Our Church Order: Time For A Revision?

Revision. A word and concept very popular with some, and just as unpopular with others. In the political sense the term is favored by the leaders of Communist China, who regularly deliver dialectical broadsides against the Russian Communists, accusing them of “revisionism.” In religious circles the term is often used to describe, either favorably or pejoratively (depending on the point of view), the amending of the doctrines, practices, and creeds of the church. Recent history has seen a great deal of revisionist thinking and activity, most of it with negative results as far as orthodoxy is concerned. Many churches have revised their creeds by rewriting them; the most recent example is the thoroughly bland and corrupt revision now proposed for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Many more, including those of the Reformed community, have more subtly but just as really revised their creeds by ignoring them. And some have added to their creeds, as the Reformed Church of America is in the process of doing. Indeed, revisionism is the current trend of our day, especially where the creeds of the church are concerned. 

All of this has undoubtedly given the term a bad connotation in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Justifiably it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of our people, who properly resist being swept along by the spirit of the age. Surely we must have none of this change in the wrong sense, but must maintain the faith of our fathers. 

But is there not another aspect to this question? What do we say to revision in the proper sense? The term comes from a Latin word which means “to see again.” Thus, according to Webster, it means, “to look over again in order to correct or improve, to make a new, amended, improved, or up-to-date version of something:” That is true revision: correction and improvement. Not a negating of past efforts or a rejecting of previous work for these are revisionism, the perversion of revision, but a strengthening and a making better. Applied to our Church Order, what do we say to such revision? To that I address myself briefly. Obviously I cannot write about the details of such revision, nor about how and when and where and by whom it can or should be done. I am not necessarily proposing such revision, but am asking some deliberately general questions in order to ascertain the thinking of our people. I merely ask some pertinent questions about the necessity and possibility of revising our Church Order, in the hope that we as saints and as denomination will face this question squarely and honestly. I do not claim to have absolute answers to all of the problems connected with our Church Order, so with the kind permission of our Editor-in-Chief I invite the comments, questions, and opinions of our people. Perhaps the best way to approach the subject is to present various objections which are frequently raised against a possible revision, and also say a few words about the character and extent of a revision. 

The most often raised objection against the alteration of any creed, in this case the Church Order, (which is a lesser or secondary creed), is perhaps that, it has stood the test of time. The Church Order which we now use is substantially the same as the one adopted by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-1619. In fact, so the objection goes, many of the principles of the Order of Dordt were conceived and formulated more than a half century before the great Synod itself. Ever since that time the Church Order has been in use in many Reformed churches even until the present. In short, this ecclesiastical code has stood the test of time, having served the church admirably for more than 350 years; and that is a long time, by anyone’s reckoning. But the question must be asked: Is age the criterion by which we judge the present usefulness of the Church Order? I do not imply that the Church Order was lacking for the church of the past, though in some respects it may have been, nor do I deny the weight of history, especially as the Holy Spirit has guided the church throughout the ages. I do question, however, whether age is a legitimate standard to use, since in other aspects of our life it is not. For example, when a house or church building is so old that it becomes outmoded, we remodel it to bring it up to present standards; we do not leave it in its former condition simply because it is old. Is our Church Order essentially different? 

Closely related to this first objection is the objection that our Church Order was written by the fathers of the church. Names such as Calvin, Beza, Olevianus, Walaeus, and Voetius are familiar to those who know the history of the Church Order. And besides, this polity was approved by the historic Synod of Dordt. Though it is rarely stated directly and bluntly, the clear implication is that these church fathers were somehow superior to us in Scriptural knowledge, wisdom, and insight, and therefore we should not question or alter their work. An aura bordering on veneration surrounds them. But are this tacit implication and the conclusion drawn from it true? Do not misunderstand: I mean no disrespect to the fathers, nor do I denigrate their work, they were not only learned and wise, but also giants of the Reformed faith whose genius flourished even in times of persecution. We do well to listen to them and learn from them, though many in our day are reluctant to do so. But were they so superior to us as to be well-nigh infallible? Is it not rather true that because bf the development of the faith since their time the church and its leaders today have a clearer understanding of the truths of Scripture, and in many respects are superior to them? 

Along the same line is the idea that because the Church Order has been sufficient for the church of the past it is (or at least ought to be) sufficient for us. Colloquially, it did the job in the past, so what’s the matter with it now? But is it sufficient? Again, I do notquestion whether or not it met the needs of the church of the past; if we are to believe the record of history, it did so admirably. But does the Church Order meet the needs of the Protestant Reformed Churches of today? For one thing, is there not a radical difference between the situation in the Netherlands at the time of Dordt, when the Reformed Church was the state church, and our status as church today in the U.S., where we have the separation of church and state? An examination of many of the articles of the Church Order and their history will reveal a very close connection between church and state as the .underlying principle, a principle which obviously is not applicable to us. For another thing, are not the many additions to and decisions pertaining to the articles (decisions taken first by our Classis and later by Synod), decisions which are at times contradictory to the very articles to which they are appended, proof in themselves that the Church Order has already in the past been insufficient for us? Besides, must we not honestly say that some of the articles we simply ignore as inapplicable; and twist the meaning of others to fit our needs in ways which the authors could not possibly have intended? In the light of all of this, can we really say that the Church Order is sufficient? 

Finally there is the matter of change itself. There are those who might suggest that there is the danger of a change for the worse. And certainly they would be astute observers of the ecclesiastical scene, for many bad changes have taken place as to creeds and church polity. But is this a real and threatening danger for us. More there are, perhaps, who are simply opposed to change. They do not like the rocking of the ecclesiastical ship, perhaps not even by the asking of such questions as I am asking now. And certainly in the light of the universal departure from and weakening and destruction of the Reformed faith, we must be careful. What we need, if change is to be effected, is not a weakening, but a strengthening and sharpening of our uniquely Reformed position. But are those who oppose all change not a little bit like the ostrich who buries his head in the sand so as to remain blissful in his ignorance? What valid objections can be adduced against change, so long as it is alteration in the sense of improvement and strengthening? 

Though there are other objections which could be raised against a revision of the Church Order, I believe I have presented the most common. The central question we must face in all of them is this: Are they valid? The answer must determine our attitude towards any alteration. 

For purposes of further clarification I must make a few comments regarding the character and extent of revision as I have spoken of it thus far. Although I must again be general, we must have clearly before our minds exactly what this term should encompass. 

As to the character, I would make a distinction between matters of principle and practical matters, or between Scripturally essential matters and those matters which are concerned simply with general good order and convenience. We find both of these emphases in the various articles. As to those articles which set forth authoritative Scriptural principles, we may not alter them, except perhaps to amend some of the language to make them clearer and more precise. These have stood the test of time; indeed, they are timeless, for they are the rule of Chest for His church. But there are other articles which are simply wrong or inapplicable; these should be deleted or modified according to the current needs of the church. And there are those articles which do not deal with matters of principle, but with the general good order of the church; many of these also require modification so that they would be in harmony with our position as churches. 

As to the extent of any revision, there would seem to be only two alternatives: a comprehensive change or piecemeal alterations. Some have suggested that any revision should be gradual, perhaps one or two articles at a time, starting with the most glaringly inadequate. But the results of this would be as piecemeal as the process itself, besides making the matter of publishing and keeping the Church Order current a practical impossibility. Rather, what I have in mind is a complete and comprehensive review of the Church Order so that it would be thoroughly amended and improved. This would require careful study and take time; certainly the result would have its weaknesses and would not be beyond all criticism, for perfection is impossible on this side of the grave. Such perfection I do not propose nor expect; I am looking only for improvement and development in the church of Christ, so that the government of the church will be as good as it can be. 

Such in brief is the nature of the revision about which I am asking these questions. I believe that we as churches should give this matter serious consideration, as I have done personally for some time. Already in seminary a thorough study of our church government brought out the need for changes. Since that time through study, application, and discussion, especially in Bible societies, this need has been reinforced in my mind. And in contact with those outside of our churches the weaknesses as well as the clear strengths have been made evident. It is in the spirit of the benefit and upbuilding of the church of Christ, and in the light of these considerations that I ask the question which heads this article: Do we need a revision? Are we ready for it? Has the time come? What do the brethren think?