Rev. Coleborn is a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.
For a better understanding of our Reformed heritage, we will briefly attempt to compare the practices or church orders of the historic Continental Reformed churches as found in the Order of Dordrecht (Dordt), and the historic Reformed church (Westminster), as found in the Practice of the Church of Scotland.
The Great Points of Agreement
Both orders (the Scots tend to use the term “practice”) spring from common root concepts and principles. Firstly, both see that the life of the community of the saints must be ordered and arranged according to Christ’s prescription, and not to man’s. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. He from all eternity has embraced in covenant His people, and by His work has redeemed them to Himself. He rules over the church that He loves and gave Himself to ransom. Our life under the order of the church is thus tied to Almighty God and His sovereignty over us.
Secondly, both have historically viewed the establishment of the life and government of the church as principally by Christ’s apostles, and thus with Christ’s authority. The ordering of the affairs of the church on earth as she lives as a holy society is thus built on God’s revelation to us. Both orders, then, see the apostolic rules and regulations as normative and authoritative for us until Christ comes again. It is part of our confession that we believe in a holy and apostolic church! Both orders recognize that it is Scripture alone which is the basis of our practice.
In the third place, both Dordt and Westminster owe a great common debt to John Calvin. The basic concepts behind Dordt and Westminster come down to us via Calvin. He greatly influenced the formulators of the orders of the Reformed Churches of the Continent and Scotland. Men such as a’ Lasco, Knox, Andrew Melville, Olevianus, Acronius, Walaeus, Trigland, and Voetius were all indebted to Calvin and the light of the Word of God he had, not only on the truth of God generally, but also on the matter of the arrangement of the affairs of the visible body of the church in the world.
There are some areas where there are apparent differences between the two orders. However, closer examination shows a marked degree of unity of principle, if not the same outworking of the principle. There are several instances to illustrate this.
The Discipline of Pastors and Members
The Order of Dordt is understood to make the consistory or session the radical court of the church. It is said that one “acid test” of this is that the consistory can discipline its pastor. On the other hand, it is understood that the Westminster Practice does not allow a session to discipline its pastor. Only presbytery can do that. Again, it is said that, under Dordt, classis cannot discipline members within its bounds, for classis is a voluntary union. On the other hand, under Westminster, presbytery can discipline members within its bounds. At first glance, it seems that this is a difference of principle in the two orders.
As we examine the matter more closely, however, we find that the difference is perhaps more that of administration and emphasis than of principle! For example, the Westminster/Scottish practice plainly declares: “The kirk session, being properly the only radical church judicature, not consisting of delegate, but of perpetual and fixed members, cannot be at any time dissolved, but by themselves are adjourned from time to time. . .” (“Collection and Observations Methodized,” etc., Title VIII, No. 35, page 242). Both thus principally agree that the session/consistory is the radical court of the church.
But what of the matter of the discipline of ministers and members? Is there not a big difference of principle there? In answer we ask, how can it be, when Article 53 teaches that classis can suspend ministers from office? The Order of Dordt (Articles 76 and 79), teaches that, though a local Consistory exercises discipline of its members and minister, it cannot excommunicate without the advice of Classis, and in the case of the discipline of a minister, elder, or deacon, the Consistory is restrained from suspending or deposing from office until they have the approval of the nearest adjoining consistory. No consistory may act alone. But note, a Westminster man sees officers from two consistories principally forming a classis! Thus, do we not find in both cases that the consistory (Dordt) and the session (Westminster) are restrained from unilateral action? Do we not here see the principle of the need of supervision and advice in the serious matter of the discipline of an officebearer in the context of a broader assembly of “officebearers than the local court?
Further to this, under the Westminster order, in contrast to Dordt, a session cannot proceed of itself to the actual discipline of a minister. It can yet both admonish its pastor as a brother elder and instigate disciplinary processes against him in the event ‘of a misdemeanor. The session is only restrained in the trial of him. The trial must be held before the presbytery. Surely, the principle is very close in both cases, and the differences are that of the practical outworking of the principle. In addition to this point, if a classis or synod find a congregation erring willfully outside the Three Forms of Unity and the Order, they can be declared outside the denomination that is, “out of communion” with the rest of the denomination. Is not this a form of “excommunication”? Can it not be argued that this is in fact a form of discipline? The order of Dordt speaks of classis/synod being able to settle and bind matters (Art. 31). This speaks of an authority and power of the major courts apart from the consistory. Thus classis and synod are not merely advisory bodies to independent congregations, but act similarly to presbytery and synod, with actual delegated authority.
Higher/Lower or Broader/Narrow Courts
A difference is often seen behind the language used to describe the various church courts. Westminster Presbyterians often refer to their courts as “higher” or “lower.” Some who follow the Order of Dordt use the language of “broader” and “narrower,” although the Order itself uses the terms “minor” and “major” (Arts. 30, 31). No essential difference of principle should be seen in this different language. The Westminster/Scottish practice understands “higher” only in the sense that such a court has greater authority because of the larger number of congregations represented at it. The greater the number of congregations represented, the greater or “higher” its authority. Is not this precisely the thinking behind the use of the words “broader” and “narrower”? The Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland brings this point out. It speaks of “the Eldership” as governing the church at a local, regional, and national level. The National Assembly was’ called n the General Eldership of the Whole Church within the realm” (Ch. VII). There is no hierarchy here.
Moderators/Presidents Between Meetings of Major Courts
It is suggested that a principled difference between Dordt and Westminster’s practice is seen in the Dordt order teaching that the office of president (moderator) ceases when the assembly arises. Under the Westminster scheme, the moderator remains in office with delegated authority between presbyteries/synods. However, Articles 44 and 49 make it clear that classis/synod can also appoint officers with ongoing authority of the broader court between meetings of that assembly. Again, is this a matter of difference of principle, or a difference of administration?
Historical Agreement but Contemporary Divergence Catechism Preaching
There are instances of agreement in the past between the two practices, but in time the churches have drifted apart in their once common order. For example, the systematic preaching of God’s Word on the basis of the respective Catechisms was once common to both churches. However, this practice has been forgotten by most Presbyterians today. Book II, “Collection and Observations,” etc. No. 13, page 256, states: “Ministers are to preach catechetical doctrine, besides their ordinary work of catechising, in such manner as they find most conducive to the edification of their flocks . . . .” The Order of Dordt (Art. 68) makes a similar requirement. There are still Presbyterian Churches, though, such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, where catechetical preaching is still to be. found.
Modification of Concepts and Terms
There are also instances where the original agreement has altered because of changes made to the practice/order by a denomination. For example, some, following Dordt, have altered the word and description, “church,” to, “churches” (Preface to PRC Order in re Article 86).
The Civil Magistrates
Once, the two practices/ orders were more or less identical, at least in principle, in allowing a qualified involvement of the civil magistrate in the functioning of the church’s affair. Both reject the heresy of Erastianism. Yet originally both the Westminster/ Scottish and the Continental, as seen in the Belgic Confession Article XXXVI, and the Westminster Confession, Ch. XXIII, allowed a role for the Christian magistrate in relation to the life of the church. For example, they allowed the civil magistrate to call assemblies of the church to meet, so as to be advised by them, etc. The Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Assembly were, in fact, such extraordinary gatherings. It is hard to ascertain how consistently this matter is held to by the churches under Dordt today. Such churches as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church still subscribe to this principle.
Recognized Differences of Principle Term or Permanent Offices
There appear to be several principled differences between the two practices. Probably the most significant example is the matter of term eldership and deaconship (Dordt, Art. 27). The Westminster/Scottish view is perpetual office. Nevertheless, there is appreciation for aspects of the Dordt view by the Westminster practice. In some instances, where there are sufficient elders, Westminster allows a rotation of elders in a congregation (“Collections and Observations Methodized,” etc. Title VII, No. 10, page 211). So, although there appears to be a principled difference on this matter, we should bear in mind that it is one of long standing between the Reformed Churches of the Continent and Britain. Nevertheless, it never became an issue of division between them and, ironically in this case, the practice could be very close even though the principle is different!
Responsibility for the Preaching
Under the Order or Dordt, the consistory must approve, and be responsible for, whoever occupies the pulpit. Under the Scottish, the minister is seen as responsible and answerable to the Presbytery. Of course, the local session may admonish their minister if they feel that he has erred in preaching, or, if more serious, commence proceedings against him before the Presbytery.
Another example of where there is a clear difference of principle is in the matter of observance of “holy days.” Article 67 of the Order of Dordt requires the keeping of them. The Westminster/Scottish practice, while allowing for occasional days for thanksgiving or fasting, yet outlaws all “holy days” (“The Directory for Public Worship, Touching Days,” etc). What is the attitude of the historic Reformed Church of Scotland to such matters of difference? They saw them as very serious, and dissented over them, yet they did not break communion with such churches who kept them. This can be seen when the Church of Scotland wrote to the Swiss Churches warmly approving the Second Helvetic Confession, but with this qualification: “(They) take exception to those festivals of our Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, ascension and sending the Holy Ghost upon His disciples. These festivals… obtain no place among us, for we dare not religiously celebrate any other feast-day among us than what the divine oracles have prescribed”‘ (“The First Book of Discipline,” Ed. J. K. Cameron, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh, page 88, fn. 10).
Song in Worship
Article 76 of Dordt allows songs other than the Scriptures to be sung in the public worship of God. The Westminster/Scottish allows only the 150 Psalms to be sung in the public worship of God (“Directory for Public Worship: The Singing of the Psalms”).
There are other differences between the two orders, such as the Westminster providing for an Ecumenical Synod. However, as far as the present writer understands, these differences are apparently not differences of basic principle, but simply one practice choosing to address a matter, and the other not choosing to do so.
Let us remember that, whilst there are certainly some things in which the two orders/practices differ, they yet have much in common. Basically, so it seems to the writer, with only several exceptions, the two agree. Are not the differences, which are all too often thought to be substantial, really only differences of administration rather than essential principles?
Historically, the two orders/practices did not arise in isolation from one another. When the two practices were being defined, there was a walk together and an interaction between the churches of Britain and the Continent. They understood one another, although disagreeing on some points. The churches historically have had a closeness, and have mutually respected one another. They were not antagonists but fellow pilgrims of the same essential like precious faith, who sought, even with some differences, to edify one another and to strengthen one another’s hand where they could.
In the basic concepts of the two church orders, the Reformed churches of Scotland and the Continent essentially held to, and were motivated by, the same grand principles of Gods glory and of the Scripture as our only rule. They saw Christ as the sole Head of the church; that He has an exclusive right to appoint all her laws and ordinances of worship and service; that all administrations in His house are to be performed in His name and by His authority; and that we His servants, in the proper line of our office, do not act by the authority of or by the delegation from any earthly prince or legislature but by Christ speaking to us in His Word alone! (See Dr. T. M’Crie’s “STATEMENT,” page 81.)