Polity: Circles of Governance

The church is governed by Christ through office bearers acting in concert. The church is thus governed by ecclesiastical assemblies. These assemblies form the various circles of governance in the church.

This article presents an overview of the structure of various circles of governance in the polity of Dort.

Circles of Governance

The tradition of Dort polity counts four assemblies. Originally these were designated the local, the classical, the provincial, and the national. These reflected the political structures of 16th and 17th century the Netherlands. As following the Synod of Dort national synods were forbidden by civil law, the provincial synods became the broadest assemblies. For the next two hundred years the Dutch Reformed Church tended to operate more like a bond of independent church federations.

During the course of the 19th and 20th centuries political structures functioned less as templates for the structure of the church. The direct rule of civil authorities in church affairs ended in 1848. It has meant that political boundaries no longer determine ecclesiastical boundaries. In new political settings, such as North America, Australia and South Africa, adaptations were made as well.

The Local Assemblies

Going by the church order, Dort polity only knows of one local assembly: the consistory or eldership. The consistory is comprised of the minister(s) and elders. The consistory is augmented for some actions by the deacons. If the number of deacons is greater than three, the deacons can have their own meetings.

Going by the Belgic Confession, Reformed polity only knows of one local assembly: the council. The council is comprised of the minister(s), the elders, and the deacons.

The anomaly between the Belgic Confession and the Church Order makes for different practices, even within churches belonging to the same bond of churches. In general the following approach is taken. Consistory deals with the spiritual aspects to the lives of members and the running of the church, deacons deal with the material aspects to the lives of members, council deals with all matters pertaining to office, to inter-church relations, and to the material aspects to the running of the church.

Some things are not easily classified. Among the matters concerning which different practices exist are (1) the activities of the minister: council or consistory? (2) worship: council or consistory? (3) financial contributions of members to church budget: consistory or deacons or council?

Since office bearers only operate in concert, local assemblies have a continued existence. In the Dort tradition, this is in contrast with the regional assemblies.

Some would argue there is yet a fourth assembly: the congregational meeting. However, in Dort polity the assembly commonly referred to as “congregational meeting” is actually a meeting of council to which the congregation has been invited to be informed and consulted.

The Regional Assemblies

Dort polity originally has three regional assemblies. These are the classis (plural: classes), the provincial (aka regional) synod, and national (aka general) synod. In some contexts this has been reduced to just two: classis and general synod.

The classis serves to hold churches accountable to each other, assists churches with matters beyond their expertise, and functions as a first court of appeal against decisions of the local assemblies. To illustrate:

• Classes ensure that churches are visited on an annual basis to determine whether churches are being faithful to God’s Word in teaching, worship, and governance.

• Classes examine candidates for the ministry.

• Appeals against consistory or council decisions are judged by classes.

The synods serve to determine matters common to all the churches in teaching (confessions), worship (e.g. liturgical forms, songs), and governance (church order). They assist churches with matters beyond the scope of classes (e.g. seminary, inter-church relations), and function as courts of appeal against the decisions of classes and synods.

In the Canadian Reformed Churches regional synods exist to judge appeals against classis decisions, to consider overtures going “the route of the church order”, and to appoint delegates to general synods. General synods exist to judge appeals against regional synods as well as appeals against the previous general synod.

Regional assemblies exist only for the length of time it takes to complete the agenda. Strictly speaking they are a “meeting” and not a “body”.

In Short

In traditional Dort polity there are four circles of governance. These are the local assemblies, classis, regional synod, and general synod. The local assemblies are the council, consistory, and deacons. There are variant views on their responsibilities. Some churches in the Dort tradition do not have regional synods.