Options for Ecclesiastical Discipline Part 2, Recognizing a Break in Fellowship
By Pastor Josh Christoffels
There may be times when ecclesiastical discipline has to take place–not just at a local church level but, sadly--at the level of the broader assemblies of classis and synod. In Part 1, we saw from the Common Grace controversies of the 1920’s that one way for this to happen is when a broader assembly deposes the office
-bearers of a congregation. Now we look at another option that synod has at its disposal: recognizing that a congregation has placed itself outside the fellowship of the CRC.
This phenomenon happens from time to time in other denominations. Recently, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church was dismissed from the Southern Baptist Convention because they brought on a female teaching pastor. Before that, The Evangelical Covenant Church expelled a congregation for its position on LGBTQ inclusion. But has this kind of action ever taken place in the CRC? Actually, it has.
In the early 1990’s, Classis Hudson suspended and deposed from office Rev. Steve Schlissel of Messiah’s CRC in the New York City metro area. Instead of using proper ecclesiastical channels, the pastor had been publicly attacking, in speeches and in writing, both the denomination and some of the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary. Ironically, Neland Avenue CRC of Classis Grand Rapids East, where some of the seminary professors held their credentials, sent a letter to Classis Hudson stating that they had initiated a process of ecclesiastical discipline against the pastor. The classis deposed the pastor for conduct unbecoming of a minister of the gospel and for refusing to heed the admonition of the classis. 
At Synod 1992, Messiah’s CRC submitted three appeals regarding the deposition by way of the Judicial Code Committee (JCC). The JCC held a hearing that met for eight hours, listening to all sides and consulting Church Order advisors. Synod decided to give the JCC one more year to make final recommendations on the three appeals.  Later that year, at its September 23 meeting, Classis Hudson considered an overture from one of its churches to declare that the Council and congregation of Messiah’s CRC have broken the bonds of fellowship with the denomination and therefore have placed themselves outside of the fellowship of the CRC.
The overture cited the Synod of 1926 as precedent (see Part 1 of this series). The grounds included the fact that the Council continued to allow Steven Schlissel to preach and that they had ordained him as an elder even though he had been deposed. Messiah’s Council had also begun evening worship services in a hotel in New Jersey in close proximity to other CRC churches without the approval of classis and without following the proper procedure of Church Order Article 38. A motion to postpone action to the next classis meeting was defeated. The overture was approved, recognizing that by both the action and inaction of the pastor and congregation, they had placed themselves outside the fellowship of the CRC. The classis also sent a letter to Messiah’s congregation offering guidelines for how the church could be restored to fellowship.
Synod 1993 rejected Messiah’s Church’s first two appeals regarding the suspension and deposition of the pastor, finding that the Church Order and synodical precedents allowed for special discipline even when it did not originate from a local council.  An advisory committee majority found that “Although Messiah’s Christian Reformed Church did not state its intention to withdraw from the denomination, its actions indicated to the classis that it had withdrawn (which was the force of Classis Hudson's declaration).”  In regards to the third appeal, which was submitted by the elders and deacons of Messiah’s Church, synod found that the appeal was not legally before it. Messiah’s fellowship-breaking actions had resulted in their removal from the denomination, and only members have the right to appeal. Synod did promise that they could regain the privilege of appeal if the church would “bring itself into conformity with the standards from which it was declared to have deviated.”  Synod closed this chapter by approving the work of the synodical deputies who had concurred with the decision to depose Steven Schlissel. 
Notice that both Classis Hudson and synod did not claim that they themselves had removed this congregation from their fellowship, but simply recognized what the church had done. It is a similar situation to when an office-bearer resigns. The Council does not give its acceptance of the resignation but simply acquiesces to it. The church, by its action and inaction, has put itself outside the fellowship. With guidelines for compliance, the door is always open to restoration.
What does this mean for us today? Two synods have affirmed confessional status on sexuality. Two synods have instructed Neland Avenue CRC to immediately rescind their decision to ordain to office a deacon in a same-sex marriage. Two synods have given instructions or admonishments to Classis Grand Rapids East. Synod 2023 has instructed all classes to guide into compliance the office-bearers of their churches who publicly reject synod’s statements on same-sex relationships.
Ideally, the churches who publicly reject synod’s confessional statements would repent and bring themselves into compliance with their denomination. If their conscience does not allow them to, the next least painful option would be for those churches to voluntarily reaffiliate with another denominational body that aligns with their views. If neither of those things happen, Synod 2024 could very well avail themselves of the two options outlined in these articles; namely, deposing officebearers or recognizing a break in fellowship. These actions are not taken to lord it over others. They are taken to help souls and churches living in covenant together to realize a profound truth. We have been created as God’s masterpiece in Christ Jesus not to sin, but to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
 Taken from the minutes of Classis Hudson, Sept. 23, 1992 and from the three Appeals to Synod 1992 from Messiah’s Council, obtained by the author from Heritage Hall.
 Acts of Synod 1992, p. 678. Synod also ruled that the deposition of the pastor remains in effect even when there is an appeal pending since decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies are considered settled and binding (Church Order Art. 29) and that “There is no rule in our church requiring that matters remain in status quo upon appeal.” This ruling would speak against modern day claims by Neland Avenue CRC and Classis Grand Rapids East that they wait to make a decision based on the outcome of an appeal.
 Acts of Synod 1993, p. 529.
 Acts of Synod 1993, p. 607.
 Acts of Synod 1993, p. 610.
 Acts of Synod 1993, p. 629.
Reverend Josh Christoffels serves Hammond CRC as their Pastor. He was ordained in 2015.