Classical Jurisdiction

For some time now we have been busy in this department with the decision of the Christian Reformed Synod of 1926 in which they took the position that it is proper for a Classis to depose elders, deacons and ministers of the Word. This decision was based in part upon Article 36 of the Church Order. It followed the reasoning that since this article speaks of the jurisdiction of the Classis over the Consistory, this jurisdiction includes the prerogative to exercise the power of deposition from the office. In this connection we have given the lengthy reports of a divided committee that was appointed in 1924 to study this question and also the report of the committee of Pre-advice to the 1926 Synod. The latter report contained the conclusions drawn from a study of the two parts of the divided committee report and its summation was, in effect, the basis upon which Synod finally arrived at its decision. 

At this time we are not going to discuss in detail the contents of these lengthy reports. Our purpose in presenting them was informative and we can leave our readers judge for themselves as to which side of the issue they wish to take. It is our own conviction that the Synod erred in this matter and should have followed the advice of the second part of the study committee report which concluded as follows: 

“We are yet of the opinion that there is a way for us to come to the desired agreement. The whole committee is of the opinion that the Classis according to Reformed Church Right has the right to set a refractory consistory outside the denomination . . . .” 

Even this, however, does not yet touch upon the essence of the evil perpetrated by the Classis and Synod in connection with the origin and history of our Protestant Reformed Churches in these years. We will come to this a bit later but before doing that we want to show that in Reformed circles and even within the Christian Reformed Church there is no unanimity with regard to the question of Classis’ jurisdiction. For example, in connection with Article 79 of the Church Order, Monsma and Van Dellen raise the question: “May a Classis Depose Elders and Deacons?” This is found in the Church Order Commentary pg. 327. We want to quote their writing on this question in full because of the significance of this matter. They write as follows: 

“Some have contended that a Classis may depose Consistories. The present authors feel that no major assembly, according to Reformed Church polity and the Church Order has the right to depose a minor assembly. The deposition of a Consistory, for example, by a Classis or Synod would seem to be a violation of the integrity and of the rights of the particular church concerned, whereas the Church Order in more than one article seeks to safeguard this integrity and these rights. (Cf. Arts. 30, 84.) Moreover, Reformed Church government does not tolerate group-disciplining. Discipline, according to our Reformed conception, is always individual and never communal. 

“Is it then permissible for a Classis or Synod to depose individual officebearers? Regarding Ministers Article 79 clearly stipulates that a dual Consistory meeting may suspend a minister. Furthermore, the article reads, ‘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.’ This provision is clear. No minister shall be deposed unless the Classis concerned judges that deposition is in order. Deposition of ministers ‘shall be subject to the judgment of the Classis.’ And Classis shall be guided in rendering its opinion by the advice of the Synodical delegates according to Article 11. Without the concurring advice of these delegates, no Classis may decide that a certain minister should be deposed. This last provision was added to Article 79 as an additional safeguard by the Holland Churches in 1905, and by our Churches in 1914. 

“Regarding elders and deacons Article 79 specifies that these shall be suspended or expelled from their office by sentence of their Consistory and that of the nearest Consistory. 

“If any case is so involved and so complicated that the two Consistories concerned judge that the judgment of all the Churches of the Classis is needed, then the matter should be brought to Classis. In such a case the Consistory is expected to abide by the decision of Classis. The Consistory follows the advice of Classis. The Classis in such a case has a, full right to appoint certain delegates who are to serve the Consistory with advice and who are to help the Consistory to carry out the conclusions of the Classis.

“If the case of an elder or deacon is brought to Classis by way of appeal on the part of individual members of the Church, or on the part of one or more consistory members, the appellants feeling and claiming that the Consistory as a whole is negligent or in error, then what is the correct procedure? The Classis deliberates and draws its conclusions. If the decision-is to the effect that the Elder(s) or Deacon(s) should be suspended or deposed, the Consistory concerned is informed regarding this decision and proceeds to execute the judgment rendered. Again, the Classis has a full right to appoint a committee to help the Consistory in the execution of its task. If a Consistory feels that it cannot in good conscience accept the advice, it may appeal to Synod. If Synod sustains the Classis the Consistory should give immediate execution to the judgment of Classis. That is to say, the Consistory should suspend or depose the officebearer in question. Failure to do so would bear dire consequences. For in such a case those Consistory members and individual members of the Church concerned who desire to adhere to the decisions of Classis and Synod should meet and declare the deflecting or recalcitrant Consistory members to be out of office, and new Elders and Deacons should he elected in their place forthwith. An extraordinary congregational meeting of this kind should be called under the guidance of classical delegates, or of a neighboring Consistory, preferably the former, to give assurance that all things will be done in good order. 

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

“If one or more deposed Consistory members, together with certain adherents belonging to the Church concerned, refuse to honor the acts of deposition and the election of new officebearers, and when these moreover begin to hold separate meetings for worship, Classis should declare these members to be a schismatic group, outside of the Christian Reformed denomination and having forfeited all rights and privileges. 

“It is true that Article 30 specifies that matters which cannot be finished by minor assemblies, though rightfully belonging to their domain, become the business of the major assemblies. But in view of the fact that the disciplinary articles of the Church Order clearly specify how discipline regarding officebearers is to be exercised and in no way intimate that Elders and Deacons can be suspended or deposed by the major assemblies, we do not believe that the appeal to Article 30 is justified. We believe that it is reasonable to assume that the early Synods at which our Church Order originated purposefully refrained from incorporating a provision in the Church Order that would allow our major assemblies to suspend and depose Elders and Deacons. As has been pointed out before, the early Reformed Churches were eager to safeguard the integrity and the rights of the particular Churches. The significant 84th article of our Church Order used to be Article 1! Let us also recall that it was not until 1581 that the Churches decided that henceforth no Consistory would suspend or depose an Elder or Deacon without the concurrent judgment of its nearest neighbor Consistory. Furthermore, it cannot be denied that the question of deposition of Elders and Deacons is an important one. It is not unreasonable to assume that a provision permitting major assemblies to depose Elders and Deacons was left out of Article 79 purposefully. For notwithstanding the fact that Article 79 tells us how Elders and Deacons shall be deposed it does not provide for the deposition of Elders and Deacons by Classes or Synods. And yet the same Article does specify that Ministers shall be deposed by the judgment of the Classis. 

“We believe, moreover, that it can be contended successfully that the deposition of minor assemblies by major assemblies constitutes a negation of the general office of all believers, which should begin to function when certain abnormal situations arise, and that it likewise involves an infringement upon the right of’ reformation which should ever be held inviolate by the Church of God. 

“We realize that both during the formative period of the Reformed Churches and during their more advanced history, Classes and Synods have sometimes deposed, Elders and Deacons and even Consistories. But no one would dare to claim that the Reformed Churches have always been true to themselves in matters of church government and that they have always interpreted their own Church Order correctly. Precedents do not decide this issue either one way or the other. We should seek to determine the basic principles fundamental to Reformed denominationalism, and we should seek the correct historical and exegetical interpretation of the various articles of the Church Order which concern this question. Then we should draw our conclusions as to what is proper and improper.” 

Our comments on this position of Monsma and Van Dellen will have to wait until next time. In conclusion we would observe that if the Classes of the Christian Reformed Church had maintained this position in the Hoeksema-Danhof-Ophoff history instead of following the corrupt practices they did, the pages of history would today record a brighter picture than they now do. Likewise, in our own history of 1953 ff. the principle of Classical jurisdiction was flagrantly violated. Had this not been the case, that history too might have followed a wholly different course. But to all of this we must come back in later writings, D.V. 

—G.V.D.B.