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. 

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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. 

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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.