The ministers, elders, and deacons shall mutually exercise Christian censure and shall exhort and kindly admonish one another with regard to the execution of their office.
On the Sunday when this writer was ordained he asked the minister who officiated: “In two weeks time we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and this week we will have a consistory meeting. The agenda contains the point ‘Christian Censure.’ How do you do that?” The reply was: “Very simply. You ask the brothers one by one whether they have any objection to celebrating the Lord’s Supper with the other brothers, and if they don’t, you wish them a blessed celebration.”
Simple indeed, but totally incorrect. It was one of those practical issues about which we were never taught at seminary. Perhaps it was the system, perhaps the wartime condition and disruption, perhaps even something else. In any case, it took quite a few years before he discovered that the advice, faithfully followed during all that time, was incorrect. The Christian censure of which this article speaks has nothing to do with the question whether the brothers can sit together at the table of the covenant. Imagine that they could not!
At one time there was indeed the provision that the Christian censure should be held every time before the celebration of the holy supper, but this provision was dropped in 1581 already, and thus the suggestion of any connection between the two was removed. At present we do not have any indication when or how often the Christian or mutual censure shall be held.
Perhaps the word “censure” makes one think of discipline and thus constructs a link between censure and the table of the Lord. Another contributing factor may be that sometimes the term “censura morum” is used, and wrongly so. This censure does not go over the mores, the conduct, the behaviour, the moral conduct of the brothers. When a consistory considers the moral behaviour, the moral conduct of the members of the congregation, this can justly be called “censura morum.” The censure of which Art. 73 speaks deals only with the manner in which the fellow-office-bearers execute the duties of their office.
What is the purpose of this Christian or mutual censure? The brothers observe how the other office-bearers fulfil the duties of their office. This observation will help them evaluate their performance. The purpose of this censure is to edify one another and keep them alert and attentive to their tasks. For this reason the brothers should exhort one another and should point out specifically where they fall short in their duties and give advice how to improve the execution of their tasks.
Although it is not prohibited but rather to be encouraged and promoted
that a brother is approached personally and privately, no one should cite Matthew 18: 15 here. This is not a question of admonishing a brother because of a sin, but of urging each other to improve their performance. Matthew 18 does not even distantly come into view with this matter.
Some consistories have the custom of discussing the preaching at regular intervals. It appears that the Christian censure would be the proper occasion to do so rather than having it as a regular point on the agenda. We do not have the point “family visits” or “taking care of the needy” regularly on the agenda either. When, if necessary, the preaching is dealt with at the Christian censure, it will have its proper place on the agenda. If one of the brothers has any remark about how the minister fulfils this part or any other part of his ministry, he can raise the issue at this occasion. No one denies the very great importance of the weekly proclamation of the Gospel, and the need to keep the minister alert, so that he does not slacken. But turning “preaching” into a separate and regular point of the agenda seems somewhat out of place. It would be advisable if we did not have the Christian censure at regular intervals. Now the need for it appears not to be there.
“At regular intervals,” we said. There was regularity the few years during which the Christian censure had to be held before each celebration of the holy supper. Later on this regularity was often missing, although many consistories continued the custom of having it at the last meeting before this celebration. Nowadays various consistories give the opportunity every first meeting of the month or of every two months, although any office-bearer, should he feel the need of having to “exhort and kindly admonish” someone of the others about their performance, may ask to have the point placed on the agenda for the meeting.
The best way of conducting this censure is to ask each of the brothers individually whether he wishes to make use of the opportunity to exhort and kindly admonish any of the other brothers. In other words, is he of the opinion that any of the other brothers is remiss in his duties, or should do things differently, or is doing certain things the wrong way? This may include the preaching, or the catechism teaching, or the visiting by the minister; it may also be something about the manner in which a fellow-elder or fellow-deacon conducts a visit, and so on, briefly, any part of the execution of the office.
No one will deny that it may not be easy to speak up, especially not when it involves an elderly brother with much experience. However, would anyone think that it was easy for a young minister to speak up in Geneva’s church and to “exhort and kindly admonish” John Calvin? Yet the latter insisted on a regular exercise of the Christian censure also with respect to himself. Especially when one gets older the danger increases that one gets into a rut, and then it is the more beneficial when the brothers keep watch over each other and sharpen mind, attention, and zeal.
Should a brother wait outside when remarks are made regarding the manner in which he executes his office? Sometimes it was done that way. It undoubtedly makes it much easier for one who comes with the admonition, but in the first place we could say that anyone who has any criticism should also have the courage to say what he wants to say in the presence of all,
including the brother whom it concerns. In the second place we are to ask, “How can anything come of the exhorting and kindly admonishing of which this article speaks if the brother is not present? Is the admonition then to be given when he is called back into the meeting? Will he be told who the one is who came with remarks concerning his service? Who is going to convey the admonitions, and will he be able to do it in an acceptable way? Will it be possible to do it correctly? What if the brother wishes to discuss it and even denies certain elements?” These are then only a few of the questions which can be raised in this respect.
It appeared most advisable and beneficial to have a candidate present when his sermon proposal is discussed at a classis; similarly, it is most beneficial when at the Christian censure the brothers speak up when all are there, including the one(s) whose work is being scrutinized. Only in that case will the kind admonition become most fruitful. Besides, an opportunity has now been given either to refute the criticism or to give an explanation, or to express one’s gratitude for the directives given.