The branch of study that is denoted by the above caption is one that is extremely wide in scope. The average reader undoubtedly thinks of Church Polity in terms of the eighty-six articles of our own accepted Church Order. The scope, however, of this subject is far broader than this. Properly speaking it would comprehend a study of all the various Ecclesiastical Polities that have been and are now found in the church world. To mention a few of the most outstanding ones we may cite the following: The Monarchial System found in the Roman Catholic Church, the Aristocratic System found in the Eastern Church, the Episcopal System of the Church of England, the Congregational and Presbyterian Systems. The study of these different systems then includes even more than defining the principles and details of government prevailing within the several church bodies mentioned for to each of these movements there is an intricate history that must also be taken into account.
In this rubric it will not be our intention to delve into all these systems of polity. We shall confine ourselves to the system of government which is found in our own Prot. Ref. Churches and from time to time bring out certain characteristic features of others by way of contrast. Various considerations motivate this choice of procedure. First of all, our approach must always be positive, and whereas we are of the firm conviction that our own system is sanctioned by the Word of God, it follows that the principles embodied in that system alone can be further developed from The Word. The truth is always positive and seeking it must be our main objective also in the field of Church Polity.
Secondly, the majority of our readers, we trust, are primarily interested in that system. Under it they are governed as members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Just as the citizens of any given country are more concerned about matters pertaining to their own government than they are about things that concern some foreign nation, we believe, members of the church ought to be and rightly are primarily interested in the Polity of the Denomination with which they are affiliated. That, of course, does not preclude interest in other systems. They may be profitably studied, much the same as the people of one country inquire into the mode of civil government in another land. But that interest in secondary while that in one’s own system is primary. We suppose that our readers also possess, that primary interest for citizens disinterested in their own government make poor citizens, and church members who are indifferent to Ecclesiastical Polity make poor members. It is no more than part of our solemn duty to be interested!
Thirdly, by confining ourselves to a discussion of our own polity, we can also limit our discussion to the eighty-six articles of our own D.K.O. in which the basic principles of our polity are defined. If there are some of our readers who do not have in their home the little “green book”, we strongly urge you to purchase one from the Synodical Stated Clerk. This little book contains in addition to the Church Order much other valuable information, including Synodical decisions pertaining to different articles. Every Protestant Reformed family should have one. It is this little book that will serve as our text in our future discussions.
The starting point.
It is rather important that we, from the very outset of our discussion, make clear what our specific objective in perusing this field shall be. We must have a goal and purpose. This goal must be clearly and constantly before our minds and from the very beginning we must make sure that we are on the right road or we will never reach the desired destination. Starting point and purpose are closely related. The latter determines the former. That is true in all things. Only when one has a purpose is he prepared to determine his starting point and then, too, one that has no purpose is also without a starting point.
This principle is worthy of illustration. If a man, for example, purposes to become a doctor he does not begin by studying bookkeeping or farming, but his point of departure is in the field of medicine. Or, to use another illustration, if a man desires to establish a hardware business, he does not begin by ordering a supply of dry-goods. So, too, in determining our starting point we must face the question: “What end do we have in mind in writing on the various phases of Church Polity?”
Our answer to this question will in turn be determined by our conception of the subject before us. Some seem to think (at least practically) that the Church Order is merely a compilation of rules governing the procedure of Consistory, Classical and Synodical meetings and that, therefore, only the office bearers of the church need to have knowledge of it, just as a competent lawyer must know the rules of procedure in the civil courts. This idea is not only erroneous but from it emits the detestable stench of Romanism which is obnoxious to every child of the Reformation. Others regard Church Polity as a science to be studied only in the Seminary, but this conception is also fallacious.
If either of the above were true there would be no purpose in the undersigned assigning himself to the task of writing. The limited few that would then be concerned with this subject could most profitably consult the sources that are now available and there would be no point in writing more. We could stop here. However, that is not the case. Our conviction is that the Church Order is taken from and founded upon the principles of the Word of God and as such it is the expression of the will of Christ, the King and Head of the Church, concerning the regulation of the conduct of all who belong to the church. It is true that the Church Order is not Scripture in the sense that the latter is infallibly inspired and can never be changed whereas the former is composed by men and may under varying circumstances be altered, but that does not take away the fact that the principles of the one are elicited from the other. If this were not the case the Church Order would have no significance whatsoever.
The point, however, that we are primarily interested in here is that whereas the principles of our Church Order express the will of Christ, they are binding upon the consciences of all who belong to His church. The believer promises before God and His church that he will submit himself to the rule of the church. He binds himself to these rules of church government. He promises that by the grace of God he will regulate all his life according to these rules. That must not be regarded lightly for it is a very serious matter. It means certainly that our Church Order is the rule for our daily conduct and by it we are to be governed not only in relation to the office-bearers in the church but also in relation to our brothers and sisters of the household of faith. Our Church Order then is certainly no abstraction but, on the contrary, is a matter of greatest practical concern to every member of the church.
From this we are now ready to express our purpose and to find our proper starting point with a view to that aim. Before we wrote that our main objective in the field of Church Polity is to seek the truth. To this we may now add that it is not truth as the object of scientific dogmatics that we seek but rather it is the truth in its practical application to our life as saints. We must know the rules of Christian conduct. These rules we must study in all their intricate implications which are as complex as life itself. We must know “how we ought to behave ourselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Tim. 2:15). In the church the Lord has commanded that “all things be done decently and in order.” Calvin remarks on this passage that “it is a rule by which we must regulate everything that has to do with external piety.” C. Hodge writes: “The apostle here not only condemns any church acting independently of other churches, but also any member of a particular church acting from his own impulses, without regard to others. The church as a whole, and in every separate congregation, should be a harmonious, well organized body.” A.T. Robertson makes this remark: “That is surely a good rule for all matters of church life and worship.” In conclusion, therefore, we may express our purpose as the attempt to elucidate upon the principles of Church Order so that the order of the institutional and organic life of the church may be preserved and maintained. If, in some small measure, we succeed in this, our efforts will have been abundantly rewarded. With this goal before us it is almost needless to say that our starting point will be the Word of God so that in its light we may be led to walk according to the proper rules and order of the Church.
Next time, D.V., we will have a few more introductory remarks to make before entering our subject proper.
G. Vanden Berg