Do Classes Have Authority Over Consistories?

One of the significant matters which required action by our Synod of last summer concerned a question regarding the correctness of a decision made by the Synod of 1960. The matter at issue involved the authority of our classes over their consistories. It is in connection with this case that I have been asked to write an article under the caption: Do Classes Have Authority over Consistories?


The answer to this question, one may say, is rather near at hand. For Article 36 of the Church Order deals directly with this very question. It reads: “The Classis has the same jurisdiction over the Consistory as the Particular Synod has over the Classis and the General Synod over the Particular.”

Now it may be contended, and that successfully and correctly I believe, that the word “jurisdiction” does not convey the precise thought of the fathers regarding the authority of our major ecclesiastical assemblies. The term jurisdiction fits in the pattern of civilliIe, not in the pattern of ecclesiastical life.

The term jurisdiction has a legalistic connotation. It is derived from two Latin words which in combination with one another virtually say: Thus saith the law! The word presupposes that those under jurisdiction are obligated to subject themselves to its demands unconditionally and under all circumstances and without any consideration of their personal feelings and convictions.

This legalistic approach is foreign to the Biblical, Reformed conception of church government. And it is also foreign to the thought behind Article 36.

Nevertheless we should do full justice to the Biblical, spiritual, ecclesiastical type of authority which the fathers had in mind when they first formulated Article 36 back in 1581, at the Synod of Middelburg.

The Dutch original of Article 36 uses the expression, “Het zelfde zeggen heeft…” Now this expression, just as the related Dutch word “zeggenschap,” is expressive of authority. You cannot have the right to decide and to give orders without authority. And such is the significance of the Dutch term. This is also evident from the fact that the Latin reading of Article 36 used the word “auctoritas.”

And so all of us should agree, that although Article 36 does not provide for an unconditional, dictatorial, civil type of an authority, the article does provide for a spiritual, ecclesiastical, controlling, and binding type of authority. Conclusions which are not only expressions of opinion and resolutions but decisions reached regarding matters of regular ecclesiastical business, or regarding appeals and protests -such decisions are authoritative and binding.


It is for this reason that Article 31 of the Church Order specifics very explicitly: “If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the Articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by a General Synod.”

If the early organizing Synods of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands had not been persuaded of the fact that decisions reached at classes and synods are authoritative, then they never would have adopted Article 36 nor Article 31!

Matters decided upon shall be considered settled, says this latter article. Such matters shall not be brought to the assemblies for action repeatedly. Only when new light is being offered, or a change is desired for good and sufficient reasons, may the matter be brought to the assembly once more.

And matters decided upon shall be considered binding. All decisions taken by a classis are binding for all its churches. For the churches together, as a body, and in prayerful dependence upon God and his Word, reach their decisions. Such decisions hold for alL Not only for those who were in full accord with them, but also for those who perhaps did not vote for their adoption. And thus all the churches of synod are bound by all the decisions reached at our synods.


The only exception to this binding rule is expressed in the conclusion of Article 31 which reads, “…unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the Articles of the Church Order…”

If someone can prove to an assembly—Consistory, Classis, or Synod—that its decision is contrary to the Bible or in conflict with the Church Order, then in that case the decision is not binding. Then the decision should be altered or canceled. But unless such proof is delivered at the rightful assembly, the decision stands and is binding for all.

Consequently, when for example a certain consistory censures a member, and such a member is persuaded that he is being wronged, and that the consistory has erred in applying discipline, it is his privilege to appeal to classis. And if in response to such an appeal classis sustains the appellant and decides that the censure should be lifted, then the consistory concerned is obligated to lift censure. It would be the right of the consistory to retain its own convictions regarding the censure case, but it would not be its right to refuse to lift censure. Both Article 31 and Article 36 would forbid such refusal. And the whole foundation of Reformed Church government, and our denominational fellowship and cooperation would forbid such a refusal.

And whatever the differences may have been between various authorities on Reformed church polity, on this point all have agreed. Men like Voetius, Rutgers, H. H. Kuyper, Bouwman, Heyns, and Volbeda have all Vigorously upheld the authority of our major assemblies over our minor assemblies.


It is conceivable that some one might reason in opposition to the contention that our major assemblies do have decisive binding authority, that inasmuch as we do not admit that there are different levels of ecclesiastical authority, we can hardly hold that a classis has authority over a consistory.

It is true that we deny that there are different levels of ecclesiastical authority. For the only authority which the churches possess -whether on the Consistorial level, the Classical level, or the Synodical level -is the authority of Christ, the only King and Head of his Church. And this authority of Christ he confers upon his Church through its office-bearers. And the offices in the Church function by the right which Christ has imparted to them.

Now the office-bearers, in the nature of the case, are office-bearers of the local churches. The offices belong to or attach themselves to the particular or local churches. No office-bearer is an office-bearer of a classis or synod as such. No one can, for example, be an elder or deacon of a Christian Reformed classis or synod; one can hold such an office only in a Christian Reformed congregation.

All this we admit and believe.

Then should we perhaps also admit that no classis and no synod can exercise superior authority, since there is no authority above the authority of Christ, which authority is exercised by the consistories, as well as by our classes and om synods?

Our reply is negative. For the local or particular churches all bring their God-given authority to our major assemblies by way of delegation, and they have promised to abide by the decisions reached. Refer once again to Article 31 and Article 36 of the Church Order. Because there is an accumulation of ecclesiastical authority at our classes and synods, therefore these gatherings are called major assemblies in relation to our consistories which are always minor assemblies. Major means more, and minor means less. Our major assemblies have more of the authority of Christ than do our minor assemblies. And the minor assemblies have properly subjected themselves to the decisions and conclusions of their major assemblies.


For this reason our consistories also use the following words in their classical credentials: “We hereby instruct and authorize them to take part in all the deliberations and transactions of classis regarding all matters…” This authorization implies the agreement that the delegates can help make decisions that are binding for all the consistories and congregations of the classis.

Formerly, after the Reformed Churches were first organized denominationally, that very thought was often expressed explicitly by the delegating churches. Let me cite only one example. The Synod of Assen in 1618 decided the following: “Each cIassis shall provide its delegates to synod with…credentials, signed by the president and clerk, in which the classis shall declare, not only that the delegates have been delegated, but that they also agree to regard as settled and binding whatever the synod by majority vote may decide; with the commitment that they will conduct themselves in harmony with such decisions” (Cf. Dr. F. L. Bos, De Orde der Kerk, p. 132).


In connection with this case it should not escape us that the Synod of 1960 did not adjudicate the dispute as such between the consistory of Los Angeles and the appellant. The Synod of 1960 simply ruled in answer to the appeal of the appellant, that inasmuch as Classis California had ruled -and that three times over at three different meetings of Classis—that censure should be lifted, the consistory was in error when it failed to lift censure and that it should now do so immediately.

Against this decision of Synod of 1960 the consistory of Los Angeles protested to the Synod of 1961. That protest of Los Angeles was not sustained. Synod of 1960 was upheld by the Synod of 1961.

For this we may be very thankful!

If the Synod of 1901 had ruled that the Synod of 1960 was in error on the question at issue, then the Synod of 1961 would have said that when a member is placed under censure, and he appeals to his classis, and the classis decides that censure should be lifted, that then the consistory, if it disagrees with the decision, does not have to lift censure. And such a verdict would have been in direct conflict with our Church Order, and would have undermined the whole structure of our denominational existence. It would have been a step in the direction of Independentism or Congregationalism.


One matter which evidently led the Consistory to its position of refusal to follow the verdict of classis is the fact that it misconstrued the familiar term in the Church Order: “with the advice of Clssis.”

Some are simply inclined to say: “Advice is advice. If one is not persuaded of the correctness of advice given him, he need not follow it. Hence if a consistory is not persuaded that the advice of Classis is good advice, the consistory need not follow it.”

This, however, is erroneous reasoning. For as churches we have agreed that in the instances provided for in the Church Order, we will always follow the advice of the classis. As Christian Reformed churches we have, for example, agreed that we will never excommunicate a member except with the advice of classis. That is to say, only in harmony with the advice of classis, or with the concurring advice of classis.

So the word “advice,” in this church governmental context, should be not taken in the sense of mere advice which we may set aside and ignore. There are instances in which the advice, or the opinion expressed by a classis, has a binding significance and in effect stands on par with approval or disapproval. And that because of the provisions of the Church Order to which we have all subscribed, and to which subscription we give expression over and over again, namely, every time when we as churches send our delegates to our major assemblies with their authorizing letters or credentials.