Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
We now begin a study of the government of the church. When a church or group of churches departs from the truth of Scripture, this departure is often manifested in three areas—her doctrine, her worship, and her church government. Christ has specifically taught us in His Word not only what we must believe and how we must worship Him, but also how His church must be governed on this earth. It is of utmost importance that we follow these principles, striving beautifully to reflect the perfections of Christ, our heavenly Husband and Head.
As we look out at the wide variety of churches and denominations, we see clearly that the instructions that Christ has given concerning church government are often not followed. We see a wide variety of forms of church government. Some churches have officebearers arranged in a hierarchical structure, who make all the decisions without any input from the members of the churches. Others call a meeting of all the members, both men and women, whenever any decisions concerning the government of the church need to be made. Some churches have pastors, elders, and deacons; while others have a pastor, deacons, a youth pastor, a minister of music, etc. The reason for these differences is not that Scripture is unclear on the subject, but that many take it upon themselves to deviate from the teachings of Scripture as they see fit.
We must not be like those who make light of these differences. There is a reason why Christ has given us the specific instructions that He has. When a church deviates from them, she becomes less like Christ and more like the kingdoms of this world.
The Church’s King Governs through Special Officebearers
That Christ is the Head of the church is clear, seeing as it is explicitly stated in passages such as Colossians 1:18. But there are those, like the dispensational Baptists, who deny that Christ is King of the church. That He is such, however, can be clearly deduced from Scripture. Although there is no passage in which Christ is specifically called “The King of the church,” there are passages in which the members of the church are called citizens of Christ’s kingdom. In Colossians 1:13 (a few verses prior to the text just referred to) God says that the members of the church of Jesus Christ have been translated out of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. The saints who were in the church at Colosse were told that they were citizens of the kingdom of Christ. They were members of Christ’s body, and citizens of Christ’s kingdom. Christ is King and Head of the church—which means that His body is also His kingdom.
The next question is, since King Jesus is now sitting at the right hand of God in heaven, how does He govern and direct the members of His body that are on this earth? The answer is that He establishes instituted churches that are manifestations or pictures of the universal body of Christ. These instituted churches are organized bodies that reflect the heavenly perfections of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that Christ has redeemed. That they are organized bodies means that they are united under the supervision of special officebearers, whom Christ has called and qualified to represent Him upon this earth. It is through these special officebearers that Christ, from heaven, governs and directs the affairs of His churches upon this earth.
Every believer is really an officebearer in the church. That we are Christians means that we are members of Christ by faith, and thus are partakers of His anointing (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 12). Every believer is anointed by the Spirit to be an officebearer, that is, to be a prophet, priest, and king under Jesus Christ. But there are other individuals who, in addition to holding the office of believer, also hold a special office. Scripture speaks of pastors, elders, and deacons as being appointed to specific positions of authority in the church. These men we often refer to as special officebearers. Sometimes we drop the word special and refer to them just as officebearers, but it is important that we not forget that all of God’s people are officebearers in Jesus Christ.
Ambassadors through Whom Christ Speaks
It is through these special officebearers that Christ rules His church. Christ rules by His Word and Spirit, and it is through the special officebearers that His Spirit brings His Word to the members of His body.
There are many that deny this. They object if anyone says that Christ is the one speaking in the preaching. They sometimes caricature this truth, and say of a minister who teaches it, “That minister says he is Christ.” A faithful minister obviously does not say that he is Christ, but he emphatically does say that he is one of Christ’s ambassadors.
We often discuss this subject when talking about the means of grace—the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. But it also has a place here, when discussing church government. Christ governs His church by His Word, which is spoken by Him through His ambassadors. The ministers of the Word are these ambassadors, but the elders and deacons are also official representatives of Christ through whom He speaks as they perform the work of their respective offices.
Understanding this term, “ambassadors for Christ,” therefore, is of fundamental importance. This phrase is found in II Corinthians 5:20, and its context serves to explain it. To be an ambassador of Christ is to be an official representative of Christ who speaks in Christ’s stead or on Christ’s behalf. Ambassadors among the nations of this world are individuals called and qualified to bring the word of the ruler whom they represent. They are not to bring their own word, but the word of the ruler whom they serve. When they speak in this capacity, they are speaking in their ruler’s stead, or on his behalf. This is an earthly picture of the relationship between Christ and the special officebearers who represent Him. These officebearers are men called and qualified to bring the Word of King Jesus, and when they bring that Word they are speaking in Christ’s stead and on His behalf.
When an ambassador of Christ brings the Word of Christ, it is really Christ speaking through that ambassador. This also is taught inII Corinthians 5:20. The text literally reads, “On behalf of Christ, therefore, we are ambassadors, as God is beseeching through us.” When special officebearers bring the Word of Christ, it is very really God Himself speaking to us through them.
This truth is also clearly taught in other passages of Scripture. To prove this, we often cite Romans 10:13, 14, and point out that the word “of” before “whom” should be removed from the translation as we have it in the King James Version*, so that the text would read:
13.For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
14.How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
This text teaches that to believe in Jesus with a conscious faith one must hear Jesus Himself, and that one cannot hear Jesus Himself without a preacher. Jesus speaks through the preachers of His Word, and this Word of Christ is what works within us conscious faith.
But there are more passages. In John 10:16, Jesus teaches that the believers who will be gathered throughout this dispensation will be gathered not merely by hearing about Christ, but by actually hearing Christ’s voice. The text reads:
And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
This same truth is found in Ephesians 4:20, 21, where saints who have come to believe the truth after Christ’s ascension are told that they have heard Christ Himself and have been taught by Him.
20. But ye have not so learned Christ;
21 If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus:
The Old Testament prophets also spoke of this. It was prophesied in Isaiah 2:3, that in the new dispensation people from all nations would be gathered to Christ, and would say,
Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.
The text goes on to say that this will happen because “the Word of the Lord” will go forth from the church. It is because God’s Word, and not man’s word, is going forth from the church, that it has this efficacious power to gather His people, so that they willingly come to Him.
There are some who would respond to these last few passages and say, “These two passages say only that God’s people hear Jesus’ voice, but they do not say that we hear this voice in the preaching of the Word.” Yet that latter point is precisely what is taught inRomans 10:14, when it says, “How shall they hear, without a preacher.” If Christ’s voice was heard in some other way, then there would not be a need for a preacher. It is through Christ’s ambassadors, who speak in Christ’s name, that we hear Christ’s voice and are taught by Him.
This truth is also spoken of in our Reformed confessions. The Form for Ordination of Ministers of the Word refers to this in the exhortation to the congregation that is to be read after the man has been ordained and/or installed as a minister of that congregation. The paragraph begins as follows:
And you likewise, beloved Christians, receive this your minister in the Lord with all gladness, “and hold such in reputation.” Remember that God Himself through him speaketh unto and beseecheth you. Receive the Word, which he, according to Scripture, shall preach unto you, “not as the word of man, but (as it is in truth) the Word of God.”
Note well that our confessions here state what is actually happening when the gospel is being preached according to Scripture. When this takes place, God Himself is speaking through the minister. Of course, this does not happen when the preacher is preaching his own ideas on things. But when a preacher speaks the Word of Christ as Christ’s ambassador, it is Christ speaking through the preacher. Not, as some would have it, that God is speaking to the people one thing at the same time that the minister is saying to the people something entirely different. No, God is speaking through the minister, so that the Word the minister brings is not the word of man, but the Word of God.
This last phrase, which our Ordination Form quotes, is taken from I Thessalonians 2:13, in which the Thessalonians were commended for believing this truth concerning the nature of the preaching. To these saints Paul wrote:
For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.
The Thessalonians believed that God Himself was speaking to them in the preaching. They embraced the Word, “not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God.” If Christ did not speak in the preaching, then one could not say about that preaching that it “effectually worketh also in you that believe.” Only the Word of Christ, which is the Word of God, has this efficacious power.
Sometimes those who reject this truth do so because they do not want to submit to the Word of God spoken to them in the preaching. They outwardly hear the Word of God and reject it. But, not wanting to admit that they are rejecting God’s Word, they say “that word is not the Word of God; it is merely the word of men.” But in this way they deny a truth that is clearly taught in Scripture and our confessions, a truth that is also of fundamental importance for understanding church government and for grasping the idea of what it means to be a special officebearer in the church of Christ.
Not only the Ministers, but also the Elders and Deacons
Christ speaks not only through the preaching of the Word from the pulpit, but also through the expounding and applying of the Word by the elders and deacons. Christ Himself has appointed the offices of elder and deacon (I Timothy 3; Philippians 1:1). These are not positions that man has invented. Christ by His Spirit is also the One who places men in these offices (Acts 20:28), and gives them authority to represent Him, and to serve under Him. To the elders He has given authority to rule and govern the church, and to the deacons He has given authority to administer the mercies of Christ to the poor. When elders and deacons bring the Word of God to comfort, admonish, and instruct the people of God, it is really Christ who is speaking through them.
Similarly, Christ speaks through the decisions of the consistory and the diaconate. Again, this does not mean that elders and deacons are infallible, or that every decision taken by a consistory or a diaconate is without error. Rather, it means that insofar as the elders and deacons rightly expound and apply the Word of God, it is Christ who is guiding them and speaking through them, so that one who rejects this word is actually rejecting the Word of Christ.
Christ Speaks through the Keys of the Kingdom
Christ has given the church the keys of the kingdom of heaven, which are the preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline. When the church speaks in the preaching of the gospel, and when the church speaks when exercising Christian discipline, it is Christ speaking. One may not say, “When I sit under the preaching of the gospel, the minister speaks one word and Christ speaks to me a different Word,” nor may he say, “when the elders come to admonish a person, the elders speak one word and Christ speaks a different Word.” When Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to the church, He said to them (Matt. 18:17, 18),
17. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
18. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
One who denies that Christ is the one speaking both in the preaching of the gospel and through Christian discipline is really denying that the keys of the kingdom have been given to the church, and that Christ from heaven speaks through her to open and shut the kingdom of heaven. Yet one must maintain this fundamental principle of Reformed church government to be able to understand and embrace the other principles as well.
When we meditate upon the truth that our Husband actually speaks to us through His representatives, we are very grateful. As members of Christ’s bride, fighting against spiritual foes that strive to come between us and our Husband, we long to hear our Husband speak to us. Although we cannot yet see Him face to face, what a joy it is to hear His loving voice, and to experience that through the efficacious power of this voice He is really defending us from our foes, and drawing us ever closer to Himself.
*The relative pronoun here is in the genitive case, but it is functioning as the direct object of the verb “heard,” which is one of the verbs that takes a direct object in the genitive case. In other words, the term can be translated either “of whom” or “whom” depending on how it is used in a sentence. When it functions as the direct object of certain verbs, such as the verb “heard” in this sentence, it should be translated “whom.”