Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
“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 has been 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 a difference of opinion about it in the consistory, be considered with the advice of two neighboring churches or of the classis.”
Church Order, Article 75.
Article 75 deals with reconciliation of public sins, in distinction from Article 73, which dealt with reconciliation of private sins. The article does not deal with the reconciliation of those who have been excommunicated. This is a special case and will be treated separately in Article 78. In general, the article calls for the reconciliation of public sins in a public way, before the entire congregation. This is in keeping with the biblical directive in I Timothy 5:20, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” Public sins create offense in the congregation and bring a blot on the church. That offense and blot is removed by way of public confession. Through public confession, the sinner is restored to the community of believers, and the name of the church is cleared.
Our present Article 75 can be traced back to Article 29 of the Synod of Emden, 1571. This article provided that reconciliation should not take place publicly unless there was unanimous agreement in the consistory.
Sins which by their nature are public or which have been revealed to the congregation (because of rejection of admonitions) shall be openly reconciled, not according to the judgment of one or two persons, but according to the opinion of the whole consistory, in such a way and form which is considered to be most fitting for the edification of each congregation.
The Synod of Dordt, 1578, incorporated the decision of Emden into its Church Order, making it Article 98.
Concerning sins that by their nature are public or which by despising the admonitions of the church are made public, reconciliation shall take place publicly, not by the judgment of one or two persons, but by the judgment of the entire consistory, in such a manner and form as shall be judged most fitting for the edification of each church.
The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, revised the decision of Emden and Dordt by making two significant additions. First, Middel-burg called for public reconciliation by judgment of the consistory and advice of the classis. No consistory might take a decision requiring public reconciliation without seeking the concurrence of the classis. And, second, Middelburg inserted the proviso that public reconciliation was to take place only after definite signs of repentance were evident. Article 63 of the Church Order of Middelburg stated:
Concerning sins which by their nature were public, or by rejection of ecclesiastical admonitions have become public, reconciliation (when definite signs of repentance are seen) shall take place in public by judgment of the consistory and advice of the classis, in such a form and manner as shall be judged most fitting for the edification of each church.
The Synod of the Hague, 1586, further revised Middelburg. Classical involvement was removed, and instead the article provided that in the smaller, country churches that were served by only one minister, public reconciliation should proceed only after the concurrence of two neighboring consistories was secured. Article 68 of its adopted Church Order reads:
Concerning all such sins that by their nature were public or because ecclesiastical admonition has been despised have become public, when sufficient evidence of repentance is seen, reconciliation shall take place publicly by judgment of the consistory (in the country or in smaller cities where there is only one minister with the advice of two neighboring churches) in such a form and manner as shall be found most fitting for the edification of each church.
The decision of the Synod of the Hague was taken over by the Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, and became Article 75 of its Church Order.
When the Christian Reformed Church in 1914 translated and revised the Church Order of Dordt, it reintroduced the involvement of the classis. If difference of opinion arose in the consistory over the necessity of a public reconciliation, the consistory was to seek the advice of two neighboring consistories “or of the classis.” This revision has been retained in our Protestant Reformed Church Order.
The history of Article 75 indicates the seriousness with which public confession and public reconciliation has been regarded in the Reformed churches. Great care must be exercised before a consistory proceeds along these lines. This is perhaps the only instance in the Church Order in which a unanimous decision is required of a consistory. Unanimous decisions are always desirable, but not always possible. Ordinarily a simple majority is all that is necessary. But in this case, a unanimous decision is required. In order for public reconciliation to take place, there may be no difference of opinion within the consistory, according to Article 75. If even one member of the consistory is opposed to the public reconciliation, the matter must be presented to two neighboring consistories or to the classis. The requirement of a unanimous decision is in keeping with the seriousness of public confession of sin. No consistory ought to take this matter lightly.
When Public Reconciliation Is Necessary
Only public sins are to be reconciled publicly. Public sins include sins which in their very nature are public, as well as sins which although private have become public because the sinner has refused to heed the admonitions of the consistory. In this latter case, the congregation has been informed of the transgressor’s sin and his refusal to repent of his sin. Because the congregation has been informed, the sin has been made public and public reconciliation becomes necessary.
It may happen that a sinner does not repent after he has been admonished by those who are following the course of Matthew 18, but does repent when the consistory begins to labor with him and before any announcement is made to the congregation. In this case, reconciliation ought to take place before the consistory only. Those who were involved in the way of Matthew 18should be either present at the time of reconciliation or be afterwards informed by the consistory of the sinner’s repentance. In this case, no announcement should be made to the congregation. Never should a consistory reveal to the congregation the faults of a member of which the congregation is not aware. It is sufficient that reconciliation has taken place before the consistory.
Reconciliation is to take place “upon sufficient evidence of repentance.” This is an important safeguard in Article 75. A consistory must not be too quick to accept a sinner’s confession. A consistory must do what it can to insure that the sinner’s confession is sincere. This is especially true in the case of a sinner who has fallen into the same sin more than once. It is well known, for instance, that those who are addicted to alcohol readily shed tears of sorrow and deplore having fallen back into the sin of drunkenness, but often relapse. In this case a consistory must not be too quick to accept the sinner’s confession and proceed to his restoration. Article 75 requires that a consistory be convinced of the genuineness of the repentance by definite evidence that the sinner is repentant. It has not been at all uncommon that consistories place such a member on probation for a designated length of time. If this procedure is followed, the sinner is reconciled to the church, but the privileges of church membership are temporarily suspended, particularly the use of the sacraments. This may also be the procedure in the case of especially heinous sins. The Synod of Dordt, 1578, even made this provision a part of its Church Order. Article 99 of this Church Order reads:
Those who have committed grievous sins which are a disgrace to the church or which should also be punished by the government, even though they show penitence verbally, shall nevertheless be barred from the Lord’s Supper to remove the offense and to test their penitence. But how often or how long this shall take place shall be left to the discretion of the consistory.
How Public Reconciliation Should Take Place
When public reconciliation is to take place, the consistory should formulate a brief announcement to be read to the congregation. The announcement should be formally adopted by the consistory and should be read orally, not inserted into the weekly bulletin. Especially ought this to be the case in our day when bulletins are widely distributed and even posted on Internet sites. The repentant sinner ought to be spared, as much as possible.
The announcement should state the sin that was committed, inform the congregation of the sinner’s repentance, and the decision of the consistory reconciling the sinner to God and the congregation. The purpose of such an announcement is not to administer a final word of rebuke and warning. But the purpose of the announcement is the sinner’s reconciliation and reinstatement. This should be reflected in the wording of the announcement. The repentant sinner should sign the announcement that the consistory has drafted in the presence of the consistory. By doing this, he expresses his agreement with what will be announced to the congregation. This safeguards the consistory from any liability in making the announcement. This signed confession should be deposited in the supplements of the consistory for any possible future reference.
Some churches have adopted a Form for Confession of Guilt before the congregation. This is not the practice in our churches, but is the practice, for instance, in the Netherlands Reformed congregations. The Netherlands Reformed Confession of Guilt contains three questions:
1.Do you confess before God and His holy congregation that you have sinned against the ________ commandment?
2.Do you acknowledge that this transgression grieves you?
3.Do you promise to forsake this sin and the world, and to live in a Christian way in the future?
Ordinarily, when this form is used the sinner rises before the reading of the questions and answers affirmatively before the congregation. The use of such a form is entirely in keeping with Article 75 and has much to commend itself. Nevertheless, Article 75 does not refer to or require such a form, and the sinner’s reconciliation can as appropriately be effected by means of an announcement prepared by the consistory and read to the congregation. It is assumed that whatever method is used, the announcement is read to the congregation during the course of a regular Sunday worship service.
A special case presents itself when repentance occurs after the first step of censure has been announced to the congregation. In this instance, the congregation has been informed that a certain member is living impenitently in a specific sin and has been placed under censure by the consistory, but the name of the sinner is not announced. When a sinner under the first step of censure repents, reconciliation must be made not only before the consistory, but also before the congregation. An announcement must be made to the congregation that the censured member has repented, his censure has been lifted, and he has been restored to the congregation. Although a public announcement must be made, because the sinner was under only the first step of censure, his name must not be included in the announcement. It is sufficient that the consistory inform the congregation of the fact of his repentance and restoration, without mentioning the sinner by name.
…to be continued.