The History of Reformed Broader Assemblies
By Stephen Terpstra
In the first instalment, it was shown that Church Order is a servant of Scripture and of Christ’s reign
We now turn to the history of the relationship between the local, regional, and national church. This relationship is enacted through the offices of the church, through which Christ has ordained that his church be shepherded. We are not Congregationalists, where authority rests in every individual Christian as they voluntarily gather and vote in a local congregation. Christ has not instituted a bottom up system. Every Reformed church has resisted this impulse. Christ’s church is not a democracy. He reigns as King and feeds as Shepherd through those whom He has called and ordained, as instructed in Scripture. He says to Titus, “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5, ESV)
As the Belgic Confession articulates:
the “true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in his Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with pastors, to make up the council of the church… By this means everything will be done well and in good order.”
The church exists not only locally, but regionally and nationally. That seems like a small statement, but it is at the heart of our current debate. The work of elders is critical, not only in their local Council, but also in the Classis and Synod.
The Reformers realized this immediately as they recovered the authority of the scriptures and the ancient teaching of the church. Geneva’s first attempts at a church polity were revolutionary but incomplete. The closest Calvin came to a regional Classis or National Synod in 1541’s Genevan Ecclesiastical Ordinances was that “if any differences of opinion concerning doctrine should arise, the ministers should gather together and discuss the matter. If necessary, they should call in the elders.” But Calvin was also consulted and affirmed the Church Orders being developed by the Reformed churches in other countries, particularly giving his seal of approval to what happened in France, in Scotland, and in the Netherlands. These four regions all stem from the same root and core theology, and it is therefore not only possible but necessary to look at them all to get a complete picture of what a truly Reformed and biblical church order is and should be.
The Reformed Church in France made the connection between the local and regional church more explicit in their 1559 Ecclesiastical Discipline in Article 6, saying, “The minsters and at least one Elder or Deacon from each Church shall meet in each Province at least once per year.” But the direction for what they should do at such regional meetings is vaguely put in article 39, simply mentioning, “anything of great consequence in which the interest and harm of other churches may be involved.” They did stipulate that local consistories were subject to colloquies and colloquies to provincial synods. Calvin approved of that.
The Scottish book of church discipline, already in 1560 and then in more clarity in 1578, outlined four sorts of assemblies. In part 7, article 1, point 2 they specify: particular churches, from the province, from the whole nation, and from all different nations; namely the council, classis, synod and ecumenical synod. Calvin also approved of their assessment.
Our tradition began with the first Dutch synod of Emden in 1571, heavily influenced by the Swiss reformers Bucer and Zwingli. It was not until the Synod of Dort that a recognizable modern church order was fully developed and widely adopted. Dort’s system insisted on the agreement of major delegated assemblies for more important matters, including issues of ordination and deposition. Dort also acknowledged four ecclesiastical assemblies, namely “the Consistory, the Classical Meetings, the Particular Synod, and the General or National Synod.”
The CRCNA’s church order is developed directly from Dort’s.
We can see then that a biblical Reformed church polity is not congregationalist but is based on the covenant relationship in Christ of His people on the local, regional, national, and even international level. This is expressed not only in our theology about the invisible church, but also practically expressed in our Polity regarding ecclesiastical assemblies.
The Church gathers as Council, Classis, and Synod – each doing the work of the church through the offices of the church in service to the members of the church in obedience to the Lord of the Church. Our system is intentionally Presbyterian, and the offices of the church have responsibilities and tasks that extend beyond the local. We are the Church of Jesus Christ together as the Christian Reformed Church of North America, and we are called to be the church at every level.