If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it can be proved to conflict with the word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by a general synod.
In my previous article I stated that there are two possible ways in which this article of the Church Order can be construed. Rightly considered there are three possible ways in which this article can be construed. In order to bring out the issues as clearly as possible and to make it easier for me to prove my former contentions, I must restate these possible constructions in a slightly different way.
If any one—let us say a consistory—complains that it has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly—this would have to be classis—this consistory shall have the right to appeal to a major assembly—this would have to be synod—providing it submits to the classical decision in the meantime, while protesting it—in the event it refuses, which it is in duty bound to do for conscience sake, it shall be deposed and expelled from the fellowship of the churches—and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote of synod shall be considered settled and binding and the complaining consistory shall be deposed by order of synod unless the synodical decision be proved to conflict with the word of God; that is to say, unless there be an aggrieved one—the same consistory or some other consistory, it makes little difference—persuaded that the synodical decision is in conflict with the word of God; this consistory shall have the right to appeal to synod in the attempt to prove to this assembly that its decision is unscriptural, providing it submit to the synodical decision while protesting it; in the event it refuses, it loses its right of appeal and shall be deposed by its classis by order of synod.
As a guarantee of the appellant’s right of appeal, the above interpretation of the article is meaningless. For it allows the appellant this right only on the impossible condition—impossible in that God must be obeyed rather than men—that he submit to the decision while protesting it. Besides the interpretation certainly is hierarchical throughout. It binds the consistories to the major assemblies hand and foot. For it invests these assemblies with key-power over the consistories and does not even allow a consistory for conscience sake to withdraw from the federation of churches intact, that is, without being deposed by classis. For it rules that if such a consistory refuses to be bound by the decision of the major assembly that it protests, it shall be deposed by classis.
If, let us say, a consistory complains that it has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly —classis—it shall have the right to appeal to a major assembly—synod—but not without being suspended by classis should it refuse to submit to the classical decision that for conscience sake it must protest; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote of synod shall be considered settled and binding unless the synodical decision be proved to conflict with the word of God; that is, unless there be an aggrieved one—the same consistory or some other consistory—persuaded that the synodical decision conflicts with the word of God; that consistory shall have the right to appeal to synod in the attempt to prove the synodical decision unscriptural to this assembly but not without its being deposed by classis by order of synod, should it for conscience’ sake refuse to submit to the decision while protesting it. Should it succeed in convincing synod, the synodical decision shall cease to be binding but not otherwise. For classis and synod shall cease to be binding but not otherwise. For classis and synod must always be obeyed.
This interpretation, though it calls for the suspension and deposition of the aggrieved consistory, should it for conscience’ sake refuse to submit to the decision that it protests, nevertheless allows it the right of appeal. In this it differs from the interpretation under I). But for the rest, it is just as hierarchical. Which of these two interpretations is that of the doctor? The interpretation under (II for certain and perhaps the interpretation under I). I say perhaps, because the doctor does not express himself in his “Kerkscheuring” with sufficient clarity to allow us to say anything but perhaps. The interpretation under I) is certainly impossible for all the reasons that I enumerated in my previous article. I need not repeat these reasons. As was stated, the interpretation under II) is just as hierarchical. The only difference is that it allows the appellant—consistory—the right of appeal yet not actually but only apparently. For a deposed consistory has lost all its rights, including the right to plead its own case on the floor of the major assemblies. Hence, it is really burdened by all the objections that encumber the interpretation under I).
If, let us say, a consistory complains that it has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly —classis—it shall have the right to appeal to a major assembly—synod—without being deposed by classis for refusing to submit to the classical decision that for conscience sake it must protest; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote of synod shall be considered settled and binding unless the synodical decision be proved to conflict with the word of God; that is to say, unless there be an aggrieved one—the same consistory or some other consistory—persuaded that the synodical decision conflicts with the word of God; that consistory shall have the right to break with the denomination for conscience sake without being deposed by classis.
Characteristic of this interpretation is that it is strictly non-hierarchical. For it rules that consistories shall not be deposed for rejecting decisions of major assemblies that for conscience’ sake they must protest. Accordingly, in its final section, it guarantees to the aggrieved consistory the right to break off its connections with the denomination for conscience’ sake without requiring that the consistory be deposed on this account by classis. And thus it truly guarantees the appellant the right of protest.
Yet, naturally, the exponents of the view that classis rightfully deposes officebearers raise several objections to this interpretation. Let us consider these objections one by one.
1. It is said that the interpretation under III) does violence to the plain sense of the article (31). We deal here with an old objection. The Rev. G. Hoeksema, too, raises it in his brochure. He writes:
“Let us first consider article 31. As already stated in a previous chapter, the words, ‘unless it be proved to conflict’, etc., are explained, ‘unless someone consider it proved for himself that it conflicts.’ Against this explanation we have the following objections: It is contrary to the very words themselves. ‘Unless, it be proved’ simply cannot mean, ‘unless someone consider it proved’. Then words no longer have any meaning. The words themselves, ‘unless it be proved’ have an objective background and objective implications. Two parties are implied, the one that seeks to prove something, and the party or court before whom proof must be brought and who must be convinced. Only then can it be said that something is proved. And that is what the article demands: ‘unless it be proved’.”
But it will have to be admitted that as far as the form of its words are concerned, the expression “unless it be proved” can just as well be taken to mean, “unless someone consider it proved for himself that the decision contradicts the Scriptures. That one shall not allow himself to be bound by the decision.”
2. As we have seen, Dr. Ridderbos, too, maintains that the interpretation under III) does violence to the obvious sense of the article. He calls attention to the fact that the article declares not only that the classical (synodical) decision shall be settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the word of God, but also that it shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the articles of the Church Order. Now it cannot be said of the Church Order, says the doctor, that we may never submit to something that, to our mind, militates against it. From this it is plain, he concludes, that article 31 speaks of something else, among other things of that which shall be valid in the church, and thus speaks not at all of the will of God according to which members of Christ’s Church must reject classical and synodical decisions of which they are persuaded that they militate against the Scriptures. In other words, as a sentence element of article 31, the phrase “or with the articles of the Church Order” plainly tells us that the interpretation under III) is wrong and that the doctor’s interpretation of the article—the one under II) is right. It is difficult to grasp the point to the doctor’s argument here. Certainly the article 31 rules that classical and synodical decisions shall not militate against the Church Order. The ruling was necessary. Classical and synodical decisions in conflict with the Church Order spell the destruction of the very basis on which the churches federate. With this basis destroyed, the federation cannot function. Thus, why the fact that the article rules as it does should prove the interpretation under III) wrong and that under II) right, is hard to see.
3. It is said that the interpretation under III) is hopeless subjectivism. So Rev. G. Hoeksema and also the doctor and all the others. But the charge is false. What the interpretation in question does is to free the churches from the over lordship of the classis (synod) but only to subject them solely to the authority of the Scriptures as administered by the local pastors and teachers. Hence, it is not true that, on the ground of the interpretation under III), the decisions of major assemblies do not bind those who do not agree with them; that, in other words, they are never binding (G. Hoeksema). Also according to our interpretation of the article 31, these decisions are binding on every member of the church, except on those who are persuaded that they contradict the scriptures, yet also on such, if they want to remain in the church.
4. It is said that the interpretation under III) legalizes rebellion against classis (synod). The fallacy of this reasoning lies in its proceeding from the erroneous view or theory that classis (synod) is a mandatory power to which the churches are subject. Whereas classis is not such a power, it is impossible to legalize against classis rebellion. This being true, Classis cannot rightfully depose a consistory for disobeying it; for consistories owe classis no obedience. And therefore the interpretation under III) is correct; it is the only permissible one.
5. It is said that the interpretation under III) “involves an unintentional but nevertheless terrible denial of the kingship of Christ.” The part of this sentence included in the quotation marks is from the pen of G. Hoeksema. He continues, “We are all agreed that the one great dominating principle of Reformed Church Polity is the kingship of Jesus Christ over His Church. But here again we must not be satisfied with a phrase. We must give it real content; we must make it mean something, yea, everything in practical church government. In a word, we must let the will of Christ speak through the rules of the Church.”
Of course, we are heartily agreed with the sentiment that Christ alone is king of His Church and that therefore we must let His will as revealed in the Holy Scriptures—this by all means should be added—speak through the rules of the church. This being true, the following questions are pertinent. Does Christ require deposition of office bearers by classis (synod)? Is this His will as revealed in the Scriptures? Or does Holy Writ plainly enough teach that it is His will that classis refrain from that action? The exponents of the views we here oppose should be very clear on the points that these questions raise before they advance the heavy charge that the interpretation under III) involves a terrible denial of the kingship of Christ. Fact is that in the Scriptures (New Testament) the local congregations with their office bearers everywhere appear as subject to the word of Christ as mediated by the prophets and the apostles and as ministered to them only by the local pastors and teachers of their own choosing and not as ministered to them also by a classis and synod. This is stating the matter correctly. For, verily, to say that classis (synod) is a judicial power to which the local churches and their pastors are subject is to say that also classis was appointed by Christ officially to minister His word unto the churches. Only if this were true, can it be maintained that a consistory must be deposed by classis for rejecting classical and synodical decisions. But where in all the New Testament Scriptures does classis (synod) appear as such powers? Nowhere. Doesn’t this mean anything? It does, certainly. To us it means that the system of church government we here oppose is an invention of man. Some, to prove the point, direct attention to the so-called synod in Jerusalem, but unjustly so, however, as here we see in operation the infallible authority of the apostles.
G. Hoeksema puts the question, “Must the church of Jesus Christ recognize the right of withdrawal, for any reason whatsoever, as a legal right guaranteed by ecclesiastical law?” And his answer, “If so, the church declares legitimate what it knows that Christ the King condemns. And this is from its very nature an impossible position. Such withdrawal, being contrary to the will of Christ the King, must result in disciplinary action on the part of the church. And not the member’s desire to resign, but only ecclesiastical censure can finally result in a legal severance of the tie.”
These lines from G. Hoeksema’s pen are confusing. The question should be so stated as to bring out the real issue—should therefore be stated thus: Is it the will of Christ that the churches declare in their Church Order that common members, office bearers, or consistories shall have the right to leave the church for conscience’ sake without their being deposed or censured on this account by classis (synod)? If such be the will of Christ, and we are convinced that it is, the churches are not guilty of declaring legitimate what Christ the king condemns. It should be realized that, rightly considered, the only and real issue that article 31 involves is whether classis (synod) can rightfully depose office bearers. To answer this question in the negative is to interpret article 31 as we find it interpreted under III) in this writing; while answering the question in the affirmative means that we adopt the interpretation under I) and II).
It is a different question, of course, whether it is the will of Christ that the consistory allow members to leave the church for conscience’ sake without its censuring them for so doing. This, we believe, is the will of Christ. For the Scriptures teach that the jurisdiction of the consistory extends only to the members; and one who leaves terminates thereby his membership. But G. Hoeksema is of the conviction that the consistory must refuse to recognize the withdrawal and apply censure, when the withdrawal or resignation is flat and absolute, to use his own language. What he means is plain from the following lines from his pen.” (But) as long as the affiliations are sought with a church that we can recognize as a part of the great body of Christ, those who leave us are not withdrawing from the true church. And the Protestant principle of pluriformity forbids the exercise of discipline leading to excommunication. But flat and absolute resignation, especially to escape discipline, is a sin before God and His church, and renders one liable to discipline, even though Christian censure cannot, in such a case, run its usual somewhat leisurely course.” That flat and absolute resignation to escape a deserved discipline is a great sin before God, no one, of course, denies.
And then G. Hoeksema puts this question, “If members must be allowed the right to depart to some other church of less pure formation, as long as it is an evangelical church, must not the same right be granted to a consistory?” His answer is that of all those whose views we here oppose. It is this, “A consistory elected by a Christian Reformed Church, has no other right than to serve as a Christian Reformed consistory. As soon as it refuses to serve as such, it makes itself unworthy of office, and liable to censure. . . . as members they have the same privileges as all other members. But they cannot leave a certain church or denomination and take their office with them.” Our reply is this: The offices that Christ instituted in His church are rights and tasks that He fixed in the local church. It therefore must follow that when the local church leaves the denomination it takes with it its offices and office bearers as in office. Besides, who is there to depose the consistory, if all the key power is concentrated in it?
6. It is said that the interpretation under III) renders the binding character of the decisions of the major assemblies wholly illusional. As was said, this would be true only if common members, office bearers and consistories would have to be allowed permanently to refuse to be bound by classical and synodical decisions deemed unscriptural, though unable to prove them to be of such a character to the satisfaction of the churches on their major assemblies. It follows from the nature of matters that the churches are not obliged to allow a consistory to persist indefinitely in pronouncing a classical or synodical decision unscriptural and on this ground to refuse to be bound by it, after they even once and again have treated the consistory’s protest on their major assemblies without being convinced of the error of their decision.
A final observation. As was just stated, the issue raised also by article 31 is whether classis (synod) rightfully deposes office bearers. Upon our answer to this question depends our interpretation of the article. It is our conviction that according to and in the light of the Scriptures (New Testament), the Confession, and the Church Order on a whole, the major assemblies do not have that right. And we are satisfied that we have made this plain in this series of articles. It is hard for us to understand, therefore, how the exponents of the views we here oppose can be just as insistent that, according to the Scriptures, our Creedal Standards and the Church Order, the major assemblies do have the right to depose office bearers. And what especially mystifies us is their persistently denying that the system of Church Government that they manage to find in the Church Order is not the hierarchy pure and simple. What should set these devines to thinking is that they are so little agreed amongst themselves as to just why and how the major assemblies can rightfully depose office bearers. As we have seen, G. Hoeksema’s solution is that the classis (synod) is a permanent consistory with full consistorial powers. The late Dr. H. Bouwman came with the solution that when there is need of a power to depose a rebellious consistory, all the consistories transfer their key-power to the classis (synod) and thereby bring it into being temporarily as a major consistory with power to depose office bearers, but that, when the crisis is past, this power reverts to the local consistories with the major consistory again a common classis. Dr. Ridderbos simply appeals to article 36 of the Church Order. He says that this article vests classis with mandatory power over the consistories and that this settles the matter. But it doesn’t, of course. The doctor is obliged to make plain how in the light of the teachings of Scripture, the Confessions, and the Church Order on a whole, it can be right for this article (36) to invest the classis with that power. If he can’t make this plain, he will have to conclude either that the fathers of Dordt handed down to the churches a heretical Church Order or that his interpretation of the article is wrong. Still others in their attempt to explain how classis (synod) can rightfully depose office bearers tell us that the classis receives its key-power from Christ directly and thus not from the local consistories. This solution, too, sets classis before us as the monarchial bishop of the churches and verily implies the institution of the office of such a bishop by Christ through the apostles. And so it goes. Each comes with his own solution. And this to us is so much more proof that the views that we here oppose are not defensible.