People who are interested in church polity often do not have the best reputations. Often we are understood or assumed to be legalistic, always trying to force rules on situations that deviate from the ideal or the norm, always causing a burden for the church by insisting that particular hoops are jumped through. And, to be honest, at times, this reputation is not unearned. However, the church order does not prevent ministry, but facilitates it. In fact, sometimes it facilitates ministry by putting boundaries and limitations on certain things. But church polity is not about the rules, certainly the rules have an importance, but if we only think that church polity is about enforcing rules, the entire point is missed. The “why” is just as important, even more, than the “what.”
The church order is not a code of laws but a theological document.
Often, people are quite surprised when I admit that I, a teacher and researcher specializing in church polity, often don’t care all that much for the rules. The rules are important, yes, but they are not the end but rather the way that we live out the theology which underlies it. When we see the church order solely as a rule book, of course it becomes a burden, and then we think that anyone who points to the church order becomes sand in the gears. I don’t care about the rules because they are rules, I care about what is in the church order because of the rich theology that embodies and that teaches those who will listen.
I can’t imagine that a surgeon likes their job because they enjoy cutting people open, nor does a pastor or teacher like their job simply because they like talking in front of people. The study of church polity is a rich and meaningful one for those who are open to it. For those who just see it as a rule book or instruction manual, it becomes sterile, dry, stale, legalistic, problematic.
In this time of a global pandemic it is entirely true that most things do not fit with the world that the church order imagines. However, as a pastor myself, I can clearly say that most of ministry and life in the church does not fit the world that the church order imagines. Indeed, people are unpredictable, and the church order cannot imagine every possible eventuality, and so the order seeks to help give our ecclesiology flesh with some structure and some regulation, not to produce a ready-made body, but to give a basic skeleton, on which muscle and fat and organs and tendons and ligaments and skin and all of the rest are hung in order to make a living body.
And in many ways, these times are unprecedented. But in other ways, much of church polity work is not just knowing what is in the book, anyone can do that, it is understanding what is in the book, and why, and then use all of that and try to apply it in the most faithful way possible.
I have deviated from the church order. Always intentionally, always knowing what I was doing, always knowing that there was no other way, always attempting to mitigate any problems with such deviation, and always working consistently with the theology that underlies the church order. The point about church order is not that one can never deviate from it, but that one must be very careful when doing so. Very few things, if anything, works “according to the book,” and so this revelation should not be that shocking. However, what this requires is a deep understanding of church polity and the theology which underlies it.
Building on the work of D. Nauta and G Pienaar, the South African church polity scholar Pieter Coertzen listed “strict conditions” under which one may, very carefully, deviate from the church order:
-they must be exceptional circumstances that make it absolutely essentialPieter Cortzen, Church and Order: A Reformed Perspective (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), p. 59.
-the deviation must be as limited as possible
-the deviation must be acknowledged with a clear understanding that it does not create a precedent for further deviations
-the reason for the deviation must lie in the welfare of the church and not all kinds of personal considerations
-the interests of other churches or even that of the whole denomination must not be harmed as a result of the deviation
-the deviation must be communicated to the denomination concerned as quickly as possible in order to obtain their consent for the deviation.
Here, we can see the reality that deviation is possible under certain conditions, as the church order serves the church and not the other way around. This helps us find our way between two dangers: the first danger is that the church order is infallible and immutable, the other danger is that the church order is filled with guidelines that can be neglected and discarded when deemed expedient. The norm, however, is that “[w]hen a church decides on a particular order, they owe it to one another, as members of the body of Christ, to respect this order” (Coertzen, p. 58).
The church order in times of crisis
In times of crisis, it is sometimes necessary to do non-normative things, particularly in terms of the church order. There are times in which deviation from the order is necessary. Something can be wrong and necessary at the same time. What is essential, however, is being honest and forthright about what is happening.
These times are not normal. Though to be honest, very few times are anything that could be considered “normal.” And it precisely these times when more communication and greater consensus is needed as we approach possible deviations from the order.