The Church Order of Dort - Articles 51-68
Principle and Practice of Reformed Church Polity
THE CHURCH ORDER OF DORT
III. WORSHIP, SACRAMENTS AND CEREMONIES
Section One of the Church Order dealt with the Lord’s church gathering work. As we noted, in this church gathering work the Lord is pleased to make use of office-bearers. The Church Order has described the responsibilities of the offices and how office-bearers should fulfil their respective responsibilities. Although the local church is an ecclesiastical assembly in its own right, the church gathering work of the Lord is not restricted to the local scene only. Hence each local church, for mutual benefit, interacts with sister churches within relative proximity. This interaction takes place via broader ecclesiastical assemblies such as classes and synods. In Section Two of the Church Order we examined the various agreements the churches have made with regard to the authority, constitution, and jurisdiction of each of the ecclesiastical assemblies.
The church the Lord gathers also operates in a certain manner. Section Three of the Church Order makes some stipulations in relation to how things ought to be done in relation to worship, sacraments and ceremonies.
Scripture teaches that faith is worked by the Holy Spirit through the preaching. "And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? ... So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:14-17). This is echoed in the Lord’s Day 25.65 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
"Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all His benefits, where does this faith come from?
From the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments."
The preaching is critical for faith in God. This given of Scripture has prompted the churches to make the following agreement in the Church Order for observance throughout the bond of churches:
ARTICLE 62 - Church services
The consistory shall call the congregation together for church services twice on the Lord’s Day.
The church is the workshop of the Holy Spirit; here it is that the Spirit through the preaching is pleased to work faith in the hearts of the hearers. Note how Article 62 goes further than simply stating that the consistory shall call the congregation together for church services. It also stipulates the day on which services should be held and the frequency of the worship services.
1.1 CHURCH SERVICES ON THE LORD’S DAY
The congregation is to come together for church services on the Lord’s Day. For Old Testament Israel the Lord’s Day was the Sabbath, the last day of the week. Living in New Testament times we observe the Lord’s Day on Sunday, the first day of the week. (It is clear from Article 63 that by Lord’s Day the Sunday is meant). The transition of the Lord’s Day from Sabbath to Sunday is based on developments that took place in the New Testament church after Jesus’ death, as revealed to us in Scripture:
John 20:1, 19
Here we read that the disciples assembled together on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, which took place on the first day of the week.
"Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.... Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled ...."
"And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, "Peace to you!"
John makes a point of telling us that "after eight days" the disciples were again together. (By Jewish reckoning, "after eight days" is again the Sunday – counting from Sunday to Sunday.) Though by Old Testament regulation the disciples ought to be at work, they are today assembled together, including Thomas. On this day, and not on the Sabbath, Jesus chose to meet with His disciples again.
Two significant details are recorded here concerning the first day of the week. On this first day of the week the disciples were again assembled together. This particular first day of the week was also the day on which the Holy Spirit was poured out. In Acts 2:1 one reads, "When the day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place." The day of Pentecost is the New Testament name for the Old Testament ‘Feast of Weeks.’ Pentecost means fifty. This day of Pentecost was fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (again, by Jewish reckoning, counting from both the day of resurrection and the day of Pentecost). While the disciples were gathered together on this first day of the week, the Lord was pleased to pour out His Holy Spirit.
"Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread ...."
The pattern expressed in the weeks after Jesus’ resurrection and confirmed on the day of Pentecost became the norm for the New Testament church. Nowhere do any of the apostles condemn or correct this pattern. On the contrary, the apostles approve it, and even command it, as the next quote shows.
1 Corinthians 16:1,2
Paul made the following request of the saints at Corinth,
"Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come."
The implication of this statement is that the Corinthian saints met together for worship not on the Sabbath but on the first day of the week. That is why Paul nominated this day for the saints to make their offerings for the collection for the saints.
John, exiled to the island of Patmos, records the following,
"I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day ...."
The ‘Lord’s Day’ is a reference to the day of the week on which the Lord Jesus rose from the dead, i.e. the first day. If the Lord God wished His saints to give no special attention to this day, He would neither have called it "the Lord’s Day" nor told us that John’s vision came to him on this day of the week.
The above Scripture texts served as adequate evidence for the fathers to specify that the consistory should call the congregation together for church services on the first day of the week.
1.2 TWO CHURCH SERVICES PER SUNDAY
That people assembled together for worship on the first day of the week can quite easily be established on the basis of Scripture. What is not so clear from Scripture is the number of times people assembled on a Sunday. From the Old Testament we learn that the people had to offer sacrifices twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening. In Numbers 28:1-4 we read, "Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Command the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘My offering, My food for My offerings made by fire as a sweet aroma to Me, you shall be careful to offer to Me at their appointed time.’ And you shall say to them, ‘This is the offering made by fire which you shall offer to the LORD: two male lambs in their first year without blemish, day by day, as a regular burnt offering. The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, the other lamb you shall offer in the evening." Although this instruction of the Lord related to the daily sacrifices rather than the weekly day of worship, inherent in it is a valuable principle which the fathers took to heart. By means of daily sacrifices offered both in the morning and in the evening, every entire day for each Israelite was bracketed by visible gospel preaching and prayer. The sacrifices were a visible proclamation of the gospel of substitution. Twice a day it was impressed upon the people that although it was they who deserved to die on account of their sins, God accepted the lambs they sacrificed as an atonement for their sins. God did so with a view to the death of His Son, The Lamb, would die in the future. This is the closest the fathers could come in terms of scriptural argumentation for stipulating that consistories should call congregations together for worship twice per Sunday. The fathers reasoned that the whole Sunday, from morning to evening, should be devoted to the Lord.
The consistory, then, shall call the congregation together for church services twice on the Lord’s Day. The elders shall generate opportunity for the flock entrusted to them to hear the preaching of the Word through which the Holy Spirit works faith.
In the preaching it is important that "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) be proclaimed. The whole Word of God has been given by the Spirit for the edification of God’s people, and He is pleased to use the whole Word to work and strengthen faith. The preaching of the Word , then, should not neglect any point of doctrine contained in Scripture. The preacher, though, is a sinful man. It is possible for a minister to preach his way through particular Bible books without touching on certain points of doctrine; yes, it is possible that he is loathe to preach on a particular doctrinal matter and so avoids certain Scripture passages. For that reason the fathers added to the Church Order Article 63 concerning the need for Catechism preaching once per Sunday:
Article 63 - Catechism preaching
The consistory shall ensure that as a rule once every Sunday the doctrine of God’s Word as summarised in the Heidelberg Catechism is proclaimed, preferably in the afternoon service.
Article 63 is evidence of what the fathers have done in an effort to ensure that Satan does not sabotage the work of the Holy Spirit through the preaching. Similar efforts were made earlier in the Church Order by including Articles 24-26, about the Subscription Form and False Doctrine. The evil one goes out of his way to spread heresy. Paul warns the elders of Ephesus, "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock" (Acts 20:29). In 2 Corinthians 11:13 Paul likewise warns against "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ." If at all possible, Satan will plant heresies amongst God’s people, making the lie more appealing than the truth. In 2 Timothy 3:5-8 Paul urges Timothy to turn away from those "having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! ... Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith." The problem is that people like false teaching. "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:3,4). Timothy should not be surprised, for it is in the human heart to desire what is most pleasing to the self. Therefore the fathers saw the need for stipulating that in the worship services the doctrine be taught on a regular basis. The congregation needs to be safeguarded against any opportunity Satan may generate in his efforts to entice believers away from the truth. Hence the agreement that the doctrine of the Word of God as summarised in the Heidelberg Catechism be proclaimed Sunday by Sunday.
As a point of interest, Articles 24 and 25 (concerning the Subscription Form) used to be included in Section Three of the Church Order. This fact points up how seriously the fathers took Paul’s warnings about Satan’s attacks.
1.3 SINGING IN THE WORSHIP SERVICES
Satan is cunning and will use whatever means available to divert people from the truth. Singing touches people’s emotions and Satan will also play on these. Hence there is good reason for stipulating in the Church Order what ought to be sung in a church service.
ARTICLE 64 - Psalms and hymns
In the church services only the psalms and hymns approved by synod shall be sung.
Although the Church Order cannot specify what ought to be sung in the homes or the schools, there is no reason why the arguments for prescribing the 150 psalms and a select number of hymns to be sung in church would not be equally valid for the homes and the schools. If we want the threefold triangle of church-home-school to be a closely-knit triangle, then we want to use the material of the church in the homes and schools also. Let home and school not undermine the Church Order. With church-life being central to our lives, there should be a ripple effect from the church into our homes and schools. Parents and teachers should therefore be encouraged to teach the children the songs of the church. The words of the 150 psalms as we find them in our Bible (and put to rhyme in our Book of Praise) come from God Himself and the hymns approved by synod are (largely) other portions of God’s Word put to rhyme. With what better words could we praise God in song than with the Word He Himself has given to us? No songs of man, not even Charles Wesley’s hymns, can equal God’s songs. Let us recognise the wealth we have received in our Book of Praise and sing these songs.
Preaching is the tool used by the Holy Spirit for working faith in people’s hearts. By audible preaching the Spirit instils faith and by visible preaching, i.e. the administration of the sacraments, the Spirit strengthens faith (see Lord’s Day 25 above). Satan prefers to choke faith so that it perishes, and history proves how hard he has tried to twist, hollow-out or destroy the sacraments. For the sake of protecting God’s church against Satan’s attacks on the sacraments, and to ensure that faith is indeed strengthened by their use as God intended it, the fathers saw need to include the following article on the administration of the sacraments:
ARTICLE 51 - Administration of sacraments
The sacraments shall be administered only in a church service by a minister of the Word with the use of the adopted Forms, and under the supervision of the elders.
Article 51 stipulates four conditions under which the sacraments must be administered:
(a) Only in a church service:
The preaching of the gospel has been entrusted to the church, occurring in church under the supervision of the elders who are the official authority in the church. What is true of the audible preaching applies equally to the visible preaching; Word and sacraments cannot be separated. The sacraments are not the private domain of the minister, the church member or a club, and so they cannot be administered in people’s homes or in any private place. The sacraments belong to the church, the communion of saints, and so they must be administered where the saints are assembled and the elders are present.
(b) By a minister of the Word:
This stipulation emphasises the direct association between the sacraments and the preaching. Audible preaching and visible preaching have essentially the same message. The man entrusted with the task of the audible preaching of the Gospel is also the man entitled to administer the sacraments – the visible preaching. The two cannot be separated.
(c) With the use of the adopted Forms:
The fathers recognised that the heart of man is subtle and that Satan will do what he can to twist the truth of the gospel. What Scripture teaches concerning baptism and holy supper is accurately captured in the respective Forms. So, in order to protect the congregation from twisted doctrine, the churches have agreed that only these Forms are to be used in the administration of the sacraments. If a scriptural understanding of the gospel contained in the sacraments is not set before those who receive the sacraments, their faith will not be strengthened as ought. And the preaching as a whole will deteriorate also.
(d) Under the supervision of the elders:
The elders have been charged to watch over the flock, ensuring too that the flock receives the truth of God’s Word. The visible preaching of the gospel in the sacraments, then, must come to the people not by the hand of one individual alone, but under the supervision of the elders.
2.1.1 INFANT BAPTISM
ARTICLE 52 - Baptism of infants
The consistory shall ensure that the covenant of God is sealed by baptism to the children of believers as soon as feasible.
Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s covenant. The content of this covenant is explained in detail in the adopted Forms referred to in Article 51. That God includes children in His covenant is clear from the following Scripture texts:
God said to Abram, "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you."
God made His covenant not with the man Abram alone, but also with his seed. That God specifically included also the children in His covenant of grace is pointed up in the fact that every male child born to Abram’s house was to receive in his flesh, already at the early age of eight days, the sign of God’s covenant. Said God, "This is my covenant which you shall keep, between Me and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised…. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised ...." If a child was not circumcised he was excluded from the covenant and its blessings. "And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant."
Said Peter to all who had assembled together on the day of Pentecost, "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call."
God does not change. As His Old Testament promises extended specifically also to the children, any change of this pattern would have to be announced in so many words in the New Testament. There is no such text. Instead, Peter on the day of Pentecost speaks specifically of "the promise" (that’s the one from the Old Testament, Genesis 17) being for the adults gathered before him "and to your children." All heirs of God’s promises, including the children, are then to receive the sign and seal of these promises.
1 Corinthians 7:14
"For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy."
The children of believers, even if children have only one believing parent, are holy in God’s eyes; they belong to Him. God claims the child for Himself right at the beginning of its life, and therefore the child needs to receive the sign of the covenant right at the beginning.
The essential content of circumcision and baptism is inherently identical. Of this fact the church has made profession in Article 34 of the Belgic Confession:
"We believe and confess that Jesus Christ ... has abolished circumcision, which involved blood, and has instituted in its place the sacrament of baptism.... (The little children of believers) ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as infants were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises which are now made to our children. Indeed, Christ shed His blood to wash the children of believers just as much as He shed it for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, as the Lord commanded in the law that a lamb was to be offered shortly after children were born. This was a sacrament of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Because baptism has the same meaning for our children as circumcision had for the people of Israel, Paul calls baptism the circumcision of Christ."
Article 52 stipulates that the children of believers should be baptised "as soon as feasible." This is in obedience to what the Lord commanded in Genesis 17:12. God insisted on circumcision at the very early age of eight days. Because the content of circumcision and baptism is identical, this text has value in the new dispensation also. Therefore children must be baptised as soon as feasible.
2.1.2 TEACHING THE COVENANT CHILDREN
Take note of how Article 52 (above) is formulated. It does not say that the parents shall ensure that the covenant of God is sealed by baptism but rather, "the consistory shall ensure ...." The Church Order concerns itself with the proper functioning of the church and therefore this article is about consistory’s responsibility in relation to the administration of the sacrament of baptism. Here the Church Order alludes to the consistory’s teaching role. The children God entrusts to believers are His children, who also need the care of office bearers. Yet God has entrusted these children not to the office bearers as such, but to parents. The office bearers, therefore, need to see to it that parents understand the identity of the children God entrusts to them. The result of parents understanding the riches of God’s covenant will surely be that they present their child for holy baptism, and do so as soon as feasible. Satan for his part would love to see the church ignorant of the identity of the children God gives, and so works hard (and not without success) to get people to believe for example, that baptism is not for infants but for adults only. The consistory has the task to teach what God has revealed in His Word about baptism and God will bless this instruction by making the parents see their responsibility.
The Scripture texts quoted above concerning the inclusion of the children in God’s covenant receive further application in Article 53.
ARTICLE 53 - Baptismal promise and education
The consistory shall make sure that the parents honour their vows to instruct their children, to the utmost of their power, in the doctrine of the Scriptures as summarised in the confessions, and to have them instructed in the same by the instruction provided by the consistory.
In accordance with the same vow, the consistory shall see to it that the parents, to the best of their ability, and with the cooperation of the communion of saints, give their children education (as stipulated by the civil government) which is based on Scripture and Confession.
We commonly speak in terms of parents receiving children, and so emphasising the responsibility of the children to honour their God-given parents. It is also true, though, that God gives children to parents. That is to say: God is pleased to use particular parents to raise particular children of His. So the parents of a given child receive from the Lord the specific task to teach this child who he is, namely, a covenant child. This duty of the parents is drawn out in various passages of Scripture.
In Genesis 18:19 we read of the task God gave to Abraham as the parent of covenant children. "For I have known (Abraham), in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him." Here is a charge to Abraham: because God’s covenant is made with him and his seed, he needs to make it his business to teach his offspring the way of the Lord.
The Israelites had experienced the plagues God sent to Egypt, the Exodus from Egypt, had walked the path God had made for them by separating the waters of the Red Sea, and had gathered together before the Lord when He made His covenant with them at Horeb (Mt Sinai). Forty years later, many Israelites would still have had clear memories of these events when God gave the following instruction, "Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren, especially concerning the day you stood before the LORD your God in Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’ Then you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, .... And the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire .... So He declared to you His covenant ..." (Deuteronomy 4:9-13). The parents, and also the grandparents, are to instruct the younger generation about the works of God, and especially about His covenant made at Horeb. God repeats this instruction in Deuteronomy 6:6,7, "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up."
The instruction of the children is the responsibility of the parents. Yet we need to understand that the elders have a task here also. Said Paul to the elders of Ephesus, "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" (Acts 20:28). A flock consists not only of mature sheep, but also of lambs. The elders must take heed to the entire flock. The elders need to see to it that the lambs of God’s flock receive from their God-given parents the care they actually need. When parents present their children for baptism, they answer in the affirmative this question: "… do you promise as father and mother to instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he (she) is able to understand, and to have him (her) instructed therein to the utmost of your power?" It is the task of the elders to ensure that parents faithfully carry out the promise of this vow.
The matter may be schematised as in the diagram. Elders have a task in relation to both the parents and the children. However, the care for the children is given first of all to the parents. The elders’ responsibility to the children is via the parents. The consistory must ensure that parents are obedient to the task to which they are called in the passages of Scripture as cited above. If the parents are remiss in doing their job in relation to the children, then the elders’ task in relation to the parents is to remind them to be faithful to their vows, and their task in relation to the children is to see to it that they receive the instruction they need. To assist the parents in their task, the consistory must also conduct catechism classes and see to it that the parents have their children attend these classes and do the assigned work. Further, the elders need to include the children in their annual homevists. All this the elders owe to the children because the children are part of the flock God entrusted to their care.
The second part of Article 53 deals with the consistory’s responsibility towards the children’s schooling. Here it is not stipulated that the consistory is responsible for organising and setting up Reformed schools. Rather, the consistory should impress upon the parents, and the whole communion of saints, the importance of Reformed schools. It is because the children are holy in God’s eyes, set apart in a godless society, that they need Reformed education at school.
However, setting up a Reformed school never frees the parents from their responsibility of teaching their children the doctrine of Scripture. Though Satan wishes for parents to think that teaching the children in the ways of the Lord is the teacher’s job, the Lord clearly delegates this task to the parents. If the parents aren’t faithful in their responsibilities towards their children at home, then the work of the schools will fail. Satan does not spare the little ones in the flock. So it will not do for the elders to stand idly by if parents neglect to instruct their children, or send their children to a school that is godless. Similarly, the office bearers do well to ensure that the instruction given at the schools indeed accords with the identity of the children as God’s little ones.
2.1.3 PUBLIC PROFESSION OF FAITH
By the grace of the Lord, who blesses faithful work of parents and elders, the lambs of His flock grow into mature sheep. It is a fruit of the labours of parents and elders that the youth of the church grow spiritually to the point when they themselves respond to their baptism. In Article 54 this personal response of accepting in faith the promises and obligations of God’s covenant is given the name of ‘Public Profession of Faith.’
ARTICLE 54 - Public profession of faith
Those who desire to publicly profess their faith shall be examined by the consistory on their motivation and knowledge of the doctrine of God’s Word. The public profession shall take place in a church service, with the use of the adopted Form.
Article 54 reflects again that the elders are responsible for the entire flock. It is they who must examine the youth on their motivation for professing their faith, and their knowledge of the doctrine of Scripture. This examination is more than an academic exercise. The knowledge gleaned over the years through parental instruction, church instruction and school needs to be complimented by a lifestyle pleasing to the Lord and a love for the God who rescued from Satan’s clutches. The consistory needs to be convinced that the motivation for professing the faith is genuine.
If the elders can discern a sincere, loving faith in response to the nurture and instruction by the parents and office-bearers, then the public profession takes place in a church service with the use of the adopted Form. By baptism one is grafted into the Christian church, the body of true believers, and so it is fitting that one’s response to baptism should also take place when the members of the body meet together. The content of one’s public profession of faith must be the same as that of all the other members and for that reason Article 54 stipulates the use of the adopted Form.
2.1.4 ADULT BAPTISM
Not all those whom God has chosen to life are born and raised in the church – and hence baptised as infants. God has His elect also outside the covenant circle, and for that reason "sends heralds of this most joyful message to whom He will and when He wills" (Canons of Dort, I,3). As a result of such mission work (be it ‘official’ or ‘unofficial’), people come to faith as adults. In accordance with Mark 16:16, these new believers must also be baptised, "He who believes and is baptised will be saved …." The apostles followed this pattern too when their preaching met with faith in the hearers (Acts 8:38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15,33; 18:8). In recognition of this instruction of the Lord, the churches have agreed the following:
ARTICLE 55 - Baptism of adults
Adults who have not been baptised shall be grafted into the Christian church by holy baptism upon their public profession of faith.
Here it is recognised that adults are not to be baptised unless they believe. So public profession of the faith must precede baptism of adults. The ‘Form for Adult Baptism’ is essentially an amalgamation of the two forms adopted for infant baptism and public profession of faith.
For those adults who come to faith later in life but have already been baptised, the church recognises their baptism as long as this baptism was administered by a person who was an officially recognised office bearer in that church, the person was baptised in the name of the Triune God (and not, say, in the name of Love, Hope and Charity), and the sacrament was administered with the use of water.
2.2 THE LORD’S SUPPER
Agreements have been made in the Church Order also in relation to the second sacrament the Lord has given to His church. The manner in which the sacrament of the Lord’s supper ought to be administered has already been dealt with in Article 51. The Lord’s supper, like baptism, "shall be administered only in a church service by a minister of the Word with the use of the adopted Forms, and under the supervision of the elders." Article 56 does not go into any details either concerning the content of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper for this is contained in the "adopted Form" stipulated in Article 51.
ARTICLE 56 - Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper shall be celebrated at least once every three months.
The brevity of Article 56 has no bearing on its significance. In Article 56 the fathers acknowledged two important realities. Firstly, by the respective eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood, the believers are spiritually nourished and encouraged. Secondly, since Satan is at work to see the faith of all believers shrivel and die, he does all he can to prevent such nourishment and encouragement obtained through this sacrament and so he tries to prevent its celebration. For that reason the fathers stipulated that the Lord’s supper shall be celebrated at least once every three months.
One could discuss at length the merits of celebrating the Lord’s supper a given number of times per year. Scripture gives no command here. Over against the trend to multiply celebrations, it is worthwhile to note what God stipulated concerning the celebration of the Old Testament sacrament of Passover (which had the same essential content as the New Testament sacrament of Lord’s supper). Passover had to be celebrated at a fixed frequency of once per year; no more, no less. "On the fourteenth day of the first month is the Passover of the LORD" (Numbers 28:16). Familiarity breeds contempt! Like food that is eaten too often and tends to lose its taste and appeal, the significance the Lord’s supper can be lost on us if we celebrate this sacrament too often. The churches have decided only on a minimum number of celebrations per year namely, at least once every three months. For the rest, the matter is left to the discretion of the local consistory.
Article 57 addresses the question of who should sit at the table of the Lord.
ARTICLE 57 - Admission to the Lord’s Supper
The consistory shall admit to the Lord’s Supper only those who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life. Members of sister churches shall be admitted on the basis of a good attestation concerning their doctrine and conduct.
The Lord’s table is not open to just anybody. The onus lies first on the individual to ensure that he is indeed able before God to sit at the Lord’s table. Speaking of the Lord’s supper in 1 Corinthians 11:28-30, the apostle Paul stresses personal responsibility for lawful participation in the sacrament. "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep."
The fact that the individual is responsible for his or her participation in the sacrament does not exclude the fact that the elders also have a responsibility here. In the Old Testament the priests were responsible for the ‘fencing of the tabernacle.’ The people of God came to the tabernacle regularly with their sacrifices. However, not all could actually present sacrifices. Leviticus 13 for example speak of persons with leprosy. We are to understand that the leprosy spoken of in this chapter had nothing to do with the illness known today as Hansen’s Disease. Instead, the point of leprosy was that death –that result of the fall into sin- had manifestly found a place in the person. The sores and spots, then, symbolised the spiritual affliction with which all people were afflicted. So, "when a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes on the skin of his body like a leprous sore, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall examine the sore…" (Leviticus 13:2). As a result of his finding, the priest ultimately might have to instruct the Israelite with the spot that he was "unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:46). That meant also that unclean person could not enter the tabernacle of the Lord. Before a leper could again be admitted he first had to be examined by the priest and be pronounced clean (Leviticus 14:1).
Article 57 stipulates that the consistory shall ‘fence’ the Lord’s table. When a person continues in sin despite having received admonitions from others in private (and so continues to present himself at the table of the Lord), the consistory must take on the task of discipline and withhold the sinner from the communion of the Lord’s table. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul admonishes the church at Corinth for having failed to discipline the brother who lived in a sinful relationship with his stepmother. Paul’s instruction is therefore to "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh..." (1 Corinthians 5:5). This brother had to be barred from the Lord’s table. It is imperative that the consistory carry out its responsibility in this regard for unlawful participation has serious consequences for the sinner and for the congregation. In Corinth there was weakness, sickness and death in the congregation (1 Corinthians 11:30). God has made the elders accountable for the souls of the congregation members. "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls as those who must give account." (Hebrews 13:17). The office-bearers have a responsibility to guard the Lord’s table lest He pour out His wrath upon the congregation.
Although it is not explicitly stated in Article 57 that children are excluded from the Lord’s table, this is implied in the condition that one must have professed the Reformed faith and be leading a godly life. Children are not yet of an age that enables them to fully understand and responsibly answer to the promises and obligations received in God’s covenant. Children first need to mature to an age of discernment.
Having professed the Reformed faith at some point in one’s life does not mean that one is automatically entitled to be admitted to the Lord’s table. As Article 57 stipulates, one also needs to be leading a godly life. The two criteria, profession of faith and a godly life, are equally valid for all persons. There may be no double standards in this regard. Therefore the churches have agreed that "Members of sister churches shall be admitted on the basis of a good attestation concerning their doctrine and conduct." An attestation (see below) is a testimony from one’s consistory concerning a person’s ‘spiritual temperature.’ A church accepts the attestations it receives for members from sister churches because it accepts the work of the office-bearers in those churches. Anyone who is not a member of the local church or of one of its sister churches must first be examined by consistory "on their motivation and knowledge of the doctrine of God’s Word" (Article 54).
3. RECORDS AND ATTESTATIONS
3.1 Church Records
Article 58 picks up on the matter of church records and it is placed here because it ties in directly with the previous articles concerning the sacraments. This article reads,
Article 58 - Church records
The consistory shall maintain Church records in which the names of the members and the dates of their birth, baptism, public profession of faith, marriage, and departure or death are properly recorded.
These data are important because they assist the elders in their task. In order to be able to shepherd the flock the elders need to know who their sheep are, as well as pertinent information about the sheep. So the churches have agreed to keep proper records of these things.
It is not correct to regard an attestation as an existing personal document valid for all time which one requests to see or have access to. An attestation is a testimony concerning one’s spiritual health at the time of writing, which one requests when wishing to participate in the Lord’s supper in a sister church (Article 57), or when one moves to and wishes to join a sister church in another locality (Article 59). The Scriptures background for the practice of issuing attestations include the following:
Paul writes to the saints in Rome, "I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also." This communication from Paul amounts to a testimony to the church at Rome about sister Phoebe.
Similarly, we read of Apollos receiving an ‘attestation’ when he travelled from Ephesus to Achaia: "And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived he greatly helped those who had believed through grace."
1 Corinthians 16:3
Paul instructed the Corinthians to lay aside gifts for the needy in Jerusalem. He adds, "And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem."
On the strength of such like passages, the churches have agreed to given written testimonies concerning members who seek to visit or join another church.
ARTICLE 59 - Attestations for communicant members
Communicant members who move to another congregation shall be given, following appropriate announcements to the congregation, an attestation regarding their doctrine and conduct, signed on behalf of the consistory by two authorised office-bearers. This attestation shall also record their children who have not yet made public profession of faith. The consistory of the congregation concerned shall be notified in due time.
In Article 28 of the Belgic Confession, we echo the teaching of our Lord like this: "We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his state or quality may be. But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it ...." The point is that I may not be content to be on my own. I belong to Christ, and therefore am to join myself to a body of Christ as it visibly assembles in different places on this earth. If I then move elsewhere, I am to join the assembly of true believers in that new locality. To make that transition easier (both for myself who moves as well as for the consistory of the church I seek to join), the churches have agreed to give testimonies to the departing person as well as to accept the testimony given by the ‘old’ consistory to the ‘new’ member. For in the bond of churches office-bearers in one church accept the work performed by office-bearers in a sister church, and so accept the testimony submitted and receive the person as a member. Since parents remain responsible for their children’s church membership until the time they make public profession of faith, the names of the children who have not as yet made public profession of faith are recorded on the parents’ attestation. An attestation includes all the details the elders of the new congregation will need to know in order to carry out their task of shepherding the new members.
Article 59 also stipulates that members who move shall be given an attestation "following appropriate announcements to the congregation." The congregation should be given the opportunity to raise any concerns or objections, as well as to bid them farewell. The consistory which wrote the attestation is also to inform the consistory of the new congregation concerned that an attestation has been given to a member. This is done out of pastoral care for the member, so that the chances of losing the member are minimised should he be remiss in handing in his attestation. Technically speaking however the consistory has no responsibility for the new member until such time that the attestation is handed in. By not handing in one’s attestation a member effectively withdraws from the church.
ARTICLE 60 - Attestations for non-communicant members
An attestation for a non-communicant member shall be sent directly to the consistory of the church concerned with the request to take the member under its supervision and discipline.
For communicant members the attestation is not given to the member but it gets sent directly to the church to which he has moved. This is because the member hasn’t yet responded to his baptism and so the responsibility for the member lies with the consistory.
ARTICLE 61 - Support after departure
When members depart to another congregation where they will be cared for in institutions, aged persons homes or nursing homes, they shall in respect of deacon support remain under the care of the church they are leaving. If this is not possible support will be arranged by consultation between the consistories and deacons concerned.
This article arrests any temptation that may arise to suggest to a member in need of financial support that he/she move away to another congregation in order to be rid of the financial obligation.
4. OTHER ITEMS
The remaining articles of this section of the Church Order cover a series of left over items upon which the church have agreed to act in a particular manner.
4.1 ECCLESIASTICAL FEAST DAYS
Although there is no scriptural command to do so, the fathers saw merit in commemorating the highlights of salvation history by means of holding church services.
ARTICLE 65 - Ecclesiastical feast days
On Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Day and at Pentecost the consistory shall call the congregation together for church services. The sacred events which the congregation commemorates in particular on these days shall therein be proclaimed.
The gospel contained in the events of Christ’s birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of His Holy Spirit is central to the faith of every believer, on which his temporal and eternal well-being depends. Hence the churches have maintained the practice developed over the centuries of church history to commemorate these highlights of our Saviour’s work by calling the congregations together for worship services on the day the feast is remembered. In this service, the preaching will focus on the significance of the respective feast day.
4.2 DAYS OF PRAYER
The fathers reckoned with the fact that a church or bond of churches may find itself directly or indirectly affected by natural, political, social or economic afflictions. Difficult circumstances may warrant the proclamation of a day to be especially devoted to prayer in order to beseech God to take away the affliction. Synod is to appoint one church responsible for appointing days of prayer.
ARTICLE 66 - Days of prayer
In times of war, general calamities and other great afflictions the presence of which is felt throughout the churches a day of prayer may be proclaimed by the church appointed for that purpose by synod.
It must be remembered that all prayer is to be God-centred and not man-centred. The focus must be on what God is revealing about Himself in the affliction. Our thoughts and prayers must then not only concentrate on relief but there must also be confession of sin. If a plague comes upon the land no-one, including the church, can wash his hands clean of guilt. In His Word God makes a very clear link between obedience and blessing, between disobedience and curse. In Leviticus 26 God tells Moses with what blessings He will reward Israel’s obedience and with what curses He will punish their disobedience. Moses passes on God’s Word to Israel saying, "Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the LORD your God .... But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, ... that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: ..." (Deuteronomy 28). This Old Testament principle comes back again in the New Testament. In Revelation 7,8 and 9 one reads of the plagues God will send as punishment upon covenant breaking. Therefore, if the Lord afflicts the country of which we are a part, then let us seek God in prayer, not only asking him to remove the affliction He has sent, but also to confess sin and to repent, and to ask the Lord to work repentance in the land as a whole.
The churches saw need to give special attention to marriage. God, after all, has given marriage a distinct place in His church gathering work. Through marriage the Lord is pleased to give children and so, through the generations, God preserves His church. However, God’s blessing of receiving children is accompanied by a calling to instruct these children in the ways of the Lord. The consistory’s task of ensuring that the "parents honour their vows to instruct their children, to the utmost of their power, in the doctrine of the Scriptures ..." (Article 53) does not begin after parents have made their vows at their child’s baptism, but starts as early as a couple’s courtship days. The elders are to see to it that no-one be "unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?" (2 Corinthians 6:14,15). How shall a father bring up to the Lord’s glory the covenant children entrusted to him, if he first has chosen an unbeliever to become mother of his (potential) children?! Besides, the Scriptures speak of marriage as "a great mystery" reflecting the relation between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32).
ARTICLE 67 - Marriage
The consistory shall ensure that the members of the congregation marry only in the Lord, and that the ministers – as authorised by the consistory- solemnise only such marriages as are in accordance with the Word of God. The solemnisation of a marriage shall take place in a private ceremony, with the use of the adopted Form.
In order to ‘marry in the Lord,’ both marriage partners must serve God (first commandment), and both must serve and obey God in the same way, i.e. according to His Word (second commandment). Because the children God may be pleased to give a married couple need to be taught God’s ways, it is crucial for each person considering marriage to marry a person who serves God and serves Him obediently. Such a person one finds only in the church. After all, which church one attends is also a matter of obeying God’s command to serve Him in the manner He has prescribed. This is not to say, of course, that church membership is the decisive question. Within the church are also hypocrites. But one cannot claim to "marry in the Lord" if one seeks to marry a believer from another church.
The minister solemnises the marriage upon authorisation of the consistory. Who one marries is not a private matter alone, but involves the consistory also. For the sake of God’s name and the future of the church, the consistory will only authorise the marriage of persons who belong to the church of Jesus Christ.
The churches have agreed that marriage would not solemnised in a church service but in a private ceremony. It should be noted, though, that on this point Scripture is silent.
The Church Order makes one last stipulation namely, that marriage shall be solemnised "with the use of the adopted Form." This form summarises what God teaches about the institution of marriage, its reflection of the relationship between Christ and His church, the purpose of marriage and the duties of marriage. By use of this form the consistory ensures that the members do not enter marriage on the basis any false understandings or expectations which Satan would love to implant in a couple’s hearts and minds, for Satan knows only too well that his access to the God’s covenant children is minimised through ‘marriages in the Lord.’
ARTICLE 68 - Funerals
Church services shall not be conducted for funerals.
In the course of church history, the Roman Catholic practice and belief that the dead are dependent on the prayers and intercessions of the church in order to be accepted into heaven has slain its thousands. Funerals are emotionally laden times, and so the churches have agreed before hand that at funerals the consistory shall not call the congregation together for a church service. The family, however, may certainly request to be comforted from Scripture. At the family’s discretion, this can be done in church or elsewhere.