I am happy to announce the publication of my first authored volume, Foundations of Reformed Church Polity: The Rhyme and Reason of the Order.
The regulations within a church order are like geometric shapes, and their use depends on us using these pieces to make the same image. However, what happens when we are all working from different images?
One of the things that has become clear to me in my 10+ years of teaching church polity to theological students is that there is a lack of a shared ecclesiology in the Reformed Church. Students, then, take the framework with which they are familiar, and then when they come to the study of the Book of Church Order, they fit the pieces into the framework that they have in their mind. That is, there isn’t a sense of what the big picture is supposed to be, and so they either arrange the pieces into a picture that has been given to them, or they just begin arranging pieces however seems logical. However, in order to understand the church order and what it does, we have to have a view of what the big picture is supposed to look like. This book, then, is an attempt to present a framework for understanding the church which will hopefully allow people to find the place for the church order regulations within this framework. In doing so, my hope is that we can more fully understand not only the church order, but also the church, what the church does, and how we can most faithfully bear witness to the Gospel.
This volume is specifically written for the Reformed Church in America (RCA), but my hope is that it is not exclusively so. The primary goal of this volume is to help people to better understand the ecclesiology which underlies the Book of Church Order of the RCA. There are many places in which I engage with this specific church order, but much of the volume is speaking about things which far transcend this one denomination’s particular church order. I might think of a similar value as Carlos E. Wilton’s volume Principles of Presbyterian Polity (Louisville, MO: Geneva Press, 2016), which deals most specifically with the PCUSA’s Book of Order, but the theological substance transcends that particular denomination.
The conceptual arrangement of the church order regulations into something meaningful does not originate from a vacuum. Indeed, people learn, in their churches, what the church is, and how it is supposed to live out its calling in the world. To that end, my goal was not the creation of an academic volume, but rather, an ecclesiastical one. While this volume does engage, I hope significantly, with theology, the audience is not scholars, but rather students and consistories. In this, I attempt to help the order exist not just as a collection of rules, but rather, as something which is to reflect consistent theological form that is the church.
Below is an excerpt from the Introduction:
“Wait…can this happen?” The question fell like an anvil in the meeting. Over the past year, the consistory had begun giving more and more authority to their Pastor Ruth. Pastor Ruth was gifted, charismatic, and a decisive leader. The Consistory found it much more efficient to give most of the decision-making power to her, with the consistory periodically evaluating her work and setting broad parameters for her. After all, who would know better who should make profession of faith than the pastor? And who would know better than the pastor who should be baptized? And the pastor knows who is best for elder and deacon, so why not have the pastor select the people who would provide the best leadership and the best alignment with the vision and mission of the church? It did make the church run more efficiently when decisions were made by one person rather than by the whole consistory.
But this last year, someone new was added to the consistory, someone who had served as an elder before and had previously been a delegate to General Synod. As part of her preparation for General Synod, Elder Carly had read the Book of Church Order, so that she would better understand what was going on. Elder Carly found the church order interesting, not just because she liked the sense of order, but because of what the rules meant. And so in that consistory meeting, when the consistory was reviewing the performance of Pastor Ruth, Elder Carly was concerned because this didn’t seem right. So she asked, “Can this happen?” Elder John, the Vice President, said, “The consistory can delegate authority as it wishes, and we have decided to delegate the authority for these things to Pastor Ruth.” Elder Carly responded, “But I don’t think this is quite right. I definitely don’t think that this is what the church order intends.”
This story illustrates a very important concept. While some may see the church order as simply a pragmatic instruction manual to help things move easily and smoothly, the church order is, at its heart, a theological document—a church order makes substantive statements about our faith and how we understand it. The regulations in a church order do not exist simply for expediency or efficiency but for important theological reasons. To see that, though, we have to look at the foundations upon which our church order is built. To understand what the regulations in the church order do, it is important to understand their foundations to see beyond the pieces of the puzzle to the picture that the puzzle makes, and in doing so, we can see where and why each piece fits. But first, let’s back up a bit and find our orientation.
The Sacred Scriptures begin with God bringing order out of chaos. One of the first things that God did when God gathered the ancient people into a nation was to bring order to their life together—and not just any order, but one that was designed to enable them to live with one another and with God. The New Testament also displays this movement; Paul not only tells the church that they are the body of Christ, but he also describes the kind of behavior that is characteristic of life in this community (the body) and the kind of behavior that can damage it. Even in the freedom of a Spirit-filled community, that “all things should be done decently and in order;” not because order, as such, is the community’s goal, but because their order itself has the goal of love.
Polity refers to the structure and regulation of an organized society. We might think of a form of government. The church, as a society, also has an organization and a structure; the church has a polity. This is the case whether we admit it or not, whether we recognize it or not, whether we put it into a book of order or not. It is much better to be aware of that polity and seek to understand it.
Just as anatomy and physiology study the shape and parts and dynamics of a human body, the discipline of church polity studies the shape and parts and dynamics of the church, that is, the body of which Christ is the head. Thus, church polity is a theological discipline, and a church order is a theological document. When I say that it is “theological,” I mean that it is not simply something for efficiency, expediency, or simply pragmatism, but that it arises from what the church is—the body of Christ—and it displays what we believe about the church—even sometimes without our awareness that it does so. Therefore, to under- stand, write, or modify a church order faithfully, we must, first of all, understand the nature, essence, purpose, source, and goal of the church, and we do this primarily by looking at Christ, from whom the church derives all its qualities and aspects.
Further, church polity is a dialogical discipline; it takes place in the dialogue between what we believe about the church and the particular context in which we find ourselves. Church polity, as our understanding and practice of how to live together as a church, is thus constantly impacted by our social context, by our theological convictions about the church, and in particular by our understanding of how we can best live out those convictions within that context.
Church polity finds its lived expression in the form of a church order. This little book aims to help people understand the foundational assumptions on which the church order of the Reformed Church in America is built. The Preamble to the Book of Church Order (often abbreviated as “BCO”) notes that “[t]he Reformed Church in America is organized and governed according to the presbyterial order.” What exactly does it mean to be “governed according to the presbyterial order?” The Preamble offers several principles by which “[t]hat order is inspired and directed.” This book is an examination of those principles.
Interested? You can purchase it here: