It’s All About Balance: Principles of Reformed Church Government

Denominational agencies are meant to be woven into the fabric of our denominational life.

Denominational ministries in a Reformed setting must meet one of two criteria, says the Christian Reformed Church Order. They must either be a resource and catalyst for the ministries of our local congregations or they must do the sort of work that no single congregation can do by itself.

Articles 73 through 77 use the language of “assisting the churches” in their programs, whether in missions or diaconate. They also speak of classical and synodical activities that are “beyond the scope and resources of the local churches.” We send missionaries abroad and publish educational curriculum. No single congregation has the skills and resources required for that. We do those ministries together. There is in our Church Order, in other words, an appropriate balancing of the relative autonomy of the local congregations with the accumulated authority of the broader assemblies. Church governmentally, that’s where churches of the Reformation stood and still stand: halfway between an oppressive hierarchy and an unchecked independence.

As broader assemblies, synod and classes are to steer our ministries in ways that build up and assist local congregations for their mission. Synod and classes are gatherings of officebearers (Church Order, Article 34), those who are called to “equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). The sixteenth-century Reformation was all about rescuing God’s people from so-called shepherds who were actually feeding on the flock instead of gently tending it. It was about restoring what the Good Shepherd sent by God the Father came to do in the new covenant: minister to the people he bought, through under-shepherds who actually tend the flock, so that it might be “fruitful and increase in number” (Jer. 23:1-4; John 10:14-18).

As we contemplate classical or denominational structures or look for ways to restructure them, we need to have these biblical and church political principles clearly before us. They are the norms by which our activity is tested. It would be nice, of course, if on the isle of Patmos John had received a vision and passed it along in an eighth letter to the churches—a vision as to exactly how, in every generation, the church ought to be structured. As it is, the Lord has seen fit to entrust this administration to us. We are to organize these ministries in ways that are relevant to our current situation yet clearly honor the directives of Scripture and the lessons of history.

Denominational agencies are not to adopt the ways of independent charitable organizations. They are meant to be woven into the fabric of our denominational life. Through Safe Church Ministry, for example, councils and classes are empowered to deal with prevention of abuse and to offer healing to those who are victims of it. Through World Renew, members of our congregations are provided the opportunity to bring relief and hope to victims of natural disasters. It is the empowerment of members and assemblies that makes it Reformed.

Independent organizations often do ministry for us. But we need to have our agencies equip us to do ministry ourselves. And we must limit what they do on our behalf to that which is clearly beyond the scope and resources of our people, like operating an excellent theological school to train ministers, rather than placing our trust in apprentices taught only within the walls of one church.

We can learn much from manuals in church administration. We can learn much from creative experimenting. But above all, we need to honor Scripture and the principles of Reformed church government that have stood the test of time.

 

Web Questions

  1. Why do we need a Church Order? Isn’t the Bible enough to show us how to “do” church on both the local and the denominational level? If we do need a Church Order, should we have one that is permanent or should it change over time? What are some examples?
  2. De Moor writes that the twofold purpose for our denomination is to be “a resource and catalyst for the ministries of our local congregations” and to do “the sort of work that no single congregation can do by itself.” Share some specific examples of what our denomination actually does. Which of those two purposes are met by each activity? (To find lots of examples, check the News and the Together Doing More sections of any Banner issue.)
  3. Describe a hierarchical form of church government (such as Roman Catholic) and a Congregationalist form (such as Pentecostal Assembly). How does Reformed church government differ from both of these?
  4. What authority does the local church have? What authority do the wider assemblies, classes, and synod, have? Who has the final say if any of these clash?

 

About the Author

Henry De Moor is professor emeritus of church polity at Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s the author of Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary

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