Christ's Rule Over His Church Today?
We confess that Christ has been given all power in heaven and on earth (Matt.28: 18). Practically, however, we easily forget the significance of this truth. Christ is King and His reign extends everywhere. We must, however, distinguish between the all-embracing kingship of Christ and the reign that He has over His church. This rule has a different character or quality. Within the church, Christ exercises His rule by means of His Word. This is the first principle of Reformed church government and Church Order. Without it, we do not have the right idea of what the Church Order is. At best, church government then becomes a collection of dusty archives, grey binders and arbitrary stipulations. This is the image that many have in their minds today, both outside and inside the church. Consequently, many people think that church polity has nothing to do with the gospel.
Luther and Canon Law
It is true that after he discovered the gospel, Luther paraded through town in a wagon and burned the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church while the students sang the Te Deum. Luther publicly justified what he did. “Since they have burned my books, I burn theirs. The canon law was included because it makes the pope a god on earth.” The canon law indeed had become a thick and dark book of oracles, containing many inner contradictions, so that only professional specialists could find their way in it. “Let it be burned,” Luther said. “We choose for the gospel.”
In later years, Luther came to reckon with the fact that the church does need to be governed. However, he delegated this task to the secular government so that the prince or magistrate acted as a kind of emergency bishop. This gave birth to a system of church government from which Reformed churches distanced themselves.
Reformed Church Government
Although theoretically, Lutherans and Calvinists did not differ much on the relationship between church and state, practically, an important difference developed. The followers of Calvin chose for a form of government that did not exclude potential resistance against the government. They did not hesitate to ascribe to themselves the right of resistance. They were not inherently revolutionary, but they clung to the sovereign right of Christ, which when violated, gave them grounds for resistance. Consequently, the Reformed view of the right of the church to resist, based on the kingship of Christ, has been in part, the means whereby in dangerous times of persecution and tribulation, she survived. The Dutch Reformed churches came through the “Eighty Years War” (the war between Protestant Netherlands and Catholic Spain), because there was a Reformed Church Order.
This may be an exaggeration and admittedly, this thesis may be modified. Nevertheless, it is unquestionably true that the Reformed view of the church and her confession of Christ’s sovereign rule has been the strength by which these churches survived terrible persecution. The ecclesiastical structure based on this basic principle gave her stability while the secular powers promoted harassment. This stability flowed from the confession and conviction that Christ alone is the Head of His church.
Born Under Oppression
It is certainly remarkable that the Reformed ecclesiastical structure has proven its strength especially in those lands where persecution was most intense. France, the Southern and the Northern Netherlands, and Scotland provide examples that illustrate this. In the mid sixteenth century, Paris was a place of terror and seething violence against the Protestants. Nevertheless, in 1559 it was precisely in France that the foundation was laid for what we still call the presbyterial-synodical system.
This system is marked by two principles. First, the elder--“the presbyter”--and not the bishop, minister or deacon governs the church. Secondly, the elders meet together in broader assemblies, such as in a classis and synod. In 1568, in the Netherlands, war broke out against Spain. In that same year, in Wezel, a fundamental decision was taken concerning the future structure of the churches in the Netherlands. This Synod (or Convent) chose a pattern that by way of various synods developed into the Church Order of Dort, which was adopted during the twelve-year truce in the battle against Spain. It was developed according to Reformed principles and was primarily designed in order that the churches might be able to proclaim the gospel in freedom.
Admittedly, the Synod of Dort proved lenient on the point of the relationship with the secular government. This, however, did aid her to overcome Arminianism. It was the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands that enabled the churches that seceded to restore the old ideal. A free church was established, which desired to obey the gospel without any direct ties with the secular government. This development too, took place under heavy oppression and persecution.
Its Relevance For Today
The question is often asked, “What have we today to do with these views and concepts from the sixteenth century? Have they not become totally antiquated? They may be interesting from a historical point of view, but don’t we need something different for contemporary practices?”
It is obvious that charismatic and evangelical trends have influenced Reformed people and churches and that this influence has detracted from the Reformed view of the church. It is certain that the modern media is making a tremendous impact on the church. The electronic church has usurped many ecclesiastical functions by its convenience and glitter and continues to undermine a biblical view of the church. In charismatic churches the rule of Christ centres in charismatic personalities who exhibit their spirituality by practicing extraordinary phenomena, such as speaking in tongues, healing, etc. The mass-media church has relinquished the rule of Christ. I ask, “Is it possible to have any meaningful rules that govern millions of individuals looking at glittering images who have control so that with the push of a button they can cause the image and voice of the preachers and choirs to fade back into the wires and cables in their walls?”
The absence of any meaningful rule of Christ in such a structure is evident by the large-scale ineffectiveness to stem the tide of materialistic and egocentric life-styles. Sometimes it even condones and fosters them. Consequently, the by-products are disenchantedness with charismatic personalities, haunting personal loneliness, a lack of purpose and relationships in life--phenomena that plagues contemporary Christendom.
The Rule of Christ
Within this context, the Reformed system of church government offers a highly relevant alternative. Christ still exercises His rule in His church by the preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline administered by the special office bearers. This is the framework that does most justice to the biblical view of Christ’s rule in His church. Even though it is now, as in every age, still a matter of faith and confession, it is the way that will prove the best means for the church to survive the current tide of persecution. This tide in our countries is not (yet) the persecution by secular or religious authorities, but one of delusive principalities, the darkness of this world and the blinding power of the god of this world. May God keep us faithful to the confession of the rule of Christ as it was biblically ordained and embraced within the Reformed heritage!