The question of the authority of Synod or Classis is a very significant one that presses for attention repeatedly throughout the history of Reformed Churches. The question itself we purpose to discuss extensively in connection with later articles in the Church Order but we cannot refrain from commenting upon it here because: (1) Article 15 specifically speaks of “the consent and authority of the synod or classis” and (2) it is a burning issue throughout our recent history as churches.
The question itself is not, first of all, whether or not the major ecclesiastical assemblies have authority. Anyone who will but read the eighty-six articles of the Church Order without prejudice will find that the Church Order unquestionably recognizes and ascribes to classis and synod authority. Consider the following:
Articles 3, 17, 44, and 79 speak of the judgment of major assemblies. In these articles various matters are mentioned over which these assemblies are to judge, including also the matter of deposition of ministers. Even as it is nonsense to speak of a judge without authority, so it would be ridiculous to conclude that these articles do not imply an authority of major ecclesiastical assemblies. To pass a judgment is in the very nature of matters an authorative act.
Article 15 speaks directly of “the consent and authority of classis or synod” with regard to the right of ministers engaging themselves in indiscriminate preaching.
Articles 9, 11, and 12 mention the “approbation” or “approval” of the major assemblies which also implies authority. Whether or not I approve of my neighbor erecting a saloon adjacent to my residence makes little difference because I have no authority in the matter but whether my neighbor has the approval of the Zoning Board of the local village makes all the difference in the world because, said Board has authority to permit or to bar him from realizing his purpose. And so there are matters within the communion of the churches which may not be performed without the approval of the major assemblies because these are vested with authority.
Article 36 speaks pointedly of the “jurisdiction” of one ecclesiastical body over another and “jurisdiction,” from “juris” and “dictio”, is, to quote Webster: “(1) Law, The legal power, right, or authority to hear and determine a cause or causes. (2) Authority of a sovereign power to govern or legislate; control. (3) Sphere of authority.” Apart now from the question, “What kind of jurisdiction do major ecclesiastical assemblies have?”, this article certainly means that these bodies do have an authority that makes their decisions more than powerless opinions which those within the communion of churches can take or leave according to personal whims of conscience. Furthermore, Articles 4, 35, 75, 76 and 77 speak of the “advice” of the major assemblies. It might be objected here that advicte is not authority which, of course, is also true because all advice is not of the same kind. It is one thing that my neighbor advises me as to the color I should paint my house but it is wholly another thing when a teacher advises a misbehaving child to come to attention in her class. The latter advice is backed up by an authority to put the child out of the class. The former I can do with as I please and determine for myself what color I shall paint the house. Now the advice of major ecclesiastical assemblies is also authorative advice and is not something each individual and consistory can do with as they please and still remain in the federation of churches governed by that body. Article 14 of the Church Order speaks of the “advice of the consistory” and, as we stated in connection with that article, Dr. Bouwman says, “Het woord ‘advies’ heeft hier de beteekenis van ‘bewilliging’, ‘toestemming’. An examination of those articles of the Church Order cited above which speak of the “advice of major assemblies” reveals that this advice is more than simply an expressed opinion which those to whom it is given can take or leave as they see fit without any further consequences. It is backed by the authority of the broad assembly that can include or exclude from its federation. If this were not the case, any church (Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic et al) could join the federation of Protestant Reformed Churches and no power on earth could exclude them.
In light of this then, we repeat, it is not firstly a question of whether or not a synod or classis has authority. Of course it has! The Church Order makes plain that they do possess a real authority, jurisdiction, the right to judge, to give approbation and advice. More significant is the question: “What is the nature and scope of this authority?”
In connection with this question we wish to briefly mention two basic errors which have been committed and which vitally affect us as Protestant Reformed Churches. The first is the error of 1924 which is that the Christian Reformed Church ascribed to the major assemblies the wrong kind of authority. They vested these assemblies with the right to exercise the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven which properly belongs only to the consistory. The second error is of more recent date and is that perpetrated by those that have recently schismatically left our Protestant Reformed Churches. Their church polity disrobes the classis and synod of all authority. The position that if one is convinced before his own mind and conscience that a certain decision is in conflict with the word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, that decision cannot, within the denomination, be settled and binding for him, is altogether untenable. That one may simply disregard a decision or the decisions of the major assemblies and remain in the communion of the churches makes the major assemblies nothing but “wax noses.” It is simply unbelievable that an autonomous consistory, under such a church polity, would even send delegates to deliberate and make decisions at a Classical Meeting if, when those decisions are made each individual and each consistory can do with them as they please and remain unaffected in the denomination. It is a thing heard of! If it is not pure independentism, rank congregationalism then, pray, tell me what it is. And shame on anyone who would dare to aver that such folly was ever taught in the seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Rather, both of the aforementioned church political heresies we reject with all emphasis. Over against the former, that of Christian Reformed hierarchy, we emphasize the autonomy of the local church. This autonomy is not independentism. It does not mean that each church does what it pleases within the denomination of churches. That would be equal to the anarchism found in Israel and of which we read in Judges 17:6, “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Such a conception of autonomy spells ruination and is directly contrary to the sound exhortation of the apostle in I Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Decency and order presuppose rule and authority. That rule as exercised over all matters that in their very nature belong to and concern the local church is the limit of the churches autonomy. Autonomy does not mean that one church is sovereign and can lord it over all the other churches, imposing its will upon the entire federation. Autonomy, within a federation, must necessarily be limited by the mutual recognition of the rights of the other churches and by the mutual concern for the well-being of the entire communion of churches. If a church wishes to have absolute autonomy, she must never join a federation of churches but should maintain a separate, independent existence. No church may do this, of course, because it is the calling of the church of Christ to seek the fellowship of those with whom they are one in faith. And in such a communion each church exercises her autonomy. There are many things in the local communion which, in the very nature of matters, belong exclusively to that communion. We have in mind the offices and the administration of the word and sacraments and the exercise of discipline. Over such matters the local consistory alone rules.
This does not warrant the conclusion that the major assemblies hive no authority over the individual congregations. We also maintain such authority, circumscribed and defined by Article 30 of the D.K.O.
“In these assemblies (ecclesiastical) matters only shall be transacted and that in an ecclesiastical manner. In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.”
Our purpose is not to discuss this article at this time except to point out that it defines the authority of the major assemblies in a twofold respect. First, these assemblies have authority in all matters that cannot be finished in the minor assembly. Secondly, they have authority to act in all matters that pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common. This authority of synod and classis does not overlap or interfere with the autonomy of the individual churches at all. The difficulty comes in when the major assemblies attempt to exceed their authority, as in 1924, and when local churches attempt to extend their autonomy beyond its rightful sphere, as in the recent debacle in our churches, and refuse to recognize the rightful authority of classis and synod.
That the latter is so is abundantly evident to all who sincerely consider the facts in the case of 1953. Rev. Blankespoor must not write in the Guardian, “Remember the things that happened on the evening of June 23, 1953, are the crux of the whole matter. This officially was the beginning of the ‘split’ in our churches!” Oh, no, Blankespoor! You must correct this and change the date to JUNE 1, 1953. JUNE 1! We know that that is the date you do not want to remember because on it the CONSISTORY properly adopted the ADVICE AND DECISION OF THE CLASSIS. And all that has subsequently, taken place has brought to light the rebellion of the opposition which refused to walk in obedience to proper ecclesiastical authorities. Therein lies the church political crux of the matter. That is June 22 and, that is what happened in the sessions of Classis in October 1953.
Let us not be deceived!