1. The Church and the Church Order
The church order is a body of rules for the maintenance of good order in the churches. The authority of church order is based upon the Biblical demand of submission to duly appointed government. That church government is of very great import to the church goes with out saying. A church that is not governed according to the Word of God will not remain true to the Word of God. Impurity in church government fosters impurity in doctrine.
The church order should not be considered a legalistic document or a book of laws in the civil sense of the meaning of law. The church order consists of rules and regulations mutually agreed upon, by common consent. It does not force and compel. The church order is not superimposed upon the churches, demanding unreasonable and legalistic obedience.
We may never let go of the fact that the Church Order is founded on Scriptural principles. Although we know that the church as institution cannot be equated with the invisible church which is a congregation of the elect, it is, nevertheless, necessary that the church in its adherence to God's Word in confession, practice, activities, government and discipline, displays that it is the body of Christ. For this reason it is necessary that the church orderly principles laid down in the church order are honoured by the churches.
These principles were not only recognized in our continental Reformed churches, but were equally valid in the English churches of the Reformation. Especially the Church of Scotland emphasized strongly that the churches adhere to church order. "Therefore this power and policie of the Kirk sould leane upon the Word immediatie, as the onlie ground thereof, and sould be take from the pure fountaines of the scriptures, the kirk hearing the voyce of Christ the onlie spirituall king, and being rewlit be his lawes." In its further explanation the Scottish "Kirk" takes great care to prove that the order is Scriptural in all points.
The church order guides and directs so that all things may be done "decently and in good order," as the Bible enjoins. The church order is based solidly on Scriptural principles and historic facts.
2. How Many Members are Required for the Institution of a New Congregation?
The Church Order doesn't specify a definite figure. Some say twenty to twenty-five families are sufficient to institute a church; others say twelve professing male members. The churches have never set a definite figure, and wisely so. When prospects for growth and expansion are favourable, a very small number of families and individuals are sufficient to organize themselves into a separate congregation.
3. How Many Consistory Members are Required to Start a New Congregation?
Generally, the minimum should be three. This means one minister and one elder and one deacon, or two elders and one deacon.
4. Who can Start a New Congregation, and How Should this be Done?
One very important church order principle which underlies church formation is that a new church can only be started by individual members. The church order clearly recognizes the right of individual believers to start a church. They do not have to apply to a consistory. Their application for recognition and for beginning the institution of a congregation should be directed to classis (in our case synod).
What is the proper procedure? All professing members of Reformed persuasion who desire a Free Reformed Church in a new locality where presently no Free Reformed Church exists and who wish to join this proposed new church, sign a petition addressed to classis (synod), requesting the approval and assistance of classis (synod).
Why does church order require this? Why does this group of individuals not approach their own or a neighbouring consistory for help, but instead, is directed by church order to petition the classis (synod)? This is because the institution of a new church is the responsibility of believers. A new church is not formed from above, by a consistory, by a classis or by a synod, as in the Roman Catholic church, but can only be formed by a group of individual believers. In the Reformed churches, groups of believers, although too small to be fully organized, do constitute a church.
It is possible that classis (synod) agrees immediately with the petitioning brothers and sisters, and will right away appoint a consistory to take care of the institution of a church. More often this request will come to classis in a very elementary stage during the development of the group. Then a neighbouring consistory is appointed to help and assist.
This appointment is based on church order which specifies that classis (synod) shall designate a consistory to care for the group. Thus the new group is supported by the love and care of the church through the ministrations of a neighbouring consistory.
For a group to become a congregation, the offices have to be instituted. These special offices (elder, deacon and pastor) are derived from the office of believer. Becoming a congregation is a vital action of the church, because the church, wherever it manifests itself, has the duty to form a local congregation. This is not merely an option, but it is a requisite.
5. Who has Authority?
Reformed church order holds that each local congregation is a manifestation of Christ's church. No matter how small, each local congregation is independent and autonomous. The apostles sent letters to the individual churches and installed office bearers in each congregation, irrespective of size.
Calvin teaches that in principle all original authority belongs to the local congregation--the believers. Dr. H. Bouwman, an eminent scholar on the subject of church order, says that in connection with these (Calvinistic) principles the Reformed church teaches that the members themselves form the church. He posits further that when a congregation is to be organized and the offices have not yet been instituted, the members of the congregation will act, with the assistance of neighbouring church(es), in accordance with the office of all believers, to install members into the offices.
There is an original right of the believers to form their own congregation. The offices themselves emerge out of the congregation. Voetius says in relation to this that the church is an assembly of believers.
We see, therefore, that a new, local church formation does not take place from above, but from below, by the members themselves. It is clear that the institution of the offices springs forth from the office of all believers, but will usually not be exercised, except with the assistance of classis. Exceptions are churches in isolation, which may institute offices themselves without the assistance of classis, because there are no other churches available to help. Mission churches may be examples of this exception.
6. What is the Duty of Classis (Synod)?
"The classis [synod] has a duty to assist, so that the institution of these churches will become a fact" (Synod 1586). This pronouncement was not meant to convey that classis has the power to install a new consistory, but that the classis (synod) should give assistance and administer supervision, so that the institution of churches and offices occurs according to church order.
This does not mean that normally a new church can be instituted without the help of a neighbouring consistory. In normal circumstances it cannot and it is not desirable. Church order stipulates that the members who wish to start a new congregation approach classis (synod), which will then appoint a consistory to assist these members who are under the supervision of classis (synod). It is the task of classis (synod) to help these members institute a new congregation, even under adverse conditions. The classis recognizes this new beginning as a sister congregation, even in its formative stage. That is why the supervision of the developing congregation is formally not with the neighbouring consistory, but with the classis (synod).
The criteria for the institution of a new church by classis (synod) are the following, according to Bouwman, an esteemed Reformed church order authority:
1) whether the initiative has arisen with the believers themselves;
2) whether there is the urgent desire among these believers to have their own local church, distinct from other congregations;
3) whether the formation of a new church is in the best interest of these believers;
4) whether there are brothers available who can serve in the offices.
Why does the church order prescribe classis (synod) approval? As a matter of good policy, as a matter of common consent and wisdom, and not as a matter of superior authority. If Synod decides against the organization of a new church, then the matter must wait. The petitioning group cannot proceed against the advice of classis (synod).
A classis (synod) can never decide to organize a church without a request to do so from the brothers and sisters concerned. Notice that it is not the consistory of the neighbouring church which controls or requests this, but the believers themselves. Reformed church polity seeks, under Christ, to do full justice to the rights of every believer.
Major assemblies may never infringe upon the rights of local churches. If no local church exists, the right of individual believers to establish a new church is primary and precedes the rights of existing area churches.
Classis (synod) will help the members until institution, but when the offices have been instituted, they will withdraw their involvement. In areas where there is potential for the institution of a congregation, the classis (synod) should encourage individual believers to take the necessary steps for church organization.
The consistory alone possesses the authority of Christ to preach the Gospel, to administer the sacraments and to administer Christian discipline. It is entrusted with the rule of Christ's sheep. It alone has authority in the church and it is the only assembly vested with direct authority from Christ. The sphere of its authority extends to the spiritual life and gathering of the church through the preaching of the Gospel. The only power and authority of the church is the persuasive power and authority of the Word of God. Therefore, the consistory, not classis or synod, has the authority to preach the Gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise discipline. A consistory calls a synod to meet as an assembly, evidence of the principle of the authority of the consistory.
In organizing the new congregation, the appointed consistory determines the number of office bearers to be chosen and oversees the election of office bearers. It should be noted that the authority to do this is a delegated authority by classis (synod), and does not rest in the consistory. The consistory merely acts as authorized advisor and guide on behalf of classis, and is responsible to give an account to classis for all actions undertaken for the benefit of this sister group.
It is possible that some of the individual members of this developing congregation resort under a neighbouring consistory, (and may continue to resort with it for some time to come). Despite this fact, the consistory does not have control over the new, developing congregation. It has the position of advisor and helper, will respect the autonomy of the developing (sister) church, and support it with sisterly counsel. The developing congregation cannot yet act for itself because it has no offices, but it has been recognized by classis (synod) and is now entitled to the loving care and encouragement of the designated neighbouring consistory.
There is something beautiful in the fact that not just one consistory takes oversight of this new, developing congregation, but that all the churches together, act in concert as classis (synod) and support this new, developing congregation with love and care and take responsibility for its growth and survival until it reaches a level of maturity.
The responsibilities of the advising consistory can also be somewhat of a burden for that consistory. For instance, conducting two extra worship services every Lord's day at another location can be demanding, even though it may be done with joy. The local pastor, if there is one, will be required to preach more often and also reading services may need to be held, placing an additional duty on the elders of the assisting consistory. This extra work load can be lightened by the generous assistance of other pastors of the classis (synod) who are willing to assist this classical (synodical) project.
Church order commentators indicate that this work of advising the group can also be done by a classical committee, rather than by a local consistory. Preference is to be given to do this by a consistory, however.
The consistory will keep a separate membership register for the developing congregation, distinct from its own records, thereby recognizing the separate identity of this group. The group cannot yet act for itself. It has no offices, but it has been recognized by synod and is now entitled to the loving care and encouragement of the neighbouring consistory, which will respect and help it as if it were a sister congregation in need.
8. When Should Regular Worship Services Be Held?
After classical (synodical) recognition of the group, the appointed consistory helps the group to organize worship services and provides office bearers to lead these. It is, of course, impossible to have a normal church life if regular worship services are not held. As a logical first step, in keeping with the request of the members who wish to organize a local, independent manifestation of the body of Christ, two services should be held at the earliest opportunity.
How large should the group be in order to hold two worship services? Most church order commentators suggest that the best approach for the success of the undertaking is to commence two services right away, even if there is only a very small group. The sponsoring consistory should do all it can to promote a regular church life as early as possible in the development of the new congregation. The goal is institution as soon as feasible.
9. What is a Home Mission Station?
Of course, there also is the possibility of calling a home missionary to provide considerable relief for the appointed consistory, and more importantly, provide superior, dedicated encouragement and labour to build the church in the new location. Our Free Reformed Synod of 1987 recognized the need to form new congregations and provided the possibility of home mission stations and missionaries.
10. What About Local Members who do not Wish to Join?
Members who do not want to join, although they live in the same community as the new church, are not compelled to join. They may have lived all their "church life" in another congregation and feel that is where they belong. Church order allows for that and these members may rightfully stay with the church to which they belong. According to church order, new members moving into the area should join the local church, however. Our churches have always been tolerant in these matters and have been considerate of church and family ties.
11. The Unique Character of Every Congregation
Must a congregation be totally identical to the church from which most of its members originated in order to be recognized as a church? Calvin gives his opinion on this subject. The words of the apostle are "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you." The best thing, indeed, according go Calvin, is to be perfectly agreed.
Basically, Calvin states (a little rashly, I believe) that we have to be considerate of each other, not wishing to impose that the new church be identical to every other congregation. In Scripture we notice that this diversity of the churches is very visible, for instance in the church of Laodicea as compared with the church of Corinth or Rome. Each church had its own peculiar characteristics and shortcomings. Similarly, a new church will not be identical to any of our existing Free Reformed congregations, but will have its own distinctiveness and characteristics.
12. Concluding Remarks
The task of the church is a glorious one. It is to bring the Gospel to all nations and peoples and places. This means that classis (synod) should not sit and wait until petitioners come to ask for approval and assistance of the churches. Classis (synod) should be active and eager to organize new churches wherever groups of believers belonging to our churches, or desiring to join us, are found to be in need of a church of their own. Every opportunity should be utilized to fulfil this calling. Essential in this all is that we propagate and further the Scriptural and distinctive Free Reformed preaching and teaching and reach out with care and compassion to those around us. They too need the Gospel. Are we doing enough?
*Bouwman, Dr. G. Gereformeerd Kerkrecht.
*Brink, William; and DeRidder, Richard R. Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government.
*Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion.
*Church Order, Free Reformed Churches.
*Hanko, Professor H. Notes on the Church Order, Protestant Reformed Churches.
*Home Mission Order, Free Reformed Churches.
*Jansen, H.J. Korte Verklaring van de Kerkorde.
*Kerkorde van de Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, 1984.
*Rutgers, Dr. F.L. Kerkelijke Adviezen.
*Second Book of Discipline of the Kirk of Scotland.
*VanDellen and Monsma, The Revised Church Order Commentary, Zondervan, 1975;
*Voetius, G. Political Ecclesiastica; English translation.
(1) VanDellen and Monsma; Preface;
(2) Jansen, Vol. I, page 10;
(3) Second Book of Discipline of the Kirk of Scotland, Ch.I,7.;
(4) Jansen, p.172;
(5) Ibid., p.172;
(6) VanDellen and Monsma, 160:5;
(7) Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches, Art.38;
(8) VanDellen and Monsma, 159:4;
(9) Ibid., 160:5;
(10) Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches, Art.39,
(11) Brink and DeRidder,I, p.173;
(12) Romans 16:5; I Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:14; Acts 14:23;
(13) Calvin, IV 6,9,10;
(14) VanDellen and Monsma, p.102;
(15) Ibid., p.102,
(16) Voetius, I:42;
(17) Jansen, p.172,
(18) VanDellen and Monsma, p.108,
(19) Ibid., p.105,
(20) Church Order, Free Reformed Churches, Art.38/9,
(21) Bouwman, Vol.II, p.108,
(22) Ibid., Vol.II, p.108
(23) VanDellen and Monsma, p.160;
(24) Ibid., p.160:4,
(25) Jansen, p.172,
(26) VanDellen and Monsma, Vol.II, p.109,
(27) Ibid., p.161;
(28) Ibid., p.158/160;
(29) Ibid., p.158,
(30) Ibid., 159:4;
(31) Home Mission Order, Free Reformed Churches, Supplement 18, p.59;
(32) Calvin, II,IV,I,12;
(33) Philippians 3:15;
(34) VanDellen and Monsma, p.160.
published in The Messenger October and December 1994.