Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Article 81 of The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (hereafter, the Church Order) requires that, “The ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons shall before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.” Officebearers in the churches know this to be the practice of censura morum. In some Reformed churches the practice is called censura fraterna. This latter terminology speaks of “brotherly censure,” and the former speaks of “censure of one’s conduct or life.” Both are derived from the Latin.
The practice of censura morum has an interesting history. John Calvin first introduced mutual censure among the ministers four times per year.1 The ministers, Calvin proposed, should meet once per quarter for a mutual examination of their conduct. The Church Order adopted by the national synod of Dordrecht in 1578 stipulated that the “ministers of the Word, elders and deacons shall exercise Christian censure or examination with one another concerning doctrine as well as conduct before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and shall accept Christian admonition in love.”2 Similarly the Church Order adopted by the national synod of Middleburg in 1581 required that “ministers of the Word, elders and deacons shall exercise Christian censure among themselves before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and inquire into doctrine as well as into life.”3 Among the several questions put to and answered by that same synod was this one: “Whether it is profitable and advisable that ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons exercise censure among each other before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?” The synod’s answer was, “It is most profitable and advisable.”4 In the Church Order adopted by the synod of ‘sGravenhage in 1586 the requirement was significantly changed to read, “Ministers of the Word, elders and deacons shall exercise Christian censure among themselves and admonish one another in a friendly way concerning the exercise of their offices.”5 According to this version the censure must concern “the exercise of their offices,” not “their doctrine and life.” Also the requirement that this censure be done “before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper” was dropped. This latter requirement was reinserted by the Christian Reformed Church in its 1914 edition of the Church Order. And this latter is the version we have in our Church Order.
It should be noted in this connection, however, that this censure has nothing to do with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The question is not whether any of the officebearers has any grievances against one or more of his fellow consistory members, grievances which would make it impossible for them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper properly. No one, whether he’s in office or not, may go to the Lord’s table with grievances against a fellow member of the church. This would not require special censure among officebearers. If an officebearer has a grievance against a fellow officebearer he must deal with that immediately. And if that grievance involves error in doctrine or gross sin in conduct the procedure for suspension, deposition, and discipline outlined in the Church Order must be implemented immediately.
The question naturally arises, then, why did the Christian Reformed Church reinsert the reference to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper? Monsma and Van Dellen speculate, “Perhaps it was to give the churches assurance that mutual censure will be exercised in all Consistories at least four times a year.”6
No doubt the reason why the 1586 synod of ‘sGravenhage stipulated that this censure and mutual admonition should concern “the exercise of their office” rather than “their doctrine and life” is because the latter would make an officebearer subject to church discipline. If an officebearer teaches false doctrine or heresy or commits public gross sin he must be suspended and deposed from office. If he is impenitent he is subject to the discipline of the church and even the “extreme remedy” of excommunication (Articles 76 – 80 of the Church Order). And certainly one may not wait for censura morum to initiate suspension/deposition and discipline. Hence Article 81 is not speaking of what we commonly call “censurable sin” either in doctrine or life.
How then must we understand censura morum? According to Article 81 censura morum requires the officebearers to “exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.” The word “censure” in contemporary English usage is a negative term. It means: to find fault with, to condemn as wrong, to blame, to express disapprobation of, to criticize adversely.
No doubt this is part of what the fathers had in mind. A minister might display certain weaknesses in his preaching and teaching. Perhaps he neglects certain doctrines or aspects of the Christian’s calling. The minister might develop certain bad habits in the delivery of his sermons. Perhaps his congregational prayers are too much the same or full of “vain repetition.” It could certainly happen that the minister neglects certain aspects of his pastoral duties. A minister might dress slovenly and thus dishonor the sacred office to which Christ calls him. Certainly matters such as these could be brought to his attention at censura morum.
Likewise an elder might be weak in certain aspects of the duties of the office of elder. Maybe an elder in certain aspects of his life is a poor example to his fellow believers. Or perhaps an elder fails properly to “comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian religion.”7 This being the case his fellow officebearers ought to bring these to his attention and admonish him concerning these weaknesses when censura morum is conducted.
So it could happen as well with the deacons. One might not be diligent in the collecting of the alms and in the distribution of them to the poor.8 Perhaps one of the deacons fails to visit faithfully the widows and widowers or shut-ins of the congregation. When censura morum is conducted, such a deacon ought to be admonished concerning those weaknesses.
There certainly is a place for negative, constructive criticism in censura morum. The motive, however, of the critic must never be to hurt his colleague in office. His motive must be to help his fellow officebearer in order that the precious flock of God may be the better cared for and edified.
Let the officebearers never forget the manner in which this censure and admonition must be done. It must be Christian censure. This means it must not be censure in the ungodly, worldly sense. In the world of unbelief, the critic seeks to hurt and destroy. He’s motivated by hatred against God and his neighbor. This must not be so in the church, and certainly this must not be the kind of censure that takes place among the officebearers of Christ’s church. Let the censure be done in a Christian manner out of love for God and one’s neighbor. The admonishing too must be done “in a friendly spirit.” God’s friends, and this is what we are as Christians, seek to help each other. The admonishing must never be harsh and bitter. If God’s people in general must not “bite and devour one another,” certainly the officebearers must not be guilty of this sin (cf. Gal. 5:13-15).
But there is more involved with censura morum. In its original, Latin sense the word “censure” means to form or express a judgment in regard to, to estimate, to judge. This too is what the fathers had in mind when they placed this article in the Church Order. In other words, while there certainly is a place for negative criticism, censura morum ought also be positive. It ought to be a time when the officebearers encourage one another. It ought to be the occasion for officebearers to point to the good work that their colleagues are doing and exhort them to continue in this for the edification of the congregation.
In sum, let censura morum not become a mere formality among the councils of the churches, something that’s accomplished in three minutes or less four times a year. Let it be meaningful. Let it be the time for constructive criticism given out of love for God and for one another and God’s church. Let it also be a time when the officebearers prayerfully strive to improve in the discharge of the duties of the sacred office of Christ in which they are given the privilege to serve His precious flock.
1 Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), pp. 54-63.
2 Richard R. De Ridder, translator, Translation of Ecclesiastical Manual Including the Decisions of the Netherlands Synods and Other Significant Matters Relating to the Government of the Churches by P. Biesterveld and Dr. H. H. Kuyper (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 93.
3 Ibid., p. 119.
4 Ibid., p. 123.
5Ibid., p. 153.
6 Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), p. 333.
7 The Church Order, Article 23.
8 The Church Order, Article 25.