We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.
As I am writing this blog post, many students are getting ready to leave (or have already left) for college. I have always encouraged college students to make sure that they find not only a campus ministry group like CRU or Intervarsity or Navigators (whatever is the best fit for them) as they live on campus but also to make sure that they find a local church that has people of different ages and backgrounds. But as I say this, I also let them know that they will never find a church just like the church that they grew up at and love. This is true in part because of the nature of a person’s history and experience – we often think of some era in our lives as the “good old days” – but it is also partly due to the fact that every church really is different; just like no two families are alike, so no two churches are exactly alike. One could make the objection, however, that churches, especially those in the same denomination or the same network, should look and feel the same – and a reading of Article 30 of the Belgic Confession that speaks about the order that Jesus gave to the church might support such a conviction. However, Article 32 of the Belgic Confession notes that there is freedom within this order that allows churches to look and feel different within certain boundaries, with one of those boundaries including the act of church discipline (which was discussed as a mark of the church back in Article 29 – amazing how this stuff ties together!).
Article 32 begins by noting that churches have freedom to set themselves up in ways that will be most useful and beneficial for that church in its particular circumstances: “We also believe that although it is useful and good for those who govern the churches to establish and set up a certain order among themselves for maintaining the body of the church.” This means that churches might have different nomination processes, different ways of doing announcements, different instrumentation when it comes to music, use technology in different ways, and also that they meet at different times (an 8 AM service might be useful for certain communities and difficult for another!). One should note the word “although” in the statement I quoted above because that shows that there is another half of this sentence – the sentence continues by noting that the freedom has some boundaries, with that boundary being the Word of God: “and they ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us.” It is Jesus’s church, and ultimately it must follow his Word; in areas where he has spoken, we must follow and obey, but in places where he has not spoken, there is freedom to do what is best.
As we use our heads to think through what is best, we can innovate – but we must make sure that our innovations don’t become a law that people have to do or that we say someone has to do when the Bible does not command it, as the confession notes in the words that follow: “Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.” This statement was important because at the timing of the Reformation, one of the issues was the Reformers belief that the church of their time required certain rituals and actions that are not spoken about in Scripture. There is nothing wrong with having a church calendar or encouraging people to fast at certain times and certain days (and this might be useful and helpful in some contexts), but it cannot be required because Jesus does not say it. You can have a special night service or weekday service, but one cannot be compelled to go to them. It was not just an issue in the Reformation, however, as the early church also faced people adding requirements to Christians – as seen for example in the book of Colossians (see Colossians 2:22-23).
The limits on innovation are Jesus’s words and people’s consciences, but one must also think about the positive goal of doing what is useful and helpful, with the confession noting, “So we accept only what is proper to maintain harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God.” The goal should be unity in the church and obedience to God; if something does not lead us to unity or lead us to obedience, we probably shouldn’t do it.
This article does not end with these words (though that would be fitting), but adds one more sentence to speak to something that Jesus has commanded and must be done – “To that end excommunication, with all it involves, according to the Word of God, is required.” Excommunication is declaring someone is outside of the fellowship of the church, and it is required because of Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:15-20, as he speaks about confronting someone if they sin and if they don’t repent, bringing another, and if they still don’t repent, telling the church, and if they don’t listen to the church, then treat them as a tax collector or sinner (which is not shunning them but rather having the gospel preached to them and reaching out to them in Christian love – treating them as someone who does not believe). In Reformed thought, there are often other steps of discipline – suspension from the sacraments is an example – and these are good and useful steps in achieving the goal of restoration (always the goal of discipline), and Jesus does not say that we should move right away to excommunicate, but a church must be willing to do that. As one thinks about the subject of discipline, one must always remember that the goal is restoration of the sinner to the glory of God – that if someone repents of their sin, they are restored to the church; it is not vindictive or punishment but rather to help people see their sin and run to the arms of Jesus and his grace.
Every church will be different because it is a different group of people in a different place. You won’t find the church you grew up at or grew in great ways at, but you can find churches that are faithful to what Jesus taught and seek to promote unity and obedience as they do good and useful things within the structure and order that Jesus established.
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