Tag Archives: Synod of Dort 1618-19

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.


The Synod of Dort and the Sabbath

The following is a talk I did for the Dort 400 Conference held in Caruaru, Brazil on March 22, 2019.  The Portuguese version can be found here.  Especially for some of the historical material, I acknowledge my indebtedness to Daniel Hyde’s article, “Regulae de Observatione Sabbathi: The Synod of Dort’s Deliverance on the Sabbath,” published in the 2012 issue of the Puritan Reformed Journal.  

It was Sunday August 3, 1924 in Jamestown, Michigan, USA.   Pastor Henry Wierenga had not even been the minister of the Jamestown Christian Reformed Church for four years.  This was his first congregation.  Back in those days, every Christian Reformed Church had a morning and an evening service.  In the evening service, it was the custom to listen to a sermon based on the Heidelberg Catechism.  On Sunday August 3, 1924, Pastor Wierenga was at Lord’s Day 38.  He was preaching about the Fourth Commandment.

In his sermon, Pastor Wierenga said that the Sabbath commandment was not applicable in the New Testament era.  He maintained that Sunday had no special status in the New Testament and it was not to be seen as a replacement of the Jewish Sabbath from the Old Testament.  Christ had fulfilled the Sabbath, which was entirely ceremonial.  The Fourth Commandment has no moral requirement for Christians today.  Therefore, he said, Christians are under no obligation to regard the day as special.   They might still choose to worship on this day, but every day was equally holy.  If one desired, one could certainly work on Sunday or do anything that one might do on any other day of the week.

Pastor Wierenga’s consistory did not like what they were hearing.  The elders completely disagreed with their minister.  The matter was brought to a classis.  The classis appointed a committee to investigate.  This committee advised the elders in Jamestown to ask Rev. Wierenga to preach on Lord’s Day 38 again.  They asked him and he did this on December 7, 1924.  His second sermon was no better than the first.  The elders were still concerned and so was the classis committee.  On February 20, 1925, the Jamestown Christian Reformed Church suspended their pastor for teaching false doctrine.  Then on March 6, 1925, he was deposed by Classis Zeeland.

Henry Wierenga decided to appeal his suspension and deposition to the Christian Reformed Synod in 1926.  However, his appeal was denied.  His deposition was upheld.  The Christian Reformed Synod agreed that it was right and proper for Wierenga to have been disciplined for his views on the Sabbath.  During all these discussions, a decision of the Synod of Dort was mentioned many times.  It was at the heart of the Wierenga case.

We naturally remember the Synod of Dort because of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons were the response of the Synod to the Arminians.  However, it is often forgotten that this Synod discussed many more things.  They decided on many more things.  The Synod began in November of 1618 and finished in May of 1619.   On May 17, 1619, in the 164th session, the Synod of Dort issued a doctrinal statement about the Sabbath.  Unfortunately, for us today, this is one of the most neglected contributions of the Synod of Dort.  But this doctrinal statement was well-known in the Christian Reformed Church in North America in 1924-1926.  It had been well-known before that too.  In fact, the Christian Reformed Church had adopted the Synod of Dort’s decision on the Sabbath already in 1881.

The Synod of Dort on the Sabbath

Let’s just take a quick look at what the Synod of Dort decided on the Sabbath.  We will take a quick look now and then come back for a closer look later.  There are six points:

  1. There is in the fourth commandment of the divine law a ceremonial and a moral element.
  2. The ceremonial element is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of that day imposed especially on the Jewish people.
  3. The moral element consists in the fact that a certain definite day is set aside for worship and so much rest as is needful for worship and hallowed meditation.
  4. The Sabbath of the Jews having been abolished, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.
  5. Since the time of the apostles this day has always been observed by the old catholic church.
  6. This day must be so consecrated to worship that on that day we rest from all servile works, except those which charity and present necessity require; and also from all such recreations as interfere with worship.

I first want to explain the background of this decision.  Then we will come back and look at the decision itself.  We will also look at whether it is biblical and how it is relevant for us today.

Background

After the Reformation took place in Europe in the 1500s, there was a healthy understanding in Reformed churches of the importance of God’s law, including the Fourth Commandment.  They understood that our salvation is through grace alone.  We are only saved because of what Christ has done for us.  Then we respond to God’s grace with love and thankfulness expressed by a Christian life.  We respond to the gospel by taking God’s law seriously as the guide for our lives.  The Holy Spirit makes us love God’s law and want to follow it.

For example, the Reformer Heinrich Bullinger preached a sermon on the Fourth Commandment.  He explained that the Fourth Commandment still applies to Christians today – through it God commands us to rest and worship.  Bullinger explained that if you go about your daily work on Sunday as if it is a normal day, you are sinning against the Fourth Commandment.  He also said that if you stay in bed all day and refuse to go to worship God, you are also sinning against the Fourth Commandment.[1]  Bullinger was not alone – this was the standard way for the first Reformed churches to understand the Fourth Commandment.

When the Reformation first came to the Netherlands, the region was under Spanish control.  Of course, that meant that religiously it was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.  But eventually there was the Dutch Revolt.  Led by leaders like William of Orange, the Dutch rebelled against their Spanish rulers.  They were not successful in the southern part of the Netherlands – what we today call Belgium.  But the story was different in the north, the modern day region we call the Netherlands.  The important thing for us is that politics and religion were connected.  Many of the leaders in the Dutch Revolt were Reformed.  After the Dutch Revolt, many of the political leaders in the Netherlands continued to be Reformed.

However, that does not mean that the Kingdom of the Netherlands was actually Reformed.  In 1587, Reformed church members only made up 10% of the population in the Netherlands.  By 1622, after the Synod of Dort, it was still less than 25%.  As you can imagine, being a minority meant that the Reformed churches were not always able to influence society the way they wanted to.

This was also true when it came to honouring the Fourth Commandment.  Most Dutch people ignored it.  And the rulers did little or nothing about it.  Before the Synod of Dort, Sunday was just like another day for most Dutch towns and cities.  In fact, some conservative Reformed preachers started calling it “Sin-day” (Zondendag) instead of “Sunday” (Zondag).  The Reformed churches were concerned that the society in which they lived did not care about God’s good law, and their rulers, even if they were Reformed, made no effort to change it.

That brings us to 1619 and the Synod of Dort.  The topic of the Sabbath came up quite late in the Synod.  It was mentioned on May 1, 1619, in the 148th session.  The Canons of Dort had already been adopted.  The revised text of the Belgic Confession had been adopted.  And finally, on this day, the Heidelberg Catechism was discussed and all the theologians agreed that it was biblical.  Now the interesting thing is that the official Acts of the Synod of Dort do not mention anything being said about the Sabbath in this session.  Our information about this comes from correspondence sent by someone from the British delegation to the Synod.

As you know, the Synod of Dort was international in character.  Amongst the countries represented was Great Britain.  One of their delegates was Walter Balcanqual.  He sent reports to Sir Dudley Carlton, who was the British ambassador to the Netherlands.  Towards the end of the Synod, he simply sent the notes of his secretary to the ambassador.  In these notes of the 148th session, we read that the British delegates had publically noted how the Sabbath was neglected in the city of Dort.  They took offense at this on the floor of the Synod.  They urged the Synod to ask the civil magistrates to ban business on the Lord’s Day or Sabbath.  There is nothing in these notes to tell us whether there was further discussion at that moment.  This does tell us, however, that the official Acts of the Synod of Dort do not record absolutely everything that was discussed.  Sometimes there are gaps.

Others raised the issue afterwards.  There were only 17 elders at the Synod of Dort.  Part of the reason for that low number was that all the synod’s work would be done in Latin, and most elders did not speak Latin.  One of the elders delegated from Classis Zeeland was Josiah Vosberg.  He was a lawyer, a well-educated man, and thus he spoke Latin.  Zeeland was a province of the Netherlands where the Sabbath controversy was most intense.  Josiah Vosberg was on the orthodox side.  He made a motion that the Synod should take up the question and make a statement on it.  So, notice:  besides the Canons of Dort, this was one of the most important accomplishments of the Synod.  And the motion for it did not come from one of the academic theologians or ministers, but from a godly elder.

The involvement of the international delegations ended on May 9, 1619.  All the international delegates returned to their home countries, but the synod continued.  Without the foreign delegates, the Synod of Dort now focussed on several issues that only had to do with the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  One of those issues was the Sabbath.  Since it had been raised as a question, the Synod decided to discuss it properly.

There were two aspects to the issue as raised at the Synod.  There was the political question and then the theological question.  The political question came first.  In the 163rd session on May 17, the Synod decided to urge the Dutch government to develop new, stricter legislation regarding the Sabbath.  The Synod did not specify what they meant by “stricter.”

Concerning the theological question, the Synod decided the following:

When the formulation concerning the removal of the dishonouring of the Sabbath [was discussed], a question is aired concerning the necessity of observing the Sabbath, which was beginning to be agitated in the churches of Zeeland: the professors are requested to consider this question with the brethren of Zeeland in a friendly conference, and to see whether certain general rules can be prepared and set forth by common consent, within whose limits both parties involved with this question may delay until such time that the question can be given further consideration by the next National Synod.

We can note that these “general rules” were meant to be a temporary answer.  They hoped the matter could be revisited at another synod soon.  However, as it turned out, there was not another national synod in the Netherlands for many, many years.

Professors Johannes Polyander, Franciscus Gomarus, Anthonius Thysius, Sibrandus Lubbertus, and Antonius Walaeus were those appointed to meet with the Zeeland delegates.  Now one of the amazing things is how quickly they worked.  The Synod broke for lunch.  When they returned for their 164th session in the afternoon on the same day, there was a proposed set of rules.  We do not know how long the discussion took that afternoon on the floor of synod, but we do know the outcome.  The Rules for the Observance of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day were officially adopted by the Dutch Reformed churches.

Looking Closer at the Rules

Now I want to take a closer look at what the Synod of Dort decided.  Each of the rules is short, but they actually say a lot.  I will go through each of the rules, explain them, and make a few comments.

  1. There is in the fourth commandment of the divine law a ceremonial and a moral element.

In theology, we speak of a three-fold division of the law.  This is an old division which was recognized even long before the Reformation.  In the law of God, there are ceremonial, moral, and civil aspects.  The ceremonial law was for Israel and pointed ahead to Christ.  This included things like the sacrifices for sin.  After Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law, we can still learn from it, but it does not apply to us like it did to Israel.  The civil law is similar – it was for Israel as a nation in their own context.  There are general principles that are still important for us, but the details are not always binding on us.  However, the moral law is always binding.  The moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments.  When we talk about the Fourth Commandment, there are ceremonial aspects, but there are also moral aspects.  Only the moral aspects are binding on us as Christians today.

  1. The ceremonial element is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of that day imposed especially on the Jewish people.

So what exactly is the ceremonial aspect of the Fourth Commandment?  The Synod of Dort recognized that there are two parts to it.  The first is the original day of the week for the Sabbath.  Originally it was the seventh day or Saturday.  Of course, this is reflected even in the Portuguese name for this day (sabado).  This day was the day God rested from his work of creating, thereby setting a pattern.  The second ceremonial aspect is the “strict observance” that was given in the Old Testament for this day.  For example, there was a command  in Exodus 35:3 that the Israelites were not to light a fire on the Sabbath.  That is “strict observance.”

  1. The moral element consists in the fact that a certain definite day is set aside for worship and so much rest as is needful for worship and hallowed meditation.

Next, the Synod identified the abiding moral aspect of the Fourth Commandment.  Here there are three things that need to be mentioned.  There is the principle of a “definite day.”  One day per week must be set aside, or regarded as holy.  Second, this definite day is to be set aside for worship.  It is a day for worship.  But third, it is also a day for rest.  So putting it all together we have a definite day for rest and worship.  This is permanently binding on us.

  1. The Sabbath of the Jews having been abolished, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.

This part of the decision deals with the progress of redemptive history.  The Synod acknowledged that the Sabbath of the Jews (i.e. the strict rest and worship on the seventh day) has been abolished.  The day to be honoured has now shifted to the first day of the week – it is the “day of the Lord” as Scripture calls it in Rev. 1:10.  It is the day Christ rose from the dead.  It is the day that changed everything, including the calendar.  We “solemnly hallow” this day in his honour.  How we do that is mentioned in the sixth point.

  1. Since the time of the apostles this day has always been observed by the old catholic church.

History and tradition are important for Reformed believers.  While it is not binding on us, we do recognize that it if there is a long history of thinking a certain way about a theological issue, we should not throw it away without thinking carefully.  We need to understand why believers in history thought the way they did.  We need to compare their thinking with what the Bible says.  When it comes to the Fourth Commandment, the Synod of Dort pointed out that ever since the time of the apostles, the church has observed Sunday as the Lord’s Day.  There is a long tradition of understanding that the Fourth Commandment still applies to us today, but now it applies to the first day of the week instead of the seventh.

  1. This day must be so consecrated to worship that on that day we rest from all servile works, except those which charity and present necessity require; and also from all such recreations as interfere with worship.

The final part of the Synod’s decision speaks about how to properly set apart the Lord’s Day.  The focus of the day is to be on worship.  That echoes the approach of the first part of Lord’s Day 38 in the Heidelberg Catechism.  The Catechism called it “the day of rest” (in German: “the festive day of rest”).  But aside from that, the Catechism said nothing more about physical rest.  The Synod did.  In order to keep the focus of the entire day (not just the church services) on God, we are to rest “from all servile works.”  What are “servile works”?  That is a term with an ancient history in the Christian church.  It was used in the Latin Vulgate translation of Leviticus 23:7.  It originally referred to physical work of the kind done by servants.  In history, if you had servants, servile work would often mean every kind of work.  You would get your servants to do just about everything.  The English Standard Version of Leviticus 23:7 translates the Hebrew expression there as “ordinary work,” and I think that captures for today what “servile works” really are.  It is ordinary work.  It is the work you would be called to do at any other time.  Traditionally that would be physical work, but in our day, that is going to naturally expand to include all types of work.  Now there are two exceptions.  There are works of charity.  If you have to work to help someone out on a Sunday, you are not breaking the Fourth Commandment – in fact, you should!  This was taught by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 12:9-13.  He said that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  Then there are also works of necessity.  We need ministers to work at preaching, we need police officers to enforce the law, we need nurses and doctors to take care of the sick.  They have to do this work also on the Lord’s Day.  It is no sin.  Finally, we can note that the Synod said that all recreations that interfere with worship are also ruled out.  So, as an example, you can go for a walk on Sunday, but you cannot go for a walk when God calls you to be in church.

Let me make two more general observations about these rules.  First, the Synod of Dort did not go into exhaustive detail about every aspect of interpreting the Fourth Commandment.  There is still some room for minor differences of opinion.  For example, we know that two of the professors involved with writing these rules had different views on the origin of Sabbath-keeping.  Thysius was not sure where it came from, but Gomarus insisted that it did not come from creation/Paradise, but came from Israel’s time in the desert.[2]  These rules are concise, but not overly precise.

Yet, second, they are precise where they need to be and where we need to be.  They precisely distinguish and identify the ceremonial and moral aspects of the Fourth Commandment.  They identify the Lord’s Day as a day to be set apart for rest and worship.  These rules speak clearly of exceptional work:  works of charity and necessity.  These are wise and biblical rules for Christ’s church.

Relevance for Today

Are Reformed churches today bound to this doctrinal decision of the Synod of Dort?  Reformed churches hold to the Canons of Dort.  They hold to the decisions of the Synod of Dort that were made against the Arminians or Remonstrants.  However, that does not mean that they hold to every other decision made by Dort.

We can go back to the Christian Reformed Church in North America for a moment.  In 1881, a Synod of the Christian Reformed Church decided to adopt Dort’s decision on the Sabbath.  From that point forward, Dort’s decision officially belonged to them as well.  They regarded the decision as an official interpretation of Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Not only every office bearer, but also every member was bound to it.  I am not aware of any other church having done that.  Since the CRCNA did that, when Pastor Henry Wierenga started teaching falsely about the Fourth Commandment, they could quite easily suspend and depose him.

Today as Reformed churches, we could adopt Dort’s decision if we wanted to.  If there were a need or a desire, a church could make a proposal to take it over and make it our own.  But we could also simply receive it as part of our history and tradition.  We can and we should read it, study it, and learn from it.  Pastors can use it as a guide for their teaching and preaching – I certainly have done that in my ministry.  As I mentioned, it is a good, solid statement of Reformed thinking about the Fourth Commandment.

There is one more thing I want to say about the relevance of this decision.  Especially in North America, you will sometimes hear people speak about two different views of the Sabbath.  They will say there is the Puritan view of the Sabbath, which is very strict, and then there is the Continental view of the Sabbath, which is looser.  Daniel Hyde has done a good study on this and he has compared the Synod of Dort’s decision with some Puritan thinking about the Fourth Commandment.  He concluded that “Dort can be called a moderately Puritan position on the Sabbath.”[3] I agree.  Historically speaking, the so-called “Continental view” is much stricter than many modern people realize.  And, I would say, it is biblical.

Conclusion

I grew up in Canada.  I can remember a time when all the stores were closed on Sunday.  There was a law called the Lord’s Day Act.  It reflected Canada’s Christian heritage.  When unbelievers started pressuring the government to remove the Lord’s Day Act, many churches and Christians protested.  I even have an article at home written by Billy Graham trying to argue for the holiness of Sunday, keeping it as a day of rest and worship.  In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada voided the Lord’s Day Act.  They said it was unconstitutional, that it was an infringement on the freedom of religion.  Something strange happened after that.  Many Christians started shopping on Sundays, working on Sundays, going to professional sports events on Sundays.  Before long, many Christian churches were teaching that the Fourth Commandment only applied to the Jews.  Do you see what happened?  Many churches changed.  Why?  Because of better insight into the Bible?  No, because these churches became like the culture.  Then they shifted their explanation of the Bible to fit their culture.  When that happens, a church is losing its salt and light.

That will have an impact on the preaching of the gospel.  The French philosopher Voltaire once said that if you want to destroy Christianity, you have to destroy the Sabbath.  The French tried to do that in the time of the French Revolution, but they failed.  How ironic that Christians themselves would try to destroy something which will lead to the very destruction of our faith!  If the Sunday is no longer hallowed as a day of rest and worship, the churches where the gospel of salvation is proclaimed will steadily empty.  People will always find something better to do than go to church regularly.

Brothers and sisters, God gave us Ten Commandments, not nine.  The Synod of Dort has reminded us that the Fourth Commandment is still God’s will for our lives as his people.  Let us listen to God’s law – it is good for us, it is good for society, it is good for the gospel, and it serves for God’s glory.

[1] Bullinger, Decades (vol. 1), 262.

[2] See Leiden Synopsis, vol. 1, 521.

[3] Hyde, “Regulae…,” 180.


The Synod of Dort and Catechism

The following is a talk I did for the Dort Conference held in Caruaru, Brazil on March 23, 2019.  The Portuguese version can be found here.   

The scene happens almost every week in Reformed churches in Canada and Australia.  It is usually a Tuesday or a Wednesday evening.  The parents bring all the children between the ages of 12 and 18 to be taught catechism by their pastor.  Most of the time it is the pastor who teaches; if a church is vacant, then an elder or even someone else might do it.  In a large church, the pastor might not be able to teach all the classes.  Because there are so many students, there will have to be others teaching beside the pastor.

In some parts of Australia, these catechism classes are taught by the pastor at the Christian school during the day.  In my congregation, like in Canada, we do the classes in the evening.

Let me describe in more detail what it looks like where I am a pastor.  In Launceston, we have three classes, all on Wednesday evening.  The first class is from 7:00 to 7:45.  This class is for the children between the ages of 12 and 15.  We call it the junior class.  In this class, the children learn the doctrine of the Bible with the help of the Heidelberg Catechism.  They are expected to memorize a part of the Catechism every week.  I teach them what it means with the Bible.

The next class is from 8:00 to 8:45.  This class is for the children between the ages of 15 and 18.  This is the senior class.  This class is divided up into three years.  In the first year, they study the biblical teachings of the Belgic Confession.  They do some memorizing, but they memorize Bible passages and not the Belgic Confession.  In the second year, the focus is on the Canons of Dort.  Then, in the third year, they again study the Heidelberg Catechism.

The last class begins at 9:00.  This is the class for those who hope to make public profession of faith.  This class mostly reviews the biblical teachings of the Reformed confessions, but in my church I also teach our young people several weeks of apologetics – that’s all about how to defend the Christian faith.

As I mentioned, this is standard practice in our Reformed churches in Canada and Australia.  I don’t know about how it goes here in Brazil.  But if something like this is done in Brazil too in your churches, I wonder if the same thing is missing that is often missing in Canada and Australia.  Reformed churches usually do well at teaching their young people.  The thing that is often missing is the parents.  The parents are often not teaching their children.  In the minds of many Christian parents, the church has to teach their children.  But they don’t have to teach.  And so they often don’t.  This is sad.  Our churches could be stronger and more faithful if all the parents were to teach their children Christian doctrine.

This is where we would do well to pay attention to the Synod of Dort.  The Synod discussed a great many more things besides how to deal with the Arminians.  One of the topics discussed early in the Synod was the question of how best to teach the youth of the church.  On November 30, 1618 the Synod of Dort issued its decree on the best manner of catechesis.  In this talk, we will look at what Dort decided on this, why, and what can we learn from it for today.

Why the Synod Discussed Catechism Teaching

We need to begin with some background.  The Reformation placed a strong emphasis on the importance of catechisms for teaching Christian doctrine.  There were many Protestant catechisms written and published in the 1500s.  But without a doubt one of the most popular was the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563.  This Catechism was first translated into Dutch in the same year it appeared in German, 1563.  Before long, the Heidelberg Catechism became the catechism of Reformed churches in the Netherlands.

The Synod of Dort started in 1618.  As I mentioned, the Synod had to deal with the Arminian problem.  But part of the Arminian problem had to do with the Heidelberg Catechism.  The Arminians did not like it.  They had theological issues with it, but they also said it was too difficult for young people.  They said that it didn’t have enough of the Bible in it.  So, as we come to the Synod of Dort, the Heidelberg Catechism was under pressure.

But there were other issues related to the question of catechism teaching more generally.  Before the Synod of Dort, the Dutch Reformed churches did not have catechism classes as many Reformed churches have them today.  Often they would have a brief class in Christian doctrine for those who were about to profess their faith.  But to have a regular weekly class for the youth of the church taught by the minister – that was unheard of.

What they did have in some places was catechism preaching.  At the Synod of the Hague in 1586, the Dutch Reformed churches agreed that each Sunday afternoon the pastors should “briefly explain the summary of doctrine contained in the Catechism.”  This became part of the Reformed Church Order.  Now the problem was that, even after 1586, in some places this was poorly done.  In other places it was not done at all.  This was especially the case in many small country or village churches.  So there was a lack of consistency in the Dutch Reformed churches leading up to the Synod of Dort.  Whole congregations were missing out on regular doctrinal instruction, and that obviously included the youth of those congregations.  And obviously the future of the church is not very bright if the youth are not being discipled in the Christian faith.  As we come to the Synod of Dort in 1618, the question is there of how to improve the teaching of Christian doctrine in the Dutch Reformed churches.

The Synod Discussion

When it came to the Heidelberg Catechism and catechism training, the Synod of Dort discussed and decided upon several matters.  They made a decision about catechism preaching.  They reaffirmed what the Synod of the Hague decided in 1586.  The Synod dealt with all the objections of the Arminians to the Catechism.  The Catechism was examined and approved by all the delegates, including the foreign ones, as being in full agreement with the Bible.  But our focus is going to be on the discussion and decision about the best manner of teaching Christian doctrine.

The Synod divided that topic into two parts.  They looked at the best way of teaching the youth of the church and then the best way of teaching the adults.  We are only going to look at what the Synod said about the best way to teach the youth.

The discussion began in the morning session of November 28.  As you may know, we have Acts of the Synod, but the Acts do not always give much detail about the discussions.  However, in this situation we have an eyewitness account from an Englishman named John Hales. He observed the synod on behalf of the British ambassador to the Netherlands and reported back to him with letters.  These letters were later published.

John Hales reported about what he observed on the morning of November 28, 1618.  Johannes Bogerman, the chairman of the Synod, first gave a speech about the necessity and usefulness of catechizing.  Bogerman said that catechism was the basis and ground of religion.  It was the only way for the principles of Christianity to be passed down.  Bogerman spoke of how catechism was an ancient practice going back to the early church.  When catechism is neglected, he said, ignorance results among the members of the church.  Confusion also results when catechism is not practiced – people drift into Roman Catholicism, Anabaptism, and other errors.  Bogerman argued that the practice of Reformed catechism was needed now more than ever because of the growing aggressiveness of the Jesuits.  The Jesuits are diligent in teaching doctrine – to combat them, the Reformed churches must be even more diligent.

After the chairman’s speech, the delegates were asked to present their advice on the topic.  The Acts include copies of the advice given by the seven foreign delegations present.[1]  I am not going to go through all the details of these documents.  I just want to note one important element found in several of them.  That has to do with the role of parents.  For example, the delegates from Hesse wrote, “We reckon and judge that this work of teaching catechism to the youth belongs to the Ministers of the Word of God, the teachers in the school, and finally the parents.”  Parents who were careless about that work were to be admonished by the consistory to diligently and faithfully teach the catechism to their children and families.  Likewise, the delegates from Bremen advised the Synod that they recognized three kinds of catechism instruction:  scholastic (in the schools), ecclesiastical (in the church), and domestic (in the families).  Parents, especially fathers, bore responsibility for domestic catechesis.  The same was stressed by the two delegates from Geneva, Johannes Deodatus and Theodorus Trochinus.

All of those advices were presented and discussed on November 28, 1618.  The following day a sermon was preached by one of the British delegates (Joseph Hall).   Then in the morning session of November 30 the Synod came back to the question of how to teach catechism in the best way.  The chairman had been meeting with the executive officers of the synod and, taking all the advice into account, they worked together to produce a proposed decision.  The chairman presented this proposal and it was adopted.

The Synod Decision

The decision regarding the best way of teaching the youth had three parts.  There was to be a three-fold manner of catechizing the youth of the Dutch Reformed churches.

It began with the home.  Parents had the responsibility to instruct their children in the basics of the Christian faith at an age-appropriate level.  They were to urge them to godliness.  Parents were to train their children in prayer.  The Synod declared that parents have the responsibility to take their children to church and then afterwards to review what they heard, especially in the catechism sermons.  Parents must read the Bible with their children and explain it to them.  Finally, the Synod decided that parents should also give their children Bible passages to memorize.  Now what if there were parents who failed to do these things?  The Synod decided that negligent parents were to be admonished by the ministers.  If they did not listen to the ministers, then the elders were to reprimand them, and if necessary, place them under church discipline.  Failing to teach your children was considered to be a sin for which you could be placed under church disciple.  That is how serious this was considered to be.

In the second place, catechism was the responsibility of the schools.  According to the Synod of Dort, the state was responsible for the establishment and maintenance of education in general.  The teachers in these schools had to be Reformed.  They had to subscribe to the Reformed confessions and be trained in teaching catechism.  Dort decided that the teachers should teach catechism to the students twice every week and require them to memorize it.  Additionally, the teachers were also required to take their students to the Sunday catechism preaching – presumably this requirement was for the students whose families were not members of the church.  There were to be three types of catechism tools for this work in the schools:  a basic simple catechism for the youngest students, a simplified version of the Heidelberg Catechism (known as the Compendium), and then the Heidelberg Catechism for the older students.  The ministers had the responsibility to make sure this was all taking place.  If there was any negligence the ministers would report this to the government.  The government must then replace any negligent school teachers.

Finally, said the Synod, catechism was also the responsibility of the church.  The youth of the church were to be taught by the pastors, but not in catechism classes as we know them today.  Instead, the ministers were to teach the youth, along with the rest of the congregation, through the regular catechism preaching.  For this reason, the Synod decided that ministers should preach their catechism sermons at the level of the youth.  This teaching should also be followed up with review.

There are two things I want to mention about this decision.

First, there is the role of the school.  In that old Dutch context, the school was an instrument of both the church and the state.  Moreover, church and state were connected in ways that are foreign to us today.  As history moved on that connection was broken.  Eventually, the catechism class taught at the school became the catechism class taught by the church.  So, the second and third ways of teaching catechism to the youth were eventually brought together.

Second, I want you to note that the Synod followed the advice of the delegates of Hesse and Bremen in dividing it into this three-fold manner.  But there is an important difference.  The difference is in the order.  The Synod of Dort put the role of parents first.  Moreover, the Synod said a lot more about the responsibility of parents than did any of the advices received.

Relevance for Today

The Synod of Dort was correct in emphasizing the role of parents in catechism.  This is a biblical emphasis.  We could think of Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  Parents, especially fathers, are called to keep their children in order and also to teach them God’s Word.  Sometimes you hear about other churches that have “youth pastors.”  Reformed churches also have youth pastors – they are called parents.  The parents are supposed to be the youth pastors in the church of Christ.

Moreover, parents in a Reformed church promise to do this.   When their children are baptized, Reformed parents promise that they will instruct their children in Christian doctrine.  They promise that they will do it.  They have the primary responsibility, not the minister.  The church supports the teaching of the parents, but the church does not replace the teaching of the parents.

Christian parents should teach their children Christian doctrine.  But how?  Let me give some practical suggestions.

First of all, to teach your children you must have a good basic understanding of Christian doctrine yourself.  You have to make use of the resources that are available to you.  If you are in a Reformed church where there is catechism preaching, make it your habit to be there every time so you can be strengthened in your understanding of biblical doctrine.  Then you also need to be reading the Bible for yourself every day.  You cannot teach others if you are not being taught yourself.  That happens through studying the Word of God for yourself.  I also want to recommend reading good Christian books that will teach you doctrine.  If you need a suggestion for a book like that, ask your pastor.  Many parents don’t teach because they don’t have the confidence or feel like they have the knowledge.  But if you are a Christian parent, you have the calling and responsibility to do that, so you must find ways to build your confidence and knowledge.

Next, Every Christian home should have a set time for family worship every day.  In many Reformed homes in Canada and Australia, this happens after the evening meal.  But it does not have to be after a meal.  There just needs to be a time every day when the family will be gathered for worshipping God together.  During this time, there should be prayer and singing.  There should be Bible reading.  But there should also be a short time of learning Christian doctrine with the help of a Catechism.

In my family, we usually use the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  This is a catechism from the Presbyterian churches, but it teaches Reformed doctrine just like the Heidelberg Catechism does.  We have a book based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Each question and answer has six days of teaching to go with it.  We have also used the Heidelberg Catechism with a similar book.  Sometimes we go through the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well.  But each day, we spend maybe five minutes of our family worship time learning Christian doctrine.  By doing this, when our children go to the church’s catechism classes, they have already learned many of the basics.

However you might choose to do it, the important thing is that you do it.  Parents, please listen to me:  if you love your children, teach them the Lord’s ways.  Nothing is more important for their well-being!

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me also say that this is very important for the future of the church and the progress of the gospel.  We will not have a strong church without strong families.  Strong families are the backbone of strong churches.  We will have spiritually strong families when parents, and especially fathers, take their responsibility seriously to provide spiritual leadership and teaching for their children.  When we have that, our churches will stand stronger.  Our gospel witness will shine brighter.  And God will be praised with greater fervour.

[1] An eighth foreign delegation (from Nassau-Wetteravia) would not arrive until December 17.


Catechism and the Synod of Dort

This year and next we’re celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort.  The Synod of Dort 1618-19 is remembered most for the Canons of Dort dealing with the Arminian problem.  However, the synod actually discussed and decided on far more matters.  One of the topics discussed was catechetical instruction.

Early on at the synod, there was a significant discussion held on the best way to catechize the youth and others in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Advice was requested from the foreign delegates and many of them obliged. It’s interesting that a number of these foreign delegations wrote about the importance of involving parents in catechesis. For instance, the theologians of Hesse wrote, “We reckon and judge that this work of teaching catechism to the youth belongs to the Ministers of the Word of God, the teachers in the school, and finally the parents.” Parents who were nonchalant about that work were to be admonished by the consistory to diligently and faithfully teach the catechism to their children and families. Similarly, the theologians of Bremen advised the synod that they recognized three sorts of catechesis: scholastic (i.e., in the schools), ecclesiastical, and domestic. Parents, especially fathers, bore responsibility for domestic catechesis.

On Friday November 30, 1618 in its morning session, the Synod of Dort issued its decree on the manner of catechesis. Dort followed Bremen’s division of catechetical duties. The work of parents, however, was put up front. According to Dort, it is the work of parents to instruct their children and the whole family with all diligence in the elements of Christian religion. With an eye to each one’s capacity, parents are to seriously and diligently exhort their families in the fear of God and sincere piety. They are to discuss the sermons and especially the teaching of the Catechism. They are to read the Scriptures and explain them. If parents were not faithful in these duties, they were to be admonished by the pastors, and if necessary reprimanded and censured by the consistory.

It’s unfortunate that parental or domestic catechesis has been lost in so many places. It’s regrettable that many Reformed parents today expect the church to do virtually everything when it comes to the catechesis of covenant youth. The first responsibility lies with parents. Dort was right.


What’s Up in 2018

This past year will be remembered for our celebrations of the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  All around the world, believers praised God again for what he did in leading Luther and others to recover the biblical gospel.  What a great time to recall our Father’s mercies to his people!

The year of our Lord 2018 is going to feature more such celebrations.  This year is the beginning of the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort 1618-19.  This year we’ll begin celebrating how God helped his church to reject the man-centered doctrines of Arminius and his followers.  By God’s mercies, the doctrines of grace were defended and then codified in that faithful summary of Scripture we call the Canons of Dort.

This new year is also notable because it’s a synod year for the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA).  Synod Bunbury is scheduled to begin on Monday June 18.  Though it’s being convened by the church of Bunbury, the synod will actually be held in the facilities of the Southern River church (in the Perth metro area of Western Australia).  There are a number of big items of interest, but let me just mention two, both pertaining to inter-church relations.

First is our relationship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN).  As readers know, the RCN last year opened all the offices of the church to women.  The FRCA has warned the RCN that if they did this, our relationship (which is currently suspended) will be terminated.  It is expected that Synod Bunbury will carry through with this.  If it does, we will be the first sister church to cut ties with the RCN over their unfaithfulness.

Second, there is a proposal to investigate the possibility of ecumenical relationships with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Southern Presbyterian Church.  While this proposal originated with FRC Launceston, it has been adopted by Classis North of 20 October 2017.  Moving in this direction will have the greatest impact on the Tasmanian churches, since this is the “heartland” of the EPC and SPC.  Their congregations only exist in the eastern part of Australia.  Here in Tasmania, we already enjoy many contacts with EP and SP brothers and sisters.  Many of their children attend our John Calvin School.  We’re working together to establish a Christian counselling organization.  The EPC and FRC recently jointly hosted a Reformation commemoration.  I just returned from speaking at the EPC biennial youth camp — I taught apologetics to about 60 young people, of whom over a quarter were from our Free Reformed Churches.  We have many good connections already — it remains to be seen if we can draw closer together in a more formal relationship.  Here we’re certainly praying for that!

This new year certainly promises to be interesting.  God willing, I hope to be able to share developments with you here.  Whoever you are and wherever you are, I pray that God will give you a most blessed 2018!