Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
For the maintenance of good order in the church of Christ it is necessary that there should be: offices; assemblies; supervision of doctrine, sacraments and ceremonies; and Christian discipline; of which the following articles treat in due order. Church Order, Article 1.
The Church Order’s View of Church Government
The Church Order is based on a specific view of the proper form of church government. There are especially four prevalent forms of church government.
There is, first of all, the Hierarchical or Episcopal form of Church government. This is the form of church government in the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, and the Episcopal churches. According to this view of church government, the rule of the church is placed in the hands of the clergy, who are arranged in order, according to an ever increasing degree of authority. In the Roman Catholic system the ranks of the clergy culminate in the pope, who is considered to be the infallible vicegerent of Christ on earth. Arranged under the pope, the clergy are divided into two orders: “Major Orders,” including cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, and sub-deacons; and “Minor Orders,” including acolytes, exorcists, readers, and ushers.
Secondly, there is the Erastian form of church government. This form of church government is also known as the Collegial or State- Church system of church government. This system is named after its first proponent, Thomas Erastus (1524-1583), a Swiss physician and follower of the Reformer Zwingli. Erastus held that sinning Christians should be punished by the state, rather than by the church barring them from the sacraments and ultimately excommunicating them. He also held that the state should be entrusted with the government of the church. This view of the government of the church was largely embraced by Martin Luther, and was also adopted by the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, which led to the establishment in the Netherlands of the State-Church.
Thirdly, there is the Congregational or Independent form of church government. According to this system the ruling power in the church has been given by Christ to the people. All the affairs of the local congregation are transacted by majority vote of the sum total of the membership, with no appeal beyond the local congregation possible. Even matters of discipline, the receiving and dismissing of members, is subject to the majority vote of the congregation. It is simply the principle of democracy carried over from the political realm into the church. This is the form of church government practiced by the Congregational churches, as well as by most Baptist and Fundamentalist churches.
Finally, there is the Reformed or Presbyterian form of church government. This is the view of church government that lies at the basis of the Church Order. This was the view of church government that Calvin was instrumental in restoring to the church at the time of the Reformation. This is the view that the proper government of the church consists of certain offices established by Christ in every congregation and the faithful exercise of these offices. This is the view of proper church government embraced by Reformed and Presbyterian churches around the world.
Outstanding Elements of Reformed Church Government
There are several outstanding elements of Reformed church government. The first is certainly that Christ is the Head and King of the church, ruling the church by His Word, Holy Scripture, and by His Spirit. This first article points to this when it calls the church “the church of Christ.” Christ’s rule includes that He shows it to be His will that each congregation be governed by principles which He has laid down in His Word.
A second outstanding principle of Reformed church government is that Christ governs each true congregation through certain men whom it pleases Him to place in the offices He has established in the church. The officebearers receive their authority, not first of all from the membership of the congregation which elects them. But officebearers receive their authority from and are first of all responsible to Jesus Christ, the Head of the church.
Reformed church government is also based on the principle of the autonomy of the local congregation. By this is meant that each local congregation is self-governing. The Reformed faith rejects every form of hierarchy. Each local congregation is an individual and complete manifestation of the body of Christ, equipped with all the requirements of being a church. The offices and the authority of the offices reside in the local congregation. It belongs to the autonomy of the local congregation that the officebearers are chosen out of and by the membership of the congregation. Officebearers are never imposed upon the local congregation. But each congregation chooses its own officebearers.
Reformed churches maintain that in each congregation Christ has instituted the three offices of minister (teaching elder), elder (ruling elder), and deacon. These are the only three special offices in the New Testament church, reflecting the three-fold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King. Among these offices, although there is difference of work, is equality of rank.
It is also an important principle of Reformed church government that each local congregation is called to manifest the unity of the church by federating with other true churches of Jesus Christ. Such union is not optional, since it is the calling of the local congregation to express the unity of the body of Christ also in institutional form. This union comes to expression in a federation of churches at a classical and synodical level.
Main Divisions of the Church Order
The articles of the Church Order can be divided into several main sections.
The first of these sections extends from Articles 2-28. In this section the offices in the church are treated. The Church Order considers not only the authority entrusted to the officebearers, but also the work and service on behalf of the church to which the officebearers are called.
Articles 29-52 treat the subject of ecclesiastical assemblies. These are the official assemblies in the life of the church. These assemblies include Consistory, Classis, Provincial Synods, and General Synod.
Articles 53-70 deal with the ordinances for public worship. The reference is to the “supervision of doctrine, sacraments, and ceremonies . . . .” mentioned in Article 1. The supervision of public worship, the heart of which is the preaching of the pure doctrine and the administration of the sacraments, is essential to the maintaining of good order in the church.
Christian discipline is treated in Articles 71-83. These articles treat the necessity for Christian discipline in the church, as well as the various steps involved in censure and excommunication. Treated also is the discipline of officebearers, including suspension and deposition from office.
The last three articles of the Church Order form the conclusion. Article 84 deals specifically with the subject of the autonomy of the local congregation: no congregation shall be permitted to lord it over another congregation. Article 85 deals with our relationship to foreign Reformed churches. And Article 86 deals with the possibility of amending the Church Order.
With regard to this division of the Church Order into four main parts, the first two parts concern primarily the subjects of church government: the officebearers in the local congregation and the broader assemblies. The last two parts concern primarily the objects of church government: the doctrine and sacraments of the church, and the lives of the individual members themselves.
Kinds of Articles in the Church Order
A three-fold distinction can be found in the kinds of articles in the Church Order.
There are those articles which are based directly on the teaching of the Scriptures and the principles of church government laid down in the Scriptures. These articles are fundamental and concern things essential to the proper government of the church. Because these are taken directly from the teaching of the Word of God, they bind the conscience. Examples of this kind of article would be Article 2, which deals with the number of offices in the church; Article 16, which describes the nature of the office of the ministry; Article 56, which deals with the administration of the sacrament of baptism; and Article 71, which deals with the necessity of Christian discipline.
There are also those articles which, although not directly derived from Scripture, may be deduced from Scriptural teachings. These fall into the category mentioned in the Westminster Confession Of Faith of those things which “. . . by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture . . . .” Like the first kind of articles, these articles also deal with what are fundamentally principle matters. Examples of this kind of article would be Articles 7-10, which deal with the calling of ministers of the gospel; Article 19, which deals with the support of seminary students; and Articles 44-52, which deal with classical and synodical meetings.
There are also those articles which are purely circumstantial and deal with the practical life of the churches. These articles concern minor matters such as time, place, frequency, and number. As need arises and circumstances change, these articles may freely be amended by the churches. Examples of this kind of article would be Article 41, which stipulates the frequency of the meetings of the classis; Article 50, which stipulates that the general synod shall ordinarily meet once every two years; and Article 63, which deals with the frequency of the administration of the Lord’s Supper.