The following is a translation of chapter 9 of booklet ‘Cursus bij Kaarslicht, part one’ or Lessons by candlelight, edited by prof. D. Deddens in Woord en Wereld (1997)

Schilder, K. ~ Church Law and Church Federation

Tonight, when I am going to speak about church law, I will not be within my own specialty. I have not made more study of it than would be normal, but because of the difficulties occurring lately I have taken upon myself to give more attention to a few key points. As for questions that have come up recently I will maintain what I have said about them. They are questions of great importance and we must not think that the matters presented as church-law are the business only of synodocratic lords or of the gentlemen of the synod. To believe so would be a serious misconception.

The first verse of Psalm 72 just mentioned by the chairman , is from the Psalm which pictures the Theocratic King, honored and worshipped, who follows particular principles, made by His own decree. This Theocracy is already seen more than once to be the prototype of the Theocratic church as it exists today. The Theocratic king is no usurper but a servant. To the degree that the church is not governed through power, to the same degree the Theocracy in Israel is a pure name for the government and the governing principles of the church.

When God, Himself, is worshipped by the prayer; “Give the King Thy judgments, O God”, then this prayer binds the whole matter of church government together. This matter does not go outside of the conscience of the congregation. Our whole official life has to deal with it every moment. To deal with it accordingly was a display of obedience for Luther and especially for Calvin. And also for de Cock with his little company of ‘chicken scratch writers’, also even for Kuyper and Rutgers, who developed church law into an established system.

The complaint we may shout before the ears of God’s is that in these same churches, in which they recall that obedience was exercised for fifty and for a hundred years, there are people who harshly treat those who continue to build upon Kuyper and Rutger. Which is in itself not a keeping of Kuyper and Rutgers, but a keeping of the basics, brought out in a formula, clearer and more significant then was possible for de Cock and his followers.

Now the field is wide. We could not be finished in one evening, not even with a summary of the matters that have been in order here. Therefore it is necessary to restrict ourselves and only speak about the important points.

The first matter is this one; how to think about church federation? This federation is seen very differently. It cannot be otherwise for the dominating question is whether and how a federation of local churches can exist. Is there a federation of churches? Some say no. They imagine for themselves a church which strings a band around the congregation. There is a country, the Nederlands. In that country is a church, a national church, the church denomination. This church has sections in every place where local believers are grouped together by it, in Groningen, Bedum, etc. These local sections are called congregations. The principle of a national church is of a wide ranging significance. The local section can not institute independently without the national church coming into the picture beforehand. They have called the system that is built upon this the collegiate system (1). This system depends on the very disputable principle that the church is bound to a particular country.

Now we are presented with this question: why do people not say that the church is a matter of the world? There must be an urge to have a gathering of believers which is ecumenically established and spreads its tentacles out over the entire earthly globe. This must be the aim of everyone who asks for God. Why do we not have a world church to be understood as church, and the national church as a division of it and the local congregation as a division of the national church?

Now people say. theoretically, that this is good but not possible, so in the meantime we must be satisfied with the national church. The difference in languages is mentioned as the greatest objection against a world church. Yet there are large areas where language will not form an impediment. The same language is spoken in the whole territory of America for example. Those who bring up this objection are using it for evasion. The consequence is a departure from the idea of a world church.

The question therefore becomes sharper then ever. Is this what Christ wants, a cumbersome body which has to be brought into motion like a colossus for the local church? Then Christ has worked very poorly.

He did not commission the apostles to first call up a world organization but He told them to go from place to place, and if that is not possible, from house to house, baptizing and appointing office bearers. Then in everyplace there will come into being an organization, which may be called autonomous. In this way Christ spreads out the church. He does not make a world church of it, but says(to each church) locally; join together and so become a church federation.

The federation bases itself on a covenant between the local churches, the church federation rests upon that church covenant. The body of Christ is wherever true believers are gathered locally. Some will say, what, that is strange, does Christ have many bodies? Certainly, millions. Not bodies of flesh and blood, from Mary, but figuratively; bodies which belong to Christ. Reformed and maintained by Him, in whom He is revealed as Prophet, Priest and King.

In case this arouses surprise from the synod (1944), then it has to be pointed out what Prof. Grosheide says in his commentary on 1 Cor. 12: 27: “the church in Corinth is one body of Christ”. That is not just his explanation, but is, according to him, a good translation of Paul’s text (2). This is the teaching of the Holy Spirit and there is no justification to say that Christ’s body is the world church.

The mistake of numerous constructions regarding church law is that they think of the body of Christ in a physical sense. Groningen is then a part of it, for example the little finger. Others say, no that is peculiar; the body of Christ is mystical, hidden, invisible. In the visible foreign bodies will appear, hypocrites. The mystical body of Christ however is the gathering of all the elect, known to God, or as some say: of all the true believers. There is a large difference between these two church ideas. If the mystical Body of Christ is the gathering of the elect then the pertinent question is: when do those elect become part of it? Is it when they enter the world? But it could still be they have to be born again. Others suggest that the mystical body of Christ is the assembly of faithful believers. This creates immediate difficulty. We get an assembly that includes everyone. No single human society includes all the elect in one place, even less all the elect. But then the church is no longer a gathering, it is at most a memorandum in the books of God. Therefore we say, more soberly, that the church is not to be understood as world church, or a collection of persons known only to God. Every church is an entity; concrete, earthly, touchable and addressable by mail, living out of Christ and belonging to Him.
Now, nothing will stand between Christ and the local church if each church is the body of Christ.

No pope who says; ‘I am the representative of Christ and chief shepherd of the universal church‘. Nor any king, no president and his ministries, not even in the worship service as for example the enlightened despot king Willem 1 did, against whom De Cock set himself in opposition.
Nor any synod, or classis, or a consistory, or minister or whoever. Each church is free as locally bound to Christ and to Him only.

But because Christ is not satisfied with Groningen, Bedum, Assen and so forth He says; “I would that the sheep of my pasture become one and He guides it so that all believers of the whole world come together. Not to form a conglomerate but to give each other the hand and to honor Christ as the gatherer of the church over all the earth. That is why the local churches federate. This is not a matter of our taste but the business of Christ for which He wrestles and prays continuously. The churches will come together in classes, particular and general synods and consequently, as possible, over the entire world in a ecumenical synod. We may not rest till even this last goal is reached. It is our task to acknowledge this, and are then to seek after it and be zealous for it.

Such a church federation must be a church covenant. It may in no way infringe on the title, on the nature and right of the local church. It can never bring injury to those who bring the federation about. If it does so it is no covenant but a violation. A covenant must expand what is existing. Think of marriage, in which both man and woman come to further development. The federation must never damage the sublimity of the local church. This is a foundation of reformed church law.

Our churches have been fully aware of this. When a federation is established then there will be a church order. This is not a straight jacket forced down from above by a national church, but a free agreement which free churches have, in freedom, agreed to amongst each other. An agreement, once made, of which they say that they will hold themselves to it and one shall not lord it over another. Here the last article of our church order, formerly the first, says; one church shall not lord it over another, the one office bearer shall not lord it over another (3). The church of Bedum and the one of Lutjebroek are not one jot less than the one of Groningen which today still is a very large church. This is one of the fundamentals wherein the character of our church order is most clearly defined.

There is another article which works out and maintains the covenantal character. This is article 31 (4). Herein lies the crux of the whole question which keeps us busy today (1944). This article holds a double warning which it directs, in the turbulent sea of church life, against a double reef which men will avoid to prevent the breaking up of their ship. The article turns viz-a-viz against independentism and against hierarchy.

Independentism is a course, recognized by its proceeding from the autonomy of groups of believers who are independent of a church federation and who also do not recognize the governing authority of the consistory. Christ has given authority to the congregation, and to the members of the congregation as individuals. Independent means there is no dependence at all. They say the church depends on Christ, the church is the body of Christ - therefore we do not depend on each other. They are right when they say we are not dependent on a powerful institution, not even on special office bearers. We will gladly take that from them. But because we are immediately dependent on Christ’s power we are obliged to form a federation. The independents are in error when they forget that we are dependent on Christ who wants a church federation (a church bond) and who demands us to preserve the same without reservation.

Therefore the Reformed Churches have set up this article; whenever an assembly comes together and decides something everyone has to uphold and carry out what is decided. This is the rule. We cannot say: ‘I do not agree with the decision, I find it too unreasonable and therefore I will not adhere to it’. it would be impossible to govern the church in this manner. It therefore says in article 31 that we hold to the decisions, even if we ourselves were against them. In this way independentism is opposed.

But the second section of the article directs itself against the other reef: that of hierarchy. Hierarchy means: government by holy persons. In a narrower sense it is being ruled by people who say; I have a power which I impose on the local churches, they must obey and no church may refuse to obey. If the church succumbs to hierarchy it falls into the sin of - called by the confession to be a mark of the false church - giving more power to herself and her regulations than to the Word of God and the persecution of those who will not conform to them.

Now at their federating the churches have said; ’God help us against both sins of independentism and hierarchy”. And to help ourselves against them beforehand we shall be armed, we shall hold ourselves to whatever is decided by an assembly, even if it does not get our concurrence. But we shall not acknowledge any decisions which conflict with God’s Word, the confession and the church order.

The synod calls out that you are a covenant and trust-breaker, if you do not hold yourself to the decisions. They have written up the excommunication bulls of some people in this manner by saying that he did not hold himself to our decisions. He makes a rift, commit’s a public gross sin and therefore must be shoved off the pathway. They do not say ‘he goes contrary to Scripture and confession’ but, ‘we have made a decision and he says no, therefore off with him.

Although the synod says that this is according to article 31 of our church order, we maintain that there are two things stated in article 31. One is a complement and limitation of the other. Our fathers were so convinced of good order and the necessity of good order that they said they would not maintain decisions which contravene the church order. It is better to not carry out a decision than to infringe on the church order. Thus the anti-dependent line is maintained in article 31’s second section. Major assemblies must submit to it as well; everyone, also in the major assemblies are bound to the church order and shall not implement anything conflicting with it. This is what we say to someone who does implement something contrary to God’s Word, the confessions and the church order, we say you break the faith, you violate the covenant between the churches.

Now I have to mention something of the synod’s (1944) view of article 31. They say: ‘you must carry out our decisions as long as they have not been rescinded (5). In any case if you submit a gravamen to the next assembly you must implement the decisions until then (6). Moreover the synod also said that it is not bound to the church order itself; the synod can change it (7) We have something to answer to these far-reaching assertions. It was said that the synod is not bound to the church order. This is as foolish as the assertion that Queen Wilhelmina is not bound to the constitution, because she can declare her veto for example, or she can change the constitution with her cabinet. Without a doubt the synod has the right, yes even the duty to modify the church order but only according to the regulations of the federation and the agreements of the churches. Also only because the local churches have given it the mandate.

Every synod is an assembly of delegates from the churches. We say rightly it is an assembly of the churches. This is true if we understand it as an assembly called to life by the churches and made up of appointed delegates. Now it is a general rule that the appointed are less than the appointees, the sender is more than the sent. It is also a general rule the sender has first hand authority and the sent have second hand authority. The one who is sent can have received power from the sender but he has no original power. If the churches say: we delegate so and so, to decide Christ’s way about something in a major assembly, then the assembly of delegates have a derivative authority, in other words limited power. They must never say: we are free from the church order, because that church order was in affect when they delegated us to the assembly. Synod needs change the church order if there is a mandate from the churches themselves. It must never happen according to their own taste.

If it should happen anyway then the order is reversed, then the delegating churches have bought a pig in the poke as someone in Leeuwarden has expressed it. It is totally improper and actually immoral to do so. According to Voetius the authority of the consistories is primary and the authority of the major assemblies is secondary.

The expression “major assemblies” can lead to misunderstanding. We can easily consider a major assembly as being higher on the ladder. “Major” does not actually mean to say ‘superior’, first rate, but made up of more people being assembled. A synod may never be permitted to have a blatant disregard for the existing church order. This is the case regarding the second point - the assertion that synod is not bound to the church order.

Now the first point. May the synod demand submission for three years to an adopted decision when it conflicts with God’s Word, the confession and the church order? It would be great folly to endorse this. Whenever a decision is clearly in conflict with God’s Word, the confession and the church order no one is allowed to hold to it. Moreover article 31b would be completely unnecessary if it is understood as the synod now states it. It makes no sense to decide that we must abide by a decision until it is rescinded. Because once rescinded the decision simply no longer exists. Synod strikes a line through the existing article.

From the side of the synod a claim was made based on a statement from the synod of Veere (1610) which stated that whenever a decision was taken everyone had to submit to it. (8) They forget that this decision has no bearing on the present happenings, and that it was a question of matters of appeal (revision). Also that a few pages earlier with Reitsma and van Veen a statement appears that says; whenever a major assembly takes a decision in conflict with Scripture, confession and church order, then a minor assembly must annul such a decision. When ever someone wants to quote historically they must do so in full and not cherry pick here and there. (9)

Therefore, whenever we point out the danger of deviating from the church order either to the left or to the right, we must make sure that it proceeds (as agreed upon) from the federation of churches and that doing so is the duty we owe each other.

We will also mention something about the character of the major assemblies themselves. Major does not mean to say higher, but broader. This also appears from the method by which the delegates are recruited. The churches say they send them to a major assembly with a letter of commission (credentials?); they have responsibility and authority, provided they are bound to the Word of God, the confession and the church order. This instruction is clear proof that no one has to conform if the decisions are contrary to God’s Word, confession and church order.

But would you not come into great difficulties if you keep this up? Where are the boundaries? Anyone can indeed say that according to them certain decisions conflict with Scriptures.

I will admit, that there are great dangers associated with this. There is actually not a single proceeding that is according to the Word and which does not bring along great risk. Freedom is a great peril for the flesh in other words. Yet we may not withhold its use because of this danger. Anarchy can break loose among those who don’t conform, but this anarchy is also there whenever men implement decisions even though they conflict with God’s Word, confession and church order. There is above all a powerful brake; everyone must present proof. This is not to convince the synod of falseness, but it does say to everyone who have objections that they must say: I would do violence to my conscience to hold the decisions as settled and binding on such and such grounds. The obligation to present proof is good medicine for every wrongly held fetish. The right to gravamen remains unabridged. Now however (1944) no proofs are put to the test anymore, people are thrown out because people oppose a pre-advisory, which is now declared as suitable for the flames. (10)

I must return to the agreement (of federating) mentioned earlier, and will discuss the matter of whether the agreement (covenant) is terminable. The agreement is established in complete freedom and the church may therefore terminate it. But only within the condition that it must be Christ’s will that the federation is terminated. In this situation every church must know that we sin when we preserve the federation. Renouncing a federation must also mean, at the same time, starting a federation. In this way a new federation arises as the domain of obedience Which God Himself makes possible.

Of course the question comes up what to do when the consistory refuses to break the bond that has become sinful. In such a situation, when the consistory refuses, the office of all believers must exert itself and, as according to the confession, we must separate from those who are not true church and join with those who do belong to it.

In the true church the office is effective but is not the same as the apostolic office. That will never return. The apostles possessed authority that was later not given to any other. We must therefore be vary careful when pointing to the synod, or the convention of Acts 15. We can never say the apostles did so, so we will do likewise. Didn’t the apostles have special charismata?

Having thought of that, when later, without the apostolic ministry, Christ called the believers together, he never did gather them in such a way that they would be dependent on local despots. A missionary is not a commander in a local church, also not in Buitenpost, from out of Dockum. He is not a commanding officer over those believers brought together by the Word, not by him.

How do believers come together? Through the personal, individual bond with Christ Jesus whereby the spirit of one confessor draws toward another confessor. And when Christ Jesus has brought the believers together by His Word He will preserve them in the form of a normal and standardized church life.

He does so by office bearers who have a special office, not from the congregation, but from Christ; the One who rules the congregation specifically through the elders, the teaching and the ruling elders. The congregation must indicate those who have the gifts for this office and those chosen must accept from Christ’s direction the office for giving leadership to the church. In this way they receive governing power from Christ via the congregation. Therefore when the time should come that the special office messes up and stands in the service of sin then the believers empowered by their office (of all believers) must say “we are brought together by the Word and subject to it alone“. The office of all believers can say in full independence; thus says the Word. If they do not listen then the special offices must be appointed anew. Therefore the office of all believers must function at each church reformation. If this transpires it is not revolution, and also not a maltreatment of the governance of the elders. It is reformation.

In summary we say that we should see that within the church of Christ burden and delight always go together. Here we may think about the lesson about synod power, given in early times by Christ Jesus Himself.

The synod at Jerusalem had determined that people must withhold themselves from what was offered to idols, from blood, from what was strangled and from fornication (11). Nicholas came in to oppose this, he said: ‘we must be free in lifestyle and in food and drink’. He taught the adiafora - how living and eating are not of any significance. He, and his followers, came into conflict with the synod and said then that they were free from the synod. They are just people who said these things. In 1 Cor. 8 Paul said that we are free from those things and moreover Paul and Peter often disagreed. When this threatened to disturb the order of things John received the commission to write a letter to the church at Thyatira where Nickolas had his influence (12). This letter says to: Hold fast what you have, hold with all you have. Although I bind you to all those decisions yet you should remember: I put on you no new burden, also not by the apostolic office. In this way remain a living church until I come.

If this is right, then church covenant and church federation are in the first place never a restricting yoke and in the second place the keeping of good order, a benefit and fruit of the cross, profitable for all ages.



1) In the so called ‘collegiate system’ of church law, the church is pictured as one of many associations ‘collegia’ called to life, organized and administered by people.

2) F.W. Grosheide, de Eerste Brief van Den Apostel Paulus aan de Kerk Te Korinthe, serie Bottenburg, Amsterdam 1932, pg. 424-425.

3) “Gheen kercke sal over een ander Kercke, gheen Dienaar des Woords, gheen Ouderlinck, noch Diaken sal d’een over d’ander heerschappie voeren, maar een yeghelijck sal hen voor alle suspicien ende aenlockinge om te heerschappen wachten’, ACTE OFTE HANDELINHEN DER VERSAMELINGHE DER NADERLANDSCHE KERCKEN DDIE ONDER’T CRUYS SITTEN, ENDE IN DUYTSCHLANDT, ENDE OOST-VRIESLANDT VERSTROYT ZIJN, GEHOUDEN TOE EMBDEN DEN 4 OCTOBRIS ANNO 1571, art. 1, see Rutgers, ACTE VAN DE NEDERLANDSCHE SYNODEN DER ZESTIENDE EEUW, ‘s-Gravenhage 1880, pg. 55
Naturally the synod of Emden 1571 did not form a church order in the strictest sense. The appellation ’church order’ was not adopted until Synod Middelburg 1581 abridged and systemized the material out of necessity. In this church order the foundations for the institution of reformed churches which Emden 1571 had formulated in its first article were expressed at the end in the second last article which read; “no church shall exercise any dominion over other churches, no minister over another minister, no elder nor deacon over another elder or deacon”. This same second last place now also calls up the golden rule; “no church shall rule over another church, no office bearer over other office bearers by any means whatever”. (Geen kerk mag over andere kerken, geen ambtsdrager over andere arbitragers, op welke wijze ook, heersen”. KERKORDE VAN DE GEREFORMEERDE KERKEN IN NEDERLAND, art 83.)

4) If anyone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a 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. Art. 31 of the Reformed Church Order. (BofP)

5) “Decisions of a general synod could naturally be rescinded by the succeeding synod, but as long as this has not happened, they are binding. Should someone determine that for conscience sake they can not hold themselves to it he should not go against his conscience, and he should at the same time come to the conclusion that he must break from the federation“
. This was forwarded in writing to the consistory of the Reformed Church of Wesep by the deputies of the synod on December 8, 1942 “Under commission of the general synod” of Sneek-Utrecht 1939-1943. See ACTE VAN DE VOORTGEZETTE GENARALE SYNODE VAN DE GEREFORMEERDE KERKEN IN NEDERLAND 1940-1943, Kampen, pg. 273-274. Based on the church order the consistory of Wesep had expressed objections against the self determined continuation of the synod, and the arbitrary expansion if its agenda. (A comment on the above; “It is stated here before us unabashedly: bend or break…”, drs. Van Dooren, minister of Wesep, ..And We Escaped.)

6) Objections (gravamina) were submitted at the convening of the new general synod on June 22, 1943 at Utrecht against the self-continuation etc. of the preceding synod. In the report of the synod committee, which was adopted by the synod, the following was also dealt with: “The utmost important point; what is the purpose of the end of art. 31, C.O. ‘unless it is proved to be…’. According to the report the meaning of the article: ‘that it is settled and binding unless’ must be understood in the sense of : settled and binding’ until the next synod is convinced that the decision was unjustified. Therefore we must always hold a synod decision settled and binding until it is changed by a synod. (‘The full length of the new church order‘). The report is included in: ACTE VAN DE GENERALE SYNODE VAN DE GEREFORMEERDE KERKEN IN NEDERLAND, UTHRECHT 1943-1945. Pg. 257-263.

7) This became obstinately maintained by Prof. H.H. Kuyper, adviser to the synod. In a series of articles about the authority of the general synod and church order in DE HERAUT of March 21, to May 23, 1943 (#3394-3403) he postulated and defended that the bond which binds the consistories, classical and provincial assemblies “is of a completely different nature than is the case with the synod“, The assemblies mentioned first are “bound to the provisions of the church order because they cannot amend them. Opposed to this there is no speaking of a synod being so bound, because only the synod is qualified to amend the church order”. There is utterly no speaking “of synod’s subjection to the church order as is the case of the minor assemblies, Consistory, Classis and Particular Synod as stipulated in Article 32. (# 28th March, 9th May, 16th May 1943.)

8) The statement from the particular synod of Veere can be found in; J. Reitsma and S.D. van Veen, ACTE DER PRINCIALE AND PARTICULAR SYNODEN, GEHOUDEN IN DE NOORDELIJKE NEDERLANDEN DE JAREN 1572-1620, v, Groningen 1896, pg. 99. The EXPLANATION OF THE SYNOD DECISION TO DEPOSE PROF. DR. K, SCHILDER, PG 43 used, amongst others, the statement from Veere 1610 as precedent. In pg. 6 of their missive of June 5, 1944 to the general synod Utrecht professors dr. H. Dooyeweerd and dr. D. H. th. Vollenhoven posed the question: “have the deputies that drafted this report forgotten perhaps that in the time of the Doleantie the leaders were attacked with exactly the same appeal? (see dr. H.G. kleyn, ALGEMENE KERK EN PLAATSELIJKE GEMEENTE versus Mr. a.f. de Savornin Lohman and dr. F. l. Rutgers, DE RECHTSBEVOEGDHEID DER PLAATSELIJKE KERKEN, 1888, PG. 107)”.

9) Schilder already expressed criticism on the reference to Veere 1610 in the publication of his correspondence with the synod in 1942 and 1943. See; K.C. van Spronsen, DE WAARHEID LUISTERT NAUW, NIEWE BIJDRAGE TOT DE KENNIS DES JONSTE KERKEKIJKE PROCEDURE, Z.PL., Z.J. (19440, PG. 66.

10) The PRAE-ADVISE was a bulky document presented by a committee of the ‘new’ synod of Utrecht, 1943 in which the doctrinal statements of its predecessor were explained further and by which the many objections submitted against those doctrinal statements were denied.

11) See Acts 15

12) See Revelations 2: 18-29.