Dear young people,
The Church Order of Dordrecht occupies a treasured and venerable place in the life of the Reformed Churches. It was adopted by the National Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-19 and therefore this makes the Church Order close to about 400 years old. The Church Order was not written in the ivory tower of theological learning, but it was written and developed organically from the life of the church. It was forged under the anvil of severe trials, troubles and great persecutions. On 1 March 2011, our Session adopted a Church Order, which was adapted from the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches that reflected the life of our Church. And, after adopting the Church Order, we are in the process of implementing it. This article is written as an introduction to the Church Order so that you will understand the principles, development, authority and value of its eighty-six articles, with the goal that the Church Order will be greatly appreciated by you and used in the life of the Church.
The Development of the Church Order
We owe a great debt of gratitude to John Calvin for developing the principles of the Church Order in his writings, though he did not have a hand in formulating the articles of the Church Order. The history of the development of the Church Order of Dordrecht stretched from the 1300s to 1618-19 where it was finally adopted by the National Synod of Dordrecht. It was developed through the struggles, controversies and persecutions of the Dutch Churches. Besides John Calvin, other reformers made significant contributions to the development of the principles, namely, Ulrich Zwingli and John A Lasco, amongst others. Various synods in the continent, through their synodical decisions, developed the articles that are found in the National Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-19, namely, the Walloon Synods (1555 – 1566), the Synod of Wezel (1568), Synod of Embden (1571), Provincial Synod of Dordrecht (1574), the National Synod of Dordrecht (1578) and the Synod of Middleburg (1581).
What is the Church Order?
The Church Order contains principles and regulations of church government that regulate the life of the church. It also contains regulations for the broader assemblies of the classes and synods. The Church Order is not a set of rules filled with Do’s and Don’ts, nor is it a detailed rule book for every conceivable situation in the church, nor is it meant to settle arguments over fine points of interpretations. Rather, the positive purpose of the Church Order is that “all things be done decently and in order” 1
Cor. 14:40. And in order for good order to be maintained, it “is necessary that there be offices, assemblies, supervision of doctrine, sacraments and ceremonies, and Christian discipline …” (Article 1 of the Church Order). And with that purpose in mind, the Church Order is divided into the Offices (Art. 1 to 28), of Ecclesiastical Assemblies (Art. 29 –52), of Doctrines, Sacraments, and other Ceremonies (Art. 53 to 70), and of Censure and Ecclesiastical Admonition (Art. 71 to 86).
The Church Order contains a set of principles of Church Government that is drawn from the pages of Holy Scriptures. First, the chief principle is that Christ is the head of the Church.
Scripture often presents the relationship between Christ and the Church in terms of the human body, where Christ is the head and the church is the various members of His body (1 Cor. 12:27), and the vine and the branches, where Christ is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:5). This means that all the life of the church must be in harmony with the will of the King.
Secondly, Christ, the office-bearer of God in the one, threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King, is pleased to rule His Church through men appointed by Him – the office bearers. Thus, the minister represents Christ in the office of prophet, the elder in the office of king, and the deacon in the office of priest.
Lastly, the Church Order of Dordrecht carefully maintains the delicate balance in Reformed Church polity between the autonomy of the local church and the necessary federation of churches. Reformed Church Polity rejects hierarchy by insisting that members of the church submit themselves unto the rule of the plurality of elders, under the headship of Christ. And on the other hand, it urges independent churches to join themselves to a federation of churches and to submit themselves to the decisions of the broader assemblies.
The Authority of the Church Order
The Church Order is a minor confession in the Reformed Church. This does not mean that it is unimportant, but rather, its scope is limited as it sets forth principles of Church Government. Its authority in the life of the Reformed Churches is based upon the principles of God’s Word. Therefore, the authority of the Church Order is a derived authority and it means that the Church Order must always be subject to the infallible teachings of the Word of God. And if there is additional light shown through the study of the Holy Scriptures, the articles in the Church Order can be revised to reflect the correct teachings of Scripture. Furthermore, for the sake of the profit of the church, the articles in the Church Order can be “altered, augmented or even diminished” (Art.
86). In short, the Church Order serves the edification of the Church and not that the Church serves the Church Order. Finally, the Church Order is authoritative for another reason: the willing consent of the churches themselves. The Churches that belong to the federation mutually agree to willingly bind themselves to abide by the Church Order. Churches that join or remain in the federation willingly agree to be bound by the Church Order so that the binding authority of the Church Order is the authority we willingly consent to give it.
The Value for Today
- The affairs in the church may be done in order and decently
God is not a God of chaos or disorder and therefore, God is glorified when the Church follows the commands of the apostle to regulate matters according to the order in 1 Cor. 14:33 “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” and verse 40, “Let all things be done decently and in order”. The context of these verses is that the speaking of unknown tongues must be interpreted and are to be spoken one by one; prophecy is to be preferred to tongues-speaking, and women are to keep silence in the church and let them ask their husbands at home for it is a shame for them to speak in the church. The latter had to do with speaking authoritatively in the church – something which is only reserved for the men in the congregation. And, for the sake of good order, the Church has the office bearers: ministers, elders and deacons performing their calling faithfully. Lording over others, hierarchy and tolerating sins are removed from the church.
- Preserves the unity of the church
The basis of church unity lies not only on the 3 Forms of Unity, but also on the Church Order. All the member churches of the federation subscribe to the Church Order and agree to abide by its regulation. In this way, the practices of the member churches, though they are autonomous, are united. This unity is beautiful in the sight of God, as it is not a unity in uniformity, or sameness, but a unity in diversity. This unity is like that of a human body where it is united by a diversity of its members with hands, legs and body. This unity is maintained when member churches in the federation conform themselves to the practices of the Church Order by modifying inconsistent practices and reforming their practices to agree to the Church Order.
- Regulative purposes
The Church Order regulates the life of the church in the consistory, classis and synod. It also regulates the calling and election of minister, elder and deacon, and the theological training and examination of a theological student. The Church Order also regulates the very important aspect of church discipline in silent censure, and the several admonitions given to the sinner before he is cut off from the church. It also stipulates that member churches are obligated to seek advice before the consistory goes ahead with the extreme measure of excommunication.
- It is a confession of the Church
The Church Order is a minor confession of the Church, like the various liturgical forms: for Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and the Ordination of Elders and Deacons while the major confessions are the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt. The Church Order confesses what the church believes on the matter of church governance and describes how the church ought to be governed. Therefore, the church order is the banner that the church unfurls as a testimony to friends and foes alike.
- Connects us to the church of the past
The Reformed Church is not an independent church, separate from the rest of the true or faithful church, but it belongs to the single stream that flows from the apostolic church. Therefore, the apostolic doctrine belongs to the Reformed Church, including its Confessional formulations in the Ecumenical Creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, Nicaea Creeds, and Constantinople Creeds. The formulations from the creeds are the fruit of the doctrinal controversies that plagued the church. Let us not forget that we are the beneficiaries of the formulations of the Reformed and Presbyterian Creeds like the Second Helvetic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith.
- Serves a judicial purpose
In times of conflict in the Church, whether in terms of personal protests or doctrinal controversies, the Church Order points the way of solving conflicts by appeals to Classis and to the final appeal to Synod. In our case of CERC, since we do not have a classis and synod at this time, there is a possibility that we may seek advice from our sister church in the PRCA to make a judgment on a matter. It has been said about independent churches that they are “dead-end streets” because when there is a conflict, there is no way they can address the issues. The issues of the problems will remain unresolved and single churches or denominations may be split as a result of controversies. But, it may not prevent the dissolving of a denomination, like in the case of the ERCS, where there was a deadlock on the matter of Divorce and Remarriage.
Dear young people, I hope that you can appreciate what a great heritage you have in the Church Order. May you learn the principles of Church Government and the regulations found therein so as to apply it throughout your life in the life of the Church. May God bless each one of you.
Written by: Paul Goh | Issue 10