Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: October 1, 2008, p. 11.
“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.
The practice of censura morum is longstanding in the Reformed churches. From the beginning of their existence, the Protestant Reformed Churches have followed the practice. Last time we began our consideration of Article 81 by tracing the history and background of the article. We also took note of the two main principles that underlie the practice ofcensura morum. The first of those principles is the sinfulness of the officebearers. There is a need in the officebearers themselves for mutual supervision. The second important principle underlying censura morum is the biblical truth of the parity of officebearers. The officebearers in the local congregation exercise equal authority. No one officebearer is over other officebearers. Because of the parity of officebearers, the ministers, elders, and deacons are called to mutual supervision. We also took note of the focus of censura morum. Censura morum is not to be an examination of morals or doctrine. But the focus is to be on “the discharge of their office[s].” The focus must be the work of the officebearers in their respective offices. Are they doing the work to which they have been called? Are they doing it faithfully? Are there concerns that need to be addressed or improvements that can be made?
In this article we want to conclude our consideration of Article 81 and the practice of censura morum that it mandates. We want to look at the method for conducting censura morum, the matters that may properly be raised at the time of censura morum, and the purpose for this unique practice in the Reformed churches.
Method for Conducting Censura Morum
The method for conducting censura morum is not spelled out in Article 81. The article requires only that censura morum be conducted before each celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In most of our congregations, therefore, the practice takes place four times annually, although in some it takes place six times per year. But nothing is said in the Church Order about how this mutual censure is to be conducted. Over the years a number of different methods have been followed. In our congregations at present, no one method is followed by all, and there exists a certain variety.
Early in the history of the Reformed churches each consistory member by turn stepped outside the meeting room while his fellow officebearers discussed his conduct and work. This method was recommended by the Synod of Wezel (1586). But this method did not promote brotherly relationships and too easily became the occasion for suspicion and distrust. Over time it was seen that conductingcensura morum in the presence of the whole consistory was more conducive to maintaining a spirit of brotherhood among the officebearers.
One method that is followed today is that the chairman introduces censura morum by reading Article 81 and inviting anyone who has any matter that he wishes to raise to speak up. The floor is opened to any member of the council. When no one any longer desires the floor the chairman concludes that censura morum has been conducted and hopefully all has been found in good order. Such ought also to be noted by the clerk in the council’s minute book, as well as any matter that was raised at censura morum.
Another method that is followed in some church councils is that after the chairman introducescensura morum, he or the clerk asks each officebearer by turn whether he has any matter to raise for censura morum. When all the officebearers have been asked, ending usually with the minister,censura morum is concluded and so noted in the minutes. Although Article 81 requires that censura morum be conducted “before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” it does not specify whether it is to be conducted at the regular council meeting before the administration of the sacrament or at a special meeting. In our churches, censura morum is ordinarily conducted at the regular council meeting the week before the Lord’s Supper is administered. Some consistories, however, have at times devoted an entire special meeting to censura morum. Even if this is not their regular practice, some do this occasionally, perhaps once a year. There is something to be said for this practice. In my own experience it too often happened that censura morum was the last thing on the council meeting agenda and the hour was often late. I sensed that members hesitated to raise any matter because of the lateness of the hour and the desire to conclude the meeting. Unfortunately, censura morum got short shrift. It might be good for councils to consider setting one evening a year aside for censura morum, especially in our larger congregations, in order to ensure that justice is done to the practice. It also might be worthwhile to consider conductingcensura morum earlier in our council meetings than is often the case. Reserving it for the last item on the agenda tends to slight the importance of the practice and minimize the benefits for the officebearers.
Matters to be Raised at Censura Morum
Matters to be raised at the time of censura morummust be in harmony with the focus of the practice of mutual supervision of the officebearers. The focus, according to Article 81, is to be “the discharge of their office[s].” Matters raised at censura morumought to concern the work and the manner of the work of the officebearers. The chairman and the council as a whole must maintain this focus. It may be necessary for the chairman to rule or for the council to decide that a certain matter is inappropriate for censura morum. Not every matter raised by officebearers is necessarily proper tocensura morum.
In this connection, in some instances, a private, heart-to-heart talk with a fellow officebearer may be preferable to raising a matter at censura morum. Hopefully the spirit in a council is such that the officebearers are open to criticisms and suggestions from their fellow officebearers. Especially the senior officebearers ought to mentor the younger and first-time officebearers. And the younger ought to be receptive to the wisdom and insights of their more experienced fellow officebearers.
Here is a sampling of matters that might legitimately be raised at the time of censura morum: not getting committee work done promptly; not providing thorough, written reports of committee visits; officebearers too harsh in dealing with the members of the congregation; too lengthy prayers in the council room prior to the worship services; too lengthy remarks made at the meetings that unnecessarily extend the meetings; officebearers monopolizing the discussion at the meetings; officebearers who are consistently late for meetings or arrive at the last minute before the worship services begin; officebearers negligent in attending the Bible study societies of the congregation; the minister’s sermons too long and frequently extending beyond the expected hour of the conclusion of the worship services; the content of the minister’s congregational prayers. These and any number of other possible concerns are legitimate matters for officebearers to raise oncensura morum.
This is not to say that censura morum ought to be viewed as entirely negative, a time to raise criticisms of fellow officebearers. Censura morum also provides an excellent opportunity for the officebearers to encourage one another. That, too, is needed. The deacons who faithfully seek out and assist the poor of the congregation ought to be encouraged in their work by the elders and the pastor. At present the deacons in a good number of our congregations find themselves very busy. Encouragement is needed. Elders who faithfully and patiently labor with the wayward—an exceedingly difficult work—need to be encouraged by the deacons and by the pastor. And pastors who diligently bring the Word and minister to the pastoral needs of the congregation need the encouragement of their fellow officebearers. We do not labor for the praise of men, to be sure. But that does not preclude a word of encouragement and appreciation. In that way the officebearers build each other up and promote the work of their offices in the congregation, “provok[ing] unto love and to good works” (Heb. 10:24).
Purpose of Censura Morum
The purpose of censura morum is closely connected to the focus of the practice. The focus is “the discharge of their office[s].” Since that is the focus, the purpose is clearly that the officebearers will the better carry out the work of their offices. The purpose is to assist one’s fellow officebearers in fulfilling their duties in the congregation. With a view to this purpose, the officebearers must be open to improvement, open to criticism, and ready to receive suggestions from their fellow officebearers. An officebearer must never suppose that he has arrived, that he is beyond criticism, and that he certainly has no need for improvement. The officebearers are all men, mere men, even sinful men. They have weaknesses and faults that they must recognize when they are pointed out. Of the officebearers in their relation to each other the proverb is certainly true that as “[i]ron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Prov. 27:17).
But this good purpose will not be realized if censura morum degenerates into a fault-finding session. That must never happen. And the chairman and the council as a whole must never allow that to happen. For that reason, Article 81 specifies that this mutual censure among the officebearers is to be “Christian censure” and that it is to be conducted “in a friendly spirit.” The officebearers must love one another and out of that love have the other’s best interests in view. It is often emphasized that the officebearers must love the members of the congregation. True enough. But they must also love each other. Out of that love, encouragement ought to be given, but also all admonitions and criticisms.
The purpose of censura morum, however, does not end with the officebearers. The higher purpose is the benefit of the church. The officebearers serve the congregation. Their labors must at all times promote the peace and unity of the church. They labor on behalf of the truth in the congregation, both the confession of the truth and the godly life that adorns the truth. Censura morum aims at the edification of the church. That purpose demands the very best of the officebearers. With a view to that purpose censura morum is conducted at least four times a year in every congregation.
But even the benefit of the church is not the ultimate purpose of censura morum. Ultimately the purpose of censura morum is the glory of God. The officebearers represent God. The officebearers do the work of the Lord in the congregation. The members must see God in their officebearers, and the officebearers must point the people to God. Diligence and faithfulness in the work of their offices brings glory to God. This is the purpose, in the end the only purpose, of the Reformed practice ofcensura morum.