Three kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: the consistory, the classis, and the general synod.
With this article we begin a new section of the Church Order, which deals with the question of the assemblies in the church. This is a very important section of the Church Order, since it deals with the principles of church federation.
While we shall, in our discussion of the articles, have occasion to discuss various principles involved in the matter of church federation, it is advisable from the outset to notice several important matters:
1) The deepest principle of all church federation is the unity of the body of Christ. This unity is organic unity of the elect body which is chosen in Christ from all eternity.
2) The church of Christ, inasmuch as it is called to manifest itself as institute in the world, is called also to manifest its unity in institutional form as much as possible.
3) This unity, because it is a unity in Christ, has a common life principle in Christ. It is the principle of one faith, one hope, one doctrine, one calling (cf. Eph. 4:1-14 and similar passages). It is this unity which the church seeks to express.
4) This unity, however, cannot be imposed on the church. It must arise out of the organic life of the church.
5) The local congregation is, in itself, a full and complete manifestation of the body of Christ and is, because of this, autonomous.
6) But the congregations together seek to express their common unity in a federation of churches, the purpose of which is to confess in unison the truth of God in Christ, to fight together in the battle of faith against a common enemy, to fulfill a mutual calling, to satisfy a practical need which believers have of each other.
It is not surprising that the Church Order deals with the practical regulations of this institutional aspect of church federation. This is in keeping with the whole Church Order.
The division of the articles in this section is as follows:
1) Articles 29-36 — General rules
2) Articles 37-40 — Rules concerning the consistory.
3) Articles 41-46 — Rules concerning classis.
4) Articles 47-49 — Rules concerning particular synods.
5) Articles 50-52 — Rules concerning general synods.
Article 29 deals with the kinds of assemblies which shall be recognized in the church. From the very beginning of the Reformation in Geneva under Calvin, consistory meetings were held. As the churches grew, and understood better their calling, the need for synods was felt. These synods were first held in the Reformed churches in France. In the Low Countries, the first synod was held in Emden in 1571 and provided for the four assemblies mentioned in this article. The need for classes and particular synods was felt for two reasons especially. The first was the need to facilitate the work of the churches in common. The second was to deal with problems unique to a particular section of the church.
Turning to a brief discussion of the various assemblies which the article mentions, we may note the following:
1) The article mentions, first of all, consistories. The term itself comes from the Latin consistorium, which means “meeting place.” The Dutch term kerkeraad means “church council.”
The consistory is composed of the ministers and elders and is chosen by the church. Sometimes the deacons are included (cf. Art. 37).
The consistory alone possesses the authority of Christ to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to administer Christian discipline. It is entrusted with the rule of Christ’s sheep. It is the sole power in the church, the only assembly vested with Christ’s authority.
We may notice in this connection that the congregational meetings stand closely connected to the work of the consistory, inasmuch as the office of believers functions through
the consistory. (For discussion of this, cf. notes on Art. 4.)
2) Secondly, the article mentions classes. The classis is a regional assembly. It is of varying size, depending upon the number of churches within an area. The classical boundaries ought, ideally, to be determined by various relevant geographical factors. Classis is composed of two delegates from each consistory. These delegates are authorized to function at classis by virtue of authorization given them by the consistory in the Credentials.
The classis is not a permanent body, nor indeed a super-consistory. Its sphere of activity is closely circumscribed.
3) Thirdly, the article mentions synods. The synod is the denomination-wide assembly. The representatives are not from the churches, but from the classes. In our churches, ten delegates are sent from each classis. Also the sphere of synod’s activities is closely circumscribed.
In these assemblies ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted and that in an ecclesiastical manner. In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.
Article 30 is one of the fundamental articles of this section dealing with the general rules of ecclesiastical assemblies. It touches upon the basic and all-important question of what matters rightly belong at ecclesiastical assemblies; i.e., what matters are of the sphere of the church of Christ and what matters legally belong before assemblies which represent Christ’s church.
Three distinct matters are treated, which we shall deal with separately:
1) Assemblies are limited to the treatment of ecclesiastical matters.
2) Assemblies must perform their work in an ecclesiastical manner.
3) Major assemblies are limited in what ecclesiastical matters they may deal with.
With respect to the first matter, that assemblies are limited to the treatment of ecclesiastical matters, there is the important principle involved of the sphere of the authority of the church. It is a sphere of authority distinct from the state, the home, etc. Its sphere of authority is the spiritual life of the people of God. Its sphere is the gathering of the church through the preaching of the gospel. Hence, in general, ecclesiastical matters are matters which have to do with the preaching of the gospel.
In particular, and negatively, the church must not involve herself in matters of civil, social, educational, industrial, and political concern. The church today is intent on involving herself in all these matters and is consequently prostituting her true calling to attain this end. But this spells her destruction. Indeed, the ecclesiastical assemblies of our churches (particularly our consistories) are being more and more bombarded with requests to become involved in these matters, a temptation which must be strenuously resisted.
Positively, ecclesiastical matters are in principle matters which pertain to the official calling of the church— the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, the exercise of discipline, and (as becomes evident in subsequent articles) the regulation of divine worship services. The latter is included because it pertains directly to the preaching.
In addition to the above is also to be included matters which pertain to the spiritual walk of the saints. This is implied in the matter of discipline. This walk of the saints includes the whole of their life in every sphere: socially, politically, economically, etc. But, nevertheless, this is true only insofar as this walk is spiritual. Only this spiritual aspect of the walk of the saints can become the proper business of the ecclesiastical assemblies. For example, the church may not busy herself in the internal affairs of the Christian day schools. But if a teacher teaches false doctrine, the church must make this her concern.
Secondly, the article speaks of the need to transact business in an ecclesiastical manner. The principle involved here is that the authority of the church is limited to the power of the Word of God, which is the rule of the faith and life of the saints. This Word of God is, therefore, the only power which ecclesiastical assemblies have.
Negatively, this means that the church does not wield the power of the sword, which is given to the civil magistrates. There is no room in the church of Christ for coercion, threatening, physical punishment, etc. Nor is the church a political assembly which makes use of parliamentary maneuvering to gain certain ends. Some have even claimed that rules of parliamentary procedure are a hindrance to the work of the church. While this is manifestly false, for rules are good and have their proper place, it must be remembered that rules must not be allowed to interfere with the transactions; they must be a means to serve the assemblies better.
Positively, the only power in the church is the persuasive power of the Word of God, which is of sole authority in the church. All decisions must, therefore, be taken by means of consideration of all matters in the light of Scripture, our confessions, and the Church Order. The persuasive power of the assemblies must be conviction on the basis of Scripture. Through mutual consultation, consideration, and admonition the assemblies must be brought to bow together before God’s Word. This willingness to bow before God’s Word is the only proper spirit of an ecclesiastical assembly.
In the third place, major assemblies are limited as to which ecclesiastical matters they may deal with.
The Church Order distinguishes between “major” and “minor” assemblies. There has been a considerable amount of discussion concerning the proper terminology to be used. Some have used “higher” and “lower”; others “broader” and narrower.” But these latter terms have often been used to support the idea of a hierarchical form of church government. Especially was this true of the terms “higher” and “lower.” The idea was, then, that there is an increase in authority as one moves upward in the echelons of assemblies. Others have insisted that the terms are proper, but that the term “higher” refers to the consistory, while “lower” refers to classis and synod. But this terminology does not accurately define the relative status of the various assemblies.
Even the terms “minor” and “major,” meaning “less” and “more,” are subject to debate. The question still is: minor and major in what respect?
Surely the answer to these problems is to be found in the fact that the terms cannot refer to more or less authority, so that the major assemblies have authority over the minor assemblies. Rather, the real authority of the Word of God rests only in the consistory. The consistory alone (never a classis or a synod) has the authority to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise discipline. There is, therefore, a difference only in activity and representation. The churches agree to labor together under the Church Order and assign different tasks to different assemblies while honoring these decisions within the church federation.
The article stipulates: “In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or
such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.”
Matters which cannot be finished in the minor assemblies are brought to the major assemblies. That is, these matters are brought from consistory to classis to synod.
By “finished” is meant particularly matters of dispute which cannot be settled between the parties involved (cf. Art. 31). But every effort must be made to finish them on a minor assembly before they are brought to a major assembly. The tendency to rush to major assemblies with problems is all too common, so that a warning against this abuse must be sounded. Consistories too are under solemn obligation to solve their own problems on their level and not simply to pass their problems on to major assemblies. They are the officebearers in the church and must not quickly relegate their problems to other assemblies.
Matters which belong to the churches of the major assembly in common are also properly treated by the major assemblies. Some of these matters belong to classis, e.g., church visitation. Some matters belong to synod, as, e.g., matters of the Theological School. These matters may come to the major assemblies either by action initiated on a minor assembly, as, e.g., when a consistory brings an overture to classis and synod; or may be initiated by the major assembly if a problem is presented to it. These major assemblies may not simply initiate action, however. The problem demanding attention must come to them from consistory, classis, or one of synod’s committees.
Hence the sphere of action is clearly circumscribed.
If anyone complain that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by the general synod.
Decision pertaining to Article 31
Appeal to a major gathering against any decision of an ecclesiastical body must be made upon the immediately following meeting of the body to which appeal is directed, at the same time giving notification to the secretary of the body by whose decision he is aggrieved. Of every judgment rendered in the case, those concerned shall receive a notification.
(Adopted by Classis of June 6, 7, 1934; Synod of 1944, Arts. 66, 67.)
This article, too, includes one of the most fundamental principles of Reformed church polity. This is true for two reasons. In the first place, it emphasizes the supreme authority of the Word of God in the life of the church. In the second place, it protects the sanctity of the individual conscience before God. Its principle is involved in almost every division within the church, and it surely is the basis for every “case” which arises in the church. It is important that its teaching be clearly understood. Several matters are treated.
1) In the first place, the article speaks of the binding power of ecclesiastical decisions. While the article mentions only decisions taken on appeals, the principle applies, of course, to all decisions.
Matters decided upon by majority vote are settled and binding. As far as the terms are concerned, “majority vote” means more than half of the legally cast votes. By “settled” is meant that the matter is no longer a proper subject for discussion and debate. This does not, of course, preclude the possibility of continued discussion of the matter by individuals; but it does mean that any agitation and propaganda against the decision is improper in the church. By “binding” is meant that it is now obligatory on the churches and the members to obey and execute the decisions.
These decisions which are adopted by majority vote are settled and binding not because the majority has sufficient power to impose its will upon the minority and force conformity to its decisions. Nor is this intended to be merely a convenient way to settle disputes and differences of opinion. Rather, a majority vote determines that a matter is in harmony with the Word of God and the Church Order. That such is the case must be demonstrated in the decision, for the compelling nature of the decision rests upon the authority of the Word of God.
2) Secondly, the article provides for the right of appeal.
It is interesting to note, first of all, that the entire Church Order makes no provision for protest. It does not include protest as such in the ecclesiastical procedure chiefly because of the provision of Article 30: “as could not be finished in minor assemblies.” The idea is that to finish a matter presupposes some procedure similar to what we have come to call “protest.”
The article speaks of appeal only in cases of being wronged. To appeal means to bring a decision from a minor assembly to a major assembly for reconsideration. Being wronged does not mean necessarily being personally wronged by receiving a personal injustice. It is possible that this is the case. But the meaning is rather that one is wronged by a decision because it conflicts with the Word of God or the Church Order. If the matter is of such a kind that to submit to the decision will violate one’s conscience before God, such a one must appeal. He is deeply committed to the welfare of the church. If it becomes apparent to him that the church is straying from the Word of God, seeking that welfare will prompt him to appeal the decision.
The order of appeal must always be from consistory to classis to synod. The exception to this is when a decision of the classis is appealed. Then the appellant need not go through consistory. If a person is wronged by the decision of a synod, generally speaking he has one opportunity to protest the decision of synod to attempt to show the wrong of the decision. But this must be the end. The voice of synod is the voice of the churches. And only then does one appeal to synod against a decision of synod, when he is not directly affected by the decision as originally taken, becomes acquainted with the decision through the printed Acts, and believes that he is able to shed more light on the problem.
The method of appeal is also discussed in the statement: “…unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by a general synod.”
The first question which arises in this connection is: To whom must it be proved that a decision is contrary to the Word of God or the articles of the Church Order? Some have maintained that this must be proved only to the satisfaction of the one appealing. But this cannot be true. This would lead to individualism in the church and, ultimately, to anarchy. Rather, it must be proved to the satisfaction of the body to which the appeal is directed.
Secondly, the question arises whether the decision is binding during the time that appeal is being made. The question can also be formulated: “Can one consider a decision not binding because he considers it contrary to Scripture?” Or: “Can the word ‘unless’ be changed to ‘until’ as far as the meaning is concerned?” Is this the intent of the Church Order? This is a very important question, and repeatedly arises in church controversy. The answer is that indeed the decisions must be considered settled and binding while appeal is being made, i.e., until it has been proved to conflict with the Word of God. To assume any other position would also lead to anarchy and chaos in the church. And, surely, while an appeal is being processed and treated, the matter has not yet been proved to conflict with God’s Word and must be assumed to express the truth of God’s Word. However, an ecclesiastical assembly can withhold execution of a decision as long as an appeal is pending. And an individual may be granted permission to submit to the extent that although he does not acquiesce in the decision he will not militate against it publicly. He need not execute the decision while his appeal is pending. Usually this is possible.
If a decision is against his appeal after the full course of appeal has been followed, the individual has two alternatives. If possible, he should remain within the federation of churches and submit to the decision. He can do this only with a free conscience, of course. If, on the other hand, his conscience will not permit him to submit, then he has no choice but to leave the church federation. This he has the right to do without ecclesiastical penalty. Each man has to answer before God for his own conscience. And if the church has departed from the truth of God’s Word, he must, by doing this, engage in church reformation. This is the reason why
Article 31 is a precious Reformation principle.
The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin by calling upon the name of God and be closed with thanksgiving.
The Synod of Emden was the first to make provision for prayers at ecclesiastical assemblies. This synod stipulated that there be one prayer, either by the minister of the church where the meeting was held or by the president of the preceding meeting, with a view to the election of officers. Then another prayer was to be offered with a view to the business to be transacted. Nothing was said concerning a prayer of thanksgiving. The Synod of Middelburg (1581) changed this by dropping the special prayer prior to the election of officers.
The article specifies the time when prayers shall be offered and the nature of these prayers. Prior to the proceedings of the assembly, prayer must be made “calling upon the name of God.” After the assembly has finished its work, the meeting must be closed with “thanksgiving.” The idea is that at the beginning of the meeting the assembly make supplication to God for guidance in deciding the matters of the agenda and for the necessary spiritual gifts to perform the work well. At the end, the assembly must be conscious of God’s blessing which has rested upon the meeting and must adjourn with the confession: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us….” Thus thanksgiving is made for God’s manifestations of favor, tokens of love, and blessings of grace.
There was a time when liturgical prayers were used. But this is not usually done in our day. They ought no longer to be necessary in the church as they once were when the Reformation churches were in their infancy.
There are two principles involved in this article. The first is that Article 30 demands that all business transacted be done in an ecclesiastical manner. Prayer is surely a part of the ecclesiastical manner of ecclesiastical assemblies where Christ rules. The second principle, closely related to the first, is that Christ is the only King of His church, under whose sovereign rule all the business of the church must be conducted and in the light of whose Word all decisions must be made.
A couple of additional points, while not specifically mentioned in the article, are of importance here. The first concerns prayers in the consistory before divine services. The occasion for the beginning of this practice was the persecution of the churches of the Secession, when worship services were often interrupted and disturbed. The blessing of the Lord was sought upon the minister, the congregation, and the services held. This practice was continued both in the Netherlands and in this country. This is good. However, often times these prayers are much too lengthy and deal with consistorial matters. They should be short and should be limited to seeking the blessing of God upon the worship service and upon those who participate.
Secondly, a growing, but dissatisfactory trend characterizes many ecclesiastical assemblies today. This is the trend towards using the assembly meetings for sermons, devotional addresses, inspirational meetings, and honorary banquets. This should not be done. Assemblies should remain with the business for which they have been called together.
Those who are delegated to the assemblies shall bring with them their credentials and instructions, signed by those sending them, and they shall have a vote in all matters except such as particularly concern their persons or churches.
Decisions pertaining to Article 33
A. To promote uniformity the credential letter for delegation to major assemblies shall end in the following form: “With instruction and authority to take part in all deliberations and transactions regarding all matters coming legally before the meeting and transacted in agreement with the Word of God according to the conception of it embodied in the doctrinal standards of the Protestant Reformed Churches, as well as in harmony with the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches.”
B. The major assemblies shall also have a stated clerk, who however shall not hold the position of permanent secretary, and who shall not be a member of the assemblies’ officers, but that of a deputy to serve the classis or synod with services which would otherwise constitute the task of such a functionary.
(Adopted by Classis of June 6, 7, 1934; Synod of 1944, Arts. 66, 67; Synod of 1946, Art. 19. See also formulas for classical and synodical credentials, pp. 121, 122.)
Article 33 was drawn up at the time when the state of affairs in the churches of the Lowlands was very unsettled. There was no close contact between the churches of the Reformation and no complete set of regulations for ecclesiastical rule. The Synod of Emden, therefore, incorporated this article in the Church Order to keep fraudulent imposters from imposing themselves upon assemblies.
Credentials, of which the article speaks, are official letters of authorization of delegates. They are proof that the delegates have been sent by the consistories or the classes. They testify to the genuineness and the authority of the delegates. While in times of normalcy, when affairs are going smoothly in the church, they are a formality, they are a very important part of the official character of the meetings. They are, of course, sent only to classes and synods. The credential letters used in our churches follow a fixed form (cf. Church Order Book).
The credentials state that the delegates are authorized both to deliberate and to decide. This is not merely a right, but an obligation. The authorization pertains to all matters which are legally before the meeting and all matters transacted in agreement with Scripture, the confessions, and the Church Order. If these limitations are not observed, the delegates have no official authorization to take part.
To deliberate and decide implies that delegates, under normal circumstances, may not be instructed beforehand on how to vote on a given issue. This has sometimes been a problem which has been raised in the church. But if consistories instruct their delegates how to vote, the results are not good.
1) The authorization of the credentials becomes meaningless.
2) The broader assemblies lose their deliberative character.
3) There is no longer any room for being persuaded of a matter on the basis of the Word of God.
The only times when delegates are to be instructed how to vote are when an agenda from classis or synod reveals that illegal matters are coming to the assemblies or that matters contrary to the Word of God are to be deliberated upon. But even then the minor assemblies must make this clear to the major assemblies to whom the delegates are sent.
The credentials also make provision for instructions. These instructions are particular matters which a consistory or classis wishes to bring to the attention of the major assembly for deliberation. But these instructions must be brought in writing and must be signed by the president and the clerk of the body bringing them. Only then will the instructions be accurately and authentically presented.
The article limits the vote of the delegates to all matters coming before the assemblies “except such as particularly concern their persons and churches.” This rule is necessary for impartiality, fairness, and objectivity in decision. However, in our churches, where only two classes are represented on the synod, this rule would be difficult to enforce on the synodical level. If
more classes were represented at synod, the rule would certainly apply. But in our churches one classis would alone decide on matters of another classis, with half the synod unable to vote. Hence the rule has been abandoned on the synodical level among us.
Finally, the footnote of the article makes provision for a stated clerk. Such a stated clerk does not have a vote on assembly meetings. He has no ecclesiastical power (as is the case in many denominations). He need not even be an officebearer, although often he is. He does only what he is authorized by the assembly to do. That is, he prepares a permanent record of the minutes. He takes care of correspondence assigned to him. He takes care of the archives. He prepares the agenda. (Cf. Church Order Book for rules governing the stated clerk at synod.)
In all assemblies there shall be not only a president, but also a clerk to keep a faithful record of all important matters.
This article and the following one speak of the officers of the assemblies. It must be carefully observed that the term “officers” does not refer to “officebearers” and must not be confused with them. The officers of ecclesiastical assemblies are not of a superior rank among their fellow officebearers and they exercise no ecclesiastical authority within the assembly. They are functionaries of the assemblies who must see to it that the business is carried on in an orderly fashion. Their powers are limited by the Church Order and by the rules of the body. Their powers are not over an assembly but only within it and subject to it.
The article speaks of two officers. Formerly, provision was also made for an “assessor,” who was a vice-president. But this has been dropped. Nevertheless, the article does not forbid additional officers. The consistories usually have vice-presidents, clerks, assistant clerks, and committees, each with a chairman. While the officers themselves should be from the consistory, the committee need not necessarily be. An example is the building committee.
The classes usually have the two officers mentioned in the article. If the presiding officer needs to be replaced, another is provided for. Usually the officers at classis are appointed by alphabetical rotation.
Synod has, in addition to the officers mentioned in the article, a vice-president and a second clerk.
The article speaks briefly of the duties of the clerk: “to keep a faithful record of all important matters.” The clerk is therefore responsible to see to it that a complete enough record of the meeting is kept so that anyone may know what has been decided upon. This usually includes all motions duly made and supported, with the final decision taken, and all the official documents which are legally before the meeting and which must be recorded and entered into the records. This is usually done by means of
supplements recorded in such a way that they are readily available and are clearly connected with the article which deals with them. No discussion or debate is included in the minutes unless the assembly decides otherwise.
The script minutes must be approved by the body itself. The final minutes are approved by the next meeting of the assembly. Only written and official minutes are legal and valid. Their accuracy and completeness is therefore very important.
The office of the president is to state and explain the business to be transacted, to see to it that everyone observe due order in speaking, to silence the captious and those who are vehement in speaking; and properly to discipline them if they refuse to listen. Furthermore his office shall cease when the assembly arises.
This article originated with the Synod of Emden (1571), which synod referred it to the presidents of particular and general synods. In 1581 the Synod of Middelburg placed this article among the rules governing all assemblies and applied it to consistories and classes as well.
The article discusses the duties of presidents. It mentions the following:
1) “To state and explain the business to be transacted.” In some of our assemblies an agenda is prepared prior to the meeting and sent to all the delegates. This helps to make plain the business and gives the delegates opportunity to study it. But even with an agenda, this duty of the president remains, so that all matters may at all times be clearly understood. When there is no agenda the matter is especially important. All delegates must know what is being discussed and decided upon if they are to vote intelligently. The importance of this cannot be over-stressed. Especially when matters become somewhat involved or when the assembly is rapidly transacting routine business, there is real possibility of confusion unless the president exercises this duty.
2) “To see to it that everyone observe due order in speaking.” The pertinence of this rule is not a matter of politeness only, but recognizes the deliberative character of our assemblies. Everyone wishing to speak must have the opportunity. The fact that ecclesiastical matters are being discussed and that these matters are being discussed in an ecclesiastical manner adds weight to the importance of this. There are various rules of order adopted by our synod to assist the president in this work (cf. Church Order Book). And the vice-president must also assist the president when there are many seeking the floor.
The duty does not simply include giving everyone who desires an opportunity to speak. It means also that the president must guard against any one individual monopolizing the discussion. It implies that he must keep the discussion on the matter at hand and not permit the body to stray. It implies guiding the discussion so that the assembly arrives at a ripe decision. It implies that sufficient time must be given for discussion; yet when discussion becomes repetitious, it must be stopped.
The president also has the right to take part in the discussion. But he must then surrender his chair to the vice-president. This rule, however, is not usually observed in consistory meetings; nor need it be.
3) “To silence the captious and those who are vehement in speaking.” The “captious” are those who are sharp in their speech and hurt others with cutting language. The “vehement” are those who use violent language, speak in anger, and provoke others to anger.
When the article provides for properly disciplining these if they refuse to listen to the president’s admonition, the article does not refer to ecclesiastical discipline and exercise
of the keys, which cannot be performed by a classis or synod, much less an officer of these assemblies. The reference is to reproof and admonition from the chair and, if necessary, debarment from further speaking. Usually it is enough when a president warns a delegate to watch more closely his speech. Sometimes it becomes necessary to stop a speaker in his speech and forbid him to speak further on the issue. And, on rare occasions, it may even be necessary for a president to ask for a formal motion of censure from the body itself.
The article states that the president’s office “shall cease when the assembly arises.” The president, as well as the clerk, functions only for the duration of the assembly meeting. The reasons are briefly:
1) The president is not a presiding officer of the churches met in assembly, but of the assembly alone.
2) His powers are limited to the assembly and he can function only within it.
3) The assembly itself ceases to exist when the meeting is adjourned. The exception to this is the consistory, which is composed of the officebearers of the church.
The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the general synod has over the classis.
This article, in the form in which we have it, dates from the Synod of Middelburg, which was held in 1581. It is the key article in the Church Order dealing with the critical point of the relation between the various ecclesiastical assemblies: consistory, classis, and synod.
There have been serious differences of opinion within the Reformed churches concerning the meaning of the article. These differences hinge chiefly on the meaning of the word “jurisdiction.” This article and the meaning of the word “jurisdiction” were the key points in the history of our own churches (1924-1926), for they were used as support for the contention that a classis had power to depose a consistory.
There are different words used in different translations of the Church Order. Our English speaks of “jurisdiction,” which comes from the Latin: jus (law) and dico (I speak). Our English term, therefore, has legal connotations. The Dutch uses the word zeggen: “‘t Zelfden zeggen heft de Classis over de Kerkeraad….” This means, “the say”; i.e., “The Classis has the ‘say’ over the Consistory….” The Latin has auctoritas,which means “authority.”
From this semantic problem have arisen two views. The one view holds that the relation between the assemblies is one in which the major assemblies have only a certain “say” concerning matters in the minor assemblies. The danger of this view, however, is that the binding power of decisions is weakened. The federation becomes a very loosely knit organization of churches, and the sense of the Church Order is lost. It is true, of course, that major assemblies can only advise. But the Church Order insists upon the binding character of that advice. To deny this or weaken it leads in the direction of congregationalism on the denominational level.
On the other hand are those who emphasize the word “authority.” These insist that the relation is one which gives authority to major assemblies over minor assemblies. The danger is that this authority is interpreted to mean the authority which only consistories possess, as, e.g., the power of censure. Thus this view falls into the danger of giving the major assemblies an authority which destroys the autonomy of the local congregations.
The term “jurisdiction,” while not the best because of legal connotations, can nevertheless continue to be used if the correct idea is clearly understood. The word “authority” has the same dangers as “jurisdiction” and is, therefore, little improvement.
What, then, is the teaching of the article?
The article does not say: “The major assemblies have the same jurisdiction over the minor assemblies as the consistory has over the congregation.” It is important to notice this, lest the jurisdiction of the major assemblies be misconstrued. VanDellen and Monsma point out the following differences between the jurisdiction of a consistory over a congregation and the jurisdiction of a major assembly over a minor assembly:
1) A difference of origin. The major assemblies derive their authority from the consistories; the consistories from Christ.
2) A difference of necessity. The major assemblies are necessary for the well-being of the churches; the consistories for the existence of the churches.
3) A difference of essence. The major assemblies have derived an accidental jurisdiction. The consistories have original and essential jurisdiction.
4) A difference of duration. The jurisdiction of major assemblies ceases when the major assemblies adjourn. The consistories’ jurisdiction continues.
5) A difference of purpose. The major assemblies exist for the sake of particular churches; consistories do not exist for the sake of major assemblies but have independent existence.
The critical point is that the major assemblies have no power to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise Christian discipline. In other words, they have no authority to engage in the official work of the church institute. Thus their jurisdiction is:
1) An authority which is rooted in the binding power of the Word of God and the Church Order.
2) An authority within the church connection.
3) An authority within their own prescribed sphere of activity (cf. Art. 30).
This position must be steadfastly maintained. The consequences are hierarchy in the church of Christ.
In all churches there shall be a consistory composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders, who shall, as a rule, meet once a month, or more frequently as the need arises. The minister of the Word (or the ministers, if there be more than one, in turn) shall preside and regulate the proceedings. Whenever the number of the elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local regulation; this shall invariably be the rule where the number is less than three.
Decisions pertaining to Article 37
A. The president and the secretary of the consistory shall function as such on the congregational meeting; the minutes shall be entered in the consistory’s minute book and confirmed by the consistory.
B. No matters shall be treated on the congregational meeting which are not brought there by the consistory.
C. When members desire to have a matter treated on the congregational meeting, they shall previously have requested of the consistory the right thereto, and it shall be the prerogative of the consistory to determine the extent and the manner in which their request shall be granted.
D. Consistories shall every year furnish the exact count of the families comprising their membership to classis. The following shall be counted as families:
1. When the husband or wife is a confessing member.
2. Where either widower or widow functions as head of the family.
3. Further, three individual members shall be counted as one family. Confessing members residing at home are not tallied as separate individuals for determining number of families.
4. Financial ability to pay does not enter into the picture when determining number of families.
(Adopted by Classis of June 6, 7, 1934; Synod of 1944, Arts. 66, 67; Synod of 1970, Art. 107, Suppl. XXVI.)
In speaking of the composition of the consistory, the article mentions two possibilities. Usually the consistory is composed of the minister(s) and the elders. But it is also possible that in smaller congregations the deacons be added. The article makes this an invariable rule where the number of elders is less than three.
The Synod of Emden, in 1571, stated quite generally “that in each church there should be gatherings or Consistories of ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons.” But there were differences of opinion in the churches concerning the meaning of this: some consistories added the deacons, others did not. The matter was brought to the Synod of Dordt in 1574, which synod formulated our present article with the exception of the provision that deacons must be added where the number of elders is less than three.
The deacons do not properly belong to the consistory as such. The labors of elders and deacons differ according to the differences of their respective offices. Where they do not meet with the consistory, they hold their own separate meetings. However, there must even then be general meetings including the elders and the deacons because there are many matters of the church which must be decided upon in a joint meeting, since these matters concern both elders and deacons. (Cf. Articles 4, 5, 10, 13, 22, 24, 44, 81, etc. Cf. also the list in VanDellen and Monsma.)
If the deacons are added to the consistory in smaller congregations, they must function as elders. They have decisive vote in all matters and not merely advisory vote. This holds true of discipline cases as well as matters pertaining to the specific office of elders. But even in such cases it is well that, as much as possible, the offices be kept distinct. For example, the deacons should even then hold their own meetings. Committees appointed to visit the erring should be committees of elders if possible.
The article speaks also of the frequency of consistory meetings and stipulates that these meetings shall be once a week in larger congregations. This is not, however, a matter of principle but must be decided upon by general considerations concerning the well-being of the congregation. Even in the larger congregations in our churches the consistories meet twice a month. And the usual rule is once a month.
Other matters spoken of or implied in this article include:
1) If there is more than one minister in a congregation, the ministers shall preside over the consistory meetings in turn. This is to avoid all semblance of hierarchy and is in keeping with Article 17.
2) Consistory meetings must be announced, so that any member in the congregation may know when the meeting is, in order to bring any matter he may have to the consistory.
3) Consistory meetings must be closed meetings. There is sometimes question raised about this. Some contend that the congregation has the right to attend consistory meetings at any time. But this is not true. There are matters dealt with by the consistory which must be kept secret, such as matters of discipline and distribution of charity. Yet the consistory must keep the congregation informed as much as possible about matters which the congregation may know. And the individual members of the congregation are entitled to the decisions of the consistory. But if they desire these decisions they must come privately to get such information and they must have good reason for wanting it; not just curiosity.
4) The footnote of Article 37 speaks of congregational meetings. There are various regulations set forth:
a. The president and secretary of the consistory function also in that capacity at congregational meetings.
b. The minutes of the congregational meeting are entered into the consistory’s minute book and confirmed by the consistory.
c. Matters treated by the congregation must first be brought to the consistory if they originate with a member of the congregation.
d. Members have the right to bring matters to the congregational meetings, but only by bringing them first to the consistory. The consistory determines how and to what extent such matters shall come to the congregation.
The reasons for these rules are very important. The basic principles we have already discussed in the notes on Article 4. Here we add the fact that the congregation functions in the office of believers and exercises this office at the congregational meetings. But the rule of the congregation is through the consistory, for it is officially appointed by Christ to function in the offices. The decisions of a congregational meeting are binding upon the consistory. However, if a consistory learns of the wrongness of a decision, the matter must be brought to the congregation for reconsideration. Differ-
ences of opinion would have to be resolved by classis.
Finally, the article speaks of congregational statistics in the footnote. An exact count of families must be furnished annually to classis. This computation is according to an adopted rule. The purpose of this is to determine the synodical budget. Hence the statistics go on to synod. If classes had their own budgets, they would be used also on the classical level.
In places where the consistory is to be constituted for the first time or anew, this shall not take place except with the advice of the classis.
Decisions pertaining to Article 38
A. A letter of request is directed to the classis, expressing the desire to organize a congregation in a certain named locality, and signed by the heads of families or by adult single persons who live in that locality. In the case of a group formed by the mission work of the churches in common, this request shall come to classis by way of a favorable decision of the local calling church with the advice of the Mission Committee.
B. The classis shall thereupon deliberate whether such organization is possible or desirable, observing whether there be, among the signators, persons suitable for consistory members, at the same time taking into account the neighboring churches. In case classis, with the concurrence of the delegates ad examina, decides to grant the request, it appoints a committee to carry out the organization.
C. In order to organize the congregation the committee of the local church meets with the persons concerned, who have meanwhile requested their certificates of membership, or if it be impossible to have their certificates transferred, those present shall give testimony one of another that they were members in full communion and of good report in the congregation from which they are now separating. After a service of worship shall have been conducted under the guidance of the committee, the latter shall request those present to tender their certificates, in as far as possible. The committee having found the certificates in good order and having accepted them, they shall proceed to election of officebearers, who shall immediately upon their election be installed in their respective offices.
D. The election of officebearers shall be from a nomination made by the local calling church council (or by the church council appointed by a classis to supervise the organization of a new congregation). The church council shall make a nomination from the male membership of those who signed the letter requesting organization. This election shall take place in harmony with Articles 22 and 24 of the Church Order. Those chosen by majority vote at the organizational meeting shall be considered elected.
E. It is recommended that at this same meeting, in the presence of a notary public, the documents pertaining to the incorporation of the new congregation be brought in order.
(Adopted by the Classis of June 6, 7, 1934; Synod of 1944, Arts. 66, 67; Synod of 1977, Art. 74; Synod of 1994, Art. 54.)
Originally this article spoke of the reconstitution of consistories. The fact was that in the early history of the church in the Lowlands, congregations and consistories were scattered by persecution. The people of God were forced to flee their homes and often sought safety in foreign lands. When persecution subsided, these people would return to their homes and would desire to reconstitute their original consistory. This could not be done without the advice of classis. The article was changed in the Netherlands in 1905 and in our country in the revision of 1914 to include the element: “for the first time.” Thus the article was made to refer to the organization of new churches. This organization of new churches takes place when congregations are gathered through mission work or church extension work. It can also take place when a congregation is born from a mother church. This article was also used in our own history in 1953 when most or all consistory members departed from the denomination, leaving a congregation without a consistory. These congregations were reconstituted.
It is important to notice that the article speaks not of the reconstituting of a congregation, but of a consistory. We speak of the organization of a congregation, but strictly speaking, this is not correct. The constituting of a consistory is the essential element in the organization of a congregation. Without the offices in the church, there can be no congregation as a manifestation of the body of Christ. However, with a consistory, a congregation must be organized as to membership.
The classis plays an important role in the formation of a consistory. The principle is clear and important. No classis or synod does or can organize a church. Nor does a congregation need the approval of a major assembly to organize a church. This is a function of the congregation itself. And only the congregation may and can do this work. The local congregation is, in itself, a complete manifestation of the body of
Christ. Any other procedure would destroy this principle and introduce hierarchy into the church.
Nevertheless, the classis must play its role. Only the classis functioning in the name of the church federation has the right and the power to decide whether a certain congregation shall be organized as a part of the communion of churches. The group to be organized cannot decide this alone. Nor can a local congregation through its consistory within the federation take this upon itself. The right belongs to the churches together. The approval of the churches must be gained. This belongs first of all to the classis in which the congregation shall reside. But it belongs to the synod also when the credentials of the classis are accepted by synod.
There are, therefore, two ways in which new churches can be added to the federation. One is if an already organized congregation seeks admission to the federation. The other is if a group of believers seeks to be organized as a congregation within a federation.
The footnote adds various regulations concerning procedure. A couple of comments are in order. In the first place, the footnotes give the same power to the Mission Committee. This has sometimes led to confusion and conflict in our history. It would be better to abide by the article proper.
In the second place, the work is usually done under the supervision of a committee of classis or the Mission Committee. VanDellen and Monsma suggest that a consistory ought to be appointed to do this. This is a worthwhile suggestion, since the organization of a church is done with the preaching of the Word and the installation of officebearers. The appointed consistory could give an account of the work done to classis.
Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be placed under the care of a neighboring consistory.
Decision pertaining to Article 39
If possible the organization of a congregation shall precede the administration of the sacraments. However, if the conditions are not ripe for the organization of a congregation, such members are to be enrolled in an adjoining congregation, and thus the sacraments can be administered under the supervision of that consistory. However, this shall not be without the accompanying preaching of the Word, nor without sufficient representation of the consistory to have supervision of the administration.
(Adopted by the Classis of June 6, 7, 1934; Synod of 1944, Arts. 66, 67.)
This article, too, dates back to the Synod of Emden. The problem was a question of what must be done to gather believers in various localities where as yet there were no Reformed congregations. There were, here and there, small groups of individuals and sympathizers of the Reformation movement. Even secrecy was sometimes necessary because of persecution. Various synods concerned themselves with this problem and instructed classes to work through ministers and elders to take positive action to gather the church in these areas. The article in its present form was essentially adopted by the Synod of Dordt in 1618-’19. It is apparent, therefore, that this article came into existence in connection with church extension work or home missionary work. Our fathers saw, on the one hand, that it was not always possible to organize immediately a small group of believers. Yet, on the other hand, they did not want to neglect even the smallest group, even though organization was not yet possible.
Thus the article refers to groups of believers where no organization of a congregation is possible immediately. There may be other reasons than the smallness of numbers. It is possible that there is no adequate consistorial material in the group. It is also possible that a group needs further instruction in the Reformed faith before organization is advisable. Whatever the reason may be, the
Church Order provides that such a group shall be placed under the care of a neighboring consistory. This consistory is then responsible to labor there. There are several matters implied in this “care” of a neighboring consistory.
1) The consistory must provide for the preaching, the administration of the sacraments, catechetical instruction, family visitation, etc.
2) The elders would have to work also exercising proper rule, supervising the preaching, visiting the sick, etc.
3) The deacons would also engage in their work, although by “consistory” is probably meant only the ministers and elders.
The article does not state who is responsible for implementing the article. Presumably, a consistory could take it upon itself to care for such a group of believers if it was made aware of their existence. However, normally the classis would determine whether the circumstances were of such a kind to warrant using this article; and would, if the article was implemented, appoint a consistory to be responsible for this labor.
The footnote also makes provision for these believers to become enrolled in the neighboring congregation which is responsible for their care.
The deacons shall meet monthly, or more frequently as the need arises, to transact the business pertaining to their office, calling upon the name of God; whereunto the ministers shall take good heed, and if necessary they shall be present.
This article gradually developed into its present form. It was in 1574 that the Synod of Dordt decided that deacons should meet weekly. In 1586 it was added that they should “call upon the name of God.” In this same year the provision for ministerial supervision was also added. In 1905 and in 1914 the provision “wherever necessary” was added.
Deacons’ meetings are not mentioned in Article 29 as one of the ecclesiastical assemblies, but the Church Order, in the present article, requires such separate diaconal meetings nonetheless. This implies regular and official meetings, i.e., the deacons must not come together merely to discuss problems in an informal manner. “Meetings” means that the deacons schedule regular and official meetings in which various officers function and regular business is conducted in an official way. According to Article 37, deacons are sometimes added to the consistory. In such a situation it is not necessary for separate diaconal meetings to be held. The business of the deacons can be conducted on the joint consistory meeting. But should this be the case, the business of the deacons ought to be a regular item in the agenda of consistory meetings. The elders would then participate in the discussions and decisions. But even if it is not necessary for separate diaconal meetings when deacons are a part of the consistory, it would still be preferable, if at all possible, for deacons to hold separate meetings to discuss their own business.
The purpose of these meetings is “to transact the business pertaining to their office, calling upon the name of God.” All matters of finance are certainly not matters of business pertaining to the office of deacons, except in a very general way. While the deacons usually are responsible for all the paying of bills, this is not part of their official work. These matters could be handled by a committee of elders and deacons or a committee partially from the congregation and partly from the consistory. The official work of the deacons which pertains directly to their office is the work of mercy (cf. Arts. 25, 26 for a discussion of this).
The article includes the matter of calling on God’s name. This is not only part of the ecclesiastical manner which is required of all assemblies, but it is also necessary because the office of the deacons is profoundly spiritual, and supplication and intercession are necessary that the work may be carried on in faithfulness and may prosper under God’s blessing.
The article assigns the task of supervision to the ministers. The elders are also given this work (cf. Arts. 23, 25). In the implementing of Articles 23 and 25, an elder must always be present at deacons’ meetings. But this article also mentions the supervision of ministers. VanDellen and Monsma suggest that this stipulation has its origin in the past when deacons did much of their work under the supervision of the State. It was thought that ministerial supervision would prevent unnecessary and unwanted intrusion on the part of the State.
However this may be, Article 16 assigns to the minister the general work of supervision over his fellow officebearers. This article recognizes that fact. The minister must therefore be available for consultation and advice. He is the pastor of the congregation and knows most intimately the needs and circumstances and characteristics of the people of God in that place. His counsel must be sought when necessary. Usually the practice is that, while he is always available
if needed, the minister takes his regular turn along with the rest of the elders in being present at diaconal meetings.
The classical meetings shall consist of neighboring churches that respectively delegate, with proper credentials, a minister and an elder to meet at such time and place as was determined by the previous classical meeting. Such meetings shall be held at least once in three months, unless great distances render this inadvisable. In these meetings the ministers shall preside in rotation, or one shall be chosen to preside; however, the same minister shall not be chosen twice in succession.
Furthermore, the president shall, among other things, put the following questions to the delegates of each church:
1. Are the consistory meetings held in your church?
2. Is church discipline exercised?
3. Are the poor and the Christian schools cared for?
4. Do you need the judgment and help of the classis for the proper government of your church?
And finally, at the second to the last meeting and, if necessary, at the last meeting before the synod, delegates shall be chosen to attend said synod.
Article 41 deals with general rules for classical assemblies. At a very early date the Reformed churches organized themselves into classes. Already the Synod of Emden urged the churches to do this, and this urging was soon to have its effect. The article as we now have it is essentially the work of the Synod of Middelburg held in 1581. Only minor changes have been made over the years.
There are several rules of a general kind specified in this article.
1) In the first place, the article speaks of the constituency of classis. Classis is to consist of “neighboring churches.” This refers to churches of one geographical region. This is because of the purpose for which classes are organized. They are intended to deal with problems unique to the churches of a given geographical area. This was much more pertinent in the Netherlands, which was divided into provinces, and it was more pertinent to distant times when travel was difficult and communication between churches less than easy. But the purpose is still of validity today. Besides, classes are very important to facilitate the work of the federation of churches.
The boundaries of classes are, therefore, to be fixed. While it is usually best to attempt to keep the classes balanced as to size, this must not be a hard and fast rule.
Each church is represented at classis by two delegates, the names of which are included on the credentials.
2) In the second place, the article speaks of the time and place of meetings. This is decided by the previous classis. Although our churches follow definite dates for classical meetings, each date is decided by classical decision.
Announcements must be made concerning the time and place. This is done in our churches by a stated clerk. In the Netherlands it is done by a calling church appointed by the previous classis. Preferably, the place of meeting should vary from one congregation to another.
3) Thirdly, the article discusses the frequency of meetings. The general rule is once every three months or four times a year. The article allows for exceptions in cases of great distance. Our Classis East meets three times a year; but our Classis West meets twice a year. With modern means of transportation, distance is no longer a factor. But the matter of cost is taken into account in the West. Provisions should be made for special meetings of classis if the classis holds scheduled meetings only twice a year.
4) Fourthly, the article speaks of the presidency. The presidency may be determined either by election or by rotation. Both of our classes follow the method of rotation; although this is a matter of practical wisdom. The same is true of the rule that only ministers may function as presidents. This is not a principle matter. The ministers do not occupy a superior office. It is a matter of practical wisdom and recognizes the fact that usually ministers are better equipped to lead meetings. The article forbids the same minister to preside at successive meetings.
5) Fifthly, the article speaks of questions which must be asked the delegates of each congregation by the president. The purpose of these questions must be clearly understood. They must not become an opportunity for one congregation to lord it over another or for a classis to usurp the authority of its respective congregations. Rather, the idea is that, within the federation of churches, where autonomous congregations labor together in a common cause and in a unity of faith, there must be some mutual supervision. This supervision is necessary to ascertain whether the various churches are walking according to the principles of the federation of which they are a part. The questions are formulated with this in mind. It is important to notice that the questions all have to do with the labors of the officebearers in their respective office.
The questions are self-explanatory except that there has been some questions about the last one: “Do you need the judgment and help of the classis for the proper government of your church?” This question is not intended to be an invitation to each consistory to bring all its problems to the classis. The congregations are autonomous. Each consistory is obligated to solve its own problems in the light of the Word of God. But the question has to do with matters which might help the consistory in the proper government of the church. This government may not be taken from the consistory. Usually this request would then concern questions of procedure or questions pertaining to a correct understanding of the Church Order. These questions ought not to originate with the delegates unless the delegates believe that the help of the classis might be needed to implement a decision of the classis which pertains to their congregation. The questions ought rather to originate in the consistory and be brought to classis by the delegates. The question ought then to be answered by decision and not by general discussion. The latter is sometimes done.
While in our classical meetings these questions are usually asked at the end of the meeting, the Reformed churches have often asked these questions at the beginning. There seems to be much in favor of the latter. Problems of the federation itself ought to have the precedence at a classical meeting; for, except they be solved, other work is difficult if not impossible.
6) Finally, the article mentions a few items of business. It is implied that the business of the classis will be the business defined in Articles 30 and 31 of the Church Order. But, besides, at the last or next to the last meeting before synod, delegates must be chosen.
Where in a church there are more ministers than one, also those not delegated according to the foregoing article shall have the right to attend classis with advisory vote.
The Synod of Dordt held in 1578 ruled that each congregation must be represented at classis by one minister and one elder. Other ministers in a congregation received advisory vote. Various overtures were brought to different synods from time to time which attempted to have this changed. Finally, the Synod of Dordt held in 1618-1619 did change the rule and gave to all ministers of a congregation decisive vote. But the practice which had originated in 1578 was reinstated in 1905 and was adopted in this country in 1914.
While we do not face the problem at present in our churches except in connection with the professors, there are important issues at stake. On the one hand, those who favored giving every minister a vote pointed to the obvious inequality of voting. In our churches there are great differences in size. This is more true in the Netherlands, where several churches belong to the same congregation and where several ministers work in one congregation. Congregations can number in excess of 4,000 families. It is therefore argued that justice and fairness require that the principle of “one man, one vote” which is followed in civil affairs be applied also to the church.
On the other side of the picture, however, is the argument that if larger congregations receive more votes than smaller ones, the larger ones would consistently out-vote the smaller ones and, in effect, rule the affairs of the church.
There are indeed practical arguments which can be raised on each side of the problem. But the matter ought not to be decided on the basis of practical considerations. There are principle matters at issue. We have already referred briefly to them in the last article. In the first place, every congregation, whether large or small, is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ. Hence, all the churches stand on a par with each other as to rights and authority. This ought to be expressed in matters of voting within the federation. In the second place, in connection with Article 30, we noticed that the ecclesiastical manner referred to in that article is not mere voting power. While this is the case in secular affairs, it is not proper procedure in the church of Christ. The assemblies are deliberative and are united in the common calling of seeking the welfare of the cause of Christ. The regulatory power in the church is the authority of the Word of God. All must bow before that Word.
These principles are recognized by the Church Order. On the one hand, each congregation is given but two votes. And, on the other hand, advisory votes are given to additional ministers so that they can participate in the deliberations but have no deci-
sive vote. If parliamentary maneuvering and mere voting power are ever the means by which issues are decided in the church of Christ, the church is hopelessly lost to begin with. Nothing else makes a great deal of difference.
At the close of the classical and other major assemblies, censure shall be exercised over those who in the meeting have done something worthy of punishment, or who have scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies.
This article was included in the Church Order because in the early history of the Reformed churches there were many delegates whose conduct was not appropriate to the assemblies and who violated the spirit of the ecclesiastical manner spoken of in Article 30. The article speaks of this matter of censure as being a part of the regular agenda at major assemblies. Today this is not done, and, in fact, the article is seldom invoked, simply because there is seldom a need for it. Yet, if it becomes necessary, the censure of Article 43 may be applied.
The censure spoken of here differs from the censure mentioned in Article 35, which speaks of the president’s obligations in the course of deliberations and debate. It differs, too, from the articles dealing specifically with Christian discipline. And it differs from the censura morum exercised in the consistories according to Article 81.
Two classes of people are deemed by the article to be worthy of such censure. The first class is composed of those “who in the meeting have done something worthy of punishment.” This would refer to one who violated the principles of Christian ethics either in his speech or conduct on the assembly. It need not necessarily refer to one of the delegates. It may also refer to an appellant who is present at the meeting to defend his case. But the article presupposes that by such a breach of ethics an offense has been made which must be removed before the meeting adjourns.
The second class referred to are those who “have scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies.” The reference is to delegates, consistories, or other individuals involved in ecclesiastical deliberations. These may “scorn” the decisions of “minor” assemblies on major assemblies, or they may show scorn for the decisions of the assemblies on which they appear and at which assemblies decisions on their “cases” are taken. Their error is not that they disagree with a decision. The right to disagree is guaranteed by Article 31. But they scorn these decisions or admonitions. They despise them and hold them in open contempt, they are plainly rebellious against them and show their unwillingness to bow before the Word of God. These must be censured.
Although the procedure is not spelled out in the Church Order, apparently a formal procedure is implied. A formal complaint is entered by a member of the assembly. A decision is taken by the assembly to admonish and censure such an individual. A formal admonition is made to the individual, through the chair, to remove the offense. Quite naturally, if the offense is not removed, the consistory of the individual must be informed so that proper ecclesiastical discipline may be exercised.
The classis shall authorize at least two of her oldest, most experienced, and most competent ministers to visit all the churches once a year and to take heed whether the minister and the consistory faithfully perform the duties of their office, adhere to sound doctrine, observe in all things the adopted order, and properly promote as much as lies in them, through word and deed, the upbuilding of the congregation, in particular of the youth, to the end that they may in time fraternally admonish those who have in anything been negligent, and may by their advice and assistance help direct all things unto the peace, upbuilding, and greatest profit of the churches. And each classis may continue these visitors in service as long as it sees fit, except where the visitors themselves request to be released for reasons of which the classis shall judge.
Decisions pertaining to Article 44
Church visitation, which is required to be done in the congregations, requires for its efficient prosecution the following:
A. Each classis shall appoint from her midst at least two ministers and their alternates.
B. The visitors shall give the congregations at least eight days’ notice of the day and hour of their proposed visit.
C. The consistory shall see to it that all the consistory members are present at the meeting which is appointed for church visitation. Any member failing to be present shall be required to give the meeting good reason for his absence. If one-half of the members are absent, the visitation cannot be carried out.
D. The consistory shall see to it that the record books are at hand for the inspection by the visitors.
E. Of the visitors, one shall function as chairman and the other as secretary. They shall record their findings and actions in a book which can be consulted at the next visitation, and which can be kept in the classical archives.
F. After completing the visitation of all the congregations, the visitors shall with requisite discretion compose a report of their activities to be delivered at the next following classis.
(Adopted by Classis of June 6, 7, 1934; Synod of 1944, Arts. 66, 67.) (Cf. Questions for Church Visitation, pp. 111-114.)
This article, dealing with church visitation, was not originally included in the Church Order. The Reformed churches did not immediately accept the idea of church visitation, out of fear that the practice would lead to a hierarchical domination of the classis over a consistory. Besides, in earlier days, classical meetings were held oftener, sometimes as often as once a month. The provisions of this article were considered unnecessary.
However, several classes, on their own, instituted the practice and overtured general synods to adopt the custom throughout the churches. Some synods refused. Others (’s Gravenhage, 1586) recommended the practice. Finally Dordt in 1618-1619 made it imperative. This was probably in part due to the turmoil created by the Arminian controversy.
If the proper character of church visitation is not understood and maintained, the dangers of hierarchy are indeed real. It is always possible that the result of church visitation could be interference on the part of a classis in the internal affairs of an autonomous congregation. The danger must be guarded against lest a higher rule be imposed on a congregation. Yet, fear of the dangers ought not to result in an under-evaluation of the work, and consistories ought to guard against resisting the work of the classical delegates. The solution to the problem is to maintain the proper role of church visitation. This role is essentially that of mutual supervision within the church federation. This idea of mutual supervision is not only a matter which lies at the very heart of church federation; it is a point strongly urged by the Church Order (cf. Art. 41). By such mutual supervision there will be mutual benefits for the churches, benefits which the individual churches expect to receive from their place within the denomination because they labor in a mutual endeavor on behalf of the cause of Christ. If these points are kept in mind, there will be no danger of hierarchical interference on the part of the classis, nor will the visitation become mere routine.
The article stipulates that the work shall be carried out by classical authorization of “at least two of her oldest, most experienced, and most competent ministers.” Although there is no principle wrong in elders doing the work, ministers are stipulated because, generally, they are better qualified in the affairs of the church as a whole. There must be at least two. More may be added if classis desires, but two constitute an official committee. They must be of the oldest, most experienced, and most competent because a great deal of wisdom is required to do this work: to ask the right questions; to maintain the proper character of the work; to give proper advice and counsel in a proper way; and to aid the congregation as best they can.
The meetings must be announced on the bulletin in the church so that members in the congregation may also come if they deem this necessary. According to the article, attention must be paid to the following matters:
1) Whether the minister and the consistory faithfully perform the duties of their office, adhere to sound doc-
trine, and observe proper order in the church.
2) Whether the officebearers promote the upbuilding of the congregation, especially the youth.
3) Admonition to those negligent in their work.
4) Advice and assistance so that all things are directed to the peace, upbuilding, and greatest profit of the churches.
In the footnote to the article and in the questions adopted for use (cf. Church Order Book), various other matters are more definitely touched upon. But the questions must not be routinely asked and mechanically answered. There must be freedom to discuss related and other matters. Yet some matters are not the proper domain of the church visitors. These include cases pending with the consistory, cases not yet treated by the consistory, matters properly belonging to the consistory. It is evident why wisdom and discretion are required.
Various other regulations include:
1) Church visitors must be chosen anew each year, although they may be reappointed.
2) Records of the work must be kept in a permanent record book so that church visitors may become acquainted with perennial problems in a congregation.
3) A report must be made to classis so that classis knows of the work being done. The report must be made with proper discretion.
It shall be the duty of the classis and the general synod to furnish the following meeting with the minutes of the preceding.
This article, relating to the care of the archives of major ecclesiastical assemblies, was first adopted by the Synod of Dordt in 1578, but was applied only to the acts of the synods. In 1581 the Synod of Middelburg made this applicable also to the classes.
The article once made provision for the calling church to furnish the meetings of classes or synods with the minutes of the preceding meeting of that particular body. This is the way it is done in the Netherlands. One congregation is appointed to be responsible for the preservation of all the archives. The calling church is responsible for providing the minutes of a preceding meeting. There were especially two reasons for this provision.
1) The churches feared giving any individual in the church a permanent office because such a position might lead to unwarranted power in the individual and introduce hierarchy in the church.
2) Printing was costly and the minutes were not widely published.
A congregation was appointed to make them available.
We have made provision for stated clerks to take care of this work both on the synodical and classical level (cf. Art. 33, footnote). The stated clerk keeps all the archives, makes them available to subsequent meetings, and carries out other secretarial
tasks assigned to him. This is done chiefly because it is more efficient than the method used in the past. The dangers of hierarchy can be avoided if no work of an ecclesiastical nature is assigned to a stated clerk and if care is taken that the clerk does nothing but what is given him to perform.
The reason why provision for this is made in the Church Order is that the broader assemblies are not continuing bodies. And because they are not continuing bodies, some provision must be made for the preservation of the archives, so that these archives are available to subsequent assemblies. They must be available for various reasons. It must be ascertained whether decisions have been carried out. Old and related decisions must be consulted before new ones are taken (cf. Art. 46). And other reasons.
The archives must be kept safely not only because they are of historic importance, but also because they are the official records of assemblies. We have the practice of publishing the minutes of synod in a printed Acts. This is not usually done with the classical minutes. The proceedings of the classes are brought back to the respective consistories by the delegates in an oral fashion. This is done from memory and hastily scrawled notes. It might be advisable to consider the official publication of the minutes of classis as well as synod.
Instructions concerning matters to be considered in major assemblies shall not be written until the decisions of previous synods touching these matters have been read, in order that what was once decided be not again proposed, unless a revision be deemed necessary.
This article concerning the reading of previous decisions is closely connected with Article 45. It was first decided upon at the Synod of Emden in 1571. Its occasion was the fact that minutes of ecclesiastical assemblies were not widely published; that matters were being brought to the assemblies which had previously been decided upon; that this led to duplication, conflicting and contradictory decisions.
Hence it was decided that decisions of synods had to be read at classes before matters were sent on to synod. But gradually the literal requirement of the article fell into disuse. This was because reading the decisions became a difficult and time-consuming task as the number of decisions grew. And the publication of synodical decisions made the requirement less necessary. We no longer follow this literal stipulation.
The general idea of the article is still important. The article concerns itself with overtures from consistories to classes or from classes to synods. While not specifically mentioned, the same general principles would hold also for matters of appeal. An overture is a request on the part of a minor assembly to a major assembly to take some positive action on a matter within the jurisdiction of a major assembly. These overtures may originate with an individual, a consistory, or a classis. They go to broader assemblies via the minor assemblies. Each minor assembly ought also to consider its value and come to a formal decision on it. This is quite important. Perhaps a consistory overturing synod concerning a certain
matter is dissuaded from bringing its request to synod because of cogent arguments raised on the classis. However, anyone originating an overture has the right to bring an overture to the assembly involved with or without the approval of the minor assemblies.
The point of the article is, however, that no matter ought to be brought to major assemblies without consulting earlier decisions. The chief responsibility for observing this rule rests upon the one originating the overture. But any assembly ought to check on former decisions if this proves necessary. The purpose is that there may be no duplication or contradiction of decisions formerly taken. Previous decisions must be consulted for all the light they are able to shed upon the matter. Not only ought decisions directly relating to the matter of overture be consulted, but also related decisions.
The article does not, however, forbid alteration of past decisions. It explicitly states: “…unless a revision be deemed necessary.” Past decisions are not perfect. Time and circumstances sometimes alter their importance and relevance. But they must be consulted.
The article implicitly recognizes the value of the history of the church and the importance of the guidance of the Spirit of Christ in the church. When the church has decided something in the past, it did so with good reason. We must not presumptuously think we have new problems and greater wisdom, so that past decisions need not even be considered.
47. (Every year [or if need be oftener] four or five or more neighboring classes shall meet as a particular synod, to which each classis shall delegate two ministers and two elders. At the close of both the particular and the general synod, some church shall be empowered to determine, with advice of classis, the time and place of the next synod.)
48. (Each synod shall be at liberty to solicit and hold correspondence with its neighboring synod or synods in such manner as they shall judge most conducive to general edification.)
49. Each synod shall delegate some to execute everything ordained by synod, both as to what pertains to the government and to the respective classes resorting under it, and likewise to supervise together or in smaller number all examinations of future ministers. And, moreover, in all other eventual difficulties they shall extend help to the classes in order that proper unity, order, and soundness of doctrine may be maintained and established. Also they shall keep proper record of all their actions to report thereof to synod, and, if it be demanded, give reasons. They shall also not be discharged from their service before and until synod itself discharges them.
We shall only briefly touch upon these articles because they deal with the matter of particular synods, which we do not have in our churches.
Article 47 speaks of a rule applying to our general synod. It is the rule of an annual meeting. If particular synods were held in our churches, the general synod would meet only every two years. Also, our general synod is called into session by a calling church. The date of meeting and the calling church is decided upon by the previous synodical meeting. The calling church decided the meeting place, announces the meeting, makes provision for the lodging of delegates, is responsible for the pre-synodical prayer service, and provides for other material necessities of the meeting (cf. for details on rules the Rules of Order for Synod in the Church Order Book).
Article 48 does not apply at all when it speaks of correspondence with neighboring synods, although the rule could conceivably be applied to our classes.
Article 49 speaks of “delegating some to execute everything ordained by synod.” This article empowers the general synod also to appoint committees to carry out various aspects of the work of the churches. A listing of these committees with their rules and constitutions are to be found in the back of the Church Order.
It must be remembered that these committees are not in any respect autonomous. They may function only with a specific mandate from the synod and are instructed to report to synod. Synodical delegates for examination are also appointed under the provisions of this article.
The general synod shall ordinarily meet annually. To this synod an equal number of elders and ministers out of every classis shall be delegated as determined by synod. If it becomes necessary in the opinion of at least two classes to call a special meeting of synod, the local church designated for this purpose shall determine time and place.
The synod of our churches meets annually. There are several reasons for this.
1) We do not have provincial or particular synods.
2) Meetings every two years would result in large backlogs of work. This in turn would mean lengthy synodical sessions and the danger of hasty work.
3) Important work would be delayed in some cases.
4) Too much power could be given to synodical committees.
Our rules, therefore, require meeting every year.
For detailed rules concerning the convening of synod, confer “Rules of Order of Synod.” These rules stipulate that synod shall be convened on the second Tuesday of June; that the actual calling of synod and the provision for a meeting place are left to the calling consistory; that synod may recess only within the calendar year in which it meets: that after the end of the year a new synod must be called. The convening of an early synod is also covered by the rules.
The article speaks of delegates to synod. It stipulates that the number of delegates shall be six from each classis. Because we have only two classes, we have ten from each classis — five ministers and five elders. Article 4 of the Rules of Synod also gives advisory vote to various men.
How the delegates to synod are to be chosen is not defined in the Church Order. Some have favored a rotation system in the classis in order that all may have opportunity to attend. While there is nothing principally wrong with this method, it is probably advisable to follow the method of election in order that those who are best qualified may be sent. Consistories should send to the classis nominations for elder delegates, so that men who are able to attend synod are sent. This rule is followed in Classis West.
The missionary work of the churches is regulated by the general synod in a mission order.
We must briefly turn to the history of this article. In its original form the article dealt with quite a different matter. It spoke of the need of two groups of ecclesiastical assemblies between the Dutch Reformed Churches and the French Reformed Churches because they spoke different languages. These two groups of ecclesiastical assemblies were to be maintained on the classical and particular synod level. Only the general synod was to be a combined meeting. But the article became a historical anachronism. The change to the present article was made in 1914 by the Christian Reformed Church. Our churches changed the word “church” to “churches” when the present Church Order was adopted by us.
The present article speaks of the regulation of missionary work. In the Christian Reformed Church this article was intended to cover missionary work among the heathen and the Jews. The work of home missions was under the regulation of the classes. But the Christian Reformed Church also adopted a Home Missions Order, although (according to VanDellen and Monsma) not on the basis of this article. In our churches all mission work is under the regulation of synod. This includes church extension work, home missions, and foreign missions (cf. the Constitution of the Mission Committee). But this does not exclude mission work either by local consistories or classes. However, they must not labor independently of the rest of the churches, and they must labor within the established order of the churches in common.
When the article speaks of regulation of mission work, it does not mean that synod actually performs the work. The actual work must be done by local churches or by a local church. Synod is given the power to regulate the work, to oversee it, and to see that it is carried out. This is a fundamental principle of Reformed church polity. No major assembly may perform the actual work of the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, or the exer-
cise of Christian discipline. Nor may any major assembly call and send a missionary. All of this belongs to the local congregation. It is, in the words of the article, mission work “of the churches.”
But the churches labor together in this respect. The work is of mutual concern. It is an expression of their mutual calling in the unity of the church of Christ. It is, from a practical point of view, easier to do the work together since many local congregations lack the means.
When different languages are spoken in the churches, the necessary translations shall be made in the ecclesiastical assemblies and in the publication of recommendations, instructions, and decisions.
This article, too, was of an entirely different nature in the original Church Order. As we noticed, Article 51 dealt with the language question — the difference in languages that existed between the churches of the Northern Lowlands, which spoke Dutch, and the Southern Lowlands, which spoke French or Walloon. The article, in recognition of this, required separate ecclesiastical assemblies on all levels except the level of synod. Article 52 recognized the possibility that, since the assemblies were meeting separately, the churches might drift apart. Hence this article spoke of some cooperation between Dutch and French churches within the same city and made provision for combined consistory meetings on a regular basis.
But Article 52 became unnecessary in time and the article was altered in 1905 to regulate the relation between the churches in the Netherlands and Indonesia.
Our present article was inserted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914, when both the English and the Dutch language were used.
The article is now out of date. The Americanization of the churches is complete, so that the Dutch language is hardly ever spoken. Even the immigrant problem is not a great one. The article is therefore of no practical use any longer. Nor does it seem likely that it will be of use in the future.