These assemblies shall deal with no other than ecclesiastical matters and that in an ecclesiastical manner.
A major assembly shall deal with those matters only which could not be finished in the minor assembly or which belong to its Churches in common.
A new matter which has not previously been presented to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it.
When speaking of “these assemblies,” we do not differentiate between a consistory on the one hand and the major assemblies on the other hand. What is stated in this first sentence applies to all the assemblies named in Article 29.
To put it briefly: with all matters that are taken in hand the consistory — to start with this assembly — must remember that it is the consistory of the church of the Lord. A consistory is not the board of a social agency or of a political group but it is the body of office-bearers whom Christ has appointed to feed the flock, to take care of it and to guard it.
This truth also determines the nature of what may be dealt with by the major assemblies. When even a consistory is bound by strict rules as a result of its very character, the major assemblies are far more restricted and will never be allowed to take in hand matters with which even a consistory is not allowed to deal. A consistory should be aware of it at all times that it is dealing with matters of Christ's church; but so are the major assemblies.
When the Lord Jesus stood before Pilate, He declared that His kingdom is not of this world, although in His prayer to the Father He did not ask that the Father should take His own out of this world. Christ’s church is of a fundamentally different nature than whatever kingdom, society, alliance, or organization may be found in this world. Thereby it is also determined what the things are that an ecclesiastical assembly is allowed to deal with: only ecclesiastical matters.
What are ecclesiastical matters? No one has ever seen a list of them and no one would be able to draw up such a list. Without purporting it to sound like a precise definition, we would like to describe ecclesiastical matters as: those matters which belong to the church of Christ as such or, if you wish, in its instituted form, and are to be dealt with by it.
There are many things which are found in every family of the church and with which every family has to deal or even to struggle, but even matters with
which every family in the church has to deal do not by that very fact become matters of the congregation as such, just as little as matters with which each and every church has to deal thereby become matters of the federation. Take, for instance, the instruction and education of our children at school. Every family that understands its responsibility towards their children as children of the covenant will do its best, in cooperation with the other families, to have their children receive Reformed instruction. And every member of the congregation who understands his or her obligation as a member of the one body to help and assist each other with the fulfilment of our calling will lend support to make it somewhat easier for the parents involved by also helping financially. However, even if all members of a church cooperate in the matter of the schools and of education, this does not make the school and the education of the children of the covenant an ecclesiastical matter that should be discussed and dealt with at consistory meetings. And what may not be discussed at a consistory meeting may definitely not be brought to a major assembly or be dealt with by it.
Another example. When missionaries go to other countries and discover there that help is badly needed to teach the people proper hygiene or to lift them out above their level of poverty and total dependence on people who keep them in debt and virtual slavery, the membership of the church that sent these missionaries will certainly respond and Mission Aid Committees have come into existence as a result of this. An ecclesiastical matter, however, it is not. Mission Aid is not to be discussed and dealt with at consistory meetings, let alone at broader assemblies.
When even such matters that concern all the members of the congregation cannot be called ecclesiastical matters, it is obvious that social or political issues are completely inadmissible.
In many religious communities of our days we find that statements are being made in the name of the church which regard social questions or political decisions or military programs or financial investment, and so on. Apart from the fact that it is extremely doubtful whether those who draw up and issue those statements or proclamations speak indeed on behalf of the people they claim to represent, it must be stated that also in this respect the style of the church is totally absent. They are more concerned with social and political questions than with the purity of doctrine. Besides, if ecclesiastical assemblies occupy themselves with non-ecclesiastical matters, they should not be surprised when they are being dealt with on a level with non-ecclesiastical organizations. We think here also of Revelation 17-19.
We do not find any statement in Holy Scripture which condemns or declares illegal either polygamy or slavery. Yet both ultimately disappeared as a fruit of the penetration of God’s Word.
Apart from this general guideline we cannot give a list of what is an ecclesiastical matter and what is not. It is a fact that much of the mail that reaches a consistory disappears right away into the wastepaper basket because all sorts of organizations consider it an easy way of getting publicity and action when they address the consistories. Which is not to say either that all matters that church members raise should be dealt with. The basic
question is: Is this a matter belonging to the congregation-as-a-whole, in its instituted form or not? If it is not, even the fact that every family in the church has something to do with it or is affected by it does not in itself make it an ecclesiastical matter.
In An Ecclesiastical Manner
Defining or describing what “in an ecclesiastical manner” means may be even more difficult than to make clear what an “ecclesiastical matter” is. The first thing a consistory has to remember is that they are the office-bearers of the church of Christ. This means that all worldly practices and means should be wholly absent. In olden days it sometimes happened that an office-bearer had to pay a fine if he was absent from a consistory meeting without valid reason or without notification. This was an un-ecclesiastical way of punishing someone.
The well-known saying used in previous centuries that “the church does not thirst for blood” was conveniently bypassed by asking the civil authorities to imprison those considered heretics and even to put them to death. This was a totally un-ecclesiastical way of dealing with errors and with people who in the eyes of the powers that be deviated from the path of the truth.
The only weapon the church has is the Word of God. Thus the church can only speak, declare, pronounce. Fines, incarceration, imposing a sentence of death, banishment, etc. are completely contrary to the character of the church. Because the only weapon the church has is the Word of God, it is clear that a first requirement is that all things are done in submission to and in accordance with that Word. Deviation from the divine revelation renders any action sterile, however much temporary effect it may seem to have.
In the second place — and this applies then more to the major assemblies — it is a requirement that all things be done in loyal observance of the rules which have been adopted. And further: all politicking in the bad sense of the word is taboo in the church of Christ.
The Major Assemblies
The first sentence of this article covers all ecclesiastical assemblies; the second provision applies to the major assemblies. These are permitted to deal with two kinds of matters only: a. such as could not be finished in the minor assembly; and b. such as belong to the churches of that major assembly in common.
First about the provision that a major assembly may deal only with such matters as could not be finished in the minor assembly. When we speak of “the” minor assembly, we refer, of course, to the assembly minor to the one that is to deal with the matter. Thus a classis would not be permitted to busy itself with a matter that could be finished but was not finished, that is: about which no decision was reached as yet in the consistory or consistories. A general synod would not be allowed to declare a matter admissible if it could have been brought to a conclusion in a (or the) regional synod(s).
Thus, when a consistory brings a matter to a classis, it must have come
to the conclusion that it could not bring the matter to an end. A consistory is not allowed to say: “We have been talking about it for so long and still have not reached unanimity, let’s bring it to the next classis.” Nor would a consistory be permitted to shirk its responsibilities and ask a classis to decide about a matter and thus take the responsibility for this decision, whereas the consistory would have been able to do it, but did not for fear of the consequences. This might be an easy way out of real or imagined difficulties; it is a way no ecclesiastical assembly is allowed to follow.
Another example is the support of a theological student. Historically it is the duty of the church from which the student comes to support him as much as is needed. If this one church cannot do it all by itself, it can ask the help of a neighbouring church or neighbouring churches. In most instances one church will not be able to carry the full burden. But even then it is contrary to Article 30 to declare that, since one church cannot do it all, it is therefore the task of the combined churches. What can be finished in the minor assembly should not be brought to the major assembly.
In answer to the question who determines whether a matter can be finished in the minor assembly we have to state that this is the minor assembly. Only when the minor assembly has come to the conclusion that it could not come to a decision in a matter will it be allowed to bring the matter to the major assembly. This is to be done by the minor assembly. No major assembly ever has the right to decide that it has to discuss a certain matter since in its opinion there are difficulties in the minor assembly of such a nature that apparently they cannot be solved.
Even apart from the hierarchical aspect of the matter, it was also completely in conflict with what the churches have agreed upon in Article 30 that classical or indeed general-synodical committees came to a church without having been called in for help or when, for all practical purposes, they did what was in the province of a consistory alone. It is the minor assembly that decides whether it can or cannot finish a matter. And a matter is finished when a conclusion has been reached or a decision has been taken.
The federation is there only to help, not to take matters out of the hands of the minor assemblies. If a consistory does not bring a matter to a classis, no classis has the right to initiate action. If it did have the right, this would also promote hierarchy, and this is one of the last things Christ wants to see in His church. It conformed to the whole system of the hierarchical set-up when, in the days of the Secession, classical boards came and “did what belonged to the consistory,” bypassing and ignoring the office-bearers who had been set there by Christ.
Secondly, there are the matters which belong to the churches of that major assembly in common. One point must be repeated here: the common every-day concerns of every family in the church do not justifiably become matters for the whole consistory; likewise, or even more so, the concerns of each church do not automatically or justifiably become matters for classis or synod.
A simple example: each church has to decide when worship services shall be held, morning and afternoon or morning and evening; likewise at
what time these services shall start. But from the fact that this is a matter for consideration in every church it may not be concluded that now it is a “matter in common” of all the churches in a classis or (for all that) of all the churches in the federation.
In some articles we state that certain things are the duty of the churches or of their consistories, but something that is the task of each church is not thereby a task of the churches in common. Art. 10 speaks of the duty to provide honourably for the support of the minister(s); but this does not make the support for the ministers a federal matter so that a classis or a synod would be allowed to set minimum or maximum limits between which the stipend is to remain.
Major assemblies are not allowed for the sake of uniformity to deal with matters that are in the province of each church, for instance liturgy. We therefore do not say in our Book of Praise that either of the two following liturgies must be used, but we simply describe which of the two liturgies are in use; no prescriptive value is attached to this description.
Are now major assemblies permitted to take a matter in hand because “it belongs to the churches in common?” Definitely not. When one consults the Acts of our general synods, he will discover that even such matters as correspondence with Churches Abroad, Training for the Ministry, Church Order, Confessional and Liturgical Forms, Rhyming of the Psalms, were put on the general-synodical agenda by the churches. Once they had been put on the agenda by the churches, subsequent general synods were allowed to deal with them without the need for renewed action on the part of the churches, although no general synod would be allowed to undertake revision for instance of the Confessional and Liturgical Forms if no proposals to this effect were received from the churches.
The Last Sentence
In the last sentence of Article 30 two points come to the fore. The first point is that a major assembly may not spring any surprise on the churches by its decision to deal with a matter unbeknown to the churches but which was raised and discussed at that major assembly.
Before a new matter may be dealt with by a general synod, even though it appears to be a matter of the churches in common, it will have to have gone through one or more regional synods. These, in turn, were not allowed to deal with it unless one or more classes in that area had discussed and decided upon it. Finally, this classis or these classes were not permitted to take the matter in hand unless one or more of the churches in that area placed it on the agenda, having come to a conclusion about it. This is not to say that general-synodical matters are first decided upon in the minor assemblies. It only means that what appears on the agenda of major assemblies has already received due consideration in the minor assembly.
If, for instance, a consistory should come to the conclusion that somewhere in Outer Mongolia there is a church federation that we could welcome as sister churches, and with which an official relationship as such would
make sense, the proper way to follow is not: send a letter to the next general synod with the proposal “to appoint a committee with the mandate to investigate whether the Canadian Reformed Churches should establish a sister church relationship with these churches.”
This consistory must do its homework first and come with a well-researched proposal and a well-founded conclusion, that is to be presented to a classis. By way of classis it reaches a regional synod which, if it finds it acceptable, passes it on to the general synod so that, when the proposal finally reaches a general synod, synod is well-informed about the matter. The minor assemblies act in this manner also as a kind of screen, for sifting out matters that are considered to be of insufficient importance to be presented to the major assembly. This means a lightening of the burdens of the major assemblies and thus a saving for the churches in terms of manpower, time, and money.
The second point that comes to the fore here is that proposals for the major assemblies must come from the churches and cannot come from church members, regardless whether they are a member of the broader assembly or not.
In times past the delegates to a major assembly brought with them, in writing, the points their delegating assembly, for example their consistory, wanted the major assembly to deal with. Nowadays proposals and a provisional agenda are sent to the churches a few weeks before the major assembly is to be held. But the principle that the agenda of major assemblies ultimately is composed by the churches and by them alone has remained. It is expressed in the last sentence of Article 30.
If a church member wants to have a matter on the agenda of a general synod, he has to submit it to his consistory with the request to pass it on. Should the consistory come to the conclusion that it cannot take over the member’s proposal and should no other consistory be prepared to do so, there is no way in which the member can achieve his goal. All he or she can do is try to alert the membership by means of the press. If he considers it to be that important, there is nothing which prevents him from talking to other church members, or to have a few meetings where he propagates his views. No consistory will bother him because of doing this. There is freedom of expression and freedom of the press. There is, however, no direct channel from a church member to the major assemblies.