The eighty-second article of the church order treats the matter of the consistory issuing certificates or attestations of membership to those who remove from the congregation. We have already pointed out that in our churches there are two such certificates. One is a transfer certificate that is used when members, baptized and communicant, move from one church to another within the denomination. The other is a dismissal certificate that is issued to those who leave the churches.
The question sometimes arises as to whether membership certificates should be given by the consistory to the persons requesting them or whether these should be sent directly to the consistory of the church with which they intend to affiliate. On the basis of the church order it appears that the former of these two alternatives is the only correct one because Article 82 says, “To those who remove from the congregation, a letter or testimony concerning their profession and conduct shall be given by the consistory.” It then becomes the responsibility of the individual to bring his or her certificate to the church with which he or she intends to affiliate.
However, since this procedure is frequently not followed, we must ask whether it is wrong for a consistory to mail a certificate of membership directly to another consistory upon the request of one of its members. Monsma and Van Dellen express the opinion that this is quite permissible. They write: “But by this we do not mean to say that a Consistory should refuse to mail a certificate directly to the Consistory of the Church a member seeks to join. Not at all. If a member specifically prefers to have his certificate sent to the Consistory of the Church of his new location, there are no reasons why it should refuse to do so. For some members this may be a very good procedure. But, this is the point, the Church Order gives our members a right to personal delivery of their attestations, and in the interest of self-assertion it is well to encourage them in doing so.” Besides we can see reasons why a consistory would do this in many instances. First of all it often happens that a family will inform the minister or clerk of the consistory that they are going to move to another place and would like to have their membership transferred to the church there. The next consistory meeting may be two or three weeks away. In the meantime the family has moved and has left no forwarding address. The consistory is unable to send the membership certificates to them. In such a circumstance it would seem proper that these are sent directly to the consistory. In the second place, it is to be noted that the transferal forms used in our churches are written in such a way that they are addressed to the consistory and not to the individual. The consistory expresses that “we hereby transfer our brother and sister to the Protestant Reformed Church of ……………………… commending them to your Christian fellowship and requesting the consistory . . . .” In view, therefore, of this wording it appears permissible that these be sent directly from one church to another. If it were a hard and fast rule that these might be given only to the individual member requesting them, it seems to me that the forms should be re-written so that they contain a direct testimonial from the consistory to the individual member.
The point must not be overlooked, however, that members have the right to personal delivery of their attestations and this may not be denied them. A member may withdraw his membership from any church if he so chooses. He may be wrong in doing so and the consistory can and must then also admonish him and urge him not to proceed in his wrong doing but if he insists the consistory cannot refuse him a membership attestation. It has often been said that the membership papers are the property of the individual and not the property of the church. That would also then imply that the responsibilities of that membership are the individual’s and not that of the church. The church has the responsibility to demand that her members comply with the doctrine and practices of the church as long as they are members but the church has no authority to determine who shall be members of the organization and neither can she determine the validity of a reason or reasons a member may choose to give for the withdrawal of membership. Membership is a matter of voluntary and individual responsibility.
Perhaps it is for this reason that our churches also leave the matter of affiliation with a particular church in a given locality up to individual choice. In the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands geographical boundaries have been set up according to which members of a certain denomination of churches living in a certain area are compelled to belong to a particularly designated church while those living in other areas must belong to the church in that area. This avoids members passing up one or two churches of the same denomination to belong to a third church on the other side of town. In the Christian Reformed Church and in our Churches this is not maintained. Each one is at liberty to choose the church of their affiliation and should they desire to transfer membership to another church in the area the consistory must give them an attestation. The pros and cons for maintaining boundary lines can undoubtedly be given but it appears that our practice is in line with the fact that this responsibility must rest with the individual. The Church Order Commentary, however, intimates that its authors regret that the Christian Reformed Church does not maintain boundary lines between the particular churches and in a foot note advances nine reasons for this. They are:
“1. Believers should manifest the body of Christ in the place of their providentially determined residence. 2. It is against the intent of Article 82; 3. It fosters the overgrowth of some churches and the undergrowth of others. 4. It promotes ‘floating.’ 5. It promotes a one sided development (Birds of a feather flock together). 6. It stimulates unholy competition. 7. It promotes slothfulness in catechism attendance. 8. It promotes needless Sunday travel. 9. It constitutes a practical denial of the communion of saints.”
Some of these reasons undoubtedly have some validity but whether they are of such magnitude as to warrant consideration of a reversal of our current practice in this matter is again another thing. Do any of these reasons appear weighty enough to justify depriving the individual of his right to worship in the church of his choice? We, do not see any likelihood that our churches will establish boundaries.
One other problem that must be considered in connection with membership attestations is that which arises when members leave a certain church and community without requesting an attestation of membership in the church and without informing the consistory as to their desire and intent with regard to their membership in the church. Of course this should not happen but the sad fact is that it sometimes does. If the consistory knows where these members have moved they can still contact them and this they also should do so that the matter can be resolved. But what if the members leave no forwarding address and all attempts to contact them through acquaintances and relatives fail? What then must the consistory do? In some churches these members are simply carried on the rolls from year to year. This is not proper. Dating back to 1910 there is a decision of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church that stipulates that such members shall be retained on the rolls of the church for a period of one year and six weeks but this too is rather arbitrary. It seems to me that the consistory would have to determine specifically what is to be done in each individual case. The time duration may differ in individual cases but the consistory can only drop the membership of such individuals because of neglect and withdrawal and if in the future the consistory is able to locate them, they should be notified that this has been done. It certainly is a sad reflection upon the spiritual caliber of members of the church who conduct themselves in this manner. Our membership in the church of Christ must be a matter of prime concern and may never be regarded with such slothful indifference.
Assisting the Poor
“Furthermore, to the poor, removing for sufficient reasons, so much money for traveling shall be given by the deacons, as they deem adequate. The consistory and the deacons shall, however, see to it that they be not too much inclined to relieve their churches of the poor, with whom they would without necessity burden other churches.”
—Article 83, D.K.O.
Article 83 as it appears in our church order might conceivably leave a very strange and altogether wrong impression with the reader. It might be interpreted to mean that those who are poor and desire to remove from the church can apply to the diaconate for travel assistance. This, however, is not the case. This article has a history and it is only in the light of that history that the principles underlying this article can properly be elucidated. Before referring to that history we should also keep in mind that this article is related to the preceding one so that the poor mentioned here receive this travel assistance from the diaconate in connection with their attestation of membership when they remove from the church. It is not something given entirely by itself.
In the early days of the Reformed Churches of Holland many of the members of these churches were dispersed for various reasons. Some were scattered in quest of work because of severe economic conditions. Others were forced to flee to other cities because of the oppressive power; of persecution. These destitute refugees frequently called upon the deacons in whatever city they were to help and assist them on their journey. Now to help those who in, such circumstances really needed help, the deacons in most instances were most willing even though this imposed a difficult burden upon them since they also had the poor of their own congregations to care for. But what aggravated the situation was the fact that often there were those who were not even members of the Reformed Churches and they also availed themselves of this opportunity to get money. They were tramps who posed as persecuted Christians.
To prevent these abuses the Synod of Emden, 1571, decided that all who moved from one place to another should carry with them an attestation or certificate. Those who failed to show this could not expect help from the diaconate of the various churches. If one had to flee quickly before they could obtain an attestation they would be examined thoroughly regarding their faith, etc. These attestations the synod decided should indicate the full name of the holder, his native country, trade, reason for moving, time spent in the church giving the attestation, conduct, date of departure, destination, etc. It was furthermore provided that those who moved should receive money sufficient to bring them to the next Reformed Church through which their journey would lead them. Each church should write on the attestation how much money had been given them, by whom, etc. At the end of the journey the Reformed Church there would help them and also destroy the attestation. And it was out of this situation that the rule of Article 83 of our church order was born. The next time we hope to see the meaning of this article for today and also consider the principles on which this ruling rests.