Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2006, p. 252.
In our last article we began our consideration of Church Order, Article 77. This article outlines the proper procedure that consistories are to follow in excommunicating an impenitent sinner. We looked at the necessity for Christian discipline as that necessity is set forth in Scripture and our Reformed confessions. We also looked at the decisions of the early Dutch Reformed synods that preceded the formulation of this article by the Synod of Dordt. We concluded by considering the three steps that are involved in public discipline, giving special attention to the three announcements that are read to the congregation. In this article, we want to continue our treatment of this very important article in our Church Order.
The Role of the Classis
As we noted in our previous article, Article 77 requires that a consistory obtain “the advice of the classis” before it proceeds to the second step of censure. Already Article 76 mentioned the fact that “no one shall be excommunicated except with the advice of the classis.” This role of the classis before the second announcement to the congregation and before a person is actually excommunicated is a significant aspect of historic Reformed church polity.
It should be noted that the language of these two articles at this point reflects one of the first important changes that the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) made to the English translation of the Church Order that had been adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1920 and was adopted by the PRC Synod of 1944. The Synod of 1946 made two changes to the Church Order. One of those changes was that the word “consent” was changed to “advice” in Articles 76 and 77.1 The ground for this change was that “consent” indicated “a hierarchical church polity.” Additionally, “advice” is a more accurate translation of the Dutch than “consent.” The Dutch is advise, not toestemming.2
While it is certainly true that “advice” is the proper translation here, and while a concern over hierarchy is commendable, the “advice” of classis that Articles 76 and 77 call for is not the kind of friendly advice that a consistory may take or leave at its discretion. That clearly does not do justice to the kind of advice that Articles 76 and 77 require, the kind of advice that is the safeguard in Reformed churches against discipline improperly administered. As is the case throughout the Church Order, the advice of the broader assemblies is advice “with teeth,” advice that must be followed by those to whom this advice is given, or properly protested. This is Prof. Hanko’s position with regard to classis’ advice. In his Notes on the Church Order, he writes: “Classis must give its advice carefully, for it is giving the Consistory its approval (italics mine, R.C.) for excommunication if the sinner does not repent.” Prof. Hanko goes on to say that “if Classis refuses its permission, the Consistory will have to reconsider its decision or appeal to Synod.”3 Clearly the “advice” of classis on matters of discipline is to be viewed by consistories as a decision that is settled and binding.
Before a classis can give its advice, the consistory seeking classis’ advice must present the discipline case before the delegates of the classis. The practice in our churches is that ordinarily the request of a consistory for the advice of classis with regard to the second step of censure comes attached to that consistory’s classical credentials. When such a request comes in this way, the delegates to classis are not made aware of the fact that a consistory is seeking classis’ advice for an increase in censure until the day on which classis meets. In most cases this is adequate. But it would also be proper, and in some cases preferable, that a consistory submit to the stated clerk of the classis its request for increase in censure, along with a brief summary of the case, for incorporation in the classical agenda. In this way, delegates would have some time beforehand to consider the matter, and perhaps even to discuss the request in their own consistory.
Whichever method is followed, the consistory requesting the advice of classis with regard to the excommunication of an impenitent member must present its case before the delegates of the classis. Such matters are properly dealt with by the classis in closed session. In closed session, only the delegates to the classis, as well as presently serving officebearers, are permitted to be a part of the proceedings. All other visitors and guests are excused from the meeting. Before the classis the consistory presents a history of the case, never referring to the sinner by name, but always as “the member” or “the brother/sister.” This history must include an indication of the sin with which the member is charged (the grounds for his discipline), as well as an account of the labors bestowed by the consistory in visiting and admonishing the erring member.
As with the announcements that are made to the congregation, the history that is to be presented to the classis ought to be formally approved by the consistory. This does not preclude contributions that its delegates may make in the course of the deliberations of the classis, particularly in answer to specific questions of the other delegates. But it does insure that the account of the history of the case has been officially reviewed by the consistory and is presented as an accurate setting forth of the facts in the case. In this way the classis is not left to rely merely on the word of one or two delegates of the consistory, but on the testimony of the consistory itself.
What is important for consistories to remember is that the classis gives its advice on a decision to proceed to excommunication that the consistory has definitely taken. A consistory may not come to the classis in order to seek advice on whether or not they ought to discipline or proceed with discipline. The exercise of Christian discipline is the duty and prerogative of the local consistory. The consistory must have judged the member to be worthy of discipline, and the consistory must have taken a decision to proceed to the second step of censure with this member. VanOene writes:
A consistory would be amiss if it came to a classis without being convinced that it is mandatory to proceed. If a consistory should state: “Brothers, we have not come that far yet but if it appears in a month or two that there is no repentance, could you advise us then to proceed?” Classis would act completely incorrectly if it gave what would amount to a speculative advice. A consistory certainly has bound itself not to proceed without the advice of classis, but it is the consistory that bears the ultimate responsibility and must have reached a definite conclusion before approaching the sister churches for the required advice.4
What a consistory ought to do, therefore, before it comes to classis is to take four separate decisions. First, it ought to take the decision to proceed to the second step of censure, along with the grounds for doing so. Second, it ought to take a decision to inform the impenitent member of the consistory’s decision to proceed to the second step of discipline and the grounds for doing so. Third, the consistory ought to take a decision to seek the advice of the classis for the increase of censure, for excommunication. And fourth, the consistory ought to approve a history of its dealings with the impenitent sinner to be presented to the classis. These ought to be four separate decisions in the consistory’s minute book.
While in closed session, the classis must decide on a motion to advise the consistory to proceed to the second step of censure. With regard to such a decision, Van Dellen and Monsma write:
Before a Classis can express its opinion in a given case, it must ascertain: (a) whether the sin is censurable; (b) whether the admonitions and the suspension of the Lord’s Table according to Article 76 have taken place; (c) whether the first admonition to the church has been properly made; (d) whether the Consistory has labored sufficiently with the erring member after the first announcement to the Church; (e) whether it is clear that the transgressor is and remains obstinate in his rejection of all admonitions.5
As we have noted already, the decision taken by the classis is settled and binding. A classis may refuse to give its consent. Generally, this disapproval is for one of two reasons. The first reason is that although the classis judges the member worthy of discipline, it is not satisfied that the consistory has labored sufficiently with the member. In this case the consistory would continue its work with the wayward member. If the member remains obstinate in his sin, the consistory would return to classis at a later date with another request for approval to proceed to the second step of censure.
The second reason on account of which the classis may disapprove a consistory’s request to proceed to excommunication is that it judges the consistory’s grounds for discipline inadequate and judges, therefore, that the member is not properly the object of discipline. In this case, the consistory must either reverse itself or appeal its case to the synod. If the consistory is convinced by the classis of the necessity of reversing itself, the member’s censure must be lifted and an appropriate announcement made to the congregation.
In the case of a consistory that receives classis’ advice to proceed, the consistory ought promptly to notify the member under censure of the decision of the broader assembly. The consistory will also need to compose an announcement to the congregation informing them of the decision of the classis and the increase of the censure of the erring member, which announcement will now for the first time contain the name of the sinner. This announcement will exhort the congregation not only to pray for the member, but also to admonish the sinner against the error of his way and exhort him to repent.
Two things related to a decision by the classis advising a consistory to proceed with excommunication. First, even though the consistory has been granted approval to proceed, this does not mean that a consistory ought not to continue patiently to work with the sinner. The elders ought still to visit the sinner and call him to repentance, at least if he will receive the elders. In this connection, the elders ought to ascertain whether the decision of the classis supporting the discipline of the consistory has any effect on the member. Although classis has approved the decision of the consistory, this does not require a consistory to rush to excommunication. The consistory is still aiming at the recovery and repentance, the Lord willing, of the wayward member. There ought to be some time between the second announcement, therefore, and the third announcement, which includes the date on which the excommunication will take place, as well as the excommunication itself.
Second, that a classis has advised a consistory to proceed to excommunication does not rule out the possibility that a consistory never implements its decision as approved by the classis. The consistory is in no way bound to excommunicate because the classis has advised it to proceed. If the member at any point comes to confession of his sin and seeks reconciliation to the church, the process towards excommunication is halted. In this case, when the consistory becomes convinced that the sinner’s repentance is genuine, a public announcement is made to the congregation, including the member’s confession of and sorrow over the sins that were the occasion of the discipline. At that point, the sinner is restored and his discipline is lifted. If this should happen, a consistory might also inform the classis of this, thus giving the classis opportunity to share in the joy of the consistory at the positive fruit to its work of discipline. If at some point later, the member should fall once more into the same sin, so that it becomes necessary for the consistory to exercise discipline again, the whole process must start over, and the consistory must eventually approach the classis again for advice to proceed with excommunication.
As a denomination we ought to be thankful that our consistories take seriously their calling to exercise Christian discipline. In the churches today, even in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, Christian discipline is a dead letter. And the result is that the churches are corrupted and sinners are left comfortable in their sins. What a blessing that our elders are concerned to fulfill this all-important aspect of the work of their office. But we ought not only to be thankful that there is not a neglect of Christian discipline in our churches. We ought also to be thankful for the safeguards against the abuse of discipline, safeguards that ensure that Christian discipline be properly administered. One of the most significant of those safeguards is the advice and approval of the classis required by Church Order, Article 77.
1. The other change was that “church” in Article 86, the second instance, was changed to “churches.”
2. As to “advice” being the more accurate translation of the Dutch, consult VanDellen and Monsma’s The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1941), p. 319.
3. Prof. Herman Hanko, Notes on the Church Order (Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches: Grandville, MI, 1973), p. 153.
4. W.W.J. VanOene, With Common Consent (Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 1990), p. 313.
5. Church Order Commentary, p. 319.