IN ORDER TO SERVE: AN ECUMENICAL
INTRODUCTION TO CHURCH POLITY
LEO J. KOFFEMAN
LIT VERLAG, 2014
Consider the dustup last March when World Vision decided to permit same-sex marriages among its employees. Immediately the charity was denounced by Franklin Graham and other evangelical leaders, who instructed supporters to punish World Vision by withdrawing their financial support. The dollars stopped. Two days later, the charity reversed its decision.
Was this a case of Christian discipline? Well, yes, in that it was a case of parachurch organizations holding each other accountable. But there was no regard for the patterns of Matthew 18. There were no controls on what was said by whom to whom. The accusers set themselves up as judges, and there was no protection of the alleged offender. The means of discipline were secular – the media and the Internet – and the sanction was commercial – cash. (One thinks of Rome and Luther and indulgences.) There was nothing spiritual or Christlike in the method of the discipline, despite the pretensions of Graham and others that the integrity of the gospel was at stake.
The Church Order of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, provides orderly patterns for Christian discipline, patterns that are based on Scripture, theology and centuries of experience. So, at lunch with one of my elders, I asked, rhetorically, “Who the hell is Franklin Graham, and what office does he hold?” I said that I much preferred the disciplines of the institutional church. My elder said, “Not many of us are that impressed with the institutional church.” Oh, good point. The record of the institutional church on matters of sex and sexuality is scandalous, not to mention its financial corruption and cozying with political power.
At issue is how the church takes real shape in a real world.
So, then, why is church order important? Why is polity worth reading about? Minimally, because the church should practice what it preaches: because the way that the church behaves within itself affects its credibility in the world. But Reformed Christians go further than that. We believe what the creeds teach: that the church is the first work of the Holy Spirit and that the church should be “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” and also a “communion of saints” that exhibits “the forgiveness of sins.” We believe that God has given specific offices to the church and that office-holders must meet together in councils. Church order is how we give shape to these faith-claims. Polity is how the church orders itself and also grooms itself – sometimes like a cat and sometimes like a troop of monkeys.
At the RCA’s most recent general synod, I noticed how many of our actions on all sorts of issues were framed as decisions on church order: Let’s amend this rule; let’s add that rule. How plastic can any church’s polity be and still have integrity? For reasons both pragmatic and ecumenical, we all constantly finagle our respective church orders and stand less on them than we used to do. We want our historic polities to be serviceable for mission and yet have theological integrity. We keep our churches in order “in order to serve,” as this book’s title suggests.
Most books on polity are expositions and vindications of one’s own specific polity, with the implicit assumption that one’s own is the best and also the best defense against the barbarians at the gate. Not this book. Leo Koffeman offers a truly catholic and ecumenical introduction to polity, and he does it from an angle I’ve not seen before. Koffeman is a professor of church polity and ecumenism at the Protestant Theological University in the Netherlands, and his Dutch Reformed background is apparent. Yet he draws his theology as much from the publications of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches as from anywhere else. He does not defend any one polity but finds evidence and examples from a remarkable number of polity structures throughout the world. He’s certainly Reformed in his interplay of Scripture, tradition, theology and experience. He’s a European Protestant in treating polity as a branch of a positive and constructive science of theology that has its rightful place among the other sciences. His approach is wholly different from a typical North American one.
The author’s ideas and proposals are very creative, and yet the book unfolds in a patient and orderly way. Part 1 moves from ecclesiology (that is, theology about the church) to ecumenical polity to church structures to church law. Here Koffeman surveys the ground and lays out the typical patterns, problems and issues. Part 2 develops what the author calls “liturgical church polity,” designed to avoid the extremes of “polity from above” and “polity from below” and also designed to apply to most churches from most traditions. I expected him more fully to develop the liturgical theme, but he only claims it. His argument holds that a church is at root that people who gather every Sunday at worship: the congregation first and then also the ministers, whose office is to keep the congregation pointed toward salvation and toward its vocation in the world. It is here that the order of the church is grounded. The chapter on the congregation is wonderful: wise, practical and theological all at the same time. His theological reflection on church recordkeeping (!) is brilliant.
Part 3 is Koffeman’s creative proposal of four “quality markers” of the church, according to which any church’s rules and structures can be analyzed and evaluated. The four quality markers are inclusivity, authenticity, conciliarity and integrity. These qualities relate to the classic attributes of the church according to the Nicene Creed: one (conciliarity), holy (integrity), catholic (inclusivity) and apostolic (authenticity). But by using these markers instead of the traditional attributes, Koffeman broadens the horizon of the analysis and opens it to greater contextuality and useful connections with other social sciences. At issue is how the church takes real shape in a real world. This leads to Part 4, which surveys issues of church and state and human rights.
The tone of the book is sober and a little dry. It’s not Polity for Fun and Profit. The chapters don’t open with stories. So who should read it? And why read it? Well, although many Reformed circles regard the terms “visible church” and
“institutional church” as implicitly negative, in real terms we all spend most of our Christian energy (and capital) on this visible, institutional church, and even we Reformed folks recognize that the church has a divinely ordained relationship to the Kingdom of God that no other institution has. The church deserves all the considered expertise that we would give to the form and structures of our schools, families and civil governments. This book would be a place for any well-educated office-bearer to start to pay attention.
The other factor is that our Reformed and Presbyterian denominations are still working out of polities that more or less presume Christendom. That’s over. This is partly why Reformed denominations keep changing their grooming, makeup, clothes and diet. We don’t like where we came from, and we’re not sure where we fit or how to dance. We don’t want to retreat into the trenches of Dort, but neither do we want the intentionally weak and undeveloped polity of the Evangelicals such as Franklin Graham and World Vision. I think it finally comes down to mission. How do we offer our best to Our Lord? Here is a book about polity and church order that begins to address such issues. I would suggest that every pastor (not to mention denominational staffer) could profit from this book – as well as the odd elder or deacon.
Daniel Meeter is pastor of “Old First” Reformed Dutch Church of the Town of Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Meeting Each Other in Doctrine, Liturgy, and Government: The Bicentennial of the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America.