One of the important aspects of our heritage as Protestant Reformed Churches is the church political aspect of that heritage. As we commemorate our Golden Anniversary as a denomination, and as at that occasion we are reminded of our heritage, our thoughts undoubtedly turn primarily to our doctrinal and confessional heritage, the heritage of the truth. And if at all, then only secondarily do we probably think of the heritage which is ours from a church political point of view. And this order is quite natural and proper. Nevertheless, we must not forget that we have such a church political heritage. And while we may perhaps characterize that aspect of our heritage as secondary, we certainly must not characterize it as being of little value and of minor importance. That would be a grave mistake. When we commemorate the heritage which the Lord our God has given us to have and to hold for these fifty years of our existence, we must commemorate this aspect of our heritage also. And when we resolve anew, by God’s grace, to hold fast to that heritage in the future, we must resolve also to hold fast to the principles and the form of church government which we have.
In general, I am referring to what is known as the Presbyterian-synodical form of church government, set forth in the Church Order of Dordrecht. And I am referring specifically to the principle of what is known as the autonomy of the local consistory and congregation.
What is meant by this principle?
It is the principle, first of all, that the authority and the power of the offices of minister, elder, and deacon reside strictly in the local congregation. And, therefore, the authority and the power to preach, to administer the sacraments, to discipline, and to exercise the office of mercy belong strictly to the local consistory and congregation. In the second place, according to this system, a number of like-minded congregations have banded together in a church federation for the purpose of expressing their unity and for the purpose of mutual advice, counsel, assistance, and cooperation—without, however, in any way conceding or delegating the afore-mentioned powers—and agreeing to be governed, both locally and in their federative functions, according to the 86 articles of the Church Order of Dordrecht. And. thus, in addition to our local assemblies, each of which has the power and authority within its own congregation to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to discipline, we have also broader assemblies. We have regional assemblies, our classes, with well-defined jurisdiction, but no jurisdiction within the local congregation. And we have our national, or broadest, assembly, our synod—again with certain well-defined powers, but absolutely no jurisdiction within the local congregation.
Negatively, our church political heritage implies that no classis and no synod can in any sense exercise the powers of the offices which Christ has appointed in His church. A classis cannot engage in preaching of the Word. A synod cannot administer and celebrate the sacraments. And historically, of course, this principle came into sharp focus in connection with the origin of our churches in 1924. And it came into focus not in connection with the question of preaching or the question of the sacraments, but the question of discipline. Can a classis or a synod suspend and depose from office ministers, elders, and deacons? In 1924-1926 the Christian Reformed Church answered, yes to that question. We have always insisted and do still insist that the answer to that question is No.
Such, briefly, is the church political aspect of the heritage which we celebrate at this Fiftieth Anniversary. It is to be distinguished, on the one hand, from rank independentism, which completely ignores any ties of church federation. And it is to be distinguished, on the other hand, from collegialism, which, in effect, considers every consistory and congregation as but a branch of one large church. And let me remind you that this principle is expressed in our very denominational name. We are not, as a denomination, the Protestant Reformed Church in America, but we are the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. Our denomination is not one church, but it is one federation, or communion, of autonomous churches. Moreover, although independentism and collegialism may in a sense be said to lie at opposite poles, yet when either one of them comes to manifestation in a Reformed communion of churches, it very often results in the same evil, namely: hierarchy, or lording it. When the churches in common, either of classis or synod assume to themselves power within a local congregation, this is hierarchy. It results in what Article 84 of our Church Order calls “lording it” over a local consistory and local office bearers. But when one consistory and congregation go their independent way, ignoring the rules according to which all have agreed to live within the church federation, this also can result and does result frequently in that one congregation lording it over those with whom it had agreed to live together and to act together within the church federation. In deepest principle, therefore, there is only a fine line of distinction between independentism and collegialism. And our Presbyterian-synodical form of church government requires the churches, in a sense, to tread a very narrow course between independentism and collegialism.
This narrow course we have trodden be it sometimes with much difficulty, during the fifty years of our existence. And this principle of Reformed church government we have maintained until this day.
To hold fast to this part of our heritage is not a matter of little importance. First of all, this is true because this principle of Reformed church government is a Scriptural principle. And just because it is a Scriptural principle, it is our calling as churches to maintain it. But there is more. There is a connection between this aspect of our heritage and the doctrinal aspect of our heritage. Historically it has frequently been the forces of hierarchy which were also the forces which promoted heresy and which succeeded by their hierarchical actions in foisting false doctrine upon the churches. Not only was this the case when our own churches had their origin, but it has been true very often in the course of church history. There is a lesson in this. And the lesson is that we must guard against hierarchy in order to hold on to the heritage of the faith once delivered to the saints.
We may ask the question: is there any danger of losing this part of our heritage? Or, to put it positively: how may we hold fast to this heritage of Reformed church government?
To this we would answer, in the first place, that it is always true that we can only maintain our heritage through constant vigilance and by guarding it zealously. We must never simply take it for granted, nor ever consider it a thing of minor significance. Then we will surely lose it. This does not mean, to be sure, that we must see the bogeyman of hierarchy lurking around every corner. And it certainly does not mean that we must not accord to our broader assemblies their rightful place and powers and duties. Then, too, we will go in the wrong direction, that of rank independentism. Nevertheless, we must be on the alert. History shows that in Reformed Churches it has been very easy to go in the direction of hierarchicalism. And in this direction we never begin to go. In the second place, sometimes clouds, though they be perhaps only the size of a man’s hand, appear on the horizon in this regard. Perhaps thoughtlessly sometimes we can catch ourselves referring to classis or to synod as higher and highest ecclesiastical assemblies. But remember: this is the language of hierarchicalism. Classis and synod are not higher and highest assemblies respectively, but broader and broadest assemblies. Another such cloud, I believe, appears when upon occasion we create a disjunction between the local church and the broader assemblies. There is no separation, you know, between the churches and the classis, or the synod, as though the latter have substance and existence in themselves. We must not forget that synod is not and cannot be an entity in itself. We must not begin to speak of “the synodical level” in distinction from the local level or the classical level. At synod the churches-in-common are represented. And at a classical meeting the churches-in-common of a certain region are represented and act together. And a local consistory must not imagine that when classis acts or when synod acts, that local consistory is not acting. The fact of the matter is that the local consistory is not excluded, but is simply acting in concert with its fellow churches. And the local consistories must not feel left out nor consider themselves excluded in such instances. To do so is already to make concessions in our thinking to the error of hierarchicalism. Against these dangers and against such thinking and such language we must be on the alert. And we must be on the alert, too, to live as much as in us lies by the principles and regulations of our Church Order. We must never consider the latter to be of no importance. We must never act in any of our assemblies as though any part of the Church Order can simply be dispensed with, for whatever reason. If we do, we shall someday wake up to the realization that we have forfeited this part of our heritage.
We may ask the further question: are there any areas in the life of our churches in which improvement can be made from a church political point of view?
To this question I believe the answer is affirmative.
In the first place, I have a suggestion of a rather mechanical nature. That is that our Church Order Manual ought to be brought up to date. The present edition of our Church Order was published in 1961. Since that time many of the constitutions of the various standing committees have been revised; and some of those revisions have been sweeping. If I am not mistaken, there is only one committee constitution which has not been revised in some way. Besides, there have been changes in the Rules of Order and Rules of Procedure of Synod; and these do not appear in our Church Order. In addition, we became incorporated as a denomination in 1962; and the corporate By-laws, as adopted in 1962 and 1963, do not appear in our Church Order. It is high time, therefore, for the orderly transaction of the work of the churches, that we have a new edition of our Church Order Manual.
In the second place, I would like to suggest that—if I may put it that way—it is time for us to grow up as churches. We are 50 years old. And yet there is one important respect in which our churches have been hesitant to make a change. I refer to the way in which our synodical committees are structured; and especially do I refer to the structure of two very important committees which conduct much of the work of the churches-m-common, namely, our Mission Committee and our Theological School Committee. Both of these committees conduct business in behalf of all the churches. And yet both of these committees are limited in their membership to the Grand Rapids area. This is not good. It is not good from a practical point of view because it constitutes a severe stricture upon the membership of these committees and because it means that a very large burden of committee work falls upon a comparatively few ministerial committee members. And it is not good from the point of view of principle: for while these labors are the labors of the churches-in-common, the only time when the churches-in-common actually participate in this work is the time of our annual Synod, when reports are heard and when policies are set. It would be far healthier if there were active participation and input in these important committees from the denomination at large. I am aware, of course, of the objections that have commonly been made. These objections have been that a change in this regard would be impractical because of the amount of travel and the expense involved. I would point out that these are objections of a practical nature, not objections of principle. Nor do I believe that they are insurmountable objections. Some years ago considerable study of this matter was made, and concrete proposals were brought to Synod; but the proposals and suggestions were rather unceremoniously dumped by Synod without thorough consideration. I believe that it is time that our churches once more give careful attention to this matter. The truth is that as far as our Theological School Committee is concerned there has been retrogression in this respect. There was a time when the affairs of our seminary were taken care of by a Curatorium. And this Curatorium included representatives from all the churches at the time when we still had a General Classis in the early years of our history. But today all the affairs of our school are conducted by a committee from the Grand Rapids area. One or more of our consistories should make a new study of this matter and should bring an overture to synod concerning it.
In the third place, there is a problem which ought to be cleared up. In our Rules of Synod, Article 5, B, sub-2, we read: “No proposals of importance shall be presented to Synod that have not appeared on the agenda, so that Consistories and Classes may have opportunity for previous deliberation. All matters appearing in the Agenda must be dealt with by Synod before its adjournment.” Under our present structure, this regulation constitutes a wax nose. The Agenda is published by the 5th of May. But neither Classis East nor Classis West meets after that date; and therefore there is no opportunity for either of our classes to deliberate on matters in the Agenda of Synod before the Synod meets. Besides, it seems to be a common understanding among us that consistories can send no communications concerning matters in the Agenda directly to Synod. Personally, I do not agree with this. I do not believe, of course, that a consistory can send any matters for the Agenda directly to Synod; these ought to come by way of Classis. But I do believe that a consistory may send a communication to Synod concerning matters already in the Agenda, provided that in such communications a consistory does not present new matters for the Agenda. As matters stand now, for the most part our Agenda of Synod is merely a matter of information; it offers opportunity for previous deliberation only to those who are actually delegated to Synod. This situation ought to be corrected. Perhaps this would mean an earlier date for the Agenda; and perhaps it would mean a change in the date of the meetings of Classis East and Classis West. But as matters stand now, there is a hiatus in our ecclesiastical structure. And I believe that it is a hiatus that is out of keeping with the spirit of Reformed church polity.
In the fourth place, I believe that it would be for the benefit of our churches if Classis West would give serious consideration to meeting more than twice per year. Ever since the time that our churches were divided into two Classes, Classis West has met only twice per year. The reason for this is presumably the reason suggested in Article 41 of our Church Order, where we read that the meetings of Classis “shall be held at least once in three months, unless great distances render this inadvisable.” It is true, of course, that Classis West has the problem of “great distances.” But it is at least a question whether these great distances render three meetings or four meetings of Classis per year inadvisable. With Classis West meeting only twice per year, the meetings of that Classis frequently become too busy and too crowded. Besides, especially when there are matters of protest and appeal pending, it is not good for the welfare of the churches that these must be delayed for such a long time. In these days of air travel, I believe that Classis West could very easily meet at least three times per year.
Finally, I have this suggestion. I wish that our consistories and our Classes could pay more attention and could come more frequently with positive suggestions and overtures with regard to matters pertaining to the churches-in-common. As matters stand now, there is a certain danger of boardism in our denomination, due to the fact that almost all the business of Synod comes by way of the reports of standing committees. It would be a much more healthy situation if the local consistories and the Classes would have a greater voice in the affairs of our churches. Consistories and Classes could well devote more time to positive suggestions and constructive proposals with respect to the work and the activities of the churches-in-common. This, I believe, would be all to the good.