Previous article in this series: November 15, 2010, p. 86.
“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. However, no particular congregation or classis shall be at liberty to do so, but they shall show all diligence in observing them, until it be otherwise ordained by the general synod.” Church Order, Article 86.
The Lawful Order of the Church
This final article marks a fitting conclusion to the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. In it the churches are reminded of the purpose of the Church Order. The purpose of the Church Order is not to add law upon law in order to restrict the freedom of the individual congregations.
The purpose of the Church Order is not the imposition of rules that aim at producing congregations that are clones of each other. But the purpose of the Church Order is that the life of the congregations will be characterized by decency and good order (I Cor. 14:40), and thus the proper unity of the church of Christ maintained, as well as the peace of the congregations. The purpose is the “lawful order of the church.”
The aim of the Church Order is the lawful order of the local congregation, first of all. With a view to that lawful order, the duties of the officebearers have been set forth, including regulations for their election and ordination. With a view to that lawful order of the local congregation, regulations regarding Christian discipline have been included. With a view to that lawful order, the Church Order has mandated catechetical instruction of the youth, regular family visitation by the elders, and various stipulations relating to the administration of the sacraments. The aim of the Church Order is also the lawful order of the broader assemblies of the church. A very important concern of the Church Order has been the work of the classes and the synod. The Church Order has carefully circumscribed the lawful jurisdiction of the broader assemblies, which jurisdiction extends to matters that could not be finished in the minor assemblies and those matters that concern the churches in common. Guidelines have been set forth for the meetings of both the classis and the synod. The work of the classical church visitors and the synodical delegates ad examina has been carefully defined.
Setting forth the lawful order of the churches has included a careful defense of the rights of the office of all believers. Those rights, in connection with the election of officebearers at congregational meetings, and as regards church membership have been carefully defended. Additionally, the all-important right of the member of the church to protest and appeal has been carefully set forth—the believer’s recourse when he believes that he has been wronged by decisions of the consistory, classis, or synod.
All these articles relating to the lawful order of the church have been set forth in the Church Order. Order, order in the church, order in the local congregation, and order in the assemblies—this is the purpose of the Church Order.
Order in the church—because God, the God who is worshiped by the church, is a God of order, not a God of confusion. Order in the church glorifies God and serves the right worship of God. Order because the work of the church depends upon it. Without order the church cannot carry out her calling, either with respect to herself or with respect to the world outside the church. The work of the church—as work in any sphere of life—can be accomplished only when there is order. The work of the home cannot be accomplished, the work of rearing covenant children, when disorder and chaos characterize family life. Even more so the work of the church of Jesus Christ.
Precious heritage from Dordt! Not only from Dordt, but also from the Dutch Reformed churches since their earliest days. A study of the Church Order impresses that fact on us. What we have in the Church Order has been passed down to us from the Reformed churches of the Lowlands from the very beginning of their existence. A veritable treasure of ecclesiastical wisdom! Those churches are fools who have in the past and who do today disdain this wisdom. May the Lord preserve the Protestant Reformed Churches from such ecclesiastical folly!
This lawful order set down in the Church Order is binding upon the churches of the denomination. “By common consent” the churches have agreed to bind themselves to this order. The Church Order was not imposed upon the churches in a hierarchical fashion. Rather, the articles of the Church Order arose out of the organic life of the church and were mutually agreed upon by the churches. Any congregation that joins the federation, either through establishment of a “daughter” congregation or through mission work, must consent to be bound by the stipulations of the Church Order.
In particular, the officebearers of the church bind themselves to the provisions of the Church Order. As has been recently demonstrated in a series of editorials in the Standard Bearer,¹ subscription to the Church Order is included in the Formula of Subscription. Every officebearer in the Protestant Reformed Churches who signs the Formula of Subscription agrees to abide by and uphold the provisions of the Church Order. We expect this of our officebearers. We demand this!
Possibility of Revision of the Church Order
This does not preclude the possibility of revision of the Church Order. The Church Order may be revised, and, indeed, if its provisions be shown to conflict with the Word of God, they must be revised. The Church Order is not on a par with Scripture. It is subservient to Scripture and stands in the service of Scripture. Its articles, therefore, “may and ought to be altered, augmented, or diminished,” if they can be shown to contradict Scripture. The possibility of the revision of the Church Order raised in Article 86 is grounded in the Reformation’s confession of the sole authority of Scripture.
Revision of the Church Order is also possible, if the “profit of the churches demand otherwise.” Certainly the adopted regulations of the Church Order exist for the sake of the churches, and not the churches for the sake of the regulations. The Church Order stands in the service of the churches. It is intended to be a tool promoting the welfare of the churches, a means designed for the blessing of the life of the churches in common. When it can be demonstrated that the profit of the churches is served by a revision of the Church Order, it ought to be revised.
All along the course of its development, the Church Order has undergone revision. And all along the way, the synods of the Dutch Reformed churches manifested an openness to the possibility of revision of the Church Order. The Synod of Middleburg, 1581, made this openness explicit in the last article of the Church Order it adopted. The Synod of the Hague, 1586, reaffirmed the possibility of revision. And the great Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, gave this article its place at the end of the Church Order that it adopted, which Church Order is virtually the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
There are, of course, in the Church Order, differences among the kinds of articles that are included. This observation bears on the whole subject of revision. There are those articles that reflect the timeless principles of the Word of God. They may not be revised. Sadly, a number of Reformed churches who share our heritage in the Church Order of Dordt, have done this very thing. They have changed the Church Order, for example, to allow for women to serve in the offices of the church. Even though Scripture clearly forbids such a thing, they have revised the Church Order to make this allowance. Article 86 does not approve such revision. Although the Church Order may be revised, the biblical principles upon which its stipulations are based may never be altered.
But there are also those articles in the Church Order that reflect time and circumstance. They are articles of a more practical nature. How frequently the classes and the synod meet, how often the Lord’s Supper is administered, certain aspects of the election of officebearers— these are examples of provisions of the Church Order that are practical and therefore are subject to revision. The last significant revision of our Church Order took place at Synod 2000 of the Protestant Reformed Churches. In response to an overture from one of the congregations, an overture approved by classis, Synod 1999 appointed a Church Order study committee. The recommendations of this study committee were treated by Synod 2000 and revisions and updating of the Church Order took place.
Although revision is possible, Article 86 requires that such revision must serve “the profit of the churches.” Not the profit of one church or of a few churches, but the profit of the “churches,” that is, of the denomination, must be the reason for revising the Church Order. The Church Order has been drafted by the common consent of the churches, for the good of the churches. It must therefore be the profit of the churches as a whole that justifies any revision of the Church Order.
Procedure for Revision of the Church Order
Revision of the Church Order must take place in an orderly way. Although not spelled out in Article 86, the proper way of revision is clearly implied. Revision is to take place “by common consent.” And “no particular congregation or classis shall be at liberty” to revise the church on its own.
Any recommendation for revision ought to originate by way of overture from a local congregation. After careful consideration by the consistory of that congregation, the overture ought to pass from the consistory to the classis. After classical consideration, the overture for revision ought to be brought before the synod. Only the broadest assembly, the synod, may approve any revision of the Church Order. A proposed revision, before it actually is adopted and implemented, ought also to be reported to our sister churches for their advice. This was the procedure followed by the Synod of 2000. Only after considering the reaction of our sister churches ought the synod to proceed with revision of the Church Order.
It stands to reason that only the general synod of the churches, and no particular congregation or classis, can make revisions to the Church Order. The Church Order is the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Having been “drafted and adopted by common consent,” the articles of the Church Order can be “altered, augmented, or diminished” only by common consent. The common consent of the churches is the consent of the synod of the churches. Only synod, as representing all the churches, has the right to make changes to the Church Order: “until it be otherwise ordained by the general synod.”
Since the Church Order has stood the test of time, any revision ought to be very seriously considered. We ought not to be too quick to make changes to a document that has served the churches so well for so many years. History proves that a good deal of change is in fact departure. May God keep our churches from the change that does represent departure! Also as regards the stipulations of the Church Order!
The purpose of the Church Order is the profit of the churches. That profit can only be served if the Church Order is known. Only if the Church Order is known can its stipulations actually be implemented in the life of the church. Only if the Church Order is known can its principles be followed.
With a view to a thorough knowledge of the Church Order, students in the Protestant Reformed Seminary receive an entire year of instruction in the Church Order. The class is called “Church Polity,” and is included in the branch of “Practical Theology.” The oral examination of students before the synod includes examination in Church Polity. No student may be declared a candidate in the churches who does not possess a thorough knowledge of the Church Order. Every member of the churches, certainly every officebearer, ought to take the time to read through the Church Order at least once each year. A good time to re-read the Church Order is at the time of the installation of new elders and deacons. Only if we know the Church Order will we be able to “show all diligence in observing” its requirements. And only then will all things be done decently and in order in the churches.
God grant it in the Protestant Reformed Churches for many years to come!
And thus concludes our treatment together, over the past several years, of the articles of our beloved Church Order. It was very profitable for me. And I pray that it was also profitable for you, our readers.
Soli Deo Gloria!
¹ Vol. 86, pp. 148, 172, 196, 220, 245.