Ecclesiastical Censure

“At the close of the classical and other major assemblies, censure shall be exercised over those, who in the meeting have done something worthy of punishment, or who have scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies.” 


“And furthermore, with this the Synod was concluded; and the censure being held, nothing was found (God be praised!) to be worthy of punishment, but all things took place with edification and peace, and thus the actions were concluded with thanksgiving to God.” 

The above words record, the concluding minute of the Particular Synod of Alkmaar in 1593. They indicate not only that the fact that it was something of special note that a Synod was held in which there was no reason or occasion to administer censure but also that in those years the provision of Article 43 of our present Church Order was very much needed. The reason for this was obviously to be found in the fact that during the post-reformation era many of the uneducated were admitted to the services of the churches. They knew very little, if anything at all, concerning proper decorum and as a result order and decency frequently were not maintained in the classical and synodical meetings. There was need for some provision by which a special censure could be applied to those who were the cause of disorder and disturbances in these meetings. Opportunity, therefore, under the provisions of this article was given to the assembly to exercise a sort of mutual censure at the close of each gathering. This was generally done immediately after the delegates from all the churches had been asked the questions of Article 41. 

The provisions of Article 43 are hardly ever used any more today. Monsma and Van Dellen remark in The Church Order Commentary, “We may note with gratitude that we have really outgrown the need of Article 43, at least as far as its first provision is concerned.” We surmise that this sentiment may have also had something to do with the fact that this article does not appear in any form in the Christian Reformed proposed revision of the Church Order. The feeling is that this article has outgrown its usefulness. Seldom do we witness such gross misconduct or misbehavior in our ecclesiastical assemblies that this censure is necessary and in such instances where it might appear, it is generally taken care of under the provisions of another article in the Church Order. 

However, there certainly is no harm in retaining a provision such as this in the Church Order and there is a real danger that the church may suffer serious loss by eliding it. We like to believe that such progress has been made so that there will be no future need for using these things but this can only be based on a false assumption that the causes of or reasons for misconduct and misbehavior are only ignorance. We may perhaps pride ourselves in that we have come to know more and are, therefore, better but history has shown again and again that we may not rely on mere assumptions and certainly not when those assumptions are false to begin with. As long as evil exists, provisions such as these, dealing with the administration of censure upon misdeeds, will have to be retained and on occasion used. Furthermore, it is far better to have these provisions and not to need them than to have a circumstance arise in which they are needed and then not to have them. 

Distinction must be made between the various kinds of censure mentioned in our Church Order. Besides that censure that is mentioned in Scripture and in which believers are enjoined to admonish one another” (Rom. 15:14), the Church Order speaks of the official censure and discipline of the church which is to be administered toward those who in doctrine and life depart from the Word of God. This is treated in Articles 71 through 78. Following this the Church Order also speaks of the censure of office bearers who, because of public, gross sins, must be suspended or deposed from their respective offices. This we find in the 79th and 80th Articles. In Article 81 we have the provision of mutual censure of office bearers preceding each celebration of the Lord’s Supper and generally referred to as “censura morem.” Finally, in Article 35 provision is made whereby the president of ecclesiastical assemblies is empowered to exercise censure or discipline upon those who are captious or vehement in speaking. 

From all these forms of censure that which is mentioned in Article 43 must be kept distinct. The following elements must be kept in mind in this connection: First of all, it (censure) is something that is to be exercised “at the close of the ecclesiastical meeting.” It cannot come up at any time during the meeting, as for example, may be the case in connection with the censure of Article 35. It does not arise out of a concrete case as would be the case with matters of Articles 79 and 80. It is not something that has been treated thoroughly by the Consistory first and then presented to either Classis or Synod for advice or judgment. It is entirely a general censure for which time and opportunity is arranged following the asking of the questions of Article 41 (also a form of censure), after all the business of the meeting has been transacted. 

Secondly, it is not stated in the article who shall exercise this censure. The conclusion, therefore, is warranted that this is to be done by the entire assembly. Opportunity must be given to all the delegates to express whether they have any reason that censure ought to be applied to any fellow-member for misconduct during the meetings of the assembly. And, if such should be the case, the entire assembly would have to judge the matter and decide by majority vote whether to administer that censure. 

Thirdly, the censure of this article is limited to the conduct of the members during the meeting. It does not cover “doctrine and life” in general as these are covered by other forms of Christian discipline mentioned above. The phrase in the article “who in the meeting” must be applied to both of the following clauses: “have done something worthy of punishment” and “have scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies.” Thus, for example, if a member of a consistory who scorned the admonitions of that body were delegated to the Classis, he could not be censured under the provisions of this article for that offense. He would have to be treated and censured by the Consistory under different provisions. If, however, during the meeting of the Classis itself, he openly scorned the admonitions of the consistory, the provisions of censure in this article would apply. This is, therefore, a limited censure and should occasion arise where this would be used, the assembly must keep this in mind when judging a given case. 

Finally, the reasons given for the application of this censure are two. First, “conduct worthy of punishment” and secondly, “scorning the admonition of the minor assemblies.” As to the first, the term punishment refers to ecclesiastical punishment in distinction fromcivil punishment. It refers to disorderliness and misconduct as a delegate by which the proceedings of the meeting are disturbed. Such things might not be touchable by civil punishment but they certainly are worthy of ecclesiastical censure. Both of these reasons touch upon the matter of maintaining good order and decency in ecclesiastical assemblies. This cannot be maintained when delegates are either unruly or when they scorn admonitions of minor assemblies. Whereas Christ has ordered that all things shall be done decently and in good order in His church, the disturbance of this order is censurable sin. 

In conclusion we must still ask the question: “Of what does this censure consist?” 

Is this to be regarded simply as a brotherly admonition inflicted by the assembly upon the offender and upon which no subsequent action is to take place? Or, must we think of this in such a way that if the occasion arises where the Classis or Synod passes such censure upon a member of the assembly that this is in effect a decree of suspension from office? A third possibility is that the major assembly in a matter of this nature would follow its action with a report of the offense to the consistory of which the offender is a member and this would imply that the consistory would take any further necessary action in treating the brother. 

As to the first of these possibilities, the matter is not as simple as that. This might be the case with regard to the censure of Article 35 which is imposed by the president of the assembly but in Article 43 it is the entire body that censures and this is more serious than to be dropped with a rebuke. If the matter is serious enough that the major assembly by motion censures, it must also be ready to follow that action through. 

As to the second possibility mentioned, we would rule that out because the Classis and Synod do not possess that authority. The authority to suspend and depose from office lies with the consistory and, further, even if this power did belong to the major assemblies, it would not be used without preceding labor in behalf of the offending brother. 

As to the third possibility, it may be pointed out that two things enter in here. First, there is the question whether the offending brother will apologize and confess the wrong for which he is being censured. If he does the matter can be dropped. If he does not, further action would necessarily follow to bring him to repentance. Secondly, just what the nature of this action would be would depend somewhat on the seriousness of the offense committed. As we stated, however, if it is serious enough to require ecclesiastical censure and there is no repentance, it would seem that almost without exception the matter would have to go to the consistory for further treatment. It would then be up to the consistory to decide what further steps are needed to bring the brother to sorrow and repentance of his misdeeds. G.V.d.B.