“Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted: shall be placed under the care of a neighboring consistory.”
—Article 39, D.K.O.
To this article the following decision of Synod is appended in our Church Order:
“If possible the organization of a congregation shall precede the administration of the sacraments. However, if the conditions are not ripe for the organization of a congregation, such members are to be enrolled in an adjoining congregation, and thus the sacraments can be administered under the supervision of that consistory. However, this shall not he done without the accompanying preaching of the Word, nor without sufficient representation of the consistory to have supervision of the administration.”
In general the meaning of the above article is plain. It is not so much a question as to what this article means but the difficulty is confronted in the execution or putting into practice the rules prescribed in it. To use a colloquialism, It is easier said than done! The article itself refers to circumstances where there may be a group of believers who, with their children, desire to be organized as the church of Jesus Christ but, for some reason or another, a consistory cannot be constituted and, therefore, the desired organization cannot be effected. The church cannot be organized without office bearers. The offices of the church are an essential part of the institute. .
Hence, the question: What are these people to do? They cannot, being believers, live without the church and as yet the church cannot be organized in the community where they live. A real problem indeed!
As a solution to this problem indeed!
As a solution to this problem some would advocate that those involved in such circumstances are duty bound to leave their places of employment, sell their farms, close their business and move with their families into a community where the church is found. We would not say that this advice is never to be given but we do contend that it should only be employed in circumstances where every other conceivable possibility has been exhausted and that for the following reasons:
(1) It is not in accord with the advice of the Church Order, Article 39.
(2) It has no direct basis in Scripture.
(3) It is questionable, to say the least, whether it is the Lord’s will that His people, whom He in His providence has brought to and established in a certain community and then later called to the faith, should leave that community or remain there to perpetuate that witness of Him to the best of their ability.
(4) It is easier said than done. It is one thing for a Classis or a Synod to decide that people should move to the vicinity of the church but it is another thing in how far the ecclesiastical assembly is aware of the problems and difficulties such a decision may create. Furthermore, it must not be overlooked that when this advice is executed, those concerned not only temporarily lose their means of livelihood, but also their potential to contribute toward and support the church and related causes of the Kingdom. It may be that in their new community they are not able to obtain work to which they are adapted and the last end may prove to be worse than the first.
For all these reasons we would hesitate to go in this direction, except, perhaps, in a very rare or exceptional case where it is rather evident that it is the only feasible thing to do.
Article 39 advocates as a solution to this problem that such unorganized groups be placed under the care of the neighboring consistory. The words “as yet” in the article are significant. They would seem to indicate that in the circumstances the time is foreseeable when a consistory could be organized and the church properly instituted. Van Dellen and Keegstra state: “De woorden ‘nog geen’ geven te kennen dat zoo’n toestand niet langer mag duren dan srikt noodig is.”Translated: “The words ‘as yet’ indicate that such a circumstance may not exist any longer than is absolutely necessary.”
This would indicate that it is far from ideal to have an unorganized group, located some distance from the church, placed under the care of the consistory of that church. To place an unorganized group under the care of a neighboring consistory does not solve all problems. The consistory will and should provide the fullest possible spiritual care that circumstances permit but it virtually is impossible in most instances to provide regular preaching services and for such a group that is most essential. It is also questionable how much catechetical instruction could be given to the children and youth of the unorganized group. This too is essential and for these reasons this situation should not be allowed to persist for an indefinite period of time.
One definite advantage in this arrangement, however, is that it would enable the consistory of the neighboring church to engage in church-extension labor in the area where the unorganized group is found. Perhaps it would be advisable that the consistory release its minister for this work for a definitely stated time. He could then devote all his time and effort to work the field and the fruits of these labors would then determine whether the Lord will have His church established there or whether those believers who are found there are called to “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Genesis 12:1).
Historically, so the Church Order Commentary informs us, the ruling of Article 39 was born in the post-reformation days when the organized churches were confronted with the question: “What should we do with those localities which have no Reformed Churches as yet?’ It appears that the present decision was reached primarily and it was Calvin who had urged not to institute the administration of the Word and the Sacraments without the institution of the offices, He held that in order to maintain the purity of the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, proper supervision and control was necessary.
In 1571 then, the very first Synod of the Reformed Churches of Holland which met in Emden, stipulated that ministers and elders of Classes “bearing the cross,” i.e., being persecuted, should diligently ascertain whether or not there were any in their near-by cities or villages who were favorably inclined toward the Reformation, and urge such to do their duty. To this end the minister and elders of these Classes should attempt to organize churches, or at least the beginning of churches. In order to carry on this work the classes were to divide the various cities and villages amongst themselves so that no localities might be neglected. And the dispersed churches, churches consisting of believers who had fled to distant parts for their safety, should be active in their new localities it was urged. Dispersed believers should further the work of the consistories active in the gathering of churches by cautiously supplying the church officers with names of persons who had in the past manifested their interest in the true religion in their home community from which they had been driven, or in the place to which they f led.
This action of the Synod of 1571 was reaffirmed by the Synod of 1578.
By 1586 the work of reformation and church organization had progressed greatly. The Synod of that year decided that in localities which had no consistories as yet the classis should do that which the Church Order assigned under normal circumstances to the consistories. Neighboring churches, through their classical organization, were therefore to minister to the spiritual needs of those living in communities not yet having a church. They were to do this particularly, we may assume, by sending a minister who could sponsor the organization of churches, even as the former Synod had urged and decided.
All this was confirmed by the great Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 and so the decision became the 39th article of the Church Order which is preserved to the present day with only one slight alteration.
Undoubtedly the main principle involved in this article, although not expressed, is that the Word and Sacraments may not be administered apart from the institution of the church. The right to preach the Word and to administer the sacraments does not inhere in any individual or society, regardless of who or what they may be. That right Christ has invested in His church, and therefore, although believers may certainly gather for mutual edification, the Word cannot be officially preached and the sacraments administered except through properly instituted offices in the church. That this principle is commonly ignored in our day needs no proof but what is most alarming is the fact that even in so-called Reformed circles there is more and more disregard (ignorance) for the teachings of the great Reformer and the principles of truth founded upon Scripture and which he was instrumental in conveying to the church. Calvin would undoubtedly shudder at the teachings and practices of many would-be Calvinists in our day.