Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Church reformation ordinarily involves a return not only to true doctrine, but also to biblical church government. These two, it seems, almost always go hand in hand. Corresponding to departures in doctrine within the church are invariably departures also in the area of church polity. Often the errors in the government of the church serve the promotion of the errors in doctrine, countenancing the doctrinal deviations and protecting those who are promoting them. When reformation takes place, therefore, not only must the truth be restored, but it is also ordinarily necessary that proper church government be reestablished.
History has demonstrated the truth of this. The Roman Catholic Church had become both corrupt in doctrine, and hierarchical in church government. The reformers of the sixteenth century not only championed the restoration of the doctrines of grace, but also worked for the restoration of biblical church government. Especially did God use John Calvin to restore to the church proper biblical church government. What was true of the reformation of the sixteenth century was also true of the Arminian controversy in the seventeenth century. Not only did the Arminians promote false doctrine, which false doctrine was condemned by the Synod of Dordt, but the Arminians also were agitating for a church polity that was un-Reformed and unbiblical. In the Church Order that it drafted, the Synod of Dordt responded to the Arminian errors as regards church government. In the reformation of 1924, the issues were not only doctrinal, but also church political, particularly the autonomy of the local consistory, as opposed to the hierarchical presumption of the right to suspend and depose officebearers by the broader assemblies. God used the founding fathers of the Protestant Reformed Churches not only for the defense of the truth of sovereign, particular grace, but also for the defense of proper, Reformed church government, the government of the Church Order of Dordt.
What has been true of reformation movements generally throughout the history of the New Testament church was also true of the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands. Significant doctrinal issues were at stake in the Secession movement. Without question the Secession represents a genuine return to the truth of the Word of God and to the Reformed confessions. But the Secession also represents a return to proper church government. An important aspect of the Secession of 1834 was its struggle for the restoration of a biblical polity in the churches. Matters of church polity were a significant factor leading up to the Secession, and matters of church polity led to intense internal struggles within the churches of the Secession in their early history. Through these struggles, God led the Secession churches to a return to the Church Order of Dordt.
Church Political Struggles Leading up to the Secession
The Napoleonic era in the history of the Netherlands ended with the return from exile of King William I. On November 30, 1813 William returned to the Netherlands after eighteen years of absence. He returned at the request of the Dutch after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig in October of 1813. In 1814 William gained sovereignty over the whole of the Low Countries. And on March 16, 1815 he proclaimed himself King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. As part of the sweeping reforms that he introduced in the wake of the departure of the French, William reconstituted the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. By royal decree issued in January of 1816, the king imposed a new hierarchical, collegial system of church government that dismantled entirely the classes and synods of the Dutch Reformed churches. William replaced the Church Order of Dordt with a new church order called the General Regulations (“Het Algemeen Regelement“). The General Regulations placed the Reformed churches of the Netherlands under the control of the state. The Department of Education, Arts, and Sciences was charged with administering the affairs of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Executive boards took over the government of the churches, whose officers were appointed by and subject to the government. Although William’s reorganization of the churches was radical, very few protests were voiced. The churches were so relieved to be delivered from French rule that they were willing, for the most part, to yield control over their affairs to the restored monarch.
But by their acquiescence the Dutch churches had relinquished the cherished Church Order of Dordt. And that proved to be a costly concession indeed. For not only did the churches become subject to the dominance and interference of the state, but because of this the churches were unable to stem the growing tide of liberalism that swept through the Dutch churches. Time and again, the state boards protected the heretics, and time and again the state boards came down with a heavy hand to crush ministers and consistories who voiced their objections to those who were promoting wrong doctrines and practices in the churches.
From the very beginning, the Secession of 1834 expressed a determination to return to the Church Order of Dordt. Already the “Act of Secession or Return” formulated by the consistory of Ulrum made reference to this resolve. In this document, the consistory expressed that the “… Church Board of the Netherlands has made itself like the Papal Church which was rejected by our fathers . . . .” And the document closes with the resolution that “Our public worship services will conform to the time-honored liturgy of the church, and as regards worship and government, for the time being we will abide by the Church Order drafted by the aforementioned Synod of Dordt.” At its root, therefore, the Secession of 1834 was not only a return to right doctrine, but a return to proper church government— a return to proper church government in the form of the reestablishment of the Church Order of Dordt in the churches. The church would not any longer be subject to the intrusion of the state, but would be governed by the principles of God’s Word, as those principles were articulated in the Church Order of Dordt.
Internal Struggles over the Church Order of Dordt within the Secession Churches
Although the Secession of 1834 began with an interest in restoring the Church Order of Dordt to its rightful place in the Dutch Reformed churches, this did not immediately happen. Soon internal struggles erupted over this very issue, struggles that threatened to and did eventually splinter the reform movement. Differences of opinion divided the leaders of the Secession movement, some favoring the restoration of the Church Order of Dordt, others supporting a new church order that, while it might borrow from Dordt, would be unique to the Secession churches. Those who favored the restoration of the Church Order of Dordt were deCock and Van Velzen especially. It was particularly Scholte who favored a new Church Order.
In 1837, Scholte presented to the second synod of the Secession churches, meeting in Utrecht from September 28 to October 11, the draft of a new Church Order. This new Church Order borrowed from the Church Order of Dordt, but was at the same time a radical revision of the Church Order of 1618-1619. The new Church Order was adopted after lengthy discussion and some modification.
But hardly had the synod recessed before opposition to the new Church Order was raised. The main objections were the following. First, it was objected that the new Church Order was too much the work of one man. Even though the synod had approved it, the Church Order itself was primarily the work of Scholte. There was a strong sentiment that if the Secession churches were going to adopt a new church order, many more of the leaders of the new denomination should be involved in its formulation. Second, there were those who opposed setting aside the Church Order of Dordt in favor of a new church order because this negated the Secession’s claim that they were not only seceding but returning to the old paths and the time-honored traditions of the Dutch Reformed churches. The Secession was not only a separation from the apostate state church of the Netherlands, but a return to Dordt. Many felt that, by setting aside the Church Order of Dordt, the Secession’s claim to be a return to Dordt was compromised. And third, the new Church Order was opposed because it gutted the broader assemblies of any real authority. Following Scholte’s fear of hierarchy, the broader assemblies had no binding powers in the new Church Order. All decisions of the broader assemblies were to be ratified by the local consistories, and the decisions of the broader assemblies were to be only advisory. In his new Church Order, Scholte manifested the streak of independentism that would plague him in his labors among the Secession churches in the Netherlands, and later in his work in Pella, Iowa.
After much debate and heated exchanges, and after extensive wrangling in the assemblies, the churches of the Secession finally put the controversy over church polity to rest at the Synod of Amsterdam in 1840. At this synod it was decided to rescind the new Church Order and to establish the Church Order of Dordt as the church order of the Secession churches. At this same synod, Scholte was reprimanded and subsequently deposed for refusing to accept the original Church Order of Dordt. At a considerable cost, the issue over church polity was resolved and the peace of the churches was restored. And the Secession churches returned to the biblical principles and polity of Dordt.
The Significance of the Church Political Struggles of the Secession Churches
The history of the struggle of the Secession churches over issues of church polity underscores the importance of biblical church government. Without question, this is one of the monuments of the Secession, that it restored to the Dutch Reformed churches proper church government. This is part of the heritage of the Secession to those who count themselves heirs of the Secession. The Secession restored not only the doctrines of Dordt, but also the polity of Dordt.
The Secession was a return specifically to the Church Order of Dordt, its principles and provisions. Opposition to the Church Order of Dordt from without and within was put down. And in the end the Church Order of Dordt was confirmed in the churches of the Secession. The struggle to restore the Church Order of Dordt ought to endear that Church Order to churches that, like the Protestant Reformed Churches, count that Church Order their own.
The Secession’s struggle over the Church Order of Dordt makes plain the conviction of the Reformed that proper church government belongs to the being (esse) of the church, not merely to the wellbeing (bene esse) of the church. This is the settled conviction of the Reformed, a conviction reinforced by the history of the Secession. In the end, the churches of the Secession came to see that this is the confessionally Reformed position. That position is expressed in Article 30 of the Belgic Confession of Faith: “We believe that this true church must be governed by that spiritual policy which our Lord hath taught us in His Word . . . .” Article 32 adds: “In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the church, yet they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted.” The restoration of the Church Order of Dordt rested squarely on the conviction that proper church government pertains to the very being of the true church of Jesus Christ. That conviction must motivate those who are the spiritual descendants of the Secession of 1834 to maintain the Church Order of Dordt.