“The reconciliation of all such sins as are of their nature of a public character, or have become public because the admonition of the church was despised, shall take place (upon sufficient evidence of repentance) in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of each church. Whether in particular cases this shall take place in public, shall, when there is a difference of opinion about it in the consistory, be considered with the advice of two neighboring churches or of the classis.”
—Article 75, D.K.O.
When sin has been committed within the church and that sin has been labored with by the consistory with the result that the sinner is brought to repentance, the question is always a difficult one as to bow reconciliation or rectification of that sin is to be effected. There are several things that contribute to this problem. First of all there is the matter of the penitent’s sincerity. Normally this may not be questioned but experience reveals that some people are always ready to admit guilt when confronted with the fact of sin but show no inclination to amend their evil practices. Although it is virtually impossible for a consistory to decisively determine the sincerity of a confession, the consistory nevertheless seeks certain assurances before a real reconciliation can be effected. The synod of 1581 expressed that consistories do not accept confessions at face value unless it has reasons to believe that the confessor is sincere. So we also have the parenthetical insertion in the article of the church order quoted above: “upon sufficient evidence of repentance.” This is difficult to determine and concerning it there may not always be agreement within the consistory. What some may consider to be sufficient evidence of repentance may be regarded as entirely inadequate by others. Then, too, there are those experiences in which the offender has in the past given occasion for doubt and mistrust. It may be a repeated offense and the consistory is naturally hesitant because it was led in the past to believe a confession that was subsequently shown to be untrue. And there are extreme cases where a consistory many have to withhold membership privileges for a time until they show amendment of life in very deed. The Synod of 1578 made provision for this when it expressed that those who have committed grievous sins, disgraceful to the church or also punishable by the state, even though they manifest repentance, shall nevertheless be excluded from the Lord’s Supper to remove the offense, and to test the genuineness of their repentance. Although this article was removed from the Church Order two years later, church authorities generally agree that a consistory has the right and duty to exclude a repentant sinner from the sacraments for the time being. It is certainly not an easy matter to determine just when all the necessary requirements have been met for a complete reconciliation of the sinner with the church.
But there are other matters that add to this difficulty. In the second place, the consistory is confronted with the problem as to how such reconciliation is to be effected. This must not be determined on a utilitarian basis. The consistory must not look for the easiest way out for this might prove to be very detrimental. Many things are again involved. Not only must the real welfare of the penitent be sought but that which is for the good of the whole church must be considered. At stake is the glorification and honor of God’s holy Name. The consistory must guard against making unnecessary publicity of sin on the one hand but also the danger of covering up offensive sins that dishonor the Name of God on the other. The purpose of reconciliation is the removal of sin and its offense in the church and this must be done in the most effective way possible. The importance of this is emphasized in Article 75 when it stipulates that the consistory must be unanimously agreed on this matter and otherwise assistance must be sought from neighboring consistories or even the classis. The matter of Article 75 is very weighty.
The article speaks of the reconciliation of those who have committed public sins. Private sins, that is, those that have not been brought to the attention of the consistory and labored with by the consistory, are not considered here. Such sins are dealt with according to the rule of Matthew 18 and then resolved privately. It is even possible that one who sins refuses to heed private admonition and the matter comes to the consistory and then repentance is manifest. In such a case the matter can be resolved by those involved, including the consistory then, without taking recourse to the provisions of Article 75 but this depends in each case on the nature of the sin committed. Our present concern is with the reconciliation of those who have committed sin that is publicly offensive and generally known so that the whole church is in effect involved.
It must be noticed that Article 75 states that theconsistory shall decide on the manner in which such reconciliation is to take place. This may not be left to the judgment or desire of the sinner. He does not have the prerogative to decide whether his confession shall be heard only before the consistory or also before the whole congregation. He may not attempt to tell that consistory that he will confess before them but they may not demand of him that he does more. He must leave this entirely to the judgment of the consistory and they shall be governed in their decision by one consideration. This is: “What is conducive to the edification of the church?” The church is the body of Christ and the well being of that body is most important of all. All other considerations and persons must be subservient to this.
Now in matters of this kind a consistory has two courses which it can follow. It may not simply accept a confession, enter it into the records and then close the matter. The matter is public and therefore in some way affects the whole church so that the whole church must be brought into the reconciliation. To do this a consistory might receive a confession and then proceed to draw up a carefully worded announcement which is to be read’ to the congregation from the pulpit. This announcement must express exactly what was confessed to the consistory and if definite questions were asked of the penitent, the specific answer of the penitent ought to be included in the announcement. Such an announcement should never be published on the church bulletin but the proper way is that it be read from the pulpit. Its purpose is not to give publicity but to remove the offense of sin. And this should not be done in a general way but by stating the specific confession that was made concerning specific sin.
Another possibility is that the confession be made publicly by the penitent. In this case the penitent is asked to stand up in the presence of the church and orally express his repentance in the hearing of the congregation. The consistory would likely prepare a brief statement expressing the character of the sin committed, the fact of repentance and subsequent reconciliation and when this is read the penitent would express public assent. This procedure might be deemed necessary by the consistory in cases where it is not the first offense. Or they might consider it the better way because of the nature of the sin itself. Then again it might be that the penitent himself, to demonstrate the sincerity of his confession and his deep-felt desire for reconciliation with the church, requests that the consistory permit him to confess his sin in this way.
The point here is that to follow the last mentioned way of reconciliation the consistory must be unanimously agreed. Back in 1571 this was already decided for the Synod of Emden expressed that reconciliation should not take place publicly in the presence of the church unless the whole consistory agreed that it was advisable. And in 1586 it was decided that in churches served by only one minister, no public reconciliation should take place except with the advice of two neighboring churches. We must remember, of course, that in the Netherlands the situation is a little different than here. There many churches are served by more than one minister. In those churches this matter is decided by majority vote while in the smaller churches, having only one minister, the neighboring churches are consulted. But in 1581 the Synod of Middelburg stipulated that public reconciliations should take place with the advice of the Classis.
The question arises in this connection as to who decides and also how the matter is decided when two neighboring consistories are called in? Do the visiting consistories decide? Do they simply give advice? Jansen points out that “the prescribed advice does not imply that two other consistories or that classis decides the matter, nor that the consistory concerned merely gains the advice and then decides as it sees fit regardless of the advice given. But it means that the responsible consistory will take a decision in conformity with the advice received.” When these three consistories meet together, the matter is discussed as one body and an attempt is made to arrive at a united stand through this discussion. When the thing is ready for a vote the two visiting consistories take a separate vote. Now, it is possible that the result of this vote is such that a deadlock is reached because these two consistories stand opposite on the question. In that eventuality the matter should be submitted to the Classis for decision. In case the two consistories are agreed, it would appear obvious that the consistory involved would be obliged to follow de advice given.
In concluding this matter we want to quote yet from “The Church Order Commentary,” page 312 the following opinion:
“Supposing one who is being admonished and censured moves and becomes a member of another of our churches, which consistory should then complete the reconciliation, revoking the suspension, etc.? The consistory of his new church. By this church he has been received as a censured and erring member and the new consistory always continues the process of censure where the former consistory left off. But our confederation, our bonds of church unity, would require that the former consistory, which initiated censure be recognized and be asked for their approval, for they may know the case far better than the new consistory. (Italics mine, G.V.) In cases of extreme sins generally known it is advisable, both for the church and for the sinner, that announcement of the transgressor’s repentance be made to the former church also. When serious differences of opinion arise between two consistories in cases as suggested, the advice of Classis should be sought.”
There are those who seem to think that a sinner, transgressing in one church, can go to another church and make confession and be received without the approbation of the church where the sin was committed. Before God, however, sin is never removed that way but the sinner continues to walk in it and the church that receives such is partaker of his deeds.