The “Final Draft” of the Revised Church Order and Hierarchism

It all began in 1950, fifteen years ago. In 1950 the synod of the Christian Reformed Church appointed a committee to respond to a communication from the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands on a proposal to enter upon a revision of the Church Order. In 1951 Synod agreed to a recommendation of this committee to proceed to such revision “in close cooperation with the Dutch and possibly the South African churches.”

Since that time the church has been busy with this significant project, proceeding all the while with great caution and deliberation. After much work and careful evaluation of suggestions offered by consistories and classes, the revision committee came to the Synod of 1963 with a complete draft of a revision and the specific request “that Synod adopt this draft—with such emendations as Synod may still decide to make—as the official Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church.”

But the Synod of 1963 was not so minded. Instead it was decided to defer action on the adoption of the revised Church Order until the Synod of 1965. In the grounds for this action reference was made to “the number and weight of the questions raised in various overtures.” The revision committee was instructed “to prepare a final draft” for distribution to the consistories by October 1964.

No doubt there are those who have grown impatient with this prolonged process. The present writer is not one of these. The adoption of a substantially revised Church Order is a matter of crucial importance for the churches. Only time could take care of the important questions and suggestions that have been raised. A word of appreciation is surely in order for the revision committee, as its members have labored long and patient1y, giving proper and courteous consideration to the questions raised and the many suggestions offered.

The “Final Draft”

Now the “final draft” is before the churches. It is apparent that the overtures and the discussions have had their effect on this “final draft.” A comparison of the “final draft” with the text of the revision appearing in the 1963 Acts reveals several significant changes. In our discussion we shall be referring to three different texts of the Church Order. For purposes of convenience we shall refer to the existing text as CO-E, to the revised text appearing in the Acts of 1963 as CO-R63, and to the more recent “final draft” as CO-RFD.


Preliminarv Matters

For whatever it is worth, the observation is made here that the CO-RFD is a marked improvement at many points over CO-R83. One notices at once that CO-RFD is shorter, numbering 98 articles as compared to the 101 articles of CO-R63. CO-E has 86 articles.

The revised introduction of CO-RFD has added the clause “and acknowledging Christ as the only Head of His Church.” This is a splendid addition. There is no more basic principle of church government than this.

Another improvement in the judgment of the writer is the dropping of Article 59b in CO-R63 (Article 57 in CO-RFD). The stipulation that has been removed reads as follows: “Children legally adopted by members of the congregation may be baptized provided that the applicable synodical regulations be observed.”

A noteworthy change is the elimination of Article 15 of CO-R63 from the latest text. This article was as follows: “A minister shall not be permitted to conduct worship services in the locality of a Christian Reformed church other than his own without the consent of the consistory of that church.” Responsible regard for good. order in the church should preclude the necessity of placing such a purely negative stipulation in the constitution of the church.

The removal of Article 43 in CO-R63 is especially gratifying. Since this gets liS into the main discussion, further reference to this point will appear below.

The several changes in CO-RFD are often in the interest of clarity, greater precision, and good language usage. The up-dating of the language over that of CO-E is commendable. One wonders whether Article SIb of CO-RFO doesn’t slip into colloquial speech when it refers to “Reformed Churches all over the world” (italics by EH). Wouldn’t “Reformed Churches the world over” be better?

The Matter of Primary Concern

The March 1963 issue of this magazine carried a brief article by the present writer entitled “A Note On the Proposed Revised Church Order.” The “Note” took its point of departure from the presence of sixteen instances in the proposed revision in which the expression “synodical regulations” was used (“rules approved by Synod” in one of the instances). The striking frequency of such language prompted the raising of several questions regarding the principles of church government that informed the new revision. These questions suggested the presence of a drift toward hierarchism in the Church Order, that is, a drift toward the allocation of superior authority in the broader governing bodies of the church, particularly the synod, and thus a drift representing a weakening of the Reformed principle that the real center of ecclesiastical authority is the local consistory.

There were other voices in the church expressing concern over this matter. One such expression of concern came from the consistory of the First Church of Kalamazoo, Mich. The consistory of this church addressed a most pertinent overture regarding this important issue to the Synod of 1963 (Acts 1963, pp. 468ff.).

The precise question before us now is this: has CO-RFD managed to rid the text of the proposed revision of this drift toward hierarchism? The answer of the writer to this question is to suggest that, although commendable changes have been made, the “final draft” has not succeeded in eliminating this hierarchical tendency.

First Item of Evidence

The first item of evidence adduced here to support the above allegation is the continuing presence of the phrase “synodical regulations” in CO-RFD. Fourteen such instances still remain. Ten of these speak of “synodical regulations,” one of “synodical requirements,” one of “rules approved by synod,” one of “synodical regulation,” and one of “regulation of synod.”

What is objectionable in these references? Their frequency? Their monotonous repetition? Though their frequency and monotonous repetition are somewhat offensive, the objection does not really lie here.

We would remind the reader of the fact that CO-E contains only four such references to regulations or ordinances, and in none of these instances does the word synodical or synod appear. The real point of objection is simply this: these references to “synodical regulations” in the proposed revision of the Church Order suggest that there is a superior, on-going regulatory power in the synod which governs the church in these affairs. Let it be said as plainly as possible: there is no such superior, on-going authority in the synod. If the reader of these lines will take the trouble to peruse the quotations from authoritative sources appearing at the end of this article, he will find ample support for the declaration that the great b·adition of Reformed church polity in which the Christian Reformed Church moves knows nothing of a special, superior, continuing synodical authority. A synod is only a temporary gathering of the church, exercising in certain specified matters coming before it in proper order an authority which is delegated to it for the length of time of its sessions by the individual churches through their classes. CO-E represents a far more astute awareness of Reformed church polity when it speaks of such regulations as “ecclesiastical” ordinances or regulations. If reference to synod is to remain in the text of the Church Order in connection with rules and regulations in any specific instance, such reference should be in this form, “according to the rules adopted by the Synod of 19-” (with the specific session of Synod referred to). Preferable would be the elimination of this monotonous refrain (“synodical regulations”) from the text of the church constitution, and the publication of a Church Order in which each article where relevant ecclesiastical rules exist be followed by these printed rules of the church, with the reference in each case to the synod at which the particular rule was adopted. Such a booklet would serve well the interests of good church polity, good taste, convenience and efficiency.

Second Item of Evidence

Further evidence of the continuing presence of a drift toward hierarchism is found in the opening articles of the section in the Church Order on “The Assemblies of the Church.”

Article 28 of CO-R63 reads thus: “The church is governed by its assemblies: the consistory, the classis, and the synod.” CO-RFD uses language very similar to that of CO-E as it says at this point, “The assemblies of the church are: the consistory, the classis, and the synod.” This change reveals the revision committee’s proper sensitivity to the point at issue.

Continuing to exercise this sensitivity, the committee has made a significant change in Article 29a (28a in CO-RFD). The article reads as follows in CO-R63: “Each assembly exercises, in keeping with its own character and domain, the ecclesiastical authority entrusted to it by Christ.”

In CO-RFD this article (28a) has been emended by addition of the following clause: “the authority of consistories being original, that of major assemblies being delegated.” This additional clause is obviously correct and very much in order. One cannot help being grateful for it, and possibly we should be content at this point.

But troublesome questions persist. Does the added clause take care of the problem? If classis or synod has “its own character and domain,” and has an authority “entrusted to it by Christ” which is “in keeping with…(this) character and domain,” then it would seem correct to assert that this authority given to each assembly by Christ himself is original. How can an authority that Christ the supreme Head of the church has “entrusted” to a body be construed as a “delegated” authority? We note again that such a body has a special (“its own”) character and domain.

Such questions continue to plague the writer. It seems obvious that the additional clause in Article 28a of CO-RFD does not accomplish its manifestly intended purpose, but rather poses a contradiction that must be removed. It is hoped the reader will not think the writer to be presumptuously bold as he suggests three possible alternative readings in the hope that one of them might suggest a way out of the difficulty. These three alternative readings are:

A. In this first suggestion the words “the church” are simply substituted for the word “it.” The article would then read as follows: “Each assembly exercises, in keeping with its own character and domain, the ecclesiastical authority entrusted to the church by Christ; the authority of consistories being original. that of major assemblies being delegated.” (Italics by EH.)

B. “Each assembly exercises, in keeping with its own character and area of responsibility, the ecclesiastical authority that properly belongs to it under Christ; the authority of consistories being original, that of major assemblies being delegated.”

C. “Each assembly exercises the authority which Christ the Head has given to his church. This ecclesiastical authority has been entrusted to the ruling body (the consistory) of the local church, and this body delegates that authority to the major assemblies for the handling of such matters as by their very character cannot be dealt with by the local consistory and which affect the well-being of all the churches.”

The present text of Article 28a in CO-RFD raises one more troublesome point in the mind of the writer. If Christ has entrusted ecclesiastical authority to various assemblies in keeping with each assembly’s “own character and domain,” then it is strange that for some churches Christ entrusted such authority to three assemblies, while for other churches Christ entrusted this authority to four different assemblies (the added one being the Particular or Regional Synod). If the Christian Reformed Church should adopt this article in its present form, the church will take upon itself the vexing responsibility of demonstrating that Christ “entrusted” such authority to three rather than four assemblies. Or, the church would by implication be challenging her sister churches in the Netherlands, for instance, to demonstrate that the Head of the church “entrusted” this authority to four assemblies rather than just three.

And Finally, Additional Evidence

In the third place two additional items of evidence are adduced in support of the contention that a drift to hierarchism has not been eliminated from CO-RFD.

Reference is made first of all to Article 42 of CO-RFD. This article reads as follows:

“In order properly to assist the churches, the president, on behalf of classis, shall at least once a year interview the delegates of each church especially concerning church government and discipline, the ministry of mercy, missions, Christian education, and such matters as synod and classis may consider of special importance. Admonitions, encouragements, and advice shall be given according to need.”

Significantly and most appropriately CO-RFD dropped the words “supervise and” before the word “assist” from the article as it appeared in CO-R63. These two words referred back to Article 43 of CO-R63, which has been completely removed from the final draft, as gratefully noticed above. This eliminated article declared that “Classis shall exercise supervisory care over the churches…”

But what shall we say with respect to Article 42 of CO-RFD quoted above? In the first place we must ask what expectation can we hold that “the president, on behalf of classis” will “interview the delegates of each church…”? This particular stipulation of Article 41 in CO-E has been for the most part a dead letter; the writer has never witnessed such interrogation by the president of classis, except in extraordinary cases. Why not write Article 42 in accordance with what seems to be generally practiced procedure in the Christian Reformed Church? This procedure has been that the specific questions listed under Article 41 are answered when the classical credentials are executed in full consistory meeting. Then the answers are processed by a committee of classis prior to their handling by classis proper.

Furthermore the wording of Article 42 of CO-RFD gives to the president of classis the warrant to interview the delegates of each church “at least once a year” on several matters generally deSignated, and on “such matters as synod or classis may consider of special importance.” This stipulation may be perfectly harmless. But it may also open a pandora’s box of hierarchistic evils. It appears to the present writer that the wording of the current Article 41 is far superior from the standpoint of sound Reformed church polity. Under the present arrangement the churches themselves have specifically designated the items on which they are interviewed by classis. The churches give to classis a specific and restricted mandate beyond which classis cannot go.

A second item of evidence under this rubric is found in Article 520 of CO-RFD. This article reads thus: “Special worship services may be proclaimed by synod or its interim committee in times of great stress or blessing for church, nation, or world.”

The question that forces itself upon one is this: why is this prerogative limited to synod or its interim committee? The authority which Christ has entrusted to his church is that authority which rests primarily in the Word and its preaching. This authority has been committed to the local congregation in its office-bearers. Why is this prerogative of calling special services not given to them?

Straining at a Gnat?

Are discussions such as the one carried on in this article cases of straining at a gnat? It is to be hoped that the readers of this magazine do not think so. Impatience with discussions of matters of principle has become somewhat characteristic of the church in our day. The church must understand with undeviating insight that the only authority under which she operates is the authority of Christ and his Word. The authority of the church rests where Christ has ordered that his Word be preached, the sacraments administered, and discipline exercised. This is by the local congregation. This is the seat of real authority in the church. When special authority comes to be invested in the major assemblies, the drift is inevitably to government, not by the Word and Spirit, but by men, by numbers, by machinery, by knowledgeable men able to manipulate assemblies and machinery. Even a little knowledge of churches and denOminations and their modes of operation makes clear that such possibilities are not idle fantasies.


So that the main point of this piece of writing may be set forth in clear focus a number of quotations arc added below from recognized authorities in Reformed church polity. A further reason for adding these quotations stems from the fact that the principles that govern matters of church government are in large part a mysterious no-man’s land to a vast majority of church members. Possibly the quotations below will help to awaken some real consciousness of some of the basic issues in church government. The writer of this article must be charged with responsibility for the translations, except in the one instance noted.

From H. Bouwman, Gereformeerd Kerkrecht, Vol. II

“The development of the bond of unity and organization among the churches (kerkverband) may not carry with it any encroachment on the freedom and ‘autonomy’ (Zelfstandigheid) of the individual church…. The local churches are not subordinate parts of one great church, so that their freedom and ‘autonomy’ are surrendered….The broader church bond is intended precisely to serve the furtherance and the preservation of the freedom and the ‘autonomy’ of the church. The ecclesiastical authority (macht) which belongs to the individual churches. namely the ministry of the Word, the sacraments and discipline, and the management of their own household and financial affairs. may not be withdrawn from the individual churches and given to the broader church. No administrative or governing power (bestuursmacht) may slip in to which the local churches become subordinated. The concept, meaning and function (taak) of the church come into their full right only in the local church. It only can in the fullest sense exercise the communion of the saints and labor in the Word and sacraments. It only has preachers, elders and deacons” (p. 14

“The major assemblies therefore do not have an autonomous (zelfstandige), peculiar (eigen) ecclesiastical authority. All ecclesiastical authority, given unto His Church by Christ, resides in the particular Church. TIle 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 three-fold authority docs not pertain to the Major Assemblies, but to the office-bearers of the particular Churches.” (p. 21). (Translation of all but the first sentence of this paragraph is from Monsma and Van Dellen, The Church Order Commentary, p. 162.)

To this quotation from Bouwman, Monsma and Van Dellen add this comment: “From the principle here enunciated it follows that major assemblies have no more authority than that which the Churches have contributed to them by mutual agreement” (pp. 162f.).

Bouwman makes clear that the key to the authority of the major assemblies lies in the delegation of authority by the individual churches through their consistories. “The authority of the major assemblies Bows out of this delegation. From the credentials given to them they gain their authority. They are bound by the mandate which they have received. The credentials are the official evidences of lawful delegation from the churches, which in principle are tile only proper possessors of church authority, and this authority, which the churches themselves possess, they bring together for specified matters and exceptional cases” (p.17).

“There is therefore a principal difference between the authority of the consistory and that of the major assemblies: 1. in origin, in that the synods and the classes possess no authority other than that which is conveyed to them by the local churches according to the established order; 2. in essence (wezen), in that thc local churches possess a peculiar (eigen) and essential (wezelijke) authority, and the classes and synods possess a borrowed (ontleende) and accidental (accidenteele) authority; 3. in duration, in that the consistory is permanent and abides during and after the sessions of the major assemblies, while the classes and synods meet only temporarily and thereafter cease to exist; 4. in purpose, in that the consistory has tile task of giving continuous guidance to the local church, and thus does not exist for the sake of the major assemblies, but the major assemblies exist for the sake of the well-being of the churches, to serve these with counsel and guidance” (p.22).

From Joh. Jamen, Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening. 2nd cd.

“Question: To whom does Jesus grant this three-fold power? (power to teach, rule, and exercise discipline EH).

Answer: He granted this power directly to each particular church.

Question: How do the major assemblies get this ecclesiastical authority?

Answer: The ecclesiastical authority, granted to the particular church as an original authority, is not lost as the churches with the same confession join together confederately in church communion. The authority of the local churches is a potestas non-privativa, that is, an authority that cannot and may not be taken away. No church may strip itself of this power in order to give it over to a classis in the form of a higher control. And no classis or synod may rob the local churches of it….By means of delegation the broader assemblies gain an authority which is derived from the churches, which is conveyed by the delegates, and is brought together in a cumulative sense in the broader assemblies. It is thus principally and in essence the same power which Christ has bestowed directly on the local churches and brings together in tile broader assemblies by means of delegation… (pp. 159ff.).

“Reformed synods, on the contrary (as opposed to the hierarchical and infallible councils of Rome EH), are gatherings of local churches, who receive their authority (macht) from Christ and bring this authority together in tile major assemblies (classes and synods) through their delegates in order to help and serve one another. so that the authority of these major assemblies bears only ministerial and fallible (feilbaar) character and is subordinate to the infallible authority of the Scriptures” (p.129).

From Monsma and Van Dellen, The Church Order Commentarv

“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” (p. 162).

“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” (p. 102).

From A. Kuyper in De Heraut

“The Reformed presbyterian church government knows no other rule than that of the consistory and the consistory alone, because only the consistory is the gathering together of the office-bearers ordained by Christ. So the consistory is indeed the regulatory power over the local church; and there is no other or higher control.” (March 1, 1891)

“Classes and synods have their authority from the consistories; not tho other way around. And this is in bondage to article 85 of the Church Order, which denies the right of one church to rule over another. A synod is only a temporary gathering giving expression to the bond that unites the churches. And when that gathering is done. then there is no longer a synod; and then there is no longer a classis; then there are only churches. and in each church there is a consistory when the overseers gather. And this consistory itself rules the congregation according m God’s Word and in obedience to the confession and Church Order.” (March 10, 1893 )

(Appreciation is here expressed for these citations from A. Kuyper to H. Van Tongeren in Bewaard Bevel.)

From L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology

“The power of the Church resides primarily in the governing body of the local church” (p. 584). The reader is referred to further worthy material on this subject on the page indicated. Excellent material on the autonomy of the local church is also found on page 589.

This summer the Christian Reformed Church in its synodical sessions will officially consider the final draft of the proposed Revised Church Order. This will be an important decision for those churches.

In this article the Rev. Edward Heerema, pastor at Bradenton, Florida, analyses the material and presents some misgivings and some suggestions.