E. Bodies To Which Appeals Are To Be Directed 

Article 31 states clearly that appeals are to be made from the minor assemblies to the major assemblies. That means that decisions of Consistories may be appealed to Classis, and the latter in turn may be appealed to Synod. On this point there is agreement among all who adhere to Reformed polity. As such it creates no occasion for dispute but unless we say more than this we do not do justice to the underlying principle that is involved here. 

Monsma and Van Dellen in The Church Order Commentary correctly make the observation that this Reformed system of church government (appeal from the minor to the major assemblies) is the opposite of the Congregationalistic, Baptistic or Independent system which reverses this order of appeal. They write: “In these systems (independentistic) decisions of the ruling body of the local church may be challenged and brought before the congregation. However, we find no warrant for this in Scripture. Christ vested the bower of government over His church in the officebearers.” 

Hence, according to the independentistic systems, the final decision in all contested matters rests with the congregation itself; a form of ecclesiastical government of the people, by the people and for the people and a denial of the regal office of Christ which is vested in the particular office of elder in the church and not that of the general office of all believers. Against this view the Reformers have and do remonstrate, insisting that the authority to rule in the church lies in the particular offices and not in the general office of believers as such. This is also strongly supported by the Word of God and it must be insisted upon and maintained if this matter of appeal is to be kept straight for it is folly to appeal anything to a body that lack authority to decide. Under the independentistic system, the assemblies of the church are reduced to nothing more than informal and unofficial conventions or conferences. 

In Reformed churches, congregational meetings are also held. In the present connection, it is not necessary to enter upon the question of ascertaining the official status of such meetings. We will come to that, D.V., in another connection. As far as the matter of appeal is concerned; however, it may be said that one aggrieved by a decision made at a congregational meeting may appeal to the consistory. That body must then decide. From there the matter, if serious enough, may pursue a process of appeal that ultimately ends with Synod. That is the order in Reformed circles. What, therefore, under the Reformed system is the starting point of appeal is under the independentistic system the final court of appeal. The two are opposites! 

However, under the Reformed system, mention is frequently made of autonomy and of the autonomy of the particular church. What is meant by this is not infrequently considered to conflict with the broader Reformed system of polity. Webster defines the term “autonomy” or “autonomous” to mean “independent in government, self-governing, also, without outside control.” Now then, with respect to a particular church that is part of a broader federation or denomination of churches, this can be true only in a limited and not in the absolute sense of the word. Article 31 implies as much. If a local church were absolutely autonomous, independent, without outside control, it would be foolish indeed to even suggest appealing a decision taken by that autonomous church to another, outside body. Autonomy ecclesiastically is not the same as independentism. Neither is it equivalent to anarchism. If every church within the federation could respect or ignore any or all decisions of the broader ecclesiastical assemblies, as they see fit, it would certainly be practical nonsense to appeal any matter beyond the local consistory. In that case the final decision or disposition of the matter would rest with the local church anyway. Such is pure independentism!

And so, without entering into the matter of the jurisdiction of the broader assemblies over minor assemblies which is to be treated under Article 36, we want to make just one observation here. This is that the provision of appeal from a minor to a major ecclesiastical assembly presupposes that by virtue of the act or bond of agreement, the individual churches subject themselves to the decisions of the major assemblies with the exception of the condition provision under Article 31. Autonomy is limited to the local sphere and with respect to the broader federation, no church may; on the basis of its autonomy, disregard those decisions with impunity. To do so is to violate the act or bond of agreement. To permit this is to allow chaos. Only when these decisions are considered by all concerned as settled and binding does the idea of appealing to a broader or major assembly make sense. 

F. Unless or Until

Article 31, in connection with the fact that decisions taken by majority vote in ecclesiastical assemblies are to be considered settled and binding, contains this conditional provision: “. . . unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the church order, as long as they are not changed by a general synod.” Much has been said, written and debated regarding the exact thrust of the word “unless” (the Dutch has “tenzij“). In defense of its appearance in the article, it has been and is claimed that those who would substitute for it the word “until” are guilty of imposing hierarchy upon the Reformed system. The whole argument centers around the matter of whether or not the appellant is bound to submit to the decisions of the ecclesiastical body during the period of time that his appeal is processed and treated. These who emphasize the “unless” answer this in the negative while the advocates of the “until” reply in the affirmative. This question itself we will consider under a separate sub-title but at present we are concerned only with the meaning or thrust of the terms “unless” or “until.” 

As to the difference in the simple meaning of the two words, it should be noted that “until” has reference to time, to a definite, limited period of time while the word “unless” has no temporal reference in it but denotes a factual condition. These two words are not mutually exclusive even though in the present connection this is frequently inferred. “Unless” means, according to Webster, “if not, except that,” and in this application it would merely denote that the decision taken is valid and binding, limited by the conditional provision “that it is not proven to conflict with the Word of God, etc. . . .” That is merely a matter of fact. But, on the other hand, “unless” denotes time and in this connection signifies that the decision taken is valid and binding during the period of time that it is subject to question and appeal. This term, therefore, covers the duration of the matter of fact. The two are not exclusive but complementary. 

Now the question concerns whether or not there is really such a conflict between these two complementary concepts that is of such proportion that to insert one or the other would radically change the meaning of the article. So it is often presented and the advocates of the two schools of thought will vigorously oppose each other and tenaciously cling to a word. Those who refuse to be bound even for a time insist that the insertion of “until” mutilates their consciences and compels them to sin against God because they are then, forced to subject themselves to that which they honestly are convinced is in conflict with the Holy Word. This argument tic will weigh in another connection presently. On the other hand, those who maintain that an ecclesiastical decision once taken by majority vote becomes binding and settled immediately, hold that the “until” is implied in the Article itself, if not also in the “unless.” 

We fail to see any real conflict here and believe that most, if not all, of the argumentation over which word is proper here is unnecessary. Especially so since it should be noted that in the Formula of Subscriptionwhich speaks of the same matter as Article 31 of the Church Order, namely, the matter of appeal, and to which all officebearers in Reformed Churches subscribe, uses the word “until” We quote: 

“. . . . reserving for ourselves, however, the right of appeal, whenever we shall believe, ourselves aggrieved by the sentence of the consistory, the classis or the synod, and until a decision is made upon such an appeal, we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.” 

We do not believe that there is a serious conflict between our Church Order and our Formula of Subscription. We believe that they harmonize well even though in speaking of the same thing the one uses the word “unless” and the other the word “until.” The substitution of a little more tolerance, patience and understanding for heated and often beside the point argumentation would help much toward resolving any seeming difficulties on this point. Those who insist on the exclusive “unless” should remember that submission under protest for a time (as required under the Formula of Subscription) does not violate the conscience. It simply means in the words of this Formula, “acquiescence,” which, in Webster’s words means, “to accept or comply tacitly or passively, without implying assent or agreement; to accept as inevitable or indisputable.” Isn’t it inevitable and indisputable that a certain decision was taken by a certain assembly and is, therefore, an official decree of that body, right or wrong? Can anyone who is a member of the organization represented by the body that takes such a decision, not recognize and accept that fact even though they be in disagreement with it. Such recognition does not imply assent or agreement. Hence, the appeal follows. 

On the other hand, an undue emphasis upon “until” to the exclusion of the “unless” is also wrong. That would create a circumstance making appeal impossible and thus abnegating the “unless” altogether. This would violate Article 31 but here again, the matter centers upon the question: “To what must one submit until . . .”? Must one bow with agreement of conscience to the decision made until . . .? Then the appeal is of course impossible. Or does one simply submit to the fact of the decision, acknowledge it as legal (though he is convinced it is incorrect) and proceed from there to appeal? Then until the appeal is heard and unless the decision is reversed, the appellant submits. This, we believe, is the thrust of the matter. 

Finally, it may be pointed out that not only is there then harmony and agreement between our Church Order and the Formula of Subscription but also that then an appeal makes sense. Why appeal a decision if it isn’t settled and binding? Moreover, suppose an appellant succeeds in convincing the synod of its erroneous decision. If there is no “until” implied in the “unless,” it follows that the decision in question has never been settled and binding and, consequently, there is no need to rescind or revolt it. This, however, is not the case. All decisions, from the moment they are taken by majority vote, are valid and binding and remain so until they are, changed or revoked by the proper body. 

– G.V.D.B.