The Church Order of Dort - Articles 28-50
Principles and Practices of Reformed Church Polity
THE CHURCH ORDER OF DORT
Article 28 stipulates that:
"Three kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: the consistory, the classis, and the synod."
1. DEVELOPMENT OF ASSEMBLIES IN AUSTRALIA
The Church Order adopted by the Free Reformed Churches of Australia is a historical document put together some 400 years ago in a setting markedly different from the situation in Australia today. At the time of the Synod of Dort, there were hundreds of churches in the bond of Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. So a structure of multiple assemblies (including, beside consistory, classis and general synod also a regional synod) was very possible.
For more than 30 years after the institution of the first Free Reformed Church in Australia in 1951, there were but three churches in the Australian bond. This small number made it impossible to implement the various levels of assemblies mentioned in the Church Order of Dort. Consequently, the fathers deleted any references in the Church Order to a regional synod, and contented themselves with two ecclesiastical assemblies in practice: the consistory and the synod. The hope was that, under the blessing of the Lord, the number of churches within the bond would grow to such numbers that one day classes could be included in church life.
In expectation of the day that the bond of churches would be large enough to include classes, the fathers at the first synods of the Free Reformed Churches retained in their Church Order numerous references to classes. In what follows, I will attempt to explain the Church Order as it has been adopted. The reader needs to bear in mind that the reality has not (yet) caught up with the ideal outlined in the Church Order. A paragraph at the end of this section on Assemblies offers an outline of how church life in fact works in our midst without classes. The footnotes provide the text of the Church Order that is in force until classes have been formed.
2. LEGITIMACY OF THE ASSEMBLIES
It is the Lord’s will that each church has a consistory. In Scripture we read how, during the founding years of the New Testament church, the apostles Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities where they had earlier preached the Gospel in order to appoint "elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). Note the plural; each church received more than one elder. Similarly, in Acts 20:17 we read that Paul sent from Miletus for the elders of Ephesus and in verse 28 these elders collectively are reminded of their task of overseeing God’s church. In 1 Timothy 4:14 Paul uses the term ‘eldership,’ denoting the body of elders. From these data we conclude that the elders of a given church were not to exercise their office in isolation from each other; they were instead to work together, form a team, be a leadership-giving-body (see Acts 15:6). This leadership-giving-body is known in churches of continental origin as a ‘consistory’. (In churches of English origin this body is commonly known as a ‘session’).
Classis and synod on the other hand are not specifically commanded by the Lord. Nevertheless, it is evident from God’s Word that the presence of these two kinds of assemblies amongst His churches is His will. In 1 Corinthians 16:1 Paul speaks of the "churches of Galatia." These churches were separate from each other (each, for example, was govern by their own elders who were responsible for the local church; see above). Yet these "churches of Galatia" knew each other and did things together; in this case, for example, Paul instructed them to cooperate together in collecting for the poor. In verse 19 Paul passes on greetings from the "churches of Asia." In 2 Corinthians 8:1 Paul informs the Corinthian brethren of what he witnessed concerning evidence of God’s grace amongst the "churches of Macedonia." The repeated use of the plural implies that the churches of Galatia, Asia and Macedonia were seen as distinct entities (hence the plural), and at the same time associated together (hence the geographic reference). Since there is "one, holy, catholic church," the churches of the Lord need to cooperate with each other, to stand beside and support each other. Just as individual church members exercise communion of saints within a congregation, individual churches can likewise exercise communion of saints by meeting together, for mutual benefit, with ever increasing numbers of neighbouring churches. These meetings are termed ‘classes’ (plural of classis) and ‘synods’.
3. NATURE OF THE ASSEMBLIES
That elders of a given church meet together from time to time to discuss together the care of the flock entrusted to them speaks for itself. The Church Order formulates it this way:
"In all the churches there shall be a consistory composed of the minister(s) of the Word and the elders. It shall meet regularly…" (Article 36).
It is at this level that the Lord has placed authority within His church (see Matthew 18:17). Any matter relevant to the good government of the Lord’s church in a given place may be placed on the agenda of the Consistory.
Although each individual church is complete in Christ and therefore autonomous, the fathers envisaged that it would be of mutual benefit to churches in relative proximity to meet together from time to time. Accordingly, in the Church Order we have agreed that "neighbouring churches shall come together in a classis ..." (Article 41). The term ‘classis’ denotes this meeting of churches-in-relative-proximity. (A secondary use of the term ‘classis’ denotes the geographic area in which the churches-that-meet-in-classis are located.) The agendas of classes should be comprised of matters of local concern which the local churches could not finalise on their own (see below).
From time to time, classes send delegates to a meeting of all the churches in the bond. This meeting-of-all-the-churches is termed a ‘synod’. Synods deal only with matters which could not be finalised in the classical assemblies, plus issues common to all the churches (cf Article 30; see below for more details).
The overriding purpose of both classes and synods is to stand beside and support (the Consistory of) the local church, for each church is a complete congregation of the Lord.
4. RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE ASSEMBLIES
The three ecclesiastical assemblies of consistory, classis and synod are also referred to as minor and major assemblies. A consistory, representing only one church, is the most minor assembly. Any assembly which is broader in its representation, representing more than one church, is called a major assembly, relative to an assembly narrower in its representation.
Major assemblies are not higher assemblies with more authority but broader assemblies with NO authority. It was only to the most minor assembly, the consistory, that the Lord Jesus Christ assigned authority of their own. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:28), and Paul charged the elders of Ephesus to "take heed to … all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has may you overseers" (Acts 20:28). The elders’ authority extended no further than the church in which they were appointed to office; the elders in Antioch had no authority over the church at Derbe. If no elder has any authority in any church other than his own, no meeting of elders (be it from a number of churches) has any authority over the churches represented at that meeting – whether it be classis or synod. Major assemblies, then, cannot be said to have authority. In the diagram I have endeavoured to convey this concept by placing the consistory at the top of the diagram. Under Christ this is where the (highest and only) authority lies.
Reformed church polity recognises, though, that major assemblies do have something to say to the local churches. Article 35 formulates it like this:
"The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the synod has over the classis."
Though the term ‘jurisdiction’ may not be the best possible term (but no one has suggested a better one), it does convey the notion that the Church Order wants to communicate. Literally, from its Latin roots the term means: to have ‘the right of say.’ A meeting of the churches in a classical resort has no authority over the individual churches. For example, a classis cannot tell a congregation to which minister it must extend a call. However, the churches have learned from Scripture that seeking advice and listening to each other is necessary and important. For the Lord teaches:
"Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14).
"Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counsellors they are established" (Proverbs 15:22).
From passages of Scripture as these, we conclude that it is foolish for a local congregation to be independent, set on going its own way and ignoring its neighbouring churches. In other words, as churches too, we need each other in decision making processes, and so we do well to listen to what the other has to say. For this reason, the churches have agreed to give to classis the right to say something (on particular matters) to the congregations in its resort.
Together the churches agree to the items placed on the agendas for classes. Since the churches recognise that a major assembly, ‘a multitude of counsellors’, has less chance of erring than a minor assembly, they agree too that they shall accept the decisions of the major assemblies. Though the major assemblies have no authority, they do have the ‘right of say’, and so the churches agree to accept what the major assemblies say – unless, of course, a decision of a major assembly is contrary to Scripture. Since decisions of major assemblies are binding, the onus is on every church to go through the Acts of the major assembly in order to learn what decisions have been laid on their path and weigh whether these decisions are indeed pleasing to the Lord.
5. DELEGATION TO MAJOR ASSEMBLIES
With regard to delegation to classes, Article 41 specifies that each church shall send two men: "Neighbouring churches shall come together in a classis by delegating a minister and an elder, or if a church has no minister, two elders." Each classis in turn "shall delegate two ministers and two elders to synod" (Article 45). This means that some churches in a classis might not have a delegate at synod. One cannot call this an ‘unfair representation’ for delegates at a synod are not representatives of their consistories. The most able men, because of their wisdom, are delegated to attend synod in order to decide on matters for the benefit of the churches. At major assemblies delegates DO NOT speak on behalf of their respective consistories but they speak on the basis of God’s Word. Decisions are binding, then, not because one’s own representative was there to help make the decision, but rather because the decisions agree with the Word of the Head of the Church.
Delegates to major assemblies bring with them a letter of credential, in accordance with Article 32 which stipulates, "Delegates to a major assembly shall bring with them their credentials, signed by the minor assembly." The purpose of these credentials is to inform the major assembly officially who it is that the minor assembly has in fact delegated to that major assembly. That is why delegates to classis have their credentials signed by their consistory and delegates to synod have their credentials signed by their classis. Implicit in giving a credential is that the minor assembly recognises the jurisdiction of the major assembly and so promises to accept its decisions as settled and binding.
6. FREQUENCY OF ASSEMBLIES
To tend the flock entrusted to the care of the elders, it is necessary that the elders meet together from time to time. No set frequency can stipulated, since the needs of the congregations differ. The Church Order formulates it this way: the consistory "shall meet regularly" (Article 36). In practice, elders meet on average at least twice per month.
Given the reason why major assemblies are necessary, it follows that the churches ought to meet together relatively frequently. One cannot be of assistance to each other if one does not meet together. For that reason, the Church Order stipulates that "classes shall be held at least once every three months ..." (Article 41). Nothing beats face to face discussions with the sister churches in order to prevent straying apart and promote development and uniformity of thought.
The heart of church life revolves around the local churches. The assistance needed in the local churches from the bond comes via classes. This in turn means that a meeting of all the churches in the bond need not occur with near the frequency that classes meet. The time interval between Synods, then, is agreed in the Church Order to be "once every three years" (Article 45).
7. TASKS OF THE ASSEMBLIES
The task of the consistory has already been discussed in relation to Article 20, which reads,
Article 20 - Task of elders
"The elders shall together with the ministers of the Word govern the congregation with pastoral care and discipline. For the upbuilding of the congregation they shall make homevisits as often as is profitable but at least once a year. They shall watch that their fellow office-bearers are faithful in carrying out their duties and ensure that in the congregation everything is done decently and in good order."
This Article reflects the scriptural command given to the elders of Ephesus as we read it in Acts 20:28, "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." In carrying out this task, the elders shall need to meet together to discuss the needs of the sheep of the flock in their care.
Since this is the God-given task of the elders, it will not do for a consistory to get involved in politics, social concerns in the community, economic issues in the land or any other such unecclesiastical matters. This same principle applies equally to the matters to be dealt with by the other assemblies. The Church Order catches the concept in Article 30 with these words: "These assemblies shall only deal with ecclesiastical matters and in an ecclesiastical manner."
Those latter words, that assemblies are to deal with matters "in an ecclesiastical manner" reflects the fact that office bearers speak Christ’s Word. Their authority rises not from the muscle of force, but only from being able to show from Scripture that "this is what the Lord says." Imposing fines or gaol sentences on erring members, then, is unacceptable conduct for office bearers. (Unfortunately, history is not without its examples of assemblies dealing in unecclesiastical ways.)
Article 36 makes allowance for the consistory, in its task of governing the local congregation, to meet also with the deacons:
Article 36 - Consistory
"In all the churches there shall be a consistory composed of the minister(s) of the Word and the elders. It shall meet regularly and be chaired by the minister. If a church is served by more than one minister they shall chair in turn. The consistory shall also meet regularly with the deacons to deal with those matters as described for that purpose by the Church Order, and further with all things which the consistory considers necessary for general management, including the material affairs of the church."
Here we read of two matters dealt with by consistory together with the deacons: 1, items of general management, including finances, budgeting, mission work, synod and other matters pertaining to the bond of churches; 2, those matters as described for that purpose by the Church Order; i.e. those matters the churches have agreed to deal with as consistories together with the deacons. These are as follows:
The calling to office: Article 3
"The calling to office shall take place by the consistory with the deacons .... The consistory with the deacons shall give the congregation the opportunity to draw the attention of the consistory to brothers deemed suitable for the respective offices. The consistory with the deacons shall present to the congregation at the most twice as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filed.... Those elected shall be appointed by the consistory with the deacons."
The release of a minister from a church: Article 7
"A minister once lawfully called shall not leave the church to which he is bound to take up the ministry elsewhere without the consent of his consistory with the deacons and the approval of classis."
The dismissal of a minister: Article 14
"The consistory with the deacons shall not dismiss a minister from his bond with the congregation ...."
Deacons may be added to the consistory: Article 37
Although the Church Order stipulates in Article 36 that a consistory is composed of the minister(s) and the elders, it does also make allowance for the deacons to be included with the consistory if numbers so require it:
"Where the number of elders and deacons is small the deacons may be added to the consistory by local arrangement. This shall invariably be done where there are less than three elders and less than three deacons. In these circumstances matters pertaining to supervision and discipline shall be handled with the advice of the deacons and matters pertaining to the office of deacons with the advice of the elders."
On the other hand, in Article 30 of the Belgic Confession we confess that the ministers and elders, together with the deacons, form the consistory:
"We believe that this true Church must be governed according to the Spiritual order which our Lord has taught us in His Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; there should also be elders and deacons who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church."
Such was the case when deBres wrote the Belgic Confession in 1561 and it was still so in 1568 when the Convent of Wezel drew up a Church Order.
Due to historical reasons the deacons became increasingly involved in financial matters and there developed a separation between the offices of minister and elder on the one hand and the office of deacon on the other. This was reflected in the Church Order of Dort, 1618-19. On the basis of Scripture one cannot say that the one is more correct than the other. Our Church Order today stipulates neither of the two extremes above, but has the deacons working together with the consistory in certain matters, and elders and deacons do indeed co-operate as required.
The churches involve classis in matters they themselves were unable to finalise. If local churches have a problem, such as a difficult discipline case, they may seek advice from their neighbouring churches via classis. As stated earlier, it is a scriptural principle that there is wisdom in consulting together. Classis, then, does not set its own agenda, but the churches who meet together list the items each may wish on the agenda. Consequently, Article 30 states,
"A major assembly shall deal only with matters which could not be finished in the minor assembly or which belong to its churches in common. A new matter may be put on its agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it."
The Church Order has also assigned certain tasks to classes. These include matters pertaining to entry to and release from the ministry:
Eligibility for the ministry: Article 5.B
"Only those shall be declared eligible for call within the churches who (1) have passed a preparatory examination by the classis in which they live ...."
Exceptional gifts: Article 8
When a person with exceptional gifts has not undertaken the regular theological studies but
"presents himself for the ministry, classis shall (with synod’s prior approval) examine him, and upon a favourable outcome allow him, as candidate, to speak an edifying word in the churches of the classis for a set period of time. Thereafter the classis shall further deal with him as it shall deem edifying, observing the ecclesiastical regulations adopted for this purpose."
The dismissal of a minister: Article 14
"The consistory with the deacons shall not dismiss a minister from his bond with the congregation without the approval of classis and the concurring advice of the deputies of synod."
Church Visitation: Article 44
"Each year classis shall authorise at least two of the more experienced and able ministers to visit the churches in that year. If necessary the classis may authorise a capable elder to carry out this task together with a minister. It shall be the task of these visitors to inquire whether all things are regulated and done in full harmony with the Word of God, whether the office-bearers fulfil the duties of their office faithfully as they have promised, and whether the Church Order is being observed and maintained in every respect, in order that they may in good time fraternally admonish those who are found negligent in any thing, and that by their good counsel and advice all things may be directed towards the edification and preservation of Christ’s church. They shall submit written reports of their visits to classis."
Church visitation serves to assure the churches that when they meet together in their assemblies they are meeting as churches which remain faithful in their service of the Lord. They need to investigate each other whether church life is conducted according to the principles they as churches have agreed upon and formulated in the Church Order. Church visitors are to inquire whether the office-bearers are faithful in carrying out their respective offices, ensuring faithful preaching, pure administration of the sacraments and that discipline is exercised. If the church visited is found to be a faithful church of the Lord the visitors report this to classis, testifying thereby to the other churches in classis that this is a worthy sister church with which they can work together. When church visitors find a church to be unfaithful in any matter, they must speak to the consistory, not on their own authority, but on the basis of Scripture, in brotherly admonition. On the basis of the consistory’s response to the admonition the visitors report to classis.
The appointment of counsellors for vacant churches: Article 43
"Each vacant church shall request classis to appoint as counsellor the minister it desires as such, to the end that he may assist the consistory in maintaining good order and especially may lend his aid in the matter of the calling of a minister; he shall also sign the letter of call."
The counsellor’s role is to stay informed with matters pertaining to the vacant church, ensuring that good order is maintained in all matters, for example, that office-bearers are appointed according to the correct procedures, and being available to give advice as required.
Dealing with appeals from church members: Article 31
"If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly he shall have the right of appeal to the major assembly; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order."
This article recognises that the brothers of consistory are sinful men who can make mistakes. If a person rightfully complains to his consistory that it has wronged him, the consistory should acknowledge this. However, in the absence of such an acknowledgment from consistory, a person may appeal to classis for it to decide by a majority vote. This decision of classis must be considered as settled and binding UNLESS it is proven to be unscriptural.
Important here is the motive of the appellant. Every church member must adopt for himself the attitude that it is the Lord who, in His care for the congregation, has given specific brothers as office-bearers to the congregation. Therefore, when a consistory judges a matter, the members must start with the premise that the brothers aim to perform their office correctly. If it appears that consistory errs over against a member, it must be with a spirit of reluctance that he appeals to classis. Likewise, if classis errs, it is with a spirit of reluctance that an appeal is sent to synod. Appeals should not be regarded as a matter of course for one to pursue if one does not get his way.
The Church Order stipulates the following about synods specifically:
Article 45 - Synod
The synod shall be held once every three years. Each classis shall delegate two ministers and two elders to synod. At the close of synod the time and place for the next synod shall be determined and a church shall be appointed to convene it. A synod shall be convened before the appointed time if according to the judgment of at least two classes this appears necessary. Its time and place shall be decided by the church appointed as convening church for the next regular synod, subject to the approval of its classis.
The task of synod has already been stated in Article 30. As a major assembly, it
"shall only deal with ecclesiastical matters and in an ecclesiastical manner ... (dealing) only with matters which could not be finished in the minor assembly or which belong to its churches in common. A new matter may be put on its agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it."
Unfinished matters from the minor assembly would include appeals, and matters which the churches have in common would include matters as Bible translations, classes formation or relationships with churches abroad.
That relationships with other churches is not a local matter but instead a matter for the bond of churches together is specifically acknowledged in the Church Order:
Article 46 - Relationship with other churches
The relationship with other churches shall be regulated by synod. With churches of Reformed confession sister relations shall be maintained as much as possible. On non-essential points of ecclesiastical practice other churches shall not be rejected.
Non-essential points of ecclesiastical practice are, for example, the number of times a baby is sprinkled with water at baptism, whether to stand or sit for the Lord’s Supper, whether people should kneel for prayer. A matter as who a Consistory may permit to the Lord’s table is not a "non-essential point of ecclesiastical practice" since it receives particular attention in Article 57 (see below).
As with classis, a synod has no authority. Its agenda is put together by the churches (through classis) and the churches agree to accept what Synod decides, unless its decisions are contrary to Scripture.
Synods are short lived. Once the established agenda is completed, a Synod no longer exists. Yet instances arise where the mind of the bond of churches is required or where decisions made by Synod need to be executed. Accordingly, Synod appoints deputies.
Article 48 - Deputies of major assemblies
Each synod shall appoint deputies who are to assist the classes in all matters provided for in the Church Order. A classis may request these deputies to assist in cases of special difficulties. Each synod shall also appoint deputies to carry out its own decisions. Different deputies shall be appointed as much as possible for separate matters. All deputies shall keep proper record of their work and submit a written report."
With regard to deputies assisting in "all matters provided for in the Church Order," these matters refer to the ordination and installation of ministers (Article 6.A.1.b), the dismissal of ministers (Article 14), and the deposition of ministers (Article 76).
With regard to deputies carrying out synod’s own decisions, the reference is to persons being made responsible for relations with sister churches, relations with other Reformed or Presbyterian churches, Bible translation, training for the ministry, synod procedures and rules, archives and library of synod, etc. All deputies must report to the next Synod on the work they have done.
8. OTHER MATTERS PERTAINING TO ASSEMBLIES
8.1 Censure and Prayer
Article 29 - Proceedings
The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin and end with prayer.
One might question the necessity of including such an article in the Church Order. However, its inclusion is important for two reasons. One, it serves to impress that our help is in the Name of the Lord. At every assembly the brothers are busy with the Lord’s work. Before the brothers begin their work they need to ask the Lord for wisdom to make decisions that are pleasing to Him and of benefit to His churches, and on completion of their work they need to ask for the Lord’s blessing on the decisions made.
Secondly, Article 29 serves to undergird the stipulation of Articles 34 and 47. The brothers that meet in the assemblies remain sinful brothers, and in recognition of this fact, the Church Order stipulates that the chairman of an assembly
"shall deny the floor to those who argue about minor things or who let themselves be carried away and cannot control their emotions, and discipline those who refuse to listen" (Article 34)
"At the close of the major assemblies censure shall be exercised over those who in the meeting have done something worthy of reproof" (Article 47).
When there has been unbrotherly conduct and disharmony in a meeting, prayer is not possible unless their has been reconciliation.
8.2 Tasks of the chairman and clerk / Record Keeping
Article 34 - Chairman and clerk
In all assemblies there shall be a chairman and a clerk. The chairman’s task is to present and explain clearly the matters to be dealt with and ensure that every one observes due order in speaking .... His task shall cease when the assembly ends. The clerk shall keep an accurate record of all things worthy of being recorded.
Local rules will outline the tasks of the chairman and the clerk in far more detail. Keeping accurate records of previous decisions and their grounds is important for a couple of reasons. One is simply the matter of consistency and continuity. Further, Article 33 of the Church Order stipulates that "Matters once decided upon may not be proposed again unless they are substantiated by new grounds." Hence the inclusion of Article 49 that "The assemblies shall ensure that proper care is taken of the archives."
8.3 Constitution of a consistory / Places without a consistory
Before a congregation can be instituted, concurring advice of classis is required.
ARTICLE 38 - Constitution of a consistory:
If a consistory is to be constituted for the first time or anew, the advice of the classis church shall be sought.
The reason for this is first of all that the new congregation will become a member of the bond of churches. Then the bond of churches (via classis) will want to be satisfied that the motives for institution are valid (or is it an attempt to break away from a disliked minister or consistory – which is an unchristian attitude), that there are adequate office-bearers to tend to the needs of the sheep in this new flock, and that the new congregation can survive (though assistance can be offered here if necessary). Though no minimum or maximum numbers are specified for the congregation as a whole, there must however be at least three office-bearers.
However, until such times that a consistory can be constituted, Article 39 applies:
ARTICLE 39 - Places without a consistory
Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be assigned by synod to the care of a neighbouring consistory.
This stipulation is included in the Church Order to ensure that all sheep of the Lord receive the pastoral care they require.
8.4 Mission Work
The gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ has been entrusted to the church (1 Timothy 3:15; 4:6). The church is charged by the Lord to bring this gospel to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19f). Each church, then, has the privileged obligation to do all within its ability to cause the gospel to go out to those who do not know the Lord. However, not every church has within its own membership the means to support a missionary. It is fitting, then, that the churches of a given area cooperate together in mission work. In Article 50 the churches have agreed to do so.
Article 50 - Mission
The churches shall endeavour to fulfil their missionary task. In doing so they shall observe the provisions of this Church Order. When churches cooperate in mission work they shall as much as possible observe the division into classes.
It could be argued that the matter of Mission would be better placed in Section 1 of the Church Order. The reason for its placement in Section 2 is because it speaks of the churches engaging in mission work co-operatively in classical areas.