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The Government of the Church (Blogging the Belgic: Article 30)

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We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.

Whenever I teach about different church traditions and denominations, I highlight that different Christian groups agree about 99% of the issues, but they are often divided over two issues: the sacraments and the structure of the church. By structure, I refer to the way that the church is lead and governed (but it is cooler to have 2 s’s than to have an s and a g!), with churches essentially falling into 3 groups when it comes to government: episcopal system (led by a bishop, who presides over a region and churches), presbyterian (elder-led, in which a church is led by elders with these elders also connecting different churches), and congregation (each congregation is autonomous and leads itself, with the congregation having final authority). Later on, the Belgic Confession will talk about the sacraments (Articles 33-35), but it picks up on the issue of the government of the church in Article 30, showing that the Reformed tradition has the presbyterian system in that it is led by elders — but it is a bit more complicated than that.

The Reformed tradition has the presbyterian system of church government not because it simply sees this as wise (though that is part of it, as it makes sense to have shared leadership by a group of individuals rather than by a single person, as that person is a sinner who might abuse power, or rule by the masses, as often the majority of people do not know what is best for them), but because it sees this form of government emerge in the Bible, as it notes in the opening words of this article: “We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that  our Lord has taught us in his Word.”

Now, is this saying that Scripture gives a detailed constitution for the church or contain a pre-written Book of Church Order? No. When it says that the spiritual order of the church is given in Scripture, it is not saying that each and every detail is written out there, but that there are general principles and order (because they are more general than specific, you can see why some groups differ) that then must be applied in different contexts and settings.  

The confession notes that the order that is laid out in Scripture: “There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church.” Three types of officers are named: Pastors/Ministers, Elders, and Deacons. More on each of these officers, including their biblical basis and their duties can be found in a previous blog post here, but it is good to outline some elements here. The only officer whose role is explained in this article is that of pastor or minister, who preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments; this is the primary work of the pastor. Other Reformed bodies (particularly the Presbyterian branch) will only discuss two offices, elder and deacon, with the office of elder having two classes, teaching elder and ruling elder (based on 1 Timothy 5:17, which speaks about elders who teach and rule, as well as the fact that a number of terms seems to be used interchangeably); this goes back to the idea that there are general principles and not specific details so one might need to look more at the spirit of the order than the exact details. This article also notes that pastors, elders, and deacons together form the council (other Reformed churches, such as Faith, call it a Consistory), something that might differentiate a Reformed Church from a Presbyterian Church in its government. One notes that Paul writes his letter to the Philippians to the elders and deacons, and that Paul talks about both officers in 1 Timothy 3, pointing to them doing work together. This idea shows that the pastor does not rule the church but that it is jointly led by a group with different callings and gifts; we are better together.

Article 31 will talk a bit more about the way that these individuals are called to this office, but this article does highlight that there is a process and certain qualifications for these officers that appear specifically in 1 Timothy 3: “By this means everything will be done well and in good order in the church, when such persons are elected who are faithful and are chosen according to the rule that Paul gave to Timothy.” Reading 1 Timothy 3, one discovers that most of these qualifications are moral qualities rather than skills; the only skill required is for elders to be apt to teach. Christian leaders need to have competency, but character and convictions are even more important, as one must know and maintain the true doctrine.

Leaders are taught that you also need to show the why behind the what – don’t just tell them what you are going to do but why that is so important. Similarly, the confession here highlights the why behind this church order, as it states, ““By this means true religion is preserved; true doctrine is able to take its course; and evil people are corrected spiritually and held in check, so that also the poor and all the afflicted may be helped and comforted according to their need.” These words point to the duties of the different officers; it shows us their important function. Pastors and elders make sure that the Word of God is taught and also incorporated in the life of is members, thus preserving true religion and letting true doctrine take its course; the correcting of evil people in the form of church discipline (which can be rebuke and teaching or formal methods) also makes sure that true religion happens. The deacons help make sure that the poor and afflicted are cared for, and also that the pastors and elders are able to focus on their job to oversee the life and doctrine of the church; deacons help make sure that the church keeps its focus on the spiritual mission and also lives it out in word and in deed (you can even say making sure we put our money where our mouth is!). Therefore, these officers are critical to the work of the church moving forward in the world; having them is not just having good and decent order (as the confession mentions: “By this means everything will be done well and in good order in the church”) but will lead to the flourishing of the church and it maintaining God’s calling on it.

Questions about Bible or theology? E-mail them to Pastor Brian at Theology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe to get weekly e-mails with our blog posts by filling out the info on the right side.

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