Classis and Church Order

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Can a church polity (how we govern our church, i.e. the Church Order) that was developed in a time when the Christendom world view was fully operational still be relevant in our multi-faith world, where Christianity is just one of many faiths seeking people’s attention? Our present polity about classis has its foundations in both in Geneva, when John Calvin and a committee of six were asked to “develop a proposal for how the City of Geneva might proceed in making the Reformed faith the religion of all its people,” (Van Gelder, p. 8) and in the rise of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands.

Many classes, often with the help of the Classis Renewal Ministry Team, have been working hard in the last twenty years to renew their classes, to make classis more relevant to the situations facing the church today. But, in all of this discussion and renewal, we as a church have never really had “a critical and informed discussion of the underlying issue of the very identity and logic of the classis as an organizational entity of the CRC” (Van Gelder, p. 4).

Craig Van Gelder, PhD., former Calvin Seminary Professor of Missions gave a presentation in 2008 to a conference: “Classis & Presbytery in the 21st Century: Problem or Possibility?” at New Brunswick Theological Seminary addressing this issue: "Looking Back -- Seeing Forward: Examining 16th Century Foundations for Engaging a 21st Century World." 

This paper, (although a bit long), is an important constructive critique of the polity of the CRC in general and the role of the classis within that polity in particular. As Craig Van Gelder writes, “there is much about both that needs to be affirmed. But…there are some important assumptions embedded in their historical and contextual formation, and that these assumptions need to be unpacked and reframed if the CRC is going to faithfully and effectively engage in ministry at the beginning of the 21st century,” (Van Gelder, p.26-27). He encourages us to start this reframing with a biblical and theological framework that utilizes Trinitarian perspectives.

I think that Van Gelder is right. We do need to take a close look at our church polity and begin to understand it in light of the historical and contextual formation. I think that our Church Order could do better in supporting the ministry of the church. What do you think? Do you think that our church polity around classes needs to be changed in order to more effectively supporting the ministry of the church? If so, how does it need to be changed? Where do we start to make this change?

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A couple of things to look at and evaluate critically:

Should it be required and expected that paid staff from the churches attend the Classis meeting?   Perhaps it should only be elders and deacons, with no requirement for the pastors to attend, or at least not vote.   And not speak unless by special request of their council reps.   Some denominations operate this way.

Perhaps pastors should have their own separate meetings, dealing not with governance, policy, appeals, etc., but with pastoral issues.  

Perhaps one classis meeting per year, and one synodical meeting every two years would be a more admirable goal, rather than this great preoccupation with synodicalism. 

Perhaps fewer doctrines rather than more, would be admirable and desireable.   Thus we could read and appreciate other confessions, and would not spend great deals of time and reams of paper discussing whether our great crc edifice should approve, adopt, or place its stamp of approval on someone else's confession.   Instead, we could concentrate on encouraging christian education in our culture, witnessing to the increasing numbers of mexicans who enter the USA and Canada and who have been so misled by a perverted version of roman catholicism, and focus on establishing bible camps for  children and christian radio for our travelling congregation members. 

Just a thought, or two....

Participant

VanGelder raises a thoughtful challenge Elizabeth: "Can a church polity (how we govern our church, i.e. the Church Order) that was developed in a time when the Christendom world view was fully operational still be relevant in our multi-faith world, where Christianity is just one of many faiths seeking people’s attention? "

"Looking back...seeing forward..." is but one of VanGelder's interesting writings on desired change for denominations and their institutions moving toward a more missional church.  In fact, in his book, The Missional Church & Denominations: Helping Congregations Develop a Missional Identity.  2008, he raises that question directly- what does it take to make a "settled denomination" move toward becoming a "missional denomination?"

Part of his answer speaks to church organization as it would be found in Church Order, p.282:

“…it is essential to have continuity in leadership.  The issue of turnover in leadership is one of the major problems we have in Reformed polity.  It affects all of our assemblies. Is that because we don’t trust anyone?  We constantly change the leadership of our assemblies, and that constantly makes maintaining a consistent direction very difficult.  It requires what I would call, “community of change agents” to become what some have called a “guiding coalition.”  Some stable group needs to carry the vision of change forward over time.  In the RCA case, we’ve been able to get our regional synod executives and senior staff to come together and say, “We will be the guiding coalition for missional change.”  You have to develop such ongoing vision in some way.” 

Then perhaps it takes a stable assembly, a Classis, to help articulate vision for the churches of a region- becoming a key agent for change.  So do we "throw the baby out with the wash" as it may, or do we find a way to allow regional Classis articulate a vision, utilizing a strong framework, a Church Order, to move the church in a "missional" direction?

I would think so.

In fact, I have read in nearly every commentary from the early 1900s to the present authored by DeMoor- Church Order is to be dynamic document, reflecting our understanding of the Word of God as we seek prayerfully how it applies to our church and culture today, via the template of wisdom gained through the ages.

Classis meetings then may, and should become the one of our "incubators" allowing churches to develop a vision, albeit not a real flashy way- two meetings a year at least; but giving churches opportunity to share, create, and articulate vision; all because a Church Order, imperfect as it may be, requires them to meet.     

 

  

In general, you will get better visions from individual churches, than you will from Classis.   It is because churches are where the rubber meets the road.   Classis may have some benefit also as a vision, and for some common activities, but will often be limited by the general requirement for consensus or agreement.  Visions imposed from on high are usually not nearly as effective as those which are owned by the congregations and people who will impliment them and develop the groundwork. 

Just as synod gets distracted with Belhar and other esoteric activities, classis also might get distracted by non-productive activities.   This is less likely at a church level, in my opinion. 

Participant

True John, imposed visions are rather onerous...no one like them, unless of course it "comforts" an individual or organization's thinking.

Classis, unlike Synod is a mechanism that is designed to do what a council requests, or seeks; its mandate is limited to what the delegates deliberate and decide as "churches." Synod is different in many ways, check the church order as it has developed which I am sure you have because you comments are rather thoughtful and seeking.

A Classis must be an enabler to function correctly in my mind; of course it must too follow Church Order and Synodical decisions- but it can challenge those items if the member churches request it do so.

No "man is an island" as it may, nor a church.  We often try it, but it seldom works.

Together we support, carry, and help one another succeed.  Perhaps that is why we encourage fellowship on personal, church, and institutional level as a denomination.

The "rubber hits the road" in the work and ministry of the congregation- true; however, with the limited resources of many churches, especially small ones, it is the support of their Classis that provides the “umph” to keep the “rubber” moving successfully.  

Some of classis collective efforts are very admirable and useful.   Sometimes however too much perennial support can provide the umpt to keep the rubber spinning in circles.  Not that I don't appreciate the support of classis at times.   But just like children who are not encouraged to make their own decisions often not developing their initiative, innovation, and responsibilities, so sometimes churches seem to abdicate responsibility for their own actions based on the requirement of the "rules".  Fellowship is one thing, but hierarchical rules in the churches is another thing entirely, even when imposed under the guise of democracy. 

Come on guys, Van Gielder openned the flood gates of reasonable doubt about our entire church order and structure. Classis is probably the least questionable aspect of church order that should be evaluated. The context of the way some of our church order was formed is questionable at best. We have a lot of work ahead of us to help build God's kingdom. It is going to require us to keep our ego's in check to the Holy Spirit's wisdom.

You guy's are both really smart and we all are brothers in Christ,

Ken

Participant

Thanks Ken...you too are intelligent, but perhaps too humble to say so, but your "opins" reflect that:-)

Dialogue is not all bad, change...we will see. Our Church Order is a document of collective wisdom, imperfect as it may be, but has as much potential for good as those who write it...or interpret it. History has demonstrates that more people "leave" our Church Order, than Church Order "leaving" them. Yet, I think recent changes have struck a nerve, and perhaps "anticipated changes" imagined certainly are not doing it any favors.

I do agree with Elizabeth on one thing(she asks this in one of her other blogs), perhaps we need to explore another "conversation," is there a third way we are overlooking- neither "left or right," "wrong or right," or whatever...our family history of Reformed church is littered with offspring that are "reforming" because it is perceived there is no middle ground or any other way.  There are things we cannot compromise- one is the Word of God...but that has really been up for interpretation, and misinterpretation of late.

Right now I tend to agree with DeMoor in his most recent commentary(p.10): "May all our ways be fitting to who we are in Christ, by grace, as a people of Christian and Reformed persuasion in twenty-first century North America."(italics mine)

That will be the challenge for us as we continue the dialogue...gracefully.  

Dutch, your earlier comment about the difference between classis and synod.... the difference is mainly in that synod is supposed to act according to the direction of the classis reps, and thus operates at a different scale than classis.   So it is not really that much different in governance, other than the scale and scope.   Even the Board of Trustees is supposed to operate under the guidance and direction of the group of classical reps, ultimately .   

The problem is not so much the process, but the degree to which congregational freedoms are lost, or congregational responsibilities are abdicated under the application  of hierarchy, etc.   For example the language of forms used for calling a pastor requires a classical approval.   This is not advice for a church to seek classical approval, but rather it is a requirement for a church to have the signature of a counselor appointed by classis.   Invariably the counselor will be a pastor, rather than an elder, and will change from a counselor to an "approver".   It is not wrong to suggest the opportunity of a counselor, but it is wrong for classis (or synod) to demand such a thing.  

Classis has its opportunity for approval at ordination examinations.   No one understands the needs of a local church as well as the elders who govern it.   When the elders are unsure, they will ask for assistance. 

This is just one example of the misuse of a church order, and the inappropriate language and demands of our church order. 

There is also an inordinate proportion of attention paid to 'ministers" compared to elders and deacons in the church order, most of which relates to a minister's position, rather than a minister's ministry.   So there is much concern about procedure to become a minister, about when a minister can be  "let go", or called, or retired, or whether he can still be called a minister if preaching in another denomination, etc., etc.   I suspect much of this is because people are trying to determine eligibility for the pension fund.   But if we were to use the same logic and apply it to elders, we would realize the irony of all these articles in the church order.   There is an aspect of "professionalism" of ministers imbedded in the church order, which leads to an inappropriate  distinction from minsterial associates and elders.  

We talk about the need for Belhar to make us aware of racism, but perhaps we need a "Belhar" to help us deal with the innappropriate hierarchies and elitism and class structure which the church order promotes between its various ministries and offices and governing bodies.   This goes far beyond doing "everything in a fitting and orderly way", and is not consistent with scripture in its description of ministries and offices. 

Wow, great conversation.  It's got me thinking in a dozen different directions but I'll try to straighten my thoughts out and express some of them.

Church order, as far as I understand, is there to serve the churches and denomination rather than direct them.  So many of the changes over the years have come to address problems or difficulties that have come up - how can we prevent a problem from happening again.  Unfortunately it seems at times that churches, classes and the denomination are being rules by the Church Order rather than being served by it.  We can try to change the church order to serve us better, and we have done that many times over the years, but I wonder if that is really solving the problem.  This is where Van Gelder is right, we need to examine our assumptions behind the church order.  Then the changes we make to the church order might be better able to serve our congregations.

John, you are right, the congregation is where the "rubber meets the road."  But congregations often find it difficult to travel the road set before them alone (even though most of them try), I can see that in the number of indepentent congregations who are contacting the CRC every week to explore becoming affiliated with the denomination.  We need each other, congregations need one another, especially when problems arise.  But how do we determine when to give up autonomy to journey together - is it just when we need something?  If that happens then it becomes like an unhealthy marriage, when the partners just look to the marriage to get their own needs met.  If we are going to be in community with each other then we need to always be in community with each other, not just when it suites us best or when there is a problem to solve.  So the challenge of congregations, classes and the denomination is to do this in such a way that gives life to congregations rather than draining them (although just like in any relationship sometimes we will be asking one part of the team to give more than another). 

We often tend to look at church order and synodical decisions as hierarchy, but in our reformed polity it is not hierarchy but decisions based on the collective wisdom of the parts.  It tends to get mixed up sometimes in the way we try to explain it.  For example, a deacon explains to a parishioner that we HAVE to pay ministry shares to the classis and denomination because they told the church to.  That smacks of hierarchy, but really we pay ministry shares because the congregation has agreed to be part of a larger group of churches - to journey together - and ministry shares is one way how we all participate together.  One challenge in this system is to make sure that all voices are heard - that minorities (in all ways) do not get run over by the majority.  But we also have to realize that this means that sometimes we will be submitting to the other - the other who thinks and acts differently than we would like. 

John, your comments about elders, deacons and ministers is important.  As I sit in Classis meetings I often wonder how do we draw out the voices of the elders and deacons who are there.  Most of the time they are silent, letting their minister to most of the talking.  What wisdom are we all missing when we do not hear from them?  And the process of credentialling and calling ministers often seems very cumbersome.  It seems like most denominations are dealing with this issue as well.  In the book mentioned earlier, "The Missional Church and Denominations" there is an article written by Kyle Small of the Evangelical Covenant Church - a church with a history of mostly lay leadership and a "free-church" mind set, and yet they too are dealing with ordination issues that seem to have traveled far from their roots and become very ordered and cumbersome.  And yet, all these rules and guidelines (including church counselors for churches without a pastor) have come about out of the collective experience of calling ministers.  How do we have checks and ballances that are appropriate and give life?  We need those checks and balances for the protection of our congregations and pastors without them becoming too cumbersome. 

We need to constantly be in conversation with God and with each other about these issues as we try to figure out the way to go. 

Elizabeth,  I appreciate your comments.  They express a common perspective held by many.  The problem is that we often seem to be "explaining' away the language of the church order.   We turn good intentions into rules and regulations rather than suggestions and advice.  This displays a lack of respect for individual congregations, and for local councils.   

Certainly there are many reasons for congregations working together.   Although in reality there also appear many reasons for some congregations to cut ties with a larger body.   We need to be aware of when the congregations can work together, and when they need and require their individual ability to carry out their responsibilities. 

We have a conundrum in our language when we describe ministry shares.   We don't want to use the term "suggested contribution", and yet, that is what it is, since some churches meet it, others do not, and others exceed it.   We implicitly admit they are not taxes or membership dues, but sometimes fail to be polite or considerate or respectful of the local church's responsibility to decide how to allocate its resources to various ministries, including ministry shares.  

Elders and deacons will participate in classis when items are not couched in incomprehensible language, when shop talk and the club atmosphere that many pastors engender in classis and synod is eliminated, and when pastors encourage elders to speak, rather than pastors trying to imitate lawyers in their admittedly sometimes humorous and witty repartee.  Classis is not a forum for pastors to outdo one another in their procedural acumen, or verbal gymnastics. 

Over protection of our churches leads to churches without leaders, and to sick dependency on organizational structures, rather than on the Lord.   I am not aware of an eleventh commandment anywhere that commands us to protect churches from trouble.    We should provide the opportunity to help one another.   We should also realize that rules initially intended to help and protect one another have unintended consequences to the spiritual maturity of the congregations.  Too many rules makes the congregations progressively less mature in their spiritual lives.   Eventually too many just live by the man-made rules and forgo making any significant decisions on their own. 

I am not saying that common goals or hymnals or missions or relief organization is a bad thing.   But we are always looking to add rules, rather than remove them, and we have professionalized the calling of the preacher,  too much.   We have created class distinctions and occupational distinctions that do not serve the cause of Christ. 

Elizabeth and John, You guys are hitting some key issue's that are hindering our growth and creating fustration in the polity. We don't need blame people like the pastors or the elders. They are just following a pattern that has ingrained into the crc by don't change the the status quo attitude.

  How do we affect a good change. We can start by explaining the difference between knowledge and wisdom to our elders and lay people. Hopefully they can become confident enough to speak to governing bodies. They are representatives of the lay people. John, you mentioned language, I totaly agree. Pastors are highly motivated ,trained people who will do what comes natural and take over if there is a lack of lay leadership.Their  nomenclature becomes a weapon at times but I have seldom seen it used with malice. But to some it is very intimidating.

As John has mentioned, the real purpose of any leader or leadership instittution is to to serve those being lead as Jesus so readly demostrated on earth.

  We need walk lightly into this change as not to damage anybody. Thanks guys for your insight and fervor for His kingdom

Ken

Participant

OK, some personal observations based on my limited knowledge that continues to seek wisdom...

First, the Church Order is a human construction…perhaps a point that everyone can agree with.  When it was contrived a long time ago, it was no doubt created to preserve a status quo that was perceived in the best interest of everyone- particularly those in who created it; giving all benefit of the doubt- without malice.  Now this last observation is not one everyone agrees with I’m sure.

Second, the Church Order continues to change, yes…actually a lot since it was revised in 1965.  It is not a static document, and while many see it as oppressive- it provides minimum cohesion in keeping the denomination in a state of order allowing those who desire change to enact it; and those who embrace status quo to preserve it; I find this rather fascinating.

Third, I really don’t think anyone really wants an environment without rules…chaos would not allow this dialogue at all; this dialogue is necessary to bring about desired or needed revision.

Now as to purpose of Church Order- it is to give a framework to an organization, the outline or table of contents displays this.  Too much about ministers- perhaps that was perceived where the most abuse could arise.  Too little on Elders, well that leadership element at the time of Church Order creation was still developing and hardly seen as a threat to order…some would not think they are today yet, but given too much power- abuse can happen from any quarter.

Now as to “church speak,” that mysterious language that is created to exclude the uninformed…ministers do not have a corner on that, laity creates its own; nor can it fool the informed.  Is it an exclusive code, hardly…can it be used to create exclusiveness, of course it can!

Perhaps what the church needs is “order” not to create exclusiveness by those perceived to be in control, or by those who desire to control the “controllers.”  It needs servant leaders who put Christ first, and self or personal agendas second; is this possible within the scope of human sinfulness- that is a good question.

As to creating an environment where Elders speak up, that really is in the control or hands of the Elders; from my experience in Council, often it is easier to sit on your hands rather than raising them for action.  Ministers go to every Classis meeting, and Classis is demystified to them while an Elder at best may volunteer to go to one meeting in his term or lifetime.  Is it because they are afraid of ministers- perhaps once, but that is become less and less as time and knowledge, or wisdom is gained.  No longer do you find a “dominee aurora” blinding Elders- this fact is demonstrated by more Elders becoming “presidents of councils.”

We need to get Elders to show the same passion for their office as they show in their businesses- they are not shy there, and should not be in Councils, or Classes.  However, that will also require a paradigm change on their part enabling a servant heart.

Maybe I overly optimistic, but our Church Order is just a tool- to be used for Christ’s glory, or unfortunately otherwise.  

Thanks Dutchoven, Couldn't have said it better. I was waiting for someone to articulate this in a coherent manner.

Ken

Dutchoven (are you a baker? :)  )  

Elizabeth is suggesting further conversation on this might be useful.  So I thought I would reply to you in more detail. 

My perspective lately, is that we seem to sometimes be more attached to the church order, and follow it more rigorously, than we do our confessions.   I may be wrong, but this is an impression.   It should be the other way around, if we believe in our priorities.   So I agree, it is a human construct for practical purposes. 

Yes, this order changes.  But it changes by adding rules or revising rules, never by condensing or coalescing or reducing rules.   We all need some rules.  But how many?   I suggest it would be an admirable goal to attempt to reduce the length of the church order by 50%.   That process would have an amazing concentrating effect, and would weed out some of the weeds in the order. 

The purpose of the church order?   A framework?  Perhaps.  But the real purpose should be to glorify God through the worship and working of his people.   When you say that the opportunity for abuse is greater for ministers, do you mean to ministers or by ministers?  Is the order then just a safe church policy?   And why would elders be a threat to order? 

I think the reasoning is wrong.   The church order is to guide, not to protect.   A pension fund should follow the church order, not direct the church order.   The nomenclature about ministers being ministers or not when they do not have a congregation, or when working in another denomination is inappropriate.  Being a minister, is really about doing ministering, not just about being something.   The scriptures, and common sense, tells us that gifts are only recognized in christians when they are used and operating; but we have turned the church order into a credentials document for preachers (among other things).  Do not misunderstand;  I appreciate preachers and pastors very much.   But from a governance point of view, it should be the elders that are the essence of the governance, according to scripture. 

The symbolism that goes with a 'minister of the word and sacraments" has mystified the pastor/preache/minister.   The original itent of the word minister was "servant" or service, but practice has changed this idea and this word in its connotation.  

It is improper and unscriptural in my opinion, to restrict the giving of blessings and benedictions to pastors, for example.   The elders ought to be doing this as well.   And perhaps doing this instead of the preachers, just to emphasize their role.    It is improper for councils to think that only pastors can lead the congregation in the sacrament of Lord's Supper.   It would be advantageous for the entire body of Christ, if the preacher sat down with the rest of the people, and the elders adminstered this sacrament.   I've seen this done in other churches, and a light-bulb turned on in my head.  

One church I attended once had no pastors identified.   It identified only elders on its bulletin.  And the elders would preach;  they were preachers.   But the nomenclature followed their understanding of authority and scripture.   The term minister was supposed to apply to almost every Christian, anyone who would minister to others, whether by preaching, admonishment, providing food, clothing, comfort or prayer.   So pastor is a better term.  But again, scriptures talks of pastors, not pastor, implying that the term applied to people who were pastoral, leaders, shepherds, caring for the flock, and not to a particular official position.  

Our church order has become baggage that is difficult to shed.   This is most evident in the philosophy that when collective wisdom decides a certain process would prevent a possible future problem, a rule must be established.   Much like the government forcing everyone to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, the church order begins to prescribe hierarchical procedures for individual churches under the guise of preventing apostasy, and invoking the principle of "decently and in good order".   But the irony is that when two professors decide to invoke their academic freedom to talk about evolution, which impinges more on the confessions than on the church order, it is often the church order and procedures and academic freedom that becomes the topic of discussion more than the actual issue of  the interpretation of Genesis 1. 

I know that pastors do not have a corner on "shop talk".   But they and everyone else, including some elders need to respect the office and duty of all the elders to participate and carry out their responsibility, and to use language that is comprehensible, and to leave space.   Some pastors treat classis as a retreat and an opportunity to meet people who do what they do.   If they worked in their congregations with the other elders in the proper way, they would not feel this great need, since it would be met more in their congregations.  

Picking on pastors only, is not really fair.   Preachers and official pastors have a great calling, and have much to offer.  Elders must be eager to serve the Lord and demonstrate their own leadership.  A few different things in classis and worship would help this to happen.   Open the box and think differently.   Make a rule that ministers should never serve as president of classis.   If you can't find an elder to lead it, then don't have it.   Make a rule that preachers should never proclaim the blessing or the benediction.   Make a rule that elders, not pastors, administer Lord's supper.   Make a rule that elders, not pastors, should install new elders and deacons.   Make a rule that elders, not pastors,  should proclaim the ordination of a new preacher.   Make a rule that every elder should preach at least one sermon in his life, or teach one bible study (with some assistance, perhaps).  Give it a thought.  And if you have objections, ask yourself why you would object to this.   Is it because of order?   Is it fear?   Or because of the human tendency to want to follow mystified human beings?  

Food for thought. 

When I read all of this, I am reminded about how far we have to go, how broken we really are.  And I'm so thankful that God uses broken people and structures.  We need to always be renewed - day after day, but we do not have to be perfect in order for God to work through us.  We do not have perfect structures and we have a lot of problems that we need to work out as a church and I'm thankful for conversations like these that get me thinking and hopefully changing to be more like Christ, but God can and does work through us.  Thanks for your input - please continue!

Am I wrong or is it really true that we could not have classis and synod without the local churches?  In other words, it is at the local church level that the huge majority of activity and life happens.  This is where the word is preached, where catechism is taught, where songs are sung, where prayers are done, where people worship, where money is gathered.  This is where communion happens, and where baptism happens, and sunday school reaches the children, and where bible studies, and choir, and cadets, and gems.  This is where the grass is cut, where toilets are cleaned, and cookies are served with coffee and juice, where bulletins are printed, and where potlucks and visiting occurs. 

This is where real governance happens on a weekly and daily basis.   Where elders decide who will preach next, who will do the nursing home and senior's lodge services, and which community events the church will participate in.  Where the church decides what preacher to call, which deacons to install, the carpet in the hall, the ministry in the mall.  Where they decide which properties to buy, which mortgage to sign, which contractor to hire, which preacher to resign.

So does the church order reflect this?   Or is the church order not really a church order at all, but a denominational order, a denominational guide?   If you looked at the church order, and divided it by topics, would these topics be an accurate reflection of what a church should be focussing its attention on.   Or is it telling us something about the health of our denomination because of the focus of the document. 

 

Again I say, find a way to reduce the document length by half, by consolidating, removing, reducing.   You will be amazed how much healthier the whole denomination will become. 

Just thinking. 

Participant

John, I really don't know where to begin...seems like we keep talking "apples and oranges;" but be it as it may- we are getting a lovely salad with our discussion!

OK, let's reduce it...nobody ever said we can't. That's the beauty of our Church Order- it's our covenant with each other.  Take the time to read it, I know you have, but others too.  Start with p.7 of the most recent edition- purple cover book, fourth paragraph:

"It's important to remember that the Church Order is a document of the churches, and what it says and how it changes is determined by the churches together It is our book; in a sense, we all are its authors.' (bold letters- my emphasis:-)

So...get busy, change it.  Place to do it is Synod, meets in June- the only place were we all get together...or borrowing one of your images from your last rather intuitive comment- "flush it out!" 

John, I don't think that anyone is saying that the local church is not the center of church life.  That is where the rubber meets the road and things happen.  At the same time, we live in community, as local congregations, in classes and denominations.  The Church Order does need to reflect that and if it doesn't as it is - let's work to change it.

The church order does not do what it says, in some cases.  It wants to be all things to all people sometimes. 

So it says that the authority of classis and synod is delegated.  But then in the process of that delegation of authority, it allows the larger body to dictate to the congregations.   It makes sense to have a delegated authority to deal with the confessions, and some joint projects, such as missions or a seminary.   It does not make sense to remove the authority of congregations to choose its own pastors, wage scales, pension plans, services, ministries.   It does not make sense to require congregations to do things that they should decide on their own to do.   Suggestions and advice should not be turned into requirements, since that means that the authority of the congregations is removed;  they have lost the authority to decide.   Just because it is a joint document, doesn't mean that it should contradict itself.   So the language of the church order should be cleaned up to reflect that the authority is delegated and that classis and synod should not be lording it over the congregations in terms of their policies and procedures. 

 

The church order also says that the offices are equal in honor.   However, this is mere lip service, and the church order contradicts itself here also.  Again, the church order should be cleaned up to reflect that the offices are equal in honor.   The great distinctions between pastors, elders, preachers, evangelists, associates etc., should be removed.   Elders should be made responsible for pronouncing the blessing before services, and benedictions after.   Elders should be ordaining the pastors and evangelists.   Elders should be leading the lord's supper.   More elders should be preaching a sermon ocassionally, which the church order could encourage rather than hinder.  This is not to take anything away from the pastors and preachers, but to emphasize the significance of the other offices. 

 

The roles of pastors, preachers, evangelists and associates could all be  combined into one description, since they all do pretty well the same thing.   Some pastors are more similar to some associates than they are to other pastors, who do not even pastor at a particular church, for example.  Some pastors are evangelists, and some evangelists are really pastors.   The distinctions are superfluous and artificial, and are usually not based on function but on academic credentials or other artificial ordination criteria. 

 

The demand by classis  that a certain split for elders or pastors ought to exist as representatives.   Why not take that out of there?   Why not honor the authority of the local church to make that decision?   If they want to send two elders or two pastors, or two deacons, or two evangelists, or two associates, let them.   Make them responsible for their own choices.  

 

Find a way to reduce or remove the endless articles about when a minister is a minister or is not, or can be loaned or not, and find a way to remove the stigma of article 17.   Reduce, remove, consolidate.    It will make for a healthier church. 

So here is a small place to start.  Work at eliminating the contradictions. 

I realize that I raise some very uncomfortable issues for some people.   For example, when I suggest that elders rather than preachers should pronounce the blessing and benediction, I am certain that many people are uncomfortable.  The reason I suspect they are uncomfortable, is that I have not yet heard anyone disagreeing with that statement, nor agreeing with it either.   So my guess is that they know that I am right, that there is no reason why elders could not do so;  yet, they do not want to state their agreement either, because they somehow "feel" that a preacher should do those things.  There is little knowledge, and much custom and superstition attached to some of these practices.   We live in a way as to contradict our confessions and our church order (which contradicts itself).   We do so in ignorance and superstition, which is tolerated and encouraged by many preachers and pastors, because they want the trappings and aura that our human customs brings.   I believe that has reduced the strength and witness of our churches, and has encouraged the "dumbing down" of our membership.  

I would be surprised that I will get a significant response to even this single point.   Even though I am willing to consider other perspectives. 

Participant

No John, just cleaning the "desktop of life" lately and haven't found time to respond fully!  However, I want you to know I have learned a couple of things in my journey on this "blue marble:" (1) never take yourself too seriously, and for sure what I say- I may have to re-evaluate later; (2) never...never ASSUME anything- the word may become an acronym and turn around on you!

OK, do something for me- define congregationalism, and "the priesthood of all believers." Both of these are presenting a healthy challenge to our church- denomination, today. Not bad words, but certainly a change in traditional thinking.

As for Elders getting more actively involved in worship services, that is happening more today then ever before including the Lord's Supper, and other functions of the service(Church Order sanctions this). I think the church as a whole is more accepting to laity involvement then you like to realize. That perhaps is because the congregation's knowledge level of things temporal and spiritual is increasing, once upon a time- the preacher was the only one who had learning beyond the 8th grade, not anymore. That can be challenging for ministers and congregation too," too many cooks often spoil the broth," but before you jump on that- it can also be healthy!

As for Classis and its relationship to local churches- my Classis still takes the local church very seriously- elder or minister. 

So go back to the second paragraph and let's dialogue on those items, because once we solve those two, Church Order will follow along since we are the authors of it- even if you would like to think otherwise.

Too uncomfortable to respond- nah, just busy; but you got me thinking and I presume a few more folks too. 

I'm not sure it is useful to define congregationalism, dutchoven.  It
would be a bit of a diversion of the issue, a discussion of a word, rather
than an implimentation of an idea.  For myself, I realize that
congregations are churches, and no individual congregation is the church
by itself.  But then, neither is one single denomination.  I prefer, and I
think our church order recognizes that the authority originates at the
congregational level, and resides in the consistory/council.  I simply
maintain that more respect should be given to that knowledge.  I know that
most classies do  take the local churches seriously, but the church order
has written in its language certain things that do not respect that local
authority.  The fact that a majority of churches may have agreed to do
this, does not make it right or healthy, nor does it then become
consistent with the general principle of local church authority.

Taking away this responsibility from the local church is harmful because
it seems to absolve the local church of responsibility in areas where it
should be responsible on its own initiative.

The priesthood of all believers is something you already know.  I am not
contrasting what pastors or preachers do with the priesthood of all
believers in this case.  I am contrasting what they do compared to what
the elders do.  The enlarging of the responsibility of the elders, will
indeed improve the priesthood of all believers, since it demystifies the
roles and jobs of the preachers and pastors.  Even the use of the term
laity hinders the understanding of these roles.  Such distinctions are
worldly and not scriptural, as far as I know.

These become hierarchical distinctions modelled after worldly desires and
designs for power.  They are not related to what Jesus said, "I come as
one who serves."

Jesus washed his disciples feet, to show what they should do.  Jesus
expected his disciples to preach, to share, to do without, to serve.  I'm
sure He expected his disciples to teach and to expect the same from those
they taught. But today, we have put enormous barriers in the way for
disciples to preach to others, to teach others; and these barriers are
identified and strengthened in the church order. The psychological
barriers of hierarchy between ministers, pastors, preachers, associates,
elders are such that these names are used for positions, rather than as
descriptions of what they do.

When is the last time you have heard of an elder baptizing someone?  How
many times do you hear of an elder leading the Lord's supper?  How many
times does an elder pronounce the benediction, or how often does an elder
feel comfortable in raising his hands for a blessing?  Why is that?

...john..

 

John, I think you raise some interesting and important points.  I have experienced a lot of this in my own journey.  To many friends who do not attend church regularly, I am already a minister (even though I have not been ordained yet).  They know that I am involved in ministry and that I preach, so to them I am a minister and they do not understand why I cannot then also perform marriages and baptisms.  It has been a struggle to explain it to them as things like church order just do not make any sense to them. 

If elders were expected to do things like preach a sermon at times, do you think it would become even more difficult to find elders?  I know of one small congregation without a pastor that has a very difficult time finding elders because part of the requirement is that they lead a service and read a sermon regularly.  Most of the professing adults in that church do not feel comfortable in doing this.  How would we ensure that elders felt equiped and trained to do take on more?

Some of these changes would mean a lot more than just changing the church order as it would mean a shift in thinking for more than just pastors.  this may be a good thing but it would also be a long process.

Perhaps your main question is:  would it be harder to find elders if they felt pressure to preach a sermon once or twice in their lifetime, or once or twice a year, depending on circumstances?   The question then needs to be asked, why would they be so reluctant?   Who taught them to be so reluctant?   As elders, they are supposed to be apt to teach.  They are supposed to be able to teach and lead their households, and the household of faith.  That is a main qualification.  If they are reluctant to preach, are we putting unrealistic expectations on them?    Do they not then have the respect they should have?  Are they putting their confidence in earthly powers rather than in the power of Christ and his spirit? 

The example you give of some small churches which has difficulty finding elders because they are expected to lead a service occasionally, not even write a sermon.   And you say most professing adults would not feel comfortable with it.   Its hard to imagine such a church;  perhaps it is a brand-new church plant? 

We have a small 25 year old church with only four council members.   At least seven men take turns leading services and reading sermons, and i'm quite sure more would if asked.   Many others take turns leading singing, children's stories, etc.  

Perhaps you are referring to a church where everyone is over seventy years old, and is afraid to read?  

But leading a church service, when necessary, is like feeding your children, or your neighbor's children.   If you are asked to do it, you cannot in good christian conscience turn away like the levite and the priest did when the beaten traveller was lying along the road.   If you cannot do this how can you be an elder?   If you refuse to do this, how can you be an elder, much less a serving fellow christian who is part of the body of Christ?   

If the requirement to lead and teach (which is a form of preaching) or expectation is removed from the elders, and it is only then that they will serve, do they really have the qualifications necessary?   I am referring to spiritual qualifications, not to academic qualifications. 

Preaching or leading services or reading sermons is not a performance.   It is a spiritual service. 

How do they become "equipped"?   They learn by doing.   Just like new parents having their first baby.   First, let them read some scripture.  Maybe next time let them read a prayer.   Next time, let them prepare their own prayer.   Next time, read a sermon.   Then encourage them to read again, perhaps lead a bible study even once.   Maybe after that write some liturgy, or write a sermon with some help.   I don't say they should be expected to write sermons every week, or even lead bible studies every week.   And if they write a sermon, it should be read and cleared first by a preacher or elder or consistory.   But they should understand what it is and what is involved, because otherwise how can they understand to lead, or to share the gospel with others?  

I don't thinnk it should be a requirement to write a sermon, for a person to be an elder.   But it should be actively encouraged.  Presently, we discourage it.   This is against the message of scripture, and against what Jesus and the apostles would encourage us to do.   It also makes for spiritually lazy elders, and spiritually ignorant elders. 

Sometimes their wives might help them.  Other times a friend or fellow elder or former elder or a preacher.  In the end, learn by doing.  A long process?   That depends on the will and the effort.   You are right that it will take some time to counter the clergy-laity exclusivity that the institutional church has institutionalized.   In spite of the reformation, human nature drags us back to worshipping human beings rather than God.   Or we worship academic education, or ceremony.  Or titles.   Ask yourself if this is scriptural.   If it is godly.   If it is edifying.  

And if even the elders are afraid to lead, to bring scripture to friendly christians, then why should we be surprised that so many non-elders do not share the gospel, so many children fall away, and so many neighbors do not hear the word of the Lord? 

As far as baptism and weddings, these are separate issues.   If a justice of the peace can perform a wedding, then it is obvious that the ability to preach is not required in order to perform a wedding.   This is a separate issue from the issue of elder leadership.  However, there is no legal requirement even in the church order to prevent an elder from giving a message or preaching at a wedding, is there?   And in a cursory look at the church order, I did not even see a reference there to ministers conducting weddings in the tasks section, but I probably missed it?

Baptism should be understood well by every elder.   It is a basic sacrament.   It does not require a PHD or a degree to understand it or explain it.   If an elder does not understand it, how did they become an elder?   Is it made more sacred by preventing elders from administering baptism?   Does scripture demand that elders be ipso facto prevented from administering baptism?  

 

I understand we want to make sure that preaching, and baptism, and communion meals do not become misused or abused.   At one time, we did not allow people from other denominations to participate in lord's supper (we "guarded" the table, which some reformed churches still do).   Then we examined people briefly before the communion service.   Today, it is mostly a matter of a warning from the pulpit that goes along with the invitation for born again christians to participate.  It is unlikely that preaching or baptism or lord's supper will be abused simply because elders do it, no more than when pastors do it today, as long as there is reasonable supervision by church councils.   

 

Food for thought. 

Good Food John,

  Your asking the right questions John. To address this issue on elder leadership, we have to look at our church history. We rarely wanted the leadership of our peers so they backed off because of this. Now we choose people for office based on prerceptions of who they are. We need to look for elders who understand that spiritual health of the lay people is the primary focus. Teaching, leading services, or  whatever is a role that all mature adults should strive to be envolved.

Ken