Constitution of a Consistory
In places where a consistory is to be constituted for the first time or anew, this shall be done only with the advice of classis.
Once upon a time there were flourishing churches in Asia Minor as well as in North Africa, but as a result of the onslaught of the Islam and of their own unfaithfulness as well as through betrayal by those who should have supported them and have come to their aid, they disappeared. One of the last churches to disappear was the one at Philadelphia, to which the Lord Jesus gave this promise: “Because you have kept My word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world.” Rev. 3: 10. It is possible that churches, once instituted, disappear. All members may gradually move away, so that first there are no longer enough brothers to form a consistory and then later on the last one leaves. At one time there was a church at Rocky Mountain House, AB, but one by one the members left for other parts of the country. On the other hand, new churches are formed, sometimes as a result of several members moving into a certain place or its neighbourhood, sometimes because a church becomes too large and the decision is reached to either have a new church formed by part of the membership or split the existing church into two autonomous churches.
Art. 40 deals with the question of classical advice in case a consistory is to be constituted either for the first time, or anew when the trend is reversed and more people move in instead of out. At the very onset it has to be stressed that constitution of a consistory as such is not a classical matter. It is a matter of the believers or of a church in a certain place or area. The only point Art. 40 makes is that such constitution shall not take place until and unless classical advice has been asked and obtained. Alas, it appears necessary to repeat the obvious. No group of believers or church has the right to proceed if the advice of classis is negative. If a group of believers or a church could just say: “We have asked and received advice and now, although the advice was not to proceed, we are going ahead,” the whole provision of Art. 40 as well as of several other articles would be meaningless. In cases in which it is stated that the advice of classis shall be asked before proceeding with certain actions, it is obvious that this advice must be positive and that a church is not allowed to proceed if it is negative. The churches have agreed to this restriction.
Why have the churches stipulated that classical advice shall be asked? Because constitution of a consistory is not something which should be done lightly and hastily. We could envision a situation where enthusiastic members, expecting an influx of settlers in a certain area, want to constitute a consistory even though only four or five brothers are available to choose at least three office-bearers from, making the presumption that, once there is
a consistory and the proclamation of God’s Word and the administration of the sacraments, more people will be attracted. Understandable though such enthusiasm may be, the outcome could turn out to be a big disappointment and the church might have to be dissolved again after a while because the expectations did not materialize. In this manner the whole constitution could become a spectacle. For this reason it has been agreed upon that classical advice shall have to be obtained. Therein a certain safeguard is given against hasty and unripe actions. Besides, the sister churches in the classis may become involved in the effects of such constitution.
Soon after a constitution, or perhaps even at the same classis where advice is asked, there may be a request for appointment of a counsellor, for classical preaching engagements, and, perhaps shortly after, for financial support in case a call is extended and accepted. Although no classis should ever give a negative advice because of the consequences which a positive answer might have for the churches in that area, the consequences should nevertheless be considered and it must be beyond doubt that constitution of a consistory is a viable undertaking in view of the present situation and further developments. One of the main issues to be considered is whether there are a sufficient number of brothers who can serve in the office of elder and that of deacon — at least three of them — as well as whether there are a large enough number of brothers fit for office who could take the place of the first ones.
Classis should not proceed and appoint a committee to interview the brothers to see whether their number is large enough. It has to go by the testimony of the brothers and sisters and of the consistory that is involved in this development. However, classis should ask for the relevant information and receive a clear answer to its questions regarding said availability. Further the financial possibilities should be weighed, the need for constitution, and whatever other aspect may deserve to be investigated.
It will be clear that here we refer to constitution of a consistory in our own country, not to what happens when a group of believers migrates to another country and has grown sufficiently in numbers to proceed to the constitution of a consistory. In our own country a consistory is involved in a request for constitution, and it is this consistory that passes the request on. A consistory will not do this unless it has convinced itself that the time is ripe for such action. This (neighbouring) church has no other task than that of giving guidance to the brothers and sisters, in case they have already formed a closed group either at some distance or as part of this church. It is different when a church divides into two autonomous churches, although also then classical advice is to be asked. There are various possibilities, to which we should pay attention here.
Members’ Request I
In the first place the request for cooperation may reach the consistory from members living at a considerable distance, members whose number has grown to a size which they consider large enough to have a consistory
of their own. According to Art. 41, they are under the care of the neighbouring consistory, but that congregation will not be greatly affected when a consistory is constituted with that distant group of believers, although for all practical purposes they form a section or ward of that church. Not infrequently one of their number will have been appointed as an elder in their midst, not only to have the oversight over that part of the flock, but also to serve as a liaison between the consistory and this group of believers.
When the request for cooperation in the constitution of a consistory is made to the consistory under whose care they are, this consistory will have to investigate and ascertain whether they can support the request and pass it on to the next classis. Such a request will not come unexpectedly, out of the blue sky, since the consistory will have kept track of the development. Not much of an investigation or discussion may be needed to reach a favourable conclusion. And when the consistory is convinced that there are enough brothers fit for the offices, that the group is financially strong enough to exist as an autonomous church, it will table the request at the next classis.
Upon favourable advice, the consistory can arrange the election of office-bearers. Different methods can be followed. What should not be done is: asking for names to be submitted to the consistory and then, as a consistory, drawing up a nomination from which the brothers of the group can choose as many as are needed. This would mean that a “strange” consistory was going to determine who could be candidates for office. Basically it would amount to a lording it over the group of believers. We may take it for granted that, if one of the group is already an elder, he did not become an elder upon having been chosen by the distant church but by having been desired by the group, although appointed by the consistory.
It could now be arranged in such a manner that the brother’s term ends at the moment when office-bearers are ordained and thus the consistory is constituted. In that case there will be a totally free election for as many elders and deacons as are deemed needed. The brother who is already an elder will be just as eligible as the other brothers, since he ceases being an elder at the constitution of a consistory. For all practical purposes he was an elder of the distant church, be it for the specific section or ward in whose midst he lives. The free election will be held under the auspices of the consistory which has the supervision.
It is also possible that, in consultation with the brothers and sisters, it is decided to let the brother continue as an elder and to choose additional ones in a free election according to the need. However, the former method is to be preferred. Possible objections to the brothers who have been elected are to be brought to the attention of the consistory which has the supervision. There is no other body to which they can be addressed.
Members’ Request II
Above we discussed the procedure in case a “faraway” group of believers asks for the constitution of a consistory. Now we turn to a similar request by part of the local congregation. Given the growth of a church, a number
of members in a specific area may feel the need to establish another church and to split off the local church. Care should be taken that no impure elements or arguments play a part in such an endeavour. Other members should be very hesitant or even shy away from it completely if the move is instigated and strongly promoted by brothers or sisters of whom it is known that they cause or have “problems,” or who are always very critical of the minister or consistory, in which case it is suspected that forming a new church is only or mainly a way of getting away from minister or consistory, just to advance one’s own cause.
Sometimes distance plays a role, sometimes overcrowding of the church building on Sundays. Frequently there is also the consideration that the congregation is becoming too large for all members to become acquainted with one another. When brothers and sisters are sitting beside each other at the Lord’s table but do not know each other so that they might as well have been strangers, even though they look familiar, it is high time to form a new congregation.
What procedure should be followed? First of all, the consistory should be fully informed of any desire for the formation of an autonomous church that may be living among the members involved and should be asked whether it has any objection that the brothers and sisters in a specific area have a few meetings to discuss the matter and possibly come with proposals to the consistory. In all likelihood one or more office-bearers will be living in that area and they can function as a liaison between the “group” and the consistory. If no office-bearer is living in that area, the brothers and sisters should request the attendance of one or two brothers from the consistory. It goes without saying that the formation of a new church should not bring the “mother church” into great difficulties. Although the latter will experience the effects of seeing a part of its membership go, also financially, it should remain possible to continue church life without too many difficulties caused by the loss of a number of members.
At the meetings various aspects should be investigated. The brothers and sisters should be convinced that there are a sufficiently large number of brothers fit for office. The financial aspects should be thoroughly examined. Most likely the regular voluntary contributions will have to be increased for, generally speaking, the larger the congregation, the lower the average contributions. Also with a view to the calling of a minister, the consistory-to-be must be able to count on a certain amount per member. Taking pledges is one way of obtaining a fairly correct estimate what the consistory will be able to count on.
If the church is respecting a borderline with neighbouring churches, a tentative line should be drawn to mark off the area of the new church, although in the first instance no one should be compelled either to join or not to join the new church. Before definite decisions have been made an opportunity should be given to make a free choice. All who are living in the “new” area should be allowed to speak up at the preliminary meetings. Once the plans have taken a more definite form, only those who are planning to join the new church and have signed a declaration to that effect should have the
privilege of the floor and should be allowed to vote on proposals made. It would not be fair to permit persons who are opposed and are not planning to join anyway, to speak up and cast a vote when they have not, indeed, signified their intention to be part of the new church.
Once all points and questions have been considered and it appears that the undertaking is feasible, the consistory should receive a list of those who wish to form the new church, a realistic budget, and such additional information as may be needed. These particulars are to accompany a request to cooperate in the constitution of a consistory and thus the institution of another church.
When the consistory—which was not unaware of what was going on — agrees with the request, it will approach the next classis for advice. If the advice is favourable, it can proceed.
Wholly New Consistory?
There are two possibilities. Both are to be discussed with the members involved, although the final decision is up to the consistory. If office-bearers are living in the area and have declared that they want to join the new congregation, they could be considered as the nucleus of the new consistory, so that all that would be needed is to elect some brothers to make it a full consistory. When we speak of “consistory” here, we mean the consistory with the deacons.
Choosing additional brothers to complement the consistory could be done by a free election in which, as a matter of course, only those take part who will form the new church. It could also be done via nomination by the consistory. The method of “adding to” a nucleus-consistory, or doing it by way of nomination by the consistory is generally not to be recommended. When all things go smoothly, there will be no problems.
But we also have heard the (unfounded) accusation that a consistory was lording it over the new church, because the present office-bearers were elected by the whole congregation and that, if the consistory with the deacons draws up a list of candidates for the respective offices, all the office-bearers decide about who can become an elder or deacon in the new church.
Such accusation is unfounded. The consistory is responsible for the whole congregation until such a time when part of it has become an autonomous church. There could also be reasons why a certain brother is not nominated, because the consistory knows more than the congregation and may be aware of certain impediments with the brother, so that he may not even have a chance of being elected.
Leaving the reasoning followed in the above-mentioned accusation for what it is (nonsense) we would nevertheless advocate the free election of a wholly new consistory. No one can then say with even the faintest semblance of right that anyone is lording it over others, except perhaps the person who makes this allegation.
The consistory determines, preferably in consultation with the members, how many elders and deacons will have to be chosen, and supervises the
election. If any of the members of the church-to-be has any objection against any of the elected brothers, the address for such objections is the consistory. This consistory has the supervision until the very moment when the new consistory has been formed.
There is another possibility, namely that the action is started by the consistory. In case the consistory advises members in a certain area to form a new church, the convening of meetings as mentioned above is done by the consistory. Further things proceed as outlined above. A consistory may also itself work towards dividing the congregation into two autonomous churches.
Most times the situation is such that there are already two distinct parts, possibly each with its own “section-council,” that is, that the office-bearers who take care of that section meet separately to discuss reports, etc. relating to that part of the congregation only. Once a month both “section councils” meet then as the one consistory, or consistory with the deacons. Each section may even be served by a minister. Few difficulties present themselves in this case, but to prevent them as much as possible the consistory should convene meetings with each section or ward, where these things are discussed.
The simplest solution is to declare both sections autonomous as of a certain date, whereby each “section council” becomes the consistory with the deacons of the new church. Even so, it might be wise and advisable to give members the freedom of choice to which of the two churches they wish to belong.
How is the “transfer of membership” implemented? The manner in which this is and should be done is simply to pass on all relevant information, the “vital statistics,” to the new church. These developments take time, and therefore there is also ample opportunity to prepare a file with all pertinent information which a consistory must have concerning the members, and to pass it on to the clerk of the new consistory.
Attestations cannot be given under these circumstances. We fail to see how one can send attestations to a not yet existing church for persons whose very cooperation establishes this new church. What the new church needs is not attestations but a complete set of records concerning the members who form this church. It is to receive this from the “mother church” so that its administration is orderly right away and so that it does not require many visits to the members and will take perhaps several years before the records are complete, if they ever will be complete, that is.
A difficult, and sometimes sore point is what to do with assets of the church when part of the membership splits off. Generally speaking: when a church splits into two autonomous churches, it is fairest when the assets are
divided in proportion to the membership of both parts. What should be taken into account is that there are liabilities as well, and that it would not be equitable to split the assets and to leave one part of the original congregation stuck with all the liabilities.
When a part of the congregation splits off to form a new church, matters are different. Any suggestion along the lines of “I have always paid and now I want my share along to the new church” should be farthest from the minds of all concerned. The church is not a company into which we put shares which we can take out when leaving and joining another company. Yet it would be wise and good when the new church is helped along as much as possible to give it a headstart.
Everything will depend on the financial situation of the “mother-church.” In the early years of church life in Canada the need for establishing new churches was recognized and new churches were instituted, but in by far the most instances the “mother-church,” already seeing its financial possibilities greatly diminished by the loss of members, was unable to give them more than a mere token assistance. The situation is different at present. Yet care should be taken that the “mother-church” will not face financial difficulties when assisting the new church.
The above contains only the discussion of some aspects and no claim is made that it is complete or exhaustive. Yet it may give some guidance in case the constitution of a consistory and thus the institution of another church is being contemplated.