We now pass on to the second principle, the divine origin of the authority of the ruling and teaching ministry. Authority, here, is the right to rule and to administer the word and the sacraments. This authority does not originate and inhere in the congregation to be delegated by the latter to the officebearers in the church; but it originates, does this authority, in God, its creative source, was given to Christ, who bestows it upon the servants of His choosing. Thus, as was said, the church is not a democracy. Its government is not of the people. The church institute is not a man’s organization. The consistory is not an executive board, and its presiding officebearer is not the president of a men’s society. A man’s organization is erected by man’s will; the position of its presiding officer is a creation of man; and the occupant of that position is placed there by man, and from man he receives whatever authority he is allowed to exercise. But the church is the product of God’s redeeming grace. It is an erection of Christ. The offices in the church are His institutions. They who fill them are His selections. Servants of Christ are they, whom He calls and sends through His church. They rule by His authority. He qualifies them for the duties of the office to which they are called, by His Spirit. The church institute, in a word, is a wonder of grace; it is a spiritual heavenly entity, the kingdom of Christ, a holy brotherhood, chosen in Christ unto life everlasting before the foundation of the world. As to the rulers and teachers in the church, they rule, truly rule, only because and in so far they identify themselves with the word of Christ. In so far as they divorce themselves from that word to impose their own will upon the flock of God, they set themselves up as lord and masters over God’s heritage as usurpers of Christ’s place, in the church, and are not shepherds of the flock but wolves in sheep’s clothing. For it is the word of Christ that rules, admonishes, instructs, comforts, perfects, edifies, absolves the penitent, sanctifies, comforts and builds up. This is the power and the function of the word, as preached by Christ in the hearts of His people. Hence, it is sheer folly for a human preacher, a mere man, to say to the flock, “I absolve thee”. There is only one who can tell God’s people that they are forgiven so that they believe it, and that one is Christ. And He does so by sanctifying His word unto their hearts—the word as proclaimed by His servants. Hence, the human preacher of the word converts no man, however earnestly and even violently he may beseech, implore, beg, admonish and exhort, in the attempt to prevail upon his hearers to accept Jesus out of sympathy for Jesus.
As to the character of the authority of the ruling and teaching ministry, it is legal in distinction from ethical. In the state, legal authority, is the right and duty to govern by laws and policies, punish crime and protect them that do well. For that purpose God has invested the magistracy with the sword. In the church legal authority is the right and duty to preach the gospel and to excommunicate out of the Christian Church. This is the key power or authority, that Christ gave to His church. But according to reformed church polity, this authority the church exercises only through the ruling and teaching ministry. Only this ministry may preach the gospel. Article 2 of the Church Order of Dordrecht, reads in part, “No one, though he be a professor of theology, elder, or deacon, shall be permitted to enter upon the ministry of the word and the sacraments without having been lawfully called thereunto.” This is in thorough accord with the Scriptures. It requires but one brief passage to prove this. We have this from Paul’s pen. “And he,”—the ascended Christ—-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,”. And then also this from the same apostle, “How shall they preach except they be sent.” . In fine, the church institute is the only organization on the face of the earth that administers the word officially. There are other organizations and institutions, several of them, that take it upon themselves to instruct men out of the Scriptures. Societies are formed for the purpose of the study of the word. Our Christian schools give courses in Bible study. And certainly there must be an open Bible in every Christian home. But none of this labor is official preaching of the gospel! God will bless it, certainly, provided it is not labor done with a view to provide men with a substitute for the preaching of the gospel by the church institute. If that be the aim, it is labor lost, no matter how sound the instruction or exposition, how devoted the instructor, how apt to learn the pupil. And the argument that the. word remains the word whether proclaimed or explained to men, let us say by the Sunday school or by the church institute is, at bottom Pelagian, as it proceeds from an unwillingness to take cognizance of the fact ‘that Christ is the preacher of the word and that, on this account, the word is a savor of life unto life and of death unto death. This being true, it follows that, if Christ expressly instituted the preaching of the word for the feeding of men’s souls, it is folly to suppose that He will feed men’s souls by a substitute of the preaching ministry. Bible instruction, exposition of the word, by agencies other than the church institute, Christ will bless but only as supplements to the preaching of the gospel.
And this leads to the conclusion that there is no salvation apart from the church institute. Article 28 of the Belgic Confession reads in part, “We believe, since the holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself to live in separation from it.” This Confession has reference to the body of Christ as it functions through the church institute, the ruling and teaching ministry, and it must be received as true doctrine. It is not the Romish teaching, that wholly identifies the church institute with a particular church or communion of churches, and contends, that men living in a separate state from this communion, whether it be false or true, are shut out from salvation. This, to be sure, is folly. But, that one must be joined to the sacred ministry—the church institute—that Christ instituted for the perfection and the edification of His body, is a solemn truth. And the reference here is not, of course, to a ministry that corrupts the word. That ministry must be deposed or forsaken. To quote the Confession once more, “We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the word of God which is the true church,” that is, of which ministry it can actually be said, that the body of Christ functions through it, and, such is the implication, join ourselves to that ministry.
Let us now have regard to the third principle of Reformed Church Polity, the Priesthood of Believers. In speaking of the priesthood of all believers, we speak the language of the Scriptures. To quote one Scripture passage from the revelation of John, the first chapter, the fifth and sixth verses, “And from Jesus Christ who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten from the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood. And hath made us kings and priests unto God and the Father; to him be the glory and dominion for ever, Amen.” Having been made kings and priests unto their God, the common believers, too, have authority, that is, rights. And that particular right which is basic to all their rights, receives a statement at John’s Gospel, chapter 1, the 12th verse, quote, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believed in his name.” This power, right, authority of God’s people—the Greek here has exousia—is fundamental. Because God’s people have this right, theirs is the right to confess the name of Christ, bear witness for the truth, and walk in those good works which God hath before ordained that they should walk in them. These rights they exercise in Christ, who realizes in them the fruits of His atonement. And also as members of the church institute, the believers have their rights. They initiate church discipline in the church,, elect, under the supervision of the consistory their office bearers, raise their voice in protest if the teaching ministry corrupts the word, deposes this ministry, if it will not repent, and, if prevented therein by the carnal seed in the church, break with this ministry and erect the church institute elsewhere by choosing them a ministry, through which the body of Christ can so function, that it is perfected and edified. These are the rights of God’s people as members of the church institute. And these rights they must be allowed to exercise without being penalized. And on their part, they must not allow themselves to be prevented in the exercise of these rights by the threats of the carnal seed in the church in power. But it is consoling to know that the exercise of these rights is not contingent on their will but on the will of Christ, the Lord over all things in the church. For it is He who gathers His church. There is then such a thing as the office of all believers.
The next principle of truth that calls for our attention, is that of the autonomy of the local congregation. That the local congregation is autonomous, means, that it is a self-governing organization, under Christ, in subjection to no legal power other than that of its own consistory. The autonomy of the local congregation implies, further, that all legal power in the church is concentrated in the consistory. And legal power, as was said, is key power, the right to preach the gospel and to excommunicate out of the Christian church. Now also this principle of the autonomy of the local congregation is basic. For, if the local congregation is autonomous, if all legal power is concentrated in the consistory, if the consistory only and not also the Classis, has the key power, it follows that the power, authority, to depose office bearers in the church, cannot be that of the classis. For, to depose office bearers is to exercise key power. The leaders in the Christian Reformed Churches—churches also organized on the basis of the Church Order of Dordrecht—are now insisting, and have been for some years back, that the Classis, too, has the key power, which it exercises in the local congregation by deposing, if need be, its office bearers; and in 1924 the Classes Grand Rapids West and Grand Rapids East of these churches, went to deposing office bearers right and left, and claimed and still claim that the Church Order of Dordrecht sanctions that action.
There is then this question. Is the principle of the autonomy of the local church Reformed? It is Reformed. It is the plain teaching of the Church Order and of the Belgic Confession. Article 84 of the Church Order reads, “No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders and deacons.” And Article 81 of the Belgic Confession contains this clause, “As for the ministers of God’s Word, they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all ministers of Christ, the only universal bishop, and the only head of the Church.” Now also this teaching of the legal parity of the office bearers in the church, our Reformed fathers took over from John Calvin. This reformer, as already has been said, insisted that there is legal parity between those whom the scriptures describe as bishops, presbyters, pastors, and teachers, that thus the one shall not set himself up as a legal power over the other, or some over others. Now it stands to reason, that if the office bearers in the churches—elders, pastors and teachers—are in a legal aspect, equals, each of the other, the classis, which is an assembly of elders and ministers, cannot set itself up as a legal power over the consistory, in that the latter, too, is a college of elders and ministers. And this is equivalent to saying, that the local congregation is autonomous, under Christ subjecting itself to no other legal power than that of its own consistory, whether that power be the pope or classis and synod, makes no essential difference.
The autonomy of the local congregation comes to the surface also in articles 15, 16, 17, 22, 27, 30, 83, and 36 of the Church Order of Dordrecht, in fact, in the totality of all its cardinal articles. For these articles sharply distinguish between the consistory on the one hand and the classis on the other, and assign, either directly or by implication, they key power to the consistory only. Let us concentrate on just a few of these articles. Article 15 reads, “Likewise no one shall be permitted to preach or administer the sacraments in another church, thus handle the keys of the kingdom in that church, without the consent of the consistory of that church.” Thus, whether one shall exercise the key power in a church is contingent not upon the consent or will of the classis but upon that of the consistory, which can only mean that not the classis but the consistory has the key power. Also article 16 of the Church Order sets forth an identical doctrine. The article reads, “The office of Minister is to continue in prayer and in the ministry of the word, to dispense the sacraments, to watch over the brethren, the elders and the deacons, as well as the congregation, and finally, with the elders, to exercise church discipline and see to it that everything is done decently and in good order.” This article, certainly, has reference to the consistory, not to the classis, and to the consistory it assigns the key power. In agreement herewith the Church Order, in Article 36, is careful to refrain from saying that the classis has the same power over the consistory, that the consistory has over the flock. Let us quote this article, “The classis has the same jurisdiction over the consistory as the particular synod has over the classis and the general synod over the particular.” True, this article does say, that the classis has jurisdiction over the consistory, but it does not say, and this is the point, that this jurisdiction is the same as that of the consistory over the flock. In fine, according to the Church Order, the consistory and not the classis has the key power. It means that the local congregation is an autonomous organization.
That the local congregation is an autonomous organization also follows from the truth and fact that the church, institute does not extend beyond the local congregation in the sense that it broadens out into a classical and synodical church. The opposing view was that of the late Prof. Heyns, who for thirty years gave instruction in Church Polity in the seminary of the Christian Reformed Churches. His textbook contains the following paragraph. Quote, “There is a local church, there is a classical church, there is a synodical church. The consistory is the governing council of the local church, the classis of the classical church, and the synod of the synodical church, formed of the sum and total of all the churches in the denomination. The character of these three governing councils consistory, classis, and synod, does not differ essentially. Article 36 would not read as it does, were classis and synod not consistories.” In the sequence Heyns concludes that whereas classis is a consistory, it too, has the key power, which it exercises, if need be, in all the churches that delegate to the classical assembly. And elsewhere he presents the view, that the minister of the gospel receive, through ordination, the authority to administer the word and the sacraments in all the churches, and not merely in the church by which he was called. Heyns is consistent; but he also is very wrong. For, according to the Belgic Confession, Articles 31 and 32, a consistory is a ruling council, each and every member of which is chosen by lawful election of the church in which it functions. Hence, if the classis were a consistory, each and every member of this assembly, should have to be chosen by lawful election of all the churches represented, in which case the churches in the limited area would form one large congregation . But the fact is that each minister and each elder is chosen by lawful election by that church only that delegated them to the classis meeting. The fact of the matter is that a classical consistory, according to the Confession, is a nonentity. The assembly is either a consistory and then it is not a classis; and if it is a classis, it is not a consistory.
Our Church Order, as well as the Belgic Confession limits the church institute to the local congregation. Article 15 of the Church Order reads, “No one shall be permitted, neglecting the Ministry of his church or being without a fixed charge, to preach indiscriminately without the consent and authority of classis or synod. If, now, as Heyns has it, all the churches are the church institute, with synod as the overall ruling council or consistory, the minister of the gospel indeed receives, through ordination, the authority to function in each and every church, but if so, this article is out of place, as it requires that no one shall be permitted to leave the ministry of his church to preach indiscriminately. And likewise Art. 7 of the Church Order. The article reads ,”No one shall be called to the ministry of the Word without being stationed in a particular place.” And Article 10 of the Church Order is a rule to the effect that “A minister once lawfully called, may not leave the congregation, with which he is connected, to accept a call elsewhere, without the consent of the consistory/5 If the Church Institute is the synodical church, inclusive of all the particular churches, and if the minister is pastor of them all, why should a church other than the one with which he is connected, have to call him, if it desires him as its pastor. It is plain that the attempt to fit the articles of Dordt’s Church Order into a hierarchical system of church government, is like trying to fit square pegs into round holes. It simply can’t be done. These articles do not allow themselves to be explained at all on the basis of such a system. To nevertheless attempt it, is to reduce the totality of these articles to a collection of enigmas. Besides, it would have to be regarded nothing short of amazing, if our reformed fathers, after levelling to the ground conceptionally the Roman hierarchy, had turned away from their wreckage, to erect, alongside of it, an essentially identical structure for their own churches. The rehabilitators of hierarchy in reformed communions deny that their system is a return to Rome. They say that the classis, in their system, is not a higher but a broader assembly in relation to the consistories. But what may be the difference between a broader assembly with key power over the consistories and a higher assembly with key power over the churches? There is not an atom of difference. To say that there is, is to juggle terms and play with words. But the conclusion at which we again have arrived is that, according to the Confession and the Church Order, the Church Institute is the local congregation, that, if so, it must of necessity, also on this account, be autonomous, and that, if autonomous, the power to depose office bearers is not that of the classis but of the local congregation.