The Church Order of Dort, which was adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1618-19, has its roots in the early organization of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. As early as 1563, these churches began to meet in ecclesiastical assemblies, and in the next eight years the rudiments of the church order were developed and put into practice. For the most part, the decisions of the assemblies in this period leaned heavily on the church orders of the Reformed churches in France and Geneva.
The persecution and the ensuing expansion of the churches in this period fuelled the desire of church leaders to unite the brotherhood in one federation. In 1568, during the darkest days of the persecution, leaders of Reformed churches of the Netherlands met in Wesel to address the great organizational needs in the churches. In 1571, the first Synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands met in the city of Emden, which at the time served as a haven for many persecuted Reformed believers.
The church order adopted at Emden was revised at the Synods of Dort (1574 and 1578), Middelburg (1581), and The Hague (1586), before being adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. Since this Synod of Dort the Church Order remained in force until 1816, when King William I set it aside and introduced a new Regulation governing the life of the churches. This contributed in part to a conflict in the Netherlands Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde Kerk), leading to the secession of 1834. At the Union of 1892, a union of the seceded churches with the churches stemming from a second reformational movement (the Doleantie), the Church Order of Dort was again recognized as the form of government for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (De Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland).
The Canadian Reformed Churches have revised the Church Order to reflect changed circumstances, and to incorporate minor improvements. Fundamentally, the revised Church Order follows the principles and structure of the Church Order of Dort.
No one shall take any office upon himself without having been lawfully called thereto.
Only male members who have made profession of faith and may be considered to meet the conditions as set forth in Holy Scripture (e.g., in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) shall be eligible for office. The election to any office shall take place with the cooperation of the congregation, after preceding prayers, and according to the regulations adopted for that purpose by the consistory with the deacons.
The consistory with the deacons shall be free to give the congregation the opportunity beforehand to draw the attention of the consistory to brothers deemed fit for the respective offices.
The consistory with the deacons shall present to the congregation either as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filled, or at the most twice as many, from which number the congregation shall choose as many as are needed.
Those elected shall be appointed by the consistory with the deacons in accordance with the adopted regulations.
Prior to the ordination or installation the names of the appointed brothers shall be publicly announced to the congregation for its approbation on at least two consecutive Sundays.
The ordination or installation shall take place with the use of the relevant forms.
No one shall serve in the ministry unless he is bound to a certain church, either to be stationed in a certain place, or to be sent out for the gathering of the church from among the heathen or from among those who have become estranged from the gospel, or to be charged with some other special ministerial task.
No one who has recently come to the confession of the Reformed religion shall be declared eligible for call within the churches unless he has been well tested for a reasonable period of time and has been carefully examined by classis with the cooperation of the deputies of the regional synod.
Persons who have not pursued the regular course of study shall not be admitted to the ministry unless there is assurance of their exceptional gifts of godliness, humility, modesty, good intellect, and discretion, as well as the gift of public speech.
When such persons present themselves for the ministry, classis, after the approval of regional synod, shall examine them in a preparatory examination and allow them to speak an edifying word in the churches of the classis; and further deal with them as it shall deem edifying, with observance of the general ecclesiastical regulations adopted for this purpose.
A minister, once lawfully called, shall not leave the church to which he is bound to take up the ministry elsewhere without the consent of the consistory with the deacons and the approval of classis.
On the other hand, no church shall receive him unless he has presented a proper certificate of release from the church and the classis where he served, or of the church only, if he remains within the same classis.
The consistory with the deacons, as representing the congregation, shall be bound to provide for the proper support of its minister(s).
If a minister of the Word is judged unfit and incapable of serving the congregation fruitfully and to its edification, without there being any reason for church discipline, the consistory with the deacons shall not dismiss him from his service within the congregation without the approbation of classis and the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod, and not without proper arrangements regarding the support of the minister and his family for a reasonable period of time.
If no call is forthcoming in three years, he shall be declared released from his ministerial status by the classis in which he served last.
Inasmuch as a minister of the Word, once lawfully called, is bound to the service of the church for life, he is not allowed to enter upon another vocation unless it be for exceptional and substantial reasons, of which the consistory with the deacons shall judge, and which shall receive the approval of classis with the concurring advice of deputies of regional synod.
If a minister of the Word retires because of age, or because he is rendered incapable of performing the duties of his office on account of illness or physical or mental disability, he shall retain the honour and title of minister of the Word. He shall also retain his official bond with the church which he served last, and this church shall provide honourably for his support. The same obligation exists towards a minister’s widow and/or dependants.
Retirement of a minister shall take place with the approval of the consistory with the deacons and with the concurring advice of classis and of deputies of regional synod.
If a minister, because of illness or for other substantial reasons, requests a temporary release from his service to the congregation, he can receive the same only with the approval of the consistory with the deacons and shall at all times be and remain subject to the call of the congregation.
No one shall be permitted to preach the Word or to administer the sacraments in another church without the consent of the consistory of that church.
The specific duties of the office of minister of the Word are thoroughly and sincerely to proclaim to the congregation the Word of the Lord, to administer the sacraments, and publicly to call upon the name of God in behalf of the whole congregation; also to instruct the children of the church in the doctrine of salvation, to visit the members of the congregation in their homes, and to comfort the sick with the Word of God; and further, with the elders, to keep the church of God in good order, to exercise discipline, and to govern it in such a manner as the Lord has ordained.
Among the ministers of the Word equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office and in other matters as far as possible, according to the judgment of the consistory and, if necessary, of classis.
When ministers of the Word are sent out as missionaries, they shall be and remain subject to the Church Order. They shall report and give account of their labours to the church which sent them and shall at all times remain subject to its calling.
It shall be their task, in the specific region assigned to them or chosen by them in consultation with the church that sent them, to proclaim the Word of God, to administer the sacraments to those who have come to the profession of their faith, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded his church, and to ordain elders and deacons when this appears feasible, according to the rules given in the Word of God.
The churches shall maintain an institution for the training for the ministry. The task of the professors of theology is to instruct the students of theology in those disciplines which have been entrusted to them, so that the churches may be provided with ministers of the Word who are able to fulfil the duties of their office as these have been described above.
The churches shall endeavour that there be students of theology, extending financial aid to those who are in need of it.
Besides those who have been permitted, according to Article 8, to speak an edifying word, others may be given such consent in accordance with general ecclesiastical regulations, for their own training and in order that they may become known to the congregations.
The specific duties of the office of elder are, together with the ministers of the Word, to have supervision over Christ’s church, that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life according to the gospel; and faithfully to visit the members of the congregation in their homes to comfort, instruct, and admonish them with the Word of God, reproving those who behave improperly. They shall exercise Christian discipline according to the command of Christ against those who show themselves unbelieving and ungodly and refuse to repent and shall watch that the sacraments are not profaned. Being stewards of the house of God, they are further to take care that in the congregation all things are done decently and in good order, and to tend the flock of Christ which is in their charge. Finally, it is the duty of elders to assist the ministers of the Word with good counsel and advice and to supervise their doctrine and conduct.
The specific duties of the office of deacon are to see to the good progress of the service of charity in the congregation; to acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties and exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy; and further, to gather and manage the offerings and distribute them in Christ’s name according to need. They shall encourage and comfort with the Word of God those who receive the gifts of Christ’s love, and promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord.
The elders and deacons shall serve two or more years, according to local regulations, and a proportionate number shall retire each year. The place of the retiring office-bearers shall be taken by others, unless the consistory with the deacons judges that the circumstances and the benefit of the church render it advisable to have them serve another term, or to extend their term, or to declare them immediately eligible for re-election.
Among the elders as well as among the deacons equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office, and also, as far as possible, in other matters, of which the consistory shall judge.
All ministers of the Word, elders, deacons, and professors of theology shall subscribe to the confessions of the Canadian Reformed Churches by signing the form(s) adopted for that purpose.
Anyone refusing to subscribe in that manner shall not be ordained or installed in office. Anyone who, being in office, refuses to do so shall, because of that very fact, be immediately suspended from office by the consistory with the deacons, and classis shall not receive him. If he obstinately persists in his refusal, he shall be deposed from office.
To ward off false doctrines and errors which could enter the congregation and constitute a danger to the purity of its doctrine or conduct, the ministers and elders shall use the means of instruction, of refutation, of warning, and of admonition, in the ministry of the Word as well as in Christian teaching and family visiting.
As it is the office of the civil authorities to promote in every way the holy ministry, so all office-bearers are in duty bound to impress diligently and sincerely upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect which are due to the civil authorities; they shall set a good example to the whole congregation in this matter, and endeavour by due respect and communication to secure and retain the favour of the authorities towards the church, so that the church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.
Four kinds of ecclesiastical assemblies shall be maintained: the consistory, the classis, the regional synod, and the general synod.
These assemblies shall deal with no other than ecclesiastical matters and that in an ecclesiastical manner.
A major assembly shall deal with those matters only which could not be finished in the minor assembly or which belong to its churches in common.
A new matter which has not previously been presented to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it.
If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to the major assembly; and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order.
Delegates to the major assemblies shall bring with them their credentials, signed by those sending them; they shall have a vote in all matters except those in which either they themselves or their churches are particularly involved.
Matters once decided upon may not be proposed again unless they are substantiated by new grounds.
The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin and end with calling upon the name of the Lord.
At the close of major assemblies, censure shall be exercised over those who in the meeting have done something worthy of reproof, or who have scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies.
Furthermore, each classis, regional synod, or general synod shall determine the time and place of the next classis, regional synod, or general synod respectively and appoint the convening church for that meeting.
In all assemblies there shall be a president whose task it is to present and explain clearly the matters to be dealt with, to ensure that every one observe due order in speaking, to deny the floor to those who argue about minor things or who let themselves be carried away and cannot control their strong emotions, and to discipline those who refuse to listen.
In major assemblies the office of the president shall cease when the assembly has ended.
A clerk shall be appointed whose task it shall be to keep an accurate record of all things worthy to be recorded.
The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the regional synod has over the classis, and the general synod over the regional synod.
In all churches there shall be a consistory composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders who, as a rule, shall meet at least once a month. As a rule the ministers of the Word shall preside. If a church is served by more than one minister, they shall preside in turn.
Where the number of elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local arrangement; this shall invariably be done where the number of elders or the number of deacons is less than three.
In places where a consistory is to be constituted for the first time or anew, this shall be done only with the advice of classis.
Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be assigned by classis to the care of a neighbouring consistory.
When the deacons meet separately, as a rule once a month, to deal with the matters pertaining to their office, they shall do so with calling upon the name of God. They shall give account of their labours to the consistory. The ministers shall acquaint themselves with the work of the ministry of mercy and, if need be, may visit these meetings.
The consistories and the major assemblies shall ensure that proper care is taken of the archives.
Neighbouring churches shall come together in a classis by delegating, with proper credentials, a minister and an elder, or, if a church has no minister, two elders. Such meetings shall be held at least once every three months, unless the convening church, in consultation with the neighbouring church, concludes that no matters have been sent in by the churches which would warrant the convening of a classis. Cancellation of a classis shall, however, not be permitted to occur twice in succession.
In these meetings the ministers shall preside in rotation, or one shall be chosen to preside; however, the same minister shall not be chosen twice in succession. The president shall ask whether the ministry of the office-bearers is being continued, whether the decisions of the major assemblies are being honoured, and whether there is any matter in which the consistories need the judgment and help of classis for the proper government of their church.
The last classis before regional synod shall choose the delegates to that synod.
If two or more ministers are serving a church, those who have not been delegated shall have the right to attend classis in an advisory capacity.
Each vacant church shall request classis to appoint as counsellor the minister it desires as such, to the end that he may assist the consistory in maintaining good order and especially may lend his aid in the matter of the calling of a minister; he shall also sign the letter of call.
Each year classis shall authorize at least two of the more experienced and able ministers to visit the churches in that year.
It shall be the task of these visitors to inquire whether all things are regulated and done in full harmony with the Word of God, whether the office-bearers fulfil the duties of their office faithfully as they have promised, and whether the adopted order is being observed and maintained in every respect, in order that they may in good time fraternally admonish those who are found negligent in any thing, and that by their good counsel and advice all things may be directed towards the edification and preservation of Christ’s church.
They shall submit a written report of their visits to classis.
Each year some neighbouring classes shall send delegates to meet in a regional synod. If there are two classes, each classis shall delegate four ministers and four elders. If there are three classes, the number shall be three ministers and three elders. If there are four or more classes, the number shall be two ministers and two elders.
If it appears necessary to convene a regional synod before the appointed time, the convening church shall determine the time and place with the advice of classis.
The last regional synod before the general synod shall choose delegates to that general synod.
Each regional synod shall appoint deputies who are to assist the classes in all cases provided for in the Church Order, and, upon the request of the classes, in cases of special difficulties.
These deputies shall keep proper record of their actions and submit a written report to regional synod, and, if so required, they shall give account of their actions.
They shall not be discharged from their task before and until regional synod itself discharges them.
The general synod shall be held once every three years. Each regional synod shall delegate to this synod six ministers and six elders.
If it appears necessary to convene a general synod before the appointed time, the convening church shall determine the time and place with the advice of regional synod.
The relation with churches abroad shall be regulated by general synod. With foreign churches of Reformed confession a sister-church relationship shall be maintained as much as possible. On minor points of Church Order and ecclesiastical practice churches abroad shall not be rejected.
The churches shall endeavour to fulfil their missionary task.
When churches cooperate in this matter, they shall, as much as possible, observe the division into classes and regional synods.
The consistory shall call the congregation together for worship twice on the LORD’S DAY.
The consistory shall ensure that, as a rule, once every Sunday the doctrine of God’s Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism is proclaimed.
Each year the churches shall, in the manner decided upon by the consistory, commemorate the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, as well as his outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In time 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 churches appointed for that purpose by general synod.
The metrical Psalms adopted by general synod as well as the hymns approved by general synod shall be sung in the worship services.
The sacraments shall be administered only under the authority of the consistory, in a public worship service, by a minister of the Word, with the use of the adopted forms.
The consistory shall ensure that the covenant of God is sealed by baptism to the children of believers as soon as feasible.
The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions.
Adults who have not been baptized shall be incorporated into the Christian church by holy baptism upon their public profession of faith.
The Lord’s supper shall be celebrated at least once every three months.
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 ground of a good attestation concerning their doctrine and conduct.
Communicant members who move to a sister-church shall be given, after previous announcements to the congregation, an attestation regarding their doctrine and conduct, signed on behalf of the consistory by two of its members. In the case of non-communicant members such an attestation shall be sent directly to the consistory of the church concerned.
The Word of God teaches that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.
The consistory shall ensure that the members of the congregation marry only in the Lord, and that the ministers—as authorized by the consistory—solemnize only such marriages as are in accordance with the Word of God.
The solemnization of a marriage may take place either in a private ceremony or in a public worship service. The adopted Form for the Solemnization of Marriage shall be used.
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.
Funerals are not ecclesiastical but family affairs, and should be conducted accordingly.
Since church discipline is of a spiritual nature and, as one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, has been given to the church to shut and to open that kingdom, the consistory shall ensure that it is used to punish sins against both the purity of doctrine and the piety of conduct, in order to reconcile the sinner with the church and with his neighbour, and to remove all offence out of the church of Christ—which can be done only when the rule given by our Lord in Matthew 18:15-17 is followed in obedience.
The consistory shall not deal with any matter pertaining to purity of doctrine or piety of life that is reported to it unless it has first ascertained that both private admonitions and admonitions in the presence of one or two witnesses have remained fruitless, or that the sin committed is of a public character.
Anyone who obstinately rejects the admonition by the consistory or who has committed a public sin shall be suspended from the Lord’s supper. If he continues to harden himself in sin, the consistory shall so inform the congregation by means of public announcements, in order that the congregation may be engaged in prayer and admonition, and the excommunication may not take place without its cooperation.
In the first public announcement the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned.
In the second public announcement, which shall be made only after the advice of classis has been obtained, the name and address of the sinner shall be mentioned.
In the third public announcement a date shall be set at which the excommunication of the sinner shall take place.
In case a non-communicant member hardens himself in sin, the consistory shall in the same manner inform the congregation by means of public announcements.
In the first public announcement the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned.
In the second public announcement, which shall be made only after the advice of classis has been obtained, the name and address of the sinner shall be mentioned and a date shall be set at which the excommunication of the sinner shall take place.
The time between the various announcements shall be determined by the consistory.
When someone repents of a public sin or of a sin which had to be reported to the consistory, the latter shall not accept his confession of sin unless he has shown real amendment.
The consistory shall determine whether the benefit of the congregation requires that this confession of sin shall be made publicly and, in case it is made before the consistory or before two or three office-bearers, whether the congregation shall be informed afterwards.
When someone who has been excommunicated repents and desires to be again received into the communion of the church, the congregation shall be informed of his desire in order to see whether there are any lawful objections.
The time between the public announcement and the readmission of the sinner shall be not less than one month.
If no lawful objection is raised, the readmission shall take place with the use of the form for that purpose.
When ministers, elders, or deacons have committed a public or otherwise gross sin, or refuse to heed the admonitions by the consistory with the deacons, they shall be suspended from office by the judgment of their own consistory with the deacons and of the consistory with the deacons of the neighbouring church. When they harden themselves in their sin or when the sin committed is of such a nature that they cannot continue in office, elders or deacons shall be deposed by the judgment of the above-mentioned consistories with the deacons. Classis, with the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod, shall judge whether the ministers are to be deposed.
As serious and gross sins which are grounds for the suspension or deposition of office-bearers the following are to be mentioned particularly: false doctrine or heresy, public schisms, blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, unjustly enriching oneself, and, further, all sins and serious misdemeanours that rate as ground for excommunication with respect to other members of the church.
The ministers, elders, and deacons shall mutually exercise Christian censure and shall exhort and kindly admonish one another with regard to the execution of their office.
No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no office-bearer over other office-bearers.
All property, both real and personal, which belongs to the churches comprised respectively in classes, regional synods, and general synods in common, shall be held in trust for such churches in equal shares by deputies or trustees appointed for that purpose from time to time by the appropriate classis, regional synod, or general synod, and such deputies or trustees shall be bound by the terms of their appointment and instruction and are subject to being discharged by a subsequent classis, regional synod, or general synod.
These articles, which regard the lawful order of the church, have been adopted with common accord. If the interest of the churches demand such, they may and ought to be changed, augmented, or diminished. However, no consistory, classis, or regional synod shall be permitted to do so, but they shall endeavour diligently to observe the articles of this Church Order as long as they have not been changed by a general synod.