The History and Character of Our Reformed Church Order
At the back of our Book of Praise, after the confessions and liturgical forms, you’ll find a document called the Church Order. It’s something which lays out the government or polity of the church. In the Book of Praise one finds the Canadian Reformed Church Order, but the Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia is not much different. Both are based on the same principles. Both have the same heritage tracing back to what is known as the Church Order of Dort. In this article, I want to briefly trace out that history and also mention some of the important characteristics of our Church Order.
The History of the Church Order
The Reformation arrived in the Netherlands in the 1520s. For the first several decades, the Reformed churches in that region lived under the frequent spectre of persecution. This made it difficult to enjoy life in a federation or bond with other churches. Yet efforts were made. It was seen as desirable and useful to have some kind of organized ecclesiastical government following the principle of 1 Corinthians 14:40 that all things “should be done decently and in good order.”
It used to be said that the first meeting where we find some serious discussion of Reformed church government is the Convent of Wesel in 1568. This is mentioned in the Introduction to the Canadian Reformed Church Order in the Book of Praise as well. However, recent research by Jesse Spohnholz (The “Convent” of Wesel: The Event that Never Was and the Invention of Tradition) and others demonstrates that there was no such meeting. Instead, the articles associated with Wesel were likely composed by Petrus Dathenus.
Synods in 1571 and 1574 relied upon the church polity of the French Reformed churches to draft articles of church order for the Dutch churches. The Synod of Dort in 1578 (not to be confused with the other Synod of Dort in 1618-19) took things further, as did later synods in 1581 and 1586.
Our Church Order is sometimes called the Church Order of Dort and this is because its ultimate (Dutch) form was achieved at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. We often remember that Synod for the Canons of Dort, developed to address the errors of the Arminians. But this Synod also finalized a form of church government which would endure for ages to come. After Dort, this Church Order would be the standard polity for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands almost without interruption until our day. It should be noted that unfortunately the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKV) recently abandoned the Church Order of Dort in 2014. Other Reformed churches in the Netherlands, however, still maintain it.
When post-war Dutch immigrants first came to Canada and Australia and established the Canadian and Free Reformed Churches, they brought with them the venerable Church Order of Dort. At first, the Church Order of Dort was adopted verbatim in Dutch. Few immigrants were fluent in English and, new to their adopted home, they were unaware of whether or how it would have to be adapted. However, in due time, it became clear that the Dutch Church Order wasn’t completely applicable to either North America or Australia. Changes would have to be made and they were. Eventually the Canadian and Free Reformed Churches also revised their church orders and translated them into English. Over time more changes have been made, some merely linguistic and others more substantial. Nonetheless, in general outline and in the principles applied, the Canadian and Australian church orders continue to share the pedigree of Dort.
Character of the Church Order
It’s not my purpose here to outline all the principles and points found in our church order. Instead, I merely want to identify three important characteristics of this document. When trying to understand or apply our church order, these three points must be remembered.
First of all, the Church Order is based on the teachings of Scripture and the summary thereof in our Reformed confessions. Generally speaking, it is the practical application of biblical teachings. However, that doesn’t mean everything in the Church Order can be backed up with a proof-text. Like other parts of church life, there are some things fixed in the Church Order by way of convention. The churches believe it’s helpful to have a stipulation on how to do a certain thing and so they use the biblically-informed wisdom that comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit. As an example from the FRCA Church Order, there’s article 56: “The Lord’s Supper shall be celebrated at least once every three months.” There is no biblical proof-text to support that minimum frequency. It’s something our churches have agreed upon as being wise and helpful. Since the sacrament is intended for our spiritual nourishment, it’s good to have a certain minimum frequency agreed upon. Other examples could be cited.
Next, it’s important to recognize that the Church Order is not a legal text with rigid commands. Particularly when the Church Order speaks of matters beyond the clear teaching of Scripture, we treat the Church Order as a voluntary agreement between churches. It’s an agreement between churches who have decided to federate together on these terms. This is why we don’t speak about the Church Order commanding us to do x or y. Instead, we speak about having agreed in our Church Order to do x or y. Under exceptional circumstances, in consultation and full transparency with the other churches, it can happen that certain articles (or parts of articles) are suspended in their application. Moreover, the Church Order is not the “law of the Medes and Persians” which can never be changed. It has been modified and edited in the past, and it certainly can in the future as well.
Finally, our church order is what’s called a “high-context” document. Cultural anthropologists distinguish between high-context and low-context cultures. In a low-context culture, there’s little guess-work. Everything is direct and said explicitly. However, in a high-context culture, much is assumed or implied. For a sound interpretation of what’s going on, you need an intimate awareness with the context. Our church order is a high-context document. If you’ve grown up in our church sub-culture and have been paying attention, you’ll automatically (or even unconsciously) get many of its background assumptions. You’ll understand much of what’s implied because our culture is like the air you breathe: you don’t even think about it. However, if a newly Reformed pastor from some other culture tries to adopt and work with our church order in his church or churches, there will inevitably be missteps. Applying and working with our church order is not cut and dried. There needs to be careful training and mentoring to fill in the gaps and avoid misunderstandings.
Every Reformed office bearer needs to be familiar with our Church Order. It’s not just for pastors and perhaps obsessive-compulsive elders. All who serve in the church’s government ought to be aware of the way in which we’ve agreed to organize the church’s government. No, we don’t subscribe the Church Order as we do the Confessions. It’s not a confession of faith or a creed. Yet it’s our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the way in which we both as a local church and as a federation of churches have agreed to do everything “decently and in good order.” This mitigates the possibility of corruption setting in. For this reason, it’s equally important for regular church members to also familiarize themselves with what’s been agreed upon for the government of the church. If something is being done “out of order” then everyone has a responsibility to point it out.