Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

“Will you submit to church government, and in case you should become delinquent (which may God graciously forbid) to church discipline?”

This third question asked of those who make public confession of faith is closely related to the previous two questions. In the first question we acknowledge the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments as taught in the confessions of the church. By means of Christian discipline, purity of doctrine is preserved in the church. In the second question we resolve by the grace of God to lead a new, godly life. The purpose of Christian discipline is to maintain godly living among the members of the church. The objects of Christian discipline are those members of the church who err either in doctrine or in life. The purpose of the exercise of discipline is the maintenance of true doctrine and holy living in the church.

Principles of Church Government

Three outstanding principles of church government are implied in this third question. Those who make confession of faith ought to understand these principles.

First of all, the Head and Supreme Ruler of the church is Jesus Christ. The form of government of the church is not democratic but monarchical. Christ alone rules in the church, and His rule is absolute and sovereign. He said that to His disciples at the time of His ascension: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” Having ascended into heaven, Christ is seated at the right hand of God, the position of rule and authority.

In the second place, although Christ rules in the church, He exercises His rule through men whom He calls and appoints to office. The rule of Christ in the church is the rule that He carries out through the office-bearers of the church. The authority that the office-bearers have is the authority that Christ has given to them.

The Scriptures are plain enough in teaching this truth. In Ephesians 4:11 we read: “And He (i.e., the ascended Lord Jesus Christ) gave some) apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” Repeatedly the Apostle Paul refers to himself as the servant or minister of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:17Rom. 1:1). Hebrews 5:4 is relevant: “And no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.”

In the third place, although Christ rules the church and although He rules the church through office-bearers, He exercises His rule through the church herself. The church as a whole is responsible for this rule and actually carries it out.

It is for this reason that the third question speaks of “church government” and “church discipline”. The emphasis of the question is on the responsibility of the church as a whole for the proper government and discipline of the church.

That government and discipline are activities of the church as a whole is born out by several considerations. First, it is the church that administers the means of grace and exercises the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Contrary to the teaching of Rome, to no individual, but to the church, Christ has given the power of the keys. Second, the involvement of the church is seen in the fact that every member of the church is an office-bearer. Occupying the office of all believers, he is a prophet, priest, and king under Christ. And thirdly, the involvement of the church is seen in the teaching of Scripture that even those who are appointed to special office in the church are appointed by the membership of the church herself. The first deacons were chosen and called by the church at Jerusalem, Acts 6:3-5. Paul was called and sent out by the church at Antioch, Acts 13:1-3. Timothy had been ordained and entrusted with the duties of his office by the presbytery (elders) of the congregation of Ephesus, I Tim. 4:14.

Called to Submit to Church Government

To the rule of Christ exercised through the officebearers appointed by the congregation, we are called to submit. The person making public confession of faith vows to submit to church government. When he confesses his faith in Jesus Christ, he confesses faith in Jesus Christ not only as his Savior, but also as his Lord. Believing in Jesus Christ he also willingly places himself under the rule of Jesus Christ.

Many passages of Scripture lay before us the calling to be in submission to the office-bearers of the church. After carefully explaining the duty of the elders, the Apostle Peter exhorts in I Peter 5:5, “Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder.” In I Thessalonians 5:12, 13 we read: “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves.” An especially powerful passage is Hebrews 13:17: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”

We are called to be in submission to the officebearers of the church. We are called to obey them because they “have the rule” over us. We are not to obey them merely because they are older or wiser than we are. We are not to obey them because of any kind of penalty or punishment that might result from our not being in submission to them. For no other reason are we to submit to them than that they have been given the rule over us. Christ has set them in authority, and us under their authority. Not for the sake of their person, because we happen to like or dislike the person of the officebearer, but for the sake of his office and the authority of his office we are to submit to the officebearer.

Here is an important test of our allegiance to Christ. Here is the proof that we are servants of Christ and that we honor Christ as our Lord and King. It is easy enough to say that Christ is our Lord. It is easy enough to speak of Christ as the King of our life. But then we must show that, by our submission to the authority of Christ where He is pleased to manifest that authority. We must submit to the government and discipline of the church.

In Case We Become Delinquent

Especially urgent is our submission to the government of the church if we should become delinquent. This may very well happen. This has happened in the past, and happens today. It is a very real possibility that we fall into sin, serious sin, sin that we do not immediately repent of, sin that becomes the occasion of the discipline of the church. When this happens, we promise to submit to that discipline of the church and to receive the correction of that discipline.

This certainly is an outstanding reason for church government and for office-bearers in the church. One purpose of church discipline is the recovery of the wayward. In II Timothy 2:25, 26, Paul calls the office-bearers to labor with those members of the church who have fallen into sin: “. . . if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.”

Sad to say, in many cases this vow is broken. Often it is the case that those who fall into sin will not submit to the government of the church. They will not receive the pastor or elders when they call on them to admonish them. If they receive the office-bearers, they will not be convinced by the teaching of the Word of God, but stubbornly persist in their sin. Often instead of submitting to government of the church, they simply “ask for their papers” and leave the church entirely, or go to a church which fails to manifest faithfully the marks of the true church of Christ in the world.

This is serious sin! Sin is a serious matter. Unrepented-of-sin is a serious matter. But stubbornly to persist in sin after the admonition and discipline of the church is still more serious. To do this in spite of the solemn promise we have made to submit to the government of the church is the worst sin of all.

Freedom of Conscience

This does not mean that every decision of the church is to be obeyed unquestioningly. Our obedience to the government of the church is our obedience to Jesus Christ and to the Word of Jesus Christ. If the church exercises authority apart from Jesus Christ, in contradiction to the Word of Christ, in good conscience the believer cannot obey. Our conscience is not bound to the church and the decrees of the church, but our conscience is bound to the Word of God. And no church may ever attempt to find the conscience of the members of the church. This, in fact, is a mark of the false church.

Two possibilities may be conceived of here. First, decisions are made by the church with which a member disagrees or is not satisfied, but these decisions do not concern matters of principle. The member may question the wisdom or the appropriateness of such decisions. Perhaps the decision concerns a building project, a change in the liturgy of the church, change of time of the Sunday worship services, or many similar matters. In this case, although the individual is personally opposed to the decision, because it does not involve a fundamental teaching of the Word of God, he acquiesces to the decision and abides by it. This is submission to church government.

The second possibility is that decisions are made by the church that are plainly contrary to the Word of God. Perhaps the church has decided to open the special offices to the women. In this case, the member cannot in good conscience before God obey the government of the church. To do so would be to obey men rather than God. Even then, he is called to submit. He cannot obey, but he must submit. It is possible for him not to obey, and at the same time to submit. The opposite of submission is rebellion, and no child of God under any circumstances may rebel against those in authority. Even when those in authority demand of us what is contrary to the Word of God, we may not rise up against those in authority, we may not be abusive of those in authority, we may not seek the overthrow of those in authority.

At the same time, involved in submission to church government when the government of the church demands of us what is contrary to the Word of God is our calling to bring our objections to the decisions of the church in the orderly way. A member does this by protest and appeal. This is the way of submission. In this way, the member hopes to convince the church of its wrong-doing. If, in the end, this fails, the member is left with no alternative but to leave his church for one that adheres faithfully to the truth, or institute the church anew with other like-minded Christians.

The Word of God to covenant young people is clear. Confess your faith in Christ! Hold to the sound doctrine! Live the new, godly life! Submit to the government of the church!

This is the straight and narrow way that leads to life everlasting.