About a year ago the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) was remembered, with renewed attention and interest for decisions of this synod and the importance of these decisions. We’ve all learned about this synod in church history and about the decisions it made. I have heard the claim being made more than once that certain practices in our churches go back to decisions made by the Synod of Dort.
In making such claims it is always important to check the facts and see if you are correct. Over the past year I have been reading (parts of) the Acts of the synod as well as some other documents. That made for some interesting and surprising discoveries.
The Acts are very detailed and give us a good insight, even in the practical matters of how to run the synod. Speeches are added, advice from foreign delegates on several topics are included, and we can also find a description how the discussion went between the synod and the Remonstrants. Also how there was a constant going back and forth between the synod and the high magistrates of the States of the Netherlands. Several decisions of the synod had to be approved by the States in The Hague.
It is important to understand why the decisions were made by this synod. There is a context which is quite different from ours and many decisions are coloured by that context. Taking decisions of the synod out of context and imposing them on our situation can sometimes lead to results that are contrary to what the intention of the synod was. Just like with Calvin, where people with sometimes opposing views both claim to have Calvin at their side, it happens with the Synod of Dort as well. Therefore, instead of basing ourselves on what we think the Synod of Dort decided, it is always important to go back and check whether the synod really decided it in the way we think it did, and what the intention was of those decisions. That sometimes leads to surprising conclusions.
A minor complication in writing about the Synod of Dort is that the Acts are in (17th century) Dutch and I haven’t found a good English translation yet. I’ve been translating some parts of the Acts and in due time I may publish these translations. However, seeing that the Acts are more than 1000 pages, the translation of the entire Acts is a project that needs more time and effort than I can spend on it.
The Acts can be found on the website www.kerkrecht.nl. It contains reports of the sessions with the foreign delegates present, while at the end of the document are the post-Acts, with the sessions after the foreign delegates had left. The Church Order of Dort has been translated into English and can be found online. If you have an opportunity, just check out this Church Order. You will notice that several articles of our Church Order come from this Church Order of Dort, but that there are also some differences.
No Lording it over
In this and following articles I hope to highlight some decisions of the Synod of Dort in their context.
In this article I focus on one of the articles of the Church Order of Dort, which is one of the most important articles and summarises the basis of the Reformed Church Policy. That is article 84: “No church shall in any way lord it over another church, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons.” We have this article in a little bit different form in our Church Order in article 80.
In the time of the Reformation a major issue was the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church. It was firmly rejected by the Reformers because it was believed that nobody could arrogate the authority and position of Christ as the Head of the Church. Christ appointed office bearers, ministers, elders, and deacons, to represent Him. Office bearers can only exercise authority if it is based on the Word of God. Guido de Bres included that in article 32 of the Belgic Confession where he wrote about the order and discipline of the church:
We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded. Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way. We accept only what is proper to preserve and promote harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God. To that end, discipline and excommunication ought to be exercised in agreement with the Word of God.
This is the background of article 84 of the Synod of Dort. The Church Order regulates the cooperation between churches and between office bearers, as well as protects the congregation from abuse of authority by the office bearers. That is why art. 84 speaks only about churches and office bearers. A Church Order cannot be used to tell the congregation members what they can and cannot do in their daily life. Everyone who tries to use the Church Order to tell individual members how to do things in their own day to day life, oversteps his boundaries and abuses his authority.
Abuse of authority
Abuse of authority is also the background of this article 84. We always see, in the world as well as in the church, that those who have a position of authority are tempted to expand their authority beyond the original realm of their position. The bishop of Rome claimed to have authority over other churches as well and became the pope. We see in daily life how many people in a position of authority in certain organisations are using their position or title to exert their authority outside these organisations as well. We see throughout history that that often led to hierarchy in the churches and many church splits and reformations took place because of the introduction of hierarchy in the churches (e.g. the Secession 1834, the Liberation 1944).
Office bearers in the church must remember that they are not above others. Their authority is only in as far as it comes from the Word of God. Office bearers cannot bind the consciences of the members of the congregation beyond what is written in the Bible.
Not beyond what is written
Office bearers also cannot bind each other to decisions which go beyond what is written in God’s Word. The Synod of Dort adopted a form for subscription for office bearers in which they promise to defend the true doctrine which is summarised in the three confessions. That is what office bearers are bound to do. Within the church, where people come together and meet together to serve the LORD, there should be certain rules to maintain order. That is what office bearers and churches can decide as well and they all decide by common consent to keep these agreements. But that is where it stops. The one office bearer cannot force the other to do certain things, to promote certain ideas or to make certain decisions. And based on article 32 of the Belgic Confession, we can make it broader: not one member of the congregation, not any neighbouring consistory or ecclesiastical assembly or any one organisation or entity in or outside the churches, is allowed to bind other churches, consistories or other brothers or sisters to anything else than what is written in God’s Word.
On the other hand, every Christian must make certain that he does not let himself or herself be bound by what others say or want them to do. What is written in article 32 of the Belgic Confession, comes from the Bible. Paul writes in Galatians 5:1 : “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
We must learn to accept that we can have different opinions about matters in which the Word of God does not give a clear command. In Romans 14:1-13 the Lord through Paul commands us to accept our brothers and sisters who do things differently. It is there about eating certain foods and keeping certain days. “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.”
We are bound together in the unity of the true faith. That also means that we have the Christian freedom in things where God does not give us a command. That is the basis of the Reformed Church polity, that is one of the principles behind the Reformed Church Order. That is how we shall live together in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.