The Genesis of the Church Order and Its Meaning for the Life of the Church
A short overview of the genesis of the Church Order and its meaning for our ecclesiastical life will conclude these introductory remarks.
When by God’s grace the Reformation became a reality in the Netherlands also and when more and more churches came into conflict with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, it became necessary to develop a specific order for the life of the church. In the past, canon law, the so-called jus canonicum, served to regulate the life of the church, but this could no longer be so because it was contrary to God’s Word. Nevertheless, our churches in no way wished to see disorder and chaos reign in the church. They knew that “God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints,” and that therefore “all things must be done decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:33, 40). That is why they hastened to give the churches an order that would be in harmony with God’s Word and the example of the apostolic church.
Initially this happened already in 1550 under the leadership of a Lasco for the benefit of Dutch refugees in London. A Lasco’s Forma ac Ratio, translated into Dutch by Maarten Micron in his Christelijke Ordinancien, may be considered the oldest Dutch church order. In spite of persecution and hardship, the churches in the Netherlands multiplied and grew. When that happened, the churches began to define church order regulations. This can be verified from the minutes of the ecclesiastical meetings of 1563-1566, which were held mostly in southern Holland [the Low Lands, RCJ]. The minutes reveal that the churches cooperated mainly on the basis of the church order accepted by the French Synod at Paris in 1559.
These first church regulations, however, had too much of a local or regional character to function as general church regulations. Therefore, they were usually not included in church order manuals, and they have also been excluded from this volume. A general church order should be adopted by the common consent of all the churches, and can therefore only be adopted by a general or national synod.
The first steps taken in that direction were made at the so-called Convent of Wezel in 1568. By itself this meeting was not really a synod because the assembled brothers had not been delegated by the churches, and therefore they did not have the right and authority to make decisions. The articles approved by them were not invested with ecclesiastical authority. They only functioned, as the assembled brothers themselves expressed it, as advice addressed to the churches until a general synod could decide about these matters. But although these articles may in the absolute sense not be considered as a church order, they did function temporarily to give direction to the life of the church and can therefore be included in a church manual. But one must bear in mind that they have no ecclesiastical authority. It is thus illegitimate to refer to these articles as if they were decisions of the churches in the Netherlands.
It is a different story with the subsequent meeting in Emden in 1571, where not private persons but church delegates assembled. These delegates represented the Reformed “Churches Under the Cross” and in exile, and they laid the foundation for church unity. At this synod the first regulations for the order of the church were determined. These regulations were affirmed, expanded on, and when necessary revised by the following synods: Dordrecht 1574 and 1578; Middelburg 1581; the Hague 1586, and Dordrecht 1618/1619. These synods are correctly considered as national or general synods whose decisions were binding for all the churches. This is also true for the Synod of Dordrecht 1574. For although this synod was commonly called a provincial synod (only the churches from Zeeland and a part of South Holland were represented), one should not forget that at that time only Holland and Zeeland were liberated from the Spanish yoke. Besides, the authority of that synod was generally recognized by all the churches of the Reformation. Moreover, the churches of North Holland later approved the decisions of the Synod of Dordrecht 1574. Therefore, the churches have never hesitated to appeal to the decisions of this synod. And its church order has always been included in the church manuals as being equal with the church regulations of the other national synods.
It would be incorrect and inconsistent with the content of these church regulations to imagine that each new synod designed a new church order and discarded the previous one. Whoever examines the acts of these synods in the publication of Prof. Rutgers will see that the facts were quite different. At the first synod at Emden they did not design a specific church order, but they adopted a series of regulations by which the ties binding the churches together were sketched in broad outline. They also dealt with certain gravamens brought by the churches. One could in fact speak of a series of decisions by this synod, which are rather mixed and unstructured. The Synod of Dordrecht 1574 also acted in the same manner. It improved some decisions taken at Emden and added a series of new decisions to the already existing series. Again, this was done as a result of gravamens brought by the churches. Although the material for the church order appeared already in these synodical decisions, the form was lacking. It was the Synod of Dordrecht 1578 that gave these decisions the form of a church order. The occasion for this lay in the fact that the churches, recognized as the state church in the Netherlands, placed a high value on the government’s approbation of the church regulations and in this way gave these regulations the authority of the law of the land. Not all the decisions of the synods required government approbation: only those decisions having a general and permanent character needed such approbation.
Therefore, the Synod of 1578 put together the general regulations from the acts of the Synods of Emden and of Dordrecht 1574, arranged them under permanent headings, and in this way actually designed the first church order. It is, therefore, not quite correct to speak of the Church Order of Emden and of Dordt 1574, because in reality these “church orders” were nothing other than the acts of those synods, in which all their decisions were collated. The Synod of Dordrecht 1578 was the first to give to the churches in the Netherlands a church order in the formal sense of the word. The subsequent synods of Middelburg, the Hague and Dordrecht reviewed and, insofar as this was necessary, revised this Church Older of 1578. The review and revision was done partly because of gravamens put forward by the churches, and partly in view of the government whose approbation they hoped to win by constantly making new concessions. With these synods one must thus make a distinction between the acts or deeds of the synod and the church order, which from then on received an independent existence. From that time on the decisions of these synods were included in the church order only insofar as they were of general significance. The synodical decisions concerning gravamens which were of less general importance were usually added to the different redactions of the church order in the form of an appendix under the heading “specific questions.” It was only the Synod of Dordt 1619 that did not do this with the result that its decisions are only known in part from the Church Order. This present volume therefore includes the so-called Post-Acta of the Synod of Dordt because in them one can find the treatment of these particular questions. But that does not mean that all the decisions of the Synod of Dordt have been completely communicated. For instance, before the arrival of the Remonstrants, the Synod dealt with various gravamens and made important decisions in the area of doctrine. The gravamens concerned the translation of the Bible, the baptism of heathen children, the character of catechism instruction, the training of students, the rights of candidates in theology, etc. The inclusion of these decisions would have taken up too much space, and they can be easily found in the printed Acts of Synod.
A bit of clarification is in order with respect to the material added to the Church Order.
First, the advice given by Prof. Danaeus at the Synod of Middelburg is included here. His advice concerned the question whether it is desirable that elders and deacons, after having been elected, should hold their office permanently. This question was raised by the churches of Oost Vlaanderen, and apparently the synod mandated Prof. Danaeus to serve it with advice. Although this advice has no ecclesiastical authority, yet it may serve to show the reasons why the synod did not revise art. 19 of the Church Order as some churches requested it to do. The Synod upheld the resolution that “annually half of the consistory shall be changed and others shall be installed in their place unless the occasion and the profit of a church demand otherwise.”
Secondly, two sets of church visiting regulations are included in this volume. The Synod of the Hague 1586 was the first to recognize the usefulness of church visiting (art. 40). That Synod designed a form of “inspection or visitation,” in which some regulations for church visiting were prescribed. The Synod of Dordt went one step further by making church visiting in art. 44 of the Church Order mandatory. Since that time church visiting has been a common practice in the churches. The short form of the Synod of the Hague proved to be insufficient in practice, and as a result there developed in the various provinces and classes new church visiting regulations. The rules for church visiting of Gelderen and Delft, included in this volume, may serve as examples as to how the fathers in the Netherlands wanted to have church visiting carried out.
Thirdly, this volume includes the “School Constitution” which was also derived from the Synod of the Hague. That synod presented the Constitution to Count Leycester and he ratified it on 20 September 1586. The Dutch fathers placed a high value on the structure of the schools which “were training schools for the general profit of the churches.” They insisted particularly on educational instruction in a Reformed spirit. This School Constitution is informative re the desires of the Dutch churches on this point.
And fourthly, the so-called “Articles of Walcheren” have been included. They originated from doctrinal differences in the 18th century. The influence of the theology of Saumur was also felt in the Netherlands. This theology differed on important points from the Reformed confession, such as predestination, original guilt, imputation of Christ’s righteousness, etc. In addition Rationalism had penetrated the churches by means of the philosophy of Cartesius. In Groningen Prof. J. Alting taught these deviant views in his lectures in a more or less subtle form, and his students went even further than he. This was particularly the case with three of his students: Herman Roëll, professor at Francken; Balthasar Bekker, a minister at Amsterdam; and Johannes Vlak, a minister at Zutphen. The first (Roëll) ascribed too much authority to human reasoning in religious matters and denied the eternal generation of the Son. The second (Balthasar) in his work the Betoverde Wereld (Bewitch’d World) refuted the prevalent belief of that time in witches, but he went so far as to deny any kind of spiritual activity (including that of angels and devils). The third (Vlak) was indeed the most deviant. He not only rejected the covenant of works and the immediate imputation of Adam’s guilt, but he also taught that Christ bore for us the eternal but not the temporal punishment of sin. Moreover, he taught that our own good works and faith were the meritorious grounds for our justification before God.
These theses created great disturbance in the churches, and different classes and synods took the initiative to prevent the perpetration of these errors. Classis Walcheren especially deserves credit on this point. This classis not only condemned these views in general but also drew up a form of subscription for ministers, in which these errors were completely refuted and rejected. Although Prof. S. van Velzen reissued these articles in 1857, they are known by very few people. It was therefore considered desirable to include them in this volume.
The significance of these old church orders (including other relevant materials) for the life of the Reformed churches hardly needs explanation. They originate almost entirely from the hey-day of the Reformed churches when Reformed principles were still deeply respected. They can, therefore, function excellently to teach us how we too must apply those principles. Of course this may not be done by slavish imitation. To adopt each of these regulations indiscriminately for our present day would be impossible, because of today’s changed circumstances. Moreover, it would be a failure to appreciate the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who continually leads the church into the truth. The Reformed fathers would not have wanted this either because they were not free in their ecclesiastical life and were forced to make many concessions to the government, concessions which certainly did not proceed from their principles but rather undermined these principles. It is true that one must distinguish between the real gold which retains its constant value and those factors caused by disturbing influences. Yet, the church regulations and provisions determined by the Dutch national synods are a treasure par excellance for those who know Reformed canon law and want to practice it.
It is for that reason that not only the latest redaction of the church order as determined by the Synod of Dordt 1619 is included in this volume, but also earlier ones. Although the Dutch Reformed churches broke with the organization of the Reformed State Church (Hervormde Kerk), they did officially adopt once again the Church Order of Dordt. They did this in order to re-establish the historical continuity with the past at the point at which it had been broken off. By their separation from the State Church the Reformed churches did not mean to invalidate the decisions of the previous synods. This was in accord with the intention of the Synod of Dordt itself. As a matter of fact, our fathers have continually and clearly indicated that they saw in these various redactions the application and result of the identical principles confessed by all the Reformed synods. They clearly indicated this by printing the different redactions of these church regulations together in their church manuals and by appealing to the previous church regulations whenever necessary. It is in this sense that we too ought to regard these church regulations. It may sometimes happen in the sphere of the state that a new law promulgated by the government automatically abrogates the previous laws and deprives them of their authority, but this is not the case with respect to the church. The decisions of previous synods are not made void because a new synod convenes and makes new decisions. In such a case all continuity of church life would be lost. One could even go a step further and correctly maintain with Voetius that the decisions of the oldest synods, held under the cross and in a time of persecution, have often expressed the Reformed principles much more clearly than in later times when the Reformed churches were favored while at the same time limited by the government.
Finally, the question as to how to understand the Church Order can be answered best by quoting Dr. F. L. Rutgers when he wrote in his De Geldigheid van de Oude Kerkenordening der Nederlandse Gere-formeerde Kerken (The Validity of the Old Church Order of the Dutch Reformed Churces):
“In-general history teaches that in the Dutch churches there always was some freedom with respect to the observance of the Church Order. There was very prompt and very strict supervision that the foundation of the church’s unity, i.e., the confession, was maintained. But the maintenance of the church order, on the other hand, was relatively weak: if anything, there was too little rather than too much formal or regulatory preciseness. Obstinacy or arbitrariness was, of course, not allowed, neither was lawlessness or disorder. But when the order, the peace, and the welfare of the churches were not endangered and when, moreover, they were promoted by a slight departure from the rules, such a departure was not considered as being wrong, nor merely tolerated but even approved. Such judgments were especially made in the peculiar situations in which churches or people sometimes found themselves. A case in point is the different provinces and their dilemma: either concede in part to the government or risk everything. What was central had to remain central. The general way of thinking was expressed in the last words of the church order itself, words that appear in almost all redactions but Which certainly were not elevated to the position of a law (and never have been): the churches shall ‘work’ or ‘be diligent’ to observe these articles.”
It goes without saying that no lawlessness was intended:
“From all this one cannot conclude that up to a certain point they permitted deviation in the Dutch churches. That would have been completely contrary to the very spirit of the churches. For at all times there was among the Reformed people a profound principle and a dominant characteristic to acknowledge God’s ordinances, and accordingly, to be based upon a binding rule and clear direction.”
And therefore, even though there was a measure of leniency permitted in the keeping of the church order, they never allowed room for any kind of corrupting individualism in the church. Even the deviation itself was, as it were, regulated. But not, of course, by premeditated regulations, but rather, by principles that were unmistakably derived from God’s Word, from the situation itself, and from the church order. First of all, there always had to be a sufficient reason, a reason that was grounded in the interest of the church to “maintain good order” (acc. to the intent of art. 1). It might at times be difficult to abide by the letter of the law without incurring some risk as far as the freedom of the church, her outward peace, inner rest, and welfare are concerned, while at the same time there could be only minor objections connected with the deviation. Furthermore, just as according to the rule in art. 86, nothing could be changed in the church order itself to impose, as it were, this deviation upon others, so too the deviation similarly might not be considered wrong by others. And finally, the principle expressed in art. 31 always remained normative that whenever a difference of opinion arose concerning the necessity or the usefulness of the deviation (from which, of course, greater evil could develop), then the minister would comply with the judgment of the consistory, and each church with the classis, and each classis with the synod. In that way there was a kind of latitude, within certain limits, and order without strict adherence. There could be freedom that would not result in disorder and arbitrariness. Precisely in this way the purpose of the whole church order was promoted, since even the deviation itself complied with that purpose.
However, there always was one condition, namely that the churches remained one in confession and together submitted themselves to God’s Word. That was always understood. The usefulness of the entire church order was based on this. Its structure is such that in a different situation it cannot but function disruptively. However, this is not a serious objection to the church order but rather an advantage. It promotes that unity precisely because it presupposes and demands it.
Finally, if one asks whether as a result of such regulations a measure of uncertainty remains, whether in certain circumstances there is a kind of uncertainty, whether in the church’s life much research is necessitated, then without doubt the answer is affirmative. But one must immediately add to this answer that this is not detrimental but advantageous. No doubt it would be easier when for every situation there would be an authoritative prescription. But the easiest way out is not always the best. In the 16th century they fully understood where the road led. They knew that the many nuances of life would then necessitate precept upon precept, and rule upon rule. The fathers were determined never again to have a volume filled with all sorts of regulations, such as the corpus iuris canonica in the Roman Catholic Church had become. It is far better for the welfare of the church to determine and prescribe as little as possible by way of general regulations. All other matters must be left to the judgment of the classes and to the various churches to make regulations in accordance with custom, temporary circumstances, or local need. If this is done well, then it is of course necessary that all those called to the task of church government do some study in that field in order that they may understand as much as possible the principles expressed in the church order and, as it were, accept and further apply them accordingly. In this way these principles become, as it were, the property of each individual church and so firmly established that no storm can uproot them. God’s Word continues then to keep its proper place in every Church, and Christ continues to be acknowledged as the King of the church. Then human innovations cannot take over, and the church can continue in the freedom and independence which are rightfully its in the world. This even works for the good outside of the church. This Reformed church structure, just because it is not possible without examining its foundations, its faithfulness to God’s ordinances, the application of its principles, and the independence which results from this application, not only presupposes but-fosters the development, freedom and order in every domain. Its influence is felt everywhere — in the state, society, school and family. For this reason its ability to mold must be appreciated all the more. It is through Reformed church structure that Calvinism becomes the source and guarantee of much good.