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Principles Behind Reformed Church Polity 2

Principles and Practice of Reformed Church Polity


3. Towards a Bond of Churches

3.1 From One Church To Many Churches

The Book of Acts has much to tells us concerning the formation of local churches. In Acts 5:11 we read "So great fear came upon all the church…." The church mentioned here is a reference to the church in Jerusalem. On Pentecost Day the apostles had preached the Gospel and many had come to faith (Acts 2:41). However, those who came to faith did not remain as islands to themselves but rather sought each other out and met together. So we read in Acts 2:44 that "all who believed were together, and had all things in common" and in vs 46 we are told that they "continued together with one accord in the temple, …breaking bread from house to house…." Similarly, in Acts 4:32 we read, "Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common." The believers in Jerusalem formed one body and did things as one body. Together they formed the Church of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.

This church gets mentioned once again in Acts 8:1, "Now Saul was consenting to (Stephen’s) death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." The one church in Jerusalem was broken up through the persecution, so that Christians spread abroad. Like ripples on a pond, the believers at Jerusalem were spread abroad further and further, as far as Judea, Samaria, Galatia, (Acts 9:31), the two coastal cities Phoenicia and Antioch, and the island of Cyprus (Acts 11:19).

Did the scattered Christians of Jerusalem remain one church? Are we to envisage a single ‘city church’ becoming a ‘regional church’ by virtue of the fact that the members of the ‘city church’ were dispersed over numerous towns throughout the surrounding region? It appears not. Instead of suggesting the formation of a regional church (say, of Judea and/or Samaria and/or Galatia), the text of Scripture would have us think of numerous separate, complete churches arising in the towns to which the Christians were scattered. The evidence is as follows:

in Acts 9:31 we read of churches: "Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified ...." A footnote to this verse informs us that some manuscripts record church in the singular. The singular may well be the better reading, but the ambiguity of the textual witnesses indicates that one cannot build strong arguments either way on this text.

Far more compelling is what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians. He writes in 1:13, "For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it." This text is a reference to the persecution he had begun in the church in Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 8:1. Note the singular; Paul speaks about "the church in Jerusalem". The apostle goes on to relate that God called him through His grace (i.e. on the way to Damascus), that he then went on to Arabia, returned to Damascus, and so didn’t go back to Jerusalem to see Peter till three years later (Galatians 1:15-20). Striking, now, is how Paul describes the ecclesiastical scene after three years had passed. For Paul says of himself that he "was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ" (Galatians 1:22). Note the use of the plural. Note also that "the church in Jerusalem" has changed to "the churches of Judea". That is: as a result of the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, this one church became the churches of Judea. The one church became many churches. 

Further texts illustrate the continuation of this development:

Acts 11:26:"And when (Barnabas) had found (Saul), he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." Note that the church in Antioch is described as a complete body in itself, and not a part of a wider, regional church. 

Acts 14:23: Paul and Barnabas had preached the Gospel throughout Asia Minor. "So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed." Here we read of a plurality of churches. 

Acts 15:41:"And (Paul) went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches." Again, not one church, but many churches.

Acts 16:5: "So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily."

Acts 20:17:"From Miletus (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church." To these elders Paul gave this charge: "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" (vs 28). These elders were made overseers of the flock in Ephesus (and not the flock in Antioch or in Jerusalem), and this flock in Ephesus is "the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" - complete in itself.

1 Corinthians 12:27: Paul describes "the church of God which is at Corinth" (I Corinthians 1:2) as "a body of Christ". That is: this church in Corinth is a complete body in itself. By extension, each church in any given community is a complete body.

The term ‘church’, then, is not to conjure up in our minds the notion of a regional or national entity of which each local church is a subset. The evidence of Scripture indicates instead that each local church is a complete church in itself. 

3.2. Churches Are Autonomous But Not Independent

Although each of the New Testament churches were separate churches, we yet read of cooperation and interaction between them. The following points serve to illustrate this: 


Believers who had been scattered by the persecution in Jerusalem had passed on the Gospel not only to other Jews but also to Gentiles. Under God’s blessing, many Gentiles came to faith. When it was heard in Jerusalem that Gentiles in Antioch had been converted to the Christian faith (let the recall that Jews were conditioned to keep the gospel for themselves; that’s why Peter needed the vision of the clean and unclean animals, Acts 10), the church at Jerusalem sent out Barnabas with the mandate "to go as far as Antioch" (Acts 11:22). The words "go as far as" suggest that Barnabas was not to travel directly to Antioch to investigate developments there, but was instead to touch base with various of the churches along the way, till he finally ended up in Antioch. Of significance to our topic is the fact that the church at Jerusalem displayed an interest in what was going on in other churches. The church in Jerusalem did not consider itself an island unattached to and uninterested in the other churches; the church in Jerusalem instead recognised that there was a bond of faith between the various churches. 


Acts 11:27-30 also tells us of prophets from Jerusalem going out to Antioch. One of them, Agabus, prophesied a severe, extensive famine which caused a need for assistance in Judea. In response to this prophesy, the believers in Antioch sent relief along with Barnabas and Saul to the elders in Judea. In so doing, they displayed an attitude of care to those with whom they shared a bond of faith.

The same attitude was evident amongst the churches in Macedonia and Achaia. Even though they were very distant from the church at Jerusalem and didn’t know the brethren there, "it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem" (Romans 15:25,26). Paul set this deed of the Macedonian brethren as an example before the church at Corinth: "Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia: that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints" (2 Corinthians 8:1-4). Further on in his letter (2 Corinthians 9:1-5) Paul encourages the Corinthians also to give for the benefit of the needy in churches outside of Corinth. 

The Thessalonians, who lived in the south of Greece, likewise made it their business to help out the brethren who lived in Macedonia, northern Greece. Paul encouraged the saints of Thessalonica, "But concerning brotherly love you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do so toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia" (1 Thessalonians 4:9,10). 


Paul writes to the saints in Rome, "I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also" (Romans 16:1,2). Similarly, we read in Acts 18:27 of Apollos receiving an ‘attestation’ when he travelled from Ephesus to Achaia: "And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived he greatly helped those who had believed through grace." That letters of commendation were written concerning a member travelling to another church demonstrates a recognition of the one bond of faith tying the churches together. 


In sending each other greetings, the churches gave expression to the fact that even though they were separate churches, they recognised each other as sister churches in Christ, united by their faith in Him. For that reason the apostle John concluded his second epistle, "The children of your elect sister greet you" (2 John: 13). Equally, to the church at Rome Paul writes, "The churches of Christ greet you" (Romans 16:16). And to the Corinthians: "The churches of Asia greet you" (1 Corinthians 16:19).

3.3 The Doctrinal Basis For Churches Federating Together 

To draw out why the local churches ought to work together, I look at the question first from a doctrinal point of view, and then from the angle of the communion of saints.

3.3.1 Doctrinal

The Lord has revealed in Scripture various characteristics of Christ’s church. We confess this aspect of God’s revelation in the Nicene Creed, with the words that "I believe one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" (Book of Praise, p. 438). THE CHURCH IS ONE

Various texts from Scripture compel us to view the church as one.

Matthew 1:21: the angel told Joseph to "call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins." Jesus did not come to save individuals, so many islands in a big sea, but a people, one people. 

Acts 15:14: James draws out the unity of God’s own, when he says: "Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name." The saved are not unconnected individuals. 

1 Corinthians 10:17: with reference to the Lord’s Supper the apostle Paul says, "For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread." Note that the "one bread and one body" of which the apostle speaks comprises more persons than simply the members of the church of Corinth, for he uses the word "we" - and so includes himself, though he was not a member of the Corinthian congregation.

Ephesians 4:4-6: here this unity comes out in all its strength: "there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." First and foremost, there is a spiritual bond between all the churches. They have all heard the one Gospel. Through the working of the one and the same Holy Spirit one faith was worked in all their hearts. The unity of the Spirit was there and therefore Paul urged the Ephesians in vs 3 to hold on to it: "endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." The gift of unity contains within itself the mandate to maintain the unity. THE CHURCH IS CATHOLIC 

The word ‘catholic’ means universal, and so describes the notion that the church of Christ is to be found all over the earth. This is the promise of Scripture:

Genesis 22:18: God said to Abraham: "In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed...." The Gospel will go to people of every tribe and tongue and nation. 

Psalm 87:14: by the election of God, persons from, Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia all have their spiritual roots in Jerusalem, the city of God. 

Revelation 7:9: in the vision Jesus showed him, John saw "a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb ...." 

We confess this catholicity of the church in Article 27 of the Belgic Confession with these words, 

"We believe and profess one catholic or universal church ... Moreover, this holy church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world." THE CHURCH IS APOSTOLIC

The Lord has revealed that His one church, in whatever locality it may be gathered on the face of the earth, believes the same doctrine, viz, the doctrine given to men by inspiration of God through the apostles.

Ephesians 2:20 describes the church as "having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets ...." 
Revelation 21:14 describes the new Jerusalem, which is the church in her perfection: "Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." 

It is because God has revealed one gospel that Paul could instruct the saints at Colossae to see to it that his letter to the Colossians "is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea" (Colossians 4:16). The one truth is valid for all the churches. That explains too why James could write one letter "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (James 1:1). The "twelve tribes" is Old Testament language to describe the New Testament Israel, the Church. There is one truth, one message valid for all the churches of Christ, and this one truth forms the basis of the bond between all the churches. THE CHURCH IS HOLY

All the churches of Christ share in the same sanctifying work of Christ’s Holy Spirit; they are all holy. The fact that one Holy Spirit works the same sanctification in all the churches draws out the unity that exists between these churches. 

1 Corinthians 1:2: Paul can address the Corinthian church as "those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints ...." 

1 Peter 1:1: Peter can address "the pilgrims of the Dispersion" in a similar way. Though these "pilgrims" are spread throughout five districts ("Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia") they are all "elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit ...." 

James 1:27: James addresses numerous churches with his one letter (he writes "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" ), and instructs all "to keep oneself unspotted from the world." Holiness cannot characterise just one local church, but must characterise all since the numerous local churches are united by the one work of the one Holy Spirit. CONCLUSION

God has told us in His Word that the churches are separate, autonomous. In His Word God has also told us that His Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The churches we read of in Acts, all separate churches but all equally the Lord’s churches, therefore made it their business to express and demonstrate an active interest in each other. In various ways these autonomous churches gave expression to the spiritual bond that united them. This thought comes back in what we confess in Article 27 of the Belgic Confession, that 

"this holy church ... is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith."

3.3.2 Exercising Communion Of Saints As Churches 

The notion that there is no room for churches to exist independently from each other can also be drawn out from the angle of the communion of saints. 

In Proverbs 11:14 and 15:22 Solomon advises, "Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.... Without counsel, plans go awry, But in the multitude of counsellors they are established." In other words, rather than tackle problems on your own, one ought to seek advice from others in order to make a wiser and more informed decision. For finite and sinful people in this broken world, seeking advice from others is necessary; it is equally necessary for a local church, for the same reasons, to seek input from other churches in facing the challenges on its path. 

Philippians 2:3,4: individuals not only need others; persons are also instructed to reach out to others. "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." In the brokenness of this world, it is equally necessary that each church look to the interests of other churches and offer assistance in the struggles of this life.

1 Corinthians 14:36: in Corinth women were being permitted to speak in Church. Paul wanted to show the church of Corinth that this was incorrect. To do so he appeals to practices elsewhere: "did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached?" That is: the gospel began in Jerusalem, and in that church the women did not speak in church. So the church of Jerusalem is held up as an example in Corinth as to how God wished to be worshipped in church

Here, then, is the material of the Belgic Confession, Article 28, applied to the level of inter-church relations:

"We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be. But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the church. They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body."

The Lord has saved a people for Himself, and in view of Satan’s constant attacks on the redeemed, plus the weaknesses that continue to hamper the redeemed, God’s people cannot afford to stand independently of each other as so many individuals. Christians need each other. That is true of churches as well.

We need, therefore, to guard against the danger of independentism, the thought that we can do it alone. This is not how Christ would have it. All the churches have received the same Gospel and all have received the grace needed to be able to help each other. This is true for us as churches within the one country, but by extension this also applies to us as churches on an international level. 

The bond that exists between the churches is the fact that all are saved by one Christ. Each church is His church, and therefore each church has a bond with the church of the next locality. Admittedly, in the Bible we do not read of churches forming a bond or a federation. But that need not surprise us, for a bond is an organisational expression of an existing unity, and it takes time for such an organisational expression to come into being. Nevertheless, it is a very scriptural thought that all God’s churches be bonded together. Though many miles or different cultures may separate the churches, that does not take away from the fact that there exists a bond, a unity. Such a bond is expressed through the formation of, and the interaction of churches within, a bond such as the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, or the Canadian Reformed Churches. 

3.4 To Join A Bond Of Churches is Voluntary

From the above, it follows that forming and joining a bond of churches is an act of obedience to the Lord. No man on earth, though, can compel another church to join a bond. In that regard, forming or joining a bond is totally a voluntary matter. This may well sound like a contradiction. Paul likewise, with regard to collecting money for the saints, writes to the Corinthians that to give was an act of obedience, yet it was totally voluntary. "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches in Galatia, so you must do also..." (1 Corinthians 16:1-3). Here Paul tells them of a need in the church at Jerusalem. Since the saints in Corinth and the saints in Jerusalem are equally the fruits of the work of one Holy Spirit, giving financial assistance to each other is at bottom not voluntary; rather, it is mandatory ("must do"). At the same time, Paul says, "I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. And in this I give advice ...." (2 Corinthians 8:8-10). So: Paul does not ‘lay down the law’ on the Corinthians in the matter of giving for others; he gives his "advice". But, he says, it’s an advice the Corinthians "must" accept. That is: though Paul could not compel them or make them give, yet before God it remained their duty to give. Likewise, no church can compel another church to join a bond of churches. This is a decision each church must make for itself. However, the criteria on which this decision is based must always be, ‘what example has Christ given and how can I most obediently and responsibly do as He would want of me?’ 

Any church which joins a bond of churches acknowledges thereby that it accepts other churches in that bond as churches of Christ and promises to stand by these churches no matter what happens and to give whatever assistance may be required, be it financial help, spiritual help, or by way of admonition. Churches within a bond promise to stand beside each other in service of the Lord. 

How it is that churches go about helping each other has been written down in the Church Order. Each church then which joins the bond promises to maintain and abide by the Church Order. This is no empty promise, for a Christian is bound to keep his word (Psalm 15). So the church at Kelmscott can therefore expect the Church at Mt Nasura to speak up and tell it when it goes astray, or expect help from other churches should it run into financial difficulty. As brothers in the Lord we are always to be ready to come to each other’s aid.