In lingusitics, there is an ever-present tension between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Briefly (but not comprehensively), prescriptivism holds that grammar rules and usage should be prescribed, that is, there is a more or less stable and normative set of rules. According to prescriptivists, language is stable. Descriptivism allows for change and adaptation. Dictionaries, grammar, and usage are not a single monolith but ought to be adapted to reflect the way that language is used. The former sees a dictionary, for instance, to prescribe the words used in a language, and the latter sees it as something to describe the words used in a language. Prescriptivists insist that “irregardless” is not a word; whereas descriptivists accept it as a word because it is widely used.
I simply bring up this tension–descriptivism and prescriptivism–because it is not only something in linguistics, but it also occurs in the field of church polity, though we often do not use these terms.
Does a church order prescribe how a church ought to live its life, or does it describe how a church does live its life? Is a church order a stable monolith, or is it something which ought to be easily changeable to reflect how things are lived out in the church?
This is certainly not a new debate, and I am not the first to write about it. Indeed, Daniel Meeter describes a similar tension when he makes the excellent, and as yet tragically unheeded, proposal to separate the church order into Constitution and Canons (though I might say “regulations” instead of “canons”). Constitution would be those things which are essential to the church’s being, and canons would be those things which are helpful to live out that essential being as described in the constitution*. Indeed, this is, largely, drawn from the church order of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands† that has a church order (constitution) of some thirteen pages but a much longer section of regulations which are nonessential which help the church to live out its essential nature as expressed in the church order proper.
The foundation that the church is governed by offices is very different from, as Meeter notes, the fact that a candidate must be under care for twenty-four months before a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry may be granted (BCO, 1.II.11.3). The former is an essential (of the essence) aspect of how we understand the church, while the latter is a regulation that the church has found to be helpful but could amend with little consequence. Whether it is twenty-seven months or twenty months is neither here nor there.
Moreover, the question of whether the church order ought to prescribe or describe is not easily answered, nor has it only been treated in one manner throughout history.
A via media
As with most other things, the Reformed find a via media–a middle way–between these two extremes. And this is further complicated by the fact that, as noted above, the church order contains points of vastly different importance. Thus, some things in the order are prescriptive and some are descriptive. Some impact the essential nature of the church and some are largely inconsequential. The difficulty, of course, is discerning which regulations are which.
Indeed, the fact that there is a provision for amendments shows that it is not entirely prescriptive. But the fact that it is a constitution, that is, it lays out what constitutes the church and that constitutional changes require two general synods and a supermajority of classes shows that a church order is not entirely descriptive, either.
The difficult work, and the work so rarely engaged, is to discern what in the order is prescriptive and what is descriptive, or to put it in Meeter’s framework, what is constitution, and what is canon?
This work ought to be the foundation of any attempt to amend the church order, not because it should not be amended, but because we must understand the ramifications of what we are doing. The Reformed have always understood that all of the offices are required, and therefore all of the offices must be present for the fullness of Christ’s ministry to be represented (BCO, Preamble, p. 3).
A Case Study
The Reformed Church in America dates its beginning to 1628. This, however, is not the date when Reformed ministry began here, it began earlier than that. This is the date of the arrival of the first minister, Jonas Michaëlius. However, it is not a minister that constitutes a church, but once a minister arrived, a consistory was completed. There were already elders and deacons here, but no minister. But the arrival of a minister completed the consistory, the fullness of Christ’s ministry was now represented to the people, and a church could be organized.
With the recent changes to the commissioned pastor designation, both attempted and accomplished, about which I’ve written previously (here and here), we have redefined how we understand a church. Previously, where there was no installed minister in a church, a minister of the classis acted as supervisor and was, among other things, present at consistory meetings to complete a consistory, to ensure that all the offices are present. However, in 2014/2015 a change was effected which would allow a commissioned pastor (an elder) to serve as supervisor of a consistory. And thus we have instances where a church is missing one of the offices of the church, and where, as we affirm, the fullness of Christ’s ministry is not present.
What was done in 2014/2015 was to change how we understand a church. Now, this is a perfectly fine thing to do. It is possible for us to change how we understand what constitutes a church. But this was not the discussion that happened. This was a prime instance of not doing the work to determine what is constitution and what is canon, what is more prescriptive and what is more descriptive.
Ongoing struggles over accomplishing an end
Currently, the Reformed Church is in the midst of ongoing struggles on many levels, and one of those levels is how we understand the existence of the church. One faction within the communion desires an end, lockstep uniformity on understandings of human sexuality, despite the fact that many of them have a wide diversity on matters of the covenant and the effectual call of grace.
However, the order that exists in the Reformed Church, and the order how it has existed since the Reformation, resists such a move. However, rather than understanding that perhaps there is some prescriptive piece in the order that teaches us something about the nature of the church, the church order is simply seen as a code of laws that ought to simply allow to be done what the “majority” wants to accomplish. As the South African church polity scholar, Pieter Coertzen, notes, “just as bad as making the church order an authority equal to that of the Scriptures is treating it as something imposed by certain members onto others, or as something that one can find loopholes in with a certain amount of ingenuity.”‡
And because there is no distinction present in the order which shows a difference between those things which are prescriptive and those that are descriptive, it leaves it up to popular opinion to determine which is which, and often a popular opinion which is driven to see a particular end rather than trying to find a right means.
This is the reason why the General Synod of 2017 made an illegal pronouncement when it tried to declare, in a way almost suggesting doctrines of ex-cathedra infallibility, a definitive interpretation of the Heidelberg Catechism. It was assumed that the General Synod’s inability to make definitive doctrinal declarations on its own was a weakness because the assumption prevailed that the end was righteous and so any means that prevents the end is wicked. Additionally, there has been an increasing number of classes, and there are rumors of more in order to gain a political advantage for the particular faction so as to be able to control the classical approval process of constitutional amendments. When a church order is wholly descriptive, then any and all measures are justifiable.
A church order is not theologically neutral
Indeed, just because we want something to be so doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean that it ought to be done. A church order is not simply a code of laws, but it forms part of the constitution–that which constitutes the church.
In that the church is a theological entity and not simply a sociological one, in that the church is a creatura verbi, we cannot simply believe that tinkering with her constitution is an exercise in theological neutrality. Indeed, if we do not do the work of determining what is essence and what is regulation, we risk altering the very foundations of how we believe God desires the church to be. In such a case, everyone loses–especially the witness of Christ in the world.
*Meeter, Daniel J. Meeting Each Other in Doctrine, Liturgy, and Government. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. (see pp. 178-184).
†Kerkorde Van De Protestantse Kerk in Nederland: Inclusief De Ordinanties, Overgangsbepalingen En Generale Regelingen (bijgewerkt Tot Mei 2013). Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2013.
‡Coertzen, Pieter. Church and Order: A Reformed Perspective. Leuven: Peeters, 1998, p. 50.
BCO – The Book of Church Order of the Reformed Church in America.