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Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2005, p. 472.

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. The calling of churches to federate was set forth in the previous article, over against the error of Independentism. This article continues this same subject, first considering the error of Congregationalism, since it is closely related to Independentism, and concluding by setting forth some of the benefits of being a member of a Reformed federation of churches.

Independentism and Congregationalism

Different types of church government have names that indicate who it is that is ruling in the church. A presbyterian type of church government is a rule by elders. The termpresbyterian comes from one of the Greek words for the office of elder and literally means “elder.” An episcopal type of church government is a rule by bishops. The term Episcopalcomes from the other Greek word for elder and means “overseer.” As was discussed previously, those with an episcopal type of church government deny that this term and the term that literally means “elder” are two terms for one and the same office. They insist that a bishop (or overseer) is one exalted above all the churches in a certain geographical area. This error has already been refuted. A third type is called acongregational type of church government. Churches with this type of government effectively deny that God has appointed a special ruling office in the church, and insist that only the decisions of congregational meetings are settled and binding. Historically, the errors of Independentism and Congregationalism have often gone together.

Many churches today opt for the congregational type of church government. If they have a body of elders, those elders do not actually rule in the congregation. They may propose matters to the congregation for their approval, and they are called to ensure that decisions taken at congregational meetings are carried out, but they have no authority to make settled and binding decisions. In other words, they do not really have any authority to rule in the church.

Scripture, however, clearly teaches to the contrary. Authority is the right to rule, and the elders as a body have been given the right to rule in the congregation. As has been stated, one of the terms for the office of elder literally means “overseer.” God says to the elders, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof” (I Pet. 5:2). Elsewhere He says that the elders that rule well shall be counted worthy of double honor (I Tim. 5:17). Elders, therefore, have authority to rule, authority that has been given to them by God. This means that a consistory has the right, and the duty, to make judgments based on God’s Word, and that their decisions are settled and binding upon the members of the congregation.

Elders, of course, must not abuse their authority. They must remember that those who rule are called to servethose over whom they have oversight, and that they can be said to be doing this only when the decisions they make are based squarely upon the Word of God. They have no right to make up rules at their own pleasure. Nor do they have the right to demand to know all the private details of the lives of the members. Their authority is limited to overseeing the spiritual welfare of the congregation, ensuring that the preaching of the Word of God is sound, and that the members are upright in their faith and walk.

It should be added at this point that the members of the congregation have the right to protest decisions of the consistory, and if their protest is not upheld, they have the right to appeal to classis and eventually to synod. The point here is that the elders do have real authority to make binding decisions. Christ gave them this authority to represent Him and to serve under Him. Those who hold to a congregational form of church government are in effect denying that Christ rules as King in the church, and that He does so through those whom He has chosen and qualified to represent Him.

Congregational Independentism and theCambridge Platform

As has already been stated, there are those who adopt the principle of Independentism while remaining part of a denomination of churches. Such instituted churches insist that decisions made at broader gatherings of their denomination are not binding upon them unless they ratify the decisions themselves. And if the denomination as a whole makes a decision with which they do not agree, then they feel that they can remain in the denomination while not abiding by the decision.

This idea is very common and has a long history. A document known as theCambridge Platform(hereafter CP) set forth this position in 1648. It is the book of church order drawn up in New England by the leaders of the Congregational churches. The Congregationalists rejected the presbyterian form of church government that at that time had recently been adopted at the Westminster Assembly, which formed the Presbyterian Creeds in 1647. The CP states in no uncertain terms that synods have no right to exercise any authority whatsoever:

It belongs unto Synods and councils … not to exercise church censures in way of discipline, nor any other act of church authority or jurisdiction… (16.4).

The CP allows for churches without elders:

In such churches where there are no elders, imposition of hands may be performed by some of the brethren orderly chosen by the church thereunto (9.4).

It permits the congregation to hold a congregational meeting and depose their elders:

And if the church [i.e. the members meeting together at a congregational meeting—JAL] have power to choose their officers and ministers, then, in case of manifest unworthiness and delinquency, they have power also to depose them… (8.7).

In other words, they insist that a group of believers who have willingly joined themselves together are a church, even without special officebearers.

A company of professed believers, ecclesiastically confederate … are a church before they have officers, and without them… (10.2).

These quotes illustrate the connection between Independentism (the denial that a broader ecclesiastical assembly has real authority) and Congregationalism (the denial that elders have real authority). It is not surprising, therefore, that some churches who have fallen into the error of Independentism have moved also in the direction of Congregationalism. Both errors involve a denial that Christ, the King of the church, governs the church through those whom He has chosen to represent Him.

Some Benefits of Being Part of a Federation

Churches that have gone the route of Independentism have often soon found themselves having many difficulties. Where will they find a pastor, once their present pastor leaves, retires, or dies? Who will train the pastors? To whom will they turn when there is strife in the congregation, or between the consistory and the members? Many and serious are the problems associated with Independentism, problems for which there is a good solution in a federation of like-minded churches.

A federation of churches helps to provide the churches with the pastors they need. The churches work together to support a seminary that trains the pastors, and a church without a pastor knows the men who are qualified and eligible to be called to be their pastor. When a church for a time is without a pastor, the other ministers within the denomination can help them by providing them with pulpit supply.

The broader assemblies of the denomination are there to appeal to during times of controversy and strife. A member who feels he has been wronged by a decision of his consistory has somewhere to go. And a consistory that feels they need some advice on how to deal with a difficult matter have a body to which they can turn.

The broader assemblies also help to ensure uniformity of doctrine and discipline. Historically, churches that have loosely joined themselves together, while adopting the principle of Independentism, have soon differed widely from one another in doctrine and practice. This is very much the case today. There are many denominations in which a unity in doctrine and practice simply is not found.

There are also financial benefits to joining a federation of churches. Small congregations often have difficulties from a financial point of view. If they are independent, they have to bear this burden alone. But in a federation of churches, the larger churches are able to give a considerable amount of help to these smaller churches. In addition, the deacons in one church may need help to provide for all those in their congregation who need benevolence. Then, just as the saints in Macedonia and Achaia helped out the saints in Jerusalem during a time of famine (Rom. 15:26), the churches work together to help the saints in other churches, and in this way also promote the covenant fellowship of like-minded believers.

In these and other ways, such as performing the work of missions, the churches in a federation promote and reflect the unity of the body of Christ. We live toward the end of the last days, and there are relatively few who still hold to the truths of Scripture in the areas of doctrine, worship, and church government. Nevertheless, we must continue to strive to manifest the unity of the church as much as possible. This is what our Savior commanded us to do. And, in the way of submitting to the authority of our King, we will experience blessings and communion with Him and one another, while we wait for the glorious day when He returns for us on the clouds of glory