The Help and Judgment of the Classis
The last time we were discussing the question of Article 41 of the Church Order: “Do you need the judgment and the help of the Classis for the proper government of your church?” We stated then that we consider the position untenable that holds that a Consistory must first take a definite stand with regard to a certain problem before the Classis can give that Consistory its judgment or help in the matter. The delegates to Classis from a certain Consistory may not be instructed to answer this question affirmatively and then proceed to present to the Classis a problem with which the Consistory is currently confronted and which the latter has not resolved. That would be making the Classis a “Question Box” and this is considered wrong. It has not been permitted and in our history as churches it has occurred on numerous occasions that the delegates of a Consistory were sent home with their problem unresolved because the Classis refused to treat the matter since the Consistory had not as yet taken a definite stand.
We said that we regard this position as wrong. Our reasons for this were given in our last article as two-fold. Firstly, if this is maintained, the only way that a serious problem of the Consistory would come to the attention of the Classis is by the way of protest. No Consistory would bring a problem to Classis under Article 41 that it had already solved. This makes the asking of this question rather absurd. Secondly, a Consistory that is deadlocked on a vital issue cannot bring its problem to the Classis because it cannot first make a decision. Hence, where “help and judgment” are really needed, it is denied when this position is maintained.
We have one more objection to this position. To present it we will once more use a hypothetical case. There is a Consistory that is confronted with a rather serious problem that in many respects affects the entire congregation. All are waiting to hear what the Consistory decides. Some are inclined toward one side of the problem and others are leaning the other way. There are signs of division in the congregation. The problem is very serious and the consistory is not at all unanimous in regard to a solution although the majority in the Consistory could pass a resolution with respect to the matter. The whole Consistory, however, is agreed that the judgment of the Classis, as an outside and neutral party, would be desirable but this it cannot get unless it makes a decision first. And this the Consistory is a bit hesitant to do because of the situation in the congregation and the fact that within the Consistory itself there is no unanimity of opinion. Now suppose that the Consistory makes a decision in a matter of this nature and that ultimately this decision proves to be a wrong one. Would it not result in endless and complicated difficulties in the congregation which would very likely become impossible to untangle after some time? Much of the consequent trouble could have been avoided if another course in the treatment of the matter had been possible. Would it not have been much better in such a circumstance if the Consistory could temporarily refrain from taking a definite stand in the matter and first go and seek the help and judgment of the Classis? To be sure, eventually the Consistory would have to decide the matter and resolve the difficulty in the congregation but it could then do so with the counsel and guidance of the broader gathering of the churches. In this way error as well as much trouble might have been prevented and this is much to be preferred to the creation in a congregation of trouble that later has to be straightened out after irreparable damage has been done.
For these reasons, therefore, the Classis should not turn away a Consistory that comes to it in good faith with a request for help with regard to a particular difficulty. On the other hand, however, the Classis must not be overly hasty in offering assistance and advice with regard to every problem that is presented to it under the question of Article 41. Our position is not that a Consistory can raise any question or problem and expect that the Classis will stand ready with a solution. We do not advocate that Classis functions in the place of the Consistory. We are not seeking some place where the Consistory can simply dump all its problems. We rather agree fully with the following remark taken from Rev. G. M. Ophoff’s notes on “Church Right.” He states:
“As to the question itself, the judgment and help that a” Consistory seeks of the Classis should have a bearing on concrete cases, otherwise there will be no end to matters concerning which such judgment and advice is sought. The following remark is in order. The Consistory should not get into the habit of leaning on the judgment of the Classis but should learn to stand on its own feet. It should not form the habit of going to Classis with its matters of local interest but should train itself to deal with them independent of Classis. It should learn to rely on its own judgment.”
Therefore we feel that a Consistory that asks help and advice from the Classis with respect to a particular question or problem should be given that assistance only with the following stipulations : (1) The Classis must first determine that the question raised has to do with a concrete case. Classis cannot enter into all kinds of academic issues however interesting or important these may be. She must give help only in concrete situations where help is needed. Thus she must carefully determine before entering the matter that the question raised rises out of an actual existing circumstance in the congregation of the Consistory that presents the problem. Classis must be convinced that the Consistory has a real problem and, therefore, actually needs “help.”
(2) The Classis should be satisfied that the Consistory has done its very best to resolve the difficulty. This does not, mean that the Consistory has succeeded or even arrived at a definite stand with regard to the problem but only that a serious attempt has been made to arrive at a solution. If it becomes evident in the course of this investigation that this has not been done, the Classis should instruct the Consistory to do so before seeking the judgment and help of the Classis. If, however, Classis is convinced that the Consistory has done its best and still has failed to arrive at a solution, she should be ready to give the assistance sought. There must be a reasonable certainty that the Consistory is not shirking its duty. If the Consistory is doing its best but is having difficulty in the execution of its tasks, it is proper that the Classis render the desired and needed assistance.
(3) Normally the president of the Classis replies to the question asked and then the Classis can either concur or dissent in the judgment expressed. Another way is that a motion containing the requested advice is made from the floor of the Classis and, after a proper discussion of the matter, is voted on. If it passes it becomes the answer of the Classis to the problem presented. There is, however, a third alternative which is, in our opinion, to be preferred especially in problems that are rather involved and may even be somewhat explosive on the local scene. This is that the Classis refrain from expressing a definite judgment in the matter immediately and instead appoints a committee which it authorizes to meet with the Consistory involved in an attempt to help them resolve the difficulty. Such a committee can study the problem much more thoroughly and can investigate the situation involved so that the solution ultimately reached will be more effective for good upon the situation than a decision made by the Classis on the spur of the moment and passed on to the Consistory. There is a more personal touch to this method of rendering “help and judgment”, and in cases where the relationship in a congregation is strained because of trouble, this personal touch can prove to be a healing salve.
In conclusion, therefore we state that as far as the question : “Do you need the judgment and help of the Classis for the proper government of your church?” is concerned, there is a two-fold duty here. On the part of the Consistory, it must always be borne in mind that she is obliged to do her utmost to solve her own problems and must use this question only as a last resort. Where this is properly observed, the Classis will not be unduly burdened with all sorts of questions. On the part of the Classis it must be remembered that the motive of this question she asks of the delegates is that the churches may exercise a mutual supervision and that, therefore, when that supervision unveils a troublesome situation in a particular congregation, she should be ready to assume the obligation to help to her utmost. If the Classis is of this disposition in the matter, the consistory that is confronted with a real problem will not loathe to present that problem to the Classis. Where the Classis does not assume her obligation to “help and give judgment where needed, Consistories may well begin to feel that it is useless to bring their difficulties in the open since they will only be told to go and solve their own problems anyway. This can only have an ill-effect. It is far better that the Classis gives a bit of advice and help in a situation where it is really not needed than that situations in the churches that really demand assistance go unaided. Hence, here too, the rule of Scripture may well apply: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).