Clearly the eighty-fourth article of the Church Order is designed to counter the many and serious evils of the hierarchical or collegialistic forms of church government. According to this system, a federation of churches is not considered to be a union of several self-governing churches; but each church is regarded as a sub-division of a big super church that is ruled from the top down. At the top is the Pope whose word is law. At the bottom is the local church which is coerced into submission to the will of the Pope. Between the Pope and the individual church is a series of office bearers of different rank and position, each one being subject to, the authority of the rank immediately above him. In our Reformed system this means that the Classis and Synod are regarded as higher judiciaries than the consistories. These higher bodies then have the right to intervene in the affairs of the individual churches and the authority of the consistories is abnegated. One church lords it over other churches, one officebearer over other officebearers.
Against the evils of this system the fathers of the Reformation stood strongly opposed. This was especially true in the Netherlands. They had seen the corruptions that had ensued from this system and they were determined to safeguard the churches of the Reformation against a repetition of these things. Monsma and Van Dellen inform us that, “the churches of 1571 formulated Article 84 because they desired to take a definite stand against Rome with its hierarchical system. Just because one church was permitted to rule over another, and one officebearer was permitted to rule over another officebearer, the hierarchical system of Rome had become possible. Thus corruption had received a mighty, tyrannic weapon. Because the early Christian Churches had yielded their God-given authority and individuality and had been transformed into local subordinate sub-divisions of a great super-church, general corruption and domination had become possible. The Reformation Churches desired no duplication of this error. Neither did they favor the appointment of Superintendents. Certain English and German Churches (Episcopalian and Lutheran) had appointed Superintendents. The Reformed Churches of these countries were urged by their governments to accept some system of super-intendancy. And these Reformed Churches in England and Germany had yielded to some extent. The Reformed Churches in Holland disapproved of this. They desired that every church should retain its individuality and that no church should be elevated as to authority above the other churches. And so also the Reformed Churches in Holland insisted that no officebearer should rule over another officebearer. Biblical equality was to be maintained. Every tendency to hierarchism was to be avoided.”
Clearly, too, the eighty-fourth article of the Church Order is intended to maintain the principle of the autonomy of the local church. This is the positive significance of the article. And it is just this principle that makes Article 84 inseparably related to many other articles of the Church Order; and, in fact, the idea of the article is interwoven throughout the entire Church Order. This principle affects all the rulings of the Church Order that concern ministers, elders, deacons, consistories, classes, synods as well as the inter-relation of the officebearers and the ecclesiastical assemblies to each other.
The principle of the autonomy of the church means, in the words of the late Rev. G. Ophoff, that “every church in every place is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ, and thus a complete and autonomous spiritual entity.” Each particular church is an individual and complete manifestation of the body of Christ. The essence of the church of Christ is found in every congregation. Each church is a communion of saints with properly instituted offices and with the divinely-given means of grace for the edification of the saints and the perfecting of the body of Christ. Consequently all churches are essentially on a par. One is not above another. One may not lord it over another or look down upon the other as is sometimes the case because one church is numerically larger or materially more prosperous. Such conditions may not be tolerated. Such practices are sinful and in conflict with the principles of the Reformed Churches. The same holds true for all office bearers. All churches and all officebearers are co-ordinate as to their authority and all churches and office bearers are equally subordinate under Christ alone. An elder in a small church is just as much an elder as one in a big church. A deacon in a large church where thousands of dollars are received and disbursed is no more a deacon than one in a small church who counts pennies. The rights of each office bearer and of each church may not be infringed upon by others, but each church and office bearer in the church must exercise those rights freely in obedience to Christ; and she must guard this her autonomy at all costs.
However, a warning must be issued in this connection.
Autonomy is not synonymous with independentism!
If the only principle on which Reformed Church government is based were that of autonomy, the eighty-fourth article of the Church Order could be properly construed to mean that in the framework of Reformed Churches each church is an independent entity. But this is not the case. Then the Church Order would not speak of other ecclesiastical assemblies than that of the consistory. But it does. It also speaks of the Classis and the Synod; and Article 84 must be understood, not simply as an article by itself, but in connection with the entire Church Order. If this is remembered, we will see that it stands as much opposed to the independentistic system as it does to the hierarchical system.
Dr. F.L. Rutgers tells us that “although Article 84 gives expression to one of the fundamental principles of Reformed Church government, it is not the only church governmental principle which governs our denominational cooperation. In and by itself Article 54 might be used to plead the cause of Independentism. But Article 84 may not be isolated from other articles of our Church Order regarding our major assemblies, discipline, etc. Such an erroneous isolation of Article 84 might easily lead one to conclude that in the Reformed system Classes and Synod can only advise and that these bodies cannot take authoritative decisions. Nothing could, however, be further from the truth (Cf. Art. 36).”
With this Rev. Ophoff agreed when he wrote: “The above cited principle (that of autonomy) is fundamental with the Reformed. But, to be sure, it is not the only principle in which their church government is rooted. Such a view would needs lead to Independentism. For in this latter system the major assemblies, Classes and Synod, make no decisions binding upon the local churches, if they cannot be proved to be in conflict with the word of God. Thus Article 84 may not be treated as though it stood by itself; it must be explained only in connection with all the other basic articles contained in the Church Order. If Article 84 were the only principle, the Church Order would contain no chapter on ecclesiastical assemblies; but it would make mention of but one ecclesiastical assembly, and that one the consistory. For in the system of the Independentists, the church assembles in conferences, but not in Classes and Synod. The major assemblies of the Independentists are not Classes, they are not Synods, but conferences indeed. Thus, in this system each church stands by itself. But according to the Reformed principle, the local churches may not live alone. They are in duty bound to organize themselves on the basis of right principle into Classes and Synod and to allow themselves to be bound by the decisions of these major assemblies, if they are satisfied that they do not militate against the word of God. The local churches are in duty bound to seek with all true churches precisely this type of fellowship and cooperation.”
This is also the view, of the Church Order Commentary, quoting the Korte Verklaring of Jansen: “The particular churches have voluntarily confederated themselves in order that they might work together in Classes and Synods. For which purpose? To assist each other and to cooperate regarding two things: Matters which the particular churches cannot finish by themselves, and matters which concern the particular churches in common.”
We note here that this is quite different than a union of churches in which the individual churches are dissolved into one super-church. Also that such a voluntary union is very real and does not leave the individual churches maintaining an independent existence. Then again:
“It should be well understood that each local church affiliating itself with the confederacy or denomination by that very act agrees to acknowledge the authority of the united churches as functioning through classes or synods. So far the particular churches have subordinated their own inherent authority to the authority of all the churches functioning through major assemblies, The particular churches have agreed beforehand to submit themselves to the opinion of the majority, except when they are convinced before God that the conclusion of the majority is contrary to the Scriptures, or contrary to the rules of government agreed upon (Church Order). Except for this voluntary, self-imposed limitation, denominational unity and cooperation does not infringe upon the freedom and individuality of the local churches, And only inasfar as the Church Order agreed upon limits the local churches in the exercise of their native rights are the local churches limited in this respect. Their individuality in no wise and in no sense of the word is cancelled.”
Anyone can see that it is not easy to comprehend specifically the proper relationship of churches within the framework of Reformed Church government. On the one hand, we must guard against the centralization of judicial power in the broader ecclesiastical assemblies by which the autonomy of the individual church is lost. But on the other hand, we must be careful that we do not strip the assemblies of the church of all authority and so be left with nothing but a number of independent churches that are really not at all authoritatively bound together. Rather we must remember that the federative union of churches in a denomination is a voluntary thing in which the autonomous churches agree to mutually recognize and respect each other’s autonomy and the decisions which are mutually reached in the properly constituted assemblies. In this way no church lords it over other churches.
Likewise, within each consistory the officebearers are to mutually respect one another in their individual offices. Though the offices of minister of the word, elders and deacons certainly differ in character, one is not superior to the other. Consequently the minister may not lord it over the elders; the elders may not lord it over the deacons, etc. Each must tend to the duties of his respective office with mutual respect for each other, and submitting all things to the rule of Christ, the king and head of the church.