(Article 44, D.K.O., Con’t.)
When the Church Visitors meet with a Consistory, it is proper that the president of the Consistory presides over the meeting even though one of the rules prescribed for Church Visitation states: “Of the visitors, one shall function as chairman and the other as secretary. They shall record their findings and actions in a book, which can be consulted at the next visitation, and which can be kept in the Classical archive.” This rule should be interpreted to mean that the visitors function as chairman and secretary of their own committee and not of the Consistory. That this is evidently the intent of the rule follows from the fact that the secretary does not transcribe a record of the visit in the minute book of the consistory but in a book that is the property of the Classis. If then the secretary functions only as secretary of the committee, this would also be true of the chairman. His office as chairman pertains only to his own committee.
The meeting that is called is a Consistory meeting. The minister of the church, who is the president of the Consistory, opens the meeting with the reading of an appropriate passage of Scripture and this is followed with prayer as prescribed in Article 32 of the Church Order. Our own custom is to include in these opening devotions the singing of a Psalm. This is fitting. The Consistory is met to be engaged in the Lord’s work and this work is a joyous one. That joy may appropriately be expressed by a Psalm of praise or thanksgiving to God. The meeting is then properly constituted and the chairman, after addressing a few appropriate words of welcome to the visitors, extends to them the right to perform the labors for which they have met with the Consistory. The chairman of the church visiting committee then proceeds to this task and the committee’s secretary transcribes in their record the transactions that follow.
The prescribed questions that are asked by the Church Visitors are divided into four parts. First, there is a series of nineteen questions that are asked of the whole consistory. Next, there are six questions that are asked of the elders and deacons in the absence of the minister. The third part, consisting again of six questions, is asked of the minister and deacons with the elders being absent. The final part consists of five questions that are asked of the minister and elders in the absence of the deacons.
There is, of course, reason why the various members of the Consistory are asked to absent themselves from the meeting during part of the questioning. The Church Order Commentary cites this as “a good rule.” Their reasoning is that “if the work of mutual supervision carried on through Church Visitation is to have real significance, then thoroughness and frankness must mark this work. Faults and shortcomings, worthy of mention, will come to the attention of the Visitors much more readily if the various groups of office bearers will absent themselves for a little while than when they remain in the gathering. Some have said if a matter requires mentioning the responding brother should be as willing to broach the matter in the presence of the party concerned as in his absence. But, this is reasoning too idealistically. Moreover, it is better in many instances for the office bearer who may need correction that he does not know who broached the matter. To know who mentioned the matter would tend to introduce a personal element which is undesirable.”
Although there is an element of truth in the above quotation, it does not, in my opinion, express the entire truth. I believe that, without becoming too idealistic, it may be argued that the presence of a full consistory during all the questioning has certain advantages for the work of church visitation. Nor do I think that the mere assertion that it is easier for a brother to bring up a certain matter against a fellow office-bearer in his absence than in his presence should be a reason that he should be given this opportunity. If he has something against his fellow office-bearer, he should bring it up in his presence and neither should he wait until the church visitors are there to do so. Why should he keep a matter that needs correction in his soul for weeks and perhaps even months? Is the relationship of brethren such that they will hate one another when they speak words of correction and admonition? Is notProverbs 9:6 true anymore? “Rebuke a wise man and he will love thee.” We must have more of that spirit in the church and less of the spirit of secrecy and cover-up. It is my contention that it is unnecessary to ask the minister, elders and deacons to leave the room while questions are asked and answered concerning their persons and work.
Not only would I advocate that they remain present in the Consistory meeting but I want to offer one further suggestion along this line. It seems to me that it would even be advantageous and fruitful if, for example, the questions that are asked about the minister and his work were answered by the minister himself with the elders and deacons witnessing his answers. Likewise then would the elders answer the questions pertaining to them and their office and so also the deacons with the rest of the Consistory witnessing the answers. Silence on the part of the witnesses would mean agreement with the answers given. Should there then be dissent with regard to any of the answers given, a circumstance would come to light for the church visitors to investigate further.
Let us then apply this to a few concrete questions. The question is asked, for example, concerning the minister: “Is he devoted as much as possible to the exercise of his office?” Now the elders and deacons, in the absence of the minister, might readily answer that question affirmatively and the church visitors would proceed to the next one. If, however, the minister himself was asked to answer that question, it is possible that he could not, in good conscience, give an affirmative answer. Who knows, better than the minister himself, how devoted he is to his office? And should he then hesitate to answer or to give a negative answer, there would arise immediately a circumstance that should be investigated and corrected as soon as possible.
Another example we will take from the questions now asked in the absence of the elders. Suppose that the elders themselves were asked the fifth question: “Do you try to prevent and remove all offense in the congregation, and try to comfort and instruct the members?” In their absence the minister and deacons might reply that they do but it is also possible that the elders themselves know of offenses that they put forth no effort to remove and, would therefore be unable to answer affirmatively. If then, they themselves make admission of neglect in regard to this matter, the church visitors could serve amicably with advice and counsel that would be beneficial to the whole church.
We may cite one more example with reference to the deacons. The question is asked now in their absence: “Are they diligent in the collecting of the alms and do they faithfully realize their calling in the care and comfort of the poor and oppressed?” It might be advantageous to have the deacons testify before the consistory and church visitors in regard to this matter. It is my contention that in all these instances the ones concerning whom the questions are asked are best able to answer them and that, therefore, they should be put to them and not to others in their absence.
I realize that this would be a rather radical departure from past custom. However, this should be no objection if it will improve the institution of church visitation as is my contention. There may be objections because this would undoubtedly make the task more difficult for the consistory, members since it would put a little flesh on an otherwise “wassen neus” but at the same time it would make the task richer for the church visitors provided that, as we have suggested before, they would be allowed in connection with their questioning to depart somewhat from the accepted form. For instance, I want to refer you to what Rev. Hoeksema wrote in connection with the question that is asked concerning the preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism. He explains that it is easy to answer the question “Yes” and let the matter drop. But he also suggests that the church visitors question further along these lines. We now quote from page 200, Vol. 35, S. B.
“But suppose that the purpose of the question is, too, to find out whether the minister is faithful in studying the doctrine explained in the Catechism and whether he himself remains ahead of the congregation. Then it becomes a different matter. Then the church visitors might ask such questions as these: ‘Do you always make new sermons on the Catechism or do you simply put the old pile upside down? What sources do you study in connection with your catechism preaching? Do you preach on the Catechism from different viewpoints? From what viewpoint are you preaching on it at present? The same holds for many other questions.”
We cite this because if the minister was present to answer the question: “Do you faithfully explain God’s Word so that the congregation is built up through your preaching?” a wonderful opportunity would be given in the light of the above for the church visitors to ask many things relating to the work and preaching of the minister in the congregation. And the same is true of the questions that would then be directed to the elders and deacons, but this is especially important with regard to the matters of the preaching. The more these things are broadened out the more fruitful they will become not only for the consistory members themselves but also for the entire church and we visualize an opportune way to accomplish this by changing some of the current practices of church visitation. If, for example, the church visitors could do a little investigative work, they might have asked in 1953 a certain minister who had been in the ministry for nearly twenty-five years, to explain why he still used the literal themes and divisions in his Catechism preaching that Rev. Hoeksema had given him in his student days? And the irony of it was that while he was doing this he was most vigorously propagating slander against the Professor whose material he was using for his sermons. The evidence and proof of this I have preserved in my file to this day. No doubt many more things would have been uncovered in those days if the church visitors had had authority to interrogate ministers, elders and deacons personally on matters relating to the prescribed questions.