Rev. Dykstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Doon, Iowa.
Article 41 of the church order of Dordrecht sets forth some practical rules for good order in classical meetings. Recognizing, however, that the main function of classical meetings ought to be spiritual in nature, the Reformed fathers included the following in this article:
. . .Furthermore, the president shall, among other things, put the following questions to the delegates of each church:
1. Are the consistory meetings held in your church?
2. Is church discipline exercised?
3. Are the poor and the Christian schools cared for?
4. Do you need the judgment and help of the classis for the proper government of your church?
These questions of Article 41 are the focus of our attention. A thorough examination and discussion of these questions has merit for the Reformed church today because they touch on vital principles in Reformed church government. These questions have to do with the Reformed principle of the unity of the church of Christ on the earth, in general, and of the unity of congregations in a denomination, in particular. They also touch on the principle of corporate responsibility and the necessity of mutual supervision within a denomination. Thus these questions are especially significant in light of the spirit of independence both in our culture and in the Reformed church world. It is contrary to our rebellious natures to submit ourselves to the supervision of peers. And to admit the need for help is difficult for most individuals, and even more so consistories. Some might argue that today the need no longer exists for these questions to be answered at classical meetings – that church visitation (being much more complete) has made them largely irrelevant, and that the practice has become an empty formality in most Reformed classes. While there is some truth to this, we nevertheless hope to demonstrate that the questions of Article 41 remain valuable for a classis meeting, for the unity and the spiritual well-being of the churches. But it is also evident to most observers that the manner in which these questions are asked and answered could stand some improvement. This can be done simply by the classes returning to the original intent and practice of Article 41.
To understand the validity and value of the questions of Article 41, let us briefly examine the principles which underlie them. First of all, remember that one of the basic principles of the Reformed church order is the autonomy of the local congregation. Christ rules His church, and does so through the office of elder. No one overrules the consistory, overturns its decisions, or takes over the government and/or work of the consistory. The question must be faced, do these questions of Article 41, which require mutual supervision, violate the autonomy of the local congregation? The answer is “No.” To see that mutual supervision does not violate the principle, notice that elders are also called to a mutual supervision of each other’s life, doctrine, and work. Not only that, but elders are called to oversee the work of the deacons-without taking over the work of the deacons! No doubt the danger exists of a consistory (or consistories) lording it over another consistory, just as the danger exists that one elder lords over another. But that is a violation (forbidden by the church order), not a right use of, mutual supervision. Properly executed, therefore, these questions do not violate the autonomy of the local congregation. One of the main principles behind Article 41 is the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. We confess the oneness of the church. Our Lord’s prayer in John 17 reveals this as one of the purposes of His life and crucifixion (“that they may be one”). We are admonished “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). This unity comes into expression in congregations joining together to form a denomination (the church order assumes that, too).
But the unity of the church of Christ is a unity in Christ, which is to say, in the truth. Striving for this, Reformed churches require subscription to common creeds [the Three Forms of Unity(!)], and require faithful preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism.
In addition to this doctrinal unity, certain, agreed upon, biblical standards must be required for life in each congregation, beginning with the work of the officebearers. That is the purpose of the questions in Article 41. They set forth some minimum requirements for faithful labors of the officebearers. This is an effort to insure unity among the congregations within certain biblical limits.
The other principle assumed in these questions is that of corporate responsibility. Corporate responsibility results from the fact that God deals with man in his (man’s) relationships. That we are born guilty and worthy of hell is due to the fact that God deals with us as part of the human race, descendants of Adam, and thus God imputes Adam’s guilt to us all. There is a legal responsibility connected with being in a certain body, or, “corporation.”
With respect to the church, corporate responsibility means, on the one hand, that each member is responsible for all the decisions of the congregation, classis, and synod, in which he is a member. On the other hand, it means that each congregation is responsible (accountable) for what happens in a sister congregation. The Bible clearly teaches this in the matter of Achan, whose guilt was imputed to the whole nation of Israel, even when only a handful of Israelites even knew about his sin (Joshua 7). Another illustration is the prayer of Daniel for the sins of all Israel. Although Daniel personally had not committed many of the horrible sins enumerated, he described it as “my confession” (Daniel 9). The reality of this responsibility demands mutual supervision. That is the purpose of Article 41’s questions.
Notice, however, that the purpose of these questions is not negative, i.e., to escape corporate guilt, but positive, viz., the spiritual well-being of each congregation and its members. This becomes evident from an examination of the history of Article 41 in the Reformed Churches of The Netherlands. The Synod of Emden, 1571, established some of the first rules for classical meetings. The first two articles were:
1) In the classical meetings one of the ministers shall deliver a sermon which the other ministers gathered together shall judge, and if there is something to improve, they shall let it be known. All the others shall do the same, each in his turn, in following classical meetings.
2) After this the president shall be chosen by the general vote of the ministers and after he has offered prayer, he shall ask each one individually whether they hold consistory meetings in their churches. Whether church discipline is maintained [in them]. Whether they have any struggle with any heretics. Whether they have any doubt concerning any articles of doctrine. Whether the poor and the schools are cared for. Whether they need the advice and help of the other ministers for ruling the churches, and other such things.
The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, adopted a church order which included the following on classical meetings:
Art. 30 . . .Further, the president among other things shall ask each one whether consistory meetings are held in their churches; whether church discipline is exercised; whether the poor and schools are provided for; finally, whether there is anything for which they need the judgment and help of classis for the proper government of their church. The minister who was appointed by the previous classis shall deliver a short sermon from the Word of God, which the others shall evaluate and if it is lacking in anything they shall point this out.
The same was adopted by the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, in Article 41, and is substantially what the PRC have in Article 41.
The emphasis of these articles is clearly the spiritual welfare of the congregation. The fathers were concerned about the preaching as well as the work of the elders and deacons for the spiritual good of the churches.
To finish the brief sketch of Article 41’s history, it should be noted that the Christian Reformed Church has revised these questions at least four times – 1930 (5 questions), 1942 (11 questions), 1947 (5 questions), and one additional time to its present form:
In order properly to assist the churches, the president, on behalf of classis, shall among other things present the following questions to the delegates of each church:
1. Are the council, consistory, and diaconate meetings regularly held according to the needs of the congregation?
2. Is church discipline faithfully exercised?
3. Are the needy adequately cared for?
4. Does the council diligently promote the cause of Christian education from elementary school through institutions of higher learning?
5. a. Have you submitted to the secretary of our Home Missions Board the names and addresses of all baptized and communicant members who have, since the last meeting of classis, moved to a place where no Christian Reformed churches are found?
b. Have you informed other councils or pastors about members who reside, even temporarily, in the vicinity of their church?
c. Have you, having been informed yourself of such members in your own area, done all in your power to serve them with the ministry of your church?
6. Does the council diligently engage in and promote the work of evangelism in its community?
(Note: These questions are answered on the credentials and reviewed by a committee who reports any irregularity to classis.)
Having noted the underlying principles of the questions of Article 41, let us briefly examine the meaning and importance of the individual questions.
1. Are the consistory meetings held in your church?
Certainly the question assumes that regular consistory meetings are held, a minimum of one per month, and more often for larger churches. Good order in the congregation, and thus its spiritual welfare, demand that consistories meet regularly, and often enough to take care of the congregation’s needs.
2. Is church discipline exercised?
This question is not simply whether the consistory has any cases of discipline at that time. Rather, as Rev. G. VandenBerg explains it, “the idea is whether the consistory observes that all things, doctrine and life, are maintained in the church in harmony with the Word of God. Does the church faithfully punish evil doers with the spiritual power of the keys of heaven’s kingdom? The preaching of the Word is itself a chief means of discipline and, therefore, this question may also well imply an inquiry into whether or not the Word is so preached that its discipline is felt in the congregation” (Standard Bearer, Vol. 36, p. 117).
The importance of faithful Christian discipline is obvious. It is one of the marks of the true church (Belgic Confession, Art. 29), is necessary because the church of Christ must exhibit holiness and maintain purity in doctrine, and is required out of love for the erring member. Failure to exercise Christian discipline will destroy the congregation.
3. Are the poor and Christian schools cared for?
The question could better be divided, since care of the poor and care for Christian schools are two different matters, and a church might well be faithful in one and not in the other.
The care of the poor relates directly to the work of the deacons. The purpose is to determine whether or not Christ’s office of high priest functions in the church so that His mercy is concretely experienced through it. At the least, it inquires concerning diligent collecting and distribution of the alms. Are the deacons faithful to their ordination vows?
Since the care of Christian schools is covered in another sectional, we will not discuss this part of the question.
The fourth question will be treated, the Lord willing, in a second article on Article 41.