“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, classis (or synod), 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.”
—Article 86 D.K.O.
With this article we bring to a conclusion our treatise of the eighty-six articles of the Church Order of Dordrecht. This final article, as is evident from its formulation, is different in purpose than the eighty-five articles that precede it. In those eighty-five articles many regulations covering various facets of the government of the church are set forth. This final article, however, reflects upon this entire body of the Church Order and sets forth some principles that are applicable to all of the articles. It may be considered as a sort of summation, and in view of it we may look at the entire Church Order in retrospect.
The last article of the Church Order brings five points of consideration to our attention. They are:
1. It defines the nature and purpose of the Church Order as a body of articles designed for “the lawful order of the church.”
2. It reminds us that this order has not been superimposed upon the church by some hierarchical power but that these articles have been “drafted and adopted by common consent.”
3. It admits the fallibility of rules composed by men and so acknowledges that these rules not only may but also “ought to be altered, augmented or diminished” if the profit of the churches so demands.
4. It requires of each local church that it shall “show all diligence in observing these regulations.” They are drafted and adopted for the purpose of maintaining the lawful order of the church and this can be achieved only by due observance.
5. By implication, therefore, this article also reiterates the binding authority of the Church Order.
Concerning these five matters we will comment briefly.
First of all, then, the purpose of the Church Order is to maintain the lawful order of the church. It is not a body of rules and regulations that is designed to spell out the solution to every problem that may arise in the church. Neither do the eighty-five articles here referred to intend to cover every circumstance of sin or disorder in the church. But the Church Order sets forth the basic principles of God’s Word and transposes these into fundamental rules of order, and by these the church is to be governed. The church here is the church of Christ as it is represented in the various congregations (institutes); and each of them individually, as well as all of them collectively, must observe the rules of the Church Order: for this is vital to their existence as part of the church of Christ. Without this, lawful order cannot be maintained: for these articles relate exactly to this. That this is so follows from the implied fact that the Church Order is based upon God’s Word, and the latter is the only rule for faith and conduct. To depart from it is to walk disorderly, and the fruit of such walk is chaos and ruin. There are only two paths—an orderly and a disorderly. There are only two ways—a broad and a narrow. There are only two standards—right and wrong. And the orderly path that follows the narrow way and is right is set forth in the articles of the Church Order based on God’s own Word. By these the church must conduct herself.
Secondly, these rules have been “drafted and adopted by common consent.” The church is not forced into obedience but her obedience is the fruit of the grace of God given to her. She does not agree to the principles and regulations of the Church Order simply because the majority decide this is best, but she does so because in drafting and adopting these rules she consciously seeks and submits to the will of Christ Himself. This does not mean that at the Synod of 1618-79 all the delegates were unanimous in their opinions regarding the adoption of these rules. The contrary was true. Although many of these articles had been adopted by previous synods, there were still differences concerning some of them. Two votes were taken by the assemblies adopting these rules. The first vote determined the opinion of the majority, and the second vote then was unanimous: for the .minority conformed itself to the majority. But no pope or synod can impose these rules upon the church, for this would be hierarchy. The churches voluntarily consent to be bound by the Church Order as much as they agree mutually in matters of doctrine with the churches that are affiliate in the federative union.
Thirdly, Article 86 acknowledges that these rules are not infallibly given; that they are the product of men, and, therefore, are also subject to change. This indicates that the Church Order, like the confessions, does not stand on a par with Holy Writ. The Scriptures are the infallible and therefore unchangeable Word of God. From age to age they remain the same. It follows then that in as far as the Church Order contains principles and truths that are based directly upon the Scriptures, these also may not be changed. But in addition to these, many things may be found in the Church Order for which there is no direct prescription found in the Word of God. These regulations not only may but also should be changed if the profit of the churches demands it. This flexibility is necessitated by changing circumstances which affect the church and demand a modification of her self-imposed regulations.
A word of caution must be sounded in this connection. First of all, it is a rather serious and very important thing to change the Church Order. This should never be done in haste or without due and careful consideration. “Frequent and hasty changes in the Church Order,” Monsma and Van Dellen write, “make for instability and tend to undermine the authority of the Church Order.” Against this we must stand on guard.
Secondly, the sole motive for changing the Church Order must be “the profit of the churches.” This, according to Rev. Ophoff, implies two things:
“1. It implies, first, that no external power, as for example the government, may compel the churches to change the Church Order. For the motive and the standard must be: the profit of the churches. And, therefore, a synod, addressed to the task of changing the Church Order, may not allow itself to be bound by the will of the government. It may, of course, take into consideration the ideas of the government, but only if these ideas, as put into practice, redound to the profit of the church, never if they clash with the profit of the churches.
“2. Alteration of the Church Order is forbidden should it redound to the profit only of a few—of a few churches, or individuals, of the clergy in contradistinction to the common members, and vice-versa. Alteration is allowable only if profitable to all the churches as to the whole of their combined membership.”
Should then a change in a certain article or articles of the Church Order be necessary, no church or single classis may enact such changes. This must be done by the Synod, representing all the churches. This requirement is rooted in the principle that no church may lord it over other churches by imposing upon them its ordinances; and it is based on the fact that the Church Order is not the property of any single church, but is drafted and adopted by common consent of them all.
The fourth observation we make of this final article of the Church Order is that it requires each church to show all diligence in observing these regulations! This, too, is essential, or the Church Order will lose all of its effectiveness. Although the Church Order is not a set of iron clad rules or legal regulations that must be enforced no matter what the results might be, it is a set of rules mutually agreed upon by all the churches; and simple reasonableness requires that all observe them with diligence. It may be granted that under certain local circumstances the observance of the Church Order might be a physical impossibility or create harm and disorder in a particular church. Interpreters of the Church Order are generally agreed that in such cases the consistory is justified in suspending certain regulations provided these do not affect other churches and also are not definite principles of Holy Writ. When this is done, it is advisable that the local church obtains the approval of the classis upon their action. The procedure is somewhat exceptional and should not be set forth as an example, but only as a thing permitted because of certain extenuating circumstances.
Finally, we note that this last article of our Church Order once again intimates the binding character of the Church Order. This has been expressed in the body of the Church Order proper, and we need not elaborate upon this point now. However, that these articles relate to the “lawful order of the church” and that they have been adopted “by common consent” and may be “altered, augmented or diminished” only as “ordained by the General Synod” would indicate that they have more than an advisory authority in the churches. The churches may not assume the attitude toward the Church Order that they can respect or ignore these regulations as they see fit. They are the basis for the government of the church and must then also be diligently observed. It is for the preservation of good order and decency that they are adopted. To attempt to maintain the rule of the church on another basis than the rules and regulations derived from the Word of God is to reap chaos and bring the church to ruin. For centuries our Church Order has withstood the tests of time and proven to be an invaluable guide for good order. Let us continue, then, to observe it, giving all diligence that its regulations be followed; and this practice, coupled with sound doctrine, will prove conducive to a faithful church.
With this we bring to a conclusion our discussion of the articles of the Church Order. The editorial staff of ourStandard Bearer has assigned undersigned a new rubric which will deal with the liturgies of the church. With this new subject we will begin, D.V., next time.