As Christian discipline is of a spiritual nature, and exempts no one from civil trial or punishment by the authorities, so also besides civil punishment there is need of ecclesiastical censures, to reconcile the sinner with the church and his neighbor and to remove the offense out of the church of Christ.
This article begins the last main section of the Church Order and treats “Of Censure and Ecclesiastical Admonition.” The contents of this section are:
1) Article 71 — The Character of Christian Discipline.
2) Articles 72, 73 — Reconciliation of Private Sins.
3) Articles 74-78 — The Reconciliation and Censure of Public Sins.
4) Articles 79, 80 — The Discipline of Officebearers, Including Suspension and Deposition from Office.
5) Article 81 — Censura Morum.
6) Articles 82-86 — Various articles which do not directly relate to the subject of discipline.
The exercise of Christian discipline is itself the preaching of the gospel. The Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day XXXI, speaks of the kingdom of heaven being opened and shut both by the preaching of the gospel and the exercise of the keys of the kingdom. Thus, essentially, (as is also true of the sacraments) the exercise of Christian discipline is official proclamation of the Word of God. This is true of the admonitions, reproofs, etc. which are a part of Christian discipline. But this is also true of the various procedures to be followed in the application of censure upon the individual sinner. Thus the exercise of the keys of the kingdom has the same twofold effect as the preaching has (cf. II Cor. 2:14-16). Discipline is the means of salvation to God’s people. It is the means of hardening the wicked and impenitent.
The basis for the exercise of discipline is completely scriptural. Already in the Old Testament, discipline was practiced (cf., e.g., Ex. 22:20; Lev. 24:11-16; and other passages). But with the establishment of the new dispensational church, the exercise of Christian discipline comes to its clearest expression. The two key passages are those found in Matthew 16:16-19 and Matthew 18:15-20. But other passages include John 20:23; Romans 16:17; I Thessalonians 5:14; II Thessalonians 3:6, 14; I Timothy 5:1, 2; I Corinthians 5:1-5.
In keeping with the character of the Church Order as a whole, these articles concerning discipline lay down only the general and fundamental rules of discipline. The articles do not themselves speak of the principles inherent in the work of discipline. Nor do they speak of specific rules and define the whole process of discipline in every respect. The basic rules which the Church Order gives are rooted in the principles of Scripture. But each individual case of discipline must be considered separately, as far as the application of these general and basic rules is concerned. Discipline is too important a work of the church to be bound inflexibly with a multitude of rules intended to cover every single case which could possibly come up in the church.
Article 71 distinguishes Christian discipline from civil punishments: “As Christian discipline is of a spiritual nature, and exempts no one from civil trial or punishment by the authorities, so also besides civil punishment there is need of ecclesiastical censures….” It is true that civil punishment and ecclesiastical censure both have to do with an individual’s conduct. But the two must nevertheless be clearly distinguished. Basically, civil penalties are physical, for the magistrate bears the sword; ecclesiastical discipline is spiritual, i.e., it has to do with the opening and closing of the kingdom of heaven. Hence, civil punishment deals with an individual as a citizen within the State, the discipline of the church deals with a member of the church of Christ as it is manifested in its institutional form. Civil punishment has as its goal the preservation of order in society; the discipline of the church has as its goal the salvation of the members and the maintenance of the purity of the church. Civil punishment is based upon civil law; Christian discipline is based upon the law of the kingdom of heaven, i.e., the Word of God. Civil punishment is meted out in order that justice may be satisfied; the exercise of the keys by the church is to bring to repentance the sinner who strays from God’s precepts.
These two spheres must always be kept distinct. Even if the same individual, guilty of but one sin, falls under the jurisdiction of both State and church, the two spheres of authority must be kept separate. The sinner may be reconciled to the church so that he is freed from discipline and restored to the fellowship of the people of God. But he is not, by this, exempted from the penalties which the State is obligated to impose upon him. And, if he satisfies the justice of the State for a crime committed, this satisfaction of justice by the State does not exempt him from the discipline of the church.
Turning now to the purpose of discipline, the article defines that purpose as being “to reconcile the sinner with the church and his neighbor and to remove the offense out of the church of Christ.”
The purpose of discipline is both negative and positive. From the positive viewpoint, discipline belongs to the realm of grace. Its purpose is always, fundamentally, to save the sinner in the way of repentance. This is not only objectively true as far as the process of censure as the preaching of the Word of God is concerned; this must be subjectively true as well. The officebearers, in the exercise of censure, must be motivated exclusively by the desire to save the sinner. Never must their motive in discipline be “to kick out” an individual from the church. The salvation of the sinner must guide them in all their actions. Only when it becomes irrefutably evident that the Word of God itself has hardened the impenitent can final excommunication be applied. It is well to remember in this connection that the Word of God is the power of discipline. The officebearer has no power to exercise the keys of the kingdom of himself. When God binds in heaven what is bound on earth this is not because God merely concurs in the decisions of men. The officebearer has no authority apart from the Word of God which he brings. He must bring that Word. And that Word of God must do its work. In the power of that Word, which never returns void, the officebearer must put his trust.
But there is also a negative aspect to discipline. Offense must be removed from the church of Christ. “Offense,” in the scriptural meaning of that word, is that which causes another to stumble. The church is called to be the manifestation of the body of Christ in the world, which body is holy. If sin appears in that body of Christ, reproach, confusion, separation, offense, and injury disrupt the communion and fellowship of the faithful. This offense must be removed, both for the sake of the church as a whole and for the sake of the individual members in the church. The sin is removed and fellowship is restored when the sinner repents and reconciliation is accomplished. But it is sometimes necessary for the offense to be removed by excluding the sinner. By his refusal to repent, he reveals that he is not, in his heart, a true member of Christ’s body. Hence this sinner must be cut off, lest the whole body become infected with a diseased member, the table of the Lord be desecrated, and Satan succeed in his nefarious purpose of destroying the church with evil from within (cf. the Form for Excommunication).
The Church Order mentions two classes of sins for which censure is applied: error in doctrine and offense in conduct (cf. Art. 72). The idea of the Church Order is surely not that all sins become the object of ecclesiastical discipline. All the saints are very imperfect and are constantly guilty of many sins. But the saints confess these sins both to God and to one another. And, indeed, in the church where love reigns, the saints assume of one another (unless there is reason to believe the contrary) that each confesses his sins (cf., e.g., I Pet. 4:8). These sins do not, in themselves, create offense, schism, or a breach in the fellowship of the church. Rather the Church Order speaks of two classes of sins which create offense in the church because they are not repented of. These sins are sins in which the truth of God’s Word is denied, or sins which violate God’s holy law. They would, if allowed to remain, destroy the fellowship of the saints, put a blot on the holiness of the church, and in some instances be occasion for the evil world to blaspheme. This latter was, for example, the case with the sin of David. Nathan, in speaking to David of his sin of adultery and murder, reminded David that “Thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (II Sam. 12:14).
Yet, in the final analysis, there is only one sin which is worthy of censure: the sin of impenitence. All sins are equally serious and demand repentance before God. And all sins are pardonable if the sinner repents. When such repentance is manifested, the church forgives as God forgives, and the sin is completely removed. Only when sin is not repented of is discipline invoked. Even then, however, discipline is applied for impenitence of a particular sin.
The question often arises: Who are the objects of discipline? The question does not now refer to the fact that the objects of discipline are the impenitent sinners. But the question refers to two problems especially in the church: can non-communicant members be disciplined? And, is it possible for impenitent people to escape discipline by leaving the fellowship of the church before discipline is exercised? In connection with this latter, the question is asked: May a consistory refuse to grant an individual who is the object of discipline his (or her) papers in order that discipline may be continued?
In answer to the first question, the Reformed churches have historically taken the position that discipline may not be applied to baptized members but to confessing members only. Baptized members have not yet made profession of their faith. And while this does not exclude their sin from the need for repentance, it does exclude them from formal discipline. But the churches would do well to examine this question a bit more closely. On the one hand, it must be recognized that only those who are themselves responsible for their sins can also be the proper objects of discipline. A small child, yet in need of instruction, cannot be properly disciplined. But the fact remains that when a youth comes to intellectual and spiritual maturity, he sins responsibly before God and the church. And, on the other hand, there have been countless instances in the church when young people put off making confession of faith for many years — even into adulthood. It may very well be that this failure to make confession of faith is itself reason for discipline.
In answer to the second question, the Reformed churches have always taken the position, and correctly so, that a man’s membership in the church is a matter of his
individual choice. If he decides to terminate that membership, this decision cannot be resisted, and the man’s request for his papers cannot be refused. Nevertheless, a consistory which is faced with such a problem (which happens very often in the church) ought not quickly “to breathe a sigh of relief” that the request for papers has freed them from the need to apply discipline. The consistory ought to attempt to dissuade such a one from his intention, reminding him of his promise made at the time of his confession of faith to submit to church government if he should become delinquent. The consistory ought to show such a one patiently that the purpose of discipline is to save; that the discipline of the consistory is the rod of Christ’s chastisement; that to leave the church is a very serious sin and an unsuccessful attempt to escape the discipline of Christ. Only after doing all this, if a person should still persist in his request, should the papers be given. This, of course, brings discipline to its conclusion.
In case anyone errs in doctrine or offends in conduct, as long as the sin is of a private character, not giving public offense, the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18 shall be followed.
The article appears in our Church Order in essentially the same form in which it was adopted by the Convention of Wezel, 1568. The only difference of importance is that the Convention of Wezel held that Matthew 18 applies only to sins of conduct; and that, therefore, sins of doctrine must be reported directly to the consistory, even though they are of a “private character.” But in 1571 the Synod of Emden decided that also sins of doctrine, when of a private character, must be treated according to the principles of the Lord in Matthew 18.
Matthew 18:15-17 reads as follows: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
Surely this passage refers to sins of doctrine as well as sins of conduct. A brother may sin against another brother by defending doctrines in conflict with the Word of God as well as by engaging in conduct at variance with the principles of Scripture. The correction of Emden was right.
The article speaks of two matters: 1) What sins are ground of discipline? 2) What is the procedure to be followed in the case of private sins?
In answer to the first question, the article speaks of the case of anyone who “errs in doctrine or offends in conduct.” The first of these refers to any false doctrine which is contrary to the confessions of the church. There is, outside of the limitations of the confessions, room for freedom of thought in matters of the understanding of the truth of Scripture. But the confessions contain what the church believes to be the truth of God’s Word. This truth is the basis for the unity of the church. This truth must be protected and defended. One who teaches doctrine which is contrary to the truth of the confessions becomes worthy of censure. He creates a breach in the fellowship of the people of God, gives offense in doctrine, and makes it necessary for the offense to be removed.
One who offends in conduct is one who in his life walks in ways which are contrary to the law of God and the principles of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The church of Christ is Christ’s holy bride. When one of the members sins, he sins against that holiness of the church and creates offense among the people of God.
The article speaks of these sins as committed in private. In general, sins of a private character are sins committed which are known to very few in the church. These sins do not give public offense within the church, but give offense to but a few members. It is not always very easy to say when a sin ceases to be a private sin and when it becomes public. The question has often been asked: How many have to know of a sin before it is public in character? The answer to this question cannot be given by setting definite figures. The circumstances must determine this question. A sin committed in a large congregation may remain private, while in a small congregation it is soon public though the number of those who know of the sin is the same. This must, in individual cases, be decided with wisdom and discretion on the basis of the general principle: a private offense gives no offense to the congregation as a whole.
The procedure to be followed is “the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18.” Christ lays down three steps to be followed in that passage, the third of which is treated in Article 74, which confer. The first step is: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” This does not, of course, preclude the possibility of the one who has committed the offense going to seek forgiveness from his brother (cf. Matt. 5:23, 24). But the one sinned against is, by Christ, laid under the solemn obligation to go to his brother and tell him his fault.
This implies several important truths. In the first place, it implies that the one against whom the sin has been committed must go to make clear to his brother the nature of the sin and why, on the basis of God’s Word, his action was sin. This implies in the second place, that the purpose for going is to achieve reconciliation by the removal of the offense. Jesus adds: “If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” And in the third place this implies the truth that one must go with the desire and motive to “save thy brother”; one must go in a spirit of humility and love in the consciousness of his own need of the cross of Christ.
The second step to be followed is: “If he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” This principle of the Mosaic law (cf. Deut. 19:15) is here applied to the new dispensation. The purpose of taking witnesses is twofold. If the one who has sinned denies that he has sinned, the witnesses establish the fact that he has sinned. If one denies that what he has done is a sin although he
does not deny having done a certain thing, the witnesses establish the fact that his conduct was indeed, according to God’s Word, a sin to be repented of.
If the sinner repents of his sin, the matter is finished and forgotten. The offense has been removed from the church of Christ.
Secret sins of which the sinner repents, after being admonished by one person in private or in the presence of two or three witnesses, shall not be laid before the consistory.
The Synod of Emden had an additional provision affixed to this article. It ruled that secret sins which constituted a grave threat to the church or State ought to be reported to the minister of the church even though these sins were repented of. The purpose was to gain the advice of the minister so that the one who was aware of the sin might know what further to do about it to protect the church. This provision was dropped by the Synod of Dordt in 1578.
The article speaks of the reconciliation of persons involved in a secret sin. If such reconciliation is accomplished either after the first step prescribed by the Lord in Matthew 18 is followed, or after the second step is followed, the sin shall not be reported to the consistory. The reason for this is quite obvious. By repentance on the part of the sinner, the sin is removed. Evil has been taken out of the church of Christ. The offense is no longer present. The breach struck by sin is healed. Reconciliation is accomplished and the communion of the saints restored. There is no need for any further disciplinary action.
There is a fundamental principle involved in this article. This principle is that the saints are mutually responsible for exercising discipline over each other. This is the clear teaching of many passages in Scripture. We refer, e.g., to I Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:12, 13; Romans 15:14; Galatians 6:1; James 5:19, 20.
It is because of this general principle that the congregation, functioning in the office of believers, participates in the entire procedure of discipline even when the work of discipline is performed by the consistory. But it must be remembered always that all believers have a direct part in this important work. It must be not only negative, but positive. Not only must believers, among themselves, admonish one another because of sin; they must also encourage one another, bear each other’s burdens, aid each other in the difficult battle of faith. And this must always be in the full awareness that all the people of God meet together at the foot of the cross.
If anyone, having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed, or otherwise has committed a public sin, the matter shall be reported to the consistory.
The basic idea of Article 74 was already expressed by the Convention of Wezel. The Synod of Emden formulated the present article as we now have it, with the exception of the words “in love.” These words were added by the Synod of ’s Gravenhage in 1587. No doubt the purpose of adding these words was to impress upon the saints that a mere outward conformity to the letter of Christ’s injunction in Matthew 18 is not sufficient. The obligation is placed upon believers earnestly to seek the repentance of an erring brother. They must do this personally until it becomes apparent to them that their best efforts will not result in repentance and reconciliation. Only then should they proceed to tell the matter to the consistory.
The article speaks of sins which shall be reported to the consistory. They are of two kinds. First of all, private sins shall be reported to the consistory if the sinner does not repent even after being admonished by two or three persons. This is the third step which Christ mentions in Matthew 18. By the word “church” in that passage, the consistory is, no doubt, referred to. This is in keeping with the position which the officebearers occupy in the church of Christ. This is also the interpretation given to this word by the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons: “And thus the ministers of the Word, together with the elders, form a body or assembly, being as a council of the church, representing the whole church; to which Christ alludes when he saith, ‘Tell the church’ — which can in no wise be understood of all and every member of the church in particular, but very properly of those who govern the church, out of which they are chosen.”
In connection with the reports which come to the consistory, the elders must carefully observe several important principles. They must be sure that the report brought to them is the report of a witness; i.e., of one against whom the offense has been committed. Never may the consistory act on the basis of mere rumor or gossip. Secondly, the consistory must be sure, before they proceed, that the injunctions of Matthew 18 have been carefully observed. If they have not, the consistory may not enter into the case; they must rather admonish the reporter to follow this Christ-prescribed way before coming to them. In the third place, if they are satisfied that Matthew 18 has been followed, that the report is brought by a witness, that indeed a sin is committed, then they must investigate from the alleged sinner himself before proceeding to further action. They must give the person against whom charges are brought an opportunity to defend himself and to explain his position. They must themselves discover whether the sinner is indeed guilty of the sin reported to them and that he is impenitent. Only then can they proceed to make discipline an official matter.
Secondly, the article speaks of the fact that public sins shall be reported to the consistory. It is possible, of course, that a sinner may himself report a sin to the consistory before the sin is even known to the congregation and before it becomes public. It is also possible that the sin committed is so public that the consistory is made aware of it without the sin being reported by another member. In any case, the point of the article is that public sins are the business of the consistory. Although Matthew 18 itself does not apply in the case of public sins, this does not alter the fact that the individual members of the congregation still are obligated to admonish the sinner in love. The fact that a case becomes officially the business of the consistory does not absolve the congregation from responsibility in this matter. But the offense is one which, in its nature, affects the whole congregation. The breach is struck, not between two individu-
als in the congregation, but between one member and the rest of his fellow saints. The whole church must therefore act; but it must act through its officebearers. Furthermore, the responsibility falls upon officebearers to act in these circumstances because they are responsible for the supervision and government of the church. Discipline becomes their work specifically.
The reconciliation of all such sins as are of their nature of a public character, or have become public because the admonition of the church was despised, shall take place (upon sufficient evidence of repentance) in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of each church. Whether in particular cases this shall take place in public shall, when there is a difference of opinion about it in the consistory, be considered with the advice of two neighboring churches or of the classis.
This article speaks of the reconciliation of public sins — in distinction from the reconciliation of private sins spoken of in Article 73. It is possible, although Article 73 does not mention this, that the reconciliation of a private sin takes place after the sin has been made known to the consistory. It shall also in this instance be treated as a private sin, although reconciliation will have to be taken care of in the presence of the consistory. Public sins, according to Article 75, are of two kinds. The first kind is a sin which is, in its very nature, public. That is, the congregation, in whole or in large part, is aware of the sin. The second kind is a sin that was private but becomes public “because the admonition of the church was despised.” That is, the consistory made every effort to bring the sinner to repentance, but the sinner refused. The consistory was forced, because of this continued impenitence, to announce the matter to the congregation (cf. Art. 77). There is, then, repentance and reconciliation only after the sin has been announced.
The ground of reconciliation is “sufficient evidence of repentance.” Ordinarily, such sufficient evidence of repentance is a confession of sin on the part of the sinner and a promise to continue in the sin no longer. But it happens many times that a sinner confesses a sin, is reconciled to the church, and falls into the same sin again. It is with this possibility in mind that our Church Order speaks of “sufficient evidence of repentance.” The consistory must be sure in such a case that the repentance is sincere. It has not been at all uncommon in the Reformed churches to require of such a one that he be “on probation” for a designated length of time. If such a procedure is followed, the sinner is received back into the church, but is barred temporarily from the use of the sacraments until it becomes evident that he has forsaken his sinful ways. The consistory must exercise great caution lest the discipline of the church be despised and become an object of ridicule. Yet, at the same time, the consistory must not forget the injunction of the Lord to forgive the brother “till seventy times seven.”
The method to be followed is also discussed in this article. In general, the Church Order lays down the fundamental rule that this shall be done “in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of each church.” The consistory must take into account the nature of the sin, the reconciled sinner, the circumstances prevailing in the congregation, etc. and determine how best the spiritual well-being of the congregation will be served. Generally, reconciliation is accomplished in the presence of the consistory, and an announcement is prepared in which the congregation is informed. If this procedure is followed, the announcement itself should be adopted by the consistory. And the announcement should be made orally and not via the bulletin. The goal which the Consistory strives for is the removal of the breach struck in the congregation by the sin committed, the restoration of fellowship between the congregation and the sinner, and the emphasis on the importance of the church keeping herself pure in the world.
The Church Order considers also the possibility that reconciliation shall take place publicly. That is, reconciliation does not then take place in the presence of the consistory with an announcement made from the pulpit; rather, the reconciliation itself takes place under the supervision of the consistory, but in the presence of the whole congregation at a divine worship service.
While approving of this method in general, the Reformed churches have approached it with a great deal of caution. The Synod of Emden in the Netherlands ruled that a unanimous vote was required by the consistory before this procedure could be followed. In 1586 the Reformed churches decided that if a church had but one minister, the advice of the two neighboring consistories had to be sought in every case. Prior to this, the Synod of Middelburg (1581) had designated the classis as the body whose advice had to be sought. At present, in the Netherlands, if a congregation has more than one minister, a simple majority vote is sufficient, although the procedure of seeking the advice of neighboring consistories or classis has to be followed if a congregation has only one minister.
Our present article requires a unanimous decision of the consistory if such a reconciliation is to take place publicly. If no unanimity of opinion can be reached, the advice of two neighboring consistories is sought. All three consistories must meet together to discuss the case, but must meet separately to vote. In case of disagreement between the consistories, the advice of classis must be sought.
Such as obstinately reject the admonition of the consistory, and likewise those who have committed a public or otherwise gross sin, shall be suspended from the Lord’s Supper. And if he, having been suspended, after repeated admonitions, shows no signs of repentance, the consistory shall at last proceed to the extreme remedy, namely, excommunication, agreeably to the form adopted for that purpose according to the Word of God. But no one shall be excommunicated except with advice of the classis.
In this article, dealing with the discipline of unrepentant sinners, we come to the very essence of Christian discipline. It is for this reason that the practice outlined in this article dates back to the Calvin Reformation inGeneva. Already Calvin insisted on the essential procedure outlined in Article 76.
Two different kinds of cases are referred to in the article as cases to be resolved by suspension from the Lord’s table. The first deals with “such as obstinately reject the admonition of the consistory.” These may be people who have committed a private sin which is not repented of and which is brought to the attention of the consistory. Even after the consistory has admonished such people, they refuse to repent and heed the admonition of the Word of God as brought by the consistory. These may also be those who have committed a public sin which has come to the attention of the consistory because of its public nature. In this case, too, the sinner is admonished by the consistory to repent. If he should refuse, he must be suspended from the table of the Lord. The second deals with “those who have committed a public or otherwise gross sin.” The distinction to which the article refers is undoubtedly a distinction between sins which are less offensive in the congregation and sins which are direct violations of the law of God. When a sinner commits such a “gross” sin, he must be immediately barred from the table of the Lord. The Church Order does not mean to suggest that some sins are, from the viewpoint of God, worse sins than others. Rather the Church Order looks at the matter from the viewpoint of the effect of the sin in the congregation. Some sins in their nature are so heinous that immediate suspension is necessary. But once again, such suspension shall only take place if the sinner refuses to repent.
The character of such discipline is twofold. Discipline must first of all be suspension from the table of the Lord. This implies several truths.
1) This does not only involve barring the sinner from communion lest the Lord’s table be desecrated; but it also involves barring from all membership privileges. Such an impenitent sinner has no right to the sacrament of baptism, to vote on a congregational meeting, to protest and appeal in matters other than his own case.
2) The meaning of such suspension is that the sinner is barred from the means of grace. He is, because of his sin, separated from the fellowship of the church, refused the means of grace which Christ gives only to those who live out of faith in His Word, and deprived of his place in the congregation of the godly.
3) This is sometimes called stille censure or “silent censure” because the congregation is not yet made aware of the action of the consistory (cf. Art. 77).
4) This is sometimes also called excommunication minor. It is distinguished from excommunication major, of which the last part of the article speaks. Suspension from the Lord’s table is essentially excommunication; but the process of censure in the church of Christ is over a period of time. The purpose of all censure is, by means of the Word of God, to bring the sinner to repentance. Thus the consistory labors with a person, addressing him again and again with the Word of God, even after he has been suspended.
5) Sometimes a distinction is made between simple suspension and definite suspension. The former refers to temporary suspension from the Lord’s table for various reasons other than obstinate rejection. Such reasons may be suspicion of sin, a report of sin which comes too late for the consistory to investigate thoroughly, dispute between various members as to whether a sin has been committed, etc. In such a case the consistory bars such from the Lord’s table until the matter can be resolved and definite decisions made. The latter refers to the suspension spoken of in this article.
Finally, the article speaks of the fact that suspension must be followed by excommunication. Before excommunication, however, various admonitions must be directed to the sinner (cf. Art. 77).
The ground of final excommunication is that “after repeated admonitions” the sinner “shows no signs of repentance.”
Final excommunication is called in the article “the extreme remedy.” This is because this act of excommunication is the definite exercise of the keys of the kingdom whereby the “door” of the kingdom is shut to an unbeliever. Then that which is bound on earth is also bound in heaven. Such a person is barred forever from the kingdom of God unless at some future time he still repents (cf. Art. 78). But because this is the extreme remedy, this can be performed only after repeated admonitions. The consistory must be sure that the sinner is completely
impenitent. And the consistory may rest assured that the sinner will manifest himself in this way also. After all, the Word of God hardens as well as brings to repentance. And only after that hardening influence of the Word has become manifest in the sinner should this extreme remedy be used. By means of it the church is rid of an evil and harmful member who, if allowed to remain in the church, would cause untold harm.
The article stipulates that the Form adopted for the purpose of excommunication shall be used. This is also a liturgical form, a minor confession, which the churches use in common and whereby they express their common faith.
But no one may be excommunicated without the advice of the classis. For further discussion of this point, confer the notes on Article 77.
After the suspension from the Lord’s table, and subsequent admonitions, and before proceeding to excommunication, the obstinacy of the sinner shall be publicly made known to the congregation; the offense explained, together with the care bestowed upon him, in reproof, suspension from the Lord’s Supper, and repeated admonition; and the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him. There shall be three such admonitions. In the first the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned that he be somewhat spared. In the second, with the advice of the classis, his name shall be mentioned. In the third the congregation shall be informed that (unless he repent) he will be excluded from the fellowship of the church, so that his excommunication, in case he remains obstinate, may take place with the tacit approbation of the church. The interval between the admonitions shall be left to the discretion of the consistory.
This article in the Church Order is a further explanation of the words in Article 76 “after repeated admonitions.” Article 76 spoke of suspension from the Lord’s Supper and final excommunication, which was to take place after repeated admonitions. This article stipulates what these admonitions are to be.
It is common in matters of discipline to speak of “three steps of censure.” There is some disagreement, however, as to the meaning of the expression. Some interpret the three steps of censure to refer to the three admonitions which the consistory makes to the congregation and which are defined in Article 77. This is the position of VanDellen and Monsma in their Commentary on the Church Order. Others take the position that the three steps of censure refer to: 1) Suspension from the Lord’s Supper. 2) The three admonitions referred to in Article 77. 3) Final excommunication.
Part of the problem is the interpretation of Titus 3:10: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.” The “three admonitions” mentioned in the article undoubtedly refer to this passage in Titus. The third admonition is then the public announcement of excommunication.
The matter is one of terminology, and not of vital importance. It is, however, better to speak of the three steps of censure or discipline in the way in which I described above, and include the admonitions which the Church Order requires under the second step. The admonitions referred to in Titus are admonitions made to the congregation in the three announcements which are made to them and in which the congregation is admonished to pray for the sinner and point the sinner to his need for repentance.
Turning to the character of these admonitions, we may notice first of all in general:
1) They do not preclude private admonitions made to the sinner by the consistory in official visits. In fact, these private admonitions are specifically referred to in the article. These must continue throughout the entire process of discipline.
2) These public announcements which are made to the congregation are called by the article “admonitions” also. The idea is undoubtedly twofold:
a. The announcements are admonitions to the congregation itself on behalf of the sinner.
b. The announcements are indirect admonitions to the sinner, by informing the congregation of the sin which has been committed in their midst.
3) These admonitions include the following:
a. An explanation of the offense.
b. An explanation of the care bestowed on the sinner by the consistory.
c. This care bestowed on the sinner must be explained in connection with the reproof of his sin, his suspension from the Lord’s Supper, and the repeated admonitions made to him. This need not be a detailed and itemized description of all the work which the consistory has done; but it must be sufficient to give the congregation a clear picture of the work.
d. An exhortation to the congregation to speak to the sinner and pray for him.
In particular, these announcements also differ from each other.
1) The first public admonition. In this admonition the name of the sinner is not mentioned “that he be somewhat spared.” It has sometimes been objected that the congregation cannot pray for one whom they do not know by name. But this is not true. They may surely pray the Lord to remove the sin from the congregation by the repentance of the sinner.
2) The second public admonition. In this admonition, the name of the sinner is mentioned. But this can only be done with the advice of the classis. This advice of classis is referred to also in Article 76, but must be sought a second time just prior to excommunication. While this is surely not wrong, it is not necessary either. The advice of classis is sought once.
This advice of classis must be sought so that all possibility of partiality is guarded against. The consistory could become so enmeshed in a particular case that they are no longer able to look at a case with complete objectivity. The advice of classis is important.
Classis, before it passes judgment, must learn whether a sin has been committed, whether there is evidence of impenitence, whether Article 76 has been followed, whether the first admonition to the congregation has taken place, and if the labor of the consistory is sufficient. Classis must give its advice carefully, for it is giving the consistory its approval for excommunication if the sinner does not repent.
The proper procedure to be followed is not always understood. The consistory must not simply make a decision to seek the advice of classis on the matter of the second step of censure. This would not be proper and would still leave the whole matter in doubt as to the time when this second step is to be applied. Rather, the consistory must make a formal decision to proceed with the second step of censure. This decision must be with grounds. But its actual execution must await the approval of classis. If classis refuses its permission, the consistory will have to reconsider its decision or appeal to synod. The point is that the classis can only advise on formal discipline.
3) The third public admonition. This is a public announcement concerning the consistory’s decision to proceed to the final remedy — excommuni-
cation. In this announcement the consistory informs the congregation of its determination to proceed with excommunication and informs the congregation of the date which has been set for this. This announcement must be made in order that the excommunication “may take place with the tacit approbation of the church.” The congregation must participate in this way in the work of the consistory.
If an objection is raised by a member of the congregation, the consistory must seriously consider such an objection. If the matter cannot be resolved between the objector and the consistory, the objector has the right to appeal to classis. Such an appeal would mean, under normal circumstances, that the excommunication would be held in abeyance pending the decisions of the broader ecclesiastical assemblies. Yet repeated appeals must never be permitted to frustrate the consistory in the exercise of their God-given work.
In each of these three announcements the consistory must prepare the announcement to be made. The time between the announcements shall be left to the consistory’s judgment.
The third and final part of censure is actual excommunication (cf. Art. 76). This is the final exercise of the keys. It must be done according to the Form adopted for that purpose.
Whenever anyone who has been excommunicated desires to become reconciled to the church in the way of repentance, it shall be announced to the congregation, either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or at some other opportune time, in order that (in as far as no one can mention anything against him to the contrary) he may with profession of his conversion be publicly reinstated, according to the form for that purpose.
In connection with the translation of this article from the Dutch, VanDellen and Monsma call attention to a phrase which has been elided. The original Dutch spoke of the fact that public reinstatement of the penitent sinner takes place “at the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” VanDellen and Monsma observe that the reason why this phrase was elided was probably because the announcement at the beginning of the Form for Readmittance speaks of readmittance taking place “either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or at some other opportune time.” Regardless of the reason for the omission, the phrase should have been retained.
The article speaks of the reconciliation of those who have been excommunicated. It ought to be observed that the reason why the church has made provision for the readmission of excommunicated persons is not that the church admits the possibility of mistakes in the work of censure. This could not be. Officebearers, laboring in their office, conscious of their calling before Christ, do not make mistakes in the work of discipline. If a mistake is made it is only because of the fact that the whole church has been in whole or in part corrupted in doctrine, in the administration of the sacraments, and in the exercise of Christian discipline. A faithful church would not err in this matter. Rather, the reason is that the church can never make final disposition of the sinner with respect to his eternal state. Only God can do this. In this life there is always possibility of repentance — even after excommunication.
The procedure to be followed is defined by the article.
1) The sinner himself must express the desire to confess his sin and be restored to the fellowship of the church. He must give evidence to the consistory that he has repented and seeks forgiveness from his fellow saints from whose communion he has been cut off.
2) The consistory, after determining that the repentance of the sinner is genuine, must decide to restore him again to the fellowship of the church.
3) An announcement must be made to the congregation to this effect. This announcement is found at the beginning of the Form for Readmission, which confer.
The reason why such an announcement must be made to the congregation is that the congregation may give its tacit approbation. The congregation approved of the ex-communication. It must also approve of his readmission. But if reconciliation is to be accomplished, the penitent sinner must be received into the fellowship of the church and restored to the communion of the faithful. The congregation must receive him when he seeks their fellowship once again.
If any member in the congregation brings an objection, this must be considered by the consistory and resolved with the individual before the consistory can proceed.
4) The readmittance itself takes place according to the form adopted for that purpose. It is preferable for this readmittance to take place just prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Since censure is begun with suspension from the Lord’s Supper, it is fitting that readmission take place when the sacrament is celebrated. But the announcement at the
beginning of the form leaves room for exceptions.
It is possible that the person who has been excommunicated has moved and seeks readmission in a different congregation. This is possible but only if such reconciliation take place in close cooperation with the consistory which excommunicated him and with its consent.
79. When ministers of the divine Word, elders, or deacons have committed any public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities, the elders and deacons shall immediately, by preceding sentence of the consistory thereof and of the nearest Church, be suspended or expelled from their office, but the ministers shall only be suspended. Whether these shall be entirely deposed from office shall be subject to the judgment of the classis, with the advice of the delegates of the synod mentioned in Article 11.
80. Furthermore, among the gross sins which are worthy of being punished with suspension or deposition from office, these are the principal ones: false doctrine or heresy, public schism, public blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, filthy lucre; in short, all sins and gross offenses as render the perpetrators infamous before the world, and which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.
These two articles are treated together because they deal with the same matter — the discipline of officebearers. Before the contents of the articles are specifically studied, several general remarks are in order.
1) The articles do not speak specifically of the discipline of officebearers. Rather, the articles speak of procedure to be followed in removal of an officebearer from his office. The point is:
a. Strictly speaking, also removal from office is discipline. It is the statement of Christ that such a one is unworthy to function in the name of Christ in the church.
b. Removal from office must necessarily be followed by further discipline as outlined in Articles 75-78.
2) Because removal from office through deposition belongs to the sphere of discipline, this also is the proper work of the consistory, which is appointed to have the rule over its own officebearers. There has been considerable controversy concerning this (cf. VanDellen and Monsma, pp. 327-329; the history of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1942; our own history in 1924). The fact of the matter is, nevertheless, that no classis or synod may suspend or depose from office. This is the work of the consistory itself. And this is the work of the consistory because it is part of the exercise of the keys.
3) In the third place, the censure of officebearers is a serious matter just because officebearers function in the name of Christ clothed with Christ’s authority. Paul stipulates, in I Timothy 5:19, that no accusation may be brought against an elder except in the mouth of two or three witnesses. Any charges against an officebearer must be thoroughly investigated.
4) If an officebearer is deposed from office but repents of his sin he must not be further censured. He may become unworthy, through his sin, to hold an office in the church of Christ, but repentance makes further censure impossible (for further discussion of this, cf. below).
The two articles speak first of all of sins worthy of suspension and deposition. Article 79 speaks of “public, gross sin, which is a disgrace to the church, or worthy of punishment by the authorities.” Article 80 lists these sins. Concerning these sins in general we may note:
1) The sins of which the Church Order speaks are gross, not from the viewpoint of God to whom all sins are gross, but from the viewpoint of the church over which these officebearers rule. They are “public, gross” sins. They are sins which require punishment from the civil magistrates. They are sins which bring disgrace upon the church. That is, they are sins which are an occasion for the ungodly to slander and which bring evil upon the holy name of Christ to whom the church belongs.
2) Article 80 mentions also that these sins are sins “which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.”
3) We may mention in this connection that private sins committed by an officebearer but repented of need not be reason for suspension or deposition unless the sin be of such a kind that it makes him unworthy to hold the office which has been entrusted to him. Such a sin would be a direct violation of the qualifications of office mentioned in various passages of Scripture. In this case, the deposition would have to be announced to the congregation, along with the reasons for deposition and the fact that the sin has been confessed.
Concerning the particular sins mentioned in Article 80, we must notice first of all that the list is not intended to be exhaustive. The sins mentioned in that article are the chief ones, the direct violations of the law of God and of the principles of the kingdom of Christ.
A few remarks concerning each sin mentioned are in order.
1) False doctrine or heresy. Such sins as these would be violations of the promise made at the time the Formula of Subscription was signed. The sins are deliberate and conscious perversions of the truth contained in the confessions of the church.
2) Public schism. The sin of public schism is the sin of dividing the congregation or the churches into factions, arousing the people of God to discord or mutiny. The motives may be those of self-justification or defiance of authority in the church or desire for personal self-advancement and the like.
3) Public blasphemy. Irreverent scorning of things holy and sacred and mocking of that which is of God and His Word.
4) Simony. Attempt to gain an office in the church or to sell an office for money.
5) Faithless desertion of office. Forsaking and refusing to perform the duties of the office to which one is called.
6) Intrusion upon (the office) of another. Attempting to labor in the office without a proper call or to labor in the congregation where God has called others.
7) Perjury. Lying under oath either in the civil courts, in relation to one’s neighbor, or in the church of Christ.
8) Adultery. Violation of the marriage ordinances of Scripture.
9) Fornication. Any sexual uncleanness.
10) Theft. Appropriating that which belongs to another.
11) Acts of violence. Any kind of action by physical strength or mere brute force.
12) Habitual drunkenness. Repeated drinking in excess.
13) Brawling. Quarrelling, fighting, etc.
14) Filthy lucre. Dishonest gain and pursuit of dishonest gain.
Article 79 speaks particularly of the procedure to be followed in the censure of officebearers, including both suspension and deposition.
Suspension and deposition belong to the discipline of officebearers in distinction from the discipline of members in the church for the following reasons:
1) Because officebearers hold special offices in which they exercise the authority of Christ, and because a gross sin makes them unworthy to labor on behalf of Christ in the church, they must be removed from their offices in an official way.
2) Because of the sacredness of the office which they hold and the importance of the offices in the church, unfaithful officebearers cannot continue in these offices.
3) Sin makes it impossible for officebearers to represent Christ, to serve as an example to the flock, to warn the flock of the ways of sin.
Four distinct situations are suggested in Article 79.
1) The suspension of elders and deacons. The article speaks of the fact that such suspension must take place “immediately.” This does not mean that sinning officebearers must be suspended even before proper investigation is carried out. Rather, the word “immediately” refers to the distinction between the censure of elders and deacons on the one hand and ministers on the other. In the case of ministers, the process is somewhat longer (cf. below). Nevertheless, if an officebearer makes himself unworthy of the office, he must be immediately suspended.
This suspension is not necessary in the case of elders and deacons. The article states: “…the elders and deacons shall immediately … be suspended or expelled from their office….” The consistory itself must decide whether to suspend first and depose later or to proceed immediately with deposition. The determining factor will be whether the sin is of such a kind that, even should the sinner repent, he is unworthy to hold the office. In that case, deposition can take place immediately without suspension intervening.
Such suspension must have the approval of the nearest consistory. No consistory may act alone. The reason for this is because the matter of suspension and deposition is so serious that another consistory must concur to avoid the possibility of mistakes. The procedure to be followed is:
a. The consistory responsible makes a decision to suspend dependent upon the approval of the nearest consistory.
b. That consistory is notified and meets with the consistory in charge. The whole case must be discussed, so that the consistory called in is thoroughly acquainted with the case and can make an intelligent decision.
c. The consistory called in then meets separately and comes to its decision.
d. If there is disagreement which cannot be resolved, the matter must go to classis.
e. If the suspension is approved, an announcement is made to that effect to the congregation.
Suspension means a temporary barring from active functioning in the office. An officebearer cannot, under suspension, perform the duties of his office in any respect.
It is interesting to note that the early synods of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands did not require a consistory to seek the approval of the nearest church. This was doubtless because our fathers zealously guarded the independence of each autonomous congregation. The provision was added by the Synod of Middelburg in 1581.
2) The deposition of elders and deacons. As noted above, deposition can, under certain circumstances, take place without prior suspension. It is also possible that an officebearer is suspended, but, failing to repent, is deposed from office. In the case an officebearer was first suspended and then deposed, the approval of the nearest consistory need not be sought at the time of deposition, since it was gained at the time of suspension. If an officebearer is deposed, this can be done only with the approval of the nearest consistory. The procedure to be followed is, in all other respects, the same. When an officebearer is deposed from office, he holds that office no longer.
3) Suspension of ministers. Ministers may not be immediately deposed from office. Their suspension must come first. This suspension can take place only with the approval of the nearest consistory, as in the case of elders and deacons. The procedure to be followed is in all other respects similar to the procedure followed in the case of other officebearers, with the exception that the other consistories within the denomination must be notified. This latter is to inform the other consistories that the minister is ineligible to perform the duties of his office. The other Consistories are not asked in this notification to approve; they are simply informed. They must recognize this suspension.
4) The deposition of ministers. Before a consistory can finally depose a minister, the matter must go to classis. At the classis the synodical delegates must be present. Before the consistory can actually proceed to deposition, the approval of the classis and the synodical delegates must be gained. The reason for this is that the minister, from a certain point of view, belongs to the whole denomination. The churches in common had a voice in declaring him candidate for the ministry. The churches in common must speak and voice their consent before deposition can take place. If there is disagreement, the matter must be resolved by synod.
Finally, attention is called to some particular matters.
1) If the officebearer does not repent, suspension and/or deposition must be followed by regular censure proceedings.
2) The question is sometimes asked whether an officebearer who is deposed from office and who repents can be ordained once again at some future time into the same or another office. There is no hard and fast answer to this question. The nature of the sin and the circumstances must
determine the answer. In some cases it is clearly advisable that a deposed officebearer be not again ordained into office. An illustration of this is an officebearer who has revealed a definite weakness which makes it impossible for him to serve at any time in the future. If he should become eligible for office after his deposition, this should only be after a period of time has elapsed. It is not, generally speaking, advisable to ordain an officebearer into office after a short period of time has elapsed since his deposition.
3) Emeriti ministers, since they continue to hold their office, although they do not actively perform the duties of the office, are also subject to suspension and deposition.
4) A minister, while under suspension, is the financial responsibility of his congregation. His deposition, however, marks the end of this financial responsibility.
The ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons shall before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.
This article, which deals with what is usually called censura morum or “censure of conduct,” has a rather peculiar history. Calvin was the first to introduce such mutual censure among officebearers in the church inGeneva. The practice was soon adopted in the Reformed Churches of the Lowlands under the influence of à Lasco. The Synod of Dordt, meeting in 1578, was the first to provide for it. However, this synod stipulated that such censure must deal with “the doctrine and life” of the officebearers. The Synod of ’s Gravenhage, in 1586, omitted the words “doctrine and life” and substituted the words found in our present version: “with regard to the discharge of their office.” It was also at this time that the phrase “before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper” was dropped from the article. To this day the churches in the Netherlands have omitted the reference to the Lord’s Supper. However, when the Church Order was prepared in this country in 1914, the Christian Reformed Church returned to the practice followed in the years prior to 1586 and reinserted the reference to the Lord’s Supper. Why this was done is not known. VanDellen and Monsma suggest that the reason was that censura morum be carried out at least four times a year.
It is clear, however, from this history that censura morum is not intended to be a censure of conduct in relation to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The purpose is quite different. In churches with a hierarchical form of church government, higher clergy exercise supervision over lower clergy. But this has always been abhorrent to the Reformed churches. All officebearers are equal in authority and in the position they occupy in thechurch of Christ. Hence, the Church Order provides for a mutual supervision of the officebearers over each other (cf. Arts. 16 and 23). This article, along with others in the Church Order, provides for such mutual supervision.
It is also clear from the history of this article that censura morum was not intended to deal with the doctrine and life of the officebearers. The reason is obvious. If an officebearer errs in doctrine or in life, the matter cannot wait until the time for censura morum. Such errors are, according to Article 80, grounds for suspension and deposition. Rather, this censure of conduct has to do with the discharge of each officebearer’s office. It is an opportunity for the officebearers mutually to exercise supervision
over each other and to admonish each other with respect to this one aspect of their calling in the church.
The article does not define the method to be followed. This is left to the judgment of the consistories. Several methods have been followed in the past.
1) Each officebearer, one by one, is sent out while the remaining officebearers discuss his work. If there are any criticisms of it, he is informed upon his return.
2) The question is put to the entire consistory and, if there are no responses, it is assumed that there is no criticism.
3) The question is put to the consistory as a whole, and each officebearer is asked to respond individually.
4) In some consistories, after censura morum has been conducted, the members of the consistory shake hands with each other.
It is apparent that, on the one hand, such mutual supervision is important in the church and must be carried out freely and openly; and, on the other hand, that it must always be done in a spirit of love and forbearance. Only then will the church prosper.
To those who remove from the congregation, a letter or testimony concerning their profession and conduct shall be given by the consistory, signed by two; or, in the case of letters which are given under the seal of the church, signed by one.
The article dealing with the transfer of membership was written in the context of established congregational boundaries. If a person, a member in one congregation, moved beyond the boundaries of that congregation into an area of another congregation, he was obligated to secure a transfer in membership. We have no such boundaries in this country. Nevertheless, people who move from one place to another often find it necessary to affiliate with another congregation nearer their new residence. This article describes the procedure to be followed in that event.
Article 61 of the Church Order also dealt with this matter. However, that article dealt with the question from the viewpoint of admission to the Lord’s table: “None shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper … besides being reputed to be of a godly work, without which those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.” This article speaks of the procedure to be followed in the actual transfer of membership.
Our churches have three forms which are used for this purpose (cf. the Church Order Book). One form is the one used in the transfer of baptized members. This form is used only when such a baptized member is transferring separately from his parents. If he transfers with his parents, his name is included on their transfer certificate. The second form is the one used in the transfer of confessing members. The third form is a certificate of dismissal. This form is used when members transfer to a congregation of another denomination.
The question has often been asked whether transfer papers must be sent to the individual or to the consistory under whose supervision the one transferring shall presently come. The article itself suggests strongly that the paper must be given to the individual: “To those who remove from the congregation, a letter or testimony … shall be given.” However, our transfer forms are addressed directly to a particular consistory and are, evidently, intended to be sent directly to a consistory. This discrepancy should be cleared up at some future time. The point is, however, that a member has the right to his own papers and may ask that they be delivered personally to him. But there is no wrong in the transfer papers being sent directly to a consistory, especially if the member himself should request this — as ordinarily he would do.
Such a member, while in the process of transferring, remains a member of the consistory which issues the transfer until the transfer is completed. A certificate is attached to the transfer papers which stipulates: “The certificate of _______________ from the ___________________ Protestant Reformed Church has been duly received and accepted….” Notice: “The above mentioned shall be considered still a member of the _________________ Protestant Reformed Church until this receipt is returned properly signed.” He remains under the supervision and government of his original consistory until this process is finished.
Sometimes it happens that a member moves away from a congregation without asking for his membership to be transferred. In this event the consistory must do all in its power to contact him either directly, through correspondence, or through a sister consistory in the area where the individual has moved. He must be admonished of his waywardness and treated if he refuses to alter his life. But if all efforts at contact prove unsuccessful, he will have to be removed from the membership of the church.
The testimony which is sent to the individual or to a sister congregation is concerning the member’s “profession and conduct.” The transfer asserts that such a one is faithful in his confession and faithful in his walk. The consistory receiving the transfer is, by virtue of the church federation, obligated to acknowledge this testimonial. If a member transfers while he is being censured, such notification of censure must be included with the papers, along with the grounds for censure. The consistory to whom the transfer is sent must also recognize this censure and must continue to labor with such an individual.
Only the consistory, by formal decision, can send such a transfer. This may not be done by the minister or even by the minister and the clerk or some individual elder. The article stipulates that the testimony “shall be given by the consistory, signed by two; or, in the case of letters which are given under the seal of the church, signed by one.” The
Christian Reformed Church dropped the latter provision in 1939.
Furthermore, to the poor, removing for sufficient reasons, so much money for traveling shall be given by the deacons as they deem adequate. The consistory and the deacons shall, however, see to it that they be not too much inclined to relieve their churches of the poor, with whom they would without necessity burden other churches.
This article arose out of conditions peculiar to the Low Countries in the early history of the Reformed churches. Many of the people who belonged to the Reformed churches were very poor and moved from place to place hoping to find work to earn sufficient to support their families. Sometimes these people were forced to flee because of persecution and would have to leave all their earthly possessions behind to escape with their lives. But while in many instances people moved for these reasons, there were also tramps and bums who moved from place to place feigning that they were members of the Reformed churches and asserting that they too were fleeing persecution. These would also seek the help of deaconates in various churches and make off with money which rightly belonged to Christ’s poor. An additional problem which arose was that some, although faithful members of the church, thought they could better themselves financially by moving when, as a matter of fact, moving simply aggravated their poverty and made matters worse. This put unnecessary burdens on deaconates. All these conditions led to the formation of this article.
Quite obviously, the poor of the church had to be helped if their reasons for moving were valid. Already the Synod of Emden (1571) made provisions for such poor. But because of the ever-present danger of giving money to transients who did not deserve such money, Emden decided that each individual had to receive an attestation from the consistory from which he was moving to prove that he was a faithful member of the church. Further, Emden also provided for a close and detailed examination of one’s faith if one asserted that he was unable to attain such an attestation because persecution had forced him to flee hurriedly. This attestation had to include such information as the individual’s name, native country, occupation, reason for moving, and various other similar items. As an individual moved through the territory of a church, that church would help such a one as long as he remained in its territory and put on the attestation the amount of money given. Upon arriving in the territory of another congregation, the attestation could be given to the consistory of that church. It is clear from all this that, while the church was eager to help her poor, the churches in common took considerable pains to see to it that the money did not fall into the hands of the undeserving.
The ruling that the amount given to an individual by a church be put on the papers continued in the Netherlands up to 1905 and in this country until the revision of 1914.
The article, while no longer of such importance as it once was, does still make provisions for assistance to be given to the poor when they move from one place to another to aid them in their traveling. But the article states that such help be given:
1) Only when the poor move for sufficient reasons. It is conceivable that the poor, supported by the church, only have an idea that they can better earn a living in another part of the country because “the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence.” But there is no objective reason to suppose this. The deacons themselves must decide whether the reasons for moving are adequate. And only if the reasons are sufficient shall help be given.
2) In the amount the deacons consider adequate. It is the prerogative of the deacons to determine how much money shall be given to any individual or family moving. It may be necessary to provide not only money for traveling, but also sufficient money to help the family become settled in a new locality.
There is also a warning attached to the article. There is always the possibility that a deaconate, burdened with the support of many poor, encourages some of the poor to
move when there is no good reason for it other than to escape the responsibility of supporting the poor. The article warns strongly against this. Not only must the deacons see to it that this is not done; but the consistory itself, responsible for the supervision of the deacons, must also see to it that this danger is avoided. The viewpoint of the article is that the work of mercy in the church is a blessing, not a burden.
If a person, for reasons of health or other inadequate reasons, moves away from the vicinity of the churches of which he is a member, he shall not be assisted. He must be shown that his obligations to the church and his calling to remain a member of the true church supercede all other obligations.
If a member of one congregation moves to the area of another congregation and affiliates with it in order to receive special treatment at a hospital, arrangements must be made between the deaconates of the congregations involved for his support.
No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons.
This article is based upon one of the fundamental principles of Reformed church polity. It was considered so important that it was the first article adopted by the Convention of Wezel — although that article was in different form. At the Synod of Emden (1571) the article as we now have it was principally adopted.
We have already spoken of this principle in connection with other articles in the Church Order and we need not reiterate here what has already been said. The fundamental principle underlying this article is the autonomy of the local congregation. The Reformed churches were deeply convinced that Scripture teaches that each congregation is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ. Christ rules, through the ordained officebearers, over His people in each individual congregation. From this it follows that there must be equality — equality between individual and autonomous congregations, and equality between all officebearers. This principle was directly opposed by the hierarchical church polity of the Romish church. From the beginning of the Episcopal system as it developed in the Romish church, one congregation lorded it over another congregation, one officebearer over another officebearer. Against this our fathers revolted. And this article was incorporated into the Church Order to warn emphatically against anything of this sort creeping into the Reformed churches.
VanDellen and Monsma suggest that it is quite possible that this article has historical roots within the Reformed churches themselves. They suggest that some of the churches (especially the Churches Under the Cross) were fearful lest broader assemblies such as classes and synods would compromise this principle and lead to hierarchy. For this reason they were reluctant to cooperate in such movements of federation. And this article was incorporated into the Church Order to allay such fears.
However that may be, the article contains a principle very dear to the hearts of all Reformed men. It is a principle which must be zealously guarded. Because each congregation (whether large or small) is a com-
plete manifestation of the body of Christ, all congregations are equal in the federation of churches and none has the right to lord it over any other congregation. The same is true of officebearers. All ministers are equal in authority and no minister may lord it over any other minister. All elders and deacons are equal and none may lord it over any other officebearer, either in his own congregation or in another. While the article does not assert this in so many words, it follows from all this that no minister may lord it over an elder or deacon, and vice versa as well. All officebearers, occupying their own offices, are also equal in authority, each manifesting the authority of Christ in the way peculiar to the office he occupies.
Historically this article of the Church Order was a reference to the relationships which existed between different denominations and not to the relationships between churches of the same denomination. The Synod of Dordt in 1578 spoke in general of “other churches”; but the Synod of Middelburg in 1581 spoke definitely of “foreign churches.” This latter expression is retained in the Netherlands up to the present. In this country the word “foreign” was dropped because the Reformed churches here desired to seek contact with other Reformed churches within the confines of the United States as well as with Reformed churches in other countries.
By the word “non-essentials” the Church Order refers to aspects of the life of the church which are not emphatically prescribed by God’s Word. The Church Order recognizes, on the one hand, that the church of Christ throughout the world is united in the truth of her confession, which is derived from Scripture; in the celebration of the sacraments as prescribed by Scripture; in the exercise of discipline as defined by God’s Word; and in liturgical practices as these are controlled by the Rule of Scripture. But, on the other hand, the Church Order recognizes that the church of Christ must develop in each land, among each people, in each culture in its own unique way, and that each congregation must seek always the edification of the people of God within the area where Christ has called it to manifest the body of Christ. This does not permit variation where Scripture gives the rule of faith; but it does permit variation where Scripture does not lay down specific rules. These “non-essentials,” therefore, refer to all such matters with which Scripture does not deal. No doubt, originally the Church Order referred particularly to various liturgical practices. The key word was the Latin litibus, which means “rites.” But the article refers to all practices which must be determined by the consistory in connection with all the liturgical practices of the church. From time to time the Church Order has called attention to some of these matters which are left to the discretion of the individual churches (cf., e.g., Art. 62). Some other such practices would include whether the congregation worships in the morning and afternoon of a Sabbath day or in the morning and evening; how often the Lord’s Supper is celebrated other than the required four times a year; the order of worship, etc.
Churches must not be rejected if they are one with us in all other matters except matters which are “non-essential.” This refers, as noted above, to relations between denominations here and abroad. But it surely also refers to individual congregations which seek admittance into the fellowship of our churches.
The principle underlying this article is both negative and positive. The positive is that the unity of the church must be expressed, as much as possible, in institutional form. But this unity is a unity in Christ, and
therefore a unity founded upon Scripture and the confessions (including the so-called lesser confessions). The negative is (and this is worthy of close observation in this falsely ecumenical age) that where differences are on essential matters of doctrine and faith, such churches cannot unite, for they cannot express the unity of Christ.
The question sometimes arises in this connection whether it is proper to worship in churches with which our churches do not agree. In answer to this, Rev. Ophoff has written in his notes on church polity: “Our Reformed fathers, being men of principle, took the stand that this is forbidden. Their stand was that attending divine services of such churches is equivalent to pronouncing doctrinal differences ‘adiophora,’ and is thus to weaken one’s own position. This was the stand of the Reformed fathers, a stand they took in the very article with which we are here occupied.”
These articles, relating to the lawful order of the church, have been so drafted and adopted by common consent that they (if the profit of the churches demand otherwise) may and ought to be altered, augmented, or diminished. However, no particular congregation or classis shall be at liberty to do so, but they shall show all diligence in observing them, until it be otherwise ordained by the general synod.
This article was adopted, in substantially the same form as we now have it, by the Synod of Middelburg in 1581. It was already, as far as the general thrust of the article is concerned, appended to all the decisions of the Convention of Wezel. It is an article which differs in content with the preceding articles. The others lay down specific principles and rules for the church. This article deals with the Church Order as a whole and its place and importance in the church.
There has been some dispute concerning the meaning of the word “church” in the phrase “…relating to the lawful order of the church….” Some have maintained that this refers to the universal body of Christ. Others maintain that it refers to the church as an institute in the midst of the world. It appears as if the latter is correct. The article is speaking of the lawful order of the church; hence, it must refer to the manifestation of the churchof Christ in her institutional form in the world. It is true that the singular (church) is used instead of the plural. But this is undoubtedly because the reference is to the institutional manifestation of Christ’s church.
The article mentions once again (cf. Art. 1) that the purpose of the Church Order is the “lawful order of the church.” We need not elaborate further on this here. For a discussion of this point, confer the notes on Article 1.
Secondly, the article speaks of the fact that these articles were drafted and adopted by common consent. This refers, of course, to their original adoption by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-’19. But whatever Reformed church accepts these articles agrees also with the decisions of the Dordrecht Synod relating to the lawful order of the church. The articles were not imposed upon the churches in any hierarchical fashion. Rather, the articles arose out of the organic life of the church. Mutually, in the ecclesiastical assemblies, the churches discussed, drafted, decided upon, and accepted these various rules and principles.
Nevertheless, they were drafted and adopted that they may and ought to be altered, augmented, or diminished if necessary. Concerning this we ought to notice, first of all, that our fathers did not draft and adopt these articles with the idea that they were to be placed on a par with Scripture as far as authority is concerned. Their authority is derived from Scripture. Thus they are subject to amendment. Secondly, this does not refer to all the articles of the Church Order in the same way. Some articles lay down fundamental principles of Scripture. These too, can be altered, but only when it is shown that they conflict with Scripture. Other articles deal with more practical matters in the church. These can be altered at any time. Thirdly, the article limits these amendments by the qualification: “if the profit of the churches demand otherwise.” The plural “churches” must be noticed. It is not the profit of an individual congregation which can determine this. The alteration may be made only when the whole federation of churches will profit from the change.
The article also speaks of the procedure to be followed if changes are to be made. Concerning this we may notice:
1) No congregation, classis, or particular synod may make such alterations on its own. Strictly speaking, the Church Order belongs to all the Reformed churches which have adopted it; and not even ought one Reformed denomination proceed to change without consultation with the other Reformed bodies. But this has generally been ignored in our day. At least, only the broadest ecclesiastical assembly of a denomination is empowered to make necessary changes. The Church Order has been adopted by mutual consent; it can also be changed only by mutual consent.
2) Such changes would have to come to synod via an overture which originated with an individual consistory or classis. But it would have to come to synod in the ecclesiastical way.
3) No changes ought to be made hastily. This ought especially to be emphasized in our day when the old is despised, and change is brought about for the mere sake of change. The Dutch proverb is much to the point in this connection: Alle verandering is geen verbetering, i.e., “Every change is not improvement.” Changes which are proposed ought to be considered carefully. This is true especially when specific changes are brought to the consistory, classis, and synod. At each point in the ecclesiastical process, these changes ought to be discussed and studied before synod itself makes final disposition of the matter. As much as possible, discussion of changes ought to involve the whole church and arise out of the church. Nevertheless, that our present Church Order is in need of changes to bring it up to date is obvious. And such alterations ought to be considered.
Finally, the article speaks of the fact that the Church Order must be diligently observed. The churches have adopted the
Church Order by common consent. As long as the articles remain unchanged, they must be observed. This point, too, ought to be emphasized. Our age is careless and profane with respect to authority. Let not this disrespect for authority characterize the church of Christ, so that the Church Order becomes a dead book and lawlessness prevail in the church of Christ.