“As for the ministers of God’s Word, they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all ministers of Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church.” Belgic Confession, Article XXXI
“The suspension of a minister of the gospel shall be imposed by the council of his church with the concurring judgment of the council of the nearest church in the same classis.” CRC Church Order, Article 90a
In the recent history of the Christian Reformed Church, there has been an increasing number of cases where office-bearers, ministers of the Word and elders have been placed under ecclesiastical censure and even deposed from office by broader church assemblies. classes and synods. Particularly in the cases of ministers who have joined their councils and congregations in withdrawing from the denomination, there have been classes which have either deposed these ministers from office or declared them to have the “status” of those deposed from office.
The spectacle of what is occurring in these classes and in the denomination is dismaying. In a denomination which seemed hardly to know the meaning of the word “discipline” in recent decades, suddenly we witness a flurry, almost a frenzy, of disciplinary censures and actions against office-bearers who protest denominational unfaithfulness and disobedience to the Word of God. In a denomination whose leaders include office-bearers who have been less than vigilant in the teaching and defense of the confessions, other office-bearers who refuse obedience to synodical decisions for the sake of their promise to uphold the confessions are being swiftly dismissed from office!1 In a denomination which has a Church Order which carefully prescribes a procedure for the discipline of office-bearers, including many safeguards to provide for due process and to prevent abuses of power, the “extreme and hasty” actions of some classes in deposing office-bearers almost takes one’s breath away.
However, it is not my purpose here and in what follows to document what is happening. Some of that work has already been done in other periodicals and by other authors. Certainly, the whole story remains to be told and widely distributed about what is occurring in a denomination that continues to call itself “Reformed.” But I am not going to trace out all the details and incidents of the abuse of discipline against office-bearers that is occurring in the Christian Reformed Church. Rather, I am interested in the question: What are we to make of this? Of what significance is it that the Christian Reformed Church, through her assemblies, is increasingly taking this extreme measure of deposing from office those who cannot go along with her unbiblical decisions and actions?
It is my conviction that these actions have not only been “hasty and extreme” but they have also been taken in clear and open violation of the requirements of the Church Order and the Belgic Confession’s affirmation of Christ’s sole dominion over His church. Indeed, it is my conviction that these disciplinary measures against faithful shepherds of Christ’s flock are the most dramatic and serious evidence of the Christian Reformed Church’s departures from the Reformed confessions and a Reformed pattern of church government.
THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE CHURCH ORDER
The Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church provides a rather clear statement of the procedure that is to be followed in the case of discipline against a minister of the Word. In Article 90, it is assumed that this discipline is the responsibility of the minister’s council of which he is a member and to which he is subject in the discharge of his office. Accordingly, should discipline of the minister be required, it is to be “imposed by the council of his church with the concurring judgment of the council of the nearest church in the same classis.”
The language of this article of the Church Order reflects two convictions. First, the supervising body responsible for the discipline of the minister of the Word is the local church council. Second, because a minister belongs to a congregation which is in ecclesiastical fellowship with other churches. the discipline of a minister will effect the exercise of his office among the churches. Therefore, special discipline of a minister requires the concurrence of another church council in the classis. However, the body which imposes and effects discipline against a minister remains the minister’s church council.
This is wholly in keeping with a Reformed view of office in the church. When a minister of the Word is “called” to office, he is called by the local church council which has sought the advice and consent of the congregation ordinarily by means of an election. He is certainly not called to his office by a classis or synod. Accordingly. when a minister is ordained and installed into his office. he is asked whether he believes that he has been “lawfully called of God’s church and therefore of God himself to this holy office.” The understanding is that Christ calls the minister to his office through the church council with the concurrence and approval of the congregation. Thus. the council of the local congregation also ordains and installs the minister into his office.2
This view of office and ordination underlies the requirements of the Church Order in the matter of discipline against the minister. Since the council calls to office on behalf of Christ Himself, the council has responsibility to supervise the minister and administer discipline when it is demanded. Since Christ Himself calls to office through the local church council, with the approval of the congregation, only Christ through the council has the authority to remove from office.
Now it may be argued by some that there are, nonetheless, precedents for the direct intervention and initiative of broader assemblies in the discipline of a minister of the Word. It may also be pointed out that there have been instances in the history of the Christian Reformed Church in which ministers and their councils have been deposed by classes. For example, the 1970 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. in response to a specific case and appeal, declared: “Article 90 of the Church Order concerns itself with normal situations. The language of the Form of Subscription as interpreted by the decisions of the Synods of 1926 and 1936 give to the classis, in abnormal situations, the right to begin suspension proceedings.”3 As a matter of historical precedent. then, it cannot be denied that these kinds of actions have been taken—though rarely!”—in the history of the Christian Reformed Church.
However, the fact that such alleged precedents exist does not prove their righteousness by the standard of the Church Order. That the majority of the delegates at broader assemblies have decided on several occasions in Christian Reformed Church history to initiate action against and depose a minister of the Word (and his council in some instances) does not make it right! “Might makes right” is not a good rule to go by in the church. The real question is whether the Church Order provides for this kind of action. When the question is posed in these terms, it becomes evident that it does not.
Furthermore, when the precedents often cited are carefully examined, it will become apparent that there are no genuine precedents for the kind of action taken by pretsent-day classes. When, for example. a classis declares a minister to have the status of one deposed from office, though his entire supervising council and the overwhelming majority of the congregation under its care have already withdrawn from the fellowship of the denomination, one will search in vain for any equivalent action in the preceding history of the Christian Reformed Church. And, though a classis might try to justify such an action by appealing to the declaration of synod 1982, “that it is indeed proper according to the declaration of synod to intervene in the affairs of a local congregation if the welfare of the congregation is at stake: this can hardly apply in the case of a council and congregation that is no longer in fellowship with the denomination!4 How the welfare of the congregation could be served by such disciplinary action on the part of a classis defies explanation!
THE BELGIC CONFESSION’S AFFIRMATION OF CHRIST’S DOMINION
These requirements of the Church Order reflect the confession concerning the church and her government found in the Belgic Confession. Articles 28–31.
In the Belgic Confession it is strongly emphasized that Jesus Christ is the “only Head of the Church” (Article 29). Indeed, the chief mark of the true church of Christ on earth is that “all things are managed according to the pure word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected. and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.”
The true church distinguishes itself by its readiness to acknowledge Christ’s dominion as this dominion is expressed through His Word. In His Word, moreover, Christ teaches that the care and supervision of the congregation is given to those whom He calls and authorizes to serve as ministers, elders and deacons. Christ, the Good Shepherd, exercises His headship over the congregation by means of their service (Article 30). The office-bearers of the church are “all ministers of Christ, the only universal Bishop and Head of the Church” (Article 31).
This means that, in any congregation of Christ’s true church, the office-bearers, including the ministers of the Word, are representatives of Christ, those through whom Christ administers His shepherdly dominion over the congregation. In the faithful discharge of the responsibilities of their office, ministers of the word are Christ’s own ambassadors and undershepherds. Consequently, all ministers have the same standing under Christ, and no one of them is permitted to lord it over any other.
As for the ministers of God’s Word. they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all ministers of Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church. Moreover, in order that this holy ordinance of God may not be violated or slighted, we say that every one ought to esteem the ministers of God’s Word and the elders of the Church very highly for their work’s sake. and be at peace with them without murmuring, strife, or contention, as much as possible. (Article 31).5
It is not difficult to see the close relationship between this confession and the stipulations of the Church Order respecting the discipline of the minister of the Word. Such discipline must conform to the requirements of Christ’s Word. Such discipline must respect the form of government which He clearly teaches in His Word, namely, that He is the Head of the church and wills to govern her life through the service of those whom He calls to office. Such discipline may never intrude upon the holy prerogatives of Christ Himself. who administers discipline through the council and resists any attempt on the part of office-bearers to lord it over other office bearers, thereby intruding upon His dominion.
Nothing of what I have said in the preceding is novel, at least not to a member of a Reformed church who has been taught in the Word of God and the Reformed confessions, and who has an acquaintance with the basic requirements of the Church Order. Those of us who have witnessed the ordination and installation of office-bearers in the congregations of which we are members know this only too well. And certainly any office-bearer who serves in a member congregation of the Christian Reformed Church ought to know these things and seek to honor them in the discharge of his office.
However, there are several implications that follow from these requirements of the Church Order and our confession of Christ’s exclusive dominion over His church that are being flagrantly contradicted by the recent disciplinary actions of several Christian Reformed classes.
First, no classis or broader assembly has the right to initiate unilaterally disciplinary action against a minister of the Word, thereby usurping the authority of the church council to supervise the minister of the Word. Any classis which initiates the imposition of discipline against a minister of the Word of God has violated the clear requirements of the Church Order. Whatever extenuating or unusual circumstances may be cited as a “pretext” for this kind of unlawful action, none justifies setting aside the Church Order simply because it stands in the way of a disciplinary procedure an assembly wants to effect.
Second, no classis or broader assembly has the right to initiate disciplineat the request of a “group” within a local congregation which has not been brought as an appeal against a decision of the church council. When classes permit “groups” in congregations to appeal directly to them, perhaps via a Classical Interim Committee or a committee of Church Visitors, in cases of discipline against office-bearers, they not only promote “factions” in the local congregation (stimulating true “schism” in the congregation) but they also deny the church council its authority and prerogative to exercise supervision and discipline.
Third, disciplinary actions initiated by broader assemblies against ministers of the Word of God are an affront to Christ Himself whose servants they are and who alone is the universal Bishop and Head of His church. Christ calls ministers to office. Therefore, He alone reserves the right through His Word to provide for their removal from office. The only assembly recognized in our Church Order and confession, responsible under Christ for the deposition of a minister of the Word of God, is the church council.
Fourth, the actions taken by classes against ministers, and indeed against whole church councils, when they involve deposition and removal from office, violate the principle set forth in the Church Order and the confession that no office-bearer or church may lord it over any other office-bearer and church. When ministers and their councils are deposed from office by a class is, this must rank among the most violent forms by which this principle could be rejected.
And fifth, the blatant violations of the Church Order and abuse of the authority of assemblies in these disciplinary actions against ministers of the Word represent the introduction of a lawless tyranny into the assemblies of the denomination. In this respect, the haste and ruthlessness characteristic of the actions of several classes of the denomination should not surprise us. When the stipulations of the Church Order have become a dead letter, when the fundamental principles articulated in our confession of faith concerning the church are denied, when loyalty to decisions of church assemblies rather than loyalty to Christ speaking through the Scriptures has become the truest test of faithfulness—then it should not surprise us that an ecclesiastical tyranny would intrude upon and displace Christ’s lordship over His church.
Now it may be that some readers will object: Does a broader assembly not have some authority in the discipline of a minister of the Word? Under the terms of the Church Order, I would readily acknowledge that it does have some authority. Article 90c, for example, stipulates that the actual deposition of a minister by his council should not take place “without the approval of class is together with the concurring advice of the synodical deputies.” Class is might also enter into a case of discipline against a minister of the Word, should a proper appeal be presented to it by appellants complaining against the inaction of the minister’s council when discipline is allegedly warranted. However, in the case of a minister who, together with his council, determines to separate from the denomination, the only legitimate discipline by a classis is to declare the office-bearers no longer in ecclesiastical fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church. The classis may only acquiesce with regret to such a decision. It has no authority to remove such a minister and council of office-bearers from their office.4
What then, are we to conclude from the actions of those classes which have unilaterally deposed ministers and office-bearers?
My conclusion is that the situation in the Christian Reformed Church is far worse than many have realized. The time has come to face squarely the fact that increasingly those who “rebuke” the denomination for its “errors, covetousness and idolatry” are being persecuted. When church councils applaud or support such persecution, they (by the terms of the Belgic Confession, Article 29) begin to manifest the marks of a false church . The time has come to realize that the confessions and Church Order are being increasingly ignored by classical and synodical assemblies for the framework of faith and practice within which Reformed Christians are to work together as churches.
When we witness the recent abuses of power, the disregard for the requirements of the Church Order, and the ruthlessness with which faithful office-bearers have been deposed from their Christ-given offices—the gravity of the situation we face becomes the more clear.
I am convinced that those of us who are office-bearers in the churches may not recognize or lend any support to these unlawful actions against our fellow servants of Christ. Nothing less than Christ’s dominion over and care of the congregation is at stake. Submission to ecclesiastical tyranny, rule by the unregulated power of the majority at broader assemblies is the only alternative.
1. The inconsistency (some might say, hypocrisy) of the denominational practice is evident from the failure to take corresponding action against church councils and office-bearers who are presently defying synodical decisions pertaining to the ordination of women to office.
2. Someone might object at this point and argue, from the role of the church counselor in the calling and ordination of a minister in a local congregation, that the minister’s office is also conferred by the denomination and its assemblies. However, the role of the church counselor is to see to it that the requirements of the Church Order are met and thus insure the recognition of the minister’s ordination among the churches with which the local congregation has fellowship. The church counselor does not call the minister to his office, nor does he hove any continuing responsibility for the supervision of the minister.
3. Acts of Synod 1970, p. 92. See also: Acts of Synod 1926, pp. 141–42; Acts of Synod 1936, pp. 146–47; Acts of Synod 1980, pp. 28–29; and Acts of Synod 1982. p. 55. These precedents were recently cited by the synod of 1990 to justify the actions of Classis Lake Erie in deposing the council of the CRC of Washington, Pennsylvania (Acts of Synod 1991, p. 771).
4. Acts of Synod 1982, p. 55. One can only marvel at a church assembly, so convinced of its righteousness and prerogative to intervene in the life of a congregation under the care of its lawfully called and ordained office-bearers, that it would presume to proceed with discipline against the council after they have withdrawn! Not only is there little precedent for this in the history of the Christian Reformed Church, but it is also difficult to find many precedents for this sort of action in all the annals of Reformed church history.
5. This insistence upon the equality of all ministers of the Word under Christ is also a fundamental article in the Church Order, one originating with the earliest assembly of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands after the Reformation. Article 95 reads: “No church shall in any way lord it over another church, and no office-bearer shall lord it over another office-bearer.”
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Orange City, IA.