By Church Order, in the subject of our debate, we understand a body of ecclesiastical rules, mutually adopted, for the purpose of maintaining good order in the Churches. They are rules and regulations, which have been prescribed by mutual consent, and which all must obey for the furtherance and welfare of the Church of Christ. They must not, however, be regarded as divinely prescribed ordinances, or as a set of legal laws which must be applied and obeyed, no matter what the result might be. They are moral in character, not judicial. They are regulatory and mean to guide and direct, but are not to be regarded as a legalistic set of laws which must be obeyed.
A Church Order is very essential to the welfare of a Church or denomination. As soon as a body of believers are organized into a Church institute, one immediately feels that there must be rules and regulations to regulate the ecclesiastical life and welfare of the congregation, and when various churches, having the same confession of faith, unite into a denomination, there is need for an accepted body of rules to maintain unity and good order. God is in all things a God of order, and also demands that in His Church all things be done decently and in order.. In fact congregational and denominational church life would be impossible without such rules and regulations. Even as in a congested area, where there is much traffic, there must be rules and regulations to guide and direct the flow of traffic, so also in our congregational and denominational church life there must be ecclesiastically prescribed rules to regulate this church life. These rules must be mutually adopted, and mutually observed. To deny this would create disorder and chaos. No church or denomination could long exist without them, neither if having them, they were disregarded. They are not necessary for the being of the Church, but are absolutely essential for her well-being.
Hence the question in this debate is not at all whether or not a local consistory, may arbitrarily and without good reason, act contrary to the mutually accepted Church Order. If this were the question in our discussion it would be nonsense. Such a question were not even debatable. It would be sheer folly to accept certain rules and regulations and then utterly disregard them. Such folly would lead to chaos. Imagine what would happen, if in a congested city as Chicago, a driver of an automobile would arbitrarily and without any good reason whatever, disregard the traffic rules of stop signs, traffic signals, and one way drives? That would be fatal, and if every driver would act thus, it would lead to chaos and confusion. Thus it would also be in our ecclesiastical life if a consistory wantonly and arbitrarily disregarded the accepted Church Order. Such action would be fatal to a local consistory, and if such an attitude became general among the local consistories of a denomination, then all denominational church life would be an impossibility. If our congregational and denominational church life is to function smoothly, it must be well regulated according to certain ecclesiastical rules which all have adopted and which all must obey. They are necessary for the maintenance of good order, as it is expressed in the first article of our accepted Church Order, namely of the General Synod of Dordt.
But the question in this debate is whether or not a local consistory is so bound by the Church Order, that it may never under any circumstances make any decisions or take any actions which are contrary to the Church Order. We of the affirmative maintain that it is very well possible that in a particular situation the observance of the Church Order would be a physical impossibility, or would clearly create harm and disorder in the congregation, and that in such circumstances the consistory would be perfectly free to suspend the rule for that instant, if at least the article in question does not concern a definite prescribed principle of Holy Writ. The opposition must prove that under any and all circumstances it is always per se wrong for a local consistory to act contrary to the Church Order. This is a question of fundamental importance. It is a question that involves our Christian liberty, the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. We maintain the affirmative with all our heart, and by the grace of God we will always defend it with all of our God given strength and talents. To deny this would be the most dangerous kind of Roman Catholic hierarchy, which places its ecclesiastical rules and decrees on a par with Holy Writ. No Church Order or ecclesiastical set of rules may ever bind the conscience, for this is alone the prerogative of the Word of God, who alone is Lord, also of the conscience. But never may we ascribe such powers to ecclesiastical rules or rulers.
Indeed a Church Order must be based upon the Word of God, and contains many prescribed ordinances which do bind the conscience, not however, because they are found in the Church Order, but because they are provisions taken directly from the Word of God. Even then it may never be said, “Thus saith the Church Order,” but “Thus saith the Lord.” Then it is not the Church Order, but the Word of God that binds the conscience. In order to understand this we must clearly distinguish between divine law (jus divinus) and human laws (jus humana). God’s laws are immutable, unchangeable, and must therefore always be obeyed. Not so, however, are human laws and regulations. These can and may be changed and also leave room for discretion and considerations. They only serve to guide, direct, and regulate for the maintenance of good order. They are utilitarian. Therefore if circumstances demand it they may be suspended, altered or changed. Now our Church Order contains both divine laws and human regulations. This is evident from the fact that Article 86 prescribes that (if the profit of the churches demands it) the Church order may be altered, augmented or diminished. This can never be said of divine ordinances, but it is only applicable to human laws and regulations. And it is in respect to these that it is our conviction that a local consistory is at liberty to act contrary to, if the welfare of the congregation demands it.
To this most all the authorities on Reformed Church polity agree. Jansen in his ‘De Kerkenordening’ writes as follows: “DUTCH QUOTE REMOVED.”
Thus also Dr. Hodge in his Church Polity writes as follows: “There are certain things prescribed, to which every Church ought to conform, and many things as to which she is at liberty to act as she deems best for God’s glory and the advancement of his kingdom. All we contend for is that everything is not prescribed; that every mode of organization and action is not either commanded or forbidden; that we must produce a “Thus saith the Lord” for everything the Church does. We must indeed be able to produce a “Thus saith the Lord for everything, whether a truth, or a duty, or a mode of ecclesiastical organization or action, which we make obligatory on the conscience of other men. But our liberty of faith and action beyond the prescription of the Word of God, is the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and which no man shall take from us.” p. 122. And on page 130 he continues; “The third point of difference between two systems, is the extent to which liberty of the Church extends in matters of government and modes of operation. According to the old, and especially the genuine American form of Presbyterianism, while it is admitted that there is a form of government prescribed or instituted in the New Testament, so far as its general principles or features are concerned, there is a wide discretion allowed us by God, in matters of detail, which no man or set of men which neither civil magistrates nor ecclesiastical rulers, can take from us. This is part of that liberty with which Christ has made us free, and in which we are commanded to stand fast.”
Whereas the space of five typewritten pages, which was allotted us for this debate is almost filled we will conclude with the following from Joh. Jansen in his “De Kerkenordening” page 56; “DUTCH QUOTE REMOVED.”