Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
“The ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons shall before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.”
Church Order, Article 81.
Article 81 mandates the practice commonly known as censura morum. This is the practice of mutual censure among the officebearers within a church council, which practice is to be implemented at the council meeting immediately before the administration of the Lord’s Supper. Censura morum is a Latin phrase that refers literally to a censure or examination of morals. The practice is also referred to as censura mutual, that is, mutual censure, or censura fraternal, that is, fraternal (brotherly) censure.
This article concludes, for all practical purposes, the last section of the Church Order, the section entitled “Of Censure and Ecclesiastical Admonition.” Article 81 speaks of both “censure” and “admonition.” It is censure and admonition among the officebearers mutually of each congregation. The Church Order requires us to view censura morum as an aspect of Christian discipline. Censura morum belongs to the calling of the officebearers to exercise supervision (discipline) over the local congregation, an important aspect of which is their calling to “take heed unto themselves,” (Acts 20:28 and I Tim. 4:16).
The Scriptures provide us with examples of officebearers who exhort, even censure, their fellow officebearers. Galatians 2:11-14 records Paul’s rebuke of his fellow apostle Peter “to his face” and “before them all” because “he was to be blamed.” In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul exhorts his fellow officebearers, particularly his fellow ministers, Timothy and Titus, with regard to the discharge of their office. And in I Peter 5:1-5, the apostle Peter exhorts “the elders which are among you”; he does so as one “who [is] also an elder.”
Scripture makes clear that the officebearers’ oversight of the congregation must begin with the oversight of themselves. The discipline of the congregation must arise out of the censure and admonition of the officebearers mutually. Our Reformed fathers who established the practice of censura morum were convinced of the necessity of this. They were persuaded that the effectiveness of the discipline of the members of the congregation depended on the willingness of the officebearers to discipline themselves.
This matter of the mutual supervision of the officebearers is referred to elsewhere in the Church Order. Article 16 speaks of the calling of the minister “to watch over his brethren, the elders and deacons . . . .” And Article 23 calls the elders “to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office . . . .” The church visitors are mandated to put the question to every consistory annually: “Is censura morum conducted among the members of the consistory before each Lord’s Supper?” The denomination has a stake in the faithful carrying out of censura morum in the congregations.
Background and History
As is the case with so many of the practices of the Dutch Reformed churches, the practice of censura morum can be traced to John Calvin. In the Reformed church of Geneva, Calvin established the practice of a quarterly mutual censure among the ministers.
Fixing a day of censure every three months
For the effective maintenance of this discipline, every three months the ministers are to give special attention to see whether there is anything open to criticism among themselves, so that, as is right, it may be remedied.¹
What Calvin began in Geneva, the Dutch Reformed imported into the churches of the Lowlands and applied to all the officebearers, the elders and deacons as well as the ministers. Censura morum was first incorporated into the Church Order of the Synod of Dordt, 1578. The article called for the practice to take place before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and specified that it was to consist of “examination with one another concerning doctrine as well as conduct . . . .” In its Church Order, the Synod of Middelburg, 1581, maintained the decision of Dordt. It also responded to a question from one of the consistories: “Whether it is profitable and advisable that ministers of the Word, elders and deacons exercise censure among each other before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?” The synod’s answer was a definitive: “It is most profitable and advisable.” The Synod of the Hague, 1586, amended the original article in two ways. First, it deleted the description of censura morum as an investigation of “doctrine as well as life,” substituting “the discharge of their office” as the focus of the examination. Second, the synod also removed the reference to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the specified time when censura morum was to be conducted. No mention was made of a set time for conducting censura morum, only that the officebearers should do this. The Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, adopted the decision of the Hague without any change. Its Article 81 was: “Ministers of the Word, elders and deacons shall exercise Christian censure among themselves and admonish one another in a friendly way concerning the exercise of their office.”
In its revision of the Church Order in 1914, the Christian Reformed Church reinserted the reference to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the set time when censura morum was to be conducted. This is the form of Article 81 that was inherited by the Protestant Reformed Churches. Thus, in our churches, censura morum is to be conducted at the council meeting prior to each celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This guarantees that ordinarily censura morum will be conducted at least four times a year.²
Underlying Principles of Article 81
There are two main principles that underlie the Reformed practice of censura morum. The first of these principles is the sinfulness of the officebearers. The officebearers are men—ministers, elders, and deacons alike—mere men. Because they are mere men, clay vessels, they are in need of supervision, and from time to time in need of censure. The officebearers work in the church in weakness and they can always improve in their labors. There is only one perfect officebearer in the church, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (I Pet. 2:25), the Lord Jesus Christ. The officebearers must know this about themselves. They must be keenly aware of their own weaknesses and sins. For this reason, the officebearer does not labor alone, but always in concert with his fellow officebearers, a plurality of officebearers. And for this reason, every officebearer must be open to the censure and admonition of his fellow officebearers. He must feel the need for mutual supervision and see the value of it for himself and for the church of Christ in the midst of which he is called to labor.
The second outstanding principle upon which the practice of censura morum rests is the Reformed conviction of the parity of officebearers. The Reformed reject all hierarchy in the church. Over against a hierarchical view of church government, the Reformed maintain three distinct offices, with the officebearers exercising equal authority in their own distinct offices. No officebearer is above another officebearer, but all possess the same authority. This principle is expressed in Church Order, Article 84: “No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons.” We will consider Article 84 in the future. But for now we note only that it is the Reformed view of the parity of officebearers that underlies the practice of censura morum. Concerning this Van Dellen and Monsma write:
In Churches holding the hierarchical or episcopal system one officebearer has greater authority than another. Consequently the higher officebearers exercise supervision and jurisdiction over those that occupy lower offices. The archbishop supervises the bishop; the bishop supervises the priest, etc. But the Reformed Churches are Presbyterian also in the matter of supervision. The office-bearers are equal in authority, each in his own sphere, and supervision is mutual. They supervise each other, just as the Churches supervise each other (Article 44). Now Article 81 provides for this mutual supervision of office-bearers.³
The Focus of Censura Morum
Originally the mutual censure prescribed by Article 81 focused on the doctrine and life of the officebearers. The name censura morum indicates this. The term refers literally to an examination of morals. That this was intended to be the focus of the practice was expressly stated by the Synod of Dordt, 1578. Its Church Order called for “censure or examination with one another concerning doctrine as well as conduct . . . .” Three years later the Synod of Middelburg, 1581, called for the same thing. During censura morum the officebearers were to “inquire into the doctrine as well as into the life . . .” of their fellow officebearers. But that was changed by the Synod of the Hague in 1581. In its Church Order, this synod replaced the reference to “doctrine and life” with “the exercise of their offices.” This changed the focus of censura morum rather significantly.
That the older church orders called for regular examination of the officebearers in doctrine and life is quite understandable. The churches of the Reformation reacted to the immorality, ignorance, and heresy that characterized the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformed were determined to prevent unfit officebearers from exercising office in the church. And they were determined to employ every possible measure to safeguard the Reformed churches from suffering at the hands of such unfit officebearers. It is entirely understandable that the early church orders, therefore, called for regular examination of officebearers in doctrine and in life.
But soon enough it was felt that this could not properly be the focus of censura morum. The reasons were obvious. For one thing, if an officebearer was guilty of sin in either his doctrine or walk of life, this could not possibly wait to be addressed until the time of censura morum. Additionally, errors in doctrine or immoral living on the part of officebearers were matters that called for discipline, the immediate implementation of the procedure outlined in the Church Order for suspension and deposition (Articles 79 and 80 of the Church Order). Therefore, early on, the focus of censura morum was necessarily shifted to “the discharge of their office.” The work of the officebearers, therefore, the manner of their work, their faithfulness in doing the work—this is what is properly to be examined during censura morum. This does not mean that we ought to discontinue the use of the term censura morum to refer to the requirement of Article 81, as some have argued.4 But it does mean that we must understand that the focus of censura morum is not the doctrine and life of the officebearers, but their work in their respective offices.
Even then, certain weaknesses and sins may be brought to light in censura morum. That is very well possible. But these are weaknesses and sins that pertain specifically to “the discharge of their office.” And these are weaknesses and sins that are not of a censurable nature, sins so serious that they would lead to suspension and deposition from office.
Next time, the Lord willing, we will conclude our consideration of Article 81 and the practice of censura morum. We will consider the method for conducting censura morum, the manner in which it ought to be conducted, and the purpose for this unique practice in the Reformed churches.
1 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes ed. and trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), 40.
³ It is possible that for weighty reasons the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is suspended in a congregation. Even then, perhaps especially then, the officebearers ought to continue the regular practice of censura morum. refer
³ Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1951), 332.
4 This is what W.W.J. Van Oene argues in his Church Order commentary With Common Consent (Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 1990), 334ff.