Reformed Church Government: Proof Texts or Principles?

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What is a Reformed church and what principles from the Word of God determine its government?

Proof texts or principles?

Many Christians are confused about how the church should function. They experience this confusion because they are “proof texters.” I do not mean this in a derogatory way. It is good, of course, to seek to prove all doctrines with texts from the Scriptures. We confess that the Bible alone is the Word of God and that the Bible alone is the authority in the church for all points of doctrine and practice.

But by “proof texting” we mean something else.

Proof texters demand a proof text for every specific doctrine and practice in the church. For example, proof texters want to know why we have pulpits in churches; or why we have church buildings; or why we use a baptismal font. The Bible does not teach those things, say the proof texters.

There are two things which proof texters fail to appreciate. First, in many cases the Bible does not give proof texts but guiding principles; and second, doctrine develops through the history of the church, as the truth unfolds and as the lies of Satan become more subtle.

Take the first point, principles. Here are examples of principles. There is equality in the church (Gal. 3:28); the church should be a place of order (I Cor. 14:40); some are called to have oversight or rule in the church while others are called freely to submit (Heb. 13:17). Those principles can be applied in different ways by different churches, and, as long as the principles are not violated, and no statement of Scripture is transgressed, there is some freedom in their application. Proof texters, for example, will not find any text which proves that women may take the Lord’s Supper, but they (rightly) admit women to the Lord’s Supper. Nor will they be told in a proof text how often the church should meet on the Lord’s Day, or how many chairs they should sit on, or even, if chairs should be used; or if we should sit cross-legged on a carpet. The principle is: meet together on the Lord’s Day for public worship and include certain elements in your worship service but many of the details are matters of Christian liberty and prudence.

Take the second point, doctrinal development. Some Christians have an almost romantic idealism when they view the early church as described in the book of Acts and in the Epistles. “If only we could be like the Corinthians or the Ephesians,” they say. But take off those rose tinted spectacles and look more closely. Much instruction in the New Testament on church behaviour is written against the background of bad behaviour in the church. The church in Corinth probably caused more heartache for the Apostle Paul than any other congregation; and the church in Ephesus experienced so many problems that Timothy needed two epistles to advise him on how to deal with the perplexing situation there (I Tim. 1:3). Later that church was threatened with the removal of its candlestick (Rev. 2:5)! These churches were in their infancy; they needed to be rebuked; they needed to learn the faith and to be protected and warned against false doctrine which assailed them on every side.

The issue of doctrinal development explains to us why church membership requirements seem to be stricter today than they were in the book of Acts. Proof texters fail to see the significance of this. Why were people baptised and admitted to church membership so quickly in the book of Acts? Why now are longer periods of instruction required? Why do churches usually insist on detailed doctrinal membership classes before baptising a new convert? The answer is doctrinal development and the threat of heresy. In the book of Acts it was sufficient to confess, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37) because everyone knew what that meant. In Paul’s day it was expected that a man “hold fast the form of sound words which [he had] heard” (II Tim. 1:13). But, as the church grew in her understanding of the truth, and as that truth was developed doctrinally in the church, the “form of sound words” became more and more detailed. And as heretics attacked the truth and twisted it with their errors the “form of sound words” which a church member had to believe became even more detailed. By the time of AD 325 it was necessary to confess that Christ is homoousion (that is, of one essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit). Proof texters will never find the word homoousion in the Bible, yet many proof texters embrace the doctrine of the Trinity. As the church grew in her understanding and battled with heresy the statements of faith which she demanded of her members grew more detailed. Today a church might have a long statement. We call those statements creeds or confessions. Naively, a proof texting Christian might object to such creeds by saying, “But cannot we agree that we believe the Bible and accept Jesus as Lord?” If we did that, how could we determine who was orthodox or not? How could we know if any given person held fast to a form of sound words? Then we could allow Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others into our churches because they all can confess “I believe that Jesus is Lord and that the Bible is the Word of God.” But what do you believe that the Bible teaches about God, man, Christ, salvation, the church and the end things, to name but six areas of doctrine? That briefly is why we have creeds or confessions. If a person cannot agree with the creed of a church, he is free to say so; but he cannot then expect to be a member (and certainly not an officebearer) of that church.

With these two points before us, the Bible gives principles, and doctrine develops, let us address some areas of concern which proof texters have especially in the area of church polity (the study of church government and practice).

Ecclesiastical offices

An office is a position of authority which a man exercises in the church as a representative of Jesus Christ in which he serves God. A man enters an office by being called to a specific work and function by God Himself through the church. We should understand the chief Officebearer, from whom all other officebearers derive their authority, (“authority” means the right to rule) is Jesus Christ Himself. Hebrews 5:4-5 says, “And no man taketh this honour unto himself but he that is called of God as was Aaron, so also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest but he that said unto him ...” We see here that Aaron did not determine for himself that he would be high priest. God gave him that position, vested with authority. Not even Jesus Christ Himself was a self-made high priest. God gave Him that position. That is the importance of office.

Romans 10:14-15 is instructive also. “How shall they hear without a preacher, and how shall they preach except they be sent?” A man may not simply preach. Perhaps he is very gifted but gifts do not make a preacher. A call makes a preacher. But who calls a preacher? Christ calls the preacher, and when He calls him he gives him gifts. He even gives the preacher to the church (Eph. 4:11). Does that mean that any man may come to the church and say, “Men, Christ has called me to be a preacher. Let me preach!” No! Because Christ calls a preacher through the church. The subjective call of the would-be preacher must be examined by the church to determine his fitness to preach. Take Paul who was sent by the church in Antioch on his missionary journeys (Acts 13:2-4). The Holy Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas through the church, with the support, prayers and oversight of the church; and when they returned they reported to the church which had sent them (Acts 14:27, 15:40, 18:22-23). So, you see that preachers are sent by Christ through the church.

This is true also of elders and deacons. I Timothy 3:1 commends one who desires the office of a bishop (overseer or elder); then verses 2-7 give a list of qualifications for an elder, bishop or overseer (the same office). Does that mean that any man can walk into the congregation and announce. “I desire to be an elder and I believe that I have the qualifications”? No! Verse 10 says that “these” (that is, elders and deacons) must first be “proved” (tested or examined). By the process of proving (approbation) and then election by the voting members of the church such men are sent by Jesus Christ Himself to oversee His church. This explains also Acts 20:28, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers ...” Who made these men overseers (elders)? The Holy Ghost! How did He do that? He used the means of their being called through the church.

Notice the principles. The church must have men who are qualified (as per I Timothy 3). The church must examine them in doctrine and life, and then ordain them. But the Bible does not give detailed explanations on how they are to be examined. That will be left up to the discretion of the church.

Offices with authority

The officebearers whom Christ gives to His church have authority. Authority means the right to rule. They have authority over the members of the church in ecclesiastical and spiritual matters. Thus they have authority to rebuke the members for their sins, and, should the members remain impenitent, to exercise church discipline. They have authority to determine the time and place of the worship services. The church is not a “free-for-all” where the members can decide whether the service begins at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. and turn up according to their whims and fancies. And, remember, no proof text will help us decide the time for the worship service. Scripture tells us that we should gather together; that it should be on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) and it names the kind of activities we should be engaged in (singing, prayer, preaching, reading, almsgiving, etc). Nor does the Bible determine in what kind of building we should worship. The church worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem; or in a rented room (the school of Tyrannus [Acts 19:9]); or in private homes. Many congregations, for the sake of convenience, have erected their own buildings. This is no less biblical than having running water, using carpets or having electric lighting. Perhaps we should all sit on window sills. We have “proof texts” for that (Acts 20:9)! Perhaps we should only have lamps and only meet in an upper room. We have proof texts for that also (Acts 20:8). Perhaps we should only meet at night (Acts 20:7). Proof texting can lead to absurdities. Following biblical principles is wise. How we apply the principles is left to the discretion of the leaders of the church to make sure all things are done decently and in order (I Cor. 14:40). And since the authority is ecclesiastical and spiritual, the officebearers do not have the right to dictate to members the brand of shoes they should wear, or the kind of car (if any) they should buy. Those are extra-ecclesiastical matters. Nor do the officebearers have authority over other congregations or over unbelievers in the world.

Officebearers are not mere functionaries but men with authority. I Thessalonians 5:12 says that they are “over you in the Lord.” I Timothy 5:17 speaks of elders “that rule well.” Hebrews 13:17 calls us to “obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves.” They are over us; they rule us; we obey them and submit to them. That’s authority! That authority comes from Christ Himself who rules the church through them. That authority is not for the destruction of the church, but for her edification and protection (II Cor. 10:8, 13:10; Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:3).

Many Christians imagine that the church is a kind of democracy and even resent that the officebearers make many of the decisions of the church. But that is leadership, supervision or oversight! If leaders do not make decisions, then how are they leaders? If everything in the church is to be decided by a majority vote at a congregational meeting, why have officebearers? Oversight means authority! Peter writes to the elders that they must “take the oversight” of the congregation (I Peter 5:2). Good biblical church polity finds a balance between having the leaders lead (while the members submit to that leadership) and the members of the church having the right of input. Where to draw the line can, at times, be difficult, and frustrating for the proof texters. The ordinary member has the right to appeal or even protest the decisions of the leaders, not if he or she does not like them, but if he or she can prove that the decisions of the leaders are contrary to the Word of God.

There are many aspects of the office of elder, deacon and minster which are not “set down in stone” in the Word of God. For example, the Bible determines that every church must have elders. Elders are necessary for leadership, supervision, oversight and discipline. A group of Christians without elders is no church (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5). They are Christians, but they do not have the official means of grace or the marks of a true, instituted church. However, the Bible tells us neither how many elders a given congregation should have (there must be at least two because there needs to be a plurality), nor for how long an elder must serve. Some churches have elders serve a fixed term of three or four years, others have elders serve for life. These things are matters to be determined by churches according to their own church polity.

Which Offices in the Church?

Ephesians 4:11 tells us that Christ gave various officebearers to the church. Apostles, prophets and evangelists were temporary offices which do not continue today. An evangelist was an apostolic assistant. Since the office of apostle has passed away, so has the office of evangelist. We must not confuse evangelism with the temporary office of evangelist! The work of evangelism is not subsumed under the work of a pastor (II Tim. 4:5). Apostles ansd prophets laid the foundation of the New Testament church (Eph. 2:20). Once the foundation is laid, and the Bible is complete, the need for foundation-builders ceases. Three other offices do continue today: pastors/teachers, elders and deacons. The pastoral epistles make that clear (I Timothy, II Timothy and Titus).

There is no hierarchy in the church. No officebearer has a higher rank than another. No elder is higher ranking than another elder; and the minister is not of a higher rank than the elders. Officebearers do not differ in rank or authority but in function. The function of a minister (pastor or teacher) is to preach and teach God’s word in the local congregation or on the mission field. All elders must be apt to teach (I Tim. 3:2) but some are called to “labour in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17). This labouring must be for the minister (pastor or teacher) a full-time occupation. He must give himself wholly to this work (I Tim. 4:15); he must “preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (II Tim. 4:2). In order for him to be able to devote himself wholly to that work the minister ought to be supported financially by the congregation. About those who labour in the word and doctrine the Apostle writes, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn and the labourer is worthy of his hire” (I Tim. 5:18) and “they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (I Cor. 9:14). Read the entire section of I Corinthians 9:6-15. It is true that Paul did not take a salary and instead worked as a tentmaker to support himself, but that was to spare the churches. He gave up his rights. A congregation should gladly support a pastor as much as they are able so that their pastor can devote himself to the study of the Word of God for their edification.

Now, where do pastors come from but from the ranks of the godly, gifted young men in the churches? Timothy, for example, was trained to be a pastor (as well as an evangelist) by the Apostle Paul himself, having been recommended to Paul by the churches (Acts 16:2). Later, Paul instructs Timothy to train and prepare other men, who in turn will train other men. II Timothy 2:2 says, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” Notice again we have a principle. Pastors should be adequately prepared. There is no proof text for how this shall be done. Churches have learned through much experience that ignorant and uneducated pastors are a blight on the churches. Some have trained pastors “on the job” by having them be “apprentices” under seasoned pastors. Others have established theological schools called seminaries where men receive detailed instruction for the work of preaching in a church. How the church does this depends, among other things, on the resources of the churches.

Pastors should serve in a local congregation, or, if missionaries, they should be subject to the oversight of a local congregation, as Paul and Barnabas (later Silas) were to the church in Antioch. In Revelation 2-3 John writes seven letters to seven churches. Each one is addressed to the church and their “angel.” Since angel means messenger, it is clear that each of the seven congregations had a teacher or pastor of their own. This is how it ought to be. And the local pastor is under the careful oversight of a plurality of elders (called the consistory or session). A pastor is chosen by the congregation; and he may leave a pastorate after a number of years to serve in another church if another church calls him. Again we have no proof text for this, but surely this too belongs to the principle of decency and order?

All pastors are, by virtue of that office, also elders, in that they too take part in the work of oversight and rule (I Tim. 5:17). All elders rule, but not all elders are called to labour in the word and doctrine. This principle of I Timothy 5:17 leads us to the belief and practice that elder and minister are distinct offices.

Concerning the other two offices we can be briefer. Elders, bishops or overseers are called to rule or oversee. They do this with the minister and they oversee the minister. It is certainly not true, and a denial of Reformed church polity, to teach that the minister is the “boss” on the church and that he rules over the elders. Elders and ministers have the same rank; and the elders are called to oversee the minister and his preaching. Some teach that bishops have a higher rank than elders. That is the error of hierarchy and Episcopalianism. Titus 1:5 tells Titus to “ordain elders in every city.” Then Paul adds, “for a bishop must be ...” (v. 7). Clearly, the qualifications for an elder and bishop are identical; they are the same office. The elders are taken from the congregation itself: Peter speaks to “the elders which are among you” (I Peter 5:1). He warns the elders that they must “take the oversight” but that they must not be “lords over the flock.” Spiritual oversight with real authority is not tyranny, but the caring activity of a shepherd. The word “feed” in verse 1 means to shepherd. The deacons are called to be the merciful representatives of Jesus Christ. They are to collect and distribute the alms to the poor of the congregation (Acts 6:3-4). Their qualifications are similar to that of elders (I Tim. 3:8-13).

The worship services

Many Christians believe that the worship service is to be an “open time” where every member contributes his own insights and takes part in the worship in as full a way as possible. Such are not satisfied to sing with the congregation, participate in the congregational prayers through the minister and listen to the preaching of the Word of God by a man called to and devoted to that work.

It may surprise proof texters that we have relatively few passages which give us a clear indication of how the worship services were conducted in the early church. Acts 2:42 says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and in breaking of bread and in prayers.” Acts 20:7 tells us that the Christians in Troas came together to break bread and to hear the preaching of the Apostle Paul and that he preached for a long time! I Timothy 2 speaks about men praying (v. 8) and women learning (vv. 11-12).

Many proof texters think that I Corinthians 11 and 14 give us good instruction on how to conduct public worship. In fact, they give us good instruction on how not to conduct public worship! I Cor. 11:17 says “Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better but for the worse.” Then Paul describes how the Corinthians observed the Lord’s Supper, and he rebukes them for it (v. 22) and gives them positive instruction (self examination, partaking of both elements of bread and wine, etc; vv. 23-29). The Apostle gives us doctrinal instruction about the Supper and some principles, but each congregation is at liberty to determine other details: who will hand out the elements; how will these elements be served; how often shall the Supper be observed, etc? In chapter 12, Paul describes the church as a body with distinct members, functions and gifts. He names various gifts (vv. 4-10, 28-30) but we must use biblical principles (not proof texting) to discover how and when to use the various gifts, some of which are no longer to be found in the church (because the apostolic age is over and the Bible is complete; see II Cor. 13:13). Chapter 14 describes how the Corinthians were worshipping. So disorderly was their worship that the Apostle complains that a visiting unbeliever might think that the Corinthians were mad! (v. 23). Verse 26 is a favourite verse of proof texters who believe that every member should participate in the worship services in a kind of “open time,” and who oppose the idea of a regular worship pattern (a fixed liturgy). Paul writes, “How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying” (I Cor. 14:26). But, notice, Paul is not saying that this is what the Corinthians ought to do, but he is describing what they were doing and then he rebukes them for it! The principles for public worship are that there be no confusion (v. 33) and that everything be done “decently and in order” (I Cor.14:40). Surely, a regular, fixed liturgy fits with that basic principle where a “spiritual free for all” does not.

I hope in this brief study I have shown that proof texting is inadequate to determine proper behaviour in the church and that Reformed church government fits, and does not violate, the principles set down in Scripture.

We do not want to be rebuked by the Lord for our disorderliness. Rather we hope to receive the Lord’s commendation, as He commended the Colossians through the apostle Paul, “I am with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ” (Col. 2:5).