ARTICLE 31 – Appeals
If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly he shall have
the right of appeal to the major assembly; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote
shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God
or with the Church Order.
ARTICLE 31 – Appeals
If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to the major assembly; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order.
Soo yemant hem beclaeght deur de uytspraecke der minder Vergaderinghe veronghelijckt te zijne / die selve sal hem tot een meerder Kerckelijcke vergaderinghe beroepen moghen : ende ’tghene door de meeste stemmen goet ghevonden is / sal voor vast ende bondigh ghehouden werden. Ten sy dattet bewesen worde te strijden teghen het Woort Gods / ofte teghen de Artijckulen in desen Generalen Synodo besloten / soo langhe als de selve door geen ander Generale Synode verandert zijn.
English translation of the Church Order of Dort (external link)
Decisions of FRCA synods
Topics related to this article
VanOene, With Common Consent
VanRongen, Decently and in Good Order
Article 31 of the church order deals with appeals. That is a totally different matter than what is addressed in article 30 and should be kept separate from the normal process of churches making decisions. In article 31 the churches voluntarily give individual church members the opportunity to appeal to the major assembly if they have been wronged by their consistory. As Rev. Anderson shows, this is not a right that comes from the Bible. The churches within the federation have agreed that they will grant this possibility of appeal to members, because the consistories take their responsibility very seriously. They want to be accountable and have promised to submit to the judgment of the multitude of counsellors which are gathered at the major assembly. I do not need to repeat here what Dr. Anderson wrote. I encourage the reader to read his article. A few matters do need our attention here.
The appeals process is about being wronged. It is not about disagreeing with a (any) decision that an assembly (consistory, classis, or synod) made. Someone can appeal a decision of the consistory by which he himself has been wronged[ii]. It would also be acceptable if he asks someone else to appeal on his behalf. However, he cannot appeal a decision of the synod. The synod is the major assembly. There is no assembly that is more major than the synod.
The major assembly
He must appeal to the major assembly. Not ‘a’ major assembly. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands made the change from ‘a’ major assembly to ‘the’ major assembly in the church order article 31 in 1978, to address the abuse of the right to appeal to which the synod of Sneek in 1939 already referred. They concluded that it is almost impossible to formulate this article such that it prevents every abuse, but did change the indefinite to the definite article. This was to make clear that an appellant could not go to whatever assembly he preferred, but to the major assembly for that minor assembly of which he is appealing the decision. He will have to go to the first classis after the date that the decision of consistory is made, which he is appealing. Or to the next synod if he is appealing a classis decision[iii]. An appellant should not wait until there is an assembly which he thinks will come with a more favourable decision than earlier ones. He cannot hold a consistory hostage by his threat to appeal. If he wants to appeal he has to do it at the first opportunity or else he loses the right to appeal. The Free Reformed Churches as well as the Canadian Reformed Churches took over this change in their church orders.
Settled and binding
The words ‘settled and binding’ in article 31 are especially intended for this appeals process. A decision made by the major assembly shall be the end of the matter. A decision according to article 30 can be revisited after many years, if there are new grounds. However, in the case of an appeal, it should not be possible to let the matter drag on for many years. The appellant, the consistory and other parties involved must move on as well. There should not be the constant threat hanging over them that a future major assembly, after many attempts by the appellant, finally grants his appeal and the consistory is forced to change a decision that is almost impossible to change so long after it has been implemented. Therefore, once a decision is made, that is end of story: settled and binding. Unless that decision is against the Bible or Church Order. Then an appeal to the next major assembly should be possible. (Being against the Bible means evidently being contrary to an express Word of God. The intention is not that through a long way of reasoning and deduction it is shown to be against the Bible.[iv]) But once it has reached synod and a decision is made, then there is no major assembly to go to. In that case there have been two decisions against the appellant: the classis and the synod. If the appellant is still convinced that it is against the Bible or Church Order, he should consider the consequences of his position and act accordingly.
The Church Order of Dort 1618/1619 was based on the Church Order of the Reformed Churches in France in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. In those French churches it was the rule that an appeal was not allowed to go to the general synod. An appellant could go to classis and thereafter he was allowed one more appeal to the provincial synod, and that was it. Only decisions that started at the classical level (mostly involving office bearers) could go to the general synod. In both situations the rule was: two appeals and then the matter is settled[v]. In the FRCA we do not have a provincial synod. The second appeal then ends up at the table of the synod. But then it is settled.
Appeal or proposal?
The appeals process as described in article 31 is distinctly different from that in article 30. The appeals process has the character of a judicial process, while the process as described in article 30 and 33 is part of working together as churches in a federation. If a member of the local church disagrees with a decision of a synod, he should not start an appeals process, but according to article 33 approach his consistory to try to come up with new grounds and change that decision. The synod should not allow the appeals process to be abused by individual members who want to participate in synod discussions. Synod Byford 1994 decided that participating in synod decisions is not the prerogative of individual church members.[vi] Appeals should not be used to express disagreement with a synod decision.
Sometimes the word ‘precedent’ is used in discussions about these matters. This again is a wrong perception of what the process of decision making in the churches is. Precedent then usually is meant as a decision made in the past which compels synod to make the same decision again. Precedent does have its place in legal cases and can be used in court. But ecclesiastical assemblies are not a court of law and do not develop a jurisprudence. Once a synod closes, it is finished. A next synod makes a new start. A synod can appoint deputies for only three years and can give them a mandate for only three years. Therefore, any decision of a synod cannot be binding upon subsequent synods in the meaning that those synods must make the same decision in similar situations. Even though it would be wise for consistency, it is still up to the synod to decide, without being bound by previous decisions. The delegates at synod are not experts. We cannot expect from them that they have knowledge of all previous ‘precedents’ like a lawyer has. We have the church order. The church order is sufficient and sufficiently clear. What makes the whole matter confusing is that we are going to drag all kinds of precedents into the discussion. If the church order is not clear, we must change it. If it is clear, we must abide by it.
[ii] Or if he already appealed to classis and believes that classis did not treat him fairly, he can appeal the decision of classis to synod.
[iii] This change in the wording confirmed what the Synod of Dordrecht, 1893 already had determined in art. 185: that an appeal should be lodged before the next meeting of the major assembly to which one appeals.
[iv] See F.L. Rutgers, Bespreking der hoofdpunten van het Kerkrecht naar aanleiding van de Dordtsche Kerkenorde, 1892, on article 31, available at http://www.kerkrecht.nl/node/1310 .
[v] Van Lonkhuyzen, Dr. J., Onderscheid in Geref. Kerkrecht, Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift 31 (1930-1931), p. 417-431.
[vi] Acts Synod 1994, article 37 and 60.