In all Churches there shall be a consistory composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders who, as a rule, shall meet at least once a month. As a rule the ministers of the Word shall preside. If a Church is served by more than one minister, they shall preside in turn.
Since it is not our intention in this Guide to give a scholarly treatise on our Church Order, we shall not go deeply into the question whether the churches are correct in their provision that the consistory is composed of the minister of the Word and the elders. Be it briefly stated that this writer is convinced that also in their Church Order the churches should have followed the Belgic Confession as well as the very first General Synod held after the adoption of this Confession, the one at Emden 1571.
In our Belgic Confession we state that we believe “There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; there should also be elders and deacons who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church.” In accordance with this, the Synod of Emden 1571, provided that “In every church there shall be gatherings or consistories of Ministers of the Word, Elders, and Deacons.”
The Synod of Dordrecht 1574, however, introduced separate meetings of ministers and elders on the one hand, and of deacons on the other. Many treatises have been written about the question whether the deacons belong to the consistory, and whoever wishes to write them or read them can find ample material for extensive study.
One of the best-known teachers of Reformed church polity, Dr. F.L. Rutgers, explains this change as having been caused by the circumstance that at the time of the Reformation the deacons also became the administrators and stewards of those confiscated possessions of the Romish church which had become public possessions for the support of the indigent, and that thus the deacons could easily get into a conflict of interest as they were in part accountable to the consistory and in part to the civil authorities. Thus it was more convenient for them to be completely on their own and not to be members of the consistory.
It is to be deplored that the churches did not return to the very beginning once the position of the deacons had (again) become a purely ecclesiastical one. Now it has become so that the term “consistory” refers to the body consisting of the minister(s) and the elders, while the term “consistory with the deacons” is used when a gathering of all office-bearers is meant.
Some churches try to express the difference by using the term “council” when referring to a meeting of all office-bearers and the term “consistory” for the meeting of the minister(s) and the elders. Such practice is not recommended. It introduces yet another term — allegedly to get into line with what
we confess in Art. 30 Belgic Confession — and can easily give the impression that there are two different bodies: a “council” and a “consistory.” When the terms of our Church Order are used, every one knows what we are referring to. We speak of “consistory” and of “consistory with the deacons.”
According to the terminology of our Church Order, the consistory is composed of the minister(s) of the Word and the elders.
This article stipulates that “In all churches there shall be a consistory.” It is an absolute necessity. Again, this is in accordance with what we confess in Art. 30 B.C.
Since we profess this necessity as part of our faith, it might be considered superfluous to adduce proof for it at this place.
Yet it is useful to pay attention to what the Scriptures say about these issues, also with a view to those who believe that office-bearers are not neccessary at all and that a permanent body of office-bearers such as a consistory would be too restrictive for the body of believers.
In connection with another article we already attended to what Paul and Barnabas did, namely appoint elders in every church, Acts 14: 23, as also the charge which Paul gave to Titus, Titus 1: 5.
There are also indications in God's Word that the elders form a body. The apostle Paul exhorted Timothy not to “neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you,” 1 Tim. 4: 14. The apostle actually did not use a plural (“the elders”) but a singular which we could best render by “the eldership,” the combined elders, the body of elders.
Upon his return to Jerusalem Paul “went in with us to James; and all the elders were present.” Acts 21: 17. True, here Luke uses a plural, but from the fact that all the elders were present we may conclude that they acted in unison and not individualistically.
The elders, presbyters, have the leadership of the congregation in the widest sense. It is remarkable that God’s Word never speaks of “elders and deacons,” but of “overseers and deacons.” We find both mentioned in one breath in Philip. 1: 1. This strongly points into the direction of understanding the term elders (in Greek: presbuteroi) as including or comprising both what we call “elders” and “deacons.”
We understand the election of the “Seven” described in Acts 6 as the “institution of the church at Jerusalem,” and we consider it incorrect to call them “deacons.” All we are told of their activity is that they preached. The apostles deemed the time to be there to hand over the leadership of the Jerusalem church to locally chosen office-bearers. From all of the above we can see that the churches are correct when stating that there shall be a consistory in each church. We do not say that there shall be a consistory in every place. In larger cities there may well be several churches, each with its own consistory. The consistory is the only ecclesiastical assembly instituted by Christ through His apostles. This is not to say that any other ecclesiastical assembly
is contrary to His ordinance. Not so, we are fully convinced that the churches act in accordance with the Lord’s will when they show the unity of faith through cooperation and mutual supervision so that the unity of faith may be preserved.
It would be erroneous to state that major assemblies, too, have been ordained by Christ, and by virtue thereof have been entrusted with divinely given authority, since otherwise their existence and function would be meaningless.
When and for What?
Might it still be a vestige from that first beginning of 1571 and from the conviction that, in fact, the deacons belong to the consistory that many matters concerning local church life as well as concerning the federation are dealt with at meetings of the consistory with the deacons? Strictly speaking, there are only very few occasions on which the consistory with the deacons has to make decisions about certain issues. In the preceding part we already noted the nominating of candidates for office and the appointing of those elected, Art. 3; release of ministers who wish to follow up a call, Art. 5, 9; proper support, Art. 10, and dismissal of ministers, Art. 11; release from ministry, Art. 12;-retirement, Art. 13; temporary release, Art. 14; term of office for elders and deacons, Art. 24; equality, Art. 25; then there are also the suspension and deposition of office-bearers, Art. 71; mutual censure, Art. 73.
As everyone can see: the matters to be dealt with by the consistory with the deacons are not all that numerous. In general, not more than one or at the most two combined meetings per year would be required. Yet it is customary to have meetings of the consistory with the deacons far more frequently, usually once a month. At these meetings many more matters are dealt with than those mentioned in our Church Order.
Is this not inconsistent? Why should the deacons be present and co-decide about all sorts of matters concerning local church government — such as budget, purchase or sale of property, evangelization, etc., briefly, all matters which concern the general affairs of the congregation — as well as concerning matters of the federation such as the agenda for broader assemblies, delegates to broader assemblies, mission, etc. — if they did not belong to the consistory?
To us this is an indication of a secret doubt whether the churches act correctly by excluding the deacons from the consistory and of the feeling that they should be involved.
For a good understanding and to prevent wrong conclusions, be it stated here that we definitely do not advocate a practice which would limit meetings of the consistory with the deacons only to those cases which are mentioned in our Church Order. On the contrary, we prefer a complete return to Art. 30 B.C. and the Synod of Emden 1571: with minister(s), overseers, and deacons together forming the consistory of the church.
As long as the situation is such that the consistory is said to consist of the minister(s) and the elders, it will be difficult to determine which matters
are to be dealt with at meetings with the deacons. Undue delays may result as well when matters may have to be postponed till the next meeting with the deacons.
The churches have the practice that the meetings of the consistory deal only with the matters of supervision, family visits, discipline; and that practically all other matters are dealt with at meetings of the consistory with the deacons. It is an absolute necessity that all office-bearers cooperate and are aware as much as possible of one another's work and difficulties. Meeting together and dealing with the various parts of the work are indispensable means to achieve this.
Art. 38 stipulates that, as a rule, the consistory shall meet once a month. In the early days it was the rule that the consistory should meet every week. This was changed only in the beginning of this century, for not every week are there sufficient points to be dealt with to warrant having a meeting. The brothers can always discuss things, and most likely would have no problem filling two evenings a week; but a consistory is no discussion group and the brothers do not come together “to talk about things.” Time is too precious a commodity for that.
If brothers have difficulties in the execution of their office, a whole evening or, if needs be, more than one evening should be set aside for discussion to try to solve or remove them. But if a brother says: “I would like to have the consistory talk about this or that,” he should be given to understand that he is free to invite all the brothers privately for coffee, but that a consistory is no discussion group and does not provide a platform to “talk about things.” A consistory meeting is convened to deal with specific matters.When this is remembered at all times, the number of meetings will be reduced, and the meetings will be more business-like.
Normally, one evening per month is set aside for a meeting of the consistory with the deacons and another one for a meeting of the consistory only. It sometimes happens that the evening begins as a meeting of the consistory with the deacons, to continue later on in the evening as a meeting of the consistory only. This may open the way to dealing with matters which otherwise would have to be postponed, but it would not be fair towards the deacons if they were called out for just half an hour or so, unless they can schedule a meeting of their own after the meeting with the consistory has been concluded.
Does it have to announced to the congregation that there will be a meeting of the consistory and when and where it will be held? Such an announcement is not required. In most churches, if not all of them, it is customary to do so. There are various reasons for announcing to the congregation that the consistory with the deacons or the consistory will meet.
In the first place the congregation will be made aware of the forthcoming meeting and be thereby enabled to remember the work of the brothers in their prayers. Further, there may be members who wish to bring certain
matters to the consistory and know now when the consistory will come together. It is also possible that someone wants to bring a matter to the consistory in person. He is to know when the meeting takes place, although it is always possible to ask one of the brothers when the next meeting will be.
But no consistory should feel embarrassed because it inadvertently neglected to inform the congregation about the scheduled meeting, nor should the meeting be cancelled because of this oversight. All office-bearers must know about it and be informed; the congregation does not necessarily have to be informed.
What should be avoided is that some decisions are made before or after the services on Sundays. Matters should be discussed and decided upon at regular meetings and not during informal gatherings before or after the services. Some brothers may not be aware of the “meeting” and not be present because they did not know about it, and this would invalidate decisions made. Besides, the time for quiet, unhurried and thorough discussions would not be available, because the clock shows that the service is to start, or because the families are waiting for Dad to come and drive them home.
An exception to this is when an election is held on Sunday and all the brothers know that after the election a brief meeting of all office-bearers is held to appoint those who were elected. Not all brothers have to be present at every meeting, but all brothers must know about the meeting.
Here we may raise the point whether consistory meetings are open meetings, that is, meetings at which members of the congregation are allowed to be present. Should the meetings be announced so that the members may have the opportunity to attend? Generally speaking, meetings of the consistory with the deacons may be attended by members of the congregation; meetings of the consistory may not. At the latter confidential matters are dealt with such as reports on family visits, disciplinary action, etc. At the former more general matters concerning church life are the material discussed.
It will be clear then that no non-office-bearer may be present when the list of candidates for office is drawn up or censure of an office-bearer is on the agenda. Confidential matters should remain confidential and should be confined to office-bearers.
If any non-office-bearers are sitting in on the consistory meeting, care should be taken that with the reading of the minutes no matters from the previous meeting are divulged which the non-office-bearer should not hear about. The presence of non-office-bearers may also influence the speaking of the brothers. Some may not feel as free to express themselves as they would otherwise. Besides, it may happen that during the discussion some confidential information is spilled which should not have reached the ears of a non-office-bearer.
For the above reasons presence of members of the congregation at meetings of the consistory with the deacons, although not impermissible, is not to be encouraged.
In many churches it is customary that an agenda is drawn up beforehand, a sort of provisional agenda, which is handed out to the brothers on the Sunday before the meeting. At the meeting itself some points can then be added, as happens at a broader assembly, before the agenda is adopted. Everyone then knows what the points are the meeting will have to deal with, and it prevents that all sorts of matters are raised in the course of the meeting which may interfere with the issues for which the meeting came together. If anyone wants to have something put on the agenda, he should beforehand inform the clerk or whoever draws up the provisional agenda, so that it can be inserted.
This also applies to the concerns voiced at family visits. These visits are frequently used by the members to have the consistory deal with things they deem important. In some instances the point is even brought up year after year so that one gets the impression that the members keep on nagging until they get their way.
When the elders are requested to pass on certain things in their report on the family visit, it should not happen that, when the chairman wants to proceed to the next point, one of the brothers says: “Yes, Mr.Chairman, but what about this concern voiced by the A. family? I like to say something about it;” or “We have to deal with that.”
The point “Report Family Visits” is just that: reports, and not an opportunity to bring in new elements or new business. Apart from the fact that most times the point is merely mentioned without giving arguments for it, there is the possibility that the consistory discussed it before and that no new arguments are adduced. The proper procedure is that the question or request or remark is written down and is mentioned in the agenda for the next meeting. The time set aside for reports is to be used for that purpose. If all sorts of extraneous points are raised and discussed, the rest of the reports may even have to wait till the next meeting, because the consistory ran out of time. This is not only frustrating, it is wrong.
Strictly speaking, what the clerk is requested to read are not the minutes of the previous meeting but his report on that meeting. Only when his report on the previous meeting has been accepted as correct and has been signed can we speak of the minutes of the previous meeting.
In most cases the president asks whether there are any matters from the minutes that require the consistory’s attention. This point is not an opportunity for one or more of the brothers to re-open a discussion or to declare that, after all, they disagree with such and such a decision; or that such and such a point should be discussed again.
The item “matters from the minutes” covers mandates which were given and of which the brothers want to know whether they were executed and what the result is; further, those matters that were tabled until the next meeting. In all likelihood a diligent clerk or minister did already give these items
a place on the provisional agenda, but it is advisable to scan the minutes on purpose to see that no unfinished business remains.
The incoming mail is an item that has dominated many a consistory meeting. One never knows what to expect with the incoming mail. It is no exception that dealing with the incoming mail occupied the larger part of the time available, so that another meeting had to be scheduled to finish the agenda. Next there is the possibility that there will be another letter or quantity of letters which the consistory has to struggle through.
Some consistories therefore put the point “Incoming Mail” towards the end of the agenda so as to make sure that the regular items could be dealt with first and would not suffer because of the stack of communications and the time required for dealing with them. Much can be said in favour of this procedure.
The one receiving the mail has, of course, taken note of the contents and will know whether it will be mandatory to discuss one particular item at an earlier moment. He can advise the consistory accordingly in case “Incoming Mail” is taken note of later on during the evening.
One method to be mentioned here has perhaps as much against it as it has in favour. It is the method of having the incoming mail read by a standing committee, for example the minister and the clerk, with the mandate to prepare an advice for the meeting.
What is in favour of such a method is in the first place that much valuable time will be saved since the discussion is already guided by a draft-reply; and in the second place hasty and unripe formulations are prevented since the reply could be prepared in advance without the pressure caused by the limited time available.
Against this method is the danger that the opinion or stand of one or two men so dominates the whole discussion and the answer to be given that other opinions and ideas do not stand a chance. It is our experience that it is very difficult, if not impossible to change the whole tenor of a concept and to bring in different thoughts, unless the whole concept is rejected and it is decided to come with a wholly new draft. Each consistory has to decide for itself which method to follow.
Consistories also receive many pieces of junk-mail, which should be treated as such. Once the address of the church is known, all sorts of organizations vie for the consistory’s attention and cooperation. Consistories should authorize the one who collects the mail to make such communications disappear before they reach the consistory table. This writer is guilty of causing stacks of letters and brochures to disappear without a trace without the consistory ever knowing that they were in the church's mailbox. Non-ecclesiastical matters should not be permitted to occupy even one second of a consistory’s time.
Even matters which concern the local church and local church life should hot all be brought to the consistory. In practically every church there is a
committee of administration or management or whatever name they may carry. It has been appointed and authorized by the consistory with the deacons to take care of the finances and temporal possessions of the church. A consistory should honour this appointment and authorization by not taking into its own hand matters which are in the province of the appointed committee. This means that all correspondence relating to finances and temporal possessions, if addressed to the consistory, should right away be passed on to the appointed committee and should not first (have to) pass the scrutiny or acknowledgment of the consistory. The same applies to bills for electricity or telephone or property taxes or repairs to church building and manse, organ and so on. For instance, communications about evangelization should go to the Evangelization or Home Mission Committee.
Not only will valuable time be saved for the work proper of the consistory, but the result will also be that the appointed committees feel that the consistory trusts them and was sincere when it appointed them for this specific task. Receiving proof of trust, they will also endeavour to prove that they are worthy of it.
Now that we are speaking about the agenda for consistory meetings anyway, we may as well pay some attention to the question period. The time set aside for this towards the end of the meeting often causes the brothers to arrive home far later than was expected when the question period began. The reason is that the question period frequently becomes a period of lengthy discussions or sometimes decisions. The question period is there to ask questions and to receive (brief) answers. No president should permit it to degenerate into another meeting with discussions, proposals, and decisions.
Sometimes the question period is called “New Business,” and this means that a brother can request that a certain matter be put on the agenda for the next meeting.
As for the rest: when a question has been asked and answered, that is the end of the question. Brother B. should not ask for or, worse even, take the floor to speak about the answer brother A. received to his question. The only right brother B. would have to ask for the floor in connection with brother A.’s question is when he is able to provide the answer or to give additional information. Thus: Question answered? Next question. Question Period at 10:45 p.m.? Then closing no later than 11:00 p.m. If the meeting can start at 7:30 p.m., it would be wise to fix the closing time at 10:30.
Three hours of intensive discussions is all most brothers can stand. No one benefits from it when brothers get tired — and perhaps soon irritated because of that — or can no longer concentrate on the issue at hand, because it is getting too late and they have to get up early the next morning to work for their daily bread.
Does the congregation have to be informed about what took place at the consistory meeting? It is not absolutely necessary. It is definitely advisable. Not only will the congregation's attention be drawn to the work that the office-bearers do, and will the congregation become more convinced that there is more to being an office-bearer than filing into the office-bearers’ pews on Sundays and visiting the families in their section once a year, but the congregation will also remain informed about church life in general. Much will depend on the manner in which the press release is worded and presented.
The information contained in it must make sense. No sentence such as: “Letter from a brother; will be answered.” should ever be found in a press release. This is a waste of energy, paper, and time. If the congregation is not allowed to know the contents of that letter or of the answer of the consistory or indeed the matter which the letter touched upon, it is better not to mention anything. Ideally, the press release should be approved by the consistory before the close of the meeting. There may be reasons for doing things differently.
It requires a special talent to be able to write down precisely what the consistory did or decided while, at the same time, listening to the discussions and taking part in it. Not everyone is able to do this and not everyone is equally prepared to take on this task.
For this reason it may be advisable to ask a brother to take notes at the meeting, and to write a press release at home. It can then be written in a much more readable, descriptive style instead of in a dry chronicle-like fashion. Besides, it enables the brother to fully participate in the discussion.
The writer will have to endeavour not to put his own thoughts into his report but to relate truthfully what the consistory did and decided. It may take some practice; it certainly requires self-control, but it is definitely possible.
Why does the minister have to chair the meetings? We can understand it when ministers have to take turns when there is more than one minister serving that church. The one is not superior to the other and the burdens, responsibilities and privileges of the office are to be shared equally. We have no problem with that. But why does it have to be the minister who presides? Are there not ministers who evidently are ill-suited for such a task, and are there not elders who are eminently suited to lead a meeting successfully?
There are several reasons why this provision should be maintained and honoured. The Holy Scripture points to the position of the minister of the Word when the Lord Jesus commands His servant John to write letters to the seven churches in Asia and when He tells the apostle to write to “the angel of the church in...,” Rev. 2: 1, 8, 12, 18; 3: 1, 7, 14. We also hear that blessed is he that reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and that blessed are those who hear, Rev. 1:3.
It cannot be denied that the minister has a special place in the church he serves. His office is not higher than that of the elders and the deacons; yet it is different. He is the “angel of the church,” the messenger who proclaims
God’s Word to the flock. It is in the line of his position that he should chair the meetings of the office-bearers. Hereby it is to be remembered that presiding over a meeting should be the opposite of dominating the meeting.
Another argument is that the churches require a substantial education of their prospective ministers. Among the disciplines in which these prospective ministers are trained are the polity of the church, the leadership in the church, and the governing of the congregation. The skill and knowledge thus acquired should be utilized to the fullest.
In general, the minister, because of his office, enjoys the respect and esteem of the congregation. Thus the brothers will more readily acknowledge his rulings when he chairs a meeting than they would if someone they grew up with chaired their meetings.
But practical arguments are not decisive. It could very well be that practically one of the elders is better suited and more knowledgeable than the minister. This would still be no valid reason for taking the chair away from the minister and giving it to that particular elder. It is his position as the “angel of the church,” entrusted with the overall care of the flock, which causes him to be the person marked for presiding over the meetings of the consistory with or without the deacons.
When matters concerning himself are discussed, he should relinquish the chair to the appointed vice-president. There should be no conflict of interest and no one should ever be able to say that he took his own cause into his own hands. This occasion arises when the stipend and benefits are discussed, when at the church visitation questions are being asked about his work, or when remarks about his execution of office are made with the mutual censure meant in Art. 73 C.O.