Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.

The minister is a heretic. Or schismatic. Or walking in disobedience to one of the other commandments. What shall be done? Shall the next meeting of classis proceed to his suspension, and then deposition? Shall the synod exercise this discipline? May the classis and synod exercise this authority? . . . If the synod advises the minister’s consistory to discipline the minister, but the consistory ignores that advice, may the synod proceed to depose the whole consistory? These questions bring out the issues of church government involved in the separation of 1924.

The reformation of 1924 was a return to the historical and biblical roots in the church’s government. When gatherings of classis of the mother church of the PRC deposed ministers and consistories, they were guilty of hierarchy—taking to themselves authority and power which belong to the local congregation alone. For anyone today to think that this is not an important aspect of Christ’s church, let him only observe the current hierarchy of some Reformed synods, as well as the (understandable) over-reaction to this abuse of power.

The PRC hold to the autonomy (self-rule) of each local congregation. While the PRC, faithful to the Reformed tradition, vehemently oppose independentism(witness our strong denominational ties and our stand regarding the real authority of the broader assemblies) we, just as strongly oppose hierarchy—both the misuse of the authority which the broader assemblies rightly possess, and the taking to themselves of authority which belongs only to the local congregation.

The error of the churches early in this century was that of hierarchy.

The error to avoid in reaction to this sin is that of independentism.

What was that early error of hierarchy? When the teaching of common grace was made official denominational dogma by the Synod of Kalamazoo in 1924, the ministers of the churches were called by the Synod to conform their teaching to that dogma. When the fathers of our denomination refused, Classis Grand Rapids East, in November, 1924, began the process of discipline of the Rev. Herman Hoeksema, suspending him from his office of minister of the gospel, and declared the consistory of Eastern Avenue CRC outside of the federation of churches. On January 24, 1925, Classis Grand Rapids West deposed the ministers and consistories of Hope CRC (the Rev. George M. Ophoff), and Kalamazoo I (the Rev. Henry Danhof).1

The stand of the PRC is that no classis and no synod has the right from Jesus Christ to exercise the keys of the kingdom. Only the local congregation and consistory may exercise discipline.2

The wrongful taking of power by broader assemblies in 1924 was only a continuation of a long history of departure from the right way of synodical behavior. As in all reformation, there is a long process of deformation and misbehavior that must finally be corrected.

The history of the church in the Netherlands is our history. As early as 1816 the decrees of King William I gave the synod of the Reformed churches there the power to discipline officebearers.3 In 1834, Rev. H. DeCock, of Ulrum, was suspended by the classical board of Middelstum, and then deposed by the Provincial Board at Groningen. Thirty-two years later, five ministers, forty-two elders, and thirty-three deacons in the Dutch Reformed Church in Amsterdam were deposed by the 1886 synod. In the CRC in this country, Classis Muskegon deposed the consistory of Muskegon CRC in connection with the Bultema heresy in 1918. Dr. Geelkerken (who denied the historicity of the first chapters of Genesis) was deposed by the Synod of Assen in the Netherlands in 1926. Because this practice continued in the Netherlands, Rev. Klaas Schilder was deposed by these same churches in 1944.

Neither “surprising” nor “justified” should be the words that describe the discipline of the PRC’s spiritual fathers in 1924 and 1925. The actions were violations of Reformed church polity, not without opposition in the churches.

All along God’s people in the churches cried out at the injustice of broader assemblies exercising discipline. Committed to the truth of the autonomy of the local congregations, these voices called the church back to the historic Dutch Reformed practice which allowed no “broader assemblies” but only consistories to exercise discipline.

Be clear on the issues here. In 1924 there was disagreement on the question of the rights of classis. But already then the disagreement was not over the essential issue. For, although one party opposed a classis deposing a consistory, they defended the position that a classis may depose a minister or anelder. We maintain the issue to be this: may a classis (or synod) exercise the keys of the kingdom at all?

In defense of classis and synod exercising discipline, appeal was always made to Articles 36 and 79 of the Church Order. The decision of Classis Grand Rapids West in 1925 read: “Classis Grand Rapids West deposes the aforesaid Consistory by virtue of its jurisdiction over the consistory as expressed in Art. 36 of our Church Order—’The Classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the particular synod has over the classis and the general synod over the particular.'” The logic is clear: since the classis hasjurisdiction over the consistory, classis must be able todiscipline and depose consistory members. In addition, because Article 79 requires the sentence of a neighboring consistory and the judgment of classis for deposition of a minister, the conclusion is reached that these other bodies discipline a minister.

The logic is clear. It is also mistaken.

Article 36 of the Church Order gives to the classis jurisdiction (authority) over the consistory, the same jurisdiction as the synod has over the classis. What often fails notice is that the article does not give classis and synod the same kind of authority that the consistory has over the congregation—the authority to exercise the keys of heaven’s kingdom. The classis has authority, but not to discipline the officebearers in the member churches.

That also becomes plain from Article 79. Unquestionably, the consistory may not act alone in discipline. The beauty of Reformed church government is the safety of the multitude of counselors and the mutual supervision of the churches. (We grieve that the independent churches do not really have this.) Without the concurrence of the neighboring consistory, no consistory member may be suspended or expelled, and without the judgment of the classis, no minister may finally be deposed. Nevertheless, the consistory suspends and the consistory deposes, not the classis or synod.

Defense of synod’s authority to exercise discipline, in spite of the fact that Article 79 does not give this authority, on the reasoning that the Church Order does not address itself to all the possible situations that might arise, is weak. The authority to depose an officebearer is no small, nor rare, matter. Besides, the Church Order does speak of the involvement of Classis and Synod in discipline, and limits their power to the approval of a consistory’s decision to depose. Nor is it possible to claim that the deposition of ministers was a matter Reformed churches considered to be a detail, a matter too infrequently occurring, to address; and that, had they addressed the issue, they would have written into the Church Order permission to depose. The churches did face the question early in their history, resulting already in 1581 in the Church Order change requiring the concurring judgment of a neighboring classis when an officebearer was deposed.5 Deliberately, the early Dutch Reformed synods did not codify for themselves the right to exercise discipline.

This interpretation of Reformed church polity has staunch defenders in Reformed church history.

Gisbertus Voetius (1588-1676), one of the young Dutch delegates to the Synod of Dordt, staunch defender of Reformed Calvinism and champion of Reformed church government, supported the right of the synod to excommunicate a consistory, but meant by excommunication not their formal discipline and deposition, but the setting of them outside of the fellowship of the churches.

Since then, the general Reformed stand has disallowed the right of discipline to the broader assemblies. Shortly after the hierarchical actions in 1924 and 1925, a Rev. G. Hoeksema (not to be confused with the Rev. Herman Hoeksema) wrote a pamphlet defending the right of a classis to depose a minister and consistory. In it, he does our cause service by admitting that “Formerly it was considered fundamentally unreformed to depose a consistory, through classical or synodical action.” Referring to the deposition of the heretic Dr. Geelkerken, Rev. G. Hoeksema said, “The synod of Assen has done what the authorities in the Netherlands had, since the time of the Doleantie, condemned as hierarchy.”6

Although Abraham Kuyper’s son, Prof. H.H. Kuyper, defended synod’s right to discipline, Abraham Kuyper himself believed it wrong. So did the recognized church order authorities H. Bouwman and F.L. Rutgers. In a published, personal letter to a Rev. Van Lonkhuyzen, who also opposed synod’s right to discipline, Dr. H. Bouwman wrote: “Your question whether I have ever in my lectures said that a classis can depose a consistory, surprises me somewhat. I do not remember ever having taught this and I would say that this is impossible. The Classis can help the consistory in the position of an elder. The Classis can also, when a consistory is completely in error or acts contrary to the right of the Church and her confessions, help the congregation in the election of another consistory, but the Classis may not act without the congregation…. The churches in general must not do what belongs to the consistory. According to Reformed Church Right, if the whole consistory is corrupt and there is no normal way to rectify it, the power of the church reverts back to the congregation, and the denomination can and must then offer help so that another consistory is chosen in the place of the unfaithful one.”7

The best known English language authority on Reformed church order, VanDellen and Monsma’sChurch Order Commentary, takes the strong view that, to be true to Reformed principles, no synod and no classis may ever exercise discipline over officebearers.8

Standing with us in this are also the American and Canadian Reformed Churches (Liberated, orvrijgemaakt) and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (also “liberated”). Their W. Meijer, in hisYoung People’s History of the Church, repeatedly teaches the children of his churches the danger of hierarchy of synods who take to themselves the power to depose ministers.9

Presbyterian students of Reformed church government recognize this as the Reformed view, which they see to be the significant difference between Presbyterian and Reformed church government. Edmund P. Clowney puts his finger directly on the difference when he says, “Some aspects of Reformed order, as distinct from Presbyterian polity, reflect the primacy given to the local church and its consistory. Ministers of the gospel are members of the local church and are subject to the discipline of the consistory” (emphasis mine, BLG).10 The Presbyterian brother recognizes this to be Reformed, in distinction from Presbyterian, where ministers are subject to the discipline of the presbytery. He is correct in his analysis of what isproperly Reformed.

Related is the question whether the local congregation is the church or whether the broader assembly is the church. Note the PRC’s repeated reminder that we are Protestant Reformed Churches and not Protestant Reformed Church. If the gatherings of the local congregations have the right to discipline, they also have the right to baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, and preach. We believe the Lord gave these rights to the local congregation alone. Our Presbyterian brothers would disagree. Presbyterian church polity has the credentials and membership of a minister in the classis, with ordination by the classis (presbytery). Thus, rather than discipline by the congregation, discipline is exercised by the classis (presbytery), which is also considered the church.

As the Church Order gives authority to discipline to the local consistory alone, so does the Scripture. To no one else is this authority given.

Acts 15, the basis for all appeals to the authority of broader assemblies, indeed gives authority to broader assemblies. We thank the Presbyterian brothers for reminding us of that and emphasizing that. But Acts 15does not give authority to the assembly of churches to discipline.

I Corinthians 5 gives the authority to discipline to the local congregation at Corinth. In a worship service of the church (“when ye are come together”) the local congregation exercises discipline over her members.

The Reformed Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons has it straight. In Jesus’ instruction to the apostles as to how discipline must be exercised over any member of the congregation, the “church” that must be told is the body of elders in the local congregation.

In reformation, the churches must never over-react. Needing attention was the un-Reformed practice of hierarchy. But we must not reject all the authority of, and blessings from, the broader assemblies.

May God save us from abusive, hierarchical synods and classes. May God also save us from neglecting to show the unity of the body of Jesus Christ.

1 For this history, see The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, by Herman Hoeksema (Grand Rapids, 1936, second edition 1947). 

2 The question may be raised here, but not answered because it is beyond the scope of this article, whether these ministers were bound by Article 31 of the Church Order of Dordt to consider settled and binding the synodical decisions of 1924, and therefore not agitate against them. On the one hand, dogmas were declared, and the ministers called to conform their teaching to them. On the other hand, Synod of 1924 also decided to “urge the leaders of our people, both ministers and professors to make further study of the doctrine of common grace; that they give themselves carefully (sic) of the problems that present themselves in connection with this matter, in sermons, lectures, and publications.” Even if the judgment is made that the public opposition to these synodical decrees was unjustified and sinful, our contention here is that the classis had no right to exercise the power of discipline to depose ministers and consistories. 

3 This is a long, complicated history that is worth pursuing. For a beginning and a good bibliography, see Richard DeRidder’s “A Survey of the Sources of Reformed Church Polity and the Form of Government of the Christian Reformed Church in America,” Calvin Theological Seminary Syllabus, 1983, pages 83ff. The development of church government in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands cannot be understood apart from the church’s relationship to the civil government, just as Presbyterian distinctives must be understood in the light of the civil government in England and Scotland.

4 As they are constituted-now, the brothers and sisters in the newly forming congregations that have separated from an apostate mother church are less Reformed with regard to church government than the congregationalists, if congregationalists can be considered Reformed at all with regard to church government. Adherents to the Cambridge Platform of 1689 (which was considered radically un-Reformed by the Presbyterians of that day) would stand aghast at their independency. For the Cambridge Platform, see The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan documents on Church Issues, selected with introductory notes by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth, 1965, reprinted 1987. 

5 See VanDellen and Monsma’s Church Order Commentary, pages 327-329. 

6 Find reference to his brochure, “Can a Classis Depose a Consistory,” chapter 1, translated into English in part by Rev. G.M. Ophoff, in a long series of articles in the Standard Bearer, beginning in volume 4, page 179. 

7 Quoted in the minority committee report to the CRC Synod of 1926 regarding the question at issue. 

8 See pages 327-329. 

9 Publication Organization of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (not to be confused with the Free Reformed Churches in America) Launceston, 1973. See Volume 3, pp. 16, 63, 93-95, 108ff., and 118. 

10 “Distinctive Emphases in Presbyterian Church Polity” in Pressing Toward the Mark Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the OPC, C.G. Dennison and R.C. Gamble, editors, Committee For the Historian of the OPC, 1986.