Applying Church Order
by Stephen Terpstra
We looked in depth at Westminster Divine George Gillespie’s views in depth because they are a mature Reformed view of the life of the church that takes both Ecclesiology and Polity very seriously. Though he is from a sister tradition, his theology is the exact same as ours, and his Polity derives from the same history and ecclesiology. His perspective is of great practical value today as we think through our own current issues. His theological orientation to ecclesiology produces not only a faithful but a practical church polity. The difficult issues he debated at the Westminster Assembly are no less relevant to us. It remains a nuanced and difficult issue to retain both the rightful authority of the local church council as granted by Christ, and the union of the local church with the entire visible church and the covenant relationship and accountability that requires. To address this application, I want to use a brief case study from a current debate in the Christian Reformed Church.
A Christian Reformed Church Case Study
A few years ago, a congregation hosted a forum for an organization called All One Body, which advocated for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the life of the church. The local church did not endorse the group or its opinions but did open its doors to host them. Other congregations heard of this and objected to a council allowing a public forum encouraging something in clear contradiction to scripture and the accepted and articulated interpretation of the denomination. Classis was unwilling to discipline this congregation. However, when other congregations petitioned that church’s council, and then Classis, and then finally Synod, many told them that they had no authority to discipline another congregation, since our church order, in line with Dort (which took it from the first French Reformed confession), says, “no church shall in any way lord it over another church.” (1) In short, they were informed that Reformed polity only allows appeals to decisions from within the concerned body, but not direct discipline from above, since our church order states, “the authority of councils being original, that of major assemblies being delegated.” (2)
The argument being made is that our polity is in practice and essence congregational, where the decisions of Classis and Synods are advice, but not binding on the local church council, and certainly not enforceable. The argument made is that a broader body can only address issues concerning the actions of a local body on appeal from a member of that local body. In fear of returning to a heavy handed top-down polity and influenced by the false idea of individual freedom in the West today, the pendulum has swung towards congregationalism and away from the long-standing accountability which a Presbyterian polity ensures. This attitude would leave Synod helpless to act regarding churches when they fall into gross error in doctrine or life as long as no one within the church appeals it.
The Church is for the Glory of Christ
How can Gillespie help us in this very modern issue? First, by articulating that “the supreme end of ecclesiastical power is the glory of Jesus Christ, as Mediator and King of the church.” (3) That is, the church is not about us. It is not about our power or position. It is not about protecting our rights or ambitions. The church’s entire purpose, including in its polity as articulated and enacted, is concerned with the glory of Jesus Christ. This implies that in the church’s life we should not be concerned with our rights, but His rights; not with our honor but His honor; not with our victory but His victory; nor with our opinion as His opinion. This is why the Word is stressed as the highest rule of the church. This view has been passed down and became the foundation for the CRCNA church order in article 1, which says, “The Christian Reformed Church, confessing its complete subjection to the Word of God, acknowledging Christ as the only head of his church... regulates its ecclesiastical organization and activities in the following articles.” (4)
Congregations are The Church Together
Second, Gillespie emphasizes the unity of the church. Though Gillespie had a strong pull towards the local congregation after his experience in Scotland, it was his belief in the unity of the visible church (5) which makes his views so biblical and balanced. Gillespie addresses the very issue we are debating, answering the objection that every Christian congregation is a complete Body Ecclesiastical (the exact argument being made in the CRCNA) by making the distinction that while it is true that every Christian congregation has, “the complete essence of a true visible church, yet every such congregation is not a complete Ecclesiastical Republic.” (6) That is, though it contains all the component elements of a church, it is not independently the visible organized church on earth. As individual Christians are not the church alone, but need to gather in a congregation. So, congregations are not the church alone, but need to gather in denominations. The local church is not The Church alone. We are the church together.
Gillespie is also helpful in his connection between ecclesiology and polity. All too often in church history, a compromised practical polity is agreed upon as a concession to those with differing ecclesiology. But this is always a short-term solution since the way our practice is worked out is always linked to our fundamental beliefs. Gillespie, as much as any, attempts to link his theology with his practice, and to defend them in conjunction. (7) Our understanding of the nature and purpose of the church, and how the local church is connected to the broader church, cannot be separated from our polity. In the CRCNA context, this implies that one’s belief in either the fundamental independence or interdependence of local congregations drives your understanding of the authority of Classis and Synods over church Councils. Gillespie would guide us to debate and sort out the fundamental issue first, from scripture, before and with any conversation about polity and applications of discipline.
Mutual Accountability at Regional and National Levels
Gillespie is also helpful in his understanding of our mutual accountability, as connected churches under Christ. In his One Hundred Eleven Propositions, he addresses the very issue under question by insisting that not only should synods discuss issues on appeal, “but also that the states of the churches whereof they have the care, being more certainly and frequently searched and known, if there be anything wanting or amiss in their doctrine, discipline or manners, or anything worthy of punishment, the slothful laborers in the vineyard of the Lord may be made to shake off the spirit of slumber and slothfulness, and be stirred up to the attending and fulfilling more diligently their calling.” (8) Though local congregations have real and natural authority from Christ, local congregations and elders should be accountable to one another at the regional and national level. Our practice of Church Visiting assumes this truth. Ordinary synods have not only the right but the responsibility to discipline lower bodies so that nothing might hinder the work of the gospel.
Higher Bodies Bring Order to Chaos
For that reason, even local churches who have original authority from Christ are still subordinate and subject to the Classical and Synodical assemblies, with higher Ecclesiastical courts having authority over the lower. (9) This is both scriptural and common sense. The principal of Matthew 18 for the individual is extended to the relation between the Council and Classis and Synod. When a personal appeal is unsuccessful when someone is erring, it is brought to the broader church as represented in the Eldership; and when an appeal to a church council that is erring is unsuccessful, it should be brought to a larger assembly. Likewise, if Elders have the responsibility to disciple and discipline the members of their congregation, so Classis has the responsibility to disciple and discipline the churches in their region, and Synod has the responsibility to disciple and discipline the Classis, and particularly office-bearers. This is a straightforward logical inference that Gillespie is so helpful with and is so eminently practical for churches today. In an age like Gillespie’s, when wildly diverse opinions and attitudes can be found within the broader church, there must be some method to bring order to chaos, truth to error, and the Word to bear on the real issues of the church.
Will We Do What is Right?
This is no less true for us. The scriptures have no such ideal as independence and personal freedom. We are always and everywhere accountable to Christ and His Word. If one pastor decides that God is a racist, and convinces his congregation of the heresy of Kinism, and no one in the congregation or council objects, are we really read to say that the Classis and Synod are helpless? Are we ready to declare that as long as a heretic is convincing enough, or can stomp down opposition enough, any heresy and error, no matter how gross or terrible, must be allowed except on appeal? It is patent nonsense. When, in our history, congregations or councils or pastors have gone off the rails, Classis and Synod have, as they must, stepped in to discipline them. So must we. We must do what is right as the Church of Jesus Christ, at the local and regional and binational level. We must debate and discern and examine carefully what is right, and what matters we must agree on and which we can differ on. But when we have together decided what God’s Word says, we must act in accordance with it at all times and places. This is nothing but biblical application and common sense. Anything less will lead to chaos, will destroy the covenant we have as a denomination, will tear our communion apart, will dishonor God’s Name and Word, and will destroy our witness to the world. With our Reformed brothers and sisters of all nations and across the centuries, we are called to be faithful in our time. The question is not whether we can do what is right. The only question before us is if we will do what is right.
1 Church Order and its Supplements of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church, 2020), article 85, 101.
2 CRCNA Church Order, article 27a, 43.
3 Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 87.
4 CRCNA Church Order, Article 1a, 11.
5 Chad Van Dixhoorn “Presbyterian Ecclesiologies at the Westminster Assembly” in The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: church polity in the English speaking world, c. 1636-1689, eds. H. Powell and E. Vernon, (Manchester, forthcoming, 2016), typescript, 10.
6 Gillespie, Assertion, 199.
7 Van Dix Hoorn, Presbyterian Ecclesiologies at the Westminster Assembly, 22.
8 Gillespie, 111 Propositions, #34, location 9406.
9 Gillespie, Assertion, 154.
Stephen Terpstra was ordained in 2006 and has served Borculo Christian Reformed Church for 9 years