Nelson Kloosterman, in his chapter entitled “Office Bearers and Church Government” (in the book Called to Serve: Essays For Elders and Deacons), tackles the matter of an authoritative church order that is used in a church committed to sola scriptura. Though many Christian traditions speak disparagingly of church orders – as though they were simply a collection of churchly opinions that take away from fresh, scripture centered church practice – Kloosterman helpfully points out that “insofar as [the church order’s] regulations faithfully reflect the Bible’s teaching and principles, and since they have been adopted by the churches together, the regulations of the Church Order have authority in the church” (pg. 170).
Regarding the authoritative character of the church order, Kloosterman deserves quoting at length:
Speaking of regulations encoded in the Church Order, it’s been said, “They hang on a sky hook… they’re pulled out of thin air… they’re man-made rules.” People often wonder what gives the Church Order its authority to regulate the life and activities of the church.
We may be tempted to answer: the church grants these regulations their authority. Some see the Church Order much like a contract, and view the common agreement as churches to live together voluntarily as being the source of the authority of the Church Order. This would mean, in effect, that the Church Order is as binding as the last majority vote, and that it functions as a corporation charter or a political treaty: the rules are sound, wise, and good until we decide otherwise!
A better answer can be give if we recall the Belgic Confession, Article 30, where we confess: “We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be . . .” office bearers chosen and appointed to govern Christ’s church. Then in Article 32, we confess that “we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. . .”
By acknowledging Christ as the only Head of his church, we confess that supreme authority in the church lies not in a set of rules or a book of order. It belongs to Jesus Christ himself. Christ has delegated his governing authority to office bearers in the church, so that our submission as church members to their leading constitutes obedience to Jesus Christ himself! Government by men, no matter how well-intentioned, can degenerate into either legalistic or arbitrary authority. Therefore, we must always keep in mind the Christ-centered aim, and source of church government.
The character of the Church Order, then, is that it provides the regulations that, on the basis of God’s Word and in agreement with the church’s Confessions, are needed for the sake of good order in the church.
Kloosterman has some real gems in this chapter. What is key is that we not be tempted to think that adherence to a Church Order is somehow a man-centered practice. Though we believe that Christ rules his church via real men, we also believe it is no one less than Christ himself that is governing the church through these men.
This is a very worthwhile chapter as part of a very helpful collection of essays!