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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.