(Kuyper is, in this paragraph, discussing church reformation as it involves a break with the denomination. Reformation always begins with an individual or with individuals in a local congregation, but always continually involves the denomination as a whole. The role of a minister is always more serious than that of the ordinary members because his office is at stake.)
We come now to the second category which we defined as conflicts with the church federation. That is, we speak of those who are called to church reformation not by a few persons (whether common members or office bearers) but by the dealings of the consistory itself.
These conflicts have an entirely different character in so far as they do not create strife between a few persons and the church federation, but between the church federation and the whole congregation as an organized body.
Such conflict can arise in a threefold way. First, it can happen that a person (whether a common member or an office bearer) is condemned by a church federation without the consistory feeling free before God to help carry out this sentence. In such a case, the consistory defends the one who was condemned and, if .the church federation maintains its position, the consistory comes under the same condemnation. Secondly, it can happen that the consistory feels compelled not to carry out a rule or alteration of the Church Order which was made law by the church federation. And thirdly, it is possible that the consistory, seeing no advantage in remaining in that church federation but realizing that it could be spiritually detrimental to the congregation, breaks with that church federation, introduces a new Church Order and intends to form a new church federation.
According to this point of view, these three cases actually become one with two different possibilities. The consistory retains the Church Order and still remains in the church federation; but the conflict arises through the opposition of the members of its congregation, or through opposition; from within the consistory and thus the further development of the conflict has the result that the consistory, without fear of further confusion, may decide one of two things, vis., either to continue under the existing Church Order or to set it aside.
Both are possible.
We know that the theory is set forth by men of importance that, “As long as you remain under the existing Church Order you are obligated to conduct yourself according to that Church Order.” But it is our inner conviction that this is false. The rule, after all, that no obedience to man is possible except it be in complete obedience to God’s Word, holds not only for the state and society, but for school and family, and also in like measure and even in higher measure for the church.
A child stands under the rules of the house. But if ever a command of father or mother or governess should lead to something that is disobedience to the Word of God, then the child may not obey. The same rule applies for servants over against their mistresses, for school children over against their masters, for workers over against their bosses, for soldiers over against their officers, and for citizens over against their king. Thus even in a stronger sense this is the rule of the consistory over against the church federation.
The idea that promises of faithfulness or sworn oaths would deprive that rule of its strength is absurdity itself. The Thebes Legion had also sworn a military oath to Caesar, but nevertheless it refused to participate in idolatrous sacrifices, and permitted itself, after being brought back to Geneva, twice to be decimated and then to be killed as sheep for the slaughter rather than to be obedient to the command of its general.
Also if the Church Order is not yet changed and one still lives in the church federation, yet a consistory must never do, out of submission to the church federation or as following that Church Order, what it knows is not good, nor honorable, nor responsible before God the Lord.
The all-inclusive reason which settles everything is that every stipulation of obedience, or bond of promise, or obligation to submission to human rules, always and above all and under all circumstances is limited by the all-governing condition which never has to be expressed because it speaks for itself: Nothing may be done which conflicts with our obedience to God.
Many are the consequences which the conflict which thus arises can bring about. And this is all according to what the membership of the consistory is, what the inclination of the church federation is, what the constitutional position of the church is, what the connection between church overseers and consistory is, and whether the congregation, completely or by majority, supports or opposes the consistory in the conflict which affects it.
If the legal relation is free from every sense of party spirit in the administrative government as well as in the judge; if the prelates remain faithfully on the side of the consistory; if the consistory need not be apprehensive that their members are in collusion with the opposition;—then such a conflict presents little danger and the church federation shall as a rule end the matter by conceding the point. This is more likely if the lower body of the church federation (e.g., the classical government) refuses to lend itself to execute the decisions.
But we may not hide the fact that circumstances are seldom so favorable. In a number of consistories a minority, usually with preachers at the head, choose the side of the church federation over against faithfulness to God’s Word. In almost all congregations a part of the church members lend themselves to the opposition. In far and away the majority of cases the classical government assumes the role of policeman. In very many cases the prelates hand over the building, assets, and whatever more there is to the officers of the church federation. All in proportion to whether the government representatives who serve the king are obviously for or against the church federation, either the administration will ignore everything or oppose it. And finally, the outcome is determined by whether in the highest governing judicial circles historical investigation has led to a better knowledge of the church political question, or whether a lack of such an investigation compels them to maintain the conventional policy. This will determine whether the decision of the highest rightful power maintains the original right of the churches or harms that right perhaps for all time.
Circumstances are almost the same where the conflict arises not under the existing Church Order but because the Church Order is set aside. This is all the more true where consistories, who come into conflict with the Church Order, when the danger of separation arises find it advisable to break immediately with the Church Order.
It can happen that the consistory sets aside the Church Order without a definite occasion. As soon as in a church of God an upright and genuine consciousness of guilt concerning the unlawful condition of the church is aroused and this consciousness penetrates in the consciences of the office bearers, and by them is brought into the consistory, then such a consistory shall weigh whether the existing Church Order permits a reformation of the church according to the demand of God’s Word. If not, then one should so revise that Church Order that the obstacles which stand in the way of reformation would disappear. And if this is not possible, then the only solution is that those who oppose reformation should not interfere with those churches who desire it.
Even if one takes this last position, a change of the Church Order is not yet absolutely necessary. But if, on the other hand, the consistory becomes certain that the existing church federation is going to oppose necessary reformation, that the federated churches are not prepared for nor inclined to an alteration of their Church Order; and that the officers of the church federation will not permit the reforming church to proceed;—yes, then there is not the least doubt that a consistory is bound to break temporarily with the denomination and to introduce a better Church Order on the ground of the historical confessions. If such a consistory can do this together with other consistories so that it immediately enters a new church connection, so much the better. But also, if this does not succeed and the consistory stands before the choice of going its own way or of refraining from reformation, its obligation is clear to continue an independent existence.
Such a consistory has the right of this step because of two considerations. First, it has this right from the obligation which rests upon it to keep the church faithful to God’s Word. Secondly, it has this right from the circumstances that each church, which continues in church federation retains the right to loose one’s self from that bond. This is true because no church ever possesses the right to sell itself into slavery. Suppose a consistory had taken on a contract to bind its church for all time, even if that were possible, and that the bond would result in apostasy from the living God, then such a contract would be already null and void because each immoral alliance would be declared invalid by the civil law.
Taking such a step such a consistory in the meantime would have to pay very careful attention to four things.
Surely, first of all, it would have to pay attention to the fact that the pressure and impulse for such a step does not arise from a Phariseeistic pride, from turbulent discontent, or from superficial church ideas, but that it is deeply rooted in the desire and obligation of the soul to be subject to the Word of God. Every impulse which is not rooted in obedience to God’s Word is revolutionary pride and must be opposed.
Secondly, the consistory must see to it, as it takes such a step, that it correctly lays the foundation for the new movement, not by breaking with history, but by maintaining the historical confession of the church as basis. At the same time it must draw up a newly introduced Church Order which does justice to the principle of God’s Word, introduces no new tyranny and not only opens the way for a new church federation but is itself taken up in this federation.
Thirdly, such a consistory goes to work with caution. They must be harmless as doves, but also wise as serpents, as Jesus has also commanded us. Where there are three or four ways of doing things, the consistory must avoid the reproach of risking carelessly the well-being of the church and her future existence through inconsideration or a foolish disposition of the matter.
If one takes an example from the relationship between the consistory and government representatives, if a situation is not good but can possibly be made better, it is reckless to neglect this.
At the very least good and efficient preparation is necessary for such an important work.
If the conflict arises regarding a matter, no one can make a choice for himself, but must follow the direction of Him Who has placed him in that position. If, on the other hand, as is the case of the introduction of a new Church Order, one has the choice of the time for separation, then that choice of the proper time must be made with serious consideration.
A consistory which engages in such a holy work must not work hastily nor without the clear consciousness of what it is doing.
And fourthly, the consistory must show moral earnestness also in this that it makes the congregation realize that a holy work is undertaken for its own salvation.
The consistory shall show this by not taking important decisions with a majority which is too narrow to be worth mentioning so that there is the danger that the decision, before it is carried out, turns around into its opposite.
Further, the consistory may not only react against the false and corrupted church federation, but it must allow censure to work in the congregation and must manifest the power of saving and condemning love, not only against corruption of doctrine, but also against profanation through careless walk of life.
No less must the preaching of the ministers serve to enlighten the congregation and to bind reformation of heart and house on the soul.
Finally, the consistory, whether in planned meetings or through circulated letters, must enlighten the congregation concerning what is happening and help her to live along in the struggle which is fought for the honor of God and His Word.
In short, just as you would not let an artistic work of your beloved be done in your home where there was much noise, but would allow it to be done only under quiet prayers and with holy earnestness, thus also it ought to happen with this artistic work in your church.
Prayer should be made in a clear consciousness of the danger that can threaten.
There should be the conviction that reformation must nevertheless happen.
And besides all this there should be a shattering of hearts and consternation of spirit so that reformation may result in a true and upright work before Almighty God.
And if a few traitors appear in the bosom of the congregation or unfaithful members of the congregation repudiate the consistory; if the higher government attacks those who work for reformation, government representatives work against them, a magistracy hinders them, and the judge finally condemns them, all of this must be borne, endured, and wrestled with in the name of the Lord. When the Roman Caesar locked up the church members of Nicomedia in the church building and burned them, that patience and suffering was so much more terrible than we endure, and yet the church of God triumphed over that mighty Caesar.