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Principles Behind Reformed Church Polity 1

Principles and Practice of Reformed Church Polity


A study relating to the Church Order does not seem so very relevant or helpful to the questions we face in the daily lives we’re given to live. What, forsooth, has the government of the church got to do with our labours in the factory, our responsibilities with our children?! Is church government not simply a minister’s speciality - a field of study with which we need not burden our brains? Come to think of it, is church polity not simply church politics…?

No, dear reader, church polity is not church politics. Granted, in the church of the Lord too many situations (of the distant and the not so distant past) have wreaked of politics, and I am embarrassed that it is so; in the church of Jesus Christ there is room neither for politics nor for politricks. And I grant also that the sins of leaders (of the distant and the not so distant past) have eroded confidence in the value of church polity.

Yet precisely here is possibly the reason why a column on church polity is very necessary. The temptation certainly exists to focus attention on people and their sins. Attention ought, though, to be focused on God’s wish. That is: the accent ought not to be on how things have been done, but rather on how things ought to be done. As we look to the future, then, let us together consider what the Lord has told us in His Word about how He would have His church be governed.

1.1. Scriptural Basis for Church Government

It is a given of Scripture that God is sovereign over all. I read in the Psalms that "the kingdom is the Lord’s, And He rules over the nations" (Ps 22:28); "He is a great King over all the earth" (Ps 47:2); "the Lord has established His throne in heaven, And His kingdom rules over all" (Ps 103:19), etc. As a result, we confess Sunday by Sunday that "I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth". He who created the world in the beginning - He’s now my Father in Jesus Christ- still rules the world sovereignly today. 

After Christ’s triumph over sin and Satan on the cross of Calvary, (God) put all things under (Christ’s) feet ..." (Eph 1:22). To have things ‘under one’s feet’ means to lord over them, to have these things in subjection to you (cf Josh 10:24f). So Jesus could say before His ascension into heaven: "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth" (Mt 28:18). Note how comprehensive these two statements are: the ascended Christ rules over all things. This includes not just secular governments and authorities, but also His Church. That is why the Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, which is His body (Eph 1:20-23; Col 1:18).

Since Christ is the Head of the church, it follows that in the church of Jesus Christ things are to be done Christ’s way. We confess this truth in the Belgic Confession with these words: "We believe that this true Church (this is the Church as confessed in the previous articles) must be governed according to the spiritual order which our Lord has taught us in His Word" (Article 30). Similarly, "We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the Church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the Church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded" (Article 32). The church belongs to the Saviour, and precisely for this reason it is imperative that we - who by God’s grace may belong to His church- see to it that His Church is indeed governed according to His Word. A church that confesses Christ’s sovereignty with the mouth, but does not honour Christ’s sovereignty in the concrete deeds of church government, is not faithful to the only Master.

1.2. How Does Christ Rule His Church?

Christ has taught us in His Word how He rules His church. We confess it in LD 12.31: He "governs us by His Word and Spirit". With the help of a couple of big words, I want to make two distinctions here. Christ, I’m convinced, governs His church by His Word and Spirit ‘immediately’ and ‘mediately’.


The first of these two big words captures the notion that Christ rules without any intervening means. (In the word ‘immediately’, ‘im’ = no and ‘media’ = means. So ‘immedia’ = no means.) Christ rules His Church directly by His Word and Spirit, without using particular tools. Through the school of life, Christ works directly upon His people to make them grow in faith, even in spite of the sins and weaknesses of the office-bearers. We may think here of a passage as Hebrews 12: "If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons…. He [chastens] us for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness" (vss 7ff).


Christ also rules His Church via a particular medium, that is, by means of tools. The tool God is pleased to use is people, firstly via the office of all believers, and secondly by placing between Christ and His Church the special offices. THE OFFICE OF ALL BELIEVERS

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out not on the twelve disciples only, but on all believers. As a result, the apostle could write to the entire congregation in 1 Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people…." Similarly, Paul asks each member of the church of Christ in Corinth: "do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16; cf 6:19). 

With the gift of the Holy Spirit, all Christians been anointed to the ‘office-of-all-believers’. We are, then, all prophets, priests and kings. We are called Christians because, as we each confess, "... I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in His anointing, so that I may as prophet confess His Name, as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him, and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with Him eternally over all creatures" (LD 12.32). Since we all share the office of all believers, we all have a place and task in the congregation. True, we all have different gifts, and so we have the privilege of complementing each other. As we read it in Romans 12:4-8, "For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness". In the capacity of the office of all believers, we all may be tools in the Saviour’s hands through which He cares for His church. THE SPECIAL OFFICES

It pleases the Head of the Church, though, particularly to use special offices. When Christ ascended into Heaven He gave special gifts to some people so that, in addition to serving in the office of all believers, they might also be enabled to serve in the special offices. "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God ..." (Eph 4:11-13). As Paul also says to the elders of Ephesus: "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).

1.3 Church Polity Defined

Church Polity does not concern itself with Christ’s ‘immediate’ governing of His Church. Church Polity does not concern itself either with how individuals carry out the office of all believers. The focus of Church Polity is instead the special offices. 

The Lord of the Church has revealed in His Word particular principles concerning the way He wishes His church to be governed. In the Church Order these principles get worked out into concrete regulations. 

Church Polity, therefore, may be defined as 

"the rules which officebearers have formulated from the principles given in God’s Word for conduct both within the congregation locally as well within the federation which the churches have formed."

Since these regulations are built on principles drawn from the Word of God, one must - if one would do justice to a study of the Church Order- pay attention first to the underlying principles.

2. Christ’s Authority is Entrusted to the Local Church

Fundamental to scriptural Church Polity is the notion that Christ rules in the Church, and does so by means of officebearers. Today’s officebearers have only local jurisdiction. 

2.1 The Authority of the Apostles

Christ was pleased to give authority to particular persons. In Matthew 16 we read of Christ giving authority to the apostles. There we read of Christ asking His disciples, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" (vs 13). Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (vs 16). Jesus then said, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church .…" In Greek the name ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’. Jesus, then, says He’ll build His church on Peter. Yet the Lord’s intent is not to build His Church on the man Peter, but rather to build His Church on Peter’s confession. That is: Christ will build His Church on the confession that Christ is the Son of the living God.

Jesus then went on to say, "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (vss 17-19). 

As Christ builds His church on the confession of Peter, he gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Yet the keys were not given simply to the individual Peter, but in him also to the other disciples in their capacity as office-bearers. That becomes evident from Jesus’ further words in Mt 18, where discipline (one of the keys by which one binds and looses) is a power given to the church. Again, after His resurrection, Christ "breathed on" the disciples, "and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’" ((John 20:22,23). The twelve (now minus Judas Iscariot) were entrusted with the function of overseeing the entrance to heaven. In a word, the disciples and the apostles received Christ’s authority. 

So it was that the apostles, after the Holy Spirit had been poured out, set themselves to preaching the gospel. By so doing they, in accordance with the authority they had received, opened the kingdom of heaven. Equally, they spoke candid words of admonition when necessary. For example, in Galatians 2:11-14 we read how Paul rebuked Peter to his face for his hypocrisy. Likewise in 1 Corinthians 5 we read how Paul exhorts the Church at Corinth to exercise church discipline against a brother guilty of sexual immorality. In the face of such sin there was no room for this man in heaven. Both through preaching and the exercising of church discipline we find the apostles busy with opening and closing the kingdom of heaven.

2.2 The Authority of their Replacements

But the apostles could not live forever. Who would receive their authority when they received the crown of glory? Other apostles could not be appointed in their place, since to be an apostle you had to be a witness of Jesus’ work and resurrection from the dead. That is clear from Peter’s words in Acts 1, when a replacement apostle was sought for Judas. Peter said to the crowd, "Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection." When the apostles died there were no more witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, and so no replacements for the office of apostle. So the office of apostle ceased. 

Yet that does not mean that their authority ceased to exist on this earth. For the Lord of the church moved His apostles to designate men who received the authority to open and close the kingdom of heaven. After the apostle Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the gospel in Asia Minor, they visited the infant churches and "appointed elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). In Titus 1:5 Paul tells Titus that he left him in Crete "that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you." 1 Timothy 5:17 makes a distinction between elders who rule and elders who labour in Word and doctrine, with some overlap between the two. We have come to know these distinctions as elders and ministers.

Here, then, is drawn out what the apostle wrote about the ascension of Christ. At His ascension Christ gave gifts to men; "... He himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers" (Eph 4:11). Of the 4 offices mentioned in this text, the office of pastors and teachers (i.e. elders) is the only one that is still present today. The office of apostle ceased with the death of the last apostle. The office of prophet (Acts 11:28 and 21:10 speak of a prophet named Agabus) also ceased when the Bible was completed, for no new or further revelations were required (cf Rev 22:18ff). Timothy and Philip were both evangelists (cf Acts 21:8 and 2 Timothy 4:5), but it is difficult to ascertain what exactly this office entailed. Certainly there is no instruction in the Scripture that there is to be in Christ’s church an office of ‘evangelist’. So we are left with the "pastors and teachers." It is through them that the Lord is pleased to rule His Church today. 

2.2.1 Let Honour be Shown

These "pastors and teachers" are variously referred to in Scripture as presbyters or elders, bishops or overseers, as well as shepherds and guardians. To these officebearers the Lord has given authority, and so the apostle asked honour for these brothers. "And we urge you, brethren, to recognise those who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake" (1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). A similar exhortation is given in Hebrews 13:17, "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you." Because the Head of the church has given His authority to the elders, it is for all God’s people to show these elders honour and respect - not because of their person, but because God has given His authority to them. 

2.2.2 Let Officebearers Speak the Word of God 

If it is true that office-bearers receive their authority from God, then it follows that they have no authority of their own. When they teach, then, or admonish, they must speak and act according to God’s Word. As soon as an office-bearer does otherwise, he steps outside His God given authority and endangers the Church of Christ. In the words of the elders, then, the congregation must be able to hear the Voice of the Shepherd.

Similarly, since office-bearers derive their authority from Christ and His Word alone, they are never allowed to come with a sword in an effort to enforce obedience to God. They cannot, for example, mobilise the authorities to support them by means of imposing fines or a prison sentence. An office-bearer’s authority is spiritual. Though this may appear to be stating the obvious, past incidents in the history of the church serve to remind us that this has often been forgotten. 

2.3 The Principle Of Local Authority

How far, now, does the authority of an officebearer extend? The authority of the apostles was universal. Hence the apostle Paul could with authority write letters to the church in Rome, the church in Corinth, the churches in Galatia, the church in Philippi, Colosse, Thessalonica, etc. Similarly, when the apostle John was on the island of Patmos he was told by the Head of the Church to send a letter to each of the seven churches in Asia Minor. Have elders a similar authority? May elders of the church of Kelmscott exercise any degree of authority in, say, the church of Launceston?

The universal character of the authority given to the apostles died with the office. In Acts 14:23 one reads that elders were appointed in every church. None of the elders were appointed to serve all the churches. Likewise in Titus 1:5 we read that Titus had been left in Crete to "appoint elders in every city." Again, in Revelation 2 & 3 we are introduced to seven local officebearers; each "angel" (presumably minister = ruling elder) was attached to a local congregation. It is also instructive that the church in each locality is described in the New Testament as a1 "body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:27). That is: each local church is complete in itself, completely a church. 

Further, it is important to note that the Voice of the Shepherd is heard locally. The preaching of the gospel (a responsibility of the elders) occurs by the speaking of men, and by the nature of the case that is inherently local. By the preaching of the gospel, through Word and sacrament, the church is locally gathered. So no single church is above another church (more on this point next time), and no officebearer is above another officebearer. In the words of Jesus Himself, "One is your Teacher [or Leader], the Christ, and you are all brethren" (Mt 23:8). This reality has received concrete expression in Article 802 of our Church Order, where we read, "No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no office-bearer over other office-bearers." No officebearer within the bond of churches can dictate what must be done in another church. His authority is local only. 


  1. Note: the Greek does not have the definite article “the”.  It is therefore wrong to translate here “the body of Christ”.  Rather, the church of Corinth is “a body of Christ”, complete in itself.
  2. The equivalent of Article 74 of the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches as printed in the Book of Praise.
    Guido deBres originally placed this sentence in Article 30 of his Belgic Confession.  After deBres died a Church Order was written, and so it was deleted from Article 30 and made Article 1 of the Church Order.  It now has a place at the end of the Church Order not because the article is not so important, but simple because this is where it fits best in relation to the overall structure of the Church Order.