“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.”
â€•Article 46, D. K. O.
It would seem that the reason for the ruling expressed in the above article of the Church Order must be found in the principle expressed in the thirty-first article of this same body of rules. There it is stated that “whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding unless . . . etc.” What is once decided stands. Decisions of ecclesiastical bodies are not made to be changed although revision of these decisions is neither impossible nor improper. The underlying-idea, however, is that after serious and prayerful deliberation and decision concerning a given matter, that particular matter, if brought up again at a later time, ought not to be decided otherwise unless there are very cogent reasons for doing so.
The main purpose of Article 46, however, is not to express the “binding” character of ecclesiastical decisions. This was expressed with sufficient clarity in Article 31 and it would be quite needless to repeat that here. Rather, the idea is exactly to avoid needless repetition in the ecclesiastical assemblies that the rule of Article 46 is introduced in our Church Order. This is a good rule. If a certain matter has once been decided, it can serve no good purpose to have that same thing brought up again and again to consume valuable time in discussion and debate at the major assemblies of the churches. Before such a matter then may reappear on the agendum, the past decisions regarding the point in question must first be read and then, unless it is evident that there is a good reason that the matter should be reconsidered, the matter is to be dropped. Such is the meaning of Article 46 today.
Originally, this article of our Church Order had a different intent. Like the preceding article, it arose at a time when copies of the decisions of the Synods were not very plentiful. The Acts of Synod were not printed and made available at a nominal cost to any interested member of the church. Even all the Consistories did not have in their possession a copy of the decisions of the Synods. It is said that it was customary for the clerk of the Synod to read the decisions of the assembly and the delegates would copy them and take them home with them. As a result of this it would frequently happen that a Consistory would unknowingly bring a matter to the Classis which had already been acted upon by a former Synod. If the Classis did not happen to be aware of this, it would proceed to treat the matter and it would then go through to the Synod and thus result in endless duplication of effort. To avoid this the rule was adopted that before matters were placed on the Synodical Agendum by the Classes, the minutes of the previous Synods had to be read. At first this was not too difficult to do because, as a rule, the minutes were not involved and there were ‘not too many’ of them. However, as time moved on this became more and more of a practical impossibility and so the rule was modified to read that only those decisions “touching upon the matter” had to be read. Today this is no longer because every consistory member receives a copy of the Acts of Synod and can and should consult the previous decisions before sending any matter to Classis and Synod. Our major assemblies need not be burdened with the lengthy reading of Synodical decisions. This is time consuming and entirely unnecessary. The principle underlying this rule, however, remains and that is that former decisions by ecclesiastical bodies may not be ignored when new decisions are made with regard to the same matter. Precedent decisions have weight. A decision once made is of significance not only for the church of today but for the future as well. The decisions of the church are not made to be buried in oblivion or to be contradicted and overthrown at random by later assemblies but rather to be enforced and maintained.
All of this does not mean that matters may not be reconsidered or that decisions may never be reversed. That would be the case only if and when it could be established that Synods or Classes are infallible. This, however, is not the case. When mistakes then are made by the assemblies of the church, it is always in the best interests of the churches that these be corrected as soon as possible. This must be done in an orderly manner so that confusion and disrespect of the ecclesiastical bodies may be carefully avoided.
Quite correctly the 51st Article of the Christian Reformed proposed revision of the Church Order expresses the intent of Article 46 for our present day when it states: “Matters once decided upon by major assemblies shall not be resubmitted, for consideration and action unless a revision is requested. For such suggested revisions grounds must be given.”
“(Every year (or if need be oftener) four or five or more neighboring classes shall meet as a particular synod, to which each classis shall delegate two ministers and two elders. At the close of both the particular and the general synod, some church shall be empowered to determine with advice of classis, the time and place of the next synod.)”
â€•Article 47, D. K. O.
One may wonder somewhat why this article and the two following appear in our Church Order in parentheses. The reason for this is obviously that they deal with a matter that is non-existent in our churches, namely, the matter of particular synods. We have only a general synod. Particular synods have not been introduced and it is not until Article 50 that the Church Order speaks of the general synod. Consequently, the content of Articles 47-49 inclusive does not really concern us and we will, therefore, but briefly comment upon their content.
As the names themselves indicate, the difference between a Particular and General Synod is that one is broader in scope than the other. The Particular Synod receives delegates from a limited number of classes while all of the Classes of the denomination are represented in the General Synod. When a denomination of churches becomes very large, particular synods may be instituted although this is not absolutely necessary. The ecclesiastical structure is really complete with consistories, classes and synod.
As to the origin of Particular Synods, we may state that they began already as early as 1568 in the Netherlands. At least the Convention of Wezel in that year advised the institution of these synods and three years later the Synod of Emden decided that there should be three such particular synods. These were to be located, one in Holland, one in Germany and one in England and the reason for this selection was that refugees from the Reformed Churches had been dispersed mainly in these three countries. Later, however, when the persecutions subsided and the churches became more settled, it was decided to limit each particular synod to four or five classes. In 1905 an added stipulation was made that the particular synods, with minor exceptions, should coincide in scope with the confines of the various geographical provinces. This provision, however, was never adopted in this country and, should the time come that particular synods are instituted here, the whole matter would likely undergo revision depending upon local needs and circumstances.
The article itself mentions three matters that are noteworthy. First, it designates an annual meeting of the particular synod and allows for even more frequent meetings if necessary. Secondly, it specifies two ministers and two elders as delegates from each classis which is to be represented. Undoubtedly the number of delegates is not an unchangeable rule. The above arrangement with five classes represented at the Synod would make a delegate body of twenty men which is reasonable. If, however, each of these classes were very large classes, the delegation could be raised to three ministers and three elders, making an aggregate of thirty men. The size of the particular synod should be reasonably proportionate to the size of the classes represented in it. Finally, the Church Order makes provision whereby the Synod empowers a particular church to determine the time and place of the next synod. This must be done with the advice of the classis in which that church resides. It is interesting to note that this provision applies to the General Synod as well as to the Particular Synod. In our case the time of each Synod is determined by a standing rule and the place is determined by each Synod in the appointment of a calling church. However, it appears rather plain that the Church Order does not empower any individual (i.e. the Stated Clerk) to determine these things but gives this authority to the calling church in consultation with the classis. If this principle had been observed by the Michigan Supreme Court in the case of the Second Church, they would never have arrived at the foolish conclusions they did in regard to the “legality of the March, 1954, Synod.”
G. V. d. B.