ARTICLE 39 – Places without a consistory
Places where as yet no consistory can be instituted shall be assigned by classis to the care of a neighbouring consistory.
ARTICLE 41 – Places without a Consistory
Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be assigned by classis to the care of a neighbouring consistory.
In die plaetsen daer noch geen Kercken-raet en is / sal middelertijdt by de Classe ghedaen worden ‘tghene anders den Kercken-Raedt nae uyt-wijsen dezer Kercken-ordeninghe opgheleyt is te doen.
English translation of the Church Order of Dort (external link)
Decisions of FRCA synods
Topics related to this article
VanOene, With Common Consent
VanRongen, Decently and in Good Order
“Places where as yet no consistory can be instituted…”: what does that mean? How soon must a consistory be instituted? How many office bearers are needed to institute a consistory? How big or small should a church be? When is it time to split or institute another church? Some are convinced that 150 is the ideal size for a church. Others have different opinions. Reformed church federations in the Dutch tradition generally have larger congregations than those in the Presbyterian tradition.
Numbers are interesting, but are they important? We can try to come up with explanations why the situation is as it is, and the one can find an explanation that suits him, while the other with a different opinion can find a different explanation. What is more important, is what the Bible teaches us. Many practical arguments are being used for an ideal size for a congregation, but not often do I find a study of what the Bible says about church size.
What does the Bible say?
We will not find any text in the Bible that tells us what the size of the congregation should be. The only time we can find an indication of a number is in the book of Acts when we read about the church in Jerusalem the first days after Pentecost. In Acts 2:41 we read that on the day of Pentecost, about three thousand souls were added to the number of the disciples mentioned in 1:15, which was 120. In Acts 4:4 we read that the number came to about 5000. In Acts 2:46 we read that they continued daily with one accord in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. Since the word ‘daily’ is being used here, it is hard to use this as a proof text for what the congregation did at the weekly assemblies of the congregation on the day of rest. The impression we get is, that they came together as one congregation in the temple to hear the preaching of the apostles (which must have been a large crowd in the temple), but also came together in small groups in the houses to exercise the fellowship within the communion of saints. Both elements were equally important. Thereafter we do not read about the size of a congregation in the New Testament. There is some indication that congregations came together in the house of one of the members, probably a richer member with a big house (see Acts 16:40, Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15). This may have been 50 members or 150, or less or more: it is hard to say. It does give an indication that it was not really big. However, this information only gives us a description of the situation in those days and is not prescriptive: it does not give us much direction if it comes to church size.
We do find some principles in the Bible, which are more important for us to consider and which give us direction.
In every city
The first one is, that there should be a church, as much as possible, in every city or town. Paul writes to Titus in Titus 1:5: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you”. The ESV uses the word ‘town’ for city. The Greek word used here is ‘polis’. A polis in those days was generally considered to be a body of citizens who could govern themselves, and where there was a social hub, a financial marketplace, cultural institutions, in short a unit where people lived together, worked together and socialized together. The purpose of the work of Titus was that in every town or city, there should be elders, and with that there should be a church. This is confirmed in other parts of the New Testament where we see that letters are written to local churches. Paul wrote his letters to local churches and the seven letters in Revelation were written by Jesus Christ to the seven churches in Asia, which were all in local cities. Already in the Old Testament we can find that the city or town was important in the life of the Israelites. There was it where the things happened. Every local city had its own elders for the government of the city. The tithes were brought to the gates of the city, to be distributed to the poor. In the cities the people built the synagogues and came together regularly on the Sabbath Day. That is how it should continue in the time of the New Testament. Even though the situation is different in that not the entire city is Christian, still the church had to be there, in the city, and claim the city for Christ through the preaching of the Word. By being part of the social life of the city while at the same time being different, the church gave a testimony to the world. She did not withdraw from the world but came together on Sundays in the midst of the city and lived during the weak as a living testimony to those around them who were not Christians.
Brothers and sisters: one family
Another principle which we find in the Bible is, that we are called to live as brothers and sisters. That means: believers are all part of the one family, which is the Church, or the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). That means that we all know each other as intimately as we know our brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters grow up together in one family and know each other’s weaknesses, strengths, joys and sorrows, share in it and are there to help and encourage each other. There may be some large families, but families are never that big that brothers and sisters don’t know each other and can’t care for each other. Brothers and sisters in the Lord, living together in one place, should function as a household of faith in which they are no strangers to each other. Their love and care for each other should be noticed by those who were not part of this household: those who were like the heathen and tax collectors (Matthew 18:17).
Reformed Church Order
It is important to note that the first principle can also be found in our own church order. We find in our church order (article 39 for the FRCA and 41 for the CanRC): “Places where as yet no consistory can be instituted shall be assigned by classis to the care of a neighbouring consistory.” In the original Church Order of Dort 1619 we also find an article about this (art. 39). There it is stipulated that in those places where there is no consistory, classis shall be responsible to fulfill the duties of the consistory. Both the Church Order of Dort as well as the Church Orders in the FRCA and the CanRC maintain the principle that there should be as much as possible a church in every place. Only if that is not possible, then the members in that place will be put under the care of either a neighbouring consistory, or the classis. It does not say that these members shall become part of the neighbouring church. The Biblical principle remains that as soon as it is possible to institute a consistory in that place, it should happen. Not the number of members is important, but the number of office bearers. Where there can be three office-bearers, a ‘council’ can be formed, which means that a consistory can be instituted.
What do these principles teach us about the present practice in our churches?
In every city
It is undeniable that the introduction of motorised transportation has changed the dynamics of the city. They are usually larger and not surrounded by walls anymore. Neighbouring cities or towns have amalgamated into larger units. It is not always clear what could be considered a city as meant in texts like Titus 1. Here we must keep in mind what a city (‘polis’) was in the time of the Bible. The city was a community where the people to a certain extent governed themselves, in which people lived together, where they usually had their work, got their groceries, where they knew each other. In short, the place where personal relationships could grow through personal interaction at many different levels. A city is an area determined by geographical boundaries, which can be seen as a separate unit. Borders should be experienced as natural or logical. Maybe the idea of the ‘neighbourhood’ would approach the concept of ‘city’ best in our situation. Following the principle that as much as possible we should have a church in every city, church borders therefore should normally align with the borders of our neighbourhood. It makes sense if the members of the church of Kelmscott can be found in the Kelmscott neighbourhood and the members of Armadale in the Armadale neighbourhood.
In the community
Someone could argue that with the modern means of transportation this principle doesn’t really apply anymore, since we can all travel to church in a reasonable time even if it is 10 or 20 km away. However, the purpose of having a church in every city was, that there should be a witness of Christ in every city. The task of the Church is to proclaim to this world that Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 18:18-20, cf. Acts 15:21). The Church does that not only by sending out missionaries, but also by witnessing in the neighbourhood where the members live (see Acts 8:4 and 9:31). The Church should be part of the community, as the salt of the earth, by being active in this world. That has to be at the local level. There people can see how we live as Christians, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31). There Christians make contact with their neighbours, creating opportunities to talk about Christ and their only comfort. There, Christians go to church, showing to their neighbours that they are a communion of saints, that they care for each other. When the communion of saints is alive and active and at the same time stands in the local area, it will get noticed. People will see how good it is that brothers and sisters are united and dwell together in unity (Psalm 133).
The recent emphasis on evangelism is in my opinion the result of local churches not functioning as they should. We tend to withdraw from the community. We get in the car, every Sunday, drive out of town, or to another town or suburb, sometimes even passing other Free/Canadian Reformed church buildings. We build our church buildings away from where the people live, outside our towns. During the week, we have our activities removed from the neighbourhood in which we live. With that, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to be salt in the world and a witness of Jesus Christ. It is important that those who know us as their neighbours see us worshipping on Sundays and functioning as a communion of saints (Acts 2:47, 5:12-13). As a communion of saints, we should extend our care to those living around us. In Galatians 6:10 Paul wrote: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Often it seems as if we have replaced the word ‘especially’ with ‘only’: do good only to those who are of the household of faith. That is not what Paul wrote. If there is an opportunity, we should also use that to do good to others outside the household of faith. If we see our neighbours needing help or being lonely, we should extend our love and care to them as well. That may create the desire in our neighbours to be part of this communion and to know more about the gospel of Christ. That is how evangelism should work. It is my experience that this way of ‘personal’ evangelism (“by our godly walk of life”, LD 32) draws more people to church than big evangelism projects. A church that wants to be serious about evangelism should first be serious about being church in the neighbourhood.
The principle behind article 39 in our church order is that churches should be organised at the local level and as much as possible there should be a church in every city or town. If there are church members living in one place but there are not sufficient brothers who can be office bearers, these members should be placed under the care of a neighbouring consistory. This consistory exercises supervision over this group of church members and as soon as feasible institutes a consistory at that place. In the meantime, even before a consistory can be constituted, it would be good to have worship services in that place, under the supervision of the neighbouring consistory. Our practice today is not in accordance with this article in our church order.
When we talk about church sizes and church borders, we should start from this principle as formulated in the church order article 39. We should not let our churches grow too big, but as soon as it is possible institute a church in a certain place (neighbourhood). We should also stop the practice of letting members in a certain area choose whether they go to the newly instituted church in that area or keep going to the ‘mother’ church and we should apply the biblical principle that everyone goes, as much as possible, to the church in their own neighbourhood.
As a family
Following this biblical practice means that our churches will get smaller than we are used to. Which is in line with the other principle which we found in the Bible: the church must function like a family, in which all the members know each other well and can share in all their joys and sorrows. However, it still can happen that in one place there are many members, and the church will end up being larger than we think is desirable. There the congregation can decide to come together at different places, while remaining one congregation with one consistory. In Acts 2:46 we read that the believers came together in the temple, but also from house to house. That means that they did come together in smaller groups, while remaining one church. In the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in previous centuries, in Amsterdam and other big cities, reformed churches had thousands of members, who came together on Sundays in different church buildings in that place, while being under one consistory.
The question is, if we go to smaller churches and as a result of that to more congregations, are there enough ministers to serve these congregation? And are smaller congregations able to support a minister? It is my conviction that the large size of our congregations and with that the high demands with which we burden our ministers is one of the reasons why there are so many vacancies in our churches. Smaller congregations and a more reasonable expectation will encourage more brothers to consider going into the ministry.
If there are very small congregations where there are sufficient elders, but which cannot financially support a minister, there are ways to deal with this. A minister can serve two churches. And there are other ways to solve this problem. If we are convinced that the principle is good, then we will be able to find ways to make it work.
Above all, we know that the Church does not depend on our work. Christ is the Head of the Church. If it is our desire to live in obedience to Him and direct our church life according to the biblical principles, then we may trust that He will bless us with the gifts which we need, which includes the office-bearers.
[i] The average size for a Free Reformed congregation in Australia is around 300, while for a Canadian Reformed congregation it is over 300. For comparison, in North America, for other reformed federations this number is generally between 200 and 250. For Presbyterian federations in North America it is generally under 200. In Australia, there are not as many reformed and Presbyterian churches as in North America. Nevertheless, a comparison of a few of the churches comes to the same conclusions, albeit that the numbers for all categories generally are a bit lower than in North America.
Even though both the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia have the largest average congregational size, both federations also have a relatively high number of vacancies for ministers: both around 25 %. If there is a connection between these numbers and how they are connected might be something for another article.