“Furthermore, among the gross sins, which are worthy of being punished with suspension or deposition from office, there are the principal ones: false doctrine or heresy, public schism, public blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, filthy lucre; in short, all sins and gross offenses, as render the perpetrators infamous before the world, and which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.”
—Article 80, D.K.O.
This article of the Church Order is the last in a series of ten articles that deal with the general subject of Christian discipline. It lists a number of sins that are considered the proper cause of suspension or deposition from office. It is evident from the article itself that the purpose of this listing is not to give an exhaustive or complete enumeration of sin that calls for disciplinary action, but rather to serve as a sort of guide so that by it the church may know what kind of sins may not be tolerated in officebearers. This is plain from the concluding statement, “in short, all sins and gross offenses, as render the perpetrators infamous before the world, and which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.” It should not be overlooked, however, that the article does refer to the sins enumerated as “the principal ones.”
In The Church Order Commentary a brief definition of each of the sins mentioned in this article is given. This we hardly deem necessary and choose, rather, therefore to conclude this section of the Church Order with a lengthy quotation from the writings of Rev. G.M. Ophoff who sets forth some general principles with respect to the matter of discipline. He writes:
“With this article the rulings regarding church discipline end. Their number is comparatively small, namely Articles 71-80. Ten in all. This was purposely done. The Reformed fathers purposely refrained from supplying the churches with a massive and complicated penal code. The Roman Catholic church possesses such a code. It was brought into being gradually through the continuous multiplication of ecclesiastical rules. It is a code so large and complicated that an adequate understanding of it requires years and years of study. As this was impossible for most ecclesiastics, church discipline in the Roman hierarchy was left to a few expert jurists in the church.
“But in the Reformed churches the task of application and execution of church discipline is that of the elders, who, with the exception of the ministers of the Gospel, are taken from the rank of common members without special training. Therefore a collection of rules requiring for their understanding expert training would be unusable in the circle of Reformed churches. The more rules, the more confusion. We do not have for the home and for the school law books naming every conceivable sin and misdemeanor requiring punishment. The church must have no such book. For discipline is not the same as punishment. It is the civil magistrate that punishes. But the home, the school and the church discipline. And the purpose is pedagogical; the purpose is the salvation of the sinner, the Lord willing, and certainly the exclusion from the Christian church of the obstinately recalcitrant. Hence, in the execution of censure the church must not be bound by forms. For the forms cannot be the same. The form of censure varies with the purpose of censure in conformity with circumstances and persons to which censure must be applied.
“But this does not mean that in the sphere of church discipline all is arbitrary. Valid also for this sphere are definite principles of right, laid down in the Scriptures, borne witness to by human conscience and therefore generally accepted. There is also in the church a definite usage regarding the manner in which the church proceeds in the exercise of censure. This usage is not a law of the Medes and Persians. It is not infallible. It is not unmixed with error. Yet it is to be honored and consulted. For it is the result of the wisdom of preceding generations.
“As to the principles of right, they are laid down in the Church Order. From these principles can be deduced some general rules.
“1) Before the consistory (Classis or Synod) renders decision, it must properly investigate the case. This stands to reason. The judgment must be right. If so, the judges must properly acquaint themselves with the case to be judged. This calls for investigation.
“The obligation to investigate has given rise to questions:
“a) Must the consistory in investigating a sin that was reported, limit itself to the content of the charge, or go beyond? The latter to be sure. The investigation of the specific charge may bring to light still other bad situations in the church. These the consistory may not disregard, but must in turn investigate. For its task and calling is to take and keep oversight over the flock of God and to exercise censure.
“b ) Then there is the question of the manner of investigation. The investigation must be carried on quietly and without ostentation, thus in not such a way that a stir is created, and as a result the matters investigated receive wider publicity. This certainly must be avoided. The person to be approached is first of all he against whom the charge was lodged. Secondly, the persons who know of the guilt of the offender must be interrogated. Witnesses must be heard but only such of whom it is known that they are reliable. This has reference to witnesses who do not belong to the church. They may be heard, and their witness must also be taken into consideration, but only if they are known to be reliable. For they do not witness, as in the civil court, under an oath. And the church cannot punish them for bearing witness that is false. If the guilt cannot be sufficiently established through investigation, the consistory must postpone applying censure.
“c) Thirdly, no one may be pronounced guilty and censured who has not been heard. If he refuses to appear in behalf of himself or to be interrogated or to reply to letter, he must, of course, take the consequences.
“There are still some points that must be treated in connection with the article bearing on church discipline.
“1) It is asked whether the accused one may demand that the consistory reveal to him the name of the accuser?
“This question cannot arise at all if the stand is taken that the accuser is obliged to speak with the offender before reporting his sin to the consistory. This is also the stand of the late Dr. Rutgers.
“However, several may have spoken to the offender, so that he still does not know which of these persons reported his sin. In this case the offender has no right to demand that he be told which of the persons brought his case to the consistory. The issue is not who reported his sin but whether he is guilty.
“2) Secondly, does the accused have the right to avail himself of an assistant to speak for him before an ecclesiastical assembly—consistory, classis or synod?
“It has always been conceded that an accused one should be given this right, if he asks for it. And with good reason. The accused one may be a person more or less inarticulate, so that he is sorely in the need of one to speak for him. Such an assistant must submit himself, to be sure, to the stipulations laid down by the assembly before whom he must appear. The idea is not, of course, that the accused shall not speak or that he may absent himself.
“3) Thirdly, is it necessary to put the verdict in writing together with the grounds?
“This is necessary, absolutely. The verdict with its grounds should by all means be incorporated in the minutes. And the accused must be supplied with a copy of the minutes, if he so requests.
“4) Fourthly, if he so requests, must the accused be supplied with a written statement of all the testimony that was brought in against him?
“He must, of course, if he requires it be supplied with such a statement, To refuse him such a statement would militate against the principle of right according to which an accused one has the right to know what is brought in against him. He has a right to know all. Such a written communication does not, of course, include the minutes of the consistory that bear on his case. It is not the part of wisdom, of course, to put in the minutes all the discussions of his case. No more should be written in the minutes than is necessary. It is difficult, if not next to impossible accurately to record in writing a discussion. This requires an expert shorthand writer. Besides, taking down a discussion can be to no real purpose. All that really counts are the decisions to which the discussions lead.
“5) Fifthly, does a common member (or members) who cannot agree with the decision of his consistory regarding a censure case, have a right to appeal the case to classis?
“Indeed he does have this right. He has this right according to Article 31 of the Church Order. This has always been regarded by the Reformed as a general rule covering all possible decisions of all the ecclesiastical meetings, if the decisions cause differences; thus also the decisions of a consistory regarding a case of discipline that is the cause of differences in the congregation. The article gives not only to the censured one the right of appeal, but also to every member aggrieved by the decision.
“However, the aggrieved ones may not appeal simply because they do not like the decision. They must be able to prove that the decision is in conflict with the Scriptures. If they cannot, they are bound by it, according to this same Article 31.
“As a rule, the members should be most reluctant to appeal to Classis a decision of their consistory, especially a decision regarding cases of censure. For it is not likely that the decision is wrong especially if it has received the sanction of Classis. In this case the appellant should refrain from going further. At least this should be the rule.
“6) Sixthly, how soon must the aggrieved one appeal? How long may he wait?
“The Church Order does not specify. But according to usage, he must appeal as soon as possible, that is, before the first following assembly to which the appeal is to be made. If the appeal is from consistory to classis, the latter must decide if the time was too short for the appellant to prepare his protest.
“7) May only the aggrieved censured appeal the case or is the right of appeal to be extended also to the aggrieved consistory whose decision was not upheld by the Classis?
“Such a consistory also has the right of appeal. In denominations whose church government is hierarchical, this is not permitted. For in such communions the Classis is the higher court vested with the power to destroy the decision of the consistory. But in Reformed communions the consistory has the right of appeal. And while it appeals it also continues to exclude the censured one from the Lord’s table. In other words, it continues to maintain its decision over against the Classis. And in the event the Synod upholds the verdict of the Classis, all that the Classis may do is to refuse to receive on its meetings the delegates of the consistory involved. It may not penalize the consistory by deposition in case it cannot for conscience’ sake yield to the verdict of these broader assemblies.”