Censura Morum

The ministers of the Word, elders and deacons, shall before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.” 

—Article 81, D.K.O.

The caption above this article is a Latin expression that signifies a censorship or examination of conduct. In the present connection it applies to the custom introduced by Calvin and A Lasco by which the office bearers of each church are to exercise a mutual censure with respect to the discharging of their respective offices. 

This practice is peculiar to churches that have the Reformed or Presbyterial form of church government. Under the hierarchical or Episcopal system such a mutual censure is not possible. Under our system the officebearers are equal in authority, each in his own sphere, and supervision is mutual but under the Episcopal system the officebearers are of different rank and authority and consequently those that occupy the higher officers exercise supervision over those who are lower in rank. The archbishop supervises the bishop; the bishop supervises the priest, etc. The provisions of Article 81 then belong exclusively within the framework of Reformed Church government. 

The phrase “before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper” appeared in the original church order of 1575 but it was taken out of Article 81 in 1556. In the Netherlands it was not re-inserted but the Christian Reformed Church in our country reincorporated it in their redaction of 1914. So we also have it in our church order today. From the point of view that this guarantees that this mutual censure will take place in every consistory at least four times a year it is undoubtedly advantageous that this phrase appears in the article. Actually, however, it does not belong there since the matter of censura morum has really nothing to do with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The question here is not whether any of the office bearers have any grievances against each other that would hinder them in celebrating the Lord’s Supper properly. If such is the case these matters need to be treated by themselves. Surely it is true that office bearers should never go to the Lord’s Table unless the right brotherly relation exists between them but this is equally true of all believers and should not require a special investigation. The question of censura morum concerns the proper execution of the duties of the offices of the church. 

It may be observed however that in the original redaction of this article provision was made so that this censure or investigation should include “doctrine as well as life.” Again it was the Synod of ‘s Graver&age in 1586 that changed the article to read “with regard to the discharge of their office.” In this form it has remained until today. From this it must not be concluded that the matter of the doctrine and life of the office bearers is of no concern and may be ignored. On the contrary, there is a very close relationship between “doctrine and life” and the “discharge of the office.” The point is that the former is already covered in previous articles of the church order while the latter is the exclusive concern of the article we are now treating. It goes without saying that this matter is important and ought to receive proper attention by the consistory for the well being of the entire church. 

A question remains as to what is the proper procedure or manner in which this censura morum is to be conducted? It would be interesting to know from office bearers in the various churches just how this article is executed in their church. We have a feeling that there is not much uniformity in the churches with respect to this matter. We could be wrong on this point but we do feel that the custom should be quite, similar in all the churches. Two different methods have been suggested. First there is the practice according to which each of the members of the consistory in turn leaves the meeting and then it is asked regarding him whether any of those present have anything to allege against his service. If anything is alleged he is confronted with the allegation and if it is shown to be true he is admonished in a friendly way. It is claimed that this is the most effective way because, human nature being what it is, one is more apt to speak about a fellow office bearer in his absence rather than in his presence. The identity of the accuser can remain hidden from the accused. We question however the ethics of this method and even more doubt seriously whether it can be conducive to the “friendly spirit” mentioned in the article. 

The second method allows the office bearers to remain in the meeting and then by a roll-call each is asked whether they have anything to allege against the other. Under this method the president of the consistory can simply ask in general whether any of the consistory members has any criticism to offer of his fellow officebearers respecting the discharge of their office? A reply to this question can then be solicited from each member individually. In our opinion this is the preferred method since it is more in harmony with the purpose or intent of censura morum. 

The practice of censura morum requires a high spirituality. It must never revert into fault finding. Its purpose is not to create criticism. It must always be constructive in character and done out of the love of Christ and with the purpose of helping one another as officebearers of His Church. The officebearers need to submit themselves one to another in the fear of God and otherwise this practice cannot have the desired positive fruit. In some instances a private heart to heart talk between consistory members may be preferred to a discussion of the matter in the consistory. But whether this be done or the matter is brought up at the time of mutual censure, it must be done in the spirit of meekness with each esteeming the other as better than themselves. 

Membership Attestation 

“To those who remove from the congregation, a letter or testimony concerning their profession and conduct shall be given by the consistory, signed by two; or in the case of letters, which are given under the seal of the church, signed by one.” 

—Article 82, D.K.O.

The matter of membership certificates or more commonly referred to as “church papers” is the subject of this article of the church order. This matter was already mentioned in connection with Article 61 of the church order but in a somewhat different connection. That article provides that those who come from other churches shall not be admitted to the Lord’s Supper without proper attestation. The viewpoint is that of the church receiving members whereas in Article 81 we are dealing with the matter of issuing letters of attestation to those who remove from the congregation. 

In our churches there are three different forms that are issued by consistories and that fall into the category of attestation certificates as described in this article. They are: (1) The Transfer Form For Baptized Members. (2) The Transfer Form For Confessing Members. (3) The Certificate of Dismissal. The first two of these are issued when members remove from one congregation to another church within the denomination. This is why they are called “transfer forms.” They serve the purpose of transferring a member from one Protestant Reformed Church to another. The difference in these two forms is found in the first part. In that for confessing members we find this testimonial: “The consistory of the Protestant Reformed Church hereby certifies that . . . . . is a member of the above congregation, and as far as known to us, is sound in faith and upright in walk.” In the case of a baptized member, however, the transferal form merely states: “The consistory of the Protestant Reformed Church hereby certifies that . . . . . is a baptized member of the above church, and therefore is subject to the instruction and discipline of that church.” 

The reason for this difference is obvious. Members by baptism only are incomplete, immature members who thus far have failed to make a profession or confession of faith and concerning whose profession therefore nothing can be said. For this reason the Church Order Commentary asserts that “we say that strictly interpreted Article 82 refers to members-in-full only.” Yet, undoubtedly realizing that if this position is strictly maintained, it has to be admitted that the Church Order has nothing to say about the baptized members, the authors of the Church Order Commentary add: “Nevertheless Article 82 does not exclude those who by virtue of their birth and baptism stand related to the Church and under its care. By implication also the immature, incomplete members are covered by Article 82.” And so we interpret Article 82 to include both kind of members. 

We must admit, however, that those covered by the third form mentioned above are not included under Article 52. We mean those who receive the certificate of dismissal. The certificate of dismissal is used for those who not only remove from the local church but who also remove from the denomination. Concerning them there is no testimony concerning their profession and conduct given. This certificate merely states that after the date specified the bearer is no longer a member of the aforenamed church. We mention it in this connection only because it is one of the forms issued to those who “remove from the congregation.”

Several matters of practical importance may be considered in connection with church membership, transferal of membership, dismissal of membership and related matters. Some of these we hope to consider in our next article but we have space now to comment yet on the last part of Article 82. We note that the letter or membership attestation is, according to the church order, to be “signed by two” or in case it is issued under the seal of the church it may be “signed by one.” The reason for this is because the certificate must be issued by the consistory. 

Sometimes it will happen that a member will request either the minister or the clerk of the consistory to issue this certificate. This is improper. It may not be done. Even the two together have no right to issue certificates of membership. The testimony given must be that of the whole consistory and this must be done officially. The official character of this action is designated either by the seal on the certificate or by the double signature. Sometimes this requires some embarrassment and even offense. Consistories as a rule meet but once a month and members who then request a certificate of membership immediately after a consistory meeting was held have to wait for a month until the next meeting. This needless delay in most instances is not the fault of the consistory but of those requesting their certificate. They should give the consistory ample notice of their intent and if this is done they will be able to take their letter of testimonial with them when they remove from the congregation.