We must resume the discussion of our last letter which was concerned about the relation between the office of believers and the special offices in the Church. You will recall that I called this relationship both the anomaly and the genius of Reformed Church Polity. It is the anomaly of Reformed Church Polity because believers both exercise the duties of the special offices in the Church through their offices bearers—they preach, exercise discipline, and give to the needy—; and they are called to submit to those whom Christ has placed over them in the Church of which Christ is the Head. This relationship is the genius of Reformed Church Polity because it is a relationship which is unique to the Church of Christ and stands at the very heart of all Reformed Church Polity.
We discussed last time some of the principles which were involved in this relationship; and we left for this letter some practical illustrations of how this works out in the Church.
Let us take a look first of all at the office of the ministry of the Word and its relationship to the office of believers. We said that the congregation as assembled actually preaches. At the same time, the congregation also must submit to that preaching and submit to the authority of the minister who brings that Word to the congregation. How can this be? And what is the meaning of this?
The point which needs to be made here is that the office of minister arises out of the Church itself. This is true in more than one sense of the word. We have noticed in earlier letters that this was true of the origin of this office, for it arose organically out of the life of the New Testament Church as it was established by the apostles. The Church was there first. Without the existence of such a Church there could be no office of the ministry of the Word. It is dependent upon the Church for its very existence. All this does not mean, however, that the Church can exist as institute without the office of minister. A given congregation may be vacant for a while; but this is an abnormal situation which the Church attempts to correct as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, the minister is himself a part of the Church, lives in the Church, receives his office as a member of the Church.
Our Form for the Ordination of Ministers emphasizes this very strongly. The question is put to a minister at the time of Ordination: “I ask thee, whether thou feelest in thy heart that thou art lawfully called of God’s Church, and therefore of God himself, to this holy ministry?” The calling of God to the office of minister is therefore through the Church itself. Only through that Church does a minister come to his office, and only in that Church does he hold that office.
Nor must it escape our attention that the Church here is the whole Church including the office of believers. It is for this reason that the male members of the congregation come together at a congregational meeting to call a minister. They have a voice in the matter of the call. In a way they have a decisive voice. The man who is elected by majority vote within the congregational meeting is the man to whom the call is extended.
The implications of this are clear. The congregation receives from Christ the command to preach the Word. The congregation is responsible for the fact that that Word is preached from Sabbath to Sabbath. The congregation must be in obedience to this command of Christ so that that Word goes forth to the gathering and preservation of the Church. And, at the same time, the congregation is responsible for the fact that that Word is preached in purity of doctrine and according to the Scriptures. It is certainly true that a minister preaches with the authority of his own office. It is also true that he is the one who spends the week in prayerful meditation upon the Scriptures and in prayerful preparation of the sermon. It is further true that when he preaches, he preaches out of his own conviction—what he believes to be the truth of the Word of God. But he is not in any sense isolated from the congregation; he is a living member of it. He works in the exegesis of Scripture and in the preparation of a sermon as a member and part of the congregation over which the Lord has placed him. His convictions, therefore, are the convictions of the Church of which he is a part.
But, at the same time, it is the congregation which has assumed the responsibility for that preaching. The congregation must faithfully exercise that responsibility as well. When a minister no longer brings the truth of the Word of God, and when the people languish under preaching which is not Biblical and which cannot feed their souls, the congregation have none to blame but themselves. And they bear the responsibility for this, for they are failing in their God-given task.
To use an extreme example: It may be that a group of believers finds itself alone in a given place for whatever reason that may be. As this group comes together to discuss its obligations before God, the individual members will certainly begin to realize that they have a responsibility to preach the gospel. But they cannot do this in such a way that every man simply begins preaching willy-nilly and on his own. This is confusion and disorder. Nor can there be any real preaching (which is official) in such a situation. So they must come together for purposes of calling a minister so that they can fulfill this calling. Even if they have to call a minister from their own group, they must do this, for they cannot be a Church unless they do.
It is well to stress this point, Timothy. It is well for congregations to be reminded of the fact that the responsibility for the preaching finally rests upon them. It is well that they remember this so that they may gladly assume that responsibility, so that they may pray for their pastor, encourage him in his work, give him the support that he needs when he functions as the minister through whom they do the preaching. It is well too that ministers remember this. For the consciousness of this will serve as a remarkably powerful deterrent to any ambitions they may have to set themselves up above the congregation as someone superior to the flock over which they have the rule. And, in passing, we may note that it is for this reason that we think the Presbyterian idea wrong that the membership and office of the minister resides in the presbytery (classis) and not in the local congregation.
At the same time, even though the congregation is responsible for the preaching, and actually preaches through her minister, this same congregation submits and must submit to that preaching because of the authority of the minister whom Christ has set over her. In a sense, the congregation preaches to itself. If you find this difficult to imagine, just remember that this is also true of the minister. You know from your own experience that when you preach, Timothy, you preach to yourself. This is, in fact, so true that you often feel, after a service, that if the congregation has been half as inspired and edified as you were, that that would be a wonderful thing. But the congregation preaches to itself and the minister preaches to himself only because Christ is speaking through that Word.
It is because of this truth that the congregation stands organically connected to the preaching in its own witnessing in the world. We have talked about this before; but it must be remembered that the witnessing of the saints, as it stands connected to the preaching in the Church, is an effective witnessing—always. That Word too, never returns void as the Lord sends it out.
If therefore, theoretically now, a minister becomes unfaithful in his preaching, and if the elders will not do anything about it but rather side with the minister, then it remains for the congregation to exercise effectively the office of believers and reconstitute the Church of Christ in that place by seeing to it that a minister is once again lawfully called to minister the Word. In this way the office of believers preaches once again the pure doctrine of Scripture through the special office of the minister.
The same thing is true of the offices of elder and deacon. There is this same balance. On the one hand, the office of believers is exercised in various ways. The office of believers is exercised when elders and deacons are chosen at a legally constituted congregational meeting. And the same question is put to them which is put to ministers, i.e., whether elders and deacons believe that they are called by God’s Church and therefore by God Himself to their offices. When elders engage in the work of discipline, the congregation has a voice in this, for at each step of the way the Consistory informs the congregation of what is being done. And this is not merely in order that the congregation may know what is going on; rather, this is done in order that the congregation may approve of the work, for it is very really the work of the congregation which the elders are doing. And the same is true of the deacons. The congregation is exercising the office of believers, particularly the office of priest, when the deacons give of the alms to the poor in the Church. Every step of the way it is very really the congregation which functions.
This is so true that, to give an extreme example, if officebearers are unfaithful in a given place, the congregation would have the right to exercise discipline itself, depose the officebearers and reconstitute the Church of Christ.
But it must not be forgotten that, at the same time, the officebearers exercise the rule over the Church. A minister is called from a trio or duo proposed by theConsistory. Elders and deacons are chosen from a nomination submitted to the congregation by theConsistory. And, in order to preserve this balance, we have articles in our Church Order which, e.g., make it mandatory that no matters may come to the congregation except they first be submitted to the Consistory. And there are other instances of this control and direction which the officebearers themselves exercise. And all this is because, in a very important sense, the officebearers have authority in the congregation which authority they have received from Christ.
I am not surprised that worldly people have difficulty understanding these things. Yet, if you stop to think about them, they constitute the genius of Reformed Church Polity. It always amazes me that, on the whole, the Reformed Churches have succeeded so well in maintaining this balance. But it is also important that this balance be maintained, and we must ever be on our guard against anything which would destroy it. We must guard, on the one hand, lest the office of believers is forgotten and shoved aside by hierarchical officebearers who do in the Church of Christ what they please without any consideration of the people of God. And we must guard, on the other hand, against a loss of authority so that the officebearers are considered little else than the minions of the congregation. The balance is Reformed. Nothing else will do.
Fraternally in Christ,