One of the most frequently discussed and controversial articles of our present Church Order is the one we are about to discuss. Volumes have been written concerning it. The various differences of interpretation have played no small part in the struggle and “splitting” of the Reformed Churches, both in The Netherlands and in our own country. From the church political aspect, the history of 1953 in our own churches found both sides attempting to use Article 31 to bolster and defend their positions. Hence, our personal interest and, we believe the interest of the readers of The Standard Bearer, in this article is more than an academic one. We are concerned about this matter because it involves fundamental principles of the truth with which no church or individual can afford to trifle!
The article in our present church order reads as follows:
“If anyone complain that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the church order, so long as they are not changed by a general synod.”
To this article our churches, through the Synod of 1944, have added the following which is substantially the same as is maintained by the Reformed Churches of The Netherlands:
“Appeal to a major gathering against any decision of an ecclesiastical body must be made upon the immediately following meeting of the body to which appeal is directed, at the same time giving notification to the secretary of the body by whose decision he is aggrieved. Of every judgment rendered in the case those concerned shall receive a notification.”
It is also of interest to note that the Committee for Church Order Revision of the Christian Reformed Church, in its report to Synod this-past year, proposes some change in this article. In the proposed revision Article 31 becomes Article 49. It reads as fellows:
“If anyone is persuaded that a decision of an assembly is contrary to God’s Word or the Church Order, he shall have the right to address a protest to the assembly next in order, or, regarding decisions by the general synod, to the next general synod. Furthermore, if anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly. Whatever is agreed upon regarding protests and appeals shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order. The question whether or not a specific decision or ruling is in conflict with the Word of God and the Church Order is ultimately decided by the general synod.”
It should be noted here that besides the additions and interpretations that are incorporated into this revision (to which we will come back later), the provision of the original article regarding “majority vote” is elided altogether. It may be argued that this is implied but, nonetheless, it is not expressly stated as in the original. We are informed that this entire revision has been submitted by the Synod to the various Classes and Consistories for further study and in the light of reports submitted by these bodies Synod will decide on the matter next year. We wonder whether there will be objections to this procedure as, for example, there were in our circles when in 1950 the matter of the Declaration of Principles was handled in this way, i.e., submitted by Synod to the churches for approval.
To the Rev. C. Hanko we are indebted for a translation of the proposed revision of Article 31 by the Reformed Churches of The Netherlands (Synodical). It appears in his article entitled, “Should Article 31 be Revised and/or Clarified?,” in Vol. 32, pg. 161 of The Standard Bearer. Whether this proposal bas been formally adopted by the Synod there or not; whether it is still in the process of discussion and study or whether it has been rejected, I cannot at present say. At any rate the proposal, which would become Article 35 instead of Article 31 in the revision, reads:
“1. The decisions of the assemblies are always taken after a general discussion and as much as possible by unanimous vote. If entire agreement proves unattainable, the assembly shall submit to the sentiment of the majority. The decision of the assemblies have a binding character.
“2. Those who have objections to submit to the sentiment of the majority, because they deem them in conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, can make their appeal to the next broader gathering.
“3. In consideration of the differences in boundary between the various churches, in as far as not more than one particular synod is involved, the right of appeal to a broader gathering does not extend beyond the particular synod.
“4. Those who appeal to a broader gathering are duty bound also to consider the regulations established by the general synod in regard to form and time limit of the appeal.
“5. An assembly can, in case of appeal, postpone the carrying out of her decision.”
Concerning this proposed revision, the Rev. C. Hanko adds: “Although this article is rather verbose, and has lost practically every semblance of the original, it contains elements worthy of closer consideration. Undoubtedly some of the elements could be relegated to a footnote, since they do not apply to all Reformed Churches.”
The latter Rev. Hanko advocates, pointing out that there are also other articles in our church order that could be clarified by the use of a footnote rather than subjecting them to radical change. He cites that this method has many arguments in its favor and then he proceeds to offer for consideration the following footnote or appendage to the present Art. 31: “The appellant must present his appeal with proof to the next major assembly, and while his appeal is pending he must submit to the decision of the minor assembly. Whenever it is deemed feasible and advisable, an assembly may postpone carrying out her decision until the broadcast gathering has decided on the matter.”
We wonder what the ultimate effect of all this revising and alteration of the church order will be within the circle of Reformed Churches. It is lamentable that, a gigantic task such as this is cannot be done through a united effort. With each group or denomination going its own way, we fear that the end result will be church-political confusion in which the original Church Order that has so ably stood the test for centuries will be lost. Although, therefore, we would favor limited revision and more broadly some necessary clarification of the present Church Order, we would also strongly urge retaining as much as possible the form of the original. As the Dutch would say, “Alle verandering is geene verbetering!”From this all, it should be evident, however, that the principal subject of this article is “the right of every member of the church to appeal decisions of the ecclesiastical bodies with which they are or may be aggrieved, believing that such decisions are contrary to the Word of God or the established rules of the church order.” It would, however; be an oversimplification of the matter if we would limit the material of this article to this one thing, important as it is! This basic right of church members involves other things, such as, for example, the mutual responsibility on the part of all members of the church for those decisions which are made by the ecclesiastical assemblies. When this is not considered, the need to exercise the basic right is not felt. Often this is the case but it does not devoid the responsibility. When the church makes decisions regarding doctrines or such practical matters as Unions, Lodges; Divorce, Woman Sufferage, etc., these are not matters to be preserved on file in some hidden, ecclesiastical records but they are decisions—right or wrong—true or false—concerning the faith and life of the church and for which every member of the church is accountable before God! The underlying idea of Article 31 establishing the right of members to appeal or protest all wrong decisions involves the solemn duty of every member to know; to be thoroughly acquainted with the ecclesiastical Acts and to insist, through appeal, that every evil be rectified. It is a sad reflection upon the consciousness of this duty when members lack even that interest to procure for themselves a copy of the annual Acts of Synod. Certainly there must be concern over the welfare of Zion! Ignorance is never an excuse and no member of the church can be justified of the sin of living in silent submission under the false “regula fidei et vitae” established by ecclesiastical decisions which are contrary to the holy Word of God. No member can live under anti-Scriptural regulations of the church without reaping the inevitable consequences of the just judgments of God Who punishes sin temporally as well as eternally. (Heid. Cat. Q. 10). Yet, the cry is often heard today in an attempted self justification of such evils. “Oh, I know it’s wrong . . . terribly wrong and the church is going with it all in the wrong direction . . . but I can’t do anything about it. The majority want it that way.”
Ah, yes! We do not doubt the truth of the last statement but that you can do nothing about it is an absurdity. You not only can, but it is your God-given duty! Article 31 of the Church Order maintains the established rule, based on God’s Word, that every member has the right to appeal and if such appeal is made without avail, your out is to seek affiliation where you are not bound by the anti-Biblical regulations which, by your continuance in them, only intensify your guilt. God is not mocked!
Further, Article 31 establishes the principle that the decisions taken by majority vote in ecclesiastical assemblies are to be considered settled and binding. The very fact that an exception to this is immediately added in the article indicates that the Reformed Fathers rejected the claim of Rome that “the church in her decrees is infallible” and concede the point that “the church can and does err.” The Scriptures alone are infallible, being the Word of God and, therefore, they must serve as the final court of appeal in any dispute or dissension. Hence, any appeal to reverse a decision of the church must be well substantiated by the Holy Scriptures.
Next time, D.V., we will outline the material of this article and begin to discuss its elements.