Rev. Cammenga is pastorof Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

“The missionary work of the churches is regulated by the general synod in a mission order.”

Church Order, Article 51

The Missionary Task of the Churches

Article 51 deals with the fundamental work of the church—the preaching of the glorious gospel to the ends of the earth. To that work she has been called by the ascended Lord Jesus Christ: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15, 16). To that command of Christ the apostles were obedient: “And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” (Mark 16:20). And to that command of Christ the Reformed church today is obedient, bringing the good news of the sovereign grace of God in Christ Jesus far and wide. 

This article makes plain that the Reformed faith is not inimical to missions. It makes plain that Reformed churches do not consider mission work a frill, an extra-curricular ecclesiastical activity that the church may or may not choose to be involved in. It makes plain that there is to be no suspicion cast upon mission work, as if missions necessarily involves the church in compromise—belittling of the truth for the sake of numbers.

Missions is the task of the church. Missions is at the very heart of the work to which God calls the church. That is as much true today as it was in the days of the apostles. 

The Protestant Reformed Churches consider missions to be a vital aspect of the calling that these churches have before God. They give expression to that in the “Preamble” of the “Constitution” of their denominational Mission Committee.

The Protestant Reformed Churches believe that, in obedience to the command of Christ, the King of the church, to preach the blessed Gospel to all creatures, baptizing, and. teaching them to observe all things which Christ has commanded; it is the explicit duty and sacred privilege of said churches to carry out this calling according to the measure of our God-given ability.

From the very beginning of their existence, these churches have been active in performing their missionary calling both in our own country and abroad. They have always stood ready to help any who have made pleas for help, pursuing every opportunity for witness that the Lord has provided. 

The calling to missions is the calling that God has given to the church. This fundamental principle of Reformed missions is incorporated into Article 51 inasmuch as the article speaks of “The missionary work of the churches…. “

Missionary work is not the task of individuals, although certainly every believer is to be a witness for Jesus Christ and to be ready at all times to give a reason for the hope that is in him to those who might ask him concerning that hope (I Pet. 3:15). Missionary work is not either the calling of independent mission societies, not directly accountable to the church or supervised by the church. That mission societies have so much, taken over mission work goes a long way to explaining why the “gospel” that is being brought on the mission fields today is not “the gospel” but is “another gospel.” 

But mission work is the calling of the church. It was the congregation at Antioch that sent out Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey (Acts 13). It is significant that the Holy Spirit did not call Paul and Barnabas directly, but called them through the church. Paul recognized the authority of the church at Antioch, too, always returning to Antioch and reporting to them at the end of each missionary journey. 

Background to Article 51

Our present Article 51 was not an original article in theChurch Order of Dordt. Originally Article 51, as well as Article 52, dealt with the relationship between the Dutch-speaking churches of the Netherlands and the French-speaking churches (the Walloon churches) in the south of the Netherlands, what is now Belgium. Article 51 in the Church Order of Dordt reads: “Since two languages are spoken in the Netherlands, it is considered good that the churches using the Dutch and Walloon languages have their own consistories, classical meetings, and particular synods.” 

The original article provided for separate ecclesiastical gatherings, the Dutch and French-speaking churches to have separate consistory, classical, and particular synod meetings. The one assembly that they would have in common would be the general synod, which was to meet every three years. 

This article did not apply to the situation in the Christian Reformed Church. In their 1914 revision of the Church Order, therefore, the Christian Reformed Church thoroughly revised Article 51. That revision, made in the Dutch language, read: “De arbeid der kerkelijke Zending onder de heidenen and ]oden wordt door de Generale Synode in eene Zendings order geregeld.” The translation would be: “The task of ecclesiastical missions among the heathen and the Jews is to be regulated by the General Synod in a mission order.”

Significantly, the new Article 51 spoke of mission work “among the heathen and the Jews,” that is, foreign mission work. The reason for this is that in her earlier history the classes of the Christian Reformed Church regulated what we would call “home” or “domestic” mission work. In the revision and English translation of its Church Order in 1920, the Christian Reformed Church dropped the reference to “the heathen and the Jews,” so that the article was now made to refer to mission work generally. 

Article 51 of the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches is substantially the 1920 revision of the Christian Reformed Church. There is one notable difference. Whereas the 1920 version of the Christian Reformed Church spoke of the missionary work of the “church” (singular), our Article 51 speaks of the missionary work of the “churches” (plural). The explanation for this change is our conviction that missionary work, inasmuch as it is the preaching of the gospel, is the task of the local congregation, the churches, although regulated by the churches in common. 

Synodical “Regulation” of Mission Work

Article 51 requires that the missionary work of the churches be “regulated” by the general synod of the denomination. What is the significance of synodical regulation of missions? 

The article clearly intends to distinguish between “regulate” and “perform.” Synod regulatesdenominational mission work; synod does not, synod cannot, perform mission work. The performance of the work of missions is by the local church. 

The principle here ought to be obvious. The work of missions is the work of the preaching of the gospel. No major assembly has the right to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments. That duty belongs to the local congregation, under the supervision of the elders of that congregation. Classis and synod are not super-churches or super-consistories. They cannot call and send out missionaries. The work of preaching the gospel, of calling and sending a missionary preacher, that is, the exercise of the keys of the kingdom, belongs strictly to the local congregation and its consistory.

This is not to say that synod has no calling in missions, and that synodical involvement of any sort is intrusive and hierarchical. As is the case throughout ourChurch Order, so also in Article 51, the autonomy of the local congregation is preserved and at the same time the authority of the broader assemblies. Synod may not perform mission work, but synod doesregulate denominational mission work. 

The principle reason for synodical regulation of missions is the unity of the churches. Bound as they are by a common faith and order, it necessarily follows that the churches express and maintain their unity in the pursuit of missions. For a congregation to go it alone, to labor in missions on its own, altogether apart from the rest of the churches of the denomination, is independentism. And independentism—however and wherever it shows itself—is anathema to Reformed churches. As churches we stand together under Christ our Head, also in the work of missions. 

Besides this principle reason for synodical regulation of missions, there is also a practical reason. That practical reason is simply that what one congregation of limited means and manpower would find impossible to carry out, the churches together are able to do. The pooling of resources and the sharing of the burden of the work compel the churches to labor cooperatively in missions. 

The “Mission Order”

Synod regulates the work of missions through a “mission order.” The reference is to denominational committees or boards that are appointed by synod and accountable to synod. In the name of synod, they regulate the mission work of the churches. 

The Protestant Reformed Churches have two such denominational mission committees, each functioning under a synodically approved constitution. 

The Domestic Mission Committee oversees the home mission work of our churches, generally a work in our own country or a work among those who in their generations have had the gospel. The members of this committee are from Classis East, generally living in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. The committee consists of ten men—five ministers and five elders or ex-elders. 

Currently, the Domestic Mission Committee is busy regulating the work of two missionaries. In conjunction with the Loveland, Colorado congregation, the committee oversees the labors of missionary Rev. Thomas Miersma, who is laboring in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. In conjunction with the Hudsonville, Michigan congregation, the committee oversees the labors of Rev. Ronald Hanko, who is denominational missionary in Northern Ireland. 

Foreign mission work is regulated by the Foreign Mission Committee of our denomination. This committee is made up of men from Classis West, ministers and elders or ex-elders from northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota. For a number of years this committee oversaw the denominational mission work in the country of Singapore, work that God blessed in the organization of our sister-churches, the Evangelical Reformed Churches of Singapore. In the last couple of years the Foreign Mission Committee has aggressively been pursuing the possibilities of labor in Ghana, Africa. Recently a delegation from the Foreign Mission Committee spent nearly a month in Ghana, preaching, teaching, and making contacts. Undoubtedly recommendations from the committee will be presented to synod 1995 regarding the future of this work.

May God continue to bless the mission labors of our churches. May He give strength and wisdom to our missionaries, to the calling consistories, and to the mission committees. May we as churches continue to be used, and be willing to be used, for the spread of the gospel in all the world.