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.



[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.

The Reformed Church and its Constitution

Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of talk within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) about the Constitution of the RCA and the role that it plays in the life of the church. Indeed, this culminated with a directive from the General Synod of 2015 which formed a large task force to find a constitutional pathway forward to deal with the different views of human sexuality within the communion. This, then, has brought the issue of constitutionality to the fore of the discussion of the communion, and it is a discussion that we are oft ill prepared to have.

What is a constitution? The word “constitution” is itself derived from the Latin term constituere, which means to set up, establish, arrange. So, then, a constitution refers to those basic things on which a body stands. It refers to the basic establishment or arrangement, it provides a framework to set up a body. Indeed, the very first Constitution, which was first printed in 1793 spoke of the nature of itself in its preface, “To the Constitution of a Church appertain its Doctrines, Mode of Worship, and government. When these are known, its true and distinguishing character is sufficiently ascertained.”

A constitution, then, speaks to the foundational elements, the constitutive elements, of a body. 

In this way, a constitution is fundamentally different from a code of laws. A code of laws is derived from a constitution but are not themselves constitutive. This is part of the reason why constitutional amendments are (ordinarily) more difficult. Constitutions are by no means permanent, they can be amended, but the requirements to amend are higher than a code of laws.

In the RCA, amendments to the constitution have to be passed by a General Synod, need to be passed by a supermajority (2/3) of classes, and then passed by a second General Synod. In this way, no one assembly can make sweeping changes to the essence of the church on their own. However, as the RCA developed over its long history, the Government and Disciplinary and Judicial Procedures (one part of the Constitution) had grown to include other things which may be good procedural items but may not be essential to the church.

Therefore, in many ways, our Constitution has begun to function like a code of laws instead of a constitution. However, it remains a constitution, and as such, it is, primarily, to include and address the constitutive elements of the church. 

To amend the Constitution, then, is not just a matter of procedure but is to amend the foundational essence of the body. Sometimes, this change is relatively inconsequential, but other times this significantly impacts our very understanding of the church, as in 2014/2015 when the Constitution was amended to allow an elder functioning as a commissioned pastor to serve as the supervisor of the consistory without a minister, therefore depriving that particular church of the representation of the fullness of Christ’s ministry (Preamble, p. 3). However, the discussion of “what makes a church?” was never had, and one of these essential elements was rewritten as little more than a matter of procedure.


So, then, what is fitting for the Constitution? The Belgic Confession, one of the Doctrinal Standards, speaks to the marks of the true church: Pure preaching of the gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline (Art. 29). It is for this reason that elements such as ecclesiastical office and assemblies of the church are included in the Constitution, as well as the liturgical forms for the celebration of the sacraments, ordination, and church discipline.

The Constitution is to provide the skeleton for the church (Meeter). Not to address every possibility imaginable. The assemblies of the church are empowered to discern the Spirit’s leading within the sphere entrusted to that assembly. The Reformed Church does not rule “top-down.”

The Constitution does not include everything, nor does it intend to. It includes those things which constitute the church, those things which are essential (per the essence) to the church. 

Meeter, Daniel J. Meeting Each Other. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

There are no members of the Reformed Church in America

This post first appeared on

For anyone familiar with my ecclesiastical communion, the Reformed Church in America, or anyone who has read my writing elsewhere as of late, perhaps you are aware of the struggles that our communion is facing regarding differing understandings of human sexuality. However, the real issues are much deeper, the real issues are the things below the surface that we don’t talk about. I hope in this series of who-knows-how-long of digressions in church polity, I will have an opportunity to address some of these issues, and hopefully this (and other engagements) will serve to edify the church.


Part of the struggle within the Reformed Church in America (RCA) over differences in biblical interpretation is a misunderstanding of how a communion (or denomination) exists within our theological doctrine of the church. One of the biggest problems that perpetuates and enhances this misunderstanding is the concept of being a member of the RCA. The root of this misunderstanding is a misidentification of the locus of the church.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a member of the RCA. No one joins the RCA, people join local churches which are a part of a covenantal communion called the Reformed Church in America. While the RCA has a common glue that holds it together (Doctrine, Liturgy, and Government), the major bonding agent in that glue is our own willingness to submit ourselves to it. So while there are procedures to hold each other accountable to our covenantal commitments, these processes are to originate locally rather than from afar. There is no magisterium or college of bishops. The RCA does not have a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in New York, New York or Grand Rapids, Michigan or anywhere else.

The General Synod, then, is not a magisterium, it is not a collegial pope, and it is not the essence of the church. Instead, church is when the congregation gathers, shepherded by the offices, around pulpit, table, and font. Church is located in the local churches, not in synods. 

One of the ubiquitous statements arguing for the urgency of a lock-step uniformity on understandings of human sexuality (and interestingly enough, many of these same people also desire complete liberty for local interpretation of many other things, sometimes even those things which are of the essence of the church) is that people are leaving local churches because the RCA doesn’t have a lock-step uniformity on this one topic. The problem, however, is an apparent lack of understanding and education, on the part of office bearers, to help their flock understand how we, as Reformed Christians, understand the church.

The RCA is not a monolithic hierarchy . Unlike the Roman Catholic Church which has a hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope, the Reformed Church is not a hierarchy and has never located church within an episcopacy or hierarchy. Rather assemblies operate within their sphere of responsibility, with the greater assemblies not infringing upon the lawful prerogatives of the lesser assemblies.

So as we discuss this, we need to stop talking about being members of the RCA, as there are only members of local churches (and in the case of ministers, members of the classis).

So rather than disregarding and discarding our doctrine of the church in the name of cultural utilitarianism, perhaps it would behoove us to live into our countercultural way of being and understanding our covenantal communion, and help the members of our churches to understand this.