In our last article we raised the question, “What determines the legal status of matters presented to the various ecclesiastical assemblies for deliberation and decision?” We cited at that time seven rules of the Christian Reformed Church, governing the legality of matters presented to the Synod and we stated then that our churches do not have such, a compilation of definitely written rules but that a committee of Synod is at present mandated to provide them. This does not mean, however, that our churches have throughout the years been functioning without rules in regard to these matters. On the contrary there are several fundamental rules incorporated in the body of our Church Order that are binding upon every ecclesiastical assembly. They prescribe in general what is required in order that a given matter be declared legally before the Consistory, Classis or Synod. We note in this connection the following:
1. Article 30 stipulates three things:
a) First, the matter must be of an ecclesiastical nature which means that it is classified with those matters that properly belong to the business and jurisdiction of the church.
b) Secondly, if presented in a major assembly it must be evident that it could not be finished in the minor assembly. The legal procedure in all cases is that matters be treated in the order of consistory, classis and synod.
c) Thirdly, the exception to the aforecited rule is: that matters pertaining to the churches in common may and should be legally treated in the major assemblies without prior treatment in the minor assemblies.
2. Article 46 sets forth the principle that what has once been decided by the major assembly shall not be treated anew unless there is a preponderant reason for reconsideration or revision. However, these rules cover only the major facets of the problem and frequently there arise various other complexities that give rise to the question, “Is this or that matter legally before the body?” These situations often lead to time consuming debates which impede the proceedings of the assembly and contribute little, if anything, to the execution of the real labors of the body. They decide nothing as far as the matter in question is concerned. These debates expend much valuable energy of the delegates with the result that frequently later matters are treated with undue haste and rushed through without proper consideration because the assembly has become weary through needlessly long sessions. This is undesirable and damaging and, therefore, it ought to be agreed, inasfar as is possible, what the legal requisites for treating matters are so that the question of legality in most instances can be disposed of with dispatch.
Now it must also be understood that no set of rules can be so broad and involved so as to cover every possibly circumstance that may arise. Always there exists that possibility that a case is presented wherein the circumstances simply do not fit the rules. From such instances, however, one cannot argue for the abolition of all rules. Rather, these are exceptions and must be treated as such. To every rule there is an exception.
Furthermore, the matter of determining whether or not a certain matter is legally before the ecclesiastical assembly is not an incidental, unimportant matter. It is not, as is often wavered, a mere technical thing and when the ecclesiastical assemblies prolong debate on those matters they are not simply “wrangling over technicalities” or engaged in “mental gymnastics” for the sake of “oratorical exercise” but there is usually a vita1 principle involved in the discussion. After ah, to bring a matter before an ecclesiastical assembly in the proper, orderly way or not to do so involves more than compliance with or violation of some legal code. It may be granted that in some instances a violation of the legal procedure may be due to ignorance but it must not be overlooked that willful and intelligent violation often results from a wrong spiritual attitude toward the matter in question; a sense of conscious guilt and so an evil maneuver attempting to bar or gain treatment of a matter through legally wrong practices. From this point of view the legal aspect of a case may be more important than the case itself. History in our own churches, and that not so long ago that we cannot remember, has borne this out and so it is well to have a set of concise and well defined rules which express what constitutes legality and in the light of which most matters can he readily judged.
Obviously, Classis East felt the need of this in 1944 for at that time a committee was appointed to study the matter and give advice to the Classis. Before me I have a copy of that committee’s report and although I do not at present know what the Classis did with this report, I will acquaint the reader with parts of this report. The committee calls itself, “A Committee for the formulation of a set of Rules for judging clearly the legality of Communications sent to Classis.” In its study it expresses two basic principles that wil1 guide them in the formulation of these rules. They are: “1. The nature of Classis as an Ecclesiastical body, and 2. The nature of the relation individuals sustain to the Classis.” As to the first of these, the committee states that “Classis differs from the consistory in the fact that its powers and courses of action are agreed upon by free and mutual consent and that, therefore, also its decisions and its relations to other persons are by such mutual consent.” Just how this particular distinction affects the legality of communications sent to the body is not clear nor is it explained in the committee’s report. Concerning No. 2 above, the committee distinguishes between those “persons related to the Classis who have an inherent right toward it by virtue of the fact that Classis is composed of persons who represent them, is supported by them and is responsible to them, (i.e., members of the denomination) and those “persons who stand in no inherent relation to the Classis,” (i.e. those who are not members of the denomination, outsiders). It is the reasoning of the committee that the same rules cannot apply to both of these groups.
Concerning non-members the committee suggest that they may desire to approach or address the Classis with regard to matters that may concern such things as: Quote—”(1) the negotiations concerning operation-materials, etc., (2) negotiations regarding civic morals or charities, etc., (3) treatment of doctrinal questions with unrelated church groups, etc.” The right to do so in this case, according to the advice of the committee, shall be limited by one consideration, namely, whether the Classis will grant him or them this courtesy. If a person outside of our churches wishes to address or petition Classis, his legal right to be heard shall be decided by the assembly. They can refuse or grant to him this privilege.
According to the report of the committee, this same rule applies to those who have been members of our churches but have withdrawn such membership. We quote the report:
“In the case of a person withdrawing from the control of his consistory, such a person shall be regarded as having lost al1 inherent connection and right with the Classis and hence can be heard only if the assembly grants him the courtesy. Then the procedure shall be as follows: (a) The communication shall have been in the hands of the Stated Clerk at least five days. (b) The Stated Clerk shall state the purport of the communication. (c) The president shall apply the criterion given in C.O. 30, 31 and invoke the rule therefore. (d) In case of doubt remaining after the president has ruled, the objector may move to have it read and the meeting shall decide whether to read it or not. (e) And finally, if it is decided to read, the assembly shall decide by vote whether the material warrants treatment.”
Then, regarding members of our churches who address a communication to the Classis, the committee advises the following considerations as rules for determining the legality of the communication. We quote:
“a) Whether the consistory testifies that the communication is a matter that could not be treated conclusively at the consistory, though it has followed the legal process at that consistory.
“b) Whether the consistory testifies that it has received a copy, which is indeed a matter of courtesy and justice, but also inherently related to the question whether it could be finished at the local consistory.
“c) Whether the consistory, in case it has not received a copy, waives its claim because it is confident of its knowledge of the material.”
In addition to al1 this (with which we do not express full agreement ) the committee also suggests that a communication may be declared illegal, ruled out of order, if it contains language that is indecent, abusive, defamatory to one’s character, etc.
In conclusion we wish to make the following suggestions:
1. In addition to the foregoing we feel that an ecclesiastical assembly should have the right to refuse and declare illegal any communication which, as to form or content, is unreasonably vague, disorderly or long. It should be returned to its author (s) for revision. Since this is difficult to enforce without rules, it may be wel1 to incorporate certain limitations with regard to this in a set of rules for future use.
2. To expedite the determination of the legal question, the following suggestion:
a) Each Classis or Synod have an agenda prepared in advance by its Stated Clerk.
b) In the event there is doubt in the mind of the Stated Clerk with respect to the legality of a given matter, this matter be referred to the Classical or Synodical Committees (the latter no longer existent), which committees be empowered to carry out the necessary investigation to determine such legality (in certain instances in the recent past such preliminary investigation would have been very beneficial) and serve the assembly with the pre-advice.