36. The Reformed Classis in Action:
Explanatory Comment: In the presbyterian system the classis, which was also known in France as the colloque and in Scotland as the presbytery, linked the local congregations with the provincial synod. Ministers and elders from neighbouring churches met together regularly in the classical assembly, held between four and eight times a year, in order to settle matters referred to it by the local consistories. These would include the resolution of conflicts between ministers and their congregations, the excommunication of recalcitrant backsliders, and the regulation and calling of ministers. Ministers could consult their colleagues on ticklish issues concerning church law, liturgical practice and a host of practical problems. The classis also proved an invaluable instrument by which to bring pressure to bear on dilatory or indifferent local authorities to repair manses, to pay stipends regularly and in full, to appoint well-disposed parochial officials (especially schoolmasters) and to remove priests. Because of the acute shortage of qualified ministers in the late sixteenth-century Netherlands, the Reformed Church often had to make do with ex-priests and former schoolmasters to serve the rural congregations. The classis provided a forum where such inexperienced ministers could receive in-service training. They would be required to take turns at preaching during the classis to their colleagues, who would pass critical judgement on the delivery, structure and theological content of their sermons.
The following extracts, arranged in chronological order, from the records of the Reformed Churches in Flanders between 1578 and 1583 have been chosen to illustrate the diverse functions of the Calvinist classis. During these years the radical régime which seized power in Ghent in November 1577 lent powerful support to the Reformed Church, partly for political reasons. The ecclesiastical organisation began in earnest in July 1578 and by the end of that year fifty ministers were at work in the county. Clusters of churches were grouped into classes, of which there were no fewer than fifteen by late 1579. At the same time a network of Calvinist schools was built up and the system of poor relief was reorganised.i This impressive achievement should not, however, blind us to the religious confusion which prevailed in many villages whose inhabitants did not readily embrace the new religion.
3 November 1578
1. To the question raised by Ghent as to the best way to prevent the Roman religion, both its continuation and its congregations, throughout the surrounding villages, it was replied that they should petition the Notables of this town [Ghent] so that they will by letters patent forbid all the mass priests from practising their Roman religion.
Likewise, all ministers shall be responsible for the adjoining districts [naplaatsen] and villages and shall preferably preach in one place only a day and in this way once everywhere; it was not thought advisable to appoint ordinary readers in congregations. [p. 209]
6 June 1580
2. Concerning Daniel de Costere at Breskens and the representatives of the congregation there. First, that the said Daniel shall cease from delivering the customary sermon and that in the meantime he shall practice exposition in the nearest consistory or classis to see whether he may in one way or another be admitted to the ministry; he shall be permitted to read to his congregation from the Decades [of Bullinger] or the Bible, to pray fervently and to sing the psalms. He shall be also given an official act to this effect. [p. 92]
3. The brethren of the classis have also found it advisable that everyone, not only the minister, but also the members of the consistory, should be required to subscribe to the XXVII articles of the Confession of the Netherlands Churches. The same shall also be done for the articles of the last general synod of Dordrecht. But with this condition and declaration which follows: We, the undersigned, promise to maintain in the introduction and government of our church the ordinances of Christian discipline, but nevertheless that we in the forthcoming general synod shall be able to declare whatever changes the circumstances of time and events shall necessitate. [p. 93]
5 September 1580
4. The exposition of Adrianus Lopus was heard and certain aspects were criticised: first concerned his introduction, and secondly he confused the doctrine of the general election of the elect with the election of ministers to their ministry. Afterwards he was examined and found competent to serve and he was therefore confirmed in accordance with the articles of the synod of Dordrecht. [pp. 100-101]
5 December 1580
5. Oostburg, being asked what they had to report, complained about some vagabonds and intruders, who gave out that they were true ministers of the Word although their works proved the contrary, and asked how one should proceed in this matter. [It was] decided to ask and charge the brethren at Bruges to take up the same with the commissioners so that the same intruders may be cited by the commissioners at Bruges and, when they appear before the commissioners at Bruges, they may be sent by the same Commissioners to the consistory there in order to give an account of their call and vocation ... [p. 108]
6. Concerning the question from Dadizele. Since the congregation of Dadizele growing but little, because of the slack supervision exercised by the Commissioners, the brethren ask if they might obtain from the classical assembly a request addressed to the commissioners in which particular reference would be made to the need that they be purged of impurity and idolatry and the idolaters, the priests, or if we knew of any means to bring about the purging of the church. Secondly that they [the local Calvinists] be given the keys as well as the whole church for the intended institution of a minister [and] schoolmaster as well as the posts of bell-ringer and sexton, together with an admonition [to the Commissioners] to act with all diligence on account of the church's need. Also for two dwellings for the minister and schoolmaster. In reply, in respect of the first [request] that they leave matters as they are for the time being, but meanwhile they diligently do as much as they can by their lives, conduct and teaching to demolish [popery]; that they next appear in Bruges so that the matter may be better advanced while it is still fresh in mind. The brethren of Bruges also promise their help and assistance. As for the accommodation [and] the keys, they know themselves what the lord commissioners have ordained; they will therefore have to be patient and bide their time. [p. 109]
7. Franciscus Borluut, licentiate from Bruges, delivered an exposition before the classis and afterwards the same was examined in accordance with the synodal articles, and it was found to be reasonable; he was also examined concerning the chief heads of the Christian religion and, being found competent, he was unanimously admitted to the ministry of God's Word by the brethren of the classis. [p. 111]
8 March 1581
8. Dominus Saravia, Joannes Bollius and Capito have been charged duly to petition the authorities that the villages and suchlike places be provided with schoolmasters and sextons with reasonable livelihood. And it shall also be drawn to the notice of the magistrate that the ministers should be decently maintained from the tithes and suchlike spiritual revenues appointed for this purpose. Likewise also concerning the deacons, that poor relief and the church lands be placed in their hands, and not only in name but in reality so that they can conscientiously fulfil their role as almoners. [p. 70]
9. What should one do with a minister who refuses to baptise the children of papists who are brought for baptism, but sends them home because the parents will not attend [and because], the witnesses also will often refuse to answer the questions in the catechism the [following] answer is given. Seeing that all such children should not be entirely deprived of Holy Baptism, such a minister is acting contrary to his office and should properly be punished. [p. 77]
10. Whether a leper should be admitted to the Lord's Table and in what way. The answer is yes, but in a particular place in the church to avoid all manner of difficulties and that should be left to the discretion of the minister of the church. [p. 77-78]
9 May 1581
11. Borluut explained how the Martinists [Lutherans] were beginning to hold meetings at Lissewege and roundabout [and] he wanted counsel and advice as to how to prevent these. It was decided that everyone, and especially the minister of the Word, should use their best endeavours to enter into discussion with them in order that they might be confounded in their doctrine by God's Word. And insofar as this does not help, we shall labour by another suitable means to remedy matters. [p. 120]
12. The men of Breskens have entreated and requested the classis that the call which they previously had made for one named Daniel de Costere might proceed and be accepted by the classis. Since the brethren had judged him unfit more than once and also forbidden him to preach, the classis decided (to the satisfaction of the Daniel and also of the men of Breskens) that he should once more give an exposition, which he also did, taking his text from the epistle to the Hebrews ch. II.
After listening to the exposition, the praeses asked the men at the end what they remembered by way of comfort, teaching and edification, whereupon none of them knew how to answer.
After the examination was completed and the men had heard that he Daniel had not been able to answer the simplest questions, they finally admitted that he was quite unfitted for the ministry of the church. They therefore besought the classis to furnish them with another minister. The classis, with the men of Breskens, therefore decided that he Daniel should be once and for all dismissed from the ministry into which he had intruded.
The lord burgomasters and magistrates of Breskens promised before God and the classis that they will not ever allow Daniel to preach, but that they will everything to prohibit and to forbid it.
So that the inhabitants of Breskens shall not be entirely deprived of the ministry, our brother Joannes Yserman has promised to take services there on two or more occasions. The brethren of Breskens shall also be granted a letter by the classis permitting them to call another minister.
Daniel de Costere, having heard the decision, accepted the same and also promised to observe it fully. [pp. 122-24]
13. Westcapelle raised the question whether Christians are permitted to attend the weddings of people married by the priests, notwithstanding that there a Reformed congregation in the same place: the answer was absolutely not. [p. 126]
11 July 1581
14. To the letter from Lo concerning their minister, Tilman Cupus, whom they wanted to recall from Westcapelle to his church at Lo, [it was replied] that it was improper, especially at this time, when there were so few ministers, deliberately to expose some of them in the present danger where little benefit was to be expected. Lo will therefore be kindly exhorted to leave their minister Tilman for the time being at Westcapelle, where he works very profitably until our God is pleased to grant Lo more freedom and tranquillity. But if the church of Westcapelle is supplied with its own minister, the classis shall provide the said Cupus with a ministry so that he shall not remain without a charge. [p. 137]
12 September 1581
15. Since the continuation of priests in their office for so long is greatly to the disadvantage of Christ's Church, the brethren of the classis thought it advisable that a request be sent to my lord commissioners on behalf of the classis to the intent that the same may be pleased to entreat the Four Members of the province to forbid completely the service of the priests; and at the same time [to forbid] drinking and all types of games during the services. [p. 145]
13 February 1582
16. In order to root out completely the services of the priests, the brethren of the classis found it advisable, because they received no support of any kind from the authorities, to write to all the classical meetings so that they, along with us, should petition His Excellence [William of Orange] to remove the priests, in accordance with the situation in Holland and Zeeland. [p. 186]
17. To the question whether an overseer of the poor, who attends [Reformed services] and frequently becomes drunk, can be admonished to make a public confession of sin, is replied that if he is not a member [of the church], the discipline does not apply to him. [p. 188]
3 July 1582
18. The minister of St. Pieter [op den Dijk] complained about the small increase and the great decline of God's Word in his parish and he asked whether it were not better that another should take his place and he should preach for a time in his place to attract parishioners; it was decided that this was not advisable and that he should wait until the next classis. [pp. 194-95]
2 October 1582
19. [The question was raised] whether a woman, who has left the church for the Anabaptists and concerning whom the stages of Christian discipline and admonition were used, should be excommunicated. The answer was yes. [p. 160]
Source: H.Q, Janssen, De kerkhervorming in
Vlaanderen, II (Arnhem, 1868) 63-241.
i. J. Decavele, 'Gent, het "Genève" van Vlaanderen' in: Het eind van een rebelse
droom, ed. J. Decavele et al., (Ghent, 1984) 52.