Following is the “opinion” in the case of the property of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Mich., issued by Superior Court, the Hon. Judge Thaddeus B. Taylor presiding.
We give it without comment.
STATE OF MICHIGAN
IN THE SUPERIOR COURT OF GRAND RAPIDS, IN CHANCERY.
THE FIRST PROTESTANT REFORMED CHURCH, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a Michigan corporation, Plaintiff., vs. HUBERT DE WOLF et al,
Prior to December of 1924, there arose in East Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a controversy. At that time the Rev. Herman Hoeksema was a Minister of the Word in that church.
In December of 1924 by decision of Classis Grand Rapids East, Rev. Hoeksema was suspended as Minister. The action of Classis found its way to the civil courts which is the reported case of Holwerda vs. Hoeksema, 232 Mich. 645. Following decision in that case Rev. Hoeksema, together with others of that church, on September 13, 1926 executed Articles of Association under Section 5, Chapter 3, Part 4 of Act No. 84 of the Public Acts of 1921, thereby the First Protesting Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan became an entity.
On September 6, 1927, by amendment it became legally designated as First Protestant Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Such of the Articles that are pertinent hereto are as follows:
FOURTH—The members of said church or society shall worship and labor together according to the discipline, rules and usages of the Protesting Christian Reformed Churches in the United States of America as from time to time authorized and declared by the Classis of said churches.
FIFTH—This corporation shall proceed under section five, Chapter 1, Part 1 of the above named act.
SIXTH—The said church shall be governed by and according to the Eighty-six Articles of the Church Order of Dordrecht.
SEVENTH—All matters and questions regarding the use, control and right to possession of the real property of said church, shall, at all times, be determined only by a majority vote of the members of the congregation of said church.
Following the incorporation of this church other churches in other localities and cities were organized as a Protestant Reformed Church. These churches grew in number and by 1930 they were sufficient in number to organize a Classis. Later on the Synod came into existence and thereafter Classis and Synod met and received delegates according to the Church Order. The several churches were organized throughout the nation and the Boards of Classis were known as: Classis East and Classis West. By 1951 there were twelve Protestant Reformed Churches associated together and who were sending delegates to the ecclesiastical assembly known as Classis East.
Since the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids was the first Protestant Reformed Church organized, it has since the beginning been frequently referred to as the Mother Church.
A theological school was organized where those who wished to enter upon the ministry of the church received instructions according to the doctrines of the church, and this school was located and classes were conducted at the Mother Church in Grand Rapids. By 1951, First Church had a large roll of members. The church had acquired substantial holdings of real estate in the nature of a church and several parsonages. Three Ministers of the Word served the congregation—Rev. Hoeksema, Rev. Hanko and Rev. De Wolf.
In April 1951 and September 1952, protests were filed with the Consistory of First church in relation to statements made in the sermons of Rev. De Wolf. At a meeting of the Consistory held on October 22, 1952, the statements of Rev. De Wolf were condemned by the Consistory, and at the same meeting the Consistory requested Rev. De Wolf to apologize, and the form of the apology was indicated at the meeting. This motion was submitted to a vote at the meeting of the Consistory of October 27, 1952 and adopted. Rev. De Wolf stated that he would not conform. Following his statement, a motion was made to ask the Consistory of the Fourth Protestant Reformed Church to meet with the Consistory of First Church, and that in the meantime Rev. De Wolf be released from the duties of his office. On October 29, 1952, at a meeting of the Consistory, Rev. De Wolf was declared to be in office again. On November 17, 1952, the Consistory again asked Rev. De Wolf to apologize. The controversy evidently continued and apparently in March of 1953, protests were filed with Classis East by Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff for at the meeting of April 13, 1953, of the Consistory of First Church, it is observed that a letter was received from Classis East requesting the Consistory of First Church to forward the contents of the action of the Consistory of March 30, 1953—In Re-Decision on Rev. De Wolf’s Sermons.
At a meeting of Classis in April of 1953, the protests were considered. Classis East meeting May 28, 1953 to advise First Church Consistory, (a) To demand Rev. De Wolf to apologize; (b) That the Consistory apologize for supporting Rev. De Wolf.
1. If Rev. De Wolf refuses to suspend.
2. If any of the elders refuse, to depose.
The Consistory of First Church met June 1, 1953 and received a Committee from Classis East carrying the above action. It was moved and carried that the Consistory accept Classis document, sustaining the protests—Re—Rev. De Wolf’s sermons. It was moved to adopt advice of Classis and act according thereto. This motion was carried. It does not appear that any formal action was taken at this meeting other than stated. The Consistory again met on June 15, 1953, with apparently no formal action.
On June 22, 1933, the Consistory met with all members present. It also appears that three members of the Classis Committee met with them, and it is apparent that Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. De Wolf were present at this meeting. At this meeting Rev. De Wolf and the elders supporting him were asked to apologize. If any apology was made it must be concluded from the minutes of this meeting that the apology was not acceptable.
Article 7 of the minutes are to the effect that the Chairman asked Rev. De Wolf to apologize as advised by Classis and as adopted by the Consistory. On this motion there appeared to be eleven for and eleven against. The Chairman ruled that the motion was carried, ruling that the eleven votes against were under censure and being under censure they were deprived from functioning in their office.
Article 8 is to the effect that the Chairman asked those members of the Consistory to apologize as advised by Classis who were supporting Rev. De Wolf. The minutes record twelve for and eleven against, and the Chairman again rules that those voting against the motion were ineligible to vote because they were under censure. Whether those under censure were ineligible to vote is referred to later on in this Opinion. The other members of the Consistory presided over by Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Hanko met on the following evening, June 23, and at this meeting neither Rev. De Wolf nor the eleven elders under censure were present, in fact they were not notified of this meeting it being the claim of the elders not under censure that they being the only members of the Consistory eligible to function in their office, that it was unnecessary to notify the other members of the Consistory or Rev. De Wolf, and at this meeting Rev. Hoeksema apparently presided. This meeting was attended by three representatives of the Classis Committee. At this meeting according to Article 5 of the minutes, the Consistory expressed that Rev. Hubert De Wolf is worthy of suspension from his office as Minister of the Word, and that the basis thereof were the two alleged heretical statements of April 15, 1951 and September 14, 1952 and his refusal to apologize as advised by Classis. At this meeting the Consistory expressed that the following elders are declared worthy of deposition from their office and the minutes named the eleven elders deposed. Following this action, the Consistoryof First Church then meeting by Article 7, moved that the Consistory of Fourth Church be called in for consultation. Article 9 is to the effect that five members of the Consistory of Fourth Church are present and approved the action of deposition and suspension. They further advised that they were not prepared to say whether the meeting was legal in view of the fact that the deposed members were not present, or had not been notified of the meeting.
On June 25th, a meeting of this Consistory presided over by Rev. Hoeksema, met with nine elders and two deacons and Rev. Hanko. At this meeting two of the deposed elders supporting Rev. De Wolf entered and delivered the following notice:”We cannot possibly recognize your schismatic action and your illegal suspension and deposition of officebearers and therefore cannot concede you the right to hold meeting in our midst. We therefore, notify you that we will occupy the buildings until the proper depositions of the buildings are made.
signed, Consistory of First Protestant Reformed Church.”
At this point therefore, each faction was claiming to be the legal Consistory of the Church and entitled to possession and control of its temporal properties.
The group adhering to Rev. De wolf occupied the church and proceeded to change the locks upon-the doors and this action must be assumed to have been taken to prevent the entrance by the opposing faction, the plaintiffs in this case. Thereafter the Consistory adhering to the Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Hanko and a part of the church congregation adhering to their determination, found another plate within which to conduct services at which location they have continued to so do until the present time. No attempt was made by them to enter the church after the communication received at the meeting of June 25th, and it is apparent had they attempted to do so it would have required a forcible entry.
The notice above referred to is Exhibit 9, and in part states—
“We must therefore insist that you do not repeat your trespass. We cannot tolerate that you or your organization or committees make ungranted use of the real properties legally in our possession.
(signed) Consistory First Protestant Reformed Church, S. DeYoung, Clerk.”
That thereafter a communication was sent over the signature of S. DeYoung, as Clerk of the Consistory, to the theological school committee, Rev. George C. Lubbers, Secretary, which stated—
“In re your request for our reaction to the use of our building for theological school purpose, the Consistory decided that whereas two of the faculty of our school are considered by us to be schismatic, tie cannot grant the use of the said buildings so long as the said faculty members are retained.”
This action was illegal as it was not for either faction to determine as to who should be retained as members of the faculty of the theological school. Section 3 of the Constitution of the theological school of the Protestant Reformed Churches provides:
“The supervision and administration of the institution belongs to Synod itself. However, Synod shall appoint a committee consisting of no less than eight members to do the work of Synod in the interim between theological meetings.”
Article 6 provides that Synod elects the professors.
Thereafter the group adhering to Rev. De Wolf refused the theological school the use of First Church as a place of holding theological instructions.
On October 6, 1953, Classis East convened in Fourth Church. Delegates were present from all twelve churches of the federation, which included contesting delegates, claiming to represent First Church. At this meeting the following action was taken:
Art. 301—A motion is made that Classis express:
A. That the Rev. H. De Wolf and elder Sikkema cannot be seated as delegates of Classis East: Grounds:
1. It appears from the Report of the Committee delegated to the Consistory of the First Church that these brethren are under censure and censured officebearers cannot function in their office.
2. It appears from the same document that these brethren together with several elders, did not submit to the censure of the Consistory, but on the contrary rebelled against their Consistory.
3. These brethren, therefore, and all who follow them in this sinful way have by the same token become schismatic and severed themselves from the communion of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
B. That Classis further express that on the basis of the facts expressed under A, the brethren Rev. C. Hanko and elder Gerrit Bylsma are the rightful delegates of the First Church of Grand Rapids, Mich. Art. 309—Motion of Art. 301 is voted on and carries.
At this meeting of the Classis Committee which had been appointed at the meeting of May 23rd, filed a written report, Exhibit 22, Article 296, Classis meeting of October 6. 1953. In this report the Committee declared that the elders under censure were ineligible to function as officers and therefore ineligible to vote at the meeting of June 22nd of the Consistory. This report found that the suspension and deposition at the meeting of the Consistory on June 23rd was legal and proper, and the report further referred to the deposed brethren “have made themselves guilty of gross insubordination and have caused schism in the church in their refusal to submit to the decisions of the Consistory and in their maintenance of the heretical statements.” Also at this meeting of October 6th, Rev. De Wolf delivered a protest to Classis East, protesting its action in recognizing Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Hanko and the others as the Consistory of First Church.
Following this action on the part of Classis, the plaintiffs filed the Bill of Complaint in this cause as the legal representatives of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids. The defendants, being Rev. De Wolf and the deposed elders, have answered the Bill of Complaint and in their Cross Bill of Complaint asking for affirmative relief against plaintiffs, they also alleging and claiming to be the legal representatives of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids. It is therefore, apparent that so far as this proceeding is concerned, the status of both contestants is for temporal supremacy in controlling the church property, and all of this has grown out of the alleged heretical statements of the defendant, Rev. DeWolf, in his sermons of April 1951 and September 1952.
In the trial of this cause much testimony has been devoted to interpretation of the Church Order and to support the contention of the several advocates, documents and pages thereof have been submitted in great detail and at great length. In their several interpretations the contestants are in many cases agreed. First Church of Grand Rapids as have all the Protestant Reformed Churches affiliated have adopted a Church Order. The adopted form has been published and is found in Exhibit 3. In the preface of Exhibit 3, it is stated that “this Church Order was adopted in the beginning at the time of our existence as separate churches.” This Church Order therefore, is the adopted constitution and by-laws of the First Church of Grand Rapids.
Under this Church Order, the officebearers of the church are the elders and deacons elected by the congregation, called the Consistory, together with ministers of the word. In First Church there were three Ministers, acting in rotation. Under this Church Order the next governing body is the Classis, made up of delegates from each local church within a certain area, and next above is Synod, consisting of delegates sent from Classis. In this Church Order there are two Classes known as Classis East and Classis West, and one general Synod, to which Classis East and Classis West send delegates. It appears there were twelve churches in the union of Classis East on October 5. 1953.
It appears that since the action of Classis East on October 6, 1953, that three of the churches, together with a delegation from the Consistory, represented by the defendants, now claim that they constitute the legal Classis East. The other eight churches claim that they are Classis East.
The constitution and Church Order, therefore, adopted by First Church and the affiliated Protestant Reformed Churches is identical with the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Churches, with minor changes, which was under consideration in the cases of BORGMAN vs. BULTEMA, and HOLWERDA vs. HOEKSEMA.
Under the Articles of Association, First Church was by specific declaration in Article 4, dedicated to the discipline, rules and usages of the Protestant: Christian Reformed Churches in the United States of America as from time to time authorized and declared by the Classis of said Church. This Article definitely and, without question subjects this church to discipline according to the rules laid down by the Classis of said church. It specifically further commits this church and its congregation to a government by and according to the Eighty-six Articles of the Church Order of Dordrecht. The Church Order thereby became the Constitution of the church to which every member of the congregation subjected. It is the Court’s determination therefore, that Article 7, although it is claimed by both the plaintiffs and defendants to create an autonomous church insofar as it conflicts with the other Articles of Association does not have that effect. The congregation under its Constitution may only consider such matters as is submitted to it by its Consistory, and this mean the legal Consistory of the church. However, so far as the record of this case is concerned, it does not appear that the congregation representing either faction have attempted to make any disposition of the church property. First Church having adopted this Constitution, the Court is bound to recognize the fact that in such an order the local congregation is itself a member of a much larger and more important religious organization, and is under its government and control, and is bound by its orders and judgments as promulgated by the judicatory assemblies thereof. This is the interpretation of the Christian Reformed Churches and is the interpretation of our Supreme Court. This church government is not congregational in form. It is immaterial whether the plaintiffs or defendants represent either a majority or a minority of the members of the congregation of First Church. The defendants claim that on their part there has been no departure from the doctrine and the practices of the Protestant Reformed Churches and point out that it is the plaintiffs who are schismatic and have departed. The vice in such reasoning is that the judicatory of the denominations under the authority of the Constitution of the church to which both plaintiffs and defendants are bound, have found otherwise and if it is found that the judicatory has acted within its constituted authority, This Court may not substitute its opinion in lieu of the authorized tribunals of the church.
It is the claim of the defendants that Article 7 of the Articles of Association consider First Church as a congregational form of church government. The reply of the Court is that whatever the incorporators hope to establish by the insertion of Article 7 is of no moment. What they did accomplish was the incorporation of a religious society dedicated to the discipline, rules and usages of the Protestant Reformed Churches of America in the United States as from time to time authorized and declared by the Classis of such church, and also therein adopting a Constitution, namely: the Eighty-six Articles of the Church Order of Dordrecht. To interpret otherwise it would be necessary to strike from the Articles that part which declares that the church shall abide by the rules and orders of Classis, whereby they definitely recognize the existence of a higher ecclesiastical assembly.
So far as the control of property is concerned, the rule is where there is a division of a congregation having a judicatory of general revisory power with the right to appeal thereto, the civil courts will give the property to those persons who are recognized by the higher ecclesiastical court as being the congregation though they constitute a minority. Is this a church wherein the property is owned by a religious congregation which by its organization is strictly independent of all other ecclesiastical associations and so far as church government is concerned owes no filiality or obligation to any higher authority and which has not declared that there shall be minor and major ecclesiastical assemblies, or is First Church one where the religious congregation or association holding the property but a subordinate member of a general church organization in which there are superior ecclesiastical tribunals with a general and ultimate power of control which may be more or less complete in certain judicatory assemblies having jurisdiction over the whole membership of the general congregation, and this means of the congregation of all of the federated churches. A church of the first class is no doubt congregational and a church of the second class is no doubt Presbyterian so far, as the present government is concerned. The form of government of First Church and all of the affiliated churches of the Protestant Reformed denominations is Presbyterian. When by Article 6 of the Articles of Association the incorporators provided for a government according to the articles of the Church Order of Dordrecht they thereby incorporated and made those articles a part of the Articles of Association, and by so doing define the limits and powers of the corporation as the same may be granted or limited by the Articles of the Church Order oft Dordrecht. Certainly it cannot be denied that they must have recognized that there would come- into being higher ecclesiastical assemblies over and above the Consistory. Appellate bodies to which appeals from the action of the consistory could be made. When this church adopted these Articles as their Order; they proclaimed a Constitution whereby they established the structure of the church government and they provided for assemblies to carry on that government and also wherein rules and regulations were also incorporated to regulate the officers and assemblies of government. This is not a Church Order in which the congregation has the absolute right to select its own minister. This power is controlled by Articles 5 to 10 of the Church Order.
In 1946 Synod changed the word “consent” in Article 76 and 77 to be “advice.” It is presently the interpretation placed upon this change that the use of the word “advice” means to offer counsel which may or may not influence the conduct of the one to whom it is offered and that given this interpretation a Consistory or an individual may accept or decline to accept the advice of Classis. The use of the word “advice” when considered and construed with the use of this word in the other Articles of the Church Order do not warrant such construction as used. It has a different effect than to counsel. When it is stated as in Article 76 “but no one shall be excommunicated except with the advice of Classis” I interpret this to mean that the decision is primarily with the minor assembly to take any action that is called for or desirable and that except “with the advice of Classis” means that it is required that the approval or concurrence of Classis shall accompany the affirmative action of the minor assembly before it becomes effective. That is, while the minor assembly may make a determination, it does not become effective until they have the advice of Classis, namely, the affirmation or approval of Classis.
Defendants claim that by virtue of Article 31 of the Church Order they are not bound by a decision of Classis and therefore, they are not bound by the decision of Classis of October 6, 1953, whereby the plaintiffs and the Consistory named were determined to be the legal Classis of First Church. It is their contention that the provisions of Article 31ï¿½”which the individual believes is in conflict with the word of God, or with the article of the church Order,” leaves it with the individual to determine whether they will accommodate themselves to the determination of the Classis.
The court is cognizant of the interpretation given by the Protestant Reformed Churches in relation to Article 31 and the Christian Reformed Church as has been testified to Rev. Kok very clearly gave his interpretation which the court accepts as the interpretation of the defendants, and specifically testified as follows:
“The fundamental difference in church polity between the Christian Reformed Church and the Protestant Reformed Churches is that in the Christian Reformed Church, in the singular, is one institution with a Classis and Synod as hits highest bodies. The Protestant Reformed Churches, in the plural, is a group of autonomous sovereign Consistories over Classis and Synod. That is the fundamental difference. Article 31 emphasizes that we are bound by the vote of Classis, unlessï¿½and that is up to each individual church because this is the Church Order not of one institution but of twenty-four individual Protestant Reformed Churches. The Chr. Ref. Church maintains that the institution of the local church extends beyond its local boundaries in Classis and in Synod so they have one institution. The Church Order in the Christian Reformed Church is called the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, in the plural. When we promise to abide by the discipline of the Protestant Reformed Churches that means we promise to abide by the other interpretation which we have given to Article 31 of the Church Order. The difference is in the plural as against the singular.”
This interpretation immediately clashes with the Articles of Association of the plaintiffs. At the time of the incorporation there was no other Protestant Reformed Church or Churches, and the Articles of Association of this plaintiff adopt the articles of their own specific Church Order. This is Article 6. If this doctrine of government can be subscribed to for what purpose does the Church Order create assemblies and provide for appeals? From the testimony in this cause by the ministers of the word, offered on behalf of both plaintiffs and defendants, it would appear that thereon they are agreed. This question of self-determination was considered in the East Church case wherein the Court, quoting from the testimony of the Rev. Henry Beets, stated—
“If a man could during his appeal do as he pleases, that would be inviting anarchy and chaos.”
And further quoting from the testimony of Rev. Idzerd Van Dellen, stated—
“There is nothing in our Church Order that when a decision is made by Classis suspending a minister and finding that the ecclesiastical relationship is broken upon the part of the Consistory, that the Consistory and minister can continue to function as such officers in a church pending an appeal to synod. The reason for this is that they promised in signing the formula of subscription to acquiesce in the decision of the Classis and other bodies, even pending their appeal.”
The references in that case were to the identical Article 31 and the formula of subscription adopted by First Church.
Defendants have called attention to DIX vs. PRUITT, 194 N.C. 64; 138 S.E. 412, WOOD vs. HUMBER, 282 S.W. S34, ST. PAUL LUTHERAN CHURCH vs. STEIN, 115 Nebr. 114, 211 N.W. 611.
In the first two cases Baptist Churches were involved. Churches whose government was congregational. The St. Paul Lutheran case was one in which there was a Synod. The church, had not affiliated itself with that Synod and the Court in that case distinguished its rule by referring to another of its decisions wherein the church was a member of an association of congregations.
In speaking of the authority of Classis, Rev. De Wolf testified that if Classis found a statement to be heretical and the minister is sustained by his Consistory, all that Classis can do is to declare that church outside of the federation of the Protestant Reformed Church. He further testified “Classis determined that the statements were heretical. I do not agree that they were heretical, regardless of what they found.”
In this case Classis did not attempt to declare First Church as outside of the federation, but only determined which elders constituted the legal Consistory of the church. The defendants further based their claim on recognition as the First Protestant Reformed Church on the alleged illegal action of the plaintiff faction on June 22nd and June 23rd. It is their claim that the ruling of the presiding officer at the meeting of the Consistory on June 22nd was illegal. At the meeting of June 22nd, it is apparent that the members present were equally divided, eleven to eleven. The president ruled that those voting, who were under censure, were not entitled to vote as being under censure they could not function in office. If he was correct, and if this is the law of the church, then it was not necessary to notify members who were not qualified to function as officers of the meeting which was held June 23rd. It was for Classis to determine whether or not the action of the Consistory was according to church law.
In BORGMAN vs. BULTEMA, 213 Mich. 684, the court stated—
“The civil courts will not enter into a consideration of church doctrine or church discipline, nor will they inquire into the regularity of the proceedings of the church judicatories having cognizance of such matters. To assume such jurisdiction would not only be an attempt by the civil courts to deal, with matters of which they have no special knowledge, but it would be inconsistent with complete religious liberty untrammeled by State authority. On this principle the action of the church authorities in the deposition of pastors and the expulsion of members is final.”
In the present case the only controversy which this Court can determine is i who has been declared by the lawfully constituted assembly of the First Protestant Reformed Church to be the individuals adhering to the faith and doctrines of the Protestant Reformed Church of America? To those who have been so declared does the civil right to occupy and control the temporal affairs of the corporation belong? Classis East in the October 6th meeting declared Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Hanko to be the legal presidents of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids and Mr. Stadt as its stated Clerk. They then became entitled to the possession and control as the legal officers of the corporation of the physical property and assets. Whether the action of Classis was right or wrong is of no concern of this Court. Classis is a unit of government of this church, declared to be so in their adopted constitution. It has authority. As a branch of the government of the church provided by the constitution it has authority to act and its decisions are binding. There can be no government if it can be held that the decisions of the duly created assembly are only advisory rather than mandatory.
The jurisdiction of the civil courts to whom appeals have been made to review the decision of church judicatories have been discussed and stated in many cases. The courts are unanimous on the question of decisions relating to church discipline, faith, custom or law when these questions, have been decided.
For a restatement, I find none more clearly expressed than in the case of POUNDER vs. ASH, 63 N.W. 48, page 50, 44 Nebr. 672, wherein the court stated—
“The church should be free from the interference of the court where there is nothing drawn into question but the jurisdiction of the church over one of its members or ministers or officers, and to try him, and, if need be, expel him for the violation of some church ordinance or law, so long as such action does not infringe upon his rights as a citizen, or the powers and jurisdiction of the state. In this country of ours it has been almost, if not quite universally, and is now, thought to be the best policy, and consistent with good government to let the church and state be completely severed, or as nearly so as may be and can be with due observance of all proper laws. * * * * It is said: “In this class of cases we think the rule of action which should govern the civil courts, founded in a broad and sound view of the relations of church and state under our system of laws, and supported by a preponderating weight of judicial authority, is that, whenever the question of discipline or of faith or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law has been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application, to the case before them. We concede at the outset that the doctrine of the English courts is otherwise. In this country the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all. The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect. The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with the implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent, and would lend to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed. It is of the essence of these religious unions, and of their right to establish tribunals for the decisions of questions arising among themselves, that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to such appeals as the organism itself provided for. * * * * But it is a very different thing where a subject-matter of dispute strictly and purely ecclesiastical in its character—a matter over which the civil courts exercise no jurisdiction, a mater which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them becomes the subject of its action. It may be said here, also, that no jurisdiction has been conferred upon the tribunal to try the particular case before it, or that, in its judgment, it exceeds the powers conferred upon it, or that the laws of the church do not authorize the particular form of proceeding adopted, and, in a sense often used in the courts, all of those may be said to be questions of jurisdiction. But it is easy to see that, if the civil courts are to inquire into all these matters, the whole subject of the doctrinal theology, the usages and customs, the written laws and fundamental organization of every religious denomination may and must be examined into with minuteness and care, for they would become in almost every case the criteria by which the validity of the ecclesiastical decree would be determined in the civil court. This principle would deprive these bodies of the right of construing their own church laws * * * * and would, in effect transfer to the civil courts, where property rights were concerned, the decisions of all ecclesiastical questions.”
“The decisions of ecclesiastical courts, like every other judicial tribunal, are final, as they are the best judges of what constitutes an offense against the word of God and the discipline of the church. Any other than those courts must be competent judges of matters of faith, discipline, and doctrine, and civil courts if they should be so unwise as to attempt to supervise their judgment on matters which come within their jurisdiction, would only involve themselves in a sea of uncertainty and doubt, which would do anything but improve either religion or good morals.”
It is the claim of the defendants that the plaintiffs withdrew from the church and abandoned the denomination. The plaintiffs inquired of the defendants if they would permit occupancy and the defendants replied as hereinabove stated that they would not recognize the plaintiffs. One may not be convicted of desertion upon the ground that he must first use physical force to establish his claim. The plaintiffs were not bound to attempt to incite a riot by attempting to use physical violence in order to occupy the church property. They were quite in accord with the admonition of the last sentence of the Preface of the Church Order, I Cor. 14:40 —
“Let all things be done decently and in order.” The Consistory of plaintiff’s church as constituted with Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Hanko as presidents, and Mr. Gerrit Stadt as Clerk, are legally entitled to present possession, of the physical properties of the corporation.
The relief therefore, as prayed for by the plaintiffs, will be granted and the defendants and any who may claim through or-by them restrained from obstructing, or interfering with the plaintiff corporation in its use of its property, or from interfering with the government or the ordinary conduct of the affairs of said church. If defendants have collected or obtained money during the time that they have maintained physical possession of said church they will turn over to the plaintiffs all money or other assets collected during the period from June 23, 1953.
It is not the intent or the purpose of this Court to determine who are the members of this church congregation, and it is not to be considered, or interpreted as preventing any person who was a member or communicant of said church on June 23, 1953 from participating in the affairs of this church under the administration of those who have been declared by the Classis as the legal Consistory and presidents of said church.
Respectfully submitted, Thaddeus B. Taylor, Judge of the Superior Court of Grand Rapids.
Dated: December 23, 1954