The Development of Church Order in the Netherlands

Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.

The development of church polity in the Netherlands arose out of the crucible of persecution.

From 1515 to 1555, Charles V of Spain ruled the Netherlands, which at that time included Holland, Belgium, and a portion of Northern France. When it came to maintaining the strength of the Roman Catholic Church, this Roman Catholic king ruled with an iron fist. Those who had been brought under the influence of the Reformation, and particularly those who would promote the teachings of the Reformation, faced torture and death.

When Charles V died, the churches of the Reformation soon discovered that his son, the new king, Philip II, only increased the persecution in the Netherlands. Philip did all within his power to destroy the Reformed faith in the Lowlands. When he sent the Duke of Alva to the Netherlands, terror reigned among the children of the Reformation. His ravages among the people of the provinces and their property is described as being “like those of a tiger among a flock of sheep.”¹ Consequently, many thousands of God’s people fled, especially to Germany and England, where Reformed congregations were established by Dutch refugees in Wezel and Emden (Germany) and in London.

On November 3, 1568, a meeting was held in Wezel with some 40 ministers and elders present. Because there is no indication that these men were delegated by their churches, the meeting seems to have been an unofficial gathering. But it is evident from the written conclusions of the meeting that these church leaders came together with a particular purpose in mind. This informal assembly, under the leadership of Petrus Dathenus,² gathered to establish a unified church body, a Reformed federation of churches, and to draw up a tentative church order that would serve to unite these churches in a biblical form of church government.

The fruit of the meeting in Wezel was recorded in writing under the heading “The Articles of Wezel 1568.” The introduction to these articles reads as follows³:

Certain specific items or articles which the ministers of the church in the Netherlands have judged to be partly necessary, partly useful for the church’s service.

The apostle Paul prescribes that in the church of God all things must be done decently and in order so that unanimous agreement may be established and maintained not only in doctrine but also in the polity (of the church) itself and in the ecclesiastical regulation of office. In order that completely equal regulation of these matters may now be observed in all churches of the Netherlands, it seemed good to us to propose the following matters in an orderly fashion, concerning which we have consulted with the best reformed churches, so that these regulations may be unanimously adopted and maintained by the ministers of the Netherlands for the benefit of the church.

The Articles of Wezel provided regulations for the churches in eight main areas: Concerning the Assemblies and the Classes of the Provinces, Concerning Ministers and Teachers, Concerning the Catechism, Concerning the Elders, Concerning the Deacons, Concerning the Sacraments, Concerning Marriage, and Concerning Discipline.

As mentioned in their introduction, the church leaders who gathered at Wezel did not formulate these regulations on their own, but “consulted with the best reformed churches.” Notably, they consulted the church order that John Calvin had written for Geneva, entitled Ecclesiastical Ordinances. It is also very likely that they consulted with John á Lasco, the well-traveled Polish Reformer, who had labored in Ostfriesland before settling in London to serve as minister of the growing number of refugees from the Continent.4 In London, á Lasco also wrote his ecclesiastical ordinances for the church there. His work was then translated into Dutch by Maarten Micron in hisChristelijke Ordinancien. While á Lasco had returned to Poland some two years prior to the gathering at Wezel, it is likely that if he was not consulted personally, his ecclesiastical ordinances for the church in London were carefully studied. The influence of both Calvin and á Lasco is found in the subsequent Church Order of Dordrecht, but there can be found other influences as well, even reaching back into the ancient church.

It is striking that even while persecuted and scattered, the churches still looked forward in the hope of being able to return to their homeland with the free exercise of religion. It was in anticipation of that return, therefore, that they saw the necessity of the churches standing together in denominational unity.

While the gathering at Wezel laid the footings for a church order uniting the Reformed churches, it was three years later, at the first official synod of the Dutch churches, that the foundation was laid for what would later be more perfectly realized at the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-19. In 1571, a synod was convened in Emden, on the border between Germany and the Netherlands. While Emden did not adopt a church order in the form that we know it today, it adopted a series of regulations and foundational principles for the unity and government of the churches.

Chief of the regulations adopted by the Synod of Emden was the principle set forth in the first article adopted by the Synod:

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].5

Even though this article would later be given a place near the end of the Church Order of Dordt simply because of the organizational structure of the Church Order, nonetheless, it is recognized as a fundamental principle of Reformed church government. In the church of Jesus Christ there is one who rules, and that is Christ. Among His servants there is no room for one to lord it over another. A minister is not to lord it over another minister, nor over a consistory; an elder is not to lord it over another elder, nor a consistory over another consistory. All officebearers have their place directly under Christ and are His servants.

The importance of this first article was that it set the Reformed churches apart, in their biblical form of church government, from the church of Rome. The Council of Trent, in the definitive setting forth of Roman Catholic doctrine as a response to the Reformation, had clearly stated that there is only one church to which all believers must belong, and that within the church there is a divinely-ordained hierarchy of office holders. So we see in the Roman Catholic Church today the papal head, beneath whom are the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, etc. But the Reformed churches, setting forth the truth on the basis of biblical teaching, recognize Christ as “the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church.”6 So we confess with the Belgic Confession in Article 31, “As for the ministers of God’s Word, they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all ministers of Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the church.”

This truth of Christ as the only Lord of the church also guards the unity of the church from domineering individuals, and it provides a biblical foundation for church reformation.

Church unity was clearly the focus in the decisions taken at Emden, which decisions would later be incorporated in the church order finally adopted by the churches.

As at Wezel, so also the Synod of Emden recognized that church unity is doctrinal unity, unity in the truth of God’s Holy Word. The Synod required all ministers to express agreement with the Belgic Confession of Faith, as well as the French Confession in the French speaking churches. In addition, they expressed that the Genevan Catechism be used in the French speaking churches, and that the Heidelberg Catechism be used in the churches of the Netherlands. Thus the confessions were recognized as forms of unity.

After establishing doctrinal unity as the essential element for the organization of Reformed churches into a denomination, the Synod gave its attention to developing a model for church life. Much attention was given to the offices of the church, and particularly the ministry of the Word. In addition, regulations were adopted concerning the administration of the sacraments, as well as the orderly and godly conduct required of the members of the church, and the biblical exercise of Christian discipline against those who walk ungodly, including officebearers.

Some regulations of church government are firmly established upon biblical principles. Others, while not mandated by Scripture, serve the good order of the church’s life. But the Synod of Emden closed with the following article:

These articles concerning the lawful and proper order of the churches have been adopted by common consent, so that if the welfare of the churches requires, they may and should be altered, augmented and diminished. However no individual church shall be free to do this, but all churches shall diligently observe them until it has been otherwise decided by a synod.

That concluding article demonstrates that the Reformed fathers cherished the unity of the church. While recognizing the autonomy of each congregation—notice the reference, not to church, singular, but to churches—they would also maintain denominational unity. Churches promise to receive and abide by decisions of synods, not because some higher body made them, but because the churches themselves made the decisions “by common consent.” This idea would later be embodied in the Church Order of Dordrecht in Article 31, with its statement that, subject to a decision being overturned by appeal and thus proven to be in conflict with the Word of God or the articles of the Church Order, “whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding.”

Soon after the Synod of Emden, the Lord gave relief from persecution in the Netherlands. Consequently the Reformed churches were allowed to develop on Dutch soil. Several subsequent synods met and contributed to further development of the church order. It was finally at the renowned Synod of Dordrecht meeting in 1618-19 that a number of sessions were given to finalizing and adopting the Church Order that we, in the main, continue to follow today in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

While the Church Order of Dordt was cast aside for many years in the Netherlands as the civil authorities became more and more involved in church government, through continued church reformation the Church Order of Dordt stood and found a measure of restoration. With relatively minor revisions it continues to serve our churches today.

It is our humble prayer that the only King of the church, our Lord Jesus Christ, will bless our use of it unto the obedience of love. May this obedience be always to the praise and adoration of His and our Father above, whose injunction resounds in the churches from age to age: “Let all things be done decently and in order.”

I Corinthians 14:40


¹ Maurice G. Hansen, The Reformed Church of the Netherlands Traced from A.D. 1340 to A.D. 1840, in Short Historical Sketches, New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Church in America. 1884. p. 64. (Hansen also gives a graphic and terrible description of the persecution that ensued.)

² from the Schaff- Herzog Encyclopedia on the Reformed [Dutch] Church: I. In the Netherlands). Dathenus became a noteworthy figure in the formation of the liturgy of the Dutch Reformed churches. He authored the first Dutch versification of the Psalms, translated the Heidelberg Catechism from the German language into the Dutch, and authored several liturgical forms that were incorporated into the liturgy of the Reformed churches.

³ Translation of Ecclesiastical Manual, Including the Decisions of the Netherlands Synods and Other Significant Matters Relating to the Government of the Church, P. Biesterveld and Dr. H. H. Kuyper, authors, professors at the Free University of Amsterdam, translated by Richard R. DeRidder, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI 49506, 1982. p. 20.

4. A Survey of the Sources of Reformed Church Polity and The Form of Government of The Christian Reformed Church, Richard R. DeRidder, syllabus published by Calvin Theological Seminary in 1983. pp. 25-26.

5. Translation of P. Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper, Ecclesiastical Manual, p. 35.

6. Belgic Confession, Article 31, “The Ministers, Elders, and Deacons.”

7. Concluding paragraph to the Preface of the Church Order Book of the Protestant Reformed Churches.