Tag Archives: Church Order of Dort

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.


Pastoral Q & A: Is It Necessary to Read the Liturgical Forms Exactly as Written?

When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language.  Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching.  Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church.  Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process.  Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms.  Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility.  With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms.  This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory.  We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English.  The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith.  In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism.  In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.

But what about with an instituted church?  Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order.  In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56).  But what does that mean exactly?  Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?

Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish.  Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation.  The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort.  The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms.  Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.”  About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.”  From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.

Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place?  It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another.  It was confusing and chaotic.  So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.

In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written.  Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will.  Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations.  For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer.  There I’m simply substituting the full name for the pronoun “he (or she).”  That’s not a substantial change.

Let me make two concluding points.

First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.  In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so.  When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem.  If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances.  Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes.  Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process.  The forms are not ours to change.

Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19).  I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written.  But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order.  In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis.  If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion.  At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon.  This is part of what it means to live together in a federation.  We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.