We now come to our final basic principle of Reformed Church polity, the binding power of classical and synodical decisions. To exhibit in a more marked manner the unity of the body of Christ, the neighboring congregations organize to form a classis (synod). According to article 8 of our Church Order, a classis is a meeting of neighboring churches that respectively delegate a minister and an elder to meet at a certain place and time. Thus, a classis is an assembly of congregations, more definitely of consistories. But, though an assembly of consistories, the classis, as has been shown, is not a consistory, a ruling council with key power. According to Reformed Church Polity, a classis is an assembly of members of a confederation of neighboring autonomous churches, which means that the churches represented on the classical assembly are not parts of a larger whole, the classical church (collegianism, Heynsism) but autonomous members of a federation of churches, in a legal aspect, the equals, each of the other. Now a basic principle of Reformed Church Polity is, that the decisions of classis (synod) are binding, unless they be proved to militate against the Word of God. This principle is laid down in article 31 of the Church Order. In allowing itself to be bound by what the classis by a majority of votes decides, the consistory is not subjecting itself to a higher or broader judicial power, but it simply lives up to its agreement to the effect that, as an autonomous member of the federation, it will allow itself to be bound by classical and synodical decisions, with the reservation that these decisions be not in conflict with Holy Writ. And it makes this agreement because it knows it to be the will of God, that the unity of Christ’s body be manifested, and for other subordinary reasons. A consistory that will not be bound by classical and synodical decisions, of which it must admit that they are not contrary to God’s Word but are profitable for the churches, commits a great sin. And likewise the individual member in the church. Such a consistory walks disorderly, and if it will not repent, the classis eventually finds itself under the necessity of refusing to receive its delegation on the classis meeting. It is precisely this principle of the binding power of classical and synodical decisions, as rightly interpreted, that forms the line of demarcation between truly Reformed Church Polity, and that polity that goes by the name of Congregationalism or Independentism. The classis of the Congregationalists, which is, rightly considered, not a classis but a mere conference, is a loose organization. It makes no decisions binding upon the churches.
The consistories then must allow themselves to be bound by classical and synodical decisions. They commit no small sin before God when they refuse to be bound by classical and synodical decisions the moment these decisions meet not with their favor and approval. The Consistory and Minister should exercise humility. Having unsuccessfully attempted to win the brethren for our way of thinking, we should acquiesce in what the major assembly has agreed upon by a majority of vote, in order that the unity of the body of Christ be manifested. This is God’s will. The refusal to acquiesce is justifiable then only if it can be proved that the decision is contrary to the Word of God. In that case refusal to acquiesce in the decision is a solemn duty. This certainly is, must be, the plain teaching of Art. 81 of the Church Order of Dordrecht, “If any one complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority of vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it can be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by a classical decision.” This language is plain. Its meaning is obvious.
Yet the article has occasioned much debate as to just what it declares. The bone of contention was the phrase “unless it be proved” in the sentence “unless it be proved to conflict with the word of God.” The question was just how this phrase is to be interpreted. There is the interpretation of the late Prof. Heyns, who, as was stated, for thirty years gave instruction in Church Polity in the seminary of the Christian Reformed churches. Heyns’ interpretation has many exponents in the Christian Reformed communion of churches—exponents including also Rev. G. Hoeksema, who, in 1926, took it up for Heyns’ interpretation in a brochure entitled, “Can a Classis Depose a Consistory?” This, in those days, was the burning question among the divines in the aforesaid churches, the reason being that their Classis Grand Rapids West had just gone to deposing officebearers right and left; and the leaders in the churches who had advocated that action were determined to prove the action right, despite the fact that it is wrong. Among the fruits of that determination is also the brochure of Rev. G. Hoeksema just alluded to. Here follows his interpretation of Art. 31. Wrote the Reverend, “But let us proceed. The views we condemn are not only dangerous in practice, but they have also led to a strange distortion of the Church Order (of Dordrecht, he means.” The views that the reverend considers dangerous are those that I present in this brief series of articles on the principles of Reformed Church Polity,—views including also and especially the one according to which the Classis cannot depose a consistory, the reason being that the deposition of officebearers is an exercise of key-power and that all key-power is concentrated in the Consistory. Mark you, the reverend says that these views are not only dangerous in practice, but that they have also led to a strange distortion of the Church Order. This is courageous language to use for anyone defending propositions that cannot be successfully defended). The reverend continues, “For appeal is made, in defense of these theories to several of its (the Church Order’s) Articles, especially Articles 31, 36, and 84. . . . Let us first consider Article 31. As already stated in a previous chapter, the words, ‘unless it be proved to conflict,’ etc., are explained, ‘unless someone considers it proved for himself that it conflicts.” Against this explanation (continues the reverend) we have the following objections: A. It is contrary to the very words themselves. ‘Unless it be proved’ simply cannot mean, ‘unless someone consider it proved.’ Then words no longer have any meaning. The words themselves, objective implications. Two parties are implied, the one that seeks to prove something, and the party or court before whom proof must be brought, and who must be convinced. Only then can it be said that something is proved. And that is what the article demands: “unless it be proved.” And then we have also this from the reverend’s pen, “Let us read Article 31 as it is. It guarantees the right of protest, so dear to every protestant’s heart. For the rest, it makes the decision of Classis and Synod binding on all, unless they can prove them un-Scriptural. That subjects the consistory to the real governing authority of Classis and synod.
“Upon that plain meaning of Article 31, Classis East also based its action against (H.) Hoeksema and his consistory. Once and again, as its official minutes show, it appealed to this Article and the interpretation we have given of it.” Thus far G. Hoeksema.
The reverend’s interpretation of the phrase “unless it be proved” is obviously this: unless it, the decision of the major assembly,—Classis or Synod—be proved to this assembly to conflict with the word of God, that is to say, unless the aggrieved one—officebearer or consistory—who deems the decision anti-Scriptural and therefore turned protestant, succeeds in convincing the major assembly—Classis or Synod—that its decision militates against Holy Writ. Unless he does, such is the reasoning of the reverend, the major assembly, Classis or Synod, finds itself under the necessity of disciplining the recalcitrant officebearer by suspending and deposing him from his office. There is a reason then why G. Hoeksema construes as he does the phrase “unless it be proved.” The two propositions. “The decision must be proven anti-Scriptural to the satisfaction of synod (classis),” and, “Synod must discipline” are actively related; if either is true, the other must be true. Hence, G. Hoeksema’s interpretation of the phrase “unless it be proved” will not do at all. It is thoroughly hierarchical. It proceeds from the principle of thought that Synod (Classis) is vested with key power over the churches and therefore suspends and deposes consistories that refuse to be bound by its decisions, after vainly attempting to prove them anti-Scriptural to the satisfaction of Synod.
Who then must be convinced? Not certainly Synod or Classis but the protestant himself, the aggrieved consistory or officebearer and the churches This interpretation of the phrase in question proceeds from the principle of thought that the synod is not, as G. Hoeksema has it, an ecclesiastical court vested with key-power over the churches but an assembly of delegates of autonomous, confederate churches and therefore legally the servant of these churches, to whom it is answerable for all its decisions. Hence, by all means, it is the protestant, the aggrieved one—the aggrieved consistory, officebearer, common member, the churches, that must be convinced. And when convinced they act. The aggrieved consistory does. It voices its grievances against the decision privately and publicly by word spoken and written in order that all the churches may likewise be convinced. And as convinced, they instruct synod, their servant, again in session to rescind the decision.
G. Hoeksema even converts conceptionally discipline and excommunication into instruments of persecution. For the teaching that one encounters in his brochure is also that a consistory and its following, when, for conscience sake it withdraws itself from the communion of churches to which it belongs, to erect the institution of the church elsewhere must be penalized—that is the term he uses—by deposition and confiscation of its church property.
In his desperate attempt to justify deposition of consistories by classis and synod, the reverend even goes so far as to hold the consistories and officebearers in the churches to the Formula of Subscription, even in their difficulties and different sentiments respecting synodical and classical decisions. On page 55 of the brochure we read. “If all our ministers and elders and deacons would just read the plain simple language of the Formula of Subscription they have solemnly signed, our problem would evaporate into thin air.” Being ready always cheerfully to submit (the reverend is here quoting the Formula) to the judgment of Consistory, Classis, and Synod, under penalty in case of refusal to be by that very fact suspended from our office,’—mark you, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of Classis and Synod respecting all classical and synodical decisions, the reverend meant to tell us; for that is the very point to his argumentation.
Now it is truly amazing that the reverend should want to maintain that the Formula of Subscription is binding upon its subscribers—officebearers in the churches—also in their difficulties respecting all synodical and classical decisions. For the fact of the matter is that the Formula of Subscription is binding upon its subscribers in their difficulties and different sentiments, such as they might have—only respecting the adopted creeds of the churches and thus not respecting any or all synodical and classical decisions. This is plain. The first paragraph of this Formula reads, “We, the undersigned, professors of the Christian Reformed Church, Ministers of the Gospel, elders and deacons. . . . do hereby sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this our subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the national synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, do fully agree with the word of God. We promise to faithfully teach and defend the aforesaid doctrine. . . . etc.” But the Formula of Subscription also requires of its subscribers this, namely, that they refrain from voicing their difficulties and different sentiments either privately or publicly by the word spoken or written—refrain from this before as well as after classis and synod have spoken, thus submitting to the judgment of classis and synod under penalty in case of refusal, to be, by that very fact, suspended from their office. As, according to G. Hoeksema, the Formula of Subscription is binding on the officebearers also in their difficulties respecting all classical and synodical decisions, it follows that also the requirement of this Formula last quoted is binding on them in these difficulties. It means that, according to G. Hoeksema, no officebearer, no Christian Reformed consistory, has the right to criticize, in public or private, by the written or spoken word, a single decision of the Christian Reformed Synod that was recently held. All that an officebearer can do, if he feels that one or more of synod’s decisions are contrary to Scripture, is to try to convince the next synod; and in the meantime he must remain profoundly silent respecting his difficulties, under penalty in case of refusal, to be, by that very fact, suspended from his office. And if Synod cannot see the light, he nevertheless submits to synod’s judgment, again under penalty in case of refusal to be, by that very fact, suspended from his office. This, according to G. Hoeksema, is Reformed Church Polity. But it is not Reformed. If is a kind of polity calculated to elevate classis and synod to the position of lord’s and masters of the churches. Yet, verily, this is the polity, the rule of action to which the Christian Reformed Classes, Grand Rapids East and Grand Rapids West held the ministers and their consistories whom they were treating back in 1924. And because these ministers and their Consistories could not allow themselves to be bound by such an atrocious polity, rule of action, they were deposed on the ground of insubordination to ecclesiastical authority—the authority of Classis, and these Classes had the support of the entire theological faculty at the Christian Reformed Seminary on whose advice they acted.
Assuredly, every member in the Christian Reformed communion of churches, every consistory, every officebearer, may criticize publicly and privately, should be allowed to criticize by the word spoken and written, any or all of the decisions of the Christian Reformed Synod that has recently been held to their very heart’s content. With this statement of mine, the Rev. H. J. Kuiper, the editor of the Christian Reformed Banner is in full accord. For he freely criticizes, even in the severest terms, some of the decisions of the last synod of his churches. We find these criticisms of his in The Banner for August 23, 1946, under the title: “Where Synod Failed.” (Here is ‘one such criticism from the reverend’s pen, “Even more serious than the mistake just discussed was the tragic decision regarding our work of Netherland Relief. Indeed, tragic is the right word.” The Rev. H. J. Kuiper criticizing in language that is truly condemnatory Synod’s decisions! That may well be considered strange, considering that in 1924 and thereabouts he indicated through his action as classical delegate that he was in full accord with that rule of action for all synod’s decision that G. Hoeksema imagined to have discovered in article 31 of the Church Order and in the Formula of Subscription. But today he freely and severely criticizes the decisions of his synod and thereby lets it be known that, as far as he is concerned, that rule of G. Hoeksema doesn’t exist. And of course today it doesn’t exist for G. Hoeksema either or for any of the leaders in the Christian Reformed Churches. The brethren, one and all, have undergone a change of heart with respect to that rule. Space and time forbid answering the question how this is to be accounted for. But the question can be answered.
The churches—consistories, officebearers, and common members,—do have the right certainly to freely and severely, if need be, criticize Synod’s decisions, the decisions of that recent synod. If there be any one who feels in his heart that one or more of synod’s decisions militates against the Scriptures he should and must be allowed both in private and in public and by the spoken and written word, to make this plain to all the churches and to every member in the churches. And if that decision be proved to be contrary to God’s Word, that is, if the Protestants or Protestant succeed in proving this, not to the satisfaction of Synod certainly (synod is no longer in existence, as it has adjourned) but to the satisfaction of themselves and all the churches—consistories, officebearers and common members—the decision, certainly, must and need not be considered binding. And when the churches again meet in synod, they rescind the decision; and all God’s people in the churches are sincerely grateful that the un-Scriptural decision was exposed for what it is, grateful to the protestants who were the first to raise their voice in protest against the decision. But of course, if the protestant—the protesting officebearer or consistory—does not succeed in proving to the satisfaction of the churches that the decision is contrary to the Scriptures, the churches, having studied the difficulties of the aggrieved but without being convinced, congregate in synod to advise the aggrieved one (not request or command) that he acquiesce in the decision (not that he obey. Such terms as command and obey in the mouth of the major assemblies imply the hierarchy), and to sever the denominational tie, if the protestant—the aggrieved Consistory,—cannot conform for conscience sake. The churches, as congregated in synod, do have this right; but it is a right that they must exercise most reluctantly and only with great caution. A communion of churches, genuinely and profoundly interested in the truth, and fearful of error, will heartily welcome and greatly prize a thorough and critical study of all its classical and synodical decisions by all the members. A communion of churches, so minded, will refrain, and instruct its synods to refrain, from threatening a consistory or officebearers with ejection from the denomination, the moment such officebearers or consistories raise their voices in protest against a synodical or classical decision. For such a communion of churches are interested in truth and not in ridding themselves of some persons whom they do not like.
The church polity to the defense of which G. Hoeksema arises in his brochure is unreformed. It is an insult to God’s people. That our Reformed fathers, having set the bishop of Rome in his place, should nevertheless have delivered to the churches an ecclesiastical constitution elevating the synod to a position of lordship over the church! This is inconceivable; and it is not true. Certainly the glorified Christ did not pour of His Spirit upon Synod in contradistinction to the churches. It is the church that he leads into all truth. And the right to determine and decide whether synod, in its decisions and creedal formulas, abides in the truth, whether its voice is the voice of the Spirit, testifying through the Scriptures with the spirits of God’s redeemed sons, belongs not to the synod in contradistinction to these sons but to these sons as congregated in synod. And for this responsibility these sons are well qualified. For in the words of the apostle, they have received the anointing and the anointing which they received abideth in them, and they need not that any man teach them.