Peace Through Order: The Church Order
Some reflection on the Reformed Church Order is also needed. The General Synod of Groningen- South (1978) decided to make the Church Order part of our Book of Praise. This makes it relevant to include a short discussion on it within the framework of this book.
The Church Order plays an important role in the Reformed churches. These churches accept the Bible and the confessions as their foundation. Besides this, it can be said that the communal life of these churches is regulated by the Church Order.
Various articles of the Church Order have been discussed in the previous Outlines. This Outline will deal with the Church Order as a whole. What is it, and what does it regulate? In what sense does a Reformed Church Order differ from those of other denominations? Do the Bible and the confessions contain specific instructions about the regulation of church life? We shall try to answer the above questions.
B. What is a Church Order?
The church is the property of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. HC, Q&A 54), who rules over her. Whenever church life is regulated by all sorts of practical rules, justice must be done to the will of Christ, who has revealed his will in the Holy Bible. Scripture speaks about the church, offices, preaching, sacraments, discipline, and the mutual bond between the local churches.
The Scriptures does not specify how everything must be put into practice, e.g. how to become a minister, for what time period elders and deacons should stay in office, how discipline problems should be dealt with, and how the churches must deal with one another.
In the Old Testament, the church did receive detailed comprehensive instructions. As a responsible church of Christ, she is now permitted to make regulations that do justice to the will of the Lord.
The Church Order contains specific regulations and numerous practical rules which, although they cannot be traced directly back to the Bible and the confessions, are based on this foundation.
C. Function of the Church Order
The Church Order functions only within a healthy Reformed church life, where there is unity of faith. It is essential in the life of the church in order to prevent chaos (see next section).
The churches have agreed to adopt the articles of the Church Order “with common accord” (CO, Art. 76). It protects the church from independentism, i.e. the idea that each church is independent of other churches and is free to handle her business however she sees fit.
The Church Order should not be perceived as a law book. It cannot be seen as such because it has derived its regulations from the Bible. Only statutes which can be attributed directly to the Bible have the authority of God’s law.
Decisions made by the church may never stand in the way of the Word of God. A clear example can be found in Article 31: the decision of an assembly is binding “unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order”, thus never at the expense of the Word of God or the confessions. The Bible has the last word.
Article 32 of the Belgic Confession warns against perceiving the Church Order as a human law book which may interfere with obedience to Christ. This is the danger of hierarchy, where ministers or ecclesiastical assemblies have their rules come between Christ and his congregation and rule over the congregation with their own ideas.
The Church Order is a general ruling, which does not stipulate more than is required and may be adapted to accommodate special cases.
A Church Order is clearly not a confession, but it is closely connected to it and guards the preservation of the confessions. Although some situations could be regulated differently, the Reformed Churches using the Book of Praise have chosen this ruling “with common consent” (see W.W.J. VanOene, With Common Consent). Through the passage of time, some rules have changed or disappeared completely because they became outdated. Examples from the Church Order of Dort include: Article 51 about the relationship between the churches in the Netherlands and those in the Dutch East Indies, and Article 52 about mission work in the former Dutch East Indies.
D. The aims of the Church Order
In Article 1, the Church Order explains its objective: “For the maintenance of good order in the Church of Christ....”
The aim is the maintenance of order in the church. God values order in the congregation, as is convincingly shown in the Old Testament.
Leviticus 1-7 For every offering there is a prescribed ritual.
Leviticus 10: 1-2 Nadab and Abihu “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command.”
Numbers 2 The tribes must gather around the tabernacle in an orderly fashion and a prescribed order.
2 Samuel 6:6-7 The precept was that the ark should be carried.
The New Testament upholds order as well.
Colossians 2:5 Paul is pleased that order is maintained in the congregation.
1 Corinthians 14:40 A fitting way (as it ought to be) and an orderly way go hand in hand.
1 Corinthians 14:33 The opposite of disorder is peace.
Article 1 has taken the expression “good order” from 1 Corinthians 14:40 (RSV). But this designated order is not a goal in itself. It is clear that this order is to serve peace in the church (1 Corinthians 14:33). A church or church member who breaches this order and creates disorder endangers or destroys peace with God and fellow members.
The Church Order is an instrument to guarantee true peace in the church.
E. Other systems of church ruling
There are views that differ from the Reformed belief about how a church should be organized and governed. Most well-known are the hierarchical system and the independent system.
1. The hierarchical system
The authority of the church is vested in the leaders of the church or the church assemblies. This system can be found in:
- The Roman Catholic Church, where the pope executes the ruling power, mostly in conjunction with the councils. In 1870 the pope was declared infallible (when he spoke “Ex cathedra”, i.e. from his chair, authoritatively). He was said to be vested with conclusive legislative powers and absolute ruling power over the universal Roman Catholic Church. Independent local churches are not recognized.
- The Synodical Reformed Church, where the general synod executes the power of rule. Local churches are subject to the rules of the synod. Hierarchical church polity reared its head with the 1926 deposition of Dr. J.G. Geelkerken (a Dutch minister who questioned the historicity of Genesis 2 and 3 and was suspended by synod), and gained momentum in 1942-1944, resulting in the Liberation. It is now established in these (synodical) churches in their Revised Church Order.
- The Netherlands Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde Kerk). According to the New Church Order (1951) the highest (ecclesiastical) authority is the national synod. It acts as the governing body over the local dependent churches.
2. The independentistic (congregationalistic) system
In this system, every congregation (group of believers) is independent and regulates its own church life. There are no sister church relationships nor is there a church federation. The congregations can meet in conferences, but these are not ecclesiastical assemblies having binding authority. This system is found, amongst others, in Baptist churches.
Independentism is also recognizable in the Dutch Reformed Churches (Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken). These churches have a federation that is regulated in the “Akkoord van Kerkelijk Samenleven”. According to its preamble, participation in the federation is not mandatory. Local churches having objections to the “Akkoord” are only requested to fall in with the majority as much as possible. In this manner, they do not carry any responsibility for the decisions made.
Moreover, the “Akkoord” rules (Art. 34) that churches unable to ratify or execute a decision of the regional or national assembly, if “it would affect the well-being of the congregation, must report this to the sister churches”. In principle, then, no decision is binding.
F. The Reformed Church federation
The Reformed churches live together in a presbyterial federation. They accept that the local congregation, belonging to the body of Christ, is independent and ruled by the consistory (presbyterium). According to the Bible, the consistory has the sole ruling power in the church
Acts 20:28 The elders (consistory) of Ephesus rule the local congregation.
Philippians 1:1 In Philippi, the office bearers rule the congregation.
Together the churches form a federation, in which each church remains independent; at the same time, they experience their unity and oneness in Christ. They watch over and help one another in every way.
They recognize that they are called to the church federation by the Lord. Comprehensive rules for a church federation cannot be found in the New Testament. However, there are clear indications that the local churches belonged together and felt bound to one another through the unity in faith.
Acts 15:1-33 A difference of opinion is discussed and solved within the church at Jerusalem; the solution is communicated to the other churches and is valid for them as well.
2 Corinthians 8-9 The church in Corinth financially helps the church in Jerusalem.
Colossians 4:16 Paul’s letter to one church is also meant for the other churches.
Titus 1:5 Titus installs elders in all local churches.
James 1:1 James sends a common letter to many churches.
1 Peter 1:1 Peter also follows this procedure.
Revelation 1:12 - 16 All the churches (“candlesticks”) find their unity in Christ.
When Article 1 mentions “the Church of Christ”, it refers to all local churches as well as all the churches within the federation. This reminds us of Christ, who spoke of “my church” in her universality (Matthew 16:18) and of “the church” locally (Matthew 18:17).
G. The content of the Church Order
The foundation of the Reformed Church Order was laid at a time when the church was being persecuted and many of her ministers had fled to other countries. The first articles were formulated at the Convent of Wezel (1568). By means of various synods, i.e. Emden (1571), Dordrecht (1574), Middelburg (1581) and ‘s-Gravenhage (1586), the final declaration took place at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).
The Roman Catholic law book was completely set aside. In spite of later revisions, the point of departure of the Church Order of Dort has not changed to this day. The last review was completed by General Synod Cloverdale 1983 (Acts, Art. 91, p. 56).1
I. Introduction: Article 1 identifies the subjects dealt with in the Church Order
II. Offices and supervision of doctrine: Articles 2-28
III. The assemblies: Articles 29-51
IV. Worship, sacraments, and ceremonies: Articles 52-65
V. Christian discipline: Articles 66-74
This is followed by two closing articles: Property of the Churches (Article 75) and Observances and Revision of the Church Order (Article 76). Some of these sections will be further dealt with below.
Article 6 : The church does not recognize the concept of ‘unattached’ ministers. Every minister needs a consistory which supervises his doctrine and conduct.
Article 13: The church a retired minister served last shall provide honourably for his support.
Articles 26: The confessions are the collective property of the churches and must be protected from the whims of ministers.
Article 28: Compare Article 36 of the Belgic Confession with this article.
The ecclesiastical assemblies
Article 29: The consistory, made up of office bearers, is the only ruling power. Classis, regional synod, and general synod are not bodies of directors in the church, but assemblies during which the churches meet, by means of delegates, to regulate their mutual business and make decisions.
Article 30: Church assemblies should not concern themselves with political or other non-church related matters.
Article 31: “Minor” and “major” do not refer to degrees of authority but to the number of churches working together in the ecclesiastical assemblies. In a classis, fewer churches are represented than in a regional synod. In a general synod, all the churches work together.
Local churches examine the decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies that are important to them and ratify these rulings. In this way they accept the decisions as binding.
They have the right to declare decisions non-binding, but then have the Christian duty to register an appeal to repeal any faulty decisions. Otherwise, these decisions may lead to a break within the church federation.
This article protects against hierarchy and independentism. It has been called “the heart of Reformed church rule”.
Article 38: Officially, the deacons are not part of the consistory.
Article 44: A classis is held four times annually, a regional synod once annually, and a general synod once every three years. The major assemblies are held less frequently than the minor ones. The most active expression of church federation is found among neighbouring churches.
Article 46: Official church visitation is an excellent venue for the churches to watch over one another, for assistance and encouragement. The format of the visitation is determined by questions which are based on a guide drawn up by classis. The questions pertain to the offices and the entire life of the church.
The supervision of doctrine and the worship service
Article 58: Office bearers must supervise the duties of the parents.
Article 62: An attestation bears witness to a member’s doctrine and conduct.
Article 73: Mutual supervision is mostly limited to “censura morum” or “censura fraterna” held before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
In this section, the manner of discipline is stipulated, as discussed in Outline 6.
Article 74: The churches are independent and do not tolerate hierarchy.
Article 76: They are, in principle, opposed to the other extreme, namely, independentism.
The Church Order is a regulation for the practical matters in the local church and in the church federation. It is not a law book, enforced upon the churches. Rather, the churches make decisions “with common consent”2. In doing so, they endeavour to fulfill Christ’s will and rights. As an indispensable means to defend the peace in the church, the Church Order protects the church from hierarchy and independentism.
I. Tips for the introduction
- By referring to church historical events (e.g. the Reformation of the 16th century, the Liberation of 1944, the strife of the 1960s), show in your introduction how hierarchy, as well as independentism, will destroy the church.
- Describe the benefits of living in a church federation, by elaborating on a central point (e.g. the ecclesiastical assemblies - Article 29, or church visitors - Article 46). The minister or the clerk of the consistory will be able to obtain the classical ruling regarding church visitors.
- Try to suggest a few articles that could have been worded differently. Compare our Church Order with that of the Free Reformed Church (in Canada), or the Church Order of a foreign church.
J. For discussion
- Why can a Church Order not function when there is no longer a common confession? Give examples taken from history.
- The General Synod of Assen (1926) was not allowed to depose Geelkerken, minister of the church at Amsterdam. He deserved deposition, but his consistory would not consent. What should the synod have done?
- What are the practical implications of not regarding the Church Order as a law book for the churches (see section E)? What degree of freedom do the churches have, e.g. with regards to the liturgy?
- May the consistory involve itself with assistance to non-church members, such as the homeless or AIDS patients?
May Reformed general synods publish a public (pastoral) message about an important issue? In this connection one could think of making an appeal to the national churches to refrain from Scriptural critique, or making a public witness about the Scriptural view of sexuality and marriage, targeted at modern-day audiences. Should Article 30 be revised?