“In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial, that those, who are rulers of the Church, institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church; yet. they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, bath instituted. And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws, which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord, and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose, ex-communication or church discipline is requisite, with the several circumstances belonging to it, according to the Word of God.”
Article XXXII, The Belgic Confession
The brevity of this article on so significant a subject is to-be explained from the fact that the churches of the reformation in the lowlands were in their early, formative years when de Bres wrote the Confession. A Church Order on the basis of the Word of God had not yet been developed. As brief as it may be, however, the Article does state the principles of proper order and discipline in the Church. The Confession speaks of the rulers or officebearers whom Christ ordains in His Church and through whom Christ rules and disciplines His Church. These rulers must institute and establish certain ordinances for maintaining the body of the Church. These ordinances must be only those which Christ, our only Master, has instituted, which is to say, they must be based on the Word of God. All human inventions and laws which bind and compel the conscience are to be rejected. Only that which promotes concord and unity and keeps men in obedience to the Word of God. may be admitted. Finally for this purpose excommunication is requisite. Thus the principles of church order and discipline are clearly set forth. And these principles are either directly taught in the Scriptures or clearly implied therein. But in either case the principles set forth in this little Article of our Confession are thoroughly grounded in the Word of God. And the chief among them is that Jesus Christ, “our only Master,” governs His Body, the (Church.
These principles are articulated in detail in the Church Order Of The Protestant Reformed Churches in America. This Church Order, which consists of some eighty-six articles, is divided into four main sections: articles two through twenty-eight deal with the offices in the Church; articles twenty-nine through fifty-two deal with the Assemblies of the Church (consistory, classis, and synod); Public Worship is treated in Articles fifty-three through seventy; and the last section, articles seventy-one through eighty-six, covers Christian discipline.
A brief sketch of the history of the formation of thisChurch Order is offered by Prof. Herman Hanko in a syllabus available from the Protestant Reformed Seminary Bookstore, entitled, Notes On The Church Order. Writes Prof. Hanko: “John Calvin began the work of enunciating the principles of Reformed Church polity in his reformation in Geneva. Many of these principles are to be found in his monumental and continuously influential. ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion.’ These principles were put into practical use in the new church order which was prepared for the church in Geneva. These were taught in the University of Geneva where students from all over Europe learned them and carried them into lands where: the Calvin reformation had spread. Such men as Beza, a Lasco, John Knox, Andrew Melville, Olevianus carried the Reformed and Presbyterian system of church government into the far comers of Europe.
“If we turn now to the Netherlands where our own church order has its origin, we find that here too men developed the Reformed system of church government under the influence of Calvin. Such men as Acronius, Walaeus, Trigland, and Voetius were leaders in this field.
“The Church Order did not arise mechanically in the churches—the churches coming together and, in an abstract manner, formulating the principles which are embodied in our Church Order. Rather the rules which we now possess arose organically out of the life of the churches. The organization of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands is, to a considerable extent, the work of John a Lasco. ye assisted in the organization of the Dutch Church of the refugees from London and laid down the main lines of church polity and liturgy in his Forma ac Ratio. Soon after Calvinism came to the Lowlands, in the middle of the 16th Century, the first steps were taken towards the organization of Reformed congregations. The churches under the cross in the Southern Lowlands repeatedly assembled in ecclesiastical gatherings from 1563 on. There were no less than ten Synods held in the years 1563-1566. Here the problems of the new church were discussed and the rules stipulated by which the Church would be governed. Directions were taken from the Church Orders of Geneva and France but adapted to the peculiar circumstances of the Churches in the Netherlands.
“Further organization was soon necessary. Many refugees from the fierce persecutions in Spain and France were flooding the Lowlands and the need for a strong national church federation grew. It was in 1568 that a number of refugees came together at Wezel in the autumn of that year to confer together in the interests of the Dutch Church. At this meeting were such men as Datheen, Marnix, Willem van Zuylen. The meeting was not strictly a Synod because the men were not delegated by Churches. But general ordinances for the ecclesiastical life of the Churches were drawn up which might be adopted in more peaceable times in a legal assembly. The hope and prayer of these men was that the persecution which now raged would give way to a period of peace when a Synod could be convened to organize more fully the life of the Church.
“The first Synod was held at Emden (across the border) in 1571. (In Germany because of the fierce persecution which raged in the Lowlands.—R.D.D.) This Synod adopted Article 84 (“. . . no church shall lord it over other churches, etc.” R.D.D.) first of all, deeply conscious of the horror of Romish hierarchy and determined to avoid it at all costs. This Synod clearly guided the Church along the principles which later came to full expression in our Church Order. They maintained that it belonged to the life and order of each individual congregation to regulate its own matters. But they were also conscious of the common heritage and life of the Churches as a whole. And they wanted a Church Order which was based on God’s Word, which preserved the autonomy of each congregation.
“While the regulations adopted at Emden remained in force, other Synods met which made additions and revisions. The following is a list of the important Synods:
1) Dordrecht—1574 and 1578
3) Den Haag—1586
4) Dordrecht—1618-1619. This Synod adopted the Church Order which is substantially the one we have today.
“The greatest difficulty arose in the Netherlands over the question of the State Church. The fact that the Reformed Church in the Netherlands was a state church arose out of the peculiar history of the Reformation in that country. But the Churches often conceded too much authority to the civil government and leaned too much on the government for support. This continued after the Synod of Dordrecht and led to all sorts of trouble. While in various provincial Synods the Church Order was maintained, nevertheless the end of a long and bitter struggle was that the Church Order was discarded in 1816 and replaced by a collegialistic set of ecclesiastical regulations. (defines the church as a loosely knit society of voluntary members, R.D.D.)
“The Afscheiding in 1834 was a return to the Church Order of Dordrecht. This came about only after considerable struggle and suffering. Again in 1886 a group of people under the leadership of Dr. A. Kuyper, known as the ‘Doleantie,’ left the State Church to return to the old Church Order. These two groups of churches were brought together into one denomination in 1892 under the Church Order of Dordrecht. This situation continues till the present.
“Since that time various revisions have been made in the Church Order. This was done in the Netherlands in 1905 at Utrecht and in this country in 1914. But these changes were not essential. Recently the Gereformeerde Kerken made an extensive revision of the Church Order which is quite different from the original: and the Christian Reformed Church has done the same after more than twelve years of study.”