The Question Box

Harlan G. Vanden Einde is pastor of the Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A Canadian reader would like to know whether we should use the word “consistory” or “council” when referring to the local governmental body of the congregation in the Christian Reformed Church.

I’m not sure whether there is a definite right or wrong answer to that question. Historically and traditionally there have been differences of opinion relative to this question, and there remains a difference in practice among our churches as well.

In checking a dictionary of theology that I have in my library, I discovered that “the consistory was formerly the antechamber of the imperial palace. Here the emperor sat on a tribunal to dispense justice, with others standing around him (consistentes).” Later the article indicates, this term was taken over by the church to refer more specifically to the administration of ecclesiastical law.

The word “council” refers to an assembly, being derived from the Latin “consilium,” meaning a collection of people for the purpose of deliberation, consultation, or decision. It is used as the translation of the New Testament word “synedrian” which literally means “seated together.” The assembly of the apostles in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, is sometimes referred to as the first Christian council.

Article 35 of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church uses the word “consistory” to refer to the meeting of all the office-bearers. But it goes on to say that in churches where the number of elders is at least four, a distinction may be made between the general consistory, to which all the office-bearers belong, and the restricted consistory, in which the deacons do not participate. During recent years, the term “consistory” in many churches has come to be applied to the meeting of the ministers and elders, and the term “council” has been applied to the general consistory, the meeting of ministers, elders and deacons. That may have been as much out of a practical consideration as anything else. Rather than announce a meeting of “general consistory” and “restricted consistory,” which may tend to be very confusing, they simply announce a “council” meeting and a “consistory” meeting.

There is, of course, another question involved in all this, and that pertains to the respective functions of the elders and deacons. ,V:hen the present Church Order was undergoing revision in the early 1960s, there was a one man minority report presented to Synod pleading for the retention of Article 37 which described the consistory as consisting of ministers and elders. Synod chose not to adopt that recommendation, but accepted the present Article 35. Yet the distinction between the general consistory and restricted consistory, delineating certain distinctions in the functions of the offices, was retained. The result is that in many of our larger churches at least, the meeting of the minister and elders is referred to as the consistory meeting, and the meeting of all the office-bearers is referred to as the council meeting. But there is no uniform practice among us.

It has been argued that the word “council” is not desirable, because that word has come to be attached to civic bodies of government, such as the city council. But that can hardly be a valid reason for rejecting it. If the word accurately describes what we do in such a meeting, namely, bring together certain people for deliberation, consultation and decision, then we ought not to be afraid to use it. It may even be more descriptive than the word “consistory,” for if my information is correct, that word is derived from the Latin word “consistorium” which merely designates a place of meeting.

Though the term by which we designate the governing body of the church is not unimportant, it is even more important that we be faithful to Scripture when defining the duties of the office-bearers who attend these meetings. Let us always seek to be guided by Scripture when defining the duties of the office-bearers who attend these meetings. Let us always seek to be guided by Scripture when it comes to doing the work of the church through the office-bearers, and faithfully perform the functions of the offices to whom we have been called.