In connection with the 79th Article of the Church Order we have been discussing the matter of the suspension and deposition of office bearers because of gross or public sins. We have seen that in case an elder or deacon is found to I be guilty of such sins he is not only suspended from office but immediately deposed by the consistory in conjunction with the consistory of the nearest church. In cases involving ministers of the Word suspension only follows and the question of deposition from office is left to be decided by the Classis with the advice of the Synodical deputies for examination. The reasons for this difference were given in our last article.
We have noted that this matter is very serious and of great significance. This is indicated not only by the fact that the Church Order devotes separate articles to the subject of censure of office bearers but the Word of God itself intimates the seriousness of this when in I Timothy 5:19 it is said, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.” And when the Christian Reformed Church proposed a revision of the Church Order in 1956 they devoted four articles to the material covered in Articles 79 and 80 of our present redaction. We fail to find any substantial change in these articles but we like their formulation because they separate various matters that are pressed into one article in our Church Order. This is conducive to clarity. Against this proposed revision, however, it may be said that justice is hardly done to the material of our present Article 80 which treats the enumeration of gross sins for which o5ce bearers are to be suspended and deposed. A bit more of the original might have been retained here.
The articles referred to read as follows:
“Art. 81. Besides being subject to the discipline described in the foregoing articles, the officebearers shall also be subject to suspension or expulsion from their office. Sins which call for such action are these: neglect or I abuse of office; departure from sound doctrine and godly conduct; violation of promises made when signing the Formula of Subscription.
“Art. 82. Elders and deacons guilty of sins as indicated above, shall be suspended or expelled from their office by action of the consistory, which for the consideration of the case meets with the consistory of the nearest Christian Reformed church. Suspension or expulsion from office shall take place upon the concurring vote of both consistories.
“Art. 83. Ministers guilty of sins as indicated above, shall only be suspended from office by action of the consistory, meeting for the consideration of the case with the consistory of the nearest Christian Reformed church. By the concurring vote of both consistories, a minister may be suspended from office; whether he shall be deposed from office shall be subject to the decision of the classis, reached with the concurring advice of the Synodical Deputies.
“Art. 84. When a consistory finds that it cannot in good conscience acquiesce in the opinion of its neighboring consistory regarding any discipline case involving an officebearer, it shall be at liberty to present the case to classis, or, when it cannot acquiesce in the judgment of classis, to present the matter to synod.”
Mention must be made yet of the role of the Classis and Synod (represented in the Synodical Deputies) in this matter. Frequent mention is made of the Classis in the articles quoted above and our own Church Order states that “whether ministers 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.” May the Classis depose an officebearer? May the Classis depose a Consistory? Remembering our own history these questions take on special significance and so we want to quote rather extensively in this connection from Monsma and Van Dellen’s Church Order Commentary. On page 327 we read:
“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 (Cf. Art. 30, 84). Moreover, Reformed Church government does not tolerate group-disciplining. Discipline, according to our Reformed conception, is always individual and never communal.
“Is it then permissible for a Classis or Synod to depose individual officebearers? Regarding Ministers Article 79 clearly stipulates that a dual Consistory meeting may suspend a minister. Furthermore, the article reads, ‘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 (Particular) Synod mentioned in Art. 11.’ This provision is clear. No minister shall be deposed unless the Classis concerned judges that deposition is in order. Deposition of ministers ‘shall be subject to the judgment of the Classis.’ And Classis shall be guided in rendering its opinion by the advice of the Synodical delegates according to Article 11. Without the concurring advice of these delegates, no Classis may decide that a certain minister should be deposed. This last provision was added to Article 79 as an additional safeguard by the Holland Churches in 1905, and by our churches in 1914.
“Regarding Elders and Deacons Article 79 specifies that these shall be suspended or expelled from their office by sentence of their Consistory and that of the nearest Consistory.
“If any case is so involved and so complicated that the two Consistories concerned judge that the judgment of all the Churches of the Classis is needed, then the matter should be brought to Classis. In such a case the Consistory is expected to abide by the decision of Classis. The Consistory follows the advice of Classis. The Classis in such a case has a full right to appoint certain delegates who are to serve the Consistory with advice and who are to help the Consistory to carry out the conclusions of the Classis.
“If the case of an Elder or Deacon is brought to Classis by way of appeal on the part of individual members of the Church, or on the part of one or more consistory members, the appellants feeling and claiming that the Consistory as a whole is negligent or in error, then what is the correct procedure? Then Classis deliberates and draws its conclusions. If the decision is to the effect that the Elder(s) or Deacon(s) should be suspended or deposed, the Consistory concerned is informed regarding this decision and proceeds to execute the judgment rendered. Again, the Classis has a full right to appoint a committee to help the Consistory in the execution of its task. If a Consistory feels that it cannot in good conscience accept the advice, it may appeal to Synod. If Synod sustains the Classis the Consistory should give immediate execution to the judgment of the Classis. That is to say, the Consistory should suspend or depose the officebearer in question. Failure to do so would bear dire consequences. For in such a case those Consistory members and individual members of the Church concerned who desire to adhere to the decisions of Classis and Synod should meet and declare the deflecting or recalcitrant Consistory members to be out of office, and new Elders and Deacons should be elected in their place forthwith. An extraordinary congregational meeting of this kind should be called under the guidance of classical delegates, or of a neighboring Consistory, preferably the former, to give assurance that all things will be done in good order.
“If any Consistory member thus deposed refuses to acknowledge his deposition and seeks to exercise his former rights, he makes himself liable to discipline as an individual member.
“If one or more deposed Consistory members, together with certain adherents belonging to the Church concerned, refuse to honor the acts of deposition and the election of new officebearers, and when these moreover begin to hold separate meetings for worship, Classis should declare these members to be a schismatic group, outside of the denomination and having forfeited all rights and privileges.
“It is true that Article 30 specifies that matters which cannot be finished by minor assemblies, though rightfully belonging to their domain, become the business of the major assemblies. But in view of the fact that the disciplinary articles of the Church Order clearly specify how discipline regarding officebearers is to be exercised and in no way intimate that Elders and Deacons can be suspended or deposed by the major assemblies, we do not believe that the appeal to Article 30 is justified. We believe that it is reasonable to assume that the early Synods at which our Church Order originated purposefully refrained from incorporating a provision in the Church Order which would allow our major assemblies to suspend and depose Elders and Deacons. As had been pointed out before, the early Reformed Churches were eager to safeguard the integrity and the rights of the particular Churches. The significant 84th article of our Church Order used to be Article 1! Let us also recall that it was not until 1581 that the churches decided that henceforth no Consistory would suspend or depose an Elder or Deacon without the concurrent judgment of its nearest neighbor Consistory. Furthermore, it cannot be denied that the question of deposition of Elders and Deacons is an important one. It is not unreasonable to assume that a provision permitting major assemblies to depose Elders and Deacons was left out of Article 79 purposefully. For notwithstanding the fact that Article 79 tells us how Elders and Deacons shall be deposed it does not provide for the deposition of Elders and Deacons by Classes or Synods. And yet the same Article does specify that Ministers shall be deposed by the judgment of the Classis.
“We believe, moreover, that it can be contended successfully that the deposition of minor assemblies by major assemblies constitutes a negation of the general office of all believers, which should begin to function when certain abnormal situations arise, and that it likewise involves an infringement upon the right of reformation which should ever be held inviolate by the Church of God.
“We realize that both during the formative period of the Reformed Churches and during their more advanced history, Classes and Synods have sometimes deposed Elders and Deacons and even Consistories. But no one would dare to claim that the Reformed Churches have always been true to themselves in matters of church government and that they have always interpreted their own Church Order correctly. Precedents do not decide this issue either one way or the other. We should seek to determine the basic principles fundamental to Reformed denominationalism, and we should seek the correct historical and exegetical interpretation of the various articles of the Church Order which concern this question. Then we should draw our conclusions as to what is proper and improper.”
All of this rings a familiar note, doesn’t it? In our history as churches we have confronted these questions repeatedly in various ways. And no one denies that some of the fundamentals of Reformed Church polity are involved here.