Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

In places where the consistory is to be constituted for the first time or anew, this shall not take place except with the advice of the classis. 

Church Order, Article 38


This article concerns the re-organizing of congregations and the organization of new congregations. Originally the article referred only to the reconstituting of congregations. This was necessary in the early history of the Reformed churches because of persecution. Often congregations were scattered, sometimes even forced to flee to foreign lands. When conditions improved, many of these believers would return to their homeland and native cities. Thus, there would arise the need to re-organize these groups of believers into congregations.

In the revision of the Church Order in 1914 by the Christian Reformed Church, the matter of the organization of new congregations was added to the article.

Various situations are covered by Article 38:

1) The organizing of congregations which are the fruit of local church extension work or denominational mission work.

2) The organizing of congregations born of a larger, mother church.

3) Existing congregations and consistories seeking admittance into the denomination.

4) Two smaller neighboring congregations joining together because they find it impossible to exist alone.

5) Re-organizing a congregation left without a consistory, as was the case in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1953 when, in some cases, most or all consistory members departed the denomination.

Strictly speaking, this article does not speak of organizing new congregations, but of organizing consistories: “In places where the consistory is to be constituted for the first time or anew….” The reason for this is that the constituting of a consistory is essential for the organizing of a congregation. Without competent officebearer material, no group may be organized as a congregation. Without the offices there can be no congregation.

Organizing with Classical Approval

No congregation may be organized without the advice of the classis, the article states.

The function of the classis is not that it organizes new churches per se. It is incorrect to say that a church cannot be organized without a major assembly’s approval and help. To take this position is essentially hierarchy. A congregation organizes itself. This is both the activity and the calling of the believers themselves.

Nevertheless, the church federation, through the classis, has the right and power to decide whether a certain congregation shall be organized as a part of the communion of churches. This decision is not simply left to the discretion of the group being organized. Nor can another local consistory decide this alone. This is the prerogative of the churches in common. Hence the need for approval of the classis, along with the concurring advice of the delegates ad examina from the other classes.

When the classis decided on granting a request for organization of a new congregation, certain criteria ought to be met. Is the group large enough to function as a viable congregation? Is there sufficient officebearer material in the group? Will the group be able to support itself financially now or in the foreseeable future? What are the prospects for growth, both internally and from the community?

There is a danger that congregations are organized too hastily. It may be that groups too small to function as viable congregations are organized. It may be that groups that are not entirely one with us are granted admittance into the denomination. These dangers must be avoided, both for the good of, the group involved and for the good of the federation.

Procedure for Organization

The procedure for organizing new congregations is spelled out in the “Decisions Pertaining To This Article.” That procedure is as follows:

1. A letter of request is directed to the classis, expressing the desire to organize a congregation in a certain locality. In the case of a group formed by the mission work of the churches in common, this request shall come to classis by way of a favorable decision of the local calling church with the advice of the Mission Committee. 

2. The classis shall thereupon deliberate whether such organization is possible or desirable, observing whether there be among the signators, persons suitable for consistory members, at the same time taking into account the neighboring churches. In case classis with the concurrence of the delegates ad examina decides to grant the request it appoints a committee to carry out the organization. 

3. In order to organize the congregation the committee of the local church meets with the persons concerned, who have meanwhile requested their certificates of membership, or if it be impossible to have their certificates transferred, those present shall give testimony one of another that they were members in full communion and of good report in the congregation from which they were separating. After a service of worship shall have been conducted under the guidance of the committee, the latter shall request those present to tender their certificates, in as far as possible. The committee having found the certificates in good order and having accepted them, they shall proceed to election of officebearers, who shall immediately upon their election be installed in their respective offices. 

4. In such situations as this the election cannot be performed otherwise than by free election by the vote of the male membership whose testimonials were found in order and accepted. Following the rule for free election it is required, in order to be chosen by the first ballot, to receive a two-thirds majority. In case of a reballoting an unqualified majority shall be decisive. 

5. It is recommended that at this meeting, in the presence of a notary public, the documents pertaining to the incorporation of the new congregation be brought in order.

Definite improvements could be made in our present procedure for organizing new congregations. For one thing, altogether too much is left to the night of organization: a public worship service, organization itself, election of officebearers, installation of officebearers, and filling out papers for incorporation.

Change should also be made in the free election of a newly organized congregation’s first officebearers. The idea of a free election runs contrary to sound Reformed church polity. Better that the organizing consistory meet ahead of time with the heads of families of the group to be organized in order to discuss nominations for officebearers. The organizing consistory could then formulate the first slate of nominees. Certainly, if the organizing consistory is convinced that there is sufficient officebearer material in the group, it should be in a position to compose a slate of nominations.

The procedure for organizing new congregations followed by the Christian Reformed Church has more to commend itself than our own.

1. Classis shall mandate a neighboring consistory to effect the organization of a new congregation. 

2. This consistory which is so mandated shall meet with the petition signers to arrange for the organizational meeting and the nomination of at least twice the number of officebearers to be elected, or less than twice the number to be elected, giving reasons for this departure from the rule. Prior to making these nominations, the effecting consistory shall give the petition-signers an opportunity to direct attention to suitable persons. Nominations are to be announced two successive Sundays before the organizational meeting. Any objections to the nominations are to be heard by the consistory or representatives of the effecting consistory. 

3. The consistory mandated to effect the organization shall accept and hold memberships of the petition-signers and present them at the organizational meeting. 

4. At the organizational meeting, the officebearers shall be elected by balloting of all confessing members whose letters of transfer or dismission have been accepted by the effecting consistory, and a majority is sufficient to elect. These officebearers shall be ordained and shall sign the Formula of Subscription at the organizational meeting. 

5. No professions of faith shall be heard at the organizational meeting. 

6. The papers of incorporation shall be prepared with legal counsel at a meeting of the newly organized consistory and presented for approval as early as possible after their organization.

Disbanding of Congregations

If a church cannot be organized as a member of the denomination without the advice of classis, it follows that no church can be disbanded without the advice of classis.

At times disbanding proves necessary. In case a church dwindles in size until only a few members remain, so that it cannot very well continue to exist, it may seek to be associated with a neighboring congregation and even be placed under the care of a neighboring consistory. But this can be at best only a temporary arrangement. Eventually such a dwindling congregation is forced to disband. In this case it informs classis of its decision with appropriate grounds, and seeks classis’ advice. If classis advises to proceed with disbandment, the classis may appoint a committee to aid in the process. Often property will need to be disposed of. Monies received from the sale of the property should ordinarily be turned over to the classis. Minute books and archives should also become the possession of the classis.

Although ordinarily a congregation itself ought to take the initiative for disbandment, facing the reality that it is not feasible for them to continue as a viable congregation, there maybe times when a congregation, or what is left of a congregation, is not willing to face this reality. In this case it may be necessary for the classis to step in and take the initiative. A classis certainly has the right to do this. Of course, this must be done in the right way, allowing time to convince those who are left that they ought, for their own good and the good of their children, to disband and move to other existing congregations. But it may come to this, that a classis simply has to take action and advise a congregation that they ought to disband. Like all classical advice, this advice too “has teeth.” A classis cannot, of course, force a congregation to disband, or themselves effect disbandment. But a classis, if it comes to that, can initiate actions to sever from the denomination a congregation that ought to disband.