The Governing Body in the Church
During the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the governing of the church became Reformed. Instead of pope, bishops and priests the true church instituted the proper New Testament offices of ministers, elders and deacons. These offices together represented the Lord in the church: his care, his rule and his love. The preaching replaced the central place of the mass, the home-visits replaced the confessional, and the deacons replaced the care of monks and nuns. The return to the Bible also gave biblical forms of church-government and support.
Upon his return to Geneva from Strasbourg in 1541, John Calvin introduced a Reformed Church Order, called the “Ecclesiastical Ordinances.” This church order has provided the important principles for the Reformed Church Government: the spiritual rule is not centralized in a person or city, but is locally exercised by the consistory. The principle of “no lording over the other” was adhered to. The characteristic of living and working in the congregation became “ministerium,” that is: service. The office bearer is nothing more than his Master, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for many.
The basis for our present Church Order (CO) was laid at the Convent of Wezel in 1568, via other Provincial and General Synods in The Netherlands (Emden in 1571, Middelburg in 1581, and The Hague in 1586). Its final adoption was decided upon at the famous international Synod of Dordt in 1618/19. This Church Order regulates the scriptural and therefore spiritual order in our churches (see Belgic Confession Art 30).
The Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches is fully based on “Dordt.” With common agreement (consent), all the churches of the federation pledge to abide by this Church Order. With this order the churches recognize that all things in Christ’s Church ought to be done decently and in good order (1 Corinthians 14:40). By accepting and adhering to this Church Order the churches live with each other and support each other in a federation of churches, also called a bond of churches. In this bond the governing body is the consistory of a local congregation. The local church remains autonomous but not independent. It is helped, supported and encouraged to grow in the Lord by the neighbouring churches, which form a Classis. The Classis, in turn, receives help and direction from an annual Regional Synod. Once every three years all the churches meet together in General Synod. As you know, our next General Synod will be convened on February 10 in Chatham, Ontario.
Office bearers of the local congregations are delegated to these “major” or “broader” assembles. These assemblies are described as “major” or “broader” since a larger number of churches gather to deal with matters which the churches have in common or which could not be finalized in the “minor” assemblies.
As stated above, the Lord Jesus Christ is the first and only authority in church. His authority is represented in the office bearers who form the consistory. The other assemblies, Classes and Synods, do not have authority of their own. The authority of a “broader” assembly is one given to them by all the churches belonging to a Classis, a Regional Synod or General Synod only for the period of meeting. In this case the Church Order speaks about “jurisdiction,” CO Art 37.
Delegates are sent to the “broader” assemblies with “credentials.” In these letters the delegating assembly declares that the persons sent may act on behalf of them for the benefit of all the churches. The churches promise to receive the decisions of the “broader” assembly in accordance with Art 31 CO. The rule of Article 31 is that decisions of broader assemblies must be considered as settled and binding, unless it is proven that such a decision conflicts with the Word of God or the Church Order. All this clearly shows that Classes and Synods indeed are convened to help the local church of which we are members. So, take note, we are not members of the Canadian Reformed Churches but of a local Canadian Reformed Church.
The main characteristic of Reformed church government is that it is strongly anti-hierarchical. Our Church Order clearly shows this character (see Book of Praise, p. 655ff). I like to highlight the following articles: Article 6 – The minister is only the minister of a local church; he is not a bishop or superintendent over a number of churches; Articles 3, 4 – The office bearers are called by the congregation and not merely by the consistory; Article 24 – Our churches do not have elders and deacons for life but they serve for a term of three or more years; Article 30 – “Broader” assemblies cannot make up their own agenda. They can only deal with matters which the churches have placed on their table; Article 31 – Scripture and the Reformed Church Order are norms for decisions and not personal opinions and/or convictions. Articles 66-70 emphasize the active involvement of the whole congregation in discipline matters. Finally, the “no-lording” principle is clearly expressed in Article 74 CO!
Christ’s rule and authority is not invested in a single person or in a higher body over the local church to which we belong. The governing body in the church is our consistory.