Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
“If any one, having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed, or otherwise has committed a public sin, the matter shall be reported to the consistory.”
Church Order, Article 74.
Article 74 of the Church Order concerns reporting sins to the consistory. The article deals with such questions as: What sins must be reported to the consistory? Who must make these reports? What reports must a consistory receive? And how must a consistory act on reports it receives?
The article speaks of reports made to the “consistory.” “Con-sistory” here is elders. The Dutch word is kerkeraad, which throughout the Church Order refers to the elders, as in Articles 22 and 37.
Secret Sins to Be Reported to the Consistory
Article 74 specifies two types of sins that are to be reported to the consistory. First, it mentions secret sins that have been dealt with by members of the church according to Matthew 18. Although the procedure ofMatthew 18 has been followed, the erring brother persists in his impenitence. “If any one, having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed … the matter shall be reported to the consistory.” It is clear that our Church Order interprets Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18:17, “tell it unto the church,” to mean “tell it to the consistory.” This is consistent with our “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons,” which says concerning Jesus’ word, “… which can in no wise be understood of all and every member of the church in particular, but very properly of those who govern the church out of which they are chosen.”
After receiving such reports, the consistory must first ascertain that the procedure of Matthew 18 has been properly followed. If it has not been followed, or has not been followed completely, the person making the report to the consistory must be admonished to carry out the will of Christ, and the consistory must not receive his report concerning the sin of his brother. If, however, the consistory is satisfied that the way of Matthew 18 has been properly carried out, it must receive the report and begin official labors with the brother concerning whom the report is made.
It is important to note that a member who follows the way of Matthew 18 with another member of the congregation is obligated to report the matter to the consistory if the brother with whom he is laboring continues impenitent in sin. If the erring brother continues in his impenitence, the church member who is laboring with him is not faced with the decision whether or not to report the matter to the consistory. He may be faced with the question of when exactly he ought to go to the consistory. But the way ofMatthew 18 requires church members to report to the consistory if, after they have followed the way of Matthew 18, the brother does not repent of his sin. “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church” (Matt. 18:17). This obligation is recognized in Article 74: “… the matter shall be reported to the consistory.”
Having received a proper report of impenitence on the part of a member of the congregation, the consistory ought to begin its labors either by summoning the member to a consistory meeting, or by sending a committee of elders to meet with the brother. The consistory must begin by investigating and substantiating the report it has received. The brother who is accused of impenitence in a secret sin must have the opportunity to defend himself against the accusation. No consistory may proceed on the basis of a report of impenitence in secret sin to charge a member with sin and immediately place him under formal church discipline. Any charge must first be investigated and a determination made by the elders that the report is an accurate report. Only after the charge has been substantiated ought the consistory to proceed to formal discipline, the steps of which are outlined in the next articles of the Church Order.
Public Sins to Be Reported to the Consistory
Public sins are to be reported to the consistory immediately. The reason for this is not that the members themselves have no obligation towards a member who has fallen into public sin. Although the process of Matthew 18 does not apply, the members still have a calling to exhort the erring brother. The duty of the consistory does not in this case eliminate any responsibility on the part of those who stand in the office of all believers. Nevertheless, because of the public offense and because public offense can be removed only by the consistory, public sins must be reported immediately to the elders. The blot on God’s name and the reproach cast on the church require the involvement of the consistory.
Although the members have the duty to report public sins to the consistory, a consistory need not wait until a member of the congregation makes such a report before it acts. The sin may be so commonly known, known also by the members of the consistory, that a report of the sin by the members is unnecessary. In this case, the elders ought to take action on the basis of their own knowledge of the facts. The members may be convinced that the sin is so widely known that it is not necessary for them to report the matter to the consistory. Nevertheless, the members ought not to be too quick to take this for granted. Concerned members ought to confirm with the elders that the consistory is aware of the public sin into which a fellow member has fallen.
It is also possible that the sinner himself comes to the consistory to report the sin into which he has fallen. He comes of his own accord to confess his sin to the elders, knowing that sooner or later the sin is going to become public, either through the public media or because of the public consequences of the sin. Young people, for example, who have fallen into the sin against the seventh commandment, ought to come themselves to the consistory to confess their sin and be reconciled to the church even before the sin becomes widely known.
If one who is guilty of a public sin is repentant, his reconciliation to the congregation can follow. The manner of this reconciliation is addressed in Article 75. If, however, he has fallen into sin repeatedly, the consistory may place him on probation. During the period of probation the member is not permitted the use of the sacraments, and the other rights and privileges of church membership may also be held in abeyance. This is exceptional, and consistories ought to resort to probation only rarely. But in the case of repeated falls into the same sin, for example drunkenness or fornication, probation may be warranted. The purpose of the period of probation is that the sinner may prove the sincerity of his repentance, prove that he has broken with the sin, and demonstrate the fruits of repentance in a godly walk. Ordinarily the sinner’s repentance and reconciliation ought to be announced to the congregation, along with the consistory’s decision to place him on probation. How long the period of probation should last is up to the judgment of the consistory. The probation should not last longer than is absolutely necessary.
The Nature of Reports
Consistories must exercise great care in receiving reports of sin. Reports to the consistory ought to be made in person. This allows the consistory the opportunity to question the one making the report. This is necessary and helpful. No one ought to be permitted to make a report of sin by a fellow member merely by sending a letter or informing one of the elders. He may very well address a letter to the consistory. He may very well inform an elder or the pastor that he is coming to the consistory and the reason on account of which he is coming. But he ought to make his report to the consistory in person.
A number of questions often arise regarding who may make reports of sin to the consistory. May one who is not a member of the congregation of the accused bring such a report? The answer here is: Yes. The office of all believers extends beyond the membership of one particular congregation. May one who is not a member of a congregation within the same denomination bring a report? Again, the answer is yes, and for the same reason. May an unbeliever bring a report to a consistory? In this case, a consistory must be very cautious. But even in this instance, it is possible for a consistory to receive such a report and take appropriate action. Whether or not one has committed sin is not to be determined on the basis of the faith or lack of faith on the part of the one who may have been sinned against. It is very well possible that a member of the church has sinned against someone who is not a believer, who nevertheless is convinced that he has been wronged.
As a rule, unsigned letters containing charges of sin against a member should not be received by a consistory. No member has the right to make unsigned charges against another member. However, even in this case, if a consistory fears that the charges in such a letter are well founded, it may deem it advisable to investigate the charges. In its investigation, the consistory ought to make plain to the member that it has received an anonymous letter with certain charges of sin against him and out of concern for the brother makes him aware of this and gives him the opportunity to respond to the charges.
Persistent and general rumors may also require investigation by the consistory. The motivation is to clear the name of the brother, if he is innocent, or remove the offense, if it becomes plain that he is guilty of the sin that he has been rumored to have committed. If it can be ascertained who is spreading the rumors, whether they are true or whether they are false, the consistory must also deal with them. They must be admonished for their sin against the ninth commandment, be instructed to make confession to those against whom they have sinned by their slander, and if necessary be disciplined.
The Proper Motivation for Reports
The Synod of the Hague, 1587, made a significant insertion into Article 74. Without changing the body of the article as it had been adopted by previous Dutch Reformed synods, it added the words “in love.” “If any one, having been admonished in love … does not give heed … the matter shall be reported to the consistory.” The significance of this insertion ought not to be lost on us. Once again the Church Order reminds us of the proper motivation for Christian discipline, the proper motivation for discipline at every level and with each step. Love must motivate a brother to go to a brother who has sinned against him. Love must motivate him to persist in admonishing him, taking with him witnesses if the sinner does not repent. Love must motivate him to report the matter to the consistory. And love must motivate the consistory to become involved in the discipline of the members of the church.
If you do not have love in your heart for the brother, don’t go and confront him with his sin. If you do not love the brother, don’t report the matter to the consistory. If consistories are not motivated by love, don’t take up the discipline of the erring brother. As much as it is Christ’s command that the church exercise Christian discipline, so is it the will of Christ that discipline be motivated by love. Let the members of the congregation and the members of the consistory search their souls!
Love for the brother will not allow him to go on impenitently in his sin. Love will motivate the individual to go to the brother, as difficult and distasteful as that may be. Love will motivate the consistory to carry out the discipline, as painful—and it ought to be painful—as that may be. Love will aim at and pray earnestly for the brother’s repentance, always regarding him as a brother, albeit an erring brother. Love will have regard for his well-being, temporal and eternal.
Discipline carried out with that motivation, God will bless. Discipline merely formally carried out, God will not bless. That is hypocrisy, and God hates hypocrisy. Here church members and elders must be motivated by the same love that the Great Good Shepherd has shown to them. That love theymust reflect in dealing with fellow church members who have fallen into sin.