Debates on government and discipline have often caused controversy and dissent in church-life. Our present fragmented Church is largely due to disagreement over church order with the added quarrels over the ordinances and eschatology. Doctrines rarely come into these debates unless it is argued that church orders are savingly relevant. Rather controversy often arises from arbitrary principles of organisation and administration. The first efforts to split the Reformed Church in England centred around whether one should kneel, stand, sit or walk by in procession at the communion service, or whether the minister should pray before or after the sermon, or whether one regarded baptism as a symbolic pointer to God’s mercies in Christ or as a sacramental reception of them. Our Reformers saw such controversy as a forsaking of the overall guidance of Scripture and the introduction of foreign elements. They argued that though the Scriptures speak of bishops, elders, deacons, pastors, evangelists, prophets and teachers, these were utility offices to suit the needs of specific times, functions and local situations. So, too, these offices, judging by the New Testament records, obviously overlapped. We cannot therefore deduce that there was a rigid Scriptural order in one place under one circumstance at one time that was binding in all areas, circumstances and at all times. Any exact definition and limitation of any role mentioned in Scripture apart from where this is exactly specified, would be unscriptural. We can thus deduce that it is perfectly biblical to operate as a church using either bishops, elders, deacons, pastors etc. or perhaps only one or some of the other offices mentioned in Scripture. Nor is there much value, it would seem, in complaining when a church seeks to organise itself into diocese, parishes, associations, covenants, bands, classes and sessions, though one can go to extremes here, too. Why fight shy of the good Biblical words ‘church’ and ‘congregation’? It is noteworthy that when Knox and his Scottish friends abolished the seven Roman Catholic clerical offices, they merely replaced them by seven offices with different names. New offices in our churches such as ‘clinical pastors,’ ‘lay pastors,’ ‘worship directors’ and ‘priestesses’ are clearly unscriptural in name and nature. The modern American tendency to refer to churches, their offices and officers as AAs, COMs, CPMs, EEs, EOEs and PCs is far beyond sense and Biblical utility. However, to restrict bishops to organising and ordaining, elders to preaching and teaching, pastors to spiritual care of the flock, evangelists to itinerant work and deacons to provide catering facilities would also be contrary to Biblical usage. So would the idea that anyone having one office is automatically suitable for all. When Paul tells Titus that aged women should be teachers of good things, he did not mean that Titus should reserve all Church offices for good-living, elderly ladies. Paul accompanied his directive to Titus with an exact, non-transferable description of the Christian duties of such sisters. So, too, when Paul appointed Titus as bishop to organise the church in Crete and ordain elders in every city, he was obviously not giving all church officers a carte blanche to do the same in all other regions and at all times.

     Nevertheless, Paul clearly never ruled that in areas where no ordained church officers existed, no evangelisation, preaching, teaching and congregational worship should take place before such an organisation was set up. England’s great Reformer John Jewel taught that as all Christians are members of a kingly priesthood, where they are is the Church though no bishop might be in sight. In New Testament times deacons preached and baptised and Apostles did the work of deacons, even after deacons were officially appointed. Both John 1 and Peter 2 called themselves Apostles and elders and Paul informs us that he was ordained to three offices, that of Apostle, preacher and teacher to the Gentiles.

     Sadly, since the Reformation, churches have invariably returned to the Roman Catholic system of regarding the Church as an institution and their clergy as her embodiment. Nowadays, even Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist churches allow only their clergy to appoint church officers and speak for the congregation. However, when the Apostolic writers greet the churches, they do not write ‘To the Synod of Bishops, Presbytery, and Deacons’ Committee of the Church at Monopolis etc.. but ‘unto the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,’ or ‘to them that hath obtained like precious faith,’ or ‘to the saints which are at Ephesus’. Thus, in the Reformation, we find a sensible and practical usage of church offices without maintaining that a fixed hierarchy of ecclesiastical titles established the Church. The false papist idea that the clergy is the Church is why the Reformation was a Godsend. However, any title can be misused whether bishop, presbyter or moderator and no title contains within it the where-with-all to serve under it.

    Amongst Reformed churches, we find the German-Swiss Cantons enjoyed a form of democracy absent in other countries and their freedom to establish local churches on a similar organisational basis proved most practical. However, a form of hierarchy was still found necessary, so several Cantons chose a Chief-Shepherd with Under-Shepherds and others elected an Antistes (Bishop or Superintendent). The Church of England called Henry Bullinger the ‘Common Shepherd of all the Churches’. Martin Bucer of Strasbourg and Cambridge in his De Ordinatione Legitima, a major influence in reforming the Church of England’s ordination service, spoke of a Chief Minister assisted by Presbyters. 3 This was the system used in the Scottish Reformed churches before Andrew Melville began to appoint Monarchical Elders and do away with bishops. The Genevan Church before Bern pioneered her Reformation, was ruled by Lord-Bishops who presided over the three councils. Calvin felt it best not to break too strongly with this tradition much to Bern’s chagrin. Beza modified Calvin’s particularly and peculiarly ‘Genevan’ order and discipline with elements gleaned from Germany, Bern, Zürich, Strasbourg, England, France and Scotland. Then Bern accepted Geneva into a Swiss confederacy. 4 France suffered under Roman Catholic kings and dukes at the Reformation so the church had to go underground and develop a form of church government and organisation entirely suited to that form of existence but hardly workable and quite unnecessary in times of peace or under a sympathetic government. Sweden and her vast empire was won for the Reformation through her Christian kings, university professors and awakened bishops and developed her own form of church organisation which Queen Christina called ‘evangelical’ rather than ‘Lutheran’ or ‘Reformed’. Holland was ruled strongly and often severely by foreign nations and local dukes who forced their own understanding of church offices on their people even at the Council of Dort whose delegates complained that they had not the freedom to follow the order and discipline of their Anglican brethren. England had been guided into the Reformation by her bishops under good King Edward and Queen Bess and saw no reason for dropping this arrangement. We must also remember that the Reformation was more widespread and successful in England than on the Continent, barring Scandinavia. Sadly this nigh ideal Church initiative was abolished and outlawed during Cromwell’s usurpation. Then the Church was placed under a mixture of parliamentary, secular and military rule and government of the Church by the Church was abolished.

     Looking back at saner times, Jewel in his Defence of the Apology, told his Jesuit critics, that the Church was a community of royal priests which embraced all believers whether this included bishops or not. The Church, he argued, is built on sound doctrine not on external orders and discipline. The Jesuit Harding argued that the Fathers ranked bishops far higher than priests but Jewel, quoting Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and others, showed that ‘Episcopi et presbyteri uno ordinatio est; uterque enim sacerdos est, sed episcopus primus est.’ There is one consecration of bishops and priests (elders) for both of them are priests (elders) but the bishop is the first.’ In other words, as other Reformed churches had their Superintendent, Vorsteher, Chief Shepherd, President, Präses, Moderator, Association Chairman or Antistes, the English Church had its bishop. That the English title is a Scriptural one and the others not, is an obvious advantage to the orders of the English Church. 5 Jewel argued for a plurality of bishops and he quotes Jerome favourably saying that the fact that a bishop is greater than his fellow priests (presbyters) is merely by order and custom and not by the truth of God’s ordinance. 6 However, English Reformers such as John Bradford and William Fulke did not accept Jerome’s high view of a bishop as an Apostle. Apostolic duties were universal but a bishop’s local.

     Both Calvin and Beza emphasised that the way a church organised itself was by applying Scripture to the needs and necessities of the times. Calvin speaks of a three-fold ministry: of the Word, church government and care of the poor. He also distinguishes temporary from the permanent offices of government and caring for the poor. Though Calvin argues that the titles bishop, presbyter and pastor are basically synonymous, he nevertheless distinguishes between them, for instance, when claiming, ‘To all who discharge the ministry of the word it (Scripture) gives the name of bishops.’ He those who ordain ministers ‘presbyters’. Concerning ordination, 7 Calvin, when referring to Timothy and Titus, clearly distinguishes between bishops, elders and deacons. A lack of clarity in Calvin’s definitions apparently gave rise to the views of Cartwright and Travers who accepted a three-tier church ministry but claimed that the office of presbyter was higher than that of bishop as the former ordained and the latter preached. However, Calvin adds another tier and tops the bishop, presbyter and deacon hierarchy with a collective office which he calls the Senate. This, he argues, represents the permanent governing body of a church. Of this Senate, Calvin says, ‘By these governors I understand seniors selected from the people to unite with the bishops in pronouncing censures and exercising discipline.’ 8 This politico-ecclesiastical body appears to be Calvin’s ideal for church government. However, Calvin’s remarks give the impression that he is still collecting his thoughts on the subject rather than laying down rules. Conscious of this, both Calvin and Beza warned against copying their methods. Calvin writing:

‘The whole sum of righteousness, and all the parts of divine worship, and everything necessary to salvation, the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles, so that in them he alone is the only Master to be heard. But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages), in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency.’ 9

      Beza, too, knowing that the Genevan Reformation was still in its developing stages and his church was almost entirely composed of foreign immigrants with other traditions, refused to lay down laws concerning a set order and discipline to be followed by all. Beza cannot possibly be misunderstood when he says: ‘They of Geneva do not proscribe to any Church to follow their peculiar example, like unto ignorant men, who think nothing well but that they do themselves.’ 10

     Modern Reformed Christians who claim that Calvin mapped out a Biblical order and discipline as a standard for all times and all situations, and thus part of the gospel, little understand Calvin’s and Beza’s sentiments and ideas of utility. This old and persistent misunderstanding caused much embarrassment at the time for Calvin and Beza who asked Reformers like Bullinger, Gualter, Jewel and Grindal to intervene on their behalf and clear up matters.

To conclude: The Church triumphant has always lived by Paul’s advice that all things are possible but not all things edify. For their edification within the Bride of Christ, surely all true Christians can put their loud ‘Amen’ to Article XX of the Church of England:

“The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.”


Notes:

  1. 2 John 1; 3 John 1.
  2.  2 Pet. 5:1
  3.  See Martin Bucer and the Book of Common Prayer, ed. E. C. Whitaker, 1974.
  4.  Calvin wanted union with France.
  5.  Fathers of the English Church, Richmond Collection, Vol. VII, pages 684-685.
  6.  Works of John Jewel, PS, Vol. I, p. 379, Vol. III, p. 439.
  7.  Institutes, Vol. II, Book IV, Chapter III: 12-16
  8.  Ibid, Vol. II, Book IV, Chapter III, 8.
  9. Ibid, Vol. II, Book III, Chapter X, 30
  10. The source given by S. J. Knox in his Travers biography is Contra Sarrau, p. 127, but Sarrau was Beza’s 17th century editor. Perhaps Knox meant Contra Suriano.