Oene, W.W.J. van (1990)

With Common Consent
A practical guide to the use of the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches
Winnipeg, Manitoba
Premier Publishing
1990

ISBN: 

0-88756-050-4

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Pref.

|I|

Preface

 

Throughout the years of my ministry I have had a great interest in and love for the polity of the churches. The more I studied it, the more I became convinced that only the truly Reformed church polity does full justice to the Lordship of our King and Saviour Christ Jesus, the only universal Bishop of the church, as well as to the freedom and responsibility of the churches. This Reformed church polity stresses and upholds the autonomy of the lo­cal churches while, at the same time, maintaining and impressing upon the churches their mutual obligation to practise the bond in the unity of the true faith.

The number of trustworthy explanations of our Church Order is rather limited, especially when we refer to the English-speaking world. Besides, almost all of the latter are infected with the virus of hierarchy. Many of our office-bearers expressed the wish to have a reliable guide to the use of our Church Order and for a considerable time have urged me to provide them with one. They could have urged a far less pleasant task upon me.

The present work is the fruit of many years of study, although no effort has been spared to keep matters simple. The readers will look in vain for many historical particulars or numerous quotations or frequent references to decisions of various assemblies or to works of renowned scholars. It was not my striving to give an historical review or a scholarly treatment of our Church Order. The subtitle expresses precisely what my intention was: to give a practical guide to its use. No one should expect more than that.

It would attest to ingratitude if I did not acknowledge the help of two brothers who offered valuable linguistic advice. They are Dr. W. Helder and Mr. R. Koat M.A. They dedicated many hours and days to the task of scru­tinizing the copy to remove whatever linguistic impurities might be found in it. If any have remained, blame only the author, not his advisers.

The result of the above-mentioned labours is herewith presented to our readers. It is my sincere wish and heartfelt prayer that the present work may be of service to both our office-bearers and our membership in general, for the upbuilding of the churches that Christ bought with His precious blood and in whose midst He walks, uniting and preserving them by His Spirit in the unity of the true faith, to the glory of God the Father.

 

September 1990

W.W.J. VanOene

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) ToC

|III|

Table of contents

 

Preface — I

Table of Contents — III

With Common Consent — 1
Our Church Order — 2
Unique Character — 3
A Few Outlines — 3
About the Church Order Itself — 5

Article 1. Purpose and Division — 7
Offices and Supervision of Doctrine — 8
Various Assemblies — 8
Worship and Ceremonies — 9
Discipline — 9

Article 2. The Offices — 10
Doctors — 10
Their Origin — 11

Article 3. The Calling to Office — 13
Calling Needed — 13
Who May Be Called? — 14
How It Is to Take Place — 15
Regulations — 16
Draw the Attention — 16
List of Candidates for Office — 17
Appointment and Call — 19
Announcements — 20
Final Steps — 21

Article 4. Eligibility for the Ministry — 22
Declared Eligible — 23
How Declared Eligible? — 24
The Examination — 25
Ministers from Non-Sister Churches — 28
According to Art. 8 — 29
Calling Twice — 29
Counsellor — 30

Article 5. Ordination and Installation of Ministers of the Word — 32
The Examination — 35
Ministers within the Federation — 37
Ministers from Foreign Sister Churches — 39

Article 6. Bound to a Church — 40

Article 7. Recent Converts — 42

|IV|

Article 8. Exceptional Gifts — 45
The Way to Follow — 46
The Next Step — 47

Article 9. From One Church to Another — 50
Permitted to Leave — 51
A Conflict? — 53

Article 10. Proper Support — 54
Help from Sister Churches — 57

Article 11. Dismissal — 58
A Reasonable Period of Time — 60
His Position — 61

Article 12. Bound for Life — 63
Permissible Change — 64
Valid Reasons — 65

Article 13. Retirement of Ministers — 67
Disabled — 67
Bond Remains — 68
Retirement Age — 70
Allowed to Retire? — 71

Article 14. Temporary Release — 73

Article 15. Preaching in Other Places — 76

Article 16. The Office of Ministers of the Word — 78
The First Task — 79
Readers — 81
Administer the Sacraments — 82
Prayers — 82
Teach the Youth — 83
Visit and Comfort — 84
With the Elders — 84

Article 17. Equality Among the Ministers of the Word — 86

Article 18. Missionaries — 88
Field — 90
Task — 90
After Institution — 91

Article 19. Training for the Ministry — 93
Task of Professors — 95

Article 20. Students of Theology — 97

Article 21. An Edifying Word — 100

Article 22. The Office of Elder — 102
Chosen — 103

|V|

Courses for Elders? — 104
Decline? — 105
Wesel 1568 — 105
Three Categories — 106
Supervision — 107
Visiting — 107
Remuneration — 108

Article 23. The Office of Deacon — 109
Mercy — 109
Leadership — 110
Offerings — 111
According to Need — 112
Cooperation — 113

Article 24. Term of Office — 114

Article 25. Equality to Be Maintained — 117

Article 26. Subscription to the Confessions — 118
Why A Subscription Form? — 119
Doubts and Different Sentiments — 121
Refusal — 122
Final Points — 123

Article 27. False Doctrine — 124

Article 28. Civil Authorities — 127
A Grain of Truth — 128
Promote the Holy Ministry — 128
The Office-bearers — 129
Secure and Retain — 130
Confidentiality — 130

Article 29. The Ecclesiastical Assemblies — 132
Congregational Meetings — 133
The Bond Practised — 134
The Manner in Which — 136
The Classis — 137
The Regional Synod — 138
The General Synod — 139
Federation Voluntary Yet Mandatory — 139

Article 30. Ecclesiastical Matters — 141
Ecclesiastical Matters — 141
In An Ecclesiastical Manner — 143
The Major Assemblies — 143
The Last Sentence — 145

Article 31. Appeals — 147
Complains — 148
Copies — 149

|VI|

Appeal Denied — 150
Appeal Sustained — 151
Execution of Decision — 152
Unless — 152
A Few More Points — 153

Article 32. Credentials — 155
Contents — 155
Instructions — 157
Voting — 157

Article 33. Proposals — 159

Article 34. Proceedings — 161
On Sundays — 162
Censure — 163
Next Assembly — 164

Article 35. President — 165
His First Task — 166
Due Order — 166
A Vote? — 167
Deny the Floor — 167

Article 36. Clerk — 169
Accurate Record — 169
Acts and Minutes — 170

Article 37. Jurisdiction — 171
Jurisdiction — 173

Article 38. Consistory — 176
Consistory Necessary — 177
When and for What? — 178
Announce? — 179
Agenda — 181
Minutes — 181
Incoming Mail — 182
Question Period — 183
Press Release — 184
Ministers Preside — 184

Article 39. Consistory and the Deacons — 186

Article 40. Constitution of a Consistory — 188
Members’ Request I — 189
Members’ Request II — 190
Wholly New Consistory? — 192
Split — 193
“Attestations?” — 193
Assets — 193

|VII|

Article 41. Places without a Consistory — 195

Article 42. Meetings of Deacons — 197
Meetings — 197
Account — 198
Minister — 199

Article 43. Archives — 200

Article 44. Classis — 203
Examination of Credentials — 205
Agenda — 207
Frequency — 208
Chairmanship — 208
Question Period — 209
Delegates — 211
Non-delegated Ministers — 211
Open to All? — 212

Article 45. Counsellors — 214

Article 46. Church Visitors — 216
Who? — 217
When? — 218
What? — 219
Report — 221

Article 47. Regional Synod — 223

Article 48. Deputies of Regional Synod — 225

Article 49. General Synod — 227
Convening Church — 229
Upon Constitution — 230
How Does A Synod Work? — 232
Closing — 234
Acts — 234

Article 50. Churches Abroad — 236
The Basis — 237
No Ecumenical Synod — 238
As Much As Possible — 239
Point a — 240
Point b — 240
Point c — 241
Point d — 242
Point e — 242
Not To Be Condemned — 242

Article 51. Mission — 244

Article 52. Worship Services — 246
Liturgy — 247
The Salutation — 248
Elder and Benediction — 250

|VIII|

Article 53. Days of Commemoration — 252

Article 54. Days of Prayer — 254

Article 55. Psalms and Hymns — 256

Article 56. Administration of Sacraments — 258
In A Worship Service — 258
Who? — 259
Forms — 260

Article 57. Baptism — 261
Who? — 263
Stipulations — 265
What Age? — 266
Baptism by Others — 267
When? — 268

Article 58. Schools — 270

Article 59. Baptism of Adults — 27

Article 60. Lord’s Supper — 275

Article 61. Admission to the Lord’s Supper — 278

Article 62. Attestations — 281
Why? — 282
Announcements — 283
Final Remarks — 285

Article 63. Marriage — 287
Task of Consistory — 289
Divorce — 291
Solemnization — 292
Worship Service? — 293

Article 64. Church Records — 295

Article 65. Funerals — 296

Article 66. Nature And Purpose of Church Discipline — 298
The Old Testament — 300
Purpose — 300
The Rule — 302
Witnesses — 303

Article 67. Consistory Involvement — 306

Article 68. Excommunication — 308
The First Step — 309
The Second Step — 312
The Third Step — 313
The Fourth Step — 314

|IX|

Non-communicant Members — 315
Appeal — 316

Article 69. Repentance — 317
Announcement — 318

Article 70. Readmission — 321
Non-communicant Members — 322

Article 71. Suspension and Deposition of Office-bearers — 323
Two Consistories with the Deacons — 324
Why the Difference? — 325
Restoration — 326
One-time “Suspension?” — 327
Retired Ministers — 328
Notification — 329
“Resignation” — 329
Discipline — 330

Article 72. Serious and Grievous Sins on the Part of Office-bearers — 331

Article 73. Christian Censure — 334

Article 74. No Lording It Over Others — 337

Article 75. Property of the Churches — 339

Article 76. Observance and Revision of the Church Order — 340

Appendix I. Regulations for the Election of Office-bearers — 342
Commentary — 343
Ad Art. 1 — 344
Ad Art. 2 — 344
Ad Art. 3 — 344
Ad Art. 4 — 345
Ad Art. 5 — 348
Ad Art. 6 — 349
Ad Art. 7 — 349
Ad Art. 8 — 349
Final Remark — 350

Appendix II. Letter of Call — 351
Comments — 352
Finances — 353

Appendix III. Form of Subscription — 355

Appendix IV. Credentials — 356
Remarks — 356

Index — 359

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) WCC

|1|

With Common Consent

The title for this book has been derived from our Church Order. In the last article of this Church Order it is stated that “these articles, which regard the lawful order of the church, have been adopted with common accord.”

By whom have they been adopted? By the churches that together form one federation. That is what we call the “organization” that is formed by the Canadian Reformed Churches: the Federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

The word “federation” expresses precisely what kind of “organization” this is. The word “federation” has as its main component the Latin word foedus, meaning “covenant.” That is what the federation of the Canadian Re­formed Churches is: a covenant between these churches. They have entered into this covenant of their own will, voluntarily.

The Holy Scriptures teach us that the Lord Jesus, who is the King of the church and its only universal Bishop, as we also confess in Art. 31 of our Belgic Confession, walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. These lampstands are the seven churches to which John had to write the letters mentioned in Rev. 2 and 3. The churches all find their unity in Him, and He is the Head, the only universal Bishop.

As for their relation towards each other, these churches are completely on their own, autonomous, not depending on each other to be a complete church of Christ. The one has no authority whatever over the other and has no right to interfere in the affairs of the other.

One might ask: “If the churches are autonomous and are not dependent on each other to be a true and complete church of the Lord Jesus Christ, why did they enter into a covenant with each other, forming one federation?” Did they do this to form a united front over against the world? Or did they make a covenant with the intent to stand stronger against whatever enemy might come against them?

No, they did not. It is true, of course, that a tree in a forest has more pro­tection against soil erosion, storm and lightning than a lonely tree in the mid­dle of a vast plain. History shows us that churches that remained on their own disappeared and were swallowed up as a welcome prey by all sorts of heresies and other wiles of the evil one. It is of utmost importance for a church that it seek contact and enter into a covenant, into a federation with other churches.

Have the Canadian Reformed Churches sought each other for this rea­son? No, they have not. Their federation is not a federation born from the need to seek support and combine resources and manpower so that they might survive and have influence. Their federation and their being one within this federation is the manifestation of what forms the fundamental element of their being one. The basis for their federation is the unity of faith. They did not become one when they entered into a federation. They were already one and for this reason they sought each other.

|2|

In Lord’s Day 21 of our Heidelberg Catechism we confess that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself a church “in the unity of the true faith,” and in our Belgic Confession we ex­press our faith by saying about this that the church “is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith,” Art. 27.

Because they recognized each other as true churches of the Lord Jesus Christ, standing and built on the same foundation that was laid by apostles and prophets, and upholding this confession, the churches also recognized their obligation to express their unity of faith by reaching out to help each oth­er, to watch over each other, and to ward off each other’s hurt as much as they could. What applies to the members of one body also applies to the churches of Christ in whatever country it has pleased the Lord to establish them: they have the Christian obligation to be to each other as a hand and a foot, that so together they may stand strong over against the wiles of the great adversary of Christ and of His own.

To the end that they might extend this help and watch over each other’s well-being, not in an haphazard way but in a more regular manner, so that each and every church should know at all times what its duties and obliga­tions are towards the other churches and what it may expect from these oth­er churches, they have entered into a covenant; they have formed the federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

When two or more parties enter upon a covenant, each of the partici­pants must know precisely what it may expect from the other parties and what its own obligations are towards the other parties. The conditions of this covenant have been laid down in a document. This document we call our Church Order.

 

Our Church Order

The Church Order is a document which contains seventy-six articles. It is these articles that we shall discuss in this book. Before we begin doing so, we must mention a few things which should be kept in mind.

No one should consider this Church Order to be some sort of Constitu­tion and Bylaws. To put it briefly: our Church Order contains the written-down promises made by the churches when forming their federation.

Further, no one should ever speak of our Church Order as something to which the churches ought to “submit.” Keeping the provisions of the Church Order is not a question of submission but of faithfully keeping the promises given and agreed upon. No church can therefore be forced to keep the pro­visions of the Church Order. If a church persistently violates the agreement made as laid down in the Church Order, all the federation can do is expel this church from this federation, meanwhile extending a helping hand to those members of that church who want to remain faithful.

Such exclusion from the federation is mandatory also in case a church permits false doctrine to be propagated in its midst, for then this church has broken away not just from the agreement made but from the very foundation on which the federation of churches is founded, namely, the unity of the faith,

|3|

the foundation laid by apostles and prophets. If the unity of faith is no longer there, the “unity” of organization cannot be continued either.

 

Unique Character

As will become clear when we discuss the various articles of our Church Order, the Reformed Church Federation is unique in its character. We shall not go into all sorts of particulars but confine ourselves to only a few re­marks.

The Roman Catholic Church is a world-wide body with one man at the head. It is irrelevant in this respect that this man calls himself only the representative of Christ, for he is the great and exalted ruler not only of the church but also of the world, as he allegedly represents Christ in all His glory.

The local parishes, too, are always under the authority of one man, a bishop, while various bishops are under the authority of an archbishop. The various archbishops are then, in turn, under the pope as the head of all. This is a simple way of putting it, but it shows the situation for what it is.

In many instances we see country-wide churches that form one body, with local “subdivisions,” the local congregations. These bodies are usually governed by a more or less permanent “board,” both regionally and nation­ally.

Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are those that reject the view that a church can be bound to abide by decisions of broader assem­blies. They refuse to be bound by such decisions unless this church itself, or even its membership, has accepted these decisions. Insofar as they have contact with other congregations, this contact is quite loose and usually they speak of “conferences” rather than of “synods” or “assemblies.” Essentially, even locally they consider the power of decision-making to be vested in the membership as such.

We should not have the impression that the Canadian Reformed Churches are somewhere in the middle between two extremes. Reformed church polity is not a matter of trying to avoid extremes to all sides and keep­ing a safe middle road. It has a character of its own, with its basics taken from the Word of our God.

When dealing with the various articles separately we shall pay attention to this point, although no one should expect that we can or should be able to quote texts left and right to prove that each and every provision is based on the express Word of God. When the occasion arises, we shall certainly show that the provision made there is in complete accordance with the Holy Scriptures, but we shall not forget either that the Lord has given His church much freedom in arranging its local and federal life.

 

A Few Outlines

Let us now briefly outline the Reformed church polity as it has become concrete in our Church Order.

The very fundamental rule is that all authority in the church belongs to the King of the church, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

|4|

Every one will agree with this, even the pope of Rome. The big question is, however, how this confession is worked out in the practical arrangement of the church federation. Is it so that this authority of Christ's is exercised by way of a one-man rule such as we find in the Romish church? Or is it exer­cised by a body, whether this body is called a synod or an assembly or bears some other fancy name? Or is Christ’s authority perhaps exercised in a so-called “democratic” manner, by the gatherings of believers in each place?

To this basic question the Reformed Churches have given a different an­swer. They had learned from the Holy Scriptures that the Lord Jesus Christ walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, that are the seven churches to which the apostle John had to write his letters. Thus they learned that the churches, although finding their unity in Christ, yet are au­tonomous, not dependent upon each other.

They also learned from God's Word that the Lord Jesus gave office-bear­ers to His church in every place, and that these office-bearers govern the church in the place where they have been given this position. Since the Lord Jesus gave office-bearers to each and every church, they have authority only in the church over which they have been set. They have no authority in any other church, neither singly nor in large numbers.

Thus when, in obedience to their King, the churches seek each other and form a federation for mutual help and show very concretely the unity of faith, they do not transfer any of their God-given authority to broader assemblies, even though they accept the decisions of these broader or major assem­blies, in accordance with the obligations they took upon themselves when entering into a covenant, a federation.

It is a matter of course that the churches are not bound by any decision that clearly conflicts with the express Word of God or that was taken in vio­lation of the Church Order. We shall come back to this later on.

We call the form of government as found in the Canadian Reformed Churches the Presbyterial Form of Church Government, that is, government of the church by presbyters, which comes from the Greek word for “elders.”

Each church voluntarily enters into the federation; no church can be pre­vented from breaking with the federation. We are not speaking here of the question whether a church would act contrary to the will of the Lord if it kept away from or broke with the federation. What we want to stress here is the voluntary nature of the church federation. There is no higher power, no au­thority, that can either compel a church to become or prevent it from ceasing to be a partner in the covenant of churches.

It will be clear that we are speaking here of the churches that are one in faith, standing on the same foundation and keeping it inviolate.

There is one more point to which we should pay attention before pro­ceeding to our discussion of the various articles of our Church Order.

We speak constantly of the Canadian Reformed Churches, not of the Canadian Reformed Church. This is a matter of principle. Thereby we ex­press and uphold the principle that the churches together do not constitute a national body with “locals,” local parts of a country-wide organization, preferably under a national board, but that the federation of the Canadian

|5|

Reformed Churches is a federation of autonomous local churches, governed by their own local office-bearers, yet having sought and found each other in the unity of the true faith.

 

About the Church Order Itself

Before we begin the discussion of the various articles of our Church Or­der something about this Church Order itself.

When the Lord freed His people from the yoke of the Romish hierarchy, the churches had to build up their ecclesiastical “organization” so to speak from scratch. The eldership had disappeared completely under the papacy; the deacons had become degraded to the position of helpers of the bishops; the preaching of the Gospel, insofar as it still could be called a preaching of the Gospel, had taken a backseat and all attention was concentrated on the altar and the sacraments.

How were the churches to build up their local church life as well as their bond with each other so that it would all be in full harmony with the Word of God and so that the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, would be honoured to the fullest?

In His goodness and providence the Lord saw to it that there were men who were able to give guidance and leadership in this respect.

In Geneva there was John Calvin, a true scribe in the Scriptural sense of the word, one learned in and submitting to the Scriptures. He did what he could to organize the church in that place in accordance with the demands of God’s Word. Calvin also conducted an extensive correspondence and, be­ing a Frenchman himself, he showed special care for the French Reformed Churches. These churches organized themselves in the line of Calvin, and from Geneva and France the line may be drawn to the Netherlands and the Reformed Churches there. From there the line goes to us here.

As was the case wherever the Reformation had gotten a foothold, so in the Netherlands the churches were being persecuted in the worst possible way, and whatever they did had to be done as secretly as they could man­age. The first gathering of brothers from these churches where they discussed how their living together in one federation should be organized was not even held within the borders of the Netherlands themselves but across the German border, in Wesel.

This meeting was not an “official” ecclesiastical meeting. The brothers who came together there came without having been officially delegated by churches, at least we have no evidence of this. It was a “private meeting,” so to speak. The language of their conclusions shows that they were well aware of the character of their meeting. In their conclusions they use expres­sions such as the following: “we are of the opinion,” “therefore we judge,” “it appears to us,” “it will be useful that four things are observed.” As you can see, this is more the language of a private advice to the churches than of a series of decisions that the churches have agreed upon and are bound by.

Yet, when we read what the first general synod of the Netherlands churches — held on foreign soil, in Emden, Germany, because of the

|6|

continuing danger — agreed upon, we discover that they went wholly in the line of Wesel 1568. The same must be said of subsequent synods. We mention them here: Dordrecht 1574, Dordrecht 1578, Middelburg 1581, ’s Gravenhage 1586, and Dordrecht 1618-1619.

The conditions for living together in one federation as formulated by the Synod of Dordrecht 1618-1619 stood for almost two centuries. It is, there­fore, customary to speak of the “Church Order of Dordrecht” (or “Dort,” for short).

It is beyond the scope of this treatment of our Church Order to trace its journey through the years and centuries since 1619. May it suffice to state that our present Church Order is still essentially the same as the one adopt­ed in Dordrecht, even though changes had to be made in the course of the years, changes necessitated by the change of times, places, and circum­stances.

Anyone who is interested in seeing how our Church Order was dealt with in the past more than four hundred years can find handbooks and scholarly works in sufficient variety.

Because of the specific character of our Church Order, anyone who deals with it as he would with a civil law violates its character; but so does one who tries to circumvent or who ignores the provisions laid down in it, or who lets the circumstances decide whether a particular provision should be honoured or not.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 1

|7|

I. Introduction

Article 1

Purpose and Division

 

For the maintenance of good order in the Church of Christ it is necessary that there be offices and supervision of doctrine; assemblies; worship, sacraments, and ceremonies; and discipline.

Originally the first article was the one which we now have as Article 74, the article that deals with the command of Scripture that no one shall lord it over anyone else, be it church or office-bearer. That this article has been giv­en another number and another place in our Church Order does not mean at all that we consider it of lesser importance. This would be farthest from the truth.

We can see this also in what is now the first article, in which the purpose of our Church Order is described and in which are mentioned the various successive matters with which we shall deal in the following articles.

What is described as the purpose of our Church Order? “The maintenance of good order.”

Here we have to be very careful and to ask a basic question, namely: “What is meant by ’the good order’?” Does this mean that as churches we need regulations and rules to make sure that every one marches stiffly and precisely at his proper place in the ranks? Anyone who looks at it from that angle and from such a point of view does great injustice to the churches as well as to their adopted order.

There must be order in the church of God, but this order is of a fundamentally different nature than the order which is demanded by totalitarian regimes or strictly regulated organizations where monotonous uniformity produces a dull life and community. The order of which we speak here is the order to which the apostle Paul refers when he writes in 1 Cor. 14: 40, that “all things should be done decently and in order.” This order is necessary because of what he wrote in verse 33, that “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”

Note: the apostle does not say that God is not a God of confusion but of order; he says that God is a God of peace.

In our modern world the word “peace” means that there is no fighting or war going on. In our ears the word “peace” has more or less a negative ring. Not so in the Word of our God. “Peace” in the Holy Scriptures means an overall well- being, a harmonious relationship in which life flourishes and develops unhindered. Such a harmonious relationship is possible only when there are clear agreements and when these agreements are kept faithfully. Righteousness and peace greet each other, we read in Psalm 85. This

|8|

means that when there is righteousness, that is, a faithful keeping of mutually given promises, there is that harmonious condition which the Lord will bless so that life flourishes and bears rich fruit. The Lord cannot give His peace, His blessing upon all of life, if promises are not kept, if righteousness is lacking.

It is therefore necessary that there are well-defined conditions on the basis of which the churches live together. Now each church knows what its obligations are and what it may expect from the other churches within the federation, within the framework of their covenant.

When each church separately and when all churches together are faithful in doing their part, the Lord will give His blessing and everyone will receive the rich benefits from this.

 

Offices and Supervision of Doctrine

In order that they might know what their obligations and rights are, the churches have in the first place made provisions regarding offices and supervision.

That there are offices in the church is not the result of the need to have a board which supervises and regulates the affairs of a society. A church is not a society of people who have chosen a board to run their affairs in their behalf. A church is a flock of Christ, in which the Holy Spirit Himself has made certain persons guardians, as the apostle states in Acts 20: 28. It is the fruit of our Saviour’s one sacrifice that He could give the offices and office-bearers to His church, Eph. 4: 11. The saints are to be equipped for their service to their Lord and Saviour, and with a view to achieving this, the Lord gave the offices.

In obedience to this revelation, “we believe that this true church must be governed according to the Spiritual order which our Lord has taught us in His Word. There should be ministers ..., elders and deacons,” Art. 30 B.C.

Thus, in the first part of our Church Order, we describe what the offices are, Art. 2, how the call to office is extended and to whom, Art. 3, who are eligible for the ministry of the Gospel, Art. 4, how one enters upon this ministry, Art. 5, etc.

Since essentially there is only one mark by which the true church of the Lord can be known — “In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head,” Art. 29 B.C. — a provision has been inserted regarding subscription to the Confession, Art. 26, as well as one outlining the obligation of the office- bearers to protect the flock against all attacks on purity of doctrine or conduct, Art. 27.

 

Various Assemblies

In the second place, the churches describe the place and function of the various assemblies in the federation.

First we mention the assemblies themselves, Art. 29; then we describe what these assemblies are allowed to deal with, Art. 30; what one is allowed

|9|

to do in order to remove any wrong that he is convinced has been done to him, Art. 31; who are to compose the major assemblies, Art. 32; etc. In Art. 50 we speak of the relation with churches abroad; this part concludes with reminding each other of our obligation to have the Gospel proclaimed worldwide, Art. 51.

 

Worship and Ceremonies

The third part of the Church Order deals with the worship services, Art. 52; special days, Art. 53 and 54; what we shall sing in the services, Art. 55; which ceremonies shall be found in our midst and how they shall be conducted, Art. 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 63.

In connection with holy baptism we speak of the attention which the consistories shall pay to the manner in which the parents look after the education of their children, Art. 58. Because it is important that good records are kept, we mention this in Art. 64, concluding this part with a provision about funerals.

 

Discipline

In the fourth part the Church Order speaks of discipline, both “general” discipline and “special” discipline over office-bearers.

We conclude with what at one time was Article 1, the article about not lording it over others, Art. 74, followed by one which makes clear that what is held in trust by deputies or committees or trustees remains the property of the churches, which the churches at all times have at their disposal as they see fit, Art. 75.

The final article describes how and for what reason the Church Order may be changed or even must be changed.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 2

|10|

II. Offices and Supervision of Doctrine

Article 2

The Offices

 

The offices are those of the minister of the Word, of the elder, and of the deacon.

When discussing Article 1, we already quoted from our Belgic Confession, where we mention these three offices as having a rightful and necessary place in the church of Christ.

There is no controversy among us regarding the question whether there are three or more separate offices.

Some would wish to speak of two offices, the one being that of the elder — to be distinguished as follows: teaching elders, who are the preachers, and ruling elders — and the other being that of the deacon, but in our Confession as well as in our Church Order we maintain that these are three separate offices.

Not too long ago the question was raised whether not the office of evangelist should be recognized as a still existing, separate office. This office of evangelist is then thought to be the office of a missionary, of the man charged especially with proclaiming the Gospel to those outside, whether they are living around us or far away, but particularly the latter. It was argued that a missionary has a specific charge, namely to proclaim the Gospel and to “plant the church among the heathen and to lead it towards existing as an autonomous body under its own office-bearers.” His office is therefore, so it was argued, different from, though in no way inferior to, that of a minister of the Word.

The churches have not followed this line of thought, although they did adopt a separate form for the ordination (or installation) of missionaries. By adopting such a separate form they did not express that the office of a missionary is different from that of a minister in our midst. They only recognize thereby that a missionary has an — only partly — different task. However, from the fact that the task is partly different one must not draw the conclusion that therefore the office is different.

The general consensus is that the office of evangelist ceased to exist as a separate office when those who are called by this name in the New Testament had passed away. Only three offices are recognized by and in the churches.

 

Doctors

In earlier days this was different. One who consults older versions of our Church Order will discover that Art. 2 also mentions the office of doctor,

|11|

teacher. In those older versions Art. 18 speaks of the task of the doctors or professors of theology. From this it is clear that by these doctors or teachers — for that is the basic meaning of the word “doctors” — the professors of theology were meant.

Where does this idea come from? It originates with John Calvin who understood the expression “pastors and teachers” in Eph. 4: 11 as referring to two different offices, that of the minister of the Word (“pastors”) and that of the doctors (“teachers”) who, in Calvin’s opinion, had a task towards the whole church in teaching and instructing men with a view to the ministry. Although Calvin later on changed his concept somewhat, his idea of the office of doctor as a special position and task remained and also influenced the thinking of the Reformed Churches.

Theodorus Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, was of the same opinion. He wrote in a commentary on Eph. 4: 11 that he would rather follow Ambrose, who also considered the office of doctor to be a separate and special office. It is the task of the doctors, Beza wrote, faithfully to explain the Word of God and as it were to conduct an ecclesiastical school to the end that the pure doctrine of confession as well as the true explanations (of the Scriptures) be retained in the church.

In his confession of faith he wrote about the difference between pastors and doctors. The first point of difference, he stated, consists in this that the doctors must simply explain the Scriptures to understand their true meaning, and specifically that they teach the catechumens, that is, those who are still to be taught the principles of the Christian religion, but the pastors go much further, for by means of their sermons, they apply the doctrine to the needs of the church, for teaching, for admonishing, for comforting, and for exhorting in public as well as in private, according to need; they also offer the public prayers. Briefly, they watch day and night over their flock and feed it publicly and privately with the Word of God.

Nowadays this distinction is generally considered to be a wrong conclusion from Eph. 4: 11. Without going into a detailed exegesis of this text, we remark that the apostle does not repeat the word “some” before “teachers,” a fact which strongly supports the understanding of "pastors and teachers" as mentioning two aspects of just one office, that of the minister of the Word. It would therefore be just as incorrect to refer to the minister of the Word almost exclusively as the “teacher” as it is to call him almost exclusively the “pastor.” There is no more beautiful title than that of minister, that is “servant” of the Word.

We recognize three offices: that of the minister of the Word, of the elder, and of the deacon. In due time we shall say more about these three offices. Here they are just mentioned.

 

Their Origin

These three offices have not proceeded from the needs of the congregation or from an urge to have a solid organization under the leadership and government of capable men. These three offices are there by divine ordinance.

|12|

From Eph. 4: 11 we already learned that ministers of the Word who take care of the flock with the staff of the Word are a gift from the exalted Christ.

The apostle Paul stated clearly at his farewell from the overseers of the church at Ephesus that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers over the flock of Christ, Acts 20: 28. We also read that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church,” Acts 14: 23. From his letters to Timothy and Titus it is clear that the apostle treats the offices of elder and of deacon as not something originating from human thinking or need but as the fruit of divine will and care for the churches.

In our Church Order we do not speak about various functions within the church by which the task of the office-bearers is rendered somewhat lighter. We mention here only the offices, not various positions or helpers.

When discussing the articles which deal with the offices separately, we shall pay attention to this point as well.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 3

|13|

Article 3

The Calling to Office

 

No one shall take any office upon himself without having been lawfully called thereto.
Only those brothers shall be eligible for office who have made profession of faith and may be considered to meet the conditions set forth in Holy Scripture, e.g. in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
The election to any office shall take place with the cooperation of the congregation, after preceding prayers, and according to the regulations adopted for that purpose by the consistory with the deacons.
The consistory with the deacons shall be free to give the congregation the opportunity beforehand to draw the attention of the consistory to brothers deemed fit for the respective offices.
The consistory with the deacons shall present to the congregation either as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filled, or at the most twice as many, from which number the congregation shall choose as many as are needed.
Those elected shall be appointed by the consistory with the deacons in accordance with the adopted regulations.
Prior to the ordination or installation the names of the appointed brothers shall be publicly announced to the congregation for its approbation on at least two consecutive Sundays.
The ordination or installation shall take place with the use of the relevant forms
.

 

Calling Needed

The provision that no one shall take any office upon himself without having been lawfully called thereto has been taken directly from the Word of God. The letter to the Hebrews stresses that the Lord Jesus Christ was called by God to the office of our only High Priest, and states in this connection that one does not take this honour upon himself, but is called by God, just as Aaron was, Heb. 5:4.

From other places in God’s Word we know that the Lord took it very ill of anyone if he assumed an office or, without having been called to this task, did what only an office-bearer was allowed to do. We only have to think of King Uzziah, who entered the temple of the Lord to bum incense upon the altar of incense, 2 Chron. 26: 16 ff., or of the revolt of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, Nu. 16.

In the rest of this article we speak of the manner in which the call to office is extended; first, however, it must be perfectly clear that the calling to office is the absolute prerequisite for becoming an office-bearer.

|14|

The fact that one must wait for a call implies that one is permitted to do only that work to which one was called. When one is called to the office of a minister of the Gospel, one is allowed to do just this work and then one should not interfere with the work of a deacon.

On the other hand, when one has been called to the office of elder, one should abstain from the work which belongs specifically to the task of a minister.

The call extended determines the work one will be allowed to do. This is not a matter of higher or lower, but of difference in task. That an elder is not permitted to preach or to administer the sacraments is certainly not because he has a lower rank than a minister, but this is only because he has not been called to do this.

A call needs not be a call for life. In Art. 24 we speak of the term of office of elders and deacons; they are called to their respective offices for a certain period of time. We shall come back to this in connection with Art. 24.

Although a minister is called for life, yet it must be stated that, if at a certain moment and for specific reasons the call ceases to exist, he is no longer a minister. One stays in office only for as long as one is “covered” by the call from a specific church for a specific task. We shall have more to say about this in discussing Art. 11.

This also implies that one who has been called by a church — and how else would one be called? — has an office and has authority within that particular church alone. The one church cannot call someone to work as an elder or a deacon or a minister in another church; it has no power to do so. It is no wonder that “intrusion upon the office of another” — be it locally or in another place — is mentioned among the serious sins which render one worthy of suspension, Art. 72.

 

Who May Be Called?

The Canadian Reformed Churches abide by the Scriptural teaching that only male church members are eligible for office.

More and more religious groups and churches are proceeding to the ordination of female church members. This practice is not the fruit of a better understanding of the Word of our God, but the result of being influenced at a rapidly increasing rate by unbelieving theories which endeavour to obliterate the differences the Lord has laid in creation and which turn all relations upside down.

This is not the place to go into all sorts of arguments pro or con; may it suffice that we state here expressly that only male members are eligible for office.

Are all male church members eligible? No, they are not. How could one who has not (yet) made profession of faith be entrusted with the care for and the leadership of the flock of Christ? Or how could one who is being disciplined because he hardens himself in a certain sin be called to the office in Christ’s church?

When stating that only those male church members are eligible for office who have made profession of faith, we certainly do not imply that every one

|15|

who has not yet made profession of faith does not fear the Lord or is unable to make a valuable contribution to the cause of the Lord and to the edification of the congregation. We may state with gratitude that many younger members — not only male members but female members as well — do contribute abundantly to the growth and the edification of the church. Yet we in­sist on it that one has to have made profession of faith before it is permitted to call such a brother to any office.

Does it need any further elaboration? We do not think so; it will be clear to everyone that we are not allowed to call anyone who has not answered in the affirmative to the questions at the public profession of faith. The questions at the ordination or installation of office-bearers are a further elaboration on the questions asked at the public profession of faith. One who himself has not (yet) been admitted to the table of the Lord can hardly be entrusted with the care for the holiness of that table.

May, then, all male members who have made profession of faith be called? No. We add another condition, or rather, we do not add this condition; it is a condition that the Lord has set in His Word, the condition as described by, for instance, the apostle Paul in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1.

On purpose we say, “those who may be considered to meet the conditions.” This is expressed very carefully. We can judge only what we as human beings are able to see and to conclude. We might have said too much if we had written, “who meet the conditions.” On the other hand, we are to honour the conditions which the Lord Himself has set. No church would be allowed to call someone who lives in adultery or who is a known swindler.

Some consistories have the custom of reading the relevant part of Scripture before the nomination takes place. This reminds the brothers every time anew of the requirements for office.

 

How It Is to Take Place

In the first place we find the provision here that the election leading to the call shall take place “with the cooperation of the congregation.”

Although the government of the church rests with the office-bearers, this does not mean at all that the congregation has no voice in the matter and that all it can do is accept and bear what it pleases the office-bearers to impose upon them. It is clear from Scripture that even the apostles did not appoint elders without the cooperation of the congregations. The election of the “Seven,” which is described in Acts 6, was done in this manner that the congregation “picked out from among” them seven brothers. Yes, even the appointment of Matthias as an apostle to take the place of Judas did not happen without the full cooperation of the assembled congregation.

Not only the election of Matthias took place after prayer had been offered up; prayer was also offered before the Seven received the laying on of hands. The appointment of elders in every church, of which Acts 14: 23 speaks, did not take place without “prayer and fasting.” This praying and fasting was deemed necessary, not because of the extra risk involved for those who were office-bearers but because of the great importance of the

|16|

office and because of the great responsibility which the office placed on men who were weak in themselves.

Choosing and appointing office-bearers is no light task, something which is done in a few minutes between jobs; it is a responsible action that is to be weighed and well-considered by all who take part in it.

 

Regulations

We speak here also of “regulations adopted for that purpose by the consistory with the deacons.” This implies in the first place that such regulations should be in existence.

It would not be good if every time anew the brothers had to ask themselves, “How are we going to do it this time?” Nor would it be good if decisions about procedure had to be taken on the spur of the moment when the brothers are faced with the task of solving a specific case. We should never make up or change regulations with a view to a specific case. Being sinful and imperfect human beings, we are so soon inclined to let ourselves be influenced by persons or by our personal opinion about a brother, by our likes and dislikes. This might prevent us from making such rules or such changes in rules as would be most beneficial to the congregation. For this reason regulations should be drawn up without an election being imminent. If it appears that changes should be made, the proper time for such changes would be the time after an election has been concluded and long before the next one is due.

For the assistance of our consistories, a sample of such regulations is added as Appendix A. It is accompanied by an explanation of the various provisions.

The article provides that the regulations are to be adopted by “the consistory with the deacons.” For the use of this term we may refer to Article 38. When in this connection we speak only of “the consistory” this is done for the sole reason of avoiding the use of the longer designation every time.

 

Draw the Attention

The fuller and more extensive the involvement of the congregation in all sorts of matters concerning the church, the better it is for the whole community of the church.

The leadership, the government of the church, and the final decisions rest with the office-bearers as a body; but they are always to remember that they are nothing without the congregation. A tug-of-war, however, is of no benefit to anyone. It will, therefore, be wise if the consistory with the deacons gives the congregation the opportunity beforehand to draw the attention of the consistory to brothers deemed fit for the respective offices.

Mind you, this action on the part of the congregation must make sense. In the first place, it is definitely not a sort of advance poll that would more or less obligate the consistory to “put a brother on the nomination.” No one should say, “I know of at least ten brothers who mentioned so-and-so in their letter-of-recommendation to the consistory, and he is not even on the list!”

|17|

A consistory is not obligated to make anyone mentioned by the congregation a candidate for office. The invitation to the congregation to draw the attention of the consistory to certain brothers is given to enlist the help of the congregation.

In a smaller congregation the office-bearers usually know the members quite well and have a fair idea of who would be fit for office. Generally speaking, no other member can give the consistory reasons why a brother should be recommended which the consistory did not know as yet.

It is different in a larger congregation. There it becomes near-impossible for all office-bearers to know all the members so well that they can judge who is fit for which office. That is where the help of the congregation is most beneficial.

So we come to the second point which is to be kept in mind. Recommendations must make sense. Simply sending a letter to the consistory with the words, “I recommend the brothers A., B., C, and D. for elder and brothers E. and F. for deacon.” is utterly useless. It is equally useless to write, “I recommend..., for they must be considered to meet the requirements of 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1.”

Sometimes one can find these last-mentioned words in responses to the announcement that “letters must be signed and also contain the reasons why these brothers are recommended.”

In both instances the purpose to which the help of the congregation is requested is totally neglected.

The consistory does not know everything. There may be brothers who, in all quiet and modesty go their way and occupy their place in the midst of the congregation inconspicuously but who would make excellent elders or deacons, so to speak. When someone writes a letter to the consistory informing it about qualities of the brother of which the office-bearers may not be aware but which are evident to those who know the brother more intimately, then the consistory is really helped. That is the purpose of the request to “give names.” Just “giving names” without giving additional information is a waste of time; the consistory already has a list of all names and mere mention of a name does not offer any help.

 

List of Candidates for Office

Once the consistory with the deacons has made up the list of candidates for office, this list is presented to the congregation.

How many names is the list to contain? In any case as many names as there are vacancies to be filled.

Sometimes it is thought that the list must contain twice as many names, but this is not necessary at all. In many instances only one name is presented, and no one objects to this. We are referring now to the election of a minister. In a large federation with few vacancies a congregation can permit itself the luxury of having two or even three names presented to it. From these three names it then chooses one to be called as its new minister. If he declines, others can be found and nominated. When a federation is not so

|18|

large and when there are quite a few vacancies, a consistory will act wisely when presenting just one name to the congregation. If there are two names and the one who is chosen and called declines the call, it is difficult then to present again the other name to the congregation.

Thus, in the case of choosing a minister, usually just one name is presented. Why should there, then, have to be two names for every vacancy in the case of elders and deacons? There is no compelling reason for that either.

Usually a consistory does present twice as many names as there are vacancies to be filled, although it is not an absolute necessity. If the consistory with the deacons cannot, with a good conscience and wholeheartedly, come to eight nominations for four vacancies, it is not wrong if the brothers present only six or seven names to choose four from. Should it be necessary to come with twice as many names, then the brothers are in grave danger of putting someone on the slate of whom they are convinced that, in fact, he is not suitable but inasmuch as they have to have eight names and expect that he will not be chosen anyway, they add his name nevertheless.

Such would be irresponsible. As many names as there are vacancies to be filled may be presented or at the most — but not necessarily — twice as many.

Sometimes it happens that a consistory presents two names for each vacancy separately so that the congregation does not choose four out of eight but four times one out of two. This would be advisable only in case a congregation is divided into four separate wards or sections in each of which one vacancy is to be filled and which each has its separate “Section-Consistory.” If there is no such division, this practice is highly inadvisable and even outright dangerous. Knowing our sinful heart we can easily see that the temptation is there to make up such sets of candidates that it can be predicted beforehand with almost 100% accuracy who of each set will be chosen and that things are being manipulated. It is therefore much better and safer to leave the congregation the choice from the complete slate of candidates.

All that remains now in this connection is to ask who may take part in the election.

Strictly speaking, we do not expressly state this in our Church Order; we mention the congregation as the body which elects. A consistory could therefore not be accused of violating our Church Order if it decided to let also the sisters take part. But there is a consensus among us and some of our general synods have also dealt with the question. Serious objections on this very issue are alive among many of our members. They fear that granting our sisters the right to take part in the election will lead towards opening the office to them as well. Besides, they say, taking part in elections is an act of government, and this is not in their province.

Others state that all we have to do is acknowledge a right of which they are convinced that the sisters already have it.

Fear is a bad counsellor, and if the sisters have the right to take part, fear may not hold us back from recognizing this right and giving them the opportunity to exercise it.

|19|

The assertion that taking part in elections is an act of governing is definitely incorrect. The consistory gives the congregation the opportunity to advise the consistory by means of an election, but ultimately the consistory is not bound by this advice, although it must have very good and compelling reasons to deviate from it. It is the congregation that elects; it is the consistory with the deacons that appoints and calls. Advising is still not the same as governing.

The general synods that dealt with the question whether the sisters have or should have the right to take part in the elections could not come to a definite conclusion, and thus we abide by the consensus prevailing thus far that only male communicant members are allowed to take part in the election for office-bearers.

Further, a point which should have the attention is whether one has to be present at the meeting where the election is held in order to be able to take part in it. In many congregations it is customary that, if one is prevented from attending the election meeting, he can send a ballot in a sealed envelope, signed inside with his name, and that this ballot is counted with those cast at the meeting.

The question is whether this is correct. If one is legitimately prevented from attending a meeting, one has to accept this and should also accept the consequences, one of which is that one cannot take part in elections. Accepting letters with ballots also promotes absenteeism: because one can vote anyway, what need is there to attend a meeting for this purpose? Saying that it is absolutely wrong would be saying too much. Our consistories should, however, ponder the question whether the practice should not be discontinued.

 

Appointment and Call

After the election the consistory with the deacons meet for the appointment of the elected brothers. The result of the election is evaluated and those are appointed and called who, according to the regulations which the consistory with the deacons had drawn up, are eligible for appointment.

It is not necessary that one has received more than 50% of the votes. It all depends on the regulations in force at the moment.

First of all, blank ballots are eliminated when the votes are counted. Leaving a ballot completely or partially blank can have various reasons. It can be an expression of disagreement or discontent with the slate of candidates as such, a sort of protest. However, this is such un-ecclesiastical behaviour that it should be ignored completely. Another reason could be that someone does not know the candidates or does not know all of them well enough to make a responsible choice. Then there is no other way open than to mark only as many names as one can conscientiously recommend for office.

Still another reason could be that one does not wish to abstain from taking part in the election, yet cannot vote for as many as are needed because, in his opinion, there is not a sufficient number among the candidates who are really fit for the office for which they have been nominated.

|20|

No doubt, we could think of other reasons, but the above will be the most common ones. In any case, blank ballots are eliminated from the calculations.

The total number of votes is then divided by the total number of candidates in order to arrive at a conclusion as to who can be declared elected. A consistory may have made the provision that only those will be appointed who have received more than fifty percent of the valid votes.

Let us say that there were 100 ballots and that there are 10 candidates. Those one hundred ballots yielded 475 names: 500 needed with 25 blank ballots or partially blank ballots. This means that the mean per candidate is 47.5. If a consistory decided that one should have more than 50%, no one can be appointed who received 46 votes. A candidate must, in that case, have received 48 votes in order to be eligible for call.

A consistory may also have made the provision that those shall be appointed who received the most votes, but that no one may be appointed who has less than one/third of the votes, 32 in this case. The latter provision renders it possible to appoint a brother without another election being necessary in case only a few received a clear majority or in case one of those elected and appointed is, upon his request, released from the appointment, thus creating a new vacancy.

Upon appointment of those declared elected, the consistory with the deacons calls the brothers to the respective offices by informing them of their appointment. Some consistories do this in writing, others delegate the section elder(s) to convey the message. In whatever way it is done, the brothers should be informed before an announcement is made to the congregation.

 

Announcements

Before the brothers who were called may be ordained or installed, their names must be publicly announced to the congregation for its approbation.

We speak of ordination or installation. What is the difference? The term “ordination” is used in the case of those who are not yet in office. This applies to candidates for the ministry, elders, and deacons.

The term “installation” applies to ministers of the Gospel who come from another place and, having accepted a call, are now to be installed in their office in the new congregation. They do not cease being a minister so that they have to be ordained anew. As soon as they have been released from the call of the “old” church, they are subject to the call from the “new” church, the precise moment for this having been agreed upon by the two consistories involved.

Elders and deacons are called only for a specific term and have to be ordained (again) when entering upon a(nother) term of office.

The question has been asked whether objections can be brought in against a nomination before the election takes place. Generally speaking, no. A consistory is not even obligated to make the names of the candidates known some time before the election.

In most churches it is customary to publish the slate the Sunday before the election takes place, but this is not obligatory. Publication of the list of

|21|

candidates is done with a view to giving the congregation the opportunity to think about whom to vote for, possibly to talk with one or more of the candidates to learn to know them better and to see whether one may consider them fit for the office. Thus publishing the names of the candidates beforehand is done to facilitate the making of a choice, not to ask the congregation for their approbation. A consistory would be perfectly allowed to make the list of candidates known at the very meeting at which the election takes place. In more than one instance this is done in the calling of a minister.

It is possible, of course, that a member knows something about one of the candidates which is of such a serious nature that the brother ought not even to have a chance of being elected. In such a case it is the member’s duty to inform the consistory about it. This is different, however, from lodging objections against a brother’s candidacy. Such lodging of objections is permitted when the names of those called to the respective offices are announced from the pulpit. This announcement must be made on at least two consecutive Sundays to see whether anyone has any lawful objections to the ordination or installation.

Although the congregation was engaged in the election of the brothers, yet only the male communicant members took part in the voting. At this juncture, however, each and every member has the right to bring in objections to the ordination or installation of an appointed brother.

It will be understood that these objections must be more serious and substantial than personal feelings, likes and dislikes, minor controversies, and so on. A member must be convinced that the Lord does not want to see this particular brother as an office-bearer for specific and serious reasons. If this is the case, the consistory must be informed. If the consistory accepts the objections as valid, the call will be taken back, and the congregation will be informed about it, without, however, giving the reasons why. If the consistory disagrees, the ordination or installation will take place: the responsibility is the consistory’s; it is off the member’s shoulders.

 

Final Steps

Once the above steps all have been taken, the conclusion of the procedure is the ordination or installation. It must take place with the use of the relevant forms.

These forms have been adopted by the churches so as to ensure that the proper explanation of the office is given, that the proper questions are asked and the proper vows are made. It would be wrong if an officiating minister gave his own personal views on the office and were free to ask questions as he saw fit. The churches must be sure that in each and every member church of the federation the office-bearers have been properly chosen and ordained or installed so that the communion can be maintained and members who move can be advised wholeheartedly and with a good conscience to join the sister church in their new place of residence.

We shall pay attention to these forms when speaking about the articles that describe the specific duties of the various offices.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 4

|22|

Article 4

Eligibility for the Ministry

 

A. ELIGIBILITY
Only those shall be called to the office of minister of the Word who
1. have been declared eligible for call by the Churches;
2. are already serving in that capacity in one of the Churches; or
3. have been declared eligible in, or are serving one of the Churches with which the Canadian Reformed Churches maintain a sister-Church relationship.

B. DECLARED ELIGIBLE
Only those shall be declared eligible for call within the Churches who
1. have passed a preparatory examination by the classis in which they live, which examination shall not take place unless those presenting themselves for it submit the documents necessary to prove that they are members in good standing of one of the Churches and have successfully completed a course of study as
required by the Churches;
2. have served in churches with which the Canadian Reformed Churches do not maintain a sister-church relationship, and have been examined by the classis in which they live, with due observance of the general ecclesiastical regulations adopted for that purpose; or
3. have been examined according to the rule described in Article 8.

C. CALLING TWICE
The approval of Classis shall be required for a second call to the same minister regarding the same vacancy.

D. COUNSELLOR
When a vacant Church extends a call, the advice of the counsellor shall be sought
.

Article 4 deals with the question who are eligible for the ministry. Before we discuss this article, we are to say something about the terminology used.

For the first time we meet here the word “classis.” This needs some explanation.

We use the word “classis’ in two different meanings here, the one in the proper sense of the word, the other in a manner which might cause some misunderstanding.

The federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches is divided into various groups of churches that meet at pre-arranged times by means of their delegates. The smallest such area is a classical area. The churches situated in this area send each two delegates once every three months to a meeting which we call a classis.

|23|

Our ecclesiastical language uses many words which have been derived from Latin, for a long time the language used in the services and by the scholars and other educated members of the church. It is not strange that we are still using purely Latin words or words derived from the Latin. The word “classis” is one of those words which are pure Latin. It means a class, a group of people. It can also refer to a fleet or part of a fleet.

In our ecclesiastical language we use the word for an area as well as for a meeting. Thus we speak of “Classis Pacific” when referring to the churches in the classical area of British Columbia. It is in this sense that we use it in Article 4 when we say that candidates shall be examined by the “classis in which they live,” that is, by the churches in that particular area.

The word “classis” is also used of the meetings that are held once every three months, meetings or classes (the plural of classis) that are composed of two delegates from each church in that area. When we use the word classis in this sense, we should always put a date with it, for instance, the Classis Ontario South of December 10, 1986.

More will be said about this point in connection with Art. 44; the above remarks had to be made at this point to prevent misunderstanding.

As a group of churches a “classis” is a permanent phenomenon; as the three-monthly meeting it is impermanent, transitory, lasting only one or two days. In any case, it is not a permanent body that meets once in a while.

 

Declared Eligible

A church is not allowed to call just anyone who strikes its fancy. Nor is a church allowed to call anyone who has been declared eligible for call by just any religious body or by an institute which is entitled to confer degrees in theology. Conferring degrees is an academic matter, not an ecclesiastical one.

One who is called must have been declared eligible for call by the churches, that is, by the churches of the federation.

The second possibility is that one of the ministers is called who is already serving in one of the churches. This is a possibility that needs no further explanation.

A third category are those who are serving in one of the (foreign) sister churches with which the Canadian Reformed Churches maintain a sister church relationship. About this sort of relationship we speak in Art. 50, and will elaborate on it there.

One of the rules for maintaining and practising this relationship is that each other’s office-bearers are mutually recognized and that ministers of foreign sister-churches may be invited to conduct services in our midst when they are visiting here. Inasmuch as they are recognized in their office, we make the provision here that they may be called by the churches.

With the revision of the Church Order, the Synod of Cloverdale 1983 unfortunately provided that also those shall be eligible for call who have been declared eligible in the foreign sister churches, although they have no office in these churches and thus are not covered by the rules for this relationship.

|24|

How Declared Eligible?

The second part of this article describes the manner in which one is declared eligible for call.

There is in the first place the preparatory examination. The meaning of the word “preparatory,” although it also comes from the Latin, will be clear. This examination is to be done by the churches in whose midst the brother lives who aspires to the office of a minister of the Gospel.

At a classis of these churches it is ascertained first of all that the brother has a right to be examined. Not just anyone is permitted to present himself for such an examination. One has to meet certain conditions to be allowed to come and be examined.

The first requirement is that he is a member in good standing of one of the churches. It was not necessary to add here the word “communicant,” since the previous article already contained the provision that one is not eligible for any office unless he has made profession of faith. The candidate has to present an attestation to show that he is such a member and has been one for at least three years. If he has been a member of the same church for more than three years, an attestation from this one church will suffice; if he moved during the last three years, an attestation is required from each church to which he belonged during this period.

Further he has to show proof that he has completed the required course of study. The churches do not demand of someone presenting himself for the preparatory examination that he has followed the courses and passed the examinations at the churches’ own Theological Seminary, although this is the normal procedure. They have left open the possibility that someone is admitted to the preparatory examination who obtained his theological degree elsewhere. Yet he cannot be admitted without any further assurance that he has “mastered” the Reformed doctrine and polity. For this reason the General Synod of Orangeville 1968 decided:

To be admitted to the ecclesiastical examinations candidates shall submit proof that they have completed their studies at our own Theological College. Candidates who took their theological training at other institutions shall present a certificate issued by the Staff of the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches stating that they have followed and/or completed a course of studies conforming with the training provided by the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches. (Acts Synod Orangeville 1968, Art. 171)

Once the documents have been found in order, the examination can take place.

The character of this examination must be kept in view, and it should be realized that it is an ecclesiastical examination which is to ascertain that this brother has indeed such a knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures and of the Reformed doctrine based on them that the members of that classis are convinced that he is able to serve as a true minister of the Gospel. Sometimes examiners ask a candidate to read from the Hebrew or from

|25|

the Greek text of Scripture. Whether this is to demonstrate the knowledge and skill of the examiner or of the candidate we shall leave undecided. What is certain is that it is wrong to do so, and this for more than one reason.

In the first place, the certificate from the faculty of our College is sufficient guarantee that the candidate has acquired the necessary knowledge of the languages in which God’s Word came to us. This does not have to be investigated or demonstrated again.

In the second place, an ecclesiastical examination should be conducted in such a manner that each and every member of that classis not only can follow it but also is able to judge and evaluate it. Any member of that classis who has not studied Hebrew or Greek cannot judge whether the text is read properly or whether a grammatical form was explained correctly.

What should be kept in view all the time is the character and purpose of the examination: Can we wholeheartedly and without hesitation declare of this brother: insofar as we are able to ascertain this brother's motives are pure, he is thoroughly Reformed in his understanding of the Scriptures and is able to expound them as well as the Reformed doctrine based on them; we, therefore, are happy and thankful that we can open the way for him to be called to the office of minister of the Gospel?

There is still the misunderstanding that the “screening” of candidates for the ministry is to be done at the Theological College and that, when after some years in the parsonage someone proves that he is not fit to be a minister, the faculty of the College is responsible for not having stopped him and prevented him from continuing his studies.

This is what we called it: a misunderstanding. The faculty of our Theological College definitely pays attention to the question whether, in their view, a brother lacks the gifts necessary for serving in the ministry, and they will undoubtedly discuss it with the brother, dissuading him from continuing, but this is all they can do. If a student lives as a child of God, studies faithfully and passes his courses with the required weighted average, he will graduate and receive his degree. No one can prevent him from presenting himself for the preparatory examination.

It is not the faculty of our College that declares one eligible for call but the classis that examines the brother and investigates whether he has the gifts required for the office. That is the place where the decision is made and where one is to be stopped, if this appears necessary. This places a heavy responsibility upon the brothers at that classis. They will hesitate to refuse a brother's request to be declared eligible for call; but it is better to disappoint a brother than to risk the well-being of the churches.

Also for this reason every one should be able to follow and understand in all respects what is dealt with during the examination.

 

The Examination

In times past the classis that had to examine the candidate appointed a few brothers to examine him in private regarding his motives for seeking the ministry. Sometimes this was mistakenly called an investigation whether the

|26|

brother had the “calling” to become a minister. No one has a calling except one who is called by a church. The brother comes to be declared eligible for call; he does not have one yet and is not yet in a position to receive one either.

It is good that attention is paid to the reasons why the brother seeks the ministry, but this should be done as an integral part of the examination. That is a matter of ecclesiastical style.

Once the documents have been found in order, the examination can take place.

Three weeks before the classis is held the candidate receives a text from one or two examiners who were appointed to this task by a previous classis. He has to prepare a sermon on this text and to read this sermon at classis. At least in one classical area it is the rule that two copies of the sermon proposal shall be sent to each church so that all who are delegated to the classis can read it beforehand. It is practically impossible to judge a sermon well and thoroughly when hearing it being read once. Some members of the churches seem to be able to do this only too readily; it would, however, be too superficial a way of dealing with such an important matter on which so much depends for the candidate as well as for the churches if it were done in that manner in an ecclesiastical examination.

Although it must be remembered that the brother is standing only on the threshold, yet this sermon should give clear evidence that he has grasped the meaning of the text, that he is able to make this meaning clear to the congregation, and that he knows how to show this meaning in its relevance to the lives of God’s children in our days and times. No one may expect that the candidate shows the knowledge and the insight of one who has served in the ministry for many years; yet it must be clear to all present that the brother has the necessary ability.

After the sermon has been delivered, it is evaluated. First the two ministers who were appointed for the sermon evaluation receive the opportunity to give their remarks and judgment; then the other members of classis have their say. The general conclusion determines whether the examination will be continued or the candidate will be advised that classis is unable to comply with his request, since it is convinced that he lacks the necessary gifts to be a minister of the Word.

Mostly the evaluation takes place “in camera,” in what is called a closed session, that is, a session where only office-bearers are permitted to be present besides the classis. In the end the two ministers mentioned above are usually requested to pass on to the candidate any worthwhile criticism voiced during the evaluation.

This practice of discussing and evaluating the sermon proposal in a closed session is regrettable. The advantage of this procedure is that criticism and remarks can be summarized and passed on in a more systematic manner. The disadvantage is that much of the remarks will be received second-hand, so to speak, and that the candidate misses the opportunity to hear all the brothers and to respond to their remarks, perhaps even to defend his sermon. Some members of classis may speak more freely if the candidate is not there; on the other hand, it may make them more careful when the candidate is present.

|27|

If the conclusion is favourable, the examination can be continued. Two or more weeks before the classis is held, the candidate has received one chapter from the Old Testament and one chapter from the New Testament to study and to explain during the examination.

The Old Testament comes first. Although the candidate should use only the Hebrew text, yet every word that is spoken should be intelligible to all who have to judge the examination. This does not mean that an examiner is not allowed to point to a particular word and to ask what it means precisely in the particular form in which we find it in the text. It may be necessary to do this, but it should be done sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. It serves no purpose at all to ask the candidate to explain to classis the difference in meaning between a verb in the Pu‛al and in the Pi‛el. He knows this, otherwise he would not have graduated.

A time is set for this part of the examination, usually twenty minutes with ten minutes added during which the other members of classis may ask questions about the chapter or about what the candidate said during the examination.

The examination on the New Testament follows. This, too, usually lasts twenty minutes plus ten. This time, of course, the candidate has the New Testament in Greek in front of him, from which he translates directly. The same procedure is followed as with the Old Testament part.

Then comes examination in the doctrine of the church. Sometimes it is called an examination in dogmatics, but this is erroneous. It is equally incorrect when an examiner asks the candidate to recite definitions of dogmatics as given by various dogmaticians of renown. A candidate was subjected to examinations in dogmatics at the Theological Seminary. He is now being examined regarding his knowledge and understanding of the doctrine of the church, and the doctrine of the church is still not to be identified with the dogmatics of Dr. A. or Prof. B.

The time set for the examination in this subject varies from 30 to 45 minutes, with a ten or fifteen minute question period added.

The whole examination, including the sermon, may take up to two-and-a-half to three hours.

After classis has gone into closed session, the examination is evaluated. Examiners express their judgment first, in the order in which they did their part; the other members add their comments, if they so desire. If the judgment is unfavourable, it is most likely that a few members will be appointed to inform the candidate in private. If the outcome is favourable, the candidate is informed of this in classis. He is asked to promise that he will not teach anything that is not in full accordance with Scripture as confessed by the churches. In some instances classes have modified the Subscription Form of which we speak in Art. 26 in such a way that it can be used for candidates for the ministry as well. If such is the case in a particular area, he will be asked to affix his signature to it.

The successful candidate receives proof in writing that he has passed the preparatory examination and has been declared eligible for call within the Canadian Reformed Churches. He receives permission to “speak an

|28|

edifying word” or “to exhort” in the churches for the period of one year. Should he not have received a call before the year is over, he may request an extension which is given without another examination.

It is also possible that the candidate wants to continue his studies for some time, yet wants to be able to serve the churches on the Lord’s Day. A classis will not refuse examination and the requested permission to “exhort,” even if the candidate states that for the time being he will not consider a call owing to continuation of his studies.

In case the examination takes place at a regularly scheduled classis, no special costs are involved for the candidate. If he requests a classis to be convened earlier than scheduled and if this means extra expenses for the churches involved, the candidate is under obligation to reimburse the churches for these extra costs.

 

Ministers from Non-Sister Churches

What happens when a minister from a church with which the Canadian Reformed Churches do not maintain a sister-church relationship comes and asks to be declared eligible for call? He is not eligible as such even though he is a minister.

It may not happen all that often that a minister alone comes with such a request. Most likely he will take care of a congregation and will have tried to take his congregation along in the way he has learned to be the way of obedience. Whether he comes with a flock or not, the case remains basically the same: his being received into the federation must follow the regular procedure.

What is this procedure? In the first place he will have to submit proof that he has been lawfully called to the ministry. No self-styled adventurers need to come with a request. This condition does not imply that we recognize the legitimacy of his position or approve of the community from which he comes. It only means that we want to make sure that everything was done in an orderly way and that we can be reasonably sure that this man has not made himself what he is.

Secondly, he has to submit a written exposition of the reasons which led him to his request to be declared eligible for call within the Canadian Reformed Churches. Merely making an oral declaration is not sufficient for such a serious step and decision. When he has to give a written account, the brother himself is compelled to realize full well what he is doing, and why he came to such a request and what the consequences of it are or may be for himself, for his family, and for the congregation which he takes along, if he has succeeded in convincing others of the correctness of the course he is following.

The churches, on the other hand, have the opportunity to see everything in writing and to consider the question what the consequences may be of acceding to this request. It must be realized that receiving the brother into the federation as a man eligible for call and, if he receives one, as a minister of the Gospel may have far-reaching implications for the federation as such.

|29|

It is a step which must be weighed and considered thoroughly by both parties involved.

In the third place a good testimonial concerning his conduct is required. Everyone will understand that we do not ask for an attestation regarding his doctrine. This would be worthless if it came from a body which itself does not uphold the Scriptural truths. In other instances it might be a testimony coming from a body that maintains doctrines which deviate from Scripture and differ greatly from what we confess.

A testimony concerning his daily conduct is a different matter. The Lord tells us in His Word that we should live in such a manner that an unbeliever, too, may see our godly walk and praise our heavenly Father for it. Of an office-bearer it is required that he has a good reputation among outsiders, and so we learn from God's own Word that even the testimony of an unbeliever would not be worthless. However, when the brother submits testimonials concerning his daily conduct, he will in all likelihood not ask pure unbelievers and haters of the Lord to provide him with a document of that nature.

We gladly hear what others have to say about his way of life. Besides, if he comes alone or with his family, it may be expected that he has already joined one of the churches before he comes with his request. In that case members can testify about his conduct.

Finally, an examination is required which shall be on no lower level than the preparatory and peremptory examinations to which our own candidates for the ministry have to submit. We did speak about the preparatory examination above; the peremptory examination will be discussed in connection with the following article.

Because of the far-reaching consequences which possible admission of such a brother may have for the whole federation, this examination has to be attended also by regional-synodical deputies, or, in short, Deputies ad Art. 48. They represent the federation as such and have to have their input. In the discussion of Article 48 we shall deal with their position and task further.

When everything is favourable, there follows the signing of the Subscription Form for ministers and admission into the federation as a minister in case a congregation comes along. If the brother does not bring a flock along, he will simply be declared eligible for call, after having promised that he will not teach anything contrary to or deviating from Holy Scripture as the churches have summarized the doctrine of it in their confessional formulas.

 

According to Article 8

The third category mentioned are those who have been examined ac­cording to Article 8 CO. As we still have to speak about this article, we let this point rest for the moment.

 

Calling Twice

Sometimes it happens that a minister is called for the second time by the same church. This brings no difficulties with it if a few years have passed and that church in the meantime had another minister. Things are different if the

|30|

second call comes rather shortly after the first one and if the same vacancy still exists.

Calling a minister is a serious matter. Deciding upon a call is no less a serious matter. We may expect of each other that these decisions are not made without asking the Lord for guidance and the light of the Holy Spirit, so that the decision may be pleasing to Him and in the best interest of His churches.

If a minister has come to the conclusion that he had to decline a call, we may not make sport of it and say, “Well, let’s try again.” Is it, then, never permitted to call the same minister again when the vacancy continues and efforts to get another minister to come over to serve that church have not yielded the desired result? Yes, it is permitted, but only on certain conditions.

In the first place, the reasons why the call had to be declined the first time must have been removed or in any case have lost their importance to such an extent that they no longer constitute an impediment to acceptance of another call from the same church.

It is, of course, possible that other difficulties and conditions have arisen that would prevent a minister from accepting a second call, even though he has to say, “No” to the question whether the original reasons are still there. Thus a second call does not necessarily mean that a minister has to accept it.

When a church has received an affirmative answer to its question whether the original reasons for declining have been removed, and when that church wants to call that minister again, it has to ask the advice of the sister-churches. It has to go to the next classis, put the matter before the meeting and ask for advice whether to proceed with a second call. This is to prevent that a church takes such a step lightly and without sufficient ground. Here we keep watch over each other to see that things are done properly and in such a way that the style of the church is followed.

Art. 4 speaks of the “approval” of classis. The word “approval” is actually too strong, even though we are using the word “approbation” in other contexts, a word that has the same basic meaning. It is better to read “the advice” of classis, whereby we keep in mind that we are in duty bound to follow the advice of a major or broader assembly by virtue of the promises made. We spoke of this in the beginning and will come back to it later on when dealing with the major assemblies.

 

Counsellor

In Art. 45 we speak of counsellors. A counsellor is a minister who has been appointed to assist with his advice and help a church that is vacant, that is, that has no minister.

If there are two ministers in a church and one leaves to serve elsewhere, this church is not vacant, although there is one vacancy. There still is a minister to provide the necessary help. When, however, there is only one minister in a church and he leaves, a counsellor is appointed to assist the consistory, mainly although not only, with the calling of a new pastor and teacher.

|31|

About his position and obligations as counsellor we shall speak with Art. 45.

Here it is mentioned that in the work of calling, his advice shall be sought. He is also to co-sign the letter of call. This is an extra assurance for the minister who is called that everything was conducted in the proper manner.

May he refuse to sign such a letter of call? Certainly. If he is convinced that there were irregularities in the procedure which cast doubt on the correctness of the call, he may not co-sign the letter of call, giving his reasons to the consistory as well as, later on, to the first classis to be held. The consistory may also go to this classis, asking it to judge the refusal of the counsellor.

There is another possibility: that the counsellor is convinced that the stipend promised is totally insufficient for the ministerial family and the consistory does not want to accept his advice to make it match the needs of the minister the consistory is going to call.

In case of conflict the matter has to be submitted to the next classis. Such a situation will not arise very often. In by far the most instances there is a good cooperation between a consistory and its counsellor.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 5

|32|

Article 5

Ordination and Installation of Ministers of the Word

 

A. Regarding those who have not served in the ministry before, the following shall be observed:
1. They shall be ordained only after classis has approved the call.
Classis shall approve the call
a. upon satisfactory testimony concerning the soundness of doctrine and conduct of the candidate, signed by the consistory of the Church to which he belongs;
b. upon a peremptory examination of the candidate by classis with satisfactory results. This examination shall take place with the cooperation and concurring advice of deputies of the regional synod.
2. For the ordination they shall show also to the consistory good testimonials concerning their doctrine and conduct from the Church(es) to which they have belonged since their preparatory examination.

B. Regarding those who are serving in the ministry the following shall be observed:
1. They shall be installed after classis has approved the call.
For this approbation as well as for the installation the minister shall show good testimonials concerning his doctrine and conduct, together with a declaration from the consistory with the deacons and from classis that he has been honourably discharged from his service in that Church and classis, or from the Church only, in case he remains within the same classis.
2.   For the approbation by classis of a call of those who are serving in one of the Churches with which the Canadian Reformed Churches maintain a sister-Church relationship a colloquium shall be required which will deal especially with the doctrine and polity of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

C.  Further, for the approbation by classis of a call, the calling Church shall submit a declaration that the proper announcements have been made and that the congregation has given its approval to the call.

This article deals with the manner in which one becomes a minister of the Word in one of the churches.

The brother who is to receive this task can either be a candidate for the office or a minister who is already serving in one of the churches or in one of the foreign sister churches. In the latter two instances we speak of “installation,” while in the first case we speak of “ordination.”

|33|

First of all then about the ordination. What is the proper course of action for one who has been declared eligible for call according to the procedure described in Art. 4, and who has been called by a church? May a church, upon having received word that a candidate has accepted the call extended to him, ordain him without any delay or without any examination or involvement of the sister churches?

Essentially, this question has to be answered in the affirmative. When we confess that each church is an autonomous body, not dependent upon the others, we must also come to the conclusion that the election as well as the ordination of a minister is just as much a matter of this church alone as is the election and ordination of elders and deacons. But without retracting any of the above, we are to consider several other points as well.

The main argument for involvement of the federation is not that, generally speaking, a consistory lacks the manpower and ability to conduct a thorough examination of a candidate for the ministry. If this were an argument at all, involvement of the federation would not be required if a consistory did have the manpower and ability to examine a candidate in the mandatory manner. Yet we do not differentiate between consistories that are in a position to do this and those who cannot. In each and every case the federation is involved.

A consistory could say, “But the brother has been examined by a classis, he has been declared eligible for call, we have called him, he has accepted, and consequently we may ordain him without having to meet any further conditions.” In such a case the consistory would take the preparatory examination as a sufficient guarantee that the brother may be ordained.

The churches have made the provision that a candidate will have to undergo a peremptory examination, that is, a final, decisive, definitive examination. The other examination, the preparatory examination, was a preliminary examination: it only opened the way for a brother to solicit a call. It did not open the way into the ministry.

Now things are different: once the brother has been ordained, there is little the churches can do, unless very serious matters arise. When it comes to the point, the position of a minister of the Gospel is a very protected and “safe” position. Some even claim that the rights and position of a minister are much more protected than the rights and “position” of the church he is serving. Irrespective of whether this claim is correct or not, one thing is certain: that a church must realize full well what it is doing when calling and ordaining or installing a brother as its minister.

Something else has to be said as well: When one is ordained as a minister in the one church, he thereby receives the right to also preach the Word and administer the sacraments in the other churches of the federation and — according to the rules for “correspondence” — even in the foreign sister-churches. We can easily see what far-reaching consequences it has when one is ordained as a minister of the Gospel.

In Art. 15 we make clear that a minister is not free to go and preach somewhere else on his own initiative and authority, but that is not the point here. Here we stress that a minister receives certain rights and privileges

|34|

which affect the federation as well. Since the federation is affected, the churches have agreed that a definitive examination will have to precede the ordination and that this peremptory examination will be conducted by a classis. This time it is not a classis of the area in which the candidate lives but of the region where we find the church that called him.

The preparatory examination was requested by the brother; the request for the peremptory examination comes from the church in which the brother is to be ordained. This church knows: we may not ordain him unless the call has been approved by the sister churches, and we cannot expect this approval unless a peremptory examination has been conducted with favourable outcome. Thus it asks for such an examination.

What has to be shown in the first place is, of course, the letter of call and the written confirmation that the call has been accepted. In general, for a letter of call a form-letter is used, although it is more and more realized that such a form-letter has its drawbacks. In order to assist consistories in the case of calling, such a draft letter of call is added under Appendices.

The letter of call has to be examined by classis, either by being read in the full classis or by being read by a few appointed members, to see whether there are any stipulations that are wrong or whether any stipulations have been omitted that should have been included. As far as this goes, it is to be hoped that the churches have learned their lesson. We are thinking here of the deletion of a clause in the letter of call by the consistory of the church at Winnipeg, a change made upon the request of the Rev. C. DeHaan. Classis was never informed of this deletion. Examination of a letter of call and of the declaration of acceptance should not be handled as a matter of routine or as just a formal gesture to which little attention is paid. Too much depends on it for that, as we have seen.

Secondly, the candidate is to submit written proof from the classis which conducted the preparatory examination that he has been declared eligible for call. In a rather small federation all churches will know who has been declared eligible. Besides, one might remark, our present means of communication and publication practically ensure that no one will be able to squeeze in under false pretenses. In spite of this we must insist on documentary proof so that we can always fall back on documents, should this become necessary. Examination of a candidate and deciding on his admittance — or not — is not just a personal matter; it is a church-matter. In private dealings we may go by a mere spoken word; in matters concerning the church we must have the written-down word.

What is needed further is a good attestation from the church to which the candidate has belonged since his preparatory examination. Although the consistories of the churches where the candidate conducted services would also be able to give a testimony concerning the soundness of doctrine as far as the “exhorting” is concerned, the supervision of doctrine and walk of life is a matter of the local consistory. They are the ones whose attestation has to be presented before the examination may begin.

Although in most instances the candidate will not have moved since his preparatory examination, the possibility exists that he did. If this is the case,

|35|

he will have to submit an attestation from each of the churches to which he belonged since that examination.

Usually an attestation is no more than a declaration that the brother is sound in doctrine and truly Christian in conduct. Although we will speak about attestations in connection with Art. 62, it has to be noted here that such a simple statement in reality is of little or no help in determining someone’s capabilities and fitness for the ministry. Should such an attestation not contain more than that? Should it not say something about the brother’s involvement in congregational activities, his interest and participation in the work of societies, and so on? An attestation is meant to help a classis to come to a conclusion whether the candidate may be admitted into the ministry in one — and thus in all — of the churches! Also consistories that give attestations should be aware of their responsibility in this respect and be specific in their attestations.

 

The Examination

Once the documents have been examined and found in order, the examination can be undertaken.

First of all, there is the sermon proposal. At the preparatory examination a text is given, but at the peremptory examination the candidate himself may choose the text. He may take one of the sermon proposals which he already has, or he may prepare a new one. It is up to him in this case.

At least three weeks before, he will have been assigned two chapters from the Old Testament and two chapters from the New Testament to study so that at classis he can prove that he is able to explain the Scriptures, understanding what the message is of the parts studied for this occasion. The time set aside for this part is usually the same as in the preparatory examination, and the procedure similar.

A following period is dedicated to examination in the doctrine of the church. We shall not repeat what was said about this point in connection with Art. 4, but only allude to it here.

Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures is very important for a minister of the Word. Thus the brother is examined regarding his knowledge of their contents. What has to become evident is that the candidate is familiar with the Word of God, that he knows how to find his way in it, that he is acquainted with the contents of the various books and that he is aware of their unity.

Each classis sets its own time-limits for the examination. The total length of the peremptory examination is at least three hours, but each classis is free to determine how the time shall be divided over the various subjects. Thus there is no fixed time for examination in knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and oftentimes it is treated as a step-child, receiving some ten minutes or fifteen at the most.

Although we realize that there is the desire to limit the total time for the examination, the question is still justified whether the length of the examination should not be extended so that sufficient attention can be paid to each and every part of it. The Churches of the Secession in the Netherlands at

|36|

one time conducted peremptory examinations that lasted for one-and-a-half days, starting at ten in the morning and sometimes going on till nine or ten at night. We should not think too soon that we are demanding too much of a candidate. Admission into the ministry is a serious matter and a responsible task which should be dealt with accordingly. We do not advocate a return to the above-mentioned practice, but merely want to draw attention to the seriousness of the peremptory examination and its effects.

Knowledge of the history of the church is important as well. In most instances twenty minutes to half an hour is dedicated to this plus ten minutes for further questions. What is to become evident from this examination is not whether the brother knows all sorts of facts and dates — however important these may be — but whether he has a good insight into the history of the church, whether he distinguishes the way in which the Lord Jesus Christ has gathered her and is gathering her in the unity of the true faith, and whether he sees how the Lord has preserved and defended her against all sorts of attacks, whether these came by force or by false doctrine. It should become equally clear whether the candidate is able to relate what happened in the past to the present situation so that errors are recognized and connections are seen.

Closely connected with the knowledge and understanding of the history of the church is his understanding of the polity of the church and his ability to apply it. For this part of the examination fifteen or twenty minutes is the usual time allotted with five or ten minutes available for further questioning.

A following subject is sometimes called “Ethics.” Once again, the danger is very real that candidates are asked to recite definitions of Ethics as given by various professors or others. We are not conducting an academic examination at an ecclesiastical assembly and should therefore not go in this direction. This is a point that has to be stressed repeatedly. Our official ecclesiastical language calls this part an examination of the candidate’s “knowledge of the commandments of the Lord in their meaning for the Christian life.” Perhaps we should translate the latter part as “their bearing on the life of a Christian.” Again: at the most twenty minutes are usually reserved for it; more often fifteen minutes are considered sufficient. Such a short period appears insufficient to give classis the opportunity to come to a warranted conclusion regarding the candidate’s ability to “explain” the Lord’s commandments in their bearing on our daily life. The usual “question period” follows.

The last part of the examination is sometimes erroneously called “Pastoral Theology” or “Pastoral Discipline.” This is an academic term which should be avoided. In our official ecclesiastical decision regarding the peremptory examination we speak here of “knowledge of the requirements for the execution of the various parts of the ministerial service.” Here we refer to the requirements for the preparation of sermons, catechetical instruction, family visits, etc.

Once more, the point is not whether the candidate knows all sorts of technical details, but whether he has a good grasp of what the work of a

|37|

minister is and how it should be executed. In other words, is there reasonable assurance that this brother is fit for the ministry and can we open the way for him to become a minister of the Word in one of the churches? All this places quite a burden and responsibility not only on the candidate but also on the classis that is to examine and in particular on the brothers who have been appointed as examiners. They, too, have to prepare themselves very seriously for their task.

There are a few other brothers involved here as well. Because admitting a candidate into the ministry is a matter which has its consequences for the whole federation, there is a wider representation than only the classis. Regional-synodical deputies — deputies ad Art. 48 — are also to be present and have the right to take part in the questioning. In most cases they use this right very sparingly, but if they deem it necessary to question the candidate regarding any point in order that their advice may be well-founded, they have the full right to do so and are not bound by any time-limit set by classis.

When the judgment of classis is favourable and the advice of the region-al-synodical deputies is in full accordance with it, the way into the ministry is declared open. If, on the other hand, deputies disagree and their advice is negative, the only course open is to put the matter before the next regional synod. Until regional synod has made a decision, the whole matter is held in abeyance. Upon favourable decision — reached in closed session — the candidate is asked to affix his signature to the Subscription Form for Ministers of the Word so as to confirm his agreement with and adherence to the Holy Scriptures as they are confessed by the churches.

When the church submits a declaration that the proper announcements as mentioned in Art. 3 have been made and that the congregation has not raised any valid objections, classis can approve the call. This is the end of the involvement of the federation. From this point on it is a purely local matter.

Usually the church involved asks for a representative of the sister churches to be present at the ordination and inauguration of the new minister; it also requests a minister to officiate at the ordination. Even if the candidate suggests a name, the invitation to conduct that service must come from the consistory.

One more condition is to be met before the ordination can take place. Attestations must be submitted not only to classis but also to the consistory from the church(es) to which the candidate belonged since the preparatory examination. All this is to safeguard the churches and to ensure — as far as humanly possible — that the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of life may be preserved also under the guidance and pastoral care of a new minister of the Word.

 

Ministers within the Federation

Once one has been admitted into the ministry, no further ecclesiastical examination is required, unless the suspicion arises that the minister may be unfaithful to his ordination vows. We shall speak about this in dealing with

|38|

Art. 26. This does not mean, however, that one can just move from the one place to the other at will. Not only is a call needed, there is also the involvement of the federation when a minister wishes to follow up that call. In this matter the churches have agreed to keep watch over each other to prevent that irregularities take place or that things are done stealthily. All things should be open and “above board,” so to speak.

First of all we shall deal with ministers who are serving in one of the churches. They shall not be installed in office in the “new” church until after classical approval of the call. Article 9 speaks more extensively about classical approval; therefore we shall confine ourselves here to the conditions on which an installation may take place.

It does not need any further elaboration that also in this case the letter of call and the official declaration of acceptance must be presented. Further there should be the good testimonials regarding doctrine and conduct, given by the church he served. This is nothing new either. What is new is that he has to submit to the consistory as well as to the classis a declaration given by the consistory with the deacons that he has been honourably discharged from his service in that church. Thus the new church can rest assured that the brother did not just pack up and ship out, without the consent of the consistory with the deacons, but that it is with their full consent that he left the church he served to take up a new charge elsewhere.

Besides the declaration from the consistory he also needs a classical document testifying to his honourable release from his service in that region. Most likely he had been appointed to various tasks, such as that of examiner, church visitor, or counsellor of a vacant church. The receiving classis must be assured that the brother did not shirk his obligations towards the sister churches. Such a classical declaration is not needed if the move is from the one to the other church in the same classical region. It is obvious that such a move will not bring any change in his position within that region except, perhaps, in the case of a counsellorship.

When the church submits a declaration that the proper announcements have been made and that no valid objections have been lodged by the congregation, classis will approve the call, and the installation can take place. It happens frequently that no classis is scheduled for a few months or that a classis has been postponed due to lack of material to be dealt with, and that a church would prefer not to wait for another two or three months for the classical approbation of the call. Rather than convening a full classis earlier than scheduled for the sole purpose of the approbation of a call, the calling church may request that a “classis contracta” be held, a sort of miniature classis, usually formed by two representatives of the convening church and of the neighbouring church, at which the approbation can take place. We’ll come back to this point when we discuss Art. 44. Be it stated here that all churches in the region are to receive the convocation notice and are free to send delegates, although they are not obligated to do so in this case and although it is understood that only the two above-mentioned churches have to be represented at such a classis contracta. The term in itself is sufficiently clear.

|39|

Ministers from Foreign Sister Churches

As was mentioned in connection with the previous article, ministers in foreign sister churches may be called just as freely as ministers who are serving within our own federation. Before they can be installed, however, there are a few additional conditions to be met, a few more than in the case of our own ministers. To the classis to which the request for approbation is submitted they shall in the first place show proof that they had already been called to the ministry. None of the ministers received such a document at his ordination and we know that it would be asking too much if we demanded that they submit it. There are, however, other ways of ascertaining this and obtaining the necessary documentary proof.

One of the possibilities is that the deputies for relations with foreign churches give the brother a document confirming that he was properly called and ordained as a minister in the church at A. He could also ask the church at A. to give a statement confirming that on a particular date he was properly ordained as a minister in that church. From whatever reliable source he asks it, such a document is needed for the approbation of a call. If such a document is not available, all further action is to be suspended until it has been submitted.

As long as our foreign relations are restricted to those churches with which we share a common root, so to speak, one might consider such a requirement rather superfluous. Yet we must insist on it, since — as we already remarked above — the churches must be protected and act upon written submissions only. Besides, if the foreign relations are expanded and we come into contact or even enter into a sister church relationship with churches from a completely different background, we will need these safeguards more than ever.

The second document to be submitted for approbation of the call is the letter of call, followed by the declaration of acceptance. Then there are the usual testimonials regarding doctrine and conduct, and proof that the brother has been orderly released from his previous ministry.

Another extra condition is that he submit to a colloquium that will deal particularly with the Reformed doctrine and church government. The usual term for such an occurrence was “colloquium doctum,” which means “a learned discussion.” The Synod of Orangeville 1968 deleted the word “doctum” (“learned”) to prevent the misunderstanding that such a discussion had to be conducted on an academic level. This would conflict with the ecclesiastical nature of a classis as well as of the approbation of a call. This discussion is to be conducted in order to ensure that this minister understands and adheres to the Reformed doctrine and church government.

As in the other cases, a declaration is required from the consistory that the proper announcements have been made and that no valid objections were raised by the congregation. Upon receipt of classical approbation the installation may take place. It will be clear that such an approbation requires a full classis and that it should not be decided upon and given by a classis contracta consisting of only four or six members.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 6

|40|

Article 6

Bound to a Church

 

No one shall serve in the ministry unless he is bound to a certain Church, either to be stationed in a certain place, or to be sent out for the gathering of the Church from among the heathen or from among those who have become estranged from the gospel; or to be charged with some other special ministerial task.

When the Lord Jesus called His disciples, these men were called to a specific and unique task: They were to be witnesses of the Saviour; they had to be witnesses of what the Lord spoke and did, of all that He suffered, of His death and of His resurrection as well as of His ascension into heaven so that they could bring the message of the Word of life, of what they themselves had seen with their eyes, heard with their ears, and touched with their hands. They were sent by the Lord with a special mandate and authority, subject only to Him, accountable to Him alone. After them there were no more apostles, nor should any claim such a position. These apostles later on ordained office-bearers in each and every place. These office-bearers had no more than local authority and were elected by the church over which they had the oversight.

Today, too, we adhere to the principle that one can be called only by a church and can be an office-bearer only for as long as one is “covered” by that call. We do not recognize any ministers-in-general-service, called by classes or synods. This is the principle expressed in Art. 6. In the Romish church it is the rule that one is ordained by “the church” and then is free to go and minister anywhere with the authority of “the church.” Not so in the Reformed Churches.

Even though a minister may be invited by another church to fulfil a ministerial task in its midst, he is not a “minister-in-general-service” who can travel from place to place and do what belongs to the office of a minister. Both the office as such and the field of labour are confined to the one church which calls and installs and determines where its minister shall work. There are no exceptions to this rule.

A church may decide to assign a special task to its minister or to one of its ministers. In the first place, there are the missionaries. Article 18 speaks of them separately. Here they are mentioned to show that, although one particular church calls them, they do not have to fulfil their ministry in the midst of that church, since a special task is given to them which compels them to work far away.

Another possibility is that a church calls a minister to work especially among those who have become estranged from the Gospel or who have grown up in ignorance in our own vicinity. To use an example, if there is a large Italian or Chinese or Vietnamese section in a city, a church may decide

|41|

to call a minister to work especially among that particular segment of the population. If, for instance, one of those who fled communist oppression in their homeland and became a believer, should prepare himself for the ministry and express the wish to work especially among his fellow-refugees, a church would have to call him as its minister, and give him the special mandate to do that specific work.

We also mention the possibility that one is charged with some other special ministerial task. This could be a dangerous provision if the principle expressed in this article were lost sight of. Yet we must leave open the possibility mentioned here. In olden days it was customary that kings and others who maintained a court had a court chaplain. Further there were orphanages, hospitals or old age homes that had their own chaplains. Such court chaplains were appointed by the prince or the king; orphanage or old age home chaplains by the board of regents of the orphanage or old age homes. What was their position and what were their rights in the midst of the churches? The churches always insisted on it that these ministers be called by the local church, also if they served in orphanages or similar institutions, while the court chaplains were urged to form a consistory out of the members of the court.

What “other special ministerial task” could we think of? The churches consider the position of ministers who are appointed as professors of theology at the Theological College to be such that they have a special ministerial task, namely, the training for the ministry. Here we have one possibility. Art. 19 speaks of the professors of theology.

If we had such a large old age and nursing home somewhere that ministering to the occupants required a full-time minister, the way to go about it is that the church in whose territory such a home is found calls a minister whose task it will be specifically to take care of these members and possibly of others. In such a case it would be proper that the Home contributed an amount equivalent to the minister’s stipend so that the church could afford to call a minister for this specific field of labour.

Another possibility is that a minister is requested to serve as an army or prison or hospital chaplain.

We are not speaking now about all the “angles” that have to be considered in such a case. We only mention what might be considered to be a special ministerial task. In these cases, too, the call has to come from a specific church that assigns its minister this particular type of work.

Should, on the other hand, a minister be appointed to become a full-time instructor of Bible and Church History at one or more of our high schools, then we can no longer speak of a “special ministerial task,” however important it may be that the students are instructed in the Word of God and the history of His church. In this case the brother has entered upon another vocation. Whatever may be the case, always and everywhere there must be a church that calls and that determines and assigns the task. There should be no “ministers-in-general-service.”

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 7

|42|

Article 7

Recent Converts

 

No one who has recently come to the confession of the Reformed Religion shall be declared eligible for call within the Churches unless he has been well tested for a reasonable period of time and has been carefully examined by classis with the cooperation of the deputies of the regional synod.

Is it difficult to understand that someone who has seen his eyes opened for all the grace and mercy which the Lord God has bestowed upon us in our Saviour Jesus Christ is eager to have others share these riches? This already applies to all who, like Timothy, have known the Scriptures from their youth up. Would it, then, not apply the more to those who for a long time lived in ignorance and the darkness of heathenism or who had been brought up in false doctrine, and were once caught in the snares of superstition? Can we understand it when there are some who then feel the urge to become preachers of the same Gospel of which they had been ignorant or which, perhaps, they hated and tried to undermine as once the apostle Paul did? Once someone said, “There are people who, when they have been converted, feel it their duty to become a minister of the Gospel.” This is then caused by the mistaken idea that one would be able to prove himself grateful to the Lord only by entering into the ministry, or that one is able to convey the riches to others only when he is a preacher of the Word.

Nothing is farther from the truth. To one who seeks these opportunities they present themselves everywhere; and our gratitude for having our eyes opened for the treasures of our Saviour should be shown in the first place in that we live out of the fulness of our Redeemer’s merits so that others can see what a redeemed life is.

Should one who came from a purely heathen background or from a sectarian background feel the desire to prepare himself for the ministry of the Word, due caution is to be exercised with the admission of such a person into the ministry.

Generally speaking, we who have been brought up in the fear of the Lord, who have always lived in the church, have heard the Word of God preached to us — even though for many years we understood little of it — attended a Reformed school, were taught at catechism classes, and built each other up at the society meetings, are frequently not aware of the enormous privileges received therein and of the tremendous treasures of knowledge and insight we have amassed thereby.

Someone who becomes a believer at a later age has missed all this. He has to make up for it in a relatively short time. Even so, his background will slow him down and continue to hamper him for as long as he lives. This is something we can notice even with men of renown in the history of the

|43|

church. There are only relatively few persons whose background has little or no influence on their thinking and understanding of God’s holy Word.

If someone who was brought to faith expresses the wish to train for the ministry, it is unlikely in our days that he would be able to enter upon this service in a dangerously short period of time. Even if he were in possession of the degree required for admission to our College, he would in all likelihood have to get some additional credits besides having to study at our College for some four years. One could not call a period of five or even six years of study a “rush job.”

Things were different in the age of the Reformation, the days when our Church Order was shaped. When the persecutions were still raging and when it could cost a person’s life even to have a Bible in one’s possession, it was less likely that someone would seek such a dangerous position. As soon as the greatest danger was past, at least in some regions of the country, the situation became different. There were in the first place many priests who wandered from place to place and sought to receive the position of minister of the Word. Further, there were the many monks whose monasteries had been “confiscated” and who now were faced with the choice: either choose a “secular” vocation or seek to serve as a minister.

With many of those seeking the ministry there may still have been a remnant of the old feeling that “ordination is for life.” Others may have been sincere in their desire; again others may have considered the ministry to be a way of securing a steady income and support. When reading the old Acts of provincial synods, one sees a multi-coloured variety of cases and rationales.

In view of the dangers involved for the churches should persons be admitted too readily into the ministry, the provision was inserted that no priests, monks, etc. should be admitted unless they had been observed and tested for a considerable time so that they might prove themselves to be sincere and capable. Herein the churches obeyed the command that the Lord gave through the apostle Paul in 1 Tim. 3: 6: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” The same warning still holds for our days and situation. It is a warning which applies not only to receiving someone into the ministry; it is equally binding in the case of deacons and elders.

We no longer mention the various categories found in earlier redactions of this article. We only speak of one “who has recently come to the confession of the Reformed Religion.” It is clear that we refer here specifically to a person who already had the position of leadership comparable to or even the same as that of a minister. If we were referring to just anyone, this would not make much sense, since the period of study required is a sufficient period for the testing mentioned in this article. The person we are referring to here is one mentioned in Art. 4 B 2. In some instances he may come with a congregation; in other cases he may come alone or only with his own family. He should not right away be admitted into the ministry and — if he takes his congregation along — this congregation should not be received right away into the federation with all the rights and privileges connected with this. The churches must be convinced that those requesting admission not only are

|44|

sincere, but also do indeed adhere to the Reformed Religion and thus do stand with us on the same basis.

When a request comes for admittance or affiliation, it should be realized that, once the minister (and his congregation) has been received into the federation, he is eligible for call, even though it may be expected that he will continue to lead his flock at least for a considerable time to come.

Here we do not use the term “recent converts” but speak of one having “come to the confession of the Reformed Religion.”

No time can be set for the period of testing. Much will depend on the brother's background and previous history. One who comes from a sectarian background will face a longer period of testing than one who has a background much closer to our own.

No one has to feel offended by this provision or by the testing. On the contrary, one who is sincere in his desire will gladly accept it and submit to it. If, on the other hand, someone should object and for this reason withdraw, we can be assured that the churches will only benefit by his withdrawal. It sheds no favourable light on one’s request if that is his reaction when his request is dealt with seriously and thoroughly and according to a rule which has proved its worth for more than four hundred years. When such a brother comes, he will have to be examined on the classical level. Regional-synodical deputies are to be involved and are to take part in the examination.

Further we refer here to what was said in connection with Article 4.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 8

|45|

Article 8

Exceptional Gifts

 

Persons who have not pursued the regular course of study shall not be admitted to the ministry unless there is assurance of their exceptional gifts of godliness, humility, modesty, good intellect, and discretion, as well as the gift of public speech.
When such persons present themselves for the ministry, classis, after the approval of regional synod, shall examine them in a preparatory examination and allow them to speak an edifying word in the Churches of the classis; and further deal with them as it shall deem edifying, with observance of the general ecclesiastical regulations adopted for this purpose
.

When dealing with the question who may be declared eligible for call within the churches, we also mentioned those who “have been examined according to the rule described in Article 8.” This is the article we shall discuss now.

Again we see how the churches have agreed to be very careful when admitting persons into the ministry. Frequently the number of those seeking this admission according to Art. 8 increases when there are many vacancies in the churches or when, after a Reformation, the need for ministers is drastically increased all of a sudden.

Herein we may see the hand of the Lord who, in times of need, gives it into the hearts of men to seek the ministry to alleviate the need. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that some see a chance to come in by the back door without following the prescribed course of study.

In this article the churches acknowledge that it may please the Lord to adorn men with such special gifts and so to give these gifts apart from the normal course of study, that we would be guilty of gross neglect and ingratitude towards the Lord if we did not recognize what He bestows upon His people in these men. At the same time it is made clear that the churches must be very careful and should see to it that it becomes evident beyond doubt that in such a case we, indeed, do see such special gifts. All sorts of safeguards are to be observed.

In the days of the Reformation many of those who sought the ministry were men who had not followed a regular course of study. It was often extremely difficult to obtain the necessary instruction. Some went to Geneva or to Heidelberg, but these were about the only possibilities. Most of the European universities were in Roman Catholic hands, others were Lutheran. Besides, who had the financial means to go so far away for many years? Also after the Synod of Dordrecht 1618-1619, when many ministers who were Arminian disappeared or were deposed, there came a time during which many sought the ministry without having followed the prescribed course of study.

|46|

On purpose we put it this way: “the prescribed course of study.” In some circles it is deemed more desirable not to have followed a course of study than to have enjoyed this privilege. They consider persons who have followed the regular course to be on a lower level than the ones who — in their opinion — were “taught by the Spirit.”

We believe that the Holy Spirit uses the means that are available so that one may acquire the abilities and skills needed for a minister of the Word; we also believe that it is our duty to use these means. In general, we all are average people, and average people have to work the more diligently to fulfil the duties of their “office and calling,” as we express it in Lord’s Day 49 of our Catechism.

There is another point that we are to bear in mind here. No one should have the impression that those who present themselves according to Art. 8 have not studied at all and have arrived at this point without having done their best to acquire the abilities they possess. Nor should anyone be under the impression that, once these persons have been admitted, they no longer have to study, as if the Holy Spirit gives knowledge, insight, and ability by special revelation instead of in the way of hard work. Many of the ministers who entered the ministry without an academic education in the days of the Reformation and in later times applied themselves to serious study and are by dint of their diligent studies still known in the church for their valuable contribution towards its edification and preservation.

Art. 8 does not speak of persons who are admitted “without having studied,” but of men who have not followed the regular course of study.

 

The Way to Follow

How are they to seek entry into the ministry? First of all, they must have the desire to serve as a minister of the Gospel.

They should also ask themselves whether they should not try to follow the regular course of study and so reach their goal. The possibility mentioned in Art. 8 is certainly not an escape route enabling people to get around the required years of study.

One of the prerequisites would be that the desire is there, but that there would also be great hesitation to think of himself that he has special gifts that would make him eligible for admission according to this article. Is not one of the gifts that should be found with the brother the gift of being humble?

Then, one who is starting on this path should also examine himself to see whether he is trying to “squeeze in by the backdoor,” following what is considered a faster and easier way. If one is trying to do just that, and succeeds, the difficulties that arise will be innumerable and the whole undertaking will be a dismal failure.

Further, it is most likely that one is urged to seek admission according to Art. 8 by friends or brothers and sisters who are convinced of the presence of the gifts required. When one harbours the desire to serve as a minister, and when one has the necessary gifts, the desire will have been revealed in private discussions, and the gifts will have become evident to all who know

|47|

the brother, see his way of life, and observe his ability to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures by whose light he knows how to tell truth from lie and Scriptural doctrine from error. Thus the most likely course is that friends and brothers and sisters suggest to the brother that he apply for admission. He will follow their advice only after much hesitation and prayer for guidance.

The first step to be taken is that he approaches the consistory with the request for an attestation. This attestation, this testimony must be much more than a shallow, “as far as is known, brother A. is of sound doctrine and irreproachable conduct.” What is a broader assembly to do with that? Plainly nothing. Who are those able to give a sound testimony about the brother’s “godliness, humility, modesty”? Are they not those in whose midst he lives and works? Are they not those who have the oversight over him? A broader assembly certainly will receive an impression when a brother is examined. A picture will emerge in the course of the examination. It will become evident whether the brother fears the Lord from the heart, whether he is humble and whether he is modest; but is this impression and the conclusion based on it sufficient for such an important decision as is to be made on the brother’s request? It is a conclusion which will affect not only the brother's life but also the life of the churches! The deciding assembly will need a more solid basis than that.

If a brother has such exceptional gifts, they will have been noticed in the congregation and the congregation will have made use of them by calling him to the office of elder or deacon. There will be ample awareness among the brothers and sisters of the presence of the above-mentioned gifts. The church to which the brother belongs is the body which is to serve the broader assembly with the first assessment of the gifts with him.

The attestation, therefore, will be quite a lengthy document, giving ample information about the brother’s conversation among the brothers and sisters, about the judgment that the congregation has concerning him, about his participation in all sorts of activities, about his godliness, humility, and modesty. Briefly, it must be stated beyond doubt that, according to the judgment of the consistory and the congregation both, the required gifts are present.

No “neutral” description of the brother will do. No mere description of “facts” from which the broader assembly will have to draw its own conclusions will be acceptable. What is needed is a well-founded testimony from the church to which the brother belongs. A consistory is not allowed to shift the responsibility to the broader assemblies, although we realize that it may be a difficult decision to say “No” to a brother’s request when he is a member of the congregation or perhaps even an office-bearer. In so far it is “easier” for a broader assembly to do so, as its members will not be so close to the brother as his fellow-members of that particular congregation.

If, however, a brother is to be disappointed, it is better that it is done right away instead of first giving him hope that he will reach his goal.

 

The Next Step

What is the next step? There is no provision in our Church Order or in our general-synodical decisions which prescribes that the brother shall go

|48|

first to a classis to obtain a similar attestation, so that, armed with two favourable testimonials, he may present himself to a regional synod. Perhaps brothers who are quite regularly delegated to classes know the brother to some extent, which would facilitate matters slightly, but it is most doubtful whether a classis could add anything substantial that regional synod should know over and above the witness from the consistory.

Regional synod is the assembly where the examination takes place that will determine whether the special gifts are present to such an extent that the brother can be admitted to the classical examinations. Thus the brother asks the convening church for the next regional synod to pass on his request for examination. This regional synod is, of course, the one of the region in which he lives, not another one far, far away.

The gifts are in the first place godliness and humility. Although — as remarked above — a broader assembly is unable to judge these gifts in such a measure as is necessary and in this point is to go by the testimony of the consistory, yet a certain impression will be received and attention must certainly be paid to it. It could be that serious doubt arises about the correctness of the consistory's experience with the brother and the conclusion it has drawn from it.

Further there is the gift of modesty, of a conduct which shows a lifestyle that is in accordance with the self-control and decency which the Lord demands of us. It must also become evident that the brother has a good intellect, so that he is able to grasp things, especially the message of the Word of God. Discretion means that he is able to see through things and statements, separating what is the truth of God from what are the lies and deceptions of the evil one.

It has to be repeated that these gifts do not come by themselves but are the fruit of a special blessing given by the Lord upon faithful study, mainly though not solely or exclusively, of the Holy Scriptures. The only difference is that in this case the Lord gave these gifts apart from the regular course of study.

Public speech as a gift is mentioned last. In olden days the word “eloquence” was used. This does not mean that one is able to overwhelm his hearers by a cataract of words, or that everyone has to stand in awe and exclaim, “What a speaker!” A flood of words is certainly not proof of modesty, good intellect, discretion, or even “eloquence.” What is meant is that one can speak well, is able to formulate his thoughts well, has the capability of presenting things clearly, intelligibly, and concisely so that the hearers can grasp what he says and intends to convey. Someone who has to say repeatedly, “No, that is not what I meant to say, let me rephrase it” certainly does not have the gift mentioned here as necessary for admission.

Difficult as the examination may be for the brother who presents himself for it, it will be even more difficult for the assembly that is to conduct it. No rules can be given for it and no schedule can be designed for it. Each regional synod is free in its way of dealing with the brother’s request. Once someone remarked at a regional synod where such an examination took place, “How will people who are not exceptional ever be able to judge someone

|49|

who is?” However logical this may sound, there is a misunderstanding here. The question is not whether a brother is exceptional and leaves all the others far behind in this respect, but whether in this case the Holy Spirit has given these gifts that others may acquire and thus, indeed, receive as a gift, only in the long way of regular studies.

If regional synod comes to the conclusion that the gifts are not present in such measure that it can decide favourably upon the request, there is nothing the brother or a classis can do about it. He will not be forbidden to try again, although it is not something to gamble with in the hope that another regional synod will come to a different conclusion. It did happen that a brother moved to another place and then approached a regional synod of that province. It is difficult to see how a consistory there could give a well-founded testimony except after several years of having the brother in their midst.

Upon a favourable decision by regional synod the brother may approach the next classis with the request to be examined as a first step towards the ministry. This time the purpose of the examination is not to see whether the necessary gifts are present, but whether the brother has the necessary knowledge. We speak of only one examination: the preparatory examination. In the past there were two examinations: the one which gave the right to exhort, the other the (normal) preparatory examination.

In earlier times the exhorting was restricted to private gatherings, not extended to the congregation on Sundays. It was the intention that the candidates should have a period of training: their “propositions” were heard and discussed in private and submitted to the scrutiny of ministers. In this period the candidate also had the opportunity to study and so to prepare himself for the preparatory examination upon which he was declared eligible for call.

Our mentioning only one examination, the preparatory examination, does not imply that the candidate is immediately to be declared eligible for call when the outcome is favourable. In the first place, the permission to exhort is restricted to the classical area. In the second place, there is the provision that classis shall “further deal with him as it shall deem edifying.”

It is only logical that the examining classis appoints a few brothers to judge the sermon proposals and to receive reports from the churches so that they, in turn, can report to the next classis on the overall picture. Depending on the length of time the examining classis has set for a definitive decision, the final report will come after six or more months and may be expected to contain recommendations whether the brother can be declared eligible for call or has to do some more studying. In case he was told to do some more studying after his initial examination, a further examination will be necessary to see whether this additional study had the desired result. This new examination may or may not result in his being declared eligible for call.

The examination that the candidate has to undergo differs from the “regular” preparatory examination only in one point: no use or knowledge of Hebrew or Greek will be expected; as for the rest, the level is to be the same as in the case of candidates who have the documents mentioned in Art. 4. Once he has been declared eligible for call, the brother is in the same position as any other candidate.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 9

|50|

Article 9

From One Church to Another

 

A minister, once lawfully called, shall not leave the Church to which he is bound to take up the ministry elsewhere without the consent of the consistory with the deacons and the approval of classis.
On the other hand, no Church shall receive him unless he has presented a proper certificate of release from the Church and the classis where he served, or of the Church only, if he remains within the same classis
.

When a minister accepts a call to a church, he has to realize that he will stay there and serve this church for as long as he is in active service. This shows that he must know very well what he is doing when accepting a call. It shows also that a church is to act very cautiously, too, when extending a call. No call should be extended unless the consistory has made some thorough investigation. It is not nearly sufficient or adequate to go by a recording of one or two sermons or by a list of questions answered by one brother.

It happens repeatedly that a call is extended after the consistory and the congregation have listened to a few sermons and after a reply has been received from a member of the minister's congregation. This is an insufficient basis on which to extend a call. Too little it is realized that the bond between a minister and a church is a bond for life. Things should be considered in a thorough manner. It is better to spend quite an amount of time and money to send two brothers to investigate in person than to go by a few pieces of information as mentioned above.

Two brothers delegated to gather information can speak with several members of the congregation and thus can “examine” a cross-section of the members and receive a better overall picture. There are always members who will defend and praise their minister irrespective of whether he is to be defended and praised or not. Likewise, on the other side, there will always be members who criticize whatever the minister does, and in whatever manner he does it. Personal visits and investigation will enable the consistory to receive a better, more accurate picture.

Besides, when a list of questions is sent, a consistory will never receive complete information. The reason is not in the first place that the brother who answers the questions is not able to give complete and accurate information, but that he is not prepared to entrust his honest opinion to paper. Archives have the nasty habit of preserving and producing at the most inopportune moment information and letters that should have been reduced to ashes as soon as the addressees had taken note of their contents.

Oral communication and personal discussions are far more fruitful than a few cassettes and letters. So much depends on factual information: once

|51|

a minister is there, he is there to stay, and a consistory should never have to accuse itself of having neglected gathering accurate and sufficient information, if things turn sour.

Ministers of the Word are not infallible; they are just as sinful in themselves as the congregation they are serving. For this reason it is wise to gather as much information as possible before extending a call. If things turn sour, a minister could say, “They could have asked all sorts of information about me; they could have known or even did know who I was and how my work was; yet they called me. Now that they are stuck with me, they have no right to complain.” Such a saying, though it may show a lack of true piety, may have more than a grain of truth in it.

On the other hand, a minister should gather as much information as he is able to collect about the church from which he received a call. He, on his part, is to be aware of it that, if he accepts, he does not go there for just three or five or ten years, but that it is for life. The fact that he may receive a call from another church after some years should be not be an element in his considerations. The congregation does not know whether their (new) minister will ever be called by another church; the minister does not know whether he will have a possibility of “moving on.” For the present both have to live with what is known at the moment: the bond is to last for the rest of the minister’s life.

Sometimes, when a congregation was not all that enthusiastic about its minister and saw that there was little chance that he would ever receive a call, it used to be said, “He brought his shovel along.” This meant: he will stay here till his grave is dug and he is buried. In essence, this applies to all ministers, and they, too, had better realize it.

 

Permitted to Leave

From the above it has already become clear that a minister is allowed to leave the church he is serving to take up the ministry elsewhere. This does not mean, however, that it may happen that on a certain morning the congregation discovers that their minister is gone, lock, stock and barrel, and hears later on that he is now serving the church at A. There is more to it.

The decision to accept a call is the minister's and his alone. He does not need any permission from anyone to accept a call.

Still, upon receiving a call a minister will not only consult the consistory of the calling church but also “his own” consistory. A minister who takes a call seriously will desire as much input as he can obtain. When accepting the call to his present congregation, he confirmed thereby: “I believe that this is the place where the Lord wants me to work in His vineyard.” Thus he cannot ignore the input from his congregation and its consistory now that another church has called him. From both, the congregation and the consistory he will request arguments and reasons why he should decline or accept the call.

The decision, however, is and remains his alone. Once he has come to the conclusion that he must accept the call, he will submit his decision and reasons for it to the consistory and request the consistory to release him

|52|

from his service in that church. The consistory does not have to agree for the full 100% with its minister's reasons for accepting the call; all they have to do is see whether there are overriding objections to their acquiescing in their minister’s decision.

This is not the place to elaborate on various reasons a consistory might have for a refusal to do so. Let it suffice to state that they must be quite serious reasons. Trying to convince a minister that he should stay and adducing all sorts of arguments for that is by far not the same as refusing permission to leave once the decision has been made. Depending on the circumstances, such a refusal might even render a fruitful further cooperation practically impossible.

When the consistory has given its approval to its minister to follow up the call, it will ask the convening church for the next classis to place on the agenda: “Approbation of acceptance of the call to A. by the Rev. B.” If it takes too long before a classis is held, a “classis contracta” will be requested.

Why is classical approval needed? In the first place, when classical approval is needed, the sister churches keep watch over each other to see whether any irregularities are found either in the acceptance of the call by the minister or in the acquiescence by the consistory.

Secondly, living within one federation together brings its privileges but also its obligations. Some of the privileges are that a church may have a counsellor during a vacancy or that a church may receive pulpit supply from ministers in a classis. These privileges affect the other churches, too. It could very well be that there are quite a few vacancies in the classis and that the loss of another minister would have rather serious consequences for all kinds of work. Taking an extreme case: if of the eight churches seven were vacant, would it then be a responsible act if the one remaining minister accepted a call and left? In such a case classical approval should be refused, unless the situation elsewhere is even worse.

Privileges and responsibilities always go together. There are always two “parts” in a covenant. The sister churches will experience the effects of a minister’s departure from the area: one may have to permit its minister to become counsellor of the vacant church, perhaps to teach catechism classes there; pulpit supply will be requested by and given to the vacant church, etc. Briefly, the sister churches have to judge also whether a departure will not affect them too adversely.

If there are no overriding objections, classical approval of the minister’s departure will be given. As proof that he is allowed to take up the ministry elsewhere he receives a document from consistory as well as from classis. There is, understandably, contact between the two consistories affected by the acceptance of the call. Various matters will have to be arranged, the most important one being the moment at which the minister will be released from the one church and come to the charge of the other church. Everyone will realize that this moment has to be determined precisely. A ministerial family) may not be “in limbo” for a few days or even hours. Who is to provide for his needs if he should become disabled in the interim period between his “farewell sermon” and his installation in the new church? Who would take

|53|

care of the family if he passed away in that period? These are distinct possibilities. Usually the moment of the “switch-over” is set at 12:01 a.m. on a mutually agreed-upon date.

Generally speaking, once a minister has accepted a call, he should not wait too long with following it up. The awareness that he is going to leave anyway will affect his ability to work effectively in every respect. This is not to say that there will be an express and conscious neglect of duty. It is a simple truth that the impending departure dominates his whole position and thoughts from the moment of acceptance on.

Besides, the longer he stays, the more he may affect the efforts to obtain another minister.

 

A Conflict?

What happens when a minister says, “Yes,” and a consistory says, “No?” In case of a conflict the matter will have to be brought to classis, to ask the judgment of the sister churches, and thus to get out of an impasse. Things must have gone quite far when such a situation arises, but the possibility is there. Submitting the whole matter to the judgment of the classical sister churches may solve the difficulties in this respect.

Although classical approval is needed also when a minister accepts a call from a church within the same area, no certificate of release is to be issued on the classical level: the churches in the region are not affected by the change to the same extent as they would if he had left the region. The minister remains in their midst.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 10

|54|

Article 10

Proper Support

 

The consistory with the deacons, as representing the congregation, shall be bound to provide for the proper support of its minister(s).

For several provisions in our Church Order no Scripture passage(s) can be quoted as direct or even indirect proof. It is different with the matter with which Article 10 deals: the matter of the proper support for the minister and his family.

The support referred to here is not the moral support and the brotherly assistance to be given by the consistory to enable the minister to do his work. Article 10 speaks of the financial support. The Lord Himself has given directives for this support. In 1 Cor. 9: 14 we even read that “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” Even if this had been the only place in Scripture where such a command is given, it would be sufficient. We can mention more places, such as Mat. 10: 10 or Luke 10: 7 or Gal. 6: 6. Then we do not even speak of the provisions regarding the support of the priests and levites who served in the Old Testament dispensation. We do realize that there is a difference between the old and the new dispensation, but we also maintain with Art. 25 of our Belgic Confession that the “truth and substance” is still with us.

One wrong thought should be dispelled right away. It is the thought that ministers “get paid” for their work. Once in a while we heard the remark “He has to work for it first,” when the monthly stipend was given at the end of the month instead of at the beginning, as would have been proper. Ministers do not receive a salary as compensation and reward for what they are doing. What they receive is the support which enables them to dedicate all their time and attention to the congregation that has been entrusted into their care. Ministers should not hold a position from which they receive wages beside their work as a minister, at least not as a rule.

This has nothing to do with a sort of Romanist or Anabaptist view that “spiritual” and “worldly” positions may not be matched or mixed. It is the result of the simple fact that, in general, ministers need all their time and attention for the preparation of sermons, for catechism classes, for taking care of the flock and for general study, so that they have no opportunity to hold a job, either full-time or part-time, to guarantee sufficient or additional income. If a church were unable to support its ministerial family sufficiently and if no help from others could be obtained, a minister would have to look for a part-time position to supplement what the church provided. It would even be to his honour if he did so. The apostle Paul did not wish to give up his claim that he had always provided for his own needs and for the needs of those who were with him.

|55|

As it is the minister’s duty to take proper care of the flock, so it is the duty of the flock to take proper care of their minister. They do so through the office-bearers, the consistory with the deacons.

There is nothing against it when members of the congregation surprise their minister once in a while with something extra. When a farmer has butchered a cow or a pig and has a few pieces brought to the parsonage, this will be appreciated as a friendly gesture. Or when, in the period when vegetables are plentiful, a family asks the minister whether he would like to have some for the freezer, this will be a very welcome gift.

No one should underestimate, however, the dangerous situation to which this could lead if it became custom and were considered part of the “proper support” of the ministerial family. It is not without reason that, while referring to the congregation as the body that has the duty to provide it, we mention the “consistory with the deacons” as the body that is to fulfil the obligation.

A minister should not depend upon the goodwill and benevolence of individual members of the congregation. Being a normal human being, he might be influenced in work, judgment, preaching, admonition or even discipline by what he might — or might not — receive from brother A. or sister B. That the danger is far from imaginary may appear from the case of the minister who was approached by a brother who stated that he was so happy with his minister and with his sermons, that he wished to show his appreciation by giving an envelope containing a substantial amount of money. Sensing the danger, the minister asked the brother to give it to the consistory with the request to pass it on to the minister as an extra gift. The brother took his envelope back home. It never reached the consistory. What did reach the consistory some months later was the knowledge that the brother was living in sin and had to be placed under discipline.

From history examples could be quoted which clearly show that ministers sometimes were made dependent on the willingness of members to contribute towards support or towards an increase. Believe it or not, it did happen that a certain consistory made a minister go to some church members who were the largest contributors to ask them whether they had any objections to his receiving a raise.

Should a time come in which the proper support of the ministerial family has to be given, at least for the larger part, in the form of products of the soil or of the farm or of the home industry of the members — and this is not an imaginary situation either! — then it still would have to be the responsibility of the consistory with the deacons to arrange and supervise it, to take care of it and to determine it. No minister should ever be made dependent on a few or even several individual members.

Art. 10 states that the consistory with the deacons shall provide for the “proper” support of its minister(s).

It has always been a big question what that “proper support” is. Is that what the minister asks? Or is it what the congregation can afford? Should it be what the average income of the congregation is, with a few things added here and there? Or is it, perhaps, what persons with comparable academic standing and social position enjoy?

|56|

The “proper support” is what is needed to provide for all the needs of the ministerial family. It will have to be more when a family is large and growing; it can be less when the family is small or getting smaller as children grow up and leave the parental home to form their own families. Thus, if a church is served by two ministers — preferably not — it is definitely not so that the support for their two families must be identical even when their family circumstances are quite different. “Proper support” does not exclude but rather includes the possibility of differentiation.

Differences should, of course, be determined by need and not by any other circumstances, such as likes and dislikes. Even if two ministerial families are exactly the same in number, ages, and so on, it is not necessarily so that the support for both is exactly the same. If there is much illness in the one family and thus the need for extra help or extra medicines, the consistory with the deacons would not discriminate against the other family when providing additional funds to help carry the extra expenses.

No rigid rules can be given and no rigid schedules can be drawn up. In general, the consistories have a fair idea what a family needs. Do they as a rule not have families of their own? They are also aware of it that the one can stretch a quarter farther than the other a dollar. No consistory is obligated to fill all the holes if a minister's family cannot manage their affairs. Then other measures should be taken. Should there be extravagance and waste, it must be made clear that the church is under no obligation to feed these habits. On the other hand, it should be realized that a ministerial family has special expenses to meet. Without trying to spell them all out, we shall mention a few of them.

A congregation would expect their minister and his family to appear to the outside world dressed properly and neatly, wouldn’t it? Extra expenses, as every family knows. Members expect to be received well, to have something to drink when they visit and not to be treated to the cheapest cookies available, don’t they? Extra expenses, even when it is home baking. When a couple gets married and, of course, invites the minister and his wife to the party, do you think that the latter go empty-handed? When a baby is born or when there is a wedding anniversary or some other festive occasion, something is taken along so as not to appear empty-handed here either. Other members do not have these expenses to the same extent, for they may confine their attention to their special friends; a minister may not “discriminate.”

Adding the costs of driving, books, extra heat and light needed, we are well able to see that many things have to be taken into account. Some may even still have to pay off loans they took out to pay for at least part of their studies. In determining the level of support needed a consistory will also have to take into account the general level of the congregation.

Setting a certain amount per child will help a consistory arrive at a fair level. This will also prevent the need for adjusting the promised amount every time, should some consecutive calls be declined. In addition to this, it will enable a consistory to adjust the amount of support when a child leaves the home and becomes independent and, as a result, the cost of living goes down for this family.

|57|

For a comparison we may point to the amounts set by the churches in their Foundation for Superannuation. There, too, the underage children are mentioned separately, while the child allowance is discontinued after the child has reached a certain age.

 

Help from Sister Churches

Which way is to be followed in case a church is unable to fulfil its obligations as described in this article? Should a consistory say to their minister, “Sorry, we cannot do more, so this will have to do even though we are convinced that it is not enough?” Everyone will agree that such an attitude would be completely wrong.

The way to follow in such a case is that the sister churches in the classical area are approached with the request to help the church meet its obligations. As sister churches we are under obligation to help and assist each other when this is necessary and whenever we are able to do so.

In case the churches in that classis are unable to lend sufficient support a wider circle will have to be engaged, and a request will be directed to the churches in a neighbouring classis, with observation of the ecclesiastical boundaries. For example, it would not be proper for the churches in Ontario North to approach those in British Columbia or even Alberta/Manitoba. Their proper address would be the churches in Ontario South.

More than once it happened in the past that a consistory refused to ask for support, for they did not want to carry what they considered to be the “stigma” of being a needy church. The result was that there was a needy minister, which circumstance amounted to a violation of the promises made when calling the brother to serve that church and to a violation of Art. 10 of our Church Order.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 11

|58|

Article 11

Dismissal

 

If a minister of the Word is judged unfit and incapable of serving the congregation fruitfully and to its edification, without there being any reason for Church discipline, the consistory with the deacons shall not dismiss him from his service within the congregation without the approbation of classis and the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod, and not without proper arrangements regarding the support of the minister and his family for a reasonable period of time.
If no call is forthcoming in three years, he shall be declared released from his ministerial status by the classis in which he served last
.

With Art. 11 we deal with one of the sad and deplorable fruits of our fall into sin. Although we are told in God’s Word that we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, yet we discover time and again that we live in a broken world and that even in the church of Christ there are situations in which we have to come to the conclusion: “Here fruitful cooperation is no longer possible.” Most of the times when such a situation occurs it will be impossible to determine where the larger part of the cause for it is to be sought.

Generally speaking, the churches are very patient with their ministers and the congregations bear very patiently with the weaknesses and shortcomings of their pastors and teachers. In every congregation there are members in whose view almost no one can do any good and who criticize practically everything a minister does. We are not speaking of them, but of the large majority of the membership. Reformed people have learned to esteem their ministers highly because of their work. That is the overall picture.

In spite of this it can happen and does happen that the relation between a congregation and its minister deteriorates to such an extent that fruitful cooperation is no longer possible. Perhaps the minister could serve elsewhere with good results, but in his own congregation it cannot be done. Everything the minister says and does rubs all but a few in the congregation the wrong way, and every word or deed on the part of the large majority of the congregation ruffles the minister’s feathers.

One could say, of course, that this is sinful and that repentance is needed — and no one will deny this. Everyone can also be assured that both within the circle of the consistory as well as with the help of Church Visitors and others it has been tried to remedy the situation, but ultimately the conclusion must be: “We are faced with an impossible situation.” Continuing under the present circumstances would practically amount to self-destruction for the minister as well as for the congregation, to put it bluntly. No one can bear such tension.

The minister has to prepare and deliver two sermons every Lord’s Day, has to face and teach the young people at catechism classes, has to visit

|59|

and meet the members in their homes. If he feels that there is a general animosity towards him, it will become utterly impossible for him to continue. Who would be able to proclaim the Word of God from the pulpit with joy and dedication if he were faced with an essentially hostile audience? Delivering a sermon from the pulpit is not the same as delivering a speech at a political rally with a booing and jeering audience! The congregation may not interrupt a sermon — although this has happened as well — but a minister senses it whether there is contact with his hearers and whether the hearts are open to the message.

On the other hand, the congregation has to listen to him twice a Sunday and they may detect personal barbs in what he is saying from the pulpit. They may have had serious clashes with him during the week and then discover that in the sermon they are being castigated from the pulpit in a very personal manner. They have to receive the minister in their homes, to submit to his admonitions if he has to admonish, while his words of comfort will not hit home either because of the personal relationship.

Such a situation does not arise overnight but is the result of a long and sad development. When it does exist, there is not much human beings can do. Our conclusion must be: the only solution is that their ways part.

If there is reason for discipline, if there is false doctrine on the part of the minister, or if there is a serious sin in his life, the way of dismissal may not be chosen. Then the only course open is disciplinary action: suspension and, if no repentance follows, deposition from office. What Art. 11 refers to and covers is a situation in which no specific sin is present which would warrant and necessitate disciplinary action.

As everyone can understand, a deteriorating situation also brings with it that not all words that are spoken to each other are pure and that not every gesture is of a friendly nature. Many sins will be committed when things go from bad to worse. These are not the things meant here. What should be clear is that the way of dismissal is not permitted to be a method of escaping discipline and the need for suspension. It may not be a pretext.

If there is no reason for discipline because of a specific sin which renders one worthy of suspension, release or dismissal is the only solution. Certainly, a minister is called for life, but when a consistory has come to the conclusion that for both parties the way of separation is the only solution, the minister is released from his call and will, from the moment when the dismissal becomes effective, no longer be subject to the call from the church. In fact, from that moment on he no longer has a call. A consistory does not issue a call to be “minister-for-life.” It has no right to do so. A consistory issues a call to serve as minister in that particular church, there to serve for life, indeed, but only for as long as he is subject to its call, not as a minister-for-life regardless whether he has a bond with that specific church or not. Thus, when the minister is released from the call by that particular church, he no longer has a call to be a minister.

A consistory with the deacons will not lightly come to such a decision and will have explored every other possible avenue to bring about a reversal of the situation. However, the consistory not only has the responsibility for the

|60|

minister, it also has to keep the welfare and interests of the whole congregation in view. The brothers are not allowed to sacrifice the minister for the sake of the congregation, but by the same token they are not allowed to sacrifice the congregation for the sake of the minister either.

Certain safeguards must be observed. Before a decision to dismiss the minister becomes effective, classical approval must be obtained. Regional-synodical deputies must be present as well and they must agree that this is the only solution. Most likely the sister churches were already well-informed about the situation and church visitors will have reported at one or more classes about their efforts to help remove the difficulties. A thorough examination of the situation is needed when the request for approval is received.

When an agreement and consent have been achieved, the minister is released from the call of the congregation to serve as its pastor and teacher, and the bond which was established with his installation is severed. The minister no longer has a congregation and the congregation is vacant.

For a long time it could be expected that this would be the end of a long and sad development. Perhaps the minister, seeing the “solution” coming, and realizing that he would have to provide for his own needs and those of his family, has already been thinking about ways and means to do this. He will realize that the possibilities of receiving a call from another church are very slim indeed. The Reformed pattern of church government does not allow for an hierarchically arranged transfer to another church. Thus the moment will come that he is completely on his own.

 

A Reasonable Period of Time

The moment after which he has to provide for his family does not arrive right away. Since no one-sided blame is laid on either party, it would be unjust if the ministerial family were left without any support as of the moment of dismissal. The churches have therefore made the provision that proper arrangements are to be made for the support of the minister and his family for a reasonable period of time.

Here we speak of “proper arrangements,” no longer of “proper support.” Strictly speaking, from the very moment of his dismissal the brother has no longer any right to support. He is no longer subject to the call of the church, is no longer its minister, and in this case it no longer applies that “the labourer is worthy of his hire.” For the sake of preventing hardships, however, and in order to give him time to adjust to the new situation and earnestly to look for other employment for which some preparation may be necessary, he will be supported for a reasonable period of time.

No definite period of time is set. Much will depend on further developments. Should the brother be able to obtain employment right away, the support ceases as soon as he receives income from that employment. In case he prepares himself for another position by further study, it is reasonable that he receives such a support which enables him to complete these studies. What should definitely be avoided, however, is: making his position a permanent one and providing him with support for the rest of his life. This is

|61|

something that the churches warned against in the past. It would be unjust towards the church as well.

Since no one-sided blame was laid on the brother, it is fair that he should receive some support for a reasonable period of time. However, the same applies to the church: since no one-sided blame was laid on the church either, it is fair that the obligation to support should end after a reasonable period of time. In the world they would say, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.” In the church the rule applies: “No different measures, no different weights.”

The best method would be to apply a sliding scale, with the support being reduced according to a fixed schedule. A period of three years appears reasonable, although in exceptional situations it could either be extended for a year or two, or reduced, depending on the circumstances of both the church and the brother.

 

His Position

What is the brother's position after his dismissal? Is he still a minister or has he lost all the rights and privileges that come with this office? In our discussion of previous articles we already pointed to the fact that the Reformed confessions do not know of an ordination which keeps its power irrespective of whether the call is still there. No “indelible character” of priesthood or of ministerial status is imparted when one is ordained. When the call to serve is taken back or has expired, one is no longer an elder or a minister.

Strictly speaking, therefore, one who has been dismissed can no longer be considered a minister. The Reformed Churches know neither ministers-in-general-service, nor ministers who retain their status their life long even though they are not (or no longer) subject to the call of a church.

Yet the churches have agreed that the brother who has been dismissed shall retain his ministerial status for three years. One could justly call this an inconsistency, and ask what basis exists to support such a provision. The consideration behind this provision is, again, the fact that no one-sided blame was put on the brother on the one hand, and that his position should definitely not become a permanent one, on the other hand.

Three years is a reasonable period of time. It provides the opportunity for him to become known to the other churches (if this was not yet so), possibly to change the things which were a reason for the alienation in the first place, and to prepare himself for another position. At the same time it gives room for the bitterness which undoubtedly did arise during the years of controversy and clashes to subside, and for both parties to look at the whole development from a distance. Time may not heal all wounds — only the grace and mercy of our Lord and Saviour and the power of the Holy Spirit can achieve that — but time certainly has a mitigating effect.

Three years also give ample time for other churches to call the brother, if they so desire. If, however, no call is forthcoming in those three years, he “shall be declared released from his ministerial status.” No permanent position should be created.

|62|

Since it was a classis that declared the brother eligible for call, and since it was a classis that admitted him into the ministry and approved the call extended to him, it is a classis that is to declare him released from his ministerial status. No one will be surprised that it has been stipulated that this must be done by a classis of the district in which he served last. This classis is not called upon or allowed to discuss the question whether they shall make this declaration. It is clearly stated here that it shall be done if the condition exists that no call has been received. No classis would have the right to extend a period which has been fixed by the churches in general.

The possibility always exists that later on a church desires to call the brother to become its minister. In that case he would have to be declared eligible for call again and to be examined with a view to this. Having lost his ministerial status, he finds himself on a level with all other members and will (again) have to follow the regular path to the ministry.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 12

|63|

Article 12

Bound for Life

 

Inasmuch as a minister of the Word, once lawfully called, is bound to the service of the Church for life, he is not allowed to enter upon another vocation unless it be for exceptional and substantial reasons, of which the consistory with the deacons shall judge, and which shall receive the approval of classis with the concurring advice of deputies of regional synod.

It is of utmost importance that we read and understand well what is provided in this article. Superficial reading and taking the article out of the framework of the Church Order might give the impression that we do adhere to a certain “ministry-for-life,” no matter what happens. Do we not speak of a lifelong bond to “the service of the church?” We do, indeed. However, what is meant by “the church?” Is that a vague entity, denoting something like a “clergy status?” Is this a world-wide or even country-wide body, or a general concept of “the church” as an invisible phenomenon? (pardon the apparent contradiction in terms.) Such an interpretation and understanding of the term would conflict totally with the whole line and character of our Church Order and of the Reformed concept of church polity.

When a candidate for the ministry is ordained and thus gains entrance into the ministry, he does not become a minister of the churches in general, of “the church” as an indeterminate concept, but of one particular church. By virtue of the bond of the federation he is then allowed — upon request — also to do the work of a minister in the other churches of the federation, but this does not mean that he is a minister of all the churches together of the federation. He is and remains the minister of the one church alone. To that particular church he is bound for as long as he lives. That’s what we state here in Art. 12. In previous articles this point came into view as well. We refer here to what was said, for instance, in connection with Art. 10 and 11.

Art. 9 speaks of moving from one church to another. There it was stressed that, since the bond between a congregation and its minister is a bond for life, he is not allowed to go and take up the ministry in another church unless he has received proper assent. It is to that church that he is bound for as long as he lives, and it is from the ministry in that church that he is not allowed to resign to take up another vocation.

Art. 9 stipulated that he is not allowed to leave the ministry in that church for the ministry in another; here we state that he is not allowed to leave this ministry for another vocation regardless whether he stays in the same place or moves away. The reason for this is not that with his ordination he has received a life-long consecration that cannot be undone. If this were the case, we would not have been allowed to regulate that with the proper consent he may leave it.

|64|

The reason for it is that upon acceptance of the call and at his induction into the ministry in this particular church he has declared “with all his heart” that he firmly believed that, through His people, the Lord had called him to serve this church. This call covers his whole life. Until the Lord, again through His people, relieves him of this service, he is and remains subject to the call. This release can come in the form of permission to go and serve another church. It also may come in the form of permission to take up another task in life, as a result of which he ceases to be a minister of the Word. That’s what we are speaking of in Art. 12.

One thing a minister certainly is not permitted to do is just resign. We read about such actions rather frequently in the ecclesiastical world around us. More than once it is mentioned in the press that a certain minister resigned because he could no longer agree with the course his church — what is meant is the national or international body — was pursuing; or because he had enough of it and now wanted to try something else; or whatever other reason may be mentioned. No one should be surprised when the man simply continues to function as a minister, or when he advertises his services as a minister. Religious periodicals contain scores of advertisements in this vein. Once the minister has thus abandoned the flock, he is no longer a minister. The call was not taken back, he simply refused to acknowledge it any longer.

What is a church to do if a minister, breaking his vows, abandons his charge? He can no longer be suspended and subsequently deposed, for he has already ceased being a minister. Discipline is necessary, so that the brother may come to the confession of his sin of breaking his vows and forsaking the flock. When he has been brought to this confession, the discipline is lifted, for it has achieved its purpose: the return of the sinner.

Return to the position of a minister is definitely not the logical or even desirable result. On the contrary, as the step to resign was undoubtedly taken after much consideration and pondering, and because his deed must have shocked and disturbed the congregation to a great extent, it is very doubtful whether it would even be wise eventually to open the way into the ministry for him again. If it is ever done, quite a period of time would be needed to bring this about. Ordination is a necessity, as the call has to be placed before him again, should the church desire to have him back, or should another church want him for its minister. The ministry is not just a chair one can leave for a while at will and which one can return to and sit down in whenever one feels like it.

 

Permissible Change

There can be cases in which entering upon another vocation is permitted and in which one is released from the bond to the church. Then the call is taken back and the ties between congregation and minister as such are severed. Taking back a call can be done only by the same body which extended it, the consistory with the deacons, while, understandably so, classical approval and concurrent advice of regional-synodical deputies is required as

|65|

well. Since the last-mentioned point was discussed before, we shall say no more about it at this point.

Consultation with the consistory and submitting to them the request to release him from the call is the first thing a minister must do if he has come to the conclusion that he can no longer serve as a minister of the Word.

 

Valid Reasons

What could be valid reasons for a consistory to grant such a request? No list of instances in which permission could be granted was ever drawn up. Once in a while some guidelines were given but no firm list of acceptable reasons. We could give some “guidelines,” but much will depend on the individual case itself. Circumstances will differ so widely from case to case that no firm and generally valid judgment can be given. Let us mention some possibilities.

Longing for more earthly possessions and a desire to have a much larger income would obviously be irrelevant as valid reasons. So would a desire to have an easier task in life and a nine-to-five job, with Saturdays off. Permission to accept a position as full-time teacher of Religion at a College or High School would not be given either. However much such a position might be considered to be in the line of the work of a minister of the Word, it is not a ministerial task such as we speak of in Art. 6.

It could be that a minister's health does not permit him to carry the burden of the ministry any longer, that the tension of having to have two sermons prepared every week becomes too much for him. One does not have to be at an advanced age for this to happen. It is very well possible that a young man begins the work of the ministry with much enthusiasm, but gradually comes to the conclusion that he can no longer meet the challenge.

The Lord certainly gives strength and provides a servant with all he needs; yet it can happen that because of all sorts of things the brother could not foresee and of which he could not anticipate the impact on his whole mental state, he comes to the conclusion that he can no longer carry the burden. Is this the case, then the minister could be declared a “minister-emeritus,” a “retired minister,” whereby he retains the honour, the rights and privileges of a minister. About such a position we speak in Art. 13. But what person who has a set of brains and two hands that can work would sit down and let the church support him for the rest of his life while he is able to find a way to support himself and his family? Would it not be his honour and duty to look for ways and means to take care of himself? Accepting employment to achieve this would make him “enter upon another vocation.” He would need the permission of the consistory with the deacons and of the others mentioned in this article. In this case such permission will undoubtedly be given.

Another possibility is that the brother begins to have doubts about certain aspects of the doctrine. Let us — for the sake of argument — say that he starts to get doubts about the right of infants to baptism. This would make it extremely difficult for him to proclaim the Gospel on this point or to administer

|66|

the sacrament when parents come with their infants for baptism. Keeping the promises made at his ordination, he does not propagate his deviating sentiments in any way. He will, however, have to face the “problem” one day or another. What is he to do when a student asks him at catechism classes what the difference is “between our church and the Baptists?” What, when Lord’s Day 27 of the Catechism is to be dealt with on the pulpit and in catechism classes? In a non-office-bearer it may be tolerated that he has a deviating opinion about a point of doctrine—as long as he does not propagate it and is willing to be further instructed about it — but this is a practical impossibility in the case of a minister.

Unable to continue without breaking his ordination vows and not willing to do this either, he may request to be released from the bond with the church and to continue as a member, looking for and accepting a position which will enable him to earn a living.

The above plot was drawn up merely to show what might be a reason for entering upon another vocation, such as would receive the consent of the consistory with the deacons. What should definitely be avoided and would be contrary to the whole concept of call and office is: having ministers who accept all sorts of positions that cause them to leave the ministry.

It could be that a minister feels obligated to accept a position because he is convinced that it provides a unique and extraordinary opportunity to work for and to promote the kingdom of God. Owing to this conviction he will feel compelled to ask the consistory to take the call back so that he may be free to accept it. He will, however, have to abide by the judgment of the consistory with the deacons. When they consent, his release cannot become effective unless and until classical approval has been obtained with the concurring advice of regional-synodical deputies. This approval will be given only when there are exceptional and substantial reasons.

All financial obligations on the part of the church cease as soon as the release becomes effective.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 13

|67|

Article 13

Retirement of Ministers

 

If a minister of the Word retires because of age, or because he is rendered incapable of performing the duties of his office due to illness or physical or mental disability, he shall retain the honour and title of minister of the Word. He shall also retain his official bond with the Church which he served last, and this Church shall provide honourably for his support. The same obligation exists towards a minister’s widow and/or other dependants.
Retirement of a minister shall take place with the approval of the consistory with the deacons and with the concurring advice of classis and of deputies of regional synod
.

 

Disabled

Article 13 speaks of the “retirement” of ministers. Two possibilities are mentioned.

In the first place there is the case in which a minister reaches an age that is considered sufficient reason for retirement. Unfortunately, Synod 1989 did not speak of “retirement age,” but mentioned only “age.” In the sphere of the secular courts such a term might give occasion to various courtcases as it is ill-defined or, better, not defined at all. What is this “age?” Is it what is generally considered to be the “retirement age?” Is it up to the minister to determine the moment when he has reached this “age?” It would have been better when the term “retirement age” had been used. The second possibility is that a minister is no longer able to fulfil the duties of his office because of disability or failing health.

Let us first speak about the possibility that a minister is no longer able to fulfil the duties of his office. Reasons for this can be of a physical or a non-physical nature. Physical illness may permanently disable him. Perhaps not all parts of the ministerial service become impossible for him to perform, but he is no longer able to function fully as he should and the congregation will suffer as a consequence. If, for instance, he should be blinded either by an accident or by a disease, he would be able to talk with members, to comfort and encourage them, to admonish and guide them, but how is he to reach their homes or to find his way around in a hospital? This handicap would force him to retire from the active ministry.

When dealing with the previous article we already referred to the possibility that he could no longer bear the burden of responsibility and, for instance, is plagued by severe headaches, brought on by tension. Thereby he would be practically disabled. However reluctantly, he would ask the consistory with the deacons to release him from his obligation to do the work of a minister, to declare him “minister-emeritus.”

|68|

The second part of this term is pure Latin. We all know the word “merit,” which means: what one deserves, or: a service which one performs. The word “emeritus” may be translated as: one who has completed his service, a soldier who has completed his time in the army. Hence it can also mean: someone who has become unfit for use, unemployable. Speaking of a minister-emeritus we refer to a minister who has served his term of office, who has completed his required time as a minister. In the case we are speaking of at this point, this “required time” is determined by his being incapacitated as a result of illness or accident.

In Art. 13 the churches agreed that, even though the bond with the church remains in force, the obligation to do the work ceases for this reason. When physical disability is the cause, it will be obvious that release from active service must be given. It is more difficult in the case of non-physical disability.

Again we take into account that by nature we all are inclined to all evil. For this reason we have agreed upon safeguards to curb possible abuse. In case the disability is of a non-physical nature, it would be wise to obtain the testimony of two qualified physicians to ensure that a demand to continue the work would be demanding something the brother is unable to do. Expert advice would also make it easier for the consistory with the deacons to decide whether they are justified in granting the request. They will have no problem in cases where it is obvious to every one. They will be greatly helped by expert opinions in cases which they find hard to judge.

If a minister has to retire because of disability, the consistory with the deacons have to judge this first of all. Classical approval is needed, too, as well as concurrent advice of regional-synodical deputies. All this is necessary in order to prevent abuse of the possibility provided for in Art. 13. This possibility could be grasped as an opening to escape difficulties. The human heart is subtle, more than anything. Involvement of the federation does not provide iron-clad guarantees; on the other hand, it certainly helps to assure everyone that here is a genuine “case” of disability.

This is the only reason for involvement of the federation. Since no release from the call is involved, only from the obligation to do the work, no approval or concurring advice would be needed if it had not been for this reason that the churches wish to ascertain that there is a genuine disability. Involvement of the federation would not be needed at all if a minister retires upon reaching retirement age. We’ll speak more about this later.

 

Bond Remains

Because a minister is called for life and is not leaving the church to go and take up the ministry elsewhere, the bond with the church remains. He, therefore, retains the honour and title of minister of the Word. Retaining the title and honour of “Minister of the Word,” he also is still entitled to do what belongs to the work of a minister. Although he is no longer able to fulfil the ministry in its totality, it is quite possible that, having been relieved of the pressure of serving a congregation, he is (again) able to conduct worship services in the churches. There is nothing that would prevent him from accepting invitations to do so.

|69|

Even if he were unable to do this, and, for instance, a baby had to be baptized in a service in which an elder reads a sermon, he could exercise his right as a minister by administering baptism to this infant even if, so to speak, the child had to be brought to him while he was sitting in the pew or in a wheelchair.

When a minister retires because of having reached retirement age, it is clear that he will be able to do all sorts of work. Many retired ministers do remain active for many years.

Upon retirement a minister does not become a “minister-in-general-service” but retains the bond with the church. To prevent misunderstanding we add the words “that he served last.” As he was no “minister-at-large” before his retirement, so he does not become one upon his release from the work. By the same token, he does not come to the charge of the churches in general, of the federation, but it remains the responsibility of the church which he served last to provide honourably for his needs, and of this church alone.

Some seem to be of the opinion that it is the duty of the federation to provide for the needs of a retired minister, seeing that the whole federation benefited from his service in one way or another. Others seem to think that at least the churches that he served during the years of his active ministry should share the burden. All of these are wrong. The bonds with the churches he served before — if he did serve more than one church — were severed when he was released from the call by these churches in order to take up the ministry elsewhere. This put an end to the minister’s responsibility for these churches; it also terminated the responsibility of these churches for the proper support of the minister.

Should a church be unable, in addition to the support of its retired ministers), to carry the burden of the support of a “new” minister, this church can ask for help from the sister churches, as discussed in connection with Art. 10. At no time does the proper support of a retired minister become the responsibility of more or of all of the churches. This is not to say that the churches should not combine forces and take measures together to cover the extra costs incurred by the retirement of their ministers. If they do so, however, it should not be arranged via the ecclesiastical assemblies, since this would lead to making the care for retired ministers a federal obligation, whereby the bond with the church to whose call he remains subject, would be obscured and ultimately wholly obliterated.

With their efforts to help one another in “carrying the risks,” the churches have formed a Foundation for Superannuation. This Foundation has been set up on a business-like basis, and the churches each pay a certain amount per year into the fund as a “premium.” The size of their contributions is determined each year anew, as are the benefits they receive. These benefits are not remitted to the retired ministers but to the churches that have a retired minister to take care of. The fund is not a pension fund but, essentially, nothing but a piggy-bank of the churches, expertly administered, from which the churches can draw when they need it.

The church remains the body which determines what is needed each year for the proper support of the retired minister. The consistory with the

|70|

deacons will take into account what he receives from other sources for which a premium was paid, such as Old Age Pension, Canada Pension, or perhaps an insurance policy which the church took out to prepare for the future. In the last-mentioned case the church was most likely the body named as the beneficiary.

As the church should take the needs of the whole ministerial family into account when determining what the “proper support” is, so it remains its obligation to provide for a minister’s widow as well as for any dependants he may leave behind. The regulations of the above-mentioned Foundation also contain provisions for minister’s widows and other dependants.

 

Retirement Age

For many years and decades it had been the custom that ministers could retire upon reaching retirement age, although this was contrary to the text of Art. 13. The churches to which we trace back our origin even had a synodical decision which provided that ministers could retire at 70 years of age or after having served in the ministry for forty years. This was, in effect, an unlawful decision. It was contrary to the Church Order which spoke exclusively of retirement due to inability to continue in office. A general synod is allowed to change the Church Order when proposals to this effect have come its way from the churches. It definitely is not permitted to decide that the age of 70 or forty years in the ministry is just as good a reason as disability. When Art. 13 speaks of retirement only in the case of disability, no general synod is allowed to pronounce that some other reasons may be substituted for this disability.

There have been more strange practices in this respect. It was — and still is — customary that, when a minister is appointed as professor at the Theological University of our sister churches in the Netherlands, he is declared minister-emeritus, even though he is healthy and able to pursue a teaching career for many more years. When a minister becomes an army chaplain, he is in the same manner declared minister-emeritus according to Art. 13 CO., even though it is for the very reason that he is still very capable of performing the duties of a minister that he has been asked to accept that position.

For these reasons it was decided to include in Art. 13 the provision that ministers of the Gospel are permitted to retire upon reaching a certain (retirement?) age. Everyone will agree that, when it is stipulated in our Church Order that ministers are allowed to retire upon reaching retirement age, no additional provisions are needed either for consistory involvement or for classical involvement or for that of regional-synodical deputies. These brothers need not confirm a right fixed in our Church Order, nor would they have the authority to forbid or prevent making use of that right.

This is not to say that the federation should be prevented at all cost from having any input in the matter of retirement of ministers who reach retirement age. There may be circumstances that compel the federation to request the minister not to make use of his right to retire at a particular time

|71|

or under specific circumstances. It could be that there is such a large number of vacancies in the specific classis where the minister serves that the sister churches feel obligated to ask him to continue for a while in active service, at least until the greatest dearth is past. This is one case in which such a request might be made. However, no ecclesiastical assembly or deputies are allowed to prevent a minister from making use of the possibility given in the first line of Art. 13. Rights given in our Church Order cannot be taken away by anyone or any assembly.

 

Allowed to Retire?

One could ask whether ministers of the Word are allowed to retire at all unless they have become disabled. Is a minister not bound to the service of the church for life, as Art. 12 stated so clearly? He is, indeed. That is why a church remains responsible for his support, as Art. 13 maintains. But would the churches act contrary to the will of the Lord or would they factually deny that the bond is a bond for life, if they stipulated that a minister has to serve only until the time when he reaches retirement age?

Ministers do not have the same position as the priests and the levites in the Old Testament dispensation. However, if anyone would wish to claim that the position of a minister forbids retirement at a certain age, he had better learn from the Lord who is more merciful than he. In Numbers 8 we read that the levites had to serve from their twenty-fifth till their fiftieth year. Even if, after that, they still wished to help and assist their brethren, they were allowed to do so, but they should definitely refrain from the actual service, from the work itself. A compulsory retirement at age fifty! And would then ministers not be permitted to retire when they reach retirement age while everyone else has that right? It is hard to imagine.

Taking into account that the average age in Israel in Old Testament days may have been lower than in our days, we may say that the age of sixty-five — which is the generally accepted age for retirement — is not too low. No specific age is mentioned in Art. 13, but the general term “age” is used. It would have been better if the article had contained the word “retirement” in conjunction with “age.” Even if, however, the term “retirement age” had been used, this still would not have fixed a precise date or year, since the term as such is a floating concept.

This provision would certainly not compel or obligate a brother to retire upon reaching that milestone, the day he becomes sixty-five. He is fully entitled to serve for as long as he is able to do so; this apart from the question whether it would be wise and to the true edification of the congregation, if he did. Much will depend on the local situation, while also the classical and, perhaps, even federal conditions have to be taken into account.

In the first place, it would not be proper to discontinue the work in mid-season. Consultation with the consistory and the deacons will take place and a definitive date will be chosen such as would cause the least inconvenience for filling the pulpit, teaching catechism classes, and so on.

Secondly, a minister would also have to reckon with the situation within

|72|

the classis. If there are many vacancies in the classis, he will hesitate to increase their number by retiring right away. He does not have to keep working, but the classical situation may make him postpone the date of retirement. A similar situation could be found in the federation as a whole. The advice of the consistory with the deacons will be a welcome input. Although released from the obligation to do the work of a minister, the brother remains the minister of that church. His successor will be the church’s second minister. The bond remains.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 14

|73|

Article 14

Temporary Release

 

If a minister, because of illness or for other substantial reasons, requests a temporary release from his service to the congregation, he can receive the same only with the approval of the consistory with the deacons and shall at all times be and remain subject to the call of the congregation.

For various reasons it may be necessary for a minister to interrupt his service to the church to whose call he is subject. It would serve no purpose if we tried the impossible task of drawing up a list of cases in which this could or should be done. All we can do is keep the main line in view, and this main line is, that a minister remains subject to the call of the congregation even though, for various reasons, he may receive permission for some time not to do the work which belongs to his office.

Let us mention some possibilities. The situation might arise that the congregation is scattered and that the minister simply does not have the possibility of shepherding the flock. Such a situation was sometimes found in the days of the Reformation, when persecution raged and hostile forces had occupied a city or village, rendering all ecclesiastical life totally impossible and forcing the believers to flee the city. With no congregation left for the time being, what was a minister to do? He, too, had to flee. Possibly he could serve another church for the time being and there was nothing against it if he did. However, as soon as it was possible for the members to return to their own residence and as soon as they were in a position to resume their ecclesiastical life, the minister was to return as well, to take up his task in their midst again. He was and remained subject to the call once extended to him.

During a war it sometimes happens that a whole city or town is evacuated and that the members are not able to return to their own place for some years even, but are scattered over a wide area, having found refuge here and there. In many instances they will find a church in the place where they settle temporarily, so that they are taken care of. In such a case the minister cannot execute the duties of his office either for as long as the situation lasts. This was the case with our late Rev. F. Kouwenhoven, who was minister in Brouwershaven, the Netherlands, which place was evacuated by the German occupation forces. He then served temporarily the church at Kampen, and returned to his charge as soon as possible after the end of the war. But then he discovered that they did not wish to follow him on the path of the Reformation of 1944. Thus he could not resume his duties among them: they no longer recognized him as their minister.

There are other reasons as well why a minister may (have to) interrupt his service to a church. The judgment whether there indeed are such reasons and whether they are valid and sufficient belongs to the consistory with

|74|

the deacons. No minister would be allowed to say at a certain moment, “Brothers, I have come to the conclusion that I should continue my studies full-time for a year, and therefore I am going to take a year off. I will be back a year from now.”

When the desire is there to devote a year to study, for instance, to write a dissertation to obtain the doctor’s degree, the request for time off has to be made to the consistory with the deacons and they have to decide about it. Only when they permit it, can the plan be executed.

The minister is then not released from the call and the bond; he is only permitted to interrupt his service to the congregation, and as soon as the period agreed upon is over, he returns to take up his task again.

Another possibility is that a minister is requested to serve as a chaplain in the Armed Forces for a year or so. Such an appointment may not be accepted without the consent of the consistory with the deacons. Upon expiration of the term agreed upon he returns to the church that called him and that maintained the call even during the time when it permitted him to interrupt his service to serve as a chaplain.

Illness which requires a long time of convalescence may also cause a minister to request permission to go away for some months, for example, if he had a nervous breakdown and has to get out of the familiar surroundings altogether to recover from it. In the past it also sometimes happened that a minister was allowed to interrupt his service for several years to take part in the work of Bible translation.

Whatever the case may be, two things are clear: no interruption of service is allowed unless the consistory with the deacons agree with it; and the interruption is just that: a temporary release from the duties, that ends as soon as the period agreed upon is at an end.

We do not have to assume that a difference of opinion arises regarding the question whether a request shall be granted or not. If, however, a difference should exist, the proper way would be to ask a classis for advice. Article 44 of our Church Order mentions the possibility of asking classical advice “for the proper government of their church.”

Another question that may be raised here is how things should be arranged financially. Does the church remain responsible for the proper support of its minister? This all depends on the reasons for the temporary release from duties. We are not speaking now of abnormal situations such as persecution or war or such like. Who could give any directives for situations like that? These are situations in which one oftentimes does not know what the next step is to be. What we can discuss now are the cases in which a minister receives leave to pursue his studies, or to function as a chaplain for a year or even two.

In the case of a chaplaincy it is clear that the needs of the minister ought to be met by those who are ultimately responsible for this work. It is more difficult in the case of a “leave of absence” for study purposes. Usually the church continues the payment of the stipend at a reduced percentage. If a minister has sufficient financial means to provide for his own support during the time of absence, the church might decide to interrupt the support during the whole period.

|75|

When illness is the cause of prolonged interruption of service, the obligation to continue the full support is obvious. The support may even have to be increased with a view to the extra expenses caused by the illness. No rigid rules can be given nor can any guidelines be drawn up. There is quite a grey area here as far as the financial arrangements are concerned. What is clear is that the bond remains, that the call remains in force and that a release from duties can only be temporary. The decision remains with the consistory with the deacons.

Another element is clear as well: We know of no ministers who wander from place to place at will, having received temporary release. When the reason for such release is no longer there, their place is again with the church that called them.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 15

|76|

Article 15

Preaching in Other Places

 

No one shall be permitted to preach the Word or to administer the sacraments in another Church without the consent of the consistory of that Church.

When we speak of “another church,” we refer, of course, to another member of the federation of churches. No one should understand this expression as referring also to another “denomination.” Our Church Order speaks only of the obligations which we have within the federation towards one another, of the duties we have taken upon ourselves within our bond as churches. This is not to say that preaching in another “denomination” is up to the minister and that for this he does not need the permission of any consistory. Ministers are not allowed at all to conduct services in another “denomination” whether without or with the permission of a consistory or board within that “denomination.”

Anyone is allowed to deliver a speech or a lecture anywhere without asking anyone for permission to do so. Conducting services in his capacity as a minister of the Word is a different matter. No one receives a “general office” of minister of the Word, as a sort of inherent quality that goes with him wherever he goes and gives him the inalienable right to function as a minister wherever he is and wherever the opportunity arises. He owes his status only to the call of that particular church, and this call restricts him to the work within this church, for its consistory’s authority does not reach beyond the boundaries of this particular church.

By virtue of the bond between the churches the consistory of another church may ask him to do some ministerial work in their midst as well, and this happens frequently; but it is different from a request coming from a group with which we have no bond as sister churches. The boundaries of the church must be respected and it must be realized that acting as a minister in a group with which we are not one, practically amounts to “competition” and does harm to the unique character of the church. It also tends to undermine the call to repentance and to return to the path of obedience. A consistory or board of some “denomination” cannot give any of our ministers the right to conduct services there, in direct “competition” with the church he is serving and to whose call he is subject. Accepting such an invitation would amount to a practical denial of the call by the church he is serving. The flock would not be guided in and preserved in the Truth, but be confused and led away from the path of the Holy Catholic Church.

As said above, only when the consistory of one of the churches asks him to do so is a minister allowed to go there for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. He does not need the permission of his own consistory for this, unless he has to request permission to be

|77|

away for that particular Lord’s Day. For “getting a Sunday off” he does need permission; for preaching in another church he does not. It is from the consistory of that other church that the invitation has to come.

There are no longer any “general office-bearers” such as the apostles were or the evangelists of whom the Scripture speaks. Their office was not restricted to any particular church, and they had the right to go and preach everywhere the Spirit sent them. Such is no longer the case. The Holy Spirit calls through the church now, particularly through the consistory.

A minister is allowed to work in another region, even far away from the church whose minister he is. This is the case when he is sent to “unorganized territory’ where there is no church yet. We speak of this in Art. 6. It is clear that no consistory has any authority over the area where he is working and consequently no permission can be obtained.

There was reason for inserting this provision in our Church Order. In the days of the Reformation there were many places where no institution had taken place. There were many former monks and priests as well as sectarians of Anabaptist origin who travelled from place to place to preach and administer the sacraments wherever an opportunity was offered, whether there was a consistory or not. Also in this way they tried to support themselves financially, as they had no other source of income.

Matters are not much different in our days. All around us we read of travelling preachers who go from place to place and organize services as if there were no church at all in that place and as if only with their coming the light had arisen. Indirectly we are warned against this behaviour by being reminded in this article of the reach of the call: a consistory’s authority reaches as far as the congregation is found and a minister’s call covers only that particular field. At the same time we are indirectly warned to watch out that we do not fall into all sorts of snares woven by wandering preachers who do not have the consent of the consistory and who, in fact, undermine its authority and care for the flock.

The main element in this article, however, is that the call to which a minister is subject is limited to the church by which he was called.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 16

|78|

Article 16

The Office of Ministers of the Word

 

The specific duties of the office of minister of the Word are thoroughly and sincerely to proclaim to the congregation the Word of the Lord, administer the sacraments and publicly call upon the Name of God in behalf of the whole congregation; also to instruct the children of the Church in the doctrine of salvation, visit the members of the congregation in their homes, and comfort the sick with the Word of God; and further, together with the elders, to keep the Church of God in good order, exercise discipline, and govern the Church in such a manner as the Lord has ordained.

We speak of Ministers of the Word. That is the most beautiful title which can be given to the pastors and teachers of whom Scripture speaks in Eph. 4: 11. It is only a matter-of-course, we should say, that the description of the specific duties of their task begins with the proclamation of the Word. What we find here is only a description, not an exhaustive definition. A minister of the Word has been called to a specific task, a task that is different from the one of the other office-bearers. It is the specific character of that task which we describe here.

It must be stressed anew, this does not imply that the office of a minister of the Word is higher than that of an elder or a deacon. That it is (partly) different is only because of what a minister is called to do. Anyone who reads the Form for the Ordination (or Installation) of Ministers of the Word will discover that in our Church Order we more or less follow the description of the special duties of a minister's task as it is given in this Form.

When, in our Confession, we mention the marks of the true church, we state that actually there is only one mark: “In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.” In like manner we could summarize all the specific duties of a minister in one brief sentence: “In short, he keeps watch over the flock of Christ with the staff of the Word.”

It may be helpful to dwell a little longer on what we have agreed upon in this article. Nowadays the stress is oftentimes put on different things. Sometimes one gets the impression that a Minister of the Word has all sorts of tasks except the proclamation of the Gospel. He is expected to conduct all sorts of courses and actions which have little or nothing to do with his primary duty. Frequently a minister is more of a social co-ordinator than a servant of the Word. Many who call themselves ministers or pastors seem to be more active in political movements and social actions than in bringing the

|79|

Gospel of salvation. And what they proclaim from their pulpits is most of the time political talk or moralistic drivel. They deal with topics and world problems, but neglect what is the only task of a minister: keeping watch over the flock with the staff of the Word.

When speaking of the “specific” duties of a minister we do not claim that this is all that can be said. In the Form mentioned above we speak more extensively about the ministerial task. On the other hand, no one should get the impression that a minister is bound hand and foot and that there is no room left for any initiative on his part.

 

The First Task

As the first task of the specific duties we mention: “thoroughly and sincerely to proclaim to the congregation the Word of the Lord.” Let us pay attention to the various elements of this sentence. In the first place, a minister is to proclaim the Word of God “thoroughly.” This refers not just to the preparation of the sermons to which he should dedicate a considerable time each week. It also refers to the comprehensive character of the proclamation. No part of the Scriptures should be neglected and no aspect of the Lord’s revelation may be left out. The “whole counsel of God” is to be proclaimed to the church.

A minister is free in the choice of a text for the sermon. The only thing he has to take into account is what the consistory may have decided regarding the “days of commemoration” of which we speak in Art. 53. We are not speaking of the “Catechism sermons.” Here a minister is bound to a certain schedule. For the morning services, however, we have no specific pattern, no weekly “lessons” that have to be observed so that every one knows beforehand which text will be explained.

Some ministers more of less follow an “ecclesiastical year,” but there are not very many who do so. It is a well-known fact that John Calvin explained whole books of Scripture in successive sermons or “lectures.” Such a method is to be preferred above a jumping back and forth from Genesis to Matthew, to Hosea, to the Revelation, to the Psalms. Taking successive texts from the same book compels the preacher to be very careful and precise in his exegesis; it prevents the congregation from saying, “We heard this all before for a couple of weeks already even though the text is different;” it forces the minister to abide by the text and not to wander all over in his sermon; and it gives the congregation a good picture of and insight into a whole book instead of learning about a text here, a passage there.

What is not absolutely necessary is that each and every book is taken in turn. A first requirement is that the minister himself have a good understanding of the message of the text. It would be irresponsible to come with a sermon on a text of which the preacher himself is not certain what it really means. Only when the preacher himself understands the meaning of a passage will he be able to make it clear to the congregation. When a sermon sounds very complicated and “learned,” the question is justified whether the speaker himself understands what he is talking about.

|80|

Ecclesiastical assemblies in the past sometimes felt urged to remind the preachers of the necessity of avoiding learned terms and complicated discourses and at times they even felt the need to state that a sermon should not be longer than an hour (!) so as not to tax the hearers’ endurance too severely. We should not give in to the modern trend that a service must be over in an hour, which leaves no more than twenty minutes at the most for the sermon. It should be remembered that the first thing we come together for is “to learn God’s Word,” as we confess in Lord’s Day 38. On the other hand, preachers should keep in mind that the capacity to retain what is being said is limited. They should also think of the children, who belong in the worship services as well. That they proclaim the Word of God “thoroughly” should result in a clear, simple, and concise sermon that can be followed by almost all.

The second part says that they are to do so “sincerely.” This means that no parts or aspects of the doctrine of Scripture shall be left out on purpose because, secretly, the preacher harbours doubts about it or does not like it. A minister certainly should not review the whole doctrine of the Scriptures in every nor in any sermon. If the Lord spares him and grants him a lengthy ministry, he will have ample time to pay sufficient attention to all its parts and elements. It would, however, not be proof of sincerity if, for instance, he never mentioned God’s gracious election because he has doubts about it and does not like to speak about it.

One goes wrong not only when propagating lies and errors, but also when keeping silent about certain aspects of the truth. As was the case with the apostle Paul, so a minister of the Word must be able to say, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God,” Acts 20: 26. Only then it can be said that he proclaimed the Word of God sincerely. In doing so, he will have to exercise caution as well.

If there are prevailing sins in the congregation, he will have to point out that these are forbidden by the Lord and he has to show what the obedience is which the Lord our God requires of us. Yet he should watch out and prevent that anyone in the congregation can say, “This sermon was clearly intended for brother A. or sister B.” A colleague of mine once advised me, if there were marriage problems in the congregation, to choose 1 Corinthians, taking a text from successive chapters, starting at chapter 1. “Then you will get to chapter 7, too,” he said, “and no one can say that you were aiming at certain people.” Some simple wisdom, that is worth remembering.

Sometimes a sermon is not received with a thankful heart, but there is criticism. What should be done if one is of the opinion that there were wrong elements in a sermon? A sermon is a public matter, and one would have the right to approach the consistory about it directly. It could be that a heresy of such scope was propagated that a member has to ask the consistory to take action immediately to have the damage repaired and to prevent a repetition. Usually, however, the situation will not be all that serious. But what would the proper course of action be in such a case?

There is a possibility of having heard wrong, or of having misunderstood what was being said. It could also be that the preacher made a mistake and,

|81|

unwittingly, said something he did not intend to say at all, and so forth. Let us, for our mutual edification, listen to what was decided in Antwerp in 1576: “If someone has misunderstood any sentence of the minister in the preaching of God's Word or cannot grasp it sufficiently, he shall be bound to let himself be informed better by an elder or deacon; and if he cannot be satisfied by their answer, he has to approach the minister himself for more light. Every one who, without letting himself be informed, talks about it with someone else, shall according to the ecclesiastical discipline be punished as a slanderer in a manner as the consistory shall decide.”

 

Readers

In this connection we have to pay attention to what is to be done when no minister is available and a sermon has to be read by someone. It is clear that only such sermons may be read as have been prepared by our own ministers or by ministers in our sister churches. No one who is not allowed to appear in the pulpit in person may appear there by way of the printed word.

Who would be allowed to conduct such a service? Usually it is an elder who does so. The consistory is also permitted to appoint someone else to this task. Anyone who does so, conducts a service having been appointed by the consistory. With such appointment a consistory will take into account someone's ability to speak clearly, and to read in such a manner that the message is conveyed to the edification of the congregation. Not all elders necessarily have to take turns. Frequently brothers ask to be excused because their voice is not strong enough or because they are too nervous to read, or for some other reason. If would not be wise if a consistory insisted on all brothers taking their turn regardless of their ability.

A question that has received quite some attention is whether an elder would be permitted to use “you” in the benediction or has to substitute “us” for it. This is not the place to elaborate on the arguments pro and con. May it suffice to say that the arguments in favour of “you” appear stronger and more convincing. When a brother reads a prepared sermon, the Word of the Lord comes therein authoritatively to the congregation. Would such be less the case when he quotes the benediction directly and literally from God’s Word?

Another question is whether a reader is allowed to change anything in a prepared sermon. It all depends. When there are anachronisms or illiteracies in a sermon, or when streets and places are mentioned that make no sense to the hearers because they are not familiar with them, it will only be wise to have these things changed. But no new elements may be added, however, or parts left out because the reader disagrees with them. If he cannot read a particular sermon with a good conscience, he should choose another one.

As for the prayer, one could ask whether the reader is permitted to prepare a prayer of his own or has to use the collects which we find in our Book of Praise. In answer to this question, it appears proper that, if a non-office-bearer is asked to conduct a service, he uses the collects, whereas an office-bearer would have the freedom to use his own wording.

|82|

Article 21 deals with those who have received permission “to speak an edifying word” or who may “exhort in the worship services.” We shall therefore not speak about them here. In olden days there were sometimes brothers who had received the right to “exhort.” They were not office-bearers, but their ability to speak God's Word so that others were edified by it was such that they were permitted to conduct services and to prepare their own messages. In Dutch they were called “oefenaars.” It was especially in times when the number of ministers was small that the churches made use of such brothers. Several of them served with honour and to the edification of God’s people. Yet this whole phenomenon was more or less an emergency measure because there were not enough ministers and the number of suitable printed sermons was limited as well.

 

Administer the Sacraments

Since the ministry of the Word has been entrusted to the minister, he is also the one who is to administer the sacraments. This is another of his specific duties. At times the question is raised whether not an elder would have the right to administer the sacraments. In the past this question usually came to the fore when a church did not have a minister in its midst for a very long time with the result that baptism was not administered to children that had been born and that no celebration of the Lord’s Supper took place. With some exceptions, the answer was negative and this not because the office of a minister is supposed to be of higher order than that of an elder but — as we say in the Form — “because Christ has joined this administration to the preaching of the Gospel.”

Being the person who has received the specific task to preach the Word of God, he is also the one who is to administer the signs and seals that the Lord has added to His Word “to seal His promises to us and to be pledges of His good will and grace towards us.”

 

Prayers

The minister of the Word is also the one who, as the mouth of the congregation, calls upon the Lord in the public worship service. He does so on behalf and in behalf of the whole congregation.

We would not have dedicated a special section to this task, were it not that it appears not always to be clear that the prayer is a speaking on behalf and in behalf of the flock. Sometimes a public prayer was nothing but an announcement beforehand of what the sermon would be, or a repetition of the sermon just heard. This should be avoided. Another thing that should be avoided as well is that the congregation is informed via the prayer of certain things that have happened or are going to happen in its midst. The congregation should not learn via the prayer that brother and sister A. received a baby girl from the Lord, or that sister B. has to undergo surgery this week, or that brother C. was involved in a serious accident this past week but, thanks to the Lord, received nothing but a few scratches.

It is good when brothers and sisters are remembered by name in the

|83|

public prayers, but when this is done, the congregation should be told before the prayer who all will be remembered by name and for what reason. In this manner the congregation will not be startled or kept guessing, and the prayer becomes more specific.

Since offering up a prayer on behalf and in behalf of the congregation is a serious matter, no minister should improvise in this part of his service either. Before he begins the public prayer, he should have prepared it, at least mentally, so that he does not just ramble on, but knows beforehand what should be mentioned in this particular prayer.

However strange it may sound to some, there is nothing against preparing and writing down a prayer beforehand. This may sound like heresy to those who advocate the “spontaneous prayer,” but it appears to be more in the line of our forefathers with their collects, and of the apostle Paul who wanted to pray “with his whole mind.” Improvising before the Most High God is not a thing to be advocated. Finally, it would be totally wrong if prayer were abused to admonish certain members. If this is done, we are certain that the Lord stops His ears to such impious talk. In our prayer we are speaking to the Lord, and then as the mouth of the whole congregation. It is a responsible task.

 

Teach the Youth

Instructing the children of the church in the doctrine of salvation is also one of the specific duties of the minister of the Word. In the Form for the Ordination (Installation) we say that “he shall teach the Word of God to the youth of the church and to others whom God calls, for the holy Scriptures are able to instruct them for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”

The task of the minister of the Word is not to teach the youth of the church all sorts of theories or a particular theology, but the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. The church has summarized this doctrine in her confessional formulas. Thus the confessions of the church are to be taught in such a manner that the boys and girls of the church learn that these have been taken from God’s Word. They are not to learn how to prove the truth of the Scriptures with the help of the confessions of the church, but to prove the correctness of the confessions from God's own Word.

At the same time it is the duty of the ministers to “expose all errors and heresies as unfruitful works of darkness.” There is ample opportunity to draw upon the history of Christ’s church so that the young people become aware of their position in the church of the Lord which He has preserved and defended throughout the centuries by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A minister of the Word should take also this work seriously and not easily give part of it into the hands of others. It is his specific duty to teach the youth of the church. The parents promised at the baptismal font to have their children instructed in the doctrine of salvation. It is not the duty of elders or of special catechists.

Depending on the size of the congregation, and taking into account that the various classes should not be too large, it would be safe to say that on the average two evenings per week are taken up by this part of the work. By

|84|

means of this instruction the youth of the church are instructed and armed for the battle and forewarned regarding the various false teachings with which they may come into contact. The sword is still the Word of God and faith is still the shield.

 

Visit and Comfort

It would be a sad situation if a member visited the minister or met him somewhere and the minister did not know who this person was. It would show that the pastor and teacher was seriously remiss in his obligation to visit the members, to become acquainted with them and their life, their struggles and their joys. We are not referring now to the impossible situation where one minister saw one thousand or more members entrusted into his care. Only visiting those who were ill or had special difficulties would already more than occupy his time available for visits. In a normal-size congregation, however, a minister should be able to acquaint himself with the families and their condition.

No one can expect him to sense it when someone is ill or when there are special difficulties. It is the duty of the members to inform the minister if they like him to pay a visit, as much as it is his specific duty to visit them. Already in 1568 it was stated that “all who are bed-ridden because of illness shall inform the minister of their illness through the elders and the deacons.”

No one should expect a minister to read from the Scriptures or to pray with the member every time. It is relevant here to quote from a decision taken in 1574: “It is also the task of the ministers, if this is necessary, to call upon the Name of the Lord at the bedside of those who are ill.” Note: “if this is necessary.” Much will depend on the circumstances and the course of the conversation. A minister is no “prayer-dispensatory.”

When there are many members who are ill and when there is an abundance of other work, it may be necessary to ask the elders to assist in visiting the sick, as long as it is kept in mind that these visits belong to the specific duties of the minister. In olden days it happened often that special “comforters of the sick” were appointed, mainly for the work in institutions or aboard ships. Such practice was not encouraged as it tended to obscure the fact that it was the task of the minister to pay these visits wherever they were needed.

 

With the Elders

In the form for the Ordination (Installation) we speak more amply about the duties of the minister together with the elders to keep the church of God in good order. This is done by supervising both the doctrine and the life of the membership. There is nothing in the life of the membership that is exempt from such supervision.

This does not mean that the ministers, together with the elders, shall pry into all sorts of private matters of the membership. It does mean that they shall watch over the flock and see to it that the whole doctrine and the daily conduct of the members testify to keeping the covenant of the Lord and to obeying His will for our lives.

|85|

It should be noted that what we mention in the last part of this article is a task to be fulfilled together with the elders. A minister of the Word may have a special place in the midst of the congregation, but this does not make him the sole person responsible for keeping the church of God in good order or to govern it. He is only one among so many.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 17

|86|

Article 17

Equality among the Ministers of the Word

 

Among the ministers of the Word equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office and in other matters as far as possible, according to the judgment of the consistory and, if necessary, of classis.

Generally speaking, this article has little meaning in our present-day ecclesiastical life and situation. Yet it would be wrong to delete it, for modern influences could bring about a trend which would be dangerous. In the first place we maintain here that there are no ranks among the ministers of the Word. This is different in an hierarchical system.

Rather early in the history of the church, ranks and gradations were introduced when a minister (bishop) in a city was considered to be more important and higher in rank than one in a village. Bishops in capital cities came then to be considered even higher in rank because their city was more important than the other cities of a particular province. Gradually the battle for supremacy in the Western church was won by the bishop of Rome.

But an hierarchical system is found not only in the Romish Church. We find it also among the Lutherans and the Anglicans, or Episcopalians.

In Art. 31 of our Belgic Confession we make profession of our faith that Christ’s word is absolute: “One is your Master, and you all are brothers.” No one is higher than the other. “Ministers of the Word, in whatever place they are, have equal power and authority, for they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church.” This principle, expressed in our Belgic Confession, is worked out in Art. 17 C.O., too.

Any form of rank is rejected. When, for instance, the church visitors, mentioned in Art. 46, come to pay their yearly visit to the consistory, they do not come in the capacity of supervisors or superintendents. They are just brothers among the brothers. We do not recognize any supervisors or superintendents, although at one time or another the latter were indeed found in Reformed Churches.

The above refers to the ministers within the federation as such. Now we turn to having more than one minister within one church. Fortunately we do not see this too often among us. The Canadian Reformed Churches have the good custom of establishing new churches whenever they consider a church too large to be taken care of by one minister, and, if a second minister is called, this is usually the first step towards division into two autonomous churches.

It is especially when two ministers are serving in one church that special care is to be taken that there is equality among them. In the ecclesiastical

|87|

world around us it is not strange at all to find a huge church that has one main “pastor” and several “assistant-pastors,” each of whom has a specific area of work: the one works especially among the youth, a second one among the elderly, a third one takes care of social programs, and so on. This is completely unjustifiable for more than one reason, and we should never follow this example.

In the first place we reject the distinction between the “main minister” and the “assistant-ministers.” In days when there were many candidates for the ministry who did not receive a call some of these brothers were appointed as “assistant-ministers” to lighten the workload of the minister of that church and to take over certain tasks. This was done when either the church was too large for one minister and there were no funds for the calling of a second minister, or when the minister was ill and could do only part of the work.

These brothers, however, were not ministers; they were men who had been declared eligible for call but had not received one and in the meantime were willing and able to do some work. Various churches that could not afford calling a second minister made use of their services for catechetical instruction and visiting of the sick and the elderly, as well as for conducting an occasional service. The “title” given to brothers so employed was “assistant-minister,” but they were not ministers at all, for they had not been ordained. They worked under contract and could be appointed for another term or their employment could be discontinued. They were also free to accept a call extended to them at any time.

Among the ordained ministers, however, there are no “assistant-ministers.” Although the one may have more gifts for preaching and the other may be extremely capable of teaching catechumens, it would be wrong to assign to the one specifically the preaching and to the other (almost) exclusively the care for catechetical instruction. They all have the same “rank,” and equality shall be maintained also with respect to the duties of their office. Though each of them may have to take care of a specific part of the congregation, they are all required to do all the work belonging to their task.

The only reason why one of them would be allowed to be relieved of part of the work is his inability to do that specific work by reason of illness or old age or because he has to fulfil special tasks which take up so much of his time that he has to be relieved of some of the regular duties.

The consistory has the supervision over the ministers and is responsible for seeing to it that equality is maintained. In case of uncertainty, the advice of classis can be asked. This above-mentioned equality is to be maintained also in the matter of proper support of the ministerial families, although — as mentioned in the explanation of Art. 10 — family circumstances will be different and may be a reason for some variation in the stipends given.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 18

|88|

Article 18

Missionaries

 

When ministers of the Word are sent out as missionaries, they shall be and remain subject to the Church Order. They shall report and give account of their labours to the Church which sent them and shall at all times remain subject to its calling.
It shall be their task, in the specific region assigned to them or chosen by them in consultation with the Church that sent them, to proclaim the Word of God, to administer the sacraments to those who have come to the profession of their faith, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded His Church, and to ordain elders and deacons when this appears feasible, according to the rules given in the Word of God
.

The first thing we note here is that a missionary does not have a special office: he is a minister of the Word. Certainly, he is a minister of the Word with a special task, namely to go and proclaim the Word of God to those as yet ignorant of the true Gospel and to work towards it that a church can be instituted among them, but that he does the work of a minister in faraway regions does not mean at all that he has a different office.

With a view to the many questions a missionary faces in connection with his work, it is advisable that he first have served in a church on the “home front.” He will then have become more acquainted with all sorts of situations and also difficulties that may be encountered in regular church life. This will prove to be a great help when he goes far away and will have to solve all sorts of difficulties without the opportunity of asking a consistory or a colleague for advice. Communications are often difficult to establish with the home church and they take time. This is not to say that a newly-ordained minister would not be able to do the work well. All we want to express by these remarks is the desirability that he have some experience before going out and being on his own with the added problems of the mission field. Further we note the provision that “they shall be and remain subject to the Church Order.” This means, among other things, that they are and remain bound to the church for life, Art. 12.

Going somewhere as a missionary requires extra preparation. The language of the people among whom he is going to work will have to be learned; their history, customs, and social life will have to be studied. Time will have to be spent on the study of specific problems which he will have to face. Various religions and movements that are found in the country will have to be studied as well. These are only a few examples of the preparatory work involved, which will require a considerable amount of time.

For this reason it is only reasonable that a missionary promises the sending church that he will not consider a call from another church until he has served a definite number of years in the mission field. A church in our own

|89|

country could have another minister shortly after their “old” minister has left. This is a practical impossibility for the mission field: time of preparation, time required to obtain the necessary visa, even apart from finding a suitable — and willing—family preclude a speedy filling of the vacancy. Thus a reasonable period should be observed before a missionary accepts a call from another church.

This does not mean that a missionary would have the right to say: “After my next furlough I will serve as your missionary for another three years, but that is it.” He is and remains subject to the Church Order, with its provision in Article 12 that a minister is bound for life to the church that has called him. In addition, Article 18 states clearly that he “shall at all times remain subject to its calling.”

As for the position of a missionary with respect to the sending church, he is an office-bearer of this church, although not in it, because he has been called for a specific task, namely to bring the Gospel to those who are without. Although being an office-bearer of this church, his work is outside the church. When he is on furlough, he certainly may be invited to attend consistory meetings either for a specific purpose or on a regular basis, but he does not have to attend them nor does he have to be invited to them.

Another question is of which church the missionary and his family are members. When he is sent to faraway regions where no church has been formed as yet, it is logical that he remains a member of the church that sent him. More and more, however, it is becoming a practice to send not one but two missionaries to the same region, besides some mission-aid workers. In this manner the nucleus of a future church is present. One might say that for the time being it is a “ward” of the home church, but this ward cannot yet be instituted. The Home Church exercises the oversight over the members in that “ward” via the office-bearers present, that is, the missionaries. There is, of course, also the mutual supervision.

When as a result of the proclamation of the Gospel others, too, become believers, they are also involved in the mutual supervision. Until institution takes place, the “mission congregation” is and remains a “ward” of the home church, being taken care of by the office-bearers in its midst. As all local office-bearers report regularly about their activities to the consistory, so the missionary is under obligation to keep the sending church informed about his activities in this field.

The missionary’s reports should be quite extensive. This is one way in which the sending church is able to judge whether he does his work faithfully or whether there is reason to urge him to greater activity and diligence, or to warn him against dangerous trends in his manner of working or in his way of presenting the Gospel.

Although it brings extra expenses with it, it is a necessity that at regular intervals a team from the home church visit the mission field to report to the consistory on the basis of their own observations and experiences. Being a missionary brings extra responsibilities and special dangers with it. We all need the constant supervision of the office-bearers and of the whole congregation. It is always more dangerous when one is all by himself, far from the

|90|

“control” by the brotherhood. By means of his reports the missionary informs the consistory about his work, and in this manner he can receive the so much needed encouragement as well as correction if necessary.

These reports also enable the home church to maintain a lively interest in the work being undertaken in the mission field and to be more specific in its prayers for the work which is done on its behalf. After all, mission is the task of the church and not of some persons who feel prompted “to give it a try.”

 

Field

When a missionary replaces one who has accepted another call, there will not be any problem where he has to go. The situation is different if a field has to be chosen for the first time or if the work in the original area has been concluded so that a new terrain is to be sought. It may be expected that the sending church will have done its homework so that the brothers have a fair idea where approximately the missionary will have to work. But the final decision can be made only after he has thoroughly investigated locally what the centre of activities should be. Even so, the sending church will have to approve the choice of field.

 

Task

The first task of a missionary is obviously the proclamation of the Word of God. When we state that this “obviously” is the task of the missionary as minister of the Gospel, we take a stand over against all theories which have abandoned the first principle. The purpose of missionary labour is not to lift the heathen out above their social and economic ills and misery, but to free them from the misery of sin, the slavery of the evil one. This can be achieved only when the Word of God is preached purely, in all its fulness.

The manner in which God’s Word is to be proclaimed will also be determined by the condition and level of the hearers; but the basic contents of the message may not be affected by the difference in the people to whom it is addressed. The message is the same throughout the centuries and remains the same regardless of conditions or places.

When, perhaps after a long time of seemingly fruitless labour, there are some who come to the faith, they will have to be instructed further, so that they can come to the profession of faith and thus receive the sacrament of holy baptism, followed by their participation in the celebration of the holy supper. It is evident that this takes time. Even if it pleases the Lord right away to open the hearts of some so that they “give heed to what is said to” them, Acts 16: 14, the missionary will need much more time to instruct them so that they ultimately may make profession of faith with an adequate understanding of what it entails.

Some are of the opinion that a missionary has to move on to another place as soon as there are some believers, who then have the duty to spread the Gospel in their own surroundings. No one will deny that it is the duty of every believer to let the light shine so that everyone can see it. But that a missionary’s task has ended as soon as there is a circle of believers

|91|

in a certain area is a fallacy. This becomes even clearer from the third part of the missionary’s task: “teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded His church.” Even when heathen have come to the faith and to the profession of faith, there is still ample work left for the missionary.

The question could be asked whether the newly converted, though they have reached the level at which they could make profession of faith, have a sufficient grasp of how the Word of God affects all of life and how the Lord’s will is to be obeyed in every area of life. It certainly is not a missionary’s task to transplant or impose upon the new Christians some sort of “Western Civilization,” but it is his task to show them how God’s Word permeates the whole life with all its activities and relations. In the course of the centuries the Holy Spirit has led the church also in that part of the truth which shows how the redemption by Christ encompasses all there is in our life. The accumulated wisdom of centuries is to be shared with the new Christians, too, and so the work of the missionary goes on for quite a while.

The instruction of men who may serve as office-bearers so that the church can be instituted in due time also takes time. No one should receive the “laying on of hands” hastily, without a sufficient time of preparation, Scripture warns us.

 

After Institution

The question has been raised what the missionary’s position is once the church has been instituted as a fruit of his labours. There is no longer a “mission congregation,” which is a distant “ward” of the sending church; and there is no longer any “supervision” by that church. The “mission church” has become an autonomous, instituted church. Have the missionary family and mission-aid workers now become members of the newly instituted church? It appears that this is the only logical conclusion. Is it not our obligation to join ourselves to the church where it has pleased the Lord to establish it? Do we not confess that every one has to do this? When we take this confession seriously, it is evident that the communion of saints has indeed to be maintained and practised locally.

Although now a member of the newly-established church and thus under the supervision of its consistory, the missionary is and remains an office-bearer of the sending church and may be sent to another area to work there. In the newly instituted church he has no special authority, even though the consistory may request him to do the work of a minister when necessary. The new office-bearers may find it strange that now they have supervision over the missionary as a “common member” of the church, but this is only proper. No tutelage ad infinitum!

Such a situation is not as strange as it may seem. Ministers who have been released by their consistory for the work at the Theological College and move to a place in the neighbourhood of the College also remain an office-bearer of the “releasing church” and are just “common members” of the church they joined themselves to. The very same applies to retired ministers who move elsewhere. They remain office-bearer of the church they served

|92|

last, but in their new place of residence and in the church at that place they have no special privileges or responsibilities, let alone authority.

Matters are no different in the case of a missionary. Once a church has been instituted, this church is completely autonomous, and neither the missionary nor the sending church has any authority in it.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 19

|93|

Article 19

Training for the Ministry

 

The Churches shall maintain an institution for the training for the ministry. The task of the professors of theology is to instruct the students of theology in those disciplines which have been entrusted to them, so that the Churches may be provided with ministers of the Word who are able to fulfil the duties of their office as these have been described above.

In earlier versions of our Church Order we do not find a provision such as we have now, namely, that the churches shall maintain their own institution for the training for the ministry. In those earlier redactions our Church Order spoke of “doctors” or professors of theology and described their task.

We no longer include the office of “doctor” as an ecclesiastical office. In Art. 2 we recognize three offices only: that of the minister of the Word, of the elder, and of the deacon. Instead, we now have an article stating that the churches are to maintain their own institution for the training for the ministry. This does not mean that only of late the conviction has grown and ripened that the churches should have such an institution. On the contrary, what is expressed in the text of Art. 19 as we have it now is not essentially different from what was expressed in the old article about the task of the “doctors or professors of theology.”

From the very outset the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were convinced of the need to train men aspiring to the office of minister of the Gospel. For various reasons they did not have an institution of their own until the year 1854. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries the training for the ministry took place at the State Universities, but the churches did not have control over these institutions. When it comes to the point, they had no more guarantees for the purity of doctrine than what was stated in the provision that it was the office of the doctors or professors of theology to expound the Holy Scriptures and to defend the pure doctrine against all heresies and errors; and the provision that the professors of theology were to subscribe to the Confessions of the Reformed Churches.

The use of the expression “Doctors or Professors of Theology” is a result of the fact that in olden days one did not receive a doctor’s degree simply to indicate one’s scholarly standing, or to adorn him with a title, but he received this title as a confirmation of his incorporation into the body of teachers. Striving for and receiving the doctor’s degree meant that one was to teach at a university.

For example, Luther once wrote: “If we bear the name and title of Doctors of Holy Scripture, the very name should make it compulsory for us to teach Holy Scripture alone.” And he mentions a formula which was used when the doctor’s title was conferred: “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This is said to you that you may remember who,

|94|

what, how great He is who called you, and further to what task you have been called over against what sort of people, what kind of persons, however prominent they may be, so that you may be a leader, a messenger, an ambassador of God against the enemies of Him who sends you as I have been sent. May the Lord confirm you and be strong. Fear not, for the Lord is with you. Amen.”

Once declared a doctor, a teacher, one also had to take an oath, promising that he would be faithful in his teaching, especially faithful to the Holy Scriptures. This oath was a source of encouragement and strength to Luther in his battle against the heresies that had been introduced into the church. Oftentimes when doubt arose whether he did the right thing when opposing the high authorities in the church, he remembered his oath and was once again convinced that his primary allegiance was to the Word of God.

Even though the churches had no control over their teaching or appointment, entrusting the training for the ministry to doctors who were faithful to the Scriptures was not difficult. It became difficult when at the universities heresies and false doctrines were not confuted but, on the contrary, protected and even propagated.

It was not till after the Secession of 1834 that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands finally succeeded in establishing their own training for the ministry. The various provincial efforts were combined in 1854, when a “Theological School” was founded. One hundred years later, in 1954, the Canadian Reformed Churches had their first General Synod. Already at this first synod it was decided to request four collections per year from the churches for the cause of the training for the ministry, and to appoint a committee to further this matter.

What prompted the churches to set up their own training for the ministry? The training of those aspiring to the office of minister of the Word is of utmost importance for the church. The proclamation of the Gospel must be continued, and safeguards are necessary to ensure that this proclamation remains pure and free from errors and heresies. The apostle Paul already commanded Timothy to teach men who, in turn, were to teach others. The “apostolic succession,” that is, the chain of the doctrine of the apostles, should continue unbroken until the appearing of the Saviour.

The apostle often called Timothy his “son.” There is no reason to assume that he gave this title because of a special love for Timothy, although he evidently did love him. It rather reminds us of the “sons of the prophets” mentioned in the Old Testament: they were the men who were taught by the prophets and were to be the leaders among the people. A pupil was oftentimes called the “son” of the teacher or “father.” At Elijah’s being taken up to heaven Elisha called out, “My father, my father!” And Amos stated specifically that he was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son; in other words, he had never been trained but was, so to speak, a prophet “according to Art. 8 C.O.”

It appears that the churches are completely in line with the Scriptural givens when they insist on having their own institution which is completely under the control of the churches. The work of a minister of the Word is so important that every possible precaution has to be taken to prevent error and

|95|

heresy. The universities were and still are often the places that bred dangerous trends and errors which found their way into the churches, to the great grief and harm of the latter.

The Theological College or Seminary is governed, on behalf of the churches, by a Board of Governors, appointed by General Synod. It consists of eleven members, six of whom are ministers of the Word. The latter form the Academic Committee, which is responsible for the supervision of the teaching done at the College. They visit the lectures unannounced and receive the reports from the Senate. It is the Board of Governors that comes to a General Synod with a nomination whenever a faculty member has to be appointed. The Board also reports to each General Synod about its activities during the preceding three years. Thus the churches themselves keep control over the training for the ministry.

 

Task of Professors

What is the task of the Professors of Theology? Their task is to instruct the students of theology and to guide these students to the completion of their courses. Once a student has completed the course of study as required, he will receive a certificate attesting to this accomplishment. With this certificate the graduate may present himself to a classis to be declared eligible for call, as laid down in Art. 4 C.O.

Although the College is completely under the control of the churches, it is an institution for higher learning in its own right. The churches do finance the College by means of an annual assessment per communicant member, but they do not meddle in the material taught at the College or the scholarly level of the instruction. The Board of Governors is the body that guards both the level and the Scriptural character of the instruction given.

The degrees that are granted by the College are, therefore, academic degrees, not ecclesiastical attestations. A degree from the College does not give access to the pulpit; it only permits the graduate to present himself to the relevant ecclesiastical assembly for examination and opens the way which ultimately may lead to the pulpit. Such an ecclesiastical examination is essentially different in character from the academic examinations at the College. We already mentioned this difference when dealing with Article 4.

Although the College has been established and is being maintained by the churches, this does not mean that only members of the churches would be allowed to study at it or obtain a degree from it. If the blessings, bestowed upon the churches by the Lord, are recognized by others, too, and when the College can be of benefit and blessing to others, too, it can only be a reason for humble gratitude that we may be instrumental in spreading these blessings to an even wider circle.

The fact that the College is an institution for higher learning and that the teaching at it is at the scholarly level does not mean that the ministry of the Gospel should be left out of the picture. On the contrary, it should be the dominating and guiding principle. The whole teaching as well as the subjects taught have to have as their goal that the students be trained for the office to which they are aspiring.

|96|

Ideally, the College should have at least five teachers, corresponding with the various disciplines. There is in the first place the department of Old Testament studies, followed by that of the New Testament discipline. The doctrine of the church is another field; then there is the history and polity of the church, while the fifth discipline covers all that belongs to the work of a minister in preaching, teaching, visiting, and so on. The last-mentioned discipline is called the diaconiology.

For admission to the College one has to be in possession of a qualified Bachelor of Arts degree. The course of study at the College itself covers four years. Upon successful completion of the study, the degree of Master of Divinity is conferred at the Convocation, which is usually held on the second Friday in September.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 20

|97|

Article 20

Students of Theology

 

The Churches shall endeavour that there be students of theology, extending financial aid to those who are in need of it.

Having an institution to train men with a view to the ministry would not be very effective if there were no men to be trained. If there were no men to be trained, this would ultimately result in the churches’ being without ministers of the Word. This, as one of the brothers in the age of the Reformation wrote, would be “the worst plague which God may send to people.” Or, as an early ecclesiastical assembly expressed it, then it would have to be feared “that in times to come the congregations will come to great darkness and ruin for lack of able ministers.”

Practically from the very outset the Reformed Churches saw the need for students who would aspire to the ministry. They were aware of the need to urge parents to give their children for this work and also of the necessity to urge young men to dedicate themselves to the work of the ministry. Let us remember that those early decades after the Reformation were dangerous years. Especially ministers of the Gospel were in grave danger of being apprehended and put to death. The desire to be a messenger of the Gospel must have been very strong if one chose the way of preparing oneself for it. We can well understand it that encouragement from the side of the churches was needed.

It was for their own benefit that the churches would undertake to attract students of theology. They were not only aware of the grave dangers mentioned above, but they also acknowledged the inevitable financial sacrifices to be made.

In the early days when the persecutions still raged, students had to go abroad, for instance to Heidelberg or Geneva. This brought extra costs with it, and many parents did not have the means to enable their son to go there. Also once freedom had been restored and it became possible for students to attend university in their own country, the cost remained often prohibitive. For this reason it was also realized that the churches should not only urge young men to work towards the ministry, but also enable them to do so if they lacked the necessary means themselves.

This was seen as the task of each church. When a church supported one or more students — so an early assembly decided — these men, upon completion of their studies, were to serve that church that had supported them. If this church did not need them, they were free to go and serve another church, but in this case the other church was to make restitution of the costs involved. This did not apply if a brother served another church temporarily. From this we can see the close bond between the supporting church and the supported student.

|98|

Should just anyone who came and said, “I want to prepare myself for the ministry, but cannot pay (all) the costs, would you please help me?” receive support? No, more than once it was stated that only those were to be helped “who give reason to have good hope.” The churches should make certain that the money would not be wasted on a person, as far as human judgment goes, of course.

The first thing we have to bear in mind, therefore, is the need of the churches. Although the churches should always be aware of the need to prepare for the future, the degree to which young men are to be urged to give themselves for the ministry will be determined by the need in the foreseeable future.

Further, it certainly is not so that the churches are obligated to support everyone who asks for help. Only those “who give reason to have good hope” should receive help. This implies that solid information should be gathered about the prospective student. Since no one should be encouraged to “live off others,” it should be investigated what share of the costs involved the person himself would be able to bear, possibly with the help of his own family or other relatives. The possibility of earning a substantial share of the cost during the long summer holidays should also be taken into consideration.

Another point which should be kept in mind is the close bond which originally existed between the supporting church and the supported student. It is to be deplored that gradually the financial help to students has become a classical or even regional-synodical matter. This has resulted in the loosening of this bond. We certainly would not advocate the early arrangement that, upon completion of their studies, the brothers had to serve the church that extended aid to them, or that — in case they went to serve another church — this church would have to reimburse the home church for the cost incurred. Yet the bond with the home church is to be preserved. It is this church which knows its members and knows whom to encourage. It is this church that is able to judge whether there is “reason to have good hope,” while it is in a better position to determine the need for and the measure of financial support. It should be an honour for a congregation to enable one or more of its members to prepare themselves for the ministry; just as it should be an honour for the student to bear as large as possible a share of the cost himself.

If one church is unable to offer the total help which is needed, it can always ask one or more of the neighbouring churches to come to its aid. This is much better, much more in line with the original arrangements, and more in accordance with Reformed church polity, which takes its starting-point in the autonomy of the local church and precludes centralization. Making support of theological students a classical matter appears to be in conflict with Art. 30, which contains the provision that broader assemblies shall not take on matters that could be finished in the minor assemblies. It is equally impossible to “prove’ that the support of a theological student is a matter which belongs to the classis-churches “in common.”

The financial support students for the ministry receive is not a loan which has to be repaid. We might say that the brother “repays” the church(es) by serving as a minister of the Gospel. Should a student, for one reason or

|99|

another, come to the conclusion that it is better not to try to become a minister and to discontinue his theological studies, it appears to be only just that he does make restitution of the amounts paid to him or in his behalf.

The question has been raised whether the churches are obligated to aid students who pursue their theological studies not at the churches’ own institution but elsewhere. This point was even dealt with at a general synod. The gist of this synod’s decision is that such support was justly refused. There certainly is freedom to study anywhere, but if one prefers another institution above the churches’ own, he has to bear the consequences of his choice, also in financial respect.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 21

|100|

Article 21

An Edifying Word

 

Besides those who have been permitted, according to Article 8, to speak an edifying word in the worship services, others may be given such consent in accordance with general ecclesiastical regulations, for their own training and in order that they may become known to the congregations.

It does not appear strange or irregular to us when someone appears on the pulpit who is not an office-bearer and yet conducts a service, presenting a sermon proposal prepared by himself. We call this “speaking an edifying word” or “exhorting” as distinguished from “proclaiming the Gospel” when referring to the delivery of a sermon by a minister. How does such a non-office-bearer receive the right to conduct a service and to deliver a message in the form prepared by himself? He derives this right, of course, from the church that invites him to do so. This church, in turn, derives the right to invite him from the provision found in Art. 21, where the churches have agreed that such an invitation may be extended.

Various “categories” are covered by this article. There are in the first place the brothers who have been examined according to Article 8 and now are permitted to speak an edifying word in the churches of the classis in which they reside. Secondly, there are the candidates who have been declared eligible for call and who now may present themselves to the churches and conduct services, if so requested. Further there may be students of theology who have completed a specified number of years at the Theological College.

As for these students, the history of their permission to speak an edifying word looks like a see-saw: now yes, now no, now yes again. Permission to students to speak was often dependent on the need of the churches. When there were many vacancies and many churches were forced to have an elder read a sermon because no minister was available to conduct the services, the churches were more readily prepared to grant such permission. In each and every case a classical examination precedes the granting of this privilege.

We did already speak about the brothers who present themselves according to Art. 8. We dealt with the examination of candidates in connection with Art. 4.

Students who have completed three years of study at the Theological College also have to be examined by a classis. This examination usually consists of the presentation of a sermon proposal that — if judged acceptable — is followed by an examination in the doctrine of the church, lasting from half an hour to three- quarters of an hour. Permission is usually granted for a one-year period.

In the case of students, there is the provision that their sermon proposals shall be submitted beforehand to the professor of diaconiology and that they shall not deliver them without his approval.

|101|

It is rather difficult to define the difference between “proclaiming the Word” as done by a minister of the Word, and “speaking an edifying word” as done by a student or candidate. The following example may make this clear. There is a student whose “sermon proposal” has been approved for delivery. He uses it when conducting a service, and thus he speaks ‘an edifying word” or “exhorts.” Upon completion of his studies and after his ordination he uses the same “sermon-proposal” on a Sunday after a busy week during which there was little time for sermon preparation. Although he delivers exactly the same message, now it is called “proclamation of the Word.”

Originally the word “propositions” was used for sermon proposals presented by non-office-bearers. In early days the purpose of these “propositions” was not the same as in our days. In those days these “propositions” were sessions for the training of men for the ministry. They delivered their proposals either before a group of ministers, or before a consistory, or before the congregation in the presence of the ministers, after which remarks were made and criticism given for their instruction and improvement. Later on the provision was made that no person should deliver any “proposition” before the congregation publicly, from the pulpit, except those who had been legitimately examined.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries no students were permitted to “give any proposition, particularly not in vacant churches, nor in their neighbourhood.” But the need of the churches brought some provinces to giving permission for “speaking an edifying word,” and the Canadian Reformed Churches do so, too. For as long as the brother has not yet completed his studies and passed a preparatory examination, and has not been declared eligible for call, his sermon proposals continue to be submitted to the professor of diaconiology for scrutiny, in order to protect the churches against unripe statements and errors.

What is not mentioned in our Church Order, and yet would be very useful and beneficial, is the possibility and even desirability that the student sit in on catechism classes for a certain period, preferably with different ministers, in order to get “training in the field.” In like manner it would be very beneficial if students attended consistory meetings for a while to become acquainted with the manner in which these meetings are conducted and with various questions and difficulties which may arise in ecclesiastical life. They will have to promise — as was already stated in 1599 — “to keep secret all that transpires there,” but actually one does not have to belabour this point.

Accompanying a minister when he visits the members who are ill or are having special difficulties appears to be less advisable, as such visits become more or less artificial when someone comes along with the minister “to learn how things are to be done.”

The more practical experience one who prepares himself for the ministry can get, the better it is. Once one has been ordained he is expected to chair the consistory meetings, to teach the youth of the church, to comfort the grieving, to console and strengthen the sick, to guide the flock, to lead back the wayward, and he is supposed to know how all these things are to be done in the best possible manner. Any help received beforehand would be most helpful.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 22

|102|

Article 22

The Office of Elder

 

The specific duties of the office of elder are together with the ministers of the Word, to have supervision over Christ’s Church, that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life according to the gospel; and faithfully to visit the members of the congregation in their homes to comfort, instruct, and admonish them with the Word of God, reproving those who behave improperly. They shall exercise Christian discipline according to the command of Christ against those who show themselves unbelieving and ungodly and refuse to repent, and shall watch that the sacraments are not profaned. Being stewards of the house of God, they are further to take care that in the congregation all things are done decently and in good order, and to tend the flock of Christ which is in their charge. Finally, it is the duty of elders to assist the ministers of the Word with good counsel and advice and to supervise their doctrine and conduct.

Whoever compares the wording of this article with that of the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons will find a large measure of similarity. In fact, the present wording of Art. 22 CO. has been taken from this Form. With our discussion of this article we shall have to bear in mind that it is within the framework of church polity that we describe the elder's task here. This will modify our treatment of this provision.

The church of the Reformation restored the eldership in the church of Christ. In the course of time this office had all but disappeared. Pope and bishops had usurped all power and assumed the whole government of the church. They considered themselves to be the successors of the apostles and were as such, by divine right, to govern the church. There was no need or place for elders, while the deacons were degraded into helpers of the bishop.

At the Reformation it was specifically Calvin who restored the eldership and therein, too, he went back to before the beginning of the deformation: he went back to what the Scripture teaches us about the offices in the church. We cannot say with certainty when elders were first ordained in the New Testament church. We do know that the New Testament church continued in the line of the church of the Old Testament when it chose and ordained elders. Perhaps we may call the appointing of “The Seven” described in Acts 6 the “Institution of the church at Jerusalem.” This much is certain that in Acts 11: 30 we are all of a sudden faced with the presence of elders, when we are told that the relief for the “brethren who lived in Judea” was sent “to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”

|103|

Chosen

In Art. 31 of our Belgic Confession we state that elders “ought to be chosen to their offices by lawful election of the church, with prayer and in good order, as stipulated by the Word of God.” Because we dealt with the election as such when discussing Art. 3 CO., we may omit here what was said at that time, and restrict ourselves to a few additional remarks regarding this point.

The elders ought to be chosen by the church — and the “church” is not a specific, select group of men who have all power concentrated in their persons, but the congregation. This does not mean that they are the “executives” of the congregation, and are obliged to do what the congregation decides.

Also in New Testament times the elders were chosen, as appears from Acts 6: 5; they were appointed, Acts 14: 23; Titus 1: 5. And yet the apostle urges the overseers to remember that it is the Holy Spirit Himself who had made them guardians of the flock of Christ. It is from the Lord that the elders have received their authority and it is He to whom they have to give account. The Lord gives us the requirements for the overseers specifically in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. From these passages it appears that God sets high standards. It is a grave responsibility indeed, when one is called to be an overseer and guardian of the flock of the Great Shepherd. The necessity of having a good reputation extends even to those who are without. On the other hand, no one should get the notion that an elder's authority and position rest on his own, personal qualifications. His authority and position rest solely on his having been called by the Lord Himself.

But since this call comes through the church, those who extend the call are to act according to the rules given by the Lord. For this reason some consistories have the custom of reading the relevant parts from 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 before composing a list of candidates for the office. Thereby the brothers remind themselves anew of their great responsibility when presenting names to the congregation.

The Scripture gives the title “overseer” to the brothers whom we call “elders.” In the Greek language they are called “episkopoi” and from this comes our word “bishop.” They are bishops over the flock of Christ. It is their task to have supervision, the oversight over Christ's church. This shows their high position. It is also symbolic for this high position when the pews for the office-bearers are on an elevated platform, so that they can keep an eye on the assembled congregation and also can keep track of who is attending church faithfully and who is negligent.

At the same time the brothers have to bear in mind that authority is never given for the sake of the one who receives it, but only for the sake and benefit of those over whom it is exercised. As this applies everywhere, so it applies in the church of Christ: the overseers have received their authority to keep the flock of Christ close to the Great Shepherd and in the path of obedience.

This article formulates this as follows: “that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life according to the Gospel.” The Bride must be prepared and preserved so that she may greet the Bridegroom with joy and unstained garments. It is clear that high standards have to be set for one who is to serve in this office.

|104|

Not always is a sufficient number of suitable candidates available. For this reason ecclesiastical assemblies in the past had to answer questions such as “Whether an elder or deacon who is capable of serving the church but has an evil and rebellious wife therefore shall be barred from serving the church”; or “Whether someone may be elected to the office of Elder or Deacon, or remain elected, whose wife is not a member of the church”; or “Whether such are to be ordained to be ministers, elders, etc. whose wives do not go to the Lord’s Supper or who have disobedient children.”

In smaller congregations with many families interrelated to one another it may also be difficult to avoid having two (biological) brothers or brothers-in-law serve at the same time. In principle there is no objection to having two (biological) brothers serve at the same time, although it would not be wise to have them bring family visits together. The danger of a consistory being “dominated” by closely-related men should also be avoided as much as possible, although we recall that there were at least two pairs of brothers among the Lord’s twelve disciples.

What has to be the main aim is the interest and the edification of the congregation. To one of the above-mentioned questions it was answered that, when no one else was available, “the most capable one shall be taken to the end that the churches remain not without service.” The congregation would definitely not be served if a less capable member had to be taken “because we don’t want two brothers in the consistory.” Besides, there are often such differences between two sons of the same parents that they may not agree with each other in several points except in their being one in their love and faithfulness towards their Lord.

 

Courses for Elders?

With a view to the high standards set by the Lord and the many features of their office, the point has been raised whether there should not be a special training for elders. Before one can become a minister, he has to go through a lengthy period of preparation. In fact, many years of study are required. On the other hand, elders are nominated, chosen and ordained, and without any further preparation have to fulfil the duties of their office. Why not a “course for elders?”

Here we are to make distinctions. A course for “future elders” appears not to be advisable. Such would endanger the whole Reformed concept of eldership. In this manner a special class of people would be formed from which elders could be taken. Besides, who would apply for enrollment in such courses? Most likely not the most capable and modest brothers. On the contrary, one could expect that the most capable and modest brothers would not think of enrolling in such courses, for who are they that they should presume themselves to be worthy of this office? In the third place the danger is not entirely absent that such courses would result in an eldership-for-life, on the analogy of the ministry. Although such an eldership-for-life is certainly not in conflict with what Scripture teaches us, the churches have moved away from it, as is evident from Art. 24 C.O. The idea should not be promoted in a roundabout way.

|105|

Having courses for elders after they have been chosen and appointed and/or ordained, or even before they are ordained is an entirely different matter. Such courses can only be wholeheartedly recommended, as can office-bearers’ conferences. Periodicals dedicated specifically to the instruction of office-bearers — such as Diaconia — are also of great value.

 

Decline?

One more point is to be considered before we proceed to discussing the specific duties of the elders. Is one allowed to decline when one has been chosen and appointed as an elder?

When the church calls to the office, the Lord calls through His church. The Lord certainly never makes a mistake, but His church is not infallible and can make mistakes. It is quite possible that a consistory did not take all the facts sufficiently into consideration when nominating a certain brother and that the congregation when electing him was not sufficiently aware of all the circumstances in the life and the family of the brother.

If one is convinced that he has sufficiently valid reasons for requesting the consistory to release him from the call to office, he has the right to submit a request to that effect to the consistory. A consistory would be amiss if it simply said, “You have been called by the church, and therefore by the Lord, so you have no right to ask to be relieved of this task.” This would amount to declaring itself and the congregation infallible. Besides, such a reply would show a misunderstanding of the relevant question in the Form for the Ordination.

If a request for release is received, the consistory has to weigh the arguments adduced in support of the request and, if they are found sufficient, to grant it. This does not do away with the fact that the ultimate decision is the consistory’s and is binding upon the appointee.

 

Wesel 1568

Proceeding now to the description of the specific duties of the office of elder, we mention the attention paid to it already by the first gathering of brothers from the Reformed Churches. We refer to the Convent of Wesel of 1568. This Convent was very specific and deals extensively with the duties of the elders. This is understandable, as we recall how neglected and obliterated the office of elder had become and how neglected and undernourished the members were. Everything had to be built up from the ground on, and this explains the elaborate description of the task of the elders given by this gathering.

What to think of the following part of the description of their task as given by Wesel: they shall keep diligent watch “each one over his own parish or section and visit those entrusted to them from house to house at least once per week and further as often as shall be the custom of every church in visiting, especially, however, towards the time of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; that they shall closely enquire after the purity of their conduct and morals, their faithful teaching of the members of their family, the prayers

|106|

which they offer up before their families in the morning and in the evening, and all that kind of matters?”

The elders themselves, the brothers stated, “are to conduct themselves in such a manner that they bear in mind that they will have to give account of the souls entrusted to them not only before the church but also before God.” They are further admonished not to “let themselves be seduced either by favour or by money, but that they shall take into consideration only the Church and the Name of God.”

 

Three Categories

We could divide the specific duties of the office of elder into three main categories. There is in the first place the government of the church, which includes the discipline; further there is the supervision over other office-bearers, fellow-elders, deacons, ministers. In the third place there is the visiting. These three categories are no more than three facets of the one task.

The government of the church includes everything and not just what some would call “spiritual matters.” The finances of the church are also a very spiritual matter, although the elders would do well when calling upon brothers who are capable in this field to take care of the more technical matters. Ultimately, however, the elders remain responsible. It would be wrong if they surrendered their authority in this respect to a committee and relinquished their right to make the final decisions. On the other hand, they should not do all over again the work that a committee is doing under their supervision and by their authorization. No part of the task of the elders is more “spiritual” than the other.

The government that has been entrusted to them is of a serving nature; it has as its goal and should be exercised to this end that Christ have dominion over the church and that God's Word be acknowledged and honoured as the only rule for all of life. Holy Scripture tells the elders not to lord it over the Church of God, the flock of Christ. We repeat what was said above: authority is always given for the benefit of those over whom it is exercised, never for the benefit of those who receive it.

In order that no one may exalt himself above the others, it is stated that the elders “together with the ministers of the Word have supervision over the Church of Christ.” It is to the body of elders that the government has been entrusted. Thus hierarchy is prevented. This is not to say that an elder needs the authorization by the consistory for each and every action. An elder is a man with a mandate, he is a pastor and as such has not only obligations but also rights. But whatever authority an elder has, he has in combination with his fellow-elders and the minister(s).

When they endeavour that the Kingship of Christ may be honoured in His church, they will pay close attention to the doctrine and conduct of the members. They will also make sure that the Bride of Christ remains pure and therefore will remove those who defile her and refuse to repent. All things must be done decently and in good order, and the elders should see to it that this, indeed, will take place.

|107|

Supervision

We also mention as belonging to the specific duties of the office of elder that they have supervision over their fellow-office-bearers. First, they are to make sure that no one serves without having been lawfully called. They further have to exercise Christian Censure. We shall deal with this when discussing Art. 73.

What they in particular should pay attention to is the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of conduct of the ministers of the Word. The Lord warns the elders emphatically against wolves that might try to enter the sheepfold of the Great Shepherd. Ministers are not people who are beyond reproach or who are not susceptible to error. Many a time it happened that under the cloak of pious terms and Scripturally-sounding expressions errors and heresies were introduced by way of the pulpit and the Catechism classes. This should be prevented at any cost. Wolves should be barred and, if they succeeded in sneaking in, should be unmasked and expelled.

Therefore the elders should not only listen attentively and discerningly when the Word is being proclaimed, but they also ought to visit and attend catechism classes unannounced. This is no proof of distrust or suspicion, but belongs to their duty to exercise supervision over the ministers of the Word. For the minister it is an encouraging experience to see elders appear at his classes: it assures him the more that he does not bear the responsibility alone, and that the brothers are vitally interested also in this branch of the work in the vineyard. Besides, visiting the catechism-classes is also good for the elders’ own knowledge of the students, their diligence and attention, and will be beneficial when they visit the families.

No office-bearer is above criticism, and no one is so faithful and faultless that he does not need the supervision of the brothers or the encouragement provided by their visits.

 

Visiting

An important part of the task of the elders is the visiting of the families and single persons in the ward assigned to them. In the proclamation of the Gospel the Word of God comes to the whole congregation; in the family visits God’s Word comes to the members and families individually.

The overseers have to look after the well-being of the congregation and they do this by means of personal visits. It is not necessary for them always to go in pairs when visiting. An elder may certainly visit the families in his ward alone and he will do so when he considers this advisable.

What is the purpose of the family visit? The purpose is to see whether everyone's life is in accordance with the Word of our God, and also to comfort and encourage where this appears necessary. When elders visit a family or single member they show thereby that the Lord cares, that the church cares, and that we are all together one body. If they are aware of or discover disobedience with a particular member, they can admonish on a personal basis, something which should not be done from the pulpit.

|108|

Though a minister definitely has the duty to warn the congregation against dangers and to point out generally prevailing sins, but he is never allowed to become personal when proclaiming God’s Word from the pulpit. Matters are different in a family visit.

How often should such visits be brought? Above we mentioned that in 1568 it was considered necessary that the families were visited every week. We have only the provision that the elders shall “faithfully” visit the members of the congregation in their homes. Practically, visits are brought once a year, at least when there is nothing special with a family or a single member that should receive extra attention. Sometimes “special visits” are arranged before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps, if visits were conducted in a less formal manner, they might become more frequent, but this is a matter for the discipline dealing with the execution of the offices in the church, not for church polity.

Another way in which the frequency of visits might be increased is to make the wards smaller and to add to the number of elders. Considering the size of the wards in our days — they not infrequently number twenty or more families — we conclude that it would be impossible to achieve what Wesel 1568 desired to see: visit the families in your ward every week, more often if necessary. It would also be beneficial to the families of the elders by giving the brothers the opportunity to spend more evenings at home.

 

Remuneration

In 1581 the question was discussed whether an elder may receive remuneration. It was declared inadvisable to do so. People come so easily to avarice and abuse, it was said. Besides, it might lead to desiring an office for this reason more than to looking at the true purpose of the office. Elders and deacons do not give up their occupation and so it would be a big question how much should be paid to each one. Should elders or deacons suffer financial loss because of the time required for the fulfilment of their office, it would only be fair “that they be assisted from ecclesiastical properties ... as a free gift to honour them.”

It is only reasonable that a brother should be reimbursed for any cost incurred. If an elder — or deacon — has to take time off for work as an office-bearer and loses income, he should receive compensation. The same applies to using his vehicle for visits. Most times the budgets and financial statements contain a relatively small amount set aside for mileage for office-bearers. It appears quite regularly that claims for mileage are not submitted. This does not appear proper. There may be brothers who can ill afford the sometimes considerable extra expenses involved in visiting distant members, but who do not feel free to submit a statement to the treasurer “for no one else does it.” When everyone submits his statement for reimbursement, no one has to feel bad about doing it, too. And those who do not feel good about accepting it can always donate it to the church. No greater financial burden may be laid upon the one than upon the other regardless whether he can afford it or not.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 23

|109|

Article 23

The Office of Deacon

 

The specific duties of the office of deacon are to see to the good progress of the service of charity in the congregation; to acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties and exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy; and further, to gather and manage the offerings and distribute them in Christ’s Name according to need. They shall encourage and comfort with the Word of God those who receive the gifts of Christ’s love, and promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord.

It was again the Reformation which restored the office of deacon to its proper place and function. As mentioned before, gradually the office of deacon had become degraded and the deacon had become merely the helper of the bishop. With some of the religious bodies that trace their origin back to the Reformation the office of deacon is a step on the way to the priesthood.

Among Reformed people, too, we sometimes get the impression that the office of deacon is regarded as being the lowest in rank among the three offices and that, when one has served well as a deacon, he may, after some years, be “promoted” to the position of an elder. Is it, perhaps, a result of such an erroneous idea that frequently younger brothers are nominated and chosen as deacon?

Let it be said that often the execution of the office of deacon requires more experience and wisdom than the work of an elder and that in many instances it is more difficult to be a good deacon than to be a good elder. It is imperative, especially in larger congregations, that at least some of the deacons are experienced and well-acquainted with the various “problems” connected with the diaconal work. This is the more necessary since chronic need for assistance is very seldom, if ever, solely a matter of finances. Much more is needed than the ability to determine how much financial assistance is to be given.

 

Mercy

The work of the deacon is sometimes called the “ministry of mercy,” and this is wholly correct. Did not the Lord Jesus rebuke the leaders of His people because with all their disputations and regulations they had neglected mercy? Among His people the Lord did not want to see any beggar. There would, of course, be differences among His children, because the one is more skilful and industrious than the other, even apart from illness and other adversities; but the Lord forbade the joining of fields to fields and saw to it that the original owner received his property back in due time.

|110|

If there was one who saw his brother have lack of necessary things, the Lord commanded, he should not keep his purse closed and his hand on his wallet. It was the Lord’s will that the needy brother should be provided with what he needed. Moses could justly say, “What nation is there that has such righteous ordinances?”

The New Testament church also understood its obligation to take care of those who were having lack of things. The members took care of one another, and the churches, too, sent assistance to where it was needed. Especially to prisoners and slaves the Christians extended the mercy of Christ and many who were in need came to the bishop for help. The fame of the generosity of the bishop of Myra lives on in the legend of Saint Nicholas.

The work of the deacons could be described very briefly with the words of the Form for the Ordination: “to see to it that no one in the congregation of Christ lives uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty.” This does not imply that the deacons have to do everything themselves. They are not the servants of the congregation but the servants of the Lord and have to give leadership to the congregation in the showing of mercy. We therefore begin our description of the specific duties of their office as follows: “to see to the good progress of the service of charity in the congregation.”

 

Leadership

It will never be known here on earth how much love and mercy, how much compassion has been shown in secret and how much help is extended which is never reported by and to anyone. Nor will it ever become public knowledge how often the deacons have approached a brother or sister with the request to give some personal assistance. Such action would be the first step to be taken when need is discovered.

The task of the deacons is described as “to exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy.” They do this not just by appealing to the congregation for funds and by urging the brothers and sisters to remember the collections generously. They are far more than channels through which the gifts and financial support are passed on from the one part of the congregation to the other. They give leadership to the congregation so that, indeed, the “unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord” is promoted and practised.

It is clear that the deacons must know the congregation so that they not only are acquainted with existing needs and difficulties, but also are aware of the resources that are available among the brotherhood not only financially but also, and even in the first place, in terms of “manpower” and “womenpower.”

Bearing in mind that chronic need for financial support is seldom simply a matter of finances, we can easily see that the care of the deacons might be far more effective when they succeed in finding a brother or sister who provides the necessary assistance in removing the underlying cause(s).

This is not to say that the deacons put the responsibility on the shoulders

|111|

of others; they remain the ones who provide leadership and will maintain contact with those whose help they enlisted. They retain the supervision.

Here the help of the sisters in the congregation is invaluable. Already very early in the history of the New Testament church sisters of the congregation extended help, especially where men had no access or where assistance by men would have been deemed highly improper.

When looking for ways and means to relieve the need of a family or single member, the deacons are to see first of all whether there are any relatives who could offer assistance. Especially when it concerns parents who are in need, the children have the first duty to assist them. The Lord tells us very clearly that children and grandchildren are first to “learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents,” and that “if any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1 Tim. 5. In our days of extensive social provisions the above may easily be overlooked or forgotten.

 

Offerings

The deacons need funds in order to be able to extend the help needed. Families or single members who need financial assistance should not have to wait for some time until the deacons have found ways and means to gather the amount needed. Oftentimes help should be given immediately. For this reason it is advisable that the deacons have some funds readily available. It is difficult to determine how large the reserves should be. They certainly should not take the place of the trust in the Lord who will provide for His people. Nor should we ever go again into the direction that many deacons followed many years ago, when the college of deacons sometimes owned stocks and bonds and houses, frequently — judging by what stories have been passed on to us in personal recollections as well as in literature — at the cost of those for whose benefit the offerings had been gathered in. If the deacons are afraid that their balance becomes too large and could constitute a threat to true piety and generosity, they will always be able to find needs and misery elsewhere that they could help alleviate to some extent.

They should also keep the congregation informed about their needs, so that the congregation may be able to determine from time to time what the size of their offerings should be. If less is needed, less should be given; when the needs increase, the offerings are to be increased.

In smaller congregations it may be advisable not to publish the total amount of financial support given each month. It can be found out so easily who is being supported, as every one may know every one else. There is, of course, no blame or stigma attached to being financially assisted. The assistance comes from the Great Shepherd who in this manner looks after the needs of all His own. It is a privilege for the congregation and for the deacons when they are allowed to help the needy of whom the Saviour said that we shall always have them with us. It would be a loss to the church if it were no longer enabled to show mercy and compassion in this manner.

On the other hand, the honour and dignity of those who receive assistance should be preserved as much as possible. When financial assistance

|112|

is given in cash, a receipt should be signed. This receipt should be destroyed after the disbursement has been verified by two brothers and has been properly recorded in the books as a legitimate disbursement. In case assistance is passed on by means of a cheque, the cheques should bear only the account number and no further identification, such as “Welfare Fund,” or the like. After the amount has been properly verified and recorded, the cheques should be destroyed as well.

Fortunately we have come a long way from the time when the needy had to go to a certain place where the deacons “held office,” there to receive the amount set aside for them or to receive assistance in natura. Speaking of assistance “in natura,” we mention that this may be an even better way of providing than giving money. Especially if poverty is largely due to mismanagement or the inability to control expenses, it would be advisable if the deacons inquired about the need for food, clothing or other necessities of life and then went and purchased what is needed either personally or with the help of someone whom they engaged to put the family back on its feet.

 

According to Need

The more difficult part of the deacon’s task is to determine how much and in what manner financial support should be given. It is possible that a family is afraid that it will ask too much and thus continues under the pressure of lack of necessary things. On the other hand, there may be some who go overboard the other way.

Deacons need much wisdom, not only with the decision how much support should be given, but also with keeping an eye on the manner in which the support is being used. We would wholeheartedly disapprove of it if — as reportedly was done sometimes in the past — a deacon lifted the lid of the cookie jar and berated the family for having purchased a better grade of cookies. If, however, a deacon saw that a family that was being assisted loaded its grocery cart with TV. dinners, he definitely would be remiss in his duty if he did not take this up with the family and did not point out to them that they, too, have the responsibility of using God’s gifts wisely and of living economically. When support is given, a family does not have to make do with the lowest standard of living possible; at the same time it should also consider the other families in the church through whom Christ provides for their needs.

Should it be demanded that the family first live off the equity in their house, or first must use up their savings before the deacons may come with support? There are two considerations which would appear to forbid this. The one is more fundamental and the other one is more practical. As for the first one, we are to let ourselves be guided by the manner in which the Lord instructed His people in Old Testament days regarding property and freedom that returned to His children when they had lost it for one reason or another. This care of the Lord’s appears to lead us into the direction of letting needy members retain what equity they have. The honour and self-respect of the members should be preserved, and when they are still able to provide partially for their needs, they should be enabled to continue doing this. The

|113|

“pressure of poverty” of which our Form speaks would not be alleviated but rather increased if members were told that they first have to kill the goose that lays the — not golden but — small eggs.

Our second consideration is of a practical nature, although closely connected with the first one. Deacons are there not only to alleviate but also to prevent poverty as much as they are able to. A stitch in time saves nine, it is said. Poverty would not be prevented but rather increased if it were demanded that every source from which at least some income is being derived be discarded. Besides, ultimately the burden on the congregation would become greater when also the primary sources have dried up. It is hard to see how anyone would benefit from such a course of action.

 

Cooperation

If the deacons are to acquaint themselves with existing difficulties, it is mandatory that they visit the families in their section. Only in this manner can they gather the necessary information. Their visits are different from those by the elders, and should be conducted in a different manner. At no time are the deacons in competition with the elders.

When they come to distribute Christ’s gifts, they are to see to it that they also “encourage and comfort with the Word of God those who receive the gifts of Christ’s love.” But when they just visit members with the purpose of discovering where there are gifts or whether there is need, it is not necessary at all that they conduct a visit in the same manner as the elders conduct them. Most likely gifts as well as needs are more readily discovered when the visit is conducted in an informal manner.

If they discover pressure because of “sickness, loneliness, or poverty,” they will, of course, open God’s Word and approach the throne of grace in prayer of intercession. It is not necessary at all that this procedure becomes a regular part of their visit.

If anywhere, then here it becomes evident how much elders and deacons need each other and how much they can benefit from each other’s experiences and “discoveries.” These offices complement each other, and, with both elders and deacons taking heed and care of the flock, the congregation will experience that the unity is promoted and will more and more enjoy the fellowship in the Holy Spirit which it experiences so clearly at the table of the Lord.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 24

|114|

Article 24

Term of Office

 

The elders and deacons shall serve two or more years, according to local regulations, and a proportionate number shall retire each year. The place of the retiring office-bearers shall be taken by others, unless the consistory with the deacons judges that the circumstances and the benefit of the Church render it advisable to have them serve another term, or to extend their term, or to declare them immediately eligible for re-election.

If one searches the Scriptures to find out whether elders and deacons should be appointed for life or only for a certain limited period, he will be looking in vain. No rule or command has been given in this respect. The impression that we do get is that the brothers were appointed for life. In several churches which originate from the great Reformation the rule applies that elders serve for life. For practical reasons they also know periods during which the elders are relieved of all the work as an elder, during which they are “non-serving” elders, but the ordination itself is for life, unless they move to another place. It is for the same practical reasons that this article contains the provision that elders and deacons shall serve for two or more years. This means that they are elder or deacon for just two or three years.

When, at the great Reformation, the offices of both elder and deacon were restored to their rightful place in the church, the churches were also forced to ponder the question whether the appointment and ordination should be for life or not. Although it was generally accepted that the Scriptural indications pointed in the direction of a calling for life, yet the churches did not follow this course and this for more than one reason. No opportunity should be given for another “clergy” to be formed, something which would be promoted if the same brothers stayed in office and formed the consistory. Another argument was that all the gifts in the congregation should be brought to the fore and should be used. There was also the element of time and of the care needed for the office-bearers’ own families. The days of persecution and the scattering of families brought extra work for the office-bearers and demanded so much of them that their own families might suffer too much if they stayed in office all the time. Also for this reason it was decided that every year half of the number of elders and deacons should be changed.

One of the early synods declared that “insofar as elders and deacons are replaced by others, this change will deprive the ministers of any chance to use a tyranny of their own over the church.” Our Church Order follows the same course by making the provision that the elders and deacons shall serve for a specific time only. When their term of office has been concluded, they are no longer office-bearers but “common” members of the congregation.

|115|

A calling can be for life; it can also be for a specific period. In the case of elders and deacons it is for a specific period.

How long should this period be? Article 24 provides that it shall be two or more years. This leaves it up to the churches to set the actual term. In most churches three years is customary; four years is the maximum we know of. Usually the brothers are happy when their term of office is at an end, even though they have served with diligence and joy. The work of an office-bearer — which usually involves more than one evening a week, especially when the number of meetings is multiplied — is demanding and it is a relief when one is freed from the responsibility after having served three or four years.

A period of two years is actually too short, especially for those who are an office-bearer for the first time. Although the work of an elder or a deacon never becomes “routine,” nor should ever become that, yet one has to get “into” the work and one has to learn how matters are being conducted in ecclesiastical life. This takes time. Besides, a period of two years is hardly sufficient to become acquainted with even one's own section. For the families and individual members it is not beneficial either when the visiting team changes repeatedly. Thus, for practical reasons, a period of three years appears to be a desirable minimum.

There may be reasons why the term of a brother is extended. Perhaps there is an undesirably large proportion of elders and deacons that has to be replaced. Brothers whose term of office may not have come to an end may be compelled to ask to be released from the call due to illness, moving away, or other valid reasons, thus causing an extra large number of vacancies to be filled. This may render it inadvisable to have all the brothers whose term has ended leave office and may result in extending the term of one or more of them. What should be the deciding factor is “the circumstances and the benefit of the church.” The reason why one’s term of office is extended may not be that “brother A. is such an excellent deacon” or that “brother B. is so eminently suited to be an elder.” When deciding whose term shall be extended, a consistory will do well when choosing the brother(s) whom it considers most suitable, but “the circumstances and the benefit of the church” should determine whether an extension of term is necessary.

It is also possible that the circumstances make it necessary to have one of the brothers serve another term. No rules can be given for this, only possible situations described. It may be extremely difficult to find another brother able to serve; it may be that one particular elder or deacon is deeply involved in a particular “case,” the end of which cannot be expected within the foreseeable future and that the consistory considers it mandatory that he continue in office for the benefit of the member(s) or family (-ies) involved. The congregation may be vacant and this may be a reason for having a brother serve another term.

In case a brother’s term of office is extended for another year or so, no ordination is necessary. If the brother is called to serve another term, ordination is in place. His call was to serve for so many years; now he is called again to serve so many years after the previous term has ended. He is on a level

|116|

with one who was elected to become an office-bearer not being one at the moment, and should be dealt with accordingly. The Reformed Churches do not recognize anything in the vein of an “indelible character” of ordination. Approbation by the congregation will be needed if a brother is called to serve for another term; no approbation is needed if someone’s term of office is extended for another year to complete someone else’s term. A consistory may also decide to make a serving elder or deacon whose term will expire a candidate in an forthcoming election. It is clear that, if the brother is elected, he will have to be ordained at the beginning of his new term. Whichever course is chosen, the benefit of the church should be foremost in the mind of the consistory.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 25

|117|

Article 25

Equality to Be Maintained

 

Among the elders as well as among the deacons equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office, and also, as far as possible, in other matters, of which the consistory shall judge.

Not only with the ministers of the Word equality is to be maintained; the same applies to elders and deacons. It will not be necessary to elaborate on this provision. A few remarks will suffice. What this article refers to is not the equality of the offices of elder and deacon. These offices are on the same level, indeed. But this is not what Article 25 deals with. Here the point is that the one elder or deacon shall not be considered higher than the other and that the burdens of the office shall be divided as evenly as possible.

This means in the first place that the various sections or wards should not show vast differences in the number of families or of single persons. Some factors that are to be taken into account in this respect are not only the number of addresses but also whether these are addresses of families or of single persons; whether these families number several teenagers or only younger children; further whether they are living relatively close together or require considerable time for travelling.

Each consistory appoints a brother to keep the minutes and to conduct the correspondence. Especially in larger congregations this will mean quite a burden on the one who is chosen for this task. Not infrequently the task is split between two brothers: the one takes care of the minutes, the other conducts the correspondence. Depending on the frequency of consistory meetings as well as on the volume of correspondence, it might be good to consider appointing a non-office-bearer to the position of clerk. After all, elders and deacons have not been chosen and ordained for a “desk-job” or for conducting correspondence.

If a consistory should appoint a non-office-bearer as clerk, such a brother does not have the right to vote and would have to observe the same confidentiality which is required of elders and deacons. In case a consistory does not use such a service but charges an office-bearer with this task instead, the time required for doing this work should also be taken into consideration with the division of the work proper of the office-bearers. The same applies if an office-bearer is appointed into the committee of administration or the mission committee or other committees which would demand an extra amount of time over and above his work as an elder or a deacon.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 26

|118|

Article 26

Subscription to the Confession

 

All ministers of the Word, elders, deacons, and professors of theology shall subscribe to the Confessions of the Canadian Reformed Churches by signing the form(s) adopted for that purpose.
Anyone refusing to subscribe in that manner shall not be ordained or installed in office. Anyone who, being in office, refuses to do so shall, because of that very fact, be immediately suspended from office by the consistory with the deacons, and classis shall not receive him. If he obstinately persists in his refusal, he shall be deposed from office
.

The federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches is not a federation of convenience but a federation based on the unity of faith. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that the unity of faith be preserved and protected, for if this unity is no longer there, the very nature of the federation has been violated and total collapse is the final result, even though an outward show of unity is maintained.

True unity is possible only when the churches can be assured of each other that the true doctrine of the Scriptures is believed and adhered to, and that heresies in every form are recognized and rejected. History, too, has taught us that wherever deviating views are tolerated dissolution begins almost immediately.

The Holy Spirit so guided the churches that had come to Reformation that from the outset they were aware of the necessity of maintaining the unity of faith. Having been freed from the idea that the unity of the church was fixed in one man, the pope, and that allegiance to that official was the only way in which the unity could be preserved, they understood that only allegiance to the Lord, to His Word guaranteed their really being one.

The gathering of brothers in Wesel in the year 1568 has been mentioned before. Although they could not take binding decisions and only expressed what they considered necessary or advisable, they did not hesitate to declare that no laying on of hands should occur ere the brother who was to be ordained had “solemnly bound himself in the presence of the whole church, that he will dedicate himself solely to the propagation of God’s honour, to the pure proclamation of (God's) Word and to the edification of the church; that he will not twist the pronouncements of the Holy Spirit according to his own peculiar inclinations and that he will not deviate from the truth even one hair’s breadth either from favour, or for money, or from fear; likewise that he will diligently observe the adopted ordinances of the church that aim at the order and the rest of the churches.” (Articles of Wesel Ch. ll, Art. 12)

|119|

The first synod of the liberated churches was held in 1571. At that synod the brothers decided: “In order to give evidence of the unity in doctrine among the Netherlands Churches the Brothers have decided to place their signatures under the Confession of Faith of the Netherlands Churches and to do the same to the Confession of the Churches in France thereby to witness their bond and unity with these French Churches.”

It is remarkable that of the twenty-nine brothers present only five were elders; there were nineteen ministers, three future ministers, and probably two retired ministers. Yet the brothers decided as indicated above. This may be mentioned with gratitude especially inasmuch as deviation from the doctrine of the church and opposition to subscription to the confessions practically always came from ministers of the Word.

 

Why a Subscription Form?

Would it not be sufficient if office-bearers just placed their signatures under the confessions of the church to declare thereby that they fully accept these Formulas as a correct summary of the doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?

This ought to be sufficient and this would be the case if everyone were convinced of it and if the churches could be assured that every one who placed his signature under the confessions knew himself bound by them for as long as his service would last. The hard reality of heresies that crept in soon after the Reformation and the cunning of the human heart convinced the churches that such a simple signature under the confessions alone was not sufficient.

One could remind a minister that he had signed the confessions but is now introducing and promoting errors and is therefore breaking his word. Suppose the minister were to reply: “Yes, at that time I was convinced that they were a faithful summary of the truth, but since then I have made a further study of this specific point and have come to the conclusion that the confessions are wrong here?”

Everyone feels that in such a case he has still broken a solemn declaration made when subscription took place, but speaking in the abstract, it is a fact that the man never made any promises. Since it is not sufficient for a young man and a young woman to be pronounced husband and wife when they declare at a certain moment that they love each other, they also have to make certain promises and to take upon themselves certain obligations. Likewise, the churches learned that it is not sufficient when a minister declares at a certain moment that he believes from the heart that all the points of doctrine contained in the confessions of the church are in full accordance with Holy Scripture. What is also needed is that guarantees are given for the future.

Thus in the period between 1568 and 1618/1619 various subscription forms were drawn up and were in use in the different classical regions. Essentially they all contained two parts: in the first place a declaration that the doctrine as summarized in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism was wholly in accordance with Holy Scripture, and secondly the

|120|

promise to maintain this doctrine and to refute errors conflicting with it. These elements remained the main elements also of the Form of Subscription that was adopted by the Synod of 1618/1619, the Synod of Dordrecht. The Form that is generally in use in the Canadian Reformed Churches is essentially a translation of this Dort Form. It follows here.

FORM OF SUBSCRIPTION
We, the undersigned, Ministers, Elders, and Deacons of the Canadian Reformed Church at..., do hereby, sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this our subscription that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the doctrinal standards of the Canadian Reformed Churches: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, do fully agree with the Word of God.
We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public teaching or writing. We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine, but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors. And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrine should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by teaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, and Synod, that the same may be examined by them, being ready always cheerfully to submit to their judgment under penalty in case of refusal, because of that very fact, to be suspended from our office.
And further, if at any time the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the above-mentioned doctrinal standards, we do hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such request, under the penalty mentioned above, reserving for ourselves, however, the right of appeal in case we should believe ourselves aggrieved by the sentence and until such a decision is made upon such an appeal we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.

This Form contains four elements. There is, in the first place, the declaration which signatories make that they heartily believe that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the doctrinal standards of the Canadian Reformed Churches do fully agree with the Word of God. By making this declaration they do not put the confessional formulas of the churches on a level with the Word of God, nor do they thereby assert that the confessions may never be changed. God’s Word is always above all. That is what we confess in the Belgic Confession with express words.

|121|

On the other hand, it would be putting up a false dilemma if one said, “But God’s Word is higher than the confessions and for this reason we are not allowed to make such a declaration.” What the office-bearers affirm in the first paragraph is that the confessions are a faithful summary of what the Lord teaches us in the Holy Scriptures. Thus the churches can be assured that the brothers who serve in an office wholeheartedly are in agreement with the doctrine of God’s Word.

In the second place — and we speak now particularly about the ministers of the Word — there is the promise “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our teaching or writing either publicly or privately.” When the apostle Paul bade farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus, he testified that he “did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20: 27) This is what ministers, too, should do. No element of the doctrine of God’s Word should be neglected or omitted from the teaching and preaching. It would, for example, be wrong and a breaking of his promise, if a minister never spoke of God’s gracious election or failed to expound the riches of God’s covenant or never sounded a warning of the wrath of God upon disobedience and apostasy.

Thus the ministers promise that they will diligently teach the aforesaid doctrine. They also promise that they will defend it. It is their obligation to expose errors and to proclaim the truth over against them. Failure to defend the Scriptural doctrine against errors opens the door for them so that they can enter and make their victims. In close connection with this comes the promise that they will refute and contradict these errors and do their best to keep the church free from them.

 

Doubts and Different Sentiments

It is possible that a brother begins to have doubts regarding a certain point of doctrine or that he disagrees with it. The first thing he is not permitted to do is: place question marks here and there with the doctrine of the church. “No, I am not denying this doctrine, but is it really correct to say this or that?” It was with the placing of a question mark behind what the Lord spoke to man in paradise that Satan initiated his attack on man and his faithfulness to the Lord his God. By placing question marks behind what the Lord has revealed or what the church confesses one sows doubt into the hearts of the believers.

Much less, of course, is the brother permitted to “propose, teach, or defend” his deviating sentiments. By his subscription he promises that he will not do so either. Hereby it is prevented that a minister speaks about his doubts or entertains diverging sentiments at catechism classes or at family visits. Even though he himself may have doubts about a certain point, for example the baptism of infants, he shall teach what the doctrine of the church teaches. That is what he promised by signing the Form. He knows very well what this doctrine is and this is what he has to proclaim from the pulpit and in the classroom. He may not be able to do it with conviction and we certainly do not minimize the difficulties which he faces, especially with the preaching, but this does not give him the right to go against his promise.

|122|

The only ones to whom he may reveal and explain his doubts or different sentiments is the consistory. He is even under obligation to do this, so that the consistory may examine them and judge them. Perhaps the brother will be convinced of his errors when the consistory has studied them and found them to be errors indeed. In case he is not convinced of his fallacy, he will have to submit his sentiments to the classis. In the meantime, of course, he will still have to refrain from propagating his ideas. If classis agrees with the consistory, and he still is not convinced of his error, the brother has to bring his sentiments to regional and general synod respectively. That is what he promised by his signature under the Form of Subscription.

In the meantime, he has promised that he will refrain from spreading or propagating his dissenting views. He also will submit to the judgment of the various ecclesiastical assemblies to which he appeals should he consider himself to have been wronged by the decision of the minor assembly. By means of these guarantees the churches are safeguarded against the introduction of errors as much as they are able to effectuate.

 

Refusal

What is to be done if a brother refuses to sign and make the promises which are required of an office-bearer? Because of that very fact he is barred from office if he has not yet been installed or ordained. This does not mean that such barring is automatic. A decision by the consistory is needed, but the very fact of his refusal is solid ground for such a mandatory decision. If he is already an office-bearer, refusal renders him subject to suspension forthwith.

Some churches have the office-bearers sign the Form at the ordination or installation. In by far the most instances, however, this is done at the first consistory meeting after the installation or ordination. In the latter case suspension is the proper course when the brother refuses to sign. As for the ministers of the Word, they sign every time anew when they are installed in another church. The reason for this is that each church is autonomous and must have the guarantees for itself that the new minister of the Word is and will remain faithful to his office.

Since the signing has to take place at the classical level as well, the question has to be answered what is to be done if a minister refuses to sign at a classis. The old text of this article provided that in this case he was to be suspended by classis. This would have been the only instance in which a minister could be suspended by a classis. But apart from the fact that this is an alien element in Reformed church polity, it is not clear what effect it would have. Or was the meaning, perhaps, that the brother was to be suspended as a member of classis? The present text of Article 26 reads that “classis shall not receive him,” namely as a legitimate delegate from that church and as a member of classis with all the rights, privileges, and obligations coming with this membership. Continued refusal will have to result in deposition from office.

|123|

Final Points

When a brother who is not yet an office-bearer receives permission to exhort in the churches, the classis which examined him and gave him this permission usually requests him to make an oral promise corresponding to the Subscription Form. In some classes a Subscription Form is in use that is an adapted version of the form used for ministers of the Word. Whichever procedure is followed, the churches demand also of those who may exhort that they shall abide by the Truth.

At times the provision was included that the office-bearers promised to act in accordance with the Church Order and would help govern the church in accordance with it. Such a provision did not become either general or permanent. In the Letter of Call the churches most times include the sentence that they have adopted the Church Order and expect the minister, in case he accepts the call, to honour it in his service to this church.

The Subscription Form provides no iron-clad guarantees. Ultimately it is all a matter of the heart and of sincerity of the office-bearers. Vigilance remains mandatory. Besides, a brother may be wholeheartedly convinced that his views are in accordance with God's Word whereas, in reality, they are in conflict with it. The churches have, however, done what they could by requiring the declarations and promises as contained in the time-honoured Subscription Form.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 27

|124|

Article 27

False Doctrine

 

To ward off false doctrine and errors which could enter the congregation and constitute a danger to the purity of its doctrine or conduct, the ministers and elders shall use the means of instruction, of refutation, of warning, and of admonition, in the ministry of the Word as well as in Christian teaching and family visiting.

It would be very interesting to go into the original text of what is now Article 27. The provision as we have it now is a remnant or a distant cousin of what originally was Article 55 and dealt with the printing of books. No one, it said, belonging to the Reformed religion shall have any book, whether original or translated by him, printed without prior ecclesiastical approval. But from the outset it has been our practice in this Guide to refrain as much as possible from giving historical particulars, although the historical background is always kept in mind.

Also the original version of this provision brought to light the concern of the churches for the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of life. It is this concern that is still the main element in our present Article 27. To a large extent we should concern ourselves even more with it in our days than the brothers some four hundred years ago.

The number of books that were printed was relatively small and many people could not afford them. The danger was always there, though, and our forefathers were alert to it. Was not the Reformation of the church prepared and promoted for the larger part by the spreading of Luther’s writings and of those of the other Reformers? Were not, for example, his ninety-five theses known all over Europe in an amazingly short time? The same happened with heretical writings, such as books by the Anabaptists and, later on, by Arminianists and followers of Spinoza and other philosophers.

When our forefathers tried to have the printing and distribution of heretical books forbidden and prevented, they continued a practice found in the church already before the Reformation. Books listed on the “Index” were forbidden to church members and, if found, would be destroyed. When “heretical” writings were found, their possessors could even lose their life.

In addition to the question whether forbidding the printing of books without prior ecclesiastical approval was the proper way of dealing with the matter of watchfulness, there was also the refusal of the civil authorities to cooperate and to comply with the wishes of the churches. The whole provision had little lasting effect.

Should a member of a church have a book published in which deviating and heretical statements and teachings are propagated, the consistory of that church has the duty to admonish him. They must try to convince him of his errors and bring him to renouncing these errors, although the damage

|125|

might have been done by getting the book published. But what we concentrate on in our present Article 27 is the congregation and the care that the office-bearers are to bestow upon the flock in this respect.

Not only are the office-bearers themselves to abide by and to uphold the true doctrine, Art. 26, they must also do what is in their power to keep and preserve the congregation with the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of conduct, Art. 27.

Whoever visits a big-city library or browses through a large bookstore which offers either new or used books, will be astounded at the number of books available to the general public. To this number are added yearly countless titles, far too many for one person to read during his lifetime. We then do not even take into account the almost innumerable periodicals, dailies, weeklies, bi-weeklies, or monthlies which are for sale. To this medium have to be added the media of radio, television, video recorders and movies available on cassette. Even to the superficial observer it is obvious that the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of life are threatened in an overwhelming way, in a manner which even in their worst expectations our forefathers could not have envisioned.

What is the obligation of the office-bearers with respect to this serious threat? In the first place they are to be aware of what is going on around us.They definitely are not required to read the heretical or immoral publications which appear on the scene, but they are to be aware of them and to warn against them. One does not have to have committed a certain sin in order to be able to warn against it and to admonish one who has committed it or to tell others why it is a sin. Especially because sin is so openly committed and propagated in our days, we all know what is going on and what is wrong with it. The Lord speaks clearly in His Word, revealing His will.

In the proclamation of the Word the minister of the Gospel reaches the whole congregation. Thus the worship services are the first opportunity where words or warning and instruction are spoken. A sermon should not be a journal, displaying the fact that the minister did read last week’s papers and listened to news broadcasts. It would be pretty cheap if a minister contented himself with just mentioning things going on in the world around us and doing so week after week or at least regularly. This may create the impression that he is “up to date,” but it does not satisfy and the congregation soon gets jaded by it. They don’t even hear it any longer.

When a minister proclaims the Gospel, he will analyze what is in and behind the iniquity and filthiness around us and so provide the congregation with a basic, not an incidental defense. Sound instruction in the truth of God is a better weapon and instrument in the spiritual warfare than a rather graphic description of the sins and dangers surrounding us.

Catechism classes, too, are the place to expound the true doctrine of the Gospel, to expose the fallacies of false doctrines, and to show why we are to refrain from a lifestyle which does not carry the stamp of our Master’s approval. The possibility of answering questions and of taking away objections from the students enhances the opportunities which the teacher has.

|126|

The family visits provide the elders with an excellent opportunity to meet the family and family members on their “home ground,” so to speak. Remembering their obligation to warn against and ward off all threats to the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of life, they will also look around to get a picture of the way in which the family organizes its daily life. Are all the chairs arranged so that the television set is in the center? Are there any books which show that the family is trying to enrich itself spiritually? What kind of books do they have? What kind of periodicals can be discovered? Is there a video-recorder/player? These are only a few of the points to which the office-bearers will have to pay attention.

At one time one of the questions asked at family visits was whether the family subscribed to any newspaper and, if so, whether it was a Christian daily or a so-called “neutral” daily. Such a question would not be applicable in our situation, but the office-bearers most certainly should ask what the family members, also the children, are reading; whether the parents are aware of what their children are reading; whether they read anything that might possibly pollute their mind or conduct; what they are watching — if they have a television set and additional equipment —; what kind of cassettes they rent and how much time they are spending on watching the screen. All these things belong to the “means of instruction, of refutation, of warning, and of admonition.”

It goes without saying that fulfilling this part of the obligations requires much study on the part of the office-bearers, not only of the minister, but also of the elders in particular. Usually the consistories provide their minister with a certain allowance that enables him to purchase books and periodicals needed for the execution of his office. In the case of the elders this would not be feasible, as they leave office when their term has expired and they are replaced by others, which would bring with it the necessity of purchasing perhaps the same works again so as to enable the new office-bearers to equip themselves for their task. For this reason it is an excellent thing to set up a reference library for the office-bearers from which they could borrow as the need arises. An index or filing system on this library would facilitate its use and improve its usefulness.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 28

|127|

Article 28

Civil Authorities

 

As it is the office of the civil authorities to promote in every way the holy ministry, so all office-bearers are in duty bound to impress diligently and sincerely upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect which are due to the civil authorities; they shall set a good example to the whole congregation in this matter, and endeavour by due respect and communication to secure and retain the favour of the authorities towards the Church, so that the Church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.

It has been stated that this article does not belong in our Church Order. No one has been able to find out precisely what the reason is why it was inserted. Most articles can be traced back to the Convent of Wesel; Article 28 was inserted by the Synod of Dordrecht 1618/1619.

When we ask why it was inserted, the answers we receive rest only on guesswork. “Perhaps synod inserted it for two reasons: 1. to obtain from the authorities the so fervently desired approbation of the Church Order… and 2. to correctly delineate the mutual relationship and to cut off beforehand the Arminian idea that the magistrates are above the church as well as the Romish idea that the authorities are under the church.” As we see, there is only a “perhaps.”

One who made a special study of the Acts of the Synod of Dort wrote: “I cannot tell how this decision — that has been inserted in the Church Order as Article 28 — has come into the world.” Indeed, when reading Article 28, we discover that it is of a somewhat different nature than the other articles. Yet it would be a loss if we eliminated it. In this article we remind ourselves not only of the task of the authorities but also of our own proper attitude towards the civil authorities.

From what the churches have agreed upon in this article it is clear that a practice as found with many apostate churches around us, namely the practice of interfering in all sorts of political matters by public statements and actions or by the support of revolutionary groups is contrary to the church and in conflict with the behaviour that is proper according to the Word of God.

The moment may even come that we are thankful that this article is in our Church Order; when it will be a blessing and advantage that we can show that the Reformed Churches are basically different from those religious bodies that have become unfaithful to the true character of the church and have degenerated into political and social organizations under the cover of the name of the church.

|128|

A Grain of Truth

The assumption that the attitude of the civil authorities had something to do with the insertion of this article may well be correct. Many of the civil authorities were on the side of the Arminians, and the Arminians were of the opinion that the civil authorities were above the church. It was they who prevented the convening of a general synod, and it was not until Prince Maurice put his weight behind the churches that a general synod was convened, thirty-two years after the previous one. It is quite understandable when under such circumstances it is stressed that the civil authorities are to promote the holy ministry in every way.

The Synod of Dort did not thereby introduce anything new. The churches had in their confession already declared that the task of the civil authorities is not limited to the public order, but includes the protection of the church and its ministry, Art. 36 B.C.

One thing should be noted right away: we do not speak here of “the Church” and of “the State,” but we speak of persons: “the civil authorities” and “the office-bearers.” We do not speak of impersonal entities but of living and responsible persons. Both the civil authorities and the office-bearers have their office from Christ and it is their obligation to recognize Him and to execute their office for the promotion of His kingdom.

 

Promote the Holy Ministry

It is the duty of the civil authorities “to promote in every way the holy ministry.” Our Belgic Confession speaks more extensively about the task of the civil authorities. In our Church Order we only state that it is their office, their task, their obligation to promote the holy ministry “in every way.”

It will be understood that it is not the intention that the civil authorities, for example, must enact laws that compel everyone to go to church. Promoting the holy ministry is something else than exercising spiritual or physical coercion. We are to think here of what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 13, that the one in authority is the servant of God for the good of God’s children.

Another passage which comes to mind is 1 Tim. 2, where the apostle urges that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.

It is not the duty of the civil authorities to compel their subjects to serve God or to believe, but it is their obligation to enable the church to fulfil its task as much as is in their power. They are to extend help to the office-bearers where needed and to protect them whenever this is necessary. We cannot, nor should we try to describe and formulate each and every “way” in which the civil authorities are to promote the holy ministry. A few examples may suffice.

When members serve in the armed forces or in the police forces, the shifts should be arranged so that it is possible for these members to attend church at least once a Sunday. The civil authorities should also ban and bar everything by which the ministry of the gospel would be impeded on

|129|

Sundays. Noisy parades and other events which would interfere with the worship services should be forbidden or re-routed, so that no inconvenience is experienced. If members are in prison, the opportunity should be given to office-bearers to visit them regularly, also outside of regular visiting hours.

After the Second World War gasoline was strictly rationed in the Netherlands and special permits were required for Sunday driving. Ministers of the gospel were among the first ones to receive such permits. Thereby the holy ministry was promoted.

Institution of chaplain services in armed forces and prisons is another way in which the progress of the Gospel is advanced.

Promotion “in every way” does not mean that the civil authorities take up and assume the task of the office-bearers, but that they do everything possible to enable the office-bearers to fulfil their task unhindered. This applies, fundamentally, not only to the work of the office-bearers; it covers the whole service of the Lord, the whole life of God's children with all that is therein. Thus it includes the freedom of the parents to have their Christian schools, their youth organizations and their societies for old and young.

As said above, we gave only a few examples. What we formulated in this article as the task of the civil authorities does not imply that the civil authorities have the right to interfere in the affairs of the church with the “good intention” of wanting to promote the holy ministry. We state that it is their obligation to remove all obstacles which might prevent the office-bearers from doing their work unhindered, and to render it possible for all God’s children to serve the Lord without impediment in all of life.

 

The Office-bearers

On the other hand, we also describe what the office-bearers should do towards the civil authorities. They are to show that they are office-bearers of Christ. And the Lord Jesus Himself showed due respect to those who were in authority over Him. He commanded His own to give to Caesar that which was Caesar’s, and acknowledged Pilate’s authority as authority the Roman governor had received from God. In obedience to their Master both Peter and Paul impressed upon their addressees the obligation to honour those to whom honour is due, and to make intercession for all who are in authority.

It is, therefore, in full accordance with God’s Word that the provision has been inserted that “all office-bearers are in duty bound to impress diligently and sincerely upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect which are due to the civil authorities.” This precludes any action whereby, in the name of the church, office-bearers support revolutionary actions and movements, by whatever name they are called. For example: acts of civil disobedience would be a violation not only of what we confess in Article 36 B.C., but also of the provision found in Article 28 C.O.

The love and respect due to all who are in authority are impressed upon the congregation not only when this obligation is mentioned and stressed in the sermons but also when in the public prayers these authorities are remembered regularly. A good opportunity is offered by family visits when the

|130|

members could be asked how they regard the authorities and whether these authorities are remembered in the family prayers as well.

It goes without saying that the office-bearers are to show in word and deed that they themselves are obedient to the Lord’s command in this regard too.

 

Secure and Retain

How could the favour of the authorities be obtained and retained? Personal respect is the first means by which this could be achieved. Further, there may be various occasions for letting the authorities know that they are being remembered in the prayers of Christ’s church. This applies specifically to the “lower authorites,” those in our own town or city. The higher the authorities are, the less likely it is that they see written communications, although this should not prevent us from sending these communications.

When persons have been elected and installed in office, this provides an excellent opportunity for contacting them and assuring them that the Lord will be asked to grant them wisdom and guidance so that their rule and government may be such “that the church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.” Those who wish to show respect and are eager to secure and retain the favour of the authorities will be able to find various ways and means to achieve this.

This writer recalls that in his youth it was customary to have a worship service on the Queen’s birthday to thank the Lord especially for having spared her for another year. It was also customary that, when a general synod was held, this synod sent a telegram to Her Majesty to assure her of the love and respect of the churches represented by this synod. These are only a few of the ways and means by which favour and goodwill may be secured and retained.

 

Confidentiality

One point we can deal with best in this connection is the question whether office-bearers can claim professional privilege when summoned to be a witness before a court of law. Do they have to tell all they know or are they legally permitted to refuse answering certain questions when they have learned something in their capacity as an office-bearer? In various countries the right to secrecy has been recognized.

It is not completely clear in how far this right would be acknowledged in the case of an elder or a deacon. Much will depend on how the court would evaluate their position in the church. As for ministers, the Consolidated Statutes of Newfoundland 1916, stipulate: “A clergyman or priest shall not be compelled to give evidence as to any confession made to him in his professional character.” In Quebec the rule has applied since 1886 that “A witness cannot be compelled to declare what has been revealed to him confidentially in his professional character as a religious or legal adviser.”

Although apparently an office-bearer cannot be compelled to reveal any confession, he will have to promote justice and equity also by his testimony.

|131|

Thus it may be necessary to reveal such a confession if by keeping silent the course of justice should be impeded and iniquity should result from such silence. The ninth commandment overrides whatever human laws and provisions there may be.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 29

|132|

III. The Assemblies

Article 29

The Ecclesiastical Assemblies

 

Four kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: The consistory, the classis, the regional synod, and the general synod.

With Article 29 we begin speaking about the church federation, its arrangement, function and task. This does not mean that the federation did not come into view with the preceding part of our Church Order. More than once we spoke of classis and regional synod. Now a general synod is mentioned, too. These four are our ecclesiastical assemblies.

They are not the only meetings or assemblies found in ecclesiastical life. There are meetings of deacons, there are conferences of office-bearers, there are also congregational meetings.Yet, whatever other gathering, assembly or meeting may be found in the churches, these are not part of the organized church federation. Within this federation only the four assemblies mentioned in Article 29 have a place and function; they are our four “ecclesiastical assemblies.”

Of these four assemblies only the first one is absolutely necessary in the church of Christ. The churches could very well do without classes and synods. These assemblies have been instituted by man for the proper functioning of the bond between the churches. The consistory, the “presbytery” as the body of elders in each church is a divine institution, as we gather from the Word of God, for example Acts 14: 23; 20: 28; Titus 1: 5. Thus a church could not continue to exist and would act contrary to the Word of God if it tried to do without a consistory, without the office-bearers who are to take heed of the flock. The consistory is the only “body,” the only “permanent assembly” in the church.

Matters are different with the other three assemblies mentioned here: these are only rather short meetings, convened to deal with the matters brought before them in accordance with the adopted guidelines and they cease to exist as soon as they have completed their agenda. They have no permanence in the Reformed Churches. We call these other three assemblies “broader” or “major” assemblies.

The term “major” is the equivalent of “broader” and does not indicate a higher rank. It does so as little as the term “minor assembly” implies a lower rank. We might even say that the more “major” an assembly is the lower its rank is, and the more “minor” an assembly is, the “higher” its rank, the highest being the most “minor” of all, namely the consistory. This may sound paradoxical, but it is not contradictory.

|133|

What we indicate by the term “major” or “broader” is that at this assembly more churches are represented than at the “minor” assembly. More churches than one are represented at a classis; and more churches are represented at a regional synod than there are at a classis. At a general synod all the churches are represented.

The difference between a consistory as a necessary, permanent body on the one hand and classes and synods as temporary, rather brief meetings on the other hand, has to be remembered at all times. Too soon the thought arises that a classis or a synod is a permanent institution that is higher in rank than and has authority over the churches that are represented at it, or over the constituent minor assemblies. Any such thought would be contrary to the very character of Reformed church polity and would be detrimental in more than one respect. The history of the church shows clearly how detrimental and devastating a concept and a theory like that really are.

That we mention the four ecclesiastical assemblies in one breath does, therefore, not imply at all that they are all four on the same level or of the same character. We only state that in our ecclesiastical life we know and recognize four assemblies, not more and not less. Whatever other meetings or assemblies there may be are of a different nature. These other assemblies may be a fruit of the existing church federation, it is only in the four mentioned in Article 29 that the church federation functions and becomes “officially” visible.

Although it is most desirable that the unity of Reformed Churches throughout the world be practised (some advocated what might be called an “ecumenical synod,” and expressed the desire for such a meeting many years ago) yet for practical and other reasons this does not seem feasible. Differences in language, national conditions, and such like are impediments to the correct functioning of such a “synod.”

Help and counsel can be extended more fruitfully when done more informally by way of the looser structure of a conference. Thus the Canadian Reformed Churches participate in an International Conference of Reformed Churches. Thereby the unity with Reformed believers in other countries is expressed and practised. A more structured cooperation in the form of an “ecumenical synod” deserving of the title “synod” would not only not be feasible, it would also carry in itself the danger of interfering in the life of foreign churches with their different background, culture, etc.

 

Congregational Meetings

In the above we mentioned a congregational meeting as one of the assemblies that are not named in our Church Order. A congregational meeting has no separate status in the Reformed Churches. Neither is it a meeting where binding decisions can be made or where the course of the church is determined. A congregational meeting has only an advisory function. It is a meeting of the consistory with the congregation, at which meeting the consistory may inform the congregation about certain matters, or may ask the advice of the congregation concerning certain matters — such as: whom to call as a minister, whom to appoint as elders and deacons; how and on what to use the contributions given for the service of the Lord; and similar matters — or may wish to discuss other aspects of church life with the congregation.

|134|

Of such a meeting — as of every meeting of the consistory — minutes are to be kept. These minutes are not to be read or approved at the next congregational meeting but at the next consistory meeting. Nor are financial statements and budgets “adopted” at a congregational meeting. What should be asked is whether the congregation has any serious objections to the proposed budget or would advise the consistory to change some parts or delete some items, or is of the opinion that things should be done as outlined by the consistory.

The meaning of the above is not to state that a consistory should act or even would be allowed to act in a dictatorial manner and would be permitted to take the position of “Never mind what the congregation says, we go ahead anyway!” Such would be lording it over the heritage of the Lord and this is something against which the Lord emphatically warns us in His Word, e.g.in 1 Pet. 5: 3.

There can be instances, on the other hand, when a consistory is convinced that it has to go a certain route or to decide in favour of a certain course of action even though a large part or even the majority of the congregation advised against it. The above was brought to the fore to show that a congregational meeting would be out of place in the list mentioned in Article 29, as well as to prevent any thought that decisions regarding the local church life are made by the congregation. A practice in that line would be very fitting in a congregationalist system of church government; it is completely alien to the Reformed concept.

 

The Bond Practised

Although we must uphold at all cost the basic difference between a consistory on the one hand and the major or broader assemblies on the other hand, and although the churches could very well exist without major or broader assemblies, it has to be equally upheld that the churches are obliged to show and prove the unity of the true faith also in helping and assisting one another as much as possible. For the exercise of the bond of faith and for the execution of the obligation to help and assist one another the churches have chosen the form of cooperation described in our Church Order. Therein the churches follow the example of the early churches of which we read in the New Testament.

It will not be necessary to quote extensively from the Word of God to prove that there was contact between churches in various parts of the Roman empire and that there was mutual help. The churches of Achaia and Macedonia had been “pleased to make some contribution to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” Paul wrote in Rom. 15: 26. When Agabus foretold the great famine that was to come, the disciples in Antioch “determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea,” we read in Acts 11: 29. There is hardly any doubt that there was also consultation in non-financial matters, as we read of “letters of recommendation,” Acts 22: 5; 2 Cor. 3: 1. We might call them “attestations” which evidently were mutually accepted by the churches.

|135|

Regarding the question whether we can prove from Scripture that there was a structured church federation, either nationally or internationally, the consensus is that we cannot do so. One passage in particular has been advanced in proof of the thesis “that the synodical church federation is founded in the Holy Scriptures.” This passage is what we read in Acts 15. Some even call the meeting held in Jerusalem and described in this chapter “the first synod.” Having put this, they proceed and from verse 28 draw the conclusion that synods have almost divine authority, being guided by the Holy Spirit.

One has to be well-versed in the art of what the Germans would call “hineininterpretieren” (i.e. read into the text what one wants the text to say, then triumphantly to conclude that the text says indeed what one wants it to say) to be able to speak of “the first synod” as well as of God-given authority to which the churches are supposed to submit.

Let us briefly pay some closer attention to this passage. It all started when “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” These men came to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas opposed them in heated debate. Perhaps these were the same men of whom Paul spoke in Gal. 2: “certain men came from James,” v. 12. In any case, they came from Judea.

What would any church do if there came men from another church to proclaim that it was the will of God that Christians from the Gentiles should be circumcised? Would it not enquire with that church whether this was the general conviction over there, and whether these men spoke more or less on behalf of that church? This applies the more since these men of Acts 15 came from Judea, most likely even from Jerusalem. What was the wisest course for the church at Antioch? To dispatch a few of the brothers to enquire whether that was the stand of the Jerusalem church. After all, it was the mother church and, besides, the apostles were there. The judgment and stand of the church at Jerusalem and the verdict of the apostles was of ut­most importance and put much weight into the scales.

At first Paul was not prepared to come along at all. He knew too well what the will of the Lord was concerning the point of Christians from the Gentiles. No circumcision for them! However, when he received a divine revelation, he went along, he tells us in Galatians.

Here we have as little the manifestation of a major or broader assembly — let alone of a synod — as we would have in our own days if the church at A., being disturbed by the teaching of brothers coming from the church at B., sent a few brothers to B. to investigate whether those men spoke on their own authority or were more or less the spokesmen for that church. Nor is it so, as argued, that the brothers were sent to Jerusalem to solve a difficulty and controversy in the church at Antioch. They were sent to see what Jerusalem thought of the teachings brought to Antioch by men coming from Judea.

The fact that Jerusalem was the “mother church” and that the apostles were still there lends even less credibility to the speaking of “the first synod” or “the first major assembly.” And that the apostles together with the elders

|136|

said: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” certainly does not authorize any broader assembly in our days to make the same statement.

All this is not to say that Acts 15 does not give us any indication regarding consultation and cooperation among the churches. Such consultation and cooperation certainly is in the line of what we read in God’s Word, also in Acts 15. We must, however, not read things into Scriptural passages which only by magician's conjuring them up can be procured from them.

 

The Manner in Which

The organization of the church federation had to be built up from scratch once the church had been freed from the hierarchical papal yoke. The brothers in the Netherlands who came together in 1568 suggested the outlines for such an organization. What they laid down as their conclusion was not brand-new. They had the example of the French churches that, under Calvin’s influence, had formed a federation; and they had before them the history, however brief, of the churches in the Southern Netherlands where classes and particular synods were held from 1563 on. There was no early history to fall back on, for the early churches were never organized into a federation in this manner, and the deterioration and hierarchical development started very soon after the death of the apostles.

We are to be grateful for the apparent guidance of the Holy Spirit who gave wisdom to the brothers, resulting in a form of federation in which the kingship of Christ, the only universal Bishop, was being honoured throughout, in which the autonomy of the local churches was acknowledged, upheld, and protected, and in which the mutual help was arranged effectively. The brothers pursued the “presbyterial system of church government.” This means: the only government in the church is the government over the local congregations by the “presbytery” or “eldership,” the body of elders in each church.

This precludes any government or authority on the part of broader or major assemblies. For this reason there is a fundamental difference between a consistory and a major assembly. Major assemblies are composed of delegates from churches in a certain region. These delegates have been sent there by the churches (to a classis) or by some classes (to a regional synod) or by some regional synods (to a general synod).

The rights and function of these major assemblies have been laid down in our Church Order; authority, however, they have none. The authority of an office-bearer is restricted and confined to the church by which he has been chosen and over which he has been made an office-bearer. An elder or minister in the church at A. does not have any authority in the church at B. Would he now, all of a sudden, receive such authority over the church at B. when he has been delegated to classis and now is a member of it? It is inconceivable and impossible. However many delegates from however many churches may be together at a major assembly, the outcome is the same: even one thousand times zero still results in zero.

An office-bearer or the body of office-bearers in a church are not allowed either to transfer any of their God-given authority over the congregation to

|137|

others who have not been called thereto by the Lord through His church in that place. Thus it is impermissible as well as impossible that a consistory transfers however small a part of their authority to a broader assembly. If they did, they would become unfaithful to Him who has clothed them with their authority, the King of the Church, Christ Jesus.

That major assemblies definitely are not useless or superfluous is something we have already seen when discussing several of the preceding articles, and we shall see more of it hereafter. When we stress one point at this time, no one should draw wrong conclusions, but only pay attention to this one point.

If it were possible that the consistories of all the churches came together in a classis or a synod, this would show best that major assemblies are not meetings of persons who have been endowed with special powers, but of churches. Such a huge assembly, however, would be too costly, too unwieldy, too cumbersome and too impractical. For this reason it has been so arranged that some brothers are delegated from each church in a certain area together to form a classis. That is where the church federation starts: at the classical level.

 

The Classis

What is a classis? We use the word “classis” in two different ways. In the first place we use it to designate a certain area. At the moment there are four classes or classical areas: Alberta/Manitoba, Ontario North, Ontario South, and Pacific.

When speaking of “Classis Alberta/Manitoba” we mean the churches found in these two provinces. As such “Classis Alberta/Manitoba” is a permanent phenomenon: these provinces are always there and so are the churches in that area, even though their number may increase or decrease. In this case the word “classis” is merely a geographical term.

At the meeting in 1568, the Convent of Wesel, the word “parish” was used as well. This word means “neighbourhood” and shows that what the brothers had in mind was that neighbouring churches had a first responsibility towards one another. The word “parish,” too, is a geographical term.

We also use the word “classis” in another way, namely to denote a meeting of the churches in that particular area. In this case the word does not refer to something permanent, but to a temporary thing: a meeting convened for a specific purpose, to deal with a specific agenda. When referring to such a meeting, we are to watch the terms we use.

We could speak of a “classical meeting” or we could say that “a classis will be held,” but it would be wrong to say that “the classis will meet,” or that “there will be a meeting of classis.” A classis is not a permanent body which meets once in a while. A classis in this sense is, in effect, a meeting and it would be nonsense to state that “the meeting will meet.” Besides, also in the terminology we use we should avoid anything that could promote or favour in any way any hierarchical tendency of which we have seen the disastrous fruits in the past.

|138|

Speaking of a classis which is held, we also should always add the date. It would be wrong to say: “Classis decided…” since “classis” as such does not exist. It should read: “Classis Alberta/Manitoba of January 1,1989, decided .…” It would be equally wrong to say: “But the other time classis decided or: we decided.…” “We” or “classis” did not decide anything. A previous classis made this decision at which some of the members of the next classis may also have been members, but it was a different meeting, not the same classis.

To some it may seem that things are a little overdone in the above and that we try to split hairs, but, as they say in Dutch, we have paid our tuition fee and we have learned our lesson. If we cannot learn from the past we risk making the same errors over and over again.

As for the basic meaning of the word “classis,” it comes from the same Greek verb from which also the English “to call’ originates. It means, therefore, a group of people or of ships that have been called together and now meet together. Thus we might describe a classis as “a meeting that has been called for a specific purpose.”

Article 44 further deals with the classical meetings.

 

The Regional Synod

That we speak of “classical meetings” is done in order to distinguish them from regional-synodical meetings and general-synodical meetings. The regional synod comes next into view as the assembly which is “broader,” or “major” than a classis for the sole reason that more churches are represented there. This representation is not direct, in this manner namely that each church sends one or two delegates together with the other delegates to form a regional synod. The members of a regional synod have been delegated by classes, while those of a general synod have been delegated to such a meeting by regional synods.

At a classis we find delegates from each church in that area; this is practically impossible at a regional synod, because the number of churches in that area exceeds the number of brothers delegated to form a regional synod. There may very well be two or even three brothers from the same congregation at a regional synod while from other churches there is no one that has been delegated.

At a classis the brothers come as representatives of their churches; at a regional synod the brothers are there as representatives of all the churches in their area. Yet, when the classis or regional or general synod has been constituted, they no longer sit there as representatives or delegates of their respective churches or region; then they are just members of the classis or of the synod. If they represent anything, it is all the churches in that area.

If there were two or more classes in a province, we could speak of “provincial synods.” Since, however, the ecclesiastical districts were not always the same as the political ones, the term “particular synods” was used in the Netherlands. It still is the term used over there. We have opted for the term “regional synod,” because the term “particular synod” might not have been clear in its meaning or might be easily misinterpreted.

|139|

As with a classis, so we should remember with the regional synod that it is only a meeting, lasting one day or a few days, not a body that is supposed to meet once in a while and to have permanent supervision over the churches in “its” territory.

Of regional synods we speak in Articles 47 and 48.

 

The General Synod

Article 49 deals with the general synod, our broadest assembly. A general synod is a meeting where all the churches of the federation are represented The members of a general synod have been delegated by regional synods. If only the churches in one country were members of the federation, we could also speak of a “national synod,” but also the American Reformed Churches belong to the federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches until there will be a sufficient number of them to form their own federation. Thus the term “national synod” would not cover the actual situation and the term “general synod” is to be preferred. Because we will deal with the major assemblies individually later on, these remarks will suffice for the moment.

When we wish to present the structure of the church federation graphically, we are not to place a general synod at the top as the highest assembly but the consistories. In this manner:

Therein, as already remarked in the beginning of this Guide, the Reformed church polity differs basically from the hierarchical structure in which either one man (a pope) or a body of men (a permanent synod or synodical board) holds the reins of government over the churches in the country as well as in the provinces and various regions including the local churches.

 

Federation Voluntary Yet Mandatory

Joining the church federation is a voluntary act. No church can or may be compelled to take this step. On the other hand, if a church decides to break with the federation, it is perfectly free to do so and no ecclesiastical assembly can prevent it. This is not to say — we repeat — that a church is not disobedient to the Lord by either refusing to join or by deciding to break away. There are sufficient indications in God’s Word that show that the bond

|140|

of faith between the various churches was also being maintained and practised by mutual contact, cooperation and consultation. The form in which the bond was being maintained was different from the manner in which the churches have done it since the days of the Reformation. But what matters in this respect is not the form but the fact of the contact and bond.

In addition to what has already been remarked, we may mention the following points. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters, he often conveyed the greetings from the brotherhood in the place from which he wrote to the brothers and sisters in the place where his letter would be received and read. He frequently even mentioned specific families “and the church in your house.” He told the church at Colosse to have his letter to them also read in Laodicea in exchange for the one he sent there.

From 2 Cor. 8: 19 it is evident that several churches consulted each other about sending one particular brother along with those who brought the money to Jerusalem that had been collected for the church there.

The New Testament churches realized and practised the unity of faith as the Old Testament church had done when it was still confined to one nation. That from Pentecost on the church was being gathered from all nations was no impediment for maintaining the bond of faith by means of mutual assistance.

This mutual assistance was also needed with a view to the heresies that emerged. We already spoke of the letters of recommendation that were proof of mutual recognition and care. When the churches recognize and confess their unity in Christ, how could they then stay on their own without entering into a federation? This would constitute a practical denial of this bond and would practically amount to self-destruction as can be proved from history.

Essentially it is thus: not we bring about and establish a federation. The federation and the unity are there, having been given in the “one body and one Spirit, in the one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4: 5) It is only a question of: “How do we express this and arrange our life together within this federation?”

This we have done via our major or broader assemblies. With these we shall deal in the following articles.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 30

|141|

Article 30

Ecclesiastical Matters

 

These assemblies shall deal with no other than ecclesiastical matters and that in an ecclesiastical manner.
A major assembly shall deal with those matters only which could not be finished in the minor assembly or which belong to its Churches in common.
A new matter which has not previously been presented to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it
.

When speaking of “these assemblies,” we do not differentiate between a consistory on the one hand and the major assemblies on the other hand. What is stated in this first sentence applies to all the assemblies named in Article 29.

To put it briefly: with all matters that are taken in hand the consistory — to start with this assembly — must remember that it is the consistory of the church of the Lord. A consistory is not the board of a social agency or of a political group but it is the body of office-bearers whom Christ has appointed to feed the flock, to take care of it and to guard it.

This truth also determines the nature of what may be dealt with by the major assemblies. When even a consistory is bound by strict rules as a result of its very character, the major assemblies are far more restricted and will never be allowed to take in hand matters with which even a consistory is not allowed to deal. A consistory should be aware of it at all times that it is dealing with matters of Christ's church; but so are the major assemblies.

When the Lord Jesus stood before Pilate, He declared that His kingdom is not of this world, although in His prayer to the Father He did not ask that the Father should take His own out of this world. Christ’s church is of a fundamentally different nature than whatever kingdom, society, alliance, or organization may be found in this world. Thereby it is also determined what the things are that an ecclesiastical assembly is allowed to deal with: only ecclesiastical matters.

 

Ecclesiastical Matters

What are ecclesiastical matters? No one has ever seen a list of them and no one would be able to draw up such a list. Without purporting it to sound like a precise definition, we would like to describe ecclesiastical matters as: those matters which belong to the church of Christ as such or, if you wish, in its instituted form, and are to be dealt with by it.

There are many things which are found in every family of the church and with which every family has to deal or even to struggle, but even matters with

|142|

which every family in the church has to deal do not by that very fact become matters of the congregation as such, just as little as matters with which each and every church has to deal thereby become matters of the federation. Take, for instance, the instruction and education of our children at school. Every family that understands its responsibility towards their children as children of the covenant will do its best, in cooperation with the other families, to have their children receive Reformed instruction. And every member of the congregation who understands his or her obligation as a member of the one body to help and assist each other with the fulfilment of our calling will lend support to make it somewhat easier for the parents involved by also helping financially. However, even if all members of a church cooperate in the matter of the schools and of education, this does not make the school and the education of the children of the covenant an ecclesiastical matter that should be discussed and dealt with at consistory meetings. And what may not be discussed at a consistory meeting may definitely not be brought to a major assembly or be dealt with by it.

Another example. When missionaries go to other countries and discover there that help is badly needed to teach the people proper hygiene or to lift them out above their level of poverty and total dependence on people who keep them in debt and virtual slavery, the membership of the church that sent these missionaries will certainly respond and Mission Aid Committees have come into existence as a result of this. An ecclesiastical matter, however, it is not. Mission Aid is not to be discussed and dealt with at consistory meetings, let alone at broader assemblies.

When even such matters that concern all the members of the congregation cannot be called ecclesiastical matters, it is obvious that social or political issues are completely inadmissible.

In many religious communities of our days we find that statements are being made in the name of the church which regard social questions or political decisions or military programs or financial investment, and so on. Apart from the fact that it is extremely doubtful whether those who draw up and issue those statements or proclamations speak indeed on behalf of the people they claim to represent, it must be stated that also in this respect the style of the church is totally absent. They are more concerned with social and political questions than with the purity of doctrine. Besides, if ecclesiastical assemblies occupy themselves with non-ecclesiastical matters, they should not be surprised when they are being dealt with on a level with non-ecclesiastical organizations. We think here also of Revelation 17-19.

We do not find any statement in Holy Scripture which condemns or declares illegal either polygamy or slavery. Yet both ultimately disappeared as a fruit of the penetration of God’s Word.

Apart from this general guideline we cannot give a list of what is an ecclesiastical matter and what is not. It is a fact that much of the mail that reaches a consistory disappears right away into the wastepaper basket because all sorts of organizations consider it an easy way of getting publicity and action when they address the consistories. Which is not to say either that all matters that church members raise should be dealt with. The basic

|143|

question is: Is this a matter belonging to the congregation-as-a-whole, in its instituted form or not? If it is not, even the fact that every family in the church has something to do with it or is affected by it does not in itself make it an ecclesiastical matter.

 

In An Ecclesiastical Manner

Defining or describing what “in an ecclesiastical manner” means may be even more difficult than to make clear what an “ecclesiastical matter” is. The first thing a consistory has to remember is that they are the office-bearers of the church of Christ. This means that all worldly practices and means should be wholly absent. In olden days it sometimes happened that an office-bearer had to pay a fine if he was absent from a consistory meeting without valid reason or without notification. This was an un-ecclesiastical way of punishing someone.

The well-known saying used in previous centuries that “the church does not thirst for blood” was conveniently bypassed by asking the civil authorities to imprison those considered heretics and even to put them to death. This was a totally un-ecclesiastical way of dealing with errors and with people who in the eyes of the powers that be deviated from the path of the truth.

The only weapon the church has is the Word of God. Thus the church can only speak, declare, pronounce. Fines, incarceration, imposing a sentence of death, banishment, etc. are completely contrary to the character of the church. Because the only weapon the church has is the Word of God, it is clear that a first requirement is that all things are done in submission to and in accordance with that Word. Deviation from the divine revelation renders any action sterile, however much temporary effect it may seem to have.

In the second place — and this applies then more to the major assemblies — it is a requirement that all things be done in loyal observance of the rules which have been adopted. And further: all politicking in the bad sense of the word is taboo in the church of Christ.

 

The Major Assemblies

The first sentence of this article covers all ecclesiastical assemblies; the second provision applies to the major assemblies. These are permitted to deal with two kinds of matters only: a. such as could not be finished in the minor assembly; and b. such as belong to the churches of that major assembly in common.

First about the provision that a major assembly may deal only with such matters as could not be finished in the minor assembly. When we speak of “the” minor assembly, we refer, of course, to the assembly minor to the one that is to deal with the matter. Thus a classis would not be permitted to busy itself with a matter that could be finished but was not finished, that is: about which no decision was reached as yet in the consistory or consistories. A general synod would not be allowed to declare a matter admissible if it could have been brought to a conclusion in a (or the) regional synod(s).

Thus, when a consistory brings a matter to a classis, it must have come

|144|

to the conclusion that it could not bring the matter to an end. A consistory is not allowed to say: “We have been talking about it for so long and still have not reached unanimity, let’s bring it to the next classis.” Nor would a consistory be permitted to shirk its responsibilities and ask a classis to decide about a matter and thus take the responsibility for this decision, whereas the consistory would have been able to do it, but did not for fear of the consequences. This might be an easy way out of real or imagined difficulties; it is a way no ecclesiastical assembly is allowed to follow.

Another example is the support of a theological student. Historically it is the duty of the church from which the student comes to support him as much as is needed. If this one church cannot do it all by itself, it can ask the help of a neighbouring church or neighbouring churches. In most instances one church will not be able to carry the full burden. But even then it is contrary to Article 30 to declare that, since one church cannot do it all, it is therefore the task of the combined churches. What can be finished in the minor assembly should not be brought to the major assembly.

In answer to the question who determines whether a matter can be finished in the minor assembly we have to state that this is the minor assembly. Only when the minor assembly has come to the conclusion that it could not come to a decision in a matter will it be allowed to bring the matter to the major assembly. This is to be done by the minor assembly. No major assembly ever has the right to decide that it has to discuss a certain matter since in its opinion there are difficulties in the minor assembly of such a nature that apparently they cannot be solved.

Even apart from the hierarchical aspect of the matter, it was also completely in conflict with what the churches have agreed upon in Article 30 that classical or indeed general-synodical committees came to a church without having been called in for help or when, for all practical purposes, they did what was in the province of a consistory alone. It is the minor assembly that decides whether it can or cannot finish a matter. And a matter is finished when a conclusion has been reached or a decision has been taken.

The federation is there only to help, not to take matters out of the hands of the minor assemblies. If a consistory does not bring a matter to a classis, no classis has the right to initiate action. If it did have the right, this would also promote hierarchy, and this is one of the last things Christ wants to see in His church. It conformed to the whole system of the hierarchical set-up when, in the days of the Secession, classical boards came and “did what belonged to the consistory,” bypassing and ignoring the office-bearers who had been set there by Christ.

Secondly, there are the matters which belong to the churches of that major assembly in common. One point must be repeated here: the common every-day concerns of every family in the church do not justifiably become matters for the whole consistory; likewise, or even more so, the concerns of each church do not automatically or justifiably become matters for classis or synod.

A simple example: each church has to decide when worship services shall be held, morning and afternoon or morning and evening; likewise at

|145|

what time these services shall start. But from the fact that this is a matter for consideration in every church it may not be concluded that now it is a “matter in common” of all the churches in a classis or (for all that) of all the churches in the federation.

In some articles we state that certain things are the duty of the churches or of their consistories, but something that is the task of each church is not thereby a task of the churches in common. Art. 10 speaks of the duty to provide honourably for the support of the minister(s); but this does not make the support for the ministers a federal matter so that a classis or a synod would be allowed to set minimum or maximum limits between which the stipend is to remain.

Major assemblies are not allowed for the sake of uniformity to deal with matters that are in the province of each church, for instance liturgy. We therefore do not say in our Book of Praise that either of the two following liturgies must be used, but we simply describe which of the two liturgies are in use; no prescriptive value is attached to this description.

Are now major assemblies permitted to take a matter in hand because “it belongs to the churches in common?” Definitely not. When one consults the Acts of our general synods, he will discover that even such matters as correspondence with Churches Abroad, Training for the Ministry, Church Order, Confessional and Liturgical Forms, Rhyming of the Psalms, were put on the general-synodical agenda by the churches. Once they had been put on the agenda by the churches, subsequent general synods were allowed to deal with them without the need for renewed action on the part of the churches, although no general synod would be allowed to undertake revision for instance of the Confessional and Liturgical Forms if no proposals to this effect were received from the churches.

 

The Last Sentence

In the last sentence of Article 30 two points come to the fore. The first point is that a major assembly may not spring any surprise on the churches by its decision to deal with a matter unbeknown to the churches but which was raised and discussed at that major assembly.

Before a new matter may be dealt with by a general synod, even though it appears to be a matter of the churches in common, it will have to have gone through one or more regional synods. These, in turn, were not allowed to deal with it unless one or more classes in that area had discussed and decided upon it. Finally, this classis or these classes were not permitted to take the matter in hand unless one or more of the churches in that area placed it on the agenda, having come to a conclusion about it. This is not to say that general-synodical matters are first decided upon in the minor assemblies. It only means that what appears on the agenda of major assemblies has already received due consideration in the minor assembly.

If, for instance, a consistory should come to the conclusion that somewhere in Outer Mongolia there is a church federation that we could welcome as sister churches, and with which an official relationship as such would

|146|

make sense, the proper way to follow is not: send a letter to the next general synod with the proposal “to appoint a committee with the mandate to investigate whether the Canadian Reformed Churches should establish a sister church relationship with these churches.”

This consistory must do its homework first and come with a well-researched proposal and a well-founded conclusion, that is to be presented to a classis. By way of classis it reaches a regional synod which, if it finds it acceptable, passes it on to the general synod so that, when the proposal finally reaches a general synod, synod is well-informed about the matter. The minor assemblies act in this manner also as a kind of screen, for sifting out matters that are considered to be of insufficient importance to be presented to the major assembly. This means a lightening of the burdens of the major assemblies and thus a saving for the churches in terms of manpower, time, and money.

The second point that comes to the fore here is that proposals for the major assemblies must come from the churches and cannot come from church members, regardless whether they are a member of the broader assembly or not.

In times past the delegates to a major assembly brought with them, in writing, the points their delegating assembly, for example their consistory, wanted the major assembly to deal with. Nowadays proposals and a provisional agenda are sent to the churches a few weeks before the major assembly is to be held. But the principle that the agenda of major assemblies ultimately is composed by the churches and by them alone has remained. It is expressed in the last sentence of Article 30.

If a church member wants to have a matter on the agenda of a general synod, he has to submit it to his consistory with the request to pass it on. Should the consistory come to the conclusion that it cannot take over the member’s proposal and should no other consistory be prepared to do so, there is no way in which the member can achieve his goal. All he or she can do is try to alert the membership by means of the press. If he considers it to be that important, there is nothing which prevents him from talking to other church members, or to have a few meetings where he propagates his views. No consistory will bother him because of doing this. There is freedom of expression and freedom of the press. There is, however, no direct channel from a church member to the major assemblies.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 31

|147|

Article 31

Appeals

 

If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to the major assembly; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order.

Although the whole presbyterial system of church government and church federation is based on the Word of God and is in accordance with what the church has gathered from the Scriptures and laid down in its confessional formulas, for many of the provisions of our Church Order no Scripture passage can be quoted to prove their Scriptural character.

Such does not have to be stated with respect to Article 31. This article is clearly based on what the church confesses in Art. 7 B.C.: “We may not consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures; nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all.”

And in Art. 31 B.C. we confess: “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way. We accept only what is proper to preserve and promote harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God.”

It is not necessary in this connection to prove the Scriptural correctness of our confession; we just mention what the Apostle Peter said when forbidden to speak or teach in the Name of the Lord Jesus: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge,” Acts 4: 19. In Acts 5: 29 we read: “We must obey God rather than man.” The Truth of God is above all. “All men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath.” Art. 7 B.C.

This does not imply that we approach the office-bearers and ecclesiastical assemblies in a suspicious mood or with a distrusting mind. It does mean that we take into account the real possibility that they are mistaken and that they wrong a church member.

Should this happen, a church member must have a recourse. Aware of their own fallibility and acknowledging that only the Word of God is infallible and is above all as the ultimate Judge of all words, decisions and actions, the churches have made the provision that sister churches may be called on for help and protection. They have also taken into consideration the possibility that a decision taken in reply to such a plea for help might be in conflict with God’s Word. God’s Word remains the final “court of appeal.”

|148|

Complains

No one will ever know how often a wrong decision has been taken by a consistory. Even if all the brothers do their utmost to deal with all things in total submission to the Word of our God, and even if they themselves are fully convinced that they did the right thing, they may have done injustice to a member. It is equally possible that their decision or action was wholly in accordance with the Lord’s will, but that the member involved is still convinced that he has been wronged by it. Is it then necessary for this member to send an appeal to classis? Not at all. He is perfectly allowed to bear the wrong, to entrust his cause unto the Lord, to ask Him to right the wrong and to avenge His child. This was the course which God’s children in both Old and New Testament days followed repeatedly.

Frequently there was no one else to whom they could turn to plead their cause and to have their right restored, when no other way was open to them but to appeal directly to their God. This would still be so if there were no church federation. Even if there were others to whom they could turn for help, it was not absolutely necessary for them to do so. They had the perfect right to put down their burdens at God’s mercy seat, and to “tell their troubles and their woe.” At times it will even be more proof of true piety and humbleness of heart to bear with the injustice than to engage the federation in one’s cause. Which is not to say at all that a brother or sister who does appeal to a classis is less pious or less humble. What is stressed here is that it is not necessary at all to go to the sister churches for help and that it is not at all contrary to the Lord’s will when one decides to bear injustice and not to seek one’s right.

However, when a brother or sister cannot bear the injustice for one reason or another, he or she is permitted to go to a classis and thus engage the sister churches to have the injustice undone. If one decides to engage the sister churches, he should not wait for one or two years and then finally submit an appeal. If he can bear it for so long, he shows thereby that he is not at all eager to have the injustice taken away. An appeal should be directed to the first classis after the injustice or alleged injustice has been inflicted.

As for the form in which an appeal is to be submitted, it should be remembered that one’s aim is to have the sister churches come to the conclusion that the brother has been wronged indeed. For this reason all the relevant and pertinent information should be provided. Exclamations and vague utterances or unsubstantiated statements should be banned. What is needed in the first place is that, in his appeal, the brother quotes the decision or pronouncement by which he claims to have been wronged in full, literally, and with the ground(s) which the consistory had for it.

In the second place, the brother is to describe precisely and succinctly what the reasons are why he considers himself to be wronged by the consistory’s decision. If a classis is to be enabled to judge correctly, all the pertinent facts should be put before it. Otherwise the brother will have only himself to blame if a wrong decision is made on his appeal.

He has to bear in mind that a classis has to judge his arguments and that it is he who has to convince the brothers. At a classis it is not the consistory

|149|

that has to provide the reasons why it is convinced that its decision in the brother’s case was correct, but it is the brother’s obligation to prove why this decision did injustice to him.

Presenting the literal text of the consistory’s decision or pronouncement also makes it easier for the brothers-delegates from the church involved to clarify and elaborate on the consistory’s conclusion without bringing in elements which cannot be verified. Consistories will thus be more careful and precise in formulating their conclusions in a particular case and in adding the grounds, while a classis will be spared the trouble of having itself to gather both decision or pronouncement and grounds from the brother’s submission.

It is possible that the brother is not able to write an appeal himself. In such a case there is nothing against it if someone else helps him or even writes the whole document for him. A helper should take care that he only puts into the proper wording what the brother himself wants to say.

 

Copies

Someone who complains that he has been wronged by a decision of his consistory should take the full burden of his action upon himself. This also includes his sending a sufficient number of copies to the convening church for the next classis. “A sufficient number of copies” means one copy for each member of classis plus at least one for the archives.

It would be evidence of not taking one’s own appeal seriously if the brother sent just one copy of it or if he expected the churches to bear the cost of multiplication, and then expected the classis to come to a responsible evaluation of his appeal and to a proper conclusion. Serious matters require serious preparation. If a classis has sixteen members, at least seventeen copies should be sent. Neither a classis nor the churches in general are under any obligation to provide the necessary finances for the multiplication of an appeal.

These copies are to be sent or given along to classis, for an appeal is to be sent to “the major assembly,” that is, the assembly major to the one whose decision the brother appeals. In this case: a classis.

Every appeal starts at the classical level, for a brother cannot be wronged by a classical decision unless it is a decision regarding his appeal against a consistory decision by which he asserts he was wronged.

Moreover, an appeal is directed to a classis, not to the classis-churches. It would be wrong, therefore, to send copies of an appeal to the churches. Churches which receive such copies should return them to sender.

It is not even necessary to send copies to the convening church beforehand. Since an appeal is directed to the major assembly, and this assembly does not exist until it has been constituted, it would be completely correct to ask the brothers who were delegated by one's own church to take the copies along, or to deliver them in person so that they are there at the beginning of the meeting and can be inserted into the provisional agenda before its adoption.

There is one church which should receive at least one copy. That is the “home church” whose decision is being appealed. Again, it would be

|150|

evidence of not taking one’s own appeal seriously and of a lack of true brotherly concern if one left the “home church” ignorant of the intended action of appealing and did not enable the brothers-delegates to prepare themselves properly for the discussion of the appeal. Springing a surprise on one’s own consistory is something which has no rightful place in the church of Christ.

 

Appeal Denied

What is to be done when a classis comes to the conclusion that the brother has not been wronged by his consistory’s decision? In this case the brother has to accept this classical conclusion and that is the end of the matter. He had his “day in court,” so to speak. The brothers at a classis examined all the arguments he adduced, but they could come to no other conclusion than that his complaint was unfounded. “Whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding,” as Article 31 stipulates.

It certainly is not the intention to drive a wedge between a majority and a minority at a classis. It may not happen often that a decision is taken unanimously; besides, the brothers from the church involved are not allowed to take part in the voting, as we shall see in connection with Art. 32. What we stress here is that, even when a decision has been taken by a majority vote instead of unanimously, this decision is binding upon the appellant and he has to abide by it. He has placed his complaint about having been wronged by his consistory before classis; the brothers have examined the matter and have come to the conclusion that there is not sufficient ground to declare what the brother wanted them to state. Now the matter is finished; the brother must accept the verdict.

At least, that is how it should be. Alas, it happens more often than not that a brother appeals the classical decision to the next regional synod and, if the regional synod denies his appeal as well, to the general synod.

One well-known Dutch commentator on the Church Order describes it in this manner: “There are people who, complaining that they have been wronged, like an unbridled horse run on all the way to the general synod and, not having been stopped even there, ask the next general synod for revision. And in later years the ecclesiastical assemblies have permitted this almost without limitation. And yet the unlimited right of appeal is clearly in conflict with both text and intent of Art. 31.” (Joh. Jansen, Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening, second printing, p.140)

It may be that the brother is convinced that such injustice has been done to him by the classical decision that for conscience’s sake he is not allowed to let it stand. In that case the major assembly will act wisely when allowing him to appeal to it.

A few things are to be remembered here. Regional synod should not just receive a copy of the brother’s appeal to classis with the request: “This was my appeal to classis; classis denied it, but will you now judge whether I was right or not?” Our brother may complain that he has been wronged by the classical decision but he must give reasons why the classical decision

|151|

wronged him. If he should simply submit his appeal to classis to regional synod, the latter must declare it inadmissible, since it was dealt with at classis already.

A classical decision may not be ignored. One shall have the right to appeal to the major assembly, that is the next one, not one “farther away.” In extreme cases there is the possibility of appealing the regional-synodical decision to a general synod. Again it has to be stated that it is the decision of regional synod which is to be proved wrong, not the decision of either consistory or classis. This right should be used very sparingly and even every appearance of what the Germans would call “Rechthaberei” (that is, seeking at all costs to have oneself declared right and to have things seen and done one's own way) should be avoided.

Things must be very pressing if, having taken so much of the time of the office-bearers at the consistory and of a classis, one can morally justify continuing to demand time of a regional synod and even of a general synod.

After a classis has reached a conclusion and decided to deny the appeal, the question should be pondered thoroughly whether consistory and classis are not right or, if one cannot come to that conclusion, whether the time has not arrived to submit one’s cause into the hands of the Lord and rather to suffer injustice than proceed to the next major assembly.

 

Appeal Sustained

What is to be done if a classis sustains the brother's appeal, and what does this mean? In secular “court cases” it would mean that the verdict of the lower court has been squashed. Reformed church polity renders this absolutely impossible. How could a lower “court” (a classis) ever squash the decision of a higher “court” (the consistory)? It is an utter impossibility.

What then is to be done? Not only were brothers from the church involved at this classis and are able to report to the consistory on the proceedings and conclusion, but the churches also receive the classical Acts in which the decision on the appeal is recorded. The brother himself should personally receive the decision from the clerk of that classis, but for churches this is not necessary: they receive the Acts.

It is in the nature of the church federation that decisions reached at broader assemblies are binding upon the churches. Where the churches have agreed to give a church member the right to appeal in case he complains that he has been wronged by a decision of his consistory, they have implicitly bound themselves to accept the verdict reached on such an appeal. Thus, upon receiving the Acts, the consistory should examine the decision and execute it. The consistory’s decision is not automatically undone by the classical verdict but has to be rescinded by a subsequent decision of the consistory.

If a consistory is convinced that the classis was in error, and that the matter is of such importance that the consistory cannot abide by it, there is the possibility of submitting the classical decision to the judgment of the next regional synod. A consistory can also be wronged by a decision of a major assembly.

|152|

Execution of Decision

Should a decision be executed pending an appeal? In general, this question is to be answered in the negative. Hereby we bear in mind that one appeal, namely to a classis, is the rule and should be. An appeal can, therefore, not hold up the execution of a decision for more than three months at the most. If a consistory is convinced that a lengthy delay is unwarranted, it can always ask to have a classis convened earlier than originally agreed upon.

One cannot demand of the consistory that the brother shall be in a position to hold up execution of a decision for three years or, perhaps, even longer, because he complains that he has been wronged by it and has indicated that he will appeal “all the way” to the general synod. We repeat: One appeal, from consistory to classis, should decide the matter. A consistory is free to proceed once at classis the conclusion has been reached that the brother was not wronged. Besides, in most instances no further action will have been contemplated by the consistory anyway.

The only exception we can think of is the matter of church discipline. If a brother appeals the discipline applied to him, and if the brother appeals even to the general-synodical level, the consistory should suspend further action until a final “verdict” has been reached at a general synod. Visits and admonition will be continued as a matter of course. Even so, it may be necessary to proceed with the discipline. It is the consistory that has to make the final decision and either the doctrine or conduct of the brother may be such that no further delay or postponement is allowed.

 

Unless

There are two exceptions to the obligation to accept and abide by the decision upon one’s appeal. The first one is when it is proved that the decision or pronouncement conflicts with the Word of God. Since the Truth is above all, God’s Word is the ultimate Judge. When an ecclesiastical pronouncement upon an appeal says “Yes,” and God’s Word says “No,” the “No” shall stand.

Of course, it must be clear that the Lord says so in His Word. When one “deduces” from God’s Word that a decision conflicts with the Holy Scriptures, this is not sufficient. Human deduction is fallible and oftentimes faulty. No, it must be demonstrated that ipsis verbis, that is, in its own words, the Holy Scripture says something else than the decision upon the appeal.

Who is to demonstrate and to prove this? No one else than the one who appealed and whose appeal was denied.When he has come to the conclusion that the decision on his appeal demands something of him that is in clear conflict with God's Word, he is not bound by that decision and under no obligation to do what he is told to do. But he has to prove it from God’s Word with clear and literal arguments from it. He may not “reverse the charges” and demand that the major assembly should prove that its conclusion is in total agreement with the Word of God; the onus is on him to prove that the decision is in conflict with the revealed Truth. Only then is he not bound by the decision.

This will be more difficult to do than it seems to be, for it must be

|153|

undoubtedly clear from what the Lord has revealed to us. To whom is he to prove that the decision was in conflict with God’s Word? We recall that an appeal always starts out as an appeal against a consistory decision. When a classis has expressed its agreement with this decision, it is the consistory to which he must come with proof that the decision upon his appeal clearly conflicts with God’s Word and that he therefore is not bound by it.

The major assembly which dealt with his appeal no longer exists. It is only to the regional synod that he will have to prove this point if he appeals the classical decision. No one has the right to state, “This decision conflicts with God’s Word; therefore I am not bound by it,” without at the same time proving the correctness of his statement. When the brother does give this proof, a consistory may not demand of him that he yet shall submit to or abide by the decision until the proof has been accepted and the decision has been rescinded. Article 31 says “Unless proof is given,” and not “Until proof has been accepted.”

There is a second possibility, namely that the broader assembly acted in a manner or came to a conclusion which is in conflict with the Church Order. If this is the case, he is equally not bound by the decision.

All ecclesiastical assemblies are bound to abide by the agreement laid down in the Church Order. Violation of the promises contained in it invalidate any decision made in this respect. Once again: the burden of proof is on the brother who appealed.

 

A Few More Points

Someone might ask whether a member would not have the right or indeed the obligation to try first to solve things within one’s own congregation, and therefore to appeal to the congregation if he is convinced that he has been wronged by a consistory decision. Should such a controversial matter not be solved within one’s own circle first of all before the church federation is involved?

As it is proper first to try to bring about a change with the consistory, the brother certainly would be allowed to ask another brother to be his spokesman if he feels that he is not able to express himself properly or to present his case in such a manner as would be most helpful for a proper solution.

What he should avoid however, and what he should definitely not do is try to enlist the help of other members in an attempt to achieve a stronger position towards the consistory. Pressure groups are illicit in the church of Christ. Group action of any kind must be condemned in Christ’s congregation and neither a consistory nor a major assembly should ever deal with appeals signed by more than one person, unless it is from a married couple that complains that they have been wronged.

An “appeal” to the congregation is wholly out of the question. In a congregationalist system, where the decisions are made by the congregation, such course of action would be seen as proper; in the Reformed, Presbyterial Churches it would mean that things are turned upside down.

Another question is whether someone who is not complaining that he himself has been wronged is allowed to appeal a consistory decision.

|154|

According to the provision in Art. 31, he is not. This article speaks only of someone who complains that he himself has been wronged by a decision of the minor assembly, and this means the consistory in the first place. No one should assume for himself the position of “defender of those who have been wronged” or take on the airs of someone who sees something wrong and now has the God-given duty to take up this cause. The Lord warns us in His Word that we should not act as if we were overseers over someone else’s affairs. 1 Pet. 4: 15.

In case a member sees something wrong within the church or within the federation, he most certainly has the right and even the duty to approach his consistory about it and to do his best to convince the consistory that action should be taken to correct the wrong; but our Church Order does not speak of an alleged right of such a member to “appeal” to classis or even to regional or, ultimately, general synod.

Would a brother not act wisely, in case his appeal to a classis is denied, to approach the next classis with a request for revision before deciding to go to the next regional synod with an appeal? Article 31 does not speak of sending a request for revision to the next similar assembly, but of appealing to the next major assembly. One cannot appeal a classical decision to the following classis, only to the next regional synod. Any alleged “appeal” from a classical decision addressed to the next classis is out of order and inadmissible.

Besides, a request for revision would have to be judged by mostly the same brothers who were members of the classis that took the original decision. Not only the ministers of the Word are at every classis, but especially frequently the same elders from the smaller churches are delegated as well.

Going back to a consistory to have a decision revised is proper, advisable, and may prevent much further action. But once a brother has come to the conclusion that appealing to the major assembly is the only option open to him, there is no longer the choice between “appeal” or “revision.” In this event an appeal to the major assembly is the only course of action he can take.

And finally, it must be remembered that a decision on an appeal reached by a major assembly is binding upon the appellant only. Thus it does not constitute a general pronouncement by which all the church members are bound. Even though a member feels that, by virtue of this decision, injustice would have been done to him, he is to realize that he is not bound by it, inasmuch as it concerns only the one who appealed to the major assembly.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 32

|155|

Article 32

Credentials

 

Delegates to the major assemblies shall bring with them their credentials, signed by those sending them; they shall have a vote in all matters except those in which either they themselves or their Churches are particularly involved.

The broader assemblies are not meetings of individual persons or gatherings of office-bearers, but meetings of persons who have been delegated and represent the churches. To a certain extent we may say that the major assemblies are meetings of churches. It is well-nigh impossible to have meetings where all the consistories are present. Even if it might be possible to have all consistories as such meet in a classis, such a classis would be too large and unwieldy, too cumbersome to achieve anything at all. For this reason the churches meet by means of their delegates. It should be clear to everyone that the churches meet in the delegates. For this reason the brothers who come together to form a major assembly are to show proof that they have been legitimately delegated. Even though, as a rule, delegates are office-bearers, they do not derive their right to be a member of a major assembly from their being office-bearers, but from their having been delegated and authorized by the minor assembly.

They are not there on their own authority but only on the authority of the delegating assembly. For this reason they have to show their credentials, signed by those sending them. Credentials for a classis are to be signed on behalf of the consistory; those for a regional synod or general synod on behalf of classis or regional synod respectively.

Before a classis, a regional or general synod can be constituted (that is: come into existence), the credentials have to be examined to see who are entitled to form the assembly and to deal with the matters submitted to it.

 

Contents

Which elements are to be found in these credentials? In the first place it has to be stated by what assembly the brothers have been delegated: either a consistory or a classis or a regional synod. A consistory cannot write credentials for a regional or general synod, only for delegation to a classis, although in times past brothers sometimes took credentials along from their consistories even when they were delegated by a classis or regional synod.

Secondly, the names of the brothers who have been appointed as delegates are to be mentioned specifically, together with the names of their alternates. The names of those who sign the attendance list should be those mentioned in the credentials.

In the third place, the credentials are to spell out the authorization of the

|156|

brothers who have been delegated. This is necessary because they do not come on their own authority, because they are not permitted to raise the questions or matters which they themselves consider worthwhile or important, and because they are to deal with all things in the manner determined by their principals.

With all their deliberations and decisions the brothers should remember that they are at the broader assemblies because they have been sent there by their consistories or by a classis or regional synod respectively. This awareness is to govern what they say and what they decide.

Only in exceptional cases will a consistory tell its delegated members how to vote in a specific matter. A broader assembly is not a ballot-box, solely there for the purpose of learning what the stand of the consistories is in the matters brought before it. The major assemblies are there to discuss and decide upon matters in mutual agreement. Time and expenses of meeting together could be spared if it were determined beforehand which consistory is in favour and which one is opposed to a proposal.

A brother whose opinion in a specific case differs from that of the rest of the consistory may be delegated so that, if it deems the matter of sufficient importance, the consistory may tell him to vote in a manner which expresses the consistory’s views. Such a situation will not occur very often. It may be that a delegate deems it necessary to abandon his own preference in favour of what he knows to be the view of the (majority of the) consistory. However, that is his own free decision.

Further, the credentials are to state in what manner the delegates are to deal with the matters put on the agenda and by what they are bound. There is in the first place the Word of God which is to be the absolute guide; then there are the confessions in which the churches have summarized the Scriptures; and in the third place there is the adopted Church Order.

These three are not on the same level, although the delegates to a broader assembly are bound by all three of them. The difference is expressed in the terms used in the sample credential which is appended to this Guide: “in total submission to God’s Word, in faithful adherence to the Reformed Confessions, and in loyal observance of the adopted Church Order.”

The credentials sometimes contain the promise that the consistory will abide by all decisions reached in accordance with the above mandate. Although there is nothing against it, essentially such a promise is not necessary. A church does not take upon itself the obligation to abide by the decisions of major assemblies by making a special promise to this effect; it did take this obligation upon itself by joining the federation, thus promising to live within it according to the adopted Church Order. No church would ever be free to ignore decisions legitimately taken by major assemblies because “it never stated in the credentials that it would abide by them.”

The promise “to submit” to the decisions of the major assemblies was incorrect, for abiding by these decisions is not a matter of submission or obedience to any authority, but of keeping one’s promises.

|157|

Instructions

In older redactions of our Church Order we can read that those delegated to broader assemblies shall also bring their “instructions.” What is meant by this? Whenever a major assembly will be held in our days, the churches receive a provisional agenda beforehand. They are requested to send material for the major assembly to the convening church a few weeks before the scheduled date, so that they can be told in advance what the matters are with which the broader assembly will have to deal.

What underlies this practice is the fact that it is the churches that determine what shall be dealt with at the broader assemblies. The agenda of major assemblies is not composed by individual members but by the churches.

An individual member cannot legitimately bring a matter before a major assembly. There is one exception. If he complains that a minor assembly has wronged him, he may seek redress as provided for in Art. 31. It does not make any difference whether this individual member is a delegate to a major assembly or not: his having been appointed as a delegate to a major assembly does not give this member the right to introduce any matter on his own initiative either.

When typewriters, photocopiers, and mailing services as we know them were unknown luxuries, the delegates brought their instructions with them, that is, the points and matters which their delegating assemblies wanted to have on the agenda of the major assembly. In this manner the churches prevented private proposals from becoming an item on the agenda of major assemblies.

We no longer mention instructions in our Church Order. Times and possibilities have changed; but the rule has remained: the churches determine the agenda of their major assemblies. Perhaps one recalls having seen the item “Instructions” on a classical agenda. Something has remained of the old practice: whenever a church has something special to discuss, something which concerns its own well-being, it mentions this in an instruction in the credentials. This means that its delegates are to raise the point(s) mentioned. This concerns usually a request by a vacant church for classical pulpit supply, for the appointment of a counsellor, or a request for advice in a disciplinary case.

 

Voting

The brothers from each church are entitled to vote on the matters on the agenda, because they are members of classis. At other major assemblies there may not be two brothers from the same church that were delegated by a classis or regional synod respectively. Yet to them also applies the instruction which we find in Art. 32: whenever either their own church or their own person is involved, they do not have the right to vote in this particular instance.

Anyone has the right to abstain from voting for various reasons; either the matter is not clear to the brother, or he cannot come to a responsible decision, or he feels that he was too much involved in it already during the time

|158|

before the matter reached the major assembly. In these cases a brother abstains voluntarily.

If the matter concerns either himself personally or his church, he is not permitted to take part in the voting, for no one should be judge in matters that concern himself personally or concern his church. He may take part in the discussions, he may express his support for a certain proposal, he may even submit a proposal, although it might not be wise to do so, but when it comes to voting, he is excluded.

We are not to confuse this with a proposal made by a church. Sometimes there is the fallacious reasoning that brothers are not allowed to vote on a proposal made by their own consistory, but making a proposal is not the same as being involved, that is, being a party in a particular case.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 33

|159|

Article 33

Proposals

 

Matters once decided upon may not be proposed again unless they are substantiated by new grounds.

What we find in this article is the remnant of an earlier provision that the instructions for the major assemblies should not be written before the Acts of previous major assemblies had been read regarding this point. This was stipulated in order to prevent matters which were dealt with in the past from being raised (time and) again. The background of that provision was that, unlike in our days, the Acts of major assemblies were not printed and made available to the churches on a large scale. At the broader assembly the clerk dictated them and the delegates copied them for their own churches. Then they were read at the consistory meetings.

Everyone can see how easily a matter could be raised again although it was already dealt with at a previous major assembly. No one was able to consult a series of booklets containing the Acts in his own home. For this reason it was provided that, before writing the instructions as to what was to be dealt with at a major assembly, a consistory should first read the Acts of the previous major assemblies on the point in question. In this manner it was prevented that a matter was raised again through ignorance or because a consistory was not aware that it had been previously dealt with.

It could happen that a consistory was convinced that a certain decision should be changed. In such a case this consistory was allowed to include it in its instruction. Even so, caution should be exercised. A consistory should ponder the question whether the matter is of such importance that the time of the churches must be spent in discussing the point again and whether any harm will result if things are left alone. It is admissible to strive for perfection, but we are to bear in mind what someone correctly remarked, that church life is not a machine which one can stop to take out or change a part, and then set it into motion again as if nothing ever happened. All desire and striving for having everything one's own way is of course totally out of the question. A compromise among brothers and churches in non-essential points is more in accordance with true Christian love and compassion than keeping everything in motion and turmoil to get one’s way or by continued nagging of the brothers until they give in.

We no longer write instructions in order to compose the agenda of broader assemblies. Nowadays consistories send their overtures to the convening church to have them included in the provisional agenda.

Also with this manner of bringing matters to the major assemblies the consistories are to scan the Acts of previous assemblies to see whether a particular point was not already dealt with in the past. If such is the case, the brothers must have very good grounds for raising the matter again. These

|160|

good grounds are not: serious objections, profound misgivings, or uneasiness with the conclusions reached or the considerations on which these conclusions rest. It will be near-impossible always to reach conclusions unanimously, and in most cases there will be brothers or even whole consistories that disagree with specific decisions.

Only in case they have new grounds for their proposal to change a particular decision will a consistory be permitted again to raise a matter which was decided upon before. Sometimes such a proposal to change a previous decision is submitted as an “appeal.” From what is stated in Article 31 it is clear that this is a misnomer.

Only when a consistory was wronged by the relevant decision can it correctly present its submission as an appeal, and it has to submit this to the major assembly, not one similar to the assembly that took the decision. When it is merely a proposal to change a previous decision, it should be called by its proper name: a proposal to change. Let’s keep things simple.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 34

|161|

Article 34

Proceedings

 

The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin and end with calling upon the Name of the Lord.
At the close of major assemblies, censure shall be exercised over those who in the meeting have done something worthy of reproof, or who have scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies.
Furthermore, each classis, regional synod, or general synod shall determine the time and place of the next classis, regional synod, or general synod respectively and appoint the convening Church for that meeting
.

In spite of the fact that the provision found in the first paragraph of this article has been found in our Church Order since 1571, one might ask whether it is really necessary to have such a rule. Is it not a matter of course that we ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for a good insight into God's Word, and for the Lord's blessing upon our endeavours? Is it not equally a matter of course that we give thanks at the end of the meeting to our God for the strength and ability which He gave to deal with our agenda?

Our forefathers considered it necessary that the churches should remind each other of the need for prayer and thanksgiving at ecclesiastical assemblies, before the proceedings start and after they have been concluded. We even have three prayers for such occasions in our Book of Praise: An Opening Prayer for Ecclesiastical Assemblies, A Closing Prayer for Ecclesiastical Assemblies, and an Opening Prayer for the Meetings of the Deacons.

When we read these liturgical prayers, we see that the character of the meeting is kept in mind. The words have been chosen very carefully and these prayers are very specific. We would do well to use them more frequently than is the case at present.

It is not absolutely necessary to use them all the time or even to use them regularly. The one who calls the meeting to order to begin its proceedings may offer a prayer in words of his own choosing; and likewise the one who leads in closing prayer. However, whenever one offers prayer in words of his own choosing, he should fully realize the purpose of the meeting and not lose himself into praying for all sorts of causes which have no direct bearing on the agenda of the meeting.

Likewise, the one who leads in closing prayer must avoid any temptation to (ab)use this prayer to repeat some arguments or to propagate his own opinions or, even worse, to convey admonitions to others who disagreed with him. Neither should a summary of the discussion be given in this prayer. The Lord is well aware of all that went on during the meeting and does not have to be told, nor do the brothers who participated in the meeting.

In a tense situation — such as, alas, does exist once in a while — it is almost mandatory to use one of the collects. Thereby the one who leads in prayer protects himself and the others.

|162|

The Church Order does not make a provision about the reading of Holy Scripture at the beginning of the proceedings or of singing together, although reading of a portion of God’s Word is customary. It is the general consensus that this custom emerged as a result of Methodist influences. Where this custom does exist, it is good to maintain it, although it should be borne in mind that the purpose of the meeting is not to edify one another, but to deal with a certain agenda, with ecclesiastical matters.

Sometimes chairmen of consistory meetings even elaborate on the Scripture passage read. One can read in consistory meetings reports: “The chairman speaks a few words in explanation of the passage read.” Justification for such action could be found only in special cases where directives are found in this passage for specific points to be dealt with at the meeting. If such is not the case, the chairman should refrain from adding some words of his own to the Word of God. The brothers have not been called together to listen to explanations of Scripture passages, however brief, but to deal with the matters at hand, and then go home again. They will need their rest for the next day’s task.

At consistory meetings usually a regular order is followed in reading God’s Word. Sometimes the Psalms are read and then the Proverbs, sometimes some New Testament letters. Reading in sequence also prevents that a specific passage is chosen in order to influence beforehand the expected discussion. The heart of man is subtle, more than anything.

 

On Sundays

Explanations of the Church Order here also pay attention to the practice in some churches to offer prayer in the consistory room before the services on Sundays. Customs differ in this respect, too. Sometimes prayer is offered before the morning service and after the afternoon service. Sometimes it is only the first one. In rare instances prayers are said before and after every service. In all likelihood this custom came into existence in the days of the Secession in the nineteenth century in the Netherlands, when services were repeatedly disturbed by the police or by the rabble. The need was felt to ask the Lord beforehand to cause the service to be uninterrupted and to prevent the enemies from disturbing it. When the situation changed, the custom remained, although in the past fifty years more and more consistories have discontinued it.

Such prayers in the consistory room are, however, merely private prayers, even though they are offered with only office-bearers present. There is no ecclesiastical assembly there, nor has the worship service started. It is the experience of office-bearers that it is difficult to keep the immediate purpose of such prayers in view. In some instances the prayer before the service became a prayer “for all the need of Christendom,” so that the minister might feel that there was nothing left to pray for during the service. The prayer after the second service sometimes amounted to a summary of the sermons. In extreme cases the latter prayer contained veiled or open criticism of the sermon(s).

This writer remembers one brother whose closing prayer always

|163|

mentioned that “this morning we heard this and this, and this evening we heard this and this.” In the days of the Liberation it was overheard that “it might please the Lord to achieve something good through something blemished.” The “blemished” referred to the sermon just delivered. Better no prayer than such a prayer.

It may be expected of the members of the congregation that in their family prayers at home they also remember the worship services of the day both before and after they are held. There may be situations when the brothers of the consistory feel the need on a particular Lord’s Day together to appear before the Lord before the service, but in general there is no need for special prayers in the consistory room. In any case, they are not included in the prayers of which Article 34 C.O. speaks.

 

Censure

Everyone will have read the sentence: “Censure ad Art. 44 is not needed.” This is a sentence which one can find in press releases of major assemblies. The provision has been transferred to Art. 34, as it is the task of the members of the broader assembly, and especially of the chairman, to do it.

What is this censure? It has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper, but is an open rebuke and admonition, given towards the end of the meeting to those who in one way or another have misbehaved during the meeting. These last three words “during the meeting” must be kept in mind. It is not the intention that some member of the assembly shall be addressed and rebuked about something he wrote in a book or a periodical, or about something he said in a personal or public discussion a few weeks or days earlier. Ecclesiastical assemblies except consistories have no right even to mention those things.

Nowadays members of broader assemblies seem to behave more properly than they did some four hundred years ago. About those earlier times one can read about near riots or worse, and of disorderly conduct at broader assemblies. However, even though we do not witness any wild scenes in our days, there still is the very real possibility that one behaves unseemly, or allows himself expressions or actions that are not in accordance with the character of the meeting. Perhaps someone appears to have revealed some information to outsiders, information which should have remained strictly confidential; perhaps one may have been factually correct in his statements and arguments as such, but presented them in a manner which went beyond the bounds of propriety. These are only a few items that a chairman (or another member) might point out to explain how wrong the brother was.

Another possibility mentioned is that someone has scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies. It is not quite clear what matter would come under this heading. Possibly someone did not abide by his mandate, but ignored instructions he had received from the delegating assembly. As for the rest, we must admit to our inability to see how a classis could admonish one of its members for having scorned the admonition by the consistory. The same applies to a regional synod with respect to a classis, or to a general synod with respect to a regional synod. How would a broader assembly

|164|

learn about this scorning? One can hardly imagine that a consistory asks a classis to put on the agenda the point to rebuke a delegate because this brother scorned the consistory’s admonition. The consistory is very well capable of admonishing the brother and does not need the help of classis. No, the more we think about it, the less we see a possibility for this occurrence within the framework of Reformed church polity. We have not been able to find an acceptable explanation of it in other works either.

 

Next Assembly

At the end of each broader assembly a convening church is appointed for the next assembly. Usually a precise date and place for the next assembly is fixed. This is important, for the churches must be able to prepare for the next assembly and should not, on short notice, receive word that a classis or regional or general synod will be held in a few weeks’ time.

In the case of a classis the churches know that it will be held three months hence, and this narrows down the choice of date. Yet the date is set at the previous classis. Visits may have to be arranged, for instance, in connection with the exercise of discipline, when a consistory wants to ask the advice of classis. The brothers who are delegated may have to arrange their work or business so that they are able to attend; reports may have to be completed, and arrangements may have to be made. It is best when each church knows precisely when the next classis will be held.

The same applies to the other broader assemblies. That a regional synod is held every year and a general synod every third year makes it the more mandatory that the date is known well in advance. It is our experience that all sorts of reports especially for a general synod come in at the very last moment, so that consistories will have to scramble and have several extra meetings in order to study them and see whether they should approach the general synod with any proposal regarding the recommendations in these reports. One does not have to be a procrastinator for thinking that “there is still lots of time.” Knowing that there is a set date will be conducive to an early completion of assignments.

We do not have to assume that a church would unduly postpone the convening of a major assembly if that church had to set a date. But it is better that the date is set by the previous assembly than that it is left up to one church.

The same applies to the place where the assembly is to be held. In general, the place to be chosen should be easily accessible so that the burdens of travel are divided as equally as possible among the members. Classes are usually held in the same place; regional and general synods are mostly held in the place where the convening church is. However, it is up to each broader assembly to deviate from the custom. The first two general synods were both held in Carman MB, although the convening church for the 1954 synod was the church at Chatham, and Coaldale for the one of 1958. This was done to divide the travelling time equally between the brothers from the East and those from the West. This argument does not weigh as heavy any longer, because of the frequent use of air travel.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 35

|165|

Article 35

President

 

In all assemblies there shall be a president whose task it is to present and explain the matters to be dealt with and to ensure that every one observes due order in speaking, to deny the floor to those who argue about minor things or who let themselves be carried away and cannot control their strong emotions, and to discipline those who refuse to listen.
In major assemblies the office of president shall cease when the assembly has ended
.

It is plain that there should be someone to guide the assembly and to ensure that the meeting runs smoothly, so that everyone knows what the point under discussion is. Otherwise the result may be the same as that in Ephesus, where “the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” (cf. Acts 19: 32)

With our terms derived from the Latin, we speak of the “officers” of our ecclesiastical assemblies as of the “moderamen,” which means: the brothers who together are responsible for the leading of the meeting, who are the helmsmen whose task it is to keep the ship on the right course. In the ecclesiastical world around us we may hear of a “moderator,” who is the person elected to be the leader for a certain period of time, usually one year. The Reformed Churches do not know of such a semi-permanent official or position.

There must be a brother who chairs the various meetings, whether meetings of a consistory or a classis, a regional synod or a general synod. It would be wrong indeed to call the local minister “the chairman of the consistory.” It would be even more wrong to refer to him as “the chairman of the convening church” when, on behalf of the convening church, he opens a classis, a regional or general synod. One is chairman or president only when there is a meeting and only for as long as the meeting lasts. This applies to consistory meetings as much as it holds true in the case of a classis or a synod. Strictly speaking, a minister is not the “chairman of the consistory,” but only of the consistory meetings.

When a major assembly delegates one of its members to execute certain decisions made, it would not be prudent to appoint its president to each and every such task, for this so easily could give the impression that the brother is president until the next major assembly elects a new one.

Letters going out after the close of the major assembly and signed on behalf of it by its former president and clerk should have the letters “i.t.” behind their name(s). These letters mean: illo tempore (= at that time). If a letter is

|166|

sent at some point during the major assembly, the words “hoc tempore” (= at this time), would be appropriate. Any semblance of permanency should be avoided.

 

His First Task

What is the task of the chairman or president? In the first place the brother is to bear in mind at all times that he is the servant of the assembly. He is to avoid any effort to impose his will and views upon the meeting; he is to be an enemy of all manipulation. He definitely should not be the first one to speak on a matter and should refrain from reacting to what each speaker puts forward before giving the floor to the next one. When he wishes to speak on a matter, he is to take his place in the row of speakers, preferably as the last one, so that all have had an opportunity to give their views without being influenced by him.

The only reason why he speaks first is that he has to present clearly the matter which is to be discussed; but he has to restrict himself to just that. The brothers should know precisely what they are going to discuss and what they are to decide on.

During the discussion he is to ensure that the brothers stick to the point and do not drag all sorts of extraneous matters into the discussion.

Especially when one has just become a minister and has to chair meetings of the consistory, he may be hesitant to interrupt an elderly brother who digresses, for fear of seeming domineering or impolite. However, being a servant of the assembly does not mean that one has to permit everything the brothers want to say. Having been called to preside over the meeting, he has to fulfil his task to the best of his ability and for the benefit of all.

It may be necessary to interrupt a speaker and kindly to request him to confine himself to the point under discussion. It could also be wise to let the brother finish and, before giving the floor to the next one, to say something in this vein: “We noticed that brother A. also spoke about other matters and points, but I must request him and all brothers to avoid digression and to confine themselves in their speaking to the point in question.” This will also prevent the next speakers from being sidetracked and talking about what brother A. said which, in fact, was out of order. If anyone still does, it would be the president’s duty to interrupt him and to repeat his request more insistantly.

 

Due Order

The president is further to ensure that everyone observes due order in speaking. This not only means that he must prevent that anyone takes the floor without having asked for and received it. It also means that he must ensure that there is a due order. Matters are not dealt with in an orderly fashion when the chairman asks: “Who wants the floor on this matter?” and then, when brother A. asks for the floor, gives him permission to speak right away. Next, the chairman repeats the question and gives the floor to brother B., who may speak and give his judgment not so much about the point under discussion but more about what brother A. said.

|167|

A discussion will be most orderly when rounds are given, and the names of those wishing to speak are written down before the first speaker gets the floor. In the first round the brothers should not (yet) react to what the previous speakers put forward but only give their own judgment and their arguments for it. In the second round the speakers are then permitted to react to what was said in the first round and give further arguments.

If this method is not followed, it will be experienced that brother B. reacts to what brother A. said and that brother A. wants to reply to brother B.’s criticism of his words; brother C. also speaks and criticizes what the brothers A. and B. stated, and so on. Ultimately the brothers no longer see the forest for the trees. There is almost no order, even though no one speaks without having received the privilege of the floor, and the meetings will last well into the night. Much precious time is wasted and much badly needed sleep is lost, while the achievements and results are rather poor.

Generally speaking, two rounds should suffice. If the weight of the matter warrants it, a third or even fourth round could be given, but these should be exceptions, and in these rounds new arguments should be put forward, not the old ones rehashed.

 

A Vote?

With various official bodies it is customary or even the rule that the chairman does not take part in the discussions and in any case does not take part in any voting, unless there is a tie. Introducing such a custom or rule with respect to the president of our ecclesiastical assemblies would be totally incorrect. At the consistory meetings the chairman has the same rights and the same obligations as any other office-bearer. He is co-responsible with the other consistory members. This means that he not only takes part in the discussion, but also votes on the proposals made, if a vote is taken, that is. And at the broader assemblies the president's mandate, as described in the credentials, is the same as that of any other members of that particular assembly. He has to discharge his duties accordingly.

One more remark about the point of discussion and voting. It is preferable to come to a decision without a vote, simply because the brothers can find themselves in the proposal made. If there are small differences, an attempt should be made to come to such a formulation that all can agree. A compromise among brothers is still a perfectly legitimate solution!

 

Deny the Floor

It is also stipulated that it is the task of the president “to deny the floor to those who argue about minor things or who let themselves be carried away and cannot control their strong emotions.” It may be helpful to make a few remarks about it, for it does happen rather frequently that there are brothers who argue about minor points or who are vehement in speaking and let themselves be carried away by their emotions.

We all realize that the chairing of a meeting requires much patience, skill, and tact. We also realize that no handbook can be written in which each and

|168|

every situation is covered. Further we realize that every person, also each president, is different from all others and that no two situations are alike. Yet a few hints may be given.

No one likes to be interrupted when he is speaking, and no one likes to be told that he is not allowed to continue. It will be wise to let a speaker finish, unless he is so totally out of order or makes himself guilty of such an attitude in choice of words or manner of speaking that a president would not be allowed to let him continue.

Before giving the floor to the next speaker, the president could make a remark along these lines: “What you did and what you said was not right. I must therefore ask the brothers to ignore it, for it was an impure element.” Or: “Brother A., I let you finish, but actually I should have asked you not to continue speaking. If you do this again, I will have to interrupt you and to give the floor to someone else. Please refrain from using such words.”

Also the manner in which the president shows a brother the errors of his ways, should demonstrate that he (as a president) is the servant of the assembly and is willing to give all the brothers full opportunity to have their input in a matter. At major assemblies it is customary that the president lets the vice-president chair the meeting while he himself takes his turn in the discussion.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 36

|169|

Article 36

Clerk

 

A clerk shall be appointed whose task it shall be to keep an accurate record of all things worthy to be recorded.

In our Church Order we speak of only two brothers who are to serve an assembly for the conducting of its affairs: a president and a clerk. Yet it is customary to have at least three brothers who together form the “moderamen.” At a consistory and at a classis there are usually a president, a clerk, and a vice-president. The vice-president is then charged with substituting for the president when the latter is incapacitated or wants the floor in the course of the discussion. He is usually also charged with writing a press release containing the main issues of the meeting.

At regional and general synods the moderamen usually consists of four persons: the president, the first clerk, the second clerk, and the assessor or vice-president. The first clerk is then the one who writes the Acts, while the second clerk takes care of the correspondence resulting from the decisions made.

Occasionally the writing of the minutes and the correspondence are divided between two brothers at the consistory level as well. This is mostly done in larger churches with a considerable number of office-bearers and an increased frequency of meetings.

In Article 36 we speak of the clerk. A clerk is necessary at any ecclesiastical assembly in order that any decisions made may be written down and recorded. At major assemblies the "office" of the clerk ceases at the closing of the assembly, just like that of the president, even though he may still have a considerable amount of work left to be done as a result of the decisions made.

At the consistory level a brother may be (and usually is) appointed to serve as clerk at every consistory meeting, or even to function as the addressee of all church correspondence. It is not necessary, although desirable, that this brother is an office-bearer, If he is not, he would be bound to observe the same confidentiality as the office-bearers have to practise. Especially in large congregations it might be advisable to have a non-office-bearer function as clerk to divide the duties of the eldership among the brothers as equally as possible.

 

Accurate Record

It is the duty of the clerk to keep an accurate record. The importance of accuracy cannot be sufficiently stressed. There should be no doubts or differences later on regarding the question what exactly was decided at such and such a meeting. This places quite a responsibility upon the clerk. Not everyone is able to formulate well and to record accurately what transpires at a meeting. A clerk should be chosen with care and prudence.

|170|

What is the clerk to record accurately? “All things that are worthy to be recorded.” Does he have to record all that is said and done at the meeting? If that were the case, he would be faced with an impossible task. Besides, is all that is said and done at a meeting “worthy to be recorded?”

What is important and what should be preserved for the future are the decisions of the assembly and what the grounds for its decisions were. Later generations may find it interesting to know what brother A. said about a certain point or what brother B. proposed in such and such a case, but these are things that are not part of what is “worthy to be recorded.”

In general, only such matters are worthy to be recorded which are acts of the whole assembly. Thus a motion made and seconded but withdrawn later on should not be recorded. On the other hand, a motion made and seconded but voted down should be found in the record, for the voting is an act of the assembly even though it was a negative vote.

 

Acts and Minutes

There is a difference between the recording of the proceedings of a consistory and those of the major assemblies. This difference lies in the features of a consistory and of the major assemblies.

A consistory is a permanent body which meets at certain times. A clerk has, therefore, the opportunity to make his notes at the meeting and later on, in the quiet of his own home, to write the minutes of the meeting, to read them later at the next meeting for approval.

This procedure is impossible at the level of the major assemblies. When a classis has concluded its agenda, it no longer exists. It is not so that “classis meets again after three months,” but after three months another classis is held, and this other classis cannot judge whether the “minutes” of the previous classis correctly formulate what was decided at that previous classis. Even the fact that the ministers are delegated to every classis and that elders often attend two consecutive classes does not change the character of a classis: each classis is a different meeting with no right as a classis to adopt as correct or to reject as incorrect the record of proceedings written by the clerk of the previous classis.

A consistory can have minutes; a broader assembly can only have Acts which are adopted by that very assembly before it is dissolved. If a classis or synod lasts longer than one day and has several sessions, there is no objection to having the Acts of the one day read and approved the next day. However, the Acts of the last session are to be read and adopted before the closing. In exceptional cases the moderamen may be instructed to finalize that part of the Acts which could not be presented to the assembly before its closing, but this will not happen too often.

What we call the “Acts” of our major assemblies are actually records of their “proceedings.” It includes such matters as opening and closing of the various sessions, official speeches by delegates from sister churches.

But since the term “Acts” has become the accepted designation for the record of the proceedings of our major assemblies, every one knows what is meant by it and there is no reason to change it.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 37

|171|

Article 37

Jurisdiction

 

The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the regional synod has over the classis, and the general synod over the regional synod.

Is it not strange that we speak here of jurisdiction of the major assemblies but that neither in this article nor anywhere else in our Church Order we are able to find a definition or even a description of this jurisdiction? This has led some people to state that the churches use empty words here. The Church Order, they claim, speaks of jurisdiction, of “having a say,” but fails to give any criteria for it.

Again others hastily concluded from this article that major assemblies have some sort of authority and higher power over the minor assemblies, and they claim that here our Church Order introduces the subordination of the minor assemblies to the major assemblies. They assign more power to the broader than to the minor assemblies, and reason along these lines that “ten have more power than one; and with a larger number there is more guarantee for good decisions and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” As if numbers are decisive and as if the Holy Spirit did not many times enable either individual members or small groups of believers to see through the fallacies of decisions made by the broadest assemblies and, guided by the Holy Spirit, to lead the church back to the obedience to her Lord and King.

Input from others is important, and the churches have made provisions for that, but any reasoning that numbers offer a greater guarantee of the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to base on that a theory of subordination of minor assemblies to the major assemblies is unwarranted. Numbers are no guarantee of a greater measure of guidance by the Holy Spirit, as we confess in Article 7 B.C.

Besides, the question remained to be answered how and from whom a major assembly then received the alleged power over the minor assemblies. Some claim that their power and authority are received from Christ, albeit indirectly. They reason approximately as follows: The major assemblies are composed of office-bearers who are delegated by the constituent minor assemblies. When office-bearers are delegated to the major assemblies, they bring with them their authority as office-bearers, and thus the major assemblies have an authority entrusted to them by Christ and delegated to them by the minor assemblies. It is in Christ’s Name that they exercise it and thus are to demand that the minor assemblies shall submit to them.

In this manner an hierarchical order is introduced with the highest concentration of authority found in the general synod. But this order flatly contradicts the Scriptural teaching that Christ has entrusted the authority in His church to the local office-bearers, who have authority over “their own” church alone.

|172|

The hierarchical order fits in the framework of the Westminster Confession but not in that of the Belgic Confession. Article 25 of the Westminster Confession speaks of “the visible church, which is also catholick or universal under the gospel” and states that “unto this catholick visible church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God,” while “particular churches ... are members thereof.” Among those who have adopted the Westminster Confession it is customary to speak of major assemblies as “higher courts.”

We could relate more concepts and theories concerning the relation between minor and major assemblies, but the above may suffice as there are sufficient points in it fora discussion that may result in a good understanding of the provision of Article 37 C.O.

The first question which comes up is: “To whom has the Lord Jesus Christ given authority in His church?” This question is not difficult to answer. The Holy Scripture — and our Confession following it — teaches clearly that the Lord gave the authority to His church and then particularly to those who are called to govern the church, the office-bearers in each and every place. Apart from the apostles and their authority we do not read anywhere in the New Testament that the Lord gave to certain persons authority over several churches. He endowed the overseers over the church with authority in each locality where He established it. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we read of persons who received the oversight over the churches in a certain province or country. On the contrary, elders were appointed in each church, Acts 14: 23; Titus 1: 5, to whom the oversight over that particular church was entrusted, Acts 20: 28. No office-bearer has the right to transfer or delegate any of the authority which the Lord Jesus laid upon his shoulders; and no office-bearer is allowed to assume authority over a flock over which the Lord Jesus did not make him an overseer. Intrusion upon the office of another is even one of the gross sins which render one worthy of suspension!

When office-bearers come together in an office-bearers’ conference, this conference is composed of office-bearers, but it does not have any authority over the churches to which the various brothers belong. The brothers are there because they are office-bearers, but this does not give them any authority over any church but the one over which the Lord placed them. Even when office-bearers from one thousand churches are together, this fact does not give them any authority over any church but “their own.”

It is not any different when brothers have been delegated to form a classis together with the delegates from the other churches in that area. A consistory can never, by delegating certain brothers, give them the right to have authority over another church or over other churches. Nor can a consistory through its delegates to classis exert authority on brothers from another church.

All this apart from the fact that also a non-office-bearer may be delegated to a major assembly. In times past consistories sometimes delegated non-office- bearers because of the use of the Latin language at major assemblies, in particular general synods. In our days it may happen, especially in smaller consistories, that no brother (or only one) is able to go to a classis

|173|

and that a “common member” is sent along as second delegate with complete authorization to be a full-fledged member of the assembly. It may also happen that at the time when the major assembly is held an appointed elder is no longer in office, because his term of office has expired. Yet, his authorization stands and he is fully entitled to take his place as a member of the major assembly.

Inasmuch as this delegate has no longer any special authority in his home church, how could he — by virtue of being delegated to classis — by any stretch of the imagination now have received authority over all the churches in that area, including his own? And is this fictitious authority then supposed to come from Christ? How could one possibly ever entertain such a fallacy!

 

Jurisdiction

In the meantime we are still faced with the fact that Article 37 does not define in any way what this jurisdiction is and what the standard is by which it is to be measured and regulated.

First a few remarks about the word “jurisdiction.” This term is to be preferred above the term “authority,” in spite of the fact that it has been argued that there is not all that much basic difference between these two terms. That there is a difference may become evident from the following. First of all, jurisdiction is more formal and more restricted in its application. It indicates an officially or legally predetermined division of a larger whole, a division within which someone (or something) has the right to rule or decide. “Authority” is less formal and much more general in application. It can indicate an officially determined right to rule. It can also refer to anyone exercising power, whether assigned to do so or not! One can assume authority, one can never assume jurisdiction.

It is difficult to find an expression which precisely defines what the place of the major assemblies with respect to the minor assemblies is. Although in the Latin text of this provision, introduced in 1581, the word auctoritas is used, yet the Dutch text did not employ the term “authority” but used literally “having a say” instead.

Now even the Latin word does not exclusively mean what we understand by “authority.” One dictionary gives, among others, the following meanings of the Latin word: counsel, urging, exhortation, agreement, approval, authoritative example, responsibility, validity, credibility, authoritative opinion, declaration, pronouncement, authorization, influence. One can see, then, that by using the word auctoritas in the Latin text of the Church Order the churches did not necessarily refer to what we understand by “authority.”

It is also clear that within the framework of Reformed church polity there is no room for authority in that sense on the part of the major assemblies, an authority which would demand submission on the part of the minor assemblies, all of which, except the consistories, are only brief meetings and not permanent bodies.

In Article 37 we use the term “jurisdiction.” In this term we find the word “diction,” which has something to do with “saying.” The first word juris means

|174|

“right.” In the given context we would paraphrase the word jurisdiction as: “the right to have a say.” This is also in accordance with the Dutch text where the term “have a say” is used. This expresses what jurisdiction means. Do major assemblies not have the “right to have a say” in certain matters?

Hereby we refute at the same time the claim that there is no standard by which to measure this jurisdiction and we disprove the exclamation that here the churches just use hollow words without saying what they mean. The standard by which that “having a say” is modified and determined is found in the agreement the churches made when entering into a federation: our Church Order.

There are things covering the life of the church that have been literally prescribed in the Word of our God. There are even far more aspects regarding which we have no express Word of God and for which we have to make deductions from Holy Scripture. Who would be able to do this without making mistakes? The churches have realized that the natural corruption of man has not yet been totally overcome and that their thinking and understanding are still influenced and somewhat darkened by sin. They were aware of their own weaknesses and frequent shortsightedness. For this reason they have agreed, within the bond of the federation, to consult with one another, promising in various instances to go by the judgment of the sister churches.

In our discussion of the preceding articles we noted the various points at which the churches have promised to follow the advice of the sister churches. Let us mention a few of these points: ordination or installation of a minister, Art. 5; a minister going to another church, Art. 9; dismissal of a minister, Art. 11; matters which could not be finished in the minor assembly, Art. 30; matters which belong to the churches of that major assembly in common, Art. 30; implicitly a decision on an appeal by someone who complains that he has been wronged, Art. 31. Further on we shall find more such consultation of the churches and their binding themselves to the decision of the major assemblies.

The churches have given the major assemblies the right “to have a say” in these specifically mentioned cases. The jurisdiction which a classis has with respect to a consistory is the same as that of a regional synod with respect to a classis. The same applies to a general synod in relation to a regional synod. What the churches have stipulated here are certainly no hollow words but, on the contrary, it is a provision that is clear and meaningful when seen and understood within the framework of the whole of our Church Order.

It does not have to surprise anyone, therefore, that the congregational meeting is not mentioned, nor the authority which the consistory has over the congregation. In the first place it has to be recalled that a congregational meeting is a meeting of the consistory with the congregation and not a separate phenomenon, on a level with consistories or classes, etc.

Secondly we remember that a consistory has not just jurisdiction in matters which the congregation discusses and decides; it has the authority over the congregation. This authority is essentially different from the jurisdiction the churches have given to the broader assemblies. When the congregation

|175|

submits to a decision by the consistory, this is a matter of obedience. When a consistory abides by a decision of the major assemblies, this is a matter of doing what has been promised.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 38

|176|

Article 38

Consistory

 

In all Churches there shall be a consistory composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders who, as a rule, shall meet at least once a month. As a rule the ministers of the Word shall preside. If a Church is served by more than one minister, they shall preside in turn.

Since it is not our intention in this Guide to give a scholarly treatise on our Church Order, we shall not go deeply into the question whether the churches are correct in their provision that the consistory is composed of the minister of the Word and the elders. Be it briefly stated that this writer is convinced that also in their Church Order the churches should have followed the Belgic Confession as well as the very first General Synod held after the adoption of this Confession, the one at Emden 1571.

In our Belgic Confession we state that we believe “There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; there should also be elders and deacons who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church.” In accordance with this, the Synod of Emden 1571, provided that “In every church there shall be gatherings or consistories of Ministers of the Word, Elders, and Deacons.”

The Synod of Dordrecht 1574, however, introduced separate meetings of ministers and elders on the one hand, and of deacons on the other. Many treatises have been written about the question whether the deacons belong to the consistory, and whoever wishes to write them or read them can find ample material for extensive study.

One of the best-known teachers of Reformed church polity, Dr. F.L. Rutgers, explains this change as having been caused by the circumstance that at the time of the Reformation the deacons also became the administrators and stewards of those confiscated possessions of the Romish church which had become public possessions for the support of the indigent, and that thus the deacons could easily get into a conflict of interest as they were in part accountable to the consistory and in part to the civil authorities. Thus it was more convenient for them to be completely on their own and not to be members of the consistory.

It is to be deplored that the churches did not return to the very beginning once the position of the deacons had (again) become a purely ecclesiastical one. Now it has become so that the term “consistory” refers to the body consisting of the minister(s) and the elders, while the term “consistory with the deacons” is used when a gathering of all office-bearers is meant.

Some churches try to express the difference by using the term “council” when referring to a meeting of all office-bearers and the term “consistory” for the meeting of the minister(s) and the elders. Such practice is not recommended. It introduces yet another term — allegedly to get into line with what

|177|

we confess in Art. 30 Belgic Confession — and can easily give the impression that there are two different bodies: a “council” and a “consistory.” When the terms of our Church Order are used, every one knows what we are referring to. We speak of “consistory” and of “consistory with the deacons.”

According to the terminology of our Church Order, the consistory is composed of the minister(s) of the Word and the elders.

 

Consistory Necessary

This article stipulates that “In all churches there shall be a consistory.” It is an absolute necessity. Again, this is in accordance with what we confess in Art. 30 B.C.

Since we profess this necessity as part of our faith, it might be considered superfluous to adduce proof for it at this place.

Yet it is useful to pay attention to what the Scriptures say about these issues, also with a view to those who believe that office-bearers are not neccessary at all and that a permanent body of office-bearers such as a consistory would be too restrictive for the body of believers.

In connection with another article we already attended to what Paul and Barnabas did, namely appoint elders in every church, Acts 14: 23, as also the charge which Paul gave to Titus, Titus 1: 5.

There are also indications in God's Word that the elders form a body. The apostle Paul exhorted Timothy not to “neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you,” 1 Tim. 4: 14. The apostle actually did not use a plural (“the elders”) but a singular which we could best render by “the eldership,” the combined elders, the body of elders.

Upon his return to Jerusalem Paul “went in with us to James; and all the elders were present.” Acts 21: 17. True, here Luke uses a plural, but from the fact that all the elders were present we may conclude that they acted in unison and not individualistically.

The elders, presbyters, have the leadership of the congregation in the widest sense. It is remarkable that God’s Word never speaks of “elders and deacons,” but of “overseers and deacons.” We find both mentioned in one breath in Philip. 1: 1. This strongly points into the direction of understanding the term elders (in Greek: presbuteroi) as including or comprising both what we call “elders” and “deacons.”

We understand the election of the “Seven” described in Acts 6 as the “institution of the church at Jerusalem,” and we consider it incorrect to call them “deacons.” All we are told of their activity is that they preached. The apostles deemed the time to be there to hand over the leadership of the Jerusalem church to locally chosen office-bearers. From all of the above we can see that the churches are correct when stating that there shall be a consistory in each church. We do not say that there shall be a consistory in every place. In larger cities there may well be several churches, each with its own consistory. The consistory is the only ecclesiastical assembly instituted by Christ through His apostles. This is not to say that any other ecclesiastical assembly

|178|

is contrary to His ordinance. Not so, we are fully convinced that the churches act in accordance with the Lord’s will when they show the unity of faith through cooperation and mutual supervision so that the unity of faith may be preserved.

It would be erroneous to state that major assemblies, too, have been ordained by Christ, and by virtue thereof have been entrusted with divinely given authority, since otherwise their existence and function would be meaningless.

 

When and for What?

Might it still be a vestige from that first beginning of 1571 and from the conviction that, in fact, the deacons belong to the consistory that many matters concerning local church life as well as concerning the federation are dealt with at meetings of the consistory with the deacons? Strictly speaking, there are only very few occasions on which the consistory with the deacons has to make decisions about certain issues. In the preceding part we already noted the nominating of candidates for office and the appointing of those elected, Art. 3; release of ministers who wish to follow up a call, Art. 5, 9; proper support, Art. 10, and dismissal of ministers, Art. 11; release from ministry, Art. 12;-retirement, Art. 13; temporary release, Art. 14; term of office for elders and deacons, Art. 24; equality, Art. 25; then there are also the suspension and deposition of office-bearers, Art. 71; mutual censure, Art. 73.

As everyone can see: the matters to be dealt with by the consistory with the deacons are not all that numerous. In general, not more than one or at the most two combined meetings per year would be required. Yet it is customary to have meetings of the consistory with the deacons far more frequently, usually once a month. At these meetings many more matters are dealt with than those mentioned in our Church Order.

Is this not inconsistent? Why should the deacons be present and co-decide about all sorts of matters concerning local church government — such as budget, purchase or sale of property, evangelization, etc., briefly, all matters which concern the general affairs of the congregation — as well as concerning matters of the federation such as the agenda for broader assemblies, delegates to broader assemblies, mission, etc. — if they did not belong to the consistory?

To us this is an indication of a secret doubt whether the churches act correctly by excluding the deacons from the consistory and of the feeling that they should be involved.

For a good understanding and to prevent wrong conclusions, be it stated here that we definitely do not advocate a practice which would limit meetings of the consistory with the deacons only to those cases which are mentioned in our Church Order. On the contrary, we prefer a complete return to Art. 30 B.C. and the Synod of Emden 1571: with minister(s), overseers, and deacons together forming the consistory of the church.

As long as the situation is such that the consistory is said to consist of the minister(s) and the elders, it will be difficult to determine which matters

|179|

are to be dealt with at meetings with the deacons. Undue delays may result as well when matters may have to be postponed till the next meeting with the deacons.

The churches have the practice that the meetings of the consistory deal only with the matters of supervision, family visits, discipline; and that practically all other matters are dealt with at meetings of the consistory with the deacons. It is an absolute necessity that all office-bearers cooperate and are aware as much as possible of one another's work and difficulties. Meeting together and dealing with the various parts of the work are indispensable means to achieve this.

Art. 38 stipulates that, as a rule, the consistory shall meet once a month. In the early days it was the rule that the consistory should meet every week. This was changed only in the beginning of this century, for not every week are there sufficient points to be dealt with to warrant having a meeting. The brothers can always discuss things, and most likely would have no problem filling two evenings a week; but a consistory is no discussion group and the brothers do not come together “to talk about things.” Time is too precious a commodity for that.

If brothers have difficulties in the execution of their office, a whole evening or, if needs be, more than one evening should be set aside for discussion to try to solve or remove them. But if a brother says: “I would like to have the consistory talk about this or that,” he should be given to understand that he is free to invite all the brothers privately for coffee, but that a consistory is no discussion group and does not provide a platform to “talk about things.” A consistory meeting is convened to deal with specific matters.When this is remembered at all times, the number of meetings will be reduced, and the meetings will be more business-like.

Normally, one evening per month is set aside for a meeting of the consistory with the deacons and another one for a meeting of the consistory only. It sometimes happens that the evening begins as a meeting of the consistory with the deacons, to continue later on in the evening as a meeting of the consistory only. This may open the way to dealing with matters which otherwise would have to be postponed, but it would not be fair towards the deacons if they were called out for just half an hour or so, unless they can schedule a meeting of their own after the meeting with the consistory has been concluded.

 

Announce?

Does it have to announced to the congregation that there will be a meeting of the consistory and when and where it will be held? Such an announcement is not required. In most churches, if not all of them, it is customary to do so. There are various reasons for announcing to the congregation that the consistory with the deacons or the consistory will meet.

In the first place the congregation will be made aware of the forthcoming meeting and be thereby enabled to remember the work of the brothers in their prayers. Further, there may be members who wish to bring certain

|180|

matters to the consistory and know now when the consistory will come together. It is also possible that someone wants to bring a matter to the consistory in person. He is to know when the meeting takes place, although it is always possible to ask one of the brothers when the next meeting will be.

But no consistory should feel embarrassed because it inadvertently neglected to inform the congregation about the scheduled meeting, nor should the meeting be cancelled because of this oversight. All office-bearers must know about it and be informed; the congregation does not necessarily have to be informed.

What should be avoided is that some decisions are made before or after the services on Sundays. Matters should be discussed and decided upon at regular meetings and not during informal gatherings before or after the services. Some brothers may not be aware of the “meeting” and not be present because they did not know about it, and this would invalidate decisions made. Besides, the time for quiet, unhurried and thorough discussions would not be available, because the clock shows that the service is to start, or because the families are waiting for Dad to come and drive them home.

An exception to this is when an election is held on Sunday and all the brothers know that after the election a brief meeting of all office-bearers is held to appoint those who were elected. Not all brothers have to be present at every meeting, but all brothers must know about the meeting.

Here we may raise the point whether consistory meetings are open meetings, that is, meetings at which members of the congregation are allowed to be present. Should the meetings be announced so that the members may have the opportunity to attend? Generally speaking, meetings of the consistory with the deacons may be attended by members of the congregation; meetings of the consistory may not. At the latter confidential matters are dealt with such as reports on family visits, disciplinary action, etc. At the former more general matters concerning church life are the material discussed.

It will be clear then that no non-office-bearer may be present when the list of candidates for office is drawn up or censure of an office-bearer is on the agenda. Confidential matters should remain confidential and should be confined to office-bearers.

If any non-office-bearers are sitting in on the consistory meeting, care should be taken that with the reading of the minutes no matters from the previous meeting are divulged which the non-office-bearer should not hear about. The presence of non-office-bearers may also influence the speaking of the brothers. Some may not feel as free to express themselves as they would otherwise. Besides, it may happen that during the discussion some confidential information is spilled which should not have reached the ears of a non-office-bearer.

For the above reasons presence of members of the congregation at meetings of the consistory with the deacons, although not impermissible, is not to be encouraged.

|181|

Agenda

In many churches it is customary that an agenda is drawn up beforehand, a sort of provisional agenda, which is handed out to the brothers on the Sunday before the meeting. At the meeting itself some points can then be added, as happens at a broader assembly, before the agenda is adopted. Everyone then knows what the points are the meeting will have to deal with, and it prevents that all sorts of matters are raised in the course of the meeting which may interfere with the issues for which the meeting came together. If anyone wants to have something put on the agenda, he should beforehand inform the clerk or whoever draws up the provisional agenda, so that it can be inserted.

This also applies to the concerns voiced at family visits. These visits are frequently used by the members to have the consistory deal with things they deem important. In some instances the point is even brought up year after year so that one gets the impression that the members keep on nagging until they get their way.

When the elders are requested to pass on certain things in their report on the family visit, it should not happen that, when the chairman wants to proceed to the next point, one of the brothers says: “Yes, Mr.Chairman, but what about this concern voiced by the A. family? I like to say something about it;” or “We have to deal with that.”

The point “Report Family Visits” is just that: reports, and not an opportunity to bring in new elements or new business. Apart from the fact that most times the point is merely mentioned without giving arguments for it, there is the possibility that the consistory discussed it before and that no new arguments are adduced. The proper procedure is that the question or request or remark is written down and is mentioned in the agenda for the next meeting. The time set aside for reports is to be used for that purpose. If all sorts of extraneous points are raised and discussed, the rest of the reports may even have to wait till the next meeting, because the consistory ran out of time. This is not only frustrating, it is wrong.

 

Minutes

Strictly speaking, what the clerk is requested to read are not the minutes of the previous meeting but his report on that meeting. Only when his report on the previous meeting has been accepted as correct and has been signed can we speak of the minutes of the previous meeting.

In most cases the president asks whether there are any matters from the minutes that require the consistory’s attention. This point is not an opportunity for one or more of the brothers to re-open a discussion or to declare that, after all, they disagree with such and such a decision; or that such and such a point should be discussed again.

The item “matters from the minutes” covers mandates which were given and of which the brothers want to know whether they were executed and what the result is; further, those matters that were tabled until the next meeting. In all likelihood a diligent clerk or minister did already give these items

|182|

a place on the provisional agenda, but it is advisable to scan the minutes on purpose to see that no unfinished business remains.

 

Incoming Mail

The incoming mail is an item that has dominated many a consistory meeting. One never knows what to expect with the incoming mail. It is no exception that dealing with the incoming mail occupied the larger part of the time available, so that another meeting had to be scheduled to finish the agenda. Next there is the possibility that there will be another letter or quantity of letters which the consistory has to struggle through.

Some consistories therefore put the point “Incoming Mail” towards the end of the agenda so as to make sure that the regular items could be dealt with first and would not suffer because of the stack of communications and the time required for dealing with them. Much can be said in favour of this procedure.

The one receiving the mail has, of course, taken note of the contents and will know whether it will be mandatory to discuss one particular item at an earlier moment. He can advise the consistory accordingly in case “Incoming Mail” is taken note of later on during the evening.

One method to be mentioned here has perhaps as much against it as it has in favour. It is the method of having the incoming mail read by a standing committee, for example the minister and the clerk, with the mandate to prepare an advice for the meeting.

What is in favour of such a method is in the first place that much valuable time will be saved since the discussion is already guided by a draft-reply; and in the second place hasty and unripe formulations are prevented since the reply could be prepared in advance without the pressure caused by the limited time available.

Against this method is the danger that the opinion or stand of one or two men so dominates the whole discussion and the answer to be given that other opinions and ideas do not stand a chance. It is our experience that it is very difficult, if not impossible to change the whole tenor of a concept and to bring in different thoughts, unless the whole concept is rejected and it is decided to come with a wholly new draft. Each consistory has to decide for itself which method to follow.

Consistories also receive many pieces of junk-mail, which should be treated as such. Once the address of the church is known, all sorts of organizations vie for the consistory’s attention and cooperation. Consistories should authorize the one who collects the mail to make such communications disappear before they reach the consistory table. This writer is guilty of causing stacks of letters and brochures to disappear without a trace without the consistory ever knowing that they were in the church's mailbox. Non-ecclesiastical matters should not be permitted to occupy even one second of a consistory’s time.

Even matters which concern the local church and local church life should hot all be brought to the consistory. In practically every church there is a

|183|

committee of administration or management or whatever name they may carry. It has been appointed and authorized by the consistory with the deacons to take care of the finances and temporal possessions of the church. A consistory should honour this appointment and authorization by not taking into its own hand matters which are in the province of the appointed committee. This means that all correspondence relating to finances and temporal possessions, if addressed to the consistory, should right away be passed on to the appointed committee and should not first (have to) pass the scrutiny or acknowledgment of the consistory. The same applies to bills for electricity or telephone or property taxes or repairs to church building and manse, organ and so on. For instance, communications about evangelization should go to the Evangelization or Home Mission Committee.

Not only will valuable time be saved for the work proper of the consistory, but the result will also be that the appointed committees feel that the consistory trusts them and was sincere when it appointed them for this specific task. Receiving proof of trust, they will also endeavour to prove that they are worthy of it.

 

Question Period

Now that we are speaking about the agenda for consistory meetings anyway, we may as well pay some attention to the question period. The time set aside for this towards the end of the meeting often causes the brothers to arrive home far later than was expected when the question period began. The reason is that the question period frequently becomes a period of lengthy discussions or sometimes decisions. The question period is there to ask questions and to receive (brief) answers. No president should permit it to degenerate into another meeting with discussions, proposals, and decisions.

Sometimes the question period is called “New Business,” and this means that a brother can request that a certain matter be put on the agenda for the next meeting.

As for the rest: when a question has been asked and answered, that is the end of the question. Brother B. should not ask for or, worse even, take the floor to speak about the answer brother A. received to his question. The only right brother B. would have to ask for the floor in connection with brother A.’s question is when he is able to provide the answer or to give additional information. Thus: Question answered? Next question. Question Period at 10:45 p.m.? Then closing no later than 11:00 p.m. If the meeting can start at 7:30 p.m., it would be wise to fix the closing time at 10:30.

Three hours of intensive discussions is all most brothers can stand. No one benefits from it when brothers get tired — and perhaps soon irritated because of that — or can no longer concentrate on the issue at hand, because it is getting too late and they have to get up early the next morning to work for their daily bread.

|184|

Press Release

Does the congregation have to be informed about what took place at the consistory meeting? It is not absolutely necessary. It is definitely advisable. Not only will the congregation's attention be drawn to the work that the office-bearers do, and will the congregation become more convinced that there is more to being an office-bearer than filing into the office-bearers’ pews on Sundays and visiting the families in their section once a year, but the congregation will also remain informed about church life in general. Much will depend on the manner in which the press release is worded and presented.

The information contained in it must make sense. No sentence such as: “Letter from a brother; will be answered.” should ever be found in a press release. This is a waste of energy, paper, and time. If the congregation is not allowed to know the contents of that letter or of the answer of the consistory or indeed the matter which the letter touched upon, it is better not to mention anything. Ideally, the press release should be approved by the consistory before the close of the meeting. There may be reasons for doing things differently.

It requires a special talent to be able to write down precisely what the consistory did or decided while, at the same time, listening to the discussions and taking part in it. Not everyone is able to do this and not everyone is equally prepared to take on this task.

For this reason it may be advisable to ask a brother to take notes at the meeting, and to write a press release at home. It can then be written in a much more readable, descriptive style instead of in a dry chronicle-like fashion. Besides, it enables the brother to fully participate in the discussion.

The writer will have to endeavour not to put his own thoughts into his report but to relate truthfully what the consistory did and decided. It may take some practice; it certainly requires self-control, but it is definitely possible.

 

Ministers Preside

Why does the minister have to chair the meetings? We can understand it when ministers have to take turns when there is more than one minister serving that church. The one is not superior to the other and the burdens, responsibilities and privileges of the office are to be shared equally. We have no problem with that. But why does it have to be the minister who presides? Are there not ministers who evidently are ill-suited for such a task, and are there not elders who are eminently suited to lead a meeting successfully?

There are several reasons why this provision should be maintained and honoured. The Holy Scripture points to the position of the minister of the Word when the Lord Jesus commands His servant John to write letters to the seven churches in Asia and when He tells the apostle to write to “the angel of the church in...,” Rev. 2: 1, 8, 12, 18; 3: 1, 7, 14. We also hear that blessed is he that reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and that blessed are those who hear, Rev. 1:3.

It cannot be denied that the minister has a special place in the church he serves. His office is not higher than that of the elders and the deacons; yet it is different. He is the “angel of the church,” the messenger who proclaims

|185|

God’s Word to the flock. It is in the line of his position that he should chair the meetings of the office-bearers. Hereby it is to be remembered that presiding over a meeting should be the opposite of dominating the meeting.

Another argument is that the churches require a substantial education of their prospective ministers. Among the disciplines in which these prospective ministers are trained are the polity of the church, the leadership in the church, and the governing of the congregation. The skill and knowledge thus acquired should be utilized to the fullest.

In general, the minister, because of his office, enjoys the respect and esteem of the congregation. Thus the brothers will more readily acknowledge his rulings when he chairs a meeting than they would if someone they grew up with chaired their meetings.

But practical arguments are not decisive. It could very well be that practically one of the elders is better suited and more knowledgeable than the minister. This would still be no valid reason for taking the chair away from the minister and giving it to that particular elder. It is his position as the “angel of the church,” entrusted with the overall care of the flock, which causes him to be the person marked for presiding over the meetings of the consistory with or without the deacons.

When matters concerning himself are discussed, he should relinquish the chair to the appointed vice-president. There should be no conflict of interest and no one should ever be able to say that he took his own cause into his own hands. This occasion arises when the stipend and benefits are discussed, when at the church visitation questions are being asked about his work, or when remarks about his execution of office are made with the mutual censure meant in Art. 73 C.O.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 39

|186|

Article 39

Consistory and the Deacons

 

Where the number of elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local arrangement; this shall invariably be done where the number of elders or the number of deacons is less than three.

There is an old saying which applies in the case of office-bearers as well: Tres Faciunt Collegium. This means: it takes three people to form a group which is able to discuss and decide upon things. Three people are needed in order to come to a decision in case there is a difference of opinion. This means that, if there are only two elders or two deacons in a church, neither of them can meet as a body to take decisions, unless they always agree in everything and then are right; but to expect this means expecting a miracle which has not been seen since the fall of man. For this reason we provide that in all places where there are fewer than three elders or three deacons the deacons shall be added to the consistory. Also when there are, let’s say, five elders and three deacons, the deacons may be added to the consistory. This is then done “by local arrangement,” as we state in this article. Note: This article does not stipulate that thereby the elders become assistant-deacons or that the deacons become assistant-elders. At times it was stated that this was so, but this reveals a lack of making clear distinctions. When the deacons are added to the consistory, this does not mean that the deacons now accompany the elders when they bring family visits, or that now the elders assist the deacons when they visit the needy and provide them with the necessary assistance. How could one, by way of a “local arrangement,” be (partially) put into an office to which he was not called by the Lord? This article speaks only of the deacons being added to the consistory, not of a mixing up of the distinct offices by local arrangement or of the one doing the work of the other.

This is expressed very well in the Church Orders of two of our foreign sister churches: those of Australia and those of the Netherlands.

We insert here the Australian translation.

Where the number of elders and deacons is small the consistory can, on the basis of local rules, always meet together with the deacons. In that case, matters pertaining to supervision and discipline shall be handled with the advice of the deacons and matters pertaining to the office of deacons with the advice of the elders. This shall invariably be the rule if both the number of elders and the number of deacons is less than three.

Here and there we would have preferred a different term but the provisions as such express the matter very clearly. Elders do not become auxiliary

|187|

deacons and deacons do not become assistant elders: the offices remain distinct one from the other, as it said in the old Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons. This means that the deacons report their visits in the same manner as the elders. It is our experience that also when the deacons were added to the consistory, the elders reported on their visits but that only very seldom the deacons did the same. It seems that even among office-bearers the work of the deacons has to be surrounded by a veil and an aura of mystery and secrecy.

This should not happen. It most certainly is not necessary or even desirable that the deacons divulge the exact amount with which a brother or sister or family is being supported, but when the deacons are added to the consistory, they are to report and to listen to the advice of the elders just as the elders report on their visits and are to listen to the advice of the deacons. This also improves the cooperation between the two offices and prevents that the brothers work alongside each other without the one knowing what the other is doing.

The provision that the deacons shall be added to the consistory in cases described in this article prevents arbitrariness and promotes impartiality, since a larger number of office-bearers judges the various “cases.” The work and the well-being of the congregation can only benefit from this.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 40

|188|

Article 40

Constitution of a Consistory

 

In places where a consistory is to be constituted for the first time or anew, this shall be done only with the advice of classis.

Once upon a time there were flourishing churches in Asia Minor as well as in North Africa, but as a result of the onslaught of the Islam and of their own unfaithfulness as well as through betrayal by those who should have supported them and have come to their aid, they disappeared. One of the last churches to disappear was the one at Philadelphia, to which the Lord Jesus gave this promise: “Because you have kept My word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world.” Rev. 3: 10. It is possible that churches, once instituted, disappear. All members may gradually move away, so that first there are no longer enough brothers to form a consistory and then later on the last one leaves. At one time there was a church at Rocky Mountain House, AB, but one by one the members left for other parts of the country. On the other hand, new churches are formed, sometimes as a result of several members moving into a certain place or its neighbourhood, sometimes because a church becomes too large and the decision is reached to either have a new church formed by part of the membership or split the existing church into two autonomous churches.

Art. 40 deals with the question of classical advice in case a consistory is to be constituted either for the first time, or anew when the trend is reversed and more people move in instead of out. At the very onset it has to be stressed that constitution of a consistory as such is not a classical matter. It is a matter of the believers or of a church in a certain place or area. The only point Art. 40 makes is that such constitution shall not take place until and unless classical advice has been asked and obtained. Alas, it appears necessary to repeat the obvious. No group of believers or church has the right to proceed if the advice of classis is negative. If a group of believers or a church could just say: “We have asked and received advice and now, although the advice was not to proceed, we are going ahead,” the whole provision of Art. 40 as well as of several other articles would be meaningless. In cases in which it is stated that the advice of classis shall be asked before proceeding with certain actions, it is obvious that this advice must be positive and that a church is not allowed to proceed if it is negative. The churches have agreed to this restriction.

Why have the churches stipulated that classical advice shall be asked? Because constitution of a consistory is not something which should be done lightly and hastily. We could envision a situation where enthusiastic members, expecting an influx of settlers in a certain area, want to constitute a consistory even though only four or five brothers are available to choose at least three office-bearers from, making the presumption that, once there is

|189|

a consistory and the proclamation of God’s Word and the administration of the sacraments, more people will be attracted. Understandable though such enthusiasm may be, the outcome could turn out to be a big disappointment and the church might have to be dissolved again after a while because the expectations did not materialize. In this manner the whole constitution could become a spectacle. For this reason it has been agreed upon that classical advice shall have to be obtained. Therein a certain safeguard is given against hasty and unripe actions. Besides, the sister churches in the classis may become involved in the effects of such constitution.

Soon after a constitution, or perhaps even at the same classis where advice is asked, there may be a request for appointment of a counsellor, for classical preaching engagements, and, perhaps shortly after, for financial support in case a call is extended and accepted. Although no classis should ever give a negative advice because of the consequences which a positive answer might have for the churches in that area, the consequences should nevertheless be considered and it must be beyond doubt that constitution of a consistory is a viable undertaking in view of the present situation and further developments. One of the main issues to be considered is whether there are a sufficient number of brothers who can serve in the office of elder and that of deacon — at least three of them — as well as whether there are a large enough number of brothers fit for office who could take the place of the first ones.

Classis should not proceed and appoint a committee to interview the brothers to see whether their number is large enough. It has to go by the testimony of the brothers and sisters and of the consistory that is involved in this development. However, classis should ask for the relevant information and receive a clear answer to its questions regarding said availability. Further the financial possibilities should be weighed, the need for constitution, and whatever other aspect may deserve to be investigated.

It will be clear that here we refer to constitution of a consistory in our own country, not to what happens when a group of believers migrates to another country and has grown sufficiently in numbers to proceed to the constitution of a consistory. In our own country a consistory is involved in a request for constitution, and it is this consistory that passes the request on. A consistory will not do this unless it has convinced itself that the time is ripe for such action. This (neighbouring) church has no other task than that of giving guidance to the brothers and sisters, in case they have already formed a closed group either at some distance or as part of this church. It is different when a church divides into two autonomous churches, although also then classical advice is to be asked. There are various possibilities, to which we should pay attention here.

 

Members’ Request I

In the first place the request for cooperation may reach the consistory from members living at a considerable distance, members whose number has grown to a size which they consider large enough to have a consistory

|190|

of their own. According to Art. 41, they are under the care of the neighbouring consistory, but that congregation will not be greatly affected when a consistory is constituted with that distant group of believers, although for all practical purposes they form a section or ward of that church. Not infrequently one of their number will have been appointed as an elder in their midst, not only to have the oversight over that part of the flock, but also to serve as a liaison between the consistory and this group of believers.

When the request for cooperation in the constitution of a consistory is made to the consistory under whose care they are, this consistory will have to investigate and ascertain whether they can support the request and pass it on to the next classis. Such a request will not come unexpectedly, out of the blue sky, since the consistory will have kept track of the development. Not much of an investigation or discussion may be needed to reach a favourable conclusion. And when the consistory is convinced that there are enough brothers fit for the offices, that the group is financially strong enough to exist as an autonomous church, it will table the request at the next classis.

Upon favourable advice, the consistory can arrange the election of office-bearers. Different methods can be followed. What should not be done is: asking for names to be submitted to the consistory and then, as a consistory, drawing up a nomination from which the brothers of the group can choose as many as are needed. This would mean that a “strange” consistory was going to determine who could be candidates for office. Basically it would amount to a lording it over the group of believers. We may take it for granted that, if one of the group is already an elder, he did not become an elder upon having been chosen by the distant church but by having been desired by the group, although appointed by the consistory.

It could now be arranged in such a manner that the brother’s term ends at the moment when office-bearers are ordained and thus the consistory is constituted. In that case there will be a totally free election for as many elders and deacons as are deemed needed. The brother who is already an elder will be just as eligible as the other brothers, since he ceases being an elder at the constitution of a consistory. For all practical purposes he was an elder of the distant church, be it for the specific section or ward in whose midst he lives. The free election will be held under the auspices of the consistory which has the supervision.

It is also possible that, in consultation with the brothers and sisters, it is decided to let the brother continue as an elder and to choose additional ones in a free election according to the need. However, the former method is to be preferred. Possible objections to the brothers who have been elected are to be brought to the attention of the consistory which has the supervision. There is no other body to which they can be addressed.

 

Members’ Request II

Above we discussed the procedure in case a “faraway” group of believers asks for the constitution of a consistory. Now we turn to a similar request by part of the local congregation. Given the growth of a church, a number

|191|

of members in a specific area may feel the need to establish another church and to split off the local church. Care should be taken that no impure elements or arguments play a part in such an endeavour. Other members should be very hesitant or even shy away from it completely if the move is instigated and strongly promoted by brothers or sisters of whom it is known that they cause or have “problems,” or who are always very critical of the minister or consistory, in which case it is suspected that forming a new church is only or mainly a way of getting away from minister or consistory, just to advance one’s own cause.

Sometimes distance plays a role, sometimes overcrowding of the church building on Sundays. Frequently there is also the consideration that the congregation is becoming too large for all members to become acquainted with one another. When brothers and sisters are sitting beside each other at the Lord’s table but do not know each other so that they might as well have been strangers, even though they look familiar, it is high time to form a new congregation.

What procedure should be followed? First of all, the consistory should be fully informed of any desire for the formation of an autonomous church that may be living among the members involved and should be asked whether it has any objection that the brothers and sisters in a specific area have a few meetings to discuss the matter and possibly come with proposals to the consistory. In all likelihood one or more office-bearers will be living in that area and they can function as a liaison between the “group” and the consistory. If no office-bearer is living in that area, the brothers and sisters should request the attendance of one or two brothers from the consistory. It goes without saying that the formation of a new church should not bring the “mother church” into great difficulties. Although the latter will experience the effects of seeing a part of its membership go, also financially, it should remain possible to continue church life without too many difficulties caused by the loss of a number of members.

At the meetings various aspects should be investigated. The brothers and sisters should be convinced that there are a sufficiently large number of brothers fit for office. The financial aspects should be thoroughly examined. Most likely the regular voluntary contributions will have to be increased for, generally speaking, the larger the congregation, the lower the average contributions. Also with a view to the calling of a minister, the consistory-to-be must be able to count on a certain amount per member. Taking pledges is one way of obtaining a fairly correct estimate what the consistory will be able to count on.

If the church is respecting a borderline with neighbouring churches, a tentative line should be drawn to mark off the area of the new church, although in the first instance no one should be compelled either to join or not to join the new church. Before definite decisions have been made an opportunity should be given to make a free choice. All who are living in the “new” area should be allowed to speak up at the preliminary meetings. Once the plans have taken a more definite form, only those who are planning to join the new church and have signed a declaration to that effect should have the

|192|

privilege of the floor and should be allowed to vote on proposals made. It would not be fair to permit persons who are opposed and are not planning to join anyway, to speak up and cast a vote when they have not, indeed, signified their intention to be part of the new church.

Once all points and questions have been considered and it appears that the undertaking is feasible, the consistory should receive a list of those who wish to form the new church, a realistic budget, and such additional information as may be needed. These particulars are to accompany a request to cooperate in the constitution of a consistory and thus the institution of another church.

When the consistory—which was not unaware of what was going on — agrees with the request, it will approach the next classis for advice. If the advice is favourable, it can proceed.

 

Wholly New Consistory?

There are two possibilities. Both are to be discussed with the members involved, although the final decision is up to the consistory. If office-bearers are living in the area and have declared that they want to join the new congregation, they could be considered as the nucleus of the new consistory, so that all that would be needed is to elect some brothers to make it a full consistory. When we speak of “consistory” here, we mean the consistory with the deacons.

Choosing additional brothers to complement the consistory could be done by a free election in which, as a matter of course, only those take part who will form the new church. It could also be done via nomination by the consistory. The method of “adding to” a nucleus-consistory, or doing it by way of nomination by the consistory is generally not to be recommended. When all things go smoothly, there will be no problems.

But we also have heard the (unfounded) accusation that a consistory was lording it over the new church, because the present office-bearers were elected by the whole congregation and that, if the consistory with the deacons draws up a list of candidates for the respective offices, all the office-bearers decide about who can become an elder or deacon in the new church.

Such accusation is unfounded. The consistory is responsible for the whole congregation until such a time when part of it has become an autonomous church. There could also be reasons why a certain brother is not nominated, because the consistory knows more than the congregation and may be aware of certain impediments with the brother, so that he may not even have a chance of being elected.

Leaving the reasoning followed in the above-mentioned accusation for what it is (nonsense) we would nevertheless advocate the free election of a wholly new consistory. No one can then say with even the faintest semblance of right that anyone is lording it over others, except perhaps the person who makes this allegation.

The consistory determines, preferably in consultation with the members, how many elders and deacons will have to be chosen, and supervises the

|193|

election. If any of the members of the church-to-be has any objection against any of the elected brothers, the address for such objections is the consistory. This consistory has the supervision until the very moment when the new consistory has been formed.

 

Split

There is another possibility, namely that the action is started by the consistory. In case the consistory advises members in a certain area to form a new church, the convening of meetings as mentioned above is done by the consistory. Further things proceed as outlined above. A consistory may also itself work towards dividing the congregation into two autonomous churches.

Most times the situation is such that there are already two distinct parts, possibly each with its own “section-council,” that is, that the office-bearers who take care of that section meet separately to discuss reports, etc. relating to that part of the congregation only. Once a month both “section councils” meet then as the one consistory, or consistory with the deacons. Each section may even be served by a minister. Few difficulties present themselves in this case, but to prevent them as much as possible the consistory should convene meetings with each section or ward, where these things are discussed.

The simplest solution is to declare both sections autonomous as of a certain date, whereby each “section council” becomes the consistory with the deacons of the new church. Even so, it might be wise and advisable to give members the freedom of choice to which of the two churches they wish to belong.

 

“Attestations?”

How is the “transfer of membership” implemented? The manner in which this is and should be done is simply to pass on all relevant information, the “vital statistics,” to the new church. These developments take time, and therefore there is also ample opportunity to prepare a file with all pertinent information which a consistory must have concerning the members, and to pass it on to the clerk of the new consistory.

Attestations cannot be given under these circumstances. We fail to see how one can send attestations to a not yet existing church for persons whose very cooperation establishes this new church. What the new church needs is not attestations but a complete set of records concerning the members who form this church. It is to receive this from the “mother church” so that its administration is orderly right away and so that it does not require many visits to the members and will take perhaps several years before the records are complete, if they ever will be complete, that is.

 

Assets

A difficult, and sometimes sore point is what to do with assets of the church when part of the membership splits off. Generally speaking: when a church splits into two autonomous churches, it is fairest when the assets are

|194|

divided in proportion to the membership of both parts. What should be taken into account is that there are liabilities as well, and that it would not be equitable to split the assets and to leave one part of the original congregation stuck with all the liabilities.

When a part of the congregation splits off to form a new church, matters are different. Any suggestion along the lines of “I have always paid and now I want my share along to the new church” should be farthest from the minds of all concerned. The church is not a company into which we put shares which we can take out when leaving and joining another company. Yet it would be wise and good when the new church is helped along as much as possible to give it a headstart.

Everything will depend on the financial situation of the “mother-church.” In the early years of church life in Canada the need for establishing new churches was recognized and new churches were instituted, but in by far the most instances the “mother-church,” already seeing its financial possibilities greatly diminished by the loss of members, was unable to give them more than a mere token assistance. The situation is different at present. Yet care should be taken that the “mother-church” will not face financial difficulties when assisting the new church.

 

The above contains only the discussion of some aspects and no claim is made that it is complete or exhaustive. Yet it may give some guidance in case the constitution of a consistory and thus the institution of another church is being contemplated.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 41

|195|

Article 41

Places without a Consistory

 

Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be assigned by classis to the care  of a neighbouring consistory.

If there is one thing the provision of Art. 41 does not mean, it is that here we give a classis the right to do what is in the province of a consistory.

A classis is never allowed to do that. What comes to the fore in Art. 41 is the concern of the churches for all who are living “in the dispersion,” so to speak. They want to make sure that no one is neglected, that no one is left to his own resources without any help from the brotherhood. All must be taken care of, and that is the point in this article.

A decision as meant here will not have to be taken very often in our days. When members move to an area or settle in it, quite a distance from the “nearest church,” they usually ask that church to take the supervision over them and give to that church the attestation they received when leaving their previous congregation. Our members know whom to contact, where to find the address, and to approach the church which is “least far away.”

The situation was vastly different in the days after the Reformation. The Romish church did not have elders or deacons in the Scriptural sense. It knew no consistories. And to whom were the wandering sheep to turn? Where could they find food and guidance? Even the persecutions could not prevent that the churches paid due attention also to those who were “wandering like sheep without a shepherd.”

Let us see what already the first synod, the one of Emden 1571 decided.

The ministers and elders of the classes which are under the cross shall diligently investigate in all cities and villages in their area and surrounding region whether there are any who are inclined towards the true religion in order to exhort them to fulfil their duty. Therefore they shall endeavour to gather churches or at least the beginning of churches. In order to execute this the better those classes shall divide the neighbouring cities and villages among themselves, in order that nothing be neglected. (emphasis ours)

Sometimes a minister was sent to gather the believers. Nowadays these ministers would be called “Home Missionaries.” Still, these men are basically not missionaries but ministers sent to gather scattered members and to try to come to the organizing of a church.

The task of such a minister, the Synod of Dordrecht 1578 declared, is to engage the most pious believers to serve him with counsel and to assist him with the administration of the alms. He should also endeavour that his hearers come to making public profession of faith so that, when the congregation has somewhat increased in size, he may arrange for the ordination of elders

|196|

and deacons in the proper way. This is still the aim of the help which the “nearest church” extends.

As soon as possible an attempt will be made to have one or two brothers elected as elder who, nominally, are elders of the church that takes care of the “group.” We spoke of such a situation in connection with the previous article.

We usually refer to such a group as a “House Congregation,” since the brothers and sisters come together on the Lord’s Day, when a sermon is read by one of the brothers. We thereby mean a not-instituted congregation which, however, strives to have as “normal” a church life as possible. In case it becomes obvious that there is practically no growth but rather a decline in membership, the brothers and sisters should be advised and urged to move away to a place where they can participate in regular church life. A situation when there is no proclamation of the Gospel, only mutual edification, no administration of the sacraments except on an occasional Sunday when they have a minister and an elder in their midst, should not be continued indefinitely.

When members move to a region far from one of the churches, this should not be reproved. It may be part of the mandate to fill and to subdue the earth. One certainly sacrifices many things when following this course. There is the impossibility to attend the worship services regularly, to take part in the various activities in the midst of the congregation, to have one’s children attend catechism classes and to have them attend a Reformed school. Such a move should, therefore, be considered very carefully.

But when years go by without any significant increase in the number of believers and when it becomes evident that, humanly speaking, there will never be a possibility of instituting a church, it is not only prudent but mandatory to move away and seek for a place closer to a church. Meanwhile, the various classes are to ascertain that also those who are scattered are being taken care of. The believers need help and guidance. This ought to be given.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 42

|197|

Article 42

Meetings of Deacons

 

When the deacons meet separately, as a rule once a month, to deal with the matters pertaining to their office, they shall do so with calling upon the Name of God. They shall give account of their labours to the consistory.
The ministers shall acquaint themselves with the work of the ministry of mercy and, if need be, may visit these meetings
.

When the deacons were still counted in with the consistory, no such provision as we find in Art. 42 was needed. The trouble started when the Synod of 1574 — which actually was no more than a regional synod — spoke of separate meetings of the minister and the elders on the one hand and of the deacons on the other hand.

Subsequent (general) synods continued on that track. It is clear, however, that the meetings of the deacons are no ecclesiastical assemblies as meant in Art. 29 CO. Their meetings were not mentioned there. Consequently it was deemed necessary to stipulate that, when they meet, “they shall do so with calling upon the Name of God,” although Art. 34 already contained the provision that “The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin and end with calling upon the Name of the Lord.”

Another strange thing is that “they shall give account to the consistory.” Certainly, reporting on and giving account of their labours is not a shame or a humiliating obligation for office-bearers. Ministers as well as elders report on their work, although they do not even get close to revealing all things they did or heard. The consistory must learn that all office-bearers fulfil the duties of their office faithfully.

But where do we find the provision that ministers and elders shall give account of their labours to the consistory? Nowhere. Why, then, such a provision for the deacons? Would this not promote the notion as though, when all is said and done, the office of deacon is somewhat inferior, in spite of all claims and assurances to the contrary?

Why is the provision made that the minister may visit the meetings of the deacons? What is the basis for this alleged right? Does the minister have a special task of supervision over these fellow-office-bearers whereas we do acknowledge that none is higher than the other?

Here are questions to which we do not have an answer, questions which will disappear only when the deacons are again counted in with the consistory, as Art. 30 B.C. has it.

 

Meetings

The deacons are to meet regularly, as a rule once a month. This is important for the effective organization of their work, perhaps even more so

|198|

than is the case with the elders. Giving the necessary support to the members of Christ’s church is something which requires prudence and consultation, particularly so since financial aid is seldom the only consideration.

When the need for financial support is chronic — except in the event of illness — many more factors should be considered and investigated. Lengthy discussions may have to be held to get to the heart of the matter. The deacons cannot do this in five or ten minutes after the Sunday worship services.

Regular meetings with regular minutes should be convened, so that later on decisions can be looked up and consulted for further action. The work of the deacons is too important and serious to be dealt with incidentally. No amounts should be mentioned in these minutes and no unauthorized person should ever have an opportunity to read them. That the deacons conduct separate and regular meetings does not mean that they form a sort of independent body, on a level with the consistory. Even if the deacons were included in the consistory, nothing would prevent them from having separate meetings to discuss the more specific aspects of a certain family’s support, just as nothing would prevent the elders from doing the same.

Now that the separate meetings of the deacons are stipulated in our Church Order, we are to warn against the notion that the deacons form a separate body which might even try to rival with the consistory. The question was raised whether not the deacons should have their major assemblies, but this question was answered in the negative and correctly so. Diaconal conferences were held in the Netherlands (and they still are), but they are precisely what the title suggests: conferences where consultation takes place but no binding decisions are made such as we find at the ecclesiastical assemblies. The office of deacon would be destroyed if the brothers acted as if they were an independent body which, so to speak, takes no directives from anyone but from the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Account

It is a fact that, in fine, the deacons do not take any orders from anyone but Him who made them His instruments for taking care of His needy members. We make no provision either that they shall take them from the consistory. As is the case with the other office-bearers, the deacons, too, are under the supervision of the consistory. For this reason they shall give account of their labours to the consistory.

The meaning of this provision is not that the deacons shall provide the consistory with all the particulars of their work. As already stated above, neither ministers nor elders report all things. Yet it is necessary for the mutual supervision that the deacons report to the consistory in the same manner as the elders do. This means that they mention what visits they have made, what their income was from the congregation, what the total amount was with which they supported members, and whether any special things have to be discussed from their reports.

Perhaps someone might remark that because of such reporting the other office-bearers learn precisely who in the congregation is receiving financial

|199|

support. In the first place: What would be wrong with that? Is it a shame to become known as someone whom Christ takes care of through His ministers? And in the second place: when we recall what was said with Art. 23, namely that the deacons are to acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties, and that they are to promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord, we realize that the deacons visit the members not only when there is financial need. “No one,” we state in the Form for the Ordination, “in the congregation of Christ may live uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty.”

When deacons report on a visit, it may very well have been a visit where no material support was needed or given, but where a brother or sister or family was comforted in illness or consoled in loneliness.

 

Minister

It cannot be denied that a minister of the Word has a special task and position in the midst of the church. This does not at all mean that he has the position of inspector general who goes after the other office-bearers and supervises their work. By virtue of his unique position, however, he does not have a special section or ward as the elders and deacons do, but he has the charge of the whole congregation.

For this reason he shall also acquaint himself with the ministry of mercy.

By talking with the deacons and, if needs be, by visiting their meetings, he may discover things which he was not aware of, but now that he does know them, he is better able to help and assist a family or brother or sister, and can at the same time keep it in mind when preparing and delivering a sermon.

As it reads now in Art. 42, any notion that the minister might be endowed with special supervisory power over the deacons and ought to inspect their work is eliminated. When he visits the meetings, he does so with the sole purpose of acquainting himself with the work of the deacons as well as helping the deacons with his advice if requested. The cooperation between the office-bearers can only benefit from all of this.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 43

|200|

Article 43

Archives

 

The consistories and the major assemblies shall ensure that proper care is taken of the archives.

The history of the church is “made” and “written” by the local churches. It is there that faithfulness or unfaithfulness determines the course. There the description of the history of the church in general begins.

For this reason it is of great importance that all documents and records be preserved and filed in good order. This importance is not realized by a large part of the membership, nor was it sufficiently realized by many churches in the past.

We wonder how many consistories could produce all the minute books that were filled from the day of the church’s institution on. In not a few instances there is a big gap, with one or more of these books having disappeared through negligence and forgetfulness. We then do not even make mention of copies of letters that were exchanged, of Acts of classes or regional synods.

In some instances it is difficult to determine which documents should be preserved for the future. Consistories receive whole stacks of mail, addressed to the church, which do not even deserve to be taken to the meeting and should be discarded right away. We mentioned this before.

Without making any claim that the items that will be mentioned constitute the whole of what is worth to be kept and preserved in the archives, we suggest that the following be found among them.

The minute books definitely should come first. This is not only necessary in order that previous decisions in a certain matter can be consulted if needed, but also in order to prevent that matters which were dealt with before are raised again without substantial and new grounds for this having been adduced. We recall that at least for the broader assemblies a provision for this was made in Art. 33. It would be very beneficial if consistories abided by this rule as well. Further, all local bulletins should be preserved.

Not all communications received deserve a place in the archives. Requests for support from all sorts of organizations may be discarded, as well as invitations to attend functions of non-ecclesiastical or ecclesiastical groups which consider the church to be one organization among many. There are also communications of no historical value from sister churches, such as invitations to attend ordination or installation of ministers, anniversary celebrations, etc.

On the other hand, what should be preserved is any letter or report dealing with consultations among churches regarding differences or matters of mutual interest. If, later on, the matter comes up again, previous consultations and conclusions will be very helpful in either preventing new discussions or shortening them considerably.

|201|

As for attestations, it is not necessary to keep all of them. By far the larger part can be discarded after the particulars such as church from which the member(s) came, their proper names and the dates of birth, baptism, profession of faith, and marriage have been properly entered into the books of the receiving church. The attestations to which this applies are those in which no special remarks are made regarding either the doctrine or the way of life of the member(s).

It seems prudent, however, to keep all attestations in which something special had to be written about the brother or sister, either to elaborate on the “virtues” or to inform the sister church of the “vices” of the member(s). This applies especially when discipline is involved. In that case an attestation should not be discarded so that, if necessary, it can be used for future reference. No objection to removal of such an attestation from the archives appears to exist if the member has passed away. Merely moving to another church forms no reason for deleting the attestation, for the “new” consistory may wish to have more information about the brother or sister's past.

A consistory would act wisely when making definite rules about attestations so that it is not left up to one or two brothers to decide whether or not an attestation should be kept or destroyed.

Classical documents, too, should be preserved. Also in this case, however, discretion is needed. Provisional agendas and convocations to a classis or synod are not necessarily of historical value. On the other hand, Acts and reports are, and should therefore be kept. This applies to Acts and reports of all major assemblies. Also of importance are copies of reports to the general synod, which are sent to the churches by order of the previous synod.

Herewith, however, we have crossed over to the archives of broader assemblies. Although, as noted at the beginning of this section, the history of the church is “made” or “written” by the local churches, it is of great importance what is discussed, decided, and done at broader assemblies. At those assemblies all the churches of a particular region are directly involved and influenced. For this reason it is mandatory that not only the Acts and the correspondence received and sent are deposited into the archives of classis, regional and general synods respectively, but that also the various reports by advisory committees be found therein.

The Acts contain decisions only, mostly with their substantiation in the form of considerations and conclusions. Only the decisions are binding, and for this reason one could argue that various reports which were prepared and submitted either by committees appointed by the previous broader assembly or by advisory committees at the assembly itself might be readily eliminated from the archives, since they are not binding upon the churches anyway. It would, however, amount to a great loss if this was done. Much can be learned from such reports and the way in which the committees arrived at specific recommendations. In case such recommendations are taken over by the broader assembly, the historical value of the reports is even enhanced. We are thankful for the preservation of the various documents produced at the National Synod of Dordrecht 1618-1619 which resulted in the formulation of the Canons of Dort.

|202|

If a broader assembly takes a wrong decision in accordance with the report and recommendations of an advisory committee, it will be easier to point out where the reasoning went wrong when the reports of the advisory committees can be consulted, so that a corrective decision can be prepared.

The reasons adduced above for the proper maintenance also of Art. 43 C.O. may have shown sufficiently why proper care should be taken for the archives. Local churches and broader assemblies all have the obligation to preserve for the next generations what may help them see and understand how the Lord kept His church in times past. What to many may seem a rather unimportant point is, in fact, one of the features of obedience to the command: “Tell it to the coming generations!”

Since broader assemblies exist only for a short time, churches are appointed to take care of classical, regional and general synodical archives respectively. On behalf of the churches in the specific regions the archives are inspected regularly by a church appointed thereto by the latest regional or general synod and reports on their findings are sent to the next regional or general synod, whichever may apply. In the case of classes a report is given annually, usually at the September classis.

It goes without saying that the cooperation of all clerks is mandatory as well as indispensable. Fortunately, in practically every church someone can be found whose great love for and interest in the history of the church is combined with accuracy. It would be a shame if these gifts, which the Lord gave for a purpose, were left unused through negligence and disinterest on the part of the churches.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 44

|203|

Article 44

Classis

 

Neighbouring churches shall come together in a classis by delegating with proper credentials a minister and an elder or, if a church has no minister, two elders. Such meetings shall be held at least once every three months, unless the convening Church, in consultation with the neighbouring Church, concludes that no matters have been sent in by the churches which would warrant the convening of a classis. Cancellation of a classis shall, however, not be permitted to occur twice in succession.
In these meetings the ministers shall preside in rotation, or one shall be chosen to preside; however, the same minister shall not be chosen twice in succession.
The president shall ask whether the ministry of the office-bearers is continued, whether decisions of the major assemblies are honoured, and whether there is any matter in which the consistories need the judgment and help of classis for the proper government of their church.
The last classis before regional synod shall choose delegates to that synod.
If two or more ministers are serving a church, those who have not been delegated shall have the right to attend classis in an advisory capacity
.

A classis “is not a meeting of ‘the classis,’ but of the churches of the classical region.” Thus it is expressed very well in one of the booklets containing a brief commentary on our Church Order. The whole terminology used in Art. 44 makes abundantly clear what we discussed before, namely, that a classis is not a permanent body which meets once in a while, but a meeting, a gathering of delegates from various churches. A classis is held; it does not “meet.”

A classis is a meeting of delegates from the churches in a specific region. It is at the classical level that the church federation begins and begins to be exercised. At the very onset of the practising of the bond it is made clear that there is a basic difference between a consistory on the one hand and a broader assembly on the other hand.

Why is one a member of a consistory? Because one has been called and ordained as an office-bearer of that church. One who has been installed as a minister, elder, or deacon belongs to the consistory because of that very fact, as we confess in Art. 30 B.C.

Why is one a member of a broader assembly, in this case of a classis? Because one has been delegated by the consistory to that assembly. The mandate and authorization of brothers who are members of a classis are given in and with the credentials. Therein their rights and obligations are laid down. Without such mandate and authorization one cannot be a member of

|204|

a classis, even though this classis may give one the right to take part in the discussions. No right to take part in voting may be given to one who cannot submit proper credentials.

This article speaks of “neighbouring churches.” In our vast country this is a rather relative concept. Who would call the church at Winnipeg the “neighbouring church” of the one at Calgary which is several hundreds of kilometers to the West? Yet these churches are in the classical area of Alberta/Manitoba.

What is clear is that we should not act in a haphazard way but observe a certain order and regularity. We will find this also in connection with Art. 51, where we deal with cooperation in mission matters.

Who are to be delegated? The answer is: one minister and one elder per church. If a church has no minister, two elders should be sent, so that each church is equally represented. It is possible that at a given moment in a certain church only one elder is able to go. The next step is then to send a deacon along, so as to ensure equal representation. Even a non-office-bearer may be delegated if only one office-bearer is in a position to be delegated. This is not to be done except in extreme cases, but such a deacon or non-office-bearer may not be refused as a member of classis. With the examination of the credentials the fact of such delegation will be noted, and the brothers from the church concerned will be asked to explain why these men were delegated. But if it is made clear that the church had no other option except coming with an incomplete delegation, or even no delegation at all, the brothers must be accepted as legitimate delegates and consequently as full-fledged members of the assembly.

The matter of “equal representation” would also render it impossible to have a classis be a meeting of all consistories in the area concerned. Ideally such a meeting composed of consistories would make clear that — as it is now — the churches meet by way of their delegates. The result would be, however, that larger churches exercised a disproportionately large influence and could easily outvote and “overpower” the smaller churches. Such would be in total conflict with the very character of our church federation.

Which order is to be recommended for the delegation of elders? Should the brothers be delegated in alphabetical order? Then it could easily happen that someone never gets a turn or that one is delegated right after one’s ordination, perhaps even for the first time. In this manner some brothers might never receive the opportunity to be a delegate. It is better to take the order in which the brothers are ordained. In this manner there is a period of three years during which they most likely will have a chance of being delegated.

If a church is served by more than one minister, the ministers are delegated alternately. It will not happen very often among us that there is a church with two ministers in active service. If this is the case, they are delegated every other time.

What about the wages which are lost by elders when they have to take a day or two days off in order to go to classis? And what about the travelling expenses of the brothers who are delegated? It is a general rule that the cost of wages lost is borne by the delegating assembly. This applies not only in

|205|

the case of a consistory but also with respect to classis and regional synod.

Matters are different with respect to the travel and meeting expenses. Since classes are usually held in the same place, it would be unfair towards churches whose delegates have to travel quite a distance if they always had to bear the largest share of travel expenses. Likewise, it would be unfair if the receiving church always had to bear the cost involved in having to provide meeting room, lodging, and food for the members of classis.

The cost of travel and meeting as well as the cost involved in multiplying the Acts and mailing them to the various churches, and of conducting correspondence as a result of the decisions of the broader assembly are borne by the churches together and defrayed from a quotum per communicant member.

It is wise to set a maximum for claims for lost wages. If one of the brothers is of the opinion that he would have to sacrifice too much by being a delegate to a broader assembly because the amount he can claim is far less than what he would lose on that day, he can ask not to be delegated and the consistory would have to grant him his request. Such a case will not happen all that often, but if it happens, a consistory is not allowed to lay a heavier financial burden upon the one member than upon the other. The brother must be excused.

 

Examination of Credentials

Does a classis exist at the very moment that all the brothers who were delegated are assembled in the room where the classis is to be held? No, not at all. A classis has to be constituted first.

We speak of a “convening church.” The churches of the classical region alternately have the task of convening a classis. The order in which they receive this mandate is alphabetical. To this convening church proposals and other documents for the next classis must be submitted so that it can send a provisional agenda to the churches well in advance. The consistories then have the opportunity, if necessary, to pay ample attention to the points which will be on the table of classis.

It is on behalf of the convening church that the meeting is called to order. Usually this is done by this church's minister or, in case a church has no minister, by the elder who chairs the consistory meetings. A vacant church sometimes asks its counsellor to do it on its behalf. Sometimes one can read in press releases that the opening of the meeting was in the hands of “the chairman of the convening church,” whatever this strange bird may be. This is a misnomer, because no such phenomenon exists in the Reformed Churches.

Even the opening of the meeting with singing, prayer and Scripture reading does not mean that now there is a classis. Before a classis can come into existence the credentials have to be examined and the names of those officially delegated have to be checked against the attendance list which the brothers were requested to sign upon entering.

Examination of the credentials is not a matter of routine, but should be taken and carried out seriously. The credentials should be read by the brothers

|206|

who were requested to examine them and to report to the meeting. These brothers are usually the delegates from the church which was convening church for the previous classis. They shall examine the credentials to see whether these contain any provisions which cannot be accepted, whether the brothers who signed the attendance list are indeed the ones who were appointed by their consistories, and whether the consistories mentioned anything that should receive the special attention of classis.

What is to be done if any discrepancies are found and who is to decide about any difficulties arising from them? Is it the committee formed by the two brothers from the previous convening church? Or is it the brother who called the meeting to order on behalf of the convening church? Or is it perhaps, the consistory of the convening church which was either aware of or anticipated difficulties?

None of the above has the authority to make a decision or a ruling about these difficulties. The decision is solely in the province of and rests with the meeting which has been called to order and opened.

The meeting itself has to decide whether the reasons adduced by a church for delegating a deacon or a non-office-bearer can be considered sufficient. The possibility also exists that, as a result of difficulties in a particular church, there are two delegations, both claiming to legitimately represent the Church at A.'Such a situation is not imaginary. The churches were faced with such a situation more than once. What should be done in this case?

The examining committee will report any irregularity or discrepancy to the meeting. Although all those present from other churches may know all about the situation and for themselves may have come to a conclusion, the question should be dealt with in a proper and ecclesiastical manner. No highhanded action or hasty decision should be permitted.

The question is to be put before the meeting and is to be discussed without participation by the four brothers from the church involved. If necessary, these brothers can be asked for clarification or further information, but the decision whom to admit as the legitimate delegates of the church at A. is to be made by the meeting on well-founded and clearly formulated grounds. One of the two delegations will have to be refused, and this is a serious matter which will have grave consequences for the church in A. These consequences are there also for the whole federation of churches. It is the meeting of delegates which is to decide about it.

We spoke of “the meeting of delegates,” for this is its character before a classis has been constituted. As soon as classis has been constituted, there is no longer a “meeting of delegates” but a classis with members. After the constitution of classis it is wrong to refer to a brother as “the delegate from the church at A.” In Parliament this may be proper, at a broader ecclesiastical assembly it is not. There he is addressed as “Brother A.”

In almost all instances no difficulties have to be reported by the examining committee, and the constitution of classis can take place without delay. If no objections are raised, the brother who chaired the meeting until this moment requests the “suggested moderamen” to take up their respective positions, and once they have done so there is a classis.

|207|

That we speak of the “suggested moderamen” is because it is customary that the various ministers in the classical area take the different positions by rotation. At the previous classis a moderamen for the next classis was “suggested,” following the normal order. Classical regulations are in force in practically all classes. The previous classis could not make a decision in this respect which would be binding on the next classis. All it could do was suggest a moderamen. The convening church, having gathered this information from the Acts of the previous classis, has included the names of this suggested moderamen in the provisional agenda, and the meeting will not lightly deviate from this schedule. It remains within its province, however, to decide upon an election for members of the moderamen if for various reasons such action is deemed advisable.

Again, a situation like that will not occur very often, although the possibility is there.

 

Agenda

The first item to follow after the constitution of the classis is the adoption of the agenda. The agenda which the convening church sent a few weeks before classis is to be held was only a provisional one, listing proposals and documents that have come in until that date. The adoption of the definitive agenda is up to classis. Some items may have been submitted to the convening church after the mailing of the provisional agenda; in addition the brothers from various churches may have brought some more material along; some items may have been inadvertently omitted, or something which should be deleted may have been included in the provisional agenda. In short: no definitive agenda can be adopted before classis has been constituted and before the meeting has taken note of all items with which it will have to deal.

After the adoption of the agenda no new items may be added. As for proposals, etc., the churches should have received them beforehand, so that no surprises are foisted on them. Art. 30 is clear in this respect. It must be stated here that this does not mean that no proposals may be made at classis about points which are already on the agenda. To make such a claim would show a lack of insight into the character of a broader assembly.

If any church member felt the need to appeal according to Art. 31, he or she will have known betimes when a classis would be held, so that there was sufficient time to prepare such appeal and have it on the table of classis before the agenda is adopted. There is no excuse for being late with an appeal.

Certain items will be found on every classical agenda, such as reports, question periods, adoption of Acts, approval of press release, etc. The September classis especially has the point “Appointments,” since committees, examiners, churches, have not been appointed to permanent positions or a permanent task, but only for a limited time, usually not exceeding the period of one year. To some extent we can speak of a standard classical agenda. The contents of the various points may differ from classis to classis.

|208|

Frequency

In essence, the time and place of the next classis is determined by the previous one. In practice, it is standard procedure to set the date for the next classis at three months from that moment. The period between two classes should not exceed three months.

It could be that the need arises to have a classis before the date set. We have no specific arrangement for this, but it is customary that the convening church, upon receiving a request for an earlier classis consults with its neighbouring church and then calls the churches together with sufficient notice.

There are also instances when no full classis is required but when a so-called classis contracta will suffice. Such a classis contracta, as mentioned before, is formed by the convening church and its neighbouring church. A convocation is to be sent to all the churches in the classis, but in this case they do not have to send delegates if they do not consider this necessary. Such a classis contracta is usually convened for the approbation of a call or for release of a minister who accepted a call to a church in another classis. This is and should be done in this manner only when everything is “normal.” In case of difficulties a full classis should be convened to deal with the matter.

What if the convening church has received very little or no material for the next classis? Should a classis be held anyway because that is the rule? Should the churches be obligated to get brothers out of their daily work in order to delegate them?

In the early years after the institution of the Canadian Reformed Churches much had to be organized and built up. The financial means, however, were very limited. In practice once or twice a year a classis was held, at least in Western Canada. Later on this was “legalized,” so to speak, by inserting the provision that a classis should be held once every three months “unless great distances render this inadvisable.”

We may state that at present great distances no longer constitute much of a hindrance and also that the financial position of the churches has improved considerably. For this reason the above provision was removed. It also could have been misused to delay a classis unnecessarily, and this would not make for a healthy situation.

Yet we do take into account that there may not be sufficient material to warrant the convening of a classis simply because the three months are up. It is therefore provided that, upon consultation with the neighbouring church, the convening church may postpone a classis for three months, so that six months elapse between two classes. Such postponement may take place only once but not two times in succession. After six months a classis must be held. Here, too, arbitrariness and disorderly conduct should be avoided and prevented.

 

Chairmanship

As a rule, the ministers shall preside in rotation. This is achieved by having them serve as chairman, alphabetically. In many classes it is so arranged that a minister becomes chairman at the one classis, clerk at the next one,

|209|

and assessor at the one after that, while at the following classes he is not a member of the moderamen at all, until his turn comes up again.

The serving in rotation results in that every minister in the region concerned gets his turn. This prevents that one would get the almost permanent position at a classis and thus would be regarded as a more or less permanent “moderator.” In order to prevent this it is also provided that, in case it is the custom in a specific region that each classis chooses its own chairman, the same minister shall not be chosen twice in succession. No promotion of hierarchy is allowed and, although the one is better suited to chair a meeting than the other, no impression should be given that one is indispensable or that he is the only one who can “do a good job” as chairman.

We have never heard any complaint about this arrangement and have never heard of one who had the firm conviction that elders should also be eligible to serve as chairman. Many elders would not even want to do it and the danger is great that any who would want to do it, are not free from hierarchical aspiration. When ministers shall preside over the meetings of the consistory as is stipulated in Art. 38, it is in the same line that they also preside over the sessions of the broader assemblies.

By providing that no one shall be chosen twice in succession to be chairman of a classis, the churches did not tell the brothers how to vote, but they only wanted to prevent that anyone should serve twice in succession.

The question has been raised whether or not, if a church is being served by more than one minister, also the non-delegated minister(s) would be allowed to serve in the moderamen as per regular schedule. We would like to answer this question by putting another question: “Why not?” One does not even necessarily have to be a member of the assembly to serve as its chairman or clerk. Why then would a non-delegated minister not be allowed to take the chair? He is permitted to attend classis in an advisory capacity, this article states, and there is no reason why he should not be allowed to chair the meeting, although he would not be permitted to take part in voting; however, he is not allowed to do so anyway, not having been delegated.

 

Question Period

A question period — as stated before — is only an opportunity to ask questions and possibly to receive answers. This applies to broader assemblies as much as it applies to consistories. A classis is no exception.

Usually there are two question periods on the classical agenda: a “personal question period” and a “question period ad Art. 44.” As for the “personal question period,” strictly speaking it is there only to ask questions about what transpired at the meeting or about difficulties or uncertainties one may have in specific matters. It should be remembered that this is a major assembly, not a consistory.

The “question period ad Art. 44” is the one mentioned in this article. It is a question period in which not so much the churches ask questions but in which the president asks the churches questions. At least, this is what the text of this article requires.

|210|

Frankly, we cannot see the sense of the first part of the president’s questions. They will have made sense in the early years after the Reformation, when things were oftentimes in a disorganized state. They also may make sense in days of deformation and general slackening, but at the present time and even for as long as this writer has taken part in ecclesiastical assemblies he could or cannot see any sense in asking “whether the ministry of the office-bearers is being continued, whether the decisions of the major assemblies are being honoured.” If it happened in the past that the president did ask these questions, an incredulous look might appear on the faces of several members of the assembly as if the president were pulling a trick on them. To them the “question period ad Art. 44” was only the provision in the second part of this paragraph: do you need the help of classis? The other questions only produced a smile which accompanied their emphatic “Yes!”

That the questions contained in the first half are asked at the church visitation does make sense. There they are in place and there they should be asked and answered, and the latter with more than a simple “Yes” or “No,” which is all that is needed at classis. As a means of mutually taking heed of each other the classical questions are totally inadequate as well as slightly out of place.

The “question period ad Art. 44” also provides the churches with the opportunity to receive help “for the proper government of their church.”

It is at this moment that a church can ask for advice as to how to deal with certain situations as well as whether to proceed or not to proceed with specific disciplinary action and also announce the name of the sinner.

We are to differentiate between “advice” and “advice.” In the one case a church is bound by the advice it receives, in the other case it is not.

Our Church Order provides that in certain matters the advice of classis shall be asked. The above question whether a consistory may proceed with the discipline is one of these cases. In this and the other instances which are mentioned in our Church Order a church is bound by the advice. That is what the churches have agreed upon.

If, however, a church comes to classis and puts one or other difficulty before it, stating that the consistory could not reach a definite conclusion in spite of many efforts in that direction, and therefore would like to have the advice of classis, or if a consistory has come to a conclusion but is not totally convinced that it is the right one and therefore would like to hear the advice of classis before proceeding with the matter, this church is not bound by the judgment or advice expressed. The consistory will certainly keep this in mind when considering the matter again after the brothers have reported on the classical advice and will not but for serious reasons deviate from it. But the ultimate decision is the consistory’s. It does have the right to decide differently.

No consistory should abuse this opportunity by presenting all sorts of questions and “problems,” nor should any consistory come to a classis in order to shirk its own responsibility. It should be remembered that the ultimate responsibility rests with the consistory and that in this case a consistory can

|211|

never hide behind a classical advice or judgment. Even when advice is asked as stipulated in the Church Order, a consistory must have come to the conclusion that it should proceed with the discipline or any other action for which classical advice is required.

 

Delegates

Each year a regional synod is to be held. Such a regional synod is composed of delegates from the various classes in the region concerned. The last classis before the scheduled date of a regional synod is to choose delegates to that synod. By then the provisional agenda for the regional synod may be known, classes may have had to deal with some matters that will be on the docket of regional synod and so can make use of this knowledge when choosing delegates. This could not be done at an earlier classis.

Apart from the fact that it is not possible to choose delegates from each church to go to regional synod, it is not necessary either. At classes each church must be equally represented. At regional synods each classis must be equally represented, not each church. Thus it may happen that from one particular church two or even three brothers are chosen whereas from several other churches none is elected. There is nothing wrong with that, as we may expect that classis looks for and chooses the men it considers most capable and fit for the task.

 

Non-delegated Ministers

The last paragraph of this article at times proved to be controversial. Some claimed that too important a place was assigned to the ministers and that they exercised a disproportionate influence by being allowed to attend all classes and to be there in an advisory capacity.

Everyone will understand that the right to attend classis is more than a right to sit in as an auditor, a member of the audience. For this no special provision would have been necessary. “Attending classis” means being a member of the assembly without, however, the right to vote, which right is reserved only for those who were delegated.

At one time ministers also had the right to vote even when not delegated, but this privilege has correctly been rescinded. They may take part in the discussions and give advice but are excluded from the decision taking.

Not many of the Canadian Reformed Churches will have more than one minister in active service. As remarked before, in cases where this happened, it was in preparation for the division of the congregation into two autonomous churches. Thus this provision does not affect the churches to a large extent. Besides, the number of vacant churches frequently guarantees that the majority of the members of classis are non-ministers, which is an effective counterweight to any influence which a non-delegated minister may have, if we are to speak of “counterweight,” that is.

But what we should avoid specifically in this case is a tug-of-war, as if we were to ensure that a precious balance be maintained. This is not the way in which we are to act in matters of the church of Christ. The provision is

|212|

there, and originally was not inserted without reason. The question is now whether there are compelling reasons to remove it from our Church Order. Thus far no such compelling reasons have been adduced.

Above we spoke of “ministers in active service.” But what about retired ministers? What is their position, and would they have the right to “attend classis in an advisory capacity?” Once again we answer with a question: “Why not?” They are still the minister of the church they served last. No change has come about in their position. The only thing that happened is that they have been relieved of their duties and obligations, while none of their rights and privileges have been taken away. This also means that they still have the right “to attend classis in an advisory capacity.”

It would not be wise to have them serve in the moderamen on a regular basis, since they have been relieved of their duties and might feel obligated to interrupt a trip or visit to faraway regions because their turn comes up to serve at classis. No one, however, can take away any of their rights and privileges.

Herewith it be stated that one’s right to attend classis in an advisory capacity applies only in case it is a classis where “his” church is represented. If he moves to another classical district, for example from Alberta/Manitoba to Ontario South, he has no more rights at a classis in that area than any other church member there except that, being an office-bearer, he may stay and listen to the discussions when non-office-bearers are requested to leave because a matter has to be discussed in closed session.

 

Open to All?

The previous paragraph mentioned the possibility that non-office-bearers are requested to leave the meeting. This is done when classis decides that the session shall be “closed.”

We differentiate between “open session,” “closed session,” and “restricted closed session.” An “open session” is not the same as a “public session.” The latter would mean that anyone is allowed to come in and listen in, regardless of whether he is a church member or not. The churches do not allow non-church members to sit in on ecclesiastical assemblies, at least not on the level of classis or regional synod. They do not know of “public sessions.”

At “open sessions” any church member is permitted to sit in and listen. This is all they are allowed to do and they should refrain from any action which would interfere with the meeting.

“Closed sessions” are those where all non-office-bearers are requested to leave. Such sessions are needed when personal matters are discussed, when advice is asked and given in disciplinary cases, or when for other reasons classis judges it necessary to observe a certain measure of confidentiality.

In extreme cases classis may decide to go into “restricted closed session.” This means that all non-delegates are requested to leave — except ministers who are there in an advisory capacity — irrespective of whether they are office-bearers or not. At the classical or even regional synodical level this will happen only very seldom. At general synods it does happen when professors are to be appointed at the Theological Seminary and all sorts of

|213|

personal matters may be raised and discussed. The fewer persons are involved in such cases, the better it is. It is up to classis to make decisions in this respect.

The Acts of the closed or restricted closed sessions are to be sent to the churches in closed envelope and be clearly marked as confidential. A classis does not have the right to withhold the Acts of such sessions from the churches, for the churches are the final judges. Besides, these Acts do not contain or report on the discussions but communicate only the decisions, and the decisions are to be submitted to the scrutiny of the churches.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 45

|214|

Article 45

Counsellors

 

Each vacant Church shall request classis to appoint as counsellor the minister it desires as such, to the end that he may assist the consistory in maintaining good order and especially may lend his aid in the matter of the calling of a minister; he shall also sign the letter of call.

Art. 4 contained the provision that when a vacant church extends a call, the advice of the counsellor shall be asked. From this provision it is evident that a vacant church should have a counsellor. Such a counsellor is to be appointed by a classis. It is customary that a church which knows that it will be vacant before the next classis, or which has become vacant since the previous one, asks classis to appoint a certain minister as its counsellor. Usually this is the minister of the neighbouring church, although there may be reasons to request appointment of a minister farther away. It is classis which appoints, but it appoints the one for whom the vacant church asks.

It would be wise if a vacant church got into contact with the minister beforehand to see whether there are any reasons why it would be difficult for him to accept the appointment. Counsellorship involves more than just assisting the church in the matter of the calling of a minister and co-signing the letter of call. A counsellor is someone who gives counsel, advice; he is one to whom the vacant church may go in case the consistory has special difficulties or wants to have his advice in a specific case. Thus it may be that a minister would rather not receive the appointment in view of his present work load or family circumstances.

What is the task of a counsellor? It is generally not more than giving counsel, advice, and then only when he is asked to give it. In practice it often was so that a counsellor was expected to conduct catechism classes, to visit the sick and to be available for help in specific difficulties. This was facilitated by the fact that most of the time it was, and is, the neighbouring minister who was appointed.

In fact, a counsellor is not duty-bound to make himself available for these tasks. He may be asked to teach catechism classes, but he may also be asked: “Do you know someone who could teach our youth at catechism classes?” He can then give advice in this matter, although in by far the most cases he will be willing and able to conduct them himself, having received permission from “his” consistory to do so.

In general, a counsellor is there to help and assist the consistory in maintaining good order. This reminds us of Art. 1 of our Church Order, where this expression is found. Thus a counsellor, provided by the church federation, is there to help the vacant church in living up to what has been agreed upon by the churches. Assistance in the work of calling another minister and helping

|215|

the church to conduct this in accordance with the Church Order, together with signing the letter of call is only one aspect of a counsellor’s task.

A vacant church should not put too heavy demands on its counsellor. A counsellor, on the other hand, should bear in mind that he is “only” the counsellor, not the minister of the vacant church. In case he attends a consistory meeting, he should not take the chair unless he is expressly asked to do so in a specific case. He should not undertake anything in the vacant church on his own initiative but only upon a request by the consistory. He should refrain from mingling in the affairs of the vacant church of his own accord or even upon the request of some members. Every activity on his part should be the result of a specific request or invitation by the consistory, for the government of the church rests with the consistory and not with any classically appointed counsellor.

The only time he would be permitted to approach the consistory on his own initiative is when he has discovered that this consistory does not “maintain the good order” in the church of Christ, for it is his task to assist the consistory in maintaining it. As for the rest, it is much better that he hears the consistory say to him: “We would like to hear your opinion, too,” than that the brothers are hampered and annoyed by his frequent comments and interference.

The best counsellor is the one who does not do anything except when he is asked to do it.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 46

|216|

Article 46

Church Visitors

 

Each year classis shall authorize at least two of the more experienced and able ministers to visit the Churches in that year.
It shall be the task of these visitors to inquire whether all things are regulated and done in full harmony with the Word of God, whether the office-bearers fulfil the duties of their office faithfully as they have promised, and whether the adopted order is being observed and maintained in every respect, in order that they may in good time fraternally admonish those who are found negligent in any thing, and that by their good counsel and advice all things may be directed towards the edification and preservation of Christ’s Church.
They shall submit a written report of their visits to classis
.

The institute of church visitation came into existence several years after the reconstitution of the church federation. On the one hand, the Reformed churches were afraid of hierarchical elements while, on the other hand, they were aware of the need to keep watch over each other, not in a supervisory manner, as if they had authority over one another, but in the manner of equals who hold each other to their word and see the need to help and warn one another if the need should arise.

It cannot be denied that sometimes there were hierarchical developments and elements. At times there were “superintendents.” Here and there appointed visitors were authorized to take the oversight over the doctrine and conduct of the ministers in that classis, even to “go and listen to sermons of the ministers, and pay good attention not only to their contents — whether no profane doctrine of human fables or falsifications are mixed with them — but also to the manner of teaching, whether it is edifying and profitable for the people, and whether the ministers are diligent in the reading and studying of the Holy Scriptures; whether also the ministers are using the Form for the Administration of Baptism according to the determined order of the churches.”

Shortly after the Reformation the situation in many churches was chaotic, to put it bluntly. Many ministers, if there was a minister, that is, were ignorant, and this was of great concern to those who were able and desirous to have the churches follow the course which was according to God’s Word. Thus we can understand that ways and means were sought to correct deficiencies and to remove wrong elements in the various churches. Apparently it was sometimes thought that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures. As a result things were done which were not in accordance with truly Reformed church polity. We do not take this ill of the brothers; we only should not become guilty of it in our days now that church life is well organized; nor should we appeal to such practices in order to

|217|

defend similar deviations in our days. What our forefathers did is not decisive but what the churches have agreed upon is.

On the other hand, it would be incorrect as well as unfair to derive from the mistakes in the past an argument which is supposed to prove that church visitation as such is an hierarchical phenomenon and should be removed from the Church Order and from the churches. That visiting ministers sometimes took the chair, demanded that they co-sign the minutes of the meeting, and acted as superintendents, appeared unannounced and showed little or no respect for the autonomy of the church and the authority of the consistory is no valid reason to condemn the institution as such. If conducted properly, it is useful and many a time has yielded great benefits for the churches.

During the first years after the Reformation the mutual supervision was done at classis. The purpose of the now superfluous questions mentioned in the third paragraph of Art. 44 was to find out whether the various consis­tories lived up to the common accord. Classes were held in the various churches on a rotating basis, and this enabled the brothers to “check up” at the place itself.

The questions asked at classis were also more numerous than the ones retained in Art. 44. From one article in the past we quote the following. “After the president has offered prayer, he will ask everyone separately whether in their congregations they have the regular meetings of the consistory, whether the Christian discipline is maintained, whether they are being attacked by any heresies, whether they are not having any doubts regarding any part of the Christian doctrine, whether good heed is taken of the needy and the schools, and whether for the good government of their churches they need the counsel of help of the brethren, and other similar matters.”

All these questions are asked at our present church visitations. Sometimes various classes have drawn up a complete set of “Regulations for Church Visitation.” This is all right as long as it is only a guide for the visitors, not a list of questions by which they are bound or to which they are restricted.

This writer recalls that in his early years in the ministry the consistory received a printed list of questions to which the answers were written down. At the church visitation, the visitors read the questions, the chairman read the answers, and that was mostly it. Time and money could have been spent in a much better way.

Church visitation is in essence this, that representatives of the churches come to inquire whether this sister church maintains the faithfulness to the covenant of the churches by living up to the adopted order. Any church visitor who goes beyond this assumes an authority which he does not possess and which no one, including a classis, can give him.

 

Who?

Who are to be appointed as church visitors? During the earlier years after the institution of the Canadian Reformed Churches it was almost customary to have all ministers involved in this work of church visiting. The reason for this was not only that, generally speaking, the ministers all belonged to

|218|

the same age group, but also that the distances and the financial possibilities of the churches made it necessary to use time, manpower, and finances in the most economical manner. For this reason it was also stipulated in earlier redactions of our Church Order that church visits were to be made each year “unless the great distances render this inadvisable.” This provision has been dropped for obvious reasons.

Gradually, with the arrival of younger ministers and the resulting age-gap more as well as less experienced ministers appeared. Without wishing to claim that those who are most experienced are also the ones who are most able, the churches have maintained this terminology. In previous redactions the adjective “oldest” was also used. And although Scripture teaches us that wisdom is with the very aged, the churches mention only experience and ability. These are the qualities for which a classis is to look when it has to appoint church visitors.

When ministers visit a church according to Art. 46, they may be faced with difficult situations and may have to answer difficult questions for advice. For one who has been a minister for only a relatively short time it will be harder to give an answer which does not worsen the situation but improves it. An experienced minister may have faced similar situations in the past and will be in a better position to deal with the questions. Experience and ability may not always go hand in hand, yet they are often each other's faithful companions.

At least two brothers must be appointed to this task. Also at the classical level care is to be taken that the burdens are as equally divided as feasible. To lay the whole burden of visiting all the churches in the classis on the shoulders of two men would be unfair towards the brothers as well as towards their churches. Besides, neither of the two would be in a position to visit the church he serves, and already for this reason a third one would be needed.

It would appear that a minimum of four ministers will be needed to come to some fair arrangement. These four can then divide the churches evenly among themselves, taking also into account distances and possibilities.

 

When?

Article 46 stipulates that “each year” classis shall authorize some ministers to the task of visiting the churches. This shows that there is no such thing as a permanent position of church visitor. The appointment is for one year, and the visits should be made within that period. Once the visitors have visited a church, their task towards this church has been completed. They have fulfilled their mandate, and need new authorization if they are to visit that church again.

Church visitors do not form a committee of permanent supervision or even supervision for a whole year. They are appointed and authorized for a specific task: to visit each church before the classis one year from the date of their appointment. Have they been appointed at the September classis of 1989, then their mandate expires at the September classis of 1990, and if the September classis of 1990 should fail to appoint church visitors, there are no more church visitors in that classis.

|219|

Sometimes a consistory asks the appointed brothers to come and advise the consistory after the regular, yearly visit has been brought. This is not impermissible, although a consistory would do better if they requested the next classis to appoint a few brothers for a special church visitation. Asking the same brothers to return could easily lead to considering them to be a committee which has a mandate that covers a whole year. They have the mandate to “visit the churches in that year,” but not to be “year-long visitors.”

Occasionally it happened that church members approached the brothers with a request to have a meeting with them to discuss difficulties and to help them with advice. At times the brothers even complied with such a request. Such action was totally wrong in every respect, on the part of the members as well as on the part of the visitors. Visits to a church are made where the church is, that is the consistory. We speak in this manner in Lord’s Day 31, where we confess that unrepentant sinners are to be “reported to the church, that is, to the elders.” No visitor has the right to bypass those who have been clothed with authority in that church.

Likewise, a consistory would do wrong by giving permission to the visitors to meet separately with one or more members who wanted to discuss matters with the visitors without the consistory. If anyone wishes to discuss anything with the church visitors, this is to be done at the visit to the church, that is, at the consistory meeting.

Visitors are not appointed to function as a committee of advice to which consistories as well as individual members can appeal for help; they are appointed to visit each church once in the course of that year to enquire whether the conditions for the bond of churches are being kept faithfully. Usually such visits are announced once or twice to the congregation. The purpose of these announcements is to enable anyone who has something to put before the church visitors to do so.

This “something” is not just any question or difficulty the brother or sister may have. Only in case a member has been unable to solve a controversy with the consistory is he allowed to bring it to the attention of the visitors, to ask them to advise the consistory in his favour. In this manner difficulties may be solved within the local church and thus it may be prevented that the sister churches become involved via an appeal.

Does it need any proof that such a member is to inform the consistory beforehand both of his intention to come to the meeting and of the nature of his complaint against the consistory? We do not think so.

When the word “authorize” is used in this article, any intimation that the brothers have received authority over the churches is totally absent. What a classis itself does not have it cannot give to any whom it deputizes either. The word “authorize” simply means that the brothers do not come on their own initiative or because of any personal privilege, but that they have received the mandate to bring the visit and thus come on behalf of the sister churches.

 

What?

A visit by church visitors should not be seen as being on a level with the family visits which the office-bearers bring within the congregation. The

|220|

office-bearers come with authority, the church visitors do not, even though they have received the right to visit the churches.

Church visitors could be sent and must be received because the churches have agreed that also in this manner they shall take heed of one another and see to it that each and every church abides by the adopted Order. Visitors do not have the right to pry into every aspect of local church life.

This also determines what they ask and the manner in which they ask it. Their guide for their visit and questions is to be the adopted Church Order. When they apply this Church Order, they will touch upon every aspect of the life of each church, and will discover whether this church is faithful to its promises or not. And if it appears that here and there something is lacking, they will “in good time fraternally admonish those who are found negligent in any thing.” This “fraternal admonition” does not come with divinely given authority as is the case when the office-bearers visit the members of the church, but it is the brotherly reminder of what has been agreed upon and the pointing out of the obligation to keep one’s promises.

For this reason we say that “by their good counsel and advice all things may be directed towards the edification and preservation of Christ’s church.”

In the case of “brotherly admonitions” by office-bearers it would be wrong to speak of “counsel and advice.” Although the term “counselling” is being used more and more for the visiting, admonishing and exhorting by the office-bearers, we should reject this term in this connection. It is too neutral, too superficial, and leaves too much freedom to the one who is its object. Office- bearers come with God-given authority and they should not be degraded to persons who just “counsel.” Counsel can and may be rejected; admonitions and instruction by the office-bearers may not.

When it concerns church visitors, however, the term “counsel and advice” is well in place. The final decision is always up to the consistory.

It is important that the “fraternal admonitions” are given “in good time,” that is, at such a moment when the least harm has come from the negligence, and to prevent any future harm resulting from it. Early warnings may cause an early awakening to the dangers.

Perhaps the visitors cannot give a well-considered advice right away. In this case they will ask the consistory to give them time to think things over and to receive them again at a later date, as soon as they are ready with their discussions together and have come to a conclusion. They may have to study the matter for a few days or even a few weeks.

The importance of such early warnings and exhortations should be stressed not only for the church concerned but also for the sister churches. If things go wrong in the one church, this unavoidably spills over into the other churches and the sooner it can be discovered and “cured,” the better it is for the whole federation. Besides, churches live within one federation and must be able to trust each other fully, so that, for instance, attestations can be trusted and members can be accepted on the basis of the attestations they bring along. The minister of one church is allowed to proclaim the Word and to administer the sacraments in the sister churches as well, and this, too, shows the importance of reliability and mutual trust. Visitors have an important task in this connection.

|221|

This is not to say that, when suspecting or hearing that there is negligence and deviation in a particular church, the appointed visitors would be permitted to go and start an investigation on their own initiative. They may ask the consistory to receive them on a certain date for the visitation for which they have been appointed; as for the rest, if they are to be involved at all, they may go only when the consistory asks them to come.

As for the purpose of church visitation, we state that “all things may be directed towards the edification and preservation of Christ’s church.” Here we are justifiably inclined to understand the singular “Church” as referring to the church in its federative existence.

 

Report

“They shall submit a written report of their visits to classis.” Although this report is to be submitted to a different classis than the one which appointed the visitors, it is classis to which they are to report. Committees are always to report to the next assembly of the same nature as the one which appointed them. The obligation to report shows that the brothers did not visit the churches on their own authority, but that they received the mandate to do so. Now they are to show that they fulfilled their mandate and in what manner they did so.

What are these reports to contain? Certainly not all things which were discussed at the visitation or all possible difficulties which the visitors were asked to give their advice in. If, for example, a brother or sister came to present a case which he or she had with the consistory, visitors may mention in their report that there was a brother or sister who wanted to be heard, and that the visitors advised the consistory in this matter; but they are not allowed to mention either what the case was or the advice which they gave.

In the first place it still has to become clear whether, after they gave their advice and the consistory considered it, the matter could not be solved within the consistory; and in the second place it was the very purpose of dealing with the matter at the local level that it should be solved within the local church. Thereby the consistory endeavoured to prevent the matter from reaching and involving the sister churches. Should the visitors describe in their report what the difficulty was and the advice they gave, it is almost certain that the classis to which they report will begin to discuss the matter and make a pronouncement about the correctness or incorrectness of the advice given. The rest can be predicted.

In their report visitors are to make clear that they fulfilled their task. They certainly may mention faithfulness found with the church they visited, and give examples of it. Who would not wish to rejoice when it is evident that the Lord blesses His churches richly and that the fruits of the Spirit are evident, for every one to see? They may also mention the fact that on some points they had to urge the brothers to be more diligent, and that their advice was asked in some difficult cases, but they are to refrain from reporting in such a manner that classis receives an opportunity to discuss things which are not legitimately on its table but about which it heard via the report of church visitors.

|222|

What they may and should report is having found the consistory negligent in any point of the adopted Order and whether steps will be taken to remedy the situation so that the churches may know: we all continue in faithfulness to the Lord.

It might happen and did that a consistory brought a matter to classis because it disagreed with the advice given by visitors. This would be unwise and even wrong. The advice of church visitors is not binding upon a consistory. As brothers among the brothers they have tried to offer advice and help to the best of their ability; now it is up to the consistory to see whether it can work with the advice and solve the matter. A consistory would do wrong to ask classis whether it approves or disapproves of the advice of visitors, and a classis would do wrong to accede to such a request.

Should a copy of the report to classis be given to the church concerned? It is not really necessary, as the brothers from that church will hear the report at classis and, since it is not a report to the church(es) but to classis, no obligation exists to send a copy to any church. Visitors are definitely permitted to give a copy, but it would be advisable to give it at classis to the brothers from the church concerned instead of sending it beforehand to the consistory. The assembly to which the report has to be made should hear it first. This is just proper procedure. If visitors misrepresented certain points, the brothers from the church involved will be sufficiently informed to make a correction on the spot.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 47

|223|

Article 47

Regional Synod

 

Each year some neighbouring classes shall send delegates to meet in a regional synod. If there are two classes, each classis shall delegate four ministers and four elders. If there are three classes, the number shall be three ministers and three elders. If there are four or more classes, the number shall be two ministers and two elders.
If it appears necessary to convene a regional synod before the appointed time, the convening Church shall determine the time and place with the advice of classis.
The last regional synod before the general synod shall choose delegates to that general synod
.

Usually the geographical or political boundaries are followed also in ecclesiastical respect. Thus the term “provincial synods” was sometimes used in the past. We also find the term “particular synod,” since in some instances such a synod comprised either churches from more than one province or only part of the churches in one province. Our Church Order uses the term “regional synod,” as the churches represented at these not-general synods are situated in more than one province. Even churches in the United States are included: the American Reformed Churches.

As is the case with a classis, so a regional synod is a meeting which is convened to deal with a specific agenda, and not a more or less permanent body which meets once a year. It may seem superfluous to do so, but it has to be repeated that it is wrong to state that “regional synod will meet at such and such a date.” A regional synod is held, it does not “meet,” although there may be several sessions, depending on the size of the agenda.

Churches do not individually send delegates to a regional synod but the various classes do. Article 44 spoke of this. No one should wonder, therefore, why from certain churches no one has been delegated.

A regional synod is held each year. Although no specific provision has been made about cancellation or postponement of a regional synod, as was the case with a classis, it is possible that the convening church has to come to the conclusion that not a sufficient number of items has been submitted which would warrant convening a regional synod at this time. Must we then insist that it shall call one anyway because it is time for one? Or should it be possible, on the analogy of Article 44, that the convening church obtain advice from classis or from two neighbouring churches and postpone a regional synod? Frankly, we hesitate to mention the possibility and realize that it is dangerous to do something “on the analogy of...,” and we do not wish to go any further than mentioning it. But what should also be considered is the cost in time and money involved in having a regional synod.

|224|

It is sometimes said that if no major assembly is held at the scheduled date but if it is postponed, we deprive members of the possibility of having their appeal heard. However, major assemblies are there in the first place for the benefit of the churches, not of church members who do not accept the verdict of classis on their appeal. We should not reason from the assumption that there will be appeals or that members will not heed the warning of Article 31 that they shall accept what was agreed upon by a majority vote and that they shall consider it settled and binding. Besides, it happened more often that an appeal was denied than that it was granted. The life and assemblies of the churches should not be dominated by real or alleged appeals.

For the orderly functioning of the federation it is advisable that broader assemblies, including regional synods, are held at the times agreed upon. This means that a regional synod is held every year. As is the case with classes, so it is with regional synods: the churches are appointed as convening church on a rotating basis: in alphabetical order, alternating between classes. Thus the burdens of this task are shared. The cost of convening the meeting is not shared, for each church in turn is responsible for it. The cost of the regional synod itself as well as that incurred as a result of its decisions is paid from the regional-synodical treasury.

No provision has been made concerning the place where a regional synod shall be held. It is up to each regional synod to determine the place where the next one will be held. Although it would not be wise to have a regional synod always in the same place, it would not be prudent either to choose a very remote church as the place where it is to be held. Choosing a remotely situated church might have in its favour, however, that the brothers and sisters there receive the opportunity to experience the bond also in this manner and to become more acquainted with this aspect of church life, although it remains to be seen how many of the members there would be able to sit in on the sessions. What should also be taken into consideration is the time it takes for the delegates to reach that place and the cost involved. It would not be prudent to convene a regional synod, or a general synod, for that matter, in Laurel, MD, or Lower Sackville, N.S.

When there are only two classes, four ministers and four elders are to be chosen. Calculations show that a regional synod never consists of fewer than sixteen members. Two classes choose sixteen brothers, three classes will result in eighteen brothers being sent, while four or more classes will yield sixteen or more delegates. Broader assemblies should consist of a sufficient number of members to ensure that not just a few brothers decide everything. This applies especially when matters that were dealt with at a classis are brought to a regional synod. In this event there should be a sufficient number of brothers who originally were not involved so that they can have their input as well. On the other hand, major assemblies should not be too bulky or unwieldy. Large numbers lengthen their duration and do not contribute to efficiency or fruitfulness.

Remarks made in connection with Art. 44 and other articles render it unnecessary to say more about the present article.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 48

|225|

Article 48

Deputies of Regional Synod

 

Each regional synod shall appoint deputies who are to assist the classes in all cases provided for in the Church Order and, upon the request of the classes, in cases of special difficulties.
These deputies shall keep proper record of their actions and submit a written report to regional synod, and, if so required, they shall give account of their actions.
They shall not be discharged from their task before and until regional synod itself discharges them
.

Previous articles of the Church Order mentioned “deputies of regional synod.” Now we are going to see who they are and what their task is.

For all practical purposes it is much more convenient for a church federation to have a central board that can make all sorts of decisions when this is required. The Reformed “system” of church government has been called the most impractical one in existence. This would be so if one holds that church life finds its essence in what the totality of the churches in a certain country does, pronounces, declares, or proclaims. Given these circumstances it would be necessary to have a central and permanent body which can meet at any given time and make decisions as required.

But the Reformed Churches have no need of a permanent board or committee which can meet at any moment and give leadership. In the Reformed Churches the decisions are made and the course is determined at the local level, in and by the autonomous local churches. It does not hurt or bother them that there is no general or regional board to which they can turn in time of need, neither does it inconvenience them.

Yet there are instances when the help of the federation is needed. Instead of convening a broader assembly for a specific case, something unnecessary and impractical as well, the churches have agreed that in various cases they shall be represented by deputies, brothers who have been appointed to act on behalf of the federation where this is required by the Church Order as also when a classis may feel the need to consult them in specific difficulties.

These brothers do not form a permanent committee which acts as a sort of “synodical committee” such as the churches sometimes knew in the past, and such as others outside the churches still have, but these brothers are appointed for a set period to a well-defined task.

For this reason it has been stipulated that “each regional synod shall appoint deputies.” That it is said “each regional synod” shows that the mandate

|226|

of the brothers is valid only till the next regional synod, for the next regional synod (“each regional synod”) will appoint others in their place. And even if the same persons are appointed by the next regional synod, this does not make any basic difference. In principle, they are new deputies as their mandate expired when the regional synod discharged them of their duties.

Why do such deputies have to be appointed? Because the churches have agreed that the federation shall be involved in specific instances. There is the peremptory examination of candidates, Art. 5. Deputies of regional synod are to attend these examinations and advise classis about the candidate’s acceptability or non-acceptability into the ministry. By way of this cooperation a brother receives the right also in the other churches of the federation to proclaim God’s Word and to administer the sacraments. Without this involvement the brother would have these rights only within the classis where he was examined.

The same deputies are also to advise in the admission of persons who only recently have come to the profession of the Reformed religion, Art. 7, as well as with the dismissal of a minister, Art. 11, approval of their taking on another vocation, Art. 12; retirement of ministers, Art. 13; and the deposition of ministers, Art. 71.

In all these instances they represent the wider federation, as the federation is directly affected by the actions which are described in these articles.

Although the brothers do not form a “committee to solve difficulties,” they may be called in in case there are difficulties. It is in line with what the above-mentioned articles deal with that the intent is not such difficulties that are of a general nature, but those that have or may have consequences for the federation of churches. The regional-synodical deputies are not the equivalent of what church visitors are at the classical level.

Being servants, these deputies will have to report on their activities to regional synod. After a year their mandate has come to an end, and they are to show how they fulfilled it. They are to submit a written report to regional synod. If regional synod upon receiving and reading this report deems it necessary to ask of deputies that they clarify and/or defend their actions, they are to appear and give account, if it cannot be done in any other way. Owing to the rather short duration of a regional synod it is almost unavoidable that in such a case the deputies will have to appear in person.

As for the number of deputies, usually at least two are appointed from each classis with alternates. Appointees from the same classis where, for instance, a peremptory examination takes place cannot be said to represent the wider federation, even though they were appointed by regional synod.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 49

|227|

Article 49

General Synod

 

The general synod shall be held once every three years. Each regional synod shall delegate to this synod four ministers and four elders. If it appears necessary to convene a general synod before the appointed time, the convening Church shall determine the time and place with the advice of regional synod.

The general synod shall be held “every third year.” That is how it is phrased in the Latin text of the Church Order. It should not be the second or the fourth year, but the third year.

Various ecclesiastical bodies have an annual general assembly or general conference or general synod. The Canadian Reformed Churches have a general synod only once every third year. To have one more often would not only lay a heavier financial burden upon the churches, it would also lead to considering a general synod a sort of permanent board. Increased frequency would result in general synods taking more and more matters and activities into their sphere, with all the disastrous results of this. We can see it when reading the Acts or Proceedings of various annual general assemblies or general synods. The importance and function of regional synods is thereby diminished. In some instances regional synods are simply not there. There is no need for them as there is an annual general assembly.

The Canadian Reformed Churches still maintain that the essence and center of the life of the church is to be sought in the local churches and that broader assemblies, although useful and beneficial where they are assigned their proper place, cannot add anything which is not already there. They also are convinced that the broader the assembly, the fewer the matters that should be dealt with by them, as may be recalled from our discussion of Art. 30.

Once every third year a general synod is to be held. When, therefore, a general synod determines the time of the next one, it should take care that the date for the next general synod is fixed at no more than three years hence, give or take a few months. What happened in the past, namely, that a general synod added matters to its agenda over a period of three years and then decided that the next general synod should be postponed for a year, was completely un-Reformed in more than one respect. We are referring here to events in the Netherlands.

The various classes send delegates to a regional synod; delegation to a general synod is done by regional synods. Although there is no rule for it, usually the good custom is observed to choose the brothers equally from the classical areas. This is not done to give all areas “equal representation,” for the brothers represent no one else but the churches. This equal representation is done in order to show that indeed all the churches are involved when a general synod is held. It is impossible to have a brother from each and every

|228|

church sent to general synod; besides, the most able and knowledgeable brothers should be sent, and these qualifications are not determined by the question of which church one is a member. Yet care should be taken that as much as possible the delegation is taken from the various districts.

Four ministers and four elders comprise the delegation from each regional synodical district. At present there are two such districts, so that a general synod has sixteen members. Even if, at some time in the future, the Canadian Reformed Churches should have three such regional synodical districts, it still will be better to leave the number at four plus four, which will divide the workload at general synod more evenly and might even make for shorter general synods. However, at the moment it does not appear that there is any prospect of having an increase of that kind.

When a regional synod chooses delegates to general synod, it is not restricted in its choice to those who are members of that regional synod. Not every elder at regional synod may be able to be absent from home and work for the whole duration of a general synod, and although it is to be preferred that such are delegated as are at regional synod and have taken part in the discussions there, it is not an absolute requirement and it may be necessary to choose others.

Frequently the members of regional synod are asked who of the local office- bearers could be delegated. The names are mentioned and a list is prepared from which four brothers and their alternates are to be chosen.

There are serious drawbacks connected with this method. Several members of the regional synod may not know the brothers but go by the number of votes someone collected in the first round of balloting. Others may remember having seen and heard a brother once or twice at a classis, and, because of the favourable impression at that time, may decide to vote for the brother. Again others may remember having heard the name of a brother being mentioned in the past more than once, and conclude from this that he must be capable.

It is our experience that the election of elder-delegates takes quite a few ballots and that, in the end, sometimes in what appears to verge on desperation, it is decided to take the ones who collected the most votes as delegates and their alternates. Thus it could happen that one became an alternate and so perhaps even a member of general synod, although he received only five or six votes of the sixteen. We remember the puzzled looks on the faces of members of regional synods and the shrugging of shoulders when they looked over the list from which they had to choose the elder-delegates.

Should not a better method be sought and introduced? The question usually asked is: “Who from your congregation would be able to go to general synod?” The result is a list of brothers whose only known qualification is that they will be able to break away from family and work for up to four weeks, but nothing is said about their ability, their insight, their knowledge, their being familiar with all that is going on in the life of the churches. Thus sometimes brothers were chosen who had the reputation of being pious, God-fearing, and faithful men in every respect, but whose only asset at a general synod was that they were there and voted on the various proposals.

|229|

They contributed very little if anything to the discussions and were of little help in preparing matters for discussion at the various sessions.

Could a solution not be found in inquiring of the brothers not only whom they know that could go from their own or from another congregation, but also whom they would recommend and for what reason? True, then only brothers from those congregations that have members in regional synod might be mentioned, and there might be a large personal element in the presentation of certain names. But in the first place, the mentioning of names would not necessarily be limited to one's own congregation, and in the second place the members of regional synod would have something more substantial to go by than the simple “Brothers A., B., and C. would be able to go.” It is better to have something than to have nothing at all.

 

Convening Church

The convening church for a general synod is appointed by general synod. It knows that it has to convene a general synod three years after the previous one. It is to determine the time and place with the advice of regional synod if a general synod is to be convened before the scheduled date. For the regularly scheduled classis, regional or general synod we have made a provision in this respect in Art. 34. It is to be deplored that the latest general synod deleted the provision that a general synod can be convened if, according to the judgment of a regional synod, this appears necessary. Now we are left in the dark as to the question upon whose judgment the convening church is to act.

The churches are appointed on a rotating basis, alternately from east and west. It was customary to choose them according to the order of their institution, although a small church with relatively few facilities and limited manpower might for that reason be bypassed. Should a smaller church have sufficient capable brothers to properly take care of the considerable preparatory activities, this church might still be chosen, although it may convene synod in another place, where sufficient facilities are available.

A general synod should preferably not be convened in an isolated place from where the ministers could only at great expense serve other churches on the Sundays they have to be away from their own churches because of synod. It is beneficial for ministers when they can sit in the pew and listen to their colleagues proclaiming God's Word. But if at least six churches will have "reading services" because so many ministers cannot get away from the place where synod is held, one should consider whether it is warranted to cause synod to be held in such a place.

The convening church usually publishes a date at which it will compose the first provisional agenda to be sent to the churches. A second and third provisional agenda follow, the last one a few weeks before the date of synod.

It is also the convening church that has the meeting called to order, on whose behalf the meeting is opened, and by whom the credentials are examined. Usually the minister of the convening church does this, assisted by the clerk and perhaps one other office-bearer of this church.

|230|

On the eve of synod a prayer service is held. This is just a custom and one might ask why it is done only for a general synod and not for a regional synod or classis. The reply may be that the work of a general synod directly and immediately affects all the churches, as it is the broadest assembly they know. For this reason it is appropriate that it and its work be brought before the throne of grace during a worship service called specifically for this purpose.

For this service the convening church customarily invites the minister who presided over the previous general synod. This, too, is just a custom, not a rule or inherent privilege.

Upon the examination of the credentials, and when they have been found to be in order, synod is constituted after a moderamen has been chosen. Everything proceeds approximately the same way as at a regional synod. There is a difference, however, in the size of the moderamen. It consists of four members: a chairman, a vice-chairman, a first clerk who takes care of the Acts, and a second clerk who conducts any correspondence resulting from synod’s decisions.

Another difference is that a general synod usually sets a date as the deadline after which no more submissions will be received to be added to the agenda.

Is this correct? Should we not insist also with respect to a general synod that after the adoption of the provisional agenda no more submissions are admissible? The date for a general synod is made known months in advance. Should not everyone who takes things seriously see to it that his submissions are with the convening church at least a day before the opening of synod? What makes a general synod so different from a regional synod or a classis except that it is representative of the whole federation? Why should then a different rule apply regarding the last day on which submissions will be accepted? We are convinced that the practice of the deadline date should be reconsidered and should be changed. Only what is present at the opening of synod should be declared admissible, if it is admissible at all, that is.

 

Upon Constitution

A custom which is found in foreign sister churches was never introduced in the Canadian Reformed Churches. We refer to the custom that upon constitution of synod the chairman asks the brothers to rise, so as to express their agreement with the Confessions of the church.

At the Synod of Zwolle 1854 of the Christian Seceded Church the following declaration was introduced:

Public Declaration.
Among all the marks by which the true church is distinguished from all human associations the confession of the truth may be mentioned in the first place. For this reason our Saviour said: “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples,” John 8: 31. And again: “Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men I shall also confess before My Father who is in heaven,” Mt. 10: 32.
In obedience to the Lord and for the instruction of everyone the meeting

|230|

of Overseers delegated from the Christian Seceded Reformed Congregations in the various provinces of the Netherlands deems it proper that it be declared openly what is the confession of the aforementioned congregation.
All these congregations recognize the Confession of Faith of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Catechism and the Canons of the Synod of Dordrecht in the years 1618 and 1619, as the complete expression of their faith.
In agreement with these congregations and as their general ecclesiastical assembly, we gladly testify that we wholeheartedly feel and believe that all the articles and parts of doctrine contained in the aforementioned Three Formulas of Unity agree in everything with the Word of God; wherefore we reject any doctrine conflicting therewith; that we wish to cause all our actions to be in accordance with it according to the adopted Church Order of Dordrecht of 1618 and 1619; and that we wish to receive into our ecclesiastical community every one who agrees with this confession.
May the King of the Church work and increase this faith in the hearts of many and may they who have obtained an equally precious faith with us show the grace given to them in practising the communion to the glory of Him who prayed that all His own may be one…
The chairman asks this declaration of all the members and all give it solemnly as in the presence of the Lord. It is signed by the chairman and clerk.

It all sounds very impressive, but here we find a “meeting of Overseers” who act as if they had no credentials with a well-defined mandate to fulfil a specific task. Their credentials stated what the basis, the confession of the churches was; there was no need for them to make any statement about it. They indeed acted as if they were together as “Overseers” instead of as simple delegates sent by the churches who needed not make any declaration “solemnly as in the presence of the Lord,” but only had to do what they were sent to do in faithfulness to their mandate.

And when, in 1893, upon the constitution of general synod, “the chairman invites all members of synod by rising from their seats to express their wholehearted agreement with the Confessional Formulas of the Reformed Churches,” we identify it as a gesture and action which was wholly superfluous and incorrect. When this is to be done at a general synod, why not at a regional synod and a classis as well? What distinguishes in this respect a general synod from any other broader assembly?

It may have been understandable in the given situation, still the gesture as such is to be rejected. Brothers who are members of a broader assembly are bound by their credentials and should not be tested on their own personally expressed agreement with the church’s confessions but on their faithfulness to their mandate at the meeting itself.

When the convening church for the first general synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches placed the point “Expression of Agreement with the

|232|

Confessions” on the provisional agenda, objections to this were raised at Classis West of July 29, 1954.

“Upon overture by the Church at Edmonton, classis declares that it objects to point 5 of the provisional agendum. It is not necessary that the delegates declare at the meeting that they agree with the Three Forms of Unity of the Canadian Reformed Churches, since the fact that they have been delegated proves that they do agree with them, because they are delegated by churches which live with each other in one federation on the very basis of these Formulas.”

Synod Homewood 1954 unanimously declared its agreement with this classical statement and it was decided not to ask express agreement with the Three Forms of Unity.

A few times an attempt was made to have the procedure introduced in the Canadian Reformed Churches, namely, in 1968 and in 1971, but both times the requests were denied. It will be extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible, to come with new arguments which would compel the churches to come to a different decision or would permit a general synod even to discuss the matter again.

 

How Does a Synod Work?

Most people who never saw a general synod at work may wonder how a general synod operates. They read of advisory committees, but may not know what this means. For this reason a few remarks be made about it here.

A general synod has to deal with proposals by the churches, with reports by standing committees or by committees appointed by the previous general synod for a specific purpose. There may also be some appeals.

“Standing committees” does not mean that always the same persons form the membership of these committees, although a large measure of continuity should be preserved, but it means that they are permanent committees whose members are appointed by each general synod anew. Such “standing committees” are, for example, the Board of Governors of the Theological Seminary, the Committee on Correspondence with Churches Abroad, the Committee for the Book of Praise, and so on.

A special committee is appointed for a one-time task. If, for instance, a general synod cannot come to a responsible decision in a certain matter, it may decide to appoint a committee to study the matter and to report to the next general synod on the result of its research and conclusions.

Such committees report to general synod, not to the churches, although they may be instructed to send copies of their report to the churches. This is to enable the churches to take note of the reports, the conclusions and proposals they contain and, if they wish to do so, to send their thoughts and/or proposals about them to general synod.

When the committees are to send copies of their reports to the churches, this should not be construed to mean that the churches decide about the matters dealt with in these reports. It bears repeating that committees

|233|

appointed by broader assemblies report to the next similar assembly and not to the churches.

Now we go back to the question how a general synod operates. Upon adoption of the agenda, the sixteen men that form a general synod are divided into four separate advisory committees, whose task it is to study the agenda items assigned to them, to draw up a report with conclusions and proposals and to provide each member of synod with a copy. A deadline is set before which the members of synod will have to have studied this report, familiarized themselves with the conclusions and proposals, and prepared themselves for a discussion on the floor of synod and possible decisions. If the report and its conclusions find general acceptance, or can be made acceptable with minor changes, the matter can be concluded in a relatively short time. If too many objections are raised, the report can be given back to the committee for further study and consideration.

As for the appointment of these advisory committees it would be advisable to bring brothers from different areas together. For the assignment of points of the agenda it would be prudent to designate specific matters preferably to brothers who have no previous knowledge of them or whose delegating assembly did not deal with them. This applies particularly in the case of appeals. To rule out bias it may even be wise to form a special committee composed of brothers from another region when a specific appeal is to be considered. When, for instance, the “De Haan Case” was dealt with at the General Synod of Edmonton 1965, a committee consisting solely of brothers from the East prepared the advisory report with its conclusions and proposals.

During the first days in the life of a general synod not many things take place that are of interest to church members. The days are mostly used for committee meetings, although some matters may not require many hours of preparation and be ready for discussion and decision already on the first day. Especially during the first week a general synod will schedule plenary sessions for the evenings so as to give the brothers and sisters the opportunity to sit in and see and hear a synod at work. Later on more reports will be ready and also in daytime full sessions will be held in order to complete the task in the shortest possible time.

Only those who were delegated are members of synod. It is customary, in case the minister of the convening and receiving church has not been delegated, to invite him to serve synod with advice.

In our Netherlands sister churches the custom exists to invite also the professors at the Theological University to attend synods in an advisory capacity. This custom was introduced, as far as we know, when the chairman of the Synod of Zwolle 1854, on his own initiative, invited the appointed professors at the newly established Theological College to do so. The Canadian Reformed Churches have never known this custom and suggestions to introduce it were rejected by one of our general synods. No synod or committee is forbidden or prevented from asking advice in specific instances, but to introduce the custom that all professors shall be invited to attend synods in an advisory capacity on a regular basis would be to establish a rule which in the past has shown to be more to the detriment of the churches than to their benefit.

|234|

Closing

Once a general synod has completed its agenda, it is closed and exists no more. If, for the execution of certain decisions, personal attention is needed and further actions are to be taken, a committee will be appointed to execute the task, with the mandate to report to the next general synod. The task of such a committee is restricted to this one matter. In no way should it try to act as a sort of “synodical committee,” such as are known from the past and such as do exist in other organizations, and function as a sort of “interim synod” to bridge the time between two synods. Whatever committee is appointed is appointed to a specific task, namely, to execute decisions made by synod.

It may be necessary to close synod provisionally, which means that synod can be reconvened. When this is done, it is permissible only in case a point of the agenda might prove not to have been concluded. This was the case in 1968, when it was not certain whether the Rev. F. Kouwenhoven would accept his appointment as professor of Old Testament at the Theological College which was to open in 1969. Rather than close synod definitively and then, in case another appointment was to be made, to go through the whole machinery of having classes and regional synods, of appointing delegates to a general synod whose only task it would be to appoint another professor, it was decided to close synod provisionally, so that the same brothers could be called together again for this one point. However, when the Rev. Kouwenhoven accepted his appointment, the closure became definite and even if the brother had been taken away by the Lord one day after having accepted the appointment, a new synod would have to have been called to deal with that situation.

No synod, having been closed provisionally, may be reconvened to take on new matters. It may be reconvened only to complete its original agenda.

 

Acts

The Acts of our general synods are printed. This is a good custom. It renders the Acts more readable and also makes it possible to have more copies at a relatively modest cost.

When the first general synod, the one of Homewood-Carman 1954, decided to have the Acts printed, it was also resolved to have a sufficient number printed to supply each family and single member with a copy. This was not done to make general synod appear as a generous benefactor, as if the brothers paid for it from their own pockets, but the reasoning behind it was that since cost of typesetting and printing was to be borne by the churches anyway, the additional cost of having extra copies made would be relatively low. Providing each family and single member with a copy, stimulated the interest of the membership and made clear that a general synod is not something remote, but that the old adage tua res agitur, YOUR cause is at stake, still applies.

Ever since that first synod a sufficient number of copies has been printed and distributed over all the churches. Time and again it appears that many

|235|

members do read the Acts and show a lively interest in what goes on and is decided at the broadest assembly.

Most times we find various reports included in this booklet in addition to the Acts. These are reports which were sent to general synod and usually not the reports of advisory committees at synod. We mention the reports by the Board of Governors, the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise, the Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad, etc. In 1958 it was considered wise and beneficial to also include the report of the advisory committee on the “Hamilton Case,” so that all members might be able to see what injustice had been done to faithful brothers. However, the Acts would become too voluminous if all advisory reports were printed. In general, it is sufficient when these are kept in the archives, so that anyone who wants to make a special study of them can consult them.

To prevent any semblance of permanence the churches do not have a synodical treasurer. During synod the convening church takes care of the financial aspects. To offset the cost incurred by deputies synod appoints a church to reimburse the various committees and empowers it to request the churches to submit a certain amount per communicant member to defray these expenses. This church submits a report to each general synod, and has to be appointed from synod to synod.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 50

|236|

Article 50

Churches Abroad

 

The relation with Churches abroad shall be regulated by general synod. With foreign Churches of Reformed confession a sister-Church relationship shall be maintained as much as possible. On minor points of Church Order and ecclesiastical practice Churches abroad shall not be rejected.

“This holy church,” we confess in Art. 27 B.C., “is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world. However, it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.”

Although the federation of churches is confined to one country — that the American Reformed Churches are members of the federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches is only because they are too few in number yet to form their own federation — yet the churches also recognize in their Church Order that the church of Christ is not confined within the borders of one particular country. While acknowledging that the boundaries between the nations are set by the Lord, the churches also recognize that the Gospel bears fruit throughout the world and that the Great Shepherd gathers His sheep from among all tongues and races, all tribes and nations.

This is what is being acknowledged in Art. 50 of our Church Order. How is the relation with churches in other countries established and who decides this issue? Is this each local church on its own or is it done at the classical or synodical level? How is this relation arranged and by whom is it being exercised?

Some have argued that it is a matter for the local church, but the arguments brought to the fore for this statement do not sound very convincing. Besides, would such a practice not result in disorder or even chaos? Imagine, one church maintains a sister church relationship with a local church in another country, but its sister church next door refuses to do the same on various grounds. Besides, would each and every church have the resources to investigate and come to a conclusion on the question whether it is warranted to establish such relationship? And, most important, there is the fact that this relationship is not just between a local church in one country and a local church in another country, but between one federation of churches and another federation of churches. In social and political life one particular city may recognize a specific city in another country as a sister city, whatever this may entail, but this does not apply in ecclesiastical respect.

In the church, those matters that concern the federation are conducted through general synods. It is these synods which appoint a committee on relations with churches abroad.

This is not to say that a general synod would have the right, on its own

|237|

initiative, to seek for churches abroad with which it might establish a bond, or to charge the above-mentioned committee to do so. Here, too, the initiative should come from the churches. We recall that a provision is made in Art. 30 that “a new matter which has not been previously presented to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it.” The relationship with foreign churches as such may be a matter for the broadest assembly; the relationship with a particular foreign federation is a matter which has to be properly brought to a general synod, namely, through screening by the minor assemblies.

 

The Basis

The relationship of which we speak is one with “foreign churches of Reformed confession.” This is an indispensable condition. The church though it be dispersed and spread throughout the entire world, “is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.” When establishing a relationship as sister churches, it is not the churches which bring something about but they merely and thankfully acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, in other countries.

As unity of faith is the basis of the federation within our own country, so the unity of faith must be the basis for the sister church relationship with churches in another country. This does not mean that their “Reformed Confession” must have been worded in exactly the same terms the Canadian Reformed Churches are using in their confessional formulas, but it does mean that the basic contents must be the same: a summary of the doctrine of the Old and the New Testament.

It should need no further elaboration that these foreign churches not only must have the Reformed confession but also must uphold it and be faithful to it so that it is the rule for their doctrine and ecclesiastical conduct. Their merely having the Reformed confession is not a reason for allowing us to establish a sister church relationship; there must also be proof that they honour and maintain it in practice.

Thorough investigation into this question is a first prerequisite, because it remains necessary to keep track of any developments in the foreign churches with which this relationship is being maintained, lest they deviate from the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures and pernicious influences should, by way of that existing relationship, endanger the Canadian Reformed Churches.

Since general synods are only brief meetings, lasting from three to four weeks, a Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad is charged with performing all that is needed to maintain the relationship. In their report to general synod, this committee is to inform synod about their activities, their findings, their conclusions, and their advice. They must make certain that they are well-informed about what is going on in the foreign churches so that they may also warn the churches betimes if they discover dangerous trends or detrimental developments. If dangerous trends are perceived, general synod may consider it necessary to make the concern of the churches known to the foreign churches, urging them to oppose the evil in its beginning, and exhorting them to remain faithful to the Truth.

|238|

If it appears over a number of years that the sisterly admonitions did not have the desired effect and that the foreign sister churches have lost their Reformed character, it will be necessary to terminate the relationship. It will be a difficult decision, but it may shock the foreign churches into action to return from the wrong path. Moreover, it is imperative to protect the churches here against being infected by the same deviation.

How could the churches in our own country be influenced by such deviations? By way of the manner in which the sister church relationship is being practised.

 

No Ecumenical Synod

Art. 50 states that the sister church relationship shall be maintained “as much as possible.” This implies the realization that there are differences between various countries which put limitations on the extent to which the relationship can be maintained. One of the ways in which it cannot and should not be maintained is through a so-called ecumenical synod.

The reason for this is not that our Church Order does not speak of ecumenical synods. The mere fact that our Church Order does not mention a specific matter does not mean at all that for that reason it is impermissible or should not be done. Our Church Order is not a book with regulations concerning each and every aspect of church life. That it does not mention a certain thing does not constitute a prohibition.

There are various reasons why such a world-wide synod is undesirable. Let us take a look at some of the consequences that emerge in this connection. One of the difficulties would be the language. As long as only English-speaking churches were involved, this would not form an impediment. Things would become more difficult if Spanish or Portuguese or Chinese or Korean or Japanese or Singalese speaking churches became involved. Apart from the difficulty of conducting things properly and efficiently at such an assembly because of language difficulties, there would be the practical impossibility of having all matters prepared through the minor assemblies. If such an assembly were to bear the name of “synod” aptly, the same rules would have to apply which cover our major assemblies. This means, among other things, preparatory work at the minor assemblies. Would all documents and all proposals and reports then have to be translated into all the different languages of the participating federations and would all consistories then have to receive them?

What would such an “ecumenical synod” have to do with our theological seminary and its operation? Would copies of the reports of the Board of Governors have to be sent all over the world? Would we lose the right to bring about changes in the Church Order or in our confessional or liturgical forms? If it rightly were called an ecumenical synod, this would mean that national issues would have to be decided on the international level. In that case not much would be left of the autonomy of each federation.

Knowing our Reformed people a little, we are also certain that these “ecumenical synods” would be approached with “appeals” against decisions of

|239|

our own general synods, and, if we had these “ecumenical synods,” its decisions would be binding upon appellants and the consistory against whose decision the appeal was launched in the first place.

Perhaps someone has the impression that there is some exaggeration in the above. So be it, although we do not think so, as long as it is clear that we should not have “ecumenical synods,” and this for more reasons than were adduced in the preceding paragraphs.

An international conference is a different matter. It is a conference convened for mutual help and consultation. Each national church remains completely autonomous and is in no way bound by conclusions or recommendations coming from an international conference, even if all countries were represented there. The Canadian Reformed Churches act, therefore, not contrary to our Church Order or in conflict with their own interests by being a member of the International Conference of Reformed Churches.

 

As Much As Possible

How, then, should the bond as sister churches be acknowledged and practised if not by route of an “ecumenical synod?” Are there other ways and means?

Our general synods did deal with this question in the past and adopted certain guidelines, rules for recognizing past and present unity and for practising the bond. They adopted some “Rules for Correspondence.”

The term “correspondence” might cause some misunderstanding as if simply an exchange of letters was meant. This would be a wrong impression. For this reason the committee charged with the task of maintaining the contact is now called the “Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad,” and the “Rules for Correspondence” should be renamed “Rules for Relations with Churches Abroad.”

They read as follows.

a. To take mutual heed that the corresponding Churches do not deviate from the Reformed Confession in doctrine, liturgy, church government, and discipline;
b. To forward to one another the agenda and decisions of the broadest Assemblies and to admit each other’s delegates to these Assemblies in an advisory capacity;
c. To inform one another concerning changes of, or additions to, the Confession, Church Order, and Liturgical Forms, while the corresponding churches pledge to express themselves on the question whether such changes or additions are considered acceptable. Regarding proposals for changes in the Three Forms of Unity, the sister churches abroad shall receive ample opportunity (at least three years) to forward their judgment before binding decisions will be made.
d. To accept one another’s attestations and to permit each other’s ministers to preach the Word and to administer the sacraments.
e. To give account to each other regarding correspondence with third parties.

|240|

This is the manner in which the Canadian Reformed Churches have concluded the relationship can and is to be exercised and maintained. In this decision they have endeavoured to show their willingness to consult others as far as possible while, at the same time, maintaining their autonomy. Let us pay attention to each of the above points.

 

Point a.

The “corresponding churches” shall take mutual heed that they do not deviate from the Reformed Confession in doctrine, liturgy, church government, and discipline. How can they do this?

The instrument through which this is done is the “Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad.” These brothers are to scan not only the Acts of Synod, but also as many periodicals and books appearing within the foreign federation as they are able to read so that they may discern forthwith any trend in the wrong direction, and signal any deviation from the Reformed Confession.

What they are to pay attention to is not in the first place whether any members of the foreign churches deviate from the Reformed Confession, but whether such deviations are condoned by these churches. No one can prevent errors, heresies, and deviations from forming and being propagated, but the question is: “What do our sister churches do about them? Are they opposing them in every way and condemning them?”

When members of the churches discover any deviation, it is their obligation to inform the above committee of their findings, for although it is a relationship between federations, all the members are vitally interested in the well-being of both federations and therefore have the duty to do whatever is in their power to make it work and to uphold its purity.

This is important. As mentioned above, the relationships foster a flow back and forth of influences, and each federation must be able to trust the other federation implicitly also with a view to what the following point unfolds.

 

Point b.

The second rule for maintaining the relationship is that the agenda for and the decisions of the broadest assemblies shall be exchanged. In this manner the committees know beforehand what will be dealt with at the general synods and what has been decided there. This is necessary for them in order that they may be able to fulfil their mandate. It also enables the delegates to prepare themselves for the meetings.

Delegates are mutually received in an advisory capacity. They usually attend each other’s synods for a few days or weeks only. However, when they are there, they are not just figureheads whose only privilege is that they may give a nice speech, but they may attend all sessions or committee meetings and serve the assemblies with their advice.

In this manner they get an opportunity to sense the spiritual climate in the sister churches, to discover trends and currents, and to learn what the reaction to these matters is in the foreign sister churches.

|241|

From the above it is evident that maintaining such a relationship makes sense only when no language barriers exist. It would be very difficult indeed to see any merit in receiving someone who only understands and speaks Punjabi and to accord to him all the privileges due a foreign delegate. Contact and help is laudable, but for a relationship such as mentioned here it is necessary that the possibility of mutual understanding is present.

 

Point c.

When after the institution of the Canadian Reformed Churches the bond with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands was recognized and continued, there was a difference between what the Netherlands churches wanted and what the Canadian Reformed Churches had in mind. This difference is the concern of point c.

The Netherlands churches wanted prior consultation when a change in Confession, Church Order, or Liturgical Forms was being contemplated. The Canadian Reformed Churches did not see how this would be possible without sacrificing the autonomy of the national federations.

If the sister churches had to express themselves beforehand about changes in the Church Order or the Liturgical Forms, how was this to be done, and what would the effect of it be? Who should express themselves on the proposals? Would it be the Committee on Relations with Churches Abroad, or the general synod of the foreign churches? But as the agenda of a general synod is made up by the churches, would then the local churches of the sister federation have to deal with the proposals? And would this not mean that the sister federation at least co-decided on changes considered necessary or advisable in the sister federation? Would not the autonomy be endangered thereby?

For this reason the Canadian Reformed Churches refused to go along with the condition as set by the Netherlands churches and insisted on maintaining their freedom. They declared themselves willing to inform the sister churches of any changes made and also to give the sister churches the right to express themselves on the acceptability of these changes after they had been made, and to judge whether these would constitute a reason for discontinuing the relationship, but that was all. Each federation remained completely independent from the other.

A concession was made regarding changes in the confessional forms. On this point the churches agreed to submit proposals to this effect to the judgment of the sister churches so that these would be able to express their judgment on the acceptability or non-acceptability beforehand. In order to give the sister federation ample time a period of at least three years was mentioned. This would provide sufficient opportunity for a general synod of the sister federation to come to a responsible conclusion.

Such changes regard only the contents of the confessional forms, not the text or translation as such. Thus, when the Canadian Reformed Churches worked on a new translation of the confessional forms, they did not have to ask for the judgment of the sister churches, since no change of contents was involved.

|242|

Point d.

This point illustrates how important the “Rules for Correspondence” are in practice. When attestations given by foreign sister churches are received as reliable with no questions asked, the churches must be able to trust those foreign churches and to be convinced that they have remained faithful to the basis.

The same is to be said in regard to ministers of foreign sister churches. When visiting here, they may be invited to conduct services, to proclaim God’s Word, and to administer the sacraments. The only thing which we would require is that they show a statement issued by the Committee of the sister churches that they are ministers in good standing within these churches. Allowing them to function as a minister in our midst can be done only when we can trust the sister federation.

We are referring here to a temporary stay, not to a visit to serve in our midst permanently or for some years. For this we have a provision in Art. 5.

 

Point e.

The last point of the rules governing the relationship with churches abroad deals with contact with third parties. We provide that the federations shall mutually give account regarding “correspondence” with others. This refers to possible new contacts and new connections.

The approval of the other federation is not required, but an account shall be given. This is to prevent that a sister federation will be faced with an unpleasant surprise and be put into a most difficult position.

What would happen, for instance, if a foreign sister federation established a relationship with a federation in our country without our being aware of it, while we are convinced that this federation is not standing on the same basis and cannot be recognized as a sister church? Imagine that ministers of a sister federation came here and conducted services with a group that meets separately from us and has no intention of establishing any bond with us? It would not only be very embarrassing, it would also tend to undermine our own church life.

From this it should be clear that giving account of contact with third parties is mandatory. It may prevent mistakes and a going astray in this respect. By means of the giving of account the possibility is also created to serve each other with advice. Perhaps, even, eyes are opened for previously unknown possibilities.

 

Not to Be Condemned

The stipulation in the last sentence of this article has given occasion to misunderstandings. Before, the word “adiaphora” was used, and this word means something like “things that are somewhere in the middle,” or “things that do not matter, whether one does them the one way or the other.” Some even understood it as meaning “mediocre.” In this manner the impression was received that there are things in the life of the church which are of such

|243|

little importance that we do not care whether they are done or not, or whether they are done one way or the other.

In our present article we speak of “minor points.” These “minor points” are matters which have not been expressly revealed or provided in God’s holy Word or which cannot with absolute certainty be deduced from God’s Word.

Commentators on our Church Order mention such things as receiving the holy supper standing or sitting down or kneeling, or sprinkling one or three times at holy baptism. Such differences, however, may be found within our own federation as well. It seems that these things are too “minor” to function as a definition of what is meant in this article.

When a provision has been made that churches abroad shall not be “rejected,” this means that they shall not be condemned or rejected as true and faithful, as legitimate churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. One can see that the expression implies more than the question of sprinkling one or three times at holy baptism.

As the Lord has guided and directed each nation and set their borders, so He has also guided and directed the development and history of His church in each country. Every nation, even though it may share a common heritage with other nations, has its own specific character, and this affects the church in that country as well. It may even have a different formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures than we have. It may have a different liturgy or different provisions regarding church government than the Canadian Reformed Churches have.

In as far as these differences do not infringe on the truth of God's Word or the Scriptural character of church government, these churches shall not for these reasons be condemned as not being Reformed, as not being true and faithful churches of the Lord with which, as a consequence, no relationship as sister churches can be established. The criterium is and remains God’s expressed Word. As long as the churches go by that rule also in their relationship with others, they follow the correct and safe course.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 51

|244|

Article 51

Mission

 

The Churches shall endeavour to fulfil their missionary task.
When Churches cooperate in this matter, they shall, as much as possible, observe the division into classes and regional synods
.

Does it need any proof that the churches have a missionary task, the calling to spread the Word of God, to call others to faith and repentance and to proclaim the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ over all the powers of hell? Is it not clear that the church should proclaim that all power in heaven and on earth has been given to our Saviour and that therefore everyone is called upon to submit to Him and to acknowledge Him as Lord?

It is mandatory that the character of what we call “mission” is kept in view. We should nevertheless watch out for and avoid all false dilemmas; though the proclamation of the Gospel certainly results in people being saved, we should not characterize the work of mission as “saving souls,” or “bringing people to Jesus.” The Lord Jesus Christ and His glory and authority should be central. “To evangelize” means to bring the tidings of Christ’s victory and supremacy.

There is, therefore, no basic difference between bringing these tidings to people far away and to those among whom we are living. It would also be erroneous to consider “foreign mission” as a task of the church, but “home mission” as a hobby or task of some individual members. There is still a big gap between the funds set aside for the foreign mission and those reserved for home mission. The latter oftentimes are no more than a pittance.

When it is stated that “the churches” shall endeavour to fulfil their missionary task, the meaning of this is not that mission is considered to be a task of all the churches together, but that it is a task given to the church as such, and therefore to all the churches, each and every one. Each church shall therefore endeavour to fulfil its missionary task. Not every church is able to provide all the funds needed to send a missionary to a faraway country, but every church is able to spread the Gospel in its own neighbourhood.

This article sets forth clearly that mission is a task of the church and not of a society or of some group of persons filled with compassion for those who are still living in darkness. It did happen more than once that missionary societies were established in times when the churches were negligent in fulfilling their calling in this respect. Frequently these societies worked with great zeal and received much fruit upon their labours. But they at times as well fell prey to error and false doctrine. Societies are not subject to the supervision and scrutiny of office-bearers, and their basis is often a rather vaguely formulated “confession” which enables “birds of a different feather” nevertheless to “flock together.”

Proclamation of the Gospel both to those far and near is the task of the church, therefore of each church under the direction and leadership of the

|245|

office-bearers. It is not a hobby or a fruitful pastime, but a mandate. Each church should be aware of this.

This will also prevent that the task is placed in the hands of a committee or a college of deputies. In the past it was reasoned that the expansion of the mission work made it necessary to formulate general regulations and to place the overall supervision and management into the hands of a college of general deputies. It went to such lengths that “sending churches” were not allowed to take major decisions without the approval of these deputies, and appointments and calls would only be made and extended with their cooperation and approval. Such an arrangement fits perfectly in an hierarchical system but should be shunned in Christ's free churches. This arrangement turns mission into a deputies-mission whereas the function of the churches is reduced to calling and appointing only nominally, because, Oh well, a missionary ought to be bound to a church, but that is all.

The Canadian Reformed Churches have refused from the outset to make mission a matter for general or regional deputies. They have even re­fused to make it a general or classical matter. After initial wavering, mission matters have never been discussed at broader assemblies. Mission has remained a matter for the (local) churches.

At first, Toronto, as the “sending church,” received the cooperation and support of all the churches. As soon as it was financially feasible, Toronto released the Western churches. These churches from then on supported the church at New Westminster (now Surrey). The cooperating churches receive reports from the “sending church,” and can have their input in various matters, but the decision and authority are ultimately the “sending church’s” alone. The agreement of cooperation in no way infringes upon the authority and autonomy of the “sending church.” When sending a missionary, it does not do so as the executor of the decision of the combined churches, but it conducts the mission work with the help and also on behalf of the supporting churches.

From the brief references to Toronto and Surrey it should have become evident that with their support and cooperation the churches did observe the division into classes and regional synods. Additional proof is the fact that, when the church at Toronto declared being able to conduct the mission work with the help of the churches in Ontario North alone, the churches in classis Ontario South pledged their support to Hamilton, observing therewith the ecclesiastical division lines.

All disorderly actions and arbitrary connections should be avoided. In this respect, too, the churches should observe the good order and must be able to count on one another when planning to establish another mission post. By observing the ecclesiastical division into districts and by cooperating with each other along these lines, the churches do not make the mission a classical or regional-synodical matter.

What applies to conducting mission work in faraway countries also applies to mission work in our own country.

Although it is not an ecclesiastical matter, the work of mission aid should be conducted along the same lines. It is beyond the scope of this Guide to discuss the question of mission aid and the manner in which it should be set up and managed.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 52

|246|

IV. Worship, Sacraments, and Ceremonies

Article 52

Worship Services

 

The consistory shall call the congregation together for worship twice on the Lord’s Day.
The consistory shall ensure that, as a rule, once every Sunday the doctrine of God’s Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism is proclaimed
.

“Why do we have to go to church twice a Sunday?” Many a parent will have heard this question from children and many a minister will have had to answer this question at catechism classes.

There is no express command in God's Word that we shall do so. This does not mean, however, that we are not in full harmony with the Holy Scripture when coming together twice on the Lord’s Day. We are not only in harmony with God's Word when doing so, we also are continuing in the line of the Old Testament church. When, in the New Testament era, the Christians came together on the Lord’s Day in the morning as well as in the evening, they followed the Old Testament church with its morning and evening sacrifices. The New Testament church did not add anything to what they had always known, nor did they take anything away from it.

It is completely in that same line that the churches have agreed that the consistory shall call the congregation together for worship twice on the Lord’s Day. It is in the province of each church to determine the exact time and whether it shall be morning and afternoon or morning and evening. As long as there are two worship services a Sunday, a church is faithful to its obligations. More and more we see it happen all around us that one service per Sunday is considered sufficient. Especially during the summer months the afternoon or evening service is oftentimes cancelled either for a few weeks or for some months.

Even where a second service is being maintained this service has often degenerated into a meeting with a speaker or a film or a slide show. It no longer deserves the title “worship service,” but the term: social gathering. We must be thankful that the churches have bound themselves to calling the congregation together twice on the Lord's Day, and that they have upheld that these gatherings are worship services.

This also applies to the service in which God’s Word is proclaimed with the Heidelberg Catechism as a guide. Usually it is in the afternoon or evening services that a so-called “Catechism sermon” is given. There is no objection to using that term as long as it is realized that no sermon is delivered, “on the Catechism,” but that in these services, too, we listen to the proclamation of God’s Word.

|247|

At times it was customary to read one or more texts in conjunction with the reading of the Lord’s Day to be dealt with. This writer recalls to have heard as a routine the following words: “On these and other texts is based the truth which we find in Lord’s Day.…” It was an effort to make clear that the congregation was not about to receive a sermon on human thoughts or doctrine but to hear the proclamation of God’s Word as the church has summarized it in that specific Lord’s Day. It was also done to refute the claim that the churches gave too much honour to a human book by placing it on a level with the Holy Scriptures.

Admittedly, since the Heidelberg Catechism is taken as a guide, the afternoon or evening service does, indeed, have a slightly different character than the morning service when part of Scripture is taken directly as the truth to be proclaimed; yet it is a fallacy to say: “This evening we profess our faith as formulated in Lord’s Day...,” or to introduce the sermon with the words: “This evening we shall listen to what we confess in Lord's Day.…” We are going to listen to God’s Word as the church has summarized it. That we follow this summary by the church is the only difference with the morning services. The Word of God is proclaimed, and this includes and involves more than the reading of one or more texts from Scripture in connection with the Lord’s Day in question.

In earlier days there was a provision that, as much as possible, the whole Catechism should be dealt with in the course of one year. This writer knows of only one church where Lord’s Day 1 was taken on the first, and Lord’s Day 52 on the last Sunday of the year. He also knows of ministers who needed more than two years to “work” their way through the Catechism. The original intent may have been that the cycle be completed in one year, there is no longer any rule requiring it.

Vacant churches may not always be able to have a “Catechism sermon” every Sunday, but they should do their best to continue with it also when no minister is available.

 

Liturgy

Is there a set liturgy which should be followed by all the churches? We find two different liturgies in our Book of Praise. Are the churches restricted to these two and are no deviations from them allowed?

It is advisable that all churches use the same liturgy so that members attending a service in a sister church far or near know what to expect and are spared some embarrassment when they make a wrong move, and so that ministers who conduct a service in another church do not have to ask every time: “And what liturgy do you have here?” Though this is considered advisable, it does not mean that it is mandatory. The orders of worship found in our Book of Praise are merely suggested orders.

Liturgy is the concern of each church, but it does not for this reason become a matter of all the churches together in their federative bond. A general synod would be amiss by adopting one or two orders of worship and then imposing them upon the churches. The churches would be imposed upon

|248|

if they were told to abide by the liturgies that were approved by general synod. Churches have the freedom to decide for themselves, and they should keep this privilege.

When saying that the order of worship is a matter for each church, we should stress the word church. Liturgy is not a matter to be decided upon by the minister but by the consistory. A consistory, on the other hand, must have good reasons for bringing about any changes, even when a “new” minister suggests them. A see-sawing should be prevented.

As for the order of worship itself, the following points deserve some special attention.

 

The Salutation

The first sign that the church of Christ is assembled is visible when the elders and deacons enter with the minister. This shows that the people who are gathered together here are not attending a meeting with a speaker or are having a social get-together. They are assembled as the church of Christ under the supervision and authority of the consistory. Here an official worship service will be conducted in which God's Word is proclaimed with authority and power.

In most churches it is customary that an elder gives the minister a handshake before the latter goes on the pulpit and also at the end of the service when he has left the pulpit. Various explanations have been attempted to explain this gesture, but as yet no one has been able to say with certainty when, where, and why it was introduced. All the “explanations” remained guesswork or the expression of possibilities. Whoever feels like it can collect a large quantity of them.

As soon as the person who is to conduct the service is in the pulpit the congregation usually rises for the votum and salutation, although in some churches all remain seated until the minister requests them to rise. Sometimes announcements are made before the congregation is asked to rise.

With the congregation standing, the minister speaks the votum: “Our help is in the Name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” In doing this he confesses, as the mouth of the gathered believers, their total dependence upon the Lord as He has revealed Himself in His Word as the almighty God of the covenant.

After this follows the salutation. This, we may say, is the Lord’s response to the confession just made. He assures His people that they do not confess this in vain, but that He is present indeed with all the fulness of His mercies. Now that the congregation has confessed that their only help is in His Name, He now endows them with His blessing. The words for this “salutation” are sometimes taken from Rev. 1, sometimes from the letters of Paul. Before he begins to say this salutation, the minister raises his hand(s).

There is a difference in the wording of this “salutation” as well as in the manner in which the ministers give it. This difference is found in that either both hands are raised in a gesture of blessing or one hand in a gesture of greeting. It depends on whether the “salutation” is seen as a greeting or a

|249|

blessing. In the latter case it again makes a difference whether this blessing is seen as a wish or as an assuring statement.

Let us pay some attention to the questions arising here. When the words “Grace (be or is) unto you and peace.…” are used, some ministers say: “Grace to you.…” They do this because in the original Greek text no verb is used. Thus it is a literal “translation” when also the English version omits the verb. There is only one difficulty: “grace to you and peace.…” is an incomplete sentence, as it lacks a verb, and it is not made clear whether it is a wish or a statement, an assurance on which the congregation may count.

The question is therefore: “Is it a wish or an assuring statement? Is it a greeting or a blessing?”

According to some it is merely a greeting and for this reason they raise only one hand to symbolize this. But if it is only a greeting for the assembled congregation, though a greeting from the Lord, then the raising of even one single hand does not make any sense. In that case no hand raised is better than just one hand raised.

Let us consider: are the words spoken in reply to His people’s confession that their help is in His Name just a greeting on behalf of the Lord? And even if they are merely a greeting, what makes them different from a blessing? And is it really logical to speak at the beginning of a “greeting” but to characterize the very same words at the end as a blessing? By what is the worship service characterized? Is it by a simple “greeting” by the Lord in response to His people’s confession that they expect everything from Him alone? Or is it rather the Lord’s assurance that: blessed is indeed the nation whose help is in His Name? Does the blessing come only at the end and is it not there right at the beginning?

This is a guide to the use of our Church Order and not an explanation of our liturgy. Let it therefore suffice when we state that in response to their confession that their help is in His Name, they receive the Lord’s blessing, that is, the assurance that He is with them with His grace, that through Christ the relationship with Him has been restored, and that they are together under His blessing. God’s “greetings” are never just greetings, but deliver that of which they speak. Thus also at the beginning of the service the minister should raise both hands. On behalf of the Lord he not merely “greets” the people of the covenant but may lay the Lord's blessing upon them.

He should not drop his hands before the “Amen” has been spoken. When we take this word seriously and remember the meaning of it as also our Catechism explains it, it is clear that it belongs to the blessing and should not be added as a sort of afterthought. “It is true and certain!”

That a “greeting” in the Name of the Lord is a blessing is evident from many places in Scripture. At this place we mention only Luke 10: 5 and 6. We’ll come back to this text later on.

We do this in connection with the next question, namely, whether a verb should be used and, if so, whether it should be in the indicative (“is”) or in the optative (“be”). Is the minister to say “Grace is unto you.…” or “Grace be unto you”? Likewise, at the end of the service, should he say: “The Lord blesses you.…” or is it to be “The Lord bless you....?” Not using a verb at all does not sound like proper English.

|250|

Someone remarked that no Jewish translation of the Aaronic blessing uses the indicative: “The Lord blesses you.…” and that also the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament of the Seventy (LXX), uses the optative. The conclusion is obvious: we, too, should use “be” and “bless.” Besides, it was stated, when the indicative (“is” and “blesses”) is used, the impression is given that the blessing is a fact, irrespective of the people’s reaction to it.

This latter remark is spurious. The blessing of the Lord is not a wish, a hope expressed, or a possibility put forth. The words that are spoken on behalf of the Lord are powerful words, words that bring about what they say.

Here we return to Luke 10: 5 and 6. The word of “greeting” did bring the peace into the house, for when there was no “son of peace” living there, it was not a “wish” or a “greeting” that would return to the one who spoke that word, but the peace itself, brought in the greeting, would return. When the peace itself was brought into a house where someone lived who rejected it, how much more are the treasures, the blessing of the Lord given to His people when He responds to their confession. When a blessing is spoken, whether at the beginning or at the end of the service does not make any basic difference, the blessing of the Lord is laid upon His people and they are blessed. Then His blessing is not a possibility but a reality. Being together, they are blessed; leaving after the service, they leave as blessed children of the Most High.

Thus it is evident that the indicative (“is with you” and “The Lord blesses you”) is the proper wording. Certainly, the blessing is not automatic, but is there anything in the Lord’s service that is automatic? The blessing returns to the Lord if it is not received in faith, just as the word of greeting by His emissaries would return if no “son of peace” was found in the house. That the Lord’s assurances will return to Him if they are not received in faith does not undo the fact that His assurances are just that and nothing less. For this reason we thank the Lord that He “has forgiven us and our children all our sins.” (Form for the Baptism)

 

Elder and Benediction

One more question is to be answered here. It is the question whether an elder, when conducting a service, should use “us” or “you.” The question of the raising of the hands is not the issue here. There appears to be no difficulty regarding this point. Why should an elder have to change the wording to “be with us” and why would an elder act correctly when saying: “Let us now pray for the blessing of the Lord?” Does the Word of God come to His people with less authority when an elder reads a sermon prepared by a minister than when a minister delivers this sermon himself?

The value and power of the word of blessing are not derived from or determined by the position and office of the person who speaks the blessing. God’s people are blessed when the words of blessing are spoken, and they are blessed not by the minister but by the Lord. Likewise they are blessed when an elder conducts the service just as richly and certainly as when a minister conducts it. An elder should, therefore, use the same words which

|251|

a minister uses. He does not pray for the blessing but assures God’s children that they are together under His blessing in response to their confession at the beginning.

And if anyone, upon hearing the elder say: “Grace is to you...” should think: “Who does he think he is?,” the answer reads: “Exactly what he is: one who is allowed to pass on the rich assurances of the covenant God and who in His Name is allowed to declare His mercies to the assembled congregation.”

In this connection one more question remains. Would an elder be allowed to make changes in a prepared sermon he is going to read? It all depends. He would not be permitted to add anything of his own, but definitely would be allowed to leave out references to specific places and circumstances which do not mean anything to the congregation as they are not familiar with them. In all likelihood a minister will eliminate such points before releasing the sermon for publication, but in some instances ministers provide vacant churches with non-published sermons. In our age of computers and photocopiers many possibilities exist and are utilized. In these cases it may be necessary to omit or change some sentences to make the sermon as a whole more applicable to the congregation. An elder should have the freedom to do so. After all, he is an office-bearer with all the authority that comes with his office.

Bearing in mind that we are dealing with church polity and not with liturgy, the above will have to suffice as a commentary on Article 52.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 53

|252|

Article 53

Days of Commemoration

 

Each year the Churches shall, in the manner decided upon by the consistory, commemorate the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, as well as His outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

When the church experienced the great Reformation in the sixteenth century, it also abolished many of the special days which had increased to a large number during the centuries before. It was the striving of men like Guillaume Farel and John Calvin to rid the church completely of all special days and to make it confine itself to the Lord’s Day.

Neither in Geneva nor anywhere else were such efforts successful. Frequently the civil authorities insisted that the special days should continue to be observed, and to prevent the people from being idle and to keep them from all sorts of licentiousness the church yielded to this by organizing worship services.

The end result was that gradually the observance of the birth of Christ, of His suffering and death, of His resurrection and ascension, as well as His outpouring of the Holy Spirit was tied to certain days. In some instances these days were considered to be even “holier” than the Lord’s Day. Especially the Good Friday was a day which could be kept in no better way than by celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It was in the Netherlands Reformed Church in the middle of the previous century that this custom gained acceptance. This apostate church, or rather its synod, also introduced the New Year’s Eve as an ecclesiastical hour of thanksgiving, because it “is most suitable to bring us to serious contemplation of ourselves and of the ways which God has led us.”

The churches of the Secession tried again to achieve a return to the simplicity of celebrating the Lord's Day. The very first synod, the one at Amsterdam 1836 stated the following.

Since the Holy Scripture just as strongly exhorts us to stand in the freedom with which Christ has set us free as it does regarding the observance of the divine ordinances, the congregation of Christ shall carefully refrain from making it compulsory for the people to celebrate the so-called feast days which the Lord has not ordained in His Word beside the strictly keeping holy of the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord has been hallowed by God Himself, and we can nor may add to it any other festal day by human provisions. The six working days have been given to us by God to labour; although the people shall come together on those days in order to be edified from and according to the Word of God, yet it be on this condition that no one bind the consciences of the people to the observance of feast days which have been determined by man and

|253|

come back regularly every year; in this respect the conscience shall be left completely free.

And the Church Order of 1837 provided that “since the observance of the feast days is not prescribed in God’s Word, no one shall ever be burdened with the need to observe them; much less shall they be put on a level with the day of rest. However, where no work is being done on those days it shall be tried as much as possible to pass them in an edifying manner.”

It would be very interesting and instructive to survey the history of the so-called feast days, but we will have to refrain from it. Various instructive books on this topic are readily available.

The Canadian Reformed Churches continue in the line of the Seceded Churches. The observance of these days is not prescribed in God’s Word and therefore the churches do not bind each other to such observance. They only provide that the churches shall commemorate the various “main” and “outstanding” moments in the life and work of our Saviour: His birth, His death, His resurrection and ascension, as well as His outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

If a consistory decides that the birth of Christ shall be remembered on Sunday December 23rd, and therefore does not call the congregation together on Tuesday, December 25, it has the perfect right to do so. The great facts and events in the history of salvation are not repeated or re-enacted, nor can they ever be. They can only be gratefully remembered, something which, in fact, the churches do when they are together for the regular worship services on the day of the Lord and hear “the full counsel of God” being proclaimed to them. They do not need any more special days or services. Besides, the church pays regularly attention to these elements of Christ’s work when God’s Word is proclaimed with the Heidelberg Catechism as guide.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 54

|254|

Article 54

Days of Prayer

 

In times of war, general calamities, and other great afflictions the presence of which is felt throughout the Churches, a day of prayer may be proclaimed by the Churches appointed for that purpose by general synod.

In previous redactions of this article the word “fasting” was also used. The days mentioned here were days of “fasting and prayer.” Who thinks of fasting in our days? Yet it would have been much better if the word “fasting” had been retained in this article.

Although fasting may oftentimes have been regarded as a meritorious work, it certainly should not be discarded as something which does not mean much or is no longer fit in our modern days.

Let us, however, first pay attention to the provision of this article. There may be circumstances that bring the churches to the conviction that they all should call upon the Lord as it were with one voice, so that His anger and displeasure evidenced in great disasters may be turned away. Two churches have been appointed by general synod to issue the call to such a day of prayer. These are the churches at Burlington East and Edmonton (Providence Church). They consult with each other and when they agree that the need is there, they set a date for a special day of prayer and inform the churches accordingly. From the very words of this article it is clear that such a call should not be issued lightly or without urgent need. In former days synods warned that it should be done only when either the whole nation or all the churches together were afflicted by the distress. To give specific examples is not needed; the article is sufficiently clear.

The various needs of the churches as well as of the world are remembered regularly when the congregation calls upon the Name of the Lord. In the public prayer in the worship services also the dangers that assail the church will be mentioned on a regular basis. And so will the special needs of church and nation.

When there is a war or when war threatens country and nation, we acknowledge the Lord’s hand in it. He shows His anger because of the general deviation from the path of righteousness. His hand presses down upon the people when He sends general calamities and distress. Great afflictions which are felt throughout the churches come not by chance but are the Lord’s reaction to disobedience and apostasy. Such evidence of God’s anger and displeasure is reason for the Lord’s people to humble themselves before Him and to implore Him for His grace and mercy. Then all churches should be called upon to come before the throne of grace and mercy with one voice, for God’s people cannot shake off the guilt and sin of the world as if they had nothing to do with it. If the Lord’s people were perfect, they could say: “We have no part in the guilt of the world.” But they cannot say this.

|255|

The Holy Scriptures contain many examples which show that believers were aware of the “solidarity in guilt,” even with the former generations. We mention only Psalm 79, 85, 106; Dan. 9. The purpose of a day of prayer is, therefore, not merely or even mainly to “pray away” the disaster and tension but to pray for and receive forgiveness and to implore the Lord to be merciful. What must underlie the prayer is the awareness of unworthiness and guilt.

We deplore it therefore that the “fasting” has disappeared. No, there is no merit in fasting and it does not produce any reason why the Lord should turn away His wrath and show anew the light of His countenance, but by fasting one shows the more clearly that he is earnest in his confession and supplication. David fasted for as long as the child of Bathsheba was alive; the population of Nineveh fasted so that the cry of man and beast, of infants and aged people reached the ears of the Lord, who repented of the evil which He had spoken, and He did not do it.

The fasting does not necessarily mean that we abstain from all food and drink, although this is not precluded. When we are serious in our prayers and humble ourselves before the Lord, would we not be willing to forego all food and drink to show that we are serious? And when the heart of a mother would almost melt when her baby cries for hunger and thirst, could we then expect that the Lord would remain unmoved and that He would not show mercy? Jonah 3: 10, Isaiah 49: 15.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 55

|256|

Article 55

Psalms and Hymns

 

The metrical Psalms adopted by general synod as well as the Hymns approved by general synod shall be sung in the worship services.

The Reformation in the sixteenth century, which brought a general return to the Word of God, also restored the congregational singing to its rightful place and glory. For centuries choirs took the place of the people and the latter could only listen. The Reformation changed this, too. Alas, in many instances choirs have been re-introduced in the services also by those who trace their roots back to that great Reformation. Although we have inherited some glorious pieces of music from the period before the Reformation, these compositions are good for performances by choirs, not for being sung by choirs during the worship services. There only the voice of the Lord should be heard and the response of all His people in prayer and song.

The question what shall be sung in the worship services has received the attention of the New Testament church from the early days on. The opinions are divided as to whether the church in the New Testament days knew also other songs beside the 150 Psalms. From various places in the New Testament it appears that the conclusion may be drawn that they did. We mention Eph. 5: 19; Col. 3: 16; 1 Cor. 14: 26; James 1: 17; 1 Tim. 3: 16; 2 Tim. 2: 11-18; Titus 2: 4-6 . The fact that hymn singing was very much favoured by sects such as gnosticism, Arianism, etc. made the churches often wary of hymns. Hymns can readily introduce all sorts of errors as has been demonstrated throughout the centuries. This prompted more than one assembly to warn against hymns “made by man” as distinct from the songs found in Scripture, which are the “work of men who spoke being inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

The Canadian Reformed Churches were faced with the sad reality that no complete Psalmbook using the Genevan tunes existed, and that the songbooks which were found on this continent also contained numerous hymns whose origin and contents often dated back to the days of Pietism and other movements, with pious man and his experiences in the centre. This is not to say that the Genevan melodies were considered to be sacrosanct and that any other melody should be barred from the services; but wishing to continue in the line of the Calvinist Reformation, the churches included the Genevan melodies in their endeavours.

The result was that the first complete edition of the Book of Praise appeared in 1972, containing a wholly new or revised rhyming of the Psalms on the Genevan tunes, and a collection of 65 hymns. After further revisions, the finalized edition appeared in 1984. It contains 65 hymns which have been scrutinized regarding their being in full harmony with Holy Scripture. They are arranged according to the elements of the Apostles’ Creed. Songs

|257|

in praise of the Holy Trinity are followed by those extolling the promise of the coming Saviour, His sufferings, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the work of the Holy Spirit, while the hymn section closes with congregational praise to God.

By restricting themselves to the metrical Psalms as adopted by general synod and to the hymns approved by general synod, the churches have put up a safeguard to prevent that, at least in the worship services, wrong theories or influences are smuggled in via songs. As for the hymns, each general synod that dealt with them emphasized that the first requirement was faithfulness to the Scriptures.

The reason why hymns have been approved in addition to the 150 Psalms is the desire of the New Testament church to sing of Christ not only in prophecy (the Psalms), but also in fulfilment (the hymns). The present selection of hymns gives ample opportunity to do so and there is no need to increase their number, since no other major event in the history of redemption can be expected except the Lord’s appearance on the clouds of heaven, and of that event we do sing already.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 56

|258|

Article 56

Administration of Sacraments

 

The sacraments shall be administered only under the authority of the consistory, in a public worship service, by a minister of the Word, with the use of the adopted Forms.

Instead of having the above provision stated twice: in the article about holy baptism as well as in the one about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (as was the case in previous redactions of the Church Order), the churches have made a general provision covering the administration of both sacraments. The points dealt with in this article are: a. under whose authority?, b. where?, c. by whom?, and d. how are the sacraments to be administered?

In the first place then the question under whose authority the sacraments are to be administered. It is under the authority of the consistory. They have been appointed by the Lord to govern the church and to see to it that the flock of Christ is preserved, that the Bride is kept pure and undefiled. It also belongs to their task and authority to prevent as much as possible that the sacraments are profaned and to ensure that they are received only by those who are entitled to receive them. The administration of the sacraments is not a private matter but a matter of the church; consequently, those who have the oversight over the church have to supervise this administration, too.

It follows that one also needs the consent of the consistory to receive either holy baptism or the holy supper. For this reason it is often announced to the congregation that “holy baptism has been requested by brother and sister A. for their son/daughter,” or that “brother B. from the church at C. has received permission from the consistory to partake with us of the holy supper.” It is not necessary that precisely these wordings are used as long as it is clear that the decision to allow one to receive the sacrament belongs to the consistory. It is under its authority that the sacraments are administered. Neither baptism nor supper are private matters, however personal they may be, but are matters of the whole congregation.

 

In A Worship Service

In connection with the above comes the second point, namely, that the administration of the sacraments shall take place “in a public worship service.”

The sacraments are meaningless in themselves. They have meaning only when they remain inseparably connected to that to which they have been added, namely, the Word of God. They do not exist on their own and for this reason they are to be administered only there where the Word of God is proclaimed, that is, in a public worship service. Having been given to signify and

|259|

seal the promises of the Gospel, they are to be administered where these promises are expounded and proclaimed to the assembled congregation.

There is a second reason why the sacraments are to be administered in the public worship services only: the congregation as such is totally involved not only in the administration of the holy supper but also in the administration of holy baptism.

That the congregation as such is involved in the administration of the holy supper does not need further proof, although it is good to pay some attention to this point as well. At times the question is raised whether the desire to receive the holy supper should not be granted to one who has been ill for a long time, perhaps many years, and cannot come to church. Would it be out of the question that a minister goes there, if needs be accompanied by a few elders, and celebrates the holy supper with such a brother or sister at their home?

We can understand the desire of such a brother or sister who has to miss so much already. Yet it would be wrong to grant their request. The Lord’s Supper is not a matter between the Lord and “the soul” or the individual believer, but it is a meal at which the congregation sits at table. We correctly remind ourselves of our being one body and of the Spirit uniting “us in brotherly love as members of one body.” Sitting at table as a body is something which can be done only when the congregation is together in a worship service.

Although baptism differs from the Lord’s Supper in that it is administered at that particular moment to just one person, this does not mean that it is not a congregational matter. However personally the promises of the covenant are signified and sealed to this particular member, called by name even, we do not forget that “by baptism we are received into the Church of God and set apart from all other peoples and false religions,” Art. 34 B.C., and that infants “by baptism, as sign of the covenant,... must be ingrafted into the Christian church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers,” Heid. Cat. Lord’s Day 27. For this reason baptism, too, must be administered where the congregation is together in a public worship service.

 

Who?

The sacraments, thus this article states, may be administered only by a minister of the Word. This, we repeat, is not because the office of a minister is higher than that of an elder or deacon, but it is because it belongs to his particular office and does not form part of the task of any of the other office-bearers.

The sacraments have been added to God’s Word. Thus it is not strange that only one who has been entrusted with the task of proclaiming the Word is the one who has the right to administer the sacrament.

At times it did happen that an elder administered baptism, when a child remained without the sacrament for a long time and when no minister could be expected to be available within the foreseeable future. It was irregular when this was done, in as much as what renders one guilty before the Lord is not the lack of baptism but the contempt for it. But since such a brother

|260|

was appointed by the congregation to do it, the legitimacy of baptism was acknowledged also in this case. This does not imply approval of the procedure followed. It only acknowledges a fact that cannot be undone. We refer here to the discussion of baptism by others which will be found in the explanation of the next article.

 

Forms

The final provision in this article deals with the use of the adopted Forms. They should be used with the administration of the sacraments. Although these liturgical forms are not to be considered as being on a level with the confessional forms, yet we may say that they contain the doctrine of the church regarding the sacraments. Instead of giving his own personal thoughts and explanation of the sacraments, the minister is to remind the congregation of what the church teaches regarding them on the basis of the Word of God. Use of the adopted forms also ensures that the proper questions are asked and that there is uniformity as far as the various churches are concerned. When the adopted forms are used, not only with baptism or the holy supper but also with the Public Profession of Faith as well as the Ordination of Office-bearers, the churches know mutually that everything was done properly.

Is anyone allowed to change anything in these forms when using them? Or is everyone strictly bound to the literal wording and is it forbidden to deviate from it? Do ministers who allow themselves some freedom with the use of the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage, for example, overstep their authority?

As said before, the liturgical forms are not on a level with the confessional forms. No deviation from the confessional forms is allowed in any case. Matters stand differently with the liturgical forms, although extreme caution is to be exercised. Making changes in the use of the liturgical forms may signal deviation from the Scriptural and true doctrine. These forms are not the private property of the one using them but the communal property of the churches. They must be respected and honoured as such.

However, no minister reading the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage in the case of an elderly couple, will say: “If it pleases Thee to give them children.…” We may not expect a miracle to happen as in the days of Sarah or Elizabeth, someone once remarked in this connection. There is nothing against either leaving these words out of the prayer or, in case there are already children who are still at home, to speak of “the children whom Thou hast given them.” Everyone will agree that such a change makes sense and that there is nothing against changing the wording of the Form.

As for the rest, extreme caution should be exercised. Let it be repeated that the Forms are the property of the churches and that the churches have the right to expect that they shall be used loyally and faithfully.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 57

|261|

Article 57

Baptism

 

The consistory shall ensure that the covenant of God is sealed by baptism to the children of believers as soon as feasible.

We now pay attention to each of the two sacraments in particular. Baptism comes first into view, for it is the sacrament which stands at the beginning of our life as children of the covenant.

That we speak here of “children of believers” and not of “children of the covenant” is because the parents have to answer certain questions when they present their children for baptism. Thus the church cannot ask the parents these questions unless it is convinced that they are able to live up to the stipulations, being believers. The meaning of these words is not to state that the children, infants, have a right to baptism because of the faith of the parents. In our confessional forms we make profession of the basis for the baptism of infants. Here we stress a different element, although we definitely should not have the impression that our Church Order speaks a different language than our confessional forms.

Since the Lord with His promises and the riches of His covenant places Himself at the very beginning of our life, the parents should acknowledge this and show it by presenting their child for baptism as soon as feasible. Art. 57 makes the provision that the consistory shall ensure that the parents do so. Our Church Order does not state what the church members are to do but what the churches, that is, the consistories are obligated to do. The consistories are to ensure that the parents are obedient also in the point of seeking baptism for their children.

It will not happen very often among us that the office-bearers have to admonish parents to present their child for baptism. It is a good custom among us that the minister is notified of the happy event soon after the birth of a child. When he visits the mother in the hospital he will undoubtedly speak about baptism and in all likelihood will learn that the parents expect their child to receive the holy sacrament on the coming Sunday. If he perceives that baptism will be delayed for various reasons, he will speak about this and teach the parents regarding the rights of the Lord, the right of the child, and the riches of the covenant.

In former days baptism was often delayed for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes parents waited till a second or even a third child was born, because an elaborate “baptismal feast” had to be organized and more often than not the cost of such an undertaking prohibited having such a feast every time there was a birth in the family.

There may still be some controversy regarding the meaning of the words “as soon as feasible.” Does this mean that baptism should be sought at the first opportunity, that is the first worship service that is being held after the

|262|

birth of the child? Or does it mean “as soon as everyone is able to attend?” There is no doubt about it that these words mean: at the first opportunity, as soon as a service is held in which baptism can be administered. In proof of this we may quote a decision by the Synod of Dordrecht 1574, which declared that the covenant of God shall be sealed to the children as soon as possible “unless there are weighty reasons to postpone baptism for some time, of which the consistory shall judge. But the inclination of the parents who desire to postpone the baptism of their children till the time when the mothers can themselves present their children, or long to wait for the witnesses, the brothers do not consider a valid reason to postpone baptism.”

Since nowadays the children are born in a hospital, there is a practical need to wait till mother and baby have been discharged, and thus most often both parents are present at baptism. But if the mother is not yet able to be present, baptism should not for that reason be postponed. The same applies in case the father is away for one reason or another, such as working in a remote area and is not expected to be back for some weeks, or if the father has undergone surgery and has not sufficiently recovered to be present the first Sunday the mother is able to come with the child for baptism. Then the mother should come alone with the child and baptism should not be delayed until the father can be present. What is central (and should remain so) is the right which the Lord has to this child and the right which this child has to the promises of the covenant and their sealing by holy baptism.

We may refer here to the provisions regarding circumcision. This sacrament had to be administered on the eighth day, whether it was a sabbath or not. The reason why circumcision was to be administered on the eighth day was that this was the first day on which the mother and the child were free from unclean ness.

Leviticus 12: 2, 3 reads: “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

Neither our children nor their mothers are any longer unclean in that sense. There is no prohibition stating that they should not receive the sacrament at the first opportunity after they have been born. On the contrary, it is one of the greater riches of the new dispensation that not only all the children may receive the sacrament, but that they also are “sanctified” in Christ from their first moment of life, and may receive the confirmation thereof as soon as the congregation is assembled for worship.

We confess that baptism itself does not wash away the sins. Thereby we also refute the fallacy that made people seek baptism towards the end of their life or, at the other end of the scale, as soon as possible after birth, especially if the danger was imminent that the child would die.

It is a well-known fact that Constantine the Great was baptized shortly before his death. This practice was done more often, for when baptism itself washes away all the sins which one has committed, it was thought safer and more prudent to be baptized as late as possible in life. Then fewer sins remain which have not been washed away as yet.

|263|

On the other hand, when baptism washes away the sins and is necessary for salvation, as was progressively taught and believed, then it is wiser and safer to have it administered as early as possible in life, for no infant should be exposed to the risk of dying without having been baptized.

But it was not for that reason that our forefathers insisted on having their children receive holy baptism at the first opportunity, whether it was on a weekday or on the Lord's day. And everyone who more or less smirks at a father presenting his child one or two days after its birth to have it receive the holy sacrament as a “Romish” act displays only his own ignorance. When our forefathers desired baptism on the first, second, or third day of their children’s life, their motives were free from Romish influences. They desired to honour their God. Later on man was put into the centre with his religious feelings and “needs.” It was the apostate synod of the Netherlands Reformed Church which, by means of a circular letter in 1816, told the churches that it would enhance the impression of baptism if the mother were there too! Later on they “enhanced” this impression even more, when opportunity for baptism was given only once a month, so that a larger number of children would be present to receive the sacrament.

This does not suggest that it would be wrong when the mother is present at baptism and answers the questions together with her husband. On the contrary, this is what happens most of the time when children are born in the hospital and mother and baby are discharged at the same time. It does not happen infrequently that a mother does not miss even one Sunday in church, when her baby is born at the beginning of the week. When she can be present without the baptism having to be delayed, so much the better. If, for one reason or another, she is not able to go to church as yet, baptism should not for that reason be postponed. The consistories should see to it that baptism is requested and administered as soon as feasible. That is what the churches have agreed upon.

 

Who?

Which children are entitled to receive baptism? Perhaps someone raises his eyebrows when reading this question. Do we not speak here of “children of believers?” Is it then not clear who are meant? Although we should always avoid making matters complicated, we are faced with a few questions in this connection. Should all the children of believers be baptized? Who are the children of believers? Are they exclusively their own biological offspring or do they also include their adopted children? What if parents have not yet made profession of faith? What is the procedure if both parents have passed away, for instance, when the father died before the birth of the child and the mother while giving birth or shortly after?

We should, of course, avoid all casuistry, and we certainly do not intend to discuss and try to answer all questions that could be raised in this respect, but we do have to deal with some of them.

All children born of believers, all children of the covenant do have the right to baptism. Since the Lord has assured us that He is the God not only

|264|

of the fathers but also of the children, and that the promise is to the children as well as to the parents, there is no doubt that the children also have the right to have these promises and assurances signified and sealed to them by holy baptism.

As for the question whether this applies only to the “natural” children or also to the “adopted” sons and daughters, we quote the simple but straightforward decision of the (to our knowledge) first major ecclesiastical assembly which dealt with the question, namely, Classis West of November 27, 1958.

The classis advises the Church at Edmonton to administer baptism to the adopted child mentioned in its query.
Grounds:
a. by its adoption according to the law that is in force this child has been ingrafted into a believing family;
b. as a member of a believing family it is included in the congregation of Christ and is to be recognized as such;
c. as a member of the church it has, no less than adults, received the promise of God and ought therefore to be baptized.

This writer recalls that during the discussion the Rev. J.T. VanPopta used the following example. Across from us lives a family with ten children, five of whom have been adopted. If it should please the Lord to work in their hearts the desire to be received as members of the church and to receive holy baptism, must we tell them: “That is fine for you and for five of your children, namely, those born of you, but not for the ones whom you adopted?” Should we even inquire whether any of the children have been adopted if a family comes to the church?

Sometimes the argument is used that Scripture speaks of “seed,” but those using it overlook that, when this word is used in Gen. 3: 15, it is used in a figurative sense as well. The “seed of the serpent” are not the snakes and reptiles, but people who live out of the spirit of the devil, whereas the “Seed of the woman” are not people born of woman but Christ and all His own. Being Christ’s, Paul writes in Gal. 3: 29, we are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. As former heathen, we are not Abraham’s “seed” in the literal sense of the word at all. Yet we are his seed, through Christ.

It is our distinct impression that opposition to the baptism of adopted children proceeds more from being opposed to adoption itself than to the baptism of those children. It appears to us that the ecclesiastical advice, quoted above, cannot be refuted.

Concerning the criticism that by our act of adoption we more or less compel the Lord to comply with what we decide and do, we counter with the following: If this is so, then adoption itself should be condemned altogether, as well as several other acts, for instance the procreation of our own children. If it was true what the critics say, no childless couple should seek medical advice or even submit to surgery with a view to receiving children, nor should any couple adopt a child, whether they do have children of their own or not. It is hard to imagine that the Lord would judge harshly if His children, accepting

|265|

His guidance in their life, in humble submission to what appears to be His will concerning their marriage, namely, that He withholds from them “natural” children, nevertheless seek to fill the emptiness in their life by adopting a child or children, and to bring them up in the fear of His Name.

We are thankful for the fact that, as far as we know, it is the general consensus in the churches that children who have been ingrafted into a Christian family by means of adoption should also openly be ingrafted into the Christian church through holy baptism.

The process of adoption must have been completed before baptism may be administered. Quoting negative decisions made in the Netherlands in the past overlooks the fact that the situation was completely different there, since adoption as we know it in Canada was not possible in the Netherlands until some thirty years ago.

 

Stipulations

Having established that all children of believers have a right to baptism, we now turn to the question whether they all can be baptized without any exception. What are the conditions that must be met? Sometimes a member of the church has rights but conditions may exist that prevent this member from seeing his right exercised. Think, for instance, of the right to participate in the holy supper which all members have by birth but which may be exercised only upon public profession of faith.

A child can receive holy baptism when the parents, or at least one of them, have made profession of faith and are entitled to answer the questions which are asked, to take upon themselves the obligations as formulated in the Form for the Baptism of Infants. If neither of the parents has made profession of faith, the right of the child to baptism remains unaffected, but there is no possibility to have it exercised.

We are thankful that it does not happen frequently that neither of the parents has made profession of faith, and only now and then it happens that a child will have to wait for some time. Grandparents and other relatives cannot stand in for the parents, for they have no control over the child and cannot guarantee that the child will be taught in the doctrine of the church. One cannot make promises for others.

The situation is different when both parents have died, and either the grandparents or other relatives have received legal custody of the children, so that they can be held responsible for their upbringing. The church can then ask them the questions stipulated in the Form for the Baptism of Infants, even though there is no formal “adoption.” These children have the right to baptism already, because of their parents, though not on the basis of the faith of these parents but on the basis of God's faithfulness. The children, too, are heirs to the promise of the covenant.

Another question to be faced here is what to do in case the parents are under discipline or, perhaps, have been excommunicated. When a parent has been barred from the Lord’s Supper, this affects not only his participation in the holy supper but all his rights and privileges in the church, including the

|266|

right to answer the questions at baptism. The barring from the table of the Lord means: if there is no repentance, excommunication will be the end. This affects one’s whole position in the church, the right to answer questions at baptism as well as the right to vote. It would be better, therefore, to say that someone has been barred from the sacraments than merely that someone has been forbidden to partake of the holy supper.

Most likely, however, the other parent will still be entitled to all the rights and privileges of church membership and thus able to answer the questions and make the required promises. But if neither of the parents has the right to do so, the child cannot be baptized, although it retains its right to the sacrament.

Would a child of excommunicated members have a right to baptism? Envision a situation where both parents have died and the children are legally in the custody of relatives who are church members. What about baptism in that case?

We must differentiate between the children born before and those born after the excommunication. Those born before the excommunication may be baptized, those born after it may not. Should the parents be again received into the communion of the church upon true repentance, any as yet unbaptized child of theirs would have the right to receive baptism, because it belongs to parents who have (again) been ingrafted into the church of Christ.

At the excommunication the church declares that one is “excluded from the fellowship of Christ and from His kingdom.” He may no longer use (!) the sacraments. He has no part any more in the spiritual blessings and benefits which Christ bestows upon His church. “As long as he persists in sin, let him be to you as a Gentile and outcast.” In other words, through the excommunication the church, in essence, rescinds the promise of the covenant, and declares that this former member may no longer rely on it.

This also affects the position of the children born outside the kingdom. They no longer receive the right of citizenship with all the rights and privileges that are inherent in it.

A different situation exists when members have broken with the church. In that case we should recall what the Lord declares in the second word of the covenant: that only after the third or fourth generation of those who continue in hatred against Him He will wholly withdraw His mercies from them and rejects them utterly. For this reason children or even grandchildren of those who have broken with the church may receive baptism as long as members of the church have legal custody and can thus answer the relevant questions.

 

What Age?

Still another question comes to mind: till what age should children be baptized with the parents answering the questions found in the Form for the Baptism of Infants. This question will arise only when a family with children comes to the faith and now is ingrafted into the church of Christ, or when a child is adopted at a later age. When is the “cut-off” age, after which these

|267|

children have to wait until they themselves can make profession of faith and answer for themselves? In general, an age of twelve years is taken as the limit, although an early synod declared that not only the age but also the mental development of the children should be taken into account. Another very early ecclesiastical assembly expressed the desirability of having children of seven or eight years of age recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed before their baptism wherever this could be done unto edification. Yet another assembly stated the same in the case of twelve, thirteen, and even fourteen year olds.

The age of twelve is only a general guideline, not an irrevocable rule. Besides, it refers only to the administration of baptism, not to church membership. When a family is ingrafted into the Christian church, this whole family with all its members receives all the rights that come with this membership. That there are certain restrictions to the exercise of these rights does not mean that these rights do not exist.

At the age of twelve or thirteen a boy or girl becomes responsible for personal choice and course of life, and may be held accountable for his or her actions. Besides, no one has to wait till his eighteenth or twentieth year before he should be allowed to make profession of faith and receive holy baptism. (Cf. the “Bar Mitzvah”)

 

Baptism by Others

During the ages it has been a point of discussion and even of controversy what to think of the validity of baptism administered by others, by sects and erring churches, as well as by false churches. Should persons who received baptism outside the church be accepted as baptized persons, or should they be re-baptized in the belief that what had happened to them was just some “spilling of water?” (The term “re-baptize” would be inappropriate in this case, because the original baptism is not recognized as a true baptism.) Sometimes the value and legitimacy of baptism were even made dependent upon the spiritual condition of the one who administered it, as if they depended on man and his piety or purity.

It would be wrong to speak of a “recognizing” of baptism administered outside the church. We are not “recognizing” anything. All we do is state a fact which cannot be undone when we accept a person as a baptized person. There is an old Latin saying which bears remembering in this respect as well. Translated it reads: “There are many things which should not be done; yet, once they have been done, they are facts and stand.” (Multa fieri non debent, quae tamen facta valent.) We disapprove of the birth of a child outside of holy wedlock, but once it is born, it is there. It is the same with baptism. Here it is not a matter of “recognition,” but of being faced with a fact.

Certain conditions must be met before we accept as a fact someone’s baptism. Various ecclesiastical assemblies occupied themselves with the question what these conditions should be. It was clear that safeguards were necessary. The conclusion was that the following points are mandatory.

A. Baptism must have been administered into the Name of the Triune God.

|268|

B. It must have been administered with water, either by sprinkling or immersion.

C. It must have been administered by someone who within his group has the authority to do it. This does not amount to a recognition of a right to administer the sacrament or of the legitimacy of the office of the person who officiated. The thought behind setting forth these conditions is that ultimately also the baptism administered outside the church does not go back to a human invention or idea but to the institution of the sacrament by the Lord. Moreover, the person who was authorized (by the group to which he belongs) to administer the sacrament has derived his position in last instance not from the need of a group to have one person act on behalf of them, but in final analysis from the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ has ordained the offices in His church.

It is not important whether the sprinkling with water is done once or three times. Something can be said in favour of either method. What is important is that water is used, for it signifies and seals the washing by Christ’s blood.

That baptism must have been administered into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit does not need any further proof. What sometimes was done by modernistic ministers who “baptized” into faith, hope, and love was no baptism, they “just” spilled water. It was their sin that they spilled the water of baptism.

 

When?

At what point in the worship service should baptism be administered? Should it be done before or after the sermon? In principle, it does not make any difference.

In defense of the thesis that it should be administered after the sermon has been delivered we are reminded that the sacraments are signs and seals added to the Word, and that therefore the Word should come first, to be followed by the sacraments. This sounds convincing, and it is true that the sacraments have been added to God’s Word, but we should also be aware that this specific baptism is not a sign and seal added to the proclamation of God’s Word in that particular service in which this child is baptized, but to the whole of God's promises given in His covenant. These promises are explained every time when the Form is read before the administration of baptism. In this Form we are taught that the sacrament signifies and seals God’s promises to us and to our children. This teaching most likely is not done in the sermon which is supposed to precede baptism in that particular service.

Though for the sake of the symbolic character of baptism it might be preferable to have its administration after the sermon, practical reasons plead for having it before the sermon. We never know whether the baby will keep quiet during the whole service or will start crying, with all the commotion and distraction this may bring about. The mother may be able to be present and yet not be well enough to sit through the whole service. We definitely do not advocate an early disappearance from the service of mother

|269|

and baby, but in general our pews are not all that comfortable and certainly not for someone who just recently has given birth. Administration of baptism towards the end of the service may compel the mother to stay at home or to wait in some room till the sermon is over and baptism is about to be administered. Practical reasons plead for having baptism as early as possible in the service.

Should the congregation sing after the administration of baptism? It is recommendable to do so. Having seen anew the mercies and faithfulness of the covenant God, it is good when all those present also in their singing acknowledge God’s Fatherly goodness and mercy which He has shown to this child and to them all. Let them praise the Lord.

Whether this should be done standing is, again, something which should be left in each congregation’s freedom. The only question we pose here is why the congregation should rise when singing a song of praise after a baptism, but remain seated with many other songs. It lends a special aura to this singing, which seems slightly out of place.

In most cases the parents remain standing at the baptismal font when a song of praise is sung, and the minister is supposed to do the same. We prefer a different practice, namely, that after baptism parents and minister both return to their various places and that the congregation sings after everyone has returned to his place. The singing is not an intrinsic part of this ceremony and this should be manifested. It ought to be clear that we do not sing to the child or the family but to the Lord. For this reason every one should be back at his proper place, in the midst of the congregation, in the pew and on the pulpit.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 58

|270|

Article 58

Schools

 

The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the Church has summarized it in her Confessions.

From the outset we have refrained from giving many historical particulars or describing extensively the history of a certain article. Also in connection with Art. 58 we shall restrict ourselves to what provision the churches have set forth in the present article.

Once again we point to the fact that the task of the consistories is described in the Church Order and not the task of the parents. We do not state that the parents shall endeavour to establish Reformed schools, or that the parents shall engage teachers of whom the church approves. We describe the obligation of the consistory to take heed of the flock also in parents discharging their responsibility regarding the instruction their children receive at school.

Whoever scans the decisions of previous ecclesiastical assemblies regarding the point we deal with in this article will discover that some of them made the assertion that by providing Reformed education for their children the parents fulfil a promise which they made at the baptism of their children, namely, to have them instructed in the doctrine of salvation. Our Netherlands sister churches have even introduced it in their Church Order: “The consistories shall ensure that the parents, as much as they are able, have their children receive a schooling which is in agreement with the doctrine of the church, as they have promised at baptism.”

These churches are not the only ones who made such a statement. One can find the same notion in pronouncements and declarations by ecclesiastical assemblies in the previous century. Although we do not claim to have consulted the records of all earlier ecclesiastical assemblies, yet we have received the distinct impression that the element of the promise made by the parents at the baptism of their children entered the picture only in the nineteenth century. The early ecclesiastical assemblies held after the great Reformation occupied themselves often with matters concerning schools and teachers, but we have not discovered evidence that they appealed to the promise mentioned above.

But these assemblies did stress the parents’ responsibility towards the education of their children. “The parents, as shepherds of their families, shall be exhorted, in order to form their children in the fear of the Lord, not to send them to schools or whatever other institutions there may be, where they could be corrupted or steeped in wickedness of conduct or doctrine.” (Antwerp 1565)

|271|

It appears to us that making the parents’ obligation as we mention it in Art. 58 part of the promises made at baptism is putting something into these promises which is not there. It is what might be called “sound-dogmatics” (“klankendogmatiek”), that is, going by the sound of the words and subsequently build up a theory without asking whether this is the meaning of the words indeed. The reasoning sounds convincing enough on first sight: a. Parents promise that they shall have their children instructed in the doctrine of God's Word; b. Reformed schools give instruction on the basis of God’s Word and also teach the doctrine of Scripture; c. Ergo: parents promise that they shall send their children to a Reformed school. This syllogism sounds simple and logical, but the reasoning makes a few impermissible jumps from one category to a different category. We shall show this by asking what the parents promise and what the character is of an institute for learning. What do the parents promise at the baptism of their infants? In the first place that they shall teach their child in the doctrine of God's Word, the doctrine of salvation. This refers to their own activity at home, where they teach their children to pray and to show reverence when God's Word is read; they also teach them God’s Word and gradually make clear to them what the Lord has promised us and asks of us.

Further, the parents promise that they will have their child instructed in this doctrine. They keep this promise and fulfil it by taking the child to church and, at the appropriate time, sending it to catechism classes where it receives the instruction given by the minister. It is in this manner that their promise is fulfilled. To extend the promise to include the school is putting something into this pledge which was not there and does not belong there either.

To what purpose do parents establish a school? To have their children taught in the doctrine of salvation? Not at all! They establish a school because the civil authorities demand that all children shall receive instruction at school, shall be able to reach a certain level of education. That is the purpose and task of a school: instruct the children in all sorts of subjects so that they may reach that level. The school is not an extension of the parents’ obligation to have their children taught in the doctrine of salvation. It is an institute for learning.

It is a blessing from the Lord that our parents are permitted to establish such an institute for learning which is under their control and where the entire instruction is based not on unbelieving and revolutionary theories but on the infallible Word of God, particularly as it has been summarized in the Reformed confessions. Certain courses not found at other institutions may be included in the curriculum, such as Bible Study, Reformed Confessions, and Church History, but these are just three courses among all the other courses. These three courses do not constitute the Reformed character of the institute for learning or of the instruction given at it. This character is determined by the basis of and the method of instruction in each and every course, whether it is history or biology, chemistry or arithmetic. Instruction based on and dominated by God’s Word in all courses (even at a Reformed school) cannot justly be called a “teaching in the doctrine of salvation” and be qualified as a fulfilment of the promise which parents make at the baptism of their infants.

We are to reject the notion that by the act of establishing Reformed schools

|272|

and sending their children to them the parents fulfil the above promise. On the other hand, we should maintain and stress that parents, by establishing these schools, correctly drew the consequence from their promise. How could they permit that at school is ruined what they build up at home and in church? The life of a Christian cannot be cut into various sectors and zones which exist separately and independently. The same grace and mercies, but also the same obligations and responsibilities cover all our activities.

Bringing up their children in the fear of the Lord, as they have promised, the parents are also to see to it that whatever danger may jeopardize this upbringing be eliminated as much as possible. They owe it to their children and, indeed, to their promise at baptism, that they protect their children to the best of their ability and use any opportunity to support and promote what is taught at home and in church. No one, therefore, should have the impression that the education of the children has nothing to do with the promise at baptism or that the promise has nothing to do with the education of the children. The point in the above is that even a good cause is not served or promoted by an incorrect argument. As for the rest, it is not without meaning or reason that this article follows immediately after the one dealing with baptism. The promise made by the parents has great consequences also for the education of their children.

Meanwhile we do bear in mind that in this article we speak of the duties of the consistories in this respect. The above elaboration was necessary, however, to receive the proper perspective on the task of the consistory and the nature of their exhortations and admonitions.

When parents do not live up to what is mentioned in this article, and this constitutes a breach of the promise made at the baptism of their children, and when the consistory's admonishing them does not result in changing their way, disciplinary action should be taken. One can speak “weighty” words, such as “as they have promised at baptism,” but then one also has to face the consequences. Otherwise it is better to swallow the words and never to utter them again.

The oversight of the consistory extends to the whole of life and all the activities of the members. The consistory must pay special attention to the manner in which the parents safeguard what is taught at home and in church. Do they also endeavour to have their children receive an education which is permeated by the Word of God? Or do they allow their children to be exposed to such instruction by “which they could be corrupted or steeped in wickedness of conduct or doctrine,” as Antwerp 1565 had it? If necessary, the promise at baptism could be quoted, and the parents could be asked whether letting their children be exposed to unbelieving teaching is in agreement with that promise, the more so since other possibilities exist. The consistory’s supervision extends only to the members of the church as such. Parents and teachers alike are under the consistory’s supervision as members of the congregation; schools are not, nor is any other society or organization. The perennial debates about the question whether schools or other societies are included in the supervision of the consistory and whether the schools should be visited by the office-bearers in their official capacity were an unnecessary waste of time and energy.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 59

|273|

Article 59

Baptism of Adults

 

Adults who have not been baptized shall be ingrafted into the Christian Church by holy baptism upon their public profession of faith.

How does one become a member of the church? There are two or perhaps three ways in which this can happen. The first one is, of course, when one is born in the church. We confess of our children that “as members of Christ’s church they ought to be baptized.” A second way is when a family as a whole joins the church. Then the children in this family are also received into the communion of the church when the parents are accepted as members. The third way is when adults request admission, make profession of faith, and then are ingrafted into the church by holy baptism.

When speaking of “adults,” we refer to such persons past the age at which they would be baptized with the use of the Form for the Baptism of Infants. Again we have to state that no specific age can be given, but in the past the figures fourteen, fifteen or eighteen were used.

Apart from the children below the age of twelve, as mentioned in connection with Art. 57, there is only one way into the church. That is the way of profession of faith. If one was baptized, no baptism has to follow. If not, one will receive the sacrament upon profession of faith.

No one who takes church membership seriously and is convinced that this is the church of Christ to which he should join himself will object to making profession of faith before being admitted into the communion of the church. No one should be exempt from doing so either, unless he comes from a sister church with an attestation.

It does happen that someone from another ecclesiastical body wants to join the church because he has come to the conclusion that the church group to which he has belonged thus far is or has become unfaithful to the Lord and that it is his obligation to separate from it. When such a person requests to be received as a member, he can become this only upon profession of faith. He may have done so at one time in the church group from which he separates himself, yet this profession cannot be accepted as meeting the condition set in Art. 59.

At the profession of faith one does not declare that one is a believer or that one is a Christian — whatever is to be understood by this — but one makes profession of what he believes, the contents of one's faith. The first question asked at the public profession of faith makes this abundantly clear. In this question we speak specifically of the doctrine which is taught in this Christian church. Is this the same as the doctrine which is taught in the circle from which he feels he must separate himself? Obviously it is not. Thus a declaration made in that church group cannot serve as a condition for church

|274|

membership. It is imperative to declare in one’s profession of faith that one believes the doctrine that is taught in this Christian church.

It is not necessary that in each and every instance this profession is made publicly, in the presence of Christ's church. It can be made before the consistory or even before some office-bearers who have been appointed by the consistory. Much will depend on the situation and the person involved. If baptism is to follow, the profession of faith must be public, since the Form for the Baptism of Adults will be used.

When someone having made profession of faith in another church group requests admission into the church, it may be wise to appoint two or preferably three brothers to visit this person, to talk with him and learn what his motives and attitude are. At this visit and interview the brothers should read the Form for the Public Profession of Faith and ask the person whether he or she can wholeheartedly answer these questions in the affirmative. A “Yes” is in fact the profession of faith needed for admission, made before the office-bearers, who then can report this to the consistory. In the event the interview and examination take place before the whole consistory, the Form should be read at the meeting so that the answer can be heard and witnessed by all.

When someone requests admission who has not made profession of faith before in the ecclesiastical community to which he belonged, there is only one way in which this request can be granted: when he makes profession of faith in the midst of the congregation.

Sometimes one can read that a consistory admitted into the communion of the church “brother A.” or “sister B.,” a “baptized member” coming from the “C. church.” This is incorrect. The only gate through which one can enter the church is profession of faith. Someone who comes as a “baptized member” should be admitted to the catechism classes and should receive all the pastoral care and assistance the church members receive, and should be made to feel welcome; but a member he cannot become until he makes profession of faith. Consistories should remember this.

If someone has not been baptized, he is to receive this sacrament upon public profession of faith. Only the Form for the Baptism of Adults should be used, as the questions asked in this Form are an extended version of those contained in the Form for the Public Profession of Faith. By this baptism one is openly ingrafted into the Christian church, and from then on may share in all the rights and privileges that come with membership.

Previously this article also stressed the obligation of those making profession of faith and being ingrafted into the church to partake of the holy supper. Apparently it was necessary to stress this obligation. Apparently many have sought church membership for trivial and spurious reasons and had no intention to take their membership seriously. The situation has changed to such an extent that practically all who make profession of faith obey the call also to take part in the Supper of the Lord. Consequently, such a provision as was previously found in this article is no longer considered necessary.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 60

|275|

Article 60

Lord’s Supper

 

The Lord’s Supper shall be celebrated at least every three months.

There is no direct command from the Lord telling us how often we are to celebrate His supper. From the words of our Saviour “as often as you do this” it is clear that what is stipulated here in Art. 60 is a bare minimum, if even that. From the New Testament we get the distinct impression that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated regularly, every Lord’s day. Compared to that, we are acting poorly when celebrating it every two or three months.

The old redaction of our Church Order stated that this celebration was to take place “at least every two or three months.” This did not make much sense because, when the term “at least” is used, the two different periods should not be left to choice. It is either at least two or at least three, not both. Now it is provided that it shall be done “at least once every three months.” In several churches the celebration takes place once every two months, and they can just continue this practice; in other churches it is customary to do it once every three months, and they should not be compelled, because of a provision in our Church Order, to increase the frequency, although such increase is to be encouraged and promoted. It would be beneficial when all churches decided that the Lord’s Supper will be administered to believers at least once every two months. Once every month would even be better, but perhaps this is wishing for too much.

Neither is the length of our Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper an incentive to increase the frequency of celebrating the holy supper, while the Abbreviated Form is used exclusively for a so-called continuation of the Supper in the afternoon service. This service constitutes essentially another celebration when the morning’s service has been concluded with the reading of the Thanksgiving passage. For the second service the abbreviated Form will then be read. For all this one cannot speak of a “continuation” in that case. If one wishes to stress the idea that on that particular Sunday there will be one celebration which for practical reasons is spread over two services, the concluding portion of the Form should not be read at the end of the morning service. And thus no form should be read in the afternoon, except the Thanksgiving which concludes the celebration of that day.

In earlier times our Church Order also spoke of a preparatory sermon, to be given on the Sunday before the scheduled celebration. This was then a sermon in which the congregation was reminded of the need for self-examination, or in which certain aspects of the holy supper were explained and stressed. We no longer have that provision nor do we have the provision that a “thanksgiving sermon” shall be given after the celebration. These provisions would put too much emphasis on the Lord’s Supper and give the impression that it is a special, extraordinary element in the life of the church.

|276|

If this were so, at least eight of the fifty-two Sundays would be dedicated to the Lord’s Supper, not to speak of the three Sundays on which Lord’s Days 28, 29, and 30 of the Heidelberg Catechism receive attention. All this together with the extra provisions would be excessive.

Both the “preparation” and the “thanksgiving” are an integral part of the Form read at the celebration, and this is sufficient. Sometimes it is decided to read the first part of the Form on the Sunday before the celebration. In part, the reason behind it may then be that the service on the celebration Sunday will not be as long, and for the other part because it is thought that the congregation will thus have guidance with its self-examination. Apart from the question how many, as a result, will indeed occupy their mind with the approaching Lord’s Supper, there is the point that a form which is a unit is split up. Splitting it up and dividing it over two Sundays breaks its unity. It belongs in its entirety to the celebration.

As for the celebration itself, much is left in the freedom of the churches and of the ministers. No specific rules or ordinances have been given in God’s Word. It is in the freedom of the churches to have a short sermon before the celebration; likewise there is no rule about reading from the Scriptures or singing while sitting at the table. Preferably the minister should not give a brief comment on the part of God’s Word that was read, so as not to draw the thoughts of the congregation away from the supper and its meaning.

How the supper is to be celebrated is also left in the freedom of the churches. When determining how this celebration should proceed, they are to bear in mind that it is a supper, a meal at which Christ is the Host and the congregation is invited to sit at table with Him. Thus it appears that, wherever possible, a table should be put up round which the congregation can sit down. Scripture speaks of the table of the Lord, 1 Cor. 10: 21, and of the marriage supper of the Lamb, Rev. 19: 9. One cannot speak of a table and of a supper when the members remain scattered in the pews and bread and wine are brought to them, perhaps even the wine in individual cups. Admittedly, the New Testament also uses the word “table” to denote communion without implying that the participants are in reality sitting around a table; but this cannot be said of the meaning of the word “supper.” It is clear from the Gospels that the Lord Jesus and His disciples were sitting (reclining) at a table when our Saviour instituted the Lord’s Supper. Mat. 26: 20; Mark 14: 18; Luke 22 :14, 21; John 13: 23, 25.

It does not appear correct to have small individual cups either. There is no doubt about it that the Lord Jesus took one cup and that the disciples drank from it. Luke 22: 17 reads: “And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves.’” The apostle Paul also speaks of “the cup of the Lord,” which shows that he did not have in mind small individual cups to be handed to and emptied by each believer. The tendency to change over to individual cups appears to have come from modernistic influences all around us. It points to individualism rather than to the unity of the body. Because the number of those sitting at table is usually rather large, two or four cups are used but this is merely for practical reasons. One cup would be too heavy and too cumbersome if all forty or more

|277|

participants had to drink from it. This is essentially different from the use of individual cups. If there is a member or if there are members who have a contagious disease, special measures can be taken. They can either be (privately) requested to be the last ones to drink from the cup or be provided with a special cup into which some wine from the common cup can be poured so that they, too, receive from the same cup as all the others. This could be done very discreetly to prevent embarrassment.

The rims of the cups should be cleaned between the tables, and thus every possible precaution should be taken to prevent harm, but we have never heard yet at any time that anyone got any illness or infection from drinking from the one cup at the Lord's table. We realize that it will be practically impossible to prove either that someone did become infected or that no one did, and we should not take unnecessary risks. But we have a God to whom also bacteria and viruses are subject and who sometimes protected His children even when they drank any deadly thing, Mk. 16: 18; cf. Acts 28: 5.

The consistory usually checks right after the celebration of the Lord’s Supper whether any of the communicant members did not partake. If there are any, the section elder(s) will enquire about the reason for the member’s absence. It is a good custom to inform the consistory beforehand of one’s inability to attend not only the Lord’s Supper but any worship service. Alas, not all members do this faithfully, and thus the office-bearers have extra work that could have been prevented.

If anyone should ask why the consistory checks the attendance at the Lord’s Supper and not at all other worship services, the answer is that the overseers do pay attention to everyone’s faithfulness in attending. In addition, someone’s absence from the table of the Lord may be the first indication that something is not quite right with the brother or sister. The sooner the overseers discover this, the better it is.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 61

|278|

Article 61

Admission to the Lord’s Supper

 

The consistory shall admit to the Lord’s Supper only those who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life. Members of sister-Churches shall be admitted on the ground of a good attestation concerning their doctrine and conduct.

Does a child that is born within the church have a right to baptism only or also to the holy supper? A child born within the church has received the promise of the covenant and is therefore entitled to receive both sacraments, for these signify and seal the promise of the Gospel, the promise of the covenant. One does not receive the right to the promise or the right to the sacrament by virtue of any act of one’s own but only through the gracious decision of our God. It was the Lord’s decision to give His covenant promises to the parents and to their children.

Yet the church does not admit children to the Lord’s Supper. Here we have another example of a church member having a right but not (yet) being allowed to exercise it. Why does the church not open the way to participation in the celebration of the holy supper to infants or other young children? They are admitted to the holy baptism, are they not? Why then not to the Lord’s Supper?

The Lord’s Supper differs from baptism in more than one respect, but the importance in this connection is that baptism can be received without the recipient knowing what is happening to him, whereas no one can celebrate the holy supper without being aware of what he is doing. The Lord Jesus commanded His church to do this “in remembrance of Him.” In order to be able to do this one has to be aware of the meaning of this supper and partaking of it. One has to discern the body, the apostle Paul tells us. And in Lord’s Day 28 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess: “Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and drink of this cup in remembrance of Him.”

This tells us that one has to have reached the years of understanding and of knowing full-well what one is doing. It is also evident that there must be assurances that one who goes to the supper is a believer who accepts the promise of the Gospel with a believing heart, and therein Christ with all His benefits.

For these reasons the consistory is not permitted to admit anyone to the holy supper who has not made profession of faith. It is the Lord’s mercy that infants may receive holy baptism without having made profession of faith. But ever since the moment of baptism the Lord has been waiting for this child, this young man, this young woman to give his or her answer to His boundless mercies. The answer is the profession of faith, and it is this

|279|

profession of faith which opens the way for the member to also exercise his or her right to receive the second sacrament.

In preparation for this memorable day and moment the children attend catechetical instruction given by the minister. All catechetical instruction is directed towards this profession of faith, although usually a special class is conducted for those who have expressed the wish to make this profession and be admitted to the holy supper.

There is no fixed age for this profession. Much depends on the sincerity and knowledge of the young member. One may safely say that those who began to attend catechism classes at the age of eleven or twelve will have gathered the necessary knowledge and insight by the time they are seventeen or eighteen years of age. In any case profession of faith should not be postponed till after the twentieth year. From the Word of God we learn that the Lord holds those who have reached that age fully responsible, Numbers 1: 3; 14: 29.

When we say that by the age of seventeen or eighteen they will have gathered the necessary knowledge and insight, we do not wish to give the impression that the condition to be met for being allowed to make profession of faith is simply a matter of knowing and understanding. One should not produce false oppositions. The knowledge and insight we speak of are the knowledge and insight of faith. It is that knowledge-of-faith which the consistory looks for when examining those who have expressed the wish to be admitted to the holy supper.

In the past the examination of candidates for the profession of faith was frequently divided into two parts: one being the investigation into the motives for wishing to make profession of faith, the other an examination of the candidates’ knowledge of the truth. This was unsupportable, and it still is. The candidates should be examined comprehensively, so that the consistory may arrive at the conclusion that those examined know what they believe. The profession professes what we believe. Knowing and believing are indivisible here.

It is advisable that the minister informs the consistory at the beginning of the season who the catechumens are that have expressed the desire to make profession of faith, so that the elders can take this into account during the regular family visits. There is nothing wrong with the office-bearers paying a special visit to those who have requested admission to the holy supper upon profession of faith, provided this visit is not interpreted as an “examination of the motives,” something separate and distinct from the examination in the knowledge. This would imply that the latter will be reduced to a purely abstract display of knowledge without the involvement of the whole person with mind, heart and soul.

Once the consistory is convinced of the sincerity and maturity of the candidates it will give them permission to make public profession of faith. Usually the names of the candidates are announced to the congregation on two consecutive Sundays. No rule is provided in this, but it is helpful that it is done. The congregation may know something which the consistory is not aware of but should know regarding one or other candidate. This might even be of such a nature that it constitutes an impediment to the profession of faith

|280|

and the admittance to the table of the Lord. A situation like that will not have to be faced very often, but it is conceivable.

The same rule which applies to members of the (local) church also applies to those coming from other churches: they too must have made profession of faith. In proof of this they will have to show a testimony from their consistory that they are entitled to partake of the holy supper. The bond as sister churches implies that such testimonies are accepted and that the brother or sister is permitted to take part in the celebration without examination by the consistory.

Occasionally someone from another place requests permission to partake of the Lord's Supper without having requested and received an attestation. This places a consistory before a difficult decision. Most consistories have decided that no one shall be allowed to partake unless he can show an attestation, usually called a “travel attestation.” On the one hand the brothers want to honour their own decision; on the other hand they hesitate to refuse the brother or sister, especially when it concerns members who are personally known by some of the brothers.

Sometimes they will go to the trouble of phoning the home church to get an oral testimony, but they are under no obligation whatever to do this, and they should not have to feel bad about it if they don’t, for the responsibility rests ultimately with the member who should have asked his consistory for an attestation before leaving on the trip. No one can take it ill of a consistory that honours its decision and abides by it: an attestation is needed.

When there are brothers and sisters from other places who have received permission to partake together with the congregation of the Lord’s Supper, the congregation should be informed about it, for the brothers and sisters must know with whom they sit at table and also that those sitting with them have the right to do so. A question may arise in the event someone comes from another country and desires to take part in the celebration. There should be no difficulty if he is a member of a foreign sister church and presents an attestation to the consistory. According to the “rules for correspondence” we are obligated to honour such an attestation in the same manner as we do one from a church in our own country.

Things are different when it concerns someone who is not a member of a foreign sister church and has no attestation. Even if he submits an attestation issued by a non-sister church, this document is not sufficient to grant him permission. Should the consistory deny the request solely on the ground that he has no attestation from a sister church? We are of the opinion that this is not mandatory. We consider it quite well possible and certainly permissible that the consistory appoints a few brothers to examine the man and to see whether there is any impediment to his being permitted to partake of the holy supper. We may take it that he will not come with his request without good grounds, but will have come to the conclusion that here he finds the church of the Lord and this is the community with which he is one in faith. When this also becomes evident during the visit and examination and when he wholeheartedly expresses his agreement with the questions asked at the public profession of faith, would a consistory do wrong when granting his request? We cannot see why. It certainly does not violate the provision made in Art. 61.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 62

|281|

Article 62

Attestations

 

Communicant members who move to a sister-Church shall be given, after previous announcements to the congregation, an attestation regarding their doctrine and conduct, signed on behalf of the consistory by two of its members.
In the case of non-communicant members such an attestation shall be sent directly to the consistory of the Church concerned
.

“Sir, I am going to move in a couple of weeks. Would you please ask the consistory for my attestation?”

What is wrong with this question? It is not that the brother informs the minister or clerk of the intended move, nor is it that he does so some weeks before that event. The wrong element is that he asks for “my attestation.” “My attestation” does not exist. And consistories that publish: “We now can officially welcome brother A. and his family, for their attestation has finally arrived” use wrong terminology and promote a wrong idea. When one speaks of “my attestation,” he gives the impression that there is a sort of membership card in the archives of the church which is to be lifted out, given along, and deposited into the archives of the church in the other town or city. An attestation is no such thing. It is a testimony written concerning the brother or sister or their family, it describes their faithfulness or unfaithfulness in doctrine and conduct. Similarly, when someone wants to break with the church (wrongful in itself) he adds to his error by saying “I don’t want to belong to this church, I demand my attestation.” There is no such thing, and this person will not get what he demands either. More about this point later.

This wrong notion is promoted because of forms some consistories have printed up which can be used for most members and families. All that remains to be done is enter the name(s) of the departing member(s) and sign it. Although this does save some time, it is not a practice to be advocated or promoted. An attestation is a testimony written concerning this particular member or family. The printed forms usually state that “as far as is known,” the brother or sister is “of sound Christian doctrine and conduct.” Truly informative and something the “new” consistory can work with, is it not?

This “as far as is known” in effect undermines the declaration that the brother or sister is faithful in doctrine and conduct. Has the consistory never visited this brother or sister and did the brothers not observe him or her conversation in the midst of the congregation? Granted, there are always hidden corners in a person’s heart, this we all know. A physician who has examined a person and has taken all sorts of tests gives a “certificate of good health” and does not write “as far as is known, this man is healthy.” There are terms in our ecclesiastical life which are being used routinely but, upon closer scrutiny, cannot pass the test.

|282|

An attestation should contain relevant information, far more than the flat “of sound doctrine and conduct.” It should state whether the brother or sister was active in the midst of the congregation, participated in various activities, was a member of any society, came to church faithfully, and so on. If the brother was an office-bearer in the congregation from which he departs once or for more than one term, should this not be mentioned, so that the “new” consistory has some important information about the member right away? When a family moves, should it not be mentioned whether the children were faithful in coming to catechism classes, what their attitude was, whether they paid good attention, learned their lessons well, and behaved themselves properly?

For these reasons it is to be preferred not to use printed forms with a few lines available for “Remarks,” but to write a clear and personal testimony in each and every case. Only then can we justly speak of a testimony concerning doctrine and conduct. That we mention both doctrine and conduct is because both are equally important and so intertwined that they cannot be separated. This is also in accord with what we confess, for example, in Lord’s Day 31.

 

Why?

Why should one ask for and receive such a testimony when leaving for another city or town? We refer to a move which brings one outside the reach of the consistory of the church one belonged to thus far, to a region which is “covered” by the authority of the consistory of another church. If one moves to a region not so “covered,” other ways have to be sought to retain one’s bond with the church to which one belongs or to the closest church. In the latter case an attestation will be needed just as much as when one moves to a place where a church is found. Moving away from a place means in fact that one ceases being a member of the local church. Settling in another place does not mean that one automatically is a member of the church in that other place. Each local church is wholly autonomous and not a subdivision of a nation-wide body. “Transfer of membership” is impossible. When one settles in another place, one has to join himself to the church in that place by a voluntary, express act, and ask the consistory to receive one as a member.

Strictly speaking, one would have to be examined by that consistory and make profession of faith in order to be admitted to that church. However, attestations given by another church within the federation are accepted as a sufficient proof that the brother or sister is a “member in good standing,” and thus can be admitted without further examination, solely on the basis of that attestation. Sometimes we can read in reports that an “attestation is accepted.” This is a wrong expression, since no consistory has to make a decision that an attestation shall be accepted. It is a matter-of-course that attestations from other churches within the federation or from foreign sister churches are accepted. What is not a matter-of-course is that the brother or sister shall be accepted as a member.

Do not misunderstand this. When a good and favourable testimony is received, there is also the obligation to receive the brother or sister into full and

|283|

unrestricted membership. But the rare situation may occur when a testimony is so unfavourable that a consistory will have to come to the conclusion: “On the basis of this attestation we cannot receive this man or this woman into the communion of the church.”

Most likely this will happen only in the case of non-communicant members. One who was about to be excommunicated in all likelihood will not seek membership in another church. This writer recalls one particular case of a non-communicant member whom the consistory refused to receive as a member. Upon the request of the parents the consistory of a church sent an attestation which stated that the (adult) non-communicant member was totally indifferent, refused even to talk to the office-bearers, and had not attended worship services for several years. The consistory did, of course, “accept” the attestation as was its obligation, but on the basis of it refused to enter the name of the man into the membership register, although attempts were made to get in touch with the man. The “home church” was informed accordingly.

From the above it is obvious that one can drop out of sight quite easily. One asks for an attestation, moves to another place, but does not join himself to the church there. It is, therefore, mandatory that the consistory notifies the church in the place or area to which the member is moving of this relocation, possibly also the new address.

What should not be done under any circumstances is that in this communication the consistory gives additional information which was not mentioned in the attestation handed to the member. Also with respect to an attestation the consistory should remember that “in court and everywhere else” we “must love the truth, speak and confess it honestly.” No consistory should write behind the back of the member what it did not or did not dare to mention in the attestation.

 

Announcements

A provision has been made that attestations shall be given “after previous announcements to the congregation.” It is not clear to us why this announcement is required and why the plural is used. We do not think that the general synod which made this change fully realized what it was doing. Now there are consistories which think that a request for an attestation must be announced twice to the congregation before it can be honoured. We have our doubts about the necessity of even one announcement, for the next reasons:

In defense of the provision that a request for an attestation must be announced to the congregation it has been asserted that the congregation may know something which the consistory does not know and should be mentioned in the attestation. It would be wrong, it is said, to give a member a good attestation when something is amiss with him or her, would it not? The congregation must have the opportunity to have its input in this case, it is said.

Is this really correct? And if a member should come with some statement or accusation to the consistory, would the consistory be allowed to deal with it, let alone mention anything in the attestation? We are convinced that taking these steps would be unjustifiable.

|284|

Only in an extreme situation would a consistory be remiss in its duty if it did not mention in the attestation what someone communicated to it concerning the departing member. It may be that there is such a serious sin in the life of the member that this may not remain concealed and that the consistory must be informed about it now that the member is going to leave and has requested an attestation. If this should be the case, the consistory is under obligation to inform the "new" consistory of the sin. But how often will this happen?

It could also be that some member is on the verge of coming to the consistory with one or two others to inform the consistory that their individual admonitions have remained without effect and that now that member is compelled to come sooner than anticipated, because the brother or sister is going to leave. Again: how often or rather how seldom will this happen? It is extremely rare already that a brother or sister comes to the consistory with witnesses. In view of this rare possibility should the rule have been made that attestations be announced?

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that a brother or sister comes with an accusation against the departing member. What can the consistory do with that? Perhaps the consistory is unable to verify the correctness of the accusation, apart from the question whether it has the right to deal with it when one brother or sister comes without witnesses. Here we anticipate Art. 67. The fact that a brother or sister leaves and has asked for an attestation does not give a consistory the right to act contrary to what our Lord has commanded us, which command forms the basis for Art. 67.

Even if a brother or sister comes and informs the consistory of some (alleged) sin with the departing member, would the consistory be allowed to mention this in the attestation? Has the consistory investigated? Has the consistory made certain that the member coming with the complaint or accusation has followed “the way of Matthew 18?” Shall not in the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter be established? Is it certain that there is no repentance but, on the contrary, a hardening in sin?

The more we think about it, the more we become convinced that, except in an extremely rare case to which we referred above, no consistory would even be permitted to mention in an attestation what was brought to its attention by a brother or sister who heard that brother A. has requested an attestation for the church at B. Thus we cannot see any other sense in the phrase “previous announcement” than that it is simply notifying the congregation that so-and-so is going to leave. Is it really needed to have this directive in the Church Order?

Before an attestation can be issued the request must pass the consistory. In some churches the consistory has given two of its members the right to issue attestations if nothing special has to be mentioned. Even so they will have to report to the consistory that they issued an attestation and what they wrote in it.

Another announcement that is oftentimes made is that “an attestation has been received concerning brother A. from the church at B.” Although it is correct that the congregation is informed about the arrival of new

|285|

members, it is a big question whether this has to be done through an announcement from the pulpit. The congregation will be informed by means of the bulletin anyway, and is this not sufficient? What is the sense of an announcement from the pulpit? Or is it thought that this is a requirement according to our Church Order? There is no need to do so.

It is Sunday morning. A brother knocks at the door of the consistory room and hands over a letter. One of the office-bearers opens it and says: “This is an attestation from the church at A. for brother B. We’ll have to announce this.” Wrong!

In the first place, a letter to the consistory, even though there is nothing wrong with the clerk opening it before the meeting and taking note of its contents, is a letter to the consistory and is to be dealt with at a consistory meeting before any action on it is to be taken, including making an announcement to the congregation. When the brothers are together as office-bearers before the service, this is not the consistory, even when all of them are present. Even when all office-bearers are in the consistory room before the service, so that we can say: “The consistory is here,” this does not yet mean that there is a consistory meeting. An attestation should definitely pass the consistory meeting before an announcement is made to the congregation either from the pulpit or via the bulletin.

The only case in which we could envision the need for an immediate announcement is when someone comes on the Sunday when the holy supper is being celebrated. Our consistories generally have decided that, with a view to this celebration, note shall be taken of any attestation shown so that guests may receive permission to partake of the supper. To extend what may be called an exceptional case to any and all attestations is incorrect, for then a decision is made without a meeting. This should be avoided.

 

Final Remarks

No specific answer can be given to the question how long an attestation will be valid. In general, the churches accept an attestation as valid when it is no more than three months ago since it was issued. Members usually will submit it as soon as possible after their arrival to the church they wish to join. Who wants to be without membership in the church for any length of time?

Upon leaving the one place, one essentially ceases being a member of the church there. This is not to say that for some days or some weeks one is not a member of Christ's church; it only stresses the need to join oneself as soon as possible to the church in the new place of residence. No one who takes church membership seriously would wait more than three months before asking to be received as a member in the new place of residence.

Strictly speaking, the same applies to what are commonly called “travel attestations.” These are attestations requested by and issued to members who will spend a Sunday or some Sundays away from the home church and count on the possibility that the Lord’s Supper is celebrated on the Sunday they attend another church. It is recommendable to ask the consistory of that church to mark on the attestation that the holy supper was received on that

|286|

specific Sunday. Some even ask the consistory to mark on the attestation that they attended the worship services in that church on that particular Lord’s Day.

When a non-communicant member moves to another place, it is the parents who request the consistory to send an attestation concerning their child to the church they moved to. The attestation of a non-communicant member is sent directly to the other consistory.

Should an attestation be given to someone who breaks with the church? No. All such a member can receive is a statement giving date of birth, date of baptism, and whatever other “vital statistics” may be available. A consistory should in no way become an accessory before the fact of this separation. Attestations are given only when one moves to another place and wants to join the church there, not when one breaks with the church and wants to join another religious community. When someone submits the attestation to another church group in the new town instead of to the consistory of the sister church there, this is beyond the responsibility of the consistory. Had the consistory anticipated this course of events, no attestation would have been given.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 63

|287|

Article 63

Marriage

 

The consistory shall ensure that the members of the congregation marry only in the Lord, and that the ministers — as authorized by the consistory —solemnize only such marriages as are in accordance with the Word of God.
The solemnization of a marriage may take place either in a private ceremony or in a public worship service. The adopted Form for the Solemnization of Marriage shall be used
.

Whoever scans the Acts of previous regional as well as general synods in the Netherlands will be amazed at the number of times the question of marriage came up at those assemblies. It was not only difficulties between marriage partners that constituted a large portion of these times but also the question of the solemnization of marriage. The task and role of the church in this respect were discussed extensively. Until the present time there still is no general consensus on the task of the church when two people are getting married.

In previous centuries the situation in the Netherlands was similar to what we have here in Canada: the civil authorities recognize marriages solemnized by ministers as valid and as having legal status. Certain conditions are to be met, but once the civil authorities have registered a minister as authorized to solemnize marriage, any marriage solemnized by him is valid and binding.

On purpose we put it in this manner: “registered as authorized.” There still is the wide-spread erroneous notion that “civil governments authorize ministers of religion to solemnize marriages on their behalf.” Civil governments, at least in Canada, do no such thing, and ministers of the Gospel do not solemnize marriage on behalf of the civil authorities. This is a myth. Solemnization of marriage is a provincial matter, and in various provincial marriage laws we consulted there was not one single suggestion that the authorization comes from civil authorities. On the contrary, the civil authorities acknowledge that the authorization comes from the church. The laws speak constantly of “registered as authorized.” The Marriage Act of Ontario can be quoted here. It states that the Provincial Secretary “may, subject to subsection 3, register any person as a person authorized to solemnize marriage.”

This subsection reads as follows.

(3) No person shall be registered unless it appears to the Provincial Secretary,
(a) that the person has been ordained or appointed according to the rites and usages of the religious body to which he belongs, or is, by the rules of that religious body, deemed ordained or appointed;
(b) that the person is duly recognized by the religious body to

|288|

which he belongs as entitled to solemnize marriage according to its rites and usages;
(c) that the religious body to which the person belongs is permanently established both as to the continuity of its existence and as to its rites and ceremonies.

There is one more section, (d), which is not relevant here. It is clear that the authorization comes from the religious body and not from the civil authorities. Perhaps it is superfluous, but one more quote may be added, this time from the Manitoba Act. It says that a person eighteen years of age or over who is “(b) a catechist, an evangelist, a missionary, or a theological student duly appointed and commissioned by the governing body of a religious denomination with special authority to solemnize marriage” can be registered. The next section then states that the Minister may “register the person as authorized to solemnize ceremonies of marriage.”

From these quotations it appears without a shadow of doubt that the civil authorities consider the authorization to come from the religious body. The churches are therefore completely correct when speaking of the ministers “as authorized by the consistory.” The right and authority to do so comes from his position within the church, which position he has received from the church. That is how the civil authorities look at it and speak about it. We could trace this back to the early days of colonization, or even go back in our thoughts to Europe and investigate the situation there before the discovery of the Americas, but this would take up too much space.

Being part of the work of a minister of the Word, also this activity is under the supervision of the consistory, and it is, again, the task of the consistory that we are speaking of in this article as well. One could argue that a marriage is not an ecclesiastical matter, and this has to be admitted. To be sure, each individual marriage is of extreme importance also for the church and even the initial contact between a man and a woman should receive the consistory’s full attention and care. For all this, it is not an ecclesiastical matter.

Ecclesiastical matters are those which involve the congregation, the church as a whole. By baptism one is openly ingrafted into the Christian church. The Lord’s Supper is a matter of the whole congregation, as are the ordination of office-bearers, the public profession of faith, and church discipline. But marriage, although it is important and affects the entire congregation, is not an ecclesiastical matter, just as a death affects the whole church, but is a private matter. Regarding funerals we find the provision: “Funerals are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly,” Art. 65. Likewise the provision could be made: “Marriages are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.”

It could even be argued that, since marriages are family affairs, we should not have an article about it in our Church Order nor a form in our Book of Praise. This would go too far, as we are to take the historical background and development into account. Besides, it cannot be denied that the church’s interest in the marriage choice of its members is incalculable and that it is a momentous occasion when a couple can have their marriage solemnized by their own minister, when the Name of the Lord is invoked, and

|289|

when the Form is used in which the importance and purpose of marriage are explained from the Scriptures. Moreover, the promises made by the contracting parties manifest that the fear of the Lord is the guiding principle.

Some provinces allow a marriage to be solemnized when the banns have been published “in an audible voice during the divine worship service,” and no objection has been received from the congregation. Then the civil authorities trust that there are no legal impediments to the intended marriage and that the congregation has given its assent. In other provinces a marriage may be solemnized only when the couple can produce a marriage license, issued on behalf of the civil authorities.

Regarding the degrees of consanguinity which forbid marriage, the church follows the standards set by the civil authorities, and these standards fundamentally date back to what the Lord has commanded us in His Word, (cf. Lev. 18 and 20.)

 

Task of Consistory

As stated above, in Art. 63 we speak of the task of the consistory. The consistory has the supervision over the work of the minister, but also over the life of the members of the congregation and certainly over such an important matter as the marriage of two of its members. If a member marries not “in the Lord,” how can this marriage ever be a symbol of the relation between Christ and His church? There is also the grave danger in such a case that a whole generation becomes lost to the church and to the cause of the Lord.

Quite understandably, the first part of this article makes the provision that the consistory shall ensure that members marry “in the Lord.” This is an express command which we find in Scripture, 1 Cor. 7: 39. When a man and a woman enter the covenant of marriage, they are to do this in obedience to the Lord. No blessing should be expected if they begin their life together on the wrong foot. The Lord also tells us expressly that we shall not be “mismatched with an unbeliever,” 2 Cor. 6: 14. Although this does not specifically refer to the bond of marriage, there is nothing that prevents us from applying it to marriage as well. Would the command not apply to the life-long “match” of marriage? Should the Lord’s children not do everything “in Him,” in their communion with Him, as obedient children of the covenant which the Lord has established with them in the first place?

A consistory should not wait with paying due attention to the choice of partner until a marriage has been arranged and a date has been set for the wedding. As soon as a boy or a girl seems to become too closely attached to someone not belonging to the church the overseers should discuss this with the member and admonish him or her not to continue in this way. Even if the member should remain a member after marriage, the impact which the other partner will have on the family and the children, if they receive any, is such that the worst can be expected. The children will have to make a choice, and it will be extremely difficult for them to free themselves from the influence which tries to steer them into a direction which is contrary to the

|290|

will of the Lord. In case the other partner requests to be received as a member, and is admitted upon profession of faith, the fact remains that this partner may be unable to free himself or herself from the past, which still may influence the thinking and the upbringing of the children. There are exceptions, for which we are very thankful, but we should go by the rule.

Another element which is to be taken into account is that through a marriage two families are brought into closer contact with each other. Children will undergo the influence from two different branches and perhaps even worlds of thought when a mismatch in the Scriptural sense takes place.

In as much as it is the task of the consistory to take heed of the members and their choice of marriage partner, the brothers have the task to ensure that the minister solemnizes only such marriages that are in accordance with the Word of God. It is clear what these marriages are: they are marriages “in the Lord,” marriages which are truly a symbol of the relation between Christ and His church. The minister is subject to the supervision of the consistory in this part of his activities too.

The question may be raised whether only marriages of communicant members should be solemnized or whether also those of non-communicant members are included. “How could one who has not yet publicly declared his ‘choice’ for God give the solemn promise that binds one to a life’s partner for as long as they both shall live?” one might ask. No one will deny that there is some inconsistency here. Yet we should not declare the solemnization of a marriage a priori impermissible when either one or both of the parties are non-communicant members. In general we should insist on the condition that both parties have first declared that they dedicate their lives to the Lord before they pledge each other their troth. As a rule, this will not cause any difficulty, since by far the most members entering the marriage state have made profession of faith.

Only occasionally does a marriage take place where this condition is not met. This will be mostly the case when a baby is already on the way. We fail to see why in such a case a minister should not be allowed to solemnize the marriage. Would it be in accordance with the will of the Lord that in such an event we send the brother and sister to a marriage commissioner or justice of the peace? They definitely were wrong to behave as if they were already married. But now that this resulted in pregnancy, is it ecclesiastical style to refuse the solemnization of their marriage? We cannot accept that; on the contrary, we would say that they need the guidance and prayer of the congregation the more urgently.

Where there is no “hurry” it should be pointed out to the couple that they are to make profession of faith first, although the consistory should see to it that the couple does not make profession of faith just to have their marriage solemnized by their minister. It must be a matter of heartfelt conviction and not a formal gesture, made necessary by the circumstances.

When a minister is unsure how he should proceed, he should put the question before the consistory, and he as well as the couple will have to honour the consistory's decision. After all, it is not the minister's or the consistory’s doing that the couple want to get married before having made profession of faith. The couple should realize that.

|291|

What about a marriage between a member and a non-member? Here, too, the consistory should consider the matter and come to a conclusion. Our Church Order does not make extensive stipulations here, but gives only general guidelines. The point of “in the Lord” is to be the guiding factor. We would not right away declare solemnization of such a marriage impermissible. Imagine a case in which the non-member has expressed a desire to join the church but, owing to pressure by his or her family, has not dared to take that step before the wedding day. In such an event we would consider it wrong to refuse the solemnization by the minister. Refusal might even alienate the member. However, the consistory has the final say in the matter.

 

Divorce

Another question is whether a marriage may be solemnized if one of the partners is divorced. Alas, this phenomenon with all its sad consequences also for the children is not unknown within the churches.

Though the question of divorce has received plenty of attention, we cannot say that full agreement has been reached concerning this matter. The church should certainly not follow the prevailing trend around us. There divorce is made as easy as selling a house or buying a car. One can even buy “Do-it-yourself divorce kits!” The church is to go solely by what the Lord has revealed in His Word and should, with its understanding of God’s revelation, not let itself be influenced by all sorts of unbelieving theories propagated all around us.

What we understand from the Lord’s revelation is that divorce is “legitimate” in two instances only. The first is when adultery is involved. When the Lord Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery, Mt. 19: 9, this “except” would not make any sense unless it expressed a legitimate reason for divorce. Thus, when one of the partners has committed adultery, the innocent party can legitimately seek a divorce and is then also free to marry again. We keep in mind that we are dealing with church polity and not with ethics. For this reason we confine ourselves to these few remarks.

The second possibility is when one of the partners leaves the other partner because of hatred against the service of the Lord, 1 Cor. 7: 12-16. When the apostle writes that the brother or sister is not bound in such a case, this can hardly mean anything else than that the believing party is free to obtain a divorce and to marry again, that is to say: in the Lord.

We cannot find any other valid ground for divorce in the Word of God, a ground that would likewise permit the solemnization of another marriage. Although a lengthy separation may be acceptable in today’s society, the Scriptures do not mention this as a valid ground. The same applies to all sorts of other excuses which are adduced, such as incompatibility.

What is to be done if someone who obtained a divorce on grounds that cannot stand the Lord’s scrutiny wants to get married? What if someone who has obtained a divorce on the ground of incompatibility marries and thus commits adultery? What about the other partner?

|292|

According to the words of our Saviour no marriage is allowed in these circumstances, since they are still bound to each other in the eyes of the Lord. The one who married someone else committed adultery, but the other party, who must have consented to the divorce on the ground of incompatibility, is not permitted to enter into another marriage either. Both have to remain unmarried.

If one of the parties does get married and if either this party or the one who enters into marriage with him or her is a member of the church, they should be admonished. This will have taken place already after the illegitimate divorce, but now there is the added sin of another marriage. This will intensify the admonitions. But what may not be demanded is that this second marriage shall be dissolved. This would be possible only on grounds which cannot stand before the Lord. All a consistory can do is bring the couple to the confession that both the divorce and the subsequent marriage were wrong, and that they sincerely repent of it. More may not be demanded of them.

We did sound a warning against casuistry before, but have to repeat it here. What should be kept in view are the rather simple and clear commands of the Lord. It is true that we live in a sinful and broken world and we are to remember that perfection will come only when our Saviour has appeared on the clouds of heaven. Therefore we should not judge harshly; we may be compelled to accept situations which cannot be changed in this dispensation.

 

Solemnization

What is the meaning of the solemnization of a marriage? When a man and a woman begin to love each other and agree that they should go through life as husband and wife, they are not by that very fact married to each other. They are to enter into this covenant on well-defined stipulations, in the presence of two witnesses. This is the normal and legitimate way in spite of all theories to the contrary.

The civil authorities have assured themselves of the sufficiency and validity of the vows made at the solemnization before having any minister of the churches registered as authorized to solemnize marriage. The legal position as husband and wife must be established, also, though not exclusively, with a view to possible children.

At the solemnization of their marriage the brother and sister openly enter into the covenant of marriage, give each other their promises and pledge each other their troth in the presence of witnesses. Doing this, they acknowledge that the Lord is the Head of their union and household and that they wish to proceed only under His guidance. They also solicit the prayers of their relatives, friends, and of the whole congregation.

For almost four hundred years the following announcement was made to the congregation: “A. and B. desire to enter into the holy state of matrimony according to the ordinance of God. To this end they crave the Christian prayers in their behalf of the whole congregation in order that they may begin this Christian state in the Name of the Lord and may complete it blessedly to His glory.”

|293|

Here we find nothing of the “confirmation” or “blessing,” which terms were introduced later. The minister or even the church has no task or authority to “bless” the marriage, and ministers who raise one hand (and why not both hands here?) in a gesture of blessing when uttering the wish at the end of the Form had better omit this. No one has authorized the church or the minister to bless a just solemnized marriage. This “blessing” is a remnant of the “ecclesiastical blessing of a marriage” which was considered necessary since, according to one old fallacy, marriage as such belongs to the natural life, to the area of the “common grace,” and is not complete or fit for the kingdom of God without an ecclesiastical blessing.

 

Worship Service?

Should the solemnization of a marriage take place during a worship service or may it be done in a private ceremony? Actually, we should turn the question around and say: “Should it take place in a private ceremony or in a public worship service?”

The question most likely would never have been raised if the situation in the Netherlands had not dominated the thoughts of the immigrants.

Since 1809 the civil government in the Netherlands made a civil marriage mandatory. Before this time approximately the same practice was followed which is customary here: marriages were solemnized by the ministers. Those who wish to trace their roots should to consult the church records prior to 1809.

Being used to the involvement of the minister, the new-Canadians did not consider the civil ceremony sufficient or satisfying, and thus an ecclesiastical ceremony followed. The marriage had to be “ecclesiastically confirmed” or “blessed.” This was and still is done in an official worship service, although in some instances only the families were and are present. There are some couples in the Netherlands who simply notify the consistory that they are going to get married on, say Thursday, and now request the special intercession by the congregation on the Sunday after. No special ceremony, no special service, just the special prayer in the regular worship service.

This is contrary to the provision in the Dutch Church Order which reads, Art. 70, “The consistory shall see to it that marriages are ecclesiastically confirmed, wherewith the form adopted for this purpose shall be used.” Old customs die hard, don’t they? At one of the ceremonies which this writer conducted here in Canada a brother visiting from the Netherlands walked out because pictures were being taken during the ceremony, and he thought that it was an official worship service! He was wrong in more than one respect.

It must be admitted that it is a concession to that old Dutch influence when Art. 63 makes the provision that the solemnization may take place during a public worship service. The churches did not want to impose a different course of action upon a church which might still want to continue this practice.

When it comes to the point, however, the solemnization of a marriage does not belong in a worship service. It should be done in a private ceremony, although nothing would prevent having the private ceremony in a church building.

|294|

Whatever happens in a worship service should be an ecclesiastical, congregational matter. Solemnization of a marriage is not one of these matters.

Since the prayers of the brothers and sisters are solicited, it is advisable to have the ceremony held at an hour at which many members of the congregation can be present if, of course, they wish to. In case the solemnization takes place in a private residence this consideration does not enter the picture.

Marriages are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 64

|295|

Article 64

Church Records

 

The consistory shall maintain Church records in which the names of the members and the dates of their birth, baptism, public profession of faith, marriage, and departure or death are properly recorded.

Who is there who dearly loves the church of the Lord and confesses that he is and will remain a living member thereof that would not want to have his name written in the membership register? Having one’s name entered into the membership register is not an indifferent matter or just an administrative gesture but something of great importance, for the church is not a human organization but the Bride of Christ.

Consistories too are to realize the importance of an accurate membership list, as entering someone’s name into it is not merely an administrative measure but includes all the privileges of membership. It is an acknowledgement of the grace of God and of His faithfulness.

Church records may not have the importance for civil life they had some centuries ago, they are still important even beyond the boundaries of the church. In many instances a certificate of baptism will be accepted as proof of age or as a document used for identification. With reference to the previous article we mentioned the need to consult the church records if one wished to trace one’s roots into past centuries. When there was as yet no civil registration, church records provided the only proof of birth, baptism, and marriage.

These records do no longer serve a civil purpose as well, although the churches are obligated to enter the marriages into a register, supplied free of charge and subject to inspection on behalf of the provincial government.

Regardless whether there is also a civil benefit in keeping accurate records, it is an ecclesiastical imperative to do so. An early regional synod in the Netherlands urged faithfulness in this respect and gave, among other reasons, the following arguments. When the date of their baptism is properly recorded, the baptized persons, upon having become adults, may be the more assured of their baptism. The churches receive hereby the assurance that they do not admit unbaptized persons to the holy supper. A third motive was that those who neglect their baptism may be admonished on this ground that they were openly ingrafted into the church of Christ on such and such a date, and in this manner the admonition gained in force and depth.

When someone moves to another church, all these particulars should be included in the attestation for the records of new church. It should be avoided that an attestation only mentions that this person was baptized and made profession of faith. The dates of birth, baptism, and profession of faith must be mentioned. This is a record which should accompany the member for as long as he lives.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 65

|296|

Article 65

Funerals

 

Funerals are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.

It is a reason for gratitude that we still can speak of funerals and do not have to pay attention to cremation. The latter has its origin in ancient and modern heathenism. The Scriptures speak of the burning of the dead as a punishment. They speak of the burial of God's children, of a descending into the grave, and of the sowing of a seed. We also read of the opening of the graves at the appearing of our Lord and Saviour. However, we do not have to argue this point among us.

Of these funerals we state that they are family affairs and should be conducted accordingly. This means they are a private family gathering, even though the whole congregation were present. What should therefore be avoided is characterizing these family gatherings as a service. At times one can find this word in advertisements as well as on the programs that are handed out at the funeral ceremony.

Our families as well as our ministers are to see to it that the word “service” is not used, for it brings a wrong concept into the picture. With the Romish church funerals are services, complete with “holy water,” pealing of bells, and mass. Not so with the church of Christ. A funeral is a private gathering, although the ceremony is usually conducted by the minister. He, too, should avoid everything that could give the people the impression that a service is being conducted. For this reason he should purposely follow an order different from the order of worship, and should not make his address too long. Relatives and friends are not able to absorb a lengthy message, as their thoughts go repeatedly to the dear one who passed away. A brief address of not more than fifteen minutes will do more and will be better remembered than a drawn-out “sermon” of half an hour.

There is nothing against having the casket standing in front of the pulpit, on the contrary, is that not the place where the brother or sister was baptized, where they made profession of faith and where they sat together with the congregation at the table of the Lord? Early ecclesiastical assemblies may have expressed their disapproval of having the deceased in the church building, and with a view to the prevailing circumstances at that time we can understand this, we think that it is a beautiful thing. We can then see the purpose to which we have come together as relatives, friends, and brothers and sisters. The times this writer attended a funeral ceremony while the casket remained outside in the hearse he got an empty, unreal feeling.

Our funerals should be simple, sober ceremonies. Even though we may not reject flower arrangements outright, we are to remember that we are going to sow the seed and that this is the fulfilment of what the Lord spoke:

|297|

“Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” We should not do anything to cover up the terrible reality of death and of the cutting off of many bonds. On the other hand, by sowing the seed we at the same time express our hope of the resurrection. This is not the end.

Since we have gathered for an interment, which means a placing into the earth, we should see the casket descend into the grave. We always find it unsatisfactory when the casket is left standing above the grave and everyone leaves. Looking back, we see it still standing there when everyone is gone. It is a difficult moment when we see the casket slowly disappearing into the open grave, but this is the purpose to which we have come together, and it shows clearly the sowing of the seed. No farmer will leave the seed on top of the soil. Also at that difficult moment we lift our hearts on high where Christ is and all those who have fallen asleep in Him.

Death means that all the bonds on this earth are cut and that the name is also deleted from the register of membership here below. Although in our hearts and minds we still count them in who have died in the Lord, we should do so only in our hearts. At times one can see a family advertisement in which also the name of a child or a brother or sister who passed away is included as if they were still all present. We then see the strange thing that a child that died still is thankful that the parents have been spared for each other through the bond of marriage for so many years, or that a deceased child with sorrow gives notice of the passing away of a dear mother or father or other relative.

Here, too, we are to acknowledge the hand of the Lord and not in one way or another try to act as if He had not cut the bonds here on this earth. The bond as members of the church of Christ remains, for we are still one with that part of the church which, though incomplete, is in heaven. We do not know whether and, if so, how they are aware of what is going on on this earth and how we are doing, but one thing is a fact: they are no longer included in the number on earth, and we should act accordingly.

Also in our grief and mourning we are to show that we are different from those who have no hope. We show this also in the manner in which we announce the passing away of a dear one and in the way in which we entrust the seed to the soil, acknowledging that the Lord knows who are His both in life and death.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 66

|298|

V. Christian Discipline

Article 66

Nature and Purpose

 

Since Church discipline is of a spiritual nature and, as one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, has been given to the Church to shut and to open that kingdom, the consistory shall ensure that it is used to punish sins against both the purity of doctrine and the piety of conduct, in order to reconcile the sinner with the Church and with his neighbour, and to remove all offense out of the Church of Christ — which can be done only when the rule given by our Lord in Matthew 18:15-17 is followed in obedience.

With Art. 66 we have arrived at the last section of our Church Order, as the parts were mentioned in Art. 1. Not all articles in this last section deal with discipline per se. Articles 74, 75, and 76 have a different character, but there is no need to make a special, separate section for them.

The first article dealing with church discipline speaks about its nature and purpose. When we speak of “church discipline,” we have in fact characterized it already. Article 66 states that the church discipline is of a spiritual nature, and to some extent this may be considered superfluous, for is not everything the church does spiritual?

By stressing that church discipline is of a spiritual nature we emphasize the difference between the discipline of the church and the prosecution and punishment of transgressions in civil life. In the first place, the church no longer works with fines and imprisonment. In the second place the civil authorities will still punish a transgressor even when the church discipline has ceased because its goal has been achieved.

It did happen in the past that the church used the sword of the civil authorities to compel heretics to give up their errors and to return to the fold, or that heretics were imprisoned, banished, or even put to death. The same measures were used to persecute those who wished to live a holy life according to the will of God and who rebuked the church because of its disobedience, avarice, and idolatry. This practice was totally reprehensible, for it violated the spiritual character of this discipline. It revealed at the same time a mark of the false church.

The only means which the church has at its disposal by which it can exercise discipline is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. The church has no authority to impose fines or banishment, for these are worldly means. The only thing the church can do is speak the Word of God. His Word is applied most personally in matters of discipline. “According to this testimony of the Gospel,” we confess in Lord’s Day 31, “God will judge both in this life and in

|299|

the life to come.” When the church has declared that someone has been excluded from the Christian congregation, he is excluded “by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ.”

This exclusion may seem quite harmless, much less dangerous and harmful than a heavy fine or years of imprisonment, but it is far more serious. Church discipline has its own, spiritual character. Continued discipline may result in excommunication even when someone has paid his fine or completed his jail sentence. The object is not the punishment of the sinner but the punishment of sin and the salvation of the sinner.

Discipline is one of the two keys of the kingdom of heaven. The Lord Jesus Christ has entrusted these keys to His church. Discipline is the second one, and we confess that hereby the kingdom of heaven is closed and opened. This is a different order than the one mentioned with the first key: the proclamation of the holy Gospel, by which the kingdom is opened and closed. The difference shows the primary function of the second key, namely, to close the kingdom so that the Name of the Lord may not be blasphemed, that the church may be cleansed from pollution, and that the sinner may be brought to repentance.

It is the task of the consistory to ensure that this discipline is used to punish the sins, to see to it that sin is condemned and not condoned or whitewashed. If the church desires to remain the church of the Lord, the consistory must see to it that two things are done. In the first place it must rebuke and condemn sin as such, for this is one of the marks of the church that it “exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.” And in the second place the consistory is to ensure that the discipline is used only to correct and punish sins. It is not used against those “who live holy lives according to the Word of God.”

At this point we must voice some criticism of the terms which are used in this article. The sins which cause one to become subject to church discipline are called “sins against both the purity of doctrine and the piety of conduct.” Although it is not difficult to understand what is meant by these terms, we must say that the terms per se are both incorrect and unclear.

It should be remembered that sin can be committed only against the commandments of the Lord our God. Violation of these commandments constitutes sin against Him as well as against the neighbour. To say, however, that one can sin against “the purity of doctrine and the piety of conduct” is incorrect. One could speak of “sins that pertain to an ungodly walk of life and heresy,” or “sins that cause someone to go astray in both doctrine and conduct.” But we have to work with the terms as they occur in this article.

Should one demand room to deviate from the truth of God’s Word, from the sound doctrine as summarized in the confessions, one would be seeking to acquire a totally unacceptable and unjustifiable freedom. Deviation from the sound doctrine is detrimental to the purity of life as well. The life of God's children cannot be divided into two or more sections, for instance, one for doctrine and one for conduct. When the Word of God is violated, His covenant is violated.

|300|

The Old Testament

Church discipline is not specifically a characteristic of the New Testament church. How could it be since it is the same church today it was in the days of Isaiah, David, Joshua, and Abraham? Certainly, today we live in the New Testament dispensation, but the church is still the same. For this reason we must go back to the Old Testament when we discuss the point of discipline. Did not the Lord Jesus appeal to the Scriptures on several occasions? When we study the words which our Saviour spoke during His life on earth, we discover time and again that His words were derived from the Old Testament Scriptures, or even quoted verbatim from them, though these quotations are not specifically indicated in our Bibles. The apostles, following in the footsteps of their Master, likewise appealed frequently to the Old Testament.

Old Testament discipline was applied in a different form than the New Testament discipline, but it makes very clear to us what excommunication means. When, for instance, the apostle Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 5: 13: “Drive out the wicked person from among you,” he follows the command of the Lord which we find in Deut. 17: 7 and other places, where the Lord tells His church: “So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you,” referring to those who went and served other gods. We find exactly the same words in Deut. 19: 9; 22: 24; and 24: 7.

Everyone among us knows of the command of the Lord Jesus to take one or two witnesses along if one’s private admonitions do not yield the desired fruit. As Deut. 19: 15 ff. shows, herein, too, our Lord continued in the line of the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament one was removed from the communion of the church on earth by being put to death. This shows what is implied when one is excommunicated: excluded from the communion of saints, alien to all the treasures Christ bestows upon His Bride.

It is again the Old Testament which teaches us very clearly what the holiness stands for which the Lord demands and expects from His people. Had He not set them apart from all the other nations and did He not warn them repeatedly that they should preserve their own character as His people, as the people of the covenant? To this end they had to exterminate the inhabitants of the land and break down their places of worship, thus removing thereby everything that could pose any threat to their specific status and their faithfulness to their Lord. They should keep themselves free from the pollution of Canaanite idolatry.

At this point we cannot elaborate further on the importance of the Old Testament for the understanding of the New Testament. The above will have to suffice for the moment. Later on we will come back to specific places in the Old Testament which form the background of the New Testament practice.

 

Purpose

What is the purpose of church discipline? Is it to remove someone from the church, from the communion of saints? Could those affected by church discipline rightfully deride it and scoff that the church apparently wants to get

|301|

rid of them? If there is no repentance and return from the evil path, exclusion from the church will most certainly be the end, but no one may say that the purpose of the discipline is “to get rid of people.” On the contrary, what the church desires and seeks to achieve by its admonitions and rebukes is that the sinner shall be reconciled with the church and with his neighbour.

We speak here of the sinner. What do we mean by this and when can a person be qualified as a sinner? Are we not all sinners before the Lord? Do we not pray: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors?” This we explain as follows: “For the sake of Christ’s blood, do not impute to us, wretched sinners, any of our transgressions.”

“Sinner,” as it is used in this article typifies a person as someone who lets himself be dominated by sin, whose course of life is determined by sin. It is a person who so lets himself be influenced and directed by sin that he puts himself on a level and identifies himself with the sinful world. It is someone who commits an “abomination in Israel.” We know this expression from the Old Testament, for instance, from Deut. 17: 4. It means something which is completely alien to Israel as the people of the covenant, the people of the Lord. It is something which obliterates the difference between Israel and the heathen nations. One who commits an abominable thing in fact denies the special character of Israel and the antithesis between God’s people and the nations or, to say it in New Testament terms, between the church and the world.

A sinner in the sense in which it is used here in this article is therefore one who by his doctrine or conduct shows that not the Word and Spirit of God rule and dominate his thinking and actions but that he lets himself be guided by sinful desires or the spirits from the abyss, the spirits which dominate this world.

When one lets oneself be guided and directed by the spirit of darkness, one breaks thereby the unity of the body or rather, breaks in principle away from the body. One also becomes a source of infection which, unless it is removed, will have a destructive influence upon the congregation. Sin never remains inactive. On the contrary, it is an active power which continues to work like leaven. Deviation either in doctrine or in conduct renders the congregation subject to infection and death. For when someone is tolerated who erases the difference between the church and the world, the whole church will be dragged down to the level of the world, and what the end of this is can be seen with Israel: they were expelled from the land of rest, from the inheritance given by God in faithfulness to His promises given to the fathers.

The purpose of church discipline is to bring the sinner back from that disastrous path, to make him see that the way he chose must lead to everlasting ruin, and thus to free him from the hands of Satan. Once he has been convinced of this, he will be reconciled with the church, and will confess the damage he did to the church and ask for forgiveness. At the same time, if his aberration began with a sin against a particular member, he will be reconciled with his neighbour. When all this has been achieved, this is the end of the discipline for the member. He has been healed and so has the church.

Sin affects the whole church and endangers its character as the Bride

|302|

of Christ, the people of the covenant. We must be holy, the Scripture admonishes us, as our God is holy. The Lord our God has set us apart and made us His own, His special people, and this must be evident, Lev. 11: 44, 45; 19: 2. The apostle Peter impresses this upon the New Testament church in 1 Peter 1: 15, 16; 2: 9.

This shows that God’s own holiness is involved when His people preserve the special status He has given to them. It also means that the holiness of God’s Name is at stake when His people violate their own holiness. Then the Name of God is blasphemed, and this cannot be tolerated. Whenever Israel did not sanctify the Name of the Lord, He judged them Himself, and punished His people. The Name of the Lord is bound up with the name which His church has in this world.

For this reason the object of church discipline is that the holiness of God’s church be preserved and thus the honour of God’s Name be held high. To this end the sinner must be removed if there is no repentance. Achan, who identified himself with what lay under the curse by taking from Jericho’s spoil had to be removed from the midst of God's people so that the Lord’s favour and blessing might again be enjoyed.

From the above it is evident that the church discipline reaches only as far as the boundaries of the church. The apostle Paul shows this clearly when he tells-the church at Corinth: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you,” 1 Cor. 5: 12-13. The authority of the church does not reach beyond its boundaries. All that lies outside those boundaries lies outside the consistory’s authority.

This applies not only to those who never were a member of the church but also to those who were a member but have broken with it. Those who were being disciplined but broke with the church have thereby also placed themselves outside the reach of the office-bearers.

According to some the discipline should be continued in spite of the fact that a person has notified the consistory that he no longer wants to be a member of the church. It is the consistory, thus they reason, that has the ultimate say whether one does or does not belong to the church and for this reason the disciplinary procedure must be continued.

Membership of the church is a voluntary thing. One is not forced to become a member, neither is one compelled to remain a member. It is contrary to the Lord’s will if one breaks with the church, but if he wants to, he is free to do so. When one has broken with the church, he has thereby also withdrawn himself from the authority of the consistory, and the consistory cannot do anything but acknowledge the fact. Those (who have placed themselves) outside the church God will judge. The consistory as such cannot in these circumstances continue the disciplinary process.

 

The Rule

The Word of God is the ultimate rule and judge. If a church does not exercise discipline according to God's Word, its whole action is powerless and without effect. For this reason the discipline of the false church has no effect

|303|

whatever in heaven. Exercising discipline is a very responsible and difficult task. Every step and every word should be regulated after the Word of God.

A specific rule from the Word of God mentioned in Art. 66 is what our Saviour commanded in Matthew 18: 15-17. When giving this rule, the Lord reached back to the Old Testament, and for this reason we are to examine what God commanded there, what the position and task of the witnesses is. First, however, we have to pay attention to another point, and this is the task of each member of the congregation.

From the Lord’s words it is evident that the first responsibility lies with the members. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” There must be no talking about it with others, no approaching the consistory with a complaint, no ignoring the brother, or letting him continue in the wrong attitude and path. Instead one should visit the brother and try to bring him back. This is the proper course of action to be taken. Also in this point the Old Testament shows the way: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Lev. 18: 17, 18.

The purpose of going to the brother is not to tell him off or to threaten him or to make him experience the consequences of what he did or to get even with him, but to win him, to bring him back from his ruinous path. “If he listens, you have gained your brother.” Then an offense has been removed from the church and a source of infection cleared up. This goal will also determine and dominate the manner in which the brother is approached and is “told of his fault.”

It will not have been the Lord's intention to limit this visit to just one time, after which one additional visit with witnesses would pave the way towards the consistory. The church correctly formulated it in Lord’s Day 31 as follows: “are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders.” No one will contend that it is an easy thing to go and admonish a brother about a sin committed, and this not just once but repeatedly, but this will be less difficult when the Lord’s command is remembered: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” and when the purpose is kept in view: to gain the brother, to bring him back from a path which must lead to everlasting ruin if there is no repentance.

In the event the brother does not listen or denies the fact or implications, one or two witnesses should be taken along so that the brother is admonished by two or three persons.

 

Witnesses

Who are these witnesses, what are they witnesses of, and what is their task and position? To answer these questions we again refer to the Old Testament. It speaks of witnesses in several places.

A witness is someone who can testify firsthand that something was said or done. If a fact is denied by a person, a witness can refute this denial by

|304|

saying: “I heard you say this,” or “I saw that you did it.” Moses used it when he reminded the Israelites of all that the Lord had done and spoken to them. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from the land which you are going over the Jordan to posses.” Deut. 4: 26. When Israel deviates from the path of the covenant, the punishment will come and they will be expelled from the land, but they will never be able to say: “We did not know that this would be the result, we were never told.” The same heaven and earth of Moses’ days will still be there, and they can testify that these words were spoken indeed.

Let us turn to Deut. 17: 2-8. It is clear that Moses uses here an extreme case, the case of idolatry, from which we may draw conclusions for all other cases as well. There is the sin of idolatry, and “You are told.” The result of this being told is that the people hear about it and thus are aware of it. But how are they told? Does Moses say: “Whenever you hear a rumour of such a thing being committed, you are to do your best to find out whether the rumour is true, so that you can bring the sinner to trial?” Not at all. Moses speaks of “the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses.” Nowhere does the Holy Scripture teach or even allow that people go by rumours.

From Moses’ words it is clear that it is the witnesses who must initiate the trial and must be the first ones to take part in the execution. It is impossible to find out who started a rumour. Rumours should be left for what they are. Since first of all the hand of the witnesses must be against the transgressor it is evident that these are the witnesses who brought the matter to the attention of the congregation. Thus when the elders of a city “hear” of a case, when they “are told,” this information must come from the witnesses, for their testimony is the basis on which conviction and subsequent execution rest.

The first witness is also the accuser, the one who, together with another or others, witnessed the sin being committed. If he is the only one who witnessed the sin, there is little else he can do but admonish the sinner. No one may be convicted on the testimony of one witness. There must be at least two, and the second one must be just as much a witness of the sin as the first one. As first of all their own hand must be against the perpetrator of the sin (cf. Deut. 17: 7), they must be very certain of their case, for they carry a heavy responsibility.

Even when two people come with the same testimony, the matter is still to be investigated so that it may be beyond doubt that such an abomination has been committed in Israel. It must be “such a thing which is not done in Israel,” that is, such a thing as is in direct and blatant conflict with the character of Israel as the people of the covenant.

Turning to the words of our Saviour in Matthew 18, we note that the Lord speaks of one going by himself to admonish a brother. Usually we speak here of a “secret” sin, but the Lord does not use this qualification. By “secret sin” we understand a sin that is known only to one other person or a sin upon which the other person happened to stumble. It is customary to envision the course of events among us as follows: There is a secret sin, the sinner is admonished but refuses to repent, the brother takes one or two with him who

|305|

then can testify that the sinner refused to listen, and the matter is then given into the hands of the consistory to continue the admonitions and, should they remain fruitless, to excommunicate the sinner.

For all this, if we follow this generally accepted procedure, we would still condemn a man on the testimony of just one person, and this is totally in conflict with what the Lord commanded through Moses. We are not permitted to do this. From Deut. 17 it is evident that the witness(es) whom the “accuser” brings along must be witnesses of the sin and not just of the fruitlessness of the admonitions. Even if someone brought ten or a hundred witnesses along who can testify that he admonished the alleged sinner in vain, the condemnation would still be based on the testimony of one person, and this is impermissible.

Our Lord also said: “If he refuses to listen to them.” The witness taken along is not just a silent partner who sits in and listens, but he admonishes the sinner together with the one whom he accompanies. He can do this only when he witnessed the sin itself, and not on the basis of what the original witness told him, for neither he is allowed to condemn a brother on the testimony of one person. The hand of the witnesses must be against the sinner first of all, they all must be absolutely certain of their case and may not go by what others say. (See above. Deut. 17: 7!)

If there is no second witness of the sin itself, all the one can do is try to bring the sinner back and, if he refuses to listen, give it into the hands of the Lord. Some early ecclesiastical assemblies considered the question too. They came to the conclusion that the matter should be “left to his conscience with reference to the judgment of God, without pressuring him any further.” If one “cannot be brought to admit a fact, leave it to God who knows the hearts,” another assembly concluded.

What was found above is important for the exercise of discipline by the consistory, but we will come back to it in connection with the following article.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 67

|306|

Article 67

Consistory Involvement

 

The consistory shall not deal with any matter pertaining to purity of doctrine or piety of life that is reported to it unless it has first ascertained that both private admonitions and admonitions in the presence of one or two witnesses have remained fruitless, or that the sin committed is of a public character.

Church discipline is a matter of the church. It is true that the church is governed and also represented by the consistory, but this does not imply that now the consistory is responsible for all that is going on or should be involved in everything that must be done. A consistory is nothing without the congregation, and it is with the latter that the mutual supervision and taking heed of each other begins. With respect to the church discipline the first task of the consistory is not to admonish the sinner, but to exhort the whole congregation to fulfil their obligations in this connection.

When the members are not aware of their duty to take heed of each other and do not fulfil their obligations, the admonition and discipline by the consistory do not have a basis in the congregation and cannot work well. From the very beginning till the very last act the congregation is involved. As for the beginning, no one in the congregation is allowed to shirk his own responsibility and lay it all on the shoulders of the office-bearers. The consistory may become involved only when there is hardening in sin, and this hardening in sin must have become evident as a result of repeated private brotherly admonitions. No member may ever approach the consistory to inform the office-bearers of the sin of a brother or sister. A member may do so only when it has become apparent that there is no repentance, no return from the evil path. In that case the consistory must also be told what the specific sin is, but this is only the unavoidable consequence, not the purpose.

If, therefore, someone approaches the consistory with the information that a brother hardens himself in a specific sin, the first question that must be asked is how many times the accuser has admonished the brother, and where the witnesses are. In the event the accuser must admit that either he did not go and admonish the brother personally or that he visited him only once or twice, or that he never visited him with a witness, the consistory, instead of taking the matter to hand, is to rebuke the accuser and tell him that he is disobedient to the Lord and has to do his own duty first.

Any consistory that accepts one person’s word and does not admonish and rebuke him transgresses the specific command of our Saviour and forsakes its duty towards both the accuser and the accused and, in fact, towards the whole congregation. When from the very onset the lines are drawn crooked one cannot expect that things straighten out later on. The personal admonitions constitute the basis of the admonitions by the office-bearers.

|307|

Only in the event the sin is of a public character does the consistory have the right and then also the obligation to admonish the brother in their capacity as office-bearers. “Public” is the opposite of “private” and not of “secret” as was sometimes suggested. People spoke then of “secret sins” over against “public sins.” However, this is not a correct juxtaposition. The opposite of “secret” is “open,” the opposite of “public” is “private.” There are hidden sins as distinguished from those that are known to others, those that have been committed in the presence of others. There are sins committed in private over against those committed in public, or those that have become public.

Various explanations have been given of the term “of a public character,” but no one has come up with a definition that is satisfactory in every respect. This is not unexpected, since our Church Order is not a lawbook with precisely defined concepts or which lays claim to precise definitions. A sin definitely is not “of a public character” when someone cannot keep his mouth shut and discloses in thoughtless or deliberate talk what should have remained a private matter.

In general, we can accede to the description of “of a public character” as referring in the first place to sins that have been committed publicly, so that every one could see them. It is obvious that these sins must receive the attention of the consistory right away and that it should admonish the sinner without having to wait for someone accompanied by one or two witnesses. And in the second place they are such sins which by their very nature publicly dishonour the Name of the Lord. We think here of sins that become public knowledge by way of a court case. Something may have been done very privately, but should this result in public prosecution and trial, the consistory would be remiss in the fulfilment of its duty if it did not take action immediately.

This is not to say that in the case of sins of a public character the congregation should not act and leave everything up to the office-bearers. On the contrary, the discipline of office-bearers which lacks the active backing of the congregation cannot be expected to be effective, and if successful it will be in spite of the congregation’s slackness and neglect. The congregation should remain alert and active all the time.

Unless the consistory is convinced that a sin committed is of a public character, the office-bearers are not allowed to admonish the sinner upon information supplied by one single member who has not obeyed the command of the Lord as mentioned in Art. 66 and repeated in the present Article 67.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 68

|308|

Article 68

Excommunication

 

Anyone who obstinately rejects the admonition by the consistory or who has committed a public sin shall be suspended from the Lord’s Supper. If he continues to harden himself in sin, the consistory shall so inform the congregation by means of public announcements, in order that the congregation may be engaged in prayer and admonition, and the excommunication may not take place without its cooperation.
In the first public announcement the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned.
In the second public announcement, which shall be made only after the advice of classis has been obtained, the name and address of the sinner shall be mentioned.
In the third public announcement a date shall be set at which the excommunication of the sinner shall take place.
In case a non-communicant member hardens himself in sin, the consistory shall in the same manner inform the congregation by means of public announcements.
In the first public announcement the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned.
In the second public announcement, which shall be made only after the advice of classis has been obtained, the name and address of the sinner shall be mentioned and a date shall be set at which the excommunication of the sinner shall take place.
The time between the various announcements shall be determined by the consistory
.

From what has been discussed thus far it is evident that the discipline starts with the congregation, even though no visible consequences result from the brotherly admonitions except when they are heeded and repentance follows. However, we are not to judge the gravity of the congregational admonitions by their obvious lack of visible effect. The Lord uses these admonitions and will judge accordingly. No one should ever be able to state in truth: “But, Lord, no one ever approached me and no one ever warned me.”

Art. 68 shows that the discipline also ends with the congregation. By means of the “public announcements” the congregation is involved in the whole process, also all who originally may not have been aware of the sins or of the admonitions taking place. There comes a time when also the “private,” non-public sins have to be revealed to the congregation, although this is not the purpose; it is a “side-effect,” so to speak, of the announcement that there is a hardening in a specific sin.

Once the consistory has been informed by two or three witnesses that

|309|

their admonitions have remained without the desired fruit of repentance, the moment is not yet there that an announcement may be made to the congregation. A consistory would not even be allowed to act immediately upon the testimony of two or three witnesses. In the Old Testament we are told that an inquiry is necessary. When “it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing…” Deut. 17: 4, 5.

From this it follows that a consistory has to start an investigation of its own, not only with reference to the hardening in sin but also with reference to the question whether the alleged transgression has indeed been committed. As in Israel the ultimate responsibility rested upon the shoulders of the judges, so it rests upon the shoulders of the consistory in our days. The testimony of the witnesses gave the consistory the reason to take the matter to hand, and their testimony is of extreme weight and importance, but no consistory is allowed to proceed solely on that testimony alone.

 

The First Step

What is the consistory to do when approached by two or three witnesses? Yes, it is to investigate and to see whether what the witnesses reported is true, but then what? Should the member be barred from the sacraments right away? No, things do not develop at such a fast pace.

The first action the consistory takes is that it visits the member repeatedly and continues the admonitions. Not only are the brothers not allowed to go by the testimony of the witnesses regarding the sin, they also have to convince themselves of the hardening in sin. It first must become very clear that the member does not want to listen even to the office-bearers. It might happen that the member refuses to confess his sin and repent because the person who admonishes him is acting in an injudicious or self-important manner, or because he is personally involved. Another possibility is that the member more readily accepts the admonitions of the office-bearers because of their authority, their tactful approach, or non-involvement. There may be numerous reasons why a member would sooner listen to the overseers than to others. The member realizes, of course, that continued refusal to heed the admonitions of the office-bearers will result in excommunication! And who would want to stand outside the communion upon which Christ bestows all His blessings and benefits?

Once the matter has been given into the hands of the consistory, this does not imply that the witnesses no longer have a task. On the contrary, they are not allowed to wash their hands off the case and to say: “Now it is the consistory’s responsibility, it is no longer ours.” When there is the sincere desire to bring the member back from the path that leads to ruin, the efforts to achieve this will continue unabated.

Admonitions by the consistory will continue for some time. That there is a hardening in the sin which was committed must become unmistakable. This hardening is there even when the sin itself is no longer committed, but no evidence of true repentance is seen.

|310|

It is imperative that the consistory’s considerations, decisions, actions and other activities are properly recorded in the minute book. This will, in the first place, compel the brothers to consider and formulate meticulously what the issue is, what the consistory did about it, and how the member reacted each time. This is of importance also for the future, for a member may have to be excommunicated. In that event the consistory will have to give the precise ground on which the excommunication rests. Perhaps the member will appeal to a classis; if so, the consistory is able to refute any inaccuracies on the basis of recorded particulars. Another possibility is that after many years the member may come to repentance and request to be readmitted to the church, either the same church or one in another place. Then it is a good idea to check the “past record” also with a view to determining how long a period will be needed to give the member the opportunity to prove the sincerity of the repentance. When the admonitions by the office-bearers result in repentance, the matter is finished. The following article deals with the confession of sin and for this reason we do not elaborate on it at this point.

Repentance means that the admonitions have achieved their purpose. Where it concerns a “private” sin no announcement of any kind is needed. The witnesses are not told either. If they fulfil their obligations, they will learn it from the member himself; for then they, too, will discover that no more admonitions are needed. They must learn this from their own observation and should not learn it from the consistory.

Here we are to stress that the whole matter of admonition by the consistory should remain “secret,” that is, known to the consistory and the member alone. No one outside the consistory should hear as much as a whisper about it. Even if the member concerned talks about it with others, the consistory should remain silent. Until such time when an announcement is made in which the name of the sinner is mentioned, the consistory is not even permitted to divulge whether or not a member is being admonished or barred from the sacraments.

At times it happens that others who are not involved in the matter itself mingle in it and, siding with the member, talk about it with the office-bearers, approach a consistory by means of letters, or even “appeal” to a classis when they do not get the satisfaction they want.

Consistories should never enter into a discussion on the admonitions with another member who is not personally affected. If asked whether a member is “under discipline” office-bearers are to reply that they do not recall that any public announcement to this effect has been made, and that they are not at liberty either to confirm or to deny it. “No comment” is the proper reply. When criticized because of alleged mishandling of the case, they are to react by stating that, as long as no public announcement with name and address has been made to the whole congregation they are not allowed to discuss it with any member in particular. Therefore they cannot say whether the consistory is dealing with the matter or not.

No specific period or time-limit can be given before the consistory should proceed to the next step: the barring from the holy supper or, more properly, the sacraments. Much will depend on the frequency of the visits, the reaction

|311|

of the member, whether any progress can be noted, whether there is unwillingness to listen, and so forth. No pattern can be suggested which may be applied to each and every case. We are dealing with living persons and not with robots.

When the consistory has come to the conclusion that there is no improvement but, on the contrary, a worsening of the situation, the decision will have to be made to bar the member from the sacraments. This means not only that the member is not allowed to partake of the holy supper but also that he cannot answer the questions at the baptism of a child, is not allowed to take part in voting, briefly, that all his rights as a member are suspended. The rights of membership are not yet taken away, for this happens only at the excommunication, but the right to use them is suspended, and this suspension will not be lifted either if there is no repentance.

For this reason consistories must realize what they are doing and must be aware that the suspension from the holy supper this article is referring to is the first step leading to the excommunication. What did happen in the past should never happen again, namely, that someone remained barred from the holy supper for years on end and that no step was taken either to proceed towards the excommunication or to lift the suspension. Once a consistory has set out on the road of suspending a member from the Lord's Supper there is no stopping; it is a path which can end only in the excommunication, unless there is repentance. The suspension of the right to use the membership privileges can only result in rescinding the privileges themselves in the Name of the Lord.

This is not to say that every suspension is the first step towards the excommunication. Incidentally a consistory may forbid a member to partake of the first-coming holy supper as a safety-measure, so to speak. This can happen when a member has committed a “public sin,” which blasphemed the Name of the Lord and greatly disturbed the congregation. Although the consistory may be convinced of the sincerity of the member’s repentance, yet in order to show that sin is not taken lightly and in order to prevent any wrong impression upon the congregation or even unrest in the congregation, the consistory would act wisely when it tells the member that he is not allowed to take part in the forthcoming celebration. This is not discipline in the strict sense of the word but one of the consequences of the sin committed. The member concerned will fully understand the consistory’s decision and acquiesce in it if his repentance is sincere.

Another possibility is that a consistory tells a member to abstain from the forthcoming celebration because a matter has recently arisen and the consistory has not yet been able to come to a well-founded conclusion. To prevent possible profanation of the table of the Lord a member or some members may be told that, pending an investigation, they are to abstain. Neither is this discipline in the strict sense of the word.

Perhaps a consistory does not dare to go so far as to forbid a member to partake in the celebration and yet does not feel justified not doing anything. In that event the brothers might point out to the member how serious it is to go to the table without being entitled to it, because there is serious

|312|

doubt in the mind of the consistory about the brother’s doctrine or conduct. Yet, in the circumstances, the consistory does not have sufficient grounds to forbid participation. With a view to the whole situation, however, the consistory urges the member not to partake, leaving it in this case to the member’s own responsibility, but not without warning about the consequences of eating and drinking judgment upon oneself.

When a public sin is involved suspension from the Lord’s Supper may follow sooner upon initiating the admonitions than if some witnesses approached the consistory about a private sin. What should be kept in view most of all in such a case is the honour of the Name of the Lord. Especially when it concerns a public sin it must be manifest that the church does not condone sin but condemns it. The church should not out of misplaced concern for the sinner neglect to be watchful for the honour of God’s Name or the reputation of the church in this world.

 

The Second Step

The second step is an announcement to the congregation so that the congregation may become involved. Again we have to say that this is not a matter of a couple of weeks after the suspension from the holy supper. Some time will have elapsed from that moment and in the meantime the admonitions will have continued. If the consistory has to come to the conclusion that in spite of many admonitions by the office-bearers no improvement can be noticed but, on the contrary, a hardening in sin is evident, a decision will have to be taken to make an announcement to the congregation in order that the congregation may become involved.

At this stage this involves prayer only. When everything has been conducted properly, the announcement will be the first occasion the congregation hears of the case, unless it concerns a public sin. But even then the congregation should not be aware that it concerns brother A. or sister B., since repentance from that sin may have been noticed and accepted long ago and the present announcement may refer to another member.

In the first public announcement no name is mentioned. For the time being only the prayers of the congregation are solicited, not an actual participation in the process of admonishing. What is mentioned is the character, or the nature of the sin. “The consistory informs you with sorrow that a brother (sister) of the congregation has become guilty of sin against the... commandment.”

Holy Scripture teaches us that if one transgresses one commandment, he is guilty of all, James 2: 10. It will happen very seldom, if ever, that a consistory can say with certainty: “This is the only commandment we can mention which the brother has transgressed.” Since all the words of the covenant are intertwined and all are covered by the one declaration: “I am the Lord your God who has freed you from the house of bondage,” it is impossible not to violate them all when transgressing one, although the sin against one or two of them may be the clearest and most prominent. They have to be mentioned concretely, for a consistory would not be allowed to say only: “that a brother has become guilty of sin.” The admonitions will have been directed

|313|

against hardening in specific sin or sins, and the congregation must be informed accordingly.

Also in the public prayers in the midst of the congregation it should be remembered that one or more members of the congregation have been suspended from the Lord’s table. The congregation will be exhorted to pray for them. This keeps the congregation aware of the need to make intercession for them in their own prayers at home as well. If the public prayers during the worship services never make mention of these suspensions or even excommunications, we cannot expect the members to be faithful in this respect in their personal and family prayers either.

 

The Third Step

The third step is the second public announcement to the congregation. It is an announcement which informs the congregations that the admonitions were continued but that no repentance could be noticed. On the contrary, there was a hardening in sin and this made it necessary to continue with the process of excommunication. Now also the name and address of the sinner are mentioned.

One condition had to be met before the second announcement could be made, namely, that the advice of classis was obtained. After everything we have said in connection with previous articles it will not be necessary to elaborate on the obligation of a consistory to abide by the classical advice. This, and it is necessary to repeat it, is not because “classis acts in a supervisory capacity,” as has been alleged, but it is because the churches have accepted this precaution, lest they act too hastily and thus unjustly to a member. It is a safety-measure that the churches have promised not to make known the name of the sinner before they have submitted the case to the judgment of the sister churches at a classis.

It is not just a formality to ask the advice of classis when a consistory has come to the conclusion that it must proceed with the excommunication. Usually the members of a classis ask all sorts of questions such as how long ago the first announcement was made, how many visits were made since that first announcement, what exactly the reaction of the member was, and so on. Only after the brothers have satisfied themselves that the consistory’s decision to proceed is the right one will they give the advice to proceed. More than once a consistory was advised to bring more visits and not to proceed as yet. Then the consistory had to come to the next classis with the same question, for without the advice of classis they cannot proceed with the excommunication, only with the admonitions.

A consistory would be amiss if it came to a classis without being convinced that it is mandatory to proceed. If a consistory should state: “Brothers, we have not come that far yet but if it appears in a month or two that there is no repentance, could you advise us then to proceed?” Classis would act completely incorrectly if it gave what would amount to a speculative advice. A consistory certainly has bound itself not to proceed without the advice of classis, but it is the consistory that bears the ultimate responsibility and must

|314|

have reached a definite conclusion before approaching the sister churches for the required advice.

Having obtained the classical advice the consistory makes the second announcement. The involvement of the congregation becomes more extensive. Now the brothers and sister are in a position not only to remember the sinner in their prayers, but also to approach him in person. They are exhorted to do so in love.

 

The Fourth Step

Should the continuing admonitions of the consistory as well as of the congregation remain fruitless, the fourth step follows, the third public announcement. In this announcement the congregation is reminded of the previous announcements and told that no sign of true repentance could be noticed. For the last time the congregation is called upon to be involved and to admonish the member lest the final step has to be taken, namely, the actual excommunication.

No stipulation is made that also this step requires classical advice. In the third step the consistory gave the brothers sufficient information to obtain their advice, and since the consistory was advised to proceed and the situation has not changed for the better but has worsened, there is no need to involve the sister churches again by bringing the matter to classis.

As everyone can see, with this third public announcement a date is set on which the member will be excommunicated, that is, be placed outside the communion and be declared deprived of all the privileges of membership in Christ’s church, having “no part any more in the spiritual blessings and benefits which Christ bestows upon His church.”

What length of time should expire between this third announcement and the actual excommunication? Again we must state that no hard and fast rule has been made about it. Usually a period of two or three weeks is chosen, although it also happened that “the next Lord’s day” was set as a target date. It should not become a drawn-out process, for then the impact upon the congregation is weakened. Besides, when matters have proceeded that far and the admonitions of many months and perhaps even years have not borne the desired fruit, the process should be concluded and the “ultimate remedy” applied.

We mentioned the possibility that the process could take years. Consistories were often hesitant to proceed to that last step and action. However understandable such hesitation may be, when the sin is so serious that one’s hardening must result in suspension from the holy supper, this first step must be followed by the other steps within a rather short time. Would we be saying too much when we suggest that the process should take no more than one year or one-and-a-half years at the most? Not only should sin not be permitted in the church of Christ, the members themselves must also be taught that such is the rule in the congregation of the Lord. Slackness in applying discipline creates the impression that sin is not all that bad after all and that one can get away with quite a bit. This should be prevented. In the New Testament we read that “great fear fell upon all.” (Acts 5: 11)

|315|

Once one has been excommunicated, “as long as he persists in sin, let him be to you as a Gentile and an outcast,” for he has been placed outside (“ex”) the communion. Yet the members are exhorted “not to look on him as an enemy. On the contrary, try to warn him as a brother. But do not associate with him, that he may be ashamed and come to repentance.” There should be no “shunning” as is frequently found with some sects, which practice forbids practically every contact, even speaking with an excommunicated member. On the other hand, no one should deal with the excommunicated person or treat him as if nothing had happened and as if no change had come about in the relationship. One who has been excommunicated, placed outside the communion of the church, should experience the seriousness of this fact also in the manner in which the former fellow-members behave towards him. A barrier has been erected and this affects the ecclesiastical as well as the social life. “With such a one do not even eat,” the apostle enjoins us, 1 Cor. 5: 11.

It does not need any further comment, we think, that the member has to be notified of each following step before it is taken. If no oral communication is possible, it will have to be done in writing.

 

Non-communicant Members

Some were (and still are) of the opinion that discipline such as described above is not possible in the case of non-communicant members. Although they were accepted and regarded as members, yet they were “incomplete” members, having not yet been admitted to the public profession of faith and thus to the table of the Lord. “How could we ever suspend one from the Lord’s Supper who has not made profession of faith and has not been admitted to that table?” it was asked.

For this reason the practice was often followed just to delete the name of a non-communicant member from the membership register if such a member proved to be totally indifferent and unwilling to live as a member of the church. It was then made known to the congregation that So-and-So “has been removed from the membership list,” as if it simply was an administrative measure.

Was it correct to state that no discipline in the strict sense of the word was possible with non-communicant members? No, it was not. True, they cannot be suspended from the holy supper, for they were never admitted to it, but this is the only difference between them and the communicant members. The demands and obligations of the covenant are just as binding upon them as they are upon those who acknowledged these obligations by their profession of faith.

Public announcements are in place in case a non-communicant member hardens himself in sin. In his case there are only two announcements, the first one without the name being mentioned, while in the second one (announcing name and address) a date is given at which the excommunication will take place. The advice of classis must have been asked before this second public announcement may be made.

|316|

Since only two announcements are made and to give the congregation the opportunity to approach the sinner and admonish him, it is advisable to make the interval between the second announcement and the excommunication longer than in the case of communicant members. With the latter the second announcement was made perhaps several months before the third one, and the name and address of the sinner were known during all that time. The same opportunity should be there in the case of a non-communicant member, although no specific time-span can be given. Here, too, much will depend on the nature and seriousness of the sin and the attitude of the sinner.

In any case, it is the consistory that determines how long the interval between two announcements is to be, and the consistory will take every aspect into consideration.

 

Appeal

One more point has to be discussed. What is to be done if someone appeals to a broader assembly? Should the consistory proceed pending the appeal or is the whole process to be stopped until all possibilities of appeal have been exhausted?

Admonitions can and should continue. They are not to be stopped by any appeal at any time. No appeal can or should prevent a consistory from trying to bring a member back from his sinful way. These admonitions can never be appealed. An appeal is possible only once the consistory has accepted the consequences of their rejection by barring the member from the table of the covenant. There must be a decision, as Art. 31 states.

It will not happen very often that a member appeals a classical decision supporting the consistory, but if the member appeals to a regional synod, this does not automatically preclude continuation on the part of the consistory. Much will depend on the nature of the sin and the whole course which the process of admonitions has taken. If it can be done without any harm or damage to the congregation, it will be wise to wait with the next step until a regional synod has decided on the appeal. If, on the other hand, a consistory has come to the conclusion that further delay is unwarranted, the brothers should proceed although, perhaps, not to the final step: excommunication. No firm rule can be given, and we are to remember that one appeal only should decide about a matter. What should be decisive ultimately is whether the honour of the Name of the Lord and the well-being of the congregation demand that the consistory shall proceed or may wait for the decision of the broader assemblies, including a general synod.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 69

|317|

Article 69

Repentance

 

When someone repents of a public sin or of a sin which had to be reported to the consistory, the latter shall not accept his confession of sin unless he has shown real amendment.
The consistory shall determine whether the benefit of the congregation requires that this confession of sin shall be made publicly and, in case it is made before the consistory or before two or three office-bearers, whether the congregation shall be informed afterwards
.

Art. 69 does not deal with the repentance of those who have been excommunicated, for this point comes up in connection with Art. 70. Here in Art. 69 we speak of repentance and reconciliation before the admonitions have reached the last stage and have been concluded. Once a member has been excommunicated the reconciliation can become effective only by way of the official readmission into the communion of the church.

There will be great joy before the Lord and His holy angels as well as within His church on this earth when a sinner repents. It means that the goal of the admonitions has been achieved and that a sinner has been brought back from the road towards everlasting ruin. Repentance means therefore the end of the discipline. Also in this respect church discipline is different from secular disciplinary action. The latter seeks or is obligated to seek restoration of the right that was violated, restoration of the equilibrium. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” When a murder has been committed, the equilibrium can be restored only when the life of the murderer is taken. The punishment is to be of equal weight as the crime which was committed. A confession of guilt will bring the conviction and subsequent punishment.

Not so in the church. There confession of guilt and sin means the end of the discipline, although it will be clear that it is not the confession alone which brings about this end. One can say brazenfaced: “Yes, I confess that I did it,” but not show the slightest sign of remorse, let alone of repentance. The confession we ought to hear is: “Against Thee, Thee alone I have sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight.”

Even when this confession is heard, it should not be honoured right away with a lifting of the suspension. It is a well-known fact that those addicted to alcohol readily shed tears and deplore sliding back to the sin of drunkenness. A consistory should not say too soon: “We are thankful that you repent, and from this moment on the way to the Lord's table is open to you again.” In olden days this article contained the provision that there should be certain signs of repentance, and here the word “certain” does not mean “some undetermined” signs, but “sure, definite proofs of repentance.” We speak of “real amendment.” The same expression is used in Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

|318|

One who repents of a sin after repeated brotherly admonitions must prove that his repentance is genuine. The reason for this is not that the consistory doubts his sincerity, but that he has to prove his sincerity by remaining steadfast in his repentance during a trial period. He is to be tested as to the genuineness of his repentance, and someone whose sorrow for his sin is genuine will understand this and agree with it, longing for the moment when he will be allowed to receive the confirmation of the forgiveness at the Lord’s table. If someone objects to such a trial period and says: “But I repented and now should be allowed to go to the Lord’s table again” it should be seriously questioned whether his repentance is indeed as sincere as the Lord wants to see it.

The consistory will determine how long this period of testing should be. The conditions vary not only from congregation to congregation but also from case to case. The character of the sin will be one factor, the time it took the brother to come to his confession and repentance another. Further, the situation in the congregation has to be taken into account, for it is a sin which has affected the congregation as such of which we are speaking here. Article 69 does not deal with repentance and reconciliation between members who were at odds with each other and now are reconciled. It speaks of repentance of a public sin or a sin that had to be reported to the consistory when personal brotherly admonitions were rejected.

 

Announcement

When admonitions have been fruitful, and when the period of testing has come to an end, should the congregation be informed of this repentance? They were asked to remember the member in their prayers, were they not? Perhaps even the name and address of the sinner were made known to the congregation. Should a consistory now admit a brother to the Lord’s table without informing the congregation of the blessed fruits of the admonitions?

Again we have to state that no definite and hard rule can be given, or should be. From the various decisions of broader assemblies in the past it is clear that public announcements should be avoided as much as possible. Especially in large congregations public announcements may make little sense or even make matters worse.

This writer recalls the announcement: “Brother and sister A. have confessed their sin against the seventh commandment,” and that after this announcement members asked their neighbour in the pew: “Who are they?” The meaning of this announcement was that they were already expecting a child while they were not yet married. Most of the members did not even know the couple, and apart from the question whether such an announcement was proper, also with a view to the provisions of Art. 69 (even the names were made public!), no purpose was served by it other than arousing the curiosity of various members. There were even congregations where the couple were seated in front of the pulpit and had to confess publicly “their sin against the seventh commandment.” Those consistories most likely never read what they had agreed to in the Church Order.

|319|

We do not speak here of sins that have not yet reached the consistory as a result of rejected brotherly admonitions. We speak of public sins or sins that had to be reported to the consistory in accordance with Art. 69, and consistories should remember this.

Of these sins we ask whether repentance of them is to be announced to the congregation, and in answer to that question we say: “It should be avoided as much as possible.” The well-being of the congregation is to be taken into account, but so has the honour and well-being of the sinner! Both have to be served and promoted by it; if not, an announcement should be omitted.

In general, our congregations are not so large that the members no longer know each other, and generally most members know what is going on. This has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. It will also influence the decision of the consistory whether to announce or not to announce a brother's repentance.

First of all, sin has been confessed and the proof of repentance given before two or three office-bearers. Since the matter was at the stage that the admonitions were given by the consistory, the brothers will report this confession and repentance. The erring member does not have to repeat his confession before the full consistory, as in the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter shall be established. A brother may also appear before the consistory of his own accord and make his confession there. Although it will have to be recorded precisely in the minutes, the press release should routinely not contain one word about it. In each and every case the consistory should consider whether anything should be mentioned about it in the report to the congregation.

It appears proper that no information whatever be given to the congregation in case no announcement of any kind was ever made to the congregation; for instance, when admonitions have been fruitful. If matters were dealt with correctly and in accordance with the will of the Lord, the congregation was not aware of the fact that a brother was suspended from the table of the Lord, unless one noticed that he was not taking part in the celebration. Since the congregation was not informed of the suspension, they should not be told of its lifting either. An announcement of the latter kind would at the same time reveal the disciplinary action in addition to the sin, and this would be improper.

Where an announcement without the name was made it may be wise not to make the repentance known. Or if it is done, again without mentioning any name. The congregation may then be told that both the admonitions by the consistory and the prayers by the congregation bore the desired fruit. They may learn that a member who had been barred from the Lord’s Supper has sincerely repented and that the consistory has now lifted the suspension. It is equally possible that the consistory decides not to make any announcement at all, for the sake of the brother and the congregation. Both the edification of the congregation and the honour of the brother determine the decision here. An announcement is never intended to push a brother down or to give him a jolt afterwards, but only to increase the joy of the congregation and to promote the restoration of the brother to his full rights within the communion of saints.

|320|

Once an announcement including the name had been made or in case of a public sin, it appears almost mandatory that the congregation be informed of the brother's repentance. Name and address were known and with a public sin the whole congregation knew about it officially and not by rumour. They should also be told publicly that now there is as much reason for joy as before there was reason for sadness and to humble themselves before the Lord.

Concerning the confession of sin itself, the consistory has to ponder whether this is to be made publicly, that is when the congregation is assembled for worship, or before the whole consistory, or before a committee made up of consistory members. In most instances no public confession will be demanded. A “holier than thou” attitude should be prevented and, knowing the sinfulness of our own heart, we see how easily this attitude might result from a public confession. If, on the other hand, the consistory is convinced that the edification of the congregation as well as the honour and status and rehabilitation of the brother are promoted by it, a public confession is in place. The brother is to be reconciled to the congregation that was affected and offended by his sin. If it appears that no better way exists to achieve the reconciliation and to remove the offense, confession should be made publicly.

No specific formula or wording has ever been adopted for general use. Every consistory will have to choose the right terms and wording so that the Name of the Lord receives all praise, while the congregation is built up in faith, and the brother is restored to his rightful place in the midst of God’s people. To this end as little as possible is to be mentioned about the sin and as much as possible about the grace of God resulting in true repentance.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 70

|321|

Article 70

Readmission

 

When someone who has been excommunicated repents and desires to be again received into the communion of the Church, the congregation shall be informed of his desire in order to see whether there are any lawful objections.
The time between the public announcement and the readmission of the sinner shall be not less than one month.
If no lawful objection is raised, the readmission shall take place with the use of the Form for that purpose
.

Much of what has been said in connection with the previous article applies in this case as well, and will not be repeated. One important difference is that when an excommunicated person requests to be readmitted to the communion of saints, this is to be effectuated in a public worship service. It was in a worship service that he was declared deprived of all the rights and benefits which Christ gives to and bestows upon His church; it is in a worship service that he is restored to all his rights. The churches have adopted a Form for this purpose, and it must be used.

Not many of us will ever have witnessed such a readmission. Very few among our ministers will have tasted the joy of being called upon to read this Form and to declare in the Name of the Lord: “We receive you again into the Church of the Lord with joy and gratitude, and declare that you share in the fellowship of Christ, of the holy sacraments, and of all the spiritual gifts and blessings of our Saviour which God promises to and bestows upon His Church.” Yet this is the purpose of church discipline, also of that “last remedy,” the excommunication.

A request to be admitted again into the communion of saints must come from the excommunicated person himself, but this is self-evident. No one but he who desires to be restored to the position of member of Christ’s body will be prepared to answer the questions found in the Form. Having admonished him and having noticed gradual change, the members of the consistory will have urged him to request readmission, but it is up to him to take the initiative thereto. The sincerity of his desire will have been demonstrated by his attending the worship services for quite some time. Fortunately, the churches no longer follow a custom such as was found in the ancient church barring excommunicated members from the services altogether and, if they repented, letting them first stand for some length of time outside the place where the services were held before finally permitting him to witness the services, if ever.

When the consistory is convinced of the genuineness of the repentance, it will inform the congregation of the request for readmission. The congregation

|322|

is informed of this so that the readmission not take place without its approval. At the same time the congregation has the opportunity to bring to the consistory’s attention any impediment it might know of which might constitute a reason to deny the request, at least at this stage and at this time.

An announcement to the congregation is, therefore, not just a message to let the congregation know what is going to happen, as for instance, that the consistory will meet on Tuesday evening at 7:30, but thereby the consistory gives the congregation the opportunity to let the consistory know whether it gives its approval to the readmission of the former member. Only with the cooperation of the congregation can one again be received into the communion of the church, as only with the cooperation of the congregation he could be expelled from that communion.

Our Book of Praise contains an announcement which informs the congregation of the request received. In this announcement it is stated that “at the next celebration of the holy supper we shall loose the man from the bond of excommunication and readmit him to the fellowship of the saints.”

A close connection existed between the discipline and the holy supper. It was by the barring from the table of the Lord that the suspension of the brother became evident first of all. It is beneficial that with the celebration of the holy supper it becomes evident that not only the privileges themselves have been restored to him but also the right to use them. The glory and joy of readmission into the church cannot be demonstrated more clearly than by sitting together at the one table, where it is shown that “as one bread is baked out of many grains and one wine is pressed out of many grapes, so we all, incorporated in Christ in faith, are together one body.” Thus is shown “the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord.”

Since the congregation must be given ample opportunity to come forward with possible objections to the person’s readmission, the time between the announcement and the actual readmission should be not less than one month, preferably longer so as to prevent several extra consistory meetings or hasty decisions. If matters cannot be cleared up before the next Lord’s Supper, the consistory should inform the congregation accordingly.

 

Non-communicant Members

What is the procedure to be followed in the case of non-communicant members? It is the very same procedure; only the profession of faith must follow immediately upon the conclusion of the Form for Readmission. The declaration made in this Form means that one is restored to all the rights and privileges which one had before the excommunication. This does not suffice to admit a non-communicant member to the table of the Lord, for he had not yet made profession of faith. On the other hand, the readmission cannot be effectuated by a “simple” profession of faith, for the person did not just break with the church but was excommunicated from it. Thus the Form for Readmission is to be followed by that for the Profession of Faith, and after this the brother is entitled to all the rights and privileges of membership.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 71

|323|

Article 71

Suspension and Deposition of Office-bearers

 

When ministers, elders or deacons have committed a public or otherwise grievous sin, or refuse to heed the admonitions by the consistory with the deacons, they shall be suspended from office by the judgment of their own consistory with the deacons and of the consistory with the deacons of the neighbouring Church. When they harden themselves in their sin or when the sin committed is of such a nature that they cannot continue in office, the elders and deacons shall be deposed by the judgment of the above-mentioned consistories with the deacons. Classis, with the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod, shall judge whether the ministers are to be deposed.

An office-bearer has a special position in the midst of the congregation. They are to be examples to the flock. They are also more exposed to criticism and, perhaps, accusations than the other members. Not without reason does the apostle command: “Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” 1 Tim. 5: 19. The apostle does not mean “do not accept a charge,” but “do not take it into consideration or deal with it.”

That office-bearers have a special position in the midst of the congregation is also evident from the provision of Art. 71. They are human beings and by nature just as prone to fall into sin as all the other members. In their case, however, it has wider consequences than with non-office-bearers, as it also affects or at least may affect their continuing in office.

It is not necessarily so that their continuing in office is affected when they fall into a sin. As long as the admonitions are confined to the personal level, they continue in their office. If they heed the admonitions and repent, there is no reason why they could not remain office-bearers. Things are different when the matter had to be reported to the consistory or when a public sin is involved, although even then it is not always so that it is rendered impossible for them to remain as office-bearers. Much will depend on the circumstances, the situation in the congregation, and so on.

As for what is to be understood by a “public sin” we refer to what has been forwarded in connection with Art. 68. The following article will give a description of what is to be understood by “serious and grievous sins.” We will deal with them in our discussion of this article.

When an office-bearer has been reported to the consistory, or when he has committed a serious or grievous sin, the consistory will have to start the same investigation which is mandatory in the case of the other members of

|324|

the congregation. If it appears that there is a hardening in sin, suspension from office as well as barring him from the Lord’s table will have to follow. For the former the cooperation of the neighbouring consistory is required, for the latter it is not.

Almost from the outset it was felt that the position of an office-bearer must be safeguarded against abuse. It could easily happen that a consistory would covertly try to get rid of a minister or elder or deacon and now saw an opportunity to suspend or even depose the brother without sufficient grounds. This is more likely to happen in the case of a minister than of an elder or deacon, since elders and deacons see their term of office expire after a few years, but a minister is bound to the church for life. The churches have put up certain safeguards that protect the position of office-bearers.

 

Two Consistories with the Deacons

What is needed is the judgment of both their own consistory with the deacons and the consistory with the deacons of the neighbouring church. No consistory has the right to suspend or depose an office-bearer on its own, not because it would not be in the province of a consistory with the deacons to do this, but because the churches have agreed that they shall not do it without consulting the neighbouring church.

We speak here of the “consistory with the deacons,” for this is the body which also appointed the brother to his office and which is involved in other events as well, as we can see from the Articles 3, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14. They are authorized to decide about suspension and deposition, together with the brothers whom they are to call in for help. These brothers are the elders and the deacons of the neighbouring church.

A consistory does not have the right to examine various possibilities to find a consistory with deacons of whose agreement it can be assured beforehand. It is the neighbouring church which is to be consulted. We do not have to split hairs about the question what the neighbouring church is. In most cases there is no doubt about it and if a consistory did ever previously consult a neighbouring consistory or had dealings with them about matters of common interest, it is only logical that the same consistory will be approached. With the choice of neighbouring church a consistory is restricted to the churches within the same classis.

Consulting the neighbouring consistory with the deacons and asking their judgment, does not mean that now a combined meeting is held and that a decision may be reached by a majority of votes. Each consistory with the deacons has to come to an independent judgment and their judgments must agree. Only in that event can the suspension become a fact. When the neighbouring consistory with the deacons comes to the conclusion that a suspension is not justified, no such suspension can take place. The course to follow then is to ask classical advice.

This course of action shall be followed with all office-bearers. The procedure to be followed for the ministers of the Word differs from the one used for the other office-bearers. Elders and deacons can be deposed by the judgment of the two consistories with the deacons; ministers can only be suspended.

|325|

Deposition does not necessarily have to be preceded by suspension. Suspension presupposes that, if there is repentance, a lifting may be expected and the subsequent resumption of the task. If the sin committed is such that the consistories with the deacons are convinced that the brother may not continue in office under any condition, their investigation may result in immediate deposition. In the case of a minister they can go no farther than suspending him.

 

Why the Difference?

Why is there such a difference in this respect? The reason is not because the office of a minister is supposedly superior to that of the other office-bearers. There are, however, some other important considerations which have to be kept in mind.

One of the considerations that comes up right away is the feature that an elder or deacon fulfils his office only “part-time,” so to speak. He does not depend on it for his living, does not dedicate his whole life and all his time to this task. A minister of the Word, on the other hand, had to follow a course of study of many years, and depends for the support of himself and his family on the stipend he receives from the congregation. Deposition from office would result in immediate loss of the right to sufficient support, although in case he has to be deposed he and his family may still receive some support for some time so as to make the transition less traumatic. While still being a minister, he had the right to support by the church, as Art. 10 states. Upon deposition he has no more right to help and support than any church member who cannot provide for himself and his family. Here the deacons have a task, no longer the congregation through the treasurer. During the time of suspension the stipend continues, although the car allowance may be suspended as well.

A further consideration is that he also has a place within the federation. When he was admitted into the ministry this was done by a classis with the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod. Being admitted into the ministry in one particular church he also received the right to serve in other churches, if asked to do so. It is consistent that he only can be deprived of his office and position in the midst of the churches by the very same organs that granted his position. For this reason the provision was made that the judgment of classis together with the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod is needed for a minister’s deposition.

Note: we do not say that classis shall depose him. No broader assembly ever has the right to infringe upon the privileges and rights of a consistory. It was not at a classis or by it that the brother was ordained but in a local church and by it. Classis only admitted the brother to this ordination in that local church and, by virtue of this, into the ministry in all the churches. Likewise, as for the question whether the brother may be deposed, of should be, a classis is authorized to give only a judgment. The consistory with the deacons of the church (of which he is a minister) undertake the actual deposition. Any different action undertaken by broader assemblies in the past was

|326|

a clear violation of the provisions of Art. 71. No church can be deprived of its minister or of any of its office-bearers against its will, nor can this be done by anyone but its own consistory with the deacons.

The judgment of classis and the concurring advice of deputies of regional synod regarding the deposition will help prevent an undesirable development. It is conceivable that a consistory acts in concert to get rid of their minister, and succeeds in convincing the neighbouring consistory with the deacons of the validity of possibly trumped-up charges and grounds adduced for such action. Involvement of a broader assembly makes the position of a minister more secure. This involvement does not render it more problematic to depose a minister; it only constitutes an additional safeguard that it is done on the proper grounds.

 

Restoration

What ought to be the result when the sin is confessed and when there is genuine repentance? Can an office-bearer continue in office and can the suspension be lifted? Or does deposition have to follow in each and every case?

If deposition must follow in each case, we cannot see why a suspension must precede it first. The consistory with the deacons must be convinced of the necessity of the suspension if it proceeds to that step. The brothers must also entertain the possibility that the brother is again allowed to function as an office-bearer. Suspension makes sense only when the possibility exists that it is lifted and the brother continues in office.

Let us think here of the provision of Art. 26, subscription to the Subscription Form. If an office-bearer refuses to sign it, he shall immediately be suspended because of that refusal. Only when he obstinately persists in his refusal shall he be deposed. In other words, if he changes his mind and does sign, the suspension will be lifted.

This is not to say that lifting of the suspension is desirable in each and every case. It would be possible and desirable only if it is ascertained that the brother can work fruitfully, and that the cause of the Lord is served by his continuing as an office-bearer. The following questions should, therefore, be examined:

What was the character of the sin? Was it so serious that a fruitful service must be considered impossible, not only in the present congregation but also in any other congregation? This applies then to the ministers of the Word. We take it that the sin has been confessed, that there is true and genuine repentance, and that there is no falling back into the same sin. Would it in this case be entirely impossible that the suspension is lifted after three or more months and that the brother resumes his work?

An answer to the latter question can be given only locally and in a very concrete situation. However, to say a priori that it is an impossibility would be saying too much. Confession of sin and true repentance do not necessarily mean that the suspension is lifted and that the brother can continue in office. Suspension, on the other hand, does not necessarily mean either

|327|

that deposition must follow, as stated above. In the case of suspension it appears that restoration to office is the goal and expectation; otherwise deposition forthwith would have been the proper course of action.

Another possibility should be mentioned as well. It could be that the consistory with the deacons comes to the conclusion that the suspension of their minister is to be lifted, but that the brothers are equally convinced that he would no longer be able to work fruitfully in the same congregation. Although matters have been solved, yet the whole past history or the sin committed is such that it would take a long, long time before trust has been restored and a fruitful cooperation will again be possible. What is to be done in such a situation?

Here we envision a different course of action. Since the consistory with the deacons are convinced that there is not sufficient reason either to extend the suspension or to proceed to the deposition, the only course open is to lift the suspension and to return all the privileges of his office to their minister. At the same time, however, or preferably before that moment, the consistory with the deacons should put the matter before the sister churches at a classis and ask classis and the deputies of regional synod whether they could agree to the release of the minister according to Art. 11, once he has been restored to office. He may then not be able to work fruitfully in this particular congregation, this does not mean that he would not be able to do it in another congregation.

Care should be taken that release according to Art. 11 is not chosen as a way out of disciplinary action. It may never be substituted for censure and suspension because of sin. We are referring to such cases only where the suspension is to be lifted, but where serious doubt exists about the possibility of further fruitful cooperation, where, in fact this is considered impossible for a long time to come; in that case the brother could be released and declared eligible for call. The provision of Art. 11 would then apply.

Concerning elders or deacons we must say that the procedure is less complicated. Their calling was fora specific time only, and if the suspension is lifted, there is usually little time left to serve. Later on it can be judged whether they should be made a candidate for office again. A consistory might wait several years before doing this, so that the memory of the sin and of the suspension has faded to a large extent and the possibility of a fruitful term of office has increased proportionally.

 

One-time “Suspension?”

In the case of non-office-bearers we mentioned the possibility that a brother is forbidden to partake of the Lord’s Supper for that one occasion because the consistory did not yet have the opportunity to come to a definite conclusion and decision in the case. This, we said, is not discipline in the strict sense of the word but a safety measure.

The same can be said in case an office-bearer, let us say a minister of the Word, commits a serious sin just before the Sunday, or if someone comes with witnesses just before the Sunday. The consistory does not have

|328|

the opportunity to investigate or to come to a well-founded conclusion. Then, as a safety measure, it may forbid the minister to conduct the services on the next day or the day after. This is not what is sometimes called a “provisional suspension,” for we have no such thing in our Church Order, but it is a safety measure on the part of the consistory which is necessary for the sake of the honour of God’s Name and the well-being of the congregation. It is not a disciplinary act.

It is the obligation of the consistory with the deacons to come to a conclusion as fast as possible and, in case they find their minister guilty, to contact the neighbouring church immediately, so that a combined meeting can be called before the next Lord’s Day. If such a meeting cannot be arranged at such short notice, the minister will again have to be told to abstain from the work of a minister for safety’s sake. A precautionary measure it is, a provisional suspension it is not. The latter is an unknown phenomenon in our church life or Church Order.

As an elder or a deacon can be made a candidate for office again, so a deposed minister might again be declared eligible for call after a period of time, when things have calmed down and he has proved his repentance by an exemplary conduct. It will not happen very often that this is done, but it should not be deemed impossible or impermissible. We can see no valid reason why it should be prevented or forbidden. In God's Word we also read of office-bearers who fell into serious and grievous sins but who were maintained by the Lord in the office He had given them.

 

Retired Ministers

Which course of action is to be followed in case a retired minister is guilty of a sin because of which he has to be suspended? No difficulty exists here if he has stayed in the congregation he served, but things are somewhat complicated if he has moved to another place or even another region of the country. Which consistory with the deacons is to act now? He is still the minister of the church he served last, but he is a member of another church, and the former church may not even be aware of the facts, even though they are the ones that have to take action.

The proper course appears to be that the consistory of the church of which he is a member contacts and informs the consistory of the church whose minister he is, so that the consistory with the deacons of the latter church can initiate the action necessary. Perhaps they will have to send a few brothers to the place where the minister lives to investigate. Perhaps they will ask the minister to come over to discuss the matter, and will tell him to refrain from any ministerial work until the matter has been investigated and a conclusion has been reached.

Should a suspension have to follow, this very same consistory with the deacons will have to approach the neighbouring church to do what has to be done. What has been suggested, namely, that the church of which he is a member be party in the process does not seem right. This consistory has only the supervision over him as a member, and it does not appear feasible

|329|

that this consistory with the deacons plus a consistory with the deacons in another part of the country meet together and reach a conclusion. Besides, they may belong to different ecclesiastical districts, and this would complicate things. Further everything will be conducted properly when the provision of Art. 71 is followed faithfully. That their minister, upon retirement, moves away to another part of the country is no reason why a consistory with the deacons should not follow the course the churches have agreed upon. He is and remains their minister.

 

Notification

If it has been necessary to suspend a minister of the Gospel, the congregation will have to be informed of this. This should be done by means of an announcement from the pulpit, and the information should be kept to a minimum. There may be strangers in church, even non-members, and the less is made known the better it is. Nothing should be mentioned in the weekly or bi-weekly bulletin, for these papers are read by many others as well, and no purpose is served by making the whole matter public in the widest sense of the word. Reporters are very skilful in obtaining all sorts of pieces of information, and the press would glory if they could give some sensational bit of news to their readers.

The sister churches will also have to be informed, for when one is not permitted to do the work of a minister in the church whose minister one is, he may not do the work of a minister in the sister churches either.

How are they to be informed? And should the other congregations be told as well? The consistories of the sister churches are to be informed by means of a letter sent in a sealed envelope and marked “Confidential.” They do not have to be told the reason why the suspension had to take place, only that this minister has been suspended. That is all they have to know, and that is all they are allowed to know. They also should keep the information to themselves.

The consistory of a sister church would be completely incorrect if it published the information received in the bulletin or if it made an announcement to this effect from the pulpit. In all likelihood the matter will become known throughout the churches, but if it becomes known it should definitely not come from any consistory. It is the obligation of all consistories to keep the matter confidential and not to reveal it to anyone.

 

“Resignation”

How is a consistory with the deacons to go about it if an office-bearer just quits? Can the brothers do anything else in that case but acknowledge the fact and acquiesce in it? No, they cannot do anything else. The brothers will, of course, admonish the unfaithful office-bearer and try to make him see his sin and the seriousness of forsaking his ordination vows. But there is no room for suspension or deposition. The brother has divested himself of the right to be an office-bearer. All the consistory with the deacons can do is state that fact. One cannot persuade a person against his will. Even regardless

|330|

the question whether they ought to, the brothers would be unable to compel the unfaithful brother to fulfil the duties of the office to which he had been called. However, they should not even attempt to make him do it, for by his act he has shown to be totally unfit to fulfil these duties.

A brother who thus breaks his ordination vows should never again be made a candidate for office. When one falls into sin and sincerely repents, one may be made a candidate again at some point in the future, but when one despises the office to such an extent that one simply “calls it quits,” this removes all ground for trust for the future.

Admonition is appropriate here which, it is hoped, will result in the brother becoming convinced that he sinned, in confessing his sin, and in receiving forgiveness. Restoration to office, however, is out of the question.

 

Discipline

Until now we have in this connection hardly mentioned suspension from the holy supper. Does this always have to follow or even precede the suspension as an office-bearer? Not necessarily so. It all depends on the reason for the suspension and the circumstances. When, for instance, an office-bearer refuses to sign the Subscription Form and is suspended because of this refusal, it does not automatically follow that he is suspended from the holy supper.

In general, however, discipline will have to be applied in case a suspension or deposition becomes necessary. The reasons for suspension or deposition from office coincide with those mentioned in Art. 68. Thus it is almost unavoidable that someone who is to be suspended from office is also barred from the table of the covenant. The latter requires no concurring judgment of the neighbouring consistory with the deacons; it is a matter for the brother’s own consistory alone.

Lifting of the suspension is possible only when at the same time the way to the Lord’s table is opened again. Even so, deposition does not necessarily mean that the suspension from the Lord’s Supper must be continued. Above we spoke of the possible need to proceed to the deposition even though there is true repentance.

Once again it must be stated that no hard and fast rule can be applied, nor can we tell someone to look up Volume XII, page 3163, A, 2, sub III, d, 5 to determine what we should do in this case.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 72

|331|

Article 72

Serious and  Grievous Sins on the Part of Office-bearers

 

As serious and grievous sins which are grounds for suspension or deposition of office-bearers the following are to be mentioned particularly: false doctrine or heresy, public schisms, blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, unjustly enriching oneself, and further, all such sins and serious misdemeanours that rate as ground for excommunication with respect to other members of the Church.

No one should take the list of sins given in this article as restrictive or comprehensive, that is, that only these sins are ground for suspension and deposition of office-bearers. The list is not restrictive but illustrative: from what is mentioned here we can see what kind of sins render it impossible for an office-bearer to continue in office unhindered.

In older editions of our Church Order one could find the expression “all sins and gross offenses which render the perpetrator infamous before the world.” This expression has been dropped, because in the first place what the world thinks and regards as decent and proper is not a standard for the church; and in the second place the standards of this world change. In our days, for instance, people are no longer ashamed to admit to their homosexual practices, and various religious bodies openly and unashamedly admit those who are guilty of it to their pulpits. We still are to heed the admonition of Scripture that an office-bearer must also have a good reputation with those who are without, but this should not be construed as accepting the world’s standards of shamefulness and wickedness.

The sins mentioned here do not need any further elaboration. Yet it may be helpful to say something about them anyway. For this reason we shall briefly touch upon some of them.

Article 26 was introduced to protect the churches against deviating doctrines and false teachings. This article does, however, not provide an ironclad guarantee. A minister or other office-bearer could still advance false doctrine and heresy, yet assert, either in all subjective honesty or as a pretext, that what he teaches may be different from what others teach but that it is still in full accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Confessions of the church. Bringing false doctrine does not yet mean that one feigns and pretends, but it does mean that one proclaims a doctrine which conflicts with the Truth. Almost all heretics were honestly convinced that they alone had the right understanding of the Scriptures and that all the others were wrong.

|332|

The church does not go by what people are convinced of but by whether they are in actual agreement with the Word of God or not. When false doctrine is discovered, and when an office-bearer cannot be convinced of the truth, he may no longer continue in office. This does not mean that when an office-bearer has a deviating opinion he must be suspended right away, for who can count or is even aware of the innumerable misunderstandings of all the truths that the Lord has revealed to us? Who can count all the wrong expressions or statements in all sermons, or who is even aware of these errors? Any “heretic-hunter” could find something in almost every sermon on which to obtain a conviction. No one is perfect, and this applies to office-bearers as well. No one has a perfect understanding of all the Scriptures. The question is whether one returns to the truth of God's Word when it is pointed out to him that he is wrong here and actually promotes an error. If he does not, he might still remain a member of the church in good standing, depending on whether he does not promote his views and is willing to be instructed, but an office-bearer he cannot remain.

“Public schisms” are mentioned as a second sin which renders one subject to suspension. Perhaps it is remembered that the old Form for the Lord’s Supper put it as follows: “all who seek to raise discord, sects, and mutiny in churches and civil governments.” The apostle Paul strongly condemns the forming of factions within the church, 1 Cor. 3, and any office-bearer who becomes guilty of promoting partisanship and the forming of groups within the church breaks up the unity of the body of Christ. This is detrimental to the church, and means that he cannot remain an office-bearer.

There is no need to say anything about blasphemy, as it is obvious that one guilty of this sin cannot serve the Lord in any office.

By “simony” we understand any effort to obtain an office by buying it or bribing one’s way into it. It is clear to all who know the Scriptures that this word has been derived from the name Simon, the man who offered the apostle Peter money for the gift of bestowing the Holy Spirit upon others, Acts 8: 19. Although it seems that there is not much danger that in our age anyone would try to insinuate oneself into office by means of bribes or extra favours, such as often was the case, especially before the Reformation, it is advisable to keep this provision in our Church Order.

At the other end of the scale we find the “faithless desertion of office.” What this means is not what we mentioned in connection with the previous article, namely, that one just abandons his post, simply “resigns,” and all of a sudden is found sitting in the regular pew instead of in the section where the office-bearers are seated. A person who is guilty of such an offense can not be suspended any more.

The desertion of which Art. 72 speaks refers to an improperly leaving one's congregation to serve another church elsewhere. This, too, most likely will not happen among us, as no other church would be willing to receive such a minister as their own. When times are turbulent and communications next to impossible, and such times may come, it is more likely to happen. The provision is made, however, that leaving one’s congregation in an irregular and improper manner without having received the proper release makes one subject to suspension.

|333|

This provision applies to ministers; the next one applies to elders and deacons as well. It is the “intrusion upon that of another.” This means that one goes and performs the work to which one has not been called. Again we must say that such a sin will not be found among us too often, but that it is wise to keep this provision, as it stresses again that one should do only the things to which one has been called.

About perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, and acts of violence we do not have to say much, as these terms speak for themselves. A few remarks have to be made about “habitual drunkenness.” Sometimes it is thought that when an office-bearer is caught being drunk once, this is sufficient reason for suspension. One of our general synods even removed the word “habitual” from this article, but fortunately the latest general synod returned it to the text where it had been for centuries.

No one should ever be drunk, and certainly not an office-bearer. Yet it can happen and, if it happens, the question may come up whether he can continue in office. By making the provision that “habitual” drunkenness is a reason for suspension and deposition, the churches have implicitly expressed that more than a one-time falling into the sin of drunkenness would have to occur to have valid grounds for suspension. He must be so addicted to alcohol that we no longer can speak of an incidental falling into sin. The word “habit” is clear.

Brawling is mentioned too. This does not mean that when he loses his temper once, he is already subject to suspension, but we refer here to what the apostle commands, namely, that an office-bearer must not be arrogant or quick-tempered, (Titus 1: 3) not quarrelsome, (1 Tim. 3: 3). In the same places the apostle says that an office-bearer must not be a “lover of money,” or “greedy for gain.” From this we can see that the provisions of Art. 72 have been taken from God’s own Word.

At the end this article summarizes as follows: “all such sins and serious misdemeanours that rate as ground for excommunication with respect to other members of the church.”

All who attentively read the remarks made in connection with the Articles 66, 67, and 68 will understand that Art. 72 does not intend to stipulate that each occurrence of any sins mentioned merits rebuke of an office-bearer, or that suspension and deposition are the immediate result and the only proper action. In some instances it will be necessary indeed to proceed to the suspension or even forthwith to the deposition. We think here of perjury, simony, or blasphemy. In other instances suspension will come after a time of admonitions, as for instance in the case of brawling or being “greedy for gain.” What is to be remembered hereby is that more is demanded of an office-bearer than of the other members of the congregation and that these sins bear much heavier upon his case than when they are found with the other members.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 73

|334|

Article 73

Christian Censure

 

The ministers, elders, and deacons shall mutually exercise Christian censure and shall exhort and kindly admonish one another with regard to the execution of their office.

On the Sunday when this writer was ordained he asked the minister who officiated: “In two weeks time we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and this week we will have a consistory meeting. The agenda contains the point ‘Christian Censure.’ How do you do that?” The reply was: “Very simply. You ask the brothers one by one whether they have any objection to celebrating the Lord’s Supper with the other brothers, and if they don’t, you wish them a blessed celebration.”

Simple indeed, but totally incorrect. It was one of those practical issues about which we were never taught at seminary. Perhaps it was the system, perhaps the wartime condition and disruption, perhaps even something else. In any case, it took quite a few years before he discovered that the advice, faithfully followed during all that time, was incorrect. The Christian censure of which this article speaks has nothing to do with the question whether the brothers can sit together at the table of the covenant. Imagine that they could not!

At one time there was indeed the provision that the Christian censure should be held every time before the celebration of the holy supper, but this provision was dropped in 1581 already, and thus the suggestion of any connection between the two was removed. At present we do not have any indication when or how often the Christian or mutual censure shall be held.

Perhaps the word “censure” makes one think of discipline and thus constructs a link between censure and the table of the Lord. Another contributing factor may be that sometimes the term “censura morum” is used, and wrongly so. This censure does not go over the mores, the conduct, the behaviour, the moral conduct of the brothers. When a consistory considers the moral behaviour, the moral conduct of the members of the congregation, this can justly be called “censura morum.” The censure of which Art. 73 speaks deals only with the manner in which the fellow-office-bearers execute the duties of their office.

What is the purpose of this Christian or mutual censure? The brothers observe how the other office-bearers fulfil the duties of their office. This observation will help them evaluate their performance. The purpose of this censure is to edify one another and keep them alert and attentive to their tasks. For this reason the brothers should exhort one another and should point out specifically where they fall short in their duties and give advice how to improve the execution of their tasks.

Although it is not prohibited but rather to be encouraged and promoted

|335|

that a brother is approached personally and privately, no one should cite Matthew 18: 15 here. This is not a question of admonishing a brother because of a sin, but of urging each other to improve their performance. Matthew 18 does not even distantly come into view with this matter.

Some consistories have the custom of discussing the preaching at regular intervals. It appears that the Christian censure would be the proper occasion to do so rather than having it as a regular point on the agenda. We do not have the point “family visits” or “taking care of the needy” regularly on the agenda either. When, if necessary, the preaching is dealt with at the Christian censure, it will have its proper place on the agenda. If one of the brothers has any remark about how the minister fulfils this part or any other part of his ministry, he can raise the issue at this occasion. No one denies the very great importance of the weekly proclamation of the Gospel, and the need to keep the minister alert, so that he does not slacken. But turning “preaching” into a separate and regular point of the agenda seems somewhat out of place. It would be advisable if we did not have the Christian censure at regular intervals. Now the need for it appears not to be there.

“At regular intervals,” we said. There was regularity the few years during which the Christian censure had to be held before each celebration of the holy supper. Later on this regularity was often missing, although many consistories continued the custom of having it at the last meeting before this celebration. Nowadays various consistories give the opportunity every first meeting of the month or of every two months, although any office-bearer, should he feel the need of having to “exhort and kindly admonish” someone of the others about their performance, may ask to have the point placed on the agenda for the meeting.

The best way of conducting this censure is to ask each of the brothers individually whether he wishes to make use of the opportunity to exhort and kindly admonish any of the other brothers. In other words, is he of the opinion that any of the other brothers is remiss in his duties, or should do things differently, or is doing certain things the wrong way? This may include the preaching, or the catechism teaching, or the visiting by the minister; it may also be something about the manner in which a fellow-elder or fellow-deacon conducts a visit, and so on, briefly, any part of the execution of the office.

No one will deny that it may not be easy to speak up, especially not when it involves an elderly brother with much experience. However, would anyone think that it was easy for a young minister to speak up in Geneva’s church and to “exhort and kindly admonish” John Calvin? Yet the latter insisted on a regular exercise of the Christian censure also with respect to himself. Especially when one gets older the danger increases that one gets into a rut, and then it is the more beneficial when the brothers keep watch over each other and sharpen mind, attention, and zeal.

Should a brother wait outside when remarks are made regarding the manner in which he executes his office? Sometimes it was done that way. It undoubtedly makes it much easier for one who comes with the admonition, but in the first place we could say that anyone who has any criticism should also have the courage to say what he wants to say in the presence of all,

|336|

including the brother whom it concerns. In the second place we are to ask, “How can anything come of the exhorting and kindly admonishing of which this article speaks if the brother is not present? Is the admonition then to be given when he is called back into the meeting? Will he be told who the one is who came with remarks concerning his service? Who is going to convey the admonitions, and will he be able to do it in an acceptable way? Will it be possible to do it correctly? What if the brother wishes to discuss it and even denies certain elements?” These are then only a few of the questions which can be raised in this respect.

It appeared most advisable and beneficial to have a candidate present when his sermon proposal is discussed at a classis; similarly, it is most beneficial when at the Christian censure the brothers speak up when all are there, including the one(s) whose work is being scrutinized. Only in that case will the kind admonition become most fruitful. Besides, an opportunity has now been given either to refute the criticism or to give an explanation, or to express one’s gratitude for the directives given.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 74

|337|

Article 74

No Lording It Over Others

 

No Church shall in any way lord it over other Churches, no office-bearer over other office-bearers.

Of the true church we confess that it regards “Jesus Christ as the only head,” Art. 29 B.C. And in Art. 31 of the same confessional form we confess that the ministers of the Word “are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church.”

It is the same confession on which the provision of Art. 74 is based. Already in Articles 17 and 25 we made similar provisions regarding the ministers, as well as regarding the elders and deacons among themselves. In Art. 74 they are all comprised in the one term “office-bearers.” Therein it is expressed at the same time that there are no ranks among the office-bearers, as there are no ranks among the churches. They are all equal and they are all on the same level. The only One standing above that level is the Lord Jesus Christ, who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. (Rev. 1: 13)

By the very first synod of the churches in the Netherlands, the one of Em-den, held in 1571, this article (worded somewhat differently) was designated as Art. 1 of what later on would to be called the Church Order. This was done for obvious reasons: many of the recently liberated churches were hesitant to enter into a federation and to cooperate in the convening of a general synod. They feared a new hierarchy. In order to put their minds at ease, the Synod of Emden, 1571 made this provision the first one. Subsequent synods moved it towards the end where we still have it.

After all the remarks in connection with previous articles, especially 17, 25, 29, 30, 37, to mention these only, it will not be necessary to elaborate on the present article at any great length. We would only be repeating things said before, although this is often necessary.

When a church enters into a federation and agrees to abide by the decisions of the broader assemblies, we are to reject all rationalizations that seek to justify a surrender of any portion of the (local) autonomy of the church. When the truly Reformed church polity is being adhered to, we do not need to twist and turn and squirm to find a way between two extremes or to put up safeguards against dangers introduced by the very same reasonings which try to ward them off.

In the heart of every person there is the desire to lord it over others. Office-bearers are not free from such desire. They may not realize it themselves, and be honestly convinced that they seek the best for the church and for the kingdom of God. But even with “the best of intentions” they tend to impose their will upon others, being of the opinion that only the way they chose will lead to the goal, and that only their method is right. We do not

|338|

have to assume that consciously they are driven by wrong motives, though yet they may be.

It is beneficial, therefore, that we have an article such as the present one in our Church Order. It constantly reminds the larger churches that they are not more important than their “little sister” that needs financial support. It reminds the ministers, too, that they not only are on the same level as all their fellow ministers, but that their level is the same as that of elders and deacons. No office-bearer is higher than any other office-bearer. They have only one Head and Bishop, the Lord Jesus Christ.

All of our members are to bear this in mind. Too often the opinion is still found among Reformed people that one starts off as a deacon, and then, if one has served well, is “promoted” to the position of elder. In very rare instances one can climb even higher and reach the level of a minister. Such thoughts are to be eradicated, that is, rooted out.

Although we sometimes speak of a “mother church” when a new church is formed by part of its members, this does not give the first church any authority over “its daughter.” As soon as the new church is instituted there are two sister churches, equal in every respect, except most likely in the size of membership. One is your Master, the only head and universal Bishop, the One who bought His Bride, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 75

|339|

Article 75

Property of the Churches

 

All property, both real and personal, that belongs to the Churches comprised respectively in classes, regional synods, and general synods in common, shall be held in trust for such Churches in equal shares by deputies or trustees appointed for that purpose from time to time by the appropriate classis, regional synod, or general synod, and such deputies or trustees shall be bound by the terms of their appointment and instruction and are subject to being discharged by a subsequent classis, regional synod, or general synod.

This article was drawn up by one of our brothers in the legal profession and adopted by the general synod of 1974. We do not think that it needs an elaborate explanation, and for this reason we confine ourselves to a few remarks.

The churches individually are recognized as legal entities that can own real estate, receive legacies, etc. Usually they (have to) appoint a few brothers who act as trustees and hold all property in behalf and on behalf of the church. They are bound by their instruction and are subject to being replaced by others. This can be done, because a church is an existing, permanent body.

But what about a broader assembly, for instance a general synod? It exists for a few weeks and then is no more. Yet there are common possessions. We are thinking of the general archives and of our Theological Seminary. These belong to the churches in common, and have to be under the control and at the disposal of the churches in common at all times.

To safeguard the rights of the churches and to prevent that anyone entrusted with, say, the finances of the Theological Seminary might abscond with them, it has been stipulated that trustees or deputies are holding the common possessions for the churches in trust either in classical, or regional synodical, or general synodical combination, and that each subsequent classis or regional synod or general synod respectively has the right to replace them.

The churches remain the undisputed owners also of whatever they possess in common in whatever combination.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) Art. 76

|340|

Article 76

Observance and Revision of the Church Order

 

These articles, which regard the lawful order of the Church, have been adopted with common accord. If the interest of the Churches demands such, they may and ought to be changed, augmented, or diminished. However, no consistory, classis, or regional synod shall be permitted to do so, but they shall endeavour diligently to observe the articles of this Church Order as long as they have not been changed by a general synod.

Having arrived at the last article of our Church Order, we are reminded of the very first beginning, when reading the words “the lawful order of the Church.” It was to maintain the good order in the church that all these articles have been adopted as the conditions for the bond of churches. Of these conditions we say that they have been adopted “with common accord.” It was a decision of all the churches to adopt these provisions, and it was done at a meeting where all the churches were represented, a general synod.

When using the words “with common accord” we do not wish to assert that all agreed right away with all the provisions and their wording. Some of these provisions may have been adopted by a majority vote. However, the churches accepted these decisions, even though there may not have been unanimity. Such is still the custom, and we are correct to state that there is a “common accord,” or mutual agreement. All the churches have bound themselves to maintain the good order.

Our Church Order is the common property of all the churches. This implies, as we state in this article, that it can be changed only by the same common accord by which it was originally adopted; that is at a meeting where all the churches are represented, a general synod. No general synod, however, would be allowed to decide on its own initiative to make a change merely because the churches are all represented there anyway. The churches have made clear in what manner such a change should be prepared and effectuated. Article 30 is clear in this respect.

For what reason would a change be allowed? “If the interest of the churches demands such.” In that case it is not only permitted but even mandatory, for then these articles ought to be “changed, augmented, or diminished.” The reason must be that the interest of the churches is thereby promoted, that what could prove harmful to this progress must be removed, or that new provisions are to be introduced for the sake of this progress.

The churches are to ensure that the changes be kept to a bare minimum. It is not only very frustrating and bothersome when each general synod has to deal with proposals for change, so that practically every three years a new

|341|

edition of the Church Order has to be published, but it is also unnecessary. There may always be points which one church or another would like to see worded differently or even changed to some extent, but each church has to ask itself whether it is really necessary for the interest of the churches to bother the next general synod with another proposal and whether the interest of the churches really demands that change.

A major revision, the desirability of which was expressed by the very first general synod of the churches (Homewood-Carman, 1954, Acts Art. 94), was undertaken and this revision has now been concluded at the Synod of Winnipeg 1989. It should serve the churches for a long time.

Our Church Order has remained surprisingly constant ever since the basis was laid in 1568. Everyone who goes over the various editions and redactions will be impressed by this constancy. We are extremely grateful for the wisdom which the Lord gave to our forefathers, even though we disagree with them in minor points. We are equally thankful for the faithfulness which our Lord has worked throughout the centuries so that we in our days may still continue in that same, truly Reformed path. The necessity should be very pressing if the churches must be urged to bring about more changes in the Church Order. Times and circumstances change and have changed since Wesel 1568, and will change. We have taken these changes into account with our major revision, nevertheless remaining on the old track. A drastic change in the overall conditions around us must occur if we are again to adapt our Church Order to it.

Since all the churches have agreed to the “lawful order,” they are all bound by it, not by constraint or any alleged higher authority but by their own voluntary decision. They are also obligated to be faithful to these their obligations. No church has the right to deviate from the provisions of the Church Order. No broader assembly except a general synod may bring about any changes or consider itself at liberty to follow a different course.

All “shall endeavour diligently to observe the articles of this Church Order.” All are permitted to suggest and propose changes in the approved manner, but no one is permitted to act in a manner as if these changes were already in effect.

To be able “diligently to observe the articles of the Church Order,” the churches should know and understand them, to begin with the office-bearers.

If the present work may have contributed to this knowledge and understanding, this will be a very rich reward.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990) App. I

|342|

Appendix I

Regulations for the Elections of Office-bearers

 

Art. 1 Office-bearers shall be chosen by the consistory with the deacons with the cooperation of the congregation.

Art. 2 The cooperation of the congregation shall in the first place be sought by giving it the opportunity to recommend brothers deemed fit to fill the existing or future vacancies. Such recommendations are to contain the reasons why the brother(s) is (are) recommended for this specific office, and are to be signed by  sender(s).

Art. 3 The consistory with the deacons shall draw up a list composed of the names submitted by the congregation, to which list the consistory with the deacons shall add as many names as it considers desirable. From this list the consistory with the deacons shall elect a number of candidates for office of preferably but not necessarily twice as many names as there are vacancies to be filled. The congregation shall be informed of the names of the candidates preferably but not necessarily one week before the election is to be held.

Art. 4 The following procedure shall be followed at the meeting with the congregation where the election is held:

a. The clerk shall ensure that a sufficient number of attendance lists is available to be signed by all who are entitled to vote. Only those who are present at the meeting and have signed the attendance list shall have the right to take part in the voting.
b. The meeting shall be opened and closed with prayer.
c. After the opening, the chairman shall read aloud the names of the candidates for the respective offices.
d. The ballots shall then be distributed and collected again.
e. An “election committee” shall be appointed, consisting of two members of the consistory with the deacons and two members from the congregation. These four brothers shall:

1. count the number of ballots and make certain that it agrees with the number of those who signed the attendance list. In case there is a discrepancy which

|343|

cannot be solved, the vote is void and another vote is to be taken;
2. count the number of votes each candidate has received and inform the chairman of the result. The number of votes received by each candidate shall not be made public. Spoiled and blank ballots shall be rejected and shall be ignored when the votes are counted.

f. Those brothers shall be declared elected who have received the highest number of votes, but not more than there are vacancies to be filled. No one shall be declared elected who has received less than one/third of the number of votes. If fewer brothers are elected than there are vacancies to be filled, another free vote shall be taken to elect from the remaining candidates as many as are needed. In case of a tie vote when only one vacancy is to be filled, prayer shall be offered and the lot shall be cast between the two candidates.
g. Upon conclusion of the election the chairman shall ask whether any one has any objection to the manner in which the election was conducted. Only in case one has voiced his objections and it appeared impossible to take them away shall he have the right to appeal to the broader assembly.

Art. 5 The consistory with the deacons shall consider the result of the election and, unless there are serious reasons to decide otherwise, shall appoint those elected by the congregation. Those thus appointed shall be informed of their appointment in writing as well as of the scheduled date for their ordination.

Art. 6 Unexpected vacancies shall be filled either by appointing one who at the last-held election received a sufficient number of votes or by another election. If the brother thus appointed is to serve less than one year to complete the term of office of the one whose place he takes, he shall serve a normal term in addition to this.

Art. 7 Except in cases of departure, death, or deposition the term of office ends at the moment when one’s successor is ordained.

Art. 8 The names of those appointed to the respective offices shall be made known to the congregation on two consecutive Sundays for its approbation.

 

Commentary

In general it may be observed that some provisions have been included in these Regulations that