Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the particular synod has over the classis and the general synod over the particular.

Church Order, Article 36


This article concerns the authority of the broader assemblies – the authority of the broader assemblies over the consistory and the authority of the broader assemblies mutually. 

The formulation of Article 36 dates as far back as the Synod of Middelburg, 1581. This same synod dealt with various questions concerning the relationship between consistories and the broader assemblies. One such question was the following:

Since it is reported that some minor assemblies sometimes decide contrary to what has been ordered in major assemblies, from which disorder and disparity of church institutions springs, it is asked whether it would be good that the ACTS of minor assemblies be brought to the major to be examined, such as the church minute book to the classis and the classis minute book to the particular synod? Answer: No, but in order to take care of this, when someone notices such a situation, he shall give diligence that it be improved by specific admonitions or if it does not help by authority of major assemblies.

Although the Synod of Middelburg did not go along with the suggestion that the major assemblies regularly scrutinize the minute books of the minor assemblies, two things become clear from the Synod’s answer. First, the minor assemblies are bound to submit to the decisions of the major assemblies, lest there arise “disorder and disparity” in the church. And second, lack of submission by the minor assemblies to the decisions of the major assembly is not to be tolerated but dealt with “that it be improved.” 

In this connection, although the major assemblies do not regularly scrutinize the minute books of the minor assemblies, something of this is done each year in the practice of church visitation (Church Order, Article 44). According to the decisions appended to Article 44, “The consistory shall see to it that the record books are at hand for the inspection by the visitors.” One of the purposes of this inspection of the record books, particularly the consistory minute book, is to assure that consistories in the classis are submitting to the decisions of the major assemblies. 

The key word in Article 36 is the word “jurisdiction.” Our English word “jurisdiction” comes from two Latin words: jus, meaning “law,” and dicere, which means “to speak.” When one has jurisdiction in a certain area, what he says is law. Clearly, the word “jurisdiction” implies authority, real authority, authority that must be submitted to by those over whom the jurisdiction is exercised. The Dutch version of Article 36 uses the word zeggen: “… ‘t zelfde zeggen heeft de classis over de kerkraad . . . .” Zeggen means “the say.” Classis has “the say” over the consistory, just as the synod has “the say” over the classis. The Latin version of Article 36 uses the word auctoritus ,which means “authority.”

Two Dangers Guarded Against

Article 36 guards against two equally pernicious errors that threaten proper Reformed (biblical) church government. 

First of all, Article 36 guards against the danger of independentism. According to this view, the broader ecclesiastical assemblies have no real, binding authority. Their decisions are merely advice that can be taken or left at the whim of the minor assemblies. Only if ratified by the minor assemblies are those decisions even to be considered valid. In fact, there need not even be broader assemblies. The existence of broader assemblies is a matter of convenience not necessity. 

Plainly, Article 36 embodies the Reformed rejection of independentism. There are broader assemblies. The decisions taken by these broader assemblies are binding decisions. The major assemblies do have jurisdiction over the minor assemblies. Classis and synod exercise a real authority over the consistory, as well as over the individual church member. Decisions taken by the broader assemblies are law in the churches, they do settle matters of dispute, and they are to be submitted to. 

Secondly, Article 36 also is the Reformed repudiation of hierarchy; and Article 36, rightly understood and honored, is the Reformed church’s protection against hierarchical usurpation. 

According to the hierarchical view, the major assemblies exercise an absolute authority over the minor assemblies, authority overall aspects of the life and government of the churches of the major assembly. The local congregation is not autonomous, that is, self-governing. The “broader” or “major” assemblies are viewed as “higher” and “superior” assemblies. 

This, very plainly, is not the teaching of Article 36. That the major assemblies have real power does not at all imply that they have absolute power. At this point, we need to pay attention to the language of Article 36. Significantly, Article 36 says, “The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the synod has over the classis.” Article 36 does not say, “The major assemblies have the same jurisdiction over the minor assemblies as the consistory has over the congregation.” There is a difference, an important, principle difference between the authority that the classis and synod have over the consistory, and the authority that the consistory has within the congregation. 

The authority of the consistory is unique. In distinction from the broader assemblies, the consistory alone has authority to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline. No other organization, not even any other ecclesiastical organization, may usurp this unique authority of the consistory. When the broader assemblies do nevertheless presume this authority, they become guilty of hierarchy. 

The authority of the major assemblies over the minor has already been carefully circumscribed by Article 30 of the Church Order. The broader assemblies have authority only in those matters which pertain to the churches of the broader assembly in common. In addition, the broader assemblies have authority to deal only with those matters that could not be finished in the minor assemblies.

The Basis for the Authority of the Broader Assemblies

The authority of the broader assemblies is based on the willing consent of the local churches that have freely joined the church federation. The authority of the broader assemblies derives from duly appointed delegates who are sent by the minor assemblies to conduct the business of the major assemblies. From this point of view, the broader assemblies have greater authority than the individual consistory because they represent the authority of all the consistories combined for the supervision and promotion of the work of the churches in common. 

But ultimately the authority of the broader assemblies is the authority of Christ Himself. It is true, in a certain sense, that the authority of the broader assemblies is derived from the willing consent of the individual consistories. Yet, this is not the whole truth, nor even the most crucial truth when it comes to the authority of the broader assemblies. For at bottom the authority exercised by the broader assemblies is authority derived from the exalted Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the only Head and Ring of the church. To Christ has been given all authority, especially all authority in the church. Christ exercises that authority not only through the local consistory, but also through classis and synod. Submission to classis and synod, whether by the local consistory or the individual church member, is nothing less than submission to Christ.

Biblical Support for the Binding Authority of Broader Assemblies

The Scriptures themselves teach this binding authority of the broader assemblies and of the churches in common. 

This is certainly the precedent set by the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Here the local congregation at Antioch appealed to the broader assembly of the apostles and elders gathered at Jerusalem a matter that could not be finished at the local level. The question brought before the Jerusalem Council was clearly a matter that concerned the churches in common. The decisions arrived at by the Council were considered settled and binding, “necessary things” (v. 28). These decisions were reported to the churches by the apostles as the “decrees . . . that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem,” and that the members were “to keep” (Acts 16:4). 

There are also numerous examples in the New Testament Scriptures of the churches laboring together in matters that concerned the churches in common. The .churches cooperated in the relief of the poor: “For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia; to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:26). From the beginning there was cooperation in the training of young men for the gospel ministry: “And we have sent with him the brother (Titus), whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches; and not that only, but who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace, which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord, and declaration of your ready mind” (II Cor. 8:18, 19). 

It is also abundantly plain from Scripture that the autonomy of the local congregation did not mean that each church could go its own way or do its own thing irrespective of the other churches. There was an authority that bound the churches to a common faith, a common way of life, a common worship, and, a common government. When Paul gives instruction to the Corinthians congregation concerning marriage matters, he says, “And so ordain I in all churches” (I Cor. 7:7). The apostle’s instructions in I Timothy for proper behavior in the church, the house of God, apply not just to Timothy and the Ephesian congregation, but to every church and house of God. His instructions for godly behavior in the home apply not just to Corinth, but to all the churches (I Cor. 11:16). The apostolic regulations for worship are not just local regulations, but regulations for the worship of God that are to be carried out in every congregation (I Cor. 14:33I Cor. 16:1).