One of the lesser known yet very important labors of the great Synod of Dordt was to adopt a Church Order to unite all the Dutch Reformed churches. This was done at one of the later sessions of the synod.
It was not until the 137th sitting of the Synod, in early May 1619, that the Remonstrants were finally condemned as heretics and perturbateurs of the state and church. A list of preachers from the Remonstrant camp was drawn up, together with the Formula of Subscription to which every faithful officebearer would have to subscribe.1
On May 13, 1619, at the 155th sitting of the Synod, the delegates took up the matter of the Church Order.
The minutes of the Synod record that the articles of the Church Order, set forth at the last national synod, held in 1586 in ‘s-Gravenhage, were read. Then, in the afternoon session the same day, the articles of the Church Order were in substantie adopted by all the deputies, ministers, and elders of every province.2
The great Synod adopted for all the churches the work that was previously done at the national synod held in ‘s-Gravenhage more than 32 years before. In addition, the Church Order adopted at ‘s-Gravenhage had its roots in work done even earlier, during the very unsettled early history of the Reformed churches in the Lowlands.
On November 3, 1568, a meeting was held in Wesel 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,3 gathered to draft a Church Order that would serve to unite the Reformed churches throughout the Lowlands in a biblical form of church government.
The fruit of the meeting in Wesel was recorded in writing under the heading “The Articles of Wesel 1568.” The introduction to these articles reads as follows:
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.4
Noteworthy in the introduction is the reference to having “consulted with the best reformed churches.”
Some nine years earlier, in 1559, the first national synod of the Reformed churches of France had been held in Paris. There a Church Order had been adopted, clearly influenced by John Calvin and the principles of ecclesiology that Calvin had restored from Holy Scripture over several years of labor in Geneva and Strasbourg. Thus indirectly the Church Order eventually adopted by the Synod of Dordt was also influenced by John Calvin.
In addition, in the northern Netherlands, the Polish Reformer John a Lasco was an influential leader. He initially introduced the confessions and church orders of the Swiss Reformers, Bucer and Zwingli, and established the church council in Emden in 1544, laying the foundations for the establishment of consistories in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.5 When renewed persecution forced a Lasco to migrate to London and to serve the newly formed Dutch refugee church, he labored to adopt a Church Order that was based more upon the practices in Calvin’s Geneva and the restoration of a biblical ecclesiology established by Calvin.6
When these church leaders gathered at Wesel, therefore, seeking for the welfare of the Dutch churches to see them unified in a biblical church government, they were building upon a foundation already laid by other Reformers, and that especially under the influence of John Calvin.
In eight chapters they recorded what they considered necessary for an ecclesiastical order in a unified body of Reformed churches. That included establishing biblical principles concerning the assemblies and classes of such churches, the requirements of ministers, elders and deacons, the importance of catechism instruction, regulations of the sacraments and marriage, as well as the requirement of being faithful in the exercise of church discipline.
The church leaders who gathered at Wesel and set forth this preliminary Church Order did so understanding that their decisions could only serve as groundwork for decisions to be made by properly convened synods.7
The first regular synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands was held in Emden, Germany in 1571, during a time of persecution that prevented a synodical gathering in the Netherlands.
The Synod of Emden did not adopt the Church Order that would later be adopted at Dordt. Rather, it set forth some of the basic biblical principles of church government. Many of these principles were also applied in decisions which answered specific questions rising from overtures presented to the Synod by various churches.
The first article adopted by the Synod of Emden established a foundational principle of Reformed church government over against the Roman Catholic system of a so-called divinely ordained hierarchy of clergy members, and clearly followed the first article of the Reformed Synod of Paris in 1559: “No church shall have dominion over another church, no minister of the Word, no elder or deacon shall exercise dominion over another. Rather shall they be vigilant lest they should give cause to be suspected of desiring dominion.”8
Immediately distinguishing Reformed church government from the hierarchical rule of the Roman Catholic Church is the parity of officebearers in a federation of churches, each congregation being autonomous, but all which are unified as conscience-bound to the Word of God. Furthermore, the truth of that Word of God is set forth in the Reformed confessions.
That means that no minister, even a seminary professor, has any higher place than any of his colleagues, nor is anyone to dominate his fellow officebearers, even though he might have years of experience over his younger colleagues. At the same time, no church within the federation may lord it over another church. The biblical principle is that all churches and officebearers are equally subordinate under Christ. All are servants of Christ.
The decisions that followed and which would be embodied in the Church Order adopted at the Synod of Dordt, unfolded that basic principle of what it means to serve Christ in the rule of the church.
Essential to serving Christ is faithfulness to His Word. As at Wesel, so the Synod of Emden recognized that church unity is doctrinal unity. So the Synod required that all ministers express agreement with the Belgic Confession of Faith, as well as the French Confession in the French-speaking churches of the Lowlands. In addition, they required the Genevan Catechism to be used in the French-speaking churches, and the Heidelberg Catechism in the Dutch-speaking churches.
With doctrinal unity there can also be unity in church life.
That includes the requirements for faithful officebearers and the exercise of their offices, regulations concerning the administration of the sacraments, the orderly and godly conduct required of the members of the churches, and the proper biblical exercise of Christian discipline against those who walk ungodly, including officebearers.
One of the greatest disputes from a church political point of view was the relation between church and state. That dispute intensified after 1575 when the Prince of Orange ordered that the civil authorities were to appoint the consistories.9
The National Synod of Dordrecht in 1578 was the first truly national synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. It was especially the church-state dispute that occupied the attention of the Synod. The Synod took the stand that Christ has given the church alone power in things ecclesiastical. But Synod also made concession to the state in deciding that a congregation’s call to a minister must also have the approval of the magistrates.
The church-state issue was also front and center at the Synod of Middleburg in 1581. While unable to settle that issue, the Synod of Middleburg did make a significant revision of the Church Order, with the articles arranged under essentially the same four major headings that would be adopted at the Synod of Dordt.
Then followed the National Synod of ‘s-Gravenhage 1586, the last national synod to be held prior to the Synod of Dordt. There were tensions in the churches over the differing views of church-state relation, the requirements of the Formula of Subscription, prescribed preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism, and other matters. The Synod made very little change to the Church Order adopted at Middleburg, but gave greater attention to matters concerning “Censure and Ecclesiastical Admonitions,” probably in response to the some of the unfaithfulness observed in the churches not only with some of the officebearers, and ministers in particular, but also among the members of the churches. The embrace of the teachings of Jacobus Arminius did not arise in a vacuum.
So the Church Order that the Great Synod of Dordt would adopt in May 1619 was also the foundation upon which it would face the Arminian controversy and take its stand. The Church Order served it well in the face of that great trial. Thus, near the end of the Synod the decision was made to adopt for all the churches that Church Order previously set forth and adopted at ‘s-Gravenhage.
The Church Order of Dordt did not receive the approval of the States General. But the churches were guided by that Church Order and were able to function in a unified way because of it.
That Church Order is substantially the Church Order maintained today in the Protestant Reformed Churches. It continues to be one of the great blessings that we have received as a fruit of the Synod of Dordt.
2 Isaack J. Canin, Acta Nationale Synode Van Dordrecht in 1618 en 1619. (Dordrecht: Den Hertog, B.V. – Houten, 1987), 935.
3 http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/encyc09/htm/iv.vii.c.htm (Article 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.
4 Ecclesiastical Manual, Including the Decisions of the Netherlands Synods and Other Significant Matters Relating to the Government of the Church, Biesterveld and H.H. Kuyper; Transl. by Richard R. De Ridder (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), 20.
5 Israel, The Dutch Republic, 102.
6 Israel, 103.
7 Richard R. De Ridder, A Survey of the Sources of Reformed Church Policy and the Form of Government of the Christian Reformed Church in America, Syllabus. (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1983), 36.
8 Calvinism in Europe, A.C. Duke; Gillian Lewis; Andrew Pettegree, Eds., 158.