In the February 11 number of The Banner the Rev. A. Persenaire discusses the always important question of the authority of Synodical decisions. At this time we will not go into all the incidental applications and implications of the article but will remain with the main questions. We will quote from the article rather freely and add a few remarks.
The Reverend writes: “Both in the Netherlands and among us there has been much talk of late about the proper scope and authority of Synodical decisions. In the old country this talk has centered about the meaning and import of Article 31 of the Church Order, . . . . Related to these two interpretations of Art. 31, are two divergent views of Church Polity, which give evidence of being in diametrical opposition most clearly, when the question is asked: ‘May a Classis or Synod depose a consistory?’. . . .
“Whatever position we ourselves may favor, the fact remains that, both in the Netherlands and in this country, Synods, whether rightly or wrongly, have not hesitated to depose officebearers, and even consistories, finding their, authority to do so by supplementing Art. 31 with Articles 36 and 79 and 80 of the Church Order (compare Acts of Synod, 1926, Art. 104, p. 142).
“Hence, we may conclude, that one of the burning issues facing both the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands and our own Christian Reformed Church is the question: what is the authority of Synodical decisions?….
“First, the authority of a Synod to make binding decisions is derived, not original. Ultimately this authority proceeds from the consistories, who have delegated their authority to the Classes, and through the Classes to the Synod. Consistories, in distinction from “major assemblies” have received their authority directly from Christ. All this does not imply, however, that therefore a Synod has no authority over consistories. On the contrary, Art. 36 plainly states that it has.”
Here we should insert a few remarks for this is an important point. Although in respect to Art. 36 the Rev. Persenaire acknowledges that it implies a difference of authority on the part of the Classis and Consistory, yet he is vague in his clarification of this difference. In fact, he seems to imply in his last statement that the nature of the authority of both Classis-Synod and the Consistory is the same. To clarify this point and bring out the actual difference in the nature of their respective authority, we can do no better than to quote from “The Church Order Commentary”, by the Revs. I. Van Dellen and M. Monsma, who by the way, are fellow office-bearers with the rev. Persenaire in the Christian Reformed Church. While discussing Art. 36, they write on pages 161-163 as follows: “The authority which the government exercises over its subjects is juridical authority. The authority which the Reformed Churches have attributed to their major assemblies in relation to their minor assemblies is not juridical, but moral and spiritual. In Dutch we distinguish in like manner between ‘rechterlijk gezag’ and ‘zedelijk, geestelijk gezag’.”
And in further clarification of this principle they continue: “A major assembly cannot force a minor assembly to accept and execute its decisions. A minor assembly, if it feels that a decision of a major assembly is unbiblical, should appeal to the next gathering of the assembly, or to the assembly next in order. In the meantime the appealing body should submit, unless it cannot do so because of great conscientious objections before God. If the objections are not removed, and if the decision stands, then the brethren concerned should, if at all possible, submit if need be under continued protest and always with the clear understanding that the burdened parties have a full right to retain their own convictions. . . .”
“These fundamental principles should never be lost out of sight. If the Church of Christ ever does lose sight of these all-important principles, she will suffer for it. And sometimes very severely. . . .”
“It is also well to remember what Dr. Bouwman tells us in his previously quoted and very valuable work. Says he: “All ecclesiastical authority, given unto His Church by Christ, resides in the particular Church. The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, given to the Apostles by Christ, and in them to the congregation were, when the Apostles passed from the scenes of life, exercised by the office-bearers who had been chosen under their guidance in the particular Churches. This ecclesiastical authority consists of three things: Authority to administer the Word and Sacraments; authority to elect ecclesiastical office-bearers; and authority to exercise ecclesiastical discipline. There is no other authority in the ecclesiastical sphere. And this three-fold authority does not pertain to the Major Assemblies, but to the office-bearers of the particular Churches.’ (Bouwman: Geref. Kerkrecht, 1934, II, 21). . . .”
“There is a distinct difference between the authority of Major assemblies over minor assemblies, and the authority of Consistories over congregations. For this reason Article 36 does not speak of this authority of Consistories over congregations. (Notice here that the article exactly does not state that the Classis has the same jurisdiction over the Consistory as the Consistory over the Congregation. W.H.) Consistories have an independent existence and do not exist for the sake of the major assemblies. But the major assemblies do exist for the sake of the particular Churches, namely, to minister to their welfare with good advice and wise guidance.”
We return, and continue to quote the Rev. Persenaire: “In the second place, the authority of Synodical decisions is limited. They should be in harmony with the Word of God, and the Articles of the Church Order. When they are proved to be contrary to the above, they should be repealed at once. No synodical decision has the compelling force that we attribute to the Scriptures. But even when, for example, on some minor point of doctrine or Christian ethics, a Synod should make a pronouncement, which, according to one’s own opinion, is contrary to the Scriptures, does one then immediately have the right to repudiate the same, and to take actions whereby he seeks to nullify such a decision?
“Some people are quite ready to answer ‘Yes’ to this question. Here in Canada, for instance, a few Art. 31 families have broken with our Church, which they had but recently joined, because they feel that the ‘Three Points’ of 1924 on Common Grace are in conflict with the Scriptures. They have done this, however, without even taking the trouble to look into the Acts of Synod., The mere idea of ‘binding’, which has been suggested to them by certain Protestant Reformed ministers, has made them see red. Without even a cursory examination of the ‘Three Points’, as proved by the Synod, and without offering a shred of evidence that these are contrary to the Scriptures and the Confessions, they have at once rejected them, and separated themselves from our Church.
“Such action is plain anarchy, as it would permit the invalidation of all Synodical decisions. These people never seemed to sense the possibility that their lack of knowledge concerning what really happened in 1924 might at least incline them to acquiesce in Synod’s decisions, until such time that they might be able to seek their rescission in the proper ecclesiastical manner.
“Yes, even then, if such a rescission would not take place, it is still a question whether they should not continue to acquiesce in Synod’s decision under protest, rather than break off fellowship with a Church which clings to all the fundamentals of the Reformed faith. Should not a small minority, if at all possible, without violating their consciences, be humble enough to assume that their interpretation of the Scriptures and the Confessions may be faulty, and that of the majority may be correct.”
There are so many implications in these last few paragraphs that it would hardly do to let them go unchallenged. For example, when the Reverend writes of “minor points of doctrine or Christian ethics” upon which “a Synod should make a pronouncement”, he attempts to revert it all to the realm of insignificance and irrelevance. If that is true of any question a Synod should never even deign to discuss it; cf. Art. 30 of the Church Order. And if that was true of 1924 what a shameful and disgraceful basis it was to depose office-bearers! The same implication is evident when the writer speaks of “according to one’s own opinion”. A question of the interpretation of Scripture may not and cannot be a matter of “opinion”. And what is the implication of the phrase, “what really happened in 1924″????
However, the two main questions concern the deposition of a Consistory by Classis or Synod and the meaning of Art. 31 of the Church Order. In answer to the first, we will quote again from the Church Order Commentary referred to above. Though the authors are careful in their expressions, since they are clearly contrary to the current stream of official Christian Reformed Church polity, yet their discussion is clear and to the point. On page 327 the authors ask the question: “May a Classis depose Elders and Deacons?” and state: “Some have contended that a Classis may depose Consistories. The present authors feel that no major assembly, according to Reformed Church polity and the Church Order, has the right to depose a minor assembly. The deposition of a Consistory, for example, by a Classis or Synod would seem to be a violation of the integrity and of the rights of the particular Church concerned, whereas the Church Order in more than one article speaks to safeguard this integrity and these rights. (Cf. Article 30, 84). Moreover, Reformed Church government does not tolerate group-disciplining. Discipline, according to our Reformed conception, is always individual and never communal.”
And a bit later on pages 328 and 329: “It is true that Article 30 specifies that matters which cannot be finished by minor assemblies, though rightfully belonging to their domain, become the business of the major assemblies. But in view of the fact that the disciplinary articles of the Church Order clearly specify how discipline regarding office-bearers is to be exercised and in no way intimate that Elders and
Deacons can be suspended or deposed by the major assemblies, we do not believe that the appeal to Article 30 is justified. We believe that it is reasonable to assume that the early Synods at which our Church Order originated purposefully refrained from incorporating a provision in the Church Order which would allow our major assemblies to suspend and depose Elders and Deacons. As has been pointed out before, the early Reformed Churches were eager to safeguard the integrity and the rights of the particular Churches. The significant 84th article of our Church Order used to be Article 1! Let us recall that it was not until 1581 that the Churches decided that henceforth no Consistory would suspend or depose an Elder or Deacon without the concurrent judgment of its nearest neighbor Consistory. Furthermore, it cannot be denied that the question of deposition of Elders and Deacons is an important one. It is not unreasonable to assume that a provision permitting major assemblies to depose Elders and Deacons was left out of Article 79 purposefully. For notwithstanding the fact that Article 79 tells us how Elders and Deacons shall be deposed it does not provide for the deposition of Elders and Deacons by Classes or Synods. And yet the same Article does specify that Ministers shall be deposed by the judgment of the Classis.
“We believe, moreover, that it can be contended successfully that the deposition of minor assemblies by major assemblies constitutes a negation of the general office of all believers, which should begin to function when certain abnormal situations arise, and that it likewise should ever be held inviolate by the Church of God.
“We realize that both during the formative period of the Reformed Churches and during their more advanced history, Classes and Synods have sometimes deposed Elders and Deacons and even Consistories. But no one would dare to claim that the Reformed Churches have always been true to themselves in matters of Church government and that they have always interpreted their own Church Order correctly. Precedents do not decide this issue either one way or the other. We should seek to determine the basic principles fundamental to Reformed denominationalism, and we should seek the correct historical and exegetical interpretation of the various articles of the Church Order which concern this question. Then we should draw our conclusions as to what is proper and improper.”
The second question concerns the meaning of Art. 31 of the Church Order. The Article reads as follows: If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the Articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by a General Synod.
The point in question regards the binding power of this declaration especially in connection with the exception: unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God, or with the Articles of the Church Order.
It is quite evident that the Rev. Persenaire knows the correct and proper answer to this question. But it is also evident that he doesn’t like that answer and attempts to belittle the matter again. The first is clear when he states that a decision should be respected “if at all possible” and “without violating their consciences”. That expresses what the Article does and is certainly the proper answer and also the position of the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands and our own Churches in this country. Therefore, when this is not possible and decisions do bind one’s conscience, Rev. Persenaire should, upon his own ground, honorably admit that those who disagree have a right and calling to act according to the dicta Les of their conscience. But he belittles this action; implying that it is due to pride and ignorance and even condemns it as anarchy. This is being neither honest nor fair; neither with himself nor with those who hold that position. Moreover it is a negation of his own interpretation of the Church Order and, hence, a contradiction and condemnation of the Reverend himself against his own better judgment.
Here also we would like to quote once again from the Church Order Commentary. On page 146 the author states: “The question is sometimes asked: To whom must it be proved that a certain decision is in conflict with the Bible, before a Church or an individual may count that a matter is not settled and binding? Must the ecclesiastical assembly which made the decision first declare that the unbiblical nature of the decision has been proven, before any one may withhold submission? Or may a Church or individual withhold submission when that Church or individual is fully convinced that the conclusion reached is unbiblical, even before the assembly concerned has reversed its conclusion? The latter by all means. The Church or the Churches cannot bind the conscience. The Bible only, as God’s infallible and authoritative Word, can do this. If one is convinced that the Churches bid him to do one thing, and the Bible another, he must follow what he believes to be Scriptural….
“If after due consideration the assembly concerned decided that its decision is unbiblical, then instant reversal is naturally in order. If, however, the appellant cannot persuade the assembly, and the assembly fails to persuade the appellant, and the appellant does not feel free before God to submit and conform himself, then the Churches must bear with the aggrieved brother, if at all possible. If, however, the matter be of far-reaching import, then the aggrieved brother should be asked to conform and submit as long as he remains to be a member of the Church concerned. If his conscience will not at all permit this, he should ultimately affiliate with a Church not so binding his conscience:” Finally, the Rev. Persenaire speaks of seeking rescission of disputed decisions in the proper ecclesiastical manner. But at the same time he shuts the door for any action by reminding his readers that the Three Points have been “proved” by the Synod. And does he forget, that in respect to the questions of 1924, the Synod’s of the Christian Reformed Church have, on at least three different meetings, officially refused even to discuss the matter, when approached in the official ecclesiastical manner?