Welcome, readers! You have discovered an important document for the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) — the Church Order and Its Supplements! The title is not so exciting — perhaps it should be called “A Tool Churches Cannot Live Without.” The fact is that this is an important booklet, one that church leaders will want to be familiar with in order to function well in their congregations and classes (regional groups of churches) and at synod (the denomination’s annual assembly). Other interested individuals can learn about the Christian Reformed Church through this booklet as well.
So, What Is the Church Order?
The Church Order is a document that shows how the congregations of the Christian Reformed Church in North America have decided to live together and to organize themselves. It is a tool for effective leadership, in that leaders need to know the regulations and parameters of the organization in which they are working so that they can apply them in a variety of situations.
More than a contractual set of regulations or simply guidelines, the Church Order is really a record of our covenanting together within this denominational fellowship. As leaders and members and congregations in the CRCNA, we promise to use these regulations to order our life together as a particular part of the body of Christ. And that covenant commitment is based on our belief that Christ is the head of the church and we, as Christ’s body, must reflect Christ in how we function, choose leaders, assemble, deliberate over issues, carry out the ministries and mission of the church, and hold one another accountable for all these things.
We agree to abide by these promises and to work together to change the regulations when necessary. It’s important to remember that the Church Order is a document of the churches, and what it says and how it changes is determined by the churches together. It’s our book; in a sense, we all are its authors. And as our denomination becomes more diverse, the Church Order helps to build unity by establishing normative patterns even as it encompasses many different churches in varying local contexts.
Just as books come in different genres, and the Bible in particular contains writing in many different genres, the Church Order also reflects a particular genre. In a sense it may be compared to the Proverbs of Scripture as wisdom literature. The collective wisdom of the church is contained in these articles and is passed on from generation to generation. The articles of the Church Order are meant to help the church function in healthy and wise ways.
Designed for Change
Part of being wise about how to live together and function in healthy ways is being able to adjust to changes in the church and in our culture.
When the churches discern together by the Holy Spirit’s guidance that the Church Order needs to change, they discuss and make these decisions together. The normal process is for a church council to send a request for a change by way of an overture which is sent to the classis, and then on to synod. Each step of the way involves more leaders of the church, bearers of the office of Christ who are trying to discern what is tting for how God calls us to live together, and fitting for how our churches function in the world today.
So the Church Order is intended to change from time to time, and those changes are made by the broadest assembly of the denomination. What’s more, substantial changes need to be communicated to all the churches for feedback before they even go to a synod. If that has not happened, any changes must be approved by a subsequent synod before they take effect. So while we are certainly open to change, we are careful about it, to make sure we hear all the important voices involved.
All this is in keeping with the Scripture verse quoted in Article 1 of the Church Order, “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” This statement in 1 Corinthians 14: 40 rises out of a concern about disorder in worship, but it also highlights a New Testament principle that Christians are to behave in ways that are fitting for followers of Christ. The Church Order applies that principle to the organization of the church and the checks and balances that seek to ensure that fittingness.
Our commitment to change and adjust our practices comes from one of the theological fathers of our church, John Calvin, who wrote,
But because [our Lord] did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended upon the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages), here we must take refuge in those general rules which he has given, that whatever the necessity of the church will require for order and decorum should be tested against these. Lastly, because he has taught nothing specically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe (Institutes, IV.X.30).
Calvin certainly believed in good order in the church for healthy and peaceful functioning, but he also argued that there should be as few rules as necessary, allowing for maximum flexibility. And, most important, he called us to the rule of loving one another as we make decisions in these matters.
It is very important for readers to distinguish between the Church Order, the Church Order Supplements, and the Rules for Synodical Procedure (published separately).
The Church Order is a list of articles that regulate the organization and activities of the church, which are organized under four main headings — the offices, assemblies, task and activities, and admonition and discipline of the church.
The Church Order Supplements are decisions that a particular synod judged were significant enough to accompany the Church Order so that the churches are aware of them.
The Rules for Synodical Procedure are an outline for the functioning of the annual synod of the Christian Reformed Church — its constitution, tasks and duties, and the rules of order used in its meetings — and are available on the CRC website.
Many more decisions have been made throughout the years and can be found in the Acts of Synod, which is published annually. All can be found online at www.crcna.org. A listing of particular positions of the CRC on various ethical and theological matters can also be found on that website.
Reformed Church Polity
Church polity refers to the form of governance and organization of a church. The CRCNA follows a Presbyterian form of church polity organized under governance by elders, as compared to Episcopal polities organized under governance by bishops (Roman Catholic, United Methodist, and Episcopal denominations) and Congregational polities organized under the governance of the local congregation (Congregational, Baptist, Disciples of Christ). Some of these congregational polities do allow for greater associations and connections between churches.
Governance by elders is assumed throughout the Christian Reformed Church Order, but please note that CRCNA polity is not exactly like that of Presbyterian denominations. Two particular differences include the fact that we have limited tenure for officebearers (so elders and deacons serve terms, not forever), and ministers’ credentials are held at the local council level, not at the regional (classical) level, as in many Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. Another key difference is that church polity in the CRCNA does not have confessional status and, therefore, the Church Order does not have the same authority as the creeds. The Church Order is subordinate to the creeds and confessions, which are subordinate to Scripture.
In 2009-2010 a task force worked at updating the Church Order to eliminate some inconsistencies that had developed over the years, but synods update the Church Order almost every year as changes are made in our ever-reforming context. The formatting of this booklet is intended to make the Church Order and its Supplements more readable and accessible for use.
For further reflection on the Church Order and its Supplements, please refer to the Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government, the most recent edition of which was authored by Dr. Peter Borgdorff and published by Faith Alive Christian Resources in 2008. An updated version will be available late 2015/early 2016.
May God bless you as you serve in Christ’s church in a tting and orderly way!