Places without a Consistory
Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be assigned by classis to the care of a neighbouring consistory.
If there is one thing the provision of Art. 41 does not mean, it is that here we give a classis the right to do what is in the province of a consistory.
A classis is never allowed to do that. What comes to the fore in Art. 41 is the concern of the churches for all who are living “in the dispersion,” so to speak. They want to make sure that no one is neglected, that no one is left to his own resources without any help from the brotherhood. All must be taken care of, and that is the point in this article.
A decision as meant here will not have to be taken very often in our days. When members move to an area or settle in it, quite a distance from the “nearest church,” they usually ask that church to take the supervision over them and give to that church the attestation they received when leaving their previous congregation. Our members know whom to contact, where to find the address, and to approach the church which is “least far away.”
The situation was vastly different in the days after the Reformation. The Romish church did not have elders or deacons in the Scriptural sense. It knew no consistories. And to whom were the wandering sheep to turn? Where could they find food and guidance? Even the persecutions could not prevent that the churches paid due attention also to those who were “wandering like sheep without a shepherd.”
Let us see what already the first synod, the one of Emden 1571 decided.
The ministers and elders of the classes which are under the cross shall diligently investigate in all cities and villages in their area and surrounding region whether there are any who are inclined towards the true religion in order to exhort them to fulfil their duty. Therefore they shall endeavour to gather churches or at least the beginning of churches. In order to execute this the better those classes shall divide the neighbouring cities and villages among themselves, in order that nothing be neglected. (emphasis ours)
Sometimes a minister was sent to gather the believers. Nowadays these ministers would be called “Home Missionaries.” Still, these men are basically not missionaries but ministers sent to gather scattered members and to try to come to the organizing of a church.
The task of such a minister, the Synod of Dordrecht 1578 declared, is to engage the most pious believers to serve him with counsel and to assist him with the administration of the alms. He should also endeavour that his hearers come to making public profession of faith so that, when the congregation has somewhat increased in size, he may arrange for the ordination of elders
and deacons in the proper way. This is still the aim of the help which the “nearest church” extends.
As soon as possible an attempt will be made to have one or two brothers elected as elder who, nominally, are elders of the church that takes care of the “group.” We spoke of such a situation in connection with the previous article.
We usually refer to such a group as a “House Congregation,” since the brothers and sisters come together on the Lord’s Day, when a sermon is read by one of the brothers. We thereby mean a not-instituted congregation which, however, strives to have as “normal” a church life as possible. In case it becomes obvious that there is practically no growth but rather a decline in membership, the brothers and sisters should be advised and urged to move away to a place where they can participate in regular church life. A situation when there is no proclamation of the Gospel, only mutual edification, no administration of the sacraments except on an occasional Sunday when they have a minister and an elder in their midst, should not be continued indefinitely.
When members move to a region far from one of the churches, this should not be reproved. It may be part of the mandate to fill and to subdue the earth. One certainly sacrifices many things when following this course. There is the impossibility to attend the worship services regularly, to take part in the various activities in the midst of the congregation, to have one’s children attend catechism classes and to have them attend a Reformed school. Such a move should, therefore, be considered very carefully.
But when years go by without any significant increase in the number of believers and when it becomes evident that, humanly speaking, there will never be a possibility of instituting a church, it is not only prudent but mandatory to move away and seek for a place closer to a church. Meanwhile, the various classes are to ascertain that also those who are scattered are being taken care of. The believers need help and guidance. This ought to be given.