A Question of Language

Inasmuch as different languages are spoken in the churches, the necessary translations shall be made in the ecclesiastical assemblies, and in the publication of recommendations, instructions, and decisions.

Church Order, Article 52

The original article


Article 52 is the last article in the section of the Church Order that deals with the ecclesiastical assemblies. It concerns the matter of language—the language used at the assemblies, in the official minutes of, the assemblies, and the translation of the minutes.

The original article did not deal with the language question itself. This was covered in the original Article 51. Early in the days of the Reformed churches in the Lowlands there was the difference between the churches in the north which spoke Dutch and the churches in the south which spoke French or Walloon. Article 51, in recognition of this fact, required separate ecclesiastical assemblies on all levels except at the synodical level. Article 52 recognized the possibility that in some areas there would be churches of both languages, and hence made provision for combined consistory meetings in these areas.

Nevertheless it is advisable that in the cities where the aforesaid Walloon churches are found some ministers and elders of both sides should gather every month in order to promote good unity and correspondence with one another and as much as possible to support one another with advice according to need.

The original Article 52 was concerned that the difference in language not become the occasion for the churches in the Lowlands to drift apart. The language barrier must be surmounted and the unity of the Reformed churches in the Lowlands preserved. 

Further revision


In time Article 52 became unnecessary. No longer were there two languages being spoken in the Reformed churches of the Lowlands. For the most part the Dutch language had become the language of the churches. Hence, the 1905 revision of the Church Order by the Reformed Churches of the, Netherlands removed all reference to the French-speaking (Walloon) churches. Article 52 was altered so that it dealt with synodical regulation of the mission work that was being carried on in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). 

Our present article is the result of the revision of the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914. At that time both English and Dutch were being spoken in the churches. The CRC had been established by Dutch Reformed Christians. Large numbers of Dutch immigrants had crossed the Atlantic and made their way into the fledgling denomination. Although gradually the use of the English language became more widespread, in 1914 much of the official work of the church was still carried on in the Dutch. 

In our early history, the Protestant Reformed Churches too were bilingual. Both English and Dutch were used by the members of the churches officially. Consistory minutes and even the minutes of the combined consistories and early classis were in the Dutch. There were Dutch worship services. Many of the articles in the earlier volumes of the Standard Bearer were in Dutch. Pamphlets were published in the Dutch language. 

Gradually, however, the churches were Americanized so that the English language was used exclusively. The generations born, raised, and educated in the United States soon lost the ability to speak and to understand the Dutch language. There are few members of the Protestant Reformed Churches today who are fluent in both English and Dutch. 


Further revision still?


This raises the question whether Article 52 should be removed from our Church Order. Since the article is outdated, what practical value does it serve in the Church Order? Not only is it not the case now that different languages are spoken in the churches, but it is highly unlikely that this situation will ever prevail in the churches again. Would it not be best then to remove Article 52? 

Although no great harm to the Church Order as a whole would be done by dropping Article 52, the article does serve a good purpose. The presence of the article in our Church Order underscores at least two important principles dear to Reformed Christians.

The first of these principles is the unity of the church. We love the church, and since we love the church the unity of the church is precious to us. As much as a husband who loves his wife is concerned for unity in his marriage, so concerned are we for unity in the household of God. The Church Order itself has as one of its outstanding purposes the promotion and preservation of the churches' unity.

Article 52 serves to underscore this interest in the unity of the church. Bound together by one doctrine, exhibiting one form of church government, and practicing one form of worship the Reformed churches stand in fundamental unity. Nothing incidental—not even something as significant as language—must interfere with that unity. There must be no barrier, not even a language barrier, that gets in the way of the expression of the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. 

It is also an important principle behind Article 52 that the work of the church must be understandable

This was an important principle advanced by the Reformation. The worship of the church, the liturgy of the church, and the preaching of the church are to be in a language understood by the people. This principle applies as well to the decisions of the assemblies of the church. Not only all of the officebearers of the church, but the common members of the church as well must have free access to the decisions of the assemblies. Nothing is to be done in a corner or in secret, but in the open and subject to the scrutiny of the church as a whole. 


A look ahead


Having treated Article 52, we are ready to begin consideration of the third major division of the Church Order, "Of Doctrine, Sacraments, and Other Ceremonies." 

It may be well to begin by giving a brief outline of the contents of this section, Article 53-70 of the Church Order.

1. Articles 53-55 deal with doctrine, the signing of the "Formula of Subscription" by officebearers committing them to the doctrines of the Reformed faith as expressed in the creeds and calling them to ward off false doctrines. 

2. Articles 56-60 deal with the sacrament of baptism. 

3. Articles 61-64 deal with the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. 

4. Articles 65-70 deal with various other "ceremonies."

a. Funeral services. 

b. Special days of prayer. 

c. Christian holidays. 

d. Heidelberg Catechism preaching.

e. Singing in the worship services. 

f. Marriage.