In 1618 the great Synod of Dort convened in the Netherlands. The Synod met for several months and was concluded in 2019. For a large part of the meetings, several foreign delegates were present and had an important part in the discussions. The Synod dealt with the errors of the Arminians and wrote in response the Canons of Dort. Several other important decisions were made.
One of those decisions was finalising and adopting a Church Order for the Reformed Churches. The Church Order which we adopted as Free Reformed Churches of Australia, is based on this Church Order of Dort. This Church Order was the end of a long process. The first discussions started in Wesel, 1568. Thereafter several synods in the Netherlands made changes and additions until at last the synod in 1618/1619 finalised it and adopted it as the Church Order for the Reformed Churches.
Return to the Bible
The return to the biblical doctrine of the Church in the time of the Reformation had a major impact on how the Church Order was formulated.
The Roman Catholic view on the Church is that the Church itself is a saving force. The Bible teaches us that the Church is the people of God, gathered together by our Lord Jesus Christ from the beginning of the world to its end. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the Church is not only the people of God, but that Christ also entrusted to this people His power to work salvation and give forgiveness of sins.
I quote from The Catholic Encyclopedia, under the lemma ‘Church’: “The Church by its nature is a saving force. … Established by Christ as a fellowship of life, charity and truth, it is also used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth (cf. Mat. 5:13-16).”
And in the same article: “The Church is a mystery. The Council meant by this term that the Church is a divine, transcendent, and salvific reality that is visibly present among men.” And: “The Church is a Sacrament.”
Under the lemma ‘Clergy’: “The primary function of all ordained ministers of the Church is to ‘join the faithful together in one body,’ as the documents of Vatican I declare.”
Under the lemma Apostolic succession: “The sequence of apostolic succession follows from the apostles themselves down to the bishops of the present time. This is marked by … (2) the giving over or delegating directly the powers entrusted to the Apostles of ordaining, ruling, and teaching, which were given by Christ to the Apostles; … (5) the pope, who is the successor of St. Peter in Rome.”
The Roman Catholic Church believes that Christ’s power is entrusted to the clergy, because they are all ordained in the apostolic succession. The word ‘apostolate’ is being used for the task of the clergy. The Church gives salvation to its members. The Church gives the forgiveness of sins by administering the sacraments.
The Reformers rejected this doctrine and returned to the Biblical teaching about the Church.
We believe the holy catholic church, which is the body of Christ, gathered by Christ from the beginning of the world to its end, also from all places (catholic). It manifests itself locally.
Christ saves us by making us one with Him, into one body (Romans 6:1-14). However, it is Christ, Who saves us, not the church. Not the church is a salvific force, nor a means to save us. Christ saves us and makes us members of His body. His body is the Church, where Christ gathers us.
This has consequences for the way we see the position of office bearers as well as their calling; for how we see the preaching of the Word and the sacraments, and their place in the worship service; for how we see the position of the local church; for how we exercise discipline and involve the congregation in it.
The Church Order as we have it in the FRCA is not perfect. Articles can be improved or can change over time when the situation changes. But the basic principles come from the Bible and remain the same as they were 450 years ago, and 1950 years ago in the time of the apostles. The Church Order is divided in four chapters.
Offices and Supervision of doctrine.
We believe that Christ through His apostles ordained ministers, elders and deacons to be office bearers in the church. Not apostles. The Apostolate ceased with the death of the apostles. Apostles were appointed by Jesus Christ Himself, Matthew 28:16-20 and Mark 16:14-16; by the lot in Acts 1:21-24; by calling Paul at Damascus in Acts 9:6, 15. Apostles had to be men who were with Christ Himself (see Acts 1:21-22). Paul is the exception, but he says about himself that he is a special apostle: as one born out of time (1 Cor. 15:8-9). There is no biblical ground for apostolic succession or a separate clergy.
Ministers, elders and deacons are called and ordained by Jesus Christ, through the service of the local church. See art. 31 BC: office bearers “… ought to be chosen to their offices by lawful election of the church”. Office bearers confess at their ordination, that they feel in their hearts that God Himself, through His congregation, has called them to these offices. It is not the clergy who appoints, but it is Christ Who calls. The rules in chapter 1 about calling ministers, elders and deacons to the office, as well as their task, is the result of this doctrine.
The Bible does not teach us a hierarchy, as the Roman Catholic Church does. The Church Order emphasises in article 80 that ‘No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no office-bearer over other office bearers’. The local church elects its own office bearers. The local consistory is responsible for the supervision over the local congregation. The local churches have the calling to seek contact with other churches which are standing on the same basis. As churches in Australia we form the federation of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. Churches which form this federation. We are not a national denomination with about 4500 members, but a federation of 16 churches. These churches come together, through delegation, at major assemblies, to work together in matters they have in common, and to hold each other to account, as we should within the communion of saints. That we are a federation of churches means that only churches can put matters on the agenda of major assemblies, and not individuals. There is one exception: appeals. If someone is personally wronged by his consistory, then he has the right to ask the major assembly for judgment, and the churches have promised to be bound by decisions of major assemblies. However, individual members should not be allowed to put general matters on the agenda by way of appeal. That is for the churches.
Another example is the use of attestations. The Church Order emphasises that the consistory is responsible for the admission to the Lord’s Supper (article 57). The consistory can only admit those who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life. That is about members of its own congregation, but also believers from outside the congregation. If a guest presents himself to the consistory with the desire to attend the Lord’s Supper, then the consistory shall examine him (or her) to see if he has made profession of the Reformed faith and leads a godly life. If this person lives locally, he will with that also become a member of the church, but if someone is traveling and comes from a reformed church which is not a sister church, such a person can be admitted after examination by the consistory, even though he/she will not become a member. The one exception to this rule is those who come from sister churches. We have agreed that we trust the judgment of consistories of sister churches, so that when they give a good attestation about someone’s doctrine and conduct, we will accept that as sufficient to admit to the Lord’s Supper.
Worship, ceremonies and sacraments
The Word is the means by which the Holy Spirit works faith. It is by faith that we receive salvation. Not by the membership of the church. The preaching of the Word is entrusted to the Church. The Word of God shall be preached, and the sacraments shall be administered in the assembly of the congregation. Those are the means through which the Spirit works and strengthens faith and through which He works salvation. Not the powers entrusted to the bishops through apostolic succession. That is made clear in the practical rules which the Church Order gives about the Worship, ceremonies and sacraments.
Discipline is task of the entire congregation, as our Lord also teaches us in Matthew 18. It is not the clergy that disciplines, but the church. Often we tend to forget that a bit, and leave it too much to the consistory. However, it is important for the congregation to be involved and not to let this responsibility be taken away.
There is much more to write about the practical application of the biblical principles behind the Church Order. I cannot do it now. I can refer you to other literature like the book of Rev. Van Oene, With Common Consent, or to the website www.kerkrecht.nl. The intention of this article is to show that adherence to biblical principles regarding the order in the church does have huge implications for how we do things in our churches. We should not change any rule before we understand the reasoning behind the existing rules. May the Church Order continue to be a blessing for the churches.
- Robert C. Broderick, editor, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Revised and Updated Edition, Nashville, Tennessee, 1987 ((Thomas Nelson Publishers)
- W.W.J. VanOene, With Common Consent, a practical guide to the use of the church order of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1990 (Premier Publishing).
- www.kerkrecht.nl, ‘een kennisbase over kerkrecht in Nederland en daarbuiten’ (with resources in Dutch and in English).