What is the Church Order?
The Church Order and its Supplements show how congregations of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) live together and organize themselves. The Church Order regulates the organization and activities of the church. The Supplements are decisions that synods have judged significant enough to accompany the Church Order.
More than a set of regulations and guidelines, the Church Order is like a covenant among church members in a denomination who agree to abide by its provisions and to work together to change the regulations when necessary. In an era of growing diversity in the church, the Church Order establishes common ground and promotes unity even as it encompasses many different churches in varying local contexts.
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History of the Church Order
The Church Order of the CRC originated during the Reformation in the Netherlands in the late 1500s. It was refined and adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619. King William I reorganized the church in 1816. This change was viewed by those who left the national church in the Afscheiding (secession) of 1834 as part of a drift towards liberal theology and state control. At the Synod of Amsterdam (1840), the seceders adopted a revision of the Church Order of Dort as the official polity of their churches.
The early Dutch Reformed colonies of Western Michigan adhered to the 1840 revision, at first affiliating with the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Concerns about departures from the Dort Church Order were among the grounds cited by those who seceded from the RCA in 1857 to form what became the CRC. The new denomination adopted the 1840 Church Order as its own in one of its earliest sessions.
The CRC made relatively few revisions to this Church Order in the decades that followed. The Synod of 1914 adopted a revision that incorporated the stance of Abraham Kuyper, whose American followers tended toward a kind of congregationalism. Others resisted this trend and argued that the broader assemblies of the church (classis and synod) played a legitimate and necessary role in the church. These tensions have never been resolved completely and serve to keep each other in balance.
The CRC first published an English translation of the Church Order in 1920. It published a revised Church Order of 1927 in both English and Dutch. The Church Order published in 1935 was an English only revision.
The 1950 CRC Synod began a revision process in response to an official request from the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland that the Reformed churches of the Netherlands and South Africa and the CRC develop a uniform Church Order. The effort failed, but the CRC recognized the need to adapt its Church Order in response to social changes, among them the rapid growth of the denomination in Canada due to postwar immigration.
In 1965 the CRC adopted a revised Church Order. It retained the basic format of the Church Order of Dort but also demonstrated that the church was awake to its responsibilities in the contemporary world.
Since then, a surprising number of revisions of the Church Order have been made. The Church Order and Supplements has been republished every year since 1976, except for 1985, due to changes adopted by annual synods. Between the years 1912 and 1965 only two significant changes were made in the Church Order. From 1965 to 2015 more than sixty of the eighty-six articles have been revised, some more than once. Almost an equal number of requests for revision of other articles have been rejected during the same periods. The intent and application of other articles have been clarified by the CRC as needed or requested.
The 2019 Manual of Christian Reformed Government describes in detail the spirit, goals, and details of the Church Order. Note also Henry De Moor’s Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary, which provides more history and background.