Governance by Assembly and the Problem of Representation (Part II)

In Part I, we laid a foundation for what representation means in the church. In Part II, we are going to look at how this exists in practice, particularly regarding the General Synod.

The General Synod apportions delegates proportionally. Every classis is able to send two ministers and two elders, and larger classes are able to send additional delegates following the formula in BCO, 1.IV.1. Delegates are apportioned by confessing membership within a classis. While this seems a right thing to do, and we may assume that it has always been this way, fewer things could be farther from the truth. In fact, apportioning delegates by confessing membership is a relatively recent introduction into the order.

The church order of Dort in 1619 called for the General Synod to be composed of two ministers and two elders from each Particular Synod (1619, Art. L). Of course, this never happened, but it is worth noting because the Dortian order served as the basis for the church order of the newly independent Reformed Church in North America, and remnants of Dort can still be seen to this day.

When the newly independent (what would come to be called) Reformed Church in America first established its constitution, it took the church order of Dort as the basis, and appended the Explanatory Articles to address the nuances of its context. Because of the context and situation that the Reformed found themselves in, they determined that an alternative arrangement for the General Synod would be required. As such, in the earliest days, the General Synod functioned as a convention, that is, “all the Ministers, with each an Elder; and also, an Elder from every vacant congregation” (1792, Art. LIII). This was to be maintained until it was desirable to organize it in a different way.

That new way to form the Synod began in 1800, when a new particular synod was formed, the classes were rearranged, and the General Synod became a delegated body, with eight ministers and eight elders from each particular synod, providing that no more than two ministers and elders come from the same classis. (MGS 1800, 279, 303).

This plan, however, did not last long, and in 1812 it was determined that three ministers and three elders from each classis would be nominated to the particular synod as delegates to the General Synod. This was brought into the church order of 1833 (II.V.82). In 1874, the concept of proportionality was first introduced.

In the church order of 1874, each classis was to nominate three ministers and three elders to their particular synod for appointment as delegates to the General Synod (as before), but this time, classes with more than fifteen churches were given one additional minister and one additional elder for every five additional churches. (1874, IX.70). Proportionality by churches continued to be the practice into the beginning of the twentieth century. It was not until 1909 that proportionality was based on confessing (communicant) membership.

***

This brief historical overview shows that proportionality is not the historical practice of the Reformed, nor ought it be a given. Indeed, apportionment of delegates by confessing membership is just over one hundred years old, which considering the life of the Reformed Church in North America, is a relatively recent addition.

But even beyond this, there is something more fundamental at stake. To focus on numerical representation, and accusations of over- or under-representation is a symptom of moving our gaze off of Christ and embracing the values of the world, not of the Kingdom of God. 

It is at this point that we must be careful to be able to distinguish the different value systems at play: values that we embrace as citizens of nation-state and values that we must embody as members of the body of Christ. At times these values may be similar, many times they are divergent, but they are never synonymous.

A representative democracy finds its authority, its mandate, in the consent of the governed. Which is why we espouse (even if we do not act in accordance) in a principle of one person-one vote, and that larger populations should have a larger influence. Further, with a few notable exceptions, the assumption is that the will of the majority ought to prevail. However, the church does not operate via the consent of the people.

The church, on the other hand, finds its authority, its mandate, from Christ and through the Scriptures, as they witness to Christ. Indeed, the rule of the majority is never a value of either the Reformed tradition nor of the Gospel. The Belgic Confession is, at least, cautious about a majority as we read,

And this holy church is preserved by God
against the rage of the whole world,
even though for a time
it may appear very small
to human eyes–
as though it were snuffed out.

For example,
during the very dangerous time of Ahab
the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand
who did not bend their knees to Baal. (Art. 27).

But even more significant, the Scriptures never hold that a majority is necessarily rightly guided, indeed, very often the reverse is true. Many times a majority is wrong.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Mt. 7:13-14).

Thus, we ought to be, at the very least, cautious of claiming righteousness because of a majority, whatever the issue, topic, or concern at hand.

***

Additionally, focus on over- and/or under-representation misses the point of what we do together when we gather as a church. While it is true that our assemblies vote, voting is not the point of coming together, it is a side effect. The assemblies of the church are, at their core, deliberative bodies. They are made up of office bearers who represent Christ, while at the same time standing in the stead of the people in caring for the church. Assemblies gather to discern the mind of Christ, to seek the leading and prompting of the Spirit, and to listen to one another and to God.

Indeed, concerns about proportional representation find their root in worldly reasoning. When we spend so much time focusing on voting blocs, numbers of delegates, claims of righteousness due to a majority, and claim unfairness in the system because some are “over-represented” and others “under-represented” we are well on the road of forgetting the essential identity of the church as the body of Christ.

A focus on majority gives more power to the powerful, but a focus on the Gospel actually seeks to empower the weak.

 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor 12:14-26)

Therefore, in the church, what matters is not what the majority says or thinks, what matters is who is speaking the word of God.

***

This is the problem with this idea of proportional representation which entered the order in 1874, but which became particularly problematic in 1909.

The very first synod of the Dutch Reformed tradition was held in Emden in 1571. This was a synod that was held outside of the Netherlands, because the Reformed were still persecuted there (another example of how the concepts of majority or power do not always equal righteousness). The church order which came from this synod, the very first church order in our tradition began with a foundational and anti-hierarchical principle, “No church shall lord over another church; no minister of the word over another minister, no elder over another elder, neither any deacon over another…”* Indeed, as the Commission on Church Order notes, “No particular church, and we might add, no particular part of the church, has precedence by virtue of size, age, reputation, etc.”† After all, “Delegates from a classis with a smaller number of communicants may have crucial things to add as the body acts in prayer for the Spirit’s guidance.”‡

***

This is why, additionally, proportionality in delegate apportionment is problematic at all levels, including classis, as it confuses our values as citizens of nation-states with particular values with our values as Reformed Christians and our values as members of the Body of Christ.


*Coertzen, Pieter. “Dordt and South Africa.” In Protestant Church Polity in Changing Contexts I, edited by Allan J. Janssen and Leo J. Koffeman, 137-53. Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2014, 141.

† MGS, 214, p. 237. http://images.rca.org/docs/mgs/2014MGS-Order.pdf (pp. 236-238).

‡ Ibid.

Governance by Assembly and the Problem of Representation (Part I)

Few concepts cause more difficulty than the principle of representation and what this means in the church. This is particularly the case with those of us who are used to a representative democracy because similar terms are often used to address very different concepts.

The Representative Principle. The power which Jesus Christ bestows upon his church is mediated by the Holy Spirit to all the people. Since not everyone in the church can hold an office, and since the offices differ among themselves in function, some persons will always be subject, within the proper exercise of authority, to the decisions of others. Since the whole church cannot meet together at one time to deliberate, representative governing bodies must be established on the various levels. The unity of the church is preserved in acceptance of the fact that all are governed by the decisions made in their behalf by those who represent them. (Preamble, p. 3-4).

In a liberal democracy, constituencies elect representatives to the government who they think will best represent their interests and desires. Votes cast by these representatives are public because this is how they are accountable to their constituencies, and if their constituents are unhappy with the way that they are representing them in government, then they can be voted out and replaced with someone else.

In the church, elders and deacons are elected by the congregation, but the function of their office is far different than a representative or senator in a liberal democracy. Indeed,

“…elders are chosen members of spiritual discernment, exemplary life, charitable spirit and wisdom grounded in God’s Word.” (1.I.1.8).

“…deacons are chosen members of spiritual commitment, exemplary life, compassionate spirit, and sound judgment…” (1.I.1.10).

Whereas representing constituent’s desires is the responsibility of a representative in a liberal democracy, representing Christ is the responsibility of an office-bearer in the church. Elders and deacons are chosen not because they will speak for a particular population or constituency or faction within the church, but because they exhibit the above traits and are seen by the members of the congregation to be fit for these particular ministries.

The concept of representation becomes more problematic in broader assemblies. When a consistory sends an elder (or elders) to classis (remember, ministers are members of classis and are therefore not sent by their churches or consistories), is the elder there to represent their church or the perspective of their church? Indeed, what if the elder’s view is very different from the majority of their church?

The same thing can be said of synods (which are wholly delegated bodies). Are the ministers and elders there to represent (in the liberal democratic sense) the desires, wishes, and perspectives of their classes? What if a minister or elder is vastly out of step with the perspective of the majority of their classis?

***

To get to the logic, we must understand the source and nature of authority. In a liberal democracy, the understanding is that the representatives derive their authority from the people who elect them. However, in the church,

“All authority exercised in the church is received from Christ, the only head of the chruch. The authority exercised by those holding office in the church is delegated authority. Their appointment to their special tasks is by the Spirit of the Lord, and they are responsible first of all to the Lord of the church.” (Preamble, p, 2).

Therefore, from this, we can see that the authority comes not from the congregation or from the classes or from constituencies or factions, but from Christ, and as such, those holding office first and foremost represent Christ. Secondly, office bearers do represent the people, but not in such a way that they are to express the desires of the people, but that they act in the place of the people and on their behalf.

And so the question often comes, do ministers or elders have to vote the way their consistories or churches or classes would desire them to vote, or in the way that they would vote? That is, can their votes be bound by the desires of their sending body? Certainly not.

To do so would be a violation of the very foundations of our understanding of how God desires the church to work. We trust that God works in the gatherings of the offices themselves. The assemblies are not simply places to record votes, they are places to wrestle and to listen and to discern, together, the leading of the Spirit. By binding an office bearer to speak and/or vote in a particular way, this completely misunderstands the very foundation of the purpose of assemblies and why we gather in assemblies.

Thus, office bearers do not speak or vote in a way consistent with their sending bodies (consistory, classis, or regional synod), but in a way consistent with their conscience and how they discern the Spirit of Christ leading them.

And so with all of this, then, we can see how representation means something very different in the church and when it comes to the assemblies.

 

Coming in Part II: Representation and the concept of proportionality and the General Synod…

 

The Reformed Church and the Problem of Hierarchy

From time to time, more frequently as of late, there have been calls for the General Synod to make authoritative scriptural interpretations and insist that everyone act in accordance with statements of the General Synod (well, a select few statements). The reasoning is that if the General Synod is the highest assembly, the rest of the Reformed Church is obligated to follow it, like binding precedent (which will be discussed in a later post). This reasoning that the General Synod sits atop the church, however, is fundamentally wrong.

A cursory look at the structure of the Reformed Church can lead one to think that the Reformed Church is hierarchical with the General Synod on “top” and the local churches at the “bottom.” Compounding this is the language that we use when speaking of the relationships between the various assemblies. Some use “higher” and “lower,” others use “broader” and “narrower.” Still others use “greater” and “lesser.” Depending on the terms used, we can easily be led to believe that the General Synod has a greater level of authority, a higher type of authority, or a fundamentally different type of authority. This, however, is would be a gross misunderstanding.*

The differences between the assemblies are not in authority but in breadth of scope.

Reformed governance understands that the greater assemblies care for the ministry that extends beyond the purview of the lesser assemblies without infringing upon the responsibilities of the lesser. Preamble, p. 3.

The consistory need concern itself, primarily, with the local church and its local area. Concerning itself with other churches will detract from its focus on its own ministry and the people that God has entrusted to its care. A consistory does not need to worry about other churches, because the other churches also have consistories that oversees and cares for its local church.

Similarly a classis, generally, does not need to concern itself with all the particularities of every local church, but with what the churches share in common. The classis concerns itself with things which are beyond the scope of any particular consistory. The classis does have superintendence over the consistories, but this is to ensure that they are doing their work properly, rightly, and in good order. The classis does not have the right to overturn a decision made by a consistory simply because the classis may not like it.

We can follow this down the line. The regional synod concerns itself with what the several classes in its region share in common, and while the regional synod is an appellate body, it cannot infringe on the prerogatives of the classes. In the same way, the General Synod is not the assembly that has the greatest amount of authority or a weightier type of authority, but rather, it has the broadest purview, it is concerned with the interests of the entire ecclesiastical communion.

There have been several attempts over the past several years, some have failed and some have succeeded, to turn the General Synod into a body which interprets Scripture for the church communion. This is understandable, as the ancient people demanded a king (1 Sam 8), so also are we tempted to seek authority at some imagined “top.”

While some Christian traditions have a hierarchical structure, the Reformed Church does not. The General Synod is not “higher” than the local consistory, its scope is simply broader and more general. The local consistory is not “lower” than the General Synod, its scope of responsibility is simply narrower and more particular.

The General Synod is not the teacher of the church, nor can the General Synod determine the teaching of the church. The General Synod is not the corollary to the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and, outside of judicial cases, it cannot forcefully impose its will on the lower assemblies. This is not a flaw in the structure, this is a design.

 

Postscript: This is to speak about hierarchicalism only. This, in no way, is to justify separation, which is a completely different topic, and I have addressed a bit of that foundation here.

—————–

*This misunderstanding was even reflected in the report of a task force to the General Synod in 2016, erroneously claiming that consistories and classes are concerned with cultural, personal, and ethical matters while the General Synod is concerned with biblical and theological matters (MGS 2016, p. 80). This is simply false.

The General Synod and the Certification of Candidates for Ministry

The Reformed have always understood the importance of an educated ministry. A gift of the Reformed tradition is that it has emphasized both learning and piety, both loving God with our hearts and with our minds.

In the early days of the Reformed Church in the North American colonies, ministers had to receive their theological education in the Netherlands. This was quite difficult and a significant barrier, but it was done. This was not readily embraced by the churches in the colonies, however, as the first significant division in the Reformed Church was largely on this point.

In 1792, when the Explanatory Articles were established (the Explanatory Articles, along with the Church Order of Dort from 1619, formed the government of the Reformed Church until 1833), those who desire to be examined for the ministry must present three things.

  1. A diploma, or certificate of his having passed through a regular course of studies in some College or respectable Academy. 2. A certificate of his having been a member in full communino of the Reformed church, at least two years. And 3. A testimonial, under the hand and seal of a Professor of Theology, declaring such student to have studied Theology with him (or with some person expressely authorized for that purpose by the Geneal Synod,) for the space of at least two years; and recommending said student as well qualified for becoming a candidate in the holy ministry. (Article III).

This is the origin of the “Professorial Certificate” which has become the “Certificate of Fitness for Ministry.”

But what is the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry (also referred to here as a “Certificate of Fitness”), and what role does it really play in the process which leads to ordination to the ministry of Word and sacrament?

Since the beginning of the Reformed Church much has changed. We now have institutional theological schools with faculties and buildings. There are now degrees granted which testify to one’s competency in these matters. So why does such a certificate continue to exist?

It is these two questions that I will seek to address in this relatively short space.

***

Candidates for the ministry of Word and sacrament have several forms of evaluation on several different levels — from consistorial to synodical. This is important to judge a candidate’s character, fitness, capacities, and abilities. Because the classis has oversight over ministers, a consistory alone cannot make that determination. But because the consistory is closest to the individual, they must first recommend them. And because the training and formation of candidates for the ministry is a concern of the whole church, the General Synod, through the boards of the Reformed Church seminaries or the Ministerial Formation Certification Agency supervises and certifies their fitness.

Even after the advent of more formal forms of theological education, the requirement for a Professorial Certificate and later the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry remained a part of the process. In the Explanatory Articles of 1792, it can almost seem as though the professorial certificate is little more than a testimony that a candidate has completed studies in theology. However, there is also the point that this certificate also has the purpose of “recommending said student as well qualified for becoming a candidate in the holy ministry” (1792/3 Art. III). And beyond this, subsequent church orders have required this certificate to be granted before one is able to be examined by their classis.

Formation for the ministry is far more than just intellectual formation. The intellectual and academic component is important, but it alone is not sufficient. Formation for ministry includes transformation as well. And how better to gauge fitness than for those who are involved in one’s education and formation?

As the Reformed Church historian and polity authority, William H.S. Demarest, wrote in his Notes on the Constitution, 

The church’s interest in the matter is not so much that he has graduated from the school as that he is qualified for appearance before classis. It is a forward look toward the ministry, the church’s great objective. (1946, p. 23)

This is the essence of the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry. First, the candidate is granted the degree of Master of Divinity, and this attests to their academic competencies and abilities. After this is granted, the Certificate of Fitness can be granted, and this attests to the individual’s overall fitness for the ministry of Word and sacrament. But, even still, the process is not yet complete. The Master of Divinity does not guarantee a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry, and a Certificate does not guarantee ordination.

After the granting of the Certificate of Fitness, a candidate is now entitled to an examination by the classis in which the candidate is enrolled. Ultimately, then, the final decision rests with their classis whether or not to grant them a Certificate of Licensure, which is required before one can be ordained to the ministry of Word and sacrament.

***

So, then, what power does a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry have? What role does it play?

We must avoid two temptations, as is the case with many things regarding the church order — we must avoid both overstating and understating.

A candidate cannot be examined for licensure and ordination without a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry. The order is clear that this is required for the classis to examine for licensure. Indeed, after the granting of the Certificate of Fitness, the classis is obligated to admit the candidate to the examinations prescribed in the church order. However, its function is limited. Once a Certificate of Fitness is granted and the classis acts upon it, namely, examines the candidate and grants a Certificate of Licensure, the Certificate of Fitness is of no more use. Its only function is to certify fitness for classical examination. It is, one may say colloquially, a ticket to classical examination for licensure and ordination — no more and no less.

 

Relationship, Punishment, and the Problem of Ecclesiastical Discipline

The Belgic Confession of Faith lists three marks by which one can discern the “true church.” The third of these marks is that “it practices church discipline for correcting faults” (Art. 29). It is this mark that serves as a particularly problematic point in the life of the church.

The Reformed Church has always had provisions for ecclesiastical discipline, because of the above article of the Confession of Faith. Because the Confession of Faith does not present a complete church order but only the most basic of foundations, it does not specify how discipline is to be handled.

In the Reformed Church, discipline has always been as local as possible. This means that members of churches are accountable to that church’s board of elders, a minister is accountable only to their classis, and consistories are accountable only to their classis. In all of these instances, discipline is as local as possible. Of course, discipline is not always handled in a just and proper way, and so there are procedures for redress if something is improperly handled or the presence of manifest injustice. But as a rule, discipline is intended to be local. This also means that the more local bodies (the board of elders and the classis) are the bodies charged with interpreting Scripture in its determination of what things are offenses and what are not.

This has been problematic for some within the communion. There are those who are bothered by the possibility that someone, somewhere might be doing or thinking something they don’t like, and if the proper assembly or judicatory does not see the actions in question as an offense, of if they choose not to administer discipline for any given reason, there is nothing that can be done by those who are accountable to other assemblies or judicatories. For those who insist on lock-step uniformity on all matters, this is troubling.

As a result, several attempts have been made to allow anyone to charge and discipline anyone else. All of these attempts have been rightly rejected. While it is true that this would create a nightmare scenario where everyone is suddenly judicially accountable to everyone else, this is not the most troubling aspect of this. These attempts stem from a gross misunderstanding of both the church and the nature of ecclesiastical discipline itself.

***

The Book of Church Order, when speaking of discipline, gives three purposes of ecclesiastical discipline: “to promote [the church’s] purity, to benefit the offender, and to vindicate the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2.I.1.1). Noticeably absent is punishment. Punishment is never a purpose or a goal of discipline, especially ecclesiastical church discipline. The ideology which underpins the civil justice system in the United States is fundamentally different and irreconcilable with the principles that underlie ecclesiastical discipline.

As we consider discipline, it is also worth looking at the word itself. Etymologically, the word discipline is related to the word disciple. Indeed, we still use the word discipline to speak of a field of study. So discipline has absolutely nothing to do with punishment, and everything to do with guiding and instructing. As such, the goal of discipline in the church is always restoration and reconciliation. An offense is not simply a break in a rule or a law, it is the break in covenantal relationships, and discipline is needed insofar as the relationship is still in need of mending. This, of course, requires effort by both parties.

And this is why discipline is always primarily local. Because it is those people with whom we live and minister. It is those people that with whom we share experiences, it is those people who are closest to us. It is those people who know the particular circumstances, who know what is going on, and who know what might be needed to bring reconciliation and restoration. If it became possible, for example, for an assembly on one coast to discipline someone on another coast, it would cease to be discipline and become simply punishment. It turns restoration into retribution and the church will have lost its way.

But what about those assemblies who do things improperly? Those who do not follow the proper legal procedures or are clearly unjust in their task? This is why there is oversight over the process of discipline, and why there are procedures for appeals and complaints. This allows for there to be accountability with assemblies as well. So while discipline, as a rule, is always local, the local assemblies are, too, accountable to the broader church in the exercise of its task.

***

Discipline in the church is based upon relationships and the goal of always healing relationships — punishment is never the goal. Indeed, neither the word “punish” nor any of its derivations occur even once in the church order. Discipline being local, then, is not a flaw in the order, it is actually the design of the order.

 

 

Why Leaving the Communion is Not Possible

Despite the periodic talk of churches leaving the communion (denomination), such a thing is simply not possible.

It is true that the Book of Church Order has a process (long and involved for good reason) for a church to be transferred to another ecclesiastical communion, but a church cannot, of its own volition, disaffiliate from or leave the Reformed Church.

In my previous post, I argued that when we speak of “the church,” we speak primarily of the local church rather than a communion. Indeed, one may attempt to use the principle of the local church being a complete church as license to come and go as one pleases and to freely and without hindrance affiliate with whichever communion that it wishes or no communion at all. This, however, would be a gross misunderstanding of the local church being an ecclesia completa, and indeed, I address it there.

So often, however, it may seem that the local church ought to have the ability, even the right, of unrestricted self-determination.

However, local churches do not have that ability, and for good reason. While local churches are complete, in that they have the ministry of Word and sacrament and all the necessary elements as expressed in the Belgic Confession of Faith, they do not form themselves. The church is not something which we can, on our own, establish. The church is something which is outside of us and into which we are grafted. As such, local churches are established not from us, but from beyond us. The broader church is the one that establishes local churches. In our structure, the classis is the one that is charged with that responsibility and privilege. Because churches do not form themselves, they do not have the right to do whatever they wish.

It is for this reason that the classis has “the authority to transfer a local church to another denomination, together with all or part [or none] of its real and personal property…” (1.II.10.3, 2016). Indeed, the classis is never required to transfer a church, and it is well within their right, after doing due diligence, to determine that it would not be “in the best interest of Christ’s Kingdom” (1.II.10.4f, 2016) and deny the request altogether.

Thus, on the one hand, a church cannot decide, on their own, to disaffiliate with the communion because they did not form themselves and they do not have the ability to break a bond which they did not form. On the other hand, however, there is a deeper issue at stake.

What does it mean to be a church? Is the church a corporation which is owned by its members and deserve a “share” in the church? After all, the members of the church are the ones who have poured their blood, sweat, and tears (and money) into the life and property of that local church. It only seems right that they have the ability to determine with whom, and on what terms, their church affiliates. While local churches are often incorporated and while there are elements of corporations in the church, in its essence, a local church is not a corporation but is the local expression of the universal church of Christ.

It should also be noted that a consistory in effect holds its property in trust, not only to keep faith with the generations that have gone before, but for those who are yet to come. The local church stands in relationship to the denomination as one link in a long unbroken chain binding past, present, and future in one continuing expression of faithful witness to Reformed faith and practice…

When a person becomes a member of a church, he comes under the discipline and jurisdiction of the denomination. He does not expect that he owns a piece of the church building. If he becomes disaffected with the church, or the denomination, he is at liberty to ask for a transfer of church membership. He does not then receive a portion of the church’s assets, nor does he expect to, even though he may have contributed substantially toward the cost of building the present church edifice. But when a group of members elect to leave the church, or the denomination, they seem to feel that they should be allowed to take the church property with them. (Minutes of General Synod, 1972, p. 192).

Furthermore, it has been determined by the church that there are times when it is to the benefit of the church of Christ for a local church to be able to retain its property. This determination, however, is the domain of the classis in exercising its episcopal function. For generations, the church has determined that the classical authority of oversight and supervision is essential and worth protecting.

The well-known and well-loved first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism reads,

I am not my own…

Indeed, this holds true not only for us as individuals, but also for churches as well. Churches do not belong to themselves, nor do they belong to their members. Churches belong to Christ, and some things, such as breaking fellowship, require broader discernment and oversight of the broader body of Christ.

 

What do we mean when we say “church”?

“Every church is like a stream,” the minister’s speech began, “and each stream flows into a large body of water called the Reformed Church.”

This speech was in support of a motion to radically shift the lines of accountability. Rather than the clear and generally local accountability that has been historic to the Reformed, there has been a movement to make everyone accountable to everyone else, eliminating the clear lines of accountability and risk plunging the whole system into chaos.

“So if one church pollutes their stream,” the minister continued, “it pollutes the whole body, and there is no way that anyone can stop them from polluting in the first place.”

It can sound like a reasonable statement, however, this shows a view of the location of “church” that is not correct.

So when we say “church,” to what are we referring?

Broadly, the term “church” can refer to the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” as the Nicene Creed phrases it. However, we cannot only see the church in this massive and ethereal way, after all, the church is lived out in a real and concrete way, “at the place where it manifests itself in action.” [1]

In contrast to “monarchical episcopacy” [2], where the basic manifestation of the church is the diocese and the diocesan bishop’s connection to the Bishop of Rome, the Reformed identify the basic manifestation of the church as a “local church,” that is “a body of baptized Christians meeting regularly in a particular place of worship…properly organized, and is served and governed by a regularly constituted consistory” (BCO, 1.I.1.1).

In the Reformed tradition, then, the church is fundamentally local. That is, the church is gathered around pulpit, table, and font.

Indeed, for the Reformed, the local church — which is served by the offices, and which has the ministry of the Word and sacraments — is truly an ecclesia completa, or complete church. However, this does not mean that local churches are completely independent or autonomous. Just as foundational as the local church being an ecclesia completa is the principle that no church stands on its own, and that there must be real and concrete ties with other churches. [3] Indeed, churches cannot be autonomous and completely independent not sharing real relationships with one another, for “the need for relationships…stems from the essential nature of the church.” [4]

Or, put another way, “every local church is therefore simultaneously an independent manifestation of the body of Christ and part of a larger whole.” [5]

Therefore, in the Reformed Church, when one speaks of the church there is the simultaneous reference to the universal church and the local church. One does not refer–at least primarily–to a communion. In this, the Reformed navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, between episcopacy and independency.

But what about the greater assemblies? Do not the greater assemblies have a greater authority than the lesser assemblies? Not at all. The greater assemblies do not have a greater authority or an authority which is different in essence from that which is given to and exercised by the consistory (or classis). [6] Indeed, “greater assemblies care for the ministry that extends beyond the purview of the lesser assemblies without infringing on the responsibilities of the lesser” (BCO, Preamble, emphasis mine).

The greater assemblies are, then, not in a clearer sense more “church” than the local church. “Church” begins with the local church and then moves up, not the other way around.

***

So to return to the faulty analogy quoted at the beginning. This minister got the order and movement backwards. The church is not a basin into which the ministries of the local churches flow. The church is most clearly church around pulpit, table, and font — around Word and sacrament as it gives life to the community, and therefore to the world.

So to offer a more correct analogy, there is a rich and limitless aquifer of Scripture, as well as doctrine, liturgy, and polity which helps us to interpret and live out God’s desires through Scripture. And it is this aquifer which feeds countless streams which spread out and give growth and nourishment and life to the dry and parched land.

The streams flow out, not in. Therefore, yes, the streams are the churches. But the flow is not into a basin, but out into the world.

 


Notes:

[1] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 4.373.
[2] Long, Edward Le Roy. Patterns of Polity: Varieties of Church Governance. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001.
[3] Plaatjies van Huffel, Mary-Anne. “The Relevance of Reformed Church Polity Principles: Revisiting the Concept.” In Protestant Church Polity in Changing Contexts I, edited by Allan J. Janssen and Leo J. Koffeman, 29-47. Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2014.
[4] Coertzen, Pieter. Church and Order: A Reformed Perspective. Leuven: Peeters, 1998.
[5] Bavinck, 4.374.
[6]Koffeman, Leo J. In Order to Serve: An Ecumenical Introduction to Church Polity. Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2014; Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology.