Three Marks of a Reformed Church Structure

Those who belong to Christ belong to those who belong to Christ.

What is a “Reformed” church structure? What structure is proper for a Reformed church, and specifically for the Christian Reformed Church? Many things could be said, but here are three general principles.

First, a Reformed denominational structure should point to Christ. Too often we argue about who is in charge of the church. Is it the churches or the synod? Individuals and families who pay ministry shares or the Board of Trustees? The answer to those questions is “None of the above.” Christ is in charge of the church. The church is shaped by Christ and forms the faith of Christ-shaped people and communities.

The structure of the church, then, must make it clear that Christ is in charge of our denomination and our churches; our synod, classes, and councils; our boards, our agencies, and our educational institutions; our executive director and all our staff and officebearers. All of them are called to function in a way that emulates Christ.

Recently a seminarian asked me if delegates to synod are bound to vote according to their classes’ wishes or whether they are free to make up their own minds. Neither, I said. They should think about the issues and discuss them in their own church council or classis, but at synod they have to hear the deliberation of the delegates of the whole Christian Reformed body of Christ, to listen for Christ’s leading in the discussion. That’s being Reformed.

Second, a Reformed structure is marked by mutual accountability. Our Reformed polity is full of examples of accountability—between members and leaders, between pastors and councils, between councils and congregations, councils and classes, classes and synod. We have many checks and balances in our decision-making processes, and we don’t encourage lone rangers.

Why? Well, because it’s biblical. The Bible is the story of God’s corporate people from Israel to the church—a community of both care and accountability. Being Christian means being part of that community, and “no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself [or herself].” (Belgic Confession, Art. 28).

Those who belong to Christ belong to those who belong to Christ. As churches, we don’t have the freedom to do whatever we want, nor are we allowed the “freedom” to struggle on our own without help. We covenant together to be part of a denomination that is more than a voluntary association. We believe God calls us to work together as we love one another.

Sometimes we have disagreements. But being committed to Christ and to each other means being committed to working things out together. So we don’t make it easy to leave the church. Sometimes we acquiesce in the resignations of members, officebearers, or even congregations. But we believe in sticking together and working things out.

Third, a Reformed structure should be nimble and responsive. If the church is to be effective in reaching the world with the gospel, it will discern its context and adjust as needed, while still making sure to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, not other spirits.

John Calvin taught about the church’s need to change along with the times, using the example of worship practices. He wasn’t in favor of change for change’s sake but of thoughtful change for the upbuilding of the church. Calvin realized that deciding on appropriate changes can be difficult, but he remembered the Bible’s call to love one another. “If love is our guide,” he wrote, “all will be safe” (Institutes, IV.X.30).

A church structure that is focused on Christ includes provisions for mutual accountability and can change along with its context as the church discerns the leading of the Spirit of Christ. Now that’s Reformed!


Web Questions

  1. If Christ is in charge of the church, how do we know what he wants us to do? For example, how does a delegate at synod “listen for Christ’s leading in the discussion”? How do we do that in our local congregations?
  2. What is accountability in a church context? What’s included? Not included? Give one or more examples of how we hold each other accountable in our congregations. How might we better do that?
  3. Smith writes, “Reformed structure should be nimble and responsive.” What are some significant policy changes that have occurred in your congregation or in the denomination? Have these been good changes, bad changes, or a bit of both?
  4. If we need to keep changing church structure to meet the needs of today, are there also things that should remain fixed and unchanging? What are they?
  5. If you believe there should be some significant changes in your congregation, how would you go about the process of initiating change? How would you do so with respect to the denomination?
  6. What changes would you like to see in the way your congregation “does church”? What changes would you like to see for our denomination, so that we can more fully and fruitfully follow Jesus?

About the Author

Rev. Kathy Smith is senior associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, adjunct professor of church polity at Calvin Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin University. She is a member of First CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.