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Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X three years after he posted his 95 theses on a church door and subsequently showed no remorse for doing so. When he received the papal bull, Luther burned it in a huge bonfire ritual. But few people are aware that he burned something else along with it: the entire Codex Iuris Canonici, the four volumes of canon law or "church order" of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

In a newfound freedom those restrictive rules had to be thrown out the front door. The irony is that some of the same old rules had to be smuggled back in through the back door in order to combat disorder and anarchy in the now-Protestant churches.

Biblically based [church order] keeps us from repeating history's mistakes.

There was no escaping that. The church is the body of Christ, a creation of the Holy Spirit, but it is also a human institution. And human organizations of whatever kind require order. As John Calvin said, without some well-chosen laws churches are soon deformed, not reformed. Canon law may have been too restrictive, a case of too much human invention instead of clear divine imperative. But do away with it altogether, and the challenge is then to find a new order that flows from God's Word and is fitting for Christ's church on earth.

Calvin led the way in this search. He decided to frame a renewed constitution for his Genevan church, one that has served as a model for Reformed churches ever since. He insisted on a minimum of laws that were clearly drawn from the Scriptures and manifestly based on biblical principle. So, for example, the order he left for us features officebearers who are more than mere functionaries in congregational life: they are Christ-representatives called to provide leadership to God's people (apostolicity). Calvin’s order features local churches accountable to one another in broader assemblies (catholicity); it features church discipline exercised to maintain the purity of the church (holiness); and it features provisions for experiencing oneness in Christ, within the denomination and also with the broader church (unity). In the CRC’s Church Order we confess one holy catholic and apostolic church.

What mattered most to Calvin was that the laws and structures of church government would edify the body. The purpose of each and every article is to enhance the ministry of Christ's church. If any article proves a hindrance to that ministry, damming the flowing rivers of the Spirit at work, then it must be revised or abolished.

Without articles of church order as banks along the way, the waters of ministry flow chaotically. As Paul told the Corinthians, having no order at all is not an option—not in worship and not in the broader life of Christ's church. Biblically based church order keeps us from repeating history's mistakes, prevents us from being overwhelmed by controversies that paralyze us, and actually enhances the mission we're on.

For 25 years I’ve listened carefully as people divulged the pickles they’ve gotten themselves into—situations that suddenly overshadowed their unity in mission, their love and enthusiasm for Christ's cause, and the sacred trust they once had in each other. If I'd received a thousand dollars for each conversation, I'd be retiring with a multi-million-dollar nest egg. Many of those developments were perfectly avoidable. Even a casual acquaintance with church order might readily have provided the way to keep their pilgrimage alive and thriving.

In short, well-founded church order allows Christ truly to be "the only head of the church" and "the only universal bishop" of our souls (Belgic Confession, Article 31).

For Discussion

  1. De Moor observes that the Reformers had to smuggle some of the same rules of the Roman Catholic Church back into their own churches. Can you identify some rules that a church cannot or should not live without?
  2. Church rules should not be “human invention” but rest on “divine imperative.” How can we be sure the rules in our church are genuinely based on Scripture?
  3. Do you agree with Calvin that officebearers are “Christ-representatives called to provide leadership to God's people (apostolicity)”? Where do we find that in Scripture?
  4. How can and should we experience unity in Christ with other congregations and denominations? Give specific examples of where we do that and brainstorm ways we can do better.
  5. Discuss De Moor’s example of bad rules damming up the work of the Spirit while good rules direct it like a riverbank. Do you buy it? Can you give examples of each?
  6. If the Word of God never changes, does that mean that our church rules should never change? Explain your answer.

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