The nature of ecclesiastical authority in W.D. Jonker’s reflections on church polity

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In November 2016 an extraordinary General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church was convened to consider a variety of objections, gravamina and appeals against the resolutions on same-sex relationships passed by the General Synod of 2015. Opinions differed on the right to lodge appeals against resolutions of a General Synod, which raises questions about ecclesiastical authority and the authority of major assemblies and church officials.

This article focuses on W.D. Jonker’s view of church authority.

Although Jonker’s field of study was systematic theology (dogmatics), new developments within the Dutch Reformed Church compelled him to view critically the system of ecclesiastical government implemented in the church. In 1955 an editorial written by T.N. (Tobie) Hanekom in Die Kerkbode prompted Jonker to caution against the idea of a national church ("Volkskerk"). For the rest of his life Jonker would persistently warn against this fallacy.

He increasingly immersed himself in the study of church polity and canonical law; to such an extent that he eventually became an acknowledged expert in this field. This is attested to by his being invited to present a series of lectures on church discipline in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria in 1959. In 1960 he was also elected as Actuarius of the then Synod of the Southern Transvaal.

During these years, Jonker also strove and campaigned for a Scripture-based church order in which the kingship and sole dominion of Jesus Christ in His church is adhered to and maintained in an undiminished and unimpaired way. According to Jonker the Church Order of Dordrecht (1619) is a true representation and summary of the scriptural principles necessary for a Reformed system of church polity. Jonker dearly wanted to see those very principles reflected in the concept of a church order presented to the General Synod of 1962 for acceptance and implementation as the Church Order of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Initially Jonker had a relatively positive attitude towards the existing Church Orders of the Dutch Reformed Churches. Nonetheless he was critical about aspects of the concept order that had been prepared for the General Synod. For example, Article 84 of the Church Order of Dordrecht was not fully reflected in Article 3 of the concept order. According to Jonker, this paved the way for a hierarchy that would be a threat to the sole dominion of Jesus Christ in His church. Moreover, the continuation of the moderator’s committee of the General Synod (moderamen) as a permanent committee of the synod until the next synod, vested too much responsibility and authority in a few people, thus subverting the authority and dominion of Christ.

This criticism brought down the wrath of ecclesiastical leaders like J.D. (Koot) Vorster, T.N. (Tobie) Hanekom, A.P. (Andries) Treurnicht and many others on Jonker. He however continued the struggle. On his return from a study tour to Europe, Jonker criticised the concept church order, as well as existing church orders, even more sharply. Again he pointed out the dangers of bestowing centralised power and authority on a small group of people. Once again he also voiced his aversion to the fallacy of a national church, which had led to the Dutch Reformed Church’s establishing separate churches for separate population groups.

However, his criticism was rejected; his plea for a church order that maintained and reflected the kingship and sole dominion of Jesus Christ was ignored; and he was accused of liberalism.

Jonker’s conviction that authority in the church resides only in Christ (and therefore only in the Word of God) found expression in the controversy surrounding the involvement of Beyers Naudé with the magazine Pro Veritate and with the Christian Institute (C.I.). After his appointment as director of the C.I., Naudé lodged an application to retain his status as a minister with the committee tasked with the final examination of candidates who wished to enter the ministry (Afrikaans: Proponentseksamenkommissie). This committee of the Synod of Southern Transvaal also adjudicated over the retention or loss of status of those who had left the full-time ministry. Naudé’s application was rejected by the committee, based on the resolutions of the Synod on Pro Veritate and the C.I.

Jonker advised Naudé that he had the right to appeal (against the above-mentioned rejection by the committee) to the Synodical Commission of the Southern Transvaal. Naudé duly appealed, but his right to appeal (and therefore his appeal) was rejected, based on advice given by J.D. Vorster (the then Actuarius of the General Synod) to the effect that resolutions of major assemblies were binding and therefore had to be adhered to, with no right of appeal.

Based on the same arguments, Naudé’s election as an elder in the Parkhurst congregation was declared null and void by the presbytery (circuit) of Johannesburg. According to Jonker, Naudé was subjected to ecclesiastical disciplining not because of disobedience to the Word of God, but because of insubordination to the resolutions and decisions of major assemblies and church officials.

Because of these events, serious questions were raised about ecclesiastical power/authority, the binding nature of resolutions by major assemblies, as well as the right of appeal against such resolutions. This again highlighted Jonker’s plea for a more comprehensive inclusion of Article 31 of the Church Order of Dordrecht in the Dutch Reformed Church’s Church Order. His opinion was that resolutions by major assemblies were indeed binding, but only if they were in full accordance with the Word of God. If not, such resolutions were not binding and might be taken on appeal. In the Naudé saga, Jonker’s fear that major assemblies could usurp the authority of the Word of God was realised. The Word of God and obedience to this Word became mere background music to the actions of power-hungry assemblies and church officials.

Jonker insisted that only the Word of God could bind the consciences of believers. If the Word of God convinced them that a resolution deviated from the Word of God, or was in conflict with that Word, they had the right to appeal against such a resolution. Jonker further argued that believers had the obligation to weigh and evaluate all resolutions of ecclesiastical assemblies in the light of the Word and to appeal against such resolutions if they were found to be in conflict with the Word of God. He found confirmation for this opinion in the Revised Church Order of the Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken) in the Netherlands. This obligation did not vest solely in a select group of learned people, theologians and scientists, but in all believers. For this reason the congregation (the local church) – a communion of saints – played an important and critical role in Jonker’s theology: it is in the local church (congregation) that the Word of God is officially proclaimed and that the sacraments are served. Where that happens, Christ reigns supreme.

Because of Jonker's faith and trust in the Word of God he was prepared to follow the Reformers in their insane venture (krankzinnige waagstuk, in the words of C. Veenhof) of putting their trust in Christ only. Christ would reveal truth and make it known through His Word. No man, committee, or major meeting could lay claim to the power and authority of Christ and the Word of God.

Keywords: Beyers Naudé; Christian Institute; Reformed Church polity; rule of Christ; governance though the Word of God; W.D. Jonker

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die aard van kerklike gesag in die kerkregtelike besinning van W.D. Jonker

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