The Report of the Committee of the Synod of 1924 on the Question “Can A Classis Depose A Consistory?”

d. Deposition and Enforcements

When the right to declare a judgment of deposition is ascribed to a Classis but not the right to execute it, then the question arises as to what ecclesiastical significance such a decision has? It declares that, according to the judgment of the Classis, the Consistory should be deposed. Yet, if the Classis is of the conviction that she has no right to execute this in the local church, she makes a decision while she knows that it neither can nor will be executed. Naturally this is completely senseless and without ecclesiastical significance. Actually this amounts to less than advice since that is generally observed. An ecclesiastical gathering makes a decision with the intent that it will be carried out. If a Classis makes a decision in the name of Christ and according to his will, it must be executed unless external circumstances in one way or another make this impossible. 

The decision to depose a Consistory has, according to ecclesiastical rule, final significance for the local church. There is no consistory in the church that can execute it. The Consistory is by that decision actually deposed. 

With a view to the carrying out of such a decision, we must consider that there is no “form for the deposition of office bearers.” The Classis must formulate the decision, giving complete and accurate grounds for the deposition, and send this as an official notice to the deposed office bearers and also to those remaining faithful of the church and it must be declared in an official gathering of the congregation. 

e. Interfacing in the Right of the Local Church

The deposition of a consistory, that is, of all office bearers, is not an intervention in the rights of the local church. Intervention can only take place when the ecclesiastical status of the consistory is normal, (kerkrechtelijk in normalen staat is). In this case the Classis has absolutely no right to decide or to do anything to such a Consistory. But we deal here with the case of a Consistory departing in doctrine or life or both and that is guilty of insubordination to the Classis and Synod and that rebels against the authority of the church and acts directly in opposition to the Formula of Agreement signed by them. 

Naturally, mention cannot be made here of intervention by the Classics in the rights of the local church and consistory. Intervention in these rights can only mean that the Classis impedes the consistory in her actions according to Reformed Church Order. Of this no mention is made here. Just the opposite. The Classis employs a means to bring them back from their ways that are in conflict with their own rights and duties. 

f. The Insubordination of the Consistory

Distinction must be made between the departing in the doctrine and life that was treated in the aforementioned process through Classis and Synod and the insubordination or refusal to submit to the decision of the broader gathering. 

The question is whether a Consistory by such refusal to submit to the decision of the broader gathering ceases legally to belong to the church and the denomination. This depends on how we view the denominational bond. Does it have its origin in the will of the consistory, (de mutuus consensus) the mutual consent by common accord; then it simply comes down to a contract that may be freely kept or broken. Voetius already strongly defends the godly right (het jus divinum) of the church denomination over against the Independents. The church denomination has its origin in Christ and He, the king, uses His office bearers as His servants to order (het formeel) according to His will. The (kerkverband) denominational bond, as instituted by Christ, functions therefore upon His authority and is officially (kerkrechtelijk) higher than the churches and the office bearers. No consistory can officially sever the ecclesiastical bond. No one can legitimately do what is wrong. No consistory has a legitimate right or power to break the bond by which Christ has bound it with other churches. That would be secession from a true church, an act of human high-handedness. A local church may and must alone secede from a false church, because Christ demands that in His Word, the law of the church.

From this also follows the proper understanding of the character of insubordination. Refusal to submit one’s self to the decisions of Classis and Synod is not an abrogating of the denomination bond but insubordination; disobedience to the authority of the Classis (Art. 36), a gathering of churches, office bearers in the service of Christ, which makes decisions in conformity with His law. This disobedience can be called moral or spiritual sin but all sin that, according to Article 80 of the Church Order officially (kerkrechtelijk) must be treated with discipline, can be named thus. All sin is moral in character but here is no official ecclesiastical conflict because it does not say that it is not official according to the church. This merely signifies that it is a sin that must be treated with discipline, that is, officially by the church. The Formula of Subscription: “being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of the Consistory, Classis and Synod, under penalty in case of refusal to be, by that very fact, (ipso facto) suspended from our office.” Here refusal to submit to the decisions of the Classis is set forth as a sin in the official ecclesiastical sense for which one must be deposed. 

g. Finally, it must be noted that the deposition of a Consistory by the Classis is not an act of hierarchy or coercion. Christ alone has the ruling power by which He has the authority to give laws and to demand obedience and to punish disobedience. The office bearers are not administrators of His law-giving nor of His punitive power. Discipline is the administration of His ruling power, the maintaining of His right over against those who depart there from. Discipline is no punishment but the (medisch) and pedagogical means to humble and to save those who depart from the law of Christ. And although this to us appears impossible, and the discipline and also the excommunication do not have this result, the church may not refrain from applying discipline, because the result is neither the ground nor essence of discipline but the maintenance of the right of Christ as the King of the Church. All this applies to the departing officebearers in the Consistory. 

II. 

In the foregoing, in answering the question, “Does a Classis have the right to depose a Consistory?”, we have briefly shown the character of the local church and the broader gatherings and their reciprocal relation insofar as one or the other stands related to the question. We have proceeded from the Church Order and our Reformed principles. Our conclusion is that we give an affirmative answer to the question and herewith consider our given mandate to have been finished. 

We take the liberty to add that our opinion of the adopted position is also supported by Voetius and this practice has existed in Reformed Churches in her most flourishing period. 

(1) We limit ourselves alone to Voetius. Firstly, because he is recognized by all Reformers as the best interpreter of Reformed Church Polity. And in the second place, because later writers in the main follow him and have produced nothing new. Insofar as we have been able to note it is nowhere stated in so many words in the Politica Ecclesiastica that the Classis may depose a Consistory, that is, take away the office through excommunication. But for us this is no more necessary as a direct judgment than that baptism is come in the place of circumcision proves infant baptism. The question is solely whether Voetius attributes to the broader gatherings authority and power (authoritas et potestas) which includes the right of deposition. 

(a) We find the following definition with Voetius: “The ecclesiastical bond of Classis and Synod is an established, abiding combination of many churches under one limited rule (sub certo regimine) for mutual improvement and preservation.” 

The denominational forms and the later acceding to this relation may not be viewed as a matter of choice (of dat het verband blootweg federatief zou zijn). Voetius speaks of libere initia (initiating free-willingly). But this means: “without compulsion and has nothing to do with moral obligation.” 

The ecclesiastical relation is clear in the practice and example of the apostles and is set forth through the Holy Spirit in Acts 15:1-34 by which all Christian theologians commonly prove the practice and authority of the Synods. 

(b) The power of the broader gatherings is not “private but cumulative,” that is, it does not deprive, take away the power of the local church but is a power that in the broader gatherings accumulates and flows into one, single, undivided, greater power. Ten can do more than one. “Therefore the broader gatherings ordinarily do not exercise this power over and outside of the local church and with her own authority do anything in or concerning the local church except in matters of common interest or in cases of appeal or in cases of mismanagement.” 

To the question whether a broader gathering has a binding (coactivum) power so that she can impose the decisions concerning doctrine and ecclesiastical practices and can demand execution under the penalty of censure, Voetius gives an affirmative answer. He proves this with a seven fold argument. In the second argument he says that where there is a regular ecclesiastical relation (denomination), “there is also an ecclesiastical power conformable to this society and where this power is it is necessarily binding (necessario definitive) because otherwise there would be no power, no order, no unity.” After he has noted that the local churches each have, in themselves an active, binding power, Voetius concludes: (though this power remains when they act in common and together) “On the other side, anything good added to something good produces a greater good.” The aim, end (finia) of the denominational bond lies in the preserving, the confirmation, the promotion and reparation of the churches in the common faith and godliness. 

c. Voetius raises the question: “Whether a Classis or Synod, that is, a gathering of various consistories that maintain ecclesiastical fellowship (collectione, correspondentiae) has the power to excommunicate (conpetat excommunicandi potestas). Observe here that Voetius speaks of “consistories” gathering together in broader assembly. To this question an affirmative answer is given. In the following three cases Voetius cites excommunication to be legitimate: (1) In cases of mismanagement by the local church and consistory; (2) In cases of appeal to the Synod; or (3) In cases of an indictment of guilt in such a matter (delatianis istius causae) that are brought to Classis or Synod. Likewise Voetius proceeds to give the grounds here for his opinion. He says: “For in case the key of discipline is given a particular or local church or to her consistory, why shall it not be given to an assembly and unity of churches and consistories in which the consistory of the particular and local church is incorporated.” Voetius speaks of a “Synerdrium incorporatum.” And with a view to the defense of the Presbyterial form of Church government, he cites the case of Caspar Coolhaes, an illustre exemplum excommunicationis.” The power of excommunication is not given to the State because the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are given to the church and to the ecclesiastical officials. 

(to be continued) 

—G.V.D.B.