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Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

Instructions concerning matters to be considered in major assemblies shall not be written until the decisions of previous synods touching these matters have been read, in order that what was once decided be not again proposed, unless a revision be deemed necessary.

Church Order, Article 46

Background

Article 46 was written in a day when there were no typewriters, computers, fax machines, copy machines, or reliable mail services. In those days no printed agenda for the major assemblies was sent to the delegates in advance of the meetings. Instead, each consistory sent with its delegates “Instructions” with regard to what it wanted included on the agenda of the assembly.

Besides this, past decisions of the assemblies were not readily available. The Acts of the major assemblies were not usually published and generally distributed. The result was that unwittingly matters were often brought to the major assemblies that had already been decided upon, so that duplicate and even contradictory decisions were often taken.

At one point it was decided that the decisions of previous synods had to be read at each classical gathering. But in short order this became impractical as the number and bulk of synodical decisions increased.

Article 46 addresses this situation. No matter is to be proposed to the assemblies until previous decisions have been consulted.

“Instructions” to major assemblies

Article 46 speaks of instructions: “Instructionsconcerning matters to be considered in major assemblies….” Article 33 mentioned these instructions: “Those who are delegated to the assemblies shall bring with them their credentials andinstructions, signed by those sending them, and they shall have a vote in all matters, except such as particularly concern their persons or churches.” These instructions are the proposals brought by the delegates from the minor assembly (consistory or classis) for the consideration of the major assembly (classis or synod). Included in the instructions may be information, suggestions, overtures, or requests from the minor assembly. Such matters were to be written out and included with the credentials. By means of these instructions, therefore, matters were brought before the major assembly.

There are various ways in which matters may be brought before the major assemblies.

1. And overture may be brought to the major assembly. An overture requests a change of policy, practice, or procedure. 

2. A matter may be brought to the major assembly by way of appeal, according to Church Order, Article 31. This is a grievance against a past decision of the major assembly. 

3. A consistory may bring a matter before a classis as a result of its response to the questions of Article 41 that are asked of each consistory at classis. 

4. Matters may come up for consideration through motions formulated and presented on the floor of the assembly and suggested by the need of the hour and arising out of discussions in the gathering. 

5. But it is also the case that matters may be brought before the major assemblies by way of “instructions.” Included on the “Credentials” in use in our churches is a space for “Instructions.”

When matters are, brought by way of the “Instructions,” the rule of Article 46 applies: “Instructions concerning matters to be considered in major assemblies shall not be written until the decisions of previous synods touching these matters have been read….” Strictly speaking, this rule applies to “Instructions.” By clear implication, however, it extends to all who in any way bring matters to the major assemblies. Whenever a matter is brought for consideration by the major assemblies, those bringing it before the assembly must see to it that past decisions are consulted.

Very few matters of consequence come before the assemblies any longer by way of the “Instructions.” The stated clerks of our major assemblies compile, print, and distribute to all delegates an agenda well ahead of time. For the most part, only matters included in the agenda are considered by the assembly.

Consulting previous decisions

Article 46 requires that previous decisions be consulted before a matter is proposed. Article 46 does not require that previous decisions are to be consulted by the major assembly before it decides on a given proposal. But Article 46 requires that previous decisions are to be consulted before anyone even makes a proposal to a major assembly: “Instructions concerning matters to be considered in major assemblies shall not be written until the decisions of previous synods touching these matters have been read . . . .” A major assembly can refuse consideration of a proposal simply on the grounds that there is no demonstration that previous decisions have been consulted.

The chief responsibility for observing the rule of Article 46 rests with the individual or body originating the proposal. They must do their homework They must consult previous decisions and take those decisions into account in their proposal. Consulting past decisions is not the responsibility of the major assembly, which very likely does not have the time or the immediately available resources for doing this.

It is not so difficult today to carry out this rule of Article 46. Each consistory keeps on file the decisions of the meetings of the classis to which it belongs. These minutes can also be secured upon request from the stated clerks. The more recent Acts of Synod are readily available. A sufficient number of the older Acts are in circulation that they can be borrowed from those who have them.

Access to the decisions of past synods of our Protestant Reformed Churches will be greatly improved in the near future with the publication of an index. The work on this project is nearly completed. This should prove to be a very valuable tool. Back in 1620 already this was considered a good idea. In that year the Synod of Alkmaar decided that each classis should obtain all past synodical decisions and appoint someone to make an index of these decisions.

Revision of previous decisions

That previous decisions are to be consulted before any proposal is made to the major assemblies does , not rule out the possibility of revision. Article 46 provides for revision: “… unless a revision be deemed necessary.”

Our broader assemblies are not infallible. It is very well possible, it has happened in the past, that the broader assemblies have taken wrong decisions. These decisions must not be allowed to stand, but they must be changed or rescinded as soon as possible. But if revision is necessary, this must’ be demonstrated, and past decisions must not be ignored.

The revision that Article 46 has in view is not revision of a decision during the course of the meeting at which the decision was taken. Synod has adopted rules for altering a decision during the course of the same meeting of synod. This is spelled out in the “Rules of Order” of Synod, VI, E. There are three ways in which this can be done: 1) By a motion to reconsider; 2) By a motion to rescind; 3) By a motion to renew a motion once defeated. Consistories and classes usually follow this same procedure.

But the revision referred to in Article 46 is revision of a decision of a past synod.

A revision must be deemed “necessary,” that is, good grounds must be presented for the revision of a past decision. A revision must not be proposed because of merely personal preference, serious misgivings, or possible repercussions. These are not good grounds for revision, and are purely a matter of subjective judgment. Personal disagreement with a decision is not a ground for revision. Only in case new grounds are adduced is it permitted that a matter once decided upon may again be considered.

Reasons for the rule of Article 46

There are a number of good reasons for the rule of Article 46.

For one thing, past decisions of the broader assemblies are settled and binding, according toChurch Order, Article 31. This means not only that decisions must be abided by and neither willfully set aside nor inadvertently ignored, but also that revision of them is not to be proposed without good grounds.

Certainly the rule of Article 46 is in place to guard the assemblies from repetition, spending time and energy on issues that have already been dealt with. Even more importantly, the article safeguards the assemblies from making contradictory decisions.

Article 46 also serves to promote the confidence of the members of the church in the broader assemblies. If the assemblies are constantly reconsidering and changing their decisions, the confidence of the members in the assemblies is quickly undermined. Continual reconsideration and change reveals indecisiveness and uncertainty of the issues and principles involved. Stability in church life is threatened.

Article 46 fosters historical consciousness in the church. It presupposes that what the church decided upon in the past, it usually decided for good reason. We must not therefore ignore the work of the church of the past. There ought to be a good understanding of the issues faced by the church in history and the decisions that were taken.

Article 46 also heightens awareness of the decisions taken in the broader assemblies. Every church member, particularly officebearers, ought to know what matters were treated at the broader assemblies and what decisions were taken. The Acts of Synod ought to be read each year by every church member. And every member ought to show an interest in the work of the assemblies. Then there is little danger that there will be ignorance of previous decisions. And then, too, the decisions of the assemblies will not only be transcribed in the minute books, but will become a part of the life of the church.