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They are subservient to the preaching. In the sacraments—holy baptism and the Lord’s Supper—the Word of God is, as it were, presented in visible and tangible form. And the very power of true Christian discipline is the Word of Christ and its preaching. Besides, where the Word of God is purely preached in all its fulness and significance, there the sacraments are not likely to be profaned, while such preaching is already in itself exercise of Christian discipline. Hence, we may say that the one, all-important distinguishing mark of the true church is the pure preaching of the Word of God. Where the Word of God is preached and heard and maintained, there is the church of Christ. Where that Word is not preached and is not maintained in all its purity and significance, there the church is not present. And where that Word is adulterated, the church must either repent or die. 

Why is the pure preaching of the Word of God the chief distinguishing mark of the true church? This question is not difficult to answer. For, according to Scripture, the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, of which Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone. And that foundation is precisely the Word of God as contained in the Holy Scriptures and as preached by the church. Whoever, though he occupy the place of a minister (of the Word, proclaims another gospel, the word of mere man, does not build upon that one foundation. And whatever he builds, or tries to build, is not, and cannot be, the true church of Jesus Christ. Besides, it is very emphatically taught in Scripture that it pleased Christ to call, preserve, and build His church through the preaching of the Word. We do not say that the Scriptures as such are the distinguishing mark of the true church; but we say that the preaching of that Word is the chief mark of the true church. Christ gave to His church in the world apostles, prophets, evangelists, and also pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Cf. Eph. 4:11. Only where the Word of God is preached according to the Holy Scriptures, there is heard the voice of the Good Shepherd, calling His sheep by name. There the sheep follow Him. And there He gives unto them eternal life. Where the Word is not preached, there Christ does not speak His Word of salvation, and there the church is not gathered and built upon the foundation of Christ and His apostles and prophets. The pure preaching of the Word is the all-important mark whereby you may distinguish the true church in the world. We may also put it succinctly in this form: the church is where Christ is, and Christ is where the Word is preached and maintained in all its purity. Hence, it is the calling of all true believers to join themselves to that purest manifestation of the body of Christ in the world, a manifestation that may be known by the marks of the true church, namely, the pure preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. And of these three, the preaching of the Word is the very heart, and all-important.


It is certainly advisable not only, but also fundamentally important, that the local congregations as much as possible unite themselves in a denominational organization on the basis of their common confession. However, this denominational unity cannot and may not be imposed upon the local churches from above, but must arise spontaneously and organically from the local congregations themselves. The church is not a worldly association that has its different branches in different places. On the contrary, the local church itself is a manifestation of the body of Christ. It is autonomous. This autonomy of the local church she must never deny or surrender; for if she does, the result will be that she soon will be under the yoke of an hierarchical power. That the local church is autonomous is evident from Scripture, especially from the book of Acts. The church in Jerusalem was not an association that established various subdivisions in different places—in Antioch, in Asia Minor, and finally in Greece and Rome. On the contrary, the apostles established local congregations, originally even without any formal or outward connection with one another. These local congregations had their own office-bearers, maintained their own government, had their own ministry of the Word and of the sacraments, exercised their own discipline, and took care of their own poor. These churches were, therefore, completely autonomous. But it is in the nature of the case and according to the principle of their spiritual unity in Christ, that these various churches sought to establish communion with one another. Thus arises denominational unity. 

Such unity and fellowship of the autonomous churches with one another has its origin principally, of course, in the fact that they have a common life-root, and therefore, a common root in Christ their Lord. Secondly, they seek such fellowship and unity because they are always being attacked by the common enemy, the world, over against whom they have to defend themselves in life and doctrine, and because of whom they are participants in a common tribulation in the world. Always they are persecuted by the world. Always they are in tribulation, imposed upon them by the world. And finally, this seeking of fellowship and unity of the local congregations is motivated also by the practical need they have of one another. Thus, they need one another to establish a theological seminary for the training of ministers of the Word, for the development of their common confession, and for the fulfillment of their mandate in regard to the work of missions. It stands to reason that these autonomous churches seek and establish communion with one another on the basis of their common confession. 

This is not the place to develop the principles of church polity. And therefore we must be very brief. 

There are indeed different systems of church government. Thus, for instance, Erastus regarded the church as a society which owes its existence and form to regulations enacted by the state. What is known as Erastianism maintains as the leading principle the authority of the civil magistrates and their control of all ecclesiastical bodies, and that too, both in doctrine and discipline. And therefore, Erastians are commonly known as those who teach that it belongs to the function of the state to govern the church, to exercise discipline, and to excommunicate, so that church censures are really civil punishments, though the application may be entrusted to the legal officebearers of the church. It stands to reason that thus conceived, Erastianism is a denial of the Kingship of Christ over His church, and that it does not maintain the proper separation between church and state. 

Secondly, there is the system of the Roman Catholic Church. It is the episcopal system, with its theory of apostolic succession and the distinction in higher and lower clergy, culminating in the pope. The theory of the episcopacy, according to Roman Catholic writers, is based upon the Romish doctrine of a visible church. This visible church needs a visible sacrifice, according to the Roman Catholics. And this visible sacrifice needs a priest, as stands to reason. And further, a priest needs special, divine consecration to his office. He is supposed to receive the internal consecration from God through the external consecration by the church. That is to say, the priest receives the Holy Spirit by the imposition of hands., Hence, the very establishment of the visible church, according to Roman Catholicism, requires an ecclesiastical ordination directly originating with Christ and perpetuated in uninterrupted succession, so that as the apostles were appointed by Christ, so the bishops, in turn, were ordained by the apostles. These bishops, in turn, have appointed their successors until the present day. The real successor of the apostles, however, is the person of the pope, who is supposed to be infallible when he officiates as the Roman pontiff. For if the bishops are supposed to be a perpetual corporation, they need a center, or head, that is authorized to exercise jurisdiction over them. Hence, the episcopacy of the Roman Catholic Church finds its culmination in the pope. Thus the Roman Catholic Church is really an absolute hierarchy—we might almost say, an absolute monarchy—ruled by an infallible pope. The laity have, of course, absolutely no voice in the appointment, or calling, of their own officebearers. It is true that not all Roman Catholic divines are entirely in agreement on this question. Some favor what is called the papal system, according to which the pope is the sole bishop by divine right, and all other bishops exist only through him and derive their superiority to the lower clergy only from the pope. On the other hand, there are those that maintain what is called the episcopal system, which claims an independent divine right on the part of each bishop. This view holds that the bishops are rightful governors of the church, superior to the lower clergy by divine appointment, and maintains that the pope is indeed first, first in relation to other bishops. But principally this makes no difference. Besides, the former view is prevalent throughout almost the entire Roman world. This view of the government of the church, however, cannot be maintained, either on the basis of Scripture or in the light of history. As far as the latter is concerned, there is no iota of proof that the pope is a direct successor of Peter and of the apostles. And as far as Scripture is concerned, the Bible certainly recognizes that the church has a voice in the calling of its officebearers. 

Thirdly, we must briefly discuss the Episcopalian system of church government, which indeed has much in common with the conception of the Roman Catholics, but which nevertheless also differs in some respects. The Episcopalians, both in England and in our own country, hold that there are three orders of officebearers in the church—bishops, priests, and deacons. There is indeed some difference in this respect between the high church and the low church of England. The former maintains that the episcopacy is absolutely essential unto the existence of the church, while the low church denies this. The latter holds that there is nothing in the confessions of the church that makes the episcopacy essential to the church. Nevertheless, the general doctrine of the Episcopal Church is that there is in the church a, superior order of officebearers which are the successors of the apostles, and that they possess in their own persons the right of ordination and jurisdiction. These superior officebearers are the bishops, and are the overseers not only of the members of the church, but also of the inferior officebearers, priests and deacons. These receive their ordination from the bishops, and power to preach and to administer the sacraments. They have no right to ordain others to the sacred office. And although they are set over the people, they are themselves under the government of the bishop. It is evident that with the exception of the fact that the Episcopal Church recognizes no pope, yet the Episcopalian system is much similar to that of the Roman Catholics. Also the Episcopalian system makes of the officebearers a separate class, in regard to whose calling and ordination the church has no voice whatsoever. And all this is contrary to Scripture. 

Then there is the congregational system of government, which is characterized by independentism. According to this system, the local congregation is independent from any other churches, and is complete in itself. The government is strictly democratic. It gives the right to vote to all adult male members, and there is no power of veto in the clergy. By the vote of the congregation members are admitted or dismissed, and by the same vote censures are passed. The permanent officebearers are the pastor and the deacons, of which the former is an ordained minister, chosen by the church and subject to dismissal by the church, that is, by the local congregation. As far as communion with other churches is concerned, the local churches stand in sisterly relation to other congregational churches. There are no standing higher, or broader, gatherings, although on occasion such a broader gathering may be called to settle certain matters pertaining to the general welfare of the churches. The decisions of such broader ecclesiastical gatherings, however, are never binding, but only declarative. Also this system is really derogatory to the headship of Christ as King over His church, since they make the officebearers entirely dependent on the will of the congregation.

The Reformed system of church government is probably most difficult to understand, and even to maintain. On the one hand, it maintains the autonomy of the local congregation. In this respect, we may say indeed that the local congregation is independent. However, on the other hand, it attributes a certain power to the broader gatherings, classis and synod. There always has been, and still is, a difference of opinion with regard to the relation of the local congregation and the broader gatherings, classis and synod. According to some, in these broader gatherings the delegates are assembled in virtue of their office as pastors and elders. According to others, however, the officebearers can function as such only in their local congregation, and are appointed to the broader gatherings merely as delegates, not as officebearers. According to some, the broader gatherings have judicatory authority, that is, they have authority in cases of doctrine and of discipline. According to others, they have merely advisory power. This dispute concerned especially the question whether the broader gatherings can depose officebearers—ministers, elders, and deacons. According to some, these broader gatherings have such power, while according to others, that power is only vested in the consistory and in the local congregation. Accordingly, the various assemblies in the Reformed system of church government are the consistory, classis, and synod. In the Netherlands they also have particular synods between the classes and general synod. The consistories consist of ministers and elders, to which in small congregations the deacons are added as a church council. These officebearers are usually voted by the congregation from a nomination presented by the consistory to the congregation. The classis, which is not a permanent body, but is constituted and dismissed at each gathering, consists of two delegates, usually the pastor and an elder from each congregation. The general synod, which also is no standing body, although it is assembled at regular, stated times, consists of delegates from each classis. In the Church Order of Dordrecht, which is the general basis of church government in the Reformed churches, there are some articles that refer to the relation between the local church and the broader gatherings. One of these articles is Article 30: “In these assemblies ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted, and that in an ecclesiastical manner. In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.” The question is whether this last clause may be so interpreted that the major assembly may itself initiate matters that belong to the major assembly in common, or whether these assemblies are strictly limited to their own program, or agenda. Another article that is a serious source of difference of opinion in the Reformed churches is Article 31: “If anyone complain that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order, as long as they are not changed by a general synod.” The last clause especially has been the subject of controversy, that is: “. . . unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order.” The question is whether this means that the matter in dispute must be proved to the major assembly, or whether the person disagreeing with the decision of the major assembly may consider it as proved in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order before his own conscience. Another cause of frequent dispute is Article 36: “The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the particular synod has over the classis, and the general synod over the particular.” However, it is rather generally granted that this article cannot mean and does not state that the major assemblies, such as classis and synod, have the same jurisdiction over the minor assemblies as the consistory has over the congregation. However, those that hold that the major assemblies have judicatory power appeal to this article, which plainly states that the classis hasjurisdiction over the consistory. It certainly would be expedient if some of these matters that pertain to the government of the churches would be definitely settled. But it does not belong to our discussion of the church to settle, or try to settle, these questions. 

The main principle that must always be remembered and maintained in Reformed church polity is that Christ is the head and the King over His church, and that He Himself rules His church by His Spirit and Word. Christ is King supreme over all things. For thus we find inMatthew 28:18: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” I Corinthians 15:27 states this: “For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, All things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted which did put all things under him.” In Ephesians 1:21 we read: “Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.” And in Philippians 3:9-11 we read: “Wherefore God hath also highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This, of course, refers to the power of Christ in general. But He is also more specifically called the head and Lord and King over His church. Thus, in Psalm 2:6 we read: “Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.” And in Ephesians 1:22: “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church.” Christ, therefore, has power over all things in heaven and on earth. And in a specific sense He is the King over His church, which He rules by His grace and Spirit and Word. The relation between this power over all things and His sovereignty over His church is such, that He employs the former to the preservation and salvation of the latter. From this principle of the headship or kingship of Christ over His church, it follows that no church, or group of churches, may ever subject themselves under any other yoke than that of Christ, whether it be the yoke of the state or the yoke of the pope. Only the Word of Christ is law in the church.

Nevertheless, Christ maintains and executes His power and authority over His church through the instrumentality of men, that is, of the officebearers. He Himself appointed in His church officebearers. These regular and abiding officebearers in the Reformed churches are the ministers, elders, and deacons. The elders, together with the ministers, have the calling to feed and care for the flock, as well as to rule over them and keep watch over the flock by word and deed. They have the power, therefore, also of discipline. In Acts 20:28we read: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” And in I Corinthians 12:28we read: “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, government, diversities of tongues.” Ephesians 4:11-13 states: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” In Romans 12:6-8 we, read: “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.” And in I Timothy 3:2-5: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” Likewise, we have instructions in the same chapter concerning the deacons: “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not double tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.” 

It is evident from Scripture that some elders devoted themselves more particularly to the work of the ministry of the Word of God. Thus we read in I Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” In Revelation 2 and Revelation 3 we receive the same impression. It is evident that the angel of the church to whom each letter is addressed must be the elder that labored in the Word and doctrine, that is, in the ministry of the Word.