Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
“In time of war, pestilence, national calamities, and other great afflictions, the pressure of which is felt throughout the churches, it is fitting that the classis proclaim a day of prayer.”
Church Order, Article 66.
The Original Article of Dordt
As is well known, the Roman Catholic Church multiplied special days of fasting and prayer. The Reformed churches condemned this multiplication of days. At the same time, they saw the spiritual benefits of fasting and prayer. They believed that there were certain times when circumstances called for the saints to come together in order to humble themselves before God and implore His grace. Thus the inclusion of Article 66 in our Church Order.
Our present Article 66 differs somewhat from the article adopted originally by the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19. The original article read as follows:
In times of war, pestilence, national calamities, severe persecution of the churches and other general difficulties, the ministers shall petition the government that by its authority and order public fasting and prayer days may be designated and set aside.
Several differences may be noted.
First, our article speaks of the “classis,” whereas the original article spoke of the “ministers” taking the initiative in the proclamation of special days of prayer.
Second, the original article spoke of the government setting aside these prayer days, whereas our present article makes no mention of the government. Undoubtedly this was due to the fact that on these days of prayer all businesses, schools, and amusements were shut down. Public life came to a standstill, as was otherwise the case only on the Sabbath.
Third, excluded in our present article as a cause for a special day of prayer is “severe persecution of the churches.” For some unknown reason this was dropped in the 1914 revision of the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church. Perhaps it was felt that if the church was experiencing severe persecution, it would hardly be possible for the congregations to gather for public worship. Nevertheless, this certainly qualifies as a compelling reason for a special day of prayer. It would be good, therefore, that any future revision of the Church Order restore this phrase of Dordt.
Fourth, our present article contains no reference to fasting. This is regrettable. The original article of Dordt combined fasting and prayer. These were to be special days not only of prayer, but also of fasting. Consideration ought to be given to reinstating the reference to fasting in any future revision of the Church Order.
The Provision of Article 66
Article 66 is concerned with special days of prayer. These prayer days are to be distinguished from the annual Day of Prayer for crops which is referred to in Article 67. These are not regularly scheduled days of prayer, but special days of prayer arising out of extraordinary circumstances.
These extraordinary circumstances are the circumstances generally referred to in the article: war, pestilence, national calamity, other great afflictions, and persecution. In various ways these circumstances bring “pressure” to bear on the churches. The church is not immune from these disasters. Although separate from the world, the church is in the world. And being in the world means that the saints experience the trouble, pain, and temptations associated with these afflictions.
The classis is authorized by the article to designate these special days of prayer. Undoubtedly a classis would do this at the request of one of its member consistories. The special day of prayer, therefore, would affect all of the churches in that particular classis. It may very well be that the circumstances prompting a classis to set aside a special day of prayer are circumstances that do not prevail in neighboring classes. This is the more likely in our own situation in which our classes are rather large geographically and congregations widely separated.
Even though Article 66 authorizes a classis to call for a special day of prayer, the article does not prohibit either a local consistory or the general synod from designating such days.
There may be reasons locally for a consistory to take this step, for example, if the congregation’s meeting place is destroyed by fire or its pastor unjustly imprisoned. Acts 12 tells us that many of the saints of the congregation at Jerusalem were gathered for prayer at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, at the time that Peter was miraculously delivered from prison.
The general synod may designate a day of prayer. The “national calamities” referred to in Article 66 may affect the churches of all the classes. Or all the churches may come under the pressure of a general persecution.
However, ordinarily, individual classes will designate special days of prayer for the churches within that particular classis.
On the designated day, each local consistory will issue a call to worship. As on the Sabbath, the members of the church are expected to heed this summons. Although these are special days of prayer, the Word is to be administered, as is always the case when the congregation is gathered for worship. The ministers should preach a sermon appropriate to the specific occasion. In the Netherlands the congregations would often spend the entire day in church, at the same time refraining from eating and drinking. Usually two sermons were preached, and between the sermons the congregation would engage in prayer and singing.
At times the question arose whether these special days of prayer should be designated on a Sunday or on a week-day. The consensus of the synods was that they should ordinarily be held on a week-day.
The purpose of these special days of prayer is not simply that the church request that the Lord remove whatever calamity He has sent. Such a request has its place in the church, which all the while submits such a petition to the will of God, as it does in the life of the individual Christian. But beyond that, it is the purpose of these special days of prayer to recognize the hand of the Lord in whatever afflictions He has sent, and His goodness in sending them. The purpose is to humble ourselves under the heavy hand of the Lord, confessing our sins and acknowledging that in ourselves we deserve far worse than extreme earthly affliction. The purpose is to pray for His preserving grace in the affliction, the grace neither to complain nor to find fault with God’s ways which are always higher than our ways.
What About Fasting?
As noted earlier, the reference to fasting in the original article of the Church Order of Dordt has been dropped in our Church Order. There are two explanations for this.
First, the Reformed churches reacted to the unbiblical practice of fasting in the Roman Catholic Church. Rome imposed fasts on the people. And Rome promoted fasting as meritorious.
Second, the practice of fasting gradually fell into disuse in the Reformed churches.
Is there, however, a legitimate place for fasting in the life of the New Testament Christian? Is it appropriate at certain times for believers to be encouraged to abstain from food and drink so that they may give themselves to prayer and other exercises of piety? Ought we to give fasting more of a place than we do?
The Scriptures contain numerous references to fasting. Under the Old Testament economy there were mandatory fasts associated with the solemn festivals appointed by God in Israel. The Scriptures refer often to voluntary fasts. David fasted as long as the child born to Bathsheba still lived (II Sam. 12:21ff.). The people of Nineveh fasted in response to Jonah’s proclamation of God’s intention to destroy their city (Jonah 3:5ff.). The Lord Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights at the time of His temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2). The church at Antioch fasted prior to sending out Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:2, 3).
Without doubt, fasting ought still to have a place in the life of New Testament Christians. Nowhere do the New Testament Scriptures bind fasting on believers at set times and for prescribed lengths of time. Fasting in the New Testament is to be voluntary fasting. The church is not to mandate fasting. But that does not mean that at certain times the church may not encourage fasting. It may and it ought.
Fasting has several purposes. The main purpose of fasting is the better to dispose the soul to prayer and meditation. No distraction, not even the distraction of food and drink, are permitted to take the believer’s mind off God or to interrupt his supplication of God. Besides this, fasting is an expression of sorrow and repentance. Fasting in Scripture is often associated with confession of sin, the outward manifestation of the strickenness of the inward man.
It is doubtful that the provision of Article 66 has ever been implemented in the history of our churches. Perhaps some day circumstances will arise which persuade the churches to proclaim a special day of prayer. For it lives in the consciousness of Reformed Christians that prayer is the chief vehicle by which we express our gratitude to God and receive from God His grace and Holy Spirit.