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Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

Articles 76 and 77 of the Church Order concern the discipline of those who are communicant members of the church. These articles outline the steps that a consistory is to follow in carrying out Christian discipline, as well as the procedure for excommunication of those who do not repent of their sins.

The Church Order, however, is silent on the matter of the discipline of non-communicant, that is, baptized members of the church. Nothing is said about the subject of “erasure,”* as we commonly refer to it. The term cannot be found in the Church Order, and there is no reference in the Church Order to the practice as we carry it out.

This is not to say that the practice is not derived from biblical principles that are set forth in the Church Order. It is, and it is a practice that has a long history in the Dutch Reformed Churches. The Reformed churches have always recognized that those who have been baptized are, by virtue of their baptism, members of the church (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q.A. 74). As members of the church, they are subject to the supervision and discipline of the church. It is because they are members of the church that the honor of Christ and the holiness of the church are at stake in their confession and walk. Baptized members, therefore, who deny Christ and live in an ungodly way must be dealt with by the elders, no less than wayward confessing members. And if they continue impenitent in their sins, they too must be excluded from the church and set outside the kingdom of heaven. For the sake of these members, as well as for the sake of the rest of the congregation, particularly the young people of the church, discipline must be exercised over these erring baptized members.

Although our Protestant Reformed Church Order, in line with the original Church Order of Dordrecht, says nothing about erasure, a number of other Reformed denominations have included in their Church Orders articles dealing with excommunication of noncommunicant members.

The Free Reformed Church of North America, for example, has done this. Article 77 of its Church Order is entitled “Excommunication.” Point “C” of this article reads:

C. Admonition and discipline of members-by-baptism: 

1. When baptized members who have arrived at the years of discretion because of indifference regularly withdraw themselves from the worship services in their own denomination, the Consistory shall repeatedly and patiently admonish them, and when they continue to be indifferent and disobedient, exclude them from the Church. 

2. Members by baptism who have been excluded from the church, and who later repent of their sin, shall be received again into the church, after a period of probation, followed by public confession of guilt and confession of faith. 

3. When baptized members who have arrived at the years of discretion regularly stay away from the worship services in their own denomination because they usually attend church elsewhere, the Consistory shall repeatedly and patiently admonish them. When they continue to be disobedient, the Consistory shall deal with them as they may be required in accordance with the Church Order.

The Canadian Reformed Churches are another denomination that has included the matter of the discipline of baptized members in their Church Order. Part of Article 68 of their Church Order, the article that deals with excommunication, addresses itself to the excommunication of baptized members. The pertinent part of the article reads:

In case a non-communicant member hardens himself in sin, the consistory shall in the same manner inform the congregation by means of public announcements. In the first public announcement the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned. In the second public announcement—which shall be made only after the advice of classis has been obtained—the name and address of the sinner shall be mentioned and a date shall be set at which the excommunication of the sinner shall take place. The time between the various announcements shall be determined by the consistory.

The Canadian Reformed Churches also have an adopted “Form For The Excommunication Of Non-Communicant Members” (Book of Praise, p. 607 ff.) which is distinct from their “Form For The Excommunication Of Communicant Members.”

Some History From the CRC

From the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s the synods of the Christian Reformed Church in North American (CRC) wrestled with the matter of erasure of baptized members. Two overtures from two different classes requested the CRC Synod of 1946 “to provide the churches with a liturgical form to be used when delinquent baptized members are placed outside of the visible church” (Acts of Synod 1946, p. 58). Already in 1928, with the publication of hisHandbook for Elders and Deacons, Prof. William Heyns had expressed a desire for a form for excommunication of baptized members.

… a Form for this act of discipline, the need of which has been felt and expressed in the Netherlands also, would be very desirable. Such a Form, elucidating and emphasizing the inestimable value of the privilege of being a participant in the Covenant of Grace and a member of the Church of Christ, would give much-needed instruction, would add to the solemnity of the occasion, and would cause this solemn act, like others, to be executed in the language of the Church (p. 254).

The Synod of 1946 appointed a committee to consider the need for the creation of such a form. The committee reported to the 1948 Synod, recommending that a study committee be appointed to compose a form for excommunication of non-communicant members, and also to recommend “a more suitable and edifying mode of procedure” (Acts of Synod 1948, p. 39). That advice was adopted and a study committee was appointed.

The study committee brought its report and finished work to the Synod of 1950, presenting to the synod both a “Formulary for the Excommunication of Non-Confessing Members of the Church of Christ” and a recommended procedure that intended to establish unanimity of practice in the churches. By way of introducing its new form to the synod, the study committee informed synod that it proceeded on the premise that erasure is to be identified with excommunication.

… erasure is virtually excommunication. It matters not whether one has been cut off from the church as a member by baptism or as a member by profession of faith, the simple and dreadful fact is that in both cases one has been put beyond the pale of the church. In both cases members are excommunicated (Acts of Synod 1950, p. 239).

Throughout its proposed Form, the study committee consistently referred to the discipline of non-confessing members, not as “erasure,” but as “excommunication.” Besides recommending a new Form, the study committee also presented a proposed “better mode of procedure.”

The procedure in the discipline and excommunication of baptized members shall consist of three announcements to the congregation. The first announcement shall be made to the congregation without mentioning the name of the erring member. The second announcement shall mention the name after the advice of Classis has been obtained. The third announcement shall be a notification to the congregation that until the present moment all arduous and patient labors spent upon the erring member of our church seem futile, and that in case said member shows no signs of repentance his excommunication will take place at a designated time. Each announcement is to be accompanied with an urgent exhortation to the congregation to pray fervently for the erring member (Acts of Synod 1950, p. 243).

The proposed Form triggered considerable debate at the synod. The discussion seems to have focused particularly on the status of non-communicant members. The majority of the delegates were of the opinion that the study committee had not distinguished carefully enough between membership by baptism and communicant membership in the church, and that it was improper to equate these and to refer to the discipline of both as “excommunication.” The result of the debate was that synod referred the whole matter back to the study committee, expanding its membership by two members. The decision of the synod reads:

To recommit this matter to the study committee enlarged by two additional members, asking them to rewrite it [the proposed Form, R.C.] keeping in mind the following matters: 

1. Synod believes the covenant doctrine should be simply enunciated. 

2. The distinction between erasure and excommunication should be clearly marked. 

3. The form to be read should be clear and brief. 

4. The matter should be offered to the church at large for discussion. Adopted. (Acts of Synod 1950, p. 40.)

In 1952 the newly expanded study committee informed synod that they had not yet finished their work and requested another year to complete their mandate. The study committee brought its report finally to the Synod of 1953. It recommended the adoption of a new “Form For Erasure Of Members By Baptism.” Although the Form was much briefer than the previously recommended Form, throughout the new Form (notwithstanding the reference to “erasure” in the title of the Form) the committee consistently referred to the discipline of non-communicant members as “excommunication.” As far as the procedure, the study committee recommended the very same procedure as had been recommended to the Synod of 1950. The new report and Form did not fare well at the Synod of 1953. The advisory committee expressed to the synod

… the opinion that the Study Committee has not fully carried out the mandate given unto it by the Synod of 1950. Although the revised form which it now offers is more brief and does enunciate the covenant doctrine more simply than its previously proposed draft, it does not do justice to the second point in the mandate of Synod, namely, “the committee in rewriting the form should keep in mind that the distinction between erasure and excommunication should be clearly marked.” This second point of its mandate the committee has not carried out, at least not in the sense wherein it was intended by Synod. On the contrary, the Study Committee has virtually wiped out the distinction between the erasure of baptized members and the excommunication of communicant members. It even characterizes the exclusion of baptized members as being “excommunication” without any qualification (Acts of Synod 1953, p. 48).

In line with the assessment of its pre-advice committee, the synod rejected the recommendations of the study committee on the following grounds:

a. The Committee has not presented adequate reasons for the cessation of the use of the traditional term “erasure.” 

b. While the exclusion of baptized members is excommunication in a sense, there is a distinction between this and the exclusion of communicant members, which ought to be reflected in the official terminology (Acts of Synod 1953, p. 49).

Once again the whole matter was referred back to committee for further study and reformulated recommendations.

The Synod of 1955 was presented with majority and minority reports from its study committee. The majority report recommended a new Form, taking into consideration the original instructions of the Synod of 1950. The minority report questioned the need for a form in light of the fact that “In all their history the Reformed Churches up to the present time … have not had official forms for use in public worship for the ‘exclusion’ of members by baptism” (Acts of Synod 1955, p. 429). Undoubtedly taking its lead from the minority report, the synod decided to seek to determine whether there was a pressing need and a real desire in the churches for such a form, especially in light of the fact that efforts to produce a form spanning several years had proved unsuccessful (Acts of Synod 1955, p. 98). At this point the whole matter was dropped and nothing further was done in the CRC regarding adopting a form for erasure of baptized members.

(to be continued)


* The Dutch Church Order authorities refer to erasure as royeering. The word means essentially the same as “erasure.” It refers to a striking off, an expunging of something, and hence, erasure.