Leading From Behind


A phrase we hear during the present political campaign is, “Leading from behind”.  I wonder if that applies to our church government structure as well.  The local congregation delegates representatives to Classis that in turn delegates representatives to Synod.  Synod makes decisions for the denomination.  The Church Order concludes with Article 86, “This Church Order, having been adopted by common consent, shall be faithfully observed, and any revision thereof shall be made only by Synod”.

As elders I would challenge you to review the Church Order and do a check list of how well your church is faithfully observing the Church Order.  Is discipline being faithfully administered?  Do you use only Synod approved hymns and Bible translations?  Do you worship twice on Sunday?  Do you have sermons that are based on the Heidelberg Catechism? 

I know as I reviewed the Church Order recently, neither I or my Council did all of those things in the church or in how we worshipped.  In the 1990’s I did my Doctor of Ministry Project entitled, “The Church Order Inclusive or Exclusive”.  I surveyed a large sampling of churches and discovered that few if any followed the Church Order without exceptions.  Almost every survey came back with a confession that some article of the Church Order was not followed.

I wonder is Synod leading from behind?  How serious should we be about the Church Order and “faithfully observing” the Church Order that we by common consent  we adopted? How should changes in the Church Order occur?  Presently, it seems to me, that churches make changes in how they conduct themselves and then the Church Order makes changes.  An example of that observation is churches who welcomed children to the “Lord’s Supper” and some years later Synod made adjustments.

My suggestion would be that as elders, councils, churches we need to either change the Church Order or we need to change how we conduct ourselves as churches in accordance with the Church Order?  What do you think?

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Al, you have raised a very good point.  Often the church order seems to be adjusted to practices that are already happening.  While there are things that should probably be adjusted in the church order, it has quite a bit of flexibility, much of which has been added over the years.   For example, in some articles, using the word "normally" or "ordinarily", seems to leave room for practices which are different from the norm.  However, since "ordinarily" is not defined, it can lead to the exceptions becoming the norm as things change over the years. 

I think this is interesting to raise this issue in the elders section, since the church order gives so little actual attention to the role of elders specifically.   It is difficult to point to an article other than article 25 as to what the specific role of elders is, and the article is shared with deacons.   Since elders ultimately have the authority to appoint, delegate, supervise, it is surprising that so little attention is paid to how that is done.   The whole relationship of elders to pastors (who are supposed to be elders as well) seems to be skewed, particularly when you have 18 or more articles dealing specifically with various aspects of pastordom/ ministry/preacherhood, and only one specifically mentioning elders.  

Of course, it is obvious that only synod can change the church order, since that is where it originated.  But it is also obvious that individual councils can selectively apply the church order within their locality, since it is the elders who are ultimately responsible for those decisions. 

While the church order may be a good thing to have, in many aspects of spiritual life within the church, more will be gained by convincing and teaching the benefits of certain practices, than by simply highlighting the fact that some distant body made some rules which should be followed.   For example, I have read or heard of some churches substituting some works of service, such as environmental cleanup, or visiting sick in hospital in place of holding a worship service.  The church order did not seem to stop them.   But I believe they have lost the understanding of our relationship to God.  The reverence and worship we display for God is the underpinning for the value of doing any good works.  Good works cannot substitute for our direct worship.  God does not want our sacrifices (works);  God wants our hearts.   Faith without works is dead, but works without faith are not pleasing to God.  A comparison might be made to parents who supply food and clothing and toys for their children but never take time to talk with them or play with them.   Our worship services are valuable simply because they do not seem to have any physical earthly purpose for us the way food and clothing do.   They are dedicated to concentrating on God, and on our fellowship in our Lord.  Skipping this will lead to a breakdown in communication with God.   Understanding this is more important than memorizing some rules. 


Church order seems to be a distant thing in the day to day practice of church life. It's good to have in certain circumstances, say, in outlining the process of ordaining a pastor. But situations arise that Church Order doesn't address and a church has to deal with it. As one of those churches that substitutes environmental cleanup for a regular worship service, please be assured that we also have a short worship service beforehand. The ancient Christian pattern and the Church Order do oblige us to have a worship service on Sunday morning. We have a short service of singing, prayer, short meditation, an offering, and a blessing. Then we extend our worship by addressing community needs. It forces us to remember that worship and work must be one and that we exist for the sake of others. After all, Church Order 73 calls us to bring the gospel to all people at home and abroad, and Councils are enjoined to stimulate the members of the congregation to be witnesses for Christ in word and deed. How we do that is as unique as our own neighbourhood. Structure and flexibility are both very important in the way we organize ourselves as churches.

That is my point there is not enough flexibility in the Church Order.  I would challenge leaders to overture Synod to make changes so it is not "distant" from every day practices.


but Church Order serves the churches, not the other way around.  The practices change over time and the CO eventually catches up (usually by inserting the word "ordinarily").  I don't like to think of the CO as merely "suggestions" but I also don't want it to bind us too tightly as we engage our local community.

Maybe that illustrates my point about merely following rules.   If as Tom mentioned, a group has a "short" worship service briefly before some particular environmental activity, activity which others might regard as "not resting on the sabbath", then that shows how mere rules can be interpreted however one wants.   If the short service is held merely to satisfy some "rule", then another rule which is often read on the sabbath as part of our grateful response for our salvation in Christ, is completely ignored.  And in both cases we miss the point.  

Yes, Christian service is important.  But again, compare it to being in a family.   Your wife wants you to spend some quality time with her.  She wants you to listen.  She wants you to contribute to her understanding.   And you agree, but you have one eye on your watch.   Basically, you limit her time, make it briefer than usual, with the very "legitimate" excuse that you are going to fix her dishwasher and cut the grass so that "her" yard will look nicer, and maybe you will even go to town to buy her some new dishes, or a a new vacumn cleaner.    Surely she will be happy?   And when she is not happy, you will not have a clue as to why not.  

Cheating God on your spiritual connection cannot be paid for with good works.   Was it Judas who said our time could be better spent on helping the poor.... no, that was the ointment "wasted" on the dusty feet of our Lord....   hmmn. 

I am not talking about helping people desperately in trouble.   Every action in that regard is a sermon in action.   But "community needs" and environmental concerns merely leads to people justifying their working in Macdonald's or Walmart  or Exxon on Sundays to serve the community,  After all, why is that less "community needs" than picking up papers in the gutters?   And if you pick up garbage on Sundays as service to God and community, then what is the meaning of garbage picked up  on Monday or Tuesday?   I'm not buying it.   And it has nothing to do with the church order.   It has to do with spiritual priorities. 


we don't have a worship service to stick to the rules.  We have a worship service to worship our Redeemer.  We rest in his completed sacrifice.  Sabbath is fulfilled in a person, not a day.  That person calls us to be his feet and hands in this world. Sometimes we have to be shaken out of our comfortable patterns to remind us of this.

I don't know what to say to the rest of your post. Slippery slope arguments aren't always so convincing.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10. 


I'll have to ponder all these things in my heart

The advantage of a church order which everyone follows, is that you don't spend a lot of time discussing policies and procedures everytime something administrative or governmental is done in the church.  The disadvantage is that you don't spend much time discussing policies when you practice churchly activities.  Taking things for granted often results in people not knowing why certain practices are better than others. 

Tom's statement that "We rest in his completed sacrifice.  Sabbath is fulfilled in a person, not a day." is true, but is still a non-sequitor.   All of the law is fulfilled in Christ, not just the Sabbath.  We know that Christ is the true image of God, therefore we don't need idols or images.  We know that Christ kept the law perfectly, but that doesn't mean we don't have to keep it;  it doesn't give us license to murder or cheat or lie or covet.  Why does it give us license to disregard a sabbath rest? 

If we don't keep the Sabbath, we begin to lose the sense of what it means to rest in Christ;  we will lack understanding of what it means to rest in the sacrifice of Christ, to rest in Christ himself.   The Sabbath was given as a gift to man.  Disregarding that gift shows a lack of respect and honor and love for God.     is

I've wondered for many years about why Christ did not emphasize this commandment the way He mentioned murder, theft, adultery, false witness.  honoring parents, coveting.  But today I realized that Christ also did not mention taking God's name in vain, nor idol worship.  Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18, Romans 13. The Sabbath is part of our direct worship and honor to God.   It is part of our love for God;  loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  The sabbath is a gift from God, which when we receive it, becomes sweet incense to God. 

In my previous post, I did not mention a slippery slope, but Tom did.   However, I will note that it is very difficult to slide uphill unless you have a lot of momentum.   The reality is that sliding downhill was   common in the old testament when Israel so often slid into the practice of worshipping false gods, and it is common today   in the life of Christians who forget to or refuse to stand up for their spiritual priorities.   But a church order does not solve that problem, obviously.  Romans and Galatians 5 talks about being free from the law.   But only if you live in the spirit.   If you don't live in the spirit, then the law will have its consequences.   The slippery slope is only one of those consequences. 

In 2010, Neil DeKoning identified two articles, 25 and 35, that spoke to the office of elder.  The 2008 church order identifies section D. article 25 as the only article speaking specifically to the office of elder (and this article also throws in the office of deacon for good measure).   On the other hand, we see articles 6-24 dealing with "ministers" and minister associates (now called "commissioned pastors".  Nineteen articles. 

So what does that tell us about the responsibility of elders??   well.... yeah, they are there, but they fill a kind of functionary, perfunctory role.   Kind of a necessary requirement, but not so significant...   Certainly not so honorable.  Certainly not so essential.   Placeholders are okay.  If they don't work out, it's only a short term, after all.   Then the dustbin.  Don't worry, be happy. 

That's the church order.   It's not a total reality.   Elders do make significant decisions, especially financial and structural.  They do often get really involved, and do often provide significant spiritual leadership.   But without honor.   Often without respect.  Without a sense of calling, often.  Desiring the greater gifts?   Having the ability to teach?  

The fact is that the church order does not define the official acts of ministry, but custom often denies these to ordained elders.  The fact is that the term vacant is used to define a church without a minister, but not a church with a missing elder.   The fact is that the term "ordination" is often used in an unqualified sense, creating confusion as to whether it applies to to ordained preachers, ordained elders, or ordained deacons.   Thus creating the potential for confusion in the the way it is used in the church order, and in various synodical studies, such as 1995 and 2001, as to what it is actually referring to.   The fact is that when customs are not identified or dealt with in the church order, they sometimes become even a stronger tradition than the church order itself, ironically.   Yet, some of these customs have no scriptural grounds, no scriptural basis, which is partly why they are not in the church order to start with. 

The church order contradicts itself in some places.  For example saying in article 3 that all who meet scriptural requirements may fill an office, but then later adding academic achievement as an "extra-scriptural" non-biblical requirement.  

The church order could be revised to respect the office of elder.   It could respect the ability and responsibility of elders to make local decisions, by having classis provide advice instead of approvals.   It could respect the office of elder by indicating it is a life-long calling with terms of service.   It could respect the office of elder by recognizing that as spiritual leaders, teachers, and pastoral elders, they have been ordained, annointed, appointed, and chosen to serve the congregation in providing the word of God, providing spiritual leadership, providing a blessing to the congregation, and carrying responsibility for the sacraments, with or without a specialized preaching elder (minister or pastor) presiding. 

When elders do not have the ability to lead on the assumption of the church order, they will only carry out certain expected tasks, instead of searching for the leading of the Lord, and as a result the church will suffer.  

It would be interesting to have an article in the church order that specifically states:  The congregation shall respect and honor the office of elder as an office of spiritual leadership and authority within their church, giving respect and honor within the context of scripture as guide.    

We should recognize that we do not need so many articles about ministers...eg.  eligibility for call of a terminated minister, loaning a minister, requirement for a demonstration of need to classis before extending a call or establishing a new ministry, trying to forbid a local church from asking certain questions to a candidate, or discussing "proper" support.  This would actually improve the honor and respect to local elders in recognizing their ability and responsibility to make decisions on these issues, without babysitting by classis or synod.   Much better would be for classis or synod to provide advice and information and guidance, and realize the decisions need to be made by the elders.   

I just read through the entire church order and I think consistory (elders) are mentioned more than the two articles you mention and with the authority to regulate worship, education, etc.  So I either misunderstand what you are saying or I disagree (you pick).

Al, you are right that other articles also include tasks of elders.   However, the articles mention "consistory", not "elders".  Consistory consists of elders, but includes ministers, commissioned pastors.   There is a distinction made on the one hand, and then in the process of referring to "consistory" rather than "elders", the church order puts the onus on a group, on an elder collective, rather than on the calling of elders individually.   While this is sometimes valid, it is done virtually exclusively to the elimination of significance of individual callings of elders. 

In other articles, we see a reference to council.   Elders are assumed included in that too, but again, there is not a specific reference to elders, and of course, ministers or pastors are also included in that, assuming they are members of the church in question, and thus this really identifies a decision making process, rather than a specific calling of the elders. 

So, we have two specific articles dealing with the function and calling and task of ministers, but I do not see any articles dealing in the same specificity and directness, about the function of elders, and the calling and task of elders.  Article 99 talks about equal honor of the offices, but the church order itself does not honor the offices equally. 

The fact that they are not honored equally has an impact on the spiritual growth or lack of spiritual growth of the congregations, since the responsibility and potential impact of the office of elder is not perceived nor observed by many.   

There is an article 17 dealing with termination of office of ministers.   But the church order spends no time delineating the significance of a term of office for elders, nor providing an understanding of lifetime spiritual service and leadership in the context of specific terms of office.   Again, this is directly contrary to the spirit of article 99. 

With such a lack of respect for these offices, we should perhaps not be surprised that the church order does not always receive the respect it should perhaps have? 

I want to apologize a bit for a comment I made yesterday about "official acts of ministry" not being defined in the church order.  They are half-defined in the supplement to article 53 and article 18..  The article/supplement says these official acts are entrusted to the church, and to ordained leaders (including elders) and not to a specific office.   Yet the article says that they should not be performed by someone delegated to lead a service or to read  a sermon.   The article does not deal with elders vs non-elders reading a sermon.  It does not make clear in the end whether an ordained elder therefore could be proclaiming a blessing, although Henry deMoor in another conversation indicated this was deemed "approved". 

The supplement to article 55 indicates that an ordained person could administer the sacraments, but should be approved by classis, and should be an elder.   Presumably, the council would recomment someone, and classis would approve.  But the need for classis to approve such an elder, since they do not approve other elders, is not made clear.   Since the church order speaks to the fact that the sacraments are entrusted to the church and ordained leaders, not to classis, nor to a specific office, it seems a bit strange to require classis approval for a consistory to appoint someone who is already ordained, to lead in the sacraments in the local church. 

In any case, does it seem that classis approval is not required for elders to install other elders, since installation is not identified as requiring that approval?