Article 31 — Appeals
If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly he shall have the right of appeal to the major assembly; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order.
This is an essential article in our Church Order. It is intended to serve peace and order in the churches.
We can say that it is founded on the apostle Paul’s words of 1 Corinthians 14: 33:
God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.
This is the basis also of that other text in which our Church Order has its very roots (14: 40):
Let all things be done decently and in order.
Article 31 contains a double sentence. Its first part deals with one’s right to appeal (1); the second with the binding force of decisions (2).
One of the fundamentals of church life is that the Lord Jesus governs His church by His Spirit and Word, so by Holy Scripture.
The Scriptures are infallible. Ecclesiastical assemblies, however, are not infallible.
Our churches do not use the means of moral constraint in order to submit their members to their power and decisions.
Therefore there is the possibility of appealing against a decision made by an ecclesiastical assembly, if it goes against the Scriptures.
Its introduction was really a matter of reformation. For in the Church of Rome one must submit him/herself to what the church says.
An appeal may be made
if anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly.
This sentence is carefully worded. It does not say: If anyone is wronged, but: If anyone complains that he has been wronged. Here the freedom of the children of God is honoured.
By “anyone” we understand any individual church member. However, this does not exclude the minor assemblies from making an appeal.
It is a matter of course that prior to an appeal a request for revision may be made. This, then, is not expressed in Article 31, but one does have the freedom to act first in this way.
Please, mark the words: the major assembly. For “the ecclesiastical way” has to be followed: from the consistory to the classis, from the classis to synod – and not from the consistory to the synod.
It may be clear that such an appeal can no longer be made if the person or assembly concerned appeals years after the decision was made by the minor assembly. The appeal must be made to the next major assembly.
The contents of a letter of appeal shall be:
1. the text of the decision against which the appeal is made;
2. the ground for the appeal;
3. the requested findings of the major assembly.
Notice concerning the appeal shall be given to the minor assembly – the consistory, or its successor, the next classis – , preferably in the form of a copy of the letter of appeal.
While the case is ‘sub judice’ – the appeal having been not yet settled by the major assembly – the execution of the decision has to be suspended. For, suppose an appeal is made against a call extended to a minister, and the decision executed, it would not make any sense to appeal, neither would it make any sense to include an article in our Church Order which would open the door to such an appeal.
Apart from this it may be clear from the second part of Article 31 that if anyone is of the opinion that the decision concerned was made against the Word of God, it cannot be binding to him.
The second part of the sentence of this article contains:
a. a rule;
b. an exception.
The rule is that a decision of a major assembly is to be accepted as binding, even when it was made by a majority vote.
A decision made unanimously is, of course, to be preferred, but this cannot always be reached.
The exception can be twofold: a decision may be in conflict with the Word of God; it may also be contrary the Church Order.
It may be clear that the former possibility is the more serious one.
Here again it becomes apparent: The Lord Jesus Christ governs His church by His Word.
The words “unless it is proved” do not mean: unless it is proved to the successor of the assembly that made the decision – in case an appeal is made a against a decision of the minor assembly, for in that case inserting these lines into the Church Order would have been as unnecessary as ‘forcing a door open’. The assembly would immediately rectify the decision, so that a situation wherein a decision of a minor assembly would not be accepted as binding would never occur. The words “unless it is proved” must be interpreted as meaning: proved to the interested person or minor assembly.
Here again our Church Order is of a confessional nature, being in full harmony with Article 7 of the Belgic Confession of Faith, which says:
We may not consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all.
It would appear that the contents of Article 31 can be summarized as follows: There is an opportunity to make an appeal when you feel wronged; but you must accept the decision made on it by the major assembly, unless …
The wording of this article suggests that the whole matter is thereby finished. (It might be wise to change the text into a clearer one!). For also the decision of the major assembly on one’s appeal can also be in conflict with God’s Word or with the Church Order.
In such a situation proof of a decision being in conflict with God’s Word or with the Church Order is to be given, either to a similar assembly, in case of a request for revision, or to a major assembly, in case of an appeal.
After one has gone all of the ‘ecclesiastical way’, from the consistory to the classis, and from the classis to the synod, one has either to accept the latest decision as yet (which does not create any insurmountable difficulties whenever it is not a matter of conscience), or he/she has to ‘liberate’ him/herself from the binding decision.
The latter course had to be followed when the General Synod of the ‘forties, in The Netherlands, made decisions which were indeed in conflict with the Word of God, and when they interpreted the word “unless” in Article 31 as “until”, something that does not make sense, as we have shown in the above lines, and led to moral constraint.