Classical Jurisdiction

The question of the nature and extent of the jurisdiction of a Classis over a Consistory is of fundamental importance! 

The exercise of this jurisdiction, either properly or improperly, has an important effect upon the ecclesiastical life of the churches and certainly has affected the history of our Protestant Reformed Churches from the very time of their origin until, the present day. 

With the principle of this matter, as expressed in the question from “The Church Order Commentary” that appeared in the last issue of The Standard Bearer, we are agreed. We single out the following statements from that quotation as being especially pertinent: 

“No major assembly . . . . has the right to depose a minor assembly. 

“Without the concurring advice of these delegates (Synodical) no Classis may decide that a certain minister should be deposed. 

“The Classis has a full right to appoint a committee to help the Consistory in the execution of its task (i.e. to depose office bearers). 

“If any Consistory member thus deposed refuses to acknowledge his deposition, . . . . he makes himself liable to discipline as an individual member. 

“If one or more deposed consistory members . . . . Classis should declare these members to be schismatic group, outside the denomination . . . .” 

Now everyone that has knowledge of the events that transpired in the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 also knows how grievously these principles of Church Order were trampled under foot. This was not done in ignorance but by a Classis, imbued with a spirit of hierarchy, that willfully sacrificed all right in order to achieve its determined end. Out of this evil sprang up the Protestant Reformed Churches that today not only give witness of the truth of the Reformed Confessions over against the false theory of common grace and its many implications, but also represent the truth in the church political sense of the word. Neither is it then strange that those who in 1953 departed from the truth maintained in the Protestant Reformed Churches and likewise desecrated these fundamental principles of Church Order, today seek affiliation with and re-admittance into these churches which share with them a common error. If it is possible to speak of any virtue among those addicted to heresy, it would in this case be that some of them begin to s reveal a measure of consistency. We will refrain from judging what motivates this course because, in the first place, God is Judge who rewards every man according to his deeds, and, in the second place, because such motivation is lacking of all virtue, and, therefore, an evaluation of it is better left unsaid. We are concerned only with the actions of the church in relation to the principles of good ecclesiastical order and when these conflict we aim to point it out as a warning to all, lest by being carried along the wrong course, they bring themselves and their generations to ruin. 

We may ask what then were the specific evils of 1924 and again of 1953? History seems to have a way of covering up these things and time induces us mortals to forget the unpleasant past or at least refrain from telling it to our children. This must never be and so we will recapitulate a little bit of the story even though it is most unpleasant to write about injustices, perversions and committed sins. It is much more enjoyable to relate the story of the truth. However, the latter can scarcely be done without the former since it has pleased God to unfold and develop his Truth through the struggle of sin and grace. In relating this story, there is one thing to be remembered. It is not our purpose to present a history, and, therefore, our details will be kept to a bare minimum. Anyone interested in a factual account of the history can obtain a copy of the book, The History Of The Protestant Reformed Churches In America by the Rev. H. Hoeksema, and therein read the entire story prior to the events of 1953. Our rubric is devoted to church polity and, in the present connection, we are concerned primarily with the matter of rightful Classical jurisdiction. 

We begin then with 1924! 

On December 12, 1924 Classis Grand Rapids East met in special session and adopted the following as advised by its committee of pre-advice: With respect to the Rev. H. Hoeksema, then pastor of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Classis declared:

“1. That the Reverend H. Hoeksema, in his answer to the question placed before him by the classis, had evaded the issue; 

“2. That in the afternoon session of the classis on December 11 he had refused to answer the classical questions with an unequivocal ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; 

“3. That he had definitely declared that he would not. Submit himself to the synodical descions in re the ‘Three Points’;

“4. That he had refused to promise not openly to teach, in preaching or in writing, anything repugnant to the ‘Three Points’; 

“5. That, therefore, he was guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities; 

“6. That, therefore, he was, by his own act, suspended from his office as minister of the Word of God, for the time being; 

“7. That for the time being and until final determination in the case were made by the Synod, he should be denied all the rights and privileges connected with the office of a minister in the Christian Reformed Church.” 

Thus was Rev. Hoeksema suspended from the office of the ministry of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church by the Classis! We will further evaluate this action presently. 

With respect to the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Classis declared: 

“1. That the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church had refused to carry out the decision of the classis with respect to the censure of the three members that had accused the pastor of public sins; 

“2. That the consistory had refused to maintain thedecrees of the synod of 1924; 

“3. That it had refused to submit to the decisions of the classis with respect to the questions the classis demanded of the consistory to ask its pastor—; 

“4. That, therefore, the consistory was guilty of insubordination to the proper ecclesiastical authorities; 

“5. That, therefore, by this act the consistory, for the time being severed its connection with the Christian Reformed Church; 

“6. That, for the time being and until final determination in the case was made by the synod, the consistory be denied all rights and privileges connected with the ecclesiastical connection of a consistory with the Christian Reformed Church.” 

Thus was a minor assembly (consistory) deposed from its office by a major assembly (classis). Also this must be further explained in order that we may see that not only was the general principle of Classical jurisdiction flagrantly violated, but many more church political evils were perpetrated in this proceeding. 

So numerous were these evils that it is somewhat difficult to know which of them to mention first. We might begin by pointing to the fact that this session of the Classis was itself really illegal. It had been convened by the Classical Committee upon the request of the dissenting members of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in spite of the fact that the Consistory of said church had informed the committee that the internal condition of the congregation did not demand a special session of the Classis. But the consistory was completely ignored and the request of a relatively small group of dissatisfied members was granted. The classis was called into special session. Obviously such a meeting, illegally called, could produce nothing constructively good. This also proved to be the case. 

Next, we may note that this special session of Classis began in November, 1924. In this first session there were many irregularities which we will refrain from mentioning here in order that we may come to the main evil which shows clearly how the principle of classical jurisdiction was violated. There were several documents on the table of the classis. Most of these were there illegally since they were protests against a body that had never received copies of them. Nevertheless the classis proceeded to treat them in spite of strong objections by that body which was the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Church. Through a committee of pre-advice the classis was advised among other things to: (1) demand of the consistory of Eastern Avenue that they ask their pastor whether or not he would abide by the three points of doctrine as adopted by the Synod of Kalamazoo, 1924; (2) ask of the consistory to have their answer ready by the following morning at nine o’clock; (3) in case the answer of the consistory would prove satisfactory to classis, to appoint a committee to treat the entire case in conjunction with the consistory. This advice was then adopted and the consistory responded the next morning with a well grounded answer in which they pointed out the main error, that a minor assembly, like a classis, cannot violate the decisions of a major assembly, like the synod. This is just what the classis was doing. They assumed jurisdiction over the synod. They were going beyond the decision of the Synod in attempting to bind upon the consistory and the pastor what the Synod never intended and had even refused to do. All this was clearly shown from the recorded decisions of the Synod of 1924. Nevertheless, classis insisted on proceeding in this evil way. It was clearly a case of classical hierarchy carried through to the very end of its sessions. 

We must remark here yet that it is sometimes alleged that our own Classis East in 1953 did the same thing and is guilty of the same offence in connection with that recent history of schism in our churches. This, however, is an unproven and thoroughly false allegation that is made either in ignorance of the facts or by those who willfully distort facts. This we will show in later writings in connection with the matter of classical jurisdiction and the history of 1953 but it must be known that there is no parallel between the actions of Classis East 1953 and those of Classis East Grand Rapids 1924. 

There is, however, much more in connection with the proceedings of the last mentioned Classis. This must wait until the next time. Let it suffice to conclude the present article by saying that whenever a Classis assumes authority and prerogatives which, under the Church Order, it does not possess, it can only do evil. The case of 1924 is a most glaring example indeed! 

—G.V.D.B.