“By these means…”

“By these means” is a title taken from the Belgic Confession, one at the creeds of the Reformed churches. Article XXX of this creed is entitled: “The Government of the Church and its Offices.” This article reads:

We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely. that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors. form the council of the Church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities. By these means everything will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his Epistles to Timothy.

The Reverend Hendrik Van Tongeren, pastor of the American Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, has asked to have his voice heard on the matter of the Revised Church Order as now under consideration in the Christian Reformed Church. While yet in The Netherlands he took an active part in the discussion surrounding the adoption of a new church order by the R armed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken). Van Tongeren regards the propose Revised Church Order as something which is very similar to its Dutch counterpart, and feels that it is not suitable for adoption here. Since every denomination must be able to give account of its doings not only in terms of their effect upon the unity of its own body but also upon the consequences for unity with those outside its fellowship, we feel it profitable to hear out our brother on this score!


The next general synod of the Christian Reformed Church will be asked to decide whether or not the tentatively approved Revised Church Order should take the place of the Church Order of Dordt. We have studied this proposed revision with sympathy and interest because we sincerely desire the spiritual welfare of the brotherhood. But the longer we read and study this document the greater becomes our amazement. At last the question arose in our mind: What is the purpose of this abrupt change in course? What is the motivation behind this right-about turn in the Christian Reformed Church?


We confine our remarks to Chapter 2 which deals with “The Assemblies of the Church.” There this change in course is very apparent. The subject of this chapter is the function of the major assemblies in the Church and their relation to the consistories. Article 28 reads: The church is governed by its assemblies: the consistory, the classis, and the synod.

Article 29 continues:

Each assembly exercises, in keeping with its own character and domain, the ecclesiastical authority entrusted to it by Christ.

This conception of the relationship between consistories and major assemblies is a sharp departure from the teachings of prominent church order commentators in the Christian Reformed Church!

We refer to the Reverend Idzerd Van Dellen and Professor Martin Monsma, who for many years taught something entirely different in their excellent book entitled Church Order Commentary.1 In this lucid explanation of the Church Order of Dordt they point out the difference in character which exists with respect to the authority of a consistory and the authority of classis and synod. This is a quotation from their book:

Consistories receive their authority directly from Christ, the King of His Church. Classes and synods receive their authority only by delegation. Consistories therefore exercise original authority, but major assemblies have no other than derived authority (page 162, italics inserted).

This, then, is undoubtedly clear: there is a principle difference in authority in the Church. Consistories receive authority directly from Christ. Classes and synods receive authority only by delegation. Consistories possess an original authority, but the major assemblies have no other than a derived authority.

In the Revised Church Order, however. the authority of the consistories and the major assemblies is placed on the same level, as being of the same nature, as being identical in character. All assemblies in the Church are supposedly entrusted with the direct authority of Christ.

To indicate the degree of importance which Van Dellen and Monsma attached to this fundamental principle we cite the following:

The authority of the major assemblies does not extend beyond the provisions of the Church Order and the instructions given it by the minor assemblies…One who is delegated will naturally have less authority than the delegating body. And essentially there is no ecclesiastical authority other than the authority vested in the office-bearers of the particular churches (page 162, italics inserted).

Certainly, a clause has been inserted which seems to curb this authority in some measure. It is said: “in keeping with its own character and domain.” Let us not forget, however, that it remains true that the main portion of the statement determines the content of his subsidiary clause. Such a clause can not nullify the main point of the sentence. If Christ himself entrusted the major assemblies with his authority, then where do we find the borders of their “own character and domain?” After all, who is in a position to set the limits of Christ’s authority? Surely we who are so far beneath the glorious Head of the Church can never determine or de-limit his authority!

Van Dellen and Monsma knew themselves to be in good company when they gave to the Church their sound doctrine, as can be seen from this quotation:

It is also well to remember what Dr. Bouwman tells us in his previously quoted and very valuable work. Says he: “All ecclesiastical authority given unto His Church by Christ, resides in the particular Church. The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, given to the Apostles by Christ, and in them to the congregation were, when the apostles passed from the scenes of life. exercised by the office-bearers who had been chosen under their guidance in the particular Churches. This ecclesiastical authority consists of three things: Authority to administer the Word and the Sacraments; authority to elect ecclesiastical office-bearers; and authority to exercise ecclesiastical discipline. There is no other authority in the ecclesiastical sphere. And this threefold authority does not pertain to the Major Assemblies, but to the office-bearers of the particular churches” (page 162, italics inserted).

Then follows this very fundamental conclusion:

From the principle here enunciated it follows that major assemblies have no mere authority than that which the Churches have attributed to them by mutual agreement” (page 162, italics inserted).

This is the voice of the Reformation! Consistories receive direct authority from Christ, but major assemblies receive their authority from the consistories. Their authority is in its very nature different from the authority given by Christ to the consistories. It is delegated to them “by mutual agreement.” Consistories abide by the decisions of the major assemblies, not because they ought to obey major assemblies, but because of this mutual agreement. But this is entirely different language than that of the Revised Church Order. Van Dellen and Monsma realized very well the different nature of ecclesiastical authority in these two instances. Untiringly they pointed out that we should not equate these two, nor represent the consistories and the major assemblies as having an equivalent authority. Calling upon witnesses from the past as well as the present, they wrote that “Voetius, Bouwman and Jansen all enumerate certain differences between consistorial authority and the authority of our major assemblies” (page 163, italics inserted). Among other considerations these authorities are said to have taught that there is a difference both as to origin and essence in this regard. “Major assemblies have no other authority than that which they have derived from the Consistories. Consistories, however, exercise an authority given unto them directly by Christ….The authority of Classes and Synods is derived and accidental. The particular Church possesses original and essential authority.”


May we ask why this Reformed course must be changed? What are the objections against the present Church Order? Why should a free Christian Reformed Church introduce a new church order that is essentially a literal translation and imitation of a similar new document in The Netherlands?

Are you obliged in this free country as free churches of Jesus Christ to copy this Dutch example? Brethren, we strongly urge you not to take this step!

Our advice is really based upon a single important reason. It is this: Can you find proof from God’s Word, from Scripture, to support this new system of church government? Without even a trace of proof the Revised Church Order asserts that each assembly exercises an authority entrusted to it by Christ. We are unable to find this new doctrine in Scripture. Nor can we find support for it in Scripture. Nor can we find support for it in the Confessions. Article 30 of the Belgic Confession states that Christ has given authority to “the council of the Church”—not a single word is devoted to the new theory that he gave similar authority to major assemblies.

It would be a pitiful sight, indeed, to see the Christian Reformed Church depart from the excellent Scriptural teachings of two venerable teachers. For without a doubt acceptance of this Revised Church Order would in effect mean that the Christian Reformed Church is making a reverse turn in favor of a hierarchical system of church polity.

This should be clear to all: If both consistory and synod will be viewed as being endowed with the authority of Christ. then it win follow automatically that in practise the synod will lord over the consistories. If there is a difference of opinion, it will invariably be argued that the wisdom of the many learned and reputable men at synod is far superior to that of a bumble consistory. Surely synod ought to know what it is doing, and who are we to dispute its decisions? Christ is then silenced in his own Church, because He is pleased to rule and govern the Church by the wonderful office of elder, Acts 20:28; Matthew 16:19.

If our forefathers had taken this kind of subservient attitude Hendrik de Cock, well-known also in your circles, would have yielded to the synodical hierarchy that ruled the Reformed Church in The Netherlands during the previous century.

Please do not misunderstand us! We are not saying that the proponents of the Revised Church Order harbor evil intentions. Who are we, human amongst humans, to judge? On the contrary. we are convinced that each and every one of these detests any tendency of a hierarchical nature. But we would like to add: This abhorrence as such is not a guarantee of safe conduct for the Church. Prof. F. L. Rutgers, an esteemed Reformed canonist who lived at about the turn of the century, once said:

As a rule it is easier for Satan to blind those who are in favor of the hierarchical principle of church government. This can easily be observed with respect to the Romanist hierarchy in former centuries. But it can just as easily be seen in those Protestant churches that still cling to this principle. The great majority of the people who favored the church organization of 1816 were never aware of the dangerous structure they had created. Many of those who defended this system in later years never became aware of it either. Even now it is still stoutly defended by many who do not have the slightest notion of its dangers. Paramount in 0e minds of these people is unity, order and conformity. And at the same time they do not even understand what they are doing. According to an expression of our Fathers “they are blind and unaware that they have fallen into the clutches of the dragon:” (From Het Kerkbederoend Karakter der Hierarchie. translation ours.)

Considering the far-reaching significance of that which you are considering to adopt, we would like to say to our Christian Reoformed brethren: Watch out for “the clutches of the dragon.” It is Satan’s purpose to get the Church of Christ into his grasp (I Peter 5:8; Rev. 12:12; 17). And this becomes much easier for Satan if the ruling power of the several particular congregations is transferred to a relatively small, central body, whatever its name may be. For then Satan needs only to get control of this small, central body to become prince and lord of the Church.

We have limited our discussion to the introduction to the chapter entitled “The Assemblies of the Church.” But the principles laid down here can be found throughout the Revised Church Order!

In this article we desire to make just one point.

It is this: You are now doing very well. Don’t alter your course! Stay with the Church Order of Dordt! Reject this import from the Netherlands! Follow the instruction based upon truly biblical principles furnished by your own leaders in matters of church government!

In this way “everything will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency” (Belgic Confession, Art. XXX).

1. Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commetary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 3rd ed., 1954.