Article 31 CO and its relevance for each of us

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Are we allowed to query decisions of major assemblies and test them on the basis of God’s Word? Isn’t that showing distrust to the delegated brothers? Are they not faithful men who seek to be governed by God’s Word and Spirit? And if the learned men at these major (broader) assemblies make decisions, is it not rather presumptuous of consistories, let alone of us simple ‘people in the pew’, to be challenging their decisions?

To be sure, we must respect the delegates. Most if not all are office bearers who have been elected to office because they are godly and faithful men, chosen because they have the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3. Moreover, they have signed the ‘subscription form’ promising to be governed by God’s Word and to reject all that’s contrary to it. Neither consistories nor other church members should need to question the motives of the men at major assemblies.

However, the history of the church shows that decisions of such assemblies do not always conform to God’s Word. And when they don’t, they severely damage the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, there is a tendency for major assemblies to lord it over the churches, an inclination to act hierarchically, justifying decisions with words that indicate they are serving God. The Sanhedrin did this under Caiaphas, and more recently examples include the events of 1834, 1886 and 1944. Every believer is therefore called to ‘test the spirits’, to see whether the men at a major assembly were governed by the Holy Spirit; whether God’s Word and holy law were obeyed. That requires us to test the decisions against the infallible Word of God, entrusted not only to the office bearers but to the whole congregation. Yes, we are all responsible for the decisions affecting the churches.

Article 31 CO

…unless it is proved to be in conlict with the word of God or with the Church Order.

And this is where Article 31 of the Church Order (CO) comes into play. That article says that each decision of major assemblies “shall be considered settled and binding unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order”.

Now, you may have heard that our forefathers who liberated themselves from synod’s false teachings and hierarchy in 1944 were often mockingly referred to as ‘Article 31ers’ by those who stayed in the ‘synodical churches’. That’s because our forebears had appealed, on the basis of Article 31 CO, against the wrong synod decisions. The synod at that time had said that its decisions were binding on everyone until the following synod was persuaded that a previous synod’s decision was contrary to Scripture or the Church Order. That synod changed the word unless in Article 31 to until.

Our forefathers said no, that’s wrong; if we are convinced that a decision of a major assembly (synod or classis) is contrary to God’s Word then we cannot obey the decision. The authority of God’s Word always stands above synod decisions. That is what CO art. 31 teaches and what we confess in BCF art. 7. We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). We may never elevate a major assembly above our conscience, above the Church Order, above the reformed confession, above God’s Word.

Article 31 CO is therefore a crucial article. The synodical churches, from whose false teachings the LORD liberated us in 1944, maintained their wrong interpretation of this article. Thereby they showed themselves to be hierarchical. They demanded of the churches that they and their members obey the major assemblies, even if the congregations and their members believed the decision was contrary to God’s Word.

CRCA’s position

That hierarchical structure is still evident in the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA) today. Their Church Order states: “The decisions of assemblies shall be considered settled and binding.”[i] That’s it. Full stop. The congregations and members must adhere to the major assembly’s decision, even if members believe the decision is contrary to Scripture and CO. The crucial words “unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order”, words that played such an important role in the Liberation of 1944, are missing in the CRCA’s Church Order. Appeals are possible but meanwhile the decision remains binding. Thereby the CRCA maintain the hierarchical position of their synodical forefathers.

Indeed, that hierarchical structure is frankly acknowledged in the CRCA’s CO Article 26 which states: “In matters that are properly the concern of a major assembly, such a major assembly has authority over a minor assembly – the classis has authority over the session, and the synod has authority over the classis.

The reformed position

This hierarchical structure within the CRCA is the reverse of the reformed position. It is contrary to what we believe when we say that the consistory (session) has the ultimate authority because it is directly responsible to God. The office bearers have been ordained by God to their position in the local church. When some of those same office bearers sit at a classis or synod, they do so as representatives delegated by the churches. They are directly responsible to the churches who, in turn, are directly responsible to Christ, the Head of the Church. As Abraham Kuyper rightly said: “the authority flows from Christ to the consistories, from the consistories to the classis, and from the classis to the Synod”.[ii] Hence the consistories are the highest ruling body in the churches and the major assemblies are to function as servants of, and in responsibility to, the consistories.

Rudolf van Reest[iii] puts it nicely:

“According to Reformed (Gereformeerd) church order, the synod is not some sort of ‘supreme college’ of church leaders but a gathering of delegated representatives of the consistories. In the nature of the case, the delegating bodies must stand above those whom they have delegated. The delegates are responsible to the consistories that have issued them their credentials. And so the consistories would have to ratify what was done.”

Yes, the decisions of major assemblies must be ratified (tested, agreed to) by the churches. When a church ratifies a synod decision it becomes responsible for that decision. It adopts that decision as its own.

And it is important for church members to read the Acts. If a church member finds a decision to be contrary to God’s Word or the Church Order, he will – with substantiation – ask the Consistory not to ratify the wrong decision but to appeal it. If Consistory refuses, and ratifies the decision, the church member is to appeal to the [a] major assembly.[iv]

Our obligation

Indeed, the concerned church member must do so. For as Schilder said, the church is our mother. And a mother’s task is to bear and care for her children. That task is impeded when a consistory approves the wrong actions of a major assembly and thereby commits the church members to a course of action that is contrary to God’s Word. That would not be caring for the flock and would jeopardise the members’ faithful obedience and service to the Lord. Hence not to test the decisions, and not—in subservience to the will of God—to expose and fight errors, is to desert our post.

Therefore, if the learned men at these major (broader) assemblies make decisions, it isn’t presumptuous of consistories and church members to be scrutinizing and, if necessary, challenging and refuting the decisions. And it isn’t presumptuous of the ‘ordinary’ people ‘in the pew’ to be holding their consistory to account. Indeed, our love for the Lord and the truth of His Word and the wellbeing of the church must spur us on to do what we can to ensure that in all things the church “governs itself according to the Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head” (BCF:29). To do otherwise is a dereliction of our duty. Upon such neglect one cannot expect the blessing of the LORD.

[i] Church Order of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia as approved at their Synod 2012, Article 28.
[ii] Quoted by C Veenhof in “Church Polity in 1886 and 1944” as translated by T Plantinga and published in R van Reest’s Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, p.462.
[iii] Rudolf van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, 1990, p.330.
[iv] See https://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2019/05/some-notes-on-appeals-and-the-authority-of-the-elders-in-christs-church/