In the controversy of 1924, the question was raised concerning the authority of the Classis or Synod over the local consistory. The Synod (1924) of the Christian Reformed Church, meeting at Kalamazoo, MI, adopted what was known as the “Three Points of Common Grace.”1 The decision was taken in answer to protests which were made against the teaching of the Rev. Herman Hoeksema of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. That same Synod declared that the Rev. Herman Hoeksema was Reformed, howbeit somewhat one-sided.2 It also refused to adopt a motion demanding that that pastor submit to the decisions concerning common grace or be suspended or deposed from office.3
Later, when additional appeals were made by members of Eastern Ave. Chr. Ref. Church to the Classis East of Grand Rapids of the CRC, that Classis finally suspended the Rev. H. Hoeksema and deposed his elders from office. The small minority of members of that congregation who opposed Rev. H. Hoeksema managed, through court action, to strip the majority of their property and name.
The Protestant Reformed Churches have expressed their disagreement with the above action by maintaining: 1) that the Synod had declared Rev. H. Hoeksema Reformed though “one-sided,” but had refused to demand his submission to the adopted “Three Points of Common Grace”; 2) that the Classis Grand Rapids East had no legal authority to suspend or depose officebearers of a local church; this right belongs only with the consistory of the church.
The Protestant Reformed Churches adopted the name (“churches”—in the plural) to express the truth that the local church is autonomous. It is not the denomination that is the “church,” but the local church is the manifestation of the body of Christ. That is in distinction from the Christian Reformed Church—the name implying that the denomination is itself the “church.” A large number of those who are leaving the Christian Reformed Church in recent years to establish independent congregations have come to understand this distinction too—and some have now repudiated this position of the CRC.
This question surfaced again in the split of 1953 in the Protestant Reformed Churches. There was a question of the binding nature of decisions of Classis or Synod (Article 314 of the Church Order). There were questions concerning the idea and significance of the autonomy of the local congregation. While both sides claimed to adhere to the principles maintained at the time of the 1924 controversy, there were obvious differences of opinion how all of this applied in the situation of 1953.
It is beyond the scope of this article to consider all of the questions raised and issues presented. By the nature of the case, there was a very unusual situation within the churches. Schism of this sort affects decisions taken. A careful analysis of all the events of that time might be profitable—but would involve a very lengthy article—or even a book.
The court case of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, MI before Judge Taylor reveals some of the diversity of opinion. Both sides agreed on the autonomy of the local congregation. But the two sides obviously disagreed on the relationship of the local church to the classis or synod and how Article 31 applied.
The Rev. Bernard Kok expressed what seemed to be the general view of the dissidents. His statements under oath show strikingly the driving force behind many of the decisions made by the “De Wolf group.” I quote from the court records:
Q. (by lawyer Linsey): Well, let us assume, as in this case, that Classis advised the suspension or deposition of DeWolf if he did not apologize, would it be up to—would the Consistory have to follow that advice?
A. No, sir.
Q. If they refused to follow that advice, would that have any effect upon the local property or congregation?
Q. Here, as this has been interpreted, this law has been interpreted in your church, the church is autonomous churches?
A. Autonomous churches, yes.
Q. Is there any penalty if you should refuse, if the Consistory should refuse to follow the advice of Classis or Synod?
A. No penalty whatsoever.
Q. Now, then, if the Classis in this case would call in a neighboring Consistory and suspend DeWolf if he doesn’t apologize, do I understand the Consistory would not have to follow that advice?
A. May I hear that Question again? (Question thereupon read by the reporter.)
Q. Consistory of the First Church, do they have to follow that advice?
A. No, sir, and Classis has no business giving that. In the question of suspension, Classis has nothing to say whatsoever; in the suspension and deposition of elders and deacons, Classis has nothing to say. In the suspension of the minister, Classis has nothing to say. The only stipulation in the Church Order is that the minister may not be deposed without the advice of Classis, but in the suspension, the Classis has no voice at all.
Q. Well, how about the deposition?
A. The deposition is to be done by the Consistory, but according to the Church Order, may not be done without the advice of Classis. They may suspend a minister without the advice of Classis, by the preceding sentence of the consistory and the neighboring consistory, but they may not depose the minister without first having obtained the advice of Classis and the approval of the synodical delegates.
Q. Now, in this case, it appears that Rev. Hoeksema—strike that out—it appears that the consistory of the First Church approved the doctrine of Rev. DeWolf as explained by him, and it appears that Rev. Hoeksema took an appeal from that decision to Classis upon the question of doctrine. Did that give classis any authority, under the law as it is interpreted by your church, to depose or suspend the minister?
A. No, sir.
Q. Or even advise it?
A. Not even advise it.5
Under cross examination by Attorney Tubbs, Rev. B. Kok provided further explanation of his views:
Q. The Church Order, itself, however, is the constitution of your church, is it not?
A. And the Church Order, Article 31, allows, when it states that all decisions by majority vote shall be binding unless—that means unless in my conscience it is contrary to the Word of God or the Church Order, then it is not binding.
Q. Is the word “conscience” in Article 31?
A. That is our interpretation of Article 31.
Q. Whose interpretation?
A. Rev. Ophoff.
Q. What is your interpretation?
A. The same as Professor Ophoff.
Q. What is the interpretation of the synod of your church?
A. I don’t think we have any, do we—let me look up Article 31. (Referring to Church Order) Doesn’t say anything about it.
Q. Now, the use of the word “proved” in that article has meaning, does it not?
A. Yes, do you want me to read from Professor Ophoff what it means?
Q. No, I want you to answer my question.
A. Yes, it has meaning.
Q. To whom is the proof given?
Q. To whom is that proof given under Article 31?
A. You must attempt to give that proof to either classis or synod.
Q. You must not only attempt, you must actually furnish the proof, must you not?
A. Not necessarily. If I do not actually furnish the proof that is satisfactory to the synod or classis, I still have the right of my opinion.
Q. Under Article 31?
A. Under Article 31.
Q. You reserve the right to have your own opinion?
A. That is right.
Q. But action of synod or classis is binding on you?
A. It is not.
Q. You mean you can flaunt a decision of classis?
A. Yes, guaranteed by my contract.
Q. And still remain a minister of the gospel of the Protestant Reformed Church?
A. Of the Protestant Reformed Church, of a Protestant Reformed congregation, yes. Whether they want to put me out of the association, that is their privilege. They have a right to deny me the fellowship, but they have no right to touch my office as minister in the Protestant Reformed Church of the congregation I represent.6
The above quotes give an idea of the erroneous view presented of Article 31 of the Church Order. It appears, according to this presentation, that anyone may ignore the decisions of classis (or synod) if he proves to his own conscience that he is right and classis is wrong. The only thing a classis can do, if the matter is of sufficiently serious a nature, is to sever relationships with the congregation which refuses to follow its advice. The statements of Rev. B. Kok go a long way to explain what occurred both in Classis West and some of the churches of Classis East. These would not be bound by Article 31 of the Church Order.
The Protestant Reformed Churches do maintain the autonomy of the local church and its consistory. These churches do make a distinction between “broader” (correct) and “higher” (wrong) bodies when speaking of Classis or Synod. These churches have insisted that only the consistory can suspend, depose, or otherwise discipline its officebearers or members. But surely they have not taught that Article 31 means one need merely to prove to one’s own conscience from Scripture and the Church Order that a decision of Classis or Synod is wrong in order then to ignore or violate that decision. Such action would result in anarchy in the churches (as was seen also in 1953). According to Article 31 of the Church Order, the decisions of the broader bodies are binding. Those who disagree with the decisions of the broader gatherings must prove from Scripture and the Church Order to the satisfaction of those bodies that the decision is wrong. If that is not thus proved, and if the church or individual refuses to abide by the decisions of the broader gatherings, they put themselves outside of the pale of the churches—and these gatherings must declare them to be out. If one can do as he pleases despite the decisions of the broader gathering, then protests, appeals, overtures would mean nothing anymore.
If our churches learned one important lesson in 1953, it was surely this: we must abide by the Order adopted by the churches and not have each do what is right “in his own eyes.” Decisions taken by the broader gatherings must be binding in the churches—or there would be anarchy and surely no denominational unity.
1 The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, Herman Hoeksema, 1947 edition, page 85.
2 Ibid., p. 86.
3 Ibid., p. 80.
4 Article 31 states: “If anyone complain that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the church order, as long as they are not changed by a general synod.”
5 The First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, a Michigan Corporation, Plantiff, vs. Hubert De Wolf, etc. Vol. 1, p. 124ff.
6 Ibid., p. 138.