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Organic Reformed Church Government

Editor's Note: We quoted one letter very critical of our series on church government. You should know, however, that the responses in general have been overwhelmingly positive. We are grateful for the encouragement (and the corrections), and pray that this last piece will help to clarify matters which, in one or two instances only, led to acrimonious replies.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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Editor's Note: We quoted one letter very critical of our series on church government. You should know, however, that the responses in general have been overwhelmingly positive. We are grateful for the encouragement (and the corrections), and pray that this last piece will help to clarify matters which, in one or two instances only, led to acrimonious replies.

We started our discussions about the organization of the church some time ago and I'm itching to treat other subjects: body piercing, the Rolling Stones, the proposed male-neutered version of the NIV, and an examination of the Regulative Principle of Worship (you may write to us and lobby for your preferred order of treatment). But before I can move on, I must bring our treatment of church government to a close. I intend to do just that in this article, so if it runs a little longer than usual ("if"—ha!), I trust you'll forgive me.

Our labors have been expended in the hope of altering the way we think about church. No easy task, and I again must ask for forgiveness for inherent weaknesses in my various appeals.

Yes, asking forgiveness has become a habit of mine. But thinking about church principally in terms of denomination has become a habit of mind—of many Christians in general, and virtually all Reformed and Presbyterian folks in particular. This mindset, I fear, has led a few to grossly misunderstand our position. One Presbyterian minister, for example, wrote:

I am not interested in receiving your monthly diatribes against presbyterian government. Please remove my name from the mailing list. Your repeated assertions that the church is based upon the synagogue model ring hollow in view of the fact that such is not taught in Scripture, and the explicit assertion that the church is the new-covenant temple (1 Cor. 3:16) and kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13).

The glad reader of these pages, however, will have perceived that we have not argued against Presbyterianism, per se (we have said so plainly), but rather against denominationalism posing as Presbyterianism. The difference is as great as that between George Bailey and Mr. Potter.

Van Dalen correctly observes that "Holy Scripture does not include a direct command to the local churches to live together in some form of organized relationship," that is, in a denomination. Our desire in noting this, of course, is not to see others forsake denominations, but rather to have all admit that, in the words of Greijdanus, "The Lord has certainly not forbidden such..., but He has not prescribed them, either."

Organic Presbyterianism and the Synagogue

We are contending here for what might be called "Organic Reformed Church Government," or Organic Presbyterianism, a form of Presbyterianism which is not dependent upon a denomination, nor upon an elaborate church order appended to Scripture and Confession. It is, however, most definitely dependent upon seeing the church as the Synagogue of Christ. Therefore, let us examine the propriety and relevance of our claim to finding the essentials of the system in the synagogue.

It is strange to be in a position of having to prove to Presbyterians the proposition that the church in the New Testament is built upon the synagogue model, seeing that this fact is ordinarily employed by them as a justification for their system of government! In 1873, Dr. Marcus Dods wrote a book entitled, Presbyterianism Older than Christianity, by which he meant that the synagogue system (which he regarded as identical to Presbyterianism) predated the New Testament.

Rev. John MacPherson, in his excellent handbook, Presbyterianism, writes, "In general, the Christian forms of worship were modeled on those of the Jewish synagogue, and so where any customs in worship or office in the Christian church are spoken of without explanation, we may reasonably look to the arrangements of the synagogue for enlightenment."

And Dr. D. Douglas Bannerman, in the book most commonly received by Presbyterians as the standard work on the subject, The Scripture Doctrine of the Church, devotes considerable space to the establishment of the fact that New Testament church organization and worship is predicated upon the synagogue model. He, too, equates Presbyterianism with the synagogue form, and acclaims the latter as the providentially ordained mechanism by which the true religion was sustained in the world: "It was by this Presbyterian organization, on a broad and popular basis, which united strength with elasticity and capability for adaptation to varied circumstances, that the Diaspora were enabled to hold their ground everywhere throughout the Empire in the face of general dislike and frequent persecution." But even more to the point, hear his conclusion: "Both in its worship and polity the Hebrew Christian Church [read: New Testament Church] was conformed in all essential respects to the model of the Hebrew synagogue." This holds true, insists Bannerman, in regard to its worship, and "unmistakably with regard to its organization. The form of polity which had been universally established for centuries in the Jewish Church . . . was `simply accepted and perpetuated by the apostles.'"

In this last clause the writer is quoting Dr. Marcus Dods, from the book noted above. We will conclude this section (explaining why we feel so strange in defending the synagogue model of church government to self-described Presbyterians) with the Dods quote in its original context: "This, then, is the reason you do not find distinct traces in the New Testament of the creation of the Presbyterian form of Church government. The apostles could not create what had been in use some hundreds of years before they were born. They themselves were all of them Presbyterians before they were Christians. And these are the two facts, the knowledge of which makes us intelligent Presbyterians: First, that the form of government in the Church before Christ came was Presbyterian; and secondly, that this form of government was not abolished or altered, but simply accepted and perpetuated by the apostles. It was extended to all groups of people who received Christ." (Extended, I must add, with the same features extolled by Bannerman: a solid core and a flexible exterior, elastic and adaptable.)

I now invite you to re-read the letter from our Presbyterian friend above. That the New Testament church is presented to us under many figures (including "Temple") cannot negate the pervasive and inescapable testimony that our Lord Jesus established his church to be the Synagogue of Christ (See recent Chalcedon Reports). If this is not implicit in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9, nothing is: Those who confess Christ constitute the true synagogue; those who deny him constitute the false.

The fact that the church is a continuation of the true synagogue will be a key element in our treatment of the Regulative Principle of Worship, so please keep it in mind and heart. But for now let us proceed to some features of Organic Presbyterianism, founded as it is upon the synagogue model.

Rule by Elders

Rule in the local church is by a plurality of Elders. Some in church history have indeed stretched this principle pretty thin. "In the period following the Reformation," notes J. L. Schaver, "no congregational meetings were held in a great many of the congregations of the established Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. The Consistories themselves determined the choice of their successors and other matters of importance. Their decisions were announced to the congregations. . . ." Organic Presbyterianism is content to affirm that Scripture places administrative authority in a body of elected Elders, themselves members of the local church, as opposed to an authority thought to reside in prelates particularly or members generally.

Organic Reformed government acknowledges the primacy of the local church. Clearly, each local church should seek to be as healthy and strong as it can be, which might make denominational affiliation wise in certain circumstances. In any case, the authority which comes from Christ, comes firstly to the local church, and is administered by its Elders.

The surest way to build a strong church, therefore, is to have strong Elders. The Bible is far more explicit about the qualifications requisite for Eldership than it is about details of church government.

Messiah's Congregation has ordained five Ruling Elders in 18 years. Two are now Teaching Elders (ministers) in other parts of Christ's vineyard: one is a missionary pastor in Virginia and the other serves as pastor of a 700-member Reformed church in Michigan.

Before a man can be presented to our congregation to be voted on as an Elder, he must have his own act together, his household must be in order, and he must demonstrate a competent knowledge of Scripture, doctrine, church history and the Reformed confessions. In short, he must fulfill the criteria found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. He is typically examined once upon recognition of the requisite gifts and again after an extensive training period, sometimes lasting two years. Only after he has proven himself to be of pillar quality will he be presented to the congregation for them to say, "Yes, we will have this man rule over us," or "No, we will not."

The One and the Many

An Organic Reformed church sees itself as belonging to the Reformed community of churches. Upon his admission to office an Elder must submit to the Form of Subscription which binds him to the doctrine found in the Westminster Standards and the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt, any demurrals having been made known beforehand to the Elders. We are not the sole "confessors" or "possessors" of these symbols. Therefore, Messiah's Elders, though not "denominated," are nevertheless organically and truly accountable to the whole of the faithful Reformed church, regardless of denominational call-letters. Note carefully this provision in our Form of Subscription:

...if at any time an officer of a faithful Reformed church, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion, and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to request of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the Confessions of Faith, the Catechisms, or the explanation of the Canons of Dordt, we do hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such requisition, under the penalty above mentioned [i.e., suspension from office]. We reserve for ourselves, however, the right of appeal to signatories of the Covenant of Reformed Officers, according to the procedure set forth in said Covenant, in case we should believe ourselves aggrieved by the sentence of the Consistory; and until a decision is made upon such an appeal, we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.

It has been suggested that churches without a denomination are by that very fact operating without accountability. To those who so suggest we must say, "Show us your Form of Subscription. Does it recognize and hold you accountable to faithful brothers outside of your own denomination?"

The Near and the Far

Organic Reformed churches will seek to work as closely as the ecumenical and Reformed creeds allow with churches in their area. Bannerman: "Where neighboring synagogues stood towards each other on an independent footing, their elders met, as opportunity offered, more or less formally, for consultation and co-operation in matters of common interest."

Appealing Appeal

Organic Presbyterianism, as you saw alluded to in our Form, has a provision for appeal. This process is available to any member of Messiah's Congregation. Our method of appeal is spelled out in our Covenant of Reformed Officers (COROas in "heart"). It reads in its entirety as follows:

Covenant Of Reformed Officers The undersigned, men in good standing as officers of Reformed, confessional churches, agree to serve Messiah's Congregation in the hearing of appeals and in the constitution of ordination councils, each man as providentially available in each circumstance. The method of hearing appeals shall be: The person(s) asking for an appeal to be heard may choose one Elder signatory of this covenant. The person(s) against whom the appeal is made may choose a second signatory. The two signatories will then, together, choose a third to constitute a tribunal under God, to hear the matter in the most expeditious manner, and to render a judgment in the fear and sight of God, according to His Word and our common confession. The officers of Messiah's Congregation agree to be bound by decisions thus rendered. As to ordination, on an occasion when Messiah's Elders recognize one in whom they believe to be manifest the requisite gifts and calling for Christian ministry, a minimum of three signatories shall, along with Messiah's Elders, constitute a lawful ordination council. The council will, at a mutually agreeable time and venue, conduct a thorough investigation of the life, views, knowledge and abilities of the candidate. A decision to proceed with ordination to Christian ministry must be unanimous minus one, or unanimous. Two negative votes will require re-examination of the candidate at a later time. The officers of Messiah's Congregation agree to be bound by this procedure in ordaining qualified men to the sacred office of Minister of the word and Ordinances of God. So signed in the sight of our great God and Savior....

[the signatures of Messiah's Elders, and of several Reformed officers, not members of Messiah's Congregation, follow.]

The Skinny on the CORO Method The signatories now number five, and that number is growing. What's important, however, is not the number, but the uniform quality of their character. We have long said that when you are dealing with men of integrity, few rules are needed; and when you're dealing with men without integrity, many rules won't help. The CORO officers are field-tested, time-proven, solid men of the Word who have demonstrated their qualification to rule in real life during many years of Christian service. Each of us would gladly and cheerfully submit to them.

Just as Messiah's members chose men to rule over them, so our members and officers have chosen men to rule over all of us, as needed. If you can stand the mixture of Latin and Hebrew, this form of church government might be called Ad Hoc Bet Din, that is, an "As needed court." If there is a need, a court or council is constituted. They rule authoritatively according to Scripture and confession. Having ruled, we abide, they disband.

CORO is a lean and clean method, not a denomination. Any local church can benefit from the advantages inherent in authoritative, external counsel by adopting the same or a similar method. It provides all the upside of the wider assemblies with none of the downside. CORO is a pleasure. It meets the judicial needs of a local church without standing committees, politicking or quotas.

Who's to Blame?  You can "blame" the development of this method on the many Reformed men who have helped us over the years with no strings attached. When we were first emerging from dispensational-mission to Reformed-church status, three local ministers helped us in the pre- and re-examination of Elder candidates and in their subsequent ordination (Dr. Paul Szto and Rev. Ray Vander Laan of the CRC, and Rev. William Shishko of the OPC). When we needed more comprehensive instruction in the Reformed faith, various OPC, CRC and PCA ministers (including Dr. Greg Bahnsen, Dr. Cornelius Van Til, and Dr. Samuel Ling) provided it. When we had a crisis of ministry several years ago, Rev. G. I. Williamson graciously came to Brooklyn, heard our plight and made his recommendation. We didn't necessarily like it but we heeded it, trusting G. I. more than ourselves for we were "too close" to be confident of objectivity. Again and again we have found Reformed men eager to serve Christ by serving this church. Urban Nations is one of the most dramatic instances, with men from several denominations (as well as "Independents") willing to serve on our board.

And so when we found ourselves thrown out of the CRC for felonious Bible-believing, the answer to the question, "Which denomination should we join," was naturally answered, "None, for we are already                                                         a part of many." We embrace Organic Reformed government because it is Biblical, practical, proven and alive. We keep discovering Christian men who really act Christianly!

Is Paul Appealing? How About Moses? Thus you have some of the rationale, justification and history of Organic Presbyterianism. I fear I've demanded too much of you as a reader, even a patient one, but for the sake of completeness, allow me to say, we have made a provision for appeal even though Scripture does not explicitly require that such be established in the churches. Apart from Paul's frequent appeals to the hearts of his readers, the only explicit appeal we read of in the New Testament is Paul's to Caesar (Ac. 25:11, et al.) (you will recall that we disproved the proposition that Acts 15 requires some sort of abiding "Court of Appeal" in the churches).

Neither do we find any explicit appeal "system" in the Old Testament covenant administration unless we reckon the appeals made by the oppressed unto the Lord—appeals which he has sworn to hear (Ex. 22:22-23; Dt. 24:15, e.g.)—as being part of the justice system. Yes, there is a provision to bring more difficult cases to "the priests, who are Levites, and to the judge who is in office at that time," found in Deut. 17:8-13, but note that criminal and civil suits were explicitly in view here (v. 8), not ecclesiastical matters.

Further, it is not at all clear that the cases so brought were appeals following a lower court decision; they seem to have been instances of deference to a higher, more competent court because of difficulty (v. 8). We find an application of this principle today each time a consistory or session seeks outside counsel on a matter it regards as "above its head," not an uncommon occurrence among humble elders in difficult times such as these. Be that as it may, it is very clear in the Deuteronomic prescriptions that no appeal of the Levitical court's decision was permitted (vv. 11-12), even if they were the first to hear the case.

Does the absence of any explicit command to provide an avenue of appeal mean that we have nowhere to ground the propriety of some sort of appeal process in churches today? Not at all. It means only that any such appeal system will be based upon implicit, not explicit, warrant. Rejecting the torturous and tortuous exegetical artifices which endeavor to find in Acts 15 a text establishing a hierarchical church court system does not mean appeals have no place in the post-apostolic church.

On the contrary, they are easily justified by two indisputable facts taught in Scripture: 1) God loves justice (Ps. 99:4), and 2) Men are born corrupt and are prone to corruption. A method, therefore, which seeks to mitigate the sinful propensities of man and further the administration of true justice as an offering to God—a method which can do so patently, palpably and persistently—needs no further justification. Having an appellate system in place may lead to the realization of these ends.

But Is It Really Presbyterian? Yes, it is. The details of the system are subordinate to its ends. On this view, church "courts," as such, are desirable only insofar as they tend to decrease the effects of sin in juridical administration and improve the likelihood of rendering judgments pleasing to God. System particulars must not be granted a higher berth than the substance they are generated to obtain.

I urge upon you a consideration of our method: We have flatly rejected gratuitous and self-serving interpretations of Acts 15, virtually the only passage appealed to by denominational Presbyterians to justify their "court as church" systems. But we have not, for that, lost a single element of a truly Presbyterian church government. Thomas Witherow wrote what is for many the finest concise defense of Presbyterian polity extant: The Apostolic ChurchWhich Is It? Mr. Witherow wrote therein: "Let there be only one assembly of elders to which a congregation can submit an appeal, and the apostolic principle is preserved. . . . (The) subordination of church courts [i.e., several levels], which some injudicious friends of Presbyterianism speak of as being a main feature of the system, is a mere accidental arrangement . . . by no means essential to the existence of the system." Messiah's Congregation is a Reformed, indeed a Presbyterian church. It is not, in a fair use of the word, an "Independent" church, our membership in the Alliance of Reformed Churches quite aside.

The Biblically unwarranted demand for an explicit and detailed church order has, in not a few instances, given birth to a virulent Pharisaism and bred a gaggle of unctuous Pecksniffians sitting in judgment upon their brothers, contrary to James' warning in 4:12. For our part, we long to see church government regarded as an "in-order-to" matter, a means by which God's love is communicated and his law administered; the form should not be made an article of faith. Such re-thinking places Reformed polity on a surer footing. It encourages us to think covenantally rather than provincially. Rather than despising those who differ with us on the matter of church government, we should feel free to argue with them on the basis of general conformity to the Scriptural model and real-life expediency in serving the interests of Christ and his people. For is that not what ought to truly set apart Reformed church government from others?

Such an emphasis happily places us in the company of the great A. A. Hodge, who said, "The permanent results of biblical interpretation unite with the history of Christ's providential and gracious guidance of the churches in proving that He never intended to impose upon the church as a whole any  particular form of organization. Neither He nor His apostles ever went beyond the suggestion of general principles and actual inauguration of a few rudimentary forms."

Remember the synagogue? Solid core, otherwise flexible. Let's show our strength through our forbearance. Come on, people now, smile on your brother.

  • 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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