Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
Furthermore, the president [of classis] shall, among other things, put the following questions to the delegates of each church: 1. Are the consistory meetings held in your church? 2. Is church discipline exercised? 3. Are the poor and the Christian schools cared for? 4. Do you need the judgment and help of the classis for the proper government of your church?
Church Order, Article 41
The questions of Article 41 asked of the delegates from each consistory by the president of the classis have a very important place on the agenda of every meeting of the classes. At each meeting, these questions must be asked and satisfactorily answered. No meeting of classis may be adjourned until the questions of Article 41 have been treated.1
In putting these questions to the delegates at classis, the president is acting on behalf of the classis. It is really the classis that is putting these questions before the various consistories. In this way the churches exercise mutual supervision over each other, one of the fundamental reasons for belonging to a federation of churches. And in this way they carry out the obligations that arise out of the principle of corporate responsibility.
The response to these questions is never to be the response of the individual delegate who answers. It must not be his personal response, the expression of his own personal opinion. But he is to respond as the representative of his consistory. For this reason, consistories ought to discuss the questions of Article 41 when appointing delegates to the upcoming meeting of classis. Along with the adoption of the classical credentials and a discussion of the contents of the agenda, the consistory ought to instruct its delegates in the answers that are to be given to the questions of Article 41. Especially if the delegates are to request the “judgment and help of the classis for the proper government of (their) church,” must this be done by official decision of the consistory. Such a request ought to be included in the “Instructions” on the classical credentials.
Concern for the Labors of Officebearers
All of the questions of Article 41 concern the work of the officebearers. The mutual supervision of the churches over each other is especially mutual supervision of the officebearers. This is vital for the life of each church and for the church federation. If the churches are to be kept in the true doctrine and in godliness of life, the officebearers must faithfully carry out their responsibilities. The purpose of the questions of Article 41 is to place each consistory before the question, “Are you doing the work to which Christ has called you?” Besides mutual supervision, the questions of Article 41 call consistories to self-examination.
There is concern for the office of elder: “Is church discipline exercised?” and, “Do you need the judgment and help of the classis for the proper government of your church?” There is concern for the office of deacon: “Are the poor and the Christian schools cared for?” There is concern for the office of the ministry. This belongs to the question, “Is church discipline exercised?” An important aspect of church discipline is the faithful preaching of the Word.
Earlier versions of Article 41 addressed the office of the ministry more directly. All of the earlier versions called for the preaching of a specimen sermon by the ministers of the classis in rotation. This sermon was not for purposes of meditation at the beginning of the meeting of the classis. Instead the sermon was to be evaluated and “criticized” by the other delegates to classis. In this way preaching skills would be honed. The stipulation of the Synod of Dordt, 1578, is typical: “Each minister in turn shall deliver a short sermon, concerning which the others shall judge and admonish him concerning what needs improvement.” This provision of Article 41 was dropped by the revision of the Church Order of Dordt by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914. And although there were real sons why it was eliminated, chief of which being that by this time ministers were receiving a thorough seminary education, nevertheless direct concern with the preaching in the churches has to some extent been lost to Article 41. It might be worthwhile that a question be added to the four that we have at present under Article 41 that deals with the preaching.
In the course of time, the questions asked under Article 41 have undergone some change. In the past, delegates were asked whether the consistory was honoring the decisions of the major assemblies, whether it was doing its utmost to keep the church free of heresy, whether consistory members were in full agreement with the doctrines of the Reformed faith, and whether the work of missions was being promoted. This points out that it might be possible to expand the list of questions that make up the questions of Article 41 in our Church Order.
The president of classis is given a certain amount of flexibility in asking the questions of Article 41. The article states, “… the president shall, among other things, put the following questions to the delegates of each church . . . .” Leeway is given to the president to add to the questions, or at least follow up the questions of Article 41 with related questions. In my own experience, I have never seen a president of classis do this. But Article 41 allows for it.
The first of the questions under Article 41 is, “Are the consistory meetings held in your church?” The point of the question is whether the consistory meetings are held regularly in each church, at least once a month. Are these meetings publicly announced so that members of the congregation may appear before the consistory if they desire? And, not only are the consistory meetings formally held, but are they conducted according to the stipulations of the Church Order, so that the meetings are characterized by decency and good order? Do the officers of the consistory, especially the president and the clerk, faithfully carry out their duties?
The second question is, “Is church discipline exercised?” Vital for the spiritual life of the church is the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. Do the elders supervise the confession and walk of the members of the church? If there are those who err in doctrine or life, are they dealt with? Does the preaching equip the elders for their disciplinary work and support the discipline of the elders in the congregation?
And, “Are the poor and the Christian schools cared for?” Here the work of the deacons comes especially under consideration. There are really two questions here, and they could better be divided and asked separately. It is possible that the poor are cared for, but that the cause of Christian education is neglected. Do the deacons search out the poor? Do they “care for” the poor, not only by giving them financial relief, but also by bringing them the comfort, and sometimes the rebuke, of God’s Word?
Are the Christian schools cared for means that the consistory must promote Christian education. It must point parents to their calling to send their children to the Christian schools, Protestant Reformed Christian schools where this is possible. The elders must do this. The minister must do this in the preaching. And the deacons must do this by assisting parents who need financial help in order to send their children to the Christian schools.
Do You Need the Judgment and Help of the Classis for the Proper Government of Your Church?
This question is of a different nature than the other three questions. It provides a consistory with the opportunity to seek the assistance of the classis in its government of the church. It must be underscored that such a request must be made officially by a consistory to the classis, not the request merely of an individual delegate at classis.
There has been difference of opinion from time to time whether a consistory must first make a concrete decision before it seeks the help of classis. It ought to be plain that this is not the requirement of Article 41 and ought not to be a requirement imposed upon consistories by a classis. For one thing this ignores long-standing precedent in the Reformed churches, especially of the Netherlands, according to which consistories brought many questions and pleas for help to classes and synods. For another thing, if a consistory is forced to make its own decision before coming to classis, it does not any longer need the help of the classis. The situation is often that a consistory cannot even make a decision because of divided opinions within the consistory. Or it may be that a consistory does not want to make a decision all on its own because the issue has significant ramifications for the churches as a whole. Before making such a far-reaching decision, a consistory wisely consults with the sister churches of the classis.
This is not to say that a consistory may bring all sorts of hypothetical questions to the classis. Consistories must be dealing with concrete situations. And classes must be sure, too, that there is evidence that a consistory does really need the help of the classis. A consistory must demonstrate area1 working with the problem. No consistory ought to be permitted to shirk its rightful responsibilities and have the classis do its work.
The question also arises whether the assistance of the classis ought to be in the form of a definite and binding decision of the classis. It may indeed be the case that this is necessary and desirable. A consistory may even request such a decision on the matter it brings before the classis under this question of Article 41. Yet there are times when it is sufficient that a general discussion be held on the floor, all the delegates contributing, so that in a less formal way the “mind of the classis” is made known. Usually this is the procedure that has been followed in our churches, and usually this is sufficient to assist the consistory that has requested classis’ assistance. A distinction between a formal decision and the general consensus of the classis is pointed to in the language of the fourth question: “Do you need the judgment (formal decision) and help (general advice) of the classis . . . .”
When the Questions of Article 41 Ought to be Asked
In our churches the questions of Article 41 are asked at the very end of the meeting of classis, nearly the last item on the agenda. This is poor procedure. By doing this we expose ourselves to the temptation that the significance of these questions is slighted and the asking and answering of them becomes a mere formality.
In the early history of the Dutch Reformed churches, the questions of Article 41 were asked at the beginning of the meetings of the classes. They were the very first thing on the agenda after the constituting of the classis. The provision of the Synod of Embden, 1571, is typical:
After the president shall be chosen, by the general vote of the ministers and after he has offered prayer, he shall ask each one individually whether they hold consistory meetings in their churches. Whether church discipline is maintained. Whether they have any struggle with any heretics. Whether they have any doubt concerning any articles of doctrine. Whether the poor and the schools are cared for. Whether they need the advice and help of the other ministers for ruling the churches, and other such things.
The Synod of 1942 of the Christian Reformed Church expressed its agreement with this practice:
…that an inquiry on the part of the classis into the spiritual state of its several congregations constitutes the central and principal task of classis, and therefore should take precedence. Hence Article 41 should not be taken up at the end of classical meetings but at the outset. (Acts of Synod 1942, p. 110.)
Our classes ought to return to the practice of asking the questions of Article 41 at the beginning of their meetings. Then, too, if matters of concern are raised in connection with these questions, the classes are in a better position to deal with them. Perhaps a committee can be appointed to do some investigating or to bring advice to classis. This would better assure that the questions of Article 41 continue to occupy the important place they were intended to occupy on the agenda of our classical meetings.
1. The interested reader is referred to two excellent articles dealing with the questions of Article 41 in the Standard Bearer, vol. 68, pp. 326 and 344, by Rev. Russell Dykstra. These articles are the substance of an address given by Rev. Dykstra at an Officebearers’ Conference in Classis West.B