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Gleanings in the Church Order (3): Legality at the Assemblies

Gleanings in the Church Order (3): Legality at the Assemblies


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; Part Two, assemblies in general. Today, we address legality at those assemblies.

Legality at the Assemblies

Perhaps one of the least understood matters in the Church Order is legality at the broader (or major—not higher) assemblies of classis and synod. When we hear the word legal, we might think that something conforms to the law. When the minutes reveal, “The assembly declared the matter not legally before it,” that does not mean that the assembly made a moral judgment or that the assembly decreed that the matter broke the law. In fact, if a matter is declared not legal, the assembly refuses to make any judgment on it. It is not legally here; it may not be treated.

Assuming that the matter is ecclesiastical in nature and manner, what may and may not be treated at classis or synod? Perhaps you have read in the minutes of classis or synod that a matter was declared not legally before classis or synod, and perhaps you wondered why that was. Perhaps you wonder what you should do if you want a matter that you bring before the classis or the synod to be treated and not to be declared not legal. It is frustrating for a member to have his matter declared as not legal, especially if he spent a lot of time preparing a document to bring to the assembly. Such frustration could be avoided if the Church Order, especially Articles 30 and 31 and the “Rules for Protests/Appeals/Overtures,” were carefully studied.

Article 30 describes two requirements that must be met if a matter is to be legally before a major assembly. First, Article 30 says, “In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies” and second, Article 30 says, “Such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.”

One of the first questions a classis or synod asks is this: “Was this matter able to to be finished in the minor assembly?” “Was this matter able to be finished in the consistory (if it comes to the classis) or at the classis (if it comes to the synod)?” “Could not be finished” means that considerable effort was made to finish it. A member worked diligently and at length with the local consistory before coming to the classis; a classis worked diligently and at length on a matter before bringing it to the synod or before a member brought it to the synod after having come to the classis.

How diligently and for how long? That is a judgment that the major assembly must make. Delegates often disagree, which leads to debates on the subject of legality. Ultimately, the major assembly decides legality after discussion by majority vote. If a classis or synod decides that a matter is legally before it, it is so. If a classis decides that a matter is not legally before it, it is so. The decision is not arbitrary. Grounds must be given and agreed upon before such a decision—any decision—is made.

Two extremes should be avoided by assemblies, however.

The first extreme is to be too quick to declare something legal, which would lead to the assemblies being flooded with unnecessary material. That happens when members are allowed effectively to bypass their consistories to get quickly to the classis and the synod. Let us say that a member has a problem with a sermon preached by his pastor. If he wants to protest to classis, he must first show that he has made considerable effort to work with his consistory to settle the matter. He may not write one letter of complaint, refuse to listen, declare that he and his consistory are at an impasse, and then rush to the classis for their judgment. Instead, he must prove that he has carefully listened to and interacted with his consistory and, if he fails after considerable effort to convince his consistory, he may then bring the matter to classis. When he does so, it is his responsibility to demonstrate, with documentation, the effort that he has made to finish the matter with his consistory. If the classis were to rule on the matter before the consistory had properly treated it, then the classis would be guilty of hierarchy against the consistory.

The second extreme is to be too quick to declare something not legal. If a member is trying to work with a consistory and, through no fault of his own, is not making progress, it is very easy for a classis to rule the matter not legally before it on the grounds that it could not be finished, so that the matter drags on unnecessarily to the frustration of all parties. Perhaps, technically, it could not be finished, but if the member tried to finish it and the consistory refused to engage (refused to respond in a timely manner; or refused to supply the necessary documents for an appeal, for example), then it is entirely appropriate for a classis to treat the matter (to declare it legal) and to instruct the consistory to respond in a timely manner to the member’s concerns. It does not serve the members of the churches for the assemblies to make rulings based on mere technicalities.

The second matter that may come legally before a major assembly is something that “pertain[s] to the churches of the major assembly in common.” The churches willingly federate together as an expression of their unity, agreeing to do certain things together for mutual edification and oversight. The classis, for example, arranges classical appointments, or pulpit supply for vacant congregations. The classis appoints church visitors to inspect the churches to “take heed whether the minister and the consistory faithfully perform the duties of their office,” even “fraternally admonish[ing] those who have in anything been negligent” (CO Art. 44). The report of the church visitors, which pertains to the churches in common, is properly treated by the classis. The classis often appoints committees to help consistories when the need arises; reports from such committees are legally before classis. All these things are good and proper and do not impede the autonomy, or the self-rule, of local consistories. A member might also bring something to the major assemblies that pertains to the churches in common, although when he does so he must bring it to the local consistory first.

Interested in exploring these Articles for yourself? Check out The Church Order Commentary written in 1941 and republished in 2021:

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