Are the rules of the church arbitrary? Do we follow the rules as a part of our commitment to Jesus or are they just something we get from the world? This is a significant question because many think that the church's rules are more advisory than regulatory. They miss the connection to the scriptures and the work of the church. Here are some reasons why the rules are important and to be followed.
- The Church at every level is called to good order. Paul commends the church at Colossae for their good order (Colossians 2:5). As Presbyterians, some think that our favorite passage is Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth, ‘But all things should be done decently and in order.’ (1 Corinthians 14:40). It is a biblical principle that things should be done in good order. After all, the Lord is a God of order and not disorder. Our Standards, the constitutional documents that govern the church's life, are all derived from the scriptures and the theology that flows from them. Robert’s Rules of Procedure were written by the son of a minister and as an aid to the author after a meeting he was leading at the First Baptist Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts devolved into an open conflict. There is a lot of common grace insight in Robert’s Rules with good application to meetings in the church. This is why we use these principles to help us do things decently and in order.
- As members of the court, each of us has vowed to uphold the Standards of the church. These documents are not merely advisory. They are the standard by which we run the church. The Form of Government (Book of Common Order) sets the structures of the church. The Book of Discipline sets the purpose and process for Church discipline. The Directory of Public Worship states the principles and elements of worship. Different denominations call these documents different things but serve the same purpose. They give us a common set of rules and processes for us to follow in the church's work. This is why you take a vow in ordination to follow these standards. Jesus tells us to let our yes be yes and our no be no (Matthew 5:37). With this in mind, we should take seriously our vows as officers to follow the standards of the church.
- The rules are to be followed for God's glory and the Church's good. Often we can become jaded by the way our civil courts are run. It would seem lawyers can turn a simple sentence on its head to win a case. This win-at-all-cost approach is not appropriate in the courts of the church.. Ecclesiastical courts are not civil courts. They differ in several important ways. First, church courts have a fundamentally different purpose for judicial cases. They primarily call sinners to repent and serve as a warning to others of the danger of sin. Second, The honor and glory of Christ’s church is a primary function of church courts. Civil courts' primary purpose is to punish wrongdoers and exact punishment and restitution for offenses. Third, the church wants to bring reconciliation between the Lord and sinners and between people in the church. Finally, beyond this fundamental difference, there is also a major difference in how the church courts operate. In civil courts, well-paid professionals administer, prosecute, and defend. Pastors have full-time ministry responsibilities in the church, and we often work on Judicial cases in the after-hours or on days off. Elders have other responsibilities at work, home, and in the church as well. As a result, there must be patience and grace as ministers and elders do this work.
- Often the problem with the rules is a lack of knowledge and understanding of them, not the rules themselves. When I served on the Minister and His Work Commission of my presbytery, we often met with a session that had an issue or struggle. The Chairman would simply open the Form of Government or the Book of Discipline and read the appropriate passage. The elders would say well that clears things up! If you are an officer in the church, you need to have read the church's standards. You need to have a growing understanding of how they work. Seminaries have continually reduced the hours of polity required in the M.Div degree. One seminary has it down to half a credit hour. This will not cut it for the church. Polity is the backbone of church structure and good order. We need to do better in knowing what we have sworn to uphold.
Some good resources are available to help you as an officer in the church to understand your polity. The primary place to go is to the Standards of your denomination. Read the documents for yourself.
Ask your pastor or another presbyter for recommendations on good books to read on polity, church discipline, and shepherding. Polity is important. It is the key to good order, and it keeps us from becoming a mob where everyone does ‘what is right in their own eyes’ (Judges 17:6).