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In the previous issue we presented various credential forms and offered a few suggestions toward making the one presently in use more complete and, therefore, better. We also pointed out the idea of the credential letter in that it is an official authorization given to certain individuals to represent their consistories or classes at the major ecclesiastical gatherings. 

This matter, treated in Article 33 of our Church Order, like many of the articles of that document, also has a history. The practice of using credentials dates back to the first regular, Synod of the Reformed Churches of Holland held in Emden in 1571. Circumstances at that time, perhaps much more than today, made the necessity of proper credentials more keenly felt. For one thing the churches were not as close to each other in the sense that there were no modern means of conveyance. Travel was not common then as it is now and the representatives of different churches that were some distance apart did not always know each other. Credentials, issued by the churches, served the purpose of making proper identification and this was sometimes extremely important. 

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that these were the immediate post-reformation days. The churches had gone through a long period of struggle. The days of persecution had to some extent broken off contact between the churches in different places. Besides this, it was not uncommon that enemies of the church would attempt to seat themselves in the assemblies for the purpose of doing damage to the cause of the truth. These fraudulent imposters must be barred and this could be accomplished through the issuance of proper credentials. Those who lacked them simply could not be seated in the assembly. 

Now, today these things have changed but this does not obliterate the need of credentials nor does it make them any less significant. No one may be seated in the ecclesiastical assembly without proper attestation. Only those who are able to furnish official authorization in writing may be accepted. It would be wrong to constitute an assembly on the mere basis of individual’s claims to be delegates. Great havoc could be wrought that way! The business of the church is Christ’s business or rather Christ’s business is the church’s business and, therefore, only those authorized or appointed by Christ Himself through the offices of His church have the right to transact that labor. 

What then constitutes a proper credential? 

Article 33 stipulates the requirement: They shall be “signed by those sending them.” This does not mean that the delegates themselves fill out the credential form at the very time and place of the meeting to which they are supposedly then delegated. Even if the delegation from a certain consistory happens to be the president and the clerk of that consistory, a credential issued in this manner, is not legal. It is a fraud and constitutes an ethical violation of the principles underlying the orderly processes of delegation. These things, too, belong to the sacred things of God and may not be trifled with and when they are the punitive finger of God points toward those who do so! 

A consistorial credential is one that is properly issued by motion at a legally held meeting of the consistory and record thereof inscribed into the minutes. At the same time such action takes place the proper form is filled out by the clerk and signed by the designated officers in the presence of the entire consistory. 

Years ago, when the relationship between church and state in our fatherland was very close, it would sometimes happen that the town or city officials would sign the credentials of ecclesiastical delegates. This, was, of course, wrong. Our fathers, fearing State domination, objected to this practice and, consequently, insisted upon the insertion of the phrase, “signed by those sending them.” In this they were wholly correct. Now The Church Order Commentary states, “For us today it merely means that no letter of delegation is valid except it be properly signed.” On the surface this may appear to be true but it is not. Certainly no document has official status and, therefore, cannot be regarded as valid without a signature. However, there is more. It is not merely a question of signature but rather a question of how the signature got there! If the civil magistrates or anyone else for that matter who has no authority to do so puts it there, it is not valid. That is obvious transgression. However, it is just as wrong if the proper individuals affix the signature apart from the proper processing by the body they represent. That’s why the credential form also contains the clause: “Done in Consistory . . . date“! When then this is done by the consistory on a certain date and the form is processed by individuals (not the consistory) on another date, this gives the lie to the whole thing. If the thing was really done in Consistory why wasn’t the form then also filled out? 

As far as the ecclesiastical assembly is concerned, such a document may be perfectly valid. It bears the proper signatures. There is no visible evidence of tampering. Classis accepts the testimony of the hastily and improperly filled out credential form and seats the delegates designated thereon. She can do nothing else. Before the eyes of the Lord, however, who commands that all things in His church be done decently and in good order, the thing is entirely wrong. 

Those who are properly delegated and able to present their valid letters of credential are authorized to, firstly, bring instructions to the broader assembly and, secondly, to vote in all matters except such as particularly concern their persons or churches. We may note here that the term “instruction” in this connection has a twofold connotation. It refers on the one hand to the charge or instruction the sending body gives to its delegates as these are found on the credential letter. Briefly stated, each delegate is instructed to take part in all matters legally coming before the meeting and transacted in harmony with the Word of God, the doctrinal Standards and the Church Order. By this instruction each delegate must abide. He carries it with him. Only by adhering to it is he a faithful representative of the church sending him. 

The term “instruction” may also denote those matters which the sending body itself brings to the broader assembly through its representatives. These may be in the form of overtures, protests, appeals or questions and should always be in writing and attached to the credential letter. And, of course, they too must bear the proper and official signatures of the body sending them. 

In the treatment of all these matters, the delegates have the right to vote. Rather important is the question as to, whether or not the body that sends delegates also instructs them as to how they are to vote on various matters that come up for deliberation and decision. Does a consistory tell its delegates to Classis how they are to vote or are the delegates free to vote as they see fit? 

This question, as we see it, is debatable. Some things may be cited in favor of both positions. For example, in favor of the position that delegates are bound to vote in agreement with the desires of their own consistory is, first of all, the fact that they represent that consistory and, therefore, must speak and vote in agreement with the consistory’s position for otherwise they are not true representatives. Who will represent the consistory if their own delegates do not? Moreover, in the second place, an agendum is prepared by the stated clerk of the major assembly and sent in advance to all the consistories so that they may have opportunity for previous deliberation. What is the intent of this if not that consistories come to settled convictions regarding the matters to be treated and instruct their delegates to vote according to those convictions at the gathering? 

On the other side of the question, however, there is also strong argument. First of all, if it were true that the delegates are bound in their voting by the instructions of their consistories, there would be no sense to hold Classical and Synodical meetings. It would only be a waste of time and money to deliberate, debate and weigh various arguments concerning the issues involved if the vote of each delegate is pre-determined by the consistory. The same end could then be gained by having each consistory register its vote via mail. We believe, secondly, that our ecclesiastical bodies are and should remain deliberative bodies. Free and open discussion should be encouraged. This in turn opens the way to convincing one another where differences of opinion may exist so that unity of conviction may be attained in the assembly and throughout the churches. And this unity can only be expressed where the freedom of vote on all issues is retained. 

Now perhaps it might happen that a delegate, knowing the mind of his consistory, and even agreeing with that mind, is convinced through the discussion in the broader gathering that he should vote the very opposite way from which he first contemplated. Our view is that he should then do so but the matter does not rest there. He in turn should also, in reporting back to his consistory, attempt to convince them that in view of added information, etc. his vote as he recorded it was proper. If he succeeds, very well! If not, the consistory is free to register a protest or appeal the decision at the next meeting. This is the preferred position since it makes possible free discussion, retains the deliberative character of the assemblies and enables the individual delegate to do justice by acting harmonious with conviction. 

The Church Order Commentary agrees substantially with this but adds a few other significant elements. We quote: 

“The instructions to delegates should, as a rule, always, be general. To illustrate, no Consistory should endeavor to instruct its delegates to Classis how to vote on a particular issue. Each delegate must use his own best judgment, and then vote as his conscience before God bids him vote. Abstractly and inherently the Churches would have a right to give their delegates a definite mandate, telling them how to vote. But the true welfare of the churches requires that all delegates have their hands free and unbound. For our assemblies are not merely meetings at which the votes of the various churches are recorded. But they are gatherings at which the problems and the affairs of the churches are mutually considered and decided upon. Our gatherings are and should remain deliberative assemblies. And our delegates should not be reduced to the role of voting machines. It is a very good practice for the sending bodies to consider the major issues that will require action at the assemblies to be held. That promotes general interest and counteracts hurtful ignorance. And that will help these that go as delegates to the major gatherings to know the mind of their brethren at home. But the delegates should not be bound. After a good discussion at the major assembly they may feel compelled to vote exactly opposite from their first contemplations. 

Only when circumstances are very extraordinary, as when a sending body knows all the issues involved in a specific case, would it be justified to instruct its delegates how to vote. So, for example, at the great Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, some Particular Synods had instructed their delegates previously to vote so as to maintain the purity of doctrine, i.e., against the Arminians. Or as Jansen states, “sending bodies can only give definite instruction as to how delegates should vote regarding matters which are clearly expressed in Holy Writ, and concerning which therefore further deliberation is unnecessary, and change of opinion out of place” (pp. 151, 152). 

The next time, D.V., we will consider the exception to this right of voting. 

G.V.D.B.