Last time we quoted this article, together with decisions that have been made concerning it, as well as various revisions that are at present being considered by different Reformed Church bodies. We also expressed that the heart of the matter as far as Article 31 is concerned has to do with the right and duty of appeal by members of the church who may find themselves aggrieved by decisions which are made by the various ecclesiastical assemblies. We will now proceed to outline the course of our discussion of those matters that are either expressed or implied in this article. To do so we present the following brief statements of the matters we propose to consider:
A. The Right of Appeal.
B. Cases To Which It Applies.
C. Methods of Submitting an Appeal.
D. Time Limitations of Appeals.
E. Bodies io which Appeals are to be directed.
F. “Unless” or “Until.”
G. Status Of the Decision until such Time as the Matter of Appeal has been Resolved.
H. Status of the Appellant during this Interim.
I. To Whom must the Contention of the Appeal be Proven?
J. Majority Vote.
K. Settled and Binding.
L. Relation of Major Assemblies Decisions to Those of the Minor Assemblies.
M. Was Article 31 Violated in 1953?
A. The Right of Appeal
Since we already touched upon this point in our last article, we may be brief here. The right of appeal is that right which every member of the church of Jesus Christ possesses according to which he may express before the assemblies of the church wherein and why he is, in disagreement with a certain decision or decisions which have been made. This right stems from the fact that a member, by virtue of his faith in Christ, stands in the office of all believers. He is prophet, priest and king in Christ. This three-fold office not only involves a serious obligation to seek and strive to attain the truth in all things pertinent to the cause of Christ in the world hut it also implies a sincere interest and desire to do so. One who is conscious of his Christian calling will exercise a serious concern about the affairs of Christ’s church. When, according to his conviction, matters are decided in conflict with the truth, he must speak and be heard. He has this right, given to him not by the church but by Christ Jesus Himself!
Further, this right of appeal is necessitated by the fact that the church in the deliberations and decisions of her assemblies is not infallible. History provides abundant evidence of this. Consistories, Classes and Synods are constituted of fallible and even sinful men. They can and do make mistakes, commit errors and perpetrate injustices. Although the guidance of the infallible Holy Spirit is invoked upon these assemblies this guidance is not always followed. This may be due to the inability at the moment to properly discern the course of truth and then again it may result from a carnal element gaining the majority vote in the assemblies and deliberately directing matters in a way contrary to the truth. Irregardless of the cause, however, Christ gives unto His people the right and duty to militate against all evil through the medium of lawful and orderly appeal.
B. Cases To Which Appeal Applies
The question may arise: “Is any and every decision made by an ecclesiastical assembly subject to appeal?” The present Article 31 would stem to imply a limitation in answer to this question. It states: “If anyone complain that he has been wronged by a decision . . .” so that it would fellow that appeal can be made only where an injustice has been perpetrated. In fact, literally understood, this injustice must be of a personal nature for the article reads: “that he bas been wronged . . .” Monsma and Van Dellen state that “the very word appeal would also signify this” although they hasten to add that these appeals are not to be limited by the article to cases of personal injury. They stress that appeals which involve no personal injury or injustice but which may concern the welfare of the churches, the purity of confessions, etc. are also legitimate. It seems to me that this limitation of Article 31 is very broad and may be construed so as to include virtually any decision. Two things should be very evident. First of all, no one will appeal unless he feels wronged or aggrieved and, secondly, no decision that affects the welfare of the churches can possibly leave the individual member; of the church unaffected. The one is bound up in the other!
It may be said, however; that although in the abstract any and all decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies may be a lawful cause for appeal, yet, concretely there are many decisions made which in their very nature would be unworthy of an appeal to Classis or Synod, even though one might be personally dissatisfied with them. For example, a Consistory may decide to give the janitor a small salary increase, to forbid Saturday evening meetings in the church building, to close off a certain section of an overly-large auditorium, to forbid Smoking on the church premises, etc. Such decisions may not meet with unanimous agreement in the congregation but they certainly do not warrant appeal to a broader ecclesiastical body.
It is interesting to see how the proposed revisions of Art. 31 affect this particular point. The Christian Reformed proposal retains the literal wording of the present article in one place but adds thereto the words, “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 . . .” The revision proposed in the Netherlands changes the wording quite radically. It has: “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.”
Summing this point we may say that any member who, in good conscience, feels that the churches in doctrine or practice have deviated from the way of truth, has the right to voice his objections and attempt to convince them to return to what he believes is the right way according to the Holy Scriptures.
C. Methods of Appeal
To the common layman this matter of method may enhance some difficulties. It may be out of fear that one will fail to follow precisely every rule of technical procedure and thus have his case nullified before it is even heard that one with a grievance will refrain from registering his rightful appeal. This should not be so and probably would not be so if it were remembered that the process of registering an appeal is not as involved as it is often made out to be. There are only a few simple rules to be observed:
Firstly, Dr. Jansen recommends that an appeal should include the following points: “(1) Presentation of the matter, at issue in the appellant’s own words. (2) Quotation of the official decision concerning which the appeal is being made. (3) Enumeration of the reasons because of which the appellant feels himself aggrieved and upon which his appeal rests. (4) Petition that the major assembly declare for reasons adduced, that the minor assembly’s decision was erroneous and unfounded.” These four points, of course, concern the material content of the appeal. To this we would like to add that appeals should be as brief as possible and well documented. By the latter we mean that there should be clear and authenticated proof given for the points in question. The strength of an appeal does not lie in its length. Ecclesiastical bodies are not generally impressed, frightened or intimidated by voluminous writing. There is a danger, too, that the point the appellant wishes to establish will be lost in the ramble of many words. Better it is to state the point concisely and add thereto the desired grounds which in themselves will be convincing if they are really valid.
Secondly, to resister an appeal a proper notification must be given, to the secretary of the body which made the decision that is being called in question. For example, if an appeal is being made to Classis concerning a decision of the Consistory, the secretary of the Consistory must be first notified. Such notification does not consist of mere information but includes a copy of the appeal that is being forwarded. This is necessary, of course, in order that the Consistory may be prepared to render its defense. That is just!
Finally, in the past Reformed Churches permitted an appellant to explain and defend his position by means of another who was called “een mond,” i.e. a mouth. If one feels that he has a just case but lacks the ability to properly present it, he may employ “een mond.” Such a person, however, must be a member in good standing in the churches and must conduct himself throughout in a worthy manner. It may be added that although this practice has its commendable features, it should not be encouraged but rather each one should act, if at all possible, in his own case. That is better!
D. Time Limitations on Appeals
This matter is governed by a rule in our churches to the effect that appeals must be made at the very next meeting of the body to which the appeal is directed. Thus, if one is aggrieved by a decision of a Consistory, he cannot wait several months before registering his grievance. He must do so the next time the Consistory meets. If he fails to do so, he forfeits his right of appeal. Also here, as is generally true with rules, there must be allowance for an exception. Circumstances may make an early appeal impossible. A man may be on a trip to Europe. During his absence the Consistory may make a decision which he learns of only after his return. If desired, such a person would be allowed the right to appeal at the first Consistory meeting after he gained knowledge of the decision. Common sense and good-will must prevail in every circumstance but as much as possible adherence to the rule must be maintained in the interests of decency and good order.