Article 31 in a crisis?

By: M.R. Vermeer


A church member or consistory may be convinced that a decision of a major assembly (e.g. a classis) goes against God’s Word or the Church Order. We then arrive at an article in the Church Order with a special history in the Reformed Churches: article 31, which says that a decision “shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order”.


Relevance for today
This article is especially relevant for today since in De Gereformeerde Kerken (The Reformed Churches) the consistory of DGK Mariënberg appealed to the next major assembly (classis South-West), whereupon the General Synod was set at an earlier date than originally planned. In the meantime, this synod has judged, according to a ‘statement’ it published, that this consistory shows “a spirit of independentism”. It has not been made clear what this independentism entails, except that this consistory refused “to consider decisions as settled and binding and to execute them” and subsequently “continually appealed to the Church Order and Church Polity”.

Thus, here we have a consistory which is supposedly ‘independentist’ while it appeals “to the Church Order and Church Polity” – quite a strange combination. What else could and should this consistory have done if it was convinced that a decision went against God’s Word or the Church Order? Or is article 31 in a crisis?

As well: what kind of situation arises when a consistory appeals to a major assembly? Is article 31 C.O. still a beneficial instrument to break through an ecclesiastical crisis?


Not binding
A consistory which is convinced that a decision goes against God’s Word or the Church Order should immediately reject this decision. In the days of the Liberation of 1944 (in the Netherlands) the ‘synodicals’ turned the ‘unless’ of article 31 into an ‘until’, which implies that a decision is binding until a major assembly judges that it was unscriptural or went against the Church Order. In article 31, however, there clearly is an ‘unless’, which was pointed out extensively by reformed ministers:

“No, the liberated say, if a consistory – and also a church member – after serious inquiry itself considers proven that a decision is not scriptural, it should immediately hold such a decision as not-settled-and-binding. Of course in such a manner that it immediately appeals to the major assemblies with this evidence.” [1]

For this an appeal could be made to the Church Polity of the Doleantie (1886), of which prof. F.L. Rutgers (1836-1917) was an important defender. Over and against Rutgers it was disputed whether a consistory ultimately itself could decide whether a decision was according to God’s Word. According to Rutgers, this was definitely the case:

“According to Rutgers this was, however, the core of the matter and thus the main point of his argument. If a consistory says towards a major assembly: your decision is not according to God’s Word – which of course should be proven – then there will almost always rise a difference of opinion between such a major assembly, which took the decisions under the conviction that it was according to God’s Word, and the consistory, which pertinently denies this. The parties then stand sharply against each other. And in such a situation, according to Rutgers, the consistory should itself decide. Thus, in holding for settled-and-binding the consistory speaks the final word.” [2]

Thus a consistory which itself finds that a decision goes against God’s Word or the Church Order can and should do nothing but hold this for not-settled-and-binding and appeal to the major assembly.


Interim situation
A consistory which appeals to a major assembly cannot be forced to execute the disputed decision. An interim situation exists during the appeal procedure, on which a synod committee in the past commented:

“That Word binds, even in the conscience, but also makes free from all human lording over each other. No ecclesiastical assembly can step between Christ and the members of His church, no ecclesiastical decision can ever force these members to leave the road of God’s Word and the Reformed C.O. But an ecclesiastical decision, which is deemed to be wrong, neither forces a member of Christ’s church to leave the federation ‘for the sake of order’. He may continue to walk on the way of the Word and the C.O. He may make himself free, and know himself to be free, from sinful decisions. And in the meantime, he may present the evidence of the injustice to the ecclesiastical assemblies. In this manner, art. 31 points the road to preserve the unity and the federation, under the authority of God’s Word, which establishes and recovers fellowship.” [3]

In such a situation the ‘ethics and technique’ of being concerned (as it was called by this committee) is of importance. For this no rules are provided in the Church Order, which is no code of regulations after all! These rules are provided in the Holy Scripture, and then (as this committee rightly remarked) “not by a separate instruction, but in the entire Scripture, which provides an abundance for every good work” (see e.g. Galatians 5). We can add to this, to prevent misunderstandings: a Scriptural ‘ethics and technique’ should be followed by all parties!

Based on this ‘ethics’, a minister will not immediately ignore his (temporary) suspension and act against it, but will go the ecclesiastical route. Based on this ‘ethics’ it is also incorrect to reproach a consistory as having an ‘unwilling attitude’ because it does not ignore a classical ‘mediation trajectory’, but goes an ecclesiastical route.


Not yet definitive
In such an interim situation the situation is not yet definitive. Prof. Kamphuis has pointed this out with regards to the suspension of a minister without approval of the neighbouring consistory (see art. 71 C.O.). We will not discuss this situation here, but the remarks by prof. Kamphuis are also of importance in case a consistory appeals to the next court of appeal:

“No, if a consistory is bound by God’s Word to say ‘no’ to the judgment of a neighbouring church, or possibly the classis, he will appeal to the classis, or possibly the regional synod. In this situation there is, according to its judgment, a far-reaching case of injustice, of unrighteousness. An appeal is – fortunately! – still possible. At the same time, this implies that in this appeal to the broader sphere of churches, which assemble in this major assembly, also the bond with these churches, with which one is in conflict, has been maintained. Because the decision of the major assembly can serve to bring all the churches, which have been divided, again together in obedience to God’s revealed will.

The appeal and the possibility of appeal to the major assembly thus always implies that the situation in a smaller sphere is not yet definitive. Also when we keep in mind the difference between decisions of a major assembly in general and the judgment of a neighbouring church as deemed necessary in art. 71 C.O., yet it can be maintained that an appeal marks an ‘interim situation’”. [4]

Applied to the specific situation at Mariënberg this implies, among others, that it is incorrect that classis North-East connected far-reaching consequences (viz. placing DGK Mariënberg outside the federation and acknowledging a schismatic group) to (an own interpretation of) the acting of a consistory, while this consistory stayed faithfully within the federation and appealed to the next major assembly.

In the judgment (in Greek: krima, crisis) which begins at the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17), article 31 C.O. is a preserving salt – now that the salt has lost its flavor, how will you season it?


[1] C. Veenhof, Om de Unica Catholica – Een beschouwing over de positie van de bezwaarden onder en over de synodocratie (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1949), p. 316.

[2] Ibid., p. 317.

[3] Acta GS Spakenburg 1958-1959, bijlage VII and Acta GS Arnhem 1981, art. 73.1.

[4] J. Kamphuis, Verkenningen III – Kerk en kerkrecht (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1966), p. 150.