Whether they deliberately, in court, misrepresented the Reformed conception of church polity or whether they never understood it, I do not know and cannot judge, but certain it is that Kok c.s. tried to make the court believe that we have what is really a congregational form of church government.
Even their lawyer received that impression from their testimony. In his fourteen grounds for appeal, he states:
“12. The trial court erred in not finding and decreeing that the First Protestant Reformed Church is more nearly a congregational form of government than at presbyterial form of government.”
He also states:
“6. The trial court erred in not finding and decreeing that the Classis and Synod were merely advisory bodies in the church, and erred in not decreeing that Classis and Synod had no judicatory power.”
All this is in direct contradiction to the Church Order, as the judge understood very well.
He read article 36 of the Church Order which states: “The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the particular synod has over the classis and the general synod over the particular.”
Indeed, as is always well understood by Reformed men, the article does not state that the broader assemblies have the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the latter has over the congregation. But that is something quite different from declaring that classis and synod have no judicatory power at all. Without some form of authority or jurisdiction no denominational life were possible. By becoming part of a denomination a local congregation agrees to surrender some of its authority or jurisdiction to the broader assemblies. This is definitely expressed in the Church Order.
Nor did we, in 1924, assume a different position as especially Kok maintained and attempted to prove by quoting from my book “The Protestant Reformed Churches in America.” That this is not true is evident from the following.
In a document, composed by undersigned and addressed by my consistory at the time to Classis Grand Rapids East, we state the following:
“Consistory does not question that Synod possesses the ultimate authority to interpret our Confessional Standards. But neither does the Consistory want Classis to assume a position which would indicate a denial of the fact that Synod also possesses ultimate authority in matters pertaining to cases of discipline. And Consistory maintains that Classis has no authority to reopen a case against the pastor, Reverend H. Hoeksema, against whom so many attacks were launched and so many complaints lodged and protests were written, and who left Synod with the testimony of the largest assembly of our churches that he is fundamentally Reformed.” p. 195.
Did we, in 1924, ever deny that Synod has jurisdiction or authority in matters pertaining not only to doctrine but also to discipline? We never did. On the contrary, we emphatically asserted this.
Again, in the same communication to Classis Grand Rapids East, we state:
That the Consistory fully agrees with Art. 31 of the Church Order: ‘Whatever shall be agreed upon by majority vote shall be considered settled and binding.’ If only our Churches and especially Classis and Synod had adhered to what is considered settled and binding, also in matters concerning procedure and rules of order . . . But with regard to the point in question, Consistory maintains that. Synod had the entire case before it, finished it, gave an answer to all protests and questions, the question now put by Classis included, and that this must be considered settled and binding according to Art. 31 of the Church Order.” pp. 194, 195.
When I read this history again, I am still thoroughly convinced that we were right and that Classis Grand Rapids East was in error.
Synod had ultimately decided in my case.
Synod had adopted the. “Three Points” and at the same time expressed that I was fundamentally Reformed.
Synod had rejected all requests for discipline that were before that Assembly.
Classis could, therefore, not reopen the case, but had to agree that, under the Church Order, the decisions about my case were final, were “settled and binding:” If Classis wanted to do anything at all, it could have made a new case or appeal to Synod to reopen it.
The jurisdiction of Synod is, according to Art. 36 of the Church Order, higher than that of Classis.
At any rate, it should be perfectly evident that we never denied the jurisdiction of the broader assemblies over the consistory.
Nor did we ever regard only those decisions settled and binding that are in agreement with the dictates of our own conscience, as Kok would have it.
Classis and Synod have no authority or jurisdiction under the Church Order?
Consider Art. 3 of the Church Order: “No one, though he be a professor of theology, elder or deacon, shall be permitted to enter upon the ministry of the Word and the sacraments without having been lawfully called thereunto. And when anyone acts contrary thereto, and after being frequently admonished does not desist, the classis shall judge whether he is to be declared a schismatic or is to be punished in some other way.”
Note that in this article the classis is given independent jurisdiction, even without the consistory.
Consider also Art. 4 of the Church Order, which stipulates with respect to one that is to be ordained into the ministry for the first time:
1. That he must first be declared eligible for a call by the churches with the advice of the classis.
2. That the call must be submitted for approval to the classis.
3. That he must be examined by the classis in the presence of the deputies ad examina, which are synodical delegates.
All this presupposes jurisdiction over the consistory that called him. Under the Church Order no minister can be ordained otherwise.
The same is true of Articles 8, 9 and 10.
And how about Art. 52? It states: “The ministers of the Word of God, and likewise the Professors of Theology (which also behooves the other professors and school teachers) shall subscribe to the three formulas of unity, namely, the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordrecht, 1618-19, and the ministers of the Word who refuse to do so shall de facto be suspended from their office by the consistory or classis until they shall have given a full statement, and if they obstinately persist in refusing, they shall be deposed from their office.”
Notice that, in such cases, the Church Order gives the consistory but also classis power to suspend and to depose from office.
Art. 79 declares that the consistory may suspend the ministers of the Word, but “whether these shall be entirely deposed from office, shall be subject to the judgment of the classis, with the advice of the delegates of the (particular) synod mentioned in article 11.”
The entire Church Order, therefore, attributes judicatory power to the major assemblies.
But what then?
Did we not always maintain that the broader assemblies have only advisory power over the Consistory and that the local church is after all autonomous?
We did and we do.
But remember, in the first place, that every local church in the denomination voluntarily agrees with and subscribes to all the articles of the Church Order, also to the articles that ascribe judicatory power to the major assemblies. By doing this, it certainly voluntarily limited its own autonomy. It surrendered voluntarily some of its power. Without this no denomination of churches could possibly exist.
And, secondly, the local church still always remains autonomous, even if it leaves or is cast out from the denomination. No local officebearers can be deposed from office, if the consistory chooses to maintain them. But remember: in that case they are outside of the denomination with their officebearers, and they cannot sail under the name of the denomination.
This last is what Kok denies and denied in court. Even if he leaves the denomination he can still keep the name Protestant Reformed.
This is the height of folly.
Nor did we do so in 1924.
When Classis Grand Rapids East put us outside of the Christian Reformed Church, no matter how illegal and corrupt this action was, we at once assumed another name, the name Protesting Christian Reformed Churches. And this was, after 1926, changed to Protestant Reformed Churches.
But I wish to return, for a moment to the fourteen points on the basis of which the attorney, Mr. Lindsey, claims that the court in Grand Rapids erred and on the ground of which he makes his appeal to the supreme court.
These points all imply that the Protestant Reformed Churches have “more nearly the congregational form of government than the presbyterial,” and this is, to my mind, also the main reason why this appeal is doomed to failure.
This is true, for instance, of point 4: “The trial court erred in not finding and decreeing that the attempted suspension on June 23, 1952 of Rev. De Wolf by cross defendants and the deposing of all the other members of the consistory who stayed in the church was illegal and of no binding force and effect.”
Fact is that, even apart from the fact that the action by the consistory was perfectly legal in itself, the classis approved of it and had jurisdiction to determine who were the legal and proper delegates to its session of October 6, 1953.
This point, too, therefore, presupposes that we have the congregational form of church government, and that the classis has no judicatory power whatever.
To a few more items I still wish to point, but this must wait till our next issue, the Lord willing.