Polity: Systems of Law & Dort Polity

What is commonly referred to as “Church Polity” in Dort circles should, more properly be referred to as Church Law (the science) and Church Governance (the practice).  As a type of “law” and “governance” church polity is strongly influenced by the science of law and practice of governance in its societal context. It is helpful to understand law in society in general so as to understand what will be perceived as lawful and just within the church in a given context.

This article reviews how the polity of Dort functions in a common law context.

Two Systems of Law

In the State

Excluding religious law (such as Sharia) there are basically two systems of law in the world: civil law and common law.

In civil law, law is developed through statutes adopted through the legislative process or through regulations issued by the executive arm of government.

In common law, law is developed by judges through court decisions. Common law is also known as case law or precedent.

The common law system is practised by most jurisdictions that are historically connected to England. Civil law is practised in most other regions. Some regions practice both, they include Quebec and South Africa.

In both systems both the legislation and the application of law have authority. The difference relates to the weight of authority attributed to legislation and application. Under civil law, the legislator has the higher authority. Under common law, the judiciary (courts) has the higher authority.

In the Church

As the Church Order of Dort came to be and developed in The Netherlands, its original context is a system of civil law.

The Church Order of Dort was not fully implemented until well after the French Period (1795-1815). The French period established the system of civil law even more firmly in The Netherlands. Historically the Church Order of Dort has operated in a civil law context.

Especially since the 19th century, the Church Order of Dort has also been practiced in the context of a system of common law in the USA, Canada, and Australia.

Church Practice

First and second generation immigrants from The Netherlands probably were not so sensitive to the two systems of law and would have defaulted to a civil law system. It is to be expected that future generations in common law contexts will attribute more weight to a common law system.

A common law system implies that regulations and even the Church Order are not considered to be prescriptive in all circumstances but rather descriptive of common practice in most circumstances. Moreover, the regulations will not determine what one does, but what one does will determine how the regulation is understood.

Thus it will happen that, when the regulations are not being followed, younger church members will question the wisdom of the regulation and be fine with the action, while older church members will insist upon the regulation being followed and the action be condemned.

An illustration

By way of illustration, consider the practice of doctrinal preaching during the second service. The Church Order states “The consistory shall ensure that, as a rule, once every Sunday the doctrine of God’s Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism is proclaimed.”

Frequently ministers are asked to use the Belgic Confession or Canons of Dort as their guide. In The Netherlands it was determined that, unless the Church Order be changed, doctrinal preaching would use the Heidelberg Catechism. In Canada, however, ministers are frequently encouraged to do a series on either the Belgic Confession or the Canons of Dort, and it would seem few churches are concerned about what the Church Order prescribes on this point.


The polity of Dort is formally well-suited to a common law context. The Church Order tends to be broad and generalizing rather than detailed and particular. However, it was not drafted as such so that assemblies might decide issues judicially. It was so to avoid binding and compelling the consciences as much as possible (Belgic Confession article 32).

The risk exists that in a common law context judicial decisions of church assemblies are considered most authoritative. If church assemblies prove contradictory, their credibility is undermined. If church assemblies act contrary to the church order, the credibility and authority of the church order is undermined.

In Short

The Church Order of Dort was created for a civil law context and originally functioned in a civil law context. As Dutch immigrant churches in North America and Australia become more adapted to their legal common law contexts, they need to be aware that the system of law and governance they inherited may not function optimally.