The venerable Church Order of Dordrecht has served the Reformed churches throughout the world well as a book of rules for the government of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. While it has undergone some minor changes over the years, and while decisions have been appended to the articles, these are intended to apply the regulations of the Church Order to local situations; they have not altered its substance. Only within the last 50 years or so have Reformed Churches subjected the Church Order to extensive revision, and these revisions have almost always done harm to the principles on which the Church Order is based.
What I have just said is not to be construed as meaning that the Church Order itself contains the principles of Reformed church government. For the most part, it does not. But the Church Order, composed mostly of regulations, is based squarely on fundamental principles derived from Scripture and held by Reformed believers as regulative in the church of Christ. These principles have been discussed at length in various books, including Bouwman’s magisterial work, Gereformeerde Kerkrecht. Such principles are also to be found in various commentaries, the best of which is Van Dellen & Monsma’s well-known Church Order Commentary.
In the Standard Bearer numerous articles have appeared which are intended to serve as commentaries on the Church Order, and whole series of articles have been devoted to an explanation of this set of rules which regulate the life of the church. However, one aspect of the Church Order has not been given extensive treatment. That lack is in the practical application of the principles and regulations found in the Church Order by those who occupy the office of believers. Ministers and frequently elders have made the Church Order an object of study and have mastered its principles for the most part. But those who occupy the all-important office of believers are frequently left with various misunderstandings about the book, which make their participation in the government of the church difficult.
An example of this difficulty is the fact that many protests and appeals are rejected by the assemblies on the grounds that “they are not legally before the body.” Confusion of terms (such as protest, appeal, overture), misunderstanding of proper procedure, and lack of knowledge of proper formulation of documents sent to the ecclesiastical assemblies have stymied the effective participation of believers in the carrying out of their responsibilities. Some have become so discouraged that they have vowed never to participate in any way in these activities, a vow which can only be detrimental to the welfare of the church of Christ.
There are also other responsibilities that fall upon believers by virtue of the office they hold. I refer to such activities as confession of faith, preparation for the Lord’s Supper, family visitation, and participation in congregational meetings. Further, in the all-important exercise of Christian discipline, the believer also must function in his or her office. What is that function? And, how can it be carried out?
This “Manual” is intended to fill a lack. It is not intended to discuss principles of Reformed church polity, although some principles will have to be briefly discussed. It is not intended to be a commentary on the various articles of the Church Order; such commentaries are readily available. It is intended to be a help to those who serve in the special offices Christ instituted in the church to carry out their work more correctly and efficiently; and it is intended especially to help those who occupy the office of believers in their calling to be active in the rule and government of the church.
I am aware of the fact that no fixed rules can be laid down for various aspects of a believer’s participation in ecclesiastical matters. For example, no fixed rules can be laid down for the formulation of protests and appeals. Varying circumstances make hard and fast rules impossible and impractical. But certain boundaries within which proper protests and appeals can be made would certainly be of help to all concerned. Although it is not always easy to fix the boundaries with precision, and although there may be those who disagree with what I have to say on certain points, I am convinced that some attention paid to some basic principles and their application will encourage reluctant believers to be more active in their role in the church and will facilitate ecclesiastical processes to the advantage of the cause of Christ.
If the book accomplishes this purpose, even in part, the author will be thankful to God.