Previous article in this series: April 15, 2011, p. 313.
In our previous articles on this subject, we considered four characteristics of churches that are truly Reformed. They are so in their history, their doctrine, their worship, and their life.
We also mentioned that some imagine that only some of these characteristics are needed. They have the idea that when the Reformed faith is taught, they may choose just the parts that they like (as they would when standing at a food buffet). The prevailing thought is that as long as one has Reformed doctrines, he has enough. They do not reckon with the reality that the Reformed faith is all encompassing. They fail to see that Reformed doctrines demand a worship and life and church government that is in harmony with those doctrines.
This brings us to the fifth and final characteristic of a truly Reformed church—she is Reformed also in the area of church government.
It is perhaps this characteristic, more than any other, that some judge to be dispensable. They will say that history, doctrine, worship, and life are important. They will adopt and put into practice these four characteristics of the Reformed faith. But to be Reformed in church government is not considered essential. It is an option, but not a requirement.
Under the guidance and blessing of God, the Reformers (especially John Calvin) restored to the church proper, biblical church government. A truly Reformed church abides by this form of government.
The Reformed church therefore rejects other forms of church government. She rejects Congregationalism— also known as independentism, and which is strictly democratic (the whole congregation decides and votes on everything, including discipline). She rejects Erastianism—the idea that the civil magistrate has authority in and over the church. And she rejects the hierarchical systems of Roman Catholicism and Episcopalianism. Over against all this, she adopts and practices church government that is uniquely Reformed. This involves the following.
The first and most fundamental principle of Reformed church government is the truth that Christ, and not a man (whether pope, bishop, minister, elder, or any other person), is the Head of the church.
Who is sovereign in the church? Who makes the rules in the church? Who decides things? Who runs the church? Who tells the members what to do, what to believe, and how to live? The answer of the Reformed church is, “Christ! And Christ alone!”
The church is Christ’s body. He purchased her to Himself by His precious blood. He owns her. He therefore has the right to rule her. And He alone has that right. The Reformed congregation acknowledges the supreme headship of Christ in her midst. She confesses that no man may ever usurp His authority. She allows no one to rob Him of the honor due to Him and Him alone.
Another principle confessed by the Reformed church is that the members occupy the office of believer.
Christ, as Head of the church, is pleased to share His anointing with His people. He does this by pouring out His Holy Spirit on His church and thus anointing every believer to be a prophet, a priest, and a king.
As a result, God’s people do not need church priests to give them God’s Word. Nor do they need to appeal to dead saints to give them access to God. But every believer, anointed with Christ’s Spirit, is able to read and study and understand the Scriptures himself. And every believer has direct access to God through Christ and His Spirit.
A third principle of Reformed church government is that Christ, the supreme Head or Officebearer in His church, rules His church as Head through men whom He Himself chooses and appoints to represent Him. These men are chosen by Christ through the members of the church (the office of believer).
In the Reformed church, Christ is represented in three special offices: ministers, in His prophetic office; elders, in His kingly office; and deacons, in His priestly office. A Reformed church has all three of these offices within her.
Notice, Christ chooses and appoints men—not women. A church that has women officebearers cannot claim to be Reformed. Such a church is acting contrary to and in defiance of the clear testimony of the Word of God (I Tim. 2:12; I Cor. 14:34; Acts 6:3; I Tim. 3).
When properly chosen and called, the men in special office do their work in the name and with the authority of Christ Himself. They serve Christ, and they serve His people. And when these men are properly chosen and called, the members are to honor and obey them as they do Christ Himself. In this way good order is maintained in the Reformed church. Also, and very importantly, accountability.
Because of the presence, in a local congregation, of Christ’s chosen officebearers as well as the office of believer, the local congregation is itself a church. She is a full manifestation of the body of Christ. Christ is fully manifested within her. Reformed churches acknowledge this. In this way they recognize and respect the autonomy of the local church.
In the fourth place, a Reformed church is one that seeks to unite with other churches to form a denomination (or, as a denomination, to form sister-church relationships). This is done because all have the same Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Close relationships are sought in order to manifest the unity of the body of Christ.
Seeking to federate with others is an integral part of what it means to be Reformed. Arminianism is independent and individualistic in nature. But the Reformed confess: “I believe an holy catholic church.” Reformed churches know that the church is much broader than the four walls of one building (or one denomination). They know that the church of Christ is present both within and among all the nations of the earth. They seek to unite, therefore, with others. Not, of course, with just anyone. But they bind themselves to each other on the basis of a common confession of the truth, under the one headship of Christ.
It is crucial that churches unite only on the basis of the truth. But it is equally important that they actually strive (on the basis of the truth, and without compromise) to unite. For Christ does not have many bodies, but one.
A church that does not do this, but chooses instead to remain independent, cannot claim to be Reformed. Church federation is not an option, but an obligation. Christ commands and expects the church institute to seek and manifest the unity of His body (Eph. 4:1-6, John 17:22).
And why would Reformed churches and Reformed believers not seek it? Why not, in light of all that they have in common—a common truth, a common life in Christ, a common enemy, common struggles, a common task? And why not, in light of the blessings and benefits of federation—mutual supervision, mutual help and care, an avenue for protests and appeals, standing together in the defense of the faith, the ability to assist each other in the calling to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth?
All of this is much healthier than independentism. With independentism, a church and her members stand very much alone. With independentism, there is no opportunity for protests and appeals—thus disagreements readily end in splits. With independentism, there is no accountability—thus the church is sorely tempted to do what is right in its own eyes.
A faithful and truly Reformed church is Reformed, therefore, also in church government. She strives to understand and to put into practice the above principles of the Word of God.
Five things, therefore, characterize the truly Reformed church. May God be pleased, even in these last days, to continue to establish and build up churches that embrace and practice all that it means to be Reformed—in history, doctrine, worship, life, and church government.