Reformed Church Order: Law of Christ
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Prof. David J. Engelsma for the Standard Bearer, Issue: 14, 4/15/1992 , Vol 68/1992.
The life and labor of the Protestant Reformed Churches are regulated by a church order. This is the church order adopted for Reformed churches by the Synod of Dordt, 1618-19.
The church order is law for the churches. It is the authoritative standard to which both consistories and church members must conform. There are sanctions for the unruly and disobedient. The member who handles sin in the congregation by broadcasting it from the housetop, or over the telephone, rather than following the way prescribed in Articles 71-74 of the church order, will himself be disciplined. The minister who publicly agitates against the decision of his consistory will be censured for schism. The elder who is “captious and . . . vehement in speaking” at classis will be silenced and, if need require, disciplined by the president of the assembly. The consistory that refuses to submit to a decision of synod will be set outside the union of the churches of Christ.
The Reformed church order is the law of Jesus Christ for His redeemed church. Christ is King of the church. As King He governs the church. God has laid the government upon His shoulders. Christ orders His spiritual Kingdom with judgment and justice (Isaiah 9:6,7). The Reformed church order is an instrument of this governing and ordering.
The church order is not merely a pragmatic code drawn up by 16th and 17th century church politicians. It is not even a useful list of rules hallowed by its many years in the Reformed tradition. The church order is the spiritual polity of King Jesus for His Kingdom.
In all its many fundamental ordinances, the Dordt church order bases itself squarely and directly on Holy Scripture. Its rules concerning the four main aspects of the life of the church offices; assemblies; supervision of doctrine, sacraments, and ceremonies; and Christian discipline – are the Word of Christ, Holy Scripture. Scripture teaches that Christ’s church orders herself and functions in offices. Scripture teaches that the offices are those of minister, elder, and deacon. Scripture teaches the rule of the local congregation by a body of qualified, male elders. Scripture teaches the union of congregations in major assemblies whose decisions are binding. Scripture teaches the excommunication of impenitent sinners by the local congregation after repeated admonitions.
The church order is for the church the will of her Sovereign.
In other important rules, although direct warrant in the Bible is lacking, the church order applies biblical truth wisely. If ministers are called for life and if the churches are bound to provide for the financial support of the ministers, not muzzling the ox that treads the corn, the churches must provide honorably for emeriti (retired) ministers. Since the children of the church are covenant, baptized children who must be reared in the truth, consistories must see to it that there are good Christian schools in which the parents have their children instructed according to the demands of the covenant. In view of the seriousness of the deposition of officebearers and of the excommunication of members and in view of the wisdom found in the multitude of counselors, the local church should not proceed with deposition and excommunication without the advice of the major assemblies.
Here, also, the church order is Messiah’s scepter.
Even as regards those relatively few regulations that derive from Scripture neither directly nor indirectly but are common sense rules for orderly life, adapted to the local situation at a certain time, one should not too quickly conclude that the regulations have nothing to do with the will of Christ. The rulers of the church are authorized by Christ to “establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the church,” as long as these ordinances do not conflict with the institutions of Christ (Bel. Conf., Art. 32).
In its fundamentals, therefore, the church order of Dordt is the law of Christ for the New Testament church always and everywhere. It is not the law only for churches of mainly Dutch members in North America. It is also the law for the church in Jamaica, the church in Northern Ireland, and the church in Singapore.
It is not a book that can be, or even ought to be, revised every century, much less every ten years. It is as immutable as the will of Christ. As regards the fundamentals, the heart and soul of the church order, as well as the overwhelming mass of its material, the church order should not be written in a loose-leaf notebook but should be engraved in stone. In fact, it is engraved by the Holy Spirit upon the fleshy table of the heart of the true church, the church that acknowledges Jesus Christ as the only Head of the church and manages all things according to the pure Word of God (Bel. Conf., Art. 29).
Insofar as any church disregards the church polity set forth in the church order of Dordt, that church fails to subject herself to the Lordship of Christ. She will suffer the consequences.
The law bound up in the Dordt church order is a blessing to the PRC. It is a blessing that is not appreciated nearly enough. Law – the good law of God – is always a blessing to the redeemed saints. Whether in the nation, in the family, in personal life, or in the church, law provides order. Upon order depend stability, peace, and prosperity. The life regulated by the law of Christ is the life of precious, priceless liberty. The opening line of the church order of Dordt matter-of-factly announces the blessing provided: “For the maintenance of good order in the church of Christ . . . .”
Disorder in the church is a curse. It is misery for the people. It is dishonoring to Christ, the alleged Ruler of such a tumultuous ecclesiastical outfit.
Disorder plagues the independent, nominally evangelical churches. Rejecting the Dordt church order’s leading provisions of the rule of the local congregation by a body of elders and of the mutual subjection of churches to each other in authoritative major assemblies, these churches are constantly exposed to division and uproar. Their life is chaos.
To avoid this anarchy, many flee for refuge to the equal but opposite evil of the hierarchy of the lordly minister. The rule of many of the largest, most popular, nominally evangelical churches in North America today is rule by a man, the preacher. In church as in state, rule by a man, as opposed to rule by law, is the worst form of government possible. There is a papacy in much of nominally evangelical Protestantism that bids fair to outstrip that of the Roman idol. It is incredible, though undeniably a fact, that men and women who profess to be Reformed join these pathetic Protestant papacies. They get then what they have chosen: the lordship of Lew VanderMeer, or of Bill Hybels, or of Jack Hyles. What they turn their back on is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is sure: Leaving out of sight the forsaking of the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace, these people are abandoning Reformed Christianity in the matter of church government. For as Harro Hopfl has written in his recent study, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 112, “There was nothing Calvin detested more than anyone or any group in a position to exercise a sic volo sic iubeo (thus I will, thus I decree).”
As for the charismatic churches with their rejection of all church order in favor of the open-ended guidance of a free-wheeling “Spirit,” a Reformed man regards these churches with an aversion bordering on dread. Theirs is a church life of lawlessness.
The Dordt church order, as the law of Christ, is a blessing in the life of the Reformed church that practices it. As is always the case with law in the life of the redeemed, the blessing of the church order is nothing less than the service of the gospel. The church order is instrumental in the maintaining of the gospel in the Reformed churches. This is the claim that was made for the church order that John Calvin gave to the church in Geneva in the preface to the “Ecclesiastical Ordinances” of 1541:
. . . having considered that it is a thing worthy of commendation above all else that the doctrine of the holy Gospel of our Lord should be carefully preserved in its purity and the Christian Church properly maintained . . . which cannot be done unless there is a certain rule and method of living by which each estate attends to the duty of its office: for this reason it has seemed to us advisable that the spiritual government of the kind which our Lord demonstrated and instituted by His Word should be set out in good order so that it may be established and observed among us. And accordingly we have made it a fixed rule to observe and maintain in our city and territory the ecclesiastical polity which follows, since we see that it is taken from the Gospel of Jesus Christ (The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, ed. and tr. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Eerdmans, 1966, p. 35).
The law of Christ standing in the service of the gospel of Christ – this is the church order of Dordt.
Rightly then may the members of these Churches express their love for the PRC in the words of number 350 in The Psalter thus: “For there is judgment’s royal seat, Messiah’s sure and lasting throne” – Reformed church order.