Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
If anyone complain that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by a general synod.
Church Order, Article 31
A Sacred Right
The right of appeal is a sacred right possessed by every church member. It is a sacred right; not because it is a right granted by the Church Order, but because it is a right from God. As much as the Reformed system of church government is the will of God for the life of the church, so within Reformed church government the right of appeal is the God-given right of every church member. Article 31 does not create the right of appeal; it merely asserts this most sacred of ecclesiastical privileges.
The right of appeal belongs to the essence of church membership. To be a member of the church is to have the right of appeal. The right of appeal stems from the office of all believers, the office occupied by every church member.
Not only does every church member possess the right of appeal; every church member has the responsibility of appeal. When the church member is convinced that God’s truth has been denied or God’s law set aside by a decision of a minor assembly, he has not only the right, but also the duty before God to appeal to the broader assemblies. His motivation is not winning his own case or proving his own point. His motivation is the glory of God and the well-being of the church, which glory and wellbeing are threatened by doctrinal departure or unholiness.
To deny church members the right of appeal is hierarchy. For a Reformed church to do so is to disdain her heritage, to despise her own Church Order, to countenance popery.
The right of appeal arises out of the fact that the church is not infallible. In her deliberations and decisions it is possible for the church to err. History proves this beyond a shadow of doubt. Reformed churches reject the presumption of the Roman Catholic Church that the decisions of church councils are infallible. Rome’s teaching robs the members of any right of appeal. This is one reason why there is no possibility of reformation in the Roman Catholic Church.
One has the right of appeal when he is convinced “. . .that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly. . . .” This does not imply that every decision of an ecclesiastical assembly is just cause for appeal to a major assembly. Decisions that concern no principle or doctrinal issue are not properly the subject of appeal. Decisions that merely go against one’s personal preference ought not to be made the subject of appeal. Those who make appeals over these kinds of issues, who make ecclesiastical mountains out of ecclesiastical mole-hills, unduly trouble the broader assemblies. One is “wronged” by the decision of an ecclesiastical assembly when he is convinced in his own conscience that a decision conflicts with the Word of God, the Reformed Confessions, or the Church Order.
The Appeal Process
Appeals should be as brief and well-documented as possible. Length is not important; clarity is.
The following structure should be followed in the composition of an appeal:
1) The name of the appellant.
2) The name of the body against which the appeal is being made.
3) The specific decision which is being appealed, quoted exactly if possible.
4)The reason(s) why the appellant is convinced that the appealed decision is wrong, citing proof from Scripture, the Confessions, Church Order, previous decisions by the assemblies.
5) All background information and necessary documentation that will enable the assembly to arrive at a proper decision.
6) A statement defining clearly what action the appellant desires the assembly to take.
It ought always to be remembered that the burden of proof rests with the appellant. The responsibility is not so much with the assembly to defend its action or decision. But the responsibility is with the appellant to demonstrate that the assembly’s decision is in error: “. . .unless it be proved (i.e., by the appellant) to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order. . . .”
Article 31 states clearly that the proper course of appeal is from the minor to the major assemblies. That means that decisions of consistories are appealed to classis; decisions of classes are appealed to the synod. This opposes the practice of Congretional and Independent churches. In these churches decisions of the ruling body of the local congregation may be challenged and brought for adjudication before the congregation. The Reformed system of church government knows of no appeal to the congregation.
Our churches have appended the following decision to Article 31: “Appeal to a major gathering against any decision of an ecclesiastical body must be made upon the immediately following meeting of the body to which appeal is directed, at the same time giving notification to the secretary of the body by whose decision he is aggrieved. Of every judgment rendered in the case, those concerned shall receive a notification.”
This decision requires notification of appeal to the body against whom appeal is being made. This includes not merely serving notice of appeal, but furnishing that body with a copy of the appeal. In this way the body is provided with the opportunity to respond to the appeal and prepare, if necessary, a defense. The assembly against which appeal is being made must also upon request furnish the appellant with the decisions and material pertinent to his appeal.
This decision also places a time limitation on appeals. Appeals are to be made to the next meeting of the body to whom appeal is made. Such a rule reduces unnecessary delays, an inordinate amount of time passing between the decision taken and the making of an appeal against it. Some leeway ought to be given in the application of this rule, circumstances sometimes being a factor. For example, a man may become sick and thus be unable to complete his appeal in time for the next meeting of the assembly to which he is appealing.
The use of an assistant in the preparation of an appeal has always been permitted in Reformed churches. One may have difficulty expressing himself, difficulty with the language, or be unfamiliar with the appeal process. In that case he may enlist the help of a trusted assistant, who may not necessarily agree with him but is willing to help him formulate his appeal. This assistant was referred to by the Dutch as een mond, that is, “a mouth,” a spokesperson. This assistant should be a member of the church and should be designated in the appeal.
Decisions Settled and Binding
Article 31 states that the decisions of the assemblies “. . .shall be considered settled and binding . . . . ” “Settled” means that once a decision has been made further discussion on the floor of the assembly is suspended. “Binding” means that the decision is to be honored and submitted to by all parties involved.
Decisions are considered settled and binding that are arrived at by majority vote: “. . .agreed upon by a majority vote. . . .” As desirable as it is, a unanimous vote is not required. Decisions of the assemblies are made by a simple majority, half plus one.
Because decisions are settled and binding, even though an appellant does not agree with a decision, he must acquiesce even during the appeal process. He does not have to agree with it; the church may bind no man’s conscience. But he must submit. This means that he regards the decision as legally in force. He does not agitate or spread propaganda against it. The sacred right of appeal is NOT the right to militate against the decisions of the broader assemblies. This principle is expressed in the “Formula of Subscription”:
. . .reserving for ourselves, however, the right of an appeal, whenever we shall believe ourselves aggrieved by the sentence of the consistory, the Classis or the Synod, and until a decision is made upon such an appeal, we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.
Although decisions taken by majority vote are settled and binding, it maybe advisable for an assembly to postpone the execution of a decision that is under appeal. This is not always possible and there is no rule in our churches requiring that matters under appeal remain in status quo. Each case must be judged on its own merits, the well-being of the appellant as well as the church as a whole being taken into consideration. Invariably this should be the case, however, in matters involving the exercise of Christian discipline.
The Disputed Exception
Article 31 allows for one exception: “. . .unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order . . . .”
Over the years there has been difference of opinion regarding the interpretation of this exception clause. To whom must it be proved that the decision of an assembly is in conflict with the Word of God or the articles of the Church Order? Must this be proved to the ecclesiastical assemblies? Or must this be proved merely to the satisfaction of the person himself who is making the appeal, so that if it is his sincere conviction that for conscience sake he cannot agree with a certain decision, he need not consider it settled and binding?
There are those who have explained the exception clause as referring to the individual or consistory that has been wronged by a decision of the assemblies. Because in their judgment the decision is a wrong decision, they need not consider it settled and binding, not during the appeal process nor after final adjudication by the synod.
But this explanation is not correct and cannot be defended. In the first place, such an interpretation puts the burden of proof on the broader assemblies rather than on the appellant, in contradiction to Article 31 itself. Not the assemblies must prove to the satisfaction of the appellant, but the appellant must prove to the satisfaction of the broader assemblies.
In the second place, the word “prove” itself rules out such an interpretation. An appellant does not prove something to himself. He is already convinced in his own mind. That is the very reason he is appealing. It is the appellant who must prove to the broader assemblies that a certain decision is in conflict with the Word of God, the Confessions, or the Church Order. If the intention of Article 31 had been to assert that decisions of the broader assemblies are settled and binding only in so far as members or consistories are convinced of their rightness, the exception clause would read something like this: “unless one is personally convinced that the decision taken conflicts with the Word of God, the Confessions, or the Church Order.”
Thirdly, to impose this interpretation on Article 31 is to introduce anarchy into the church. If this interpretation wins the day in Reformed churches, every man will be doing what is right in his own eyes, as will every consistory. And so long as this thinking persists, there will be no judge that God will be able to raise up strong enough to deliver us from ourselves.
The exception clause applies to the ecclesiastical assemblies. It must be proved to the ecclesiastical assemblies that a decision or action is in error. Until that is done and the decision either amended or revoked, it remains settled and binding in the churches.
What recourse have individuals or consistories whose appeals are ultimately rejected after they have gone the full course of the appeal process? If possible, they should acquiesce to the decision made and remain in the fellowship of the churches. If, however, they cannot in good conscience do this, they have no choice but to leave the denomination. In this case it must be their absolute conviction that the church has departed from the truth of the Word of God, and therefore has abandoned the marks of the true church of Jesus Christ in the world. In the way of separation, they must institute the church anew, or join an existing federation where the truth of the Word of God is maintained.
The sacred right of appeal obligates every church member to church reformation. If that reformation cannot be achieved from within, by way of the appeal process, it must be achieved by separation – but then separation only after the appeal process has been exhausted.