of one mind. The evident unrighteousness and injustice of the classical actions and decisions had served the purpose of knitting them more closely together.
On the other hand, the classis, not possessing the authority it had claimed and assumed, naturally was impotent to carry out its own decisions. It could not prevent the consistory from continuing in office, nor did it have the power to realize its suspension of the pastor.
And thus it happened that in the Eastern Avenue Church things continued peacefully to run in their normal course.
There was no visible effect of the classical decrees.
The classis, however, had made provisions for the “faithful” minority.
It had decided to aid them to reorganize as the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
The execution of this matter was left to the Classical Committee. Soon after the classis had adjourned, this committee called a meeting of the “faithful” members of the congregation, for the purpose of electing new officebearers. The meeting was to be held in the Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church. No attempt was even made by the Classical Committee to have this “congregational meeting” duly and properly announced on two successive Sundays from the pulpit of the Eastern Avenue Church. They placed a number of cards in a few stores, by which method they purposed to obtain the signatures of all that desired to remain faithful to the classis. And the proposed congregational meeting was announced in The Grand Rapids Press.
The meeting was held and a small minority group was reorganized as the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
And from that moment, as might be expected, began the conflict between the two groups for the possession of the property.
The minority groups, that is, the reorganized Eastern Avenue Church, was in no possession of any property. Therefore, they, at once, proceeded to attempt to dispossess the large group that stood with the deposed consistory. And they immediately appealed to the secular court. An injunction was served on the consistory and the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church, summoning them to appear in court at a specified date in order to show cause why they should not at once vacate the church building and surrender all the property to the reorganized group.
The consistory refused to surrender the property, and in the beginning of January 1925, they appeared in court to show cause why they should remain in possession of the buildings, until the synod of 1926 should have acted on their appeal.
It was the contention of the consistory that the matter of their deposition must first be finally determined upon by the synod, before the secular courts could rule in the property question. They understood very well, that the Act of Incorporation assigned the property to the group that remained faithful to the denomination, and that, therefore, in case the synod should approve of the action of Classis Grand Rapids East regarding the deposition of the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church, the latter could not retain the property. But the synod had not yet finally expressed itself in the matter, and no secular court renders a decision in matters pertaining to ecclesiastical property until the broadest ecclesiastical gathering has spoken. It was on this basis that the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church expected to retain the property until the synod of 1926 would have finally disposed of the matter. It will be understood that this had not been done by the Synod of Kalamazoo in 1924. It had, indeed, adopted three points of doctrine; it had declared that the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church was not in agreement with these three points of doctrine; it had, moreover, also declared that the pastor was fundamentally Reformed; but it had not disciplined the pastor, neither advised that he should be censured and deposed. Still less had it made decisions concerning the deposition of the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church. It was the consistory’s contention that, now the classis had decided that the consistory was deposed and the pastor suspended, and the consistory and pastor both had appealed to the synod of 1926, the matter, as far as action by the secular courts was concerned, would have to rest until the synod would have rendered its judgment in the matter. On this basis, then, it was the plea of the consistory that they should remain in actual possession of the property until the synod of 1926 had made final determination in the matter.
Some will probably judge that the consistory would have acted more in harmony with the Word of God, if it had decided to abandon the property and leave it to the minority, rather than to plead the matter before a worldly court.
A few factors, however, must not be forgotten.
First of all, we must remember that no attempt had been made at all on the part of the minority groups aided by the Classical Committee to reach an amicable settlement of the property question at all. The pastor and the consistory of Eastern Avenue were summoned to appear before the secular court. An injunction was served on them. They had to appear and show cause.
Secondly, it was certainly the calling of the consistory to seek the well-being of the congregation also in secular matters. It was not their personal property but the property of the congregation they sought to defend.
Thirdly, it must be considered that it was a practical impossibility to provide a suitable place of worship for a congregation of four hundred and fifty families upon so unexpected and sudden a notice.
And finally the consistory was convinced that on moral grounds the property certainly belonged to them and not to the minority group; and that, on legal grounds they had the right to retain the property until the matter had been definitely disposed of by the synod.
The preliminary skirmishes before the Kent County Circuit Court, however, had no serious consequences.
When on the date specified by the injunction the opposing parties appeared, the judge proceeded to lecture to them and postponed judgment for one week, in order to give the opposing parties time to reach an amicable settlement. In case such a settlement was not reached on the appointed date, he would then render a verdict.
No settlement having been reached during the week of grace, the judge rendered a preliminary verdict, that the contending parties should occupy the church-building on alternate Sundays, till the matter was finally and definitely settled in the courts.
This temporary arrangement, however, which was received with evident joy by the minority group, but with equally evident dismay by the majority group, was reversed on the following day by the Supreme Court of the State of Michigan. The deposed consistory was held entitled to hold the property until the matter should have been finally disposed of in the courts.
In the meantime, it stands to reason that the classis could not leave the pastor of the Eastern Avenue Church suspended, in view of the fact that he had not heeded the classical decision but continued to function in his office as minister of the Word of God.
Accordingly, on January 21, 1925, the pastor received the following notice:
“Reverend H. Hoeksema,
“Grand Rapids, Mich.
“The Classical Committee hereby informs you, that a special meeting of Classis Grand Rapids East is to be held on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 1925 at 9:00 A.M. at the Creston Christian Reformed Church, at Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“At this meeting the question will come up whether Classis shall proceed to depose you from the office of the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments in the Christian Reformed Church.
“We inform you of said meeting of said Classis for the purpose that you can be present and show cause why you should not be deposed from office.
“The Classical Committee.
The pastor did not appear in person at this meeting of Classis Grand Rapids East. He preferred to send a written reply to the summons by the Classical Committee, which here follows in full:
“To Classis Grand Rapids East,
“Christian Reformed Church of America,
“Assembled January 28, 1925.
“The undersigned, Herman Hoeksema, hereby acknowledges that under date of January the 20th, 1925, he received from the Classical Committee of Classis Grand Rapids East a certain communication by registered mail as follows:
(Here follows the copy of the classical communication.)
“In answer to your communication the undersigned respectfully submits the following:
“1. Said communication presents no charges or accusations against the undersigned which might or could be the basis for any action on the part of said Classis Grand Rapids East in attempting to depose the undersigned from the office of the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments in the Christian Reformed Church.
“2. No grounds are presented in said communication for any action on the part of Classis Grand Rapids East against the undersigned.
“3. The undersigned is not informed as to what he must answer or show cause to in the matter of said proposed action by Classis Grand Rapids East, and, therefore, is not able to present any answer or show any cause until such time as he is so informed by definite charges and accusations as to why said Classis should attempt to depose him.
“4. Further answering said communication, the undersigned says:
“a. That he is the regularly elected and ordained minister of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church and has complied with all the rules and regulations, government and discipline of said church and denomination. That he has signed the Formula of Subscription in use in said Christian Reformed Church, willing and ready to abide by the decisions of the assemblies, unless such decisions may lawfully be appealed by him to a major assembly. That upon the determination of any such appeal by such major assembly he is likewise willing to abide by such determination and decision.
“b. That he has appealed from any pretended action heretofore taken against him by Classis Grand Rapids East to the next General Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, and that said appeal is still waiting the determination of said General Synod.
“c. That he hereby respectfully appeals to the next General Synod as to any action or pretended action that Classis Grand Rapids East may take against him at this time, and further asks and demands that he be furnished with a copy of all proceedings and charges made against him so that he may have full opportunity to defend himself and show cause why he should not be deposed.
The writer of this history was not present at the meeting of the classis, nor did he ever receive an official report of the proceedings at that meeting. What is here recorded is based on the testimony of one of the delegates to that classical gathering.
It appears, then, that classis deliberated chiefly about two questions.
The first of these was: what was to be done with the deposed consistory of Eastern Avenue!
And the second concerned the pastor of that church: whether he should not be immediately deposed from office?
Both of these questions had their background, as became evident in the course of the proceedings, in a third: how can the reorganized group best be assured of the possession of the church property?
A committee was appointed to consider these questions and to serve the classis with advice in the matter.
It may appear somewhat strange that the classis should consider the question one more, what to do with the deposed consistory. It would seem that a classis could not possibly have anything more to do with a consistory that had definitely been declared to be outside of the denominational jurisdiction. Legally it could take no decisions whatever concerning that consistory. But “proper ecclesiastical authorities” are sometimes tempted by the stress of circumstances to do strange and abnormal things. The fear was not unfounded that, with a view to the ultimate possession of the church property on Eastern Avenue by the reorganizd group, the classical decision with respect to the deposition of the consistory might prove to be too weak. Had not the classis itself expressed that final determination in the matter of that deposition must be made by synod? And if, according to the very decision of the classis itself, the matter of the deposition of the consistory had not been definitely and finally determined, how could they expect to secure the property for the reorganized group at this time?
The property question was still pending the decision by the secular courts.
Just what the classis decided in this matter is not quite clear. It met in executive session, not open to the public.
In substance, however, it appears that the classis made its decision regarding the deposition of the Consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church definite and final.
With respect to the pastor the classis decided, as might be expected, that he should be deposed from office.
Of this decision the pastor never received an official notification.
The classis remained consistent to the last to its own methods and manners. It showed that it was devoid even of common decency and politeness when, by the stated clerk, it sent the following note to the deposed pastor:
“Mr. H. Hoeksema,
“Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Classis Grand Rapids East, in session Jan. 29, 1925, resolved:
“To refer Mr. H. Hoeksema to the official reports which will be published in De Wachter and The Banner.
“B. Sevensma, S.C.”
The deposed pastor never took pains to peruse those official reports.
But the reader will have to admit that that little note, breathing malice and envy with respect to a pastor upon whom the classis certainly had performed all their will, is a worthy close of a very corrupt chapter in the history of the Christian Reformed Churches.