Church Order: The Purpose and Its Function
Most of us are aware that our federation of churches (or denomination) functions in accordance with a specific set of rules, and that each congregation within our denomination is obligated to honor and implement these rules. We refer to these rules as the Church Order of Dort.
As the term “Church Order” indicates, these rules have been formulated and adopted by the church to facilitate the orderly functioning of the church locally and denominationally. Hardly anyone would argue the point that the proper functioning of any organization will be proportionate to its organizational structure. This would be applicable to the church as well – with the understanding, however, that rather than viewing the church as an organization, we should view her as a living organism, the living body of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12). This means that the rules governing church life must be uniquely suited to foster the growth and health of this living organism. Upon examining our Church Order more closely, we will find an organizational structure tailor-made to protect and foster the well-being of the body of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The foundation for the orderly functioning of the church is found in 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” These words conclude a lengthy exhortation from the Apostle Paul to a congregation with more disorder than order. Paul recognized that the church can only function well when managed in an orderly fashion. This realization prompted him to ordain elders whenever new churches were established. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ must function in an orderly fashion, for God is a God of order. Paul emphasizes this when he writes in the same chapter, “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33).
Orderliness is characteristic of all the works of God. Therefore God’s supreme spiritual accomplishment, the church of His beloved Son, will manifest the same orderly structure that we observe in all the works of His hands. This orderliness was visible in the congregation of Israel during her lengthy journey through the wilderness; the Tabernacle, God’s visible dwelling place in the midst of His people, was at the very center of this organizational structure, and every tribe of this congregation had its proper and divinely appointed location in reference to the Tabernacle.
Since the New Testament church is the mature outgrowth of the “church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38), such divinely initiated orderliness must be her hallmark as well. This is why such structure begins to manifest itself rather quickly when the New Testament church, at the initiative of the congregation at Jerusalem, already convenes in Acts 15 for what is called the Council or Synod of Jerusalem. The leaders of the church recognized that the collective wisdom of all the churches was needed to arrive at a biblical decision regarding the question whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised.
This recognition that everything in the church must “be done decently and in order” surfaced rather quickly again after the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin, the great Reformer of Geneva, realized that church government also needed to be Reformed. Or to put it differently, the principle of “sola Scriptura Scripture Alone” needed to be applied again to church government. This resulted in the formulation of Calvin’s famous Ordonnances Ecclesiastiques (Ecclesiastical Ordinances).
These Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the Reformed Church of Geneva became the foundation for the further development of Reformed Church Order during the century that followed the Reformation. This culminated in the adoption of the Church Order of Dort by the famous Synod of Dort (1618-1619). So the Church Order stems from Calvin’s formulation of the biblical principles of church polity, and is therefore a Reformation document.
What needs to be understood about this Calvinist Church Order, however, is that it is not merely a collection of human rules. Each individual article, and the Church Order as a whole, is an expression of principles extracted from the Word of God, and is therefore a compendium of Scripture’s teachings regarding the government of God’s church. Let’s briefly examine these biblical principles that are embedded throughout the Church Order.
1. Christ alone is the King of the church, a church purchased with His blood.
The church is not a democracy. Instead, it is a theocracy, governed directly by the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. His Word alone (sola Scriptura) is the rule by which He governs His church. Even though there is a democratic element in the election of office-bearers, the church is emphatically not governed by the people and for the people. Rather, it is governed by Christ and for the glory of Christ.
2. Scripture alone – sola Scriptura – has authority in the church.
Clearly, a church that belongs to Christ and is governed by Him has the Word of God as her constitution. The express objective of the Church Order, therefore, is to ensure that God’s Word has the final word in all ecclesiastical procedures and decisions. When this is correctly and faithfully followed, the church will consistently honor the Word of her King.
3. Each local church is autonomous; it is a unique and complete manifestation of the body of Christ.
The Church Order recognizes that the church of Jesus Christ functions at the local level, and that each local congregation is a genuine, complete, and self-governing manifestation of the body of Christ. This means that one congregation in a denomination has no jurisdiction regarding the affairs of another congregation.
4. Each local church is an equally valid manifestation of the body of Christ.
The Church Order treats all churches within a denomination as equals. Small congregations have the same rights and privileges as large congregations. This is a practical application of principle #3.
5. Christ’s official ministry in the church functions by way of the office-bearers of the local church.
Church Order captures the teaching of Scripture that Christ is the great Office-bearer of His church, and that He shepherds His flocks as her Prophet, Priest, and King. As the exalted Christ, He is at the right hand of His Father, and on earth He has delegated this task to the duly elected office-bearers. Since Christ has three offices, the Church Order stipulates that these three offices must function in the church by men who will serve as ministers (prophetic office), deacons (priestly office), and elders (kingly office).
6. Christ’s authority is vested in the local church and its office-bearers.
This is another logical inference from the fact that the church functions at the local level. Officebearers are called by and serve the local church, and hold their office only in connection with that local congregation.
7. The office-bearers of the local church have no authority beyond her boundaries.
Office-bearers hold their office in the local church from which they have been chosen and to which they are accountable. This means that their jurisdiction is limited to this local congregation, and they have no authority beyond the boundaries of this congregation.
8. A local body of believers only becomes a legitimate manifestation of the body of Christ when the offices of Christ are instituted by the ordination of office-bearers.
Christ governs and shepherds His church through officebearers, and a gathering of believers can only be considered a local manifestation of the body of Christ when these offices are legitimately functioning within this body of believers. Therefore a criterion for determining whether a gathering of believers can be organized as an autonomous congregation is whether it can be ascertained with reasonable certainty that there are men whose godliness is beyond reproach and who appear to have the necessary gifts to serve the body of Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1).
9. The members of the local church are all office-bearers in the sense that they bear the office of all believers.
Since all members are office-bearers in that sense, the Church Order seeks to involve the membership of the congregation as often as possible in the government of the congregation. It also recognizes that the special offices of the local church – the offices of minister, deacon, and elder – arise from the office of all believers.
10. The local church must federate with other local churches of like confession to give expression to Christ’s mandate that His body be one.
The genius of Reformed church polity is that, while it recognizes the autonomy of the local church, it also recognizes the biblical obligation of local churches to manifest the unity of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the duty of local churches to federate with like-minded churches.
Through such federation of churches the universality of Christ’s church becomes visible as an answer to Christ’s prayer, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21).
11. The authority of the major assemblies of a federation of churches (denomination) is derived from the local churches and only functions when these assemblies are convened.
Since the church of the Lord Jesus Christ functions at the local level, His authority in the church also functions at the local level via her duly elected office-bearers. So when delegates from local churches of a denomination gather in major assemblies (i.e., Classis and/or Synod), the authority of the local churches will function corporately. The authority of such major assemblies is therefore delegated authority and ceases to function upon the conclusion of a major assembly. Only in local churches does the exercise of Christ’s authority function permanently.
12. The authority to do the work of the church is vested exclusively with the local church:
- the preaching of the gospel;
- the administration of the sacraments;
- the election & ordination of office-bearers; and
- the exercise of Christian discipline.
This is simply an affirmation that the local church is autonomous, and that the life and ministry of the church functions primarily and pre-eminently at the local level.
13. Major assemblies exist for the benefit of the local churches – not vice versa.
The agenda of the broader assemblies is generated by the local churches, and the broader assemblies use their collective wisdom for the benefit of the local churches. The broader assemblies are responsive bodies; that is, they respond to that which is initiated by the local churches. They are forbidden by the Church Order to initiate action apart from there being an overture by the local churches. The denomination and its broader assemblies exist for the benefit of the local churches.
This concludes a brief summation of the major biblical principles articulated and fleshed out in the Church Order. The Church Order is neither an inspired document nor a doctrinal standard, but it is firmly rooted in Scripture and has served the Reformed churches well for four centuries. These principles are timeless and of abiding importance; the challenge facing the church today is to address our issues and challenges within the context of a document so carefully crafted by our forefathers.
Faithful and consistent adherence to this Church Order will guarantee that the kingship of Christ functions clearly in the churches and that the Holy Scriptures are the nonnegotiable standard whereby the church orders all of her activity. May the Lord grant that everything in our churches continues to “be done decently, and in order ... For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:40, 33).