Ecclesiastical Manual


The collation and translation of the church orders of the 16th century synods of the Reformed churches was begun very early. C. H. Kersten tells us that already in 112 a book dealer in Delft, Jan Andrieszoon, distributed a book with the title, “The Church Orders of the Netherlands Reformed churches prepared and adopted by the four National Synods, to­gether with certain others drafted and determined by the Provincial Synods of Holland and Zeeland, to which still others have been added which have been approved by various assemblies.” This edition cannot be followed too easily, because the printer did the work quite arbitrarily and the text was taken from handwritten manuscripts).[1] This was very likely the first of many similar editions which followed through the years.

On April 23, 1848, the first meeting of the immigrant Reformed churches in Western Michigan, known as Classis Holland, was held in a home in Zeeland, Michigan. The meeting was attended by three ministers (A. C. Van Raalte, M. A. Ypma, and C. Vander Meulen) and members of four con­sistories (Holland, Graafschaap, and those churches served by Revs. Ypma and Vander Meulen). Only a few years before this a group of Dutch immigrants, many of whom had seceded from the State Church in the Netherlands, constituted the vanguard of a much larger number of Hollanders to Western Michigan. The meeting in Zeeland was the initial meeting of representatives from the churches already established and organized in the colony. An im­portant item for the agenda that day involved the question by what rules these newly formed congregations would be governed and relate to one an­other. Their decision (given in full) was as follows:


Art, 10. The Catechism, Formulas of Concord, Con­fession of Faith, Canons of Dort, and Church Order were taken up for discussion.

All present declared themselves to be in complete harmony therewith, and were of opinion that we should make use of these in the ministry, in the same manner as our fathers have described in the Preface to the “Kerke­lijk Handboekje” (Church Manual), consenting to what we read on pages 42 and 43* [concerning ecclesiastical institutions established by the church, with regard to which we find no commandments In the word of God; As to such things, the Reformed Church has thus far taught, that inasmuch as Christ has set free the Christian from the yoke of ecclesiastical ceremonies, consisting in differ­ences of food, the keeping of Festival Days, etc., no one ought to lay upon them again any yoke, or to make them subject to human institutions … seeing that, in matters morally indifferent, they have received liberty from Christ, and religion does not consist therein. (I Cor. 8:8, “food will not commend us to God”) . . . It is also notable that the Reformed Church always has opposed the Papacy, which misleads people into thinking that their consciences are subject to the orders of the church as well as to God’s commandments, that the institutions of the church are necessary to salvation, as well as the com­mandments of God, and that religion consists as much in the keeping of ecclesiastical regulations as of the divine laws; and has proved out of God’s word, and main­tained, that no church commandments bind the con­sciences of the people, but only the laws of God,] etc.**

Hence we accept the entire “Kerkelijk Handboekje,” with all the Church Orders therein contained,*** and de­clare that the church government expressed therein has our perfect assent, and comprehends the government of the Reformed church.[2]

* —This is the paging given in the Minutes before us, but the quotation that follows is found on pages 32 and 33 of the edition of 1882, a copy of which is In the library of the Western Theological Semi­nary, at Holland, Mich.

The first edition of this Manual was issued at Amsterdam in the year 1840. It had been prepared by a committee consisting of the Revs. A. C. Van Raalte, A. Brummelkamp, and S. Van Velzen, ap­pointed by the Synod of the “Afgescheiden Gereformeerde Gemeenten.” (Seceded Reformed Churches)

**—The portion within brackets, while not marked in the Minutes as a quotation, is found verbatim in the afore mentioned “Kerkelijk Handboekje,” pages 32 and 33 of the edition of 1882.

***—The Church Orders found in the “Kerkelijk Handboekje,” edition of 1882, are those of Wesel 1568; Embden, 1571; Dortrecht, 1574; Middelburg, 1581; ‘s Gravenhage, 1586; and Dortrecht, 1619.


The regard for which this “Kerkelijk Handboekje” was held is evident from what is said above. Its contents closely parallel the edition from which this translation has been made. In subsequent years the Christian Re­formed Church (the product of a secession from Classis Holland in 1857) continued to ‘e governed by the Church Order of Dordrecht 1618-19 and held the “Kerkelijk Handboekje” in high esteem.

In June 1881 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church adopted the fol­lowing: “Article 4. Church Order. The Holland Christian Reformed Church has adopted the Church Order of Dordrecht 1618-19 as its accepted church order for the purpose of conducting its ecclesiastical affairs according to it so far as it can fully apply these in America. At the Same time the “Kerkelijk Handboekje” is accepted as a valuable reference work for fruitful investigation as to how our forefathers dealt with certain mat­ters which are not mentioned in the Church Order,”[3]

It seems from the name and contents of the work of Biesterveld and Kuyper that their volume stands in a more or less straight line with previous similar editions of such a “Manual.” At any rate the value of their work is such that it ought to be made available to the English reader.[4] The choice of this volume for translation was made in large part on the basis of its wide distribution in the Christian Reformed Church among a former generation. In more recent years volumes in more contemporary Dutch have received only very minimal attention.

No church (or Christian) can afford to lose touch with its roots. The history of the development of the polity of the Dutch Reformed churches in the formative years of those churches and their church orders demonstrates most clearly how deeply rooted those churches were in the political, social, ecclesiastical environment of their day. They were as human and as prone to the same sins as we are in our day. Even a passing glimpse at their struggles to be a church Reformed in doctrine and life will convince the student that their problems are as contemporary as our own. We may not always understand or appreciate their solutions, and we will often find our circumstances quite different from theirs. Nevertheless no one can charge them with insincerity or lack of vision as to what God can do through his church and how he can mold its members through his Holy Spirit. We are as great sinners as they and need like them to recognize that the church belongs to God, not us, and is his primary vehicle through which his grace reaches to all mankind.

Strikingly, these early fathers of the Reformed churches showed not only a remarkable, praiseworthy degree of adaptability to their day, but they also saw the necessity within the limits of good order for an amazing degree of adaptability of Scripturally based principles. They do not appear as sticklers who insist on the narrowest, most literal appli­cation of church order regulations. The phrase “as much as possible” occurs frequently in both their regulations and advice. Not a few items which in our day some would insist should be settled by means of a synodical decision they sensibly left to “the freedom of the churches.”

A contemporary reader will surely be struck with the frequent refer­ences to what they called the “Papacy” or the “Papists,” meaning of course Roman Catholicism. Many factors enter into this and one catches an echo of these in several places The devotion to truth and God stands on the forefront of such concerns Likewise the oppression and persecution suffered at the hands of civil rulers who were committed to Roman Catholicism obviously played a significant role. Their early classis meetings included as a primary item of the agenda a sermon and discussion on the “errors of the Papacy.” Church visitors were required to investigate what means consistories and ministers employed to combat and stop the spread of Roman Catholicism They were prepared, however, to receive into membership (and with carefully defined rules also into the ministry) of those in ecclesiastical orders.

They were surprisingly cautious, it should be noted, with respect to the use of references to contemporary authors (once even naming Calvin and Luther). It was forbidden to quote them in sermons with or without the name attached. If authors were to be cited, let them be those whom God used to transmit his Word (now found in the Scriptures) or those acknow­ledged as among the early fathers of the church. There was a deep con­sciousness of standing in the long tradition of the true church of God. No offense was to be given or their loyalty to the ancient traditions questioned by reference in public preaching even to those of their day whose faithful disciples they had become.

This is also evident in their church orders. They were not great innovators when it came to church polity. There is not much in that which they provided for that was “new” in the history of the church. Obviously they struggled hard to avoid and correct the abuses they had seen in the contemporary Roman font of Christianity.

This did not prevent them from adopting and adapting both ancient and contemporary practices of the church and employing these as their own. Even a cursory study of ancient and medieval canons will clearly, demon­strate how large a debt they owed to the past upon which they built.

General councils (synods), regional synods (particular synods and classes), and Consistories were all well known from the past. Family visiting, the duties and regulations regarding ministers, church visiting, marriage regu­lations, pastoral responsibilities, manner of calling and appointment of ministers, subscription to confessional statements (or conciliar doctrinal deliverances) with a host of similar things such as salary and tenure of ministers, the management of church property and funds and the like were all part of their tradition and frequently part of contemporary polity.[5] What is clearly evident is that they were dreadfully afraid of perpetua­ting the errors of the Roman church and wholly committed to the abandon­ment of abuses of otherwise legitimate practices which might conceivably lead to immorality, reversion to Roman Catholicism, or which endangered pure doctrine and life. Superstition and paganism (the latter still not completely eradicated) were ambitiously opposed.

Insistence upon the right to legally recognized status as a valid expres­sion of the one church of God stands out in their church polity. The very first article of Embden declares that “no church shall have rule over another church.” When they expressed this principle, they were not merely expres­sing an internal relationship that needed to be observed between churches of the Reformed denomination of the land. They were expressing and defin­ing what some have judged to be the church polity warrant for their exis­tence separate from the established church of their day, namely the Roman Catholic. Reject this principle and the right of the Reformed to establish a church according to the dictates of their consciences molded by the Holy Spirit is forfeited. This was an inviolable principle standing at the very heart of the Reformation and its warrant, and because of loyalty to Scrip­ture in which they grounded their claim, many died the excruciatingly pain­ful death of the martyr. This principle has for too long been ignored in our appraisal of the Reformation and one which in contemporary church polity is relegated to the end of the church order as a sort of appendix. The early leaders of the Reformed churches also extended the principle to the office bearers of the church, although they avoided saying what is now be­ing maintained; that all offices are equal. It is difficult to substantiate the thesis of the equality of the offices from these early church orders. Equality within the offices? Yes. Equality of offices with each other? A qualified No.

Much more could be said about the evident developments of Reformed church polity in the sixteenth century. One thing is sure to my mind: the rigid­ity which some impose on the church order today is by no means a feature of these early synods. Even long years afterwards at amazing flexibility remained. These men in their day laid a foundation. They frequently ad­mitted that their answers were imperfect, incomplete, subject to revision, and necessarily grounded in common sense and a mutual commitment to good order. They by no means intended their church orders to partake of the character of inflexible canon law. Commitment to good order was based on common consent (consensus) and on working together in harmony. It also meant that if anyone at any time discovered or learned of a better way, this should be shared for the profit of all. The unity of the church was a dear principle to them. Diversity was understood to be legitimate in most areas of the church’s ministry (diversity in unity). At the same time no one could charge them with forging unity out of diversity so that each church became simply a carbon copy of all others (after the manner of a Howard Johnson or Mac Donald’s restaurant in our day).[6] One also detects a significant sensitiveness to the broader community. The church then, as now, had its enemies. Many were antagonistic to the Reformed faith and opposed it. There were mockers in those days too and some of these attended worship services. Nor was every member ready to acknowledge the authority of the office bearers. Churches were frequently disturbed. Pastors were lacking in gifts and many times unqualified for min­istry. Office bearers were guilty of gross sins and fell into disrepute. Selfish ambition drove many to violate good order. Seeking personal honor and pursuing personal advantage were evidently not uncommon. These church orders present us with a picture of the times. Nothing was deliberately hidden. All the linen was hung out in plain view, including the admission that the church and its leaders are not yet fully sanctified. What could stain the church’s reputation was a dishonoring of the Lord of the church. Yet the decisions of these synods demonstrate a solicitous care for the salvation of the sinner through his restoration. Ministers and elders were continually exhorted to be the faithful pastors God called them to be. Personal sacrifices were evidently and frequently necessary. Love for God, his people, his church, the truth, motivated many. The challenge to be faithful shepherds was frequently sounded. A favorite term for the church was “the flock of God.”

There is also a kind of tenderness running through all this. Some in our day are critical of the past because their attention is focussed too ex­clusively on what appears to be the harshness and the strict attention paid to discipline. It is delightful to read how ministers and consistor­ies were concerned about excessively long and repetitious sermons for the sake of the children and pregnant women. Young people who wished to marry in the Lord but had parents who opposed the Christian faith were offered the help and solicitous concern of the church and if need be of the civil authorities. While refugees and the poor evidently not infrequently abused the charitabIeness of the church and strict guidelines needed to be laid down with respect to assistance given, the churches, did show tender con­cern for such uprooted persons and helped them generously according to need. Orphanages and old people’s homes were regulated by the church.

Good schools were to be maintained and orphaned and destitute youth were to be provided a good education, assisted even to make attendance at the university level possible so that they would also have opportunity to de­velop and employ their gifts for God in his church. Although on several occasions the question whether illegitimately born persons (“bastards”) could hold office in the church was hotly debated in the assemblies, this was balanced by a tender solicitude that the status of many such children (e.g., common law marriages) should be declared legitimate in law. It was not easy for them to concede anything to the civil authori­ties when these wanted charge of charitable works apart from the church or who interfered with the work of the deacons.

There was also great respect for civil authorities. The church orders make frequent reference to them or their appointed representatives. There were struggles, as, e.g., over patronage rights and confirmation or appoint­ment of ministers and other office bearers. But the church was never hesi­tant to invoke the good offices of the state in areas which were properly those of the government and not the church, or in such matters where their respective spheres of divinely given responsibility overlapped. Compromise instead of dogged obstinancy was at times the only practical way out until such a time came that it would be possible to enforce or put into effect what conscience and God’s Word required.

No wonder the reading of this material is such a delightful treat. Be your interest theology, sociology, history, political science, social welfare, marriage, or whatever, something awaits you. We wish every reader much joy in living into these now long past days and seeing how human people were then and are now, how little has changed, how much can never be over­thrown, and what great things God wrought in that day. It is a record of God’s irresistible grace, sovereign election, and glorious triumph you are about to read!

Richard R. De Ridder


[1] G. H. Kersten, “Kerkelijk Handboekje”, 3rd ed. (Utrecht: B. V. Uitgeverij “De Banier,” 1980), p. 1.

[2] Joint Committee of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America, Classis Holland Minutes 1848-18$8 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), pp. 18, 22-23.

[3] Algemeene Bepalingen der Hollandsche Chr. Geref. Kerk (Holland, Mich.: “De Wachter” Drukkerij, 1881), p. 6. A copy is contained in Richard R. De Ridder Christian Reformed Church Orders 1857-1982 (Grand Rapids Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), a copy of which is in the library of Calvin College and Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.

[4] There are other similar volumes, such as C. Hooijer, Oude Kerkordeningen der Nederlandsche Hervormde Gemeenten 1563-1638 (Zalt-Bommel. Joh. Noman en Zoon, 1865). Also, F. L Rutgers, Acta van de Nederlandsehe Synoden der zestiende eeuw (’s Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1889), as well as J. Reitsma and S D. Van Veen, Acta der Provinciale en Particuliere Synoden (Groningen: J. B Wolters, 1892-1899), 8 vols. A more recent version in contemporary Dutch is that of G. H. Kersten. Kerkeliik Handboekie (Utrecht: De Banier, 1980).

[5] Those interested in this matter will be well served by reading H. J. Schroeder, The Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils (St. Louis and London, B. Herder Book Co., 1937) and comparing the church practices as referred to in these canons to our church order and practices today. Lyman Coleman’s book, Ancient Christianity Exemplified in the Private, Domestic, Social and Civil Life of the Primitive Christians (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott G Co., 1875) will also be found very helpful.

[6] An informative and helpful book on the conditions of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and the manner in which Reformed church in practice is: Alice Clare Carter, The English Reformed Church in the 17th Century (Amsterdam: Scheltema and Holkema, 1964). This church as fully a part of the Dutch Reformed Classis and committed Order of that classis.