The case referred to in the title of this article is that! of the protests of First Church and Creston against the action of the Southeast Consistory in receiving as members in good standing schismatics who had left the former two congregations in the split of 1953 and who had not made confession of sin and become reconciled with the congregations which they left. Classis East began to deal with appeals on this matter in January; and in an extended session, February 14-16, this matter was treated and finished by classis, and an excellent and concise majority report was adopted with few changes. At the Thursday session the undersigned, who was privileged to have advisory vote at classis, made some extensive remarks which might well be characterized as dealing with the issues in the case. Because of the extensive debate at classis not only, but also because of the rather widespread discussion of these matters among our people, it was suggested by several of the brethren (ministers and others) that it would be helpful if my remarks would appear in print. I spoke at the time from a rather detailed outline, and so it is possible to reproduce rather accurately what I said. Some of the references will be to debate on the floor of classis; others to the answer of Southeast and to the positions taken in a majority and a minority report presented by classis’ committee of pre-advice. But the main thrust of my remarks will be clear, I think, without detailed knowledge of these documents. And where necessary, I will make explanation. A resume of my remarks follows.
I spent the entire day listening yesterday, without making any remarks at all, both in order to try to analyze the fundamental issues in this case, and in order to discover what arguments, if any, there really were on either side. Much of the discussion, to my mind, was repetitious. But 1 have come to the conclusion that there are indeed certain fundamental issues in this matter, both from the viewpoint of the church political aspect of the case, and from the viewpoint of the contents of the case itself.
Secondly, I will try to make clear what these issues are, as briefly as possible, and to prove what I say both from authorities on Reformed church polity and from the record of our classical and synodical decisions and from our history.
Then, in the third place, I want to apply what I prove to some of the fearsome claims that have been made here. There have been such claims made; and they are frightening ones’. It has been claimed that the position of the majority report would lead us down the path of sectarianism. It has been claimed that the protestant consistories and the majority report would completely deny and destroy the autonomy of the local church. It has been predicted that the position of the majority report would be destructive of our Protestant Reformed Churches. And it has been argued that if we adopt the advice of the majority report, we will shut the door completely on the schismatics who might otherwise return to us. These are bold claims. They are not really arguments on the point under debate. But they talk about the consequences of adopting the position of the majority report. The argument really is that if all these bad consequences follow, then the advice of the majority report must be wrong. And we can agree! Not one of us would want these consequences, I am sure. But the question is: are these claims just bogey-men, to scare us into not adopting the advice? Are they clichÃ©s, catch-words, slogans? Or are they real? Is it really true that these will be the consequences? In other words, do these frightening predictions of dire consequences hold water?
I submit that when this entire case is viewed in the light of the adopted position of our churches and in the light of our historic position and what is historically the position of the Reformed churches as to the ethical and church political questions at stake, it will appear clearly that these dire predictions are empty and do not apply at all.
What Is the Position of the Majority Report?
Briefly, the majority report presents the main issue of this case as follows:
1. The families concerned have sinned when, in the schism of 1953, they joined the De Wolf movement; and these sins they committed against their respective consistories (First and Creston).
2. There is therefore need of reconciliation, that is, through the removal of the offense, through confession of sin.
3. This reconciliation must take place between the families concerned and those against whom they sinned, namely, the consistory and congregation of First Church. (Note: this was also the main issue, according to the committee, in the Creston case, also treated by classis.)
This is the main issue of the entire case, according to the report of the committee. It controls all other issues in the case. And from this statement of the main issue all the rest of the committee’s advice follows with inescapable logic. Moreover, this main issue is based upon the fundamental rule of the kingdom expressed inMatthew 5:23, 24.
I can agree with the committee’s presentation of the matter. And can I agree too that the committee has done excellent work in going through the mass of material with which it was confronted and in very concisely singling out this main and controlling issue. However, I believe that when this main issue is decided, then all the various side issues should also be treated, and the arguments answered, in harmony with this main issue. There has been much mention of these side issues. Other cases have been mentioned. The answer of Southeast mentions a case in which they claim that First Church acted contrary to what they now insist upon. And the charge is made that First Church wants to measure with two measures. And I believe that it is the ecclesiastical method not only to answer in regard to the main issue, but to follow through and as much as possible to take way all these side issues and arguments as well. This may be long and tedious. But it is the only way fully to settle the case. Otherwise, if the case is appealed, Synod is going to be faced with the same problem and the same long debate, and will be in a position to say that Classis East did not finish these matters properly. And otherwise, both consistories and public are going to go home saying, “What about this point? What about that point? And what about this argument? And the result will be that no one is fully satisfied. (Note: Classis later decided to follow this suggestion, at least in part, and gave the committee a mandate to report on certain connected cases at the April session, D.V.)
That Advice from the Netherlands
Much has been made in the debate Wednesday of those letters from Professors Kamphuis, Vander Woude, and. Nauta.
For those not present at classis, let me explain that the Rev. R. Veldman wrote to the professors mentioned above and sought their opinion as to the right of Southeast to receive these families as members in good standing. At the classis he read both his own letter to them and their replies. And apparently the action of Southeast Consistory was based in part on this advice from the Netherlands. Unfortunately, although mention is made of these letters in the official answer of Southeast, these letters were never produced at classis until after the committee reported. And then these letters were read and translated by Rev. Veldman. No one else had access to the letters at classis, however; and we had to rely on our memory in discussing them. It is this fact which makes it impossible also to treat these letters in detail. What I say concerning them is from memory, and, in the nature of the case deals only with certain key impressions.
First of all, I want to say a few words about this method of seeking advice. I will concede gladly that these men are experts in the field of church polity. But, in the first place, we ought to keep in mind the background of this advice. Remember that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands are characterized by a rather broadminded ecumenicism. And as a result, they do not easily want to exclude anyone. This is true to an extent even in the history of the split there. Do not forget that the attitude of the Synodicals in the split was such that they even adopted a new formulation of the:: matters involved, in order to woo the Liberated back am not now interested in the right or wrong of the doctrinal issues. I state this merely as a matter of background in evaluating this advice. And I suggest too that some of the Liberated have felt the necessity of retreating from their former sharp position (again, rightly or wrongly) in order to survive as a church and to hold their membership, many of whom have returned to the Synodicals.
In the second place, I consider it very dangerous to get an opinion on an issue of this kind on the basis of a very brief letter of a page or two, which very scantily describes the situation in our churches, and that too, to men who are largely unacquainted with what took place. You can hardly expect a thorough-going opinion and advice on the basis if such scanty information. Do not forget that we had a history, and that this letter covers matters which involved much discussion on our own assemblies and many decisions which are not even mentioned in the letters to these professors. It would have been much better, rather than going to contemporary experts in church polity, to consult recognized authorities from the past and to do research from their writings with a view to the issues and principles of church polity involved. I believe that this explains too why the three Netherlands professors gave no grounds for their opinions. Let me add, upon later reflection, that I believe the three professors were even placed at a distinct disadvantage at the classis by this method of seeking and quoting advice. And I doubt whether their opinions would have been the same if they had the full picture.
In the third place, the question occurs, though I will not make an issue of this: why go all over for advice? Why were not our own assemblies asked for their advice-sister consistories and the classis? This, I believe, is the ecclesiastical method. And why were not our own veteran professors consulted and quoted? They are men who are acquainted with the situation. And they are veterans in the field. Our own Professor Ophoff has been busy in the field of church polity for over thirty years; and he has lived close to the heart-beat of our churches also as far as the fundamentals of church government are concerned.
Next, I want to point out that the letter sent to the professors in the Netherlands was by no means adequate. It gave only very scanty information about what took place in the split. It spoke generally of the “bitterness” attendant upon the split—something that is much in harmony with current attitudes toward the split also in the Netherlands: there is much averse talk about such “bitterness.” But I want to point out some fundamental omissions in that letter of information. I can cite these without having the letters in my possession, because these were very obvious omissions. The letter neglected completely to state these fundamental facts: 1) That it was the adopted position of our churches (both by classical and synodical decision) that those who left us were guilty ofsin. They are guilty (not to mention other sins which were committed) fundamentally: a) Of supporting two literally heretical statements which concerned the very essence of our doctrinal position as Protestant Reformed Churches. And, b) of the sin of schism and rebellion. 2) That it was the adopted position of our churches (by synodical decision) that those who thus left us could return only in the way of heartfelt repentance and confession. These were very essential omissions in the information to the three professors. One of them, Professor Nauta, even suggested that account had to be taken of any synodical regulations made in the matter. And he was unaware that there were such regulations!
Thirdly, I want to point out that even in spite of the above, the letters that were read to us nevertheless to some degree pointed in the same direction as the majority report. To a large extent, of course, these letters missed the point when they paid attention to the mere question of membership and affiliation and to the matter of seeking membership in a different congregation and at a different consistory than that which these families left several years ago. This is somewhat understandable in the light of the information received from Southeast and in the light of the peculiar membership set-up in the Netherlands. But, in the second place, in spite of the above, more than one of the letters nevertheless suggested that if there was any wrong involved—either as far as the brethren or the congregation or the consistory was concerned—that had to be straightened out, and reconciliation had to take place, and that too, to the satisfaction of the offended party. And mark well, they said this, drawing a mistaken conclusion from our set-up concerning place of membership. To this I will come back in the next phase of my discussion. Finally, in this connection, let me draw your attention to the fact that Southeast did not even follow the advice that was given. Prof. Nauta especially emphasized the advisability of contact with any sister consistory that might be involved and that might differ with Southeastbefore taking any decision or action. This certainly would have been in harmony with the ecclesiastical manner. But Southeast has not done this. Although they knew that there was rather sharp difference of opinion, and although First Church had in detail stated their objections (be it in the form of an opinion rather than a formal protest), Southeast sent but one brief communication to the Consistory of First Church. And in this one, brief, three-point communication, without any grounds, they merely informed First that they rejected their position and would act according to their convictions in the matter. This in the name of autonomy! First Church may rightfully claim, therefore, that Southeast shut the door. It may be objected that First would not have listened to arguments and was not receptive for Southeast’s position and claims. This never excuses anyone from trying to convince, from presenting grounds, reasons, But none of this was done. And I submit that if the ecclesiastical manner had been followed, this whole problem might never have been in the lap of the classis. This, I say again, was Prof. Nauta’s recommendation also.
The Opinion of Acknowledged Authorities on the Church Order
In this connection I want to show that all the acknowledged authorities on the Church Order, like Rutgers, Bouwman, Joh. Jansen, and Monsma and Van Dellen, insist to varying degrees that there must in one way or another be reconciliation, where sin has been committed, to the satisfaction of the original consistory where the sin has been committed. This question was raised in the discussion Wednesday. And the position of the committee was criticized. The question was raised: doesn’t the committee think that they know in the old country that Matthew 5:23, 24 is in the Bible? And indeed, the chairman of the committee was correct when he stated that the principle of Matthew 5:23, 24 must be maintained even if church order authorities ignore it. But I want to show that the position of the committee is historically Reformed, and that the authorities on the Church Order have exactly always adhered to this principle. This is important because this will also show that the position of the committee is in harmony with all Reformed thought, is historically sound, not sectarian.
But before I cite these authorities, I want to make two observations, observations which are important for the correct understanding of these quotations.
In the first place, we must keep in mind that you will find no material on the exact situation which we confront here on classis. Prof. Rutgers in his “Kerkelijke Adviezen” treats various concrete problems which were presented him in connection with the articles of the Church Order. The other commentators actually treat and expound the meaning of the Church Order itself, and raise various questions concerning the application of the articles. But our particular situation, with its exact set of circumstances and various phases, is not directly treated. You find no ready-made opinion, especially not on our rather unusual situation arising from the history of 1953-’54. Rather must we look for principles and for the line of Reformed thought and for explanations which point out the general direction in which these thinkers wanted to go. Thus, for example, you can find material under the articles that deal with censure and reconciliation and under the articles that deal with membership-bearing in mind at the same time that while the families involved committed what is undoubtedly censurable sin, they removed themselves by their very act of schism from the government of the consistory that would have censured them. Hence, we must search for the main line of Reformed thinkers as to offense and reconciliation. And then plenty of material can be found.
In the second place, we must keep in mind constantly; when consulting Dutch authorities, the fact that the Dutch churches have their own definite territories. This was referred to also in the letters that were read at classis. What does this mean? The following: 1) That if you live in one territory, you cannot possibly be member of a church in another territory, but only of the church in your district. 2) That a consistory of another territory cannot even consider accepting you as a member, or, in fact, have direct dealings with you. 3) That if you live in one territory, you cannot apply for membership nor have direct dealings with the consistory of another territory. 4) Hence, if you have sinned against one consistory in one territory, and now live in the territory of another church, you cannot possibly go back to church A to apply for membership, and that church A could not possibly deal with you directly. Church B, of your new territory, could rightfully say, “Hands off!” This is a policy that is rather carefully adhered to and taken into consideration by all the authorities I am going to quote. But even in that light, these authorities all insist that there must nevertheless be reconciliation, if at all possible, with the consistory where one has formerly belonged.
In our churches we have no districts. As it was said, we have complete freedom of membership, regardless of location. (Personally, I can agree with Monsma and Van Dellen that this complete freedom has been wrongly viewed and used in the light of history. But that is neither here nor there, in the present discussion.) But what is the logical conclusion from this complete freedom with respect to the question. under discussion, namely, the question of reconciliation and removal of an offense? Is it this, that one is completely free to bypass and ignore a consistory which you have left and against whom you have sinned and by whom you are charged with sin, even censurable sin, and then try to gain membership through another consistory? That seems to be the conclusion of Southeast. But this is not the case! That complete freedom and lack of any geographical restrictions means that a party is completely free to go directly, if at all possible, to the original consistory, against which he has sinned, and make full and complete reconciliation, and thus be restored to the he may enjoy the rights of a member in good standing. But in any case, reconciliation is necessary, and that to the satisfaction of the off ended consistory. This is the principle maintained, to one degree or another, by all authorities.
(to be continued)