Book: Notes on the Church Order

Introductory Note


The following material is not intended to be an exhaustive commentary on the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches.  Nor is it intended to be a detailed study of “Kybernetics,” the principles of church government.  Its purpose is far more modest.  It is intended to be a brief summation of the central principles of each article of the Church Order, to be used by the students in preparation for classroom work and lectures. Other commentaries on the Church Order are readily available to the student and can be used with these notes for more detailed discussion of the Church Order proper.  The best in the English language is The Church Order Commentary by VanDellen and Monsma.  After this volume was published, the Christian Reformed Church has revised extensively its Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, substantially identical with our own.  Other works will be mentioned in the following notes.

      While the notes in this volume deal with an explanation of the body of the Church Order, brief discussions will be included of various principles underlying the articles.  Strictly speaking, these principles belong to the special science of “Kybernetics,” but are included here in the explanation of the articles inasmuch as this is the form in which the material will be presented in the classroom.

      The footnotes to be found in the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches at the bottom of various articles are decisions taken by the ecclesiastical assemblies of our churches pertaining to the articles to which they are appended.  The following notes will include some discussion of these footnotes.  The student is urged to consult the printed Acts to learn more concerning these decisions — especially their history.

The Name of the Discipline

      The name assigned to this discipline prior to the Reformation was “Canon Right” or “Canon Law.”  As a distinct science, this subject had its origin in the twelfth century with the Pope Gratian.  He gathered all the ecclesiastical legislation of councils and papal decretals together into a systematic and organized body of canon law.  Pope John XXII, in the fourteenth century, revised and re-edited the material and brought it up to date. The University of Bologna became the center of the study of canon law and was, for many years, the keeper of the Romish archives.  As the papacy extended its authority over the civil realm, civil law was added to canon law.

      The name has not been used in Protestant circles.  The objections against it are:

1)    It is too broad a term, especially because it includes civil legislation.

2)    It has the obnoxious connotations of Romish hierarchy.

3)    Dr. A. Kuyper later used the term to designate the science of the study of Scripture, for the word “canon” is used to define Scripture as the rule of faith and life.

      After the Reformation, various other names came into use.  Kilner used the name “Framework of the Church.”  “Church Government” is a name commonly in use.  Some holding to the Presbyterian form of church government called the science “Presbyterianism.”  Rev. Ophoff, in his notes on church polity, prefers the name “Church Right.”  The word “right” in the name means both “authority” and “the objective norm of right and wrong.”

      The most commonly used name, however, is “Church Polity.”  This is the name we shall be using.  The name was first used by Wilhelmus Zepperus, who called this science Politiae Ecclesiae.  He was the first Protestant theologian to make a special study of church government.  Voetius used the name in a slightly altered form:  Politica Ecclesiastica.  The name was used by such men as Richard Hoover, William Cunningham, Charles Hodge, George Lamb, and others.

      The name comes from the Latin politia.  This word means:  a) Pertaining to the state or commonwealth; b) Administration of civil affairs; c) Citizenship with its rights, privileges, and obligations.  The word, in both the Latin and the Greek, was applied also to the church.  It refers to the church from the viewpoint of her institutional life.  Hence church polity is the science of church government.

      There are two sub-branches to this science.  There is first of all “kybernetics,” derived from the Greek word kuberna'n and meaning “to rule.”  This branch deals specifically with the principles of church government. The other branch deals with the rules and regulations according to which the church lives in her institutional life.  It is this branch which properly is called “Church Polity.”

Different Forms of Church Government

      1.   The Congregational form of church government 

            This form of church government is sometimes also called Independentism.  Its fundamental principle is that the local congregation is completely independent from other churches.  In government it is strictly democratic, all the male members having the right to vote, with no power of veto in the clergy.  This vote of the members admits and dismisses members and passes censure.  The permanent officebearers are the pastors and deacons.  Local churches stand in very loose relation to other congregations, with no broader gatherings except to decide matters of general welfare.  The decisions of these gatherings are only declarative.

      2.   Erastianism

            Although there is some doubt about the origin of this view, it is named after Erastus.  Thomas Erastus was born at Baden, Switzerland in 1524 and studied theology and medicine at Basil, Pavia, and Bologna.  In 1560 and again in 1564 he attended the conferences of Lutheran and Reformed theologians at which was discussed the problems of the Lord’s Supper.  Erastus considered the policy of cutting off members from the Protestant churches an unwise one.  He maintained that the exercise was not proper, but that offenders should be punished with civil penalties by the temporal magistrates.

            From these views developed the system of Erastianism, which regards the church as a society which owes its existence and form to laws enacted by the civil magistrates.  The civil magistrates alone have authority in all matters of doctrine and discipline within the church.  These magistrates govern, excommunicate, and rule in the church, although the actual execution of the state’s decisions is left to officers in the church.

      3.   The Romish system 

            The Romish system is closely tied to Roman Catholic theology.  The visible church needs a visible sacrifice.  The sacrifice needs a priest.  The priest needs divine consecration to office.  He receives this internal consecration from God through the external consecration of the church.  Thus ecclesiastical ordination originates with Christ and is continued in uninterrupted succession from the apostles through the bishops.  The pope is the chief of the bishops, with jurisdiction over all.  He is an absolute monarch, an infallible voice of Christ.  The laity have no voice in church government at all.

      4.   The Episcopalian system 

            This system is closely related to the hierarchical system of Roman Catholicism.  There are three orders of officebearers in the church:  bishops, priests, and deacons.  The superior order is in the succession of the apostles, with the rights of ordination and jurisdiction.  These superior officebearers are called Episcopoi and are overseers of all members of the church and the lower clergy.  The bishops are the ruling body.

      5.   The Reformed system 

            We shall give here only the main features, for other principles will be discussed in connection with our explanation of the articles of the Church Order.

            The chief principle of the Reformed system of church government is the autonomy of the local congregation.  The local congregation is, in itself, a complete manifestation of the body of Christ.  Within this local congregation is the office of believers first of all, who have the anointing of Christ and who function as prophets, priests, and kings in God’s church.  Secondly, within that congregation are the special offices of ministers, elders, and deacons.  These latter are called by Christ through the church to their offices; and it is through them that Christ rules His church.  These special offices stand in unique relation to the office of believers.  While we shall return to this point, it is important to notice now that while Christ rules the congregation through the special offices in the church, the office of believers comes to expression in that the believers take part in all the affairs of the church.

            These autonomous congregations unite together into a federation of churches.  This federation of churches is not something optional for the local congregation; the local congregation is obligated to belong to such a federation by the solemn injunction of Christ to express the unity of the body of Christ in the institutional form of the church.  The saints together are called to express their unity of a common life.  They are called to stand together in the battle of faith.  They are called to express that unity in a common confession.  They are called to labor together in the works of the kingdom.

            Within this federation of churches, each congregation remains autonomous.  Individual differences must be submerged to make the unity a reality.  And the broader assemblies have powers, clearly defined by the Church Order, which must be exercised.  But these powers are given to the broader assemblies by the local congregations.  And the local congregations alone may perform the true work of the church:  the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, the exercise of Christian discipline.

            It is the Reformed system of church polity which is founded upon Scripture and to which we are committed.

The Authority of the Church Order

      There is a “historical-comparative” view of church government which denies that the establishment of churches by the apostles with their rules and regulations has normative and authoritative value for the church today. The position of those who maintain this view is that the form the institute of the church takes in any given time, and the rules governing her institutional life, must be determined by the circumstances unique to her age. Consequently, there is nothing definitive in Scripture concerning this subject, and the church order of a denomination may and ought to vary.

      We proceed from the basis, first of all, that Scripture is authoritative in all its parts and is the rule of faith and life.  While this is certainly true for the individual child of God, it is equally true for the church in her institutional form.  The establishment of the churches in the apostolic era and the rules laid down governing their institutional life were rules having normative value.  This part of Scripture is also the revelation of the will of God for His church.  It is essential to maintain this, for the alternative is a complete destruction of church polity.

      The authority of the Church Order is the same as the authority of any creed.  That is, in the first place, the authority of the Church Order is derived from Scripture.  It has binding authority because it expresses what the church believes to be the Word of God.  Its authority is found in the fact that it expresses the truth of Scripture.  And that authority is binding as long as it is not shown to be in conflict with Scripture.  Nevertheless, because it has no authority of its own, its principles must constantly be subjected to the scrutiny of the Word of God and tested by Scripture.  But as long as they are not changed, they must be observed.

      Nor can a change be effected in them by an individual member or even by an individual congregation.  The Church Order can be changed only by the entire federation of churches; and, ideally, inasmuch as the Church Order is the common possession of the entire Reformed church world, only by the whole Reformed church acting in concert.

      We must, however, make a distinction in the kind of articles found in the Church Order.  Some articles are based directly upon principles of church government taken from Scripture.  Others are indirectly deduced from scriptural teachings.  And yet others are made with a view to circumstances in which the church finds herself at a certain given time.  While the first two express the basic ideas of Reformed church polity, the last are concerned, not with principle matters, but with the practical life of the church.  These articles are formulated by the church using the sanctified wisdom given her of Christ.  They can be changed as the needs of the church dictate.  These articles concern themselves with such things as the number of classical meetings per year, etc.

The History of the Church Order

      John Calvin began the work of enunciating the principles of Reformed church polity in his reformation in Geneva.  Many of these principles are to be found in his monumental and continuously influential Institutes of the Christian Religion.  These principles were put into practical use in the new Church Order which was prepared for the church in Geneva.  They were taught in the University of Geneva, where students from all over Europelearned them and carried them into the lands where the Calvin reformation had spread.  Such men as Beza, à Lasco, John Knox, Andrew Melville, and Olevianus carried the Reformed and Presbyterian system of church government into the far corners of Europe.

      If we turn now to the Netherlands, where our own Church Order has its origin, we find that here, too, men developed the Reformed system of church government under the influence of Calvin.  Such men as Acronius, Walaeus, Trigland, and Voetuis were leaders in this field.

      The Church Order did not arise mechanically in the churches — the churches coming together and, in an abstract manner, formulating the principles which are embodied in our Church Order.  Rather, the rules which we now possess arose organically out of the life of the churches.  The organization of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands is to a considerable extent the work of John à Lasco.  He assisted in the organization of the Dutch church of the refugees from London and laid down the main lines of church polity and liturgy in his Forma ac Ratio.  Soon after Calvinism came to the Lowlands, in the middle of the sixteenth century, the first steps were taken towards the organization of Reformed congregations.  The churches under the cross in the Southern lowlands repeatedly assembled in ecclesiastical gatherings from 1563 on.  There were no fewer than ten synods held in the years 1563-1566.  Here the problems of the new church were discussed and the rules stipulated by which this church would be governed.  Directions were taken from the Church Orders of Geneva and France but adapted to the peculiar circumstances of the churches in the Netherlands.

      Further organization was soon necessary.  Many refugees from the fierce persecutions in Spain and France were flooding the Lowlands, and the need for a strong national church federation grew.  It was in 1568 that a number of refugees came together at Wezel in the autumn of that year to confer together in the interests of the Dutch church.  At this meeting were such men as Datheen, Marnix, and Willera van Zuylen.  The meeting was not strictly a synod, because the men were not delegated by churches.  But general ordinances for the ecclesiastical life of the churches were drawn up which might be adopted in more peaceable times in a legal assembly. The hope and prayer of these men was that the persecution which then raged would give way to a period of peace, when a synod could be convened to organize more fully the life of the church.

      The first synod was held at Emden (across the border) in 1571.  This synod adopted Article 84 first of all, deeply conscious of the horror of Romish hierarchy and determined to avoid it at all costs.  This synod clearly guided the church along the principles which later came to full expression in our Church Order.  They maintained that it belonged to the life and order of each individual congregation to regulate its own matters.  But they were also conscious of the common heritage and life of the churches as a whole.  And they wanted a Church Order which was based on God’s Word, which was a common confession recognized by all the churches, and which preserved the autonomy of each congregation.

      While the regulations adopted at Emden remained in force, other synods met which made additions and revisions.

The following is a list of the important synods:

      1)   Dordrecht — 1574 & 1578

      2)   Middelburg — 1581

      3)   Den Haag — 1586

      4)   Dordrecht — 1618-1619.  This synod adopted the Church Order which is substantially the one we have today.

      The greatest difficulty arose in the Netherlands over the question of the state church.  The fact that the Reformed Church in the Netherlands was a state church arose out of the peculiar history of the Reformation in that country.  But the churches often conceded too much authority to the civil government and leaned too much on the government for support.  This continued after the Synod of Dordrecht and led to all sorts of trouble.  While in various provincial synods the Church Order was maintained, nevertheless the end of a long and bitter struggle was that the Church Order was discarded in 1816 and replaced by a collegialistic set of ecclesiastical regulations.

      The Afscheiding in 1834 was a return to the Church Order of Dordrecht.  This came about only after considerable struggle and suffering.  Again in 1886 a group of people under the leadership of Dr. A. Kuyper, known as the Doleantie, left the state church to return to the old Church Order.  These two groups of churches were brought together into one denomination in 1892 under the Church Order of Dordrecht.  This situation continues till the present.

      Since that time various revisions have been made in the Church Order.  This was done in the Netherlands in 1905 at Utrecht and in this country in 1914.  But these changes were not essential.  Recently the Gereformeerde Kerken made an extensive revision of the Church Order which is quite different from the original; and the Christian Reformed Church has done the same after more than twelve years of study.

      We include here a list of fathers who contributed substantially to the development and understanding of Reformed Church polity.

1)    Gysbertus Voetius.  He wrote Politica Ecclesiastica, which appeared in the years 1663-1676.  This work is generally recognized as the giant in the development of the basic principles of Reformed church polity.  It is almost impossible to obtain, both in its abridged and unabridged editions.

2)    Dr. J.J. Pruis.  His Het Kerkrecht de Ned. Hervormde Kerk was published in Leiden in 1870.

3)    Dr. G.J. Vos.  De Tegenwoordige Inrichting der Vanderlandsche Kerk was published in Dordrecht in 1884, and Hoe Men Zich in de Ned. Hervormde Kerk moet Gedragen was published in Utrecht in 1896.

4)    Dr. J.E. Slotemaker de Bruine.  He wrote Nederlandsch Hervormd Kerkrecht in 1924.

5)    Dr. A. Kuyper.  He wrote Tractaat van de Reformatie der Kerken in 1883.

6)    Prof. Dr. F.L. Rutgers.  He worked from 1880 to 1910 in this field and is recognized as an authority.  He wrote many works on the subject, including:

a)     De Rechtsbevoegdheid Onzer Plaatselijke Kerken.  This was co-authored with Mr. A.F. de Savornin Lobman.

b)    Het Kerkverband.  1882.

c)     Acta van de Nederlandsche Synoden der Zestiende Eeuw.  1889.

d)    De Geldigheid van de Oude Kerkenordeningen der Nederlandsche Gereformeerde Kerken.  1890.

e)     He Kerkrecht in Zoover her de Kerk met her Recht in Verband Brengt.  1894.

f)     De Beteekenis van de Gemeenteleden als Zoodanig, Volgens de beginselen, die Calvijn heeft Ontwikkend en Toegepast.…  1906.

g)    Advice to various consistories and persons in regard to concrete cases in his Kerkelijke Adviezen.

7)    Prof. H.H. Kuyper.  His writings appeared particularly in De Heraut.  Two of his books are De Opleiding tot den Dienst des Woords hij de Gereformeerden and De Verkiezing tot het Ambt.

8)    Dr. H. Bouwman.  His books include Het Ambt Der Diakenen (1907), De Kerkelijke Tucht naar het Gereformeerde Kerkrecht (1912), and Gereformeerd Kerkrecht, published in two volumes in 1928.

9)    Joh. Jansen.  His works are De Kerkenordening van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (1917), De Kerkelijke Tucht (1915) and Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening (1925).

10)      Various works on church polity appeared in connection with the Schilder controversy in the Netherlands in the 1940s concerning particularly the meaning of Article 51.

11)      Monsma and VanDellen.  Their Church Order Commentary has become somewhat of a classic in this country.

12)      J. Schaver.  The Polity of the Churches, in two volumes. 

13)      H. Hoeksema.  Various writings in the Standard Bearer and in The History of the Protestant Reformed Churches.  These writings deal chiefly with the church political aspects of the controversy in 1924.

14)      G.M. Ophoff.  Writings in the Standard Bearer and in class notes.

Last modified on 29 March 2013
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