Previous article in this series: May 15, 2010, p. 371.
“No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons.” Church Order, Article 84.
The “Anti-Hierarchical Article,” as it has often been called, has a long and honorable history in the Dutch Reformed churches. It was the very first article of the Church Order drafted by the very first regular synod of these churches, the Synod of Emden, 1571. For logical reasons, it was later moved to the section of the Church Order dealing with discipline. And the article does indeed serve as a fitting conclusion to the whole of the Church Order. Nevertheless, if the Protestant Reformed Churches were ever of a mind to revise the Church Order, serious consideration ought to be given to reinstating this article to its original position at the head of the entire Church Order. So fundamental is this article, so dear to Reformed officebearers and Reformed churches is the principle behind this article, so hard-fought was the battle to overthrow the tyranny repudiated by this article, that it deserves to be considered the crown of the Church Order.
The principle underlying Article 84 also stands as the basis of Article 17. In the midst of its treatment of the special offices in the church, Article 17 affirms equality among the officebearers:
Among the ministers of the Word equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office, and also in other matters as far as possible, according to the judgment of the consistory and, if necessary, of the classis; which equality shall also be maintained in the case of the elders and the deacons.
Article 84, however, goes beyond Article 17. Whereas Article 17 is primarily positive, Article 84 is negative. Article 17 mandates that that there shall be equality among officebearers. Article 84 warns against the dread evil of hierarchy and prohibits any “lording it over.” Whereas Article 17 concerns officebearers, Article 84 goes beyond officebearers and includes churches.
Article 84 reflects the Reformation’s repudiation of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation threw off the “lording it over” of one church—the Church of Rome. And the Reformation threw off the “lording it over” of one officebearer—the bishop of Rome, the pope. The Reformers had experienced firsthand the horror of hierarchy. They had witnessed a hierarchy that protected heretics and persecuted to the death faithful officebearers. They had witnessed a hierarchy that protected immoral and violent clergymen, clergymen who should have been stripped of their offices, just as this same hierarchy countenances the most immoral conduct of its clergy today, including the gross evils of pedophilia and homosexuality. They had witnessed a hierarchy that promoted unquestioning allegiance of the members of the church, and burned those who dared to raise voices of protest. They had seen the church shrivel and nearly die under the stranglehold of wicked, self-seeking clerics. And they would have none of it.
The church lives under the one and only universal Bishop and Head of the church, Jesus Christ. Under Him no congregation is of greater importance than any other congregation. Under His rule, no officebearer is of any higher authority than any other officebearer.
Article 84 is not merely the trumpet blast of the church against hierarchy. It is the trumpet blast of the church against Antichrist. Hierarchy in the church serves Antichrist. It served the spirit of Antichrist in the days of the Reformation. And in the future, hierarchy will servethe Antichrist. There is a day coming when all the churches and all officebearers will relinquish their authority to one who will rule over them all. The modern ecumenical movement aims at this—all the churches and all religions united under one religious head. As in the days leading up to the Reformation, so in these coming days, the churches and religious leaders will willingly give up their authority to this dominant figure. His religious predominance will belong to the delusion perpetrated by the Antichrist. And as in the days prior to the Reformation, this delusion will stand in the service of the lie.
Let the churches be warned! Let the Reformed and Presbyterian churches be warned! Let the Protestant Reformed Churches be warned! Let us value the anti-hierarchical article! And let us exert ourselves to see to it that hierarchy does not creep into the church of Christ.
Already the Convent of Wezel, 1568, indicated its sensitivity to the threat of hierarchy in the church. Although not a synod in the true sense of the word, this gathering of Reformed officebearers met in Wezel, Germany because of the threat of persecution that still existed in the Lowlands. There are several warnings against hierarchy sprinkled throughout the articles adopted by this convention. Chapter 4, Article 7 warns that elders must not “lay claim to any authority nor to any liberty to lord it over” other elders or ministers, and that they must be on their guard “that they not introduce any laws according to their own whims….” In that same chapter, Article 9, the elders are admonished that “they ought to be fully aware of the fact that it in no way pertains to their office to establish [arbitrary] rules or to exercise [arbitrary] authority, be it over the minister of the Word and their fellow officebearers, or over the church….” In Chapter 5, Article 19 the Convent decided: “We are however of the opinion that no authority…ought to be granted to the classis assembly over any church or its ministers unless this church agrees with this of its own accord lest the church be robbed against its will of its rights and authority.” In Chapter 8, Article 20 it was decided that meetings of the classes should “not always be held in one and the same place, but rather as often as possible in different places, first of all to prevent domination of one church over another….” It was the Synod of Emden, 1571, the synod of “The Netherlands Churches that are Under the Cross,” that made the anti-hierarchical article the very first article of its Church Order.
No church shall lord it over another church, no minister of the Word, no elder or deacon shall lord it over another, but each one shall guard himself against all suspicion and enticement to lord it over [others].
It was the Synod of Dordt, 1578, of which synod the well-known Peter Datheen was the president, that placed the anti-hierarchical article at the end of the Church Order. The very last article of its Church Order, Chapter 6, Article 11, was:
No church shall in any way lord it over or have the upper hand over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons, but rather each one shall be on one’s guard against all cause and suspicion of this, although from duty of love one church not only may but also should admonish another, one minister another, etc.
The Synod of Dordt, 1581, abbreviated the anti-hierarchical article somewhat and placed it next-to-last in its Church Order.
No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder nor deacon over other elders and deacons.
The article passed unchanged into the Church Order adopted by the Synod of Middelburg, 1581. Related to the article, a question was put to the synod: “Whether it would be good…to appoint Inspectors or Superintendents” into the churches of the classes. The answer of the synod was a resounding “No.” “It is unnecessary and dangerous.” Clearly the synod viewed the appointment of classical inspectors or superintendents to be a definite step in the direction of hierarchy. From the Synod of Middelburg, the anti-hierarchical article entered unchanged into the Church Order adopted by the great Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, and from Dordt into our present Church Order.
Parity of Officebearers
Behind the sharp warning of Article 84 is the fundamental biblical principle of the parity, that is, equality of officebearers. Within a congregation, the officebearers are of equal authority. No minister has greater authority than any other minister, no elder has greater authority than any other elder, and no deacon has greater authority than any other deacon. What applies in the congregation applies also within the classis and the denomination.
The parity of officebearers is reflected in Reformed (Presbyterian) church government. At the local level, each officebearer has one vote in the consistory, council, and deacons meetings. At the classis, each consistory’s delegates have equally one vote. And at the meeting of the annual synod, each classical delegate casts one vote.
What we must be convinced of is that the great evil against which Article 84 warns is an ever-present evil threatening the church of Christ in the world. What we must be convinced of is that our own churches must be vigilant against the evil of hierarchy. For the evil of hierarchy is a sin that has its root in the human heart—our hearts. The root of hierarchy is the pride that lives in the depraved nature of us all and in the depraved nature of every officebearer. Pride always seeks itself. Pride always exalts itself at the expense of the other. Pride always seeks to control, to manipulate, and to dominate. That simply is the nature of the savage beast that lives within every human heart. We seek influence. We seek power. We seek recognition from others. We seek to be “the voice” at the church assemblies to which all others listen. We are all by nature Diotrephes, “who loveth to have the preeminence” (III John 9).
The evil that threatens officebearers also threatens congregations. It is a danger that the larger congregations in the denomination regard the smaller congregations as inferior. It is a danger that the older, long established congregations regard the younger, more recently established congregations, as not having yet arrived. It is a danger that a congregation supposes that orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition end with them, and to regard the other congregations of the denomination with suspicion. And ministers and officebearers may feed this spirit of superiority.
Away with this spirit of pride in officebearers! Away with this spirit of pride in congregations! Away with this spirit in the assemblies!
The remedy to hierarchy is humility! The humility that recognizes that what we are and what we have, we are and have by grace. The humility that seeks the other before self. The humility that aims at serving, not at being served. The humility that listens to the other and supposes that the other may have something to say from which I can learn. The humility that seeks not the exaltation of self, but the glory of God. Humility—that is the safeguard to hierarchy in the church. God grant us, officebearers, congregations, and denomination, that humility.
Although Article 84 is a sharp warning against hierarchy, the article must not be misconstrued. The article may not be appealed to in support of independentism. The Church Order is not taking back in Article 84 what it has previously said about the lawful authority of the broader assemblies. Not at all. The very language of the article makes this plain. For the article warns against “lording it over,” that is, tyranny, not the lawful but the unlawful exercise of authority. Neither does the article repudiate the lawful authority of the classis over the consistory, and the synod over the classis. This lawful authority has been carefully defined and circumscribed by the Church Order, especially in Articles 31 and 36. Those articles stand in all their force. What Article 84 rejects is the unlawful “lording it over” of one officebearer over his fellow officebearers and of one church over other churches. That is the detestable sin of hierarchy. And this is the sin, in its spirit and in its manifestations, of which Reformed churches and Reformed officebearers are sworn foes. That is Article 84, the anti-hierarchical article of the Church Order.