Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
The classical meetings shall consist of neighboring churches that respectively delegate, with proper credentials, a minister and an elder to meet at such time and place as was determined by the previous classical meeting. Such meetings shall be held at least once in three months, unless great distances render this inadvisable. In these meetings the ministers shall preside in rotation, or one shall be chosen to preside; however, the same minister shall not be chosen twice in succession.
Furthermore, the president shall, among other things, put the following questions to the delegates of each church:
1. Are the consistory meetings held in your church?
2. Is church discipline exercised?
3. Are the poor and the Christian schools cared for?
4. Do you need the judgment and help of the classis for the proper government of your church?
And, finally, at one but the last meeting and, if necessary, at the last meeting before the (particular) synod, delegates shall be chosen to attend said synod.
Church Order, Article 41.
This article introduces the section of the Church Order that deals with classical meetings. Articles 41 through 46 concern the meetings of classis and various aspects of the work of classis. The present article provides for regular-and structured classical meetings – this in the interests of decency and good order in the churches. We will treat the main contents of Article 41 this time. In a future article we will treat the “Questions of Article 41” which are asked of the delegates from each consistory at the close of every meeting of classis.
A classis is made up of “neighboring churches,” that is, churches in geographic proximity. From the very beginning, the Reformed churches urged the formation of classes. The Synod of Wezel, 1568, urged that as soon as the war and persecution subsided sufficiently, the Dutch churches should organize classes. The Synod of Emden, 1571, decided: “Besides these consistories, classical meetings of churches located near each other shall be held every three or six months according to the circumstances and necessity.” The Synod of Dordt, 1578, ruled: “The classical meetings shall consist of ministers of the Word and elders of neighboring churches which shall meet every month or six weeks more or less according to the circumstances of the congregations, just so three months do not go by (without a meeting) in those places which have been designated by common consent.” Some churches did not feel so strongly the urgency of federation, so that the Synod of Gelderland, 1582, found it necessary to urge that “… it is neither advisable nor edifying, that a few churches should continue to exist by themselves, but each church is bound to join itself to a classis.”
Early on in the history of our Protestant Reformed Churches the combined consistories met in order to take care of the work of the churches in common. With the formation of an annual synod in 1940, the denomination was divided into two classes, Classis East and Classis West. As a result of the split of 1953-’54, classical boundaries were adjusted, but the two-classis arrangement remained intact. An overture to divide into three or four classes was rejected by the Synod of 1991. As a result, our churches continue to be made up of two classes, East and West.
Each church (consistory) delegates one minister and one elder, with their alternates, to the meetings of classis. The congregations are to be equally represented, whether small or large, inasmuch as each congregation is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ. In case a congregation is vacant, two elders are delegated. Our churches have permitted deacons to be delegated from our smaller consistories when circumstances make this necessary. There have even been instances in the history of the Reformed churches when non officebearers were delegated to classis when only one officebearer in a congregation was in a position to be delegated. This is not to be done except in extreme situations.
It is the consistory, not the congregation generally, that selects and authorizes delegates to the meetings of classis. According to Article 41, the serving minister of each congregation is required to be delegated. Article 41 does not prescribe a certain method for selection of elder delegates to classis. Choosing of delegates can either be by rotation or by a free election within the consistory. The usual practice in Reformed churches has been that the elders are delegated by rotation, whether alphabetically or according to length of term served. This is the method followed by most of our consistories. It is to be preferred, since it provides all the elders the opportunity to participate in this vital aspect of the life of the churches. It also serves as a greater safeguard against hierarchy, which might sooner creep in if only the same few were repeatedly delegated.
Classical delegates are to come to the meetings of classis “with proper credentials.” A credential is the official, black-on-white, proof of delegation. Each consistory fills out and adopts its own credentials, specifying its delegates, and sends its delegates to the meeting of classis with these credentials in hand. The first business of every classis is to examine the credentials and seat the delegates specified in the credentials. Thus classis is declared to be legally constituted.
Without proper credentials no individual or delegation is to be seated. If, however, the delegates have forgotten to take their credentials, or for some understandable reason cannot produce their credentials, the classis may take a decision to seat them with the provision that their credentials be sent to the Stated Clerk or to the next meeting of classis. Our churches are small enough and delegates familiar enough with each other that this poses no serious problem.
Having been seated, the delegates are authorized to take part in all the deliberations of classis. Each delegate exercises one decisive vote. In the voting, delegates ought to vote their own conscience. No consistory ought to bind its delegates ahead of time to vote in a certain way. Consistories may advise, but delegates must be permitted the freedom to vote as they deem right and proper. This follows, too, from the fact that our broader assemblies are deliberative in nature. Even though a delegate should have familiarized himself with the agenda and arrived at some tentative opinions, he must come to classis open to the insights and instruction of the other delegates.
Article 41 requires that classical meetings “… be held at least once in three months (four times yearly), unless great distances render this inadvisable.” In our churches, Classis East meets three times a year and Classis West twice yearly. The deciding factor is not so much distance, in our age of modern means of transportation, but cost. Nevertheless, we ought to be more serious about adhering to the requirement of Article 41. Although this would be a bit more costly, especially in the West, our churches are in good enough financial shape that we ought to conform to the requirement of the Church Order as closely as possible.
Our Church Order makes no provision for the cancellation of a scheduled meeting of classis. Some Reformed church orders contain such a provision. Usually, the calling church and a neighboring church can decide to cancel a scheduled meeting if there is little or no material on the agenda. Ordinarily, however, this may not be done twice in succession. Perhaps our churches should consider some such addition to Article 41.
At the end of each meeting of classis, the time and place of the next meeting are set. No provision is made in Article 41 for the calling of an early or special classis. However, provision is made for this in the “Classical Regulations” of our respective classes. A consistory can call for the convening of a special classis by gaining the assent of a neighboring consistory and submitting their request to the classical committee. The classical committee, then, informs the churches and prepares the agenda.
Even though the time and place of each classical meeting is set by the last classis, announcements of the convening of the classis are to be made. These announcements are handled by the stated clerks, who send notices to each consistory and place an announcement in the Standard Bearer. In this way the churches are kept well informed of the meetings of the broader assembly.
Each classis decides where next it will meet. The Synod of Wezel, 1568, decided that all of the churches in each classis should take turns at hosting the meetings of classis. Article 41 contains no such stipulation. Not every church is conveniently located or is sufficiently large to be able to host the number of delegates coming to classis. Nevertheless, there is benefit to as many churches as are able hosting classis. This gives the members of the various churches opportunity to attend the sessions of classis and to have fellowship with the delegates. Especially for far-flung and isolated congregations this is a very worthwhile experience.
Expenses for the meetings of classis are to be borne by the churches in common, not by the individual congregations or their delegates. If the individual congregations were to bear their own expenses, smaller, financially less able congregations, would be disadvantaged. Classical expenses in our churches are paid for out of synodical funds, a portion of the annual synodical assessments designated for this purpose.
Classical expenses include the travel expenses of the delegates. The cost of meals and services provided by the host church are included in classical expenses. In addition, elders may be compensated for wages lost while traveling to and attending classis. A limit is set on this reimbursement for lost wages, and in order to claim such lost wage compensation, a delegate must have the prior approval of his consistory.
The presidency of the classical meetings rests with the ministers: “In these meetings the ministers shall preside in rotation, or one shall be chosen to preside; however, the same minister shall not be chosen twice in succession.” Why the ministers? There is no principle reason. It is not that the ministers are greater in authority or that their office is superior to that of the elders who are delegated to classis. Article 41 calls for the chairman to be one of the minister delegates for purely practical considerations. Generally the ministers have more experience and are more informed about presiding over meetings. For this simple reason, it is to be preferred that the ministers chair the sessions of classis.
Article 41 provides for two ways in which the president is selected. The ministers may preside by alphabetical rotation, or the president may be chosen by vote of the assembly. The method of rotation is to be preferred and is the practice in our classes. This is another safeguard against hierarchy and upholds the principle of the parity of officebearers, all the ministers being essentially equal in the authority of their office. Nevertheless, if the classis considers it advisable, it may depart from the practice of rotation and elect a president. In this case, however, the same minister is not to be chosen twice in succession.
In our classes the policy is followed that at one classis a given minister functions as vice-president; at the next classis he serves as the president; and at the following classis he holds the office of secretary.
The duties of the president have already been treated in connection with Article 34. The Church Order makes no provision for the office of vice-president at the classical meetings. The regulations of each classis do, however, provide for a vice-president, whose duty generally is to assume the office of the president if for some reason he is unable or unwilling to carry out his office.
A couple of important items on the agenda of the classis are referred to in Article 41. One of these items is the asking of the “Questions of Article 41” of the delegates from each consistory at the conclusion of each meeting of classis. More about this next time. Article 41 also calls for the election of delegates to the annual synod: “And, finally, at one but the last meeting and, if necessary, at the last meeting before the (particular) synod, delegates shall be chosen to attend said synod.”
Delegates to the annual synod are chosen by the classis, not by individual consistories. An equal number of minister and elder delegates are chosen. Besides the delegates (primi), their alternates (secundi) are chosen. At present, each of our classes sends five minister and five elder delegates to synod. Delegates are paired with their alternates alphabetically. The alternate who secured the most votes is therefore not necessarily first in line to be called upon to attend synod.
Voting for synodical delegates is done by free election. All the ministers of the classis are considered eligible. Strictly speaking, this would include retired ministers and missionaries. Elder nominees come usually by way of each consistory’s credentials. Some consistories have the rule that the elders are all eligible and will be listed on the credentials unless they are able to give good reason to the consistory why their name should not be included. This is a good policy that also assures a full slate of elder nominees from which to choose.
Delegates to synod ought to be chosen on the basis of individual qualifications. Each classis ought to send, not necessarily its most popular or older, but its most capable men to synod. Nevertheless, some care should be exercised so that one congregation is not unduly represented at synod. Because delegates are selected by free election, it is possible that a number of delegates be selected from one congregation. It has happened at times that one congregation sends three or four delegates to a given synod. Some care should be exercised so that delegates are chosen from a number of different congregations. As many of the churches as possible ought to be involved in the labors of the churches in common at the broader assemblies.