Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
In these assemblies ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted and that in an ecclesiastical manner. In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.
Church Order, Article 30
Article 30 concerns the proper jurisdiction of ecclesiastical assemblies. The article specifies that the jurisdiction of all ecclesiastical assemblies is limited to ecclesiastical matters. In regard to the major assemblies, the article specifies that their jurisdiction is limited to those matters which could not be finished in the minor assemblies or which pertain to the churches in common.
Article 30 also prescribes that the business of the assemblies be transacted in an “ecclesiastical manner.”
Reference is made to “major” and “minor” assemblies. Other terms have been used: “higher” and “lower”; “broader” and “narrower.” “Broader” and “narrower” may be the best terms, although no matter which terms are used they may be exploited by those who are advocates of hierarchy.
“Major” means “more” and “minor” means “less.” The idea is not that major assemblies have greater intrinsic authority than the consistory. The consistory has the only intrinsic authority. Besides, the consistory has authority to do what no classis or synod can do: preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline. The distinction between “major” and “minor” refers to the relationship between assemblies in the church federation. The scope of the authority of a consistory is limited to the one congregation over which that consistory has been placed. Within the church federation, however, the authority of a classis is over all of the churches of the classis; the scope of the authority of synod is over all of the churches of the denomination. In this sense the broader assemblies are certainly “major” assemblies. The authority exercised by the major assemblies derives from the willing consent of the minor assemblies, and ultimately from the consistories that have willingly joined the federation.
Ecclesiastical Matters Only
The emphasis of Article 30 is that the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical assemblies is confined to ecclesiastical matters: “In these assemblies ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted. . . .” The boundaries are clearly set.
This means that only those matters which concern the life and calling of the church and her membership are to be the concern of the ecclesiastical bodies. Strictly speaking, the assemblies are limited to those things that pertain to the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline.
The assemblies are not to busy themselves in matters which are outside of the sphere of the church: matters political, social, civil, educational, industrial, personal. Any assembly that does, intrudes itself into an area outside of its proper jurisdiction. For any assembly to do this is to abandon its God-given calling and invite God’s wrath. For, in the end, it is God who limits the jurisdiction of the church.
The sphere of the church is solely things spiritual. Only in as far as there is a spiritual aspect is the church to be involved in a matter. Ear example, it is not the business of the church to settle financial disputes between brothers. In this case, Jesus’ word in Luke 12:14applies: “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” But if the sin of fraud or stealing enters in, then it becomes an ecclesiastical matter.
Every assembly must concern itself with the issue of the legality of ,a matter that has been brought before it: “Is this matter legally before the assembly? Is this a matter that the assembly ought to be involved in?” In deciding upon legality, the first question to be answered must be: “Is this matter properly an ecclesiastical matter?” Early on the Reformed churches in The Netherlands resisted every attempt to persuade the church to be involved in non-ecclesiastical matters. The Synod of Emden, 1571, did not acquiesce to the request of Prince William I that the churches support him by recruiting soldiers for his army, by collecting money for the support of the army, and by assisting in the relaying of army bulletins. It was the decision of this Synod that, “The minister(s) and the elders shall make sure that they deal with ecclesiastical .matters only in the consistories, classes and the synods. But if there are some matters which are partly ecclesiastical and partly political, such as in case of marriage, if any difficulties arise, they shall seek the judgment and authority of the government.”
Jurisdiction of Major Assemblies
All the assemblies are limited in their work to ecclesiastical matters. But, in distinction from the consistory, two additional restrictions are placed on the jurisdiction of the major assemblies, i.e., classis and synod: “In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.”
Jurisdiction of major assemblies is limited, first, to those matters which could not be finished in the minor assembly. Whenever a matter comes to the major assembly from the minor assembly or from someone who has been working with the minor assembly the question before the major assembly is: “Is this matter finished in the minor assembly? Could this matter have been finished in the minor assembly? Was everything possible done so that the matter could be finished in the minor assembly?”
This is the second question that must be faced with respect to legality. If this requirement of Article 30 has not been met, the matter must be declared to be not legally before the major assembly. It is ruled out of order and there is no treatment by the major assembly of the substance of the issue. The matter is referred back to the minor assembly.
That a matter could not be finished may refer to the fact that it could not be finished to the satisfaction of the parties involved, in which case the aggrieved party comes to the major assembly by way of appeal. (The matter of appeal to a major assembly will be treated in Article 31.) Or the matter could not be finished because of serious division in the minor assembly (let us say, the consistory) that makes it impossible for it to “finish” a matter satisfactorily, in which case the help of the major assembly may be sought.
There is sound, practical wisdom in the requirement of Article 30. It forces the minor assemblies, particularly the consistories, to do their proper work, and not shirk their God-given responsibilities by passing the matter on to the broader assemblies. It also forces individuals to work with the minor assembly, especially the consistory, and not too quickly to appeal to the major assembly in order to bypass the consistory. It protects the minor assembly from unlawful intrusion and interference by the major assembly. And it keeps the major assemblies from being flooded with matters that could have and properly should have been dealt with by the minor assemblies.
In the second place, jurisdiction of major assemblies concerns matters that pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common. This is the third question raised with regard to legality: “Does the matter concern the churches in common?” If it does, it belongs at the major assembly.
Matters which pertain to the work of the classis may be brought directly to the classis. Two examples may be these: matters which deal with the annual church visitation, or matters which deal with the revision of the “Classical Rules of Order.”
Matters which pertain to the work of the synod may be brought directly to the synod: matters concerning missions, the theological school, sister-church relations, revision of the Church Order.
Even though matters dealing with the churches of the major assembly in common may be brought directly to these assemblies, it is proper that these matters come before the major assembly via the minor assembly. This makes it possible for the major assembly to be served by the judgment, investigation, and insights of the minor assembly.
Classification of Materials
It may be helpful to classify the main types of materials that come before the assemblies. Sometimes there is confusion over the terms that are used to describe these materials.
PROTEST – A protest is a request to an assembly for revision or reversal of a decision made by that same assembly with which the protestant is aggrieved.
APPEAL – An appeal is a request to a major assembly (classis or synod) for judgment against the decision of a minor assembly with which the appellant (an individual, a consistory, or even a classis) is aggrieved.
OVERTURE – An overture is a proposal sent to an assembly for change of existing policy, procedure, or practice or recommendation of some new policy, procedure, or practice.
GRAVAMEN – A gravamen is a formal objection directed to the major assembly against a teaching of the confessions of the church, including a request for revision.
REPORT – A report is information supplied to an assembly of work mandated by the assembly and accomplished in the name of the assembly. This would include reports of various committees, reports of functionaries (Stated Clerk, for example), standing committees, special committees, or study committees.
The Ecclesiastical Manner
Article 30 also prescribes that the work of the assemblies is to be carried out “in an ecclesiastical manner.” This presupposes that there is a proper ecclesiastical manner. The business of the assemblies is to be conducted in this manner. The assemblies must be concerned not only with what they are doing, but with how they are doing it.
This “ecclesiastical manner” is not spelled out in the article. Nevertheless, it is clearly implied.
All matters are to be treated decently and in good order, I Corinthians 14:40. This means that all matters must be treated according to the provisions of the Church Order, and according to the adopted “Rules of Order of Classis and Synod.”
The ecclesiastical manner means that the discussion of every issue must be brotherly and considerate. (Cf. Article 35 where among the duties of the president of the assemblies is this, that he “. . .silence the captious and those who are vehement in speaking.”) Speakers are to exercise due respect for the assembly and the chair, and their remarks are to be concerned with the issue before the assembly and not to be directed to persons.
The ecclesiastical manner also implies that decisions are to be taken solely on the basis of the Word of God and the confessions. It is NOT the ecclesiastical manner when decisions are made on the basis of expediency, popular opinion, or personal preference. But decisions must be made on the basis of the objective standard of God’s Word.
The proper ecclesiastical manner includes also that every matter brought before the assemblies is given thorough, careful discussion and treatment. If a matter is so serious that the assembly ought to treat it, it must not be treated superficially and hastily. Every effort must be made to convince all parties of the rightness of the decision taken. Although not always possible, it is desirable that unanimous decisions are reached, or at least that everything is done in an attempt to secure a unanimous decision.