How do consistory, classis, and synod work? Our deliberative assemblies

In the August 2020 editorial, I pressed home the Reformed conviction that decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies are “settled and binding.” What a consistory, classis, or synod decides is the end of the matter; unless, of course, someone brings good objections to the decision in an orderly way. Otherwise, the matter is finished and is binding upon all church members. The importance of that can hardly be overstated. It is the decency and order required by Scripture and our Church Order. Ignoring it is indecency and the disorder of chaos and schism.

‘Deliberative’
How these settled and binding decisions are made is just as important. Because decisions must be made after careful deliberation, our assemblies are known as “deliberative assemblies.” To be deliberate about something is to proceed slowly, think carefully, act only with thoughtfulness. A deliberate person is not hasty; he is not described as rash. In this respect, deliberate is an adjective (and pronounced dih-LIB-er-it). But the better reason to call our assemblies “deliberative assemblies” is that the delegates deliberate, that is, patiently discuss issues before voting on them. In this case, deliberate is a verb (and pronounced dih-LIBer-ate). Patiently, carefully, and with a thoroughness some might describe as plodding, they look at all the angles, consider consequences, but especially analyze the question in the light of God’s Word. That is, the assembly suspends judgments until all the facts have been gathered, all the insights offered. Then they vote. The will of the majority decides the matter (Church Order, Art. 31). Now the issue is settled and binding.

Thus, the importance of ecclesiastical decision-making cannot be overstated either. The ecclesiastical bodies represent Jesus Christ; the delegates are His officebearers and do His work. Decisions, therefore, must express His will. And it is usually only after careful deliberation that the will of Christ is known. It goes that way in a fallen world with imperfect men.

Weighty decisions
The kinds of decisions assemblies make illustrates the importance of making them with utmost care. Classes and synods must consider entrance of a new church into the denomination, judge whether or not to sustain an appeal from a member against his consistory, close or keep open a mission field, declare a seminary graduate a candidate for the ministry or inform him that he is not qualified. Consistories do more than approve or disapprove purchase of a better sound system or new carpet in the parsonage. They allow or disallow a confession of faith, approve or disapprove a proposal to change the church’s worship, charge or do not charge a member with sin, sustain or reject an objection to a sermon. Even in congregational meetings, decisions are often made only after careful deliberation. Is remodeling the social hall good stewardship of the Lord’s possessions?

Our entire formal system of church life is built around the reality that our assemblies are deliberative in nature. This explains many things: the length of some consistory meetings, the careful formulation of motions supported by logical and biblical grounds, the existence of agendas and committee reports distributed in advance of meetings, ‘pre-advice’ at classes and synods, even the permissibility of ‘minority reports’ at the broader assemblies. Before delegates cast their votes, they must be fully informed.

Biblical principles
The deliberative nature of our assemblies is an aspect of the “ecclesiastical manner” required of them by the Church Order. Article 30 requires assemblies to treat only “ecclesiastical matters” (no politics or social issues; only church matters) and only in an “ecclesiastical manner.” There is a churchly way to do church business, just as there is a motherly way to do a mother’s business, and a company way to do company business. Christ’s church must conduct her business in a churchly way. Aspects of the ecclesiastical manner include the decency and order called for in I Corinthians 14:40, the brotherly charity demanded in I Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 4:15, 25-29, and the truthfulness required by all Scripture. But one aspect of the ecclesiastical manner not to be overlooked is “by deliberation.”

A number of biblical principles explain this requirement of deliberation.

First, Jesus Christ rules His church, not by one man, but by a body of elders. When there is a plurality of decision makers, tyranny and lording are kept out of the church (see the “Form for Ordination”). Reformed churches are not governed by one, a pope-like figure, but by many. These ‘many’ come to meetings with many minds, but want to make decisions with one mind. This takes time.

Second, all decisions of importance are to be made with good counsel. Judging a matter before hearing it is wrong. Even worldly courts know the need for ‘hearings.’ So Proverbs warns, “he that answereth (judges) a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him” (18:13). “Every purpose is established by counsel” (20:18), and “without counsel, purposes are disappointed” (15:22). Proverbs begins by emphasizing this: “A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels” (1:5). Proverbs repeats it: “he who hearkens to counsel is wise” (12:15). A case could be made that one of the themes of Proverbs is “Hear counsel! Seek advice!” Church assemblies listen to counsel, realizing that truth, upon which all decisions must be based, often becomes known only after hard work and study.

Third, decisions of importance must be made with an abundance of counsel. Elders must hear from many before they make decisions. Hearing only one or two risks knowing only half the truth, which may in fact be a lie. Proverbs warns about this in a passage all Christians ought to memorize and adopt as their own: “He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbor cometh and searcheth him” (18:17). A different translation has: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Church assemblies will listen to every perspective before declaring judgments.

Fourth, unity of mind is the church’s goal. “Be of the same mind” (Phil. 4:2). Two cannot walk together except they be agreed (Amos 3:3). And because it may take some time to attain that unity, assemblies take time. It is true: in the end, it is enough to have a majority, but the goal is unanimity.

Fifth, all the delegates hold the office of prophet, able to know truth, judge truth, and speak truth on behalf of Jesus Christ. Those who vote in ecclesiastical assemblies— consistory, classis, synod, and congregational meeting—are prophets, able to speak and judge truth.

All these principles are brought together in the example of the ecclesiastical assembly in Acts 15. A body of men was assembled (v. 6a) to consider (6b) a contentious question (2) by hearing good counsel (2b) based on Scripture (15-18) from more than a few men (7, 12, 13, 25) who were delegated by the churches (3, 4, 22), in order to come to unity of mind (25) and express the will of Jesus Christ (28) for the well-being of the churches.1

Jesus Christ rules by His Word
The most basic principle to govern deliberative assemblies is that Jesus Christ rules His church by His Word. All ecclesiastical business must be governed by Scripture, as that Scripture is understood and spelled out in the church’s confessions and Church Order. Decisions must be in harmony with the Word. They may not contradict the Word. If the precepts and principles of His Word do not rule in the assemblies, Jesus Christ is not ruling in the assemblies. To say that elders rule in the church is proper. To say that Jesus Christ rules His church through elders is better. But the only way elders know Christ’s will is by heeding His Word.

Thus, a delegate to an assembly must be scriptural both in what and how he speaks. And a delegate must listen to and be persuaded by Scripture. What persuades him is not who speaks—the man he respects or has the most degrees; or by how he speaks—with brilliance or forcefulness; or by how a decision may affect him personally. Nor is what moves him his desire to represent the “people back home.” He may be interested in being able to justify decisions to the “people back home,” but he is not their representative. He represents and serves Christ. He must be convinced by what is Christ’s will revealed in Scripture. If the people back home do not like the decision, his job now as a good shepherd is to explain to them how the decision reflects the will of Christ. To the extent that an assembly is governed by anything other than Scripture, to that extent Jesus Christ is not ruling through that assembly.

Principles in practice
Put into practice, these biblical principles for a deliberative assembly will lead men, first, to be prepared to speak on all the business on the agenda. The need for delegates to be prepared to speak at the assembly compares to the need for a minister to be prepared to preach. Both are prophets, required to speak. No delegate may come unprepared. And even if an elder feels inferior to ministers who are trained in theology, practiced in speaking, and confident of their opinions, he should not refrain from speaking. Ministers often testify of their appreciation of a prepared elder who speaks up, showing that he has thought biblically about the question at hand. Nor should delegates attend (consistory or otherwise) with the hope that others will be able to tell them what is proper. With the confidence that Jesus Christ appoints them to serve, they study the agenda, ponder the issues biblically, and jot down careful notes to use when they have opportunity to speak. That is, delegates come to assemblies with a grounded conviction about what must be decided.

At the same time, delegates prepare to listen. Prepared to speak with a conviction does not mean coming with a closed mind. That would cut the nerve of the deliberative character of a meeting. Then discussion is unnecessary and meetings can be brief: show up, vote, go home. Difficult as it may be, delegates must come with an open mind. The other prophets at the meeting must be heard. And so each delegate must come with the humility that, although he has studied and come to a tentative conviction, he is not infallible. Listening to his fellow prophets may correct his error of judgment. It often does.

Sadly, it sometimes happens that a delegate, proud of his own judgments, speaks his mind and then ignores what others have to say. I have seen men, after their speech, put their nose back down into their notes to prepare to speak a second time, all the while ignoring what their colleagues may be saying to correct their first speech. But they were not listening. Proverbs describes that as foolish and shameful: judging a matter without hearing it. Deliberative assemblies require men to speak, but also to listen.

An important part of listening is carefully reflecting on advice presented to the assembly. Preferably, written advice is presented far in advance of the meetings. At times, committees of pre-advice must hurriedly labor to formulate advice while the rest of the delegates are patiently drinking coffee, and then give the delegates too little time to “hear” it.

Delegates must not be required to “answer a matter” before they “hear” it. Also implied in the need to listen is that, although consistories may discuss the agenda of a classis or synod in advance, they may not instruct their delegates how to vote. A rare exception may be in the case of a very clear doctrinal matter. But as a rule, delegates to the assemblies must have the liberty to listen to the deliberations and come to their own judgments based on what has been said. Again, if consistories were to instruct their elders how to vote, no discussion would be necessary. Show up, vote, go home.

At a recent synod I was very thankful for the exemplary conduct of especially one of the ministers. I wrote him to express gratitude to God for his example, especially to the younger delegates. It was apparent that the brother was prepared to speak on all the issues. He had notes. It was also obvious that, even though he came to synod with opinions, in one matter he admitted to the assembly that the discussion had changed his mind. Prepared to speak. Prepared also to listen. Prophets convincing prophets.

Third, serving the deliberative character of the assemblies is a capable chairman. The chairman of these meetings has weighty responsibilities to ensure proper deliberation. He gives everyone opportunity to speak and keeps at bay the man who wants to respond to every other speaker who may disagree with him (the Rules of Synod have clear regulations in this regard). A good chairman silences the captious and those who are vehement in speaking (Church Order, Art. 35), because deliberation is not served by vehemence or other improper speaking, but by truth spoken in love. Behind the scenes he may even caution a man whose full-throated speeches come across as bluster and intimidation. A good president knows how to clarify matters during long debates, recognizes when discussion is veering away from the motion on the floor, helps the assembly in every way focus on the main issue and reason according to biblical standards. He understands the balance between keeping the meeting moving and, on the other hand, being patient with the deliberative process when an elder or two (who may be accustomed to making decisions more efficiently for their own business) think the process too slow. He listens and judges that ‘nothing new is being spoken,’ and wisely calls for the vote. A good chairman is invaluable for the deliberative process of our assemblies.

Maintaining our assemblies as deliberative assemblies takes work. To listen patiently to all the others, to prepare to speak biblically, to submit to the will of the majority, all require great effort. Our sinful natures resist: they prefer easier alternatives. But doing the will of the Lord Jesus is always difficult and requires much grace. For that reason, our Church Order requires all the assemblies to be opened and closed with prayer (Art. 32). Dependence on Jesus Christ is necessary. The church is His church. We seek His honor and glory.

The manner in which the church does Christ’s work is no less important than the work she does.

1 For a sermon that more fully explains the Acts 15 assembly, find Prof. R. Cammenga’s sermon on Sermonaudio, August 2, 2020, in Grace PRC or Georgetown PRC.