Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
In all churches there shall be a consistory composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders, who at least in larger congregations, shall, as a rule, meet once a week. The minister of the Word (or the ministers, if there be more than one, in turn) shall preside and regulate the proceedings. Whenever the number of elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local regulations; this shall invariably be the rule where the number is less than three.
Church Order, Article 37
This article begins the Church Order’s treatment of the consistory, what in the Presbyterian tradition is referred to as the session. Article 29 specified four kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies: “Four kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: the consistory, the classis, (the particular synod), and the general synod.” Articles 37-40 deal, now, with the local consistory.
The discussion of the ecclesiastical assemblies begins with a discussion of the consistory. This is as it should be. For in the Reformed (biblical) view, the consistory is the essential assembly.
Each congregation must have a consistory. Without a consistory there can be no congregation. The Synod of Wezel, 1568, called for every church to have a “Company of Prophets” that consisted of the ministers, elders, and deacons. The first regular Synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, Embden, 1571, ruled that each church must have “. . . gatherings or consistories of ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons . . . .”
Ordinarily the consistory consists of the minister(s) and the elders of the local congregation. Several passages of Scripture refer to the elders, including the ministers, as a body: Matthew 16:19; Acts 20:28; I Timothy 4:14, 5:17; I Peter 5:1-3. Our “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons” states: “And thus the ministers of the Word, together with the elders, form a body or assembly, being as a council of the Church, representing the whole Church.
Provision is made for the inclusion of the deacons into the consistory: “Whenever the number of elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local regulations; this shall invariably be the rule where the number is less than three.” The Synod of Dordt, 1574, decided:
To clarify the 6th Article of the Synod of Embden, the minister of the Word, elders and deacons shall constitute the consistory. Furthermore, the ministers and elders shall meet and the deacons shall also meet by themselves to handle their own affairs concerning the poor. However, in places where there are few elders, the deacons may be admitted according to the desire of the consistory. The deacons shall be obligated to appear when they are summoned to the consistory.
The question was put to the Synod of Middelburg, 1581:
Whether the churches which have few elders are permitted to admit deacons in the consistory? Answer: It is permitted as often as the consistory needs their advice and help. Besides, they shall ordinarily be allowed there if they fulfill both the office of eldership and of diaconate.
It was the Synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, 1905, that decided that the deacons must be included with the consistory if the number of elders was less than three. This was carried over by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in its revision of the Church Order in 1914. That the deacons are to be included in the consistory if the number of elders is less than three means that they must be included if the number of elders is two. A consistory, in order to be a consistory, must have at least two elders; there must be a plurality of elders. The Synod of ‘s Gravenhage, 1624, declared that one elder and one deacon do not constitute a legitimate consistory.
Often the question is asked, “What status do the deacons have who have been included in the consistory?” The answer to this question is that they have decisive, not merely advisory, vote in all matters coming before the consistory. They are actually included in the consistory. Clearly, this is the meaning of Article 37.
Sometimes the question is asked whether the deacons, in this case, have a vote in matters of discipline. The answer to this question is, “Yes.” VanDellen and Monsma state:
. . . when the Deacons are part of the Consistory they should be considered to be full-fledge Consistory members. They have a voice and vote in all matters which pertain to the government of the Church, even as Elders under these circumstances have a voice and vote in all matters regarding the Church’s work of mercy. To deny the Deacons a right to vote in cases of discipline, for instance, would be contrary to the Church Order and the duties which have been imposed on them by local arrangement. (The Church Order Commentary, p. 166.)
The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, 1936, made the following decision on this matter.
In view of the fact that the basic problem in regard to the status of Deacons in the Consistory hinges on the interpretation of the phrase, “added to the consistory” in Art. 37 of the Church Order, Synod declares that:
a. The phrase, “added to the Consistory,” can mean only that the Deacons become members of the Consistory, and as such they are warranted in performing presbyterial functions including the right to vote in matters of Church government.
b. This concession by our Church Order, namely, that Deacons may function as Elders, is made to avoid the unreformed practice of oligarchic rule which would be the only alternative.
c. It ought, however, to be added that such Deacons, in matters of Church government, should naturally give due consideration to the judgment of the Elders. ADOPTED. (ACTS of Synod, 1936, Art. 96).
To justify this inclusion of the deacons in the consistory and their being permitted to function as elders is not difficult. First, the offices in the church are not fundamentally distinct. All the offices are really only aspects of the one office of Jesus Christ. There is a fundamental unity of the offices, therefore, that makes permissible the inclusion of deacons in the consistory. In the second place, it is possible for a man to hold two offices at the same time. This was true in the Old Testament. David, for example, was both prophet and king. Melchizedek was priest and king. In the New Testament, Philip was one of the first seven deacons and also held the (temporary) office of evangelist. Essentially, this is the situation when deacons are included in the consistory. Although they are primarily deacons, they share in the office of elder.
Originally Article 37 specified that the consistory ought to meet once each week. This was the practice in Geneva at the time of Calvin, as well as in the early history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Our present Article 37 qualifies this stipulation for weekly consistory meetings: “. . . at least in larger congregations . . .” and “. . . as a rule . . . .”
The prevailing practice in the Protestant Reformed Churches is that the consistory meets once or twice per month. In the “Questions for Church Visitation” it is asked: “Does the consistory meet regularly in accord with the needs of the congregation, at least once a month?”
The matter of the exact number of meetings is left to local regulation. There must be at least one regularly scheduled meeting each month. Special meetings ought to be called if these are needed for the consistory to finish its work.
Must the consistory meetings be announced to the congregation? The regular monthly consistory meeting must be announced to the congregation, so that all who have a matter to take up with the consistory may have the opportunity to do so. But any special or continued consistory meeting need not be publicly announced.
Article 37 requires that the minister of the congregation function as the president of the consistory and preside at its meetings. If a congregation is served by more than one minister, they shall preside at the consistory meetings by turn. In case the minister is absent or ill, the vice-president (an elder) presides. In case a congregation is vacant, the vice-president, or, if he is nearby, the moderator presides.
Are the consistory meetings open to the members of the congregation, or are they closed, i.e., limited to the members of the consistory only? The consistory meetings are definitely closed meetings, as has always been the position and practice in the Reformed churches. Sensitive matters are often dealt with involving persons. Particularly the work of the consistory in Christian discipline is to be kept in the confines of the consistory.
This implies that consistory members are also to keep consistory matters confidential. The members of the consistory must exercise careful discretion not to discuss consistory business outside of the consistory room. The Synod of Antwerp, 1564, stipulated that those who violated the confidentiality of the consistory were first to be admonished by the consistory and, if repeated, suspended from office.
Legal consistory meetings must have at least one over half of the members present (quorum). If less than half of the members convene, the meeting is to be rescheduled. It stands to reason that there are to be no secret meetings of the consistory, so that some of the members are not informed of the meeting. All the members are to be informed of the time and place of the meeting. All the members are to be informed of the time and place of each meeting. The question was put to the Synod of Middelburg, 1581: “How shall the consistory meetings which are held outside the proper times or extraordinarily be regarded when all members of the consistory are not summoned to them? Answer: They shall not be valid, but the whole consistory shall be allowed to change what was done so improperly. And if all who belong are summoned to an extraordinary meeting, at a proper time, though they do not come, what is decided in such extraordinary meetings shall be valid.”
The “Decisions pertaining to this article,” which are appended to Article 37 make reference to the congregational meetings. The congregational meetings are to be regarded as an extension of the consistory meeting and not as a distinct ecclesiastical assembly. This is plain from the fact that the congregational meeting is not listed in Article 29 as one of the ecclesiastical assemblies. The president and secretary of the consistory function as the president and secretary of the congregational meeting. The minutes of the congregational meeting are to be entered into the minute book of the consistory and approved (“confirmed”) by the consistory. If any member desires to have a matter treated at the congregational meeting he must make request to the consistory, and it is the prerogative of the consistory to determine whether and how the request shall be granted.
Do the decisions of the congregational meeting have binding authority also over the consistory? They do. If the consistory feels that a decision taken at a congregational meeting was in error, it must bring the matter before the congregation. If disagreement persists between the consistory and the congregation, the consistory may not merely set the decision of the congregation aside, but must bring the matter for adjudication to the classis.
Who may participate in the congregational meetings? Only confessing male members of the congregations. This is the Reformed tradition. The reason for this is that authority is exercised by the right to vote at the congregational meeting. Women are not permitted to exercise authority in the church. I the “Decisions pertaining to Article 38” specific mention is made of “the vote of the make membership.”
Many churches have for some time given the right to vote in the congregational meetings to women. In many Presbyterian churches all professing members of the church are given the right to participate in the meetings of the congregation. This has for some time been the policy of the Christian Reformed Church. The Synod of 1957 decided that “women may participate in congregational meetings with the right to vote subject to the rules that govern the participation of men.” The Synod of 1972 reaffirmed this decision: “Synod reaffirms that it is the right of women members, as full members of Christ and his church and sharers in the office of believers, to participate in and vote at congregational meetings on a level of equality with men.” This is a violation of the biblical prohibition against women exercising authority, and of the biblical command that they keep silent with respect to the government of the church. Historically it has generally been the case that permitting women the right of participation at congregational meetings has been only one step towards opening up the offices to women.