With Common Consent
The title for this book has been derived from our Church Order. In the last article of this Church Order it is stated that “these articles, which regard the lawful order of the church, have been adopted with common accord.”
By whom have they been adopted? By the churches that together form one federation. That is what we call the “organization” that is formed by the Canadian Reformed Churches: the Federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches.
The word “federation” expresses precisely what kind of “organization” this is. The word “federation” has as its main component the Latin word foedus, meaning “covenant.” That is what the federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches is: a covenant between these churches. They have entered into this covenant of their own will, voluntarily.
The Holy Scriptures teach us that the Lord Jesus, who is the King of the church and its only universal Bishop, as we also confess in Art. 31 of our Belgic Confession, walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. These lampstands are the seven churches to which John had to write the letters mentioned in Rev. 2 and 3. The churches all find their unity in Him, and He is the Head, the only universal Bishop.
As for their relation towards each other, these churches are completely on their own, autonomous, not depending on each other to be a complete church of Christ. The one has no authority whatever over the other and has no right to interfere in the affairs of the other.
One might ask: “If the churches are autonomous and are not dependent on each other to be a true and complete church of the Lord Jesus Christ, why did they enter into a covenant with each other, forming one federation?” Did they do this to form a united front over against the world? Or did they make a covenant with the intent to stand stronger against whatever enemy might come against them?
No, they did not. It is true, of course, that a tree in a forest has more protection against soil erosion, storm and lightning than a lonely tree in the middle of a vast plain. History shows us that churches that remained on their own disappeared and were swallowed up as a welcome prey by all sorts of heresies and other wiles of the evil one. It is of utmost importance for a church that it seek contact and enter into a covenant, into a federation with other churches.
Have the Canadian Reformed Churches sought each other for this reason? No, they have not. Their federation is not a federation born from the need to seek support and combine resources and manpower so that they might survive and have influence. Their federation and their being one within this federation is the manifestation of what forms the fundamental element of their being one. The basis for their federation is the unity of faith. They did not become one when they entered into a federation. They were already one and for this reason they sought each other.
In Lord’s Day 21 of our Heidelberg Catechism we confess that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself a church “in the unity of the true faith,” and in our Belgic Confession we express our faith by saying about this that the church “is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith,” Art. 27.
Because they recognized each other as true churches of the Lord Jesus Christ, standing and built on the same foundation that was laid by apostles and prophets, and upholding this confession, the churches also recognized their obligation to express their unity of faith by reaching out to help each other, to watch over each other, and to ward off each other’s hurt as much as they could. What applies to the members of one body also applies to the churches of Christ in whatever country it has pleased the Lord to establish them: they have the Christian obligation to be to each other as a hand and a foot, that so together they may stand strong over against the wiles of the great adversary of Christ and of His own.
To the end that they might extend this help and watch over each other’s well-being, not in an haphazard way but in a more regular manner, so that each and every church should know at all times what its duties and obligations are towards the other churches and what it may expect from these other churches, they have entered into a covenant; they have formed the federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches.
When two or more parties enter upon a covenant, each of the participants must know precisely what it may expect from the other parties and what its own obligations are towards the other parties. The conditions of this covenant have been laid down in a document. This document we call our Church Order.
Our Church Order
The Church Order is a document which contains seventy-six articles. It is these articles that we shall discuss in this book. Before we begin doing so, we must mention a few things which should be kept in mind.
No one should consider this Church Order to be some sort of Constitution and Bylaws. To put it briefly: our Church Order contains the written-down promises made by the churches when forming their federation.
Further, no one should ever speak of our Church Order as something to which the churches ought to “submit.” Keeping the provisions of the Church Order is not a question of submission but of faithfully keeping the promises given and agreed upon. No church can therefore be forced to keep the provisions of the Church Order. If a church persistently violates the agreement made as laid down in the Church Order, all the federation can do is expel this church from this federation, meanwhile extending a helping hand to those members of that church who want to remain faithful.
Such exclusion from the federation is mandatory also in case a church permits false doctrine to be propagated in its midst, for then this church has broken away not just from the agreement made but from the very foundation on which the federation of churches is founded, namely, the unity of the faith,
the foundation laid by apostles and prophets. If the unity of faith is no longer there, the “unity” of organization cannot be continued either.
As will become clear when we discuss the various articles of our Church Order, the Reformed Church Federation is unique in its character. We shall not go into all sorts of particulars but confine ourselves to only a few remarks.
The Roman Catholic Church is a world-wide body with one man at the head. It is irrelevant in this respect that this man calls himself only the representative of Christ, for he is the great and exalted ruler not only of the church but also of the world, as he allegedly represents Christ in all His glory.
The local parishes, too, are always under the authority of one man, a bishop, while various bishops are under the authority of an archbishop. The various archbishops are then, in turn, under the pope as the head of all. This is a simple way of putting it, but it shows the situation for what it is.
In many instances we see country-wide churches that form one body, with local “subdivisions,” the local congregations. These bodies are usually governed by a more or less permanent “board,” both regionally and nationally.
Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are those that reject the view that a church can be bound to abide by decisions of broader assemblies. They refuse to be bound by such decisions unless this church itself, or even its membership, has accepted these decisions. Insofar as they have contact with other congregations, this contact is quite loose and usually they speak of “conferences” rather than of “synods” or “assemblies.” Essentially, even locally they consider the power of decision-making to be vested in the membership as such.
We should not have the impression that the Canadian Reformed Churches are somewhere in the middle between two extremes. Reformed church polity is not a matter of trying to avoid extremes to all sides and keeping a safe middle road. It has a character of its own, with its basics taken from the Word of our God.
When dealing with the various articles separately we shall pay attention to this point, although no one should expect that we can or should be able to quote texts left and right to prove that each and every provision is based on the express Word of God. When the occasion arises, we shall certainly show that the provision made there is in complete accordance with the Holy Scriptures, but we shall not forget either that the Lord has given His church much freedom in arranging its local and federal life.
A Few Outlines
Let us now briefly outline the Reformed church polity as it has become concrete in our Church Order.
The very fundamental rule is that all authority in the church belongs to the King of the church, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Every one will agree with this, even the pope of Rome. The big question is, however, how this confession is worked out in the practical arrangement of the church federation. Is it so that this authority of Christ's is exercised by way of a one-man rule such as we find in the Romish church? Or is it exercised by a body, whether this body is called a synod or an assembly or bears some other fancy name? Or is Christ’s authority perhaps exercised in a so-called “democratic” manner, by the gatherings of believers in each place?
To this basic question the Reformed Churches have given a different answer. They had learned from the Holy Scriptures that the Lord Jesus Christ walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, that are the seven churches to which the apostle John had to write his letters. Thus they learned that the churches, although finding their unity in Christ, yet are autonomous, not dependent upon each other.
They also learned from God's Word that the Lord Jesus gave office-bearers to His church in every place, and that these office-bearers govern the church in the place where they have been given this position. Since the Lord Jesus gave office-bearers to each and every church, they have authority only in the church over which they have been set. They have no authority in any other church, neither singly nor in large numbers.
Thus when, in obedience to their King, the churches seek each other and form a federation for mutual help and show very concretely the unity of faith, they do not transfer any of their God-given authority to broader assemblies, even though they accept the decisions of these broader or major assemblies, in accordance with the obligations they took upon themselves when entering into a covenant, a federation.
It is a matter of course that the churches are not bound by any decision that clearly conflicts with the express Word of God or that was taken in violation of the Church Order. We shall come back to this later on.
We call the form of government as found in the Canadian Reformed Churches the Presbyterial Form of Church Government, that is, government of the church by presbyters, which comes from the Greek word for “elders.”
Each church voluntarily enters into the federation; no church can be prevented from breaking with the federation. We are not speaking here of the question whether a church would act contrary to the will of the Lord if it kept away from or broke with the federation. What we want to stress here is the voluntary nature of the church federation. There is no higher power, no authority, that can either compel a church to become or prevent it from ceasing to be a partner in the covenant of churches.
It will be clear that we are speaking here of the churches that are one in faith, standing on the same foundation and keeping it inviolate.
There is one more point to which we should pay attention before proceeding to our discussion of the various articles of our Church Order.
We speak constantly of the Canadian Reformed Churches, not of the Canadian Reformed Church. This is a matter of principle. Thereby we express and uphold the principle that the churches together do not constitute a national body with “locals,” local parts of a country-wide organization, preferably under a national board, but that the federation of the Canadian
Reformed Churches is a federation of autonomous local churches, governed by their own local office-bearers, yet having sought and found each other in the unity of the true faith.
About the Church Order Itself
Before we begin the discussion of the various articles of our Church Order something about this Church Order itself.
When the Lord freed His people from the yoke of the Romish hierarchy, the churches had to build up their ecclesiastical “organization” so to speak from scratch. The eldership had disappeared completely under the papacy; the deacons had become degraded to the position of helpers of the bishops; the preaching of the Gospel, insofar as it still could be called a preaching of the Gospel, had taken a backseat and all attention was concentrated on the altar and the sacraments.
How were the churches to build up their local church life as well as their bond with each other so that it would all be in full harmony with the Word of God and so that the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, would be honoured to the fullest?
In His goodness and providence the Lord saw to it that there were men who were able to give guidance and leadership in this respect.
In Geneva there was John Calvin, a true scribe in the Scriptural sense of the word, one learned in and submitting to the Scriptures. He did what he could to organize the church in that place in accordance with the demands of God’s Word. Calvin also conducted an extensive correspondence and, being a Frenchman himself, he showed special care for the French Reformed Churches. These churches organized themselves in the line of Calvin, and from Geneva and France the line may be drawn to the Netherlands and the Reformed Churches there. From there the line goes to us here.
As was the case wherever the Reformation had gotten a foothold, so in the Netherlands the churches were being persecuted in the worst possible way, and whatever they did had to be done as secretly as they could manage. The first gathering of brothers from these churches where they discussed how their living together in one federation should be organized was not even held within the borders of the Netherlands themselves but across the German border, in Wesel.
This meeting was not an “official” ecclesiastical meeting. The brothers who came together there came without having been officially delegated by churches, at least we have no evidence of this. It was a “private meeting,” so to speak. The language of their conclusions shows that they were well aware of the character of their meeting. In their conclusions they use expressions such as the following: “we are of the opinion,” “therefore we judge,” “it appears to us,” “it will be useful that four things are observed.” As you can see, this is more the language of a private advice to the churches than of a series of decisions that the churches have agreed upon and are bound by.
Yet, when we read what the first general synod of the Netherlands churches — held on foreign soil, in Emden, Germany, because of the
continuing danger — agreed upon, we discover that they went wholly in the line of Wesel 1568. The same must be said of subsequent synods. We mention them here: Dordrecht 1574, Dordrecht 1578, Middelburg 1581, ’s Gravenhage 1586, and Dordrecht 1618-1619.
The conditions for living together in one federation as formulated by the Synod of Dordrecht 1618-1619 stood for almost two centuries. It is, therefore, customary to speak of the “Church Order of Dordrecht” (or “Dort,” for short).
It is beyond the scope of this treatment of our Church Order to trace its journey through the years and centuries since 1619. May it suffice to state that our present Church Order is still essentially the same as the one adopted in Dordrecht, even though changes had to be made in the course of the years, changes necessitated by the change of times, places, and circumstances.
Anyone who is interested in seeing how our Church Order was dealt with in the past more than four hundred years can find handbooks and scholarly works in sufficient variety.
Because of the specific character of our Church Order, anyone who deals with it as he would with a civil law violates its character; but so does one who tries to circumvent or who ignores the provisions laid down in it, or who lets the circumstances decide whether a particular provision should be honoured or not.