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.