Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: August 2005, p. 449.
Two fundamental principles of Reformed church government are the autonomy of the local instituted church and the fact that a true church is called to unite with other faithful churches in a federation of churches, often referred to as a denomination.
That an instituted church is autonomous means that it is a complete picture of the body of Christ and has received from Christ the authority to preach the gospel and exercise Christian discipline. Christ from heaven is actually the One who is performing this work through the instituted church, and no one can stand between Him and the body through which He performs it. Neither the State, nor “higher ranking” officebearers (e.g., bishops), nor any “higher” ecclesiastical body can come between Christ and His bride as she is manifested on earth in the church institute. This principle, which has already been set forth, is of fundamental importance.
But it is not the only principle that must be maintained. It is also very important that like-minded churches join together and form a federation. It is this truth that will now be set forth in more detail.
A Federation of Churches over against Independentism
A federation of churches is a group of churches in which each church, while maintaining control of its own internal affairs, willingly agrees to abide by decisions made by the churches as a whole. In such a federation, delegates from the individual churches meet together to make decisions on doctrinal and practical matters that affect all the churches. Once these decisions are made they are binding upon all the churches, and thus upon all the individuals within the denomination. Although a church or individual may protest against a decision that is made, they must abide by that decision in the meantime. And if their protest is not upheld, they must either submit to the decision or leave the federation of churches.
Most reject this principle today. They openly reject decisions of their denomination and think nothing of it. Many churches insist that decisions made by the broader gatherings of their denomination are not binding upon them unless they choose to ratify the decision. They can remain in the denomination, so they say, while rejecting the decisions of their broader gatherings. If asked on what basis they maintain this, they will often cite the first principle we have already mentioned—the autonomy of the local church. They act as though it would be contradictory to maintain both the autonomy of the local church and the calling of instituted churches to federate and submit to a common government.
To see the error of this, we must distinguish between the principle of the autonomy of the local church and Independentism. We maintain the former, and we deny that it implies the latter.
When talking about Independentism, we must make a distinction between churches that have adopted the principle of Independentism and a church that for a time is not part of any denomination. There are many denominations of churches in which the individual congregations, though loosely united, have together adopted the principle of Independentism. This means that although delegates from the different churches may meet together from time to time and make decisions, those decisions are not considered to be binding upon the individual churches. Each church in such a denomination can decide for itself whether it will consent to the decision or not. These are churches that have adopted the principle of Independentism. Then there are some churches that are independent in the sense that they are not a part of any denomination. It may be that such a church is independent because it has adopted the principle of Independentism, or it may be independent for a time while looking for another church or churches with which to federate. The principle of Independentism is that against which I am writing, while granting that there may be times in which a faithful church exists for a short while apart from any others.
Those who adopt Independentism argue that since an instituted church is a complete picture of the body of Christ, it need not submit to decisions made by any gathering of churches. They argue that since God uses the term “church” in Scripture to refer either to the universal body of believers (Matt. 16:18) or to an individual congregation (Rev. 2:8), and that He uses the term only in these two ways, there are no decisions other than those of one’s individual congregation to which a believer must submit.
Decisions of Broader Assemblies: Settles and Binding
Before considering some of the implications of Independentism, it is important to see clearly that it is contrary both to Scripture and to our Reformed confessions. That it is contrary to the latter can be clearly demonstrated from Article 31 of the Church Order:
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 the general synod.
This article speaks of the believer’s right to appeal a decision of a minor assembly to a major assembly. In other words, it speaks of the right to appeal a decision of a consistory to a classis, and of a classis to the synod. But it also states that when a major assembly meets (i.e., a classis or synod) whatever is agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered “settled and binding.” The binding nature of such a decision is not dependent upon the concurrence of any church or individual. The members of all the churches represented at that major (i.e., broader) assembly are bound to abide by its decisions. They may protest such a decision, and they may appeal a classical decision to the synod, but they must either submit to the decision during this process, or, if they cannot do this with a good conscience, they must, in the proper way, leave the federation of churches. But the point here is that the decisions of the broader assemblies are authoritative decisions. They are binding decisions, and must be viewed as such.
To prove this from Scripture we have often cited the ecclesiastical assembly that met at Jerusalem, and which is referred to in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the book of Acts. The occasion for this assembly is stated in the first two verses of Acts 15:
1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
Here we see that a matter of dispute in one congregation was referred to a broader ecclesiastical assembly. Then, in verse four of chapter 16, we see that the decisions made at this assembly were to be considered settled and binding:
And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem.
The decisions made at this assembly were called “decrees,” or literally “dogmas.” These positions were authoritative dogmas that were binding upon all the churches. That this is so is evident from the fact that these decisions were brought to the churches in the different cities, not for them to approve, but for them “to keep.” The decisions of the apostles and elders were to be considered settled and binding.
Some have objected to this, and have argued that this assembly in Jerusalem cannot be compared to ecclesiastical assemblies today because the assembly in Jerusalem was guided by infallibly inspired apostles. This, however, is a mistake. The apostles were divinely and thus infallibly inspired when they wrote the Scriptures, but this does not mean that they were so inspired whenever they spoke. If such had been the case, there would have been no need for such an assembly. The inspired Word spoken through just one apostle would have been decisive on the matter. Furthermore, the decisions at this assembly were those not only of the apostles, but also of the elders. The officebearers that made up the assembly confessed that the Holy Spirit was guiding them as a group (Acts 15:28), so that together they arrived at a decision, a dogma, that was to be binding upon all the churches.
That last point must also be noted. The decision taken was binding not only upon the saints in Jerusalem and Antioch, but upon the saints in all the churches in all the cities. Acts 16:4 says that as they went from city to city they delivered these dogmas to the saints, informing them that they were to keep these dogmas, viewing them to be the work of the Holy Spirit.
This is a very important issue in our day. In the next article, Lord willing, we will go into it a bit more.