A few months ago the present writer—at the request of the editors—wrote a series of three articles for torch and trumpet regarding woman suffrage in the Christian Reformed churches. In these articles I sought to give an objective, historical account regarding the findings of certain synodical committees which had or which were studying the questions related to congregational meetings and woman suffrage. The writer felt it his duty to give an objective account, and no more at that time, inasmuch as he himself was a member of the Synodical Study Committee, then still having this matter under study. By this time this Study Committee has completed its task, and its advice to the Synod of 1957 has been sent in. Consequently a fuller discussion is now permissible on my part.
I may say first of all that the Committee is advising the forthcoming Synod to declare in effect that there are no valid objections against the introduction of woman suffrage at our congregational meetings.
Now in connection with the subject at hand our churches have felt all along that there were especially two matters which deserved our thorough consideration. These two matters, in question form, may be stated as follows: What is the character of our congregational meetings among our ecclesiastical assemblies? And, would it be in harmony with the Bible to let our women vote at congregational meetings? For example, Classis Muskegon, at whose request the Synod of 1947 began the consideration of the subject at hand, worded its request as follows: “Classis Muskegon overtures Synod to study further the question of the proper function of the Congregational Meeting among our ecclesiastical assemblies, and to properly delineate the authority of that assembly with a view to solving the problem of allowing women members to vote in congregational meetings.” And our Synod of 1950 decided, “to request the next Reformed Ecumenical Synod for advice regarding the matter of woman suffrage at congregational meetings. This request for advice as we see it—so Synod of 1950 said—should embrace a study of the nature and authority of congregational meetings in our Reformed system of church government, and likewise an exegetical study of all Scripture passages which have bearing on this question.” And Synod of 1955 decided to “appoint a committee to study the Report of 1950, together with the Reports of 1930 and 1952 of the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, and to make a thorough study of the Scripture passages bearing on the matter of woman suffrage in congregational meetings and to present definite recommendations on this matter to the Synod of 1956 or 1957.”
It is not my purpose in this and a second article merely to repeat the findings of the Study Committee. These findings will appear in the Agenda of Synod. But I shall discuss the nature and place of our congregational meetings in our church governmental system, in harmony with the committee’s report, but nevertheless independently and a hit more fully. And I propose to follow the same procedure in a second article, in which I hope to discuss some of the crucial Scriptural passages which refer directly to the woman’s place in the church. At the close of this second article I shall endeavor to show why, in the opinion of the committee, these crucial passages do not require us to condemn those churches which permit their women members to vote at congregational meetings.
To begin with, congregational meetings are well-established institutions among us, and that in spite of the fact that they are not specifically mentioned in our Church Order. They are moreover gatherings for which support can readily be found in Scripture. For example, the very apostles of our Lord, in spite of the fact that they had a measure of authority and the guidance of the Spirit in a sense not applicable to the Church’s office-bearers today, nevertheless reckoned with the membership of the churches, and consulted this membership repeatedly. Thus Acts 1:15–26 tells us that the believers had a part in the appointment of Matthias, who became the twelfth apostle, taking the place of Judas Iscariot. Thus also Acts 6:3 tells us that the apostles appointed the first seven deacons, but this text also tells us that the body of the believers first designated the men to be appointed.
It should also be granted that the creedal writings and the liturgical forms of our churches virtually presuppose congregational meetings. The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 85, refers to consistory members as “those who are thereunto appointed by the Church.” The Belgic Confession, Art. 31, reads in part as follows: “We believe that the ministers of God’s Word, the elders, and the deacons, ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the Church.” And the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons addresses this question to the brethren being installed: “Do you both, Elders and Deacons, feel in your hearts that you are lawfully called of God’s Church, and consequently of God Himself, to these your respective holy offices?”
However, it should not escape us that congregational meetings, in the Reformed system of church government, are not governmental assemblies in the sense that consistories, classes, and synods are. If this were the case, then to be sure, the Church Order would mention these gatherings and stipulate their authority, mode of operation, etc. But the Church Order recognizes as governmental ecclesiastical assemblies only the gatherings just indicated.
Not that the Church Order leaves no room for congregational meetings. For the contrary is true. It also virtually presupposes these congregational gatherings. For example, Art. 22 speaks of nominations which are to be presented “to the congregation for election,” and it speaks of the installation of the brethren that have been “chosen by it;” that is, by the church. But the Church Order, true to the principles of Reformed Church government, by no means elevates the congregational meeting to the rank of ecclesiastical, governmental assemblies, placing them on par with consistories, classes, and synods.
How then should we define or describe our congregational meetings? Congregational meetings are gatherings of believers, members of a certain local church, at which gatherings the consistory informs the congregation regarding matters of interest pertaining to the church and its activities, consults with the membership as to its opinion and preferences, and submits certain matters to a vote, such as the election of office-bearers, the purchase of properties, or the construction of buildings.
Matters may be said to stand as follows: The government of the churches is vested in their office-bearers. But inasmuch as all Christians share the anointing of Christ and the general office of all believers, therefore no consistory may treat the membership of the church as if they are minors who have nothing to say and nothing to do regarding the selection of office-bearers and the government of the church. The consistories are obligated to execute their rulers hip in consultation with the membership of their churches. Now the consistories may execute this duty of consultation by announcing certain contemplated actions to the congregation, with the understanding that the members may register their disapproval at the next consistory meeting against the contemplated action.
But this consultation is especially practiced through the calling of congregational meetings, so that at these meetings the office-bearers may be elected and proposals submitted by the consistories may be considered and voted upon.
It should be clearly understood that conclusions reached at congregational meetings are binding in character. That is to say, when a consistory decides to submit a certain matter for the consideration and vote of the congregation, the consistory does so with the understanding that it will take action in harmony with the expression of the majority. The consistory is expected to effectuate the conclusion reached at a congregational meeting, unless it subsequently finds that a specific conclusion in its effectuation would be contrary to the welfare of the congregation, and therefore definitely inadvisable. In such a case reconsideration of the matter at hand is permissible and advisable. Such a matter should be resubmitted to the congregation by the consistory.
Thus it is also a settled matter that when a consistory nominates certain men for the office of elder and deacon, those chosen by the congregation at a congregational meeting must be installed by the consistory. And yet this is not an absolute rule as all will agree. Supposing one who was elected by the congregation proves to be altogether unworthy of the office because of certain unchristian things of which he is guilty, though these things were not known to the consistory at the time when he was nominated and elected. ‘Would the consistory have to install such a man? Definitely not. The consistory would have the right and the duty to set aside the vote of the congregation, and submit a new nomination of two to the congregation so that some other brother might be designated and installed.
The dependent character of our congregational meetings may also be noted from the fact that the consistory draws up the agenda of these meetings. The consistory decides what is to be discussed, and it presents the matters to be voted upon. Frequently at our congregational meetings some member of the church will make a motion and another member will second the motion, and thus action is initiated. Strictly speaking this is not even in order. All propositions should be formulated and presented by the consistories and after sufficient consideration be put to a vote. And no “new business” can be voted upon then and there. Members who desire consistorial action regarding any issue or matter should go to a consistory meeting, and there present their request or suggestion. This is however not saying that the consistory may not answer certain questions which some one at a congregational meeting might ask. It is well for our consistories to make our congregational meetings interesting and informative, and they should be altogether willing to answer certain questions for information and to receive suggestions which certain members might want to make.
But it should be very clear to all of us that our congregational meetings are by no means independent and authoritative gatherings such as the congregational meetings in Congregational Churches are. In the case of these churches the congregation can virtually tell the office·bearers what to do and what not to do. We are not Independentists. Our consistories are not just executive committees which merely do what the congregation bids them do. Our consistories are the appointees of Christ, the Head of His Church, although Christ designates His office-bearers through the vote of the congregation.
With this position as to the character of congregational meetings all authorities regarding Reformed church polity are in essential agreement.
This we hope to make clear by way of an introduction to our ensuing article next month.