Delegates to the major assemblies shall bring with them their credentials, signed by those sending them; they shall have a vote in all matters except those in which either they themselves or their Churches are particularly involved.
The broader assemblies are not meetings of individual persons or gatherings of office-bearers, but meetings of persons who have been delegated and represent the churches. To a certain extent we may say that the major assemblies are meetings of churches. It is well-nigh impossible to have meetings where all the consistories are present. Even if it might be possible to have all consistories as such meet in a classis, such a classis would be too large and unwieldy, too cumbersome to achieve anything at all. For this reason the churches meet by means of their delegates. It should be clear to everyone that the churches meet in the delegates. For this reason the brothers who come together to form a major assembly are to show proof that they have been legitimately delegated. Even though, as a rule, delegates are office-bearers, they do not derive their right to be a member of a major assembly from their being office-bearers, but from their having been delegated and authorized by the minor assembly.
They are not there on their own authority but only on the authority of the delegating assembly. For this reason they have to show their credentials, signed by those sending them. Credentials for a classis are to be signed on behalf of the consistory; those for a regional synod or general synod on behalf of classis or regional synod respectively.
Before a classis, a regional or general synod can be constituted (that is: come into existence), the credentials have to be examined to see who are entitled to form the assembly and to deal with the matters submitted to it.
Which elements are to be found in these credentials? In the first place it has to be stated by what assembly the brothers have been delegated: either a consistory or a classis or a regional synod. A consistory cannot write credentials for a regional or general synod, only for delegation to a classis, although in times past brothers sometimes took credentials along from their consistories even when they were delegated by a classis or regional synod.
Secondly, the names of the brothers who have been appointed as delegates are to be mentioned specifically, together with the names of their alternates. The names of those who sign the attendance list should be those mentioned in the credentials.
In the third place, the credentials are to spell out the authorization of the
brothers who have been delegated. This is necessary because they do not come on their own authority, because they are not permitted to raise the questions or matters which they themselves consider worthwhile or important, and because they are to deal with all things in the manner determined by their principals.
With all their deliberations and decisions the brothers should remember that they are at the broader assemblies because they have been sent there by their consistories or by a classis or regional synod respectively. This awareness is to govern what they say and what they decide.
Only in exceptional cases will a consistory tell its delegated members how to vote in a specific matter. A broader assembly is not a ballot-box, solely there for the purpose of learning what the stand of the consistories is in the matters brought before it. The major assemblies are there to discuss and decide upon matters in mutual agreement. Time and expenses of meeting together could be spared if it were determined beforehand which consistory is in favour and which one is opposed to a proposal.
A brother whose opinion in a specific case differs from that of the rest of the consistory may be delegated so that, if it deems the matter of sufficient importance, the consistory may tell him to vote in a manner which expresses the consistory’s views. Such a situation will not occur very often. It may be that a delegate deems it necessary to abandon his own preference in favour of what he knows to be the view of the (majority of the) consistory. However, that is his own free decision.
Further, the credentials are to state in what manner the delegates are to deal with the matters put on the agenda and by what they are bound. There is in the first place the Word of God which is to be the absolute guide; then there are the confessions in which the churches have summarized the Scriptures; and in the third place there is the adopted Church Order.
These three are not on the same level, although the delegates to a broader assembly are bound by all three of them. The difference is expressed in the terms used in the sample credential which is appended to this Guide: “in total submission to God’s Word, in faithful adherence to the Reformed Confessions, and in loyal observance of the adopted Church Order.”
The credentials sometimes contain the promise that the consistory will abide by all decisions reached in accordance with the above mandate. Although there is nothing against it, essentially such a promise is not necessary. A church does not take upon itself the obligation to abide by the decisions of major assemblies by making a special promise to this effect; it did take this obligation upon itself by joining the federation, thus promising to live within it according to the adopted Church Order. No church would ever be free to ignore decisions legitimately taken by major assemblies because “it never stated in the credentials that it would abide by them.”
The promise “to submit” to the decisions of the major assemblies was incorrect, for abiding by these decisions is not a matter of submission or obedience to any authority, but of keeping one’s promises.
In older redactions of our Church Order we can read that those delegated to broader assemblies shall also bring their “instructions.” What is meant by this? Whenever a major assembly will be held in our days, the churches receive a provisional agenda beforehand. They are requested to send material for the major assembly to the convening church a few weeks before the scheduled date, so that they can be told in advance what the matters are with which the broader assembly will have to deal.
What underlies this practice is the fact that it is the churches that determine what shall be dealt with at the broader assemblies. The agenda of major assemblies is not composed by individual members but by the churches.
An individual member cannot legitimately bring a matter before a major assembly. There is one exception. If he complains that a minor assembly has wronged him, he may seek redress as provided for in Art. 31. It does not make any difference whether this individual member is a delegate to a major assembly or not: his having been appointed as a delegate to a major assembly does not give this member the right to introduce any matter on his own initiative either.
When typewriters, photocopiers, and mailing services as we know them were unknown luxuries, the delegates brought their instructions with them, that is, the points and matters which their delegating assemblies wanted to have on the agenda of the major assembly. In this manner the churches prevented private proposals from becoming an item on the agenda of major assemblies.
We no longer mention instructions in our Church Order. Times and possibilities have changed; but the rule has remained: the churches determine the agenda of their major assemblies. Perhaps one recalls having seen the item “Instructions” on a classical agenda. Something has remained of the old practice: whenever a church has something special to discuss, something which concerns its own well-being, it mentions this in an instruction in the credentials. This means that its delegates are to raise the point(s) mentioned. This concerns usually a request by a vacant church for classical pulpit supply, for the appointment of a counsellor, or a request for advice in a disciplinary case.
The brothers from each church are entitled to vote on the matters on the agenda, because they are members of classis. At other major assemblies there may not be two brothers from the same church that were delegated by a classis or regional synod respectively. Yet to them also applies the instruction which we find in Art. 32: whenever either their own church or their own person is involved, they do not have the right to vote in this particular instance.
Anyone has the right to abstain from voting for various reasons; either the matter is not clear to the brother, or he cannot come to a responsible decision, or he feels that he was too much involved in it already during the time
before the matter reached the major assembly. In these cases a brother abstains voluntarily.
If the matter concerns either himself personally or his church, he is not permitted to take part in the voting, for no one should be judge in matters that concern himself personally or concern his church. He may take part in the discussions, he may express his support for a certain proposal, he may even submit a proposal, although it might not be wise to do so, but when it comes to voting, he is excluded.
We are not to confuse this with a proposal made by a church. Sometimes there is the fallacious reasoning that brothers are not allowed to vote on a proposal made by their own consistory, but making a proposal is not the same as being involved, that is, being a party in a particular case.