53. The ministers of the Word of God and likewise the professors of theology (which also behooves the other professors and school teachers) shall subscribe to the three formulas of unity, namely, the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, and the ministers of the Word who refuse to do so shall de facto be suspended from their office by the consistory or classis until they shall have given a full statement, and if they obstinately persist in refusing, they shall be deposed from their office.
Decision pertaining to Article 53
The formula for subscription for ministers, etc., shall be transcribed in the minute books of both consistory and classis.
(Adopted by Classis of June 6, 7, 1934; Synod of 1944, Arts. 66, 67.) (Cf. Formula of Subscription, pp. 114, 115.)
54. Likewise the elders and deacons shall subscribe to the aforesaid formulas of unity.
With this article, the Church Order begins a new section, which deals with “Doctrine, Sacraments, and other Ceremonies.” This section covers Articles 53-70. Articles 53 and 54 deal with the signing of the Formula of Subscription. (This Formula should be read and studied in connection with these articles. It can be found in the Church Order Book.)
We have noticed before (cf. notes on Arts. 29-31) that the principle of church federation is the principle of the unity of the body of Christ. This unity of the church is the unity of Christ Himself, in whom all the church is united. It is a unity brought about by the Spirit of Christ, who dwells in all the members of the church. But this unity must come to expression in the life of the church. And it comes to expression in “one faith, one hope, one calling,” etc. (cf. Eph. 4:1-13). This section of the Church Order deals with these principles of unity and speaks particularly of the unity of the church federation in doctrine, in sacraments, and in liturgy. Most basic of all is the unity of doctrine. It is this point which the Church Order treats first. This is basic because the unity of the church is the unity of Christ; and Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God. Upon this unity of doctrine rests the unity of the observance of the sacraments and other ceremonies. Without doctrinal unity, all other unity is impossible.
This doctrinal unity is expressed in the confessions of the church. These confessions are expressions of the faith of the believers, that which believers confess as the truth of the Word of God. Hence these confessions are Formulas of Unity.
This unity of the church must be actively sought and maintained. Hence the Church Order makes provision for the signing of the Formula of Subscription.
Very early in the history of the churches of the Reformation, confessions were drawn up expressing this doctrinal unity. There was, at that time, no Formula of Subscription. Officebearers were required to sign the confessions themselves as expressions of their agreement. But the need for some form was soon felt. Various classes and provincial synods formulated their own forms. This was especially true during the years of the Arminian controversy. The Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-19 adopted our present form, which has come down to us almost unchanged. A change was made by the Hervormde Kerk (State Church) prior to the Afscheiding; but the Afgescheidende Kerken returned again to the old form.
Various promises are made by the officebearers who sign the Form.
1) Basically, the Form is a declaration of agreement with our Reformed confessions and with the doctrines contained in them. Those who sign express that they believe these confessions contain the truth of the Word of God.
2) Further, a promise is made actively to teach and to defend these doctrines.
3) Negatively, the promise is made to reject all heresies opposed to these doctrines of the confessions. Those who sign may not directly or indirectly contradict them. They may not do this either in public preaching or in writing. But they must not simply reject error. They must also militate against error, refuting and contradicting all heresy. They must exert themselves to keep the church free from doctrinal error. All this applied particularly to the errors of Arminianism condemned by the Synod of Dordt. But the promise is applicable to every evil of false doctrine.
4) Further, the promise is made to be honest and upright before the churches in all matters of doctrine. If one has any questions in his mind concerning the doctrines of the confessions, he promises not to propose or teach or defend these differences. He promises that he will not do this either in public or in private. He promises that he will keep silent both in his preaching and in his writing.
This uprightness which one who signs the Formula promises deals also with the procedure to be followed in making known any differences he may have. In general, such a one must follow the ecclesiastical way in revealing these differences. Particularly this means two things. On the one hand, it means that any differences with the confessions must be revealed to the consistory, classis, and synod. While this process is being followed, the one making his appeal must keep silent. And, when assemblies reach their decisions, he must abide by the judgment of the assemblies. On the other hand, he promises to submit to an official examination concerning his views if at any time assemblies think that there is sufficient ground of suspicion concerning his teaching and preaching.
The article (and the Formula) speaks also of the penalty attached to any violation of these promises. This penalty is de facto suspension from office. This penalty, it must be observed, is part of the promise which an officebearer makes. It is in this light also that this “de facto suspension” must be understood. The idea is that an officebearer who breaks his promise suspends himself from office by his failure to abide by his promise. The assemblies themselves merely declare that he has done this. This is the point of the language of Article 53: “shall de facto (by the fact) be suspended from … office by the consistory or classis.” A classis cannot suspend from office. This is a power reserved for the consistory as part of the exercise of the keys of the kingdom. Hence a classis merely declares a suspension already done by the violation of a promise made.
Nevertheless, the rights of such an officebearer are always guarded. He has the right of appeal in any judgment rendered. But during his appeal he must submit to the decisions taken and to his own promises. No officebearer may go his own way within the federation of churches because the unity of the church must be preserved.
The following, according to Articles 53 and 54, must sign:
1) All ministers, elders, and deacons. The footnote speaks of the fact that the Formula for ministers shall be transcribed in the minute books of both consistory and classis.
2) All professors of theology. This provision does not apply particularly to our professors. They are all ministers and sign the Formula as ministers. There is no need of a separate signing prior to their installation as professors.
3) Other professors and Christian school teachers. This rule is not followed in our churches. It came into effect in the Netherlands, where the schools were operated by the government under the supervision of the churches (cf. Art. 21). There are some arguments which can be raised in favor of this practice. However, there are two serious objections. The first is that the Formula of Subscription in its present form could not be used because of the fact that for teachers there can be no de facto suspension from office. Secondly, the Formula is ecclesiastical. Teach-
ers are not, as teachers, under the supervision of consistories, but under the supervision of school societies. We do not believe that church-controlled schools are in harmony with Scripture.
The Formula must be signed at the consistory. Newly installed officebearers are to sign the Formula prior to their installation. If they have signed the Formula once, they need not sign in again unless they should move to another congregation and be chosen for office in their new church home. Ministers must sign the Formula when they are installed in a new congregation even though they have signed it before. This is chiefly for practical reasons: each consistory which they serve must have its own record of his signature.
The Formula must also be signed at classis by all officebearers attending. Here too, they need sign it only once, even though they may be delegated again to a subsequent classical meeting.
The Formula is not signed at synod. The delegates sent to synod express their agreement with the confessions through rising in assent to the Public Declaration of Agreement (cf. pp. 73, 74).
To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.
This article has a long history. In its present form it is almost a complete revision of the original article. The only similarity between the original and the present article is that both deal with heretical writings.
Prior to 1586 various synods made rules concerning the publication of books, pamphlets, and articles. Such writings could not be published without the approval of the ministers of one’s classis, the ministers of one’s particular synod, or the professors of theology. This rule was not only applicable to those within the Reformed churches; it applied to all in the realm. This was done in the hopes that the government would make this law enforceable and thus promote the Reformed religion.
In 1586 the churches made the rule applicable only to those who belonged to the Reformed churches, since the government did not always do as the churches hoped. This ruling was confirmed by the Synod of Dordrecht. But in 1618 the government itself adopted a less stringent rule and made the rule of the church ineffectual. Even this less stringent rule proved to be totally impractical and incapable of enforcement. In 1905 the present revision was adopted in the Netherlands, and in 1914 the Christian Reformed Church adopted the same article.
The reasons why former rules did not work are evident. The rules were legalistic and did not give authors and readers the right of proper exercise of Christian liberty. They could never be enforced upon readers; curiosity was often aroused by the mere fact that a book was banned. The rules were historically in the tradition of Roman Catholicism and Romish hierarchy. Today no such rule would ever work.
The present article speaks of the need for warning against false doctrine. Particularly, the article speaks of errors which multiply through writings. The article has both a negative and a positive aspect. Negatively, error must be refuted. This aspect of the article is often criticized in our day. In an age of tolerance, refutation of heresy is considered impolite and out of keeping with the temper of the times. Nevertheless, it is
highly important, must be observed, and is in keeping with the example of Scripture itself. Positively, the article enjoins ministers and elders to expound, teach, preach, and proclaim the truth.
This must be done through teaching, refutation of error, warning, and admonition. It must be done in the ministry of the Word, in Christian teaching, and in family visitation.
While the article refers especially to readers, i.e., to those who read writings containing heresies, authors are covered by the Formula of Subscription if they are officebearers and by the general rules of discipline if they are not officebearers.
By way of footnote to the last three articles, we cannot refrain from a note emphasizing the importance of this part of the Church Order. We live in an age of doctrinal tolerance and indifference. In many churches, even of Reformed persuasion, the Formula of Subscription is signed by officebearers who hold mental reservations when they sign, who sign with tongue in cheek, who have no intention of observing the promises made. The churches tolerate breach of promise with unbelievable ennui. The result is doctrinal confusion and apostasy. Faithful officebearers do well to read and re-read these articles and observe them carefully. They are for the preservation of the church of Christ in the world.
The covenant of God shall be sealed unto the children of Christians by baptism, as soon as the administration thereof is feasible, in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached.
Decision pertaining to Article 56
Adopted children shall be baptized only when their legal adoption shall have been made final.
(Adopted by the Synod of 1960, Art. 24.)
Articles 56 through 60 speak of the sacrament of baptism. In the present article, the Church Order speaks of two matters: 1) who shall be baptized; 2) when baptism shall take place.
In answer to the first question, the article speaks of “the children of Christians.” The word “Christians” is a very general word in our day; hence the ruling would also appear to be general. But it must be remembered that the name “Christians” is used in a very limited sense in Lord’s Day 12. This article, therefore, must be interpreted in the light of our creeds and our liturgical forms. If this rule is followed and if the phrase in Article 56: “The covenant of God shall be sealed…” is followed, then it becomes evident that only children of communicant members of the church are eligible for baptism. These parents must be in good standing in the church — i.e., they must not be under discipline.
Our churches have the rule that adopted children shall be baptized only when their legal adoption is made final (cf. the footnote). There has been considerable difference of opinion on this question in Reformed churches. The questions have come up with respect to children born in covenant lines and those born outside covenant lines. And the questions have dealt with the time of baptism: whether baptism should take place immediately, after adoption is final, or when the children arrive at years of maturity. Still other questions have risen concerning children born illegitimately and concerning children whose parents have departed from the ways of the covenant.
However, the general statement of the article, “The covenant of God shall be sealed unto the children of Christians…” has usually in the Reformed churches been interpreted to mean that no re-baptism is necessary if a child has been baptized in the name of the Trinity. Our churches have generally followed this policy.
The article also speaks of the time of baptism: “As soon as the administration thereof is feasible.” Many in the past have followed what has become known as “vroeg-doop.” Roman Catholicism, with its view of the sacraments, generally baptizes a child as quickly as possible. This practice has also been followed in the Netherlands to a greater or lesser degree. Sometimes baptism was performed so quickly after birth that the mother was not present. This was followed by some who held to the view of presupposed regeneration. In some parts of the Netherlands this practice is still observed.
The article speaks of a “feasible” time. This feasibility must first of all be from the viewpoint of the church. Parents must secure permission from the consistory to have their child baptized, so that the sacrament can be under consistorial jurisdiction. The necessary arrangements have to be made.
But the article speaks especially of feasibility from the viewpoint of the parents. The principle is that the sacrament must not be despised or de-emphasized. There must be a proper appreciation for its meaning, importance, and significance with respect to the covenant. Hence, on the one hand, both parents ought to be present. Both parents assume responsibility for the vow made at baptism. But, on the other hand, undue delay must be avoided.
Finally, the article speaks of the fact that the sacrament must be performed “in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached.” Private baptism has not been unusual. Rome practices such private baptism. But the Reformed churches permitted it in some instances. Today it is permitted no longer. The public worship service is the only proper place for the administration. It is a sacrament for the entire church. It is a part of the life of the church institute. It is, as a sacrament, attached to the preaching of the Word and has significance only in connection with the preaching.
The ministers shall do their utmost to the end that the father present his child for baptism.
The original of Article 57 spoke of sponsors or godparents who could present children for baptism. This was a remnant from the Church of Rome, which believed that parents living in wedlock were too carnal to assume responsibility for baptism. This view was altered with the development of the scriptural view of marriage. But in some instances the practice was continued in the Reformed churches. The father assumed responsibility if he was living and was spiritually responsible. But sponsors could present the children if they were people of upright life.
In the revisions of 1905 and 1914 all mention of sponsors was eliminated.
The article stresses the responsibility of fathers. This is not intended to deny the responsibility of mothers, for they, too, answer to the vows made at baptism. But fathers are spoken of over against sponsors. Fathers are the heads of their wives and the heads of their families in the place given them of God. Their responsibility is to gain permission from the consistory and to assume the vows for the spiritual training of the children of the covenant as heads. It is preferable, therefore, that the father also present the child at the moment of baptism. There is a symbolism here which ought not to be ignored. It is a recognition of the headship of the father in the family.
In the ceremony of baptism, both of children and of adults, the minister shall use the respective forms drawn up for the administration of this sacrament.
It is worth a short note to discuss the history of our Form for Baptism, which is referred to in this article. The Synod of Wezel (1568) referred to a form which had been drawn up by Peter Datheen in conjunction with VanDerHeyden. This form was based upon other forms used by Calvin, à Lasco, Micronius, and Olevianus. Especially the questions were used.
Many churches were using different forms, so that the Synod of Dordt (1578) urged all churches to use the same form. This was done, although the form generally accepted underwent many revisions and alterations. Our present form is one prepared by Rutgers, Bavinck, and Kuyper, who took cognizance of decisions taken by the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619).
The form for the baptism of adults dates back to the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619). There were, prior to the Synod, other forms in existence for adult baptism. Dordt brought unanimity. The present form has a section inserted which explains baptism of adults in relation to the covenant.
The article requires the use of the adopted forms for both infant and adult baptism. These forms are ecclesiastically approved. They are sometimes referred to as “minor confessions,” because they explain the doctrinal significance of the ceremonies. It is obvious that this requirement is necessary for the unity of the church. Baptism is not only a ceremony. It is a divinely instituted sacrament in the church. Its significance and meaning is part of the confession of the church. The unity of the church must become evident also in liturgical oneness therefore. Although there is room for minor variation which does not touch upon the essence of the sacrament, the unity of a common sacrament must be preserved.
Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church, and are accepted as members of the church, and are therefore obliged also to partake of the Lord’s Supper, which they shall promise to do at their baptism.
This article speaks of the relation between adult baptism and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. As a general rule in Reformed churches, children of believing parents are baptized and are therefore incorporated into the fellowship of the church as infants and through infant baptism. When adults are incorporated into the church as adults and through adult baptism, the rule of Article 59 applies.
There has been a problem with some who are not any more infants, but who also are not adults. Rules have been made to cover this problem, but they have proved failures. No rule can be made. Some children mature spiritually much faster than others. Each case, therefore, must be treated separately under the general principle that if one is able to understand the principles of the faith he must be considered an adult. If he is not, he must be considered an infant.
The article speaks of the fact that “Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church….” By “Christian church” is meant the local congregation — in the Dutch gemeente, not kerk. But the administration of baptism differs between infants and adults. Infants are incorporated into the church by reason of their birth to believers on the basis of the covenant. Adults are incorporated into the church by reason of faith. Hence, in the case of adults, confession of faith must be made before one can be received as a member.
These adults are, therefore, under obligation to partake of the Lord’s Supper after their baptism. They must promise to do this at baptism. The principle is, in brief, that the two sacraments are inseparable. Baptism signifies incorporation into the covenant. The Lord’s Supper signifies preservation within the covenant and conscious reception of the blessings of the covenant.
The names of those baptized, together with those of the parents, and likewise the date of birth and baptism, shall be recorded.
This article was already decided upon at the Wezelian Convention. There were then civil reasons because of the close relation between church and state. The state kept no records at all, and the church was the only institution in a position to keep records of any kind.
But there are ecclesiastical reasons which make this article valid today. In the first place, according to Article 59, baptized members are incorporated into the Christian church, i.e., into the local congregation. The local congregation must have some record of its membership. In the second place, this is part of the decency and order which must characterize the life of the institute of the church. In the third place, from a practical point of view, these records are useful in working with children of the covenant, in transfers, etc.
The article requires a record of the names of those baptized, the names of the parents, the date of birth, and the date of baptism. These records ought to be kept by
the consistory; ought to be kept up to date, so that they are accurate and complete; and ought to include cross references with the minutes of the consistory.
Originally the article spoke of the need to include the names of sponsors, but this was dropped in 1914 (cf. notes on Art. 57).
None shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except those who according to the usage of the church with which they unite themselves have made a confession of the Reformed religion, besides being reputed to be of a godly walk, without which those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.
Articles 61 through 64 deal with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Article 61 speaks of admittance to the Lord’s Supper.
The condition for admittance is that only those who “have made a confession of the Reformed religion, besides being reputed to be of a godly walk,” shall be admitted to the Lord’s table. The reference of the article is to the confession of faith of those who are born and baptized in the church.
Confession of faith is a personal confession of the individual, both as to his personal belief in the Reformed religion and to his personal participation in that faith. This confession must not be a general confession of faith. It must be specifically a confession of the truth of the Reformed faith. Nor must such a confession be a confession of “historical faith”; it must be of a living faith. Hence it must include a confession of uprightness of walk, which is an inseparable part of true and living faith.
The consistory has the responsibility for the administration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It is therefore also responsible for maintaining the purity of the Lord’s table. Hence this confession must be made before the consistory, which examines applicants concerning the necessary requirements.
However, after the examination is complete, the names of those making confession of faith must be publicly announced to the congregation for their approbation. If any objections are made, they must be carefully considered and investigated. If there are no objections, public confession must take place according to the form for that purpose. Concerning this latter, there are no rules in our Church Order. But the usage is the same in all our churches.
The requirements also apply to people coming from other churches. First of all, the reference is to those who are from the same denomination. The same may apply to those coming from sister churches. In these cases, transfer papers contain a testimony from the consistory as to the faith and walk of those coming to the congregation. There are prescribed forms for this found in the Church Order Book. If a transferring member is an object of discipline, this is to be noted on the transfer papers. The attestation of a consistory has to be acknowledged and honored within the churches. Any questions which arise have to be resolved between the consistories concerned.
But the article refers also to those who come from other churches. This cannot take place by means of regular transfer, since any other church is not in a position to testify of the soundness of faith and uprightness of walk of its members according to the standards of our churches. Hence the regulation of the article must be observed through examination by the consistory. This examination must be carefully done and preceded by instruction, should this be necessary.
The Reformed churches have historically opposed open communion and maintained the principle of close communion. This is necessary to keep the Lord’s table pure. Nor should members of our churches partake of communion in other denominations with which we have no denominational fellowship.
Every church shall administer the Lord’s Supper in such a manner as it shall judge most conducive to edification; provided, however, that the outward ceremonies as prescribed in God’s Word be not changed, and all superstition be avoided, and that at the conclusion of the sermon and the usual prayers the form for the administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read.
In general, the Church Order does not stipulate in detail the rules to be followed in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It lays down the general principle that the administration of the sacrament must be, in the judgment of the consistory, conducive to edification. This is a sound scriptural principle and ought to be adhered to.
What are those matters which are left to the judgment of the local consistory? Some such matters are sitting or standing to receive the sacrament; coming forward or remaining in one’s seat to receive the Lord’s Supper; communal or individual cup; the thank-offering; eating the bread or drinking the wine in unison or as it is distributed; etc. In all these matters the consistory must judge whether a particular practice is most conducive to edification. They must judge whether it adds to or subtracts from the spiritual celebration of the sacrament. What is most conducive can change from time to time and according to the circumstances within the congregation. An example would be the size of the congregation, which fluctuates.
But other matters of the celebration of the sacrament are required. These belong to the essence of the sacrament. The standard for these elements is the prescription of the Word of God and the confessions. In these matters there may be no deviation. These basic elements are mentioned in Article 62.
1) The outward ceremonies such as the use of bread and wine, the breaking of bread, etc. It is quite possible that the pouring out of the wine belongs also here. It is not specifically mentioned in Scripture. But it seems to be implied in the symbolism of blood shed even as the bread is broken.
2) All superstition must be avoided. This refers to Rome’s practice of kneeling in veneration of the host.
3) The preaching of the Word and the prescribed prayers must accompany the celebration of the sacrament.
4) The accepted form must be used. This form, along with the Baptism Form, is a “minor confession” adopted by the church. It must be used in the celebration of the sacrament. In this connection, the question arises whether it is proper to split the form in such a way that the first part dealing with self-examination is read on the Sunday prior to communion while the latter part is read at the communion service. The argument in favor of splitting the form is, first of all, that the Sunday prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is specifically reserved for preparatory. The essence of preparatory is self-examination. The part of the form dealing with self-examination more properly belongs with the preparatory service. Secondly, there is the practical consideration that the length of the form makes for a very long communion service if the whole form is read and leaves little time for the preaching.
Nevertheless, it certainly can never be wrong to read the part of the form dealing with self-examination immediately before the congregation partakes of the sacrament. And it will have to be admitted that the form is one, and that any break in it is artificial. It was not written to be read in two separate sections on two different Sundays.
The Church Order makes no mention of preparatory or applicatory sermons. However, questions concerning these sermons are included in the questions asked by the church visitors. This implies that such sermons are the rule in our churches.
This article discusses the frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. In the early years of the Reformation the sacrament was celebrated far oftener than now. In some instances it was celebrated every week, but this varied from time to time, especially in times of persecution. This frequent celebration did not continue, and gradually the practice arose to celebrate the sacrament every two months.
It has sometimes been urged that the celebration of the sacraments on special Christian holidays is especially appropriate. Some churches, therefore, celebrate the sacrament on Easter, Pentecost, and even Christmas.
The general rule is “at least every two or
three months.” The minimum is, therefore, four times a year. But the celebration may be held more often. This, too, must be left to the decision of the local consistories.
While it is true that a more frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper may be conducive to greater edification, it is also well to remember that there is today an increasingly strong shift to liturgy in the church world. And this increasing emphasis upon liturgy is quite often rooted in a decline in the preaching. For one reason or another, the preaching is de-emphasized. People weary of it. To attract people to church, elaborate liturgical practices are substituted for the lively preaching of the Word. This must be avoided.
The administration of the Lord’s Supper shall take place only there where there is supervision of elders, according to the ecclesiastical order, and in a public gathering of the congregation.
Originally Article 64 dealt with a daily Vesper or prayer service. Such prayer services had been practiced in the Roman Catholic Church long before the time of the Reformation. The Reformed churches retained this custom, and daily prayer services were held in the late afternoon, at which services a portion of Scripture was explained and prayer made. But as early as 1574, various steps were taken by different synods to eliminate this custom. The reasons were:
1) That regular religious services on Sunday night be attended more diligently.
2) That family worship might be more diligently observed.
3) That common prayers held on days of fasting might be held more diligently and zealously.
By the seventeenth century the practice had died out entirely. Our version of the article was adopted in 1905 at Utrecht and in 1914 in our own country.
The first stipulation made by the article is that the Lord’s Supper shall be celebrated only where there is supervision of elders. The reasons for this are:
1) The Lord’s Supper is one of the means of grace.
2) The means of grace are given to the church to be dispensed and are, therefore, under the supervision of the elders.
3) This supervision is necessary in order that the table of the Lord be not profaned.
Such supervision prevents open communion. It makes impossible any celebra-
tion of communion by unorganized groups of believers. It prohibits any celebration by a branch of the congregation (cf. Art. 39). However, groups under the supervision of another consistory may celebrate communion under that supervision.
Secondly, the article stipulates that such celebration must take place according to the ecclesiastical order and in a public gathering of the congregation.
By the ecclesiastical order, the Church Order refers to the regulations and stipulations of Articles 61 and 62.
The need for the provision concerning the celebration of the sacrament in a public gathering of the congregation is to be found in the fact that the preaching of the Word and the sacraments belong together (cf. Art. 56). Further, part of the symbolism of the sacrament is the fellowship which believers have in the body of Christ. Hence, the congregation must gather in unison and communion at the Lord’s table. The article, therefore, forbids private communion. This is sometimes practiced. In the Christian Reformed Church it was permitted with certain stipulations. It is sometimes requested by shut-ins and inmates of various institutions. But the article forbids it. The Synod of Middelburg in 1933 ruled against the practice in the Netherlands. It has never been an issue in our churches.
Funerals are not ecclesiastical, but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.
In Articles 65 through 70 the Church Order speaks of various other ceremonies. Article 65 speaks of funeral services.
Rome held, prior to the Reformation, official funeral services. In that superstitious age it was believed that such services drove away evil spirits and aided the departed one in his journey through the realms of the dead. Such services had the added benefit of reminding people to pray for those in purgatory.
The Reformed churches were quite naturally opposed to this. They rejected the doctrinal grounds and were fearful of the superstition which grew around the practice. Hence various synods ruled consistently against the practice: Dordt in 1574; Dordt in 1578; Middelburg in 1581. Our present ruling was made in 1905 at Utrecht and was adopted in this country in 1914. In 1940 the Christian Reformed Church altered the reading: “Funerals are not ecclesiastical, but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.”
The article forbids both funeral sermons and funeral services. Strictly speaking, these belong together, for there is no sermon where there are no services. But the article forbids both so that there will be no possibility of a service in an unofficial way. The reasons were:
1) Funeral services are forbidden because funerals are considered non-ecclesiastical.
2) The family has the responsibility to bury its dead.
3) The matter is outside the supervision
of officebearers and outside the means of grace.
Our churches have followed the ruling of this article. We have no official services but simply a brief exposition of some portion of Scripture and appropriate prayers. There is no consistory present. There is no official gathering of the congregation. The friends and relatives meet in order that their attention may be called to the Word of God as the source and fountain of their hope and comfort in the midst of sorrow.
The question of cremation sometimes arises. There cannot, of course, be any principle objection against burning, since many of God’s people have suffered martyrdom through burning. But it is not to be practiced, because it is often an act of defiance on the part of unbelievers and because Scripture speaks of the necessity of burial as a seed planted in the ground must be buried to rise. Hence, it is expressive of the believers’ hope of the resurrection.
In time of war, pestilence, national calamities, and other great afflictions, the pressure of which is felt throughout the churches, it is fitting that the classes proclaim a day of prayer.
The Reformation churches did not want the outward observance of days as practiced in the Romish church. Nevertheless, they felt the need for occasional special days of prayer. Hence this article was included. The original article contained two elements which have been eliminated. The first was a provision for the churches to ask the government to designate such days. The second was mention of fasting in connection with days of prayer.
A distinction is made between these days and the regular Prayer Day stipulated in Article 67. These days shall be called “in times of war, pestilence, national calamities, and other great afflictions.” When God in His providence sends great calamities which affect the churches, classis shall call such a day of prayer. These days of prayer concern particularly the churches within a given classis which have been affected; but the reference may also be to calamities which affect the whole denomination.
Today this practice has become a national habit. Various days of prayer are proclaimed by the government. Our churches do not usually observe these days because the principle is wrong. Days of prayer are meant for the church alone, which can truly pray. The true nature of prayer must be preserved according to God’s Word. The church must never make a mere petition for relief, but must recognize God’s all-governing hand. She must confess her dependence upon God, her readiness to submit to God’s will, her desire to seek the things which are above. Her concern must be, above all, for the preservation of God’s cause.
The classis is designated as the body to proclaim such days. The classis therefore
appoints a specific day in which all the churches within its boundaries hold special services. Our churches do not usually make use of this article, but it could be observed if a classis or a local congregation felt the need.
The churches shall observe, in addition to the Sunday, also Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, the Day of Prayer, the National Thanksgiving Day, and Old and New Year’s Day.
In the early days of the Calvin Reformation, the Reformers (Zwingli, Farel, Calvin, Knox, etc.) prohibited special commemoration of the days mentioned in this article as being remnants of the Romish religion and as detracting from the observance of the Sabbath. They insisted on the observation of the Sabbath alone. This rule was maintained in the Lowlands at Dordt in 1574. But for practical reasons this was altered by Dordt in 1578 and subsequent synods, including the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619. These days were government holidays and became legal days of recreation. Because of the dangers of worldliness and an improper celebration of the days, the church prescribed that they be commemorated as Christian holidays and that worship services be held on them. The Dutch revision of 1905 included only Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and Ascension Day. Our version includes also Good Friday, Prayer Day, Thanksgiving Day, Old and New Year’s Days.
Concerning the requirements of the article the following is of importance:
1) The commemoration of these days in the church is for practical reasons. There is no principle involved in
their celebration and no biblical reason why they ought to be observed. They are not special days of value such as the various Feast Days in the history of Israel. The celebration of them is not of any principle significance. Nor should the commemoration of the events remembered on these days be limited to these days alone.
2) They are not all of equal importance. Some are days commemorating various aspects of the work of Christ. Prayer Day is connected with the time of planting and is intended to commit the coming crop into the hands of the Lord, who gives us our daily provision. Thanksgiving Day is a national custom. Old Year’s Day and New Year’s Day are purely artificial.
3) The word “observe” in the article must be taken in the sense of gathering in public worship. These days must therefore be observed so long as our Church Order requires it. But all formalism, superstition, legalism, and outward formality must be avoided in their celebration.
The ministers shall on Sunday explain briefly the sum of Christian doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism, so that as much as possible the explanation shall be annually completed, according to the division of the catechism itself for that purpose.
The practice of Catechism teaching came to the Netherlands from Reformed churches in other countries. It is quite likely that as early as 1566 this practice was being observed in some individual congregations. The question came to the Synod of Dordt in 1574 whether it would not be advisable to make this a custom in all the churches. But this was not definitely decided upon until 1586. In 1905 the words “as much as possible” were added. In 1914 several items were dropped of the original article. The phrase “which at this time has been accepted in the Netherlands Churches” was elided. The stipulation was omitted which required the preaching of the Catechism in the afternoon service. The word “Heidelberg” was added.
When the practice was first begun, it met with considerable opposition among the people. VanDellen and Monsma observe that this opposition came especially from people who seldom attended church and who disliked the sound doctrine. It may have been precisely for this reason that the practice was commonly accepted in the churches.
The article requires a brief explanation of the sum of Christian doctrine as comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism. This must be done so that the entire Catechism is completed yearly as much as possible. The purpose of this requirement is chiefly that there may be regular and systematic exposition of the truths of Scripture. It is easy for a minister to choose only practical texts or to choose texts with certain doctrines while other doctrines are avoided. Preaching from the Catechism will insure the preaching of all the doctrines of Scripture. This is necessary in order that the congregation may grow in the knowledge of the truth of God’s Word. Sound doctrine is the heart of the faith by which the believer knows God, whom to know is life eternal. And, indeed, his practical life in the world will only be right and good when it is rooted in the knowledge of the truth. The Catechism is admirably suited to accomplish this purpose. It treats doctrine systematically, including in it all the fundamentals of the Christian faith. And it treats this doctrine from the experiential viewpoint.
Some have objected that Catechism preaching is not scriptural preaching. But this objection is without basis. Catechism preaching is preaching on the doctrines found in Scripture. These doctrines are based upon various texts taken together, for Scripture is not a handbook of systematic theology. When the minister preaches from the Catechism, he must carefully show that these doctrines are the truth of the Word of God.
While it is impossible for a minister to preach through the whole Catechism in one year, he ought not to neglect Catechism preaching on Sundays when it is possible to preach from it. Sometimes special occasions arise; sometimes Christian holidays fall on Sunday; sometimes he must turn from the Catechism for communion services; it is not possible always to treat an entire Lord’s Day in one sermon. All these things make it impossible to cover the fifty-two Lord’s Days in one year. Nevertheless, the minister should make every effort to preach through the Catechism as quickly as possible. Preaching on the Catechism from different points of view will give a minister opportunity to cover all the material over several years. He should not try to exhaust every Lord’s Day before proceeding on to the next.
In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the sermon shall be sung.
While in the early years of the Reformation, Zwingli forbade any congregational singing — probably as a reaction to Rome’s liturgy. The other Reformers generally favored it, although they objected to the use of choirs. The history of the Dutch Psalm-book goes back to the beginning of the Reformation.
There were always those who favored the introduction of hymns into the public worship services. Gradually songs other than the Psalms were introduced. This was especially true after the Synod of Dordrecht 1619-’19. The Afscheiding restored the use of the Psalms.
Our present article is an approximate translation of the Dutch article revised in 1905 by the Synod of Utrecht. The revision was based on the version of 1618-1619 but with a few added elements. The original article read: “In the churches there shall be sung only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the 12 Articles of Faith, and the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon. The hymn “O God, die onze Vader zijt” is left to the freedom of the churches, whether to use it or omit it. All other hymns shall be banned from the churches, and where some have already been introduced, they shall by the most suitable means be excluded.” Thus there were six hymns approved and one left to the discretion of the churches. In 1905 the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon and the Morning and Evening Hymns were added. The last sentence was excluded from our present version.
It is obvious that the present article has no meaning for us today because it refers exclusively to the Dutch versification of the Psalms and to Dutch hymns. Our present United Presbyterian Psalter was adopted in 1914 as it was drawn up by an interdenominational committee. It includes versifications of the Psalms set to various types of music, several chorales, two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, several doxologies, “America,” and three hymns. Since the adoption of the Psalter, most churches which formerly used it have adopted other books of praise, in which have been incorporated a large number of hymns. But Article 69 remained intact until recent revisions and, even though outdated in our churches, it has remained in its old form. The synod of our churches considered an overture to revise Article 69 in the years 1959-1962. The matter was discussed at length but finally dropped. Perhaps partly the reason why it was dropped was because, while the original intent of the overture was to revise the article and make room for additional versifications of Scripture, it was interpreted by some to open the door for all sorts of hymns (cf. the Acts of 1959-1962 for additional details).
The fundamental principle of Article 69 is that congregational singing is an important part of the worship service. It is in this light that choirs must also be considered undesirable. The same is true of instrumental music. It is good for accompaniment, but it is not good when it takes the place of congregational singing. The organ music which is played at the beginning of the service ought also to be in keeping with the spirit of worship and ought to be conducive to lead the people into a proper frame of mind to bow in worship before God.
As far as the “hymn question” itself is concerned, it is apparent that the introduction of hymns into the church in the past has always been a source of trouble. Hymns have become vehicles of introducing heresy into the church in some instances. Especially modern hymns are not proper music for worship services. Often they reflect the music of the world. They are doctrinally
unsound in many instances. They are man-centered, while Scripture is always God-centered. They therefore rob the church of the spirit of worship. However, there is room for improvement in our present Psalter, both in the versification of the Psalms and in the music. There is also a place for the versification of other parts of Scripture in the song book of the church. But we should limit ourselves to these improvements and not attempt to put the hymns of our day into our worship songbooks.
The consistories shall see to it that those who marry, marry in the Lord, whether it be in a private ceremony or in an official worship service. When the solemnization of marriage takes place in an official worship service, the adopted form for that purpose shall be used.
The original formulation of Article 70 is to be explained by the fact that it was influenced by practices in the Netherlands. There the State had taken the power to solemnize marriages some time after the Reformation had come into the Lowlands. The church itself was interested in the State doing this because the church recognized, on the one hand, that there is a “legal” aspect to marriage, and recognized, on the other hand, that the church could not function in the sphere of the State. Hence the article speaks of the fact that “the matrimonial state be confirmed in the presence of Christ’s church” rather than that the matrimonial state be solemnized in the church. The practice in the Netherlands is therefore that the ceremony first be performed before a civil magistrate and then confirmed before the church.
In our country it is different. The clergy act as legal functionaries of the State in marriage ceremonies. Thus the civil and spiritual aspects of the solemnization of marriage are combined in one by the minister.
The present formulation places upon consistories the responsibility of seeing to it that the young people in the church marry spouses with whom they are one in the faith of Christ. This unity of faith means that both husband and wife must be members of the same church and confess the same truth. A marriage in the Lord is a marriage in which Christ who is the truth is the Head.
The consistories, in assuming this responsibility, must, on family visitation and in all their oversight of the youth of the flock, encourage the young people to seek godly spouses. The elders must also warn against the wrong of marriages not rooted in a common faith, and they must warn against the sin of leaving the true church for purposes of marrying a spouse from a different denomination (Arts. 28 and 29 of the Confession of Faith).
There are arguments for and against church weddings. Against church weddings it can be argued that they are not in the strictest sense ecclesiastical functions. Besides, there is always the danger of making of marriage a sacrament, as Rome does, if weddings are solemnized during worship services and if they do become ecclesiastical functions.
In favor of church weddings, however, it can be argued: 1) they will, of necessity, be far more solemn than they often are now when they become little more than show. 2) they will impress more effectively on the church and the married couple the holiness of marriage — something sorely needed in our day.
If church weddings should ever become common practice, it would be well to consider some basic changes: 1) It is preferable
that the wedding then be
held in Sunday services. 2) Many of the frills, the foolish songs, the silly receptions would have to be discarded. 3) Both marriage partners would have to be members of the church. 4) The emphasis should be on the reflection in marriage of the relation between Christ and His church. Hence, the bridegroom should be on the foreground, not the bride.
However all this may be, it is obvious that Article 70 is in need of revision.