III. The Assemblies
The Ecclesiastical Assemblies
Four kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: The consistory, the classis, the regional synod, and the general synod.
With Article 29 we begin speaking about the church federation, its arrangement, function and task. This does not mean that the federation did not come into view with the preceding part of our Church Order. More than once we spoke of classis and regional synod. Now a general synod is mentioned, too. These four are our ecclesiastical assemblies.
They are not the only meetings or assemblies found in ecclesiastical life. There are meetings of deacons, there are conferences of office-bearers, there are also congregational meetings.Yet, whatever other gathering, assembly or meeting may be found in the churches, these are not part of the organized church federation. Within this federation only the four assemblies mentioned in Article 29 have a place and function; they are our four “ecclesiastical assemblies.”
Of these four assemblies only the first one is absolutely necessary in the church of Christ. The churches could very well do without classes and synods. These assemblies have been instituted by man for the proper functioning of the bond between the churches. The consistory, the “presbytery” as the body of elders in each church is a divine institution, as we gather from the Word of God, for example Acts 14: 23; 20: 28; Titus 1: 5. Thus a church could not continue to exist and would act contrary to the Word of God if it tried to do without a consistory, without the office-bearers who are to take heed of the flock. The consistory is the only “body,” the only “permanent assembly” in the church.
Matters are different with the other three assemblies mentioned here: these are only rather short meetings, convened to deal with the matters brought before them in accordance with the adopted guidelines and they cease to exist as soon as they have completed their agenda. They have no permanence in the Reformed Churches. We call these other three assemblies “broader” or “major” assemblies.
The term “major” is the equivalent of “broader” and does not indicate a higher rank. It does so as little as the term “minor assembly” implies a lower rank. We might even say that the more “major” an assembly is the lower its rank is, and the more “minor” an assembly is, the “higher” its rank, the highest being the most “minor” of all, namely the consistory. This may sound paradoxical, but it is not contradictory.
What we indicate by the term “major” or “broader” is that at this assembly more churches are represented than at the “minor” assembly. More churches than one are represented at a classis; and more churches are represented at a regional synod than there are at a classis. At a general synod all the churches are represented.
The difference between a consistory as a necessary, permanent body on the one hand and classes and synods as temporary, rather brief meetings on the other hand, has to be remembered at all times. Too soon the thought arises that a classis or a synod is a permanent institution that is higher in rank than and has authority over the churches that are represented at it, or over the constituent minor assemblies. Any such thought would be contrary to the very character of Reformed church polity and would be detrimental in more than one respect. The history of the church shows clearly how detrimental and devastating a concept and a theory like that really are.
That we mention the four ecclesiastical assemblies in one breath does, therefore, not imply at all that they are all four on the same level or of the same character. We only state that in our ecclesiastical life we know and recognize four assemblies, not more and not less. Whatever other meetings or assemblies there may be are of a different nature. These other assemblies may be a fruit of the existing church federation, it is only in the four mentioned in Article 29 that the church federation functions and becomes “officially” visible.
Although it is most desirable that the unity of Reformed Churches throughout the world be practised (some advocated what might be called an “ecumenical synod,” and expressed the desire for such a meeting many years ago) yet for practical and other reasons this does not seem feasible. Differences in language, national conditions, and such like are impediments to the correct functioning of such a “synod.”
Help and counsel can be extended more fruitfully when done more informally by way of the looser structure of a conference. Thus the Canadian Reformed Churches participate in an International Conference of Reformed Churches. Thereby the unity with Reformed believers in other countries is expressed and practised. A more structured cooperation in the form of an “ecumenical synod” deserving of the title “synod” would not only not be feasible, it would also carry in itself the danger of interfering in the life of foreign churches with their different background, culture, etc.
In the above we mentioned a congregational meeting as one of the assemblies that are not named in our Church Order. A congregational meeting has no separate status in the Reformed Churches. Neither is it a meeting where binding decisions can be made or where the course of the church is determined. A congregational meeting has only an advisory function. It is a meeting of the consistory with the congregation, at which meeting the consistory may inform the congregation about certain matters, or may ask the advice of the congregation concerning certain matters — such as: whom to call as a minister, whom to appoint as elders and deacons; how and on what to use the contributions given for the service of the Lord; and similar matters — or may wish to discuss other aspects of church life with the congregation.
Of such a meeting — as of every meeting of the consistory — minutes are to be kept. These minutes are not to be read or approved at the next congregational meeting but at the next consistory meeting. Nor are financial statements and budgets “adopted” at a congregational meeting. What should be asked is whether the congregation has any serious objections to the proposed budget or would advise the consistory to change some parts or delete some items, or is of the opinion that things should be done as outlined by the consistory.
The meaning of the above is not to state that a consistory should act or even would be allowed to act in a dictatorial manner and would be permitted to take the position of “Never mind what the congregation says, we go ahead anyway!” Such would be lording it over the heritage of the Lord and this is something against which the Lord emphatically warns us in His Word, e.g.in 1 Pet. 5: 3.
There can be instances, on the other hand, when a consistory is convinced that it has to go a certain route or to decide in favour of a certain course of action even though a large part or even the majority of the congregation advised against it. The above was brought to the fore to show that a congregational meeting would be out of place in the list mentioned in Article 29, as well as to prevent any thought that decisions regarding the local church life are made by the congregation. A practice in that line would be very fitting in a congregationalist system of church government; it is completely alien to the Reformed concept.
The Bond Practised
Although we must uphold at all cost the basic difference between a consistory on the one hand and the major or broader assemblies on the other hand, and although the churches could very well exist without major or broader assemblies, it has to be equally upheld that the churches are obliged to show and prove the unity of the true faith also in helping and assisting one another as much as possible. For the exercise of the bond of faith and for the execution of the obligation to help and assist one another the churches have chosen the form of cooperation described in our Church Order. Therein the churches follow the example of the early churches of which we read in the New Testament.
It will not be necessary to quote extensively from the Word of God to prove that there was contact between churches in various parts of the Roman empire and that there was mutual help. The churches of Achaia and Macedonia had been “pleased to make some contribution to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” Paul wrote in Rom. 15: 26. When Agabus foretold the great famine that was to come, the disciples in Antioch “determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea,” we read in Acts 11: 29. There is hardly any doubt that there was also consultation in non-financial matters, as we read of “letters of recommendation,” Acts 22: 5; 2 Cor. 3: 1. We might call them “attestations” which evidently were mutually accepted by the churches.
Regarding the question whether we can prove from Scripture that there was a structured church federation, either nationally or internationally, the consensus is that we cannot do so. One passage in particular has been advanced in proof of the thesis “that the synodical church federation is founded in the Holy Scriptures.” This passage is what we read in Acts 15. Some even call the meeting held in Jerusalem and described in this chapter “the first synod.” Having put this, they proceed and from verse 28 draw the conclusion that synods have almost divine authority, being guided by the Holy Spirit.
One has to be well-versed in the art of what the Germans would call “hineininterpretieren” (i.e. read into the text what one wants the text to say, then triumphantly to conclude that the text says indeed what one wants it to say) to be able to speak of “the first synod” as well as of God-given authority to which the churches are supposed to submit.
Let us briefly pay some closer attention to this passage. It all started when “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” These men came to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas opposed them in heated debate. Perhaps these were the same men of whom Paul spoke in Gal. 2: “certain men came from James,” v. 12. In any case, they came from Judea.
What would any church do if there came men from another church to proclaim that it was the will of God that Christians from the Gentiles should be circumcised? Would it not enquire with that church whether this was the general conviction over there, and whether these men spoke more or less on behalf of that church? This applies the more since these men of Acts 15 came from Judea, most likely even from Jerusalem. What was the wisest course for the church at Antioch? To dispatch a few of the brothers to enquire whether that was the stand of the Jerusalem church. After all, it was the mother church and, besides, the apostles were there. The judgment and stand of the church at Jerusalem and the verdict of the apostles was of utmost importance and put much weight into the scales.
At first Paul was not prepared to come along at all. He knew too well what the will of the Lord was concerning the point of Christians from the Gentiles. No circumcision for them! However, when he received a divine revelation, he went along, he tells us in Galatians.
Here we have as little the manifestation of a major or broader assembly — let alone of a synod — as we would have in our own days if the church at A., being disturbed by the teaching of brothers coming from the church at B., sent a few brothers to B. to investigate whether those men spoke on their own authority or were more or less the spokesmen for that church. Nor is it so, as argued, that the brothers were sent to Jerusalem to solve a difficulty and controversy in the church at Antioch. They were sent to see what Jerusalem thought of the teachings brought to Antioch by men coming from Judea.
The fact that Jerusalem was the “mother church” and that the apostles were still there lends even less credibility to the speaking of “the first synod” or “the first major assembly.” And that the apostles together with the elders
said: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” certainly does not authorize any broader assembly in our days to make the same statement.
All this is not to say that Acts 15 does not give us any indication regarding consultation and cooperation among the churches. Such consultation and cooperation certainly is in the line of what we read in God’s Word, also in Acts 15. We must, however, not read things into Scriptural passages which only by magician's conjuring them up can be procured from them.
The Manner in Which
The organization of the church federation had to be built up from scratch once the church had been freed from the hierarchical papal yoke. The brothers in the Netherlands who came together in 1568 suggested the outlines for such an organization. What they laid down as their conclusion was not brand-new. They had the example of the French churches that, under Calvin’s influence, had formed a federation; and they had before them the history, however brief, of the churches in the Southern Netherlands where classes and particular synods were held from 1563 on. There was no early history to fall back on, for the early churches were never organized into a federation in this manner, and the deterioration and hierarchical development started very soon after the death of the apostles.
We are to be grateful for the apparent guidance of the Holy Spirit who gave wisdom to the brothers, resulting in a form of federation in which the kingship of Christ, the only universal Bishop, was being honoured throughout, in which the autonomy of the local churches was acknowledged, upheld, and protected, and in which the mutual help was arranged effectively. The brothers pursued the “presbyterial system of church government.” This means: the only government in the church is the government over the local congregations by the “presbytery” or “eldership,” the body of elders in each church.
This precludes any government or authority on the part of broader or major assemblies. For this reason there is a fundamental difference between a consistory and a major assembly. Major assemblies are composed of delegates from churches in a certain region. These delegates have been sent there by the churches (to a classis) or by some classes (to a regional synod) or by some regional synods (to a general synod).
The rights and function of these major assemblies have been laid down in our Church Order; authority, however, they have none. The authority of an office-bearer is restricted and confined to the church by which he has been chosen and over which he has been made an office-bearer. An elder or minister in the church at A. does not have any authority in the church at B. Would he now, all of a sudden, receive such authority over the church at B. when he has been delegated to classis and now is a member of it? It is inconceivable and impossible. However many delegates from however many churches may be together at a major assembly, the outcome is the same: even one thousand times zero still results in zero.
An office-bearer or the body of office-bearers in a church are not allowed either to transfer any of their God-given authority over the congregation to
others who have not been called thereto by the Lord through His church in that place. Thus it is impermissible as well as impossible that a consistory transfers however small a part of their authority to a broader assembly. If they did, they would become unfaithful to Him who has clothed them with their authority, the King of the Church, Christ Jesus.
That major assemblies definitely are not useless or superfluous is something we have already seen when discussing several of the preceding articles, and we shall see more of it hereafter. When we stress one point at this time, no one should draw wrong conclusions, but only pay attention to this one point.
If it were possible that the consistories of all the churches came together in a classis or a synod, this would show best that major assemblies are not meetings of persons who have been endowed with special powers, but of churches. Such a huge assembly, however, would be too costly, too unwieldy, too cumbersome and too impractical. For this reason it has been so arranged that some brothers are delegated from each church in a certain area together to form a classis. That is where the church federation starts: at the classical level.
What is a classis? We use the word “classis” in two different ways. In the first place we use it to designate a certain area. At the moment there are four classes or classical areas: Alberta/Manitoba, Ontario North, Ontario South, and Pacific.
When speaking of “Classis Alberta/Manitoba” we mean the churches found in these two provinces. As such “Classis Alberta/Manitoba” is a permanent phenomenon: these provinces are always there and so are the churches in that area, even though their number may increase or decrease. In this case the word “classis” is merely a geographical term.
At the meeting in 1568, the Convent of Wesel, the word “parish” was used as well. This word means “neighbourhood” and shows that what the brothers had in mind was that neighbouring churches had a first responsibility towards one another. The word “parish,” too, is a geographical term.
We also use the word “classis” in another way, namely to denote a meeting of the churches in that particular area. In this case the word does not refer to something permanent, but to a temporary thing: a meeting convened for a specific purpose, to deal with a specific agenda. When referring to such a meeting, we are to watch the terms we use.
We could speak of a “classical meeting” or we could say that “a classis will be held,” but it would be wrong to say that “the classis will meet,” or that “there will be a meeting of classis.” A classis is not a permanent body which meets once in a while. A classis in this sense is, in effect, a meeting and it would be nonsense to state that “the meeting will meet.” Besides, also in the terminology we use we should avoid anything that could promote or favour in any way any hierarchical tendency of which we have seen the disastrous fruits in the past.
Speaking of a classis which is held, we also should always add the date. It would be wrong to say: “Classis decided…” since “classis” as such does not exist. It should read: “Classis Alberta/Manitoba of January 1,1989, decided .…” It would be equally wrong to say: “But the other time classis decided or: we decided.…” “We” or “classis” did not decide anything. A previous classis made this decision at which some of the members of the next classis may also have been members, but it was a different meeting, not the same classis.
To some it may seem that things are a little overdone in the above and that we try to split hairs, but, as they say in Dutch, we have paid our tuition fee and we have learned our lesson. If we cannot learn from the past we risk making the same errors over and over again.
As for the basic meaning of the word “classis,” it comes from the same Greek verb from which also the English “to call’ originates. It means, therefore, a group of people or of ships that have been called together and now meet together. Thus we might describe a classis as “a meeting that has been called for a specific purpose.”
Article 44 further deals with the classical meetings.
The Regional Synod
That we speak of “classical meetings” is done in order to distinguish them from regional-synodical meetings and general-synodical meetings. The regional synod comes next into view as the assembly which is “broader,” or “major” than a classis for the sole reason that more churches are represented there. This representation is not direct, in this manner namely that each church sends one or two delegates together with the other delegates to form a regional synod. The members of a regional synod have been delegated by classes, while those of a general synod have been delegated to such a meeting by regional synods.
At a classis we find delegates from each church in that area; this is practically impossible at a regional synod, because the number of churches in that area exceeds the number of brothers delegated to form a regional synod. There may very well be two or even three brothers from the same congregation at a regional synod while from other churches there is no one that has been delegated.
At a classis the brothers come as representatives of their churches; at a regional synod the brothers are there as representatives of all the churches in their area. Yet, when the classis or regional or general synod has been constituted, they no longer sit there as representatives or delegates of their respective churches or region; then they are just members of the classis or of the synod. If they represent anything, it is all the churches in that area.
If there were two or more classes in a province, we could speak of “provincial synods.” Since, however, the ecclesiastical districts were not always the same as the political ones, the term “particular synods” was used in the Netherlands. It still is the term used over there. We have opted for the term “regional synod,” because the term “particular synod” might not have been clear in its meaning or might be easily misinterpreted.
As with a classis, so we should remember with the regional synod that it is only a meeting, lasting one day or a few days, not a body that is supposed to meet once in a while and to have permanent supervision over the churches in “its” territory.
Of regional synods we speak in Articles 47 and 48.
The General Synod
Article 49 deals with the general synod, our broadest assembly. A general synod is a meeting where all the churches of the federation are represented The members of a general synod have been delegated by regional synods. If only the churches in one country were members of the federation, we could also speak of a “national synod,” but also the American Reformed Churches belong to the federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches until there will be a sufficient number of them to form their own federation. Thus the term “national synod” would not cover the actual situation and the term “general synod” is to be preferred. Because we will deal with the major assemblies individually later on, these remarks will suffice for the moment.
When we wish to present the structure of the church federation graphically, we are not to place a general synod at the top as the highest assembly but the consistories. In this manner:
Therein, as already remarked in the beginning of this Guide, the Reformed church polity differs basically from the hierarchical structure in which either one man (a pope) or a body of men (a permanent synod or synodical board) holds the reins of government over the churches in the country as well as in the provinces and various regions including the local churches.
Federation Voluntary Yet Mandatory
Joining the church federation is a voluntary act. No church can or may be compelled to take this step. On the other hand, if a church decides to break with the federation, it is perfectly free to do so and no ecclesiastical assembly can prevent it. This is not to say — we repeat — that a church is not disobedient to the Lord by either refusing to join or by deciding to break away. There are sufficient indications in God’s Word that show that the bond
of faith between the various churches was also being maintained and practised by mutual contact, cooperation and consultation. The form in which the bond was being maintained was different from the manner in which the churches have done it since the days of the Reformation. But what matters in this respect is not the form but the fact of the contact and bond.
In addition to what has already been remarked, we may mention the following points. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters, he often conveyed the greetings from the brotherhood in the place from which he wrote to the brothers and sisters in the place where his letter would be received and read. He frequently even mentioned specific families “and the church in your house.” He told the church at Colosse to have his letter to them also read in Laodicea in exchange for the one he sent there.
From 2 Cor. 8: 19 it is evident that several churches consulted each other about sending one particular brother along with those who brought the money to Jerusalem that had been collected for the church there.
The New Testament churches realized and practised the unity of faith as the Old Testament church had done when it was still confined to one nation. That from Pentecost on the church was being gathered from all nations was no impediment for maintaining the bond of faith by means of mutual assistance.
This mutual assistance was also needed with a view to the heresies that emerged. We already spoke of the letters of recommendation that were proof of mutual recognition and care. When the churches recognize and confess their unity in Christ, how could they then stay on their own without entering into a federation? This would constitute a practical denial of this bond and would practically amount to self-destruction as can be proved from history.
Essentially it is thus: not we bring about and establish a federation. The federation and the unity are there, having been given in the “one body and one Spirit, in the one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4: 5) It is only a question of: “How do we express this and arrange our life together within this federation?”
This we have done via our major or broader assemblies. With these we shall deal in the following articles.