Options for Ecclesiastical Discipline Part I, Deposing Officebearers
By Pastor Josh Christoffels
One of the issues that has come up in the assemblies of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) as of late is the authority of broader assemblies to enact discipline in the local church. Earlier I wrote an article showing that the Covenant for Officebearers is a document that helps bind our denomination together as a confessional church. The Covenant does this by unifying us around a common confessional and biblical understanding. And yet what happens when officebearers, whole congregations, or a classis are determined to break that covenant? Does a classis or a synod have any authority to step into the life of a local congregation even if there is no appeal coming from that congregation? What happens to churches, such as Neland Ave CRC, that are out of step with the denominational covenants we have made? A closer look at how our assemblies have asserted ecclesiastical discipline in the past gives some insight and options for how we might proceed in the future.
Though rare, there have been a number of times in the history of the CRC where a classis has deposed officebearers of CRC churches. When concerns or appeals about officebearers reached the level of synod, the synod upheld the right of a classis to step into the life of a congregation in this way. There have even been times when synod instructed a classis or a consistory to act by ordering further investigation or requesting that they depose their officebearer. In 1922, synod itself deposed a professor at Calvin Seminary for his views on Scripture and on his failure to appear before synod to explain himself. 
One of the most insightful studies of the past for our purposes here happened with the Common Grace controversy of 1924-1926. For sure a lot of water has gone under the bridge in the nearly 100 years since this controversy, but it does give us a possible way forward for how we might proceed. Because of a controversy over how some churches and pastors were denying the teachings on common grace, Synod 1924 officially declared three points on common grace that were derived from Scripture and the confessions.  Even though Synod had not yet officially distinguished between confessions, interpretations of confessions, and pastoral advice, it seems clear that the 1924 declaration was an interpretation of a confession that also had confessional status. A similar circumstance happened when the Canons of Dort clarified and deepened our understanding of the doctrines of grace as already found in our other two confessions. Synod said that the views of Revs. Danhof of Kalamazoo, MI and Hoeksema of Eastern Avenue CRC, who had been publicly denying common grace in publications, were inconsistent with the creeds on the three points. 
After synod adjourned, Danhof and Hoeksema did not comply with synod’s instructions, and began a new periodical called The Standard Bearer to discuss their views. [5[ Both Classis Grand Rapids East and Classis Grand Rapids West deposed them shortly thereafter, along with the consistories of the two pastors (see more historical background here).
At the next synod in 1926, there were 45 appeals and protests challenging the right for a classis to depose a consistory. They also received a majority and minority report from a study committee that was commissioned in 1924 on the question of whether a classis could depose a consistory. The Church Order advisory committee made their own lengthy report presenting on the question that has some helpful insights for us today.
Their report showed that the assemblies of the church as gatherings in Christ’s name also possessed a disciplinary authority to suspend from office: “They have the right in the name of Christ to demand obedience and in case of resistance to use discipline. They exercise this power when a minister errs in doctrine or in life. Why then not also when a consistory displays opposition?” They also pointed to a statement in the Formula of Subscription that says “being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of consistory, classis, and synod under the penalty in case of refusal of being by that very fact suspended from our office.”
Why must this process take place in the broader assemblies instead of the local consistory? “The deposition of a consistory cannot be dealt with finality in a minor assembly. Therefore at that point the denomination must begin to act and a classis or a synod must take disciplinary action. These can do this, because they possess consistorial power; they must do this for Christ’s sake.”  In other words, both a classis or a synod could engage in disciplinary action.
Why, then, doesn’t the Church Order (CO) stipulate this process of authority? The advisory committee answered that question too:
a) It is an out of the ordinary case when a consistory in its majority or all of its members deserve deposition. And the contents of a Church Order cannot, in the nature of the case, cover all imaginary or possible instances, but only the most usual.
b) Also it must not be forgotten, that our CO is not a constitution, covering all sub-divisions, but a collection of general and guiding ecclesiastical governmental principles, which must be applied in concrete cases according to circumstances, when such cases occur which are not stipulated in detail in the CO. 
Synod itself took this advice seriously by adopting a number of proposals. In response to a protest against the actions of Classis Grand Rapids East and Classis Grand Rapids West when they deposed the ministers and consistories, Synod upheld the actions of the classes. They found that: “Although under normal circumstances suspension of a minister is performed by the consistory (Church Order Art 79 [current 82-84 and supplement], it is nevertheless the right and also the duty of a classis, in case the consistory is neglectful, to do its duty and to deal with this matter.” They also found that Eastern Avenue’s consistory had placed itself outside the fellowship of the CRC because it was “guilty of insubordination and public schism, and were thus under judgment according to Article 80 C.O. [current 82-84 and supplement] and the Formula of Subscription.” Synod also made clear that the classis had the right to declare that the consistory had placed itself outside of the fellowship of the CRC. 
After receiving the lengthy advisory committee report, synod also upheld the actions of Classis Grand Rapids West to depose their consistory on the following grounds:
1) Article 36 of the Church Order [current Church Order Article 27-b] gives the classis jurisdiction over the consistory;
2) Articles 79 and 80 of the Church Order [current Articles 82-84 and supplement], and the Formula of Subscription state plainly that censure of office-bearers shall be suspension or deposition from office. 
One hundred years after Herman Hoeksema’s Eastern Avenue CRC found themselves at odds with their denomination, history repeats itself with Eastern Avenue CRC again disregarding synod’s decisions (see here and here). The historical record shows that when faced at a crossroads our ancestors in the faith took the drastic yet rare option of deposing officebearers of a congregation. They asserted that right based on our Church Order, doctrinal covenants, and the Biblical call to discipline. And they stated that this can and must happen by either classis or synod. Synod has availed itself of this option before, and it can do so again. Next time, we will look at another option synod has at its disposal; recognizing a break in fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church.
 See the Bultema case in Synod 1918 (as found in Acts of Synod 1993, p. 526), Acts of Synod 1928, p. 90, Acts of Synod 1980, p. 28-30, Acts of Synod 1982, p. 55, 628-629, Acts of Synod 1991, p. 771, Acts of Synod 1993, p. 529.
 Acts of Synod 1922, p. 173 and p. 278.
 Acts of Synod 1924, p. 145-147.
 Acts of Synod 1924, p. 145-147.
 John Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church (1949), p. 84.
 Acts of Synod 1926, p. 323-324. This similar wording is retained in today’s Covenant for Officebearers: “If the church asks, we will give a full explanation of our views. Further, we promise to submit to the church’s judgment and authority.”
 Emphasized original, Acts 1926, p. 330.
 Acts of Synod 1926, p. 329.
 Acts of Synod 1926, p. 139.
 Acts of Synod 1926, p. 142.
Reverend Josh Christoffels serves Hammond CRC as their Pastor. He was ordained in 2015.