The Doctrine of the Church - Rev. J. A. Bouwers (Unity Committee Report)
Foundational Principles of Reformed Church Government
Reproduced with permission from the Clarion Volume 48, No. 16, Aug. 6, 1999
The United Reformed Churches, in their short history, have never made any dogmatical pronouncements concerning the doctrine of the Church, otherwise referred to as the locus of Ecclesiology. This is arguably a good thing. It does, however, make the assignment of putting to paper the understanding of the doctrine of the Church, by these Churches, a rather difficult one. Nevertheless, in the context of our ecumenical discussions, it is apparent that for the progress of these relations, a discussion of this topic is necessary. Besides, we do, as Churches, cheerfully bind ourselves to the Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions, or Three Forms of Unity, which have significant things to say regarding the matter. By the light of Scripture, then, seeking to be guided also by its reflection in the Confessions, we present the following five points for discussion.
The Identity of the Church
What is the Church?
The Greek word that most often stands behind the word "Church" in our English Bibles is ekklesia. The basic meaning of this term from the New Testament Greek could be summarized as: a gathering of people for a specific purpose. Of course this concept cannot be properly understood without taking into consideration the Old Testament background. The Old Testament Hebrew term qahal is regularly translated in the Septuagint as ekklesia. Comparison of instances of this word's contextual use in places like Deuteronomy 9:10, 10:4 and 18:16 reveals that the assembly in question is the covenant people gathered before their God.
Scripture consistently speaks of the Church as the people of God. The New Testament references simply repeat, reiterate and apply the language already used in the Old. In 1 Peter 2:9,10 it is said of the Church - you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but now are the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. This, it must be appreciated, is a passage rich with allusions to the Old Testament, with most particular reference to the words spoken by God to His people assembled at Sinai in Exodus 19:5,6. In Acts 7:38, Stephen refers back to this assembly as the ekklesia in the wilderness.
It is the Church, therefore, that receives the covenant promise: I will be your God and you shall be my people. It is the Church that comes by the work of God's grace through faith to live by, and enjoy, this promise, as well as to expect its ultimate fulfilment. (cf. for example - Lev. 26:12, Jer. 31:33, 2 Cor 6:16, Rev. 21:3).
Fundamentally, we conclude that the Church is the covenant people of God comprised of believers of both the Old and New Testament administrations.
Our Confessions faithfully reflect this temporal universality of the Church of Jesus Christ. For instance, in QA 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess concerning the "Holy Catholic Church" that Christ is gathering a community from out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end.
In this respect, when we speak of the catholicity of the Church (catholic meaning literally "according to the whole") we confess, by faith, that according to its universal dimensions, the Church is comprised of every true believer that ever lived, lives, or is yet to live. We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit (BC 27). The translation of this article being used by the Canadian Reformed Churches, speaks even more definitively of "the" true Christian believers. The Latin is more emphatic still, speaking of omnium fidelium, which could be translated as "all believers." The Heidelberg Catechism goes on to speak in the same all-encompassing fashion when it says in QA 55 about "the Communion of Saints" that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all His treasures and gifts.
In the broadest sense the Church as communion of saints is comprised of all who name the name of Jesus. We are reminded, for instance, of the Apostle Paul's words to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours. (1 Cor. 1:2). Clearly our confessions seek nothing more than to echo the teaching of Scripture. When Christ speaks of building His Church, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail (Matthew 16:18), or when in the epistle to the Ephesians we read that God gave Christ to be head over all things to the Church (Eph. 1:22), or, of His being head of the Church (Eph. 5:23), and, of His having so loved the Church, that He gave Himself up for it (Eph. 5:25), in each instance the Church is portrayed in its universal dimensions in keeping with the fullness of the intent and accomplishment of Christ's atonement. (Cf. Acts 20:28, John 10:15). These universal dimensions are further reflected, for instance, in Ephesians 4:4,5 where we are told of one Body and one Spirit... one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Calvin, in this connection, has spoken of this aspect of the Church as "visible to the eyes of God alone" (Institutes IV.i.7), this has also been referred to as the Church as God sees it. Nevertheless, this reality should not simply be viewed eschatalogically, and certainly not supra-temporally. Our general confessional starting point speaks of a concrete reality not confined, bound or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but spread and dispersed over the whole world... joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same Spirit (BC 27).
Furthermore, whereas, as a result of some of the Reformers' speaking about the Church, some have spoken of this dimension of the Church as the invisible Church, we find this terminology potentially misleading. Indeed, there are aspects of the reality of the Church of Christ that are unsurveyable or unoverseeable to the human eye (the Church is always first of all a confession of faith) but this inability to see is owing to man's limitations, it does not belong to the essential character of the Church. Furthermore, when taken in abstraction, this terminology of the invisible Church has led many to be sinfully unconcerned with fellowship in the Church on an individual(istic) level or about the sorry state of affairs in the Churches on an ecumenical level. We will touch on these matters further infra.
Indeed, focusing only on the universal dimension of the Church would be unbalanced and will lead to error. The Confessions, reflecting Scripture don't do that either. Nevertheless, this general starting point of the confessions is very significant given the historical context in which they were written. The Roman Catholic Church had institutionalized the concept of catholicity, thereby denying it to the Reformers. It is in light of this that the Reformers, including the framers of our confessions, argued for a more dynamic view. In their day, the view of the Roman Church concerning catholicity had degenerated to the point where it could be characterized by the expression: "where the Pope is, there is the Church." To this the response of the Reformers was - "where Christ is, there is the Church." The Reformers and their disciples insisted that they were not separating themselves from Christ's Church.
While this recognition provided for great liberty for the Reformers, it did not lead to license.
The Visibility of the Church
Where is the Church?
The confession about the Church Universal must never be made in abstraction from the concrete reality and responsibility of the local Church. None of the New Testament references to the Church in the universal sense, as we've considered them above, can be understood in isolation from the concrete manifestations of the body of Christ. If we've said already that the Church is where Christ is, there is a sense in which it should also be said that Christ is where the Church is. Christ is the head over all things to the Church (Ephesians 1:22). When the Belgic Confession basically quotes Cyprian's dictum extra ecclesiam nulla salus, in article 28, it is essentially saying that there can be no salvation outside of Christ (cf. John 14:6, Acts 4:12), and further, that one can have no confidence of knowing Christ outside of the Church as it is manifested locally.
The reality of communion with Christ must necessarily come to concrete expression in communities of the saints. Scripture tells us that Christians are those who are, for example, to serve one another (Gal 5:13), bear one another's burdens (Gal 6:2), submit to one another (Eph 5:21), comfort one another (1 Thes 4:18), and exhort one another (Heb 3:13). As the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes in QA 55, those who are united to Christ are duty bound to use their gifts for the service and enrichment of the other members. The Belgic Confession uses similar language in article 28. All of these commands presuppose an institutional reality and an organizational structure. Otherwise, commands such as those found in Hebrews 13:17 - Obey those who rule over you and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls - are rendered meaningless.
The Church, as God is pleased to establish it, and as we are called to recognize it, is the place where believers are gathered together in Christ's Name, or, in accordance with His institution. Obviously it is by the local Church that the Great Commission is carried out, the sacraments are administered and the organizational ordinances are followed. It is the local Church that bows its neck under the yoke of Jesus Christ (BC 28). Being joined to the Church in a concrete local setting is an act of obedience. Those who do not do so act contrary to the will of God.
The local Church and the universal Church are not two different Churches, however. They are, rather, two different dimensions of Christ's one Church. Distinction is not separation. There can be no separation, then, between the catholic or universal Church of BC article 27 and the true Church that man is duty bound to join in article 28. This point is highlighted by the fact that when the transition is made from article 27 to 28, the Confession connects the two by continuing to speak of "this" holy congregation.
Nevertheless the distinction is of great importance. Making an absolute identification of the perspectives of articles 27 and 28 will lead to either of two untenable abstractions. On the one hand, those who are inclined to emphasize the reality of the universal and interpret the concrete local situation in the light of it, will be inclined to a view that allows for a sinful pluriformity of the Church, as well as the conclusion that various and sundry Churches and denominations are all really part of the one Church of Christ in their own right. This approach makes void the duty summarized for us in our confession that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church (BC 29). This approach also fails to take seriously the reality our Confession speaks of when it goes on to warn - all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church.
On the other hand, the opposite danger exists when it is posited that all that is said about the catholic or universal church is to be re-interpreted in light of what the Confession says about the local manifestation of the Church in article 28. The result of this approach can be a lack of appreciation for the work of God throughout the earth and a rather narrow and sinful sectarianism. For instance, we are convinced that the United Reformed Churches in North America are true Churches of Christ. That is not the same, however, as saying the true Churches of Christ are the United Reformed Churches in North America. It needs to be understood, rather, that the Confession, in article 29, also challenges existing Churches to self-examination regarding their faithfulness, that they might be able to say with a clear conscience, "we are a true Church of Christ," but in no way does the confession press for the conclusion that "we are 'the' true Church in an exclusivistic sense." Such an approach would be a return to the error of the Roman Church which viewed everything institutionalistically. The Reformers and the framers of our Confessions refused to identify the Church exclusively with any particular ecclesiastical organization.
It is important that both dimensions of Christ's Church as universal and local each be understood in light of the other - without identification or separation. In this way the Confession steers clear of the Scylla of pluriformity and the Charybdis of sectarianism.
It is, furthermore, a sad fact of reality that the Church of Jesus Christ, as it is found in the world today, does manifest a certain pluriformity of existence. Here it is important that we distinguish between "what is" and "what ought (not) to be," between the indicative and the imperative. For example, according to "what is" we have in many of our respective communities faithful Churches that exhibit the marks of the true Church. These Churches are living in close proximity with similar Churches that are also faithful, holding to identical Confessions. Yet, these Churches do not recognize one another or have fellowship with one another. This ought not to be. It is sin.
The Unity of the Church
According to article 28 of the Belgic Confession it is every man's duty, having been joined to the true Church, to maintain its unity. Certainly this applies primarily in the context of the local church of which he is a member, but the implications of this demand extend also to the level of relations between local Churches.
This is particularly evident from the words of our Saviour in His high priestly prayer of John 17. Christ pleads with His Father for those you have given Me... that all of them may be one Father, just as you are in Me and I am in You... May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent Me (John 17:21,23). The demands of this prayer cannot either be spiritualized or simply relegated to an eschatalogical hope. What He prays for is a matter of the Church's witness before the world, therefore we must conclude that visible, concrete unity between His people is in view.
Yet this must be true unity, that is to say, unity in truth. There must be no false ecumenicity. Neither is it proper to speak of a sort of "lowest-common denominator" kind of unity. Sanctify them by Your truth, Your Word is truth, our Saviour has prayed (John 17:17). Also, according to Ephesians 4:13, the unity that we are to endeavor to protect and promote among all those that are Christ's is the unity of the true faith (fides quae). This faith is of an objective character, the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), or, the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). In any movement toward unity it must always be kept in mind that the catholicity of the Church, as it is called to come to expression, must include a commitment to the "whole" truth. We're reminded of how the Athanasian Creed speaks of the Catholic faith. Through the centuries the true Church has witnessed to this faith by way of her Creeds and Confessions. True unity, therefore, can be based on nothing less. Any temptation to silence portions of the confession of the Churches for the purpose of a broader ecumenicity must necessarily be false. Not only would this be a harmful regression, it would also be a dishonour to the Holy Spirit who has guided the Church through history.
Churches may recognize one another and pursue the Lord's demand for unity on the basis of the what the Nicene Creed has termed the "apostolicity" of the Church. This apostolicity is to be found not in a succession of persons or in a line of history, but rather where Churches of potentially diverse backgrounds recognize in each other's confession a common commitment to the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42, Eph 2:20), having believed in Christ through their (the apostles') word (John 17:20).
The Activity of the Church
Judging by the marks by which the true Church is to be known (BC 29), it is evident that the Church has a particular task in the world. Fundamentally the activity of the Church consists of preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments and shepherding the flock. God's people have a task in the world also and it is the Church's task to equip her members for that task (Eph 4:12).
A theological distinction will often be introduced between Church as institute and Church as organism. As with more distinctions not found in the Bible or the Confessions, however, this one, too, can be potentially misleading. Indeed, the Church has an organic, living character, think of the Catechism's insistence in QA 54 that we be living members thereof. But, Scripturally, it must also be said that institutional organization belongs to the Church's essence. It is the institutional life of the Church that provides for its organic growth. Neither is it proper to designate every aspect of the Christian life and kingdom service as "the Church," even though these endeavors can only be carried out by those who are living members of it. We are not called to ecclesiasticize all of life. It is ironic that often those who (out of concern for the Church) wish to equate kingdom service with the Church as organism end up disparaging the institutional Church and its central role in the advancement of the kingdom (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, LD 48).
The Polity of the Church
In article 30 of the Belgic Confession we confess that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which the Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors... also elders and deacons who together with the pastors form the council of the Church. Here we see that the government of the Church is essentially local. In our tradition, as a reflection of this, we speak about the autonomy of the local Church. Nevertheless, the Church's catholic obligation and the implications of believer's responsibilities over against one another as communion of saints are such that congregations cannot remain independent of one another. Churches of the like faith and confession federate together with a Church Order specifying the details and responsibilities in that union.
The United Reformed Churches are federated around an adaptation of the Church Order of Dort (1618/19). In our previous denominational connection in the CRC we were living together under a significant revision of the Church Order that was put into place in 1965. Many have pointed to this Church Order as a contributing factor toward the growing hierarchicalism in CRC circles. While it may be true that the 1965 document itself need not be read hierarchically, history has shown that it could be, and was. Already in the 1960s there were those pleading that the revision should be accompanied by a study of the foundational principles of Reformed Church government. With a desire to prevent the rise of similar abuses in the new federation it was felt that an attempt should be made to have such principles consciously undergird and accompany our adoption of the Church Order. The following Appendix includes our federation's effort to articulate those principles.
For the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity of the URCNA,
Rev. J. A. Bouwers, minister of Immanuel Orthodox Reformed Church (URCNA),
Web Master's Note: The entire Church Order of the URCNA is available on-line at https://www.urcna.org/urcna/synod/ChurchOrderoftheURCNA-FourthEdition.pdf
Appendix: Foundational Principles of Reformed Church Government
(From the Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America)
1. The church is the possession of Christ, who is the Mediator of the New Covenant.
Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27
2. As Mediator of the New Covenant, Christ is the Head of the church.
Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23-24; Colossians 1:18
3. Because the church is Christ's possession and He is its Head, the principles governing the church are not a matter of human preference, but of divine revelation.
Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1:18
4. The universal church possess a spirit unity in Christ and in the Holy Scriptures.
Matthew 18:18; Ephesians 2:20; I Timothy 3:15; II John 9
5. The Lord gave no permanent universal, national or regional offices to His church. The office of elder (presbyter/episkopos) is clearly local in authority and function; thus Reformed church government is presbyterial, since the church is governed by elders, not by broader assemblies.
Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5
6. In its subjection to its heavenly Head, the local church is governed by Christ from heaven, by means of His Word and Spirit, with the keys of the kingdom which He has given it for that purpose; and it is not subject to rule by sister churches who, with it, are subject to the one Christ.
Matthew 18:19; Acts 20:2-32; Titus 1:5
7. Federative relationships do not belong to the essence or being of the church; rather, they serve the well-being of the church. However, even though churches stand distinctly next to one another, they do not thereby stand disconnectedly alongside one another. Entrance into and departure from a federative relationship is strictly a voluntary matter.
Acts 15:1-35; Romans 15:2-27; Colossians 4:16, Titus 1:5;
8. The exercise of a federative relationship is possible only on the basis of unity in faith
and in confession.
I Corinthians 10:14-22; Gal. 1:8-9; Ephesians 4:16-17
9. Member churches meet together in consultation to guard against human imperfections and to benefit from the wisdom of a multitude of counselors. In the broader assemblies. The decisions of such assemblies derive their authority from their conformity to the Word of God.
Proverbs 11:14; Acts 15:1-35; I Corinthians 13:9-10; II Timothy 3:18-17
10. In order to manifest our spiritual unity, local churches should seek the broadest possible contacts with other like-minded churches for their mutual edification and as an effective witness to the world.
John 17:21-23; Ephesians 4:1-6
11. The church is mandated to exercise its ministry of reconciliation by proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:6; II Corinthians 5:18-21
12. Christ cares for His church through the office-bearers whom He chooses.
Acts 6:2-3; Timothy 3:1,8: 5:17
13. The Scriptures encourage a thorough theological training for the ministers of the Word.
I Timothy 4:18; II Timothy 2:14-16: 3:14; 4:1-5
14. Being the people of God, chosen and redeemed, the church, under the supervision of the elders, is called to worship Him according to the Scriptural principles governing worship.
Leviticus 10:1-3; Deuteronomy 12:29-32; Psalm 95:1,2,6; Psalm 100:4; John 4:24;1 Peter 2:9
15. Since the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, it is called through the teaching
ministry to build up the people of God in faith.
Deuteronomy 11:19; Ephesians 4:11-16:1 Timothy 4:6:11;
2 Timothy 2:2; 3:1-17
16. Christian discipline, arising from God's love for His people, is exercised in the church to correct and strengthen the people of God, maintain the unity and the purity of the church of Christ, and thereby bring honor and glory to God's name.
I Timothy 5:20: Titus 1:13; Hebrews 12:7-11
17. The exercise of Christian discipline is first of all a personal duty of every child of God, but when discipline by the church becomes necessary it must be exercised by the elders of the church, the bearers of the keys of the kingdom.
Matthew 18:15-20: Acts 20:28: I Corinthians 5:13; I Peter 5:14