“We believe, that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual policy which our Lord taught us in his Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God, and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church: that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means: also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities. By these means everything will be carried on in the Church with wood order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his Epistle to Timothy.”
Article XXX, The Belgic Confession
In this and the next two articles the Confession sets forth the fundamental principles of the government of the Church before treating the subject of the sacraments. Obviously, and following the emphasis of Articles XXVIII and XXIX, these articles speak of the institute of the Church in distinction from the Church as organism. According to the Confession the foundational principle upon which the government of the Church rests is that: “this true Church must be governed by that spiritual policy which our Lord taught us in his Word.” The term “policy” here evidently means “system of rules” or “principles of government.” Negatively, what the Confession means is that the Church is the spiritual body of Christ and therefore has a constitution so to speak which radically differs from any other system of government. The Church is not a democratic society where the majority rules, or where the power is vested in the membership. The power of the Church is not the power of the sword, either to enforce its laws or to wage war. Positively, this means that the Church’s power is spiritual and is limited (if indeed this can be called a limitation) to the exercise of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The principles of the government of the Church are to be found in the Word of God. Scripture prescribes that “spiritual policy” by which the Church is governed.
Before discussing the Confession’s treatment of this subject we do well to review briefly several systems of Church government which have developed over the centuries. There is the Congregational or Independentistic system. In a sense this is the simplest form of Church government which has been advocated. Often, arguing that in the apostolic churches we do not read of classes or synods or councils or hierarchy, advocates of this system claim that governing power rests not with the officebearers or clergy but with the entire congregation. Membership is attained by voluntary association and the individual is left completely free to belong or not to belong at will. Officers are representatives who derive their authority from the body of believers. Although associating together in councils and assemblies the churches are at liberty to accept or reject the decisions made by such bodies. The most serious objection to this view is that, with its emphasis on the voluntary choice of the individual, it fails to root the authority of the Church in Christ. It fails also to do justice to the church’s calling to manifest the unity of the Body of Christ.
At the opposite end of the spectrum we find the Episcopal system. This view insists that the unity of the church must come to expression in bishops who are the legitimate successors of the apostles. Believers have no share in the government of the Church. Scripture, however, nowhere teaches a self-perpetuating office of apostle. Indeed the Apostles preached, established congregations, and ordained elders and deacons.
The Episcopal system has been carried to its logical conclusion by Rome with its pope and hierarchy. The pope is the vicar of Christ and is infallible when he speaks “ex cathedra” or in his official capacity. Under him is a hierarchy of bishops and priests to whom special graces are given and whose task it is to rule the church in obedience to the pope.
Two rather closely related systems are the Erastian and the Collegial or National-Church systems. Both, with some differences, teach state control of the Church.
Against this background we can appreciate the Confessional or Reformed system which has come to be called the Presbyterian form of Church government. This Scripturally-grounded position recognizes the sole authority of Christ in the Church as vested in the three offices of minister, elder, and deacon. The basic unit of ecclesiastical life is the congregation which is a complete manifestation of the Body of Christ. Its officebearers derive their authority from Christ. These congregations band together in order to manifest the unity of the Body of Christ, for mutual supervision, and to assist one another in the carrying out of the work of Christ.
Concerning the government of the Church there is one fundamental principle which must be understood, viz., Christ Himself is the chief and only officebearer in the Church, No pope or bishop, no priest or pastor, no synod or church committee, or even the congregation may rob Him of His authority as King of the Church. Christ is the Head of the Church. (Eph. 5:23) He is its prophet, priest, and king. He suffered and died for that Church and it belongs to Him. Christ is given the right and the authority to save that Church and to rule over it and to preserve the Church and bring it to glory with Him. But Christ is exalted at God’s right hand in glory where we cannot see Him. It pleases Christ, therefore, to exercise that authority over the Church through men, the officebearers whom He appoints and qualifies in order to rule in His name. Through these Christ exercises His gracious rule in the Church. John Calvin explains: “For although he alone (i.e. Christ) ought to rule and reign in the Church, and to have all preeminence in it, and this government ought to be exercised and administered solely by his word—yet, as he dwells not among us by a visible presence, so as to make an audible declaration of his will to us, we have stated, that for this purpose he uses the ministry of men whom he employs as his delegates, not to transfer his right and honor to them, but only that he may himself do his work by their lips; just as an artificer makes use of an instrument in the performance of his work.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, iii, 1) The rule of Jesus Christ over His people while they are in this life is through the offices He has instituted in the Church.
These offices are three: that of pastor, elder, and deacon. The Church Order, on the basis of an incorrect exegesis of Ephesians 4:11, speaks of four offices, adding that of Professor. This was also the position of John Calvin, who distinguished between the office of pastor and that of teacher, both of which he regarded as permanent offices in the Church: “The difference between them I apprehend to be this—that the teachers have no official concern with the discipline, or the administration of the sacraments, or with admonitions and exhortations, but only with the interpretation of Scripture, that pure and sound doctrine may be retained among believers; whereas the pastoral office includes all these things” (Institutes, IV, iii, 4) Apart from the reference in the Church Order this has not been the position of the Reformed Churches. We recognize only three offices and regard the Professor as a minister of the Word. Through the office of the minister or pastor-teacher Christ speaks His Word to His people. (Romans 10:13-17) That is the wonder of preaching! By means of it Christ Himself is heard and thus through that means the Church is built up in the knowledge of the Son of God. (Cf. Ephesians 4:11ff.)
In addition the Church must have elders and deacons. Concerning the elders Calvin writes that they are: “. . . persons of advanced years, selected from the people, to unite with the bishops in giving admonitions and exercising discipline. For no other interpretation can be given of that injunction, ‘He that ruleth, let him do it with diligence.’ (Rom. 12:8) Therefore, from the beginning, every Church has had its senate or council, composed of pious, grave and holy men, who were invested with that jurisdiction in the correction of vices, of which we shall now treat.” Through the office of elder, Christ, the King of the Church, graciously rules and governs His people. Through the office of deacon Christ, the merciful High Priest, relieves (provides for their material need) and comforts (provides comfort from the Word of God) the needy and distressed. These, the minister, elders and deacons constitute the “council of the Church.” This is in distinction from the Church Order. (Cf. Articles 23-26, 37, 40)
The purpose of the institution of these offices is: “that the true religion may be preserved.” This belongs especially to the office of the ministry. The Word must be preached in order that the true religion may be preserved. That, no doubt, is the greatest evil in the Churches in our day. The pulpit has failed and the Word is not being preached as it should be. There is preaching but not sound exegetical preaching of the doctrines of the Word. The result is that God’s people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. (Cf. Hosea 4:6) Moreover, the purpose of the office of the ministry is that “the true doctrine may be everywhere propagated.” This is the missionary task of the Church. In obedience to the command of Christ Who told the Church to go into all nations preaching and baptizing, the Church must be zealous for mission work. The Church must be concerned that the true doctrine be propagated as widely as possible and the Church must send preachers without hesitation wherever Christ opens the way. Finally, the purpose of these offices is that “transgressors may be punished and restrained.” This refers to the work of Church discipline, primarily the work of the elders. They must in the name of Christ exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven lest the Word of God be profaned. Likewise must the deacons care for the poor both materially and spiritually.
Where these offices are maintained according to the Scriptures, where there are faithful ministers, elders, and deacons, there one finds the Church of Jesus Christ. To that Church one is bound to join himself.