John à Lasco and the Reformed Church Order
One of the earliest complete Reformed church orders was composed by John à Lasco shortly after 1550. 1 Intended for use by the refugee churches in London, it was employed also by other Reformed churches in continental Europe. The order was popular especially in the lowlands during the formative years of the Dutch Reformed churches in the last decades of the sixteenth century, having been adapted and translated into Dutch by Marten Micronius. While it was not as influential as the ordinances of Geneva and Strasbourg associated with John Calvin, it was one of the main models for the orders decided upon at the convent of Wezel and the synod of Emden, which anticipated the Synod of Dordt in 1618. In this way the London order has come to occupy an important place in the history of the government, structure, and liturgy of Reformed churches of Dutch origin.
The immediate purpose of the order was to provide a Reformed exposition of the institutions and rites of the church for the members of the “Strangers Churches” in London, and for those who observed them from the outside. As the congregations consisted of believers with diverse backgrounds, the order would express their unity in matters of faith and practice. And while the churches were under no obligation to use the rites of the Church of England, they required ordinances which demonstrated to the governing Privy Council that all would be conducted decently and without confusion.
The order also provided an example for other Reformed churches developing ecclesiastical rules. For this reason it was not written to reflect only the circumstances of the London churches. In composing the order à Lasco avoided also the excessive influence of any one branch of the Reformed faith. Besides the earlier church orders of Geneva and Strasbourg, the London order was influenced by the writings of such Reformers as Bullinger and Bucer. Most explicitly, however, the Bible and not the traditional canon law of the Romanist church was the basis for the order.
After all, the founding charter states that the Strangers Churches desired to adhere to “an incorrupt interpretation of the most holy Gospel and administration of the sacraments according to the Word of God and apostolic observance.”
The London order is divided into five sections. These treat the offices of ministry, the proclamation of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, the exercise of church discipline, and special services. In what follows we shall summarize the contents of these sections, noting both those features typical of a Reformed order of the time, and those elements unique to à Lasco’s ordinances. The significance of this order, we shall observe, is that the principles which support it underlie also the modern Reformed church orders which derive, in part, from it. These principles, it will be suggested, should continue to guide the use of the orders in Reformed churches today. We shall conclude, therefore, with some observations about the value which the London order has for its modern counterparts.
Offices of Ministry
The London order contains two special offices: elders (or presbyters) and deacons. The eldership, in turn, is divided into two, namely ministers of the Word and sacraments, and those who govern the congregation. The diaconate, also a biblically ordained and apostolic office, concerns especially the collection and distribution of alms. The minister and the elders comprise the so-called coetus, or meeting, of governors. As this arrangement appears to have been in place in London during the years 1550-1553, some have wondered whether the coetus may be seen as a prototype of Presbyterian government, and whether this regulation was known to the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. At any rate, government of the church by ordained elders meant the formation of a “consistory”, a radical departure from the Romanist model of hierarchy and separation of clergy from laity. In fact, while the duty of the coetus was to consider nominations for a prospective minister, all the communicant members of the congregation participated in the election. This arrangement stresses the corporate responsibility of individual members and their collaboration with the elders.
A striking though not unprecedented office in the order is that of the Superintendent, who presides over the whole rank of special offices. Chosen from this rank, the Superintendent oversees the ministry of the Word, the exercise of the sacraments, and the use of discipline. In less charitable moments, critics have compared this position to that of a bishop. John Calvin wondered whether the Polish Reformer did not exercise too much power over the four London congregations. As Superintendent, à Lasco needed to serve in humility. Very loosely based upon the Lord Jesus Christ’s charge to Peter that he strengthen his fellow disciples, the office of Superintendent concerns especially doctrinal purity and consistency in applying discipline. Given their precarious situation, the London churches benefitted from the Superintendent, who forged unity and order, while also acting as liaison between them and the Privy Council.
Proclamation of the Word
The ministry of the Word concerns the preaching services, training in the catechism, and the so-called prophecies. Regarding the first of these, ministers and elders could call public assemblies of the churches as often as they deemed necessary. Normally, services were held twice every Sunday, and on major holidays. As is typical of a Reformed order, the preaching of the Word is the focus of such services, and ministers were expected to expound upon each book of the Bible, from beginning to end. Afternoon services were dedicated to the proclamation of the gospel as it is summarized in the catechism. Services proper were marked by a liturgy not unlike the ones followed in modern Reformed churches, although the participation of the members was greater. Recitations of the prayer of confession, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer attest to the involvement of the entire congregation in the worship service.
Training in the catechism was an important component of the ministry of the Word. From the age of five until fourteen, children were taught the Smaller Catechism, which consisted of 130 questions. Young people then learned the 250 questions of the Greater Catechism, and every Sunday afternoon some recited the question and answer which formed the focus of the sermon. Such training was intended to prepare young people for the public profession of their faith, whereupon they would be admitted to full membership, including participation in the Lord’s Supper.
The “prophecy” was an important element in the weekly life of the congregation also. On Thursday, every member was required to attend this meeting, which served for a “public comparison of the scriptures and a reinforcement of the teaching contained in the sermons (81).” Taken over from Zwingli’s practice in Zurich, the prophecy allowed members to ask both practical and doctrinal questions which arose from the preaching on the previous Sunday. The minister, who had been informed of the questions in advance, was expected to refer extensively to Scripture in expounding further upon the Bible or catechism. In this way the prophecy helped to avert domination by the clergy and misunderstanding within the congregation. It also acquainted non-members, of which there were many in the London churches, with the teachings and rites they observed on Sundays. And in addition to preserving doctrinal unity among the congregations, the prophecy conveyed a message to the Privy Council that the Strangers Churches would not tolerate heretics.
The Two Sacraments
It is not surprising that baptism and the Lord’s Supper receive considerable attention in the London order, for in the sixteenth century the meaning of the two sacraments was much debated. While it resorts to polemics against Anabaptism and Roman Catholicism, the order does promote a clear and balanced understanding of the sacraments. Briefly put, the order treats the sacraments by recounting the Scriptural doctrines of baptism and the Supper, offering biblical guidelines for their administration, and removing any confusion and inconsistency that may arise regarding them.
Considering only baptism, we note that the London order stresses the importance of understanding the biblical basis and doctrine of the sacrament. With frequent references to the Bible, the order teaches how the sacrament is to be understood rightly, and how the Romanist rite errs. Pointing to the mystery of the communion with the Lord Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection as a key expression of baptism, the order seeks to instruct the entire congregation. The parents who bring the infant for baptism are asked whether they profess that the child is a “seed of the church,” whether they believe that by baptism the child receives the seal of the covenant, and whether they assume their responsibility in instructing it in the faith. The covenantal aspect of baptism is impressed upon all the members, who are encouraged to reflect upon the relevance of their own baptism, and to realize their communal duties in the spiritual nurture of the new member. And, to preserve order and decency, parents seeking baptism for their children are required to submit a declaration by two “sponsors” attesting to their good standing.
According to the London order, “church discipline is a certain defined practice, demanded by the scriptures, whereby Christian admonitions from the Word of God are mutually given, gradually, among all the brethren in Christ’s Church, so that the entire body and its individual members can continue to carry out their tasks, insofar as they are able (170).”
Deeming discipline to be the third mark of the church, à Lasco dedicates considerable space to the discussion of the meaning and importance of both private and public discipline. Private discipline is derived from Matthew 18:15-35, and stresses the tasks of the members in preserving the purity of the body of Christ and in encouraging one another.
The process of public discipline, which is exercised only after private admonitions prove futile, is characterized by mercy and patience. Noting that discipline is intended not only for the checking of sin but also for the strengthening of the faith and the exhortation of all, the order differs somewhat from those of Strasbourg and Geneva, which have been described as “judicial” rather than pastoral in these matters. Regarding excommunication, for example, the London order states that care must be taken not to remove anyone from the membership roll until all avenues have been exhausted. And even then, excommunication must be applied out of love for the sinners, so that “their spirit can be called back to repentance and they can thus be saved (170).” Discipline is to be used positively in affirming the faith of all members. This understanding is put into practice bi-monthly, when the roll of names is reviewed in anticipation of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, which was restricted to members. In short, like the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, discipline strengthens the faith of the believers.
Special Worship Services
The section dealing with special worship services may be broken into four parts. The first concerns the calling of special assemblies in the event of disaster or a special joy for the entire congregation. Such meetings may be anticipated by a day of fasting, self-examination, and personal prayers of confession. The public service is marked by the proclamation of the gospel and public prayers. The Lord’s Supper may also be celebrated at such occasions. The day on which a special service is held may end with a “prophecy” to exhort the congregation about fasting properly.
The three other kinds of special service are marriage, visitation of the sick, and burial. About marriage the form states that only members may enter wedlock, and that after approval by the “consistory.” If no lawful objections are raised in response to the ban, the wedding is solemnized in simplicity on a Sunday morning. Visitation of the sick focused upon consolation or admonition, as each case required. Public prayers were made for those who were suffering, and again when health was restored. In the burial rite, as in the other services, the London order seeks to avoid the ornate ceremony of Roman Catholicism, keeping a simple service for the edification of the church.
The “church fathers” who gathered at the convent of Wezel in 1568 to plan the formal organization of the Dutch Reformed churches stated that they had consulted the “best reformed church orders.” Among them was the London order and the Dutch adaptation of it, already in use in the Netherlands. It is not easy to determine the extent of the influence of the London order, but it does appear that the composers of the early Dutch ordinances desired especially to adopt the principles which are at work in it. We shall note only three of them here. First, the Reformed church order must be founded upon Scripture; second, it must define the body of Christ and its duties; and third, it must strive to effect practical order.
The first principle of the Reformed order is its biblical basis. This is not a mere platitude of the Reformation, but a genuine profession that the rules for church government and structure are revealed by God in the Bible. In opposition to the Romanist church, which had developed a canon law grounded in papal decrees and decisions of Councils rather than in the Bible, the Reformed order returns to the source of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ and his Word. For this reason, the order points to and reflects the entire gospel of salvation, including the justice of God, his mercy through Christ the Son, and his providence through the Holy Spirit by whom the church is guided. Each ordinance – from the office of ministry to the liturgy – is established upon the Bible. In this way the complete teaching of Scripture is worked out in the organization of the church. And, because the order finds its unity in the Bible, the various ordinances are not divorced from one another, but connected by the doctrines of Scripture. Thus the sacraments, for example, are not explained or employed outside the context of the proclamation of the gospel or the use of Christian discipline. In short, the Reformed order is not a historical “constitution”, a semi-legal document, or a summary of mere practices, but it professes to enact biblical norms in the church, which as the body of Christ is ruled by its Head.
As the Reformed order concerns the body of Christ, it defines what that body is and how it functions. This second principle is explicit especially in the London order and was adopted elsewhere for good reasons. Most importantly, the order distinguishes between members and non-members, to demarcate the body of Christ from those who do not belong to it, while at the same time revealing to non-members how the gospel operates in the life of the congregation. The definition of the body shows also that the jurisdiction of state does not extend to the church: as a divinely instituted organ, the church is governed by the Law of God. And whereas the Roman church had made an improper distinction between clergy and laity, the Reformed order restores the proper place of general and special offices as revealed in Scripture. Since the church consists of all who have been engrafted into the body of Christ, the order should be read and applied by all members of the church. Basing itself upon such passages as Ephesians 4, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Corinthians 11, the order illustrates the corporate responsibilities of all members, who entrust to the special offices the task of preaching, teaching, and oversight.
A third principle supporting the Reformed order is its purpose in producing the practical organization of the church. This important goal is based upon several biblical texts, most notably the injunction in 1 Corinthians 14:40 that “all things should be done decently and in order.” To this end, the London order is pragmatic in working out the principles of the faith in the life of the congregations, making no demands in matters on which Scripture is silent. Such commonsense practicality was not intended to circumvent doctrine, but to put it into effect. Nor does it intend to legislate an inflexible liturgy or ritual; rather, it shows the biblical basis for the proper worship of God. Thus the order seeks to demonstrate the close bond that should exist between the proclamation of the Word and the activities in the congregation. Avoiding confusion in the churches and the temptation to clerical dominance which may follow it, the order desires to make every aspect of the church’s service to God pleasing to Him.
These principles of the Reformed order may be summed up in three Latin words: credenda, agenda, and administranda. Credenda means that the church must believe and confess the Christian faith in its order, which reflects the entire gospel of salvation. Agenda refers to the necessity of putting faith into practice: the body of Christ must serve Him in the manner revealed in his Word. And administranda means that the church must be governed and organized according to the will of its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Let it be our prayer that also in the implementation of their orders modern Reformed churches bring greater praise and glory to the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.