The main element in this article is undoubtedly the fact that in the organization or re-organization of a congregation, the advice of the Classis must be obtained. This means that a church independently organized will not be admitted into or recognized by the denomination unless this advice of the Classis is first sought. The article itself does not deny the autonomous right of a group of believers to organize the church. This question is not directly involved because the Church Order is here treating only the relation of a group desiring organization or re-organization and the denomination of churches with which it seeks affiliation, Within this framework, a group that feels itself ready for organization, must seek the advice of the Classis first. This advice is tantamount to “approval” and this means that the final determination in this matter lies in the hands of the Classis. The Classis, upon investigation of circumstances, decides whether or not these warrant the organization of a new church. If they do, Classis advises to proceed. If not, the actual organization must be postponed until such time as the approval of the Classis can be obtained. In this light it appears that the term advice has a broader significance than that ofjudgment, counsel, or help as the Church Order Commentary suggests (pg. 172).
Apart now from the question as to whether this properly belongs to the jurisdiction of the Classis rather than to that of the Synod, a question we discussed in our last article, we must ask why the Church Order makes this provision. Would it not be better and more in harmony with the principle of the autonomy of the church to permit a group that feels itself ready to organize independently and then apply for admittance as an organized church to the Classis or Denomination with which it desires to affiliate? Isn’t it a bit hierarchical to insist that a group may not organize without the approval of the broader assembly of the churches?
Authorities of Reformed church polity have considered this question in the past. None of them deny the inherent right of a group of believers to organize a church. That would indeed be hierarchy. That, however, is a different matter than that of a group organizing as a particular church in affiliation with an already existing denomination of churches. In regard to the latter we have to do not only with the inherent rights of the group that organizes but also with those rights of all the already existing churches or, in other words, the rights of the denomination. This must also be considered and so in connection with the question of organization it is not only a matter of “authority” or of who has the final or highest word in the matter but it is a question of decency and good order. Not a single group is to determine whether circumstances warrant organization but all the churches with whom that newly organized group is to affiliate must decide this. That is certainly in the interests of the well-being of all the churches. Furthermore, suppose that organization were permitted first and that then Classis would refuse to admit an organized church. We can conceive of all kinds of practical difficulties rising from such a situation and these are avoided because they are not made possible under the present arrangement of the Church Order.
The history of this article, like many of the articles of our Church Order, dates back to the time when the church was persecuted. During those days many churches were shattered. The members of the church fled for their lives, many of them even going to other countries. When then the persecutions abated, attempts were made to restore many of these broken churches. In some cases this was the advisable thing to do but in other cases it was not. This circumstance gave birth to the rule that “where the consistory is to be constituted for the first time or anew, this shall not take place except with the advice of the Classis.”
Later this same rule was used and applied to the organization of new churches. This is its common usage in our present day. With this rule the Christian Reformed Proposed Revision of the Church Order has combined Article 39 of our Church Order into one Article. The two combined articles are found in Article 29 of the Revision and read as follows:
“Groups of believers among whom no consistory can as yet be constituted shall be placed under the care of a neighboring consistory. For the organization of a new consistory, the approval of the classis must be obtained.”
The part of this revision that is related to Article 38 differs from the original in that it speaks of “organizing a new consistory” instead of “constituting a consistory“; it elides the phrase “for the first time anew“; and it changes “advice of the Classis” to“approval of the Classis.” The original Holland has: “In de plaatsen, waar de Kerkeraad voor het eerst of opnieuw is op te richten, zal ‘t zelve niet geschieden, dan met advies van de Classes.” Whereas the proposed revision does not improve the article with respect to either clarity or meaning, we feel the original should in this instance be retained although we can see possibility in combining this article with Article 39 since these two articles deal with matters that are very closely related. We feel that where a revision is to be enacted there must be purpose in that revision. We fail to detect that in the present proposal.
We may conclude our discussion of this article with a few remarks concerning the formal procedure in organizing a new congregation, The rules of our churches respecting this matter are very clear and, therefore, we may also be brief. These rules, quoted in the previous issue of The Standard Bearer, are found under Article 38 in our Church Order.
It is to be noted, first of all, that there is one exception made in these rules to the organizing of churches under the advice of the Classis. This exception is cited under Article 4 of the Constitution of the Mission Committee which deals with the “Duties of the Mission Committee.” Rule 5 thereunder reads: “The duty of the mission committee is to serve, in conjunction with the missionary, in the organization of new congregations, giving advice and permission thereto, and to officiate at such organization.”
This means that a congregation can be organized without the advice or approval of the Classis. If a group desires to become a congregation in the denomination of the Protestant Reformed Churches, they can apply directly to the Mission Committee (or to the Classis). This committee is empowered under its rules to grant permission to organize and in the event it would do that, it further attends to the details of organization. As a rule this is done by the Mission Board after it has informed the Synod of the proposed organization but this need not be done: It would certainly do this in consultation with the consistory of the calling church although even this. is not strictly mandatory. The’ mission committee has broad power in this respect and it may undoubtedly be said that this power is used more frequently than the method prescribed in Article 38 of the Church Order. Statistics I do not have but it seems to me that most of our congregations in the past have been organized under the supervision of the Mission Committee. When such organization takes place the Mission Committee will advise the newly organized church to seek affiliation with the Classis under which it is to resort and will further to that body a recommendation that the Classis receive the church it has organized.
Under Article 38, however, the organization of a new church takes place by observing the following steps:
1. Request or Application: The group desiring organization forwards to the Classis a letter requesting the right to organize as a Protestant Reformed Church. This letter must be signed by the heads of the families and by adult single persons belong to this group.
2. Action by the Classis: Classis must consider the request. She must determine whether or not it is in the best interests of the group and the churches at large. Many things must be taken into consideration in this important step, and, having done this, should the Classis then advise organization, she appoints a committee to carry out the actual organization of the congregation.
3. The Organization Proper: At the meeting that is called of all interested and concerned parties, a service of worship is first conducted. Then, in as far as is possible, the persons desiring organization submit certificates of previous membership. These, if found in good order, are accepted and thereupon the election of officebearers can take place. This must be done by free election. Then the elected office bearers are duly installed in their respective offices and the consistory and congregation are declared constituted. If possible, it is advisable that at this same meeting the necessary papers for the incorporation of the congregation are brought in order. The consistory can, of course, take care of this later but there is no point in delay. It can be just as well done at once and therefore should be.
Another matter that is sometimes considered in connection with Article 38 is that of combined churches. By this is meant that in certain instances there may be two or more small churches that are, for financial and other reasons, unable to maintain themselves as separate churches. By combining into one they could support a minister. However, other circumstances may make it impossible to unite into one church, Hence, by mutual agreement they remain separate churches but together call one minister who in turn serves the combined churches. An instance of this we had in the request that came to our last Synod from the Isabel-Forbes congregations in South Dakota. In cases like these there are usually a number of practical difficulties that have to be overcome. Of great importance wherever such arrangements are sought is the advice given by Monsma and Van Dellen who write: “Whenever churches thus combine their strength and efforts they should be careful to draw up a good set of rules by which all parties concerned will be guided. If this should be neglected disharmony and friction may easily result” (pg. 173). And, equally important, as far as the Classis (Synod) is concerned in giving advice with regard to organization under these circumstances, is it that they determine that the agreements made with respect to the groups seeking combined organization are workable. If this is not the case the organization under the proposed plan will not only be temporary but it will work irreparable harm. It is said: “One ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”