The main principle of Article 37 of the Church Order we have discussed in our last article. This.concerned the question whether or not the deacons are part of the consistory. The Church Order definitely favors the view that the consistory is composed only of ministers and elders. To this the deacons may be added by special regulation and then only when the consistory is small in number. Others, however, include all the officebearers of the church in the consistory and then make distinction in the labors to be performed according to the nature of the special offices. Under this arrangement, separate meetings of elders and deacons tends to greater efficiency and expediency and, therefore, should be held when practicable. Favoring this view is the Belgic Confession and the proposed revision of Article 37 of the Church Order that is now being considered by the Christian Reformed Synod.
Beside this question there are various related matters that are either expressed or implied in this article. Of considerable significance for Reformed Church Polity is the statement found in this article: “In all churches there shall be a consistory . . .” The institute of the church cannot exist without a consistory and the consistory cannot exist without the institute. The consistory is an integral part of the church institute so that whenever a congregation is established, a consistory must immediately be constituted. This view refutes the idea of congregationalism which vests the government of the church in the congregation. The church is not a self-ruling body but it is ruled by Christ through men who are placed in the offices, and who, in those offices, form the consistory of the church. Related to this principle is the fact that in Reformed churches the congregation takes part in the appointment of men to the offices and the consistory also consults and acknowledges the congregation in various matters. However, the authority to decide is vested in the consistory and not in the congregation. Voetius states that the consistory is the organ through which the church functions, even as the eye is the organ through which the body sees. And Dr. Bouwman says that the members of the visible manifestation of the body of Christ, i.e., the members of each particular church, exercise their rights and duties as an organism organically, through the offices. When a church is to be organized the believers appoint certain brethren to office, under guidance of neighboring churches if possible. However, as soon as the offices have been instituted, these offices begin to govern and guide the affairs of the church. Hence, “In all churches there shall be a consistory . . .”
Article 37 further states: “The minister of the Word (or the ministers, if there be more than one, in turn) shall preside and regulate the proceedings.” There is no principle involved in this ruling but this is done because, as a rule, ministers are better qualified by reason of their special training and more extended experience. It is simply a matter of good order to have the best qualified member of the consistory preside over the gathering. This is a point that consistories may well keep in mind when they choose the various functionaries, particularly the vice-president of the consistory. If a congregation should be without a minister, the vice-president of the consistory will have to preside and regulate the proceedings. This role should therefore be assigned to the best qualified elder. The function of presiding officer in the consistory does not endow the minister of the church with greater powers or broader authority than the other elders. His function is merely, to regulate the proceedings, to see to it that all things are done decently and in good order, and this he must do as a brother amongst brethren and in no way lord it over his fellow officebearers.
The rule that in congregations where there are more than one minister, these shall preside in turn, is designed undoubtedly to avoid hierarchy, or the lording of one officebearer over another. The Church Order knows of no distinction such as pastor and assistant pastor as is often used. The term associate pastor is to be preferred. Where there are more than one minister in a congregation, they are all ministers of equal rank and position and as such they by rotation preside over the meetings of the consistory. This is equality and a proper arrangement.
The article also makes mention of the frequency of consistorial meetings. This is interesting because it is undoubtedly one of those more-or-less arbitrary rules that is scarcely observed today. In most churches the consistory meetings are held biweekly or monthly but the Church Order stipulates that “at least in larger congregations the consistory shall, as a rule, meet once a week.” The very wording of this rule allows for some flexibility. Originally the Synod of Emden in 1571 made this ruling but it soon became evident that in many churches it was not at all necessary to meet this often. In the redaction of 1905 the rule was relinquished somewhat by providing that consistoriesin larger churches should as a rule meet once a week. We have retained this provision in our Church Order to the present but in the questions that are asked by the Church Visitors we have: “Ques. 7—Does the consistory meet regularly in accord with the needs of the congregation, at least once a month?” This is a reasonable rule. Consistories should meet and be required to meet as often as the needs of the congregation require. The minimum number of meetings should be twelve a year and these, as well as the deacons’ meetings, if separately held, should be announced to the congregation so that opportunity may be given to any member to be present if so desired. Special consistory meetings or meetings called to finish work that could not be done at the regular meeting need not be announced.
It is interesting to observe that three of the four decisions recorded in connection with Article 37 had to do with congregational meetings. Obviously the reason that these decisions are recorded here is twofold: Firstly, because nowhere in the body of the Church Order proper are congregational meetings mentioned. The Church Order knows of only three ecclesiastical gatherings: the consistory, the classis, and the synod. In the second place, a mere glance at these decisions indicates the close relationship between the consistory and the congregational meetings and, therefore, they are pertinent to the article that treats the consistory. The decisions contain the following:
a) the officers of the consistory shall function at congregational meetings.
b) the minutes of these meetings are to be entered into the minute-book of the consistory.
c) only matters brought by the consistory may be treated on the congregational meeting.
d) the consistory has the prerogative to determine the extent and manner in which any matter a member may desire to have treated at the congregational meeting shall be treated.
From all this it appears that our so-called congregational meetings are held under the direct supervision and jurisdiction of the consistory. Furthermore, it is generally agreed that the congregational meetings have no real, official, decisive status. They are not a determinative body. They can probably be called deliberative or advisory gatherings. Sometimes they are construed as consistory meetings to which all the male (and in our day in many Reformed circles also female) members in full and regular standing are invited in order that certain matters may be considered under the direction of the consistory. The decisions, therefore, that are made at these meetings are not valid until the consistory has ratified them by expressing its approval. Usually that approval is assumed so that in its action the consistory somewhat automatically follows the opinion and desire expressed at the congregational meeting.
This, however, does not necessarily have to be the case. It is conceivable that a certain matter, for example, was decided by the congregation but that shortly after that meeting circumstances arose that would make it unwise to carry out that decision. The consistory is then responsible to see to it that this unwise course is not followed. If need be they can call another meeting of the congregation and have the whole matter reconsidered but this is not imperative. They can simply stop the matter by refraining from executing the decision that has been made by the congregation. Or, better still, they can overrule that decision and so inform the congregation giving the valid reasons for this action also.
This does not mean, however, that the consistory can simply ignore the decisions of the congregation. Then there would be no point in even having congregational meetings. The consistory must have very good reasons to overrule such decisions and must always act in the best interests of the congregation and not according to their own wishes if these should conflict with the desires of the church. They may never “lord it over God’s heritage but always must be examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:4).
Finally, there is the matter connection with Article 37 in which consistories are required annually to furnish the Synod with an exact count of their membership. The importance of this is that on the basis of the statistics furnished by the consistories the Classical and Synodical assessments are levied. If these statistics are not correctly computed, it can make considerable difference in both the budget of the local church and that of the Synod. It can result in serious inequities in that a church is assessed too much or too little. This will be not the case if consistories carefully observe the rules given under Article 37. These rules cover instances where either the husband or wife is a confessing member of the church, where a widower or widow functions as the head of the family and where there are several individual members in a church. Three, of the latter are to be regarded as one family. These rules give lucid instruction as to how to compute the number of families. In spite of this clarity, however, miscalculations do occur. Only last year our Synod had to call the attention of all the churches to these rules. Consistories must observe them very seriously. They are part of the Church Order and their strict observance contributes to good order and decency.