The following question was sent in:
“We had a discussion in our family about sinning against the seventh commandment. The question was asked, where did it originate that you must confess your sins before the congregation. Is it not sufficient to do this before the consistory, assuming that the person or persons are sincere? Could you cast some light on the subject?”
This question obviously refers to the public announcement from the pulpit that a certain person or certain persons have confessed their sin against the seventh commandment and that this confession has been accepted by the consistory. This public announcement is based on article 75 of our Church Order which reads,
“The reconciliation of all such sins as are of their nature of a public character, or have become public because the admonition of the church was despised, shall take place (upon sufficient evidence of repentance) in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of each church. Whether in particular cases this shall take place in public, shall, when there is difference of opinion about it in the consistory, be considered with the advice of two neighboring churches or of the classis.”
Distinction is made in this article between private and public sins. Sins which are private must be treated according to Matthew 18, and when a reconciliation is attained the matter is dropped. There are sins which are public, that is, commonly known, either because of the very nature of the sin, or because the sinner continues in his or her sinful way and refuses to repent. The sin against the seventh commandment obviously belongs to sins that by their very nature are known or become known.
The synod of Emden, 1571, decided that public sins must be publicly reconciled, not according to the judgment of one or two persons, but according to the consensus of the entire consistory. The synod of Middelburg, 1581, added the requirement, “When there is clear evidence of sorrow and repentance”. Our Church Order in its present form is essentially the same as was adopted by the synod of Dordt in 1618-19.
Our fathers realized that sin is a serious matter. Sin is an offence to God and also an offence to God’s Church, as well as grievous wrong committed by the guilty party or parties. To mention one concrete example from the Scriptures, when Achan stole from Jericho the things which God had accursed, he caused all Israel to sin. We read in Joshua 7: 1, “But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing, for Achan . . . took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israel.”(See also verses 11-13, 15, 26.) Joshua and all Israel stoned Achan with stones, along with his family and his possessions, and burned them all with fire. Thus was sin taken away from Israel. Today we often lose sight of our communal responsibility as members of the same congregation and denomination, the household of faith. When one member of the family sins the whole family becomes involved, not only as individual families, but also as the family of God. Therefore the sinner is guilty, but the church is offended, even as God is offended. God demands reconciliation, but so does His church. The offence must be removed, lest we all carry the guilt. This is the basis for article 75 of the Church Order, which requires that “the reconciliation of all such sins…shall take place in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of each church.” It is well to add, that this applies to ALL public sins, and not only to the sin against the seventh commandment as if this particular sin were the worst of all sins.
Various practices have prevailed in the past. The determining question has always been, just how public is this sin? A consistory must not make public a sin that is not even known among the members. The sinner must not be made a public spectacle because of a certain offence. Therefore a certain public sin may not be known in a large congregation, but will certainly be known in a smaller congregation. For that very reason our fathers left it to the discretion of the entire consistory as to how this offence must be removed in the congregation and reconciliation attained. Those who are aware of a certain sin in the congregation, or will in due time become aware of it must be assured that this sin has been confessed and put away, so that the sinner is forgiven of God and is embraced by the members of the church as one who has received mercy, even as we all must daily receive mercy in pardon. In certain instances the guilty party stood up in the congregation and confessed his sin and repentance before the whole congregation. In some instances the guilty party was barred from communion for a time to prove the sincerity of his repentance. In most instances the confession is made and accepted by the consistory, and a public announcement is made from the pulpit in the worship service. Upon sincere repentance there is joy in heaven, and there is also joy among the saints.
Monsma and Van Dellen write in “The Revised Church Order Commentary” (following the suggestions of Joh. Jansen of the Netherlands in his commentary), the following (page 3 10):
“This article does not specify when the reconciliation shall be before the consistory and when before the Church also. Instances and examples are not given either. Every case must be judged in its own setting and upon its own merits or demerits. In general, consistories should be guided by considerations as these: Which form of reconciliation (public or private) will glorify God most? Which is best for the Church? Which form is best for the repentant sinner? Consistories should not give needless publicity to sins committed through confessions or reconciliations before the whole Church in public meeting. Neither should the consistory permit the name of a repentant sinner to be dishonored before men, if this can be avoided. On the other hand, offensive sins greatly dishonoring God’s name and the Church of Christ should be confessed openly and personally, so that all may see and know that repentance has taken place and so that the offence is removed the more effectively. A public reconciliation is very often the best also for the sinner concerned. It tends to remove barriers which otherwise may linger.”