Pumping for a New Church Order

Recent conversations and observations across the RCA suggest that an alternate church order is at work. It is sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit. It isn’t always consistent, but it pushes its way forward. When, for example, a denominational task force of which I was chair asked about revising the church order, we received a number of replies from ministers who were impatient with elders who dared question their ministerial authority. At the time this began to express itself as a mini-movement to have so-called “executive consistories.”

This has changed and morphed a bit. Now we are getting ministers who ask why we aren’t getting with the program of “governance” by moving to Carver at the local level (of all things!!). When Carver was introduced it was intended for the GSC, and them alone (and then it was allowed as possible only as the GSC acted as an agency that hired employees). Now ministers are wanting to move beyond elders and deacons altogether.

This takes a different turn as we begin to hear about something called an “apostolic order.” I’m not sure I have any idea what that means in particular, but what’s surfacing is a network of churches that find themselves under the authority of the churches that “parented” them. There are new networks growing along so-called apostolic lines. That’s part of what’s going on with “coaching.” Churches and ministers are being measured by whether they are “missional” however that is to be described.

At issue is authority. This has an all-too-familiar sound for children of the Reformation. “Apostolic orders” move in two directions at the same time: they are episcopal on the one hand and free church on the other. Episcopal in that ministers and churches stand in heirarchical relation to one antoher. Free church in that authority is assumed by persons who claim the Spirit. The Reformer struggled against both these camps because they saw the authority of the Word as challenged. Authority was not lodged in persons, but in the Word through the Spirit as the Spirit called together assemblies of offices.

As I understand it, Reformed theology has claimed that the Word creates a way of being in the world. That way of being is always open to challenge. But it does so openly and through structures of authority — which is what church order is all about, the structuring of divine authority within the church.

Okke Postma put me onto this first, and I met it again in some recent study of a close reading of Calvin’s Institutes. Calvin talks about the Spirit in both the third and fourth books. The third book is of the internal work of the Spirit. This is the Calvin beloved by nadere Reformatie folk: the Spirit who works through election, justfication, conversion, etc. The fourth book has the Spirit working externally, through the church. Both books must be held together. The external work of the Spirit is no less necessary than the “internal.” Both are held together in the confessions.

We have always been able to hold the two together in the RCA. I’m not sure we still can. We can’t if an alternate church order is snaking its way through the church. Should it prevail, we will end up with a different way of being in the world. It may be legitimate. It will not be Reformed. And we will have lost a great deal.

5 thoughts on “Pumping for a New Church Order

  1. And, if it is not Reformed, then what are we doing?And, if the answer to that is that we are following God’s leading and leaving behind something that is no longer useful, then isn’t changing all of that while maintaining a Reformed Church in America an idolatry?Of course, if we decide to stop maintaining a Reformed Church and merge into some larger body that has the polity we think we’re being called into, then many people cannot maintain their bases of personal power. Which, I suspect (being a “denominational cynic” as somebody named me the other day)is the actual purpose of this impulse toward governmental change. Because being Reformed, and taking it really seriously, takes away any hope of having personal power. We’re meant to all be in covenant together, serving one another, giving all the power and glory to God. But, when we do that, it is very difficult for any one person or small group–even a GSC–to control the agenda for our own good. And we might have a situation where the Spirit really was manifest, and it would be difficult to pre-determine the outcome of consitory meetings or classis meetings or even General Synods. And where would we be then?I have become increasingly convinced that God still has things for the RCA–which has always had a voice far out of proportion to its size–to say to the whole Church. Unfortunately, I suspect that, for a long time, the RCA hasn’t been interested in saying those things. And I worry that God has grown tired of arguing with us about them.

  2. Al, this just boggles my mind. What you describe is so antithetical to how I work, to how I believe our theology and polity have taught all of us how to work. “Now ministers are wanting to move beyond elders and deacons altogether.” Egad!I guess part of what boggles is that I’m trying to see how that emphasis you describe fits with other RCA movements and propsals that usually appear to be supported by many of those same “apostolic orders” types: commissioned pastors, inclusion of deacons in the higher assemblies, expansion of the “marks of the chuch” to include evangelists, etc. I’m wanting some kind of “Grand Unification Theory” to make sense of this. Is it as simple as: “it’s all about power”?Dan Griswold

  3. May one infer from your comments, Al, that this is a reflection after having attended the affinity classes pow-wow last week? What you have described does not seem to me to be an “apostolic order” since it is neither apostolic [Apostles exercised authority in councils] nor an order [way too loosey-goosy a paradigm]. It seems more like a parasitic parachurch within parts of the RCA. It has been invited in through a national-level affiliation with CRM [Church Resource Ministries], itself an offspring of Fuller and the Navigators. The 2003 Lilly Endowment proposal lifted numerous paragraphs of its design section whole-cloth from the vision and values statements of CRM. It is well worth checking out the CRM website: [http://www.crmleaders.org/about_usThere you will find such claims as: “No expertise or training for ministry replaces the Lordship of Christ exercised by the power of the Holy Spirit.” “We believe disciplined people do not need hierarchy, disciplined thinkers do not need bureaucracy, and disciplined action does not need excessive or centralized controls.” “We value the freedom to be spontaneous in decision making and are biased toward decentralized structures.” “We catalyze and shape communities of transformation among church planters, pastors, lay leaders, younger leaders, and among the poor. While diverse in form, these communities of transformation most often are small groups or cells where leaders can know and be known.”Is this sounding familiar?Accountability is to one’s cell or network, then uward to regional and national coaches/coordinators in a structure “mirroring but not accountable to our polity. [Lilly proposal, 2003]”It is not that this stuff has been hidden from sight. Not only has it been extant for 5 years [11 years if you trace the start of ReFocus groups in the RCA], it has been funded to the tune of millions of dollars. The real wonder is that it has not made deeper inroads. As for a general field theory that harmonizes this anti-structural movement with the centralization Carver types, try a “marriage of temporary convenience” analysis. Ultimately, the two camps are philosophically opposed and irreconcilable. But right now they are each other’s excuse; as the anarchists were to the monarchists in WWI and the terrorists are to Bush in our time. Bottom line to date, the accomplishments of the current RCA administration are all internal structural changes–not more churches or more members. If there can be let loose a group that will pound away at local churches and classes, telling them that they are not doing their jobs and demonstrating that they have no effective authority, then that dust-up may help obscure the lack of progress in the national program and the true impacts of the internal re-structuring.

  4. As usual, you get to the systemic heart, Jim.

    I don’t think everyone is thinking in an “orderly” way. However, there is much talk about how the order has to change. My sense is that the change desired is fundamental.

    My historical antennae went up. The Reformers were battling on two sides: the Roman church on the one and the left-wing Anabaptists on the other. In both cases the Reformers were up against a version of personal authority. It was in the person of the bishop on the one hand, and in persons who claimed charismatic authorization on the other. The Reformers (both Lutheran and Reformed) placed the Word at the center to move away from the abuse of power they saw in the persons.

    What frightens me is when I hear persons within the church assuming authority and using power that has not been granted by the assemblies. And in fact see the assemblies as hinderances of the work of the Spirit. A church order is a way of assigning authority. And a Reformed church order claims that it does so under the guidance of God. When persons assume authority outside that order we begin to have real problems. Not that this is new. This goes back to Scripture’s own story (you need only go back to the Torah itself to find the issue of authority front and center).

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