“Let all things be done decently and in order”. More than once this apostolic command, taken from 1 Corinthians 14: 40, was included in the early Church Orders of the churches of the Reformation.
Article 1 of our present Order also refers to it.
This reference proves that adopting a Church Order is a serious matter, whilst at the same time expressing the intention and desire to be a true apostolic church.
What actually is a Church Order?
In the year 1561 such a document was published for the Reformed church at Geneva, its title being “Ordonnances Ecclesiastiques” – ecclesiastical ordinances.
Its introduction considers it to be essential that:
The doctrine of the holy Gospel of our Lord shall be preserved in its purity, and that the Christian church be maintained by a sound government and police, and that also the youth be well and faithfully instructed in the things which have to be done … and which cannot be done without a certain fixed rule and manner, from which everyone can learn the duty of his particular office.
Therefore it seemed to be useful that the spiritual government which our Lord has shown us and has instituted by His Word, would be moulded in a good form, so that it would have a place among us and be observed by us.
This is fundamentally the same as what was written by Marnix of St.Aldegonde when the very first synod of the churches in The Netherlands had been convened at Emden in the year 1571. He said, it is useful
to establish some fixed and unchangeable agreements with each other, not only in the chapters of the pure doctrine, but also in the manners, ceremonies, and government of the churches; also to have communion and good understanding with each other, so that the churches may be able to diligently hear about each other’s condition and situation and assist each other in all the current affairs.
‘Emden’ did indeed compile a Church Order. It was based upon the Order the Reformed Churches in France had adopted in the year 1559.
We mention the latter because it informs us about another aspect of the nature of a Church Order: This French Order was the sequel to the Confession of Faith the Reformed churches in that country had adopted earlier in the same year.
Immediately after the last article of the Confession the title of the Church Order was printed. It read:
Concerning Church discipline, here is the first outline of its essentials as they are contained in the apostolic writings.
A good Reformed Church Order claims to show how the Lord Jesus reigns His church and how He desires it to be governed. It summarizes what the apostles have spoken, and applies it to the present circumstances. In this respect it is an elaboration of certain articles of the Belgic Confession of Faith, e.g. Articles 30-35.
A good Church Order is based on God’s Word.
The confessional character of a Scriptural Church Order can be derived from what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians chapter 4, where he refers to the “unity of the Spirit” (verse 3) and “the unity of the faith” (verse 13). This is a unity “in the bond of peace”.
Each congregation – just like that of the Ephesians – must demonstrate its unity, being bound together by peace. For, and this is another aspect of the same matter, the church is “the body of Christ”, He Himself being its Head.
The apostle mentions the word “body” no less than three times in this periscope. And it is in this context and for this purpose that the glorified Lord Jesus Christ has given some special gifts to His church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers (verse 12).
This duty, to be one body, and to demonstrate that this body is bound together by “the bond of peace”, is still the same today.
This, then, has been acknowledged by our Reformed churches. In Article 32 of the Belgic Confession of Faith they state:
It is useful and good for those who govern the Church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the Church.
Our Church Order is, indeed, a set of ordinances for maintaining the body of the church, in the unity of true faith, and under the bond of peace.
A good Church Order is essential for the bond of churches, created by the Lord Jesus. Here is the word “bond” again! The bond of churches rests upon the bond of peace!
Our Church Order is of a Reformed character. This will be clear from its history.
In the ‘good old days’ the contents of Article 80 – which can today be found near the end of the Church Order – appeared as Article 1, being slightly longer. It now reads:
No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no office-bearer over other office-bearers.
However, in the sixteenth century it was thus formulated (in our translation):
No church shall in any way lord over another church, no minister of the Word, no elder, no deacon shall lord over another one, but everyone shall be on his guard against any suspicion and temptation to lord over others.
It will be clear that here again the confessional character of the Reformed Church Order is expressed. It says, as it were: We are no Roman-catholics, but have been granted the grace of returning to the Scriptural government of the church, to the one and only universal Bishop and the only Head of the church, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Therefore no congregation is more important, and no office-bearer is a higher authority than any other.
Even apart from this, the strong emphasis put on this particular article proves, that right from the beginning the great ‘Reformed principle’ was formulated: the bond of churches is a matter of a voluntary act of free churches in accordance with what holy Scripture states concerning the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace to be maintained. They have agreed to do certain things in the same way; to support each other in several respects; to have mutual supervision over each other in order that they may continue to be true and faithful churches of the Lord Jesus Christ; to create a certain form of jurisdiction in their midst; and to undertake a number of common activities, e.g. regarding the training for the ministry of the Word.
It goes without saying, that neither creeds, confessions, nor church orders, ever attain parity with Holy Scripture. If ever anything in them is recognized as being incorrect or wrong, it must be amended.
A number of clauses, included in the Church Order, are nothing more than agreements between the churches to handle certain matters in an identical fashion, where in fact different paths could be chosen. Also contained in our Church Order are several stipulations, which cannot be traced back to any commandment of Christ or His apostles, yet they were laid down as being beneficial to the churches in demonstrating unity and presenting a common front. We may refer here to e.g. Articles 32, 42, 49, and 61.
Generally speaking our Church Order is based on ‘principles’ revealed to us in holy Scripture.
At the same time it is a further exposition of our Belgic Confession of Faith regarding the order to be maintained in the churches of Christ according to Articles 30-32 of that Confession.
It is therefore incorrect and very demeaning to hold to the belief that the Church Order, having been compiled by men, needs not to be taken seriously.
The Church Order of Dordrecht – we owe it to the wellknown (inter)national Synod of Dordrecht 1618/19 – did not just fall from the air.
We have already made mention of the Church Order of Emden, 1571.
However, the very first preparations were made at the Convention of Wesel, 1568. They resulted in the publication of the so-called ‘Articles of Wesel’.
After ‘Emden’, other synods also had to deal with the Church Order, and on some of those occasions it was revised and/or extended. The Dutch churches had to learn by experience!
We mention here the names of the Provincial Synod of Dordrecht, 1574; of the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1578; of the National Synod of Middelburg, 1681; and that of The Hague, 1586.
The Synod of Dordrecht 1618/19 not only produced ‘the Canons of Dort’, but also thoroughly revised the Church Order. For this reason is has become known as “the Church Order of Dordrecht”.
Since then the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands have maintained it – with an interruption between 1816 and 1834.
On Wednesday April 28 in the year 1954, the first Synod of The Free Reformed Churches of Australia made the decision to adopt the ‘Church Order of Dordrecht 1618/19’.
However, realizing that this document was compiled for use in The Netherlands, it added the following stipulation:
that whenever a consistory deems it impossible to observe this Church Order, it shall consult the sister-churches (Acts of Synod Armadale 1954, Article 38).
At the very beginning of their existence our churches foresaw that this Church Order could not function in our situation without adjustments.
It is no wonder, then, that the Synod of Albany 1975, decided:
to appoint deputies with the instruction to revise the Church Order and to propose a definite text in English to the next synod. (Acts Article 25).
However, more time was required before this mandate could be fulfilled. In the year 1983 the Synod held at Kelmscott was able to adopt a revised Order (Acts Articled 46). And when classes could be established, the Synod of Rockingham 2000, revised our Church Order again.
We would like to make further reference to the “Ordonnances Ecclesiastiques” of 1561. The members of Geneva’s consistory were convinced that it would become an important document in the life of the congregation. That is why its final article contained the following arrangement:
From the year 1564 this Church Order shall be read publicly every three years in St. Peter’s, on the first Sunday of the month of June.
The congregation had to become familiar with this document.
Our Church Order does not contain such a stipulation, yet we can fully agree with the committee of the Dutch sister-churches, which reported to their 1978 General Synod and added these words (in our translation):
One thing has become clear during our work …., the eminent significance of the knowledge concerning the Church Order for the peace, the edification, and the continuance of Reformed church life.
Therefore it would be very useful if the Church Order were to be made accessible for office-bearers as well as ordinary church members.
We may draw our readers’ special attention to the word “peace” in this quotation. In 1 Corinthians 14:32 the apostle Paul states:
God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
It is only then that he finishes this chapter by saying:
Let all things be done decently and in order.
Christ’s church has to live by the peace of God which is in Him, the Saviour, and must thereto maintain order in her midst!