Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: September 15, 2007, p. 495.
“When ministers of the divine Word, elders, or deacons have committed any public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities, the elders and deacons shall immediately, by preceding sentence of the consistory thereof and of the nearest Church, be suspended or expelled from their office, but the ministers shall only be suspended. Whether these shall be entirely deposed from office shall be subject to the judgment of the classis, with the advice of the delegates of the synod mentioned in Article 11.” Church Order, Article 79.
In our last article, we began our treatment of Article 79 of the Church Order. It is this article that treats suspension and deposition of officebearers. We considered the kinds of sins that warrant suspension and deposition, as well as the fundamental biblical principles that undergird the responsibility of the congregation to remove from office men who have committed public, gross sin. The sanctity of the special offices, the welfare of the congregation, and the glory of the name of God require the removal of those who have shown themselves to be unfit representatives of Christ in the church.
It remains for us to consider the proper procedure by which suspension and deposition is to take place. This procedure is spelled out in Article 79. What is this procedure? And how is the procedure different in the case of elders and deacons, on the one hand, and ministers, on the other hand? What is this difference and what accounts for the difference? In this article, we will consider the proper procedure that a consistory is to follow in the case of the suspension and deposition of elders or deacons. Next time, the Lord willing, we will treat the procedure to be followed by a consistory that is faced with the sad calling to suspend and depose its minister. Then we hope to conclude our study of Article 79 by considering whether the broader assemblies may depose officebearers, a controversial issue in the history of the Reformed churches, as well as in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The Decision of the Consistory
Article 79 specifies that in the case of elders and deacons who have committed public, gross sin, they “…shall immediately, by pre- ceding sentence of the consistory thereof and of the nearest Church, be suspended or expelled from their office.” Suspension and deposition of elders and deacons takes place by a decision of the local consistory, along with the concurrence of the consistory of the neighboring congregation.
Article 79 calls for suspension and deposition to begin “by preceding sentence of the consistory” of the congregation in which the elder or deacon holds his office. Discipline of every sort belongs to the calling of the local congregation. It has called and ordained the man into his office. His office resides in the local congregation. He is under the supervision of that consistory. Any discipline, including the discipline of officebearers, must begin at the local level. The keys of the kingdom have been entrusted to the local congregation.
Article 79 speaks of the “sentence of the consistory.” Throughout the Church Order, “consistory” refers to the elders of the local congregation. Article 79, therefore, calls for suspension and deposition to begin by a decision of the elders. It is noteworthy, however, that in all the other articles in the Church Order that deal with officebearers, not only the elders, but also the deacons are involved. The nomination and election of candidates for the ministry, according to Article 4, includes “the consistory and the deacons.” Article 5 regulates the calling of ministers already in office. They are to be called “by the consistory and the deacons.” For this reason, both the elders and the deacons sign the call letter that is issued to a minister. A minister may accept a call to another congregation, according to Article 10, only after he has received the approval “of the consistory, together with the deacons.” Articles 22 and 24 of the Church Order regulate the nomination and election of elders and deacons. Elder and deacons are to be chosen “by the judgment of the consistory and the deacons.” All the articles in the Church Order that deal with the offices in the local congregation, with the exception of Article 79, specify the involvement of both the elders and deacons. This is a significant aspect of the parity of the offices in the church, and an important part of the mutual supervision exercised by the officebearers. Consistency with the other articles of the Church Order would indicate that the deacons should be included in any decision to suspend and depose one of their fellow officebearers. Just as they were involved in the man’s being put into office, so they should be involved in his removal from office.
This inconsistency has been addressed by the Canadian Reformed Churches, who have added the deacons to the consistory in the article in their Church Order that deals with suspension and deposition.
When ministers, elders or deacons have committed a public or otherwise grievous sin, or refuse to heed the admonitions by the consistory with the deacons, they shall be suspended from office by the judgment of their own consistory with the deacons and of the consistory with the deacons of the neighbouring Church. (Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Article 71. Italics added, R.L.C.)
Our churches ought to consider adding the deacons to the stipulations of Article 79, thus bringing the article in line with the other articles relating to the offices in our Church Order.
Concurrence of the Neighboring Consistory
Article 79 requires that a neighboring consistory concur in a consistory’s decision to suspend and depose one of its elders or deacons: “…by preceding sentence of the consistory thereof and of the nearest Church….” So serious is deposition from office that the Reformed churches have deemed it wise to do this only in consultation with another consistory. “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14b). It is wise that a third party consider the facts of the case and render an objective judgment. But this involvement of the neighboring consistory also honors the federative union. The congregation that is faced with the responsibility of deposing an officebearer does not stand alone. There is not only mutual oversight of the officebearers within the congregation, but there is also mutual oversight of the officebearers within the denomination. This is an important aspect of the unity of the church. If the broader assemblies must give their concurrence in the discipline of the ordinary members of the church, how much more ought they to be involved in the discipline of officebearers, at the very least the concurrence of the neighboring consistory. As we will see in the case of ministers, the Church Order requires not only the concurrence of the neighboring consistory, but also the concurrence of the classis and the delegatesad examina of the synod.
The neighboring consistory that is consulted should be a neighboring consistory within the same classis. Because classical boundaries are at times a bit arbitrarily drawn, it is possible that a congregation’s nearest neighbor resides in a different classis. The neighboring consistory that is consulted in compliance with Article 79, ought to be in the same classis. The main reason for this is that any disagreement between the two consistories must be brought to the classis for adjudication. If they reside in different classes, this might unnecessarily complicate matters. Also, all protests and appeals that might arise out of the suspension and deposition would be considered first by the classis to which the congregation of the suspended and deposed officebearer belongs. The consistories involved in the suspension and deposition ought, therefore, to be members of the same classis.
Article 79 specifies the “sentence” or judgment of the neighboring consistory. The neighboring consistory, in other words, must concur with the decision of a consistory to proceed to suspension and deposition of an elder or deacon. The consistory of the congregation within which the elder or deacon holds office must first make a definite decision with grounds to suspend and depose. It must not ask the neighboring consistory whether or not it should proceed with suspension and deposition. The neighboring consistory must be asked to concur with the decision that has already been taken to suspend and depose. That decision, with its grounds, must then be considered by the neighboring consistory. That decision, the neighboring consistory must either concur with or disapprove.
Article 79 requires a joint meeting of the two consistories. At this meeting, all the facts of the case must be laid out before the neighboring consistory. Answers must be given to any questions that they may have. After having all the facts of the case laid out before them, the neighboring consistory ought to meet on its own in order to vote on concurrence with the decision to suspend and depose. Such a decision ought to be preceded by a good discussion of the grounds for suspension and deposition. Do these grounds accord with the reasons for suspension and deposition laid down in Articles 79 and 80? Is the sin the kind of sin that calls for suspension and deposition, and is the man guilty of the sin with which he is charged? If the neighboring consistory does not concur, so that there is disagreement between the two consistories, the matter must be brought to the classis for disposition. In the event that the neighboring consistory does not concur, a consistory may not consult another neighboring consistory in an effort to obtain concurrence with its decision. One neighboring consistory is to be consulted, and any disagreement between the two consistories ought to be resolved by the classis, if need be at a special meeting of the classis.
What if the officebearer indicates that he intends to protest his suspension from office? In that case, the consistory ought ordinarily to wait to implement his final deposition from office. During the process of protest and appeal, he must continue to be suspended from office, that is, he must be deprived of the right to exercise the functions of the office. But only after the broader assemblies have adjudicated the whole matter should the local consistory finally depose the man from office, stripping him of the office itself. This would ordinarily be the best procedure. Nevertheless, the particular circumstances of the case do enter in. It may be that the sins of which the officebearer has made himself guilty are so grievous that the consistory judges that it cannot wait, but for the spiritual welfare of the congregation and the glory of God’s name must proceed to the officebearer’s deposition. Each consistory must consider the wisest course of action, given the exigencies of the particular case.
Once an officebearer has been deposed, his deposition must be announced to the congregation. This ought not to be an announcement placed in the bulletin, but read to the congregation from the pulpit. The announcement should be made and approved by the consistory. The announcement should be brief, but should inform the congregation both of the fact of the officebearer’s deposition, as well as the grounds for his deposition. The officebearer whose deposition is to be announced to the congregation should be made aware of the announcement that the consistory has approved to be made to the congregation. Although the consistory does not need his approval of the announcement, it is wise that he be made aware of the announcement and the consistory be assured that he has no valid objection to the specific wording of the announcement.
What if a man attempts to resign from office? May a man be permitted to resign from office once a consistory has begun deposition proceedings, or even before the consistory has formally begun such proceedings because it has not yet had the opportunity to act? Ought the consistory to receive an officebearer’s resignation and thus halt deposition proceedings? A man may not be permitted to resign from office in order to avoid deposition proceedings. If he requests resignation, it must be denied on the very grounds that he has made himself worthy of suspension and deposition. Resignation from office may be granted in circumstances in which one is unable to carry out the duties of the office, not when he has made himself unfit for office.
What if the man withdraws his membership from the church? Ought the consistory nevertheless to proceed with his deposition? In this case, the deposition proceedings ought to be halted. Only those who are members of the congregation can be the objects of discipline. A man who renounces his membership in the church in order to avoid deposition aggravates his sin. But in this case, a consistory has no choice but to suspend such proceedings. Even then, the man must be warned against the aggravation of his sin, and if he persists, although granted his membership papers, an appropriate announcement ought to be made to the congregation informing them that at the time that he made request for his membership papers the consistory had begun deposition proceedings against him. And, of course, such ought also to be noted on the man’s membership papers, so that any consistory to which he might apply for membership would be apprised of the situation when he withdrew his membership.