In this chapter we shall be dealing primarily with Article 31 of the Church Order, which, more than any other article, defines the believer’s responsibilities towards the church of which he is a part. The article reads:
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.
A footnote appended to this article by a decision of the Protestant Reformed Churches is also important for our purposes.
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.
In a way, the article defines a believer’s responsibility in the church by implication, for its main thesis is the binding character of the decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies. But it speaks of the fact that the Word of God and the Reformed confessions as ex-pressions of the truth of Scripture are the final authority in the church in all the decisions that are made. In seeing to it that decisions are in keeping with the Word of God as interpreted in the Reformed confessions, the believer, in his office of believer, plays a role.
When the Church Order speaks of “ecclesiastical assemblies,” it refers to synods, classes, and consistories; although some larger denominations add a fourth level, provincial or regional synods, between classes and synods. It is to the believer’s responsibility over against the decisions of these bodies that we call attention in this chapter.
The relation of the major ecclesiastical assemblies to the consistory has frequently been a point of dispute in Reformed churches. The question really resolves itself into the question of the nature of the authority of the major assemblies. The local congregation is established directly by Christ through the calling of men whom Christ appoints to the special offices in the church. The officebearers in the local congregation possess original and directly conferred authority. Their authority is the authority to perform the one great task of the church, which is also the reason for the church’s existence in the world: the preaching of the gospel. No other assembly may do this.
Nevertheless, the major assemblies also have authority. It is not my purpose to discuss this issue here, for it is a problem which must be discussed and solved in debates over the meaning and implications of Articles 30, 31, and 36 of the Church Order. It is my purpose to point out once again that Reformed church polity is unique. In this question of the relation between consistories and major assemblies there is authority in both: original and basic authority in the consistories, and derived authority in the major assemblies which must be observed. Again, it is not unimportant to emphasize that such a relation can function well only where there is mutual trust and a mutual desire to seek the good of the church.
I mention, though only in passing, therefore, that the authority of the major assemblies is basically to maintain the unity of the denomination. Whatever can and must be done to maintain this unity without intruding into the particular work of the local congregation is within the rights of major assemblies. This is the reason why believers may appeal to major assemblies to press their case.
Reasons for Article 31
We can find two reasons why Article 31 is in the Church Order. The first is that, because the church here on earth is sinful, assemblies sometimes make decisions which are contrary to the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. This has happened throughout the church’s history; it happens today; it will happen to the end of time. These errors have to be corrected for the good of the church.
The second reason is the individual right of the conscience of the believer in the church of Christ. A believer’s conscience is bound by the Word of God. Luther expressed that great Reformation principle atWorms: “My conscience is bound by the Word of God.…” It has been treasured since that time as a fundamental principle of Protestantism.
The believer has a responsibility towards the welfare of the church of which he is a member. That responsibility is to see to it, in so far as that is possible for him, that the church is faithful to God’s Word and to the precepts of the Christian’s life. His responsibility arises out of his calling, found in Article 28 of the Confession of Faith, to be a member of the true church. He desires the church of which he is a part to be faithful in the preaching, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline. For a denomination to lose the marks of the true church is for it to become the false church. No believer may be in a false church for himself and his children.
Protests, Appeals, Overtures, Gravamina
I shall, first of all, describe the differences between these four ways of addressing the major assemblies, and then deal with each method separately to explain how they are to be used.
As a matter of fact, none of the four terms mentioned here are found in our Church Order, although the verb form of the word “appeal” is found in Article 31. They are ways devised by Reformed churches in the past to deal with matters which could come up in the believer’s right to freedom of conscience. They are tried and true ways, although confusion in their implementation frequently arises. A brief description of each will help us understand our responsibilities in implementing Article 31.
A protest is an objection to a specific decision of an assembly on the grounds that the decision violates Scripture and the confessions.
While we make a great deal of protesting, there is actually no mention made anywhere in the Church Order of a protest. Its use in the church is really based on and implied in Article 30 of the Church Order, which reads,
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 assemblies in common.
It is a general rule that no major assembly may treat a matter unless it cannot be finished in a minor assembly. A protest is an effort to settle a matter over which there is disagreement in a minor assembly. If efforts have been made to come to agreement on a matter, but have proved unsuccessful, the matter cannot be settled in a minor assembly, and the way is open for appeal to a major assembly.
The rule is good and ought to be observed. It is good not for practical reasons only, although there may be some of them; but it is good for spiritual reasons. Wherever a disagreement arises between brethren in the church, the fewer people involved in the disagreement the easier it is to settle the matter. This is why Jesus instructs us to deal on a personal level with matters of spiritual concern that arise between brothers. Jesus is saying to us, “Do everything you can to settle the matter that has come up between yourselves, before you bring it to your elders.” We must do this to the point where we even take one or two witnesses along in our determined effort to settle what has become a source of friction between brethren (Matt. 18:15-20).
The principle is, therefore, thus: it is easier to settle a matter between two or three brethren than between a brother and the consistory. It is easier to settle a matter between a brother and the consistory than between a brother and a consistory and a classis. It is easier to settle a matter between a brother and his consistory and a classis, than between a brother and a consistory and a classis and a synod. And the goal in any dispute is always to settle a matter if possible.
Hence, one comes to an assembly with a protest. He objects to the decision of an assembly on the grounds of Scripture and the confessions. But his purpose from the outset is to come to agreement on the issue on the basis of the Word of God and the Reformed confessions.
An appeal is a request of an individual or a minor assembly directed to a major assembly to decide the rightness or wrongness of a particular decision.
Example: An individual objects to a fellow member’s life because he believes that his fellow member, in becoming a conscientious objector in a union shop, has sinned because he has, in fact, become a member of a labor union. He has talked with the individual about the matter and attempted to show the individual that such conduct is contrary to the Word of God. He has failed and has officially informed his consistory of the “sin” in the congregation. The consistory, after investigating the matter, decides that the conscientious objector is not, in fact, a labor union member and that no sin is involved. The decision is made and all concerned are informed. But the individual, after carefully examining the consistory’s position, is not persuaded that the consistory has done correctly. He protests the decision and gives his biblical and confessional grounds. The consistory, in turn, carefully weighs the arguments and informs the protestant that they will not reverse their decision, for they are convinced it is correct. At that point, the protestant has the right of appeal to classis.
This appeal is nothing more than a request of classis to judge between the position of the appellant and the consistory. Classis must weight the evidence and decide.
If either the appellant or the consistory is not satisfied with the decision of the classis, either one has the right of appeal to synod.
Overtures are requests from individual believers, groups of believers, or minor assemblies, directed to a major assembly to take action on a matter of concern. Overtures may request action on new matters (such as alterations in the order of worship in the congregations), amendments of existing decisions (such as changes in a constitution of a synodical committee), or reconsideration of past decisions because of changes in circumstances (such as requests for classical meetings to be held four times a year instead of the prescribed three times a year).
We will deal with the method of presenting overtures to the major assemblies later.
A Gravamen and Gravamina
In a way, gravamina are similar to both appeals and protests. They are, however, strictly limited to matters of the confessions of a church, including the liturgical forms and the adopted Church Order. They are presented to ecclesiastical bodies when an individual (or, in rare cases, an assembly) finds something in either the major or the minor confessions which he considers to be contrary to the Word of God.
It is clear that a gravamen must go to synod, for synod is the assembly which deals with confessional matters that bind the local churches together and maintain their unity. But anyone presenting a gravamen must go to synod by way of his consistory and the classis in which his consistory resides.
They must go to synod by way of consistory and classis. There is good reason for this, even though a gravamen is synodical business. The reason is that both at the consistorial level and the classical level opportunity is given to examine the objection to the confessions which one might bring. If in the light of Scripture, the objection has merit, these ecclesiastical assemblies can add the weight of their study to the document sent to synod. If, however, in the judgment of the consistory and classis, the gravamen has no merit, opportunity is given to these assemblies to persuade the brother that presented the gravamen that he is wrong. If they are successful, synod will not have to spend its time dealing with the matter.
If the one submitting the gravamen cannot obtain the approval of his consistory and/or classis, he may bring the matter to synod without this approval. He ought, however, to consider carefully what his consistory and classis say. If he brings the matter to synod without approval, the gravamen becomes also an appeal. That is, the consistory and/or classis have the right to bring to synod why they did not approve.
Specific Treatment of Protests, Etc.
Any time an individual has serious objection against a decision of a consistory, he must submit a protest in which he outlines his objections. If a person has an objection against a decision of a classis, he need not bring a protest. I word it this way purposely. If an individual has appealed to classis from a consistory and is not satisfied with the classical decision, he need not protest the classical decision before he appeals to synod. But there is an exception to this: if he protests a classical decision which did not originate in a consistory, he must protest it first before appealing it. The reason is that a matter cannot be said to have been fully evaluated by a minor assembly unless that assembly has had opportunity to consider objections to it. Nor must a protestant who disagrees with a classical decision first bring his protest to his consistory. It is exclusively a classical matter.
Example: A matter may be decided upon at the classical level without being at a consistory when it involves a report of the church visitors, for example. In that case, a protestant may protest directly to the classis by whose decision he is aggrieved.
Example: When a consistory decides to alter, on its own, the article the Church Order which requires services on religious holidays, an individual, convinced that an alteration of the minor confession may be done only on the synod, protests against this decision of his consistory. Note: He does not protest the alteration adopted by the consistory, but he protests the method of adoption, the single-handed alteration of a minor confession which belongs to the churches in common. His protest must be lodged with the consistory, and only if the consistory maintains its position does he appeal to classis. If he wishes to protest the content of the decision, this would require another protest.
Frequently, the debate on the level of a consistory may go on for weeks and weeks, and sometimes months and months. Much correspondence is exchanged, committees from the consistory meet with the individual protestant and bring their reports, elaborate lines of argumentation are employed, frequently with lengthy quotes from other writers, and only when the disagreement has become rancorous is the matter finally appealed. This is not necessary. A matter can very well be appealed after a protestant has lodged his or her objection to a decision, and a consistory, disagreeing with the protest, answers the objection. It is necessary on occasion for an additional exchange of documents and/or face-to-face discussion if there is obviously misunderstanding or some hope of resolution. But when it is clear that a disagreement exists and continues to exist, the matter ought to be appealed. Lengthy treatments open the door to confusion, complicated cases, hard feelings, and increased difficulties in resolving the matter. Continued correspondence and discussion are not usually desirable. If one has set his mind to “prove” his case by continual correspondence and discussion, he frequently includes in his material many things which in the end only make the case murky. He will then quote, frequently at some length, other authorities on the subject. He will attempt to prove his consistory wrong by pointing out errors in which the consistory, in dealing with the case, has done many things which indicate that the consistory has been wrong in all its dealings. But what is gained by all this? One ought to demonstrate from Scripture and the confessions why a decision is wrong. And the consistory ought to demonstrate from Scripture and the confessions why its decision is correct. But it ought to be soon obvious that where disagreement continues, the time has come to seek the wisdom of the major assemblies.
I do not mean to deny that every effort ought to be employed to settle the matter on a consistorial level, but when it becomes obvious that both the protestant and the consistory (or the classis) will not reach agreement, the matter ought to be appealed. Many cases grow rapidly because of a long exchange of documents and innumerable face-to-face meetings.
Example: An individual protests to his consistory a change in the order of worship to include a public confession of sin. He protests this on these grounds: 1) It is contrary to accepted practice in the Protestant Reformed Churches, and is thus a break in the unity of the churches in their worship. 2) Public confession of sin in the corporate worship of the church has no warrant in Scripture. 3) Corporate confession of sin ought not be a separate element in the worship, because such confession of sin is usually made in the congregational prayers. The protest must include the pertinent decision of the consistory, the fact that a believer objects to it, and the three grounds which I have listed above. The consistory examines the matter closely, but comes to the conclusion that the protestant is wrong. His protest is rejected on the grounds that: 1) The order of worship in the local congregation and the various elements to be included in the worship are matters to be decided by the local congregation, and are not the concern of the denomination as a whole. 2) The inclusion of corporate confession of sin was an element in Calvin’s liturgy in Geneva. 3) Certain elements in the worship belong to the area of Christian liberty, and this item is one such matter.
It is possible that certain matters that are included or implied in the grounds are of some controversy, and through further discussion are altered. But the substantive issue remains the same. When it becomes clear that disagreement persists, appeal is made.
Protests ought to be a short as possible. It is not inconceivable that a protest be only one page in length and fill all the requirements of a protest. It is possible that an answer of a consistory be only one-half page in length and be sufficient for a proper answer. It is worth pondering that an appeal might someday come to classis which is only two pages long! The opposite frequently is the case, and a major assembly is confronted with the imposing task of wading through hundreds of pages of material in order to resolve a case. This is unnecessary and frequently is to the disadvantage of the protestant. What happens is obvious from cases that have appeared on our assemblies. A protest is treated far too long by a consistory. The result is that papers multiply. Correspondence is exchanged, reports are submitted and challenged, other reports are drawn up, decisions by the dozens are made on the consistory, authorities are quoted in support of one’s position, elaborate lines of argumentation are spun out, some relevant, some irrelevant, and duplicates of much of the material are added to the pile. Soon the entire pile goes to the major assembly.
In addition to that, either the protestant or the consistory detects in the conduct of the other party additional “sins” which need to be addressed. And so case gets piled on case, frequently inextricably woven into the warp and woof of the original case, and the matter is so complicated that it is impossible to sort it all out and do justice to any one matter. I have been on enough committees of pre-advice to know that there is almost always an inverse proportion between the amount of material presented and the thoroughness of the decision ultimately rendered. That is, the greater the amount of material, the less thorough the decision.
The solution to this problem is simplicity and brevity. A protestant who genuinely wants to correct error in his consistory for the welfare of the church and who considers always the possibility that he might be wrong and that there just might be wisdom in numbers, can find it sufficient to formulate a protest which includes the following:
1) A verbatim quote of the decision of the consistory against which he objects.
2) A statement of the reasons, first from Scripture, then from the confessions, major and/or minor, (if it is a confessional matter) why the decision is in error.
Although in the subsequent discussions and correspondence the documents may multiply, it is not necessary that all this material be brought to the major assemblies. Other documentation, quotations from authorities and other sources, and additional material which is considered relevant by the protestant can always be used on the floor of the assembly. Most of the time, such material is not convincing nor helpful. And if anyone considers them to be helpful, only the references need to be included in the protest and interested parties may look them up. Any protestant or any representatives of a body against which a protest is filed may take additional material along to the body considering the matter. It can then be consulted if the need for such material is thought important. However, the protestant may not include in material he presents verbally on the floor of the assembly anything which has not been before his consistory.
If additional matters of disagreement arise in the course of the case, it is better to let these matters fall by the wayside in order to concentrate on the main issue over which there is disagreement. Why multiply issues? Cannot both parties exercise forbearance and overlook more minor matters? Usually the more minor matters solve themselves if the major source of disagreement is resolved.
But if reason for censure arises during the course of a disagreement (such as a brother speaking inappropriately to his officebearers), that must all be dealt with separately and not in the main case. A protestant may, in the course of a disagreement, speak disrespectfully to and of his elders. This is a sin against the fifth commandment and a violation of Scripture’s injunction to submit ourselves to those who have the rule over us in thechurch of Christ. The sin must not be made a part of the original case, either by the consistory or the protestant, who may deny that anything he said was disrespectful. If that matter in turn cannot be resolved, it must be a separate case. In fact, that matter of disrespect must take precedence and all action on the original case stopped. A man who is guilty of a sin which merits censure loses his right of protest and appeal.
It happens on occasion that a man, in the course of a dispute with his consistory, finds a reason which, in his judgment, makes it impossible for him to worship in that church any longer. While his protest is being considered, therefore, he worships elsewhere. Such conduct is wrong and gives the consistory a reason not to deal with his material anymore. The Dutch were wont to call such a person e’n wegloopende protestant, a departed protestant. The reason why a consistory cannot treat that man’s protest anymore is simply that he refuses to submit to the authority of his officebearers and put himself under their rule. That refusal is indicative of 1) his prior determination not to listen to his elders and give them opportunity to show him where he is wrong; 2) his refusal to give any attention to their instruction of him as one of their sheep with respect to the disputed point or anything else.
The same is true of the broader assemblies. A man who leaves the denomination while protesting loses his right to protest.
An appeal is a request of an individual to a major assembly to adjudicate a disagreement between the individual and the body by whose decision he is aggrieved. An appeal presupposes that a protestant has brought his objection against a decision of a body and has received an answer. He is not persuaded by the answer and considers his own argument to be valid. He has very carefully considered whether he might be wrong in his protest, but has come to the conclusion that he probably was not. He appeals to a major assembly, whether to a classis from a decision of the consistory, or to a synod from the decision of a classis.
When a person appeals a decision of a consistory or a classis, he must notify the body whose decision he is appealing. This is necessary so that the delegates from that particular consistory or classis may come to the meeting of the major assembly prepared.
An appellant must not bring anything new to the classis or the synod. His appeal is simply a statement of the fact that he has protested the decision of a consistory or classis, has studied and pondered their answers to him, and has found them unconvincing. He asks the major assembly to judge between the position he has taken and the position taken by the body to whom he has brought his protest. His appeal is, therefore, no longer than his original protest with a cover letter informing the body to whom he is appealing that he comes with his appeal to them. Any new material is entirely out of order. This includes any reiteration of his argument or any repetition in different words of his original protest. An appeal is not an occasion for additional proof, more documentation, agonizingly long arguments to persuade a major assembly of the correctness of the appellant’s position. He simply submits a request for a broader assembly to weigh the evidence on both sides and decide who is right according to Scripture and the confessions. Even if an assembly includes grounds in its decision which were not a part of the original material, he ought not to argue the grounds an assembly might make. The case is sufficiently complete for a major assembly to adjudicate the matter.
It is usually better, if at all possible, that the appellant be present at the meeting treating his appeal. He can then answer questions, present his case orally, and supply the body treating his material with additional documents if they should choose to see them.
If a case is decided by the synod, that is usually the end of the matter. A man is permitted to protest against a synod’s decision at the following meeting of synod, but this is not recommended procedure, and an appellant ought to give serious thought to the matter before doing any such thing. The only good reason for protesting against a synodical decision is the discovery of entirely new material which 1) alters the case significantly; 2) was not, therefore, considered by the synod; and, 3) could not have been known prior to the original treatment of the case. But, even then, it is almost always the case that, should such new light come, the case be reconsidered in consistory and classis before it is once more brought to synod. It is possible that the minor assemblies would be convinced that their original decision was wrong by the new light. If this should happen, the major assemblies should be so advised and these assemblies should take appropriate action.
A synod may not be bothered over and over again with the same material. Sometimes appellants use the ploy of protest to stave off their own just discipline.
Overtures are of three different kinds. 1) They may be requests to initiate some action which has not previously been part of the life of the church. 2) They may be requests for some modification of previous practices. 3) They may be requests that a former decision of an assembly be altered or declared null and void.
Some remarks about overtures of all three kinds ought to be made.
Overtures must be addressed to the body concerned with the action being requested. That is, if the request involves only the local consistory, an overture to that body is sufficient. An example of such an overture would be some suggested improvement in the church grounds of a significant kind. If an overture concerns only a classis, it need go only to classis. An example of this sort would be a request for the classis to carry out church visitation in a way different from the way it is being done; or a request to meet four times a year instead of three times a year. Or an overture may be addressed to synod if it involves all the churches in common.
However, in every case, all overtures to synod must go to the consistory first, to classis via the consistory, and to synod via the consistory and classis. The reasons for this are: 1) a minor assembly must see to it that the requirements for an overture are met. 2) Minor assemblies must be given the opportunity of either attempting to stop the overture or adding their approval to it. In the case of the former, the overture may be concerning a trivial and frivolous matter and minor assemblies ought to have the opportunity to attempt to persuade the individual sending it not to do so. 3) If the matter is important and the overture a request for something that would be of edification to the church, the minor assemblies could and should add their weight to what is proposed.
An overture must, according to the requirements of the Church Order, show that the one presenting it has made a detailed study of past decisions which dealt with identical or similar matters. This is an essential requirement, the reason for which will become evident below.
Again, just as with protests and appeals, the overture ought to be as brief as possible. A good suggestion may get lost in a welter of words and a bad suggestion may persuade others of its worth simply through the means of a drowning cascade of argumentation. An overture contains therefore these three parts: 1) A statement of the request in short and terse form. 2) A description of past decisions, if any, and how they apply to the present request. 3) The reasons for the request, grounded on Scripture, the confessions, and the edification of the church.
The three kinds of overtures in particular require somewhat different contents.
An overture to modify some activity in which the church presently engages would require the following. The one presenting the overture would demonstrate that the present way of doing something can be improved by some alteration. Such an overture would most likely show what the church in the past actually decided and why it is better to change such policy or activity. An example would be some change in the constitution of a synodical committee or a revision of the 1912 Psalter.
An overture suggesting some new action would have to give the body to which the request is directed all the information from past decisions. If such decisions had been taken, it falls to the one presenting the overture to show that the decisions are no longer enforceable or for the edification of the church.
If an overture requests that an old decision be rendered null and void, this must be done carefully. It must be shown that such a decision is contrary to God’s Word and the confessions, or it must be shown that times have made the former decision no longer applicable.
On occasion a person may bring an appeal to synod from a classis and have his appeal rejected. Rather than submit to the decision of the synod, he may bring an overture to the next synod or perhaps to a synod one or two years later, asking for the action rejecting his appeal to be overturned. This is wrong. He is protesting a synodical action under the guise of an overture. No one may do such a thing.
These matters of protests, appeals, and overtures are important matters and must be treated with the seriousness they deserve.
Gravamina are different from protests, appeals, and overtures. Gravamina are specifically concerned with the confessions. The confessions include the major confessions (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dordrecht). The confessions also include the liturgical forms which are considered minor confessions. They are confessions because they contain, especially in their didactic part, what the church believes concerning certain doctrines. The Form for the Administration of Baptism, for example, contains much on what the church confesses concerning the doctrine of baptism
Gravamina presuppose that the confessions of the church are not on a par with Scripture in authority. Scripture is the sole rule of doctrine and life. It alone contains what the church must believe and how the church must live. The confessions are statements by the church in the past which contain what the church believes to be the truth of Scripture. These confessions are not to be despised or considered unimportant. Several reasons may be cited.
1) The church is, in the nature of the case, inwardly constrained to write confessions. Scripture is the record of the revelation of God in Christ as God revealed Himself through Christ in history. Scripture is full of doctrine. But it is not a systematic exposition of doctrine. The church, in order to appropriate the truth, must systematize the doctrine of Scripture. This is the only way the church can and does appropriate Scripture’s truth (II Tim. 3:14, 15).
2) Such a task would be impossible if Christ did not give the church the Spirit of truth, who leads and guides the church into the truth. This work of the Spirit is the main subject of the Lord’s teachings in John 14-16. The Spirit leads the church into the truth through the means of the sacred Scriptures.
3) These confessions are from ancient times. This is a great blessing. It gives the church the assurance that all the saints, one body in Christ by the Spirit, have their unity in the truth of God’s Word. And as the church continues to perform that glorious calling of developing the truth, it does so on the foundations laid by the church in the past.
But the church is composed of sinners, and the productions of sinners, even with the Word of the Spirit, remain sinful. Gravamina recognize this fact, and open the way for a believer to point out to the church where the church in the past has erred in understanding the truth of the Word of God.
Gravamina ought to be carefully formulated. They must contain the specific doctrine in the specific article of a specific creed against which an objection is lodged. One may not, for example, submit a gravamen against the doctrine of infant baptism in general. Specific statements in the creeds must be addressed.
A gravamen must very carefully spell out both why a specific doctrine is, in the judgment of the objector, not in Scripture or that it is in conflict with Scripture, usually by demonstrating that the proof texts used in support of a doctrine are not proof texts at all. It must also be shown what is the positive doctrine of Scripture which the confessions omit or deny. If, for example, the matter of infant baptism is the subject of the gravamen, the protester must demonstrate that the Scriptures teach adult or believers’ baptism.
Upon one who submits a gravamen lies also the responsibility to trace the history of that doctrine in the confession of the church in past centuries. Almost every doctrine has a long and illustrious history. That history will show that a doctrine was frequently formulated in controversy and through struggle. History will show that it was repeatedly attacked and frequently defended. History will show a particular doctrine did not emerge fully in any given year, but that usually such a doctrine developed over the centuries. History will show how the church came to confess a given doctrine and why the church was persuaded that the doctrine was biblical. And history will show why a given doctrine stood the test of time. At this point in the world’s history one must demonstrate that the church today has a correct understanding of a doctrine that is contrary to that of the church of the past.
This is not impossible. Our confessions do not include in them a doctrine of the covenant of works. But if they did, that would be a proper matter to be taken up in a gravamen. One could demonstrate that the idea arose out of a wrong conception of the covenant, that it was held in different forms by different men, and that the biblical grounds for such an idea are totally lacking. Such a gravamen would serve the church well.
A person, however, who undertakes the preparation of a gravamen, assumes a considerable responsibility. No one may take the work of the church in the past lightly. Everyone who loves the truth ought to reckon with the fact that to challenge a doctrine in a venerable confession puts a man in the precarious position of claiming, as an individual, greater insights into Scripture than the united church of the past. Gravamina are seldom attempted.
One more statement ought to be made. Because confessions are man made, there are statements in them which are not necessarily true. An example of this is a statement in the Confession of Faith, Article 3, that the two books of Chronicles are commonly called “Paralipomena.” Most today have never heard the word, except in the Confession of Faith. Matters such as this are not proper material for gravamina. They do not contain doctrines of Scripture.
Gravamina must be carefully considered when and if they do appear on the ecclesiastical assemblies. One wonders, nevertheless, whether in the light of the illustrious history of our creedal heritage, and in the light of the nearness of the coming of our Savior, whether a gravamen is any longer possible. And, considering how carelessly and flippantly our confessions are treated in our day, one wonders whether a denomination has sufficient spiritual strength even to deal effectively with a gravamen.
But this is certain: it belongs to the office of believers to know, treasure, and defend the priceless creedal heritage of the church.
Some people have great burdens on their consciences in matters of protest and appeal. Individuals bring matters of deep concern to them to the assemblies. They are convinced that the churches have done violence to truth and righteousness and that that can only bring about serious consequences in the church they love. Yet, after carrying their “case” as far as possible in the church judicatories, they are confronted with the fact that the churches in common disagree with them.
There are, for a man of integrity, two possible courses of action.
One thing he may not do is make propaganda for his position publicly and privately within the churches. Article 31 is explicit on the point. All decisions must be considered settled and binding. That is, the matters which prompted the decisions are finished, and the decisions themselves are binding upon all. A man who disagrees with certain decisions retains the liberty of his conscience by holding his inward convictions, but he must keep the matter to himself and may not do anything which would give the impression that he is acting contrary to them.
Such a position may involve a curtailing of his activities in the church. He may have brought a protest, for example, against some activity of the Committee for Contact with Foreign Churches, but his position was rejected. He may feel so strongly about his position that, while he never agitates against synodical decisions, he cannot in good conscience serve on this synodical committee.
But all this assumes that he remains in the denomination. This is his calling if at all possible. And, generally speaking, it should be possible as long as no confessional doctrine is at stake. Most thinking people of God have some areas of disagreement with the denomination of which they are a part, but they do not leave the denomination simply because things do not always go their way. They stay within the denomination, but consider the decisions of the assembly settled and binding.
The other course of action is to leave the denomination. That may become necessary, especially when the matter at issue is one of sound doctrine. A believer may not stay in a denomination which in its assemblies starts on the path of false doctrine. But one who chooses to leave the denomination had better be sure of what he is doing, for it is a grievous sin to leave a denomination which is the church of Christ here on earth. Article 28 of the Confession of Faith makes urgent and compelling the calling to join oneself to the true church even though the edict of princes may be against it. By leaving a church, one declares that that church is the false church and that, therefore, he cannot remain.
When God’s people take seriously their responsibilities towards the church, and when the church in her assemblies takes seriously the office of believers, not only do peace and unity prevail in the church, but, under divine blessings, the church prospers and grows spiritually.
Matters of Concern
There are, of course, differences of opinion over the question of what ought to be protested, and, if necessary, appealed. What is important to one person may not be important to another. What is morally reprehensible for one individual may very well be within the bounds of godly living for another. This is a matter of judgment in many instances, sometimes involving the boundaries of Christian liberty.
A person, in considering whether to bring a protest against an assembly, ought to ask himself some questions which, if answered before God, could save the church a lot of grief. He ought to ask: Is the decision of the assembly contrary to Scripture and the confessions? Is the decision detrimental to the welfare of the church of Jesus Christ? Will the decision have long-range consequences for the church which will seriously affect her calling? Is the matter perhaps one of Christian liberty or of principle?
One will notice that these questions have to do with the welfare of the church. So frequently, people have personal views, petty gripes, private opinions which launch them on a course of protest and appeal. These frequently are not matters of substance, of biblical or confessional integrity, or of matters which affect the edification of the saints. They are personal notions and narrowly held opinions within the church. One protests more for personal reasons than out of the motive of the welfare of the church. Of course, one can always convince himself that his own personal ideas are so important that the church may very well stand or fall on its willingness or unwillingness to agree with one’s own personal ideas. But it is essential that a potential protestant prayerfully lay aside all motives but those which have to do with his love for the cause of Christ.
Generally speaking, matters of protest have to do with doctrines or conduct expressly dealt with in Scripture and the confessions. An individual who comes with a protest must cite Scripture and the confessions as proof of his position. Nor ought the “proof” from Scripture and the confessions be a long and involved line of argumentation by means of which the protestant has deduced his opinion. The wrong of a decision ought to be fairly obvious from Scripture and the confessions to which the protestant appeals.
On the other hand, the office of believers weighs one down with certain responsibilities within the church. One who holds this office of believers is bound by a solemn obligation to seek the welfare of the church of which he is a part. That requires of him that he be on guard for departure from truth and righteousness in the assemblies. These assemblies are composed of men who are able to err. Mistakes are not uncommon to them. If a believer discovers that the church which he loves is threatened by a decision taken by an assembly, he must seek to correct that error. If he considers the matter so wrong that he feels compelled to talk with other of his fellow saints about it, it is important enough to protest. If he is concerned about the consequences of such a departure for his church, himself, and his family, he owes it to the church to point out the wrong. He cannot stand on the sidelines, bemoaning error to his compatriots, but refusing to do anything about it. This is irresponsible, and a violation of the ninth commandment.
There is corporate responsibility in the church. One is responsible for what happens within the church of which one is a member. That responsibility will surely become clear when a man in an apostatizing church finds that he goes lost in his generations as the church departs farther from the ways of God.
It is of no little concern that when a course of protest and appeal is followed, sometimes the result is strife, polarizing of opinion, and not infrequently, bitterness and hatred. There are, it seems to me, reasons why this happens. Many people, whether in the pew or in an assembly, have a view of protests which gives them a confrontational character. Some people learn of a decision of an assembly and immediately alarm bells go off in their heads, danger signals fly, and they see the church lying in ruins at their feet unless something is not done immediately. They take the position that an assembly has made a major breach in the walls of Jerusalem, and, unless efforts are made posthaste to fill the gap, the enemy will come pouring in. Such protestants are convinced that they have the solution to the problem and that they have detected error with sensitivity to the truth and unfailing instinct for wrong. Assemblies can, if they are not careful, do the same and view a protest as the opening salvos in a battle.
The assemblies are deliberative bodies. This is especially true of the major assemblies, but it is also true of consistories. Consistories, however, have the responsibility of ruling in the congregation, and their concerns are immediate and direct. They must make decisions affecting the life of those over whom they rule. They are not usually, in the normal course of their work, confronted with various options arising out of disagreements. They are called to make decisions regarding the spiritual welfare of the saints. Nevertheless, when the occasion requires it, they too are a deliberative assembly.
That an assembly is a deliberative body means that it must carefully weigh the different positions which are presented in a given case. Although a delegate may have formed a preliminary opinion on the matter prior to his coming to the assembly, he must remain open to the points his colleagues make and the arguments presented against the position which formerly seemed to him to be right. He must reckon always with the possibility that he might be wrong. He must not let a pride which refuses to allow him to change his position get in the way of what is right and just.
This deliberative character of the assemblies is frequently a forgotten element. It is possible that an issue of no little importance remains only briefly within the walls of the consistory room, and soon becomes public knowledge. The word spreads like wildfire. Opinions are immediately and hastily formed — with or without complete and accurate information as to the issues involved. The entire denomination is galvanized into action and seemingly compelled to take a stand. The lines are drawn, decisions are made unofficially in the public square, and the whole matter settled in the court of popular opinion. By the time major assemblies meet to determine matters, the issue is settled and little if any deliberation is possible.
Several things must be remembered when protests are filed, appeals are made, overtures are brought to the assemblies, and gravamina are submitted.
1) As I already emphasized, one must not use ecclesiastical procedures to advance his own cause. One must be very sure that he has the welfare of the church at heart.
2) Anyone who brings any kind of protest or appeal to an assembly must consider the possibility that he might be wrong. This is obvious, yet forgotten. It follows from the injunction of Scripture itself to esteem others in the church better than ourselves (Phil. 2:1-3). No one of us has a corner on truth and righteousness. Each one of us is able to err in his thinking and understanding. Something appears wrong to us, but we must seriously consider the possibility that a broader assembly of men, themselves officebearers, will find reasons why we are wrong and will be able to show us that we are wrong. We speak frequently of considering our protests and appeals prayerfully; but prayerfully means that it is just possible that we are making a horrendous mistake. Such an attitude will ensure that we receive the decision of an assembly with the motive of being instructed, not with the motive to gain more ammunition for our case. I have heard protestants tell assemblies: If you do not agree with my protest or appeal, be informed that I am appealing to the major assembly. This is wrong.
3) Assemblies must take the same attitude. It is to be feared that individual believers frequently become discouraged because they gain the distinct impression that their material is not taken seriously, nor seriously considered by an assembly. Consistories, classes, and synods may not dismiss a member’s objection with an attitude of superiority. They may not say to themselves or to each other: “He doesn’t really know that much about affairs in the church”; “His Reformed understanding of things has always been suspect”; “He is a born trouble-maker and here he is again.” They must consider what is brought to them in all seriousness, and if indeed it is true that the material brought is seriously flawed for one reason or another, they must deal patiently with such a protestant to show him where he errs.
4) The whole of Reformed church polity is built on trust. I mentioned this earlier when I discussed the relation between the office of believers and the special offices in the church. The same is true of the relation between the assemblies mutually and an appellant and the assemblies. Specifically, the trust which ought to characterize all concerned must be a firm belief that all are truly seeking the welfare of the church of Christ. If this is characteristic of those upon whom falls the responsibility for the welfare of the church, good things happen. Protests and appeals will not become confrontational with antagonists warily circling each other looking for an opening to attack. Assemblies will be more deliberative assemblies, where arguments can be weighed and discussed, minds changed, and mature decisions reached outside the court of popular opinion.
5) It may be too much to expect in this world of sin, but the members of the church ought to play a role which is more godly and upright than mere speculation, discussion about things of which they know nothing, and dangerous polarizing of the church on substantive issues. Assemblies could, of course, keep matters coming before them secret. Absolute secrecy would stop a lot of idle chatter. But such secrecy is certainly not desirable, for believers have every right to know what is happening in the church. Unless a matter involves discipline, the assemblies must acquaint the people with what is being discussed and debated if such matters affect the church at large. But people must not themselves hurry to make decisions, frequently come to conclusions without any knowledge of the arguments pro and con, talk disparagingly of those who are directly involved in such discussions, and make cutting and cruel remarks which hurt the souls of those who fight for truth and godliness.