Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
Those who are delegated to the assemblies shall bring with them their credentials and instructions, signed by those sending them, and they shall have a vote in all matters, except such as particularly concern their persons or churches.
Church Order, Article 33.
This article concerns three things: credentials (“Those who are delegated to the assemblies shall bring with them their credentials…”); instructions (“‘…and instructions…”); voting (“…and they shall have a vote in all matters…”).
Credentials are the official letter of authorization of the delegates to our broader assemblies, both classis and synod. Credentials properly signed serve as proof of the official authorization of the delegates.
Although credentials are often treated as a matter of formality, in reality they are of the utmost importance. In our relatively small denomination and in times of peace in the churches, the credentials are taken for granted. But in the past, when close contact between Reformed churches was difficult, so that ministers and elders were often not very familiar with each other, or at times when there were serious difficulties in the church, the matter of proper credentials took on a whole new importance. One of the very earliest Reformed synods of The Netherlands, the Synod of Emden, 1571, felt it necessary to emphasize the importance of proper credentials at the broader assemblies in order to guard against imposters.
The verification and approval of the credentials must take place at the commencement of the meeting of the broader assembly.
At the classical level, the last serving president reads the credentials. A motion is adopted approving the credentials. Classis is then declared to be legally constituted. Article 41 of the Church Order states:
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. . . .
At the synodical level, the last serving president reads the credentials from the various classes, noting prima and secundi delegates present. A motion to adopt the credentials and seat the delegates is approved. Synod is declared legally constituted.
Delegates are to have their credentials “. . . signed by those sending them . . . .” Credentials are to be duly signed by the president and the secretary of the delegating body. This makes the credentials official.
This stipulation that the credentials be signed by the body sending the delegates was added to Article 33 with the deliberate intention of preventing government interference. Early in the history of the Reformed churches in The Netherlands, city and government officials would sometimes sign the credentials. Our fathers, however, feared state domination and objected to this. They insisted that the delegating ecclesiastical body sign the credentials. The Synod of Dordt, 1574, adopted the following resolution: “It is decided that ministers who are delegated to the synod shall bring with them credentials from the consistory and the classis, not from the government.”
Article 33 also refers to “instructions”: “Those who are delegated to the assemblies shall bring with them their credentials and instructions….” “Instructions” are particular matters that a consistory desires to be treated at classis, or a classis desires to be treated at synod. Such instructions may not come to the assembly from the delegates personally, nor may they be brought orally. But they must come from the assembly sending the delegates, must be black-on-white, and must be signed by those sending them. This guarantees accuracy and authenticity.
One other reference to “instructions” in the Church Order is found in Article 46:
Instructions concerning matters to be considered in major assemblies shall not be written until the decisions of previous synods touching these matters have been read, in order that what was once decided be not again proposed, unless a revision be deemed necessary.
This article is usually understood to prescribe that no assembly is to make a decision without consulting the decisions of previous assemblies. And this certainly is a valid implication of this article. Nevertheless, the article is actually referring to the writing of “instructions” by a minor assembly for the consideration of a major assembly.
This provision of Article 33 dates back to a time when there were no regular mail services, typewriters, photocopiers, computers, or fax machines. The agenda for the major assemblies was by and large determined by these “instructions” that the various delegates brought with them to the meeting. The result was that often delegates were unaware of what the agenda would be until they arrived at the meeting, and were unable properly to prepare themselves. Often the result was also a meeting of undue length. For the most part, these “instructions” have been replaced by a published agenda compiled by the stated clerk of the assembly and made available to the delegates well in advance of the assembly meeting. The classis and synod have rules regarding the deadline for materials to be placed in the agenda.
Matters that are included in the “instruction” today are: matters of discipline, where advice is sought by a consistory for increase of censure; a request from a consistory for help in the government of its church under Article 41; nominees of delegates for synod; approval of wage compensation for elder delegates to the broader assemblies; invitation to host a future classis or synod.
The rule of Article 33 is that only those who have been properly delegated to the broader assemblies and have their credentials in hand may vote. “Vote” here refers to a decisive, determinative vote on the issues and motions before the assembly. Such a decisive vote is limited to those officially delegated to the assemblies. The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, rules: “Those delegated to the assemblies shall bring along their credentials and instructions, signed by those who delegated them, and these alone shall be entitled to vote.”
Besides the decisive vote, there is also what is usually referred to as “advisory vote.” Advisory vote is the privilege of the floor, the right to speak before the assembly. Advisory vote may be granted by a major assembly to: professors of theology, emeritus ministers, missionaries, officebearers from sister churches, those directly involved in a matter being treated by the assembly. Church Order, Article 42 provides that in the case of a church having more than one minister, the minister or ministers not delegated to a given classical meeting shall also have the right to attend classis “with advisory vote.” Such ministers have the right to address the classis on any issue before it. They do not, however, have a decisive vote.
The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, responded to the question, “Whether other ministers and elders than those who are delegated may appear in the classis?” by stating, “Yes, and when they are asked, they shall be allowed to give advice, but they shall have no vote.”
An exception to the general rule that the professors of theology be granted advisory vote was made by the great Synod of Dordt, 1618-’19. This Synod gave the theological professors the unique privilege of casting decisive votes. But this is the one exception to what historically has been the rule in Reformed churches.
Sometimes the question arises whether it is proper for a minor assembly to mandate its delegates to the broader assembly to vote in a certain way. Generally this is undesirable and even wrong. This violates the authorization of the “Credential Letter” itself which mandates the delegates “… to take part in all deliberations and transactions of Classis regarding all matters legally coming before the meeting . . . .” Such handcuffing of the delegates undermines the deliberative character of the broader assemblies. It effectively precludes the possibility of discussion of, the issues. It is very well possible that something new comes to light during the deliberations of the broader assembly that gives delegates an entirely new perspective on an issue Mandating delegates to vote in a certain manner also binds the conscience, whereas every man ought to be free to make his own judgment and vote his own conscience before God.
Only under extraordinary circumstances ought delegates to be bound in their voting by the minor assembly that has delegated them. Delegates may be instructed how to vote when an item on the agenda of either classis or synod is obviously illegal, or when a matter is clearly contrary to the Word of God. In these cases further deliberation is unnecessary (and there is no room for change of opinion. This was the case at the Synod of Dordt, 1618-’19, when some of the particular synods instructed their delegates to vote against the Arminian position.
This does not prohibit a consistory, for example, discussing the agenda of the upcoming classis or synod. This certainly may and ought to be done. Delegates ought to know the sentiment of the consistory as a whole and ought to be benefited by the insights of other consistory members.
A Voting Restriction
One restriction to the right of delegates to vote is included in Article 33: “. . . they shall have a vote in all matters, except such as particularly concern their persons or churches.” Delegates are not to vote in matters that directly concern themselves or the congregation they represent. They may participate in the deliberations, take part in the discussion. But they may not cast a vote; in this case they must abstain.
VanDellen and Monsma explain correctly that this is
. . . a matter of common sense and fairness. It is very hard for us to judge calmly and objectively when we ourselves are concerned. Yet every decision should be objective. And so the churches have wisely agreed in the interest of the kingdom, that those who are directly involved in a matter before an ecclesiastical gathering shall not vote. Let the other delegates decide and then let all abide by the opinion of the majority. (The Church Order Commentary, p. 152.)
If the broader assembly is treating a protest that is authored by an attending delegate, he must abstain. If the classis or synod is treating a protest by a member against a decision of his consistory, the delegates from that consistory must abstain. If the broader assembly is considering the merits of an overture from a consistory, delegates from the consistory out of which the overture has originated must abstain. As far as the classes are concerned, it is even wise that men not be delegated to synod if a critical issue involving them or their consistory is going to be treated at the synod.
Often it is asked: “Should the president of a major assembly vote?” Robert’s Rules of Order states:
He (i.e., the chairman) is entitled to vote when the vote is by ballot, and in all other cases where the vote would change the result. Thus, in a case where a two-thirds vote is necessary, and his vote thrown with the minority would prevent the adoption of the question, he can (sic) cast his vote; so, also, he can (sic) vote with the minority when it will produce a tie vote and thus cause the motion to fail. (Spire Books edition, p. 78.)
In distinction from government, social, corporate, and fraternal organizations where the president may vote, in ecclesiastical organizations he ought to vote. In the assemblies he is a delegate among other delegates. He has been “. . . instructed and authorized . . . to take part in all deliberations and transactions . . . regarding all matters. . .” before the assembly (“Credential Letter”). He is not just a president who guides the discussion and keeps the assembly at order, he is also an officebearer and delegate, and therefore ought to vote. The “Rules of Order with the Rule of Procedure for the Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America” state among the duties of the president the following:
Being a duly chosen delegate to Synod, he retains all the rights and privileges of a delegate. As such he has . . . the right to vote on any question before the gathering. He invariably votes when the vote is taken by ballot, in case of a tie, or in cases where a voice vote is so close that a raising of hands is called for.