The Value of the Church Order Today

Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

Article 32 of the Belgic Confession of Faith reads in part:

In the meantime we believe that 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 . . . . Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord, and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God.

This article explains the rationale behind our Reformed church order. Our church order articulates the fundamental principles which Christ, the only Master of the church, has instituted for the government of the church. Based on those fundamental biblical principles, the church order also sets down certain ordinances established by the rulers of the church for maintaining the body of the church. These are ordinances deemed “useful and beneficial,” both for the local congregation and for the broader fellowship of churches. These are ordinances that “tend to nourish and preserve concord and unity.” And these are ordinances which serve the better “to keep all men in obedience to God.”

What is a good Reformed church order? A good Reformed church order is NOT a detailed set of regulations, attempting to spell out proper procedure in any given situation. A Reformed church order is not a “How To….” manual for ecclesiastical mechanics, or a playbook for clerical athletes. A Reformed church order is not a fixed, rigid system of rules, dos and don’ts imposed upon the churches. Any study of our church order will reveal the amazing amount of flexibility in procedures and practices possible within the perimeters set down by the church order. The main purpose of the church order is NOT to settle arguments over fine points of church polity raised in consistory meetings or on the floor of the broader assemblies. To approach the church order this way is a mistake; worse, it is destructive of its main purpose: “to nourish and preserve concord and unity” in the church.

What is a good Reformed church order? A good Reformed church order aims to show how the Lord Jesus Christ rules His church and wills that His church be ruled. It summarizes what the apostles have spoken and written regarding church government, church office, and church discipline, applying all this to present circumstances.

Based on these criteria, our church order, which is basically the church order adopted by the Synod of Dordt, 1618-1619, is a good Reformed church order. It sets forth the fundamental principles of church government contained in the Word of God, as well as those ordinances which, although they are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, are based upon biblical principles and serve the good order and unity of the church. For nearly 400 years the church order has proved its usefulness in the life of Reformed churches the world over.

We are convinced that the church order continues to be of use and value to Reformed churches today. We are not in the company of those Reformed churches, some of long standing, others lately sprung up, who deliberately decline adoption of the church order. We are not in sympathy with those in Reformed churches formally governed by the church order who publicly advocate repeal of the church order and whose view of the church order is that it is a dry bone that serves no useful purpose in the modern church. We are not in agreement with those promoting revision of the church order, but revision that will compromise fundamental biblical principles and cut the heart out of the church order.

We are convinced that if the Reformed church is to be Reformed and ever reforming, she must continue to adhere to the Reformed church order, or, in cases where she has departed from it, return to it. To a great extent the explanation for the loss of concordandunity in Reformed churches today is disdain for that which has been instituted to preserve that concord and unity, the Reformed church order.

Value of the Church Order

The first value of the church order is that it serves to maintain good order in the churches. Repeatedly the apostolic command given in I Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order,” was included in the early Reformed church orders. Our church order refers to it also. The words “good order,” found in several articles, are derived from the apostle’s expression. The first article of our church order justifies the “matters the following articles treat” on the ground of “the maintenance of good order in the church of Christ.”

In I Corinthians 14:33 the apostle Paul states that “…God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” It is ONLY after he has said this that he finishes the chapter by saying, “Let all things be done decently and in order,” (vs. 40). God wills that there be. peace in the church; He is the Author of peace. For the sake of this God-approved peace, in order that there will be peace in the church, good order must be maintained in her midst. That is the first and outstanding value of the church order.

Secondly, and closely connected to this, the value of the church order is that it preserves the unity of the church. From the very beginning the fathers insisted that the Reformed churches ought to be united not only in doctrine, but also in polity. The church order is an important basis for church unity; is itself an expression of church unity; and is a means to safeguard the unity of the churches bound by its regulations.

How we ought to value anything that serves, in the language of the Belgic Confession, “to nourish and preserve concord and unity”! The churches’ unity depends on the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. It is the value of the church order that it establishes those regulations in the life of the church that assure that the pure preaching is maintained, the sacraments are properly administered, and discipline is faithfully exercised.

In the third place, the church order has confessional value. The church order serves as a “minor confession” in the church. The “major confessions” of our churches are “The Three Forms of Unity”: The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession of Faith, and The Canons of Dordt. But our churches also have “minor confessions.” These would be especially our adopted liturgical forms, as for example “The Baptism Form,” “The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper,” “The Form of Ordination of Ministers of God’s Word.” To be included as a “minor confession” is also our church order.

The church order is the confession of our churches concerning what we believe to be the Scriptural principles of church government. The church order sets forth fundamental biblical truths concerning such things as: authority in the church of Jesus Christ; the nature and duties of the special offices; the sacraments; and Christian discipline.

In the fourth place, the value of our church order is that it connects us to the church of the past. The Reformed church is NOT independent. It is not independent church politically. But it is not independent either in the sense that it stands isolated from the church of the past.

The Reformed church stands connected with the church of the past, and the church order is one means to maintain this connection. Through the church order the church has access to the wisdom of the church of the past and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the church of the past. It would be both foolish and wrong to ignore that guidance as though the church of ages past was not Spirit-filled and Spirit-led.

Fifth, the value of the church order is that it serves a regulative purpose. The church order contains the various provisions according to which the local congregation, as well as the broader assemblies, classis and synod, are governed. How the church is to be governed is set forth in the Word of God. However, Scripture is not a ready-made church order or manual of church government. Instead, the Scriptures set forth the fundamental principles upon which the government of the church is based. The church order seeks to enunciate and apply these principles in the actual government of the church.

And sixth, the value of the church order is that it serves a juridical purpose in the church. This means that, in connection with the Word of God and the “Three Forms of Unity,” the church order has a place in settling disputes and deciding issues in the church. The church order is not the final arbiter of truth and practice. The final arbiter is the Word of God. But inasmuch as the church order sets forth the principles of Holy Scripture and applies these principles to the life and government of the church, the church order has authority in the Reformed church and the Reformed fellowship of churches.

In addition, the church order is also authoritative because of the willing consent of the churches themselves. The churches have mutually agreed to bind themselves by the authority of the church order. All who desire to become or to remain members of the church must willingly consent to be governed by the church order. Thus, the binding authority of the church order is the authority we willingly consent to give it.

. . . to be continued