Gleanings in the Church Order (2): The Assemblies
Reformed Free Publishing Association
We have already established that order in the church is important. As a reminder, Article 1 of the Church Order mentions four things—“offices, assemblies, supervision of doctrine, sacraments, and ceremonies, and Christian discipline”—that are “For the maintenance of good order in the church of Christ." In Part One, we discussed offices. Today, we address assemblies.
An assembly, specifically an ecclesiastical assembly, is a gathering of officebearers. The church order does not have in mind here the gathering of the whole congregation for worship or for some other activity. Those assemblies are, of course, very important. Nevertheless, the assemblies of Articles 29-52 are the assemblies of officebearers for official ecclesiastical business. The church order speaks of three assemblies: the consistory, the classis, and the synod.
Article 30 is very important because it determines what shall be “transacted” in the assemblies. By transacted is meant treated or dealt with. This article was written so that assemblies do not become entangled in unnecessary matters.
“Ecclesiastical matters only” is the first requirement. If a matter is not ecclesiastical, it does not belong at an ecclesiastical assembly. If a member comes to the consistory seeking a decision on some political matter, he must be politely but firmly refused: that is not an ecclesiastical matter; we do not treat such things here.
The second requirement is the manner: “in an ecclesiastical manner.” There is a way to do things in the church which is different from the way of the world. The procedure must be orderly, brotherly and considerate (brawling in the consistory room or on the floor of classis/synod would not be ecclesiastical, for example), with respect for the offices (both the special offices and the office of believer; speaking disparagingly of the elders would not be ecclesiastical). The procedure must be thorough, careful, and deliberate, and for that reason, it is often slow. The procedure must be in accordance with the Word of God, and everything must be done out of love for the church and the glory of God.
Ecclesiastical assemblies are deliberative because the delegates are called to deliberate. The delegates to an assembly, especially to the classis and the synod, receive the agenda well in advance of the meeting, so that they have time carefully to read its contents. While they will come to the meeting with opinions on the items on the agenda, they must come willing to listen to the thoughts, opinions, and arguments of the other delegates. In fact, it is not uncommon that during the course of the discussion a delegate might change his mind, having been persuaded by the good biblical reasons offered by other delegates. This is good and proper. The Standard Bearer has spoken helpfully to this in the past.
“A delegate to an assembly must be scriptural both in what and how he speaks. And a delegate must listen to and be persuaded by Scripture. What persuades him is not who speaks—the man he respects or has the most degrees; or by how he speaks—with brilliance or forcefulness; or by how a decision may affect him personally” (Barry Gritters, “Our Deliberative Assemblies,” Standard Bearer, vol. 96, issue 21 [September 15, 2020], p. 489).
“Having been seated, the delegates are authorized to take part in all the deliberations of classis. Each delegate exercises one decisive vote. In the voting, delegates ought to vote their own conscience. No consistory ought to bind its delegates ahead of time to vote in a certain way. Consistories may advise, but delegates must be permitted the freedom to vote as they deem right and proper. This follows, too, from the fact that our broader assemblies are deliberative in nature. Even though a delegate should have familiarized himself with the agenda and arrived at some tentative opinions, he must come to classis open to the insights and instruction of the other delegates” (Ronald Cammenga, “Classical Meetings,” Standard Bearer, vol. 70, issue 13 [April 1, 1994], p. 296).
“The proper ecclesiastical manner includes also that every matter brought before the assemblies is given thorough, careful discussion and treatment. If a matter is so serious that the assembly ought to treat it, it must not be treated superficially and hastily. Every effort must be made to convince all parties of the rightness of the decision taken. Although not always possible, it is desirable that unanimous decisions are reached, or at least that everything is done in an attempt to secure a unanimous decision” (Ronald Cammenga, “Jurisdiction of Assemblies,” Standard Bearer, vol. 68, issue 11 [March 1, 1992], p. 255).
Therefore, we must understand that delegates are not representatives of the people in the same sense that congresspersons are in the political sphere. Constituents often call their political representatives to demand that they vote on a bill in a certain way. In politics votes are often decided in advance with backroom deals. Such is not the ecclesiastical way. A member may speak to his pastor or elder and express his thoughts before an ecclesiastical assembly meets. The proper response of the officebearer is not to rebuke the member with the sentiment that, “I represent Christ, so I do not need to listen to you,” but “I recognize that you, too, have the office of believer; therefore, I welcome your insights and I will hear your concerns. However, I cannot promise you a vote one way or the other, and you may not require that of me. I will carefully study the matter, I will participate in the deliberations, I will listen to the other men, and then I will vote when I have heard the perspectives of the other delegates.”
Arrogantly to dismiss the concerns of members is to despise the office of believer; to be cowed by members’ concerns is to allow members to despise the authority of the special offices, which leads to a congregational, not Reformed, system of church government. Wisdom is required to find a balance between the two.