Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
At least three reasons can be given for a study of theChurch Order in the pages of The Standard Bearer. In the first place, the Church Order occupies an important place in the life of our denomination. The labors of our consistories and broader assemblies are regulated by the Church Order. Next to Scripture and the confessions, the Church Order has to be the most significant and most consulted document among us. In the second place, it has been more than 30 years since a discussion of the Church Order took place in The Standard Bearer. In the meantime a new generation of officebearers has arisen in our denomination. This is true not only of our ministry, but also of the office of elder and deacon. Especially for the sake of these younger officebearers, a consideration of the articles of the Church Order is well worthwhile. In the third place, increasingly today the Church Order comes under serious attack. In some quarters, the authority of the Church Order is regarded tongue-in-cheek. In other places, radical revisions of the Church Order are introduced in deference to those who hold hierarchical views of church government, or who are in favor of introducing women into the special offices. In light of this situation, we feel constrained to defend the Church Order and to demonstrate the scripturalness of its articles.
The Church Order itself may be found in its unamended form in the back of The Psalter. Its amended form may be found in the booklet The Church Order Of The Protestant Reformed Churches. This latter includes: the English translation of the Church Order adopted by our Synod of 1944; decisions by our Classis (before we had a general Synod) and Synods relative to some articles of theChurch Order, which decisions are placed under the articles to which they refer; the constitutions of the standing committees of Synod; rules and regulations adopted by Synod; various formulae in use in our churches; by-laws of the Protestant Reformed Churches In America; questions used for church visitation; and “The Declaration Of Principles.” This booklet is available from the Stated Clerk of Synod at a cost of $6.00.
There are also various commentaries on the Church Order. Although several excellent commentaries have been written in the Dutch language, and assuming most of our readers are unfamiliar with the Dutch, we will mention only those available in English. The Church Order Commentary, by Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma (the older edition) is generally regarded as the authority on the Church Order: Notes On The Church Order, by Prof. Herman Hanko is an excellent commentary. This is available from our Seminary at a cost of $3.50. There is also theExplanation Of The Church Order Of Dordt, by Rev. K. De Gier, Prof. Wm. Heyns’ Handbook For Elders And Deacons, and J.L. Schaver’s The Polity Of The Churches (2 volumes). Two series on the Church Order have been run in The Standard Bearer. The first series begins in Volume 8, p. 190, and was written by Prof. G.M. Ophoff. The second series begins in Volume 29, p. 260, and was written by Rev. G. Vanden Berg.
John Calvin is to be credited with the early development of Reformed church polity. Although Calvin was not one of its immediate authors, nor had any direct hand in its production, the principles of church government established by the Church Orderare principles developed largely by Calvin.
Calvin formulated an early church order entitled the “Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” which was the foundation of the whole organization and discipline of the church of Geneva, and which was adopted on November 20, 1541, scarcely more than two months after Calvin’s return from exile to Geneva. A copy of the “Ecclesiastical Ordinances” can be found in The Register Of The Company Of Pastors Of Geneva In The Time Of Calvin, edited by Philip Hughes. Calvin also enumerated the main principles of Biblical church government in his Institutes Of The Christian Religion. In the University of Geneva, Calvin taught the principles of church government to students from all over Europe, who carried these principles into all the lands where the Calvin Reformation spread. The Book Of Common Order, adopted by the Church Of Scotland in 1560 derived from Calvin. John Knox’sFirst Book Of Discipline owes much to Calvin. TheForm Of Presbyterial Church Government, drafted by the Westminster Assembly is heavily influenced by Calvin. Thus also our own Church Order.
Our Church Order is a direct product of the Reformation in the Netherlands. The first work on a church order for the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands was done by the Convention of Wezel in 1568. This convention met in Wezel, Germany, because of persecution in the Netherlands. To this original church order many provisions were added by subsequent national synods of the Netherlands. Particular attention was paid to the formulation and adoption of the Church Order by the Synod of Dordt, 1618-’19. This Synod adopted the Church Orderwhich is essentially the one we have today. For this reason our Church Order is often referred to as theDordtsche Kerk Orde (D.K.O.).
In 1816 the Dutch government, in an effort to curb the power of the church and insure the government’s control over the church, discarded the Church Order of Dordt as regulative for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. The secession from the State Church in 1834 known as the “Afscheiding” was not only a return to the true doctrine of the Reformed faith, but was also a return to the Church Order of Dordt. Initially, at the insistence of Rev. Scholte and Rev. Van Velzen, in 1837 a new church order was drawn up for the churches of the Secession. But in 1840, especially at the insistence of Rev. Hendrik de Cock, the Church Order of Dordt was adopted anew.
Also the secession from the State Church in 1886 under the leadership of Dr. Abraham Kuyper, known as the “Doleantie,” returned to the authority of theChurch Order of Dordt. The above two secession movements were united into one denomination in 1892, and became known as the Gereformeerde Kerken van Nederland (GKN). The basis for their church government was the Church Order of Dordt.
The Church Order contains the set of regulations according to which the local congregation, as well as the broader assemblies of Classis and Synod, are governed. The Church Order rests on the apostle’s injunction in I Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” How the church is to be governed is set forth in God’s Word. However, Scripture is not a readymade church order, or manual of church government. Instead, Scripture sets forth the fundamental principles upon which the government of the church is based. The Church Order seeks to enunciate and apply these principles in the actual government of the church.
The Church Order also serves an important role with respect to the unity of the church. The Church Orderitself is an important basis for church unity. At the same time, the Church Order preserves and safeguards the unity of the churches bound by its regulations. The unity of the church depends on the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. It is the purpose of the Church Order to establish those regulations in the life of the church which will assure that the pure preaching is maintained, the sacraments administered properly, and discipline exercised faithfully.
The Church Order also serves as a minor confession. The major confessions of our churches are The Three Forms Of Unity: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic or Netherlands Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht. Our churches also have minor confessions. These would be especially our adopted liturgical forms, as, for example, the Baptism Form, the Form For The Administration Of The Lord’s Supper, the Form Of Ordination Of The Ministers Of God’s Word, and others. To be included as a minor confession is also our Church Order. The Church Order is the confession of our churches concerning what we believe to be the Scriptural principles of church government. The Church Order sets forth fundamental Biblical truths concerning such things as: authority in the church of Jesus Christ, the nature and duties of the offices, the sacraments, and Christian discipline.
The authority of the Church Order is not an independent or innate authority. This is the unique authority of Holy Scripture. Scripture alone is the ultimate authority for the faith and life of the individual believer, the local congregation, and the denomination. Instead, the authority of the Church Order is a derived authority. The Church Order is of binding authority because and to the extent that it is derived from Scripture. Its authority is binding as long as it is not shown to conflict with Scripture. TheChurch Order is a human document. Because it is, it must always be subjected to the scrutiny of God’s Word. The Church Order itself leaves opportunity for change and revision: “These articles, relating to the lawful order of the church, have been so drafted and adopted by common consent, that they (if the profit of the churches demand otherwise) may and ought to be altered, augmented or diminished,” Article 86.
The Church Order is also of binding authority because of the willing consent of the churches. This is also mentioned in Article 86. The churches have mutually agreed to bind themselves by the authority of the Church Order. Any who desire to become or to remain a member of the denomination must willingly consent to the authority of the Church Order. Thus, the binding authority of the Church Order is the authority that we willingly give to it.