Mutual Censure in the Consistory
Article 81 of our Church Order reads: "The ministers of the Word, elders and deacons shall exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in love admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office."
By this mutual Christian censure is meant the inquiry that takes place under leadership of the Chairman of the Consistory at a meeting prior to the observance of the Lord's Supper. This mutual censure concerns the office bearer's discharge of his office. This discharge of one's office is closely related to one's personal relationship to the Lord and to one's fellow office bearers. Nevertheless, mutual censure does not focus on these relationships. Rather, mutual censure in the first instance concerns carrying out one's duty as office bearer.
The King of the church has not only entrusted the congregation to the care and oversight of the office bearers, but also the office bearers to one another. In Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2 Christ commissions the elders to take heed to and feed the flock of God, the church of God. From other passages we learn that office bearers must take heed to one another, to see if they are performing their work in accordance with the will and ordinances of Christ. Think, for instance, of Galatians 2:11-14, where we read of Paul at one point rebuking Peter "to his face" and "before them all." Consider also 1 Peter 5:2, 3, where Peter exhorts his fellow elders to discharge their task eagerly, gladly, and willingly, to lead by example rather than to lord it over the flock.
Office bearers are sinful and imperfect persons, as are all Christians. They stumble and come short in many ways, as Peter did. There are sins of commission as well as omission. There are failures and errors, slackness and negligence. These things are especially grievous in the discharge of an office, because the Name of the Lord can be profaned, and the congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ can suffer harm thereby. The corollary is also true: a faithful discharge of our duty — to the extent that that is possible — glorifies the Lord and edifies the body of Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:12).
Though it is true that all members of the congregation are indeed to exercise Christian censure among one another (cf. Hebrews 10:25), Article 81 of the Church Order brings out that the office bearers are to do so "with regard to the discharge of their office" (Italics mine). This practice of censura morum is truly a Reformed practice. The Roman Catholic Church and other churches may indeed exercise discipline with regard to the office bearers, but it is always a 'more highly positioned member of the clergy' that oversees and censures a "lower" member of the clergy in the hierarchy of the church. Churches that are in line with the Calvinistic Reformation have practiced censura morum right from the start. It was particularly John Calvin who insisted on it very firmly. During mutual censure the names of the Ministers of the Gospel1were mentioned one by one, and then the question was raised whether anyone had some grievance against his doctrine or life or discharge of his office. Even when Calvin was considerably older than some of the younger office bearers, he insisted that the younger office bearers too be given the opportunity to express any lawful grievance against older Ministers, without these younger men being considered immodest and brazen. Censura morum was emphasized as a necessary and proper ecclesiastical practice for properly restraining the ministers and furthering the right exercise of their office.2
The National Synod of 's Gravenhage in 1586 left out the point that Censura morum had to take place prior to the Lord's Supper, as also the point that it concerned doctrine and life, but did stipulate that it should take place among all the office bearers. It specified the following:
The ministers of the Word, elders and deacons shall exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in love admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.
The question may be raised if censura morum concerns only the discharge of our office and not our doctrine and life. In answer to the question, it must be said that ecclesiastical censure concerns also doctrine and life. Yet the Synod of 1586 and the Synod of 1618/19 wished to put all the emphasis on the discharge of the office. So doctrine and life are not excluded from censura morum. Rather, they may only be mentioned if they interfere with a faithful discharge of the office and if the one who expresses the grievance has first personally and in love, admonished his fellow office bearer.
The Church Consistories are free in this respect, ever since the Synod of 1586, but it has always been our custom to do so before the Lord's Supper. If, however, for some reason there is no celebration of the Lord's Supper in a congregation, then it is still needful to have censura morum four times a year.
Moreover, if real problems occur at censura morum and as a result 'issues' are brought up which should have been dealt with long before, censura morum should be held earlier, in order to avoid difficulties so close to the celebration of the Lord's Supper. That was probably the reason that the Synod of 1586 removed it from being necessary before the Lord's Supper.
The proper manner
In earlier centuries, following Calvin and Lasco's3insistence, the office bearers had to take a turn leaving the meeting. In their absence the other office bearers were asked if there were any grievances against the way the particular office bearer discharged his office. If there was a lawful grievance, the office bearer concerned was called back into the meeting and the matter was discussed with him, and he was dealt with as considered fitting.
This practice has merit. One speaks more freely about a fellow office bearer in his absence than in his presence. There is the danger that a brother against whom there is a grievance is 'spared' too much when he himself is present. But the practice of leaving the meeting also has something negative about it. There is the grave danger of speaking evil about someone else, which does not advance a brotherly ethic. In general, then, it is to be preferred that the censura morum takes place in the presence of all the consistory members. One has to dare openly to express one's accusation.
Which rule is the consistory to follow in cases where a grievance is raised? God's Word, the Reformed Confessions and our Church order on the basis of that Word, all the while acting with great carefulness and much love and looking to the Lord. The purpose is not to be unpleasant to one another. Rather, we must seek the well-being of God's church and the glory of the Name of the Lord. It is to be done in love. In love admonitions are to be given and to be received. That is the high requirement of God's Word. That is the order that is to be in the church of Christ.