Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
Four kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: the consistory, the classis, (the particular synod), and the general synod.
Church Order, Article 29
Article 29 introduces the second main section of the Church Order which deals .with the ecclesiastical assemblies. By “assemblies” is meant official meetings of duly elected and delegated officebearers in order to conduct the business of the church. These assemblies are of four “kinds.” There are not four “ranks” or “orders” of assemblies in the Reformed churches, but four “kinds.” The language of the Church Order is deliberate. At the very outset of its treatment of the broader assemblies, the Church Order is concerned to guard against the danger of hierarchy.
From the beginning, consistory meetings were held in the churches of the Reformation. Under Calvin’s leadership, there were weekly consistory meetings in Geneva. This practice was followed by almost all the Reformed churches on the continent. Our own Church Order, Article 37, calls for weekly consistory meetings, as a general rule.
The first synodical meetings were attempted by the French Reformed churches. In 1558 a number of French Reformed ministers gathered at the church of Poitiers in order to discuss the need for regular synodical meetings. In 1559, in the midst of fierce persecution, a synod was convened at St. Germain, a suburb of Paris.
The earliest Dutch Reformed synods were the Walloon Synods (1555-1556). The Walloon churches were in Southern Netherlands and were largely French speaking. These synods were often designated by such names as “The Synod at the Vine,” or “The Synod at the Flowerbud.” Evidently this was intended to keep the meeting place of the synods a secret due to the threat of persecution. These names were usually associated with the official seal of the church at which they were held.
One of the earliest synods of the Dutch churches was the Synod of Wezel, 1568. This synod met in Wezel, Germany because of the persecution in The Netherlands. The Synod of Wezel convened on November 3, 1568 and was composed of a group of Dutch Reformed leaders from some 20 churches. This synod drew up the first Church Order .of the Reformed Churches of The Netherlands, advised the immediate creation of classes, and strongly emphasized that the churches must not only be united doctrinally, but also in polity.
The Synod of Embden was convened in 1571. Once again, the meeting place was on the border between Germany and The Netherlands because of the threat of persecution. The Synod of Embden was the first Dutch Reformed synod to be composed of officially delegated ministers and elders. Kasper VanDerHeyden, pastor of the church in Frankenthal, was the president. Besides adopting a Church Order, the synod included in its official minutes a section in which answers were given to specific questions presented by various churches to the synod. The Synod of Embden was also the first synod to draw up classical boundaries.
The Provincial Synod of Dordrecht, 1574, was the first synod to be held on Dutch territory. Although technically it was a particular synod, composed mainly of delegates from the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, it was for all practical purposes a general synod of the Dutch churches. Later synods would recognize its decisions and even appeal to them as precedent in matters of liturgy and church polity. The synod met from June 16, 1574 until June 28. Casper Heijdanus served as president. Classical boundaries were reorganized and it was decided that the classes should meet once a month.
The National Synod of Dordrecht, 1578, was the first truly national synod of the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands. A major focus of the synod was the issue of the relationship between church and state. The synod met from June 2-18, 1578. This was the first synod to specify four kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies, as does our present Article 29.
The most fundamental of all ecclesiastical assemblies is the consistory. The Latin word “consistorium” refers to a meeting place, and thus to those who gather at this place for a meeting. The consistory consists of the ministers and elders, and in small congregations the deacons (cf. Church Order, Article 37), of the local congregation. In the Presbyterian tradition the consistory is equivalent to the session. The common Dutch designation of the consistory is kerkeraad, that is, “church council.” This is perhaps to be preferred to the designation “consistory.” It is more descriptive and it is a confessional term: “We believe, that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual policy which our Lord hath taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God, and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church . . .” (Belgic Confession, Art. 30).
The consistory is the only ecclesiastical assembly specifically mentioned in Scripture. In I Timothy 4:14 the “presbytery” is the council of the ruling elders, the consistory. Other passages speak of the elders as a body: Acts 20:17, 28; I Timothy 5:17; I Peter 5:1-3; Matthew 16:19;Hebrews 13:7, 17.
Besides the consistory, Article 29 refers to the classis. The word “classis” is also a Latin word and refers to a certain class or division of people, as for example in the military or government. In Reformed church polity a classis (plural: classes) refers to a meeting of a group of churches in a certain region. In the Presbyterian tradition the classis is equivalent to the presbytery. The classis is ordinarily composed of a minister and an elder delegated from each consistory that is a member of the classis.
Article 29 also makes reference to the particular synod, sometimes referred to as the provincial or regional synod, since the boundaries of the particular synod usually coincided with the boundaries of the provinces in The Netherlands. The provincial synods were gatherings of delegates from a number of neighboring classes. Because it did not have particular synods, the revision of the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914 put the reference to the particular synod in parentheses. The most recent revision of the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church has dropped all reference to the particular synod and, thus, makes reference to only three kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies. The Protestant Reformed Churches do not either have provincial synods.
The last ecclesiastical assembly referred to is the general synod. The word “synod” is derived from the Greek and refers literally to “a coming together, an assembly, a meeting.” The general assembly is sometimes referred to as the national synod. In the presbyterian tradition the general assembly is equivalent to the synod. The synod is the denomination-wide assembly composed of an equal number of minister and elder delegates from each classis. Our general synod meets annually, although the early synods of the Christian Reformed Church met only once every two years.
No mention is made in Article 29 of an ecumenical or universal synod, although the Reformed churches of the 16th and 17th centuries supported the idea of the convening of such a synod.
John Calvin was strongly in favor of an ecumenical synod of Reformed churches. In letters written to the English Reformer, Thomas Cranmer, and the Swiss Reformer, Heinrich Bullinger, he proposed such an ecumenical synod. In one place he wrote, “I would not shrink from crossing ten seas, should that be necessary, for the purpose of attending such a gathering . . . . I am of the opinion that neither energy nor pains should be spared.”
In Scotland and England the desire to have international meetings of Presbyterian and Reformed churches was expressed in a number of significant documents. “The Second Book of Discipline” of the Church of Scotland, 1578, mentions four ecclesiastical assemblies: one consisting of “particular kirks and congregations,” another of a province, a third one of the whole nation, and finally “of all divers nations professing one ,Jesus Christ.” The English “Book of Discipline,” 1578, closes with the following statement: “Thus much for particular meetings, the universal followeth, which is called a general or ecumenical council, which is a meeting of the chosen men of every national synod.” “The Form of Presbyterian Church-Government,” 1645, states under the heading “Of Synodical Assemblies”: “Synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national, and ecumenical.”
Although no ecumenical or international synod is mentioned in our Church Order, it certainly is something worth considering, especially with our sister churches. Undoubtedly there are questions of the practicality of such a gathering, and of the powers that such a synod would exercise. But the concept itself is something worth discussing.
Article 29 presupposes the principles of church federation. There are at least three such principles fundamental for church federation.
The deepest principle of church federation is the unity of the church. (Cf. John 17:20, 21; Rom. 12:4, 5; I Cor. 12:12-31;Eph. 4:35.) Although this unity is primarily doctrinal, a oneness of faith, it is also expressed institutionally. The Independents have always denied the necessity for manifesting the unity of the church organizationally and have never been in favor of major assemblies with binding authority. But the Reformed churches have always applied the biblical principle of the unity of the church to the calling of the local congregation to be denominationally federated with likeminded churches. The basis for such unity, then, is the mutual belief in the teachings of the Word of God and the acceptance of the Reformed confessions.
A second fundamental principle of church federation is the autonomy of the local congregation. Within the federation of churches each local congregation remains autonomous, that is, self-governing. Membership in the denomination is not something imposed on the local congregation, but a matter of free and willing choice. VanDellen and Monsma state, “The local congregation is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ, a unit by itself, and is not to be looked upon as a sub-division of a large super-Church ruling with superior power” (The Church Order Commentary, p. 133). Steadfast insistence on the autonomy of the local congregation protects against hierarchy. In this section that deals with the ecclesiastical assemblies, the Church Order will be at pains to uphold the principle of the autonomy of the local congregation.
It is also a fundamental principle of church federation that major assemblies exercise a binding authority. Even though congregations freely join the denomination, decisions of the broader assemblies within the denomination are not to be regarded merely as friendly advice “without teeth.” By virtue of the church federation, decisions of the broader assemblies are binding. The broader assemblies do exercise authority within the federation. The minor assemblies must honor this authority of the broader assemblies. Consistories, for example, must submit to and implement the decisions of the synod. Refusal to do so not only leads to chaos in the churches, but is rebellion against the authority of Christ. If a consistory and congregation are convinced that a decision of the broader assembly is unbiblical, it has two alternatives: exercise the right of protest and appeal; if ultimately this proves to be of no avail, sever their relationship with the federation.
Not only is church federation a duty, but it is also of great benefit, practically and spiritually, to the local congregation. These benefits are reason enough to favor church federation. Time and time again history has proved that independentism is a deadend street, ecclesiastical suicide.
What are some of the benefits of church federation? Let me mention just a few. Church federation provides opportunity for the broader building up of the body of Christ and ministering to the needs of fellow, saints in other congregations. It provides the ability to carry out aspects of the church’s calling that would be well-nigh impossible to carry out alone, such as the training of young men for the ministry and mission work. Denominational federation makes possible the moral and financial assistance of smaller congregations that would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to exist alone. In addition, within the denomination, provision is made for those congregations without ministers. One of the most outstanding benefits of church federation is that the assemblies of the denomination provide the opportunity for the resolution of difficulties that may arise in the local congregation, through the process of protest and appeal.