The Authority of Broader Ecclesiastical Assemblies

Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Bethel Protestant Reformed Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

The subject assigned is that of the authority of the broader assemblies. It is the position of the author of this paper that the church order of Dordt clearly established not only the fact of broader ecclesiastical assemblies, but also the authority of these broader assemblies, which authority both is given to the broader assemblies by the local congregations and is always to be recognized by the local churches.

The church order of Dordt was a product of the Reformation. It shows how the Reformers established a church polity which walks, as it were, a balance beam. On the one side of the beam are the evils of hierarchy; on the other side are perils of independentism. The balance beam on which the Reformers walked is wide enough for the two feet on which Reformed church polity stands. One foot is the autonomous nature of the local congregation. The other foot is the authority of the ecclesiastical assemblies which arises out of federative relationships. The Reformers held these two essential principles together, feeling the tension, but not letting them conflict. Just as a person cannot walk or run with only one foot on a balance beam, so can the Reformed church order of Dordt not be read without seeing both of these principles side by side. The church order does not know one without the other.

An understanding of the authority of the broader assemblies is gained through a proper understanding of the place of the broader ecclesiastical assemblies and especially of the federative relationships out of which the broader assemblies arise. What does the church order and what do the Scriptures have to say about these relationships and their assemblies?

Observe that the church order calls for the presence of the broader assemblies (classis and synod) as much as it calls for the presence of the consistory. And observe that it does not make the presence of the broader assemblies a matter of choice. They “shall be”!

Why was this so? Why did the Reformers establish federative relationships? The churches of the Reformation recognized the fact of federative relationships and the authority of their broader assemblies because they believed this to be historical and biblical.

J. L. Schaver, in his The Polity of the Churches, maintains that the churches in apostolic times, although lacking visible organization, nevertheless were united by the persons, preaching, and work of the apostles. In addition, he maintains that the II early unity in the Church was made manifest by the interest that one part of the Church had in the activities of the other parts,” citing as examples the interest the church at Jerusalem had in the conversions in Samaria and Antioch, and the collection taken in all the churches for the church at Jerusalem. Schaver believes that “these several manifestations of the unity of the apostolic churches were anticipations of the ecclesiastical councils which later gave expression to the unity of the primitive Church” (Vol. 1, pp. 79, 80). Schaver states that “the most pronounced anticipation of major assemblies in apostolic days was the council of Jerusalem,. . . ” the decisions of which “were made applicable to the several churches of Syria and Asia Minor.” “The decisions were not merely advisory, as adherents of independent polity claim, but were at the time considered to be binding in character” (p. 81). The Scriptures describe the conclusions reached by the meeting in Jerusalem as resulting from the leading of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28); as “decrees” (“dogmata,”Acts 16:4); as binding on all the Christian churches of that time; and as having the result that the churches were blessed and grew (Acts 16:5).

A study of the history of the early church after the apostles also yields evidence of provincial assemblies. And later there were the renowned ecumenical councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, etc.

The Reformers also maintained the practice of broader assemblies, for they established, as soon as it was possible, federative relationships within their countries and with other Reformed bodies in other countries. This acceptance of federations and broader assemblies is surprising, for it took place at a time in the history of the church when the Reformers were responding to the evils in the Church of Rome, many of which arose directly out of its hierarchical church polity. Instead of reacting to Rome’s hierarchy with independentism (as the radical Reformers were doing and whose lead it would have been so easy to follow), the Reformers consistently called for federative relationships and for the assemblies which have been instituted for the proper functioning of these relationships. The first record of a broader assembly during the Reformational era was the Synod of the Reformed Churches of France in 1559. The Reformed Churches in The Netherlands have been meeting in broader assemblies regularly ever since 1563. The Reformed Churches in The Netherlands initially held their broader assemblies across the border in Germany because of persecution, but hold them they did.

Therefore, the church order of Dordt in Article 29 accurately reflects the thought of early church history and of the Reformation when it mandates the presence of ecclesiastical assemblies including “the classis, (the particular synod), and the general synod.”

The recognition of the federative relationships (and broader assemblies) arises out of the important biblical principle of the unity of the church of Christ. The spiritual unity of Christ’s body must come to institutional manifestation. This is certainly accomplished in the local congregation; but it is not fulfilled there, for no single local manifestation of the true church exhausts the unity of Christ’s body. By federative relationships the individual congregations show the unity of Christ’s church to the world, and this manifestation of the unity of the church is unto the glory of Christ her Head.

Although churches are autonomous (relatively, for they are dependent upon Christ their Head), they may not stand alongside each other in a disconnected and unconcerned manner. Entrance into a federative relationship may be said to be voluntary, but no less so, demanded.

The federative relationship is voluntary because a local congregation, which manifests the three marks of the pure church, is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ, and is not a sub-division of a large super-church. Therefore, the local church freely joins herself to a denomination of churches. There is no earthly authority, not even a denomination, which may or can force a federative relationship upon a local church.

However, the federative relationship is not strictly voluntary and a matter of choice. It is demanded because the local congregation is not equal to THE church; it is not the whole of the body of Christ. It is demanded in the divine call to seek the unity of Christ’s body and to exercise the communion of saints. It is demanded by the fact that each member of the body of Christ has life not only in relationship to the Head, but also in relationship to the other members. Thus each local church has the calling to manifest the oneness of the body of Christ. When the Dutch Reformed churches met at Emden in 1571 the stated purpose was “in order to institute the unity of the churches in outward form.”

A denomination is a union of autonomous churches, which do not surrender their autonomy by membership in the federation. “Reformed Church polity therefore upholds the integrity of the local Church, but at the same time does full justice to all the Churches federally united and the spiritual unity underlying the federation…. There is a very definite spiritual obligation flowering forth from a real spiritual union and agreement which makes ecclesiastical federation and its implications mandatory upon the Churches” (VanDellen and Monsma, op cit., p. 133).

In the federative relationships the local church cooperates with others in the Lord’s work, doing together what it cannot do alone, or doing better what no one church can do as well on its own.

What is the nature of the authority of the broader assemblies in Reformed thinking?

It is ecclesiastical authority. The authority of the broader assemblies is derived from the local churches, as they delegate men with authority to the broader assemblies. Because the authority of the broader assembly is the authority of the local church as designated for that purpose, there is not a fundamental difference. The difference is not in the nature of the authority, but in the areas in which the authority is exercised. The church order delineates the different areas in which the assemblies (consistory, classis, and synod) exercise their authority. The church order correctly reflects Scripture when it gives only to the consistory the authority to preach, administer the sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline. However, the consistory may not independently change and revise the church order or one of the confessions, for this latter belongs to the broader assemblies. The church order assigns to the broader assemblies activities such as the examination of men for the ministry of the Word, the approval of the call, the dismissal, the emeritation, and the deposition of ministers, the institution of a congregation, church visitation, the work of missions, etc.

VanDellen and Monsma inform us that at the very first Synod of the Reformed Churches of the Low Countries the delegates were delegated with authority to act for the sake of the general welfare of the churches; but at the same time rules were made which protected the rights of the individual members of the churches, and which would counteract all willfulness and arbitrariness (p. 132). On this same matter Schaver states, “The autonomy of the local church has its limitations because of the agreement into which it enters with other churches to consider certain matters together and to abide by the combined judgment of the affiliated churches. The local church bestows upon the major assembly a part of its authority so that through the combined authority of all the churches the local church may be governed the better. And the judgments of the major assembly with respect to the matters of mutual interest or of mutual agreement the local church must of course respect” (op. cit., p. 97).

That Article 30 of the church order purposefully uses the terms “major” and “minor” is in order to avoid any concept of a system of lower and higher courts, as if the consistory is lower and has a more limited degree of authority while the synod is higher and has the most extensive degree of authority. The use of the terms “major” and “minor” indicates that the authority of the broader assemblies is the same in essence as the authority vested in the local church. “Major assemblies do not have power or authority that is distinctly different from the power that resides in the local church.” “Their power or authority does not reside in themselves but is delegated to them by the local churches. These through their delegates bring their united power or authority together in the major assembly, and its authority is greater because it is the united authority of the local churches” (Schaver, op. cit., p. 96).

That the broader assemblies have authority is indicated in Article 36 of the church order which uses the word “jurisdiction.” VanDellen and Monsma correctly believe that the original Latin word auctoritas could have better been translated “authority,” but with the caution that “the Church Order refers to a moral and spiritual authority,” not “in a legalistic, compelling sense” (op. cit., p. 160). The nature of this authority is not judicial, but moral and spiritual.

The fact of authority in the broader assemblies of federations is also clear in Article 31 which states that the decisions of major assemblies are to be “considered settled and binding.” Anything that is “settled” should not continue to be the subject of discussion, which would raise discord in the body of Christ. “Binding” indicates that all the churches are obligated to live up to the decisions of the assemblies concerned. “This provision is indeed a jewel of great value. It is . . . indispensable for Reformed church government” (op. cit., p. 145).

Later VanDellen and Monsma state that “whatever is decided by majority vote becomes settled and binding for all, not against the will of the minority, but by their common consent. Minorities conform themselves voluntarily to the officially expressed opinion of the majority, for the sake of good order and the welfare of the Churches concerned. And let it be said, the minorities at our ecclesiastical assemblies are duty bound to do so. For note that every Church has voluntarily joined itself to the federation of Churches forming one denomination. Together they have agreed to cooperate, upon the basis of the Church Order, which Church Order presupposes and even expresses cooperation on the part of all the Churches regarding all decisions which agree with the Word of God and the Church Order in force” (op. cit., pp. 144, 145). “Let us not forget that denominational co-operation would be out of the question if classical and synodical gatherings were not vested with the authority attributed to them in Article 36. Ecclesiastical federation according to the Reformed conception simply implies authoritative rights on the part of the major assemblies over minor assemblies.” The nature of the ecclesiastical federation is such that the “major assemblies exercise a binding authority regarding all matters which concern the Churches in general and which have not been specifically left to the individual Churches or congregations” (op. cit., p. 161).

The church order presents us with a beautiful balance. The balance beam is broad enough for the Reformed church to stand on both feet: the autonomy of the local congregation and the delegated authority of the federative relationship and its broader assemblies. This balance has been tried and it has proven to be true. To lean too far in either direction, to take one of these feet off the balance beam, can prove to be dangerous. May God give to the church today the wisdom to walk this balance as calmly as the church order of Dordt directs us.

(The extensive use of quotations from recognized authorities of Reformed church polity is to show that the presentation of the authority of the broader ecclesiastical assemblies in this paper is not just that of its author, but that of the historical. Reformed churches.)