Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: March 15, 2008, p. 279.
“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.
A Controversial Issue
One issue remains to be considered in connection with Article 79 of the Church Order, the article that treats the suspension and deposition of officebearers. That issue has proved in the history of the Reformed churches to be a controversial one. The issue is whether broader ecclesiastical assemblies may discipline officebearers. May classes and synods suspend and depose officebearers? May they suspend and depose whole consistories? May they suspend and depose ministers and professors of theology?
This issue figures large in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). From the beginning of their existence, these churches did not only object to the adoption by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) of the false teaching of common grace and the well-meant gospel offer, but they objected as well to the altogether unjust treatment that the founding fathers of the PRC experienced at the hands of the broader assemblies of the CRC. In 1925 two different classes of the CRC deposed Henry Danhof, George M. Ophoff, and Herman Hoeksema, as well as their consistories. These ministers and their consistories objected to the classes’ deposition of them on the grounds that neither classis nor synod had the lawful right to suspend and depose from office. This right belonged, they insisted, to the local consistory and to the local consistory alone.¹
Danhof, Ophoff, and Hoeksema were not the first officebearers in the history of the Dutch Reformed churches to be deposed by broader assemblies. In the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, it happened more than once that officebearers were deposed by the action of the broader assemblies. And there were those who vigorously defended the right of the broader assemblies to engage in this discipline of officebearers. The Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, the very synod that drafted the church order that we still follow for the most part today, deposed a number of notable Remonstrant (Arminian) ministers, and at Dordt’s instruction some two hundred additional Remonstrant ministers were deposed by various particular synods. In 1926 the Synod of Assen (GKN) deposed Dr. J.G. Geelkerken. Geelkerken denied the reality of a speaking serpent inGenesis 3 and spoke of the opening chapters of Genesis as a symbolic account. In 1944 the GKN synod deposed a number of professors and ministers, including Saekle Greijdanus, Benne Holwerda, and Klaas Schilder. These men were the founding fathers of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated).
Herman Hoeksema and Klaas Schilder initially felt a close kinship, not only on account of their mutual rejection of the teaching of common grace, but also because they had both been unjustly deposed from their offices by the presumptuous action of broader assemblies.
Prior to the deposition of Danhof, Hoeksema, and Ophoff, the Rev. Harry Bultema and his consistory had been deposed by a classis of the CRC meeting in 1919. Bultema had espoused premillennial views and had refused to recant after his views were condemned by the CRC Synod of 1918.
Many have defended the right of the broader assemblies to exercise discipline over officebearers. If they did not go so far as to approve the exercise of this right in all circumstances, they at least favored it in extreme cases. These extreme cases would involve serious doctrinal departure or grievous sin by officebearers. These cases would also include instances in which the minor assembly, usually the consistory, refused to suspend and depose officebearers who were worthy of such discipline. A representative of this position would be K. De Gier: “A major assembly may exercise discipline only when a minor assembly has failed to act. It may not begin the procedure itself” (Explanation of the Church Order of Dordt in Questions and Answers, p. 115).
Voices of Objection
In the Reformed tradition there have always been those who objected to the claim that the broader assemblies have the right to discipline, including the right to depose officebearers. They insisted that it was the local church to which Christ entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the means of grace. The local church preaches and teaches. The local church administers the sacraments. And the local church exercises discipline, including the discipline of officebearers. For the broader assemblies to engage in the exercise of the keys of the kingdom and the administration of the means of grace is presumption and hierarchy. Such presumption and hierarchy necessarily tramples on the autonomy of the local congregation.
In The Church Order Commentary, Van Dellen and Monsma face the question whether a classis may depose elders and deacons.
Some have contended that a Classis may depose Consistories. The present authors feel that no major assembly, according to Reformed Church polity and the Church Order, has the right to depose a minor assembly. The deposition of a Consistory, for example, by a Classis or Synod would seem to be a violation of the integrity and of the rights of the particular Church concerned, whereas the Church Order in more than one article seeks to safeguard this integrity and these rights (p. 327).
In connection with the deposition of ministers, Van Dellen and Monsma speak of cases of deposition being “referred to Classis,” and not of a classis initiating deposition proceedings against a minister. They also point out two significant requirements of Article 79 that would speak against the right of the broader assembly to take it upon itself to depose a minister. First, there ought to be a period of time between suspension and deposition, which they suggest should be a period of three to six months as a rule. Second, deposition cannot proceed without the concurrence of the synodical deputies. They must be present when any case of deposition is brought to a classis. Taken together, these two aspects of the procedure outlined in Article 79 preclude the broader assemblies’ initiating deposition proceedings.
W.W.J. Van Oene in his commentary on the Church Order opposes the notion that the broader assemblies may depose officebearers.
Note: we do not say that classis shall depose him [the minister]. No broader assembly ever has the right to infringe upon the privileges and rights of a consistory. It was not at a classis or by it that the brother was ordained but in a local church and by it. Classis only admitted the brother to this ordination in that local church and, by virtue of this, into the ministry in all the churches. Likewise, as for the question whether the brother may be deposed, or should be, a classis is authorized to give only a judgment. The consistory with the deacons of the church (of which he is a minister) undertakes the actual deposition. Any different action undertaken by broader assemblies in the past was a clear violation of the provisions of Art. 71 [our Art. 79]. No church can be deprived of its ministers or any of its officebearers against its will, nor can this be done by anyone but its own consistory with the deacons (p. 325).
From the beginning of their history, this has been the position defended by the PRC. His own unjust deposition led Herman Hoeksema to the firm conviction that the offices reside in the local congregation. The local consistory ordains into office, supervises the labors of the officebearers, and, if need be, exercises discipline over the officebearers. This is not to rule out the legitimate role that the broader assemblies have in the deposition of ministers, as that role is spelled out in Article 79. But it is to insist on the rights and duties that belong exclusively to the local consistory as ordained by the Head of the church, Christ Jesus.
Grounds for Reserving to the Local Consistory the Right of Deposition
There are compelling biblical grounds for restricting the right of deposition from office to the local church. This follows from the clear teaching of the New Testament that it is the local instituted church that preaches the gospel (Rom. 10:15), administers the sacraments (I Cor. 11:18ff.), and exercises Christian discipline (I Cor. 5;Rev. 2:12-23). Additionally, the offices reside in the local congregation (Acts 14:23; I Tim. 4; Titus 1:5; Titus 2). Since the offices reside in the local congregation, supervision over the officebearers, including discipline of them, is the duty of the local congregation. Acts 15recounts the meeting of the apostles and elders from Jerusalem and Antioch, the first broader ecclesiastical assembly. It is significant that the Jerusalem Council, although it condemned the heresy of the Judaizers who were troubling the churches in the days of the apostles, did not initiate discipline against them. Any discipline was left to the local congregations.
The Church Order itself supports this position and practice. There is the fact that Article 79 makes no provision for the initiation of deposition proceedings by the broader assemblies. The broader assemblies have their role, particularly in the deposition of a minister. But the broader assemblies are called upon to become involved in the deposition of a minister only after the local consistory, with the advice of the neighboring consistory, has suspended the man and brought the matter of deposition to classis for its advice. The stipulations of Article 79 itself oppose the hierarchical presumption by classes and synods of the right to initiate deposition.
Besides the language of Article 79 itself, there is Article 36 of the Church Order. This very significant article describes the jurisdiction, that is, the lawful authority of the broader assemblies. “The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the particular synod has over the classis and the general synod over the particular synod.” What is significant is that Article 36 does not say that the authority of the classis or synod is the same as the consistory’s authority over the congregation and the officebearers of the local congregation. There is a fundamental difference between the authority of the broader assemblies and the altogether unique authority exercised by the local consistory. To the unique authority of the local consistory belongs the discipline of its officebearers, including suspension and deposition from office.
Also Article 30 of the Church Order argues against the right of the broader assemblies to take upon themselves the deposition of officebearers. Article 30 deals with matters lawfully transacted in the major assemblies. An important restriction is placed on the business with which the broader assemblies may be occupied. That important restriction is “such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies….” That qualifier clearly restricts the broader assemblies in their involvement in the deposition of officebearers, and prohibits the broader assemblies from intruding into matters that rightfully belong to the local consistory. Only after the matter of suspension and deposition has been handled at the local level, in harmony with the prescriptions of Article 79, may the broader assemblies become involved. Never may they initiate the deposition of an officebearer altogether apart from the matter being dealt with and finished, so far as it could be finished, at the local level.
This is not to say that the hands of the broader assemblies
are tied if a consistory refuses to proceed with the deposition of an officebearer. The broader assemblies cannot suspend and depose. But consistories that stubbornly refuse to discipline officebearers, especially ministers, who are worthy of deposition can be and must be set outside the denomination. The federative tie with them must be severed. The consistory and congregation are by such a decision of the broader assemblies set outside the denomination, that is, outside the true churches of Jesus Christ. To be sure, the broader assemblies may not and cannot discipline in the formal sense. But severing the denominational tie is of the greatest spiritual significance. It is that inasmuch as the federative unity of the denomination is the living expression of the unity of true churches of Jesus Christ. Such a congregation and its officebearers would be set outside the covenant fellowship and blessed life of true churches of Jesus Christ in the world. How much more serious could their plight be? Further, they would be guilty of schism and division in the body of Christ, a terrible sin against Christ Himself, whose will is “that there should be no schism in the body” (I Cor. 12:25).
¹ The interested reader can confer Hoeksema’s discussion of his unjust deposition in The Protestant Reformed Churches of America, p. 202 ff. This issue was more recently considered by the CRC theologian Dr. John Bolt in an article reflecting on the 75th anniversary of the organization of the Protestant Reformed Churches that was entitled, “Common Grace and the Christian Reformed Synod of Kalamazoo (1924): A Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Retrospective,” published in the April 2000 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal.