Mutual Censure – Article 81 of the Church Order

Rev. Bekkering is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Pella, Iowa.

The mutual supervision and the mutual censure of all the officebearers is a necessary and desirable thing. If it is lacking, some serious consequences will result. The first danger is that nothing will be done with respect to the question of faithfulness in carrying out the duties of the offices. This is the natural direction of things and this is the general trend that we see in the church world today. We as Protestant Reformed Churches are not immune to laxity in this area, and therefore need to be on our guard. The second danger that may come from a failure to exercise proper mutual censure in our consistories is that one man or a very few may dominate. This may be done consciously or unconsciously, but when the responsibility for supervision and censure is not firmly held to be the right and duty of every consistory member (elder, deacon, and minister), then bad patterns may develop. A general rule of life is that if we do not supervise ourselves, someone else will supervise us. Hierarchy will fill the void if we do not take hold of our responsibility to exercise mutual censure according to Article 81 of the church order.

Before the Reformation, the church of Christ was under a faulty system of church government: the hierarchical system. The Roman Catholic Church has the hierarchical system of government. The Pope is the highest authority, and the authority to supervise passes down through the ranks. The archbishop supervises the bishops, the bishops supervise the priests, the priests supervise the deacons, etc.

The Reformed churches, following the Scriptures, became Presbyterian in church government, i.e., they were ruled by elders. In Presbyterian church government the officebearers are equal in authority as they function in the local church, and supervision is mutual (see Art. 17 of the C.O.).

Calvin was the first to introduce mutual censure. He did so, already in 1544, among the officebearers in the church in Geneva, according to Rutgers in his Kerkelyke Adviezen. Mutual censure was later (1568, Wezel) adopted in some of the Reformed churches in the Lowlands under the influence of a’ Lasco. In 1578 the Synod meeting in Dordt made mutual censure a practice of all the Reformed churches in the Lowlands. The Synod in 1578 added to the provision for mutual censure these stipulations: first, that it be conducted before the Lord’s Supper; secondly, that it have a view to the doctrine and walk of the officebearers.

The 1578 version of our Article 81 probably proved to be too heavy in its implications to be readily used in the churches. Its connection to the Lord’s Supper seems to imply censure in a more formal sense. The Synod of s’ Gravenhage in 1586 made some fundamental changes in the article. It dropped the phrase “before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” and it omitted the words “doctrine and walk” and substituted the words found in our present version: “with regard to the discharge of their office.” These changes seem to have lifted some of the heavy implications of formal censure, because no other changes were made in the article in the Reformed churches in The Netherlands.

It seems to the present writer that Article 81, as we have it today, still suffers from that “heaviness” that the Synod of 1586 attempted to lift. For example, we still use the term censura morum, which is the Latin translation, not properly of our version, but of the version before 1586, which spoke of censure of doctrine and walk. Censura morum implies censure, not so much of the discharge of office, as of moral behavior or conduct of the officebearer. Our present Article 81 speaks of Christian censure or mutual censure, not censure of morals. We ought to stop using the term censura morum, and use “mutual censure” or “Christian censure” as Article 81 expresses.

Another factor that may tend to make Article 81 in our 1914 version of the church order “heavy” is the reintroduction of the phrase “before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” which was dropped in 1586.

Prof. Hanko in his Notes on the Church Order says, “It is clear, however, from this history that Censura Morum is not intended to be a censure of conduct in relation to the celebration of the Lords Supper.”

The reference to the Lord’s Supper probably was intended to insure the use of mutual censure at regular intervals by the consistories. W. W. J. VanOene, in his “practical guide to the use of the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches,” entitled, With Common Consent, says concerning this point, “There was regularity the few years during which the Christian censure had to be held before each celebration of the holy supper. Later on this regularity was often missing, although many consistories continued the custom of having it at the last meeting before this celebration.”

No doubt we need to have the regular intervals specified lest we lose the practice altogether. We can keep the phrase “before the celebration of the Lords Supper” as long as we understand that it refers to regular intervals, and not to the question of whether or not officebearers can go to the Lord’s Supper together. VanDellen and Monsma, in their Church Order Commentary, in treating Article 81, say, “the mistaken conception just noted is quite general.”

This attempt to expose some misconceptions concerning mutual censure must not be taken as an attempt so to “lighten” mutual censure as to render it useless.

The main purpose of mutual censure, clearly, is to be able to admonish one another in a friendly spirit with regard to the discharge of the respective offices. Under the best of circumstances that is always difficult. Whenever one’s performance in his office is examined, many different human reactions come into play. Fear, doubt, defensiveness, feeling of inadequacy, and anger may arise within one. Why is this true? The answer is sinful human pride. Every officebearer knows that he is not perfect and that he can improve the discharge of his office, yet the prospect of having someone else point that out is painful to his pride.

Officebearers in Christ’s service must show that they have the mind of Christ in them by humbling themselves before each other, and by being servants to God’s people.

Joh. Jansen nicely captures the spirit of mutual censure in his Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening as he comments on Article 81. The following is this writer’s translation of Jansen. “The purpose of Christian censure is not to be disagreeable by bringing all sorts of picky things, or to argue about personal opinions. But to sharpen each other, and to spur each other to greater diligence in the discharge of their offices for the welfare of the church, and to God’s honor. Every officebearer must remember that he not only has the right and responsibility, in a loving way, to bring his criticism of his fellow officebearer’s performance, but also has the right and responsibility to receive the legitimate criticism of his fellow officebearers, brought in a loving way, concerning his performance. Only in this way will the holy purpose of mutual censure be a blessing.”