by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Ephesians 5:23 “…Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.”
Belgic Confession Articles 30-32 deal with a specific aspect of the church, the subject of church polity: “We believe that this true church must be governed.” Church government is church polity. For many church polity is a dry and boring subject, as dry and boring, they imagine, as politics are in the world. The writer of the Belgic Confession did not share such a view. He saw the necessity of good church government for the welfare of God’s people.
When church authority is neglected and denied or abused and usurped the church suffers. For many years before the Reformation the church had suffered tyranny. The pope declared himself to be the head of the church on earth. Under him were a number of different men in different positions, each with their own rank. The Roman Catholic church has the same governmental structure today. At the bottom are common church members without rights. They cannot appoint their own officebearers. They have no right to appeal the decisions of the church. In fact, strictly speaking, they are not the church. Only the clergy are the church. Indeed, only the pope is the church; and only they who are in communion with him can be called church. This is still Rome’s position. We call it hierarchy, an ever ascending succession of offices from parish priest, through bishop, archbishop, cardinal to the pope himself. The Reformation rejected such a tyrannical government over the church.
On the other hand, without any government the church suffers chaos and confusion. How is God to be worshipped? Who makes the decisions in the local congregations? Who are the members and the leaders of the church? What is their relationship? How are truth and purity to be preserved in the congregations? The Anabaptists were radicals at the time of the Reformation, who, rejecting the tyranny of the pope and his clergy, sought to rid themselves of all or almost all church government. The church became a “free-for-all.” There are churches today where there is no membership list, no oversight of members, no supervision of the preaching, of the sacraments and of the worship services, and no discipline. Anything goes in the name of “Christian freedom.”
The Reformed churches reject both extremes. We teach freedom from the tyranny and abuse of hierarchy, but we also refuse to live in anarchy, a word which means “having no ruler.” Anarchy, both in church and state, is harmful.
We refuse anarchy because Christ is the Head of His church. As the Head He is not only the source of the church’s life but He also rules the church. Without the headship of Christ the church would be chaotic and God would be dishonoured. A body which refuses to listen to the head is a monstrosity. A body which seeks to rule itself without a head is impossible. How thankful we must be that Christ has not left us headless. He is our loving and sovereign Head. Let us submit ourselves gladly to Him in all things, including submission to the church government which He has appointed.
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 2: The Safety of Christ’s Yoke
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Government is everywhere. In the family the husband and father is the head of the home. Wives are called to submit to their husbands. Husbands are called to rule their wives in love. Children are called to obey their parents. Citizens are subject to civil magistrates and government officials. Government is essential for the well being of any society.
The church must be governed also. Many Christians agree that the church universal is under the headship of Christ. All Christians are called to obey and serve Him. But many Christians do not agree that they must submit to the government of a local congregation. This is because they fail to recognize that Christ rules His people by His grace and Holy Spirit through His Word in the church institute. Belgic Confession Article 28 has already mentioned this: being a member of the church includes “submitting [ourselves] to the doctrine and discipline [of the church], bowing [our] necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ …”
The government which Christ has ordained for His church is neither tyrannical nor negligent. Christ loves His church and therefore He has given to her a specific form of government for her edification. Paul writes. “For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed” (II Cor. 10:8). Elsewhere Scripture states, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). And again Paul writes, “Know them that labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves” (I Thess. 5:12-13). No wonder the Bible calls church leaders shepherds. They must love and care for the sheep as Christ Himself, who died for them, loves them and cares for them. Peter writes, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly, not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (I Peter 5:2-3). Paul warns the elders in Ephesus about this: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
The Christian needs to be in a church with good government because of the many false teachers who prey on Christians. Ordinarily, Christian not under the oversight of good elders will be easy prey for a convincing heretic. No wonder Jesus was so concerned for the people of Israel in His day: the spiritual leadership had degenerated so much that wolves instead of shepherds ruled over the flock. They were “as sheep having no shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).
Are you a member of a good Reformed church with a faithful pastor, wise elders and compassionate deacons? Be thankful for that blessing! If you are not, seek shelter under the wings of Christ’s church for the good of your own soul and that of your family!
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 3: That Spiritual Polity
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
II Corinthians 10:4: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God …”
Jesus Christ is King and Head of His church. Every Christian is called to submit to His yoke, and this includes submission to Him in the local congregation. Belgic Confession, Article 27 already taught us about the kingship of Christ: “This church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, with without subjects He cannot be.” The subjects or citizens of King Jesus are the members of the church. Christ also rules over the wicked, but He rules over them in a different sense. We speak of Christ’s “rule of power” over the whole universe, and of His “rule of grace” over His people, the church. That distinction is very important in our consideration of church government.
Christ rules over the wicked with a rod of iron; He dashes them in pieces like a potter’s vessel; and He exerts His almighty power for the deliverance and safety of His church (Psa. 2:9; Eph. 1:22; Rev. 19:15). It is not, therefore, the role of the church to Christianize the world, to bring all aspects of human society under Christian principles or to bring heaven to earth. The kingdom of Christ, manifested in the church, is not carnal, that is, “fleshly,” or governed by fleshly, worldly principles such as brute force, political intrigue or numerical strength (John 18:36-37). Jesus warned His disciples: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve” (Luke 22:25-26). When men through selfish ambition seek to govern the church for their own personal advancement, they do damage to the church and dishonour the church’s Lord.
For this reason the Belgic Confession reminds us that “this true church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord hath taught us in His Word.” Notice that word spiritual. The three words we should remember when we speak of church polity are “Word,” “Spirit” and “grace.”
First, the power by which Christ rules in His church is the power of grace. Grace is that beautiful attitude of favour which God displays to unworthy and undeserving sinners. But grace is also a power. By the power of grace God subdues our sins and renews us according to the image of Jesus Christ. Grace is a greater power than any power the world possesses: grace makes of a sinner a saint; of a blasphemer a singer of God’s praises; of a mean-spirited, spiteful, selfish, hateful person a lover of God and his neighbour. Second, the standard by which Christ rules His church is the Word of God, the Bible. This means that the church is not governed by the opinions of the powerful or more influential members of the church; by the whims of the young people; by the dictates of society; but that the whole church submits together to the Word of God in all things. Quite simply, there is one voice to be heeded and obeyed in the church: Christ’s as He speaks in Holy Scripture! Third, this can be summarised in one word: spiritual. The church does not rely on carnal means to bring people into the church or to keep them in the church. The Spirit by His grace and Word is active in the church for the glory of God.
Is that how the church of which you are a member is governed? Then you may know yourself to be under the care of the Good Shepherd.
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 4: Ruled by Officebearers
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Titus 1:5: “…that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city …”
Paul left Titus on the island of Crete to deal with unfinished, ecclesiastical business: he must ordain elders in every city. For the apostle Paul, a church is not organized, and therefore something is wanting (or lacking) if officebearers, especially elders, have not be ordained to rule the local congregations. This is very enlightening for our modern age. It is not enough for a group of Christians to meet together in someone’s house to have informal Bible studies or even to listen to sermons on the internet. Christian fellowship is good, but that in itself is not a church. A church institute does not exist without elders. A group of Christians might have a missionary working among them, but without their own elders they cannot call themselves a church. They are a fellowship and they should seek to be organized as a church. Until they do, there is something “wanting” (lacking) there.
The Belgic Confession makes the same point about the “spiritual polity” by which the true church must be governed: “namely, that there must be ministers … also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church …” These men—ministers, elders and deacons—are officebearers. They are necessary for there to be a church in any given place.
An officebearer is one who occupies an office. By “office” we mean a position of authority. Specifically, an officebearer in the church is a man who is called by Christ through the church to occupy a position of authority in the church. As an officebearer that man represents Jesus Christ, who, as the Prophet, Priest and King, is the Officebearer from whom all other officebearers derive their authority. In the Old Testament, God called and equipped men to serve Him in the offices of prophet, priest and king. In the New Testament every Christian occupies the office of believer and is a prophet, priest and king by the Spirit and grace of Christ. Besides the office of believer there are the special offices of minister, elder and deacon. These offices correspond roughly to the offices of prophet (minister), priest (deacon) and king (elder).
There are some who insist that the office of believer in the New Testament does away with the need for special offices in the New Testament church. Their cry is “every man ministry.” But we must recognize that Jesus Himself has ordained how He will govern His church. “Every man ministry” is not the rule of Scripture but the cry of a rebellious spirit. It requires meekness and humility to submit to the church government which Christ has instituted.
An officebearer is not a mere functionary. He has real, spiritual authority. I Thessalonians 5:12 says that officebearers are “over you” in the Lord. That authority comes from Jesus Christ Himself. Christ preaches to us through the ministers; Christ governs us through the elders; Christ administers mercy to us through the deacons. We must, therefore, recognize Christ’s authority in the godly officebearers whom He has sent. This involves, as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us, “that I … submit myself to their good instruction and correction with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand” (LD 39, Q&A 104). This also means that officebearers must give account to Christ for the way in which they have exercised their office. An awesome, but a blessed, responsibility indeed! (Heb. 13:17; I Peter 5:4).
Do you love your officebearers, pray for them, and submit to them for Christ’s sake?
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 5: Temporary, Extraordinary Officebearers
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Ephesians 4:11: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;”
The subject of church office is very important. The question is often asked, “Which offices must the church have?” Some, such as the Roman Catholic church, have many offices foreign to Scripture, such as the pope, cardinal, archbishop, archdeacons and many others. Others, such as some modern mega churches, have multiplied positions in the churches: they have senior pastors, associate pastors, executive pastors, youth pastors, worship leaders, youth coordinators, and much more, but neglect the biblical offices. Others, such as the Charismatics, claim that the office of prophet, evangelist and apostle remain in the church. The Reformed position is that Christ has appointed three permanent offices: minister, elder and deacon. These three offices are sufficient for the good governance of the church.
Ephesians 4:11 lists several offices, some of which were temporary, extraordinary offices. The most significant of these is apostle. Even at the time of the writing of the New Testament the office of apostle was limited to the eleven disciples, Matthias and Paul (Acts 1:22, 9:15, 26:15-18). “Are all apostles?” asks Paul rhetorically in I Corinthians 12:29. The Bible is clear that the office of apostle passed away with the completion of the Bible by John when he received the Revelation. We see this, first, because the apostles were a foundational office, that is, the apostles were called to build the foundation of the New Testament church. Once that foundation was built—upon the writings of the apostles and prophets—the need for foundation-builders passed away (Eph. 2:20). Second, we know that no man occupies the office of apostle today because of the unique qualifications of an apostle. An apostle had to be an eyewitness of the risen Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 1:22; I Cor. 9:1-2). An apostle had to be able to prove his apostolic credentials by miracles (II Cor. 12:12; Rom. 15:19; Heb. 2:3-4). No man—despite the claims of modern Charismatics—can prove such credentials. Third, an apostle, by virtue of his office, had unique authority. This included infallible teaching authority, authority of government over all the churches and authority of discipline (I Cor. 7:17, 14:37; II Cor. 10:8, 11:28). No man today can claim such authority over all the churches. Thus we must reject all modern claimants to the apostolic office (Rev. 2:2).
Besides apostles there were evangelists and prophets in the New Testament church. An evangelist is not merely a church planter as we might understand that word today. An evangelist—such as Timothy, Titus and Philip—was an apostolic assistant. The work of an evangelist today is included in the role of a minister (II Tim. 4:5). A prophet was a person who, before the completion of Scripture, received and communicated direct messages from God. Agabus was such a prophet (Acts 11:28, 21:10). With the completion of Scripture, direct communication with God in the form of special revelation has ceased. This was another foundational office which is no longer necessary in the modern church (Eph. 2:20; Heb. 1:1-3).
The extraordinary offices have fulfilled their purpose. Now we have the fullness of the Spirit and the completed Scriptures (II Tim. 3:16).
But the permanent, special offices of minister, elder and deacon remain.
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 6: Male Officebearers Only
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Timothy 2:12: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
Male headship is a doctrine of the Word of God which brings the church into conflict with the world. Faced with modern feminism, many churches are tempted to open the offices of minister, elder and deacon to women. The Reformed churches, in faithfulness to Christ, must resist. The passages which address the subject of officebearers in the New Testament church all teach that men, and not women, must be in those offices. The first deacons were men: “Look ye out among you seven men …” (Acts 6:3). In the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus, Paul restricts the offices to men. The Belgic Confession speaks about “faithful men [being] chosen according to the rule prescribed to St. Paul in his epistle to Timothy.” In I Timothy 3:1-13, Paul gives the qualifications for elders and deacons, one of which is that he be “the husband (if he is married) of one wife” (vv. 2, 12). Clearly, only men are included in this description. However, I Timothy 2 is even clearer. There Paul states expressly, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (vv. 11-12). The same instructions are given in Titus 1:5-9.
We must notice, of course, that Jesus was not anti-women. Christ had many female followers, who were devoted to Him and served Him (Luke 8:2-3). Women were even privileged to be the first to see Him alive after His resurrection (Matt. 28:5-10). Women were present in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Women have been and still are members in the church and of great service to the church (Acts 5:14, 8:12, 9:36, 17:12, 21:9; Rom. 16:1-2; Gal. 3:28; Phil. 4:3). But for all that, Jesus appointed only men to be officebearers in His church. Women must not feel slighted by this, because godly women will humbly submit to Christ’s will as it is revealed in Scripture; and, besides this, the offices of the church are not positions of prestige, but places of lowly service. Male officebearers, called to be pastors, elders and deacons, must remember this. They are not called for their self-aggrandizement, but to serve the saints.
Feminists, however, object that the rule prescribed by Paul is only Paul’s opinion, and that Paul was influenced by his rabbinical teaching as a Jew. This is an attack on the inspiration of the Bible. Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ who speaks with the authority of the one who sent him. Before he introduces specific teaching on the position of men and women in the church he underlines the authority he has as an apostle: “Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity” (I Tim. 2:7). Also in I Corinthians 14—after he teaches that women are to be silent in the churches—Paul writes, “if any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (v. 37).
A humble Christian woman will listen to the Word of God, even when her flesh is offended by it. Christ ordained male officebearers for the church’s good, including the good of the women of the church.
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 7: Pastors to Preach the Word
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 10:14: “… And how shall they hear without a preacher?”
The first of the three offices which Christ has given to His church is the minister or pastor. Many believe—and, sadly, some ministers do nothing to dispel this myth—that the minister is the “boss” of the congregation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the minister has real authority in the church, he is a servant of the congregation. The word minister means to serve. Woe be to that minister who uses the ministry as the Pharisees did: “[they] love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi” (Matt. 23:6-7)! Instead, a minister knows that he gives himself to the labours of the ministry so that he might serve the Lord Jesus by edifying the church. The other title of the minister is pastor. This word means shepherd. The minister or pastor must remember the words of the Lord Jesus to Peter: “Feed my lambs … Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-16). Woe unto the shepherd who feeds himself and neglects the sheep (Ezek. 34:2)!
The minister or pastor is a servant of Jesus Christ and a shepherd of the sheep with real, spiritual authority. He rules with the elders in the consistory of the church. The main work of a pastor, however, is to preach. The apostles summarised the minister’s calling: “we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The minister is not a social worker, but a preacher. Therefore the bulk of his time and effort must be devoted to the preparing of sermons, as well as the other teaching he gives throughout the week. This includes catechism classes for the youth, Bible studies, public lectures and writing projects. For this reason a congregation must not be surprised—or offended—if their pastor spends a lot of time in his study. That is where he prepares the sermons and other materials with which he is called to feed the flock. Without that time in the study he has very little to say when he is in the pulpit.
The main purposes of pastors, as outlined in Belgic Confession Article 30, are first, “that by these means the true religion may be preserved;” and, second, “that the true doctrine [be] everywhere propagated.” Preaching, which, as Article 29 already explained, is the first mark of a true church, is necessary for the wellbeing—even the being—of the church. And preaching is not the task of just anybody. A man must be called through the church by Jesus Christ Himself to preach. Paul asks the question, “And how shall they preach except they be sent?” (Rom. 10:15). Only then is the word which the church hears the authoritative, official, word of Jesus Christ. Anyone can speak about Christ, but only through a preacher does Christ Himself speak.
Without the preaching the church cannot continue. She lacks the main means by which she worships God. She lacks the chief means of grace. She lacks faithful instruction from the Word of God. This is one of the main reasons why the modern churches are so weak. It makes one want to weep to see the confusion and ignorance of many Christians. Why? Because ministers are doing everything except preach (Eph. 4:14)!
How thankful we must be for faithful preachers! How we must pray for our preachers! How we must pray that the Lord would raise up—even of our own sons—more faithful preachers so that the Gospel can be preached to us, to our children and to the ends of the earth!
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 8: Preaching: the Voice of Jesus Christ
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:”
There is much confusion about preaching. For some, preaching is that intolerably boring, and seemingly endless, part of the service where the minister drones from the pulpit. For others, preaching is the minister sharing a thought from the Bible. For others, preaching is a short, entertaining message or story on how to live a better life. If we do not know what preaching is, how will we ever learn our need for it and appreciate what a gift Christ has given to us?
First, the Greek verb “to preach” in the New Testament is “to herald.” A herald is an official, commissioned messenger of the king. This means, first, that a preacher brings no message of his own. The calling of a preacher—and woe to the preacher who does not do this—is to communicate what the king announces to the people. He may not add something to the message to make it palatable to the hearers; he may not take something away from the message to make it more “relevant.” It is the word of the king! And the king of whom we speak is the Lord Jesus Christ. Since this is the case, the minister must preach the Word of God. This does not mean that the minister merely mentions a Bible passage occasionally in his sermon or even uses a text as a “peg” on which to hang his message. This means that the sermon must be an explanation, an exposition of the Bible itself. Second, as a herald the preacher must be sent by King Jesus Himself. No man (and certainly no woman) has the right to send himself, to make himself a minister or a preacher. A man might be able to stand before the people and give a good explanation of the Bible, but that in itself is not preaching if that man was not sent by Jesus Christ. Only a herald has the right to speak authoritatively for the king. Only a preacher has the right to preach authoritatively for Jesus Christ. “And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Rom. 10:15). Third, since a preacher is an authoritative herald of Jesus Christ, Christ Himself is pleased to speak through him. Thus, when you hear faithful preaching you do not merely hear the voice of a man. As wonderful as it might seem, you hear the voice of Christ Himself. That is why the Reformed have said, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God,” or “The preaching of the Gospel is the voice of Christ.” Believers hear the voice of Christ—as He Himself promised (John 10:27)—not as voices in their heads but in the preaching. Paul makes this very clear in two passages. “How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14, my translation). The better translation is not “of whom they have not heard” but “whom they have not heard.” In preaching we do not merely hear of or about Christ, we hear Christ Himself. “But ye have not so learned Christ; if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:20-21). The Ephesians, who had never seen Jesus in the flesh, heard Him (not merely about Him) in the preaching of the Gospel.
That gives preaching its authority. When preaching is faithful to the Word of God Christ Himself speaks to the church. Christ commands; Christ rebukes; Christ instructs; Christ edifies; Christ comforts. Shall we neglect to hear—or even despise—the voice of Christ? We do when we neglect, despise and refuse to hear the preaching of the Gospel in a true church.
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 9: The Office of Elder or Bishop
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Philippians 1:1: “ … to all the saints which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”
The New Testament speaks of three offices in the church: minister, elder and deacon. There are two words for elder in the New Testament. The first is presbuteros. From this word the term Presbyterian is derived. The second is episcopos. From this word the term Episcopalian is derived. Our Bibles usually translate presbuteros as elder and episcopos as bishop. But we must not imagine that the modern use of terms such as Presbyterianism or Episcopalianism accurately reflects the meaning of presbuteros and episcopos in the New Testament.
The term elder is already found in the Old Testament. There the older, and therefore supposedly wiser, men of Israel exercised a leadership role among the people (Ex. 18:21-22. There were also judges among the people (II Chron. 19:6-7). In the days of Christ Israel had elders who joined with the chief priests to condemn Jesus (Matt. 27:1). This office passed over into the church of Jesus Christ. The term elder (presbuteros) means, at its most basic, an older man. Older men were generally chosen as elders because an elder required the gravity, soberness and wisdom which come from experience and are often absent in younger men. The office of elder is further described by the second word, episcopos, often translated as bishop in the New Testament. The word means one who looks over or oversees.
Episcopalianism errs when it treats elder and bishop (overseer) as distinct offices. Episcopalianism (with Roman Catholicism) errs even more grievously when it treats the office of bishop as higher in rank than the office of elder. Although the Bible uses two words, they are used interchangeably of the one office. In Titus 1:5 Paul commands Titus to “ordain elders (presbuteros) in every city,” and then immediately adds, “for a bishop (episcopos) must be …” (v. 7). In Acts 20 Paul calls the elders (presbuteros) of the church of Ephesus (v. 17) but he reminds them, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (episcopos) (v. 28). Peter makes the same point in I Peter 5 where he writes, “the elders (presbuteros) which are among you, I exhort” (v. 1). Then he adds, “feed the flock which is among you, taking the oversight (episcopos) thereof” (v. 2).
We can see what the work of an elder is from the name episcopos. An elder is (usually) an older, wiser, more experienced man who oversees the church. This means that elders have real, spiritual authority over the whole church and over every member. They are the official representatives of Jesus Christ, through whom He is pleased to rule. The Belgic Confession names some of the responsibilities of elders. They must see to it that the Word of God is faithfully preached; that “true religion [is] preserved and the true doctrine everywhere propagated;” that transgressors in the congregation are restrained and punished; that the poor and distressed are relieved and comforted; and that everything is carried on in the church with good order and decency.”
This means that the elders in the church oversee the entire work of the church—the preaching, worship, sacraments, catechism classes, diaconate work, discipline and even the property of the congregation. They do so for the welfare of the church.
Respect those men, pray for them, and submit to them for Christ’s sake.
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 10: The Plurality of Elders
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Acts 14:23: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church …”
Elders are so important for the church that without elders there is no church. A group of Christians without elders—even if they have a missionary working among them to preach the Gospel—is not a church in the proper, official sense. Such a group of Christians may enjoy fellowship, but they cannot call themselves a church. They should seek to become organized as a local, instituted congregation of Jesus Christ “with bishops [elders] and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Until they are organized, something is wanting—missing or lacking—there (Tit. 1:5).
Another important principle of Reformed church polity is the plurality of elders. A group of Christians must have, besides the minister, a minimum of two elders and one deacon to be an instituted church. Ideally, the church should have more. Assemblies of these officebearers have specific names. In the days of Christ, Israel’s religious affairs were governed by the Jewish council or Sanhedrin. Today, Presbyterians speak of a session—a “sitting” of elders—and Reformed churches speak of a consistory. The consistory consists of the elders, usually with the minister who is also an elder (see I Tim. 5:17). The minister, elders and deacons are together called the council. Thus Belgic Confession Article 30 teaches: “[there must be] elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church.”
Why a plurality of elders? First, this is the practice of the apostolic church as recorded in the New Testament. On Paul’s first missionary journey many believed in Christ in various cities in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. On the way back through these cities we read that “they had ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Paul and Barnabas do not ordain one elder in every church. Nor does Paul ordain a bishop to rule over several churches in one area. Elders (plural) are ordained in every church (singular). Thus we have example. We also have precept. Paul commands Titus to ordain a plurality of elders on the island of Crete. “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5). Paul writes “elders (plural) in every city (singular).” In fact, in every place in the New Testament where elders are mentioned in a local church setting there is a plurality of elders—more than one elder per congregation (see Acts 20:17; I Tim. 5:17; James 5:14; I Peter 5:1). Paul only speaks of “elder” (singular) when he is outlining the various qualifications for an individual elder (I Tim. 3:1-7) or where he is dealing with the discipline of an individual elder (I Tim. 5:19).
There is great wisdom in the practice of the plurality of elders. One man—even well intentioned—can be corrupted by power. Other men are a check on folly and sinful ambition. The Reformed have always feared placing too much power into the hands of one man. The irony is, that when a church refuses to have biblical officebearers, often one man with great gifts and abilities will naturally rise to the top and become a tyrant. Better by far to adopt the government which Christ has ordained: “Where no counsel is, the people fail: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14).
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 11: Transgressors Punished and Restrained by Spiritual Means
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Matthew 18:18: “…Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
We have seen that the elders and ministers together make up the consistory which rules the local congregation. Paul speaks of two kinds of elders in I Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” All the elders rule, and all the elders must have some capacity for teaching—in the absence of ministers they may be called to teach catechism classes; they are required to teach the people by word and example, privately and from house to house (see I Tim. 3:2; Tit.1:9). Among the elders some are called to preach and teach fulltime. These men are the pastors or ministers and for that work they are supported by the congregations (I Tim. 5:18).
One important work that the consistory performs is discipline. This is the subject of Article 32 but we should mention it here because Article 30 makes a very important point about that work which falls under the remit of the eldership. “Transgressors [may be] punished and restrained by spiritual means.”
For some modern Christians such language is disturbing. Do the elders of the church really have the authority to punish and restrain transgressors? Punishment and restraint sounds very medieval. Perhaps we have visions of the rack, thumbscrews and other horrific torture devices! But the Belgic Confession is very careful in the wording: “by spiritual means.” This is important to remember because Christ has given authority in various spheres. In the home, Christ has ordained that the husband be the head. In the state, Christ has ordained civil government and given to it the power of the sword (Rom. 13:3-4). Therefore the civil government can use various physical means to restrain and punish criminals: fines, imprisonment and even the death penalty. But Christ has not given the power of the sword to the church. In the Old Testament, in the nation of Israel, there was a blurring of roles. In Israel the elders could inflict physical punishment, even death by stoning (Deut. 21:18-21). In the New Testament the church has only spiritual means for punishing and restraining members who walk in sin. But those means must not be despised.
The church has spiritual means which are mighty in the hand of Christ. Through the spiritual means—which Christ calls “the keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:18-19, 18:18) —Christ opens the kingdom to some and shuts it against others. To be admitted into the kingdom of heaven is a far greater blessing than to receive a passport, visa or citizenship in any earthly nation. To be excluded from the kingdom of heaven is a far worse than banishment, imprisonment or even death. This does not mean—as we shall see in Article 32—that the church has the right to throw out of the kingdom whomever the elders deem unworthy. When the spiritual means are used correctly Christ Himself admits some into and excludes some from the kingdom: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).
The preaching of the Gospel and Christian discipline used as the keys of the kingdom of heaven are real, awesome, spiritual power!
No kingdom on earth has power as great as that!
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 12: Everything With Good Order And Decency
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Corinthians 14:40: “Let all things be done decently and in order.”
In Corinth chaos, confusion and disorder were seriously threatening the welfare of the church. A survey of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reveals disunity and schism (1:10-11), immaturity and carnality (3:1-3), gross sins tolerated in the congregation and not addressed by the elders (5:1-2), civil lawsuits among the members (6:1-2), confusion over the subject of marriage and divorce (7:1-39), confusion over meats offered to idols and idolatry itself (8:1-13; 10:19-33), gluttony and drunkenness at the Lord’s table (11:20-22), confusion and misuse of spiritual gifts without the exercise of love and with chaos in the worship services (12:1-14:40) and false views on the doctrine of the resurrection (15:1-58).
This survey might be surprising to some because many have an almost romantic idealism about the early church as it is described in Acts and the epistles. “If only we could go back to the way it was before so many manmade doctrines and practices were adopted” is the cry of many modern Christians. But take off those rose tinted spectacles! Churches like Corinth and the churches in Galatia were seriously threatened by false doctrine and evil practices. Much of what Paul writes to these churches—and we have not even considered the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3—is rebuke! For example, Paul writes concerning the Corinthians’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper, “When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s Supper … What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I praise you not” (I Cor. 11:20, 22). Having described what the Corinthians did, Paul explains what the Corinthians ought to do. Later in the epistle, Paul describes their worship. But this is not to give us an example of how we should worship God. Quite the opposite—he writes this to show the Corinthians that they should not worship God that way because it is disorderly! “How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, that an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying … For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints … Let all things be done decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:26, 33, 40).
Decency and order do not restrict the Spirit. The Spirit as God is not the author of confusion, but the Spirit of order and decency. Therefore a “spiritual” church is an ordered church. A disordered, chaotic church, where everyone does what seems good to him, is not a spiritual church. The Spirit is grieved there.
Decency and order are watchwords in the Reformed churches. Christ has given officebearers to the churches so that the business of the church is conducted decently and in order. This decency and order apply to the lives of the members, the instruction given in catechism and from the pulpit, the worship services including the administration of the sacraments, and the meetings of the officebearers in consistory and council. Does that sound stuffy and restrictive? On the contrary, it is good for the church. Be thankful for decency and order in the church and seek to promote it by your good behaviour and your submission to God-appointed officebearers for Christ’s sake and God’s glory.
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 13: The Office of Deacon
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Acts 6:2-3: “ … it is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. ”
Christ, who loves His church, has not only given Himself for her salvation, but He has given her gifts at His ascension. These gifts are many, but one important gift is officebearers, in particular “pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:8, 11). These officebearers are necessary for the good government and welfare of the church. We have examined ministers and elders. The third permanent, special office in the church of Jesus Christ is the deacon. Collectively, deacons are called the diaconate. The word deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos. The non technical meaning of diakonos is servant. It is important to understand that because not all references in the New Testament are to the office of deacon proper. Sometimes diakonos means only servant, and in those cases even women are called deaconesses. Therefore, not all servants are deacons, but all deacons are servants.
The deacons, like the ministers and elders, hold an office, a position of authority. This is clear from I Timothy 3 where the qualifications of elders are set forth. Immediately after giving the qualifications for one office, the elder, Paul writes, “Likewise must the deacons be …” (v. 8). The deacons are also included with elders in Paul’s greeting to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1). We must not think that the deacons are men who merely deal with some financial matters in the congregation by collecting and counting the offerings. Their work is official, important, ecclesiastical, spiritual work.
Many churches do not have deacons. Others call men deacons but these men do not do the work of deacons. There is probably more confusion over this office than the other two offices. Does a deacon just look after the money? Is he just a charitable worker? What does the deacon do? How are the congregations supposed to relate to the deacons? The work of the deacons is outlined in the Belgic Confession briefly thus: “there must be … deacons … that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities.” Reformed churches have often summed up that work in one phrase, “the ministry of mercy.”
First, deacons are called to collect the alms. The word alms means mercy. Many churches have a benevolent fund for monies particularly designated for the relief of the poor. Almsgiving is a Christian duty, calling and privilege. Collecting the alms is a serious responsibility. Deacons must be honest men without covetousness. Second, deacons are called to distribute the alms. Deacons must be wise in this distribution, so that the truly needy are not neglected and the greedy, lazy and irresponsible are not encouraged in sinful behaviour. The deacons, therefore, do not simply give away “free money” without careful and prayerful thought, and this work, too, is supervised by the elders of the congregation.
Our calling toward the deacons is, first, to give generously. This makes diaconal work easier. Second, we must alert the deacons to needs in the congregation. The deacons are given by Christ to help the poor and distressed. But they need to be told about poverty and distress! Third, there must be a willingness to seek help from the deacons. Let not shame keep us from Christ’s ministers of mercy!
Belgic Confession, Article 30; Day 14: The Poor Relieved and Comforted
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Ephesians 4:28: “… Let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.”
Poverty is a reality in this fallen world. The unbelieving world imagines that with enough social programs they will be able to eradicate poverty. Jesus Christ said that there would always be poverty (John 12:8). God has always commanded that His people show a concern for the poor. However, what many Christians have not noticed is that the primary concern for the poor must be for the poor among the people of God. In Israel, God commanded that the poor brethren (fellow Israelites within the covenant community) be cared for by the generosity of fellow Israelites. There were various provisions in the Law. For example, the poor could glean the fields of the rich; the poor could be “redeemed” and the sacrificial offerings were less demanding for the impoverished (Lev. 19:10-11, 25:25; Deut. 15:7-11; Lev. 5:7). When the prophets preached against the exploitation of the poor by the rich, they had primarily the poor within Israel in mind (Amos 5:11-12, 8:4-6). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul did not seek to help all the poor of the Roman empire. He did help his neighbour when opportunity arose. Paul’s primary concern, however, (apart from the preaching of the Gospel, of course) was the poor in the church. To that end, Paul organized collections for the impoverished saints in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:26; II Cor. 8-9; Gal. 2:10). Both James and John make the same application to the poor in the congregations (James 1:27, 2:14-16; I John 3:17-18). This does not mean that the church refuses to help the poor who are not members of the congregation, but it does mean that the primary focus of the work of the deacons is the poor of Christ.
The poor in the church of Jesus Christ must not be despised or neglected. They must not be viewed as a burden or a nuisance. It must be seen as a great privilege for us to help the poor for in so doing we serve Jesus Christ Himself (Matt. 25:34-40). But at the same time we must not be naïve. It is not the Christian’s calling to give money to everyone who claims to be poor. This is where the deacons need much wisdom. Paul gives some principles to Timothy in his first epistle. First, the primary responsibility for the poor within the congregation is with their own family. Paul has sharp words for Christians who neglect their impoverished relatives. The church should not be charged with their financial support (5:3-2, 8, 16). Second, Paul insists that people work, and those who refuse to work may not eat. Idleness and dependency by the poor are to be discouraged (Eph. 4:28; II Thess. 3:10-12). Indeed, it is good for the deacons to encourage budgeting, thrift and stewardship for often poverty is caused by mismanagement of funds. Third, those who are poor indeed must be helped, not only financially and generously, but with comfortable words of Scripture.
The deacons are not mere social workers. They are not like the clerks in the social welfare office of the secular state. They are the official representatives of the merciful Christ who comes to relieve the poor in the churches. Their work is as spiritual as that of the ministers and elders.
Let them be received as such.
Belgic Confession, Article 31; Day 1: Lawful Election by the Church
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Acts 6:3: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report …”
It is a fundamental principle of Reformed church polity that the local church chooses her own officebearers—her own minister, elders and deacons. Reformed churches differ sharply from hierarchical forms of church government. For example, in the Roman Catholic church the priests are appointed by the bishop. He determines—without any input from the local congregation—who shall be the priest. Therefore, the priest is imposed upon the congregation by a higher ecclesiastical authority. This is the case for all the offices in the Roman Catholic church. The cardinals are appointed by the pope; the archbishop, bishops and other offices—which are unbiblical offices—are in no way determined by the people. This kind of imposition from the outside is practiced by other types of churches as well, for example by Episcopalianism and Methodism.
Belgic Confession Article 31 condemns such an approach. First, no higher ecclesiastical authority—or even the civil authority of the state—has the right to determine the officebearers of the local congregation. This includes the pope, the bishop, the classis or synod. “The minister of God’s Word, and the elders and deacons, ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the church.” This is good and proper. Only the local congregation, who know their own particular needs, can determine for themselves who their pastor should be. Only the members of the local congregation can elect their own elders and deacons. The elders and deacons must be fellow members of the congregation who know the flock and are able to minister to their spiritual needs. Peter speaks about this when he addresses the elders thus: “The elders which are among you … Feed the flock of God which is among you” (I Pet. 5:1-2). How could a man imposed against the will of the congregation know the flock? Second, no man may impose himself upon the congregation. This was a problem in the days of the Reformation. Men felt themselves “called” to preach and started thrusting themselves forward. But a man must be called through the church and by the church to be properly called by God. This, too, is part of the good order and discipline demanded by Christ in His church. Paul explains this principle in Romans 10: “How shall they preach except they be sent?” (v. 15).
The process for appointing officebearers is not set forth in all its details in Scripture. However, the principles are easy to determine and to follow. First, the Scriptures describe for us the kind of men we should seek, men who have certain spiritual qualifications (I Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). Let not the election of officebearers be a popularity contest! Let it not be determined by who has the most money! Second, the Scriptures demand that these men be examined (“proved”) by the congregation (I Tim. 3:10). Only after such election and examination can men say that they have been appointed by the church—and therefore by Christ Himself—to their respective offices.
Belgic Confession, Article 31; Day 2: That Order Which The Word of God Teacheth
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Timothy 3:10: ““And let these also first be proved …”
In Acts 13 the church in Antioch was fasting and praying, seeking the will of the Lord. The Holy Spirit said “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (v. 2). In response to the Holy Spirit’s commandment the church in Antioch “fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them [and] sent them away” (v. 3). When Paul and Barnabas—and later Paul and Silas—returned from their missionary journeys, they reported to the church in Antioch concerning the work they had done (Acts 14:26-28, 15:40, 18:22-23).
From all this, we can draw several conclusions. First, the Holy Spirit calls a man to his office in the church, but He does not do this without the church. Acts 13:2 says that the Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas. Acts 13:3 says that the church in Antioch sent them out. And Acts 13:4 interprets this as their being “sent forth by the Holy Ghost.” The same is true of the elders in Ephesus. Paul reminds them that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Acts 20:28). Yet Acts 14:23 makes clear that the Spirit used the call through the church to place such elders—and by implication also ministers and deacons—into their offices. Second, elders should only be chosen after prayer—and even after fasting (Acts 13:1-3, 14:23). The Belgic Confession has such passages in mind when it urges the church to elect officebearers “with calling upon the name of the Lord.” Only by humbling ourselves before God and seeking His direction will we be enabled to elect godly officebearers. The Bible teaches us that God gives unsuitable officebearers to His church in His wrath when we are unfaithful to Him. One must only think of King Saul: “I gave thee a king in mine anger, and took him away in my wrath” (Hos. 13:11). Third, the election of officebearers is as spiritual an activity as any other ecclesiastical business. That is why God gives the spiritual characteristics of ministers, elders and deacons. You will look in vain for the qualifications that modern churches seek: today a man must be a good communicator, a people pleaser, a good organizer and coordinator, a team player and a charismatic leader. God bypasses all those qualities—some of which might be useful in an officebearer—and insists that officebearers be godly. Blamelessness, gravity, sobriety, honesty, fidelity in the family and soundness in faith are the indispensible qualifications for a minister, elder or deacon. Other gifts and talents may be useful—and could even be developed by a man—but godliness is vital. These are not the qualifications of a president or a manager but they are the qualifications of an officebearer in Christ’s church. Fourth, the men who are elected to be officebearers must be “proved” (tested and examined) for their fitness. Paul warns that no novice—one new to the faith and therefore lacking in experience and spiritual maturity—should be chosen. This election of men to the offices should not be with undue haste (I Tim. 3:6, 10; 5:22).
When the election of officebearers happens according to this careful biblical pattern we can be sure of God’s blessing. When ungodly men are selected the results will be disastrous.
Belgic Confession, Article 31; Day 3: The Need for a Lawful Call
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 10:15: “And how shall they preach except they be sent?…”
The church needs ministers so that the Word of God is preached. Ministers are the gift of the ascended Christ who gives these officebearers to His church for her spiritual good (Eph. 4:11). The question is, how does Christ give pastors to His church? The answer is, as the Belgic Confession explains it, that a man “is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him.”
The lawful call of a man to the ministry is twofold. First, the man will feel a subjective call. This is a desire to serve Christ in the office of minister. This desire, if it be a genuine call of Christ upon the life of that man, will not be a desire for glory, for power or for wealth. Nor will this call come about by undue external force or pressure. What Peter writes concerning elders applies equally to ministers because ministers are elders, teaching elders (see I Tim. 5:17). “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint but willingly; not for filthy lucre but of a ready mind. Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (I Peter 5:2-3). Notice, first, the office should not be forced upon a man against his will by the pressure of others (“not by constraint”). Notice, second, the office should not be sought for monetary gain (“not for filthy lucre”). Notice, third, that the office must not be desired for selfish ambition (“neither as being lords over God’s heritage”). Rather a young man will have a desire to serve Christ by feeding His flock. Such a young man will notice—and usually his fellow saints will notice it also—the presence of certain gifts for the ministry, and he will seek to develop those gifts for the use in the pastorate.
But that is not enough. For many this subjective call might seem like enough. Here is a young man. He feels called to serve Christ. But that cannot be enough. The church must have a role in determining the fitness of a man to occupy the office. No man can know himself to be called until he receives the external call from a local congregation. “That he may have testimony of his calling and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord” says the Belgic Confession. This principle is found in Scripture. About the deacons—and therefore also about the ministers and elders—Paul writes, “And let these also first be proved” (I Tim. 3:10). In addition, Paul warns, “lay hands suddenly on no man” (I Tim. 5:22). That word “proved” means examined or tested with a view to determine fitness. Scripture does not specify how this examination should take place. In Reformed churches a man is proved by rigorous seminary training followed by an examination before the church. The principle for this is found in II Timothy 2:2, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” When the church is not able to have its own seminary, “on the job” training is provided for promising candidates. This was how Timothy and Titus were prepared for the ministry.
The important point is that the ordination of men by the laying on of hands (I Tim. 5:22; II Tim. 1:6) must not happen with undue haste. In this way God will give men who desire the office in sincerity to the church for her edification.
Belgic Confession, Article 31; Day 4: No Intrusion by Indecent Means
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
III John 9: “…but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence …”
Selfish ambition and pride are sins which have plagued the church from her earliest days. There have been in the history of the church, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, those who have sought to exalt themselves as leaders without a call from God. Moses, the meekest of all men (Num. 12:3), and one who was called directly by God, saw his leadership challenged on several occasions. First, his brother and sister opposed him in Numbers 12. God struck Miriam will leprosy and Aaron had to pray for her. Later, a more serious rebellion brewed in the wilderness with Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Num. 16:3). Judgment was swift and terrible upon the rebels. They were swallowed up by the earth (Num. 16:32-35; Ps. 106:16-18; Jude 11)! When God rebukes false prophets He says that He did not send them: they spoke without His authority (Jer. 14:14-15). In the New Testament, Paul warns women not to usurp the offices (I Tim. 2:12). The Belgic Confession warns against a usurpation of office out of pride or some other base motive: “Therefore every one must take heed not to intrude himself by indecent means.”
In his third epistle the apostle John names a proud man called Diotrephes. We do not know how Diotrephes became an officebearer in the church. Perhaps he desired money, power or prestige. Perhaps he desired to have the praise of men and to be popular. John says of him that he “loveth to have the preeminence” (v. 9). This is a terrible indictment of the man. In all things Christ must have the preeminence (Col. 1:18). How different this was from the attitude of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Because Diotrephes loved the preeminence, he opposed any whom he perceived to be a threat to his power in the church. John writes, “Neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church” (III John 10).
There are men like Diotrephes in the church in every age. His name stands as a warning to us. Some of these men desire the office of the church but they are never elected. They then do everything in their power to undermine the work of the lawful officebearers. They become the chief critics in the congregation. Their envy embitters them. A Diotrephes in the pulpit, consistory or diaconate is worse. The churches must be vigilant not to allow a Diotrephes to gain a position of authority where he can do damage to the congregation. One way in which this can be done is by heeding Paul’s warning in I Timothy 3:6, “not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.” A novice is a recent convert. To thrust such a man into office—even with the best of intentions—could be ruinous for that man.
The greatest enemies of the church creep in using indecent means to gain a position of influence (Acts 20:29-30; Gal. 2:4; Eph. 4:14; Jude 4). Such men have no love for Jesus Christ or His sheep. Therefore, in the important task of calling officebearers we must take heed that we do not intrude ourselves or permit others to intrude themselves by such indecent means.
Let us wait upon the Lord to give us officebearers for our good.
Belgic Confession, Article 31; Day 5: The Equality of Officebearers
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Peter 5:3: “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage…”
We have seen several important principles of Reformed church government. First, there must be officebearers, men whom Christ calls through the church and to whom Christ gives real, spiritual authority. Second, there must be a plurality of officebearers, lest too much power be concentrated in one man. In the multitude of counselors there is safety. Third, there is no hierarchy, that is, in the church of Christ there are not different offices higher than one another. Fundamentally, then, a bishop is not a higher ranking office than an elder. The offices in Christ’s church of pastor, elder and deacon are distinct, but one office is not “above” the other.
The same is true of the individual officebearers. “As for the ministers of God’s Word, they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all ministers of Christ” is the explanation of the Belgic Confession. This means that the church must not have senior pastors, associate pastors, assistant pastors or other kinds of pastors. All pastors have the same office. Each of them has the authority to preach, baptise and administer the Lord’s Supper. One pastor may be more experienced, better gifted and more popular than another but they are equal in office. The church must be careful not to put one pastor above another. Paul warns of this attitude in I Corinthians 1:12, “Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided …?” and again in I Corinthians 3:3-4, “For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and division, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?”
The minister has his authority from Christ, and all ministers have that same authority. But Christ only permits a man to preach as he sent by the church. A man is accountable to the consistory of elders of that church. Thus a man preaches with the permission and under the supervision of the elders. When a man preaches in another congregation he must have the permission of the elders of that congregation. He may not thrust himself upon a congregation without the elders.
The same equality of office is true of elders and deacons. No elder may lord it over a fellow elder. Every elder in the consistory—or at a broader assembly at which he is called to be a delegate—has equal right to speak and to vote. No deacon may assume an authoritarian attitude over the other deacons.
Let hierarchy in all its forms be rejected by Reformed churches. Let us be servants of one another and of the Lord.
Belgic Confession, Article 31; Day 6: Christ, the Only Universal Bishop and Head
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Peter 2:25: “But ye are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.”
Belgic Confession 31 reminds us that all officebearers are servants of Christ and that He is “the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the church.” This creedal statement is an answer to the pretensions of the Roman Catholic pope.
The Roman Catholic Church makes very exaggerated claims for her popes. “The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as vicar of Christ, namely, and as pastor of the entire church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” These claims are based on several arguments. First, Peter was the prince of the apostles, the first bishop of Rome and the subsequent bishops of Rome are his rightful successors and exercise the supremacy which Christ gave to Peter. This argument has no basis in Scripture. Peter never claims such supremacy for himself and the other apostles never suggest it. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Peter was ever the bishop of Rome. Second, there is, the Roman Catholic Church argues, an unbroken succession of bishops from Peter to the present pope. This argument, even if it were true—and history denies it—is irrelevant. A succession of persons does not guarantee a succession of gifts and authority. In fact, history shows that many of the popes were monsters of iniquity. Third, Rome claims lofty titles for her popes, titles which belong to God, such as Holy Father and His holiness (see John 17:11). Other titles which the pope claims are Supreme Pontiff, which means the Bridge between God and men; Vicar of Christ, which means one who stands in the place of Christ; the Head of the church on earth; and universal bishop, bishop.
Especially in the Middle Ages, the power of the popes in Rome was very great. The pope claimed the sovereign right to appointed bishops and even to depose kings who opposed him. At the pope’s command our spiritual forefathers were put to death. The popes of Rome are indeed “drunken with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev. 17:6). As recently as 1870 the pope has been declared infallible when he speaks on faith and morals. There is little wonder that the Reformers viewed the pope, who usurped the power of both church and state, as the Antichrist. Certainly, the pope is an antichrist, and every Reformed believer must reject his blasphemous claims.
Christ did not place one man over His church. He did not appoint one man to be universal bishop. That title He reserves for Himself. He is the only Head, the Bishop, the Mediator and the Saviour of His church. For her welfare He has appointed a plurality of officebearers of equal rank. For these reasons we reject the pope. We will not allow ourselves or our churches to be brought again under such bondage.
Belgic Confession, Article 31; Day 7: The Esteem We Should Have for God’s Officebearers
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Thessalonians 5:12-13: “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which 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. And be at peace among yourselves.”
How do you view your pastor, your elders and your deacons? The Belgic Confession, quoting I Thessalonians 5, urges us to “esteem the ministers of God’s Word and the elders of the church very highly for their work’s sake.”
If the officebearers have been chosen as the Word of God determines, they will be godly. Therefore, before they are officebearers, they are your brethren in the Lord. No unbeliever may be a member—and certainly no unbeliever may be an officebearer—in the church of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the officebearers have been elected by the congregation in a majority vote, and approved by the congregation. Therefore they have been lawfully called. This is true, even if the men you desired in office did not receive sufficient votes. You had, at the time of election, the opportunity to raise any lawful objections with the consistory. If there were no lawful objections, you must consider that these men in office are a gift of the ascended Christ to you (Eph. 4:11). Therefore you are called to obey them and to submit to them in the Lord (Heb. 13:17). This is profitable for you, because these men occupy the office for your edification.
In I Thessalonians 5:12-13 Paul urges the believers in Thessalonica to receive their officebearers. We can apply this instruction to our own churches. First, we must know them (v. 12). This should not be difficult for us because—especially in the case of elders and deacons—these men were, even before their election to office, members of the congregation. They lived and worked among us. Perhaps it is more difficult with respect to the pastor. Often he comes from the seminary or is called from another church. But we must make the effort to know him. The pastor and his family will be keen to know the congregation—all the congregation. Second, we must recognize their work. Paul calls it labour. The word means toil. Pastors, elders and deacons work hard to carry out the calling of their respective offices. Pray for them in their work and show them that their work is appreciated by you and your children. Third, we must esteem them very highly. This esteem is the esteem of honour or reverence. We do this not because they have a nice personality—by all means let the officebearers be affable, approachable, friendly men—but for their work’s sake. We recognize the importance of the work. Where would we be without the preaching, without catechism instruction for our children, without pastoral care, without oversight, without the compassionate work of the deacons? We would stand exposed to every false teaching and be tossed to and fro, easy prey for deceivers who seek to destroy the church (Eph. 4:14). Fourth, we must love them. It is amazing how quickly a bond of love forms between the officebearers and the people. When the people see that the officebearers care—genuinely care—for their souls, they will love the officebearers greatly in return.
Finally, the greatest gift we can give the officebearers is to walk in the truth. John writes, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (III John 4). Do not only believe the truth—that is the foundation—but also walk in the truth. Let the truth mould your life, your relationships, your marriage, your children and your work.
This will make it true joy for your officebearers to labour among you.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 1: The Usefulness of Ordinances
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Corinthians 11:16: “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”
The Bible does not set forth in detail how the church should be organized in every age and culture. This does not mean that the Bible gives the church freedom to do whatever she desires, believe whatever she wants and worship however she pleases. The church is not governed by public opinion, by pragmatism (the idea that what works should be done), but by the Word of God. However, the Bible is neither a systematic theology, a directory for public worship, nor a church order. Instead, the Bible is the Word of God, the revelation of who God is, what He has done for us in Jesus Christ, and how we must live in thankful response to His love.
We can contrast how the church was governed in the Old Testament with the government of the church today. Isaiah writes, “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:10). The Old Testament church was like a little child which had to be led by the hand and to be taught by means of pictures. She was spiritually immature because she did not yet have the outpoured Spirit of Christ (Gal. 4:1-2). Therefore, God imposed upon Old Testament Israel detailed ordinances, laws and rules which hemmed her in on every side, determining every aspect of her life. In the Old Testament God determined the times of worship, the manner of worship, what the people wore, ate, what was clean and unclean for them, and many other details. Parents know that a little child needs rules for everything. When a child grows the rules are relaxed and there is more freedom. When a child becomes a man he can determine for himself the details of his life according to the rules of God’s Word. In the New Testament God’s church has come of age and with the freedom of the Spirit lives without certain defined parameters (Gal. 3:23-25). This has implications for the life of the church.
The Belgic Confession declares that “it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the church.” Some Christians do not like ordinances. And they refuse to accept the ordinances determined by the officebearers unless they can agree with every single one of them. The more extreme among this kind of Christian refuse to join any church and criticize many of the practices of the church as pagan because they cannot find a text of Scripture which explicitly supports any given practice.
Perhaps some examples will help. Where ought the church to meet? Churches have met in private homes, in the temple in Jerusalem, in rented rooms or halls, in the open air, and today many erect their own buildings. Surely this should be a matter of Christian prudence. At what time on the Lord’s Day should churches have their worship services, and what should be the exact order of worship? Apart from general principles the Bible does not determine these things.
Let us not confuse proof texts with principles. We must all agree on the principles of church government and on the elements of worship, but many of the details fall under the category of Christian liberty. Nevertheless, without ordinances the church cannot function efficiently. And surely it is wiser that the officebearers decide some of the details rather than there being a disorderly “free for all” every Sunday.
Let everything be done decently and in order is our motto!
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 2: The Rulers Instituting Ordinances
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 12:8: “… he that ruleth, with diligence”
Yesterday we noticed that ordinances are useful and beneficial for the smooth running of the church. Today we take note of the fact that “those who are rulers of the church” should institute and establish these ordinances.
No organization can run smoothly unless there is a clear distinction between the rulers and the other members of the church. A congregation which elects officebearers must let them rule (I Thess. 5:12-13; I Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17; I Peter 5:1-3). This means that the members gladly submit to the decisions made by the officebearers without murmuring or complaining. One example is the time of the worship service. The elders of the congregation determine at what times the church meets for public worship on Sunday. Everyone will have his preference in the congregation. The members might even make suggestions. But, if after carefully considering the needs of the congregation, the elders decide on the times of 9.30 a.m. and 6 p.m. it would be folly for some of the congregation to arrive at 12 noon. Nor should a member grumble and complain that he wanted the worship service at a different time and then refuse to come to church because the time is not ideal for him. The church consists of many members. It is impossible to please everyone all of the time. For the sake of the church’s peace, let the members submit to the decisions of the elders. These ordinances, says the Belgic Confession, are “for maintaining the body of the church” and should be that which “tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity.” Another example is the order of worship. Those details are not set down in Scripture. In some churches the reading of Scripture occurs immediately before the sermon. In others the sermon is separated from the reading by the singing of a Psalm. The important thing is, the order of worship having been decided by the elders, that all the members worship in the same manner. Paul criticizes the disorderly coming together of the Corinthians in this regard (I Cor. 14:26, 33, 40). A third example is the church budget. The Biblical principles are that the pastor be supported financially so that he can devote himself to the work and that the church care for the poor in her midst (I Cor. 9:14; I Tim. 5:18). The many activities of the church—such as evangelism, catechism of the youth and even the upkeep of the church’s property if it has any— require money. The rulers of the church should determine how much money the church needs, applying thee biblical principles of prudence and stewardship, and the members of the church should contribute according to ability (I Cor. 16:1-2; II Cor. 9:7).
Some Christians disagree with this approach. They believe that everything in the church should be decided by the people in common. This view of church government is called congregationalism. The congregation, and not the elders, rules. Such an approach fails to do justice to the offices which Christ has appointed. Officebearers have real authority in the congregation.
Let the elders rule diligently. They do it for our own good and for the maintenance of the body of the church. Let us esteem them and live in peace in the church of Christ.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 3: Not Binding or Compelling the Conscience
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Corinthians 8:12: “But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.”
Belgic Confession Article 32 contains a warning for all officebearers who seek to make rules for the maintaining of the body of the church. Do not bind or compel the conscience! Take care studiously not to depart from those things which Christ has instituted! Do not introduce human inventions! This is the danger when men begin to make rules for the church. A manmade rule can become more important and more binding than the Word of God. The Reformation churches understood this very well and they were very concerned to maintain the freedom of conscience.
The conscience is the testimony of God in the consciousness of every man, either accusing or excusing him in his actions. By the conscience even the heathen without the Word of God know that they have done something wrong. Because of conscience every culture has an established morality or moral code. Every culture of man knows that to murder is evil, to steal is wicked and to commit adultery is a sin against the Creator God (Rom. 2:15). Therefore, every culture of man has laws to punish evildoers to one degree or another. A guilty conscience is very difficult to endure because it accuses the sinner before God. Men seek all kinds of relief—except repentance towards God and faith towards Jesus Christ—to escape the accusations of their guilty conscience. Some men have even so defiled their conscience that it has lost much of its sensitivity to evil. They are deeply hardened in sin and wickedness (I Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15). Other men—usually weak believers—have an uneducated, uniformed or overly sensitive conscience. They imagine that some activity, which God has not condemned, is sin. Therefore they cannot perform that activity with a good conscience. For example, some imagine that to drink wine or to eat meat is sin. Others, having a better grasp of Christian liberty, eat and drink (in moderation) without qualms (Rom. 14; I Cor. 8).
Throughout the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic church bound, compelled and tyrannized the consciences of men with rules. For example, the church mandated times for fasting—at Lent; and the church insisted that no meat could be eaten on Fridays. There were many more ways in which the church ruled over the people—often hanging the threat of damnation over them if they stepped out of line. In fact, the pope himself could place an interdict upon an entire people, if the king defied him! The Pharisees bound consciences in the day of Christ. They added to and expanded the laws of Moses to include ridiculously detailed prohibitions and obligations. This was particularly true concerning the Sabbath Day. For the Pharisees to heal or to do good on the Sabbath Day was evil (Matt. 12:1-14; John 5:1-17, 9:1-16). Christ excoriates the Pharisees for this: “Ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).
The church must take care, therefore, never to impose rules upon the members which might wound their consciences. “They ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted.” These considerations must be paramount in the consistory when rules are contemplated. Is this rule necessary? Will this rule offend the conscience? How will this rule minister to the needs of the church?
Let all things be done for the edifying of the body. Then the church will have peace.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 4: The Believer’s Right to Appeal and Protest
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Corinthians 6:5: “… Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? No, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?”
Reformed church government is not a tyranny but the benevolent rule of Jesus Christ in His church. Because the Lord has chosen to rule us through officebearers, who, even with the best of intentions, remain fallible and sinful men, there are possibilities that the elders might impose rules upon the congregation which are not biblical and which wrongly bind and compel the conscience. The Belgic Confession recognizes that there is that danger even with the wisest and most godly of elders. For this reason there is the warning of Article 32, “they ought studiously to take care …” Some might wonder what redress a church member has when he believes that the elders have overstepped the bounds of their authority and made an unbiblical decision. No officebearer in Christ’s church has the authority to contradict the will of Christ as revealed in Scripture. What can the church member do?
There are several principles at work here. First, the presence of the special offices of pastors, elders and deacons in no way annuls or contradicts the office of believer. Every Christian shares in the anointing of Christ by the Holy Spirit and is therefore a prophet, priest and king (Acts 2:17-18; I John 2:27). No officebearer can hinder the believer’s relationship with Christ. Second, the conscience of the believer may not be violated by any church ordinance. The believer may not be forced against his conscience to comply with an ecclesiastical ordinance. The believer’s conscience must be regulated by Scripture alone. Third, there is the possibility for every church member to appeal a decision of the consistory beyond the elders of the local congregation. In Reformed churches there are broader assemblies of the church. Delegates from the area congregations form a classis; and delegates from various classes form a synod. Presbyterians call these assemblies presbytery and general assembly. The biblical principles behind broader church assemblies are found especially in Acts 15.
Imagine the following scenarios. A church member has heard something from the pulpit with which he disagrees and which he believes contradicts the Scriptures. A church member disagrees with a decision made by the consistory in an ordinance they have set for the maintenance of the body of the church. A church member feels aggrieved in a decision which the consistory have made concerning church discipline. As a member of Christ’s church the believer has the right to approach the consistory and lodge an official complaint (often called an appeal or a protest). The consistory will then discuss his complaint and make a decision. Perhaps the consistory will agree with the church member and change their original decision. Perhaps the consistory will not be convinced by the appeal of the church member. Perhaps the consistory will even convince the church member that he is mistaken and he will withdraw his appeal. If all parties can be satisfied from the Word of God, agreement is reached and peace maintained. On the other hand, perhaps the consistory disagrees with the church member. That member has the right to bring his complaint to the meeting of classis and all the way to synod.
Let no one say, therefore, that Reformed church government tramples on the rights of church members.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 5: The Nourishing of Concord and Unity
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Philippians 2:14: “… Do all things with murmurings and disputings”
Yesterday we began to look at what redress a member of a Reformed church has when he feels himself aggrieved by the decisions made by the consistory. We noticed that the member has the right to protest or appeal the decisions of the officebearers. We insisted that the member has the right to the freedom of his conscience. In this meditation our focus shifts from the rights of the church member to his responsibilities.
In a fallible church with fallible, sinful officebearers there can be, even with the best intentions, times when there is friction between the officebearers and the members. We remember here the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in LD 39, Q&A 104: “that I submit myself to their good instruction and correction with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” This has application not only to parents, but also to officebearers in the church. This has several implications. First, the church member must not be a complainer, always seeking for some reason to oppose the elders. He must bear patiently with the elders’ weaknesses. “Do all things without murmurings and displutings” (Phil. 2:14); “Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:26). There are many things in the church which, although they might not be done according to our personal preference or convenience, are not sins. The calling in such situations is to learn to be content. Second, when the member has a legitimate complaint, he must complain in an ecclesiastical manner, that is, in a church-orderly way. There are people who behave in disorderly ways: they openly accuse the elders of base motives, they seek to stir up a faction in the congregation against the elders or they air their grievances before the ungodly world, ruining the good name of the church. This is the grievous sin of schism. If a complaint is serious enough to bring to the consistory’s attention, let it be done in a way which seeks the glory of God and the peace of the church. Third, let the complaint be brought humbly, with the recognition that the elders might be right and the church member might be mistaken. Proverbs 18:17 says, “he that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.” It is responsibility of the church member not to prove to himself from the Word of God that a given doctrine or practice is false, but to prove to the church, whether to the consistory, classis or synod, that the church has erred in a doctrine or practice.
All of this assumes, of course, that we are speaking of a true church. In an apostate or false church it will not take long to discover that neither the people nor the officebearers care what the Word of God says. When a concerned member has lodged a formal, ecclesiastical protest (assuming that the church still retains some semblance of biblical church government) and when the church has rejected the Word of God, the member can leave the church in good conscience and seek a church which faithfully adheres to the truth.
The final judge in all ecclesiastical disputes is the Word of God. Every member and every officebearer must humble himself before the will of God as that is revealed in Scripture. When that is done, there will be unity and concord in the truth.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 6: Rejecting Human Inventions
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Mark 7:7 “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men …”
“And therefore we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God.” In previous meditations we have noticed that the Belgic Confession teaches that the leaders in the church should make various laws and ordinances for the church. These ordinances concern the “maintaining of the body of the church” and must be only “that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God.” We considered some examples, taking note of the caution not to bind the consciences of men by unnecessary and oppressive rules. We also noticed the rights and responsibilities of church members who think themselves aggrieved. Let us apply wisdom and love in all these things.
It is one thing for the elders to determine the time, venue and order of the worship services. It is another thing for the elders to introduce innovations into the worship of God itself. It is one thing for the elders to determine the budget of the church. It is quite another for the elders to extort money from the members or to seek to rule their lives.
The Belgic Confession gives expression to the Reformation principle called the regulative principle of worship. Who determines how God shall be worshipped in His church? The answer is that God Himself determines it. We may only worship God according to what He has commanded. This means that we do not add to His worship.
Some teach that if God forbids something you should not include it in worship, but that if something is not expressly forbidden it is permissible in worship. The regulative principle goes further. If something is not expressly commanded it may not be included in the worship of God. The elements of worship are clear from Scripture: the reading and preaching of the Word of God, prayer, praise, the confession of faith, the sacraments, the benediction and the giving of alms. How these elements are applied, and the order in which they are to be used, are open to some interpretation. But to these elements we are not at liberty to add our own ideas. The regulative principle shuts the door against all human innovations which plague the churches today.
Applying this principle the Reformation purged the church of choirs, incense, altars, clerical vestments, holy water, consecrated oil and many other innovations which had crept into the worship of God. These things are not forbidden in Scripture, but because there is no warrant for them in the Word of God they were rightly removed from the church’s worship. Apply this principle to some modern worship practices. Youth bands, choir concerts, drama, puppet shows, props and many forms of entertainment could—and should—be swept away if we rejected all human inventions in the worship of God.
It is a mark of the false church to corrupt the worship of God with unnecessary additions. The question is not, “What is wrong with it?” The question is rather, “Where has God commanded this?”
And not even the officebearers of the church may add to the worship of God.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 7: Church Discipline
I Corinthians 5:13: “… Put away from among yourselves that wicked person.”
Belgic Confession Article 32 is entitled, “The Order and Discipline of the Church.” We turn now to consider the subject of church discipline.
Church discipline has fallen into disuse. Many Christians are opposed to it. They suppose that it is out of place in our modern, inclusive, tolerant world. Nevertheless, the Bible clearly demands that the church use discipline. A church which refuses to use church discipline not only disobeys Christ but in so doing sows the seeds of her own destruction.
The purposes of church discipline are three. First, Christ commands church discipline so that God is glorified. God is glorified by the holiness of the church. When all things are done according to God’s Word, when sinners are saved and begin to obey God out of thankfulness, when redeemed sinners adorn the doctrine of the Gospel with good works, God is glorified. But God’s name is dishonoured when sin is tolerated in the church. The world will see an unholy church and mock God. Today, much of the church is scandalously unholy in doctrine and life. Men preach error as they please and without constraint. Churches receive men and women who live in open, flagrant sin as members of the church, and without qualms allow them to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The Heidelberg Catechism warns against this in LD 30, Q&A 82: [“God’s] wrath is kindled against the whole congregation” when His covenant is profaned. God’s wrath was evident in Corinth: “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord” (I Cor. 11:30-32). Second, Christ commands church discipline for the sake of the church’s purity. “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (I Cor. 15:33). To allow a person openly to live in sin encourages the spread of sin throughout the congregation. Paul uses the figure of leaven. Leaven, when mixed into dough, spreads through the whole lump. Sin, when allowed to spread unchecked, corrupts the whole church. One who loves the church will not permit this to happen. Christ, who loves the church, commands that the wicked member be put out of the congregation by church discipline (Matt. 18:17; I Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9). Third, Christ commands church discipline for the sake of the sinning member. Many think that the elders take some kind of pleasure in putting a person out of the congregation. Nothing could be farther from the truth! It is with a heavy heart and many tears that the church, through her officebearers, puts away a member. But the church uses the means of discipline for the restoration of the sinning member. For this reason the church has traditionally called excommunication, which is the final step in discipline, the “extreme remedy.”
The Lord is pleased to use church discipline for the good of the church. It is good for the church that unbelievers and hypocrites be expelled. It is good for the church that members who walk in the way of sin be admonished, rebuked and even excommunicated. It is good for the church that she have a reputation as a church which takes sin seriously and insists on holiness among her members. And it is good for the church when God is pleased to use discipline to turn a member from the folly of sin to reconciliation with the church and with God Himself.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 8: Church Discipline Is Requisite
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Corinthians 5:2: “… And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned …”
The Corinthians harboured in their midst a man who was guilty of open, flagrant sins against the seventh commandment of God. He was living in fornication with his stepmother. “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife” (I Cor. 5:1). This sin was so scandalous that even the Gentiles blushed at the idea of it. Yet the church in Corinth did nothing about the sin of one of their members. Paul is shocked and writes to the church that this man must be put out of the church by Christian discipline.
In Ephesus a young pastor Timothy was labouring in the Gospel ministry. There were two heretics in the congregation, openly denying the faith and teaching doctrines to subvert the truth. They had made shipwreck of the faith, and were a risk to the other members in the church. Paul names these two men and delivers them unto Satan “that they may learn not to blaspheme,” a phrase which means church discipline (I Tim. 1:20; I Cor. 5:5).
These two passages teach us that those who refuse to walk in the doctrine and life of Christianity must be placed under church discipline, and if they do not repent, they must be excommunicated. However, very few churches today practice church discipline.
Paul highlights the reason in I Corinthians 5:2, “ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned.” To be puffed up is to be proud. The Corinthians were proud when they should have been ashamed. Perhaps they were proud that by their tolerance of sin they displayed the grace of God. Perhaps they were proud because they considered themselves to be an open, tolerant, affirming, inclusive church. Perhaps they were proud because they were more “loving” than another “judgmental” church. Instead, they ought to have mourned. They ought to have mourned that their sin was so well known it was the subject of the heathens’ gossip (“reported commonly,” v. 1) and that the sin which they tolerated was so vile that even the promiscuous pagans of Corinth were shocked by it (“fornication as is not so much named among the Gentiles,” v. 1). They ought to have mourned that the name of the church, and therefore the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, was blasphemed among the wicked. Behold the “holy church” of Corinth! They ought to have mourned that the sin would soon spread through the congregation and destroy it as gangrene spreads through the body and eventually kills it (II Tim. 2:17).
There are reasons for mourning in the church today. The statistics are shocking. For example, among evangelicals divorce statistics are higher than among the general population. Divorce and unbiblical remarriage after divorce are tolerated and promoted. Rare is the church today which even knows what church discipline is. And when a church does dare to begin the process of discipline, more often than not the member under discipline leaves to join another church where he is permitted to join, no questions asked.
Let us not think ourselves wiser than God. Paul excommunicated that wicked man in Corinth for the glory of God, the good of the church and for the salvation of the sinner. Does the church in which you are a member practice discipline? Be thankful for that mark of faithfulness and pray for your elders in that difficult work.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 9: Private Sins and Admonitions
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Matthew 18:15: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone…”
“Excommunication or church discipline is requisite, with the several circumstances belonging to it, according to the Word of God.” That is all that the Belgic Confession Article 32 says about church discipline. Previous articles have mentioned the subject also: one mark of the true church is “church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin” (Art. 29). Government is necessary in the church, among other things, that “transgressors [be] punished and restrained by spiritual means” (Art. 30). However, our Confession does not elaborate. Instead it directs us to the Biblical principles. A wise church will adopt a church order so that the various circumstances of discipline and the procedure to be used are determined from the Word of God.
Church discipline concerns sin in the congregation but not all sins necessarily become the occasion for church discipline. If every sin was brought to the attention of the elders to be dealt with by them in official church discipline there would be no end to the elders’ work! Life in the church is the life of fellowship in the truth. But because we are all sinners there are times when sin begins to affect the relationships between the members. Although all sins are serious, we do not address all examples of sin in the same manner. Sometimes it is best to cover a sin, to refuse to bear a grudge concerning it. Perhaps a fellow church member does not greet you as you might desire, or speaks in a bitter, impatient tone. There are a thousand ways in which we can offend one another if we are ready to take offence! “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8). “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:13). “In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3). If we applied these principles to our life in the church among the other members how blessed life in the church would be! Certainly there is no need to run to the elders to demand discipline for every minor irritation which the fellow saints cause one another in the church.
Some sins, however, because of their nature, are more serious. Christ commands us to forgive our brethren when they repent. Peter asked the question once, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). With the suggestion of seven times, Peter thought that he was generous. Christ answered, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (v. 22). In the same chapter Christ gives guidelines on how to deal with a sinning brother when the sin is so serious that we cannot simply cover it up with love. These guidelines refer only to private sins, sins in which no other party is involved and sins about which no one else knows.
First, we must approach the sinning brother and admonish him in private. This means that we do not make his sin public or the subject of gossip. If he repents, the issue is closed: “thou hast gained thy brother.” But what happens if the brother does not repent?
We will consider that in future meditations.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 10: Public Sins
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Timothy 5:20: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear…”
We continue to look at church discipline “with the several circumstances belonging to it, according to the Word of God.” We noticed yesterday that not all sins are censurable sins. This is not because all sins are not damnable or serious. They are. But not all sins require the elders formally to exercise church discipline. We also began to examine the way of Matthew 18.
But before we continue, we answer one misapplication of Matthew 18. The Lord’s directions here apply only to private sins. A private sin is, as Christ describes it, a fault “between thee and him [the sinning brother] alone” (v. 15). No one else knows about or is affected by this sin. A public sin is different. Often men appeal to the way of Matthew 18 to avoid public rebukes for public sins. For example, a man publishes an heretical book, or preaches false doctrine on the radio or broadcasts heretical views on the internet or writes something heretical in the newspaper. Sometimes a Christian will respond to public heresy with a public rebuke or will publish his answer in various media. This is perfectly good and proper because when that man went public with his views his behaviour does not come under the provisions of Matthew 18. Paul dealt with the public sin of Peter this way, although Peter was no heretic. “But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all …” (Gal. 2:14). Paul did not write Peter a private letter of admonition nor did he take Peter aside into a corner. A public sin required a public rebuke. Elsewhere, Paul names and shames men in the congregation whose heresies endangered the church. “Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Tim. 1:20). Doubtless, the friends and family of these two men were not pleased with Paul’s approach. Nevertheless, this way was necessary for the peace and purity of the church. In another epistle Paul names Hymenaeus, Philetus, Demas and Alexander as sinners whose evil deeds must be exposed as a warning to others (II Tim. 2;17, 4:10, 14-15). John does the same by exposing the evil deeds of Diotrephes (III John 9).
The application of these words is clear in letters to Timothy and Titus: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (I Tim. 5:20) and “This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Tit, 1:13).
Sins in the church can become public in various ways, and when such sins do become public the way of Matthew 18 is no longer appropriate. Some sins, by their very nature, cannot be hidden for long. An obvious example is premarital or extramarital sex when the woman becomes pregnant. Another example is a sin where a church member has transgressed the law of the land and has been caught by the civil authorities. His sin will be front page headlines the next day in the local newspaper! Another example is where the sin of a member has become the occasion of (sinful) gossip either in the church or in the world.
When a sin is so public that even the world knows about it or when, as Paul writes, “it is reported commonly …” (I Cor. 5:1) that such sin exists in the congregation, the elders must act with firm, loving, Christian discipline for the glory of God, the purity of the church and the salvation of the sinning member.
This is a difficult, often thankless, but necessary work.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 11: But If He Will Not Hear Thee
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Matthew 18:16: “But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more…”
The first step in the way of Matthew 18 is private admonition. When a brother sins against you, and when there is no one else involved or affected by the sin, then go to him and tell him his sin. Do that only after prayer, after carefully searching your own heart, and with much humility. Tell him what his sin is (he may not even have realized it), urge him to repent, and pray with him, if this is appropriate. Make every effort to be reconciled to the brother. If he repents, “thou hast gained thy brother” (v. 15). Then you must assure him that you forgive him; together you and he must be reconciled at the foot of the cross. And, when you forgive him, this means that you will never bring up his sin again, never hold it against him, and you will never treat him in light of that sin. Also that private sin must be kept private forever. Remember the proverb: “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends” (Prov. 17:9).
Reconciliation is wonderful. Sadly, it is not always achieved on the first attempt. It may be necessary for you to approach the brother more than once. Your admonitions to him may need to be repeated. Christ does not specify this in v. 15. However, when it becomes apparent that the brother is stubbornly refusing to repent of his sin, it is time for the next step which the Lord sets forth. Bring one or two witnesses. Clearly, these witnesses cannot be witnesses of the brother’s sin. If they had been witnesses of the sin, the sin would not have been a strictly private one. These witnesses must be trusted fellow believers whom you can tell about the sin (and tell only them; do not be tempted to make the brother’s sin the subject of gossip) so that they can come with you when you admonish him and be witnesses to the brother’s impenitence.
Your arrival with your witnesses ought to give the brother pause. He ought to see, first, that you love him. Never may you approach you brother in a haughty, self righteous manner, as if you are better than he. Never may you display the Pharisaical attitude. “Why beholdest thou the mote [speck] that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thy own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are …” (Luke 18:11). Instead, you must display real concern for his spiritual welfare, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2). The brother ought to be able to see, that rather than allow him to be ruined by his sin, you cared enough for him to risk losing his friendship and favour in the very difficult calling of rebuking him. “Open rebuke is better than secret love” (Prov. 27:5). “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him” (Lev. 19:17). He ought to see, second, when you arrive with your witnesses, that you take his sin seriously. His folly has brought him to the second step of Matthew 18!
If the brother repents in front of your witnesses, you have gained him. If not, you have reliable testimony to bring to the elders of the brother’s impenitence. With a heavy heart, and with confidence in the Lord’s will, you tell it to the church, that is, to the representatives of the church, the elders.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 12: Tell it to the Church
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Matthew 18:17: “And if shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church …”
We have been examining the way of discipline, beginning with the way of Matthew 18. We have noticed that this way is appropriate only for private sins. The church must deal with public sins in a different manner. The first and second steps having been taken (and the brother remaining impenitent in his sin despite repeated admonitions), the next step is to “tell it to the church” (v. 17). This does not mean that we make a public announcement of the brother’s sin to the whole church. One important principle in church discipline is to keep the sin as private as possible for as long as possible. There is, of course, an important exception: if the brother has committed a crime as well as a sin, there is an obligation to report that to the appropriate authorities. Ideally, the brother should be advised to confess his crime and accept the legal consequences of his actions. The reason we seek to keep sins (in the case where they are not crimes) private is to spare the brother’s reputation and to save him from shame. The church in Matthew 18:17 is the consistory of the local congregation. This is clear because Christ goes on to speak about binding and loosing, which is the work of the elders (vv. 18-19).
Therefore, at this stage in the discipline process, a maximum of four people know about the sin: the brother, the two witnesses and you, the one who has admonished the brother. You and your witnesses must go to the meeting of the consistory. You must explain to the consistory several things. First, you must explain to the elders the nature of the sin. This will include what was done and when. Second, you must explain to the elders what you have done. This will include how you have admonished the brother and when. Third, you must identify your witnesses, who must then verify that they have witnessed the admonition and impenitence of the brother. Then you must leave the matter with the elders for their further investigation. They may desire to question you or your witnesses further. Having fulfilled your Christian calling, you and your witnesses still must not make the sin public. It will only become public at a later stage in the disciplinary process, if the brother does not repent.
The brother will now receive a visit from the elders who will desire to speak to him about his sin. The elders will do this only after carefully examining the evidence which you and your witnesses have brought. Elders must be very careful to follow Proverbs 18:17, “He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbor cometh and searcheth him.” Having satisfied themselves that the brother has indeed sinned and that he remains impenitent, the elders will admonish the brother. They will come with the Scriptures and they will teach the brother the error of his ways. The brother must not spurn the admonitions of the consistory. These men are the officebearers of Christ’s church, and therefore Christ’s representatives whose calling is to rule in the congregations. These men watch for the souls of the members (Heb. 13:17).
If, even at this stage, the brother repents, the consistory will bring it no further. The brother has been won! Great must be our rejoicing in that case. And, since the sin was never public, the consistory will not make the sin and the repentance public.
But, if after being often brotherly admonished, that man shall neglect the hear the church (v. 17), discipline must be brought to the next step.
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 13: The Steps of Church Discipline
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Titus 3:10: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject…”
A sin which began as a private sin against you alone has now reached, through the proper way laid out in Matthew 18, the attention of the elders. The Bible does not lay out for us in detail how the elders should proceed. In fact, if anything, the Bible appears to move very quickly to excommunication: “But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Matt. 18:17). Paul writes, “a man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject” (Tit. 3:10). Whatever happened to the “forgive thy brother seventy times seven” policy of Matthew 18:22? It might seem more like a “two strikes and you’re out” policy! Notice, however, in the first place, that forgiveness is only appropriate when the brother repents. When the brother repents, forgiveness must be full and free. Without repentance, we must desire forgiveness, work towards it, pray for it, and refuse to harbour bitterness in our hearts, but we cannot extend forgiveness to an impenitent person. Notice, in the second place, that the admonitions of Titus 3:10 are official, and indeed, public, admonitions. Paul does not mean that after telling a brother twice, we cut the brother off. He is not saying that the elders visit the brother only twice. These two public admonitions come only after weeks, even months, of repeated, patient instruction and admonition in private. The one who is rejected in Titus 3:10 is a stubborn, impenitent sinner who is “subverted, being condemned of himself” (v. 11).
In Reformed churches the first step of official discipline by the elders, which takes place after a number of private admonitions, is silent censure. The sinning brother is not permitted to come to the Lord’s Table. This prohibition is silent, secret and discrete. Only the elders know about it. It is not announced to the congregation. This silent censure is not the same as excommunication but it will lead to it if the brother remains impenitent. A man under discipline cannot partake of the body and blood of Christ (I Cor. 11:27).
The next step is the “first announcement.” Reformed churches generally make an announcement in the worship service that there is a member under discipline. The announcement includes the nature of the sin: “a sin against the […] commandment.” But it does not yet include the name of the member that he may be spared. The congregation are asked to pray for the unnamed individual. The “second announcement” takes place only after further private admonitions by the elders and the advice of classis. This is necessary because in the second announcement the brother will be named. Therefore the consistory must take earnest heed that the case warrants such a public announcement. The brother will also have the opportunity to make an appeal at the meeting of classis. You can see how thorough the process of discipline is. The church does not prematurely reject people without a fair procedure. If classis approves the consistory will admonish the brother further and, if he still does not repent, the congregation will be informed that the brother (whose name will now be announced) is walking in sin. Following this, a date will be set for the brother’s excommunication from the church.
Sadly, few cases of discipline even reach the stage of the second announcement. Many leave the church in an attempt to escape the discipline of the elders. In so doing they break their membership vow and further increase their guilt.
May God graciously forbid that this should happen with us!
Belgic Confession, Article 32; Day 14: Excommunication
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Corinthians 5:5: “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh…”
Excommunication is a word rarely heard today. It is a word which ought to make us shudder. Very few churches practice it. In many churches there are no elders, and there is no oversight of the life and doctrine of the congregation. In fact, in many churches there is no official membership list. People come and go as they please, believe what they want and live as they please without any concern for the Law of God. But a true church with discipline, as Christ Himself demands it, will not tolerate such sin in her midst. The real Christ is not the affirming, accepting, indulgent Christ who never condemns sinners or their sins. The real Christ is the Christ of Scripture, the holy Son of God, who wills to have a holy church (Eph. 5:26-27; Tit. 2:14). Those who are unholy have no place in the congregation of God’s people. In fact, Christ condemns churches which do not practice discipline: “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam” (Rev. 2:14). “So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate” (v. 15). “Thou sufferest that woman Jezebel …” (v. 20).
We have also seen that there must be no rush to excommunication. Prior to excommunication—which may God graciously forbid—there is the way of Matthew 18, and the patient, painstaking work of the elders in admonishing, rebuking and praying for the erring brother. Let no one say that Reformed church elders simply throw a man out of the church!
Only after many warnings and not a few tears (Acts 20:31; Phil. 3:18) do the elders move to actual excommunication. To excommunicate is to remove from the communion of the church, and therefore to place outside the kingdom of Christ. Paul calls this a delivering unto Satan (I Cor. 5:5; I Tim. 1:20). This is the bitter consequence of sin, and a warning to us all. “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:14-15). “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12). Excommunication means that the excommunicated person is no longer a member of the church and in particular he is barred from the use of the sacraments. Christ says about such a person that we are to count him as “an heathen man and a publican” (Matt. 18:17). This means that we can no longer have fellowship with him. This will be very painful, especially if the excommunicated person is a family member or friend, and it is very painful for the entire body to lose a member. “And when one member suffer, all the members suffer with it” (I Cor. 12:26).
Excommunication takes place in the worship service as a public act. In Reformed churches a specific form is read. The occasion is solemn as the entire congregation, through the instrumentality of the officebearers, put away the wicked person from among them. This final step is necessary for the glory of God, the good of the congregation and even for the salvation of the sinner. Excommunication is the extreme remedy.
Nor must we think that excommunication is the end. In the way of repentance, even after excommunication, there can be restoration. And for that the church prays even as she excommunicates one of her members at the command of Christ.