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Re-thinking Church Some More

By Steve M. Schlissel
June 01, 1997

In our last article on church government we learned that try as one might: jump and scream, twist and shout Acts 15 does not even suggest, let alone justify, the normativity of abiding wider assemblies or regularly stated meetings. The Dutch Reformed are less hysterical, more sober in their reading of that passage than their Scottish-Presbyterian brethren. J. Van Dalen's comments are responsible, sound and to the point:

From all this Scriptural data it is clear that the doctrinal differences which had arisen in Antioch were not resolved by a synod-in-principle, but by the congregation at Jerusalem, as temporary bearer of the evangelical New Testament Word, under the leadership of the apostles and by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. A bond of churches as we know it today, and a decision of the churches together, are not in view in all of this; to see in this apostolic convention at Jerusalem a major assembly as we know it today is to do injustice to Scripture.... Scripture does not give a single example of a major assembly as we know it today.

The ease with which many Reformed allow Acts 15 to speak for itself, compared to the distention of the passage by some Presbyterians is, of course, related to what each brings to the text. For all the similarities between the Reformed and Presbyterian, there are still reasons for their respective names. Presbyterians tend to be very big on church government. After all, they've chosen a form of government as a name to distinguish them in the Protestant bouillabaisse. The Reformed have chosen a system of doctrine (which system, praise the Lord, is shared by true, confessing Presbyterians). The Reformed view of church government, though sharing much with Presbyterianism, immediately commends itself as more in line with what we find in Scripture. There we read of this local church and that local church and the other local church. There are no New Testament letters addressed to a presbytery.

The accompanying illustrations might help you see how each approaches the subject of the local church. In the Reformed view, Christ administers His Word directly through local churches which, though organically related to other confessing churches through Christ, may or may not formally affiliate with others. In the typical Presbyterian view, Christ delegates His authority directly to the presbytery. In the Reformed view, wider assemblies are not seen as necessary for the being of the church, but may contribute to her well-being. In the Presbyterian view, local churches are lesser courts, which may come or go; presbytery is the abiding court. (This "court" nomenclature has given birth to an unfortunate mindset which can distort a church's self-understanding. For a few, the idea of church as court has led to ecclesiastical litigation as some sort of macho proof of viability.) In the Reformed view the Classis gets its integrity from the local churches (e.g., ministerial membership and credentials are held by the local church wherein Christ's ecclesiastical authority directly resides). In the Presbyterian view the local churches derive their integrity from the Presbytery (the minister's membership and credentials are in the Presbytery, not the local church).

Further, despite substantial doctrinal unity, there are some cultural differences between Reformed and Presbyterian bodies. In America, each order has generally operated within a denominational structure. If you wanted to practice Reformed church government or Presbyterian church government, you would normally do so by joining a denomination. These denominations have been, in the main, monoethnic or monocultural, carryovers from European national or territorial churches. Dealing with their cultural cargo, for good or ill (or both) would be part of the deal when joining.

The element of ethnic identity within certain Reformed and Presbyterian traditions cannot be dismissed as simply beside the point. People are often expected to abide by ethnic tradition, or habits of mind, as much as by Scripture. In our former denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, we were immeasurably enriched by contact with many compelling Dutch traditions. But there were downsides. To use an example which did not affect us personally, many churches, in calling a minister, seemed far more concerned to call a Dutchman who may or may not be Reformed than to call a Reformed man who may or may not be Dutch.

Another complication when joining a denomination: Your relation to other local churches is commonly mediated through the denomination you have joined.

Of even greater concern to us is the tendency of denominated churches to focus their energies and attentions on the goings-on in the denomination to the disregarding of what's going on regionally. That is to say, denominational ties sometimes serve as a distraction from, if not a deterrent to, strengthening the regional witness of Christ where he has placed you. Whatever we may say about church government and denominations, it is rather clear that New Testament epistles were regionally-bound (bound, as in destination, not restriction). And the ascended Lord Jesus Christ dictated seven letters to John to be delivered to seven regional churches, not seven denominations. Contact and cooperation with local churches should receive greater attention from us Presbyterian and Reformed folk. Others will not become Reformed through neglect!

Is there a way, other than by denominational affiliation, to be both Presbyterian and Reformed? We think so. Let's call this way "Organic Reformed." That's "organic" as in "derived from a living organism." That's "living organism," as in the church of Jesus Christ. We will start with the proposition that a local church with a duly called plurality of Elders is to be regarded (absent any manifest heresy) as an instance of the true church (though it may be healthy or ill).

You will recall that I operate with the synagogue model in mind. A Jewish man recently complained, in a letter to a rabbi, that there were too many synagogues in his area. "By what authority can a group of observant men organize a new congregation?," he wanted to know. The rabbi reminded the questioner of the talmudic convention that ten men may constitute a lawful synagogue. He cited many authorities who agree that, though a new synagogue be a burden, it may not be prevented. He cited a passage from Gemara which says there were 394 synagogues and an equal number of "study houses" (which competed for students) in Jerusalem at the time the city was destroyed by Titus. He recalled the opinion of the sages that the era of Hezekiah was like unto a "Messianic period" because there were so many synagogues and schools. The rabbi counseled wisely: "It would seem better to complain that there are too few synagogues rather than too many." We should be anxious to recognize as many churches as we can, not as few. (To be continued, D.V.)


Topics: Reformed Thought, Church, The, Government

Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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