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.
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
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!
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
“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
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.