In proceeding to discuss the content of our Church Order, the selection of a proper method becomes a matter of great importance. Several methods, good and bad, effective and deficient, are possible. There is, for example, the legalistic method according to which the Church Order is regarded and treated as a book of common laws in the civil sense. It is no more than a legalistic document which superimposes itself upon the body of believers. It forces a ceremonial obedience and the rulers of the church are then looked upon as those who hold office in the executive branch of any government. Against this method it may be said that it views the Church Order in an altogether erroneous light.
Then there is also the interpretive method. Following this method we would simply accompany the citation of the articles of the Church Order with a brief explanation in which would be set forth what is considered to be the true meaning of each article. Little is to be gained by following such a course as the practical result of it would be that there is added another opinion with which one may or may not agree as he sees fit. Believers, striving to live according to the rule of Christ delivered to His church, are in need of more than another commentary.
To this may still be added the historical method. Following this course could prove instructive as well as interesting. It would then be our task to study each article in the light of historical circumstances which necessitated its coming into being and then to follow the alterations which the church has made in various articles due to changing circumstances. Of course, some articles lend themselves better to such a study than others but there is a reason behind each article and that reason ought to be historically examined. Although, therefore, much might be said in favor of this method, it will not suffice as an exclusive method. It should not be discarded entirely but in discussing church polity our emphasis should not be upon history but we must divulge into the principles of truth upon which the articles of church order are built. It is more important to see the truth expressed in any given rule for Christian conduct than it is to know the historical need of that rule.
Without rejecting either of the two aforementioned methods entirely, we shall adopt the exegetical method. Permit us to explain what is meant by this. We have written before that “the Church Order is taken from and founded upon the principles of the Word of God” but the Word of God is not a ready made Church Order. Yet, these two are so intimately related that it would indeed be fatal to separate them. The Word of God is the blood stream of the organism of Church Order. Take the former away and the latter is dead. It is just this fatal weakness that characterizes the legalistic, interpretive and historical methods. In order then to put life into our Church Order we must constantly elicit from Holy Writ the principles upon which the rules of our spiritual government are founded. This is exegesis. In our discussion we must not say: “Thus saith the Church Order” … but we must repeatedly declare in every article, “Thus saith the Lord … thus saith Christ, the Head and sole ruler of the church” … and that can be done only from His own Word. With the following we may well agree: “Alles moet met schriftuurplaatsen worden gestaafd. Alles is daar rechtstreeks aan Gods Woord ontleend. De Kerkenorde dient om regelen te geven om goede orde in de gemeente van Christus te onderhouden, en het is voldoende zoo slechts aangewezen wordt, dat deze regelen in beginsel rusten op Gods Woord.”
This does not mean that we infringe upon the fields of Doctrine or Exegesis. However, the importance of relating these will become evident if we remember that in the church pure doctrine and sound exegesis are always first in importance, and that no church will ever remain pure with respect to these if she is not governed according to the Word of God. Impurity in church government fosters impurity in doctrine. Heresy, which is false exegesis, results in government according to the rules of men rather than by those given by God. It follows from this that any attempt to deal with Church Polity apart from a sound exegesis of Scripture must result in disorder and spiritual chaos. We must, therefore, proceed by that method alone which places Scripture first and the Order of the Church second so that the latter may derive all of its significance from the former. The practical fruit of this method will then be that we are taught to live, not according to a set of rules, but according to the Living Word of God. And that, we said is our goal.
By our Church Order is meant the officially adopted Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. This, of course, does not mean that we have composed and adopted a Church Order all our own in separation from other historically Reformed Churches. On the contrary, the origin of our Church Order dates back to the middle of the sixteenth century or a period of more than three centuries before the denomination of our churches came into existence, Interesting it is to not that the Church Order, like so many of the best products of the Church, came into being during a period of great strife. It was not born over-night but was the product of arduous toil. Without fear and with unwavering faith the leaders of the church labored to produce this monumental work. Though persecuted they feared not the wrath of the king. It was in the year 1568 that the work began and the original draft was then revised by five consecutive Synods. It was not until the well-known Synod of 1618-19, held in Dordrecht, Netherlands that it was finally approved and adopted. Indirectly, John Calvin is to be credited for the content of our Church Order. Although he was not one of its authors, for he died four years before the work on this document began, the principles found in the Church Order are based upon his “Ordinances” which were adopted by the church in Geneva as early as 1537.
It is indeed remarkable that the Church Order has undergone so very little change since its first adoption. The Reformed Churches of the Netherlands revised certain articles in 1905 and in 1914 the Christian Reformed Churches in our own land did the same. Our Protestant Reformed Churches in the beginning of their existence adopted the last mentioned redaction of the Church Order. In 1920 the Christian Reformed Churches adopted an English translation which was also adopted by our Synod of 1944. In 1946 our Synod changed the word “church” to “churches” in Article 86 and the word “consent” was made “advise” in Articles 76 and 77. The reason for these changes is that the singular “church” and the word “consent” reveal a hierarchical church polity. Furthermore, it is evident that our adoption is a better translation of the Holland which has “advies” and “kerken” In the aforementioned articles.
In 1950, in response to correspondence received from the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, our Synod made a decision expressing “that we see a need for a general revision of our Church Order.” This decision was based upon the fact that: (1) With respect to some articles there exists at present the possibility of doubtful or even twofold interpretation. A clear and unambiguous text would rectify this matter and (2) At present there are matters not mentioned in the Church Order, or merely touched upon in passing, like e.g., Missions and Evangelization. A revised Church Order might well take these things into consideration. A committee at that time was appointed to make preliminary study of this matter. This committee has corresponded with the Netherlands relative to this proposed revision but whether any definite steps forward toward the obtaining of such a revised Church Order have been taken we are not prepared to say. If they have we do not know of them. What may still develop from this action remains to be seen. The Church Order as we have it in its present form, though it has its flaws as do all products of men, is still a priceless heritage and an invaluable guide for good order and decency in the church. We believe that we should not be hasty to change this document that has weathered the test of time so ably these many years. It is questionable whether the Reformed Churches of our present generation are capable of producing another work its equal.
One of the merits of our present Church Order is its brevity. It is divided into five sections and contains a total of eighty-six articles most of which are rather brief. Lengthy rules tend to confuse. They are generally so involved that their meaning becomes ambiguous. When rules are concisely and clearly stated there can be no question as to the way we ought to go. That we may have grace to walk in that way as churches and as individuals is our concluding prayer.
G. Vanden Berg