“Four kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: the consistory, the classis, (the particular synod), and the general synod.”
Article 29, D.K.O.
In this article the second of four major sections of the church order is introduced. This part, comprising Articles 29-52 inclusive, deals with the various ecclesiastical assemblies. This section may be further subdivided as follows:
Articles 29-36 treat the general principles and regulations which concern our ecclesiastical assemblies;
Articles 37-40 treat matters that pertain particularly to the consistory, the first of these assemblies;
Articles 41-45 treat matters relating to the classes;
Articles 46-49 treat the particular synods; and,
Articles 50-52 treat the general ‘synods.’
The above outline already gives indication of the importance of the material treated in this section of the church order. In it are to be found some of the key articles of our church order and in .these articles are embodied various basically fundamental principles of Reformed Church Polity. Differences of interpretation regarding some of these principles have occasioned more than a single difficulty in the past. If these differences concerned only the routine function and procedural operation of the assemblies of the church, they could perhaps be brushed aside and ignored since there would really be no material effect upon the spiritual life of the church. However, this is not at all the case. Matters of the “modus operandi” of the church intrinsically involve the basically deeper questions relating to the relation of ecclesiastical assemblies, their proper authority, the limits of their jurisdiction, their binding power and its extent, and several related matters that concern deep principles. In the light of these matters the question concerning the effect which the various decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies have upon the life of the church and its members cannot be easily repressed. We cannot avoid being confronted with many questions and problems of this nature as we treat this section of our church order. These we shall be called upon to weigh cautiously and carefully, seeking their solution on the basis is established principles derived from God’s Word. Even so, we do not tread this hallowed ground without a deep sense of human frailty.
In writing on the content of the 29th article we can necessarily be rather brief. Firstly, since the article itself merely contains a statement of fact with respect to the maintenance of the assemblies of the church and concerning this point there is, as far as we are aware, no particular dispute. Secondly, since the place to consider various questions relating to consistories, classes and synods, is not the present article but subsequent articles that deal with these assemblies more in detail. This, however, does not imply that Article 29 is of such insignificance that it could just as well be elided from the church order. Such is not the case: The Christian Reformed Committee for Church Order revision sees fit to retain it in the following form:
“Article 26. The churches recognize and maintain the following assemblies: Consistories, Classes, Particular Synods, and General Synods.”
Surely there is room under this article to raise more than a few questions.
The first of these questions concerns the number of ecclesiastical assemblies. Should the words, “shall be maintained” (zullen onderhouden worden) be emphasized in the present article so that we understand the thrust of it to be that churches of Reformed persuasion must hold meetings of these four assemblies or they are violating a vital principle? We think not! Were this the meaning our churches have never observed this article. In the beginning of our denominational existence we had no Synod. We met in combined classes as many of our older readers well remember. Fifteen years after our denominational birth our first. Synod was convened and to date we do not hold (maintain) “particular Synods.” This is no violation of the church order but rather circumstances determine to what extent the four assemblies shall be maintained.
Joh. Jansen in his “Korte Verklaring van de Kerkorde,” states in respect to this question, “Maar de nadere uitwerking en regeling van het kerkverband is een jus divinum permissivum, d.i. een aan de kerken toegestaan Goddelijk recht. Daarvoor heeft Hij in de Schrift geen bepaalde voorschriften gegeven. Die heeft Hij aan de vrijheid der kerken overgelaten. Zij kan dan ook op verschillende manier geschieden. De kerken zijn vrij bijv. om te bepalen of er vier kerkelijke samenkomsten zullen zijn, n.i. kerkeraad, classis, part. synode en generale synode; of drie, n.l. kerkeraad, classis en synode (zo de Christelijk Geref. kerk in Amerika); of twee, n.l. kerkeraad en synode (zo de Geref. kerken in Zuid-Afrika); voorts of de synodes jaarlijks, of om de twee of drie jaar zullen gehouden worden; en, in verband daarmee, of de verkiezing ier afgevaardigden rechtstreeks of trapsgewijze zal geschieden, enz.”
Akin to this question is the matter of whether or not this Article intends to be exclusive in its stipulation of “four ecclesiastical assemblies?” Must we emphasize the number “four” here? Does that exclude the possibility of adding a fifth assembly? And, since no mention is made in the article of such gatherings as the “congregational meeting” or “ecumenic synods,” must we conclude from this that these are not ecclesiastical assemblies? If we do this, how must we conceive of these gatherings and, on the other hand, if we assert that they are ecclesiastical assemblies, do we not violate the rule respecting the “four”?
In answering this question, it may be well to point out firstly that the article does not speak of “four assemblies” but rather of “four kinds” (Vierderlei). This is not the same and certainly the number four in this connection then does not exclude gatherings such as the congregational meeting and ecumenic synods provided these gatherings can he properly included in one of these four “kinds” of assemblies. We believe that they can. If our point is taken, it will be granted that the “four kinds” excludes only the possibility of another kind of ecclesiastical assembly, differing in nature and essence from those mentioned, but it does not exclude the possibility of having different gatherings within the framework of each of these “four kinds” of assemblies. For example, it is possible to conceive of more than one kind of Synod or Classis or Consistory Meeting. Thus when we speak of the Ecumenic Synod, we do just that. We add xo the genus an additional species. The same is true of the congregational meeting although we will have more to write about that later, D.V., in connection with Article 37. The congregational meeting is viewed as an open or public consistory meeting and thus can also be properly fitted within the framework of this article.
In connection with this yet we must also point out that to us the same difficulty arises here as we confronted in connection with Article 2 of our church order. That article speaks of the offices of the church as being four in number. At the time we wrote about that we reasoned at length to show why we felt the article should read “three” instead of “four” and that, of course, would involve the combining of the office of Professors and Ministers. This, we believe, is proper for as we showed then the office of the Professors of Theology is essentially a specialized aspect of the office of the Ministry of the Word. Now, in connection with the Ecclesiastical Assemblies we face the same difficulty. Should it be three or four? We fail to see an “essential difference” between a particular and general synod. That there is a difference in scope may be readily conceded but that there is a difference in “kind” or “essence” is not clear to us. Consequently, we feel it would be better to express: “Three kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: the consistory, the classis, and synod.” Under the latter then the particular, general and universal or “ecumenic” Synods could be included. But then again it is also difficult to see a real difference in “kind” between a Synodical and a Classical gathering. There, too, there is clearly a difference in scope. The one is a broader gathering than the other. In the one all of the denomination of churches is represented while in the other only a part of it is. Yet, this difference in scope does not make it different in “kind.” Perhaps, therefore, it would be still better to simply speak of “two kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies” and this would then be in harmony with the implication of Article 36 which distinguishes just two kinds of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. As to the ecclesiastical assemblies themselves we may conclude the present article with a brief description of their names.
“The word ‘Consistory’ is derived from the Latin ‘consistorium,’ meaning place of meeting. It indicates the body of men chosen to govern the affairs of a local church. The Dutch speaks of ‘Kerkeraad,’ i.e. church council. The Presbyterians refer to the body of their pastors and ruling elders as the ‘Session.’ Many American churches today simply speak of the ‘Church Board.’
“The word Classis is also Latin and indicates a division or class of people or of other objects.”
“And the word Synod is derived from the Greek, ‘sunodos, indicating ‘a coming together, assembly, meeting.'”
Not a great deal, therefore, can be learned “from these names concerning the character, function, mutual relation, etc. of these assemblies. Concerning this we will have to turn to Scripture and some of the other Articles of this section of our church order but this will have to wait, D.V., until next time.