The Church Order proper never mentions congregational meetings. Rules concerning them are to be found only in the decisions appended to various articles. It is worthwhile to quote these rules so that we may have clearly before our minds the calling of believers in this regard.
Article 4, which deals with the lawful calling of a minister to a congregation, has these decisions appended to it. In “A, 3” the decision reads:
From the nomination [made by the consistory] the male members assembled on a congregational meeting which has been announced on two successive Sundays shall elect by secret ballot. The majority of votes cast shall be decisive. No members under censure nor adult baptized members have the right to vote. Blank votes must be subtracted from the total votes a candidate must receive to have the majority which is required to his election.
In “B, 3" of the same article, the rule is laid down:
That the congregational meeting upon which the election takes place shall be presided over, if at all possible, by the counselor. Likewise, the calling issued by the consistory, the composition of the call-letter, and the signing thereof by all the consistory members shall be under his supervision.
In the footnote to Article 22, which deals with the election of elders, the rule is laid down:
Nominations and congregational meetings shall be announced upon two successive Sundays.
Article 24 requires that the same procedure, involving congregational meetings, be followed in the election of deacons as was followed in the election of elders.
In Article 37, which defines the composition of the consistory, three decisions are appended which have to do with congregational meetings.
A. The president and the secretary of the consistory shall function as such on the congregational meeting; the minutes shall be entered in the consistory’s minute book and confirmed by the consistory.
B. No matters shall be treated on the congregational meeting which are not brought there by the consistory.
C. When members desire to have a matter treated on the congregational meeting, they shall previously have requested of the consistory the right thereto, and it shall be the prerogative of the consistory to determined the extent and the manner to which their request shall be granted.
Finally, Article 38 deals with the matter of constituting a consistory for the first time (in the case of a group of people about to be organized into a congregation) or anew (in the case of a congregation in which most or all of the consistory members have become unfaithful). The congregation itself plays a role in both matters. Two decisions are appended to the article.
C. In order to organize the congregation the committee of the local church meets with the persons concerned, who have meanwhile requested their certificates of membership, or if it be impossible to have their certificates transferred, those present shall give testimony one of another that they were members in full communion and of good report in the congregation from which they are now separating. After a service of worship shall have been conducted under the guidance of the committee, the latter shall request those present to tender their certificates, in as far as possible. The committee having found the certificates in good order and having accepted them, they shall proceed to election of officebearers, who shall immediately upon their election be installed in their respective offices.
D. The election of officebearers shall be from a nomination made by the local calling church council (or by the church council appointed by a classis to supervise the organization of a new congregation). The church council shall make a nomination from the male membership of those who signed the letter requesting organization. This election shall take place in harmony with Articles 22 and 24 of the Church Order. Those chosen by majority vote at the organizational meeting shall be considered elected.
Matters for Congregational Meetings
If we may sum up the responsibilities of believers in congregational meetings, we can construct the following list:
1. Although it is possible, according to the Church Order, for the council to present the names of men whom they have chosen to be elders and deacons for the approval of the congregation, usually the council presents a nomination from which believers vote. The actual calling of officebearers is, therefore, done by the congregation.
2. Although it is possible, according to the Church Order, for the council to present one minister (or a candidate for the ministry) to the congregational meeting for approval to call such a man, usually the council presents a trio or a duo from which the congregation calls one. Whether the congregation approves of the one presented by the council, or whether it chooses from a trio or duo, the actual calling of a minister is done by the congregation.
Because the elders, deacons, and minister are called by the congregation, the officebearers, when installed, answer affirmatively to this question: “I ask thee, whether thou feelest in thy heart that thou art lawfully called of God’s church, and therefore of God Himself, to this holy ministry (these your respective offices)?”
3. In the organization of a new congregation, those requesting organization have the following responsibilities:
a. Giving a good testimony of each other in the event that membership papers could not be obtained from a congregation.
b. Nominating men to form a slate from which elders and deacons will be chosen. This is to be done by the supervising consistory or by the classis (Art. 38, footnote D), but it may be done from the floor of the meeting if necessary.
c. Voting for men to serve in the office of elder and the office of deacon.
d. Voting on any other matters that need to be decided upon immediately. An example of such a matter might be the voting on a place of meeting for worship services, if several possibilities were being considered. Also the time of the worship services could be decided at such a meeting.
4. Generally, the same procedure as with the organization of a new congregation is followed when a congregation is constituted anew. Such a reconstitution of a congregation becomes necessary when officebearers, especially elders, are unfaithful and leave the congregation and denomination, but a number of faithful believers remain. New officebearers have to be chosen before the believers are once again a church ofChrist.
5. Any matters that have to do with the financial aspects of the life of a congregation are submitted to a congregational meeting for approval. The only financial matter which is not submitted for approval is the distribution of the alms to the poor. This is emphatically the work of the deacons, essential to their office, a confidential matter, and not open to congregational approval. But all other matters, including the pastor’s salary, are submitted for approval to a congregational meeting.
These matters listed here are matters which are officially brought to the congregation for official action. Sometimes the elders see the need to call the congregation together because of some crisis in the congregation. The elders call such a meeting for informative purposes, that is, to give the congregation information of what is happening and why the consistory has acted the way it did. But such a meeting is not an official congregational meeting. In fact, frequently the entire congregation is asked to attend, including women and non-confessing members.
The Relation Between Congregational Meetings and the Elders
The relation between a congregational meeting and the consistory is an important matter and one that needs some discussion.
We have already defined the relation between the office of believers and the special offices in the church. That relationship is one in which final authority rests with the office of believers, but operating authority, if I may call it that, rests with the elders. The latter is so true that Scripture calls believers to submit to the rule of the elders as to Christ Himself (I Thess. 5:12, 13; I Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17). The manner in which congregational meetings are organized and operated are a reflection of that relation between officebearers and believers.
Male confessing members alone are eligible to take part in the activities of congregational meetings. Male members only are eligible because the activities of congregational meetings are the rule of believers in thechurch of Christ. The right to discuss and vote is the right to rule. Scripture emphatically forbids women to rule in the church and enjoins them to be silent (I Tim. 2:9-15; I Cor. 14:34). Only confessing members (members who have made confession of faith) are eligible to take part in congregational meetings because, by their public confession, they have shown that they have come to spiritual maturity, that they are members in the congregation in which they worship in obedience to the command of Christ to join the true church, and that they are ready to assume their responsibilities in the office of believer.
Anyone who is under discipline loses his right to participate in congregational meetings.
If we look at the work of congregational meetings from the viewpoint of the believer, we can see how the decisions of this body are indeed part of the rule of the church of Christ. Elders and deacons are voted into office by the believers. Ministers are called to office in the congregation by the believers at these meetings. Matters of the church’s financial affairs are decided by the believers. In fact, if the consistory are unfaithful and the congregation consequently ceases to exist as a congregation, believers take it upon themselves to reorganize the congregation. If worse comes to worst and unfaithful elders have to be deposed, a congregation has the right to meet together to depose such unfaithful elders and reconstitute the congregation according to the rules laid down for that purpose. In a denomination, all these things are done under the supervision of the classis.
The decisions of the congregational meeting are final, and no consistory may override them or alter them at will. They must be implemented.
The consistory, however, rules at congregational meetings. Reformed church polity is a system of church government totally foreign to the world and incomprehensible to those versed in secular law. The reason for this “strange” character of church polity within the Reformed churches is that it is based on fundamental principles of the Word of Christ, the Head and King of the church. It is, when one stops to think about it, an amazing system. It is one in which any unbeliever could never feel comfortable, and which he would dismiss as being entirely unworkable. But it is a system developed since the time of the Reformation which carefully adheres to and puts into practice biblical principles, as strange as they may appear to those outside the church. A group of believers whose authority is decisive, who do not function as a democracy, who themselves are subject to the authority of officebearers — what an anomaly.
That the elders exercise their rule in congregational meetings is evident from the role they play before, at, and after congregational meetings. According to the decisions appended to Article 37 especially, no matters may be brought up at congregational meetings which are not brought there by the consistory itself. This is an important rule which does justice to the role of the elders and must be observed. It means several things.
1. It means that only the elders may determine the agenda for congregational meetings. No member of the church may bring something up for discussion and decision at the meeting. He is out of order if he does so.
2. As a general rule this means that the elders must come to the congregational meeting with definite proposals. The elders may not come with various choices which they submit to the congregation on a given matter.
Example: The consistory may propose the erection of a new place of worship for the congregation. The consistory ought not to bring three or four choices of location and three or four choices of a building plan; but ought to come with definite proposals. The consistory must take into account various circumstances, such as the nearness of the location to another congregation of the same denomination. The consistory must weigh the type of building proposed in the light of the economic circumstances of the congregation and the responsibilities of Christian stewardship.
This is not a hard and fast rule. On occasion the council or consistory may want to bring a matter to the congregation which could involve options, and both or all the options are feasible and proper. In such a case, the council or consistory may present different options and give the congregation the choice between them.
The exception to this is, of course, that the consistory comes with a trio or duo for calling a minister and a double slate for calling officebearers. But in these cases as well no nominations may be made from the floor of the congregational meeting.
3. Any member of the church may come to his consistory to submit a proposal to be brought to a congregational meeting. He may even come to suggest names to be placed on nominations. But, in the latter case, the consistory determines whether this ought to be done; and in the former case, the consistory determines “the extent and the manner” in which the matter is brought.
4. Further, the president and secretary function as such also at the congregational meeting, and the minutes of the congregational meeting must be incorporated into the minutes of the consistory. This too evidences the fact that the consistory exercises its rule even at the congregational meeting.
Our discussion of the relative authority of the elders and the believers at a congregational meeting brings up the question whether a congregational meeting may do nothing else but vote yes or no on a consistory’s proposal. The answer to this question is that in some matters, especially those which have to do with the financial and material aspects of the church’s life, some leeway must be given. This is frequently a matter of judgment on the part of the chairman.
Example: The consistory proposes that a minister be given a raise in salary. The congregation, rather than voting to raise his salary, votes the proposal down, so that the salary reverts back to the original amount. Or the congregation may also may amend the proposal so that the salary is raised by half as much.
Similar alterations may be made in the budget as presented, or in building plans that are proposed. It is not possible to make rules concerning what may be done at a congregational meeting and what may not be done. Usually there is no problem, but on occasion a question may come up. If the chairman is in any doubt whether an amendment is legitimate, it is better to declare the matter out of order. If, during the course of the discussion, the amendment appears to have some value, but there is a question of its legitimacy, the chairman may postpone treatment of the matter to a later date so that the consistory has opportunity to discuss the matter.
The work of congregational meetings must be taken with utmost seriousness, especially the matter of calling a minister or candidate as pastor, or electing elders and deacons. The choice of deacons as recorded in Acts 6:1-6 was conducted with the utmost gravity and dependence upon God. The choice of a missionary to the Gentiles by the church in Antioch was done with fasting and prayer — even though the Holy Spirit ordered the church to call and even designated the men to be called (Acts 13:1-3). The presence of officebearers in the congregation is the presence of Christ Himself, who chooses to work through men whom He calls. The congregation conscious of this and doing its work dependent upon Christ will also be blessed.