This article discusses the encouragement and admonishment that the office-bearers need to give one another as they carry out their task.

Source: Diakonia, 2002. 3 pages.

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."

The focus🔗

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).

History🔗

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 timing🔗

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.

Endnotes🔗

  1. ^ In Geneva censura morum was practiced only with regard to the ministers of the Word.
  2. ^ Following the approach of John Calvin, John Lasco,and Martin Micronius (in the Dutch Refugees churches in London, England), the churches of the Calvinistic Reformation in The Netherlands adopted the practice of censura morum. Initially it was practiced at Classis, not at Consistory, for initially there were not Consistories everywhere. The Convent of Wezel in 1568 declared that if there are 'secret sins' on the part of the ministers of the Word and the Elders, Classis 'shall censure them.' They shall be commanded to 'leave the meeting one by one, while all the other delegates shall take an oath of confidentiality.' They would all take turns leaving the meeting, during which time inquiry was made with regard to each of the Ministers and Elders separately and accurately as to how each one has conducted himself in his office. And if anyone shall seem to need an admonition, he shall be called back into the meeting and be admonished or reprimanded and punished commensurate to the severity of his sin.
  3. ^ John Lasco, born in 1499, the son of a noble Polish family, composed one of the earliest complete Reformed church orders shortly after 1550. It provided the ground work, upon which many of the provisions of the Church order were laid down in the Dutch Reformed churches in the second part of the sixteenth century and the first part of the seventeenth century, for instance at the Convent of Wezel in 1568, the Synod of Embden in 1571, and the Synod of Dort in 1618.

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