Social Distancing and Ordination

(see bottom for appendix)

There are many challenges that this season has given us, and one of them is what do we do about ordinations in a time that we cannot be physically present, particularly with the laying on of hands? Can we do ordinations when we cannot perform that significant rite? And if we can, then how do we do that?

Why do we lay hands on ordinands?

The practice of laying on of hands has deep and significant roots. While the Old Testament often poured oil to mark significant moments, such as when Samuel anointed Saul to be king (1 Sam 10), we also see Moses laying hands on Joshua to pass on the mantle of leadership of the people of Israel.

It is in the New Testament that we see the most significant examples of laying on of hands. They occur in a couple of main contexts: the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-19) and the passing on the mantle of leadership in the community (Acts 6:6; Acts 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14).*

Throughout the centuries, the practice of laying on of hands has been used in different contexts, but particularly for us, here, ordination. Some use it for profession of faith, though it is certainly not required. However, the liturgical rubric for ordination of elders and deacons reads, “Those who are to be ordained shall kneel individually before the presiding minister for prayer with the laying on of hands.” The “shall” is obligatory rather than permissive. Furthermore, when considering those ordained in other traditions, the church order reads,

A consistory shall recognize as valid only such ordination to the office of elder or deacon in another denomination as is able to meet the following conditions: intended to be within and to the ministry of the catholic or universal church; performed by a duly organized body of Christian churches, and by the authority within such body charged with the exercise of this specific power, accompanied by prayer and the laying on of hands.

BCO 1.I.2.17

And further, regarding ministers,

The classis shall appoint a time for the ordination service of the candidate. An interval of at least ten days following the candidate’s examination is required before the service of ordination. That service shall be conducted by the classis in regular or special session with proper solemnity. A sermon suitable to the occasion shall be preached, and the promises, directions, explanations of duty, and prayer with the laying on of hands shall be according to the office for ordination in the Liturgy.

BCO 1.II.13.5

And further,

A classis shall recognize as valid only such ordination in another denomination as is able to meet the following conditions: intended to be within and to the ministry of the catholic or universal church; performed by a duly organized body of Christian churches, and by the authority within such body charged with the exercise of this power, accompanied by prayer and the laying on of hands.

BCO 1.II.14.1

So this may seem to be the end of the story, an ordination requires the laying on of hands. However, this also invites us to think deeper about ordination and what actually happens.

Is the laying on of hands required?

There are two questions before us here, I think: what is good and right and what is required. The answers are often similar, but in some instances they may be different. There is no doubt that laying on of hands for ordination is good and right and ought to happen.

In our own tradition, at least as early as Emden of 1571, prayer and laying on of hands were both spoken of as a unit for ordinations, though there is a parenthetical note following that it is to be done without superstition (Art. 16). This, then, implies that the laying on of hands does not do anything magical itself. And so even here we have an affirmation that this is how things should be done, but also balancing it with avoiding of superstition. I am careful, however, in addressing Emden’s use of the term “superstition.”†

This, I think, is also an important consideration ecumenically. The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches published a significant paper in 1982, called Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM). In the definitions section, we read this,

The term ordained ministry refers to persons who have received a charism and whom the church appoints for service by ordination through the invocation of the Spirit and the laying on of hands.

BEM, Ministry, para 7c (p. 17).

And this, then, indicates that laying on of hands is an ecumenical marker of ordination. Indeed, the regulations from the Book of Church Order quoted above seek to emphasize the catholic nature of the ministry of the offices, and require prayer and laying on of hands as part of the ordination service as part of that. This is part of the catholic tradition.

However, while BEM does see laying on of hands as normative, it is not as though this, itself, is the essence of the act of ordination. The description of ordination here is significant, so I will quote it at length.

Ordination is an invocation to God that the new minister be given the power of the Holy Spirit in the new relation which is established between this minister and the local Christian community and, by intention, the Church universal. The otherness of God’s initiative, of which the ordained ministry is a sign, is here acknowledged in the act of ordination itself. “The Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:3): the invocation of the Spirit implies the absolute dependence on God for the outcome of the Church’s prayer. This means that the Spirit may set new forces in motion and open new possibilities “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).

Ordination is a sign of the granting of this prayer by the Lord who gives the gift of the ordained ministry. Although the outcome of the Church’s epiklesis depends on the freedom of God, the Church ordains in confidence that God, being faithful to his promise in Christ, enters sacramentally into contingent, historical forms of human relationship and uses them for his purpose. Ordination is a sign performed in faith that the spiritual relationship signified is pre-sent in, with and through the words spoken, the gestures made and the forms employed.

Ordination is an acknowledgment by the Church of the gifts of the Spirit in the one ordained, and a commitment by both the Church and the ordinand to the new relationship. By receiving the new minister in the act of ordination, the congregation acknowledges the minister’s gifts and commits itself to be open towards these gifts. Likewise those ordained offer their gifts to the Church and commit themselves to the burden and opportunity of new authority and responsibility. At the same time, they enter into a collegial relationship with other ordained ministers.

BEM, Ministry, para 42-44, p. 28.

And so it is important, here, as well to make a distinction between the sign and the thing signified.

In the Reformed confessions, the Belgic Confession does not speak of ordination. However, if we look broader to the Second Helvetic Confession (which, while not one of our particular standards of doctrine, is still significant in the broader Reformed tradition), we do see a section on ordination.

And those who are elected are to be ordained by the elders with public prayer and laying on of hands. Here we condemn all those who go off on their own accord, being neither chosen send, nor ordained.

Article XVIII (from the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, sec. 5.151)

It seems that “prayer and laying on of hands” is part of the rite where the church publicly affirms one’s calling and sends one to into the service of Word and sacrament. This is to, among other things, protect against those who, on their own volition, claim the mantle of ministry. This is invalid.

To this end, we read in the Belgic Confession,

So all must be careful not to push themselves forward improperly, but must wait for God’s call, so that they may be assured of their calling and be certain that they are chosen by the Lord.

Art 31.

The context of this in the Belgic Confession, of course, is regarding election to office, which also helps protect against those who claim the mantle of ministry on their own. The general principle, I think, holds true, that ordination by the church helps to ensure that the ministry of Word and sacrament is something that belongs to the church and not to individuals.

It is clear that the laying on of hands, even if not the thing which grants validity to an ordination, cannot be readily and easily disposed of during an ordination to any of the offices. Laying on of hands is not just normal, it is normative. This being said, however, what do we do in times when we cannot physically gather?

Elders and deacons

A situation like the one that we are in is certainly something other than what was intended for in this. So for those who have elder or deacon terms that are coming to an end with newly elected elders and deacons, what is to be done with people who need to be ordained to their offices?

When there is a vacancy on the consistory (e.g. if a consistory member resigns or transfers their membership elsewhere), the congregation can elect and install someone else for that unexpired term, or,

the consistory may appoint and install a member of the great consistory to the same office of his or her previous service until the next congregational meeting for the election of elders and deacons.

BCO 1.I.2.14f

A member of the great consistory holding the same office would not need to be ordained, only installed, which has no requirement of laying on of hands. This is clearly intended to be a stop-gap measure until the congregation is able to hold a meeting to elect someone (lest anyone think that this can be used in the normal course of things). So one option would be to allow the terms to conclude, and for those who have not yet been ordained to the office to which they were elected, a member of the great consistory could temporarily be appointed until such time as an ordination with the laying on of hands can happen.

There is a second possibility, as well.

The elders and deacons shall be elected for a term not to exceed five
years, the length of the term being at the discretion of the consistory.
A classis may, under extenuating circumstances and at the request of
a consistory, grant permission for an extension of the term of office of
elders and deacons, subject to classis review at least once every five

BCO 1.I.2.14e

These may be the extenuating circumstances under which a consistory could ask the classis’s permission to extend the terms and install the new elders and deacons when a proper service of ordination and installation is able to happen.

There is a third possibility similar to the one discussed below.


Much of the practical discussion above has been about elders and deacons, but what about ministers, we might ask? And this situation is a bit more challenging, not only practically because there are candidates who have calls to churches and cannot for very real reasons, wait until an unspecified time to begin. But it is not only practical concerns, but deeper concerns as well. For churches who call a licensed candidate, this potentially has a significant impact on the care of the congregation. Indeed, times of vacancy are often difficult, but instances in which a consistory has extended a call which has classical approval and acceptance by the candidate, only prolongs the difficulty for the church and prevents the minister from being able to serve.

Practically speaking, this doesn’t entirely impact one’s ability to preach, as a licensed candidate is able to preach. This may, however, impact the sacraments if the church is celebrating the Holy Supper remotely.

And this, then, asks the question is preventing ordination from taking place more harmful to the church? Harmful does not mean it is something other than is preferred, but does it do harm to the church? This also asks the question of the greater and lesser harm. That is, is the greater harm to prevent a pastoral relationship from beginning because of reasons that are neither the cause of the church or the individual? Or is the greater harm the possibility of an ordination that may be less than regular? This answer is not something that can be decided as a one-size-fits-all sort of answer, but must be carefully discerned between the local church and the classis.

This also invites us to think about ordination, itself. For the Reformed, ordination is not a sacrament, though it is a rite. And so this puts it in a different category from the Holy Supper or Baptism, and the dangers of anomalies are lessened. We do not believe that the act of laying on of hands itself is required for the Spirit to work. This doesn’t make the rite optional, however, but it does, I think, speak to the concerns of superstition in the 1571 Articles of Emden. There is a point at which we so conflate the sign and the thing signified, to imply that God is restricted to working through the signs, particularly so in nonsacramental rites. And such an understanding is problematic, as we are not the ones who can control the Divine work. We simply bear witness to it. Laying on of hands does, however, carry a powerful symbolism of, among other things, public authorization for the ministry of Word and sacrament. It is the entrance into a new place in the church. Not a higher place or a more important or more special place, just a different place to serve the people of God. Therefore, the symbolism and acts of the rites cannot be simply done away with or ignored. However, if we hang the validity of ordination solely on the actions of the rite, I do think that we lose some of what is actually happening, focusing too much on the actions, and then we tread dangerously close to superstition.

However, I think, a case could be made for ecclesiastical accommodation for performing ordinations on a simultaneous two-way video conference platform. An ordination in absentia or via a streaming video would not work. Indeed, ordination requires the making of promises and the answering of questions. The questions need to be asked, the answers need to be given, and the promises need to be made all before the gathered community. Therefore, I do think that there are accommodations that can be made, but the accommodations are not without strict limits. There are ways to ensure that the intent of laying on of hands can be accomplished even if the physical act cannot. This option is not to be preferred and must be recognized as anomalous and not an ordinary way for ordinations to happen in any other situation.

APPENDIX I: I continue to stand by my work, here, though I want to add a couple of other thoughts. Can we ignore the laying on of hands? No. Nothing that I am suggesting implies that we ignore it. I’m suggesting that we wrestle with it. Is there a way to retain the essence of all that is happening even if we cannot fully perform the acts as we normally would? I think that is the case. My friend and colleague Daniel Meeter has written about how the elders might deputize someone to help perform the acts, even as the minister and elders continue to be responsible for what is happening ( and It would be entirely possible, and certainly preferable to nothing, for the classis (or the consistory, whoever would be appropriate) to deputized family members to lay hands on the ordinand. What do we do in the instance of someone who lives alone? Particularly, what do we do in the instance of a person who is at a particular at-risk category who lives alone? Some have suggested that they lay hands on themselves. This could fulfill the letter, in that, there were at least two hands put on someone. But I do have questions about whether this fulfills the function of the laying on of hands, or if it further confuses things and gives the appearance of someone doing the work themselves, as when Sonny (Robert Duvall) waded into the water and baptized himself and anointed himself an apostle in the 1997 film, The Apostle. In this instance, would a self-laying on of hands convey the appropriate meaning of being called, sent, and authorized by the church? Done rightly, perhaps. On the other hand, I could even imagine, when we can gather again, doing a confirmation, of sorts, where the outward acts are done in a more regular way.

There are two particular things above that I want to reemphasize. First, is that this is not a good and right way to do things. Something which may be permissible with strict limits does not mean that it is good and right. Second the importance of the intent. How do we carry forth the intent of what the sign signifies? This is not license to just do away with this, but rather, how might we be creative in instances where creativity might be necessary (and as I tell my three-year-old, needs and wants are different).

If we can find a way around this strange video conference ordination thing, that is preferable. In most instances, there are perfectly fine ways to avoid it. That should be the case. But is it possible that there may be instances when it cannot be avoided? In doing so, we must be careful about what is happening and why, and find ways to fulfill the intent of what is happening, even if the outward acts are anomalous.

*The biblical citations in this post are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive.

† This was, of course, a short hand for describing everything that they saw as wrong with Roman Catholicism. I am not addressing that, nor am I trying to imply that any other church did or did not believe or practice in ways that may be described as superstitious.

The church order in non-normal times

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 essential
-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.

Pieter Cortzen, Church and Order: A Reformed Perspective (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), p. 59.

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.

The Church and the Minority

In the late 1800s, the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America was working toward a federal union (not an organic one) with the (German) Reformed Church in the United States. Because this was a change in how the General Synod operated, it was a synodical decision. However, the General Synod desired to get the mind of the church, and so asked classes to register their votes. Fewer than 1/5 of the classes voted in the negative, which meant that 80% of the classes supported the federal union. However, the General Synod did not effect that union even though the majority clearly desired it and they had every right to do so. Why? Because such a union was very problematic for a group of recently arrived immigrants in the midwest, and the General Synod showed deference to the significant concerns of the minority. 

In 1969, the classical votes were counted for merger with the Presbyterian in the United States. The General Synod has voted to approve the merger, a majority of classes voted to approve the merger, but the supermajority was not attained, and the minority made the decision. 

In 1971, the classical votes were counted which would allow women to serve as elders, deacons, and ministers. A majority approved of those, but they did not reach the requisite two-thirds majority. In this case, the minority delayed this for several years to come. 

These are only a couple of instances where the minority was a deciding factor. And these are certainly not the only instances where there were significant moments and the minority carried the vote. 


Is voting divine design or an accomodation to sin?

Voting is so deep into our way of understanding the world that we can sometimes think that voting was a divinely designed and commanded method. However, this is simply not the case. 

When it comes to our understanding of church government, there is considerable contamination from the similar-looking liberal democracy of the civil government. Similar looking but very different. The foundational philosophy of a liberal democracy is that the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and so (with some boundaries, especially constitutional ones), what the people want is what is right. However, not only is the Reformed Church constitutional, but as a church it stands on a very different foundational philosophy. That is, the church is a creation not of people, but of Word and Spirit. 

Indeed, while the majority may win in the civil government (at least most of the time), the church asks fundamentally different questions. The church is concerned with what is right, the church is concerned with discerning the mind of Christ, and being attentive to the promptings of the Spirit. This leads to very different assumptions about how things ought to work. 

While a recent communication from the Synod of the Far West speaks of the “tyranny of the minority,” such an assumption is based upon values which are not theological values, or even biblical values. Indeed, such a concept is based upon unchristian values. 

Tyranny is a real thing. Not being able to do what you want because you want it does not equal tyranny.

While voting is often the default way to make decisions, voting is not divinely instituted, and voting is not part of the Kingdom of God. Voting is an accommodation to our sinfulness. When we bear this in mind, we approach it differently. 

In reflecting on the “democratic captivity” of the Presbyterian Church, Joseph Small writes this

The simplified division of substantial concerns into two opposed alternatives is further degraded by the expectation that the way to choose between them is by majority vote. Voting can work reasonably well in political arenas where winning and losing is the assumed outcome, even the name of the game. It works best, however, in situations where differences are encompassed within broad consensus regarding aims, so that balloting is about the best means to achieve those aims. Voting does not work well in situations of intractable polarity (witness the United States Congress) or when fundamental issues of faith and life are at stake.

Why a supermajority anyway?

The two-thirds requirement for constitutional amendments was incorporated into the church order revision of 1916. The Minutes of the General Synod do not provide any commentary about the particular reasons for this, but supermajorities are required for one thing: to have greater consensus for significant changes in a shared life. 

Foundational changes to our shared life ought to have greater consensus, not lesser. Indeed, this is not about a majority winning, but it is about a collective listening to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus tells us to enter by the narrow gate, for the broad gate leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13). Which shows that the minority is not necessarily wrong, and the minority ought not be discounted. Indeed, it is possible that the minority may be speaking the Word of God. 

There is nothing sacrosanct about the two-thirds threshold, that is the way that we have decided to pay attention to the minority. It could just as well be three-quarters, or even unanimity. My argument is not for the two-thirds supermajority in particular, but the concept of a supermajority for foundational changes to our shared life together.

And when we think about it, haven’t we all been in a minority opinion before? And haven’t we wanted the majority to think about us? This is even more the case with the faith we profess. 

Indeed, the minority may actually be the voice of the narrow gate.

The simple majority amendment

The amendment that classes will be voting on will be to allow fundamental changes to our shared life together by a 50%+1 vote of the classes. The goal, then, is to pass something rather than putting in the hard work of doing the right thing. This is certainly not the only significant moment that we have faced as a church, but for the past one hundred three years we have required that fundamental changes to our shared life require at least 66% of the classes (and most definitely in 1892, the classes that supported the union had the vastly more confessing members than those that opposed it). However, for some reason only now, and only for this is this requirement no longer tolerable. This amendment asserts that we must change the rules so that whatever passes the General Synod can pass easier without having to put in the hard work of greater consensus. 

Small continues, 

All too often, when a majority vote determines the matter, the unity of the church is betrayed. Presbyterian votes on contentious theological and moral issues often fall within the range of 55 percent to 45 percent, the equivalent of a vote of eleven to nine in a local church. Can it be said that the church has decided anything when nearly half of the church dissents? 

Erroneous math often used

 I’m certainly not a mathematician, but a word needs to be said about the faulty math behind the numbers that are so often tossed around. 

When a classis votes on a constitutional amendment, 50%+1 is all that is needed for the classis to register a vote one way or another. Too often, someone adds up the confessing members in all the churches in that classis and argues that this vote speaks for x many people. However, it cannot even be said that a vote fully represents the classis, when 49% of the classis can disagree. Not to mention the fact that the classis may not speak for any of the churches, and it is certain that the churches have diversity within them. So one cannot say that 50%+1 of a vote of a classical assembly speaks for anyone else than the majority of that classis at the session that the vote was taken. 

It is often noted that 2/3 of the classes do not represent 2/3 of the members evenly. This is true. And this has always been true. Never in the history of the Reformed Church has the church been so evenly distributed. Indeed, there was a time when the Western classes contained far fewer members than the Eastern classes, and each classis still was able to register a single vote on constitutional amendments. Classes are each given a vote not because they have the same number of members within their bounds, but because as the body which serves the episcopal function, they have value apart from their size or wealth.

Giving value to larger classes because they are more populous is contrary to the very foundations of Reformed ecclesiology and is patently unbiblical.

The church is called to something more

The church is called to something more than might makes right or the majority always wins. After all, we follow a savior who died naked on a cross. We profess a faith that proclaims that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16) and “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Mt. 23:12). The simple majority amendment is an exercise in power, which is not something that is fitting for the church of Christ. 

Paying attention to the minority is not tyranny. Disenfranchising a minority because you can, however, is tyranny. When we discount a minority simply because they are the minority, we have ceased listening to Christ and have begun listening to the enemy. Indeed, the minority may actually be the voice of the narrow gate. The simple majority amendment has nothing to do with seeking to live faithfully and has everything to do with a bald powerplay, which is the voice not of our savior, but of the enemy. 

Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part III)

The Rev. Joshua Bode is a guest blogger for this miniseries on the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) present work to envision a future for itself in the midst of tension.  Josh is an RCA minister who has served a church in upstate New York, been the stated clerk of his classis, and is a former moderator of the RCA General Synod’s Commission on Church Order.  He currently serves as a senior pastor in the Protestant Church in Oman, a church the RCA founded as part of its Global Mission.

Part III:  Reflections on Options 2 and 3

Options 2 and 3 Are Schism, and Option 2 Is the Worst Possible

I need to explain what I mean by the word “schism.”  What I mean does not refer only to separation of church structures, but it does include it.  “Schism” is to me a phenomenon on the level of what the philosopher Hegel called “objective spirit.”  Whereas “subjective spirit” is the spirit of a subject, objective spirit is the spirit of a system. It is akin to the concept of “the spirit of the age.”  Objective spirit is expressed in concrete things like laws, institutions and behavior. It is also expressed in more abstract things like thoughts, beliefs, morality and culture.  Objective spirit is an ethos of a group, a way of its being, the thoughts people in it can think, and is expressed among other things in the language and norms that determine and structure its life.  Objective spirit determines what meaning is possible, and what can possibly have meaning. Objective spirit determines the thoughts and actions of subjects who live under it. As I understand the terms, ideology is a power of objective spirit, for example.

When I use the word “schism,” I mean it to be a phenomenon of objective spirit.  I define schism as whenever Christian people intentionally move away from other Christian people in communion.  A schismatic thought or action is any thought or action by one or more Christians the telos of which involves any form of irreconciliation.  A thought or action can be said to be schismatic when among its purposes is anything inclusive of irreconciliation.  Shism is most objective when Christians intentionally walk away from each other at the literal Lord’s Table (the table of communion), but it is more deeply objective when they disconnect from each other “in spirit” in communion.  I take the four responses to anxiety listed above as four examples of schism “in spirit”– a spirit which is objective and very real. If one questions whether it is “real,” consider whether you can feel it when schism so-defined happens:  the force is both invisible and objective. As spirit, it moves people and is invoked by people’s moves.

Typically we think of schism as the separation and non-communion of churches as institutions.  That is indeed schism in an objective sense, but it is only one species of the genus. When Christian people and groups fail to stay connected in any way, that also is schism in an objective sense.  When I offer this understanding of schism, sometimes people say, “But we do that all the time!” My response is, “Yes. And the deeper problem is not the act of schism; the deeper problem is in any ideology that has us naming it anything other than ‘schism.’”

Much more can be said about this understanding of schism theologically, including theological and biblical justification of it.  And much can also be said about what comes after we properly identify schismatic thoughts and actions as schism (in brief:  it would fall under the rubric “what comes after you confess your sins?”). I will not address those things here.  I do believe that the validity of this view can be felt, however, as one considers options 2 and 3 of OV 18-23 as examples.  If either option is chosen by the General Synod, every person and every congregation in the RCA will feel it.  On my view, both options are properly categorized as schism.

Option 3 is in my view obviously schism in any sense of the term.  The only additional trouble with it is its ideological language of “grace-filled.”  Aside from the complex problem of whether this sort of a human act can properly be described using the adjective “gracious,” basic cognitive and emotional dissonance is evident on the surface of option 3.  Grace may and does come before and after any separation (thank God), but in my view the only power served by describing the act of separation as “grace-filled” is the self-justifying power of modern Protestant ideology I discussed earlier.

Option 2 is the worst option.  It is worst for four reasons. First, to the extent that it buys into the frame, “the RCA is in conflict,” it addresses the wrong problem.  It would be an action based on, and active within, a false narrative about current reality. It will, however, create another reality that is not false:  further cut-off. In other words, option 2 is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will create the very problem it seeks to ameliorate. The problem lies on the level of objective spirit, or the relational system.  People will ‘feel’ and be more disconnected from each other than they presently are. They will not be less related to each other in the [family] system, but they will be stuck in highly anxious cut-off for generations.  

The second reason option 2 is the worst option in my view is closely related to the first.  If you do not restructure on the basis of what is real in current reality you will create a structure that is not capable of delivering what you intend or hope for, regardless of what it is you intend or hope for.  If you intend for various groups in the RCA to become institutionalized into “three or more” (as OV 18-23 envisions) bodies, the future perduring existence of three or more bodies might happen, but it will be an outcome of unforeseen future events and not due to their founding institutionalization.  This is true for literally any intended or hoped-for future to the extent that the act of reorganization is based in a false narrative of current reality. The future consequences of actions based in a false narrative of current reality are simply impossible to imagine.  That is my point here. If I hazarded a guess as to the likely outcome of option 2, given everything we know about the un-false narrative of Protestant history and current ideology, I would guess that the most likely future for the reconstituted bodies would be further fragmentation.  Murray Bowen and others have shown us that systems repeat their objective spirit generation to generation unless intentionally intervened-in.

The third reason option 2 is the worst option is related both to the two reasons just stated and to the better version of option 1 I wrote about above.  In my view the trouble in the RCA is not a structural trouble. I have two hypotheses with respect to this. The first is that the current trouble in the RCA is relationship-system trouble and not organization-system trouble.  Another way of stating this is that the current trouble in the RCA is on the level of objective spirit, specifically in the forms of disputed theological beliefs and the systemic energy that carries those disputes, not in the form of organizational rules and structures.  The second hypothesis is that the RCA’s current structure is capable of containing the relational work that needs to be done, as I described in better version of option 1 above.  As I see it, people in the RCA from cut-off echo chambers need to get together. “Radical” restructuring would be further avoidance of that work.  In a word, it would be an intervention at an ineffective place in the system. OV 18-23 misidentifies the site of crisis, and seeks to apply leverage at a different site than the real one.  Option 2 would create a new and separate crisis.

The fourth reason option 2 is the worst option, and to my mind the worst possible option, is that it would be an act of schism as I defined schism above, only with even more cognitive and emotional dissonance than that of option 3.  Option 2 is likely to be described with ideological benign-sounding language like that of, “organizational realignment,” which from a Christian perspective conceals more than it reveals. I take it to be bad enough to do a thing that’s bad.  I take it to be worse to disable yourself from thinking it is bad. I take it to be the worst possible thing to tell yourself it is good. That is the power of ideology in its purest expression: it occludes not just what is normative, but what is real.

Mitigating the Damage In Option 2

The only way I could see option 2 being plausible is if the resultant institutional bodies included in their founding impulse the self-requirement to stay in mediation, remain in active dialogue and on a concrete action-path toward eventual reconciliation and re-union.  Perhaps temporary reorganization in the institutional system could be a way to “turn down the heat” in the relational system sufficient for reconciliatory work to be done that is presently not being done. But, at least in OV 18-23, that vision is not in view. Nothing temporary about the possible restructuring is suggested.  Without temporarity being instituted in the structures themselves, I believe almost no optimistic expectation for resolution is rational. Indeed, frozen irreconciliation appears ‘baked in’ to option 2, as it is envisioned in OV 18-23.

Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part II)

The Rev. Joshua Bode is a guest blogger for this miniseries on the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) present work to envision a future for itself in the midst of tension.  Josh is an RCA minister who has served a church in upstate New York, been the stated clerk of his classis, and is a former moderator of the RCA General Synod’s Commission on Church Order.  He currently serves as a senior pastor in the Protestant Church in Oman, a church the RCA founded as part of its Global Mission.

Part II:  Reflections on Option 1 and Another Option Not Imagined

Other Options

I see two additional options for the future which are not included in OV 18-23.  Each is more preferable than the three options identified in the synod’s act. The first option is one that, to my mind, is a better version of option 1.  It is an option articulated in an overture to the 2017 General Synod, and which was not tried. I was part of the group that originally drafted that overture.  I reference it here not to cry over spilled milk, but because it helps explicate the rationale in what I am presenting in these posts. This is the overture (I have redacted some parts to avoid digressing):

6. The Classis of Mid-Hudson respectfully overtures the General Synod to instruct its General Synod Council to implement as a matter of its highest priority actions that minister to what is not working in the life both of the RCA and of the General Synod in respect to (1) the breakdown of community in the church and synod, and (2) the consequent cost of that breakdown to processes of governance.


1. The Classis of Mid-Hudson is seeing that the distress of community in the RCA and in the General Synod is the most important and most urgent challenge facing the General Synod today.

2. Reformed assemblies have two basic functions:  koinonia (fellowship, relationship, community) and episcope (oversight, governance).  And the two are deeply related.  The governance function of the assembly works only to the extent that its community is healthy.  Put negatively, to the extent that people do not know each other and do not trust each other, they will not be able to think and work well together.  We see that the General Synod is suffering in its governance capacity because its community is suffering. We believe that this phenomenon is present both in the life of the RCA as a whole and in the life of the synod as an assembly.  We believe the synod has the capacity and responsibility to address both.

3. We see in the life of the RCA as a whole that people and groups are not communicating well between the echo chambers in which we live.  Across the RCA, people are not understanding why others in the church who have perspectives different than their own think what they think and feel what they feel.  People are attributing to others intentions they would never attribute to themselves. The RCA is lacking the means to communicate across lines of difference, to let off steam throughout the year, to make our cases, to make ourselves known to each other.  The cost is a breakdown of trust across the RCA. We note that trusting is different than agreeing. And while agreeing is not a necessary condition for either community or governance, trusting is. . . .

4. . . . .We see in the life of the General Synod assembly a microcosm of the RCA as a whole.  Many delegates come to the synod meeting not knowing each other and not trusting each other.  They have to overcome enormous obstacles to get to workable community. This at a time when the church urgently needs the synod to do governance well.  Yet it is not working well. . . . (MGS 2017, p. 112-113)

I attended the 2017 General Synod as a resource person from the Classis of Mid-Hudson in support of this overture.  In the special advisory committee that considered the overture, I suggested with this overture that the General Synod, and the General Synod alone, has the financial resources, polity authority, polity responsibility, and jurisdiction to do what seems needed at the scale required:  for example, to convene groups of leaders from across the country in in-person dialogues about the issues of division in the RCA. What later occurred within the Council of Synod Executives (COSE) and between leaders from the Gospel Alliance and Room for All are just the sort of events this overture had in mind:  intentional face-to-face crucial conversations about the substance of the tensions between people who are cut off from one another. By many accounts these later meetings began to make real progress toward reconciliation.

The 2017 General Synod declined to pursue the path suggested by this overture, instead exhorting classes and regional synods to hold these kinds of face-to-face conversations.  That exhortation displayed, in my view, a failure to acknowledge that the lines of most acute trouble and [unsurprisingly concomitant] littlest direct personal communication lie not within classes, but between them.  What if the General Synod were to take upon itself to convene dozens of facilitated meetings between key influential leaders drawn from the regions and classes across the RCA? I believe this remains an untried and better version of option 1.  It may be too late at this point. But it remains untried. The reason I believe trying to do so is a better version of option 1 is because I believe that the phenomenon troubling the RCA is in fact not conflict, but distancing.

I see another option not mentioned among the three in OV 18-23.  This option is to me both the most obvious option at present and the only possible option in the long-term.  It is also the most unthought thought in the RCA regarding possible futures for the church. The option to which I am referring is the planful and orderly dissolution of the Reformed Church in America and the disbanding of every local church in its communion, for the sake of the unity of the church.  That last clause is crucial: for the sake of the unity of the church.  This option is not a pragmatic solution to the RCA’s current anxieties.  This option is entirely unrelated to the RCA’s present anxieties, except for the two facts that this moment in time presents a historical occasion for considering it, and that this option is worth considering.

One definition of ideology is that it is a thought-structure which renders certain future possibilities impossible beforehand and which invalidates as a matter of unexaminable assumption certain thoughts in the present.  Given that definition, I take the fact that this option is an unthought thought to be an indication of the total ideological capture of the church by the powers of modern Protestantism, which among other things assume that the continuing existence of Protestant churches is unquestionably both justified and justifiable.  

I think that the continuing existence of Protestant churches is unjustified and unjustifiable, from historical and eschatological perspectives.  The way I understand it historically, the Protestant movement was an existential, confessional and institutional reaction to the perceived abuses of church power in [what would become] Europe in the sixteenth century.  Protestant churches came into being as an emergency response to the crisis. I believe that that crisis no longer exists today, and therefore that the emergency response to it has no legitimacy today. Actually, the more urgent crisis facing the church today is the proliferation of Protestant churches not in communion with each other.  From an eschatological perspective, the church is one, and will be one when the Son finally hands the kingdom over to the Father (I Corinthians 15:24-28). This is the only possible future and only intelligible norm for church unity. Not to consider living into it today is unjustified and unjustifiable.

In Part III I will argue that Options 2 and 3 are tantamount to schism, and, to round out this series, will offer an idea for Option 2 that could mitigate its damage were it pursued.

Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part I)

The Rev. Joshua Bode is a guest blogger for this miniseries on the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) present work to envision a future for itself in the midst of tension. Josh is an RCA minister who has served a church in upstate New York, been the stated clerk of his classis, and is a former moderator of the RCA General Synod’s Commission on Church Order. He currently serves as a senior pastor in the Protestant Church in Oman, a church the RCA founded as part of its Global Mission. 

Part I:  Introduction and Re-Framing Current Reality

I am currently serving an international Protestant church in the country of Oman.  In this church are Protestants of every conceivable kind from some 60 countries and of at least a hundred denominations (and no denomination).  This experience has allowed me some reflective distance from church in the States as well as a rapid immersive learning in wider perspectives on Protestant Christianity.  From those vantage points I wanted to put down in writing, and share, some thoughts on one aspect of the RCA’s present life. Whether or not readers agree with what follows, my hope, and intention, is that it may be a constructive contribution.

The Reformed Church in America’s 2018 General Synod acted:

OV 18-23

To appoint a 2020 Vision Group to work, in consultation with whatever staff, commissions, councils, agencies, and/or outside consultants the vision group deems necessary, to identify possible scenarios, strategies, and consequences for these future options for the Reformed Church in America:

Staying together

Radical reconstituting and reorganization

Grace-filled separation

This should include, but not be limited to, consideration of one denomination with three or more affinity assemblies within it. Care should be given to the administrative, legal, financial, real estate, and emotional burdens of each option. Any potential new bodies should be identified by what they are “for” rather than what they are “against” and should be consistent with Reformed theology. This should be done in ways that affirm all parties. This must be bathed in denomination-wide, hope-filled prayer that God will show a way.

As the vision group engages these options, its work should include, but not be limited to:

  1. A commitment, as much as is possible, to the unity of the church in its being, spirit, covenantal relationship, mission, and kingdom witness in the world
  2. An understanding regarding the foundational role that biblical hermeneutics and Reformed exegesis play in the life and witness of the church, and a commitment to articulate how those methods are operative in the church’s way forward
  3. An analysis of the role that the RCA’s theology, Standards of Unity, and liturgies play in the present and future life of the church

The vision group will consist of 10-12 members named by the interim general secretary and general secretary, in consultation with GSC, and its makeup should reflect the wide diversity of the Reformed Church in America. The general secretary will serve as an ex-officio member without vote. Expenses for the vision group and any attendant costs, such as consulting or legal feels, will be taken out of GSC reserves, not to exceed $250,000.

The vision group shall present semi-annual reports to the GSC, an interim report to the General Synod of 2019, and a final report with recommendations to the General Synod of 2020. (ADOPTED)

The synod has directed its “20/20 Vision Group” to consider three possible future options for the RCA:

Option 1:  Staying together

Option 2:  Radical reconstituting and reorganization

Option 3:  Grace-filled separation

In this series of blog posts I will do four things in three Parts:  

Part I:  First, I will take a step back and offer a narrative that I believe accurately describes what is currently the reality in the RCA.  The narrative I will offer is a re-framing of the narrative which says that the RCA is experiencing “conflict.” I will also say why I think the re-framing matters.

Part II:  Second, I will lay out what I believe are two additional options not included in OV 18-23, one of which is completely absent from the list of three, and one of which is, in my view, a better version of option 1.  

Part III:  Third, I will explain why I believe that options 2 and 3 are schism (and what I mean by that), and why I believe that option 2 is the worst possible option.  Fourth, I will end with a brief idea about how possibly to mitigate damage in the case that option 2 is taken.

Re-Framing The RCA’s Current Reality

Bowen Family Systems Theory tells us that there are four basic responses to anxiety.   One response is conflict, ranging in severity from persuasion to more familiar expressions of outright conflict.  A second response is distancing, ranging in severity from avoidance of people and subjects that stir up anxiety to cut-off.  A third is over- and under-functioning, where people take responsibility for things they are not responsible for or do not take responsibility for things they are responsible for, respectively.  A fourth response is projection, ranging from ventilating to a third person (called ‘triangling’) to blame projection. While these four responses to anxiety behaviorally look very different from each other, what they have in common is that they are responses to anxiety.

It is customary in the RCA to say that the RCA is “in conflict” or that there “is conflict” in the RCA.  I do not see that. Of the four responses to anxiety, the one that I have personally not much seen at the level of assemblies, governance, or public visibility is conflict.  Very occasionally an unmediated form of conflict does show up in assemblies like the General Synod, but when it does it is almost always in a raw, unproductive way– at best in the form of attempts at persuasion, and very rare.  One thing I believe is that the RCA needs to experience more conflict, and in a facilitated, mediated, potentially productive way.

The main response to anxiety that I observe in the RCA is not conflict, but distancing.  There is much cut-off. I also observe lots of the fourth response, in the forms of triangulation and blame projection.  I take speechifying in governance assemblies, preaching, and voting to be forms of distancing. The re-framing of the RCA’s current reality that I am suggesting is that the RCA is primarily suffering from behavioral distancing, avoidance and cut-off, and secondarily from echo-chamber-triangulation and blame-projection.  I am comfortable saying that what the RCA needs is not less conflict, but more and better conflict, in a potentially-productive way.

I hear folks in the RCA say they are “tired of fighting.”  I perceive in that phrase a self-description (“I am tired”) and a system-description (“of fighting”).  I believe the self-description but do not believe the system-description. I do believe that folks are exhausted by the way they have been showing up.  I do not believe that most people in the RCA have been fighting. To repeat: in my view most people in the RCA have in fact been avoiding the people they perceive to be the source of their anxiety.  Instead, most people have been choosing to ventilate to like-minded people in their own echo chambers and to cast blame on people from whom they are cut off. This dual behavior indeed is exhausting. It produces only more anxiety, which takes increasingly enormous energy to carry.  

In Part II I will offer reflection on Option 1 and describe another option not listed among the three options outlined by the General Synod in OV 18-23

We Are not a Church of Laws

One of the more troubling developments in the Reformed Church is not conflict or tension (after all, the people of God are the people who strive with God and humans until the sun (Son?) dawns anew), but rather the excessive focus on the church order as a way forward for the church. Perhaps this sounds strange from a church polity teacher and researcher, but church order works best when it is in the background and not in the foreground. When church polity is in the foreground of an assembly or its deliberations, something is profoundly wrong. 

This can be seen with the continual push to put a definition of marriage in the church order, in the push to change the church order in response to a particular situation. We do very little theological reflection on the church, our amendments to the church order are simply legislative. 

The church order exists to facilitate the mission of the church. It exists to give churches a skeleton, a framing, or as A.A. van Ruler speaks of it, the rafters in the cathedral of love. The church order exists to help assemblies to do the work that is given to them, and all of which is to help local churches to bear witness to Christ in their communities as they gather around Word and sacrament, around pulpit, table, and font. Just as in a functional house, the owners rarely notice the framing, in a functional church, the church order should act in a similar way. It provides structure, form, stability, some bounds. Just as when a home is not functional, when things are falling apart, when there are problems, then attention is drawn to the framing; so also when the church is not functional, attention is drawn to the church order. 

In a time such as this, we don’t agree, we have no way of facilitating any kind of meaningful communication after the Reformed Church pulled the plug on the church’s publication (there’s still a denominational publication, which is different than a church publication), and just like the political system, we largely remain in our echo-chambers, distance from others, and seek to craft laws that ensure that “they” conform with “us.”

It is sometimes said that the United States is a nation of laws. That is, the law is supposed to be the thing that rules in the nation-state. But church order is not the ruler of the church, and it is not church law that holds us together. It certainly helps provide structure, but a body is more than a skeleton and a house is more than framing.

We are not a church of laws, the church order does not hold us together. The Spirit holds us together, which may sound like a platitude, but it is not, it is a profound theological reality that is too often taken for granted and not acknowledged. 


Too much time is spent at the synodical levels trying to legislate a unified church. This is a futile endeavor which largely ignores the presence and work of the Spirit. When we try to make the church order into something that can hold us together, we will be frustrated at every point. Because it is not intended to do that. The law may be the foundation of the United States, but the Spirit, through Word and sacrament, is the foundation of the church.

And as such, we ought not flee from conflict, tension, and disagreement, but lean into it. This is why we need to be the people who wrestle with God and with one another. And we may be tired, Jacob was, too. But he wrestled all through the night until the dawn of a new day and he squeezed a blessing out of the angel. Wrestling and struggling may not be comfortable, but it is that to which we are called. 

And treating the church order as some sort of fix will not solve anything. It may use power and coercion to reduce conflict or tension, but power and coercion are not traits of the people of God, and it will do nothing for the cause of Christ. 

The law may be the foundation of the United States, but the Spirit, through Word and sacrament, is the foundation of the church. We are not a church of laws. Order is essential to a church, but an order is not what holds us together. We are a church of the Spirit, and we are dangerously close to forgetting that. 

The Value of the Study of Church Polity

It is no surprise that I like church polity*. But my appreciation for church polity is not in the rules, as if I am some kind of stringent rule-follower. In fact, I’m more likely to push boundaries, and I have a tendency to push back against authority. 

For me, church polity isn’t about the rules; church polity is about the theology that lies beneath the rules. 

This is what, so often, gets missed. This is why church polity has been increasingly pushed to the periphery in theological education and in the practice of ministry. Too often, church polity is either ignored or it is used as a means to an end other than the end for which it is intended. The end for which it is intended is to provide a basic structure, consistent with our theology, to free the church to do ministry. How can a book of order free the church? Churches do not have to go to the drawing board for everything.  It is by being freed from having to dwell on the practicalities of these questions that the church can be freed to do the important work of ministry.

But too often, the order is either ignored as largely meaningless for the church of today, or, and even worse, it is used as a means to an end. One can approach the order with an end goal and either seek to find a way to make it possible for it to happen or to change the order to allow it to happen. These approaches are quite different, but they share one commonality–they view the order as something atheological.

But church polity is entirely theological. Indeed, church polity is where ecclesiology, sacramental theology, historical theology meet the life of the church on the ground. 

Church polity is where theology and the practical life of the church meet. And it is for this reason why we would do well to spend more time studying church polity. 


Church polity is a window to ecclesiology

In the study of church polity, one can see the shape of the church, the governance, the structure, the functioning of the church. The particular rules and regulations of a church order are not simply matters of practicality and utility (though to be honest, these do play a part), but they also express the particular ecclesiology of a tradition. Governance by offices in assembly, in the Reformed tradition, is certainly not a matter of practicality or efficiency. To be sure, there is a practicality which is required for church polity, after all, it is designed to help the church as it lives its life. But it is always theology which frames a particular polity, which undergirds it and directs it.

While not the only way, this is certainly one valuable way to frame an understanding of ecclesiology, a point of departure to plumb the theological depths. The study of church polity is particularly valuable because it serves as a bridge between the academy and the church, between the theoretical and the practical, between the mind and the feet.

Church polity is a window to sacramental theology

In addition to ecclesiology, the study of church polity can be a window into sacramental theology, particularly how sacramental theology finds its lived expression in the local church. 

Even in the practice of the celebration of the sacraments, one can see theological elements. For instance, why ought the sacraments be performed at a place and time of public worship? Why is the private celebration of the sacraments not acceptable as a normative practice? Why do the elders oversee the celebration of the sacraments? Exploring sacramental theology through the window of church polity aids in understanding how we live our sacramental theology. 

Church polity is a window to historical theology

A church order is a living entity, changing to respond to a changing world. A church order, the particular fruit of a particular church communion’s understanding of its polity, necessarily must change. If it does not change, there is no way that a church is able to adapt to the changing cultural contexts. That it must change is nearly universally accepted. The pace and scope of change is often the points for discussion and dialogue. 

Understanding the reasons for the changes in a church order can give insight not only into the changes in the surrounding culture in which a church communion finds itself, but also changes in the understanding of one’s own church tradition. 

Church polity is a window to ecumenical engagement

An essential aspect of ecumenical engagement is mutual understanding of one another’s traditions. There are different ways to do this, but one important way is to seek to understand how they view the church and how they understand the shape of the church by understanding the differences and similarities between church orders and church polities. By understanding these differences, these can be a point of departure for a deeper understanding of one another’s traditions. And with this understanding can come deeper relationship and collaborative work. 

Church polity is practical theology

One of the challenges that the church faces is the growth of the distance between theology and practice, between the academy and the church. Church polity is a place where, when explored in its fullness, these two can come together, where our practice can be given theological depth of understanding and where our theology can find legs in the ordinary life of the church. Too often the study of church polity is relegated to simply learning the rules and regulations of one’s own church’s particular order. When we understand church polity more fully, as a theological discipline, we can not only learn the rules, but also learn why these rules exist and not others, what function they have, and, broadly, help to learn the logic of the order.

And even beyond a particular church order, a deeper and fuller understanding and approach of church polity as a theological discipline can, at the same time, enhance one’s theological reflection and one’s practice of ministry. 

A deeper study of church polity holds great opportunity, not only for understanding one’s own church order (though this is very much needed), but to understand church polity as a theological discipline and a place where theology and the life of the church meet.

*I use “church polity” to refer to the theological discipline dealing with how a church structures itself, and the term “church order” to refer to a particular form of structuring. 

Descriptivism, Prescriptivism and the Church Order

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.

Post-Denominationalism, deinstitutionalization, and the future of the church

Like a vast majority of Protestant communions in the United States (and Canada), my church communion, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), has seen a decline in membership and participation during the past several decades. This trend, then, brings questions about the viability of denominations in general, and one’s own in particular. How long can we continue to lose members and still be in existence? How long can we continue? These are ubiquitous questions in the circles in which I operate. However, I think that we are asking the wrong questions and that “denomination” as we understand it is a result of circumstance rather than essence. Indeed, I argue that denomination and church are related yet clearly distinct. This brief essay will use the RCA as a case study for arguing that denominationalism is neither central to our ministry nor is it essential to our continued existence as an ecclesiastical communion. Indeed, those who proclaim the impending doom of the communion fundamentally misunderstand the nature and essence of the church and our communion.

Superstructure and Infrastructure

The church is established by Christ and entrusted to Christ’s people. The Belgic Confession states that the “church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end…” (Art. 27), and therefore we can neither establish nor destroy the church. We do, however, form structures, influenced by the scriptures, to help the church to operate and to live into its calling in the fullest way possible. Indeed, the church could not have continued to exist without some sort of order. This essential order of the church is the discipline of church polity, and continues to be an essential element to the mission of the church. However, in modern Protestantism, there is another structure which has been placed upon the church–denomination.

But before we can speak of denomination, we must speak of order. Order is a necessary part of the people of God and throughout the scriptures, it is apparent that God brings order out of chaos and invites God’s people into that order. The church, therefore, is inherently structural. Indeed, the Preamble to the RCA’s Book of Church Order states, “The governmental functioning of these offices takes place not apart from, but in harmony with the understanding of the mission of the church and the nature of its ministry.” Therefore, the church has infrastructure which sustains it. In my own tradition, the infrastructure is composed of the offices (deacon, elder, minister of Word and sacrament, and professor of theology) and assemblies (consistory, classis, regional synod, General Synod). These are the elements which support and sustain the church and allow it to function. These are elements which constitute the church and are therefore a part of the RCA’s Constitution. While the presbyterial-synodical system is certainly not the only system of church polity, it is the one that we claim, and therefore it is essential to our being of the church.

Above all of this, then, is a superstructure, and this superstructure is designed to support and aid the infrastructure in sustaining the church. The superstructure can be understood as staff, departments, boards, programs, and strategic goals. We might call this superstructure denomination. This superstructure is important, but it is not essential to the church, it is not a constitutive element of the church and is therefore largely absent from the RCA’s Constitution. By viewing the church in terms of infrastructure, which is the necessary base which supports the church, and superstructure, which supports and maintains (and indeed influences) the infrastructure, we can gain a better perspective on reality and the future of the church.

In order to gain a broader view of this superstructure and how it develops, a brief look to the history of the church is both instructive and enlightening.

Origin and Development of “Denomination”

The term, “denomination” finds its origin as a middle way between claiming to be the church, outside of which there is no other, and a sect, which carries with it negative and exclusivist connotations. Linguistically, denomination simply means to give a name to, or to identify by a name. The term and concept of denomination is a result of a religious plurality rather than a singular unity. As such, denomination is a sociological term, rather than a theological one.

Indeed, when the Reformed Church in America adopted its Constitution after independence from the Classis of Amsterdam, it also adopted the “Explanatory Articles” which help to translate the received Reformed theology and order to the particular situation in the newly independent United States. The term “denomination” only occurs in a handful of places, primarily in the Preface. The first occurrence actually defines the term as “descriptions of particular Churches…” and subsequent occurences use it in a consistent way, as such, it is simply a neutral way to refer to different traditions, or expressions, within the Christian Church universal. It is worth noting that the use of this term is a catch all for other churches, not our own.

While a comprehensive history of the usage of the term is not within the scope of this brief essay, it did not take long for the usage of “denomination” to begin the shift from a term primarily speaking of other “particular Churches” to our own church. The church order of 1833 (in which the Articles of Dort and the Explanatory Articles were first merged into a single order), the term occurs four times and nearly always refers to others, rather than ourselves. While much has happened between 1833 and today, by way of comparison, the 2015 edition of the Book of Church Order uses this term approximately seventy-five times, referring not only to other churches but also ourselves, speaking of “the denomination” and “denominational policy.” While the number of occurrences alone is not enough to draw conclusions, it is illustrative of the usage of the term “denomination.” This term, then, has moved even beyond its sociological origins and has become a term to speak of an organizational reality (nearly supplanting theological language), and it is this usage of the term which is most salient for our discussion here.

Increasing Institutionalization

With the continued growth of the RCA, a larger membership and more resources meant that there were both additional opportunities and additional obligations. While the RCA has always been institutional, in the late nineteenth century and onward one can observe a growth in the institutional existence and operation of and in the church.

Growth of organizational superstructure

In 1874 a further major revision of the church was undertaken, which was built on the previous church order (and subsequent amendments) and continued the work of adapting to the ever-changing context in which the RCA found itself. It was in this revision that another provision entered the government (and therefore the Constitution),

To the General Synod also belong the power and duty to institute and organize such general agencies as shall best enable the church to fulfil the command of the Lord Jesus Christ by which He has enjoined on all His disciples the duty of teaching all nations and preaching the gospel to every creature; to maintain, supervise and direct such agencies when erected in the conduct of missionary operations at home and abroad; and to recommend such methods in the churches as shall effectively sustain such agencies and tend to secure the largest possible dissemination of the gospel. (Art. 73)

Here we can see the beginnings of the superstructure that has come to be called denomination which continues to this day. In the generations since, the RCA has added staff, agencies, boards, and councils. The Stated Clerk of the General Synod has become a General Secretary and among the responsibilities was added, “articulating a vision for the church…” However, the denominational (organizational) structure that we now have really only dates back to the middle of the twentieth century.

For most of the history of the Reformed Church, the assemblies were the main agents within the church (in their respective spheres). For those things that were larger than individual churches, classes, or particular (regional) synods (such as foreign mission or theological education), the General Synod established a number of subsidiary boards which aided the church in its mission and ministry. Around mid-point of the twentieth century, there was a movement to provide for a more centralized structure to coordinate the programs of the church. The first of these was the creation of the General Synod Executive Committee (GSEC) in 1961. A significant aspect of the charge given to this committee was to carry out the work of the General Synod between sessions of the General Synod. Not long after, the General Synod approved the merger of three boards and a council to create the General Program Council (GPC) in 1967, which was formally organized in 1968, and was designed to work alongside of GSEC. This continued until 1992, when the General Synod voted to merge GSEC and GPC into the General Synod Council (GSC), which continues to this day and is the main agent of the General Synod which provides oversight and direction. Throughout this, we can see an increasing centralization of the superstructure aligning itself far more to a corporate structure than an ecclesiastical structure.


There is nothing sacrosanct about the superstructure of denomination. It was born as a result of need and changing cultural contexts, and it can be re-shaped in any way needed as a result to changing contexts and situations. Church polity is the infrastructure that supports the church, which in our case is presbyterial-synodical, but which is actually quite distinct from the superstructure of denomination. The denomination as an organizational reality has been so ingrained in our cultural psyche that, in many ways, it can be difficult to imagine a distinction between denomination and church.

Much of the anxiety present in the RCA regarding membership and participation numbers is rooted in the question of how long the denomination (rather than church) can be sustained. There have been assertions that the RCA cannot survive another schism or separation such as we saw in the nineteenth century. But these fears are largely centered around the viability of the denomination (superstructure), not the viability of the church communion. If we are able to separate these two concepts, it will help us as we (and other communions) look to the future to find our place amidst a changing context. As we seek to separate these concepts, perhaps a few corrective measures can be helpful to help right out perspectives and orientation.

Proposals for the RCA

As the church, we need to be concerned not only with what is efficient, but also what is right and proper. As such, the RCA has become far too hierarchical and corporately focused, that we have forgotten about how the communion actually ought to function. Indeed, many of our structures can serve to aid in the mislocation of the essence of the church. As such, I have a few suggestions for the RCA to help the church recover its ministry and mission.

Return the General Secretary to Stated Clerk

The General Secretary exists, primarily, to serve the General Synod. However, often the General Secretary is given near bishop-like authority. This is problematic not only for the functioning of the church, but also for the understanding of the essence of the church. The story of the ancient people of God show us that it is natural for the people to clamor for a king, but that natural impulse is not necessarily faithful. The Reformed have rejected the nature of prelacy, and so unless we wish to reexamine the foundations of our ecclesiology (which we are free to do), we ought to fight against this natural tendency.

But this proposal involves more than simply a change of job title. It would also involve two changes to the role of this position. First, to remove the provision in the Book of Church Order that the General Secretary shall present “a report articulating a vision for the church…” (1.IV.5.3). This provision places an inordinate amount of focus and authority on one person, and enhances the corporate tendencies of the church. The General Synod has staked much of the RCA’s future in strategic plans, but this continues the mislocation of the essence and purpose of church. Second, to remove the last half of that sentence, “…including recommendations for the future…” (ad loc). This will stop the General Secretary from presenting proposals to the General Synod and making this change will serve as a step toward removing such inordinate focus on this one single individual in the life of the General Synod and the RCA.

Dissolve the General Synod Council (GSC)

The tendency to place more authority and power into a hierarchy is not limited only to persons, but also to groups. Assemblies are not hierarchies and the same goes for subsidiary councils. In practice, the GSC is often seen as the locus of authority and it can seem as though the GSC is willing to accept that authority. There is no real check or balance on the GSC. This council has nothing to do with the essential infrastructure of the church, but rather the nonessential of the superstructure. This single council concentrates authority and further reinforces the hierarchical nature of the church.

The GSC could be dissolved and its functions returned to a collection of subsidiary boards. Returning the functions of the General Synod to a collection of subsidiary boards would allow the General Synod to continue to accomplish the things with which it is charged, while avoiding the concentration of power and authority in some imagined and artificially constructed “top.” One of these subsidiary boards could be an executive committee.

No General Synod assembly for fifty years

Synods exist for the good order of the church rather than being of the essence of the church. Christ’s presence in the church is not, in the first place, through the synods but through Word and Spirit as God’s people gather around pulpit, table, and font. The General Synod itself is also not immune to this tendency to concentrate power at a “top.” How easily we forget that our mother church in the Netherlands did not hold a General Synod for nearly two hundred years after the Synod of Dort in 1618/1619. The Reformed Church did not cease to exist, but was able to continue because a General Synod is not of the essence of the church nor does a General Synod mediate Christ to the church.

At times, a radical corrective is warranted and this, I think, is the case here. As such, I suggest that a General Synod not be called for a period of fifty years. While there is nothing special about the number fifty, I do not think that we need a two hundred year hiatus like our mother church; however, it does need to be enough time that the church can adjust and adapt to this major corrective. It can be possible to empower the new executive committee to do the necessary and essential functions required by law for the corporation of the General Synod, while allowing the lesser assemblies to take more responsibility to fulfill their charge in their respective spheres.

While none of these suggestions will be a panacea, these are steps that might help to aid us in the distinction between superstructure and infrastructure and to place the appropriate amount of focus and emphasis on each.

The Future of the Church

The decline of denominationalism and the waning importance of ecclesiastical communions is a reality with which we must deal, and it is not a trend that we can simply ignore or reverse. I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. However, neither do I think that the inevitable future is in independent, unconnected, deinstitutional, generically evangelical churches. The church requires an infrastructure, but the infrastructure does not require the sizable superstructure that is so often the hallmark of modern denominations. The Reformed Church had a ministry as a church before there was a denomination, and oversight and accountability have been undertaken without agencies, boards, or executives.

So long as we are concerned with sustaining the denomination (as a superstructure) we will be fighting a losing battle. However, if we focus instead on being church, allowing the superstructure that we call denomination to change (even drastically) to fit the changing cultural context, we will not only survive, but can even thrive. Neither the essence of the church nor its constitutive elements are found in denomination as a superstructure.

The superstructure is not bad, but it is tentative. It does not form the essence of the church, but rather it is formed out of need and can change with those needs. We need not intentionally abolish our institutions or the superstructure that we call denomination, there is much good that they can (and do) provide. With or without the denomination, a solidly Reformed way of existing as the church and finding a way to provide for mutual ministry and accountability in a connected fashion will continue. But this will involve shifting our mindset, and our behavior, from denomination to church; from a corporation to the body of Christ; from a sociological and organizational reality to a theological one.  We ought not strive to dismantle denomination. However, if our superstructure does become unsustainable, burdensome, or if it begins to crumble, we need not sacrifice the church in order to sustain it.