The report of the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, to the 1997 General Synod called for the appointment of an ad hoc committee to review denominational policy regarding the formation and function of consistories and to suggest ways that the mission of the church could be served through changes in the selection and role definition of elders and deacons. A slightly modified version of this recommendation was adopted by the synod:
To instruct the moderator of the General Synod Council, in consultation with the general secretary, to appoint an ad hoc committeeÉto study those sections of the Book of Church Order (BCO) dealing with the election, tasks, and responsibilities of consistories in light of Reformed understanding of the role of elders and deacons and the consistory's calling to give spiritual leadership in the ministry and mission of congregations (MGS 1997,R-6, p. 406).1
When the synod met the following year, at the recommendation of its president, the Rev. Charles Van Engen, the charge to the ad hoc committee was furthered defined "to also consider how the Reformed Church in America can develop a new understanding of the purpose, makeup, and work of its consistories so that consistories may begin to see themselves and to function as agents of mission and ministry in their contexts" (MGS 1998, p. 39).2
It became evident to the members of the ad hoc committee when they first met in January 1999, that because of its scope and complexity their task required concurrent investigations in several areas. One of the most crucial of these, committee members concluded, concerns the Reformed understanding of the offices and their assembly in the congregation, that is, of elders, deacons, ministers of Word and sacrament, and their gathering as a consistory. Accordingly, the paper that follows explores these concerns as they relate to the ministry and mission of the church, but only in regard to the congregation.3
These terms, "ministry" and "mission," govern both the recommendation made by Granberg-Michaelson to the 1997 synod and the modified version approved by the assembly, as well as Van Engen's proposal to the 1998 synod. As will be seen, ministry and mission are not foreign to the Reformed understanding of office, nor do they represent a new set of tasks to be added to traditional duties of consistory members. Ministry and mission are at the heart of the Reformed understanding of office. The question is not how new purposes are infused into old offices, but rather the retrieval of a theology of office that has been all but forgotten in many quarters of the church and that is missional in its nature and purpose. When the integrity of ministry, mission, and office is grasped, a sound biblical and Reformed basis will be provided for the creation of new structures and practices that will better serve Christ's ministry and mission in a constantly changing world. The discussion, then, will begin with a consideration of the nature and purpose of office, move to an exploration of the mission of the church, and conclude with reflections on "re-visioning" the consistory.
The Offices: Representative Government
The Reformed understanding of governance is fundamentally representative, a point clearly made in the denomination's Book of Church Order (BCO).4 A word of caution must be raised immediately, however, because this statement describes a theological rather then political understanding of representation. The Reformed doctrine of church governance is not democratic (the rule of the people through representatives), but might be termed "Christocratic" (the rule of Christ through representatives). The installed officers of the church minister as Christ's representatives, each according to the provisions of the office held. When those in office come together on a regular basis as a consistory to oversee and enable the life of the congregation, it is Christ's governance they seek to effect, not oversight born of their own wisdom. If we think of the congregation as "the people," then we may say that in the Reformed view, the offices both represent Christ to the people,and also represent him through the people.
This understanding of the nature and purpose of office becomes clear when we examine the three foundational stones of the RCA: its creeds and confessions, government, and liturgies--those documents the Rev. Daniel Meeter whimsically compares to the three legs supporting a milk stool.5 Meeter notes that the constitution of the RCA, e.g., what constitutes us, is not governance, nor worship, nor confession, but the three together as the Preamble to the RCA Book of Church Order states explicitly.6 What do we learn from these about representative office?
The confessions of the RCA help us less than we might expect. The Belgic Confession alone speaks of government.
We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in this Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons along with the pastors to make up the council of the church (Article 30).
Article 30 continues with a brief description of the responsibilities of the three offices:
By this means true religion is preserved; true doctrine is able to take its course; and the evil are corrected spiritually and held in check, so that also the poor and all the afflicted may be helped and comforted according to their need.
The discussion of office continues in the next article, which specifies that ministers, elders, and deacons are to be prayerfully elected by the church and their election understood as God's call to office; that all ministers are equal in power and authority since Jesus Christ is the only universal bishop; and that ministers and elders (one wonders why deacons are excluded) should be esteemed by the people.
As brief as this presentation may be, several important points are established by it: the claim of a scriptural basis for a threefold understanding of office and governance; the general responsibilities of the three offices; the manner of election and call; and, of paramount importance, the testimony that Jesus Christ himself is the only true bishop and that the authority of the officeholder derives from him and him alone. Here is the solid confessional bedrock of the RCA's doctrine that the offices represent Christ.
While the Belgic Confession firmly establishes the threefold pattern of church governance, it provides little help in understanding the meaning of office in the Reformed tradition.7 The Book of Church Order, the second "leg" on which the RCA stands, however, sheds additional light on the question. The BCO is far more than a manual of definitions and procedures--it is decidedly not an ecclesiastical version of Robert's Rules of Order. A foundational principle of Reformed governance is that government builds on doctrine, order on confession. We might think of the BCO as the agent that the church uses to live out in practical day-by-day existence its evangelical faith.
Thus the first thing that the BCO attends to is not theories of government and administration, but a statement of the gospel. Its initial offering is an elegant and profoundly Reformed statement concerning the church and its Lord. It includes the RCA's original mission statement. Jesus Christ is the only head of the church described in Pauline terms as his body. He and he alone holds ultimate authority, and all authority exercised in the church is derived from him. Thus the authority of the offices of the church is delegated authority.8 In its description of the elder, the BCO makes the point succinctly: "Christ, according to the New Testament, has appointed officers to govern the church under himself. Their authority to govern derives from him even though they are elected by the people."9
It is important to note that the line of authority described here does not move from Christ to the people to the offices, in which case pastors, elders and deacons would be accountable in their spiritual exercise to the congregation, but directly to those in office from Christ through the people. Those who hold office areresponsive to the congregation, but responsible to Christ alone in the exercise of their office.10
Two additional important points are made in the introductory section of the BCO when it is emphatically stated that the offices are both pastoral and spiritual. To examine first the pastoral nature of the offices, it should be noted that the BCO does not teach that ministers of Word and sacrament alone hold the pastoral office. The pastoral office is threefold, comprised by elders, deacons, and ministers of Word and sacrament. No one office adequately represents Christ; only the three together. Again, we see the importance of "Christocratic" representation. Christ himself delegates the tripartite pastoral office.
The principle of the equality of the ministry, conceived now in its broadest sense as including the functions of the elder and deacon, is based upon the fact that the entire ministerial or pastoral office is summed up in Jesus Christ himself in such a way that he is, in a sense, the only one holding that office. Every ministerial function is found preeminently in him. By his Holy Spirit he distributes these functions among those whom he calls to serve in his name.11
The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Fries, in an essay written for the third Lutheran-Reformed dialogue, sums up the Reformed teaching by stating, "the ministry of Christ is not continued in one office but three."12 For the purpose of this discussion, the pastoral office understood in this way will be referred to as "the pastorate." In the RCA the pastorate assembled for governance is referred to as the consistory.13
If the offices are pastoral in nature, they are spiritual in origination. The capitalization should be carefully noted, for the reference here is the working of the Holy Spirit and not to the human quality we point to when in ordinary speech we describe a man or woman as "spiritual." Note that this is made clear by the BCO when in the passage cited above the statement is made: "By his Holy Spirit he distributes these functions among those whom he calls to serve in his name."14 The Holy Spirit creates the offices and extends the call of Christ to those chosen to fill them. Thus in Reformed perspective the Holy Spirit works not only in the hearts of men and women or in communal relationships alone. God the Spirit forges the structures of the church (the offices, consistory, classis, synod) and cultivates men and women to fill them (the officers). The BCO is as much a gift of the Holy Spirit as is a prayer of a faithful believer. Ministers of Word and sacrament, elders, and deacons are called, gifted, and empowered through the Holy Spirit to be nothing less than agents of Christ in the power of the Spirit. It is by this spiritual action that the pastoral ministry of Christ is continued through history and the mission of the church is launched in the world.
The liturgies of the RCA, the third "leg" of Meeter's milk stool, amplify the duties of each of the offices, and while vitally important for the life of the congregation, add little additional information concerning the nature and purpose of the offices. The liturgical orders for the ordination and installation of ministers of Word and sacrament, elders, and deacons give expression to the teachings of the confessions and the provisions of theBCO in the language of worship. Here we find eloquent liturgical declarations proclaiming Jesus Christ as the true officeholder and source for all ministry and the call for dedicated response from those chosen by God to serve as ordained and installed servants of the Lord. Here, too, the notion of the pastorate is affirmed as the complementarity and parity of the offices is announced and their spiritual genesis is proclaimed. The liturgies of the church sum up its theology of office and at the same time give it expression in the ongoing life of the congregation.
This characterization of office on the basis of the three-legged constitution of the RCA suggests two extremely important questions. First, what is the nature of the authority and powers of the offices? And, second, how do the ministries of the office relate to the ministries engaged by all baptized believers?
What is the nature of the authority and power of office in Reformed theology? The single source of the authority of office, as understood in the RCA, has already been identified. Christ as the supreme minister of the church delegates all authority and grants all powers.15 But how is what Christ delegates vested in those ordained and installed in one of the offices? Two views, one ancient and the other modern, are precluded by Reformed ecclesiology. The first, associated with Roman Catholic theology, holds that the Holy Spirit confers a sacramental grace by virtue of ordination, and an "indelible mark" is placed on the recipient's character. Consequently, a priest may be removed from office but will not be reordained if reinstated because his ordination has marked him for life. A second view, popular today, is that the authority and powers of office depend entirely on function. A church, like any organization, requires leaders. Those gifted with leadership ability after appropriate training are installed in offices, which give them the authority and power to "get the job done." Reformed theology, in regard to the first view, has held that only through the action of the Holy Spirit can the offices represent Christ, but have rejected the notion of some special grace bestowed permanently on those ordained. But neither has its understanding of office been functional. In Reformed thought an office, with its authority and powers, is not a response to community need, or even to the needs of the world, but to Christ's ministry to and through his people, as shown above. Office does not follow function; function follows office.
If the authority and powers of office are not conferred by sacramental grace, and if they are not inherently operational, then what is the nature of their mediation in Reformed thought? We find help in answering this question in an unlikely place. The Heidelberg Catechism, after presenting its teaching on the Lord's Supper, addresses church discipline. The basis for discipline, the answer to question 84 asserts, is the proclamation of the gospel. The next question and answer locates the responsibility for discipline in the "officers" (elders) of the church and, in reference to Matthew 16:19, describes its administration. In this much-debated passage, Jesus says to Peter "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19). Question 85 inquires about how the kingdom of heaven is closed and opened by Christian discipline. The answer at first glance is puzzling, perhaps even disturbing:
Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and after repeated and loving counsel refuse to abandon their errors and wickedness, and after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers, fail to respond also to their admonition--such persons the officers exclude from Christian fellowship by withholding the sacraments from them, and God excludes them from the kingdom of Christ (italics added).
What may strike the reader as puzzling about this answer is what seems to be an inexplicable reversal of roles. The passage appears to be saying that because the elders close the table to an unrepentant sinner, God will exclude this person from the kingdom. Here we encounter something that seems akin to the sacerdotalism deplored by the Reformation. Have elders been given the authority to direct divine action? Is God to be bound by human decision?16
This, of course, is not the intention of the authors of the catechism. The answer to question 85 does not represent a lapse in an otherwise solid presentation of Reformed belief, but rather a perspective deeply grounded in Reformed ecclesiology. The key to understanding the catechism at this point is once again the principle of representation. The authors of the catechism firmly believe that Scripture teaches that by the working of the Holy Spirit those who represent Christ, the officers of the church, in their deliberations and actions "stand in for" or "act for" the Lord of the church. We might draw an analogy with an ambassador who is given the power and authority to represent and act for the American government in a foreign land, although always in a way consistent with national policy. The decisions and actions of the elders as conceived here are not autonomous (self-determined) but "Christonomous" (Christ determined). It is Christ, the supreme pastor of the church, who originates discipline, who seeks the repentance of the sinner by withholding grace.
The result is twofold. The elders who represent Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit take action to close the table. One is reminded of a phrase used in the pastoral letter sent to the fledgling gentile churches of the first century by the Council of Jerusalem, "for it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). And since God grants no one admission to the kingdom except through the Son, God the Father excludes the unhappy person from the kingdom. The elders represent Christ while God the Father responds to him. Both the Holy Spirit guiding the officers of the church to excommunicate the recalcitrant member, and the Father excluding this person from the kingdom, are Christologically reciprocal. Here, as throughout the Heidelberg Catechism, the theological perspective is consistently trinitarian.
The authority and powers of those who hold office, then, are vested neither through an indelible mark, nor are they established by function, but are carried by the office itself through the working of the Holy Spirit. They are located neither in the person, nor the action, but in that which, according to Reformed theologians, Christ instituted and the Spirit effects. By the Spirit, God calls men and women, gives them gifts for their office, and provides opportunity for the cultivation of their gifts. But the offices themselves are understood to be initiated by the ascended Lord of the church and effected by the Holy Spirit. Thus when the officers of the church act faithfully, they act by the Spirit, which enacts through them the purposes of Christ. When the officers of the church act faithfully, their action serves Christ and thus mirrors the will of God the Father. Sinful men and women, forgiven and sanctified by Christ—called, ordained and installed in office— become partners with God to engage the divine mission through the church and in the world. John Calvin eloquently expresses this understanding of office when he writes:
"Christ ascended on high," Paul says, "that he might fill all things" (Eph. 4:10). This is the manner of fulfillment: through the ministers to whom he has entrusted this office and has conferred the grace to carry it out, he dispenses and distributes his gifts to the church; and he shows himself as though present by manifesting the power of his Spirit in this his institution, that it be not vain or idleÉ. For neither the light and heat of the sun, nor food and drink, are so necessary to nourish and sustain the present life, as the apostolic and pastoral office is necessary to preserve the church on earth.17
Here Calvin speaks of the minister of Word and sacrament, but the words apply equally to offices of the church working in unified ministry. The same Spirit that inhabits the ascended Lord dwells in our lives, as the answer to question 76 of the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, and by that Spirit those who hold the offices ordained by Christ receive Christ's power and authority of Christ's office. The authority and powers of office in the Reformed tradition are by the working of the Holy Spirit dynamic and reciprocal. The authority and powers of the officers of the church inhere not in the officer or even in the office, but in the dynamic and reciprocal relationship of office and officer with Christ through the Holy Spirit. They are not possessed but dynamically communicated, but neither are they occasional, because by God's promise and good pleasure they are constantly given.
The final matter remaining to be addressed in this section, and it is a matter of great importance, concerns the relationship of the ministry of the offices to the ministry to which all Christians are called. We have seen that the offices of the church form a pastorate through which, by spiritual delegation, Christ draws the faithful into participation with himself and thus communicates his grace to them. What, then, is the role assigned those who hold no office? How does the ministry of the ordained few relate to that of the baptized many? The traditional Reformed view of office as described above may seem to leave little room for such ministry. Christ comes to the people through the representation of the ordained, but is Christ not also in some way represented by and through the people? These question takes on urgency at this time when the church has come to affirm strongly the biblical teaching that all Christians have been called and gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve Christ, and that all members of a congregation are "commissioned" to engage Christ's mission. To state the issue bluntly: is the understanding of office derived from the confessions, order, and liturgies of the RCA capable of supporting the now broadly accepted notion of the missional church?
Obviously, such questions can be adequately answered only when there is agreement about what is meant when we speak of the missional church. The missional church, in turn, can be adequately grasped only when larger questions concerning God's mission, that is, God's purposes for the world, are addressed. This will be the task of the next section. At this point, we need only make a few observations, which will allow us to suggest the nature of the relationship of ministry through the offices to that of God's baptized people.
The roots of the missional church are in the theology of mission, which developed during the first decades following World War II, especially in the Netherlands.18 These theologies, while diverging from one another at many points, held one premise in common: mission is not something the church does, but something the church is. Moreover, and this too was a shared assumption, mission is not the business of church officers, denominational staff, or paid professionals alone, but of all Christians. Since the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers gave expression to this theological viewpoint, it became a centerpiece of missional theology. All Christians are called by God and gifted by the Spirit to minister in the name of Jesus Christ. The call to ministry first comes not through some personal spiritual experience but through the act of baptism. The declaration provided by the RCA baptism liturgy "commissions" the baptized one to serve Christ. Immediately following the baptism, the minister says:
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of his Church, I declare that this child is now received into the visible membership of the Holy Catholic Church, and is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant untoÉlife's end.19
Does the historic understanding of office, as detailed above, adequately take into account and provide for the ministry of all Christians? Does a theology of the missional church call for a new understanding of office, which will acknowledge the biblical call of all Christians to minister in Christ's name? In our view a re-vision of the church's theology of office is necessary, but one that unfolds from, rather than demolishes, the historic Reformed doctrine of office. We are at the same time convinced that a simple reprisal of traditional practices will fail the mission of Christ.
This judgment is based on the conviction that office in RCA order is based on solid evangelical theology. It may not be, as Calvin believed, the only biblically based system of governance possible, but it is one deeply rooted in the Word of God. A scriptural assumption undergirding the RCA's understanding of order is that thecongregation is itself the object of Christ's mission--a community of sinners, which Christ, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, joins to himself in regenerating love. We are, according to Reformation theology, saved by faith in Jesus Christ, and that faith is not a personal achievement but a gift of God given by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. This means that our salvation is communicated through what Calvin calls Christ's tools, the offices of the church.20 Whether regeneration, the communication of new life, is thought to encompass sanctification, the living of the new life, as Calvin taught, or to lead to it, as later Reformed theologians held, the two belong together in biblical theology.21 Thus through the offices of minister of Word and sacrament, elder, and deacons, Christ communicates life-transforming grace and instructs the people of God in the ways of God.
What is often ignored in discussions of the missional church is that before the community of faith engages Christ's mission, and at the time it is engaging that mission, it is itself the object of that mission. If the church is called to serve Christ in the world, the world is also called to the church, not simply in evangelistic outreach, but as the world is brought into the church by Christians who daily participate in its myriad activities. Christians need the grace that brings forgiveness, communicates God's love, and orients their lives according to the purposes of Christ. Martin Luther described Christians as simul justus et peccator, at the same time justified and sinners. We are new creatures in Jesus Christ, but the "old Adam" is still alive and potent even in the community of faith. The church is not a communion of those who have fully achieved the goal, but of those on a journey. Men and women called to be agents of transformation must themselves be undergoing transformation. Apart from such transformation, the witness of the church will be thin and ineffectual--fast-food Christianity rather than hardy and nourishing fare. Here the offices of the church stand front stage center. Their first responsibility is not to train men and women for mission, but to communicate transforming grace that createsmissional believers. Or better said: regenerating and sanctifying grace will inevitably result in missional Christians, but apart from such transformation what passes for mission will be as hollow as a politician's promises. In addition to the mission of Christ and the missional church, we need to think of the missional officeof minister of Word and sacrament, elder and deacon.
We can now return to the question "How does the ministry of the ordained few relate to that of the baptized many?" Those who minister through the offices minister primarily to the community of faith they serve, while the ministry of the baptized people of God extends through the church into the world and carries the world back to the church as the scattered people of God return to the community of faith.22 Through the instrumentality of the three offices, Christ by the Spirit places new life in Christians and sets about making them new creatures so they in turn can be drawn by the Spirit into Christ's mission in the world of making all things new.
There is an important distinction implied here. Christ is Lord and the true pastor of the church--Christ is not yet the shepherd of an unbelieving world. Thus there is a continuing movement of the Spirit of Christ: from Christ as the true pastor of the church through the offices to the people, and from Christ the rightful king of creation through the people into the world. Then the reverse: the people carry their families, businesses, schools, farms, work places, with them into the sanctuary so that these can be submitted to the God of mercy and justice for their transformation. The faithful consistory, then, is one that gives itself to the Spiritual work whereby Christ transforms his people so that they may become agents of his mission in the world--a people who in word and deed proclaim his kingdom.
The Mission of the Church
We have now completed our examination of the nature and purpose of the offices and may turn to the second question under consideration: what is the mission of the church that the offices serve?
It may be surprising that for all the talk of mission today--mission statements, missional churches, and personal mission resolutions--the word rarely occurs in the Bible.23 When we probe the term, however, we quickly see that while the term is infrequently used, language expressing its root meaning is abundant. The word "mission" comes from the Latin mittere, "to send, to launch," and gives us terms such as missionary, commission, missal, and even mass.24 The noun "mission" may be uncommon in Scripture, but the verb "send," and the notion of sending with purpose, is one of the most prominent features of the architecture of the New Testament, with literally hundreds of textual references. When the Dutch language identifies mission as zending (sending), a mission church as a zendingskerk (sending-church), missionary activity as zendingswerk (sending work), and a missionary as a zendling (sent one), it captures more exactly than the English term "mission" the tone and meaning of biblical language.
The language of sending, then, should frame the question of the mission of the church. Before we can speak of the calling and sending of the church, however, it is important to understand that the church has no mission apart from two prior and decisive "sendings," the sending of the Messiah and of the Holy Spirit. Only when we have the biblical teaching concerning the sending of the Messiah and the Spirit firmly in mind will we be positioned to grasp the mission of the church.
Jesus' mission is not self-originating. He is the sent one--sent by God to fulfill God's purposes. The best known of all such sending passages is, of course, John 3:16-17, but these verses by no means stand alone. Throughout the remainder of the fourth gospel there are abundant references to Jesus as the sent one and to the Father who sends him.25 Other New Testament writers also give similar testimony. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for example, all include a saying of Jesus stating that those who receive him also receive the one who sent him (Matt. 10:40; Mark. 9:37; Luke. 9:47, cf. Luke 10:16). Paul, too, knows Jesus as the sent one. He writes of God "sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:3) and in the fullness of time sending "his Son, born of a woman, born under the law" (Gal. 4:4).
Jesus is sent by God, but for what purpose? Jesus gives what amounts to an answer to this question when, after his temptation, he reads in the synagogue at Nazareth these words from Isaiah 61:1-2a):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Luke 4:18-19).
This is Jesus' mission statement. After reading the Isaiah lection he proclaims: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (4:21). Jesus' identification with Isaiah's promised deliverer roots his ministry in Israel's hope for a coming savior and gives a picture of the redemption Jesus will bring. He has been anointed by the Spirit (at his baptism) to be the servant of God who offers good news to the poor, freedom to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and God's favor to humankind. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus announces his ministry in a different way when he says: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news" (Mark. 1:15). The message is the same: the promised and long-awaited kingdom of God is at hand.26
A quotation from an article in Perspectives helps us grasp the magnitude of this declaration:
His (Jesus') preaching called for response to this astonishing announcement; his parables and miracles disclosed the character of the kingdom; by his passion, death and resurrection the powers of the old order were defeated and the reality of God's reign planted in history. The kingdom stood at the heart of Jesus' preaching, and his life and work cannot be understood apart from the expected rule of God. When Jesus began his ministry by announcing that he was the Spirit-filled bearer of the kingdom, his audiences were confronted by the startling claim that the Old Testament promises of a mighty working of the Spirit to initiate the new age were now being fulfilled."27
Jesus, the sent one, is sent to bring the kingdom of God. This is his mission. It is important to note that the boundaries of the kingdom extend beyond the church into the world, and they ultimately encompass the whole of creation. The kingdom of God is a new creation, for the old, fallen, creation waits to be "set free from its bondage to decay" and to "obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). The call of individuals to faith and repentance, their regeneration and incorporation into the community of faith, is certainly an essential transaction through which men, women, and children are joined to Christ and his mission, but the mission is larger and broader than personal salvation. In God's kingdom there will be no hunger, no warfare, no disease, no oppression, no injustice, no poverty. In this kingdom God will be reconciled to men and women, and in Christ's domain all that divides one person from another will be broken down (Eph. 2:14).
At this point it is important to emphasize that the coming of the kingdom is not an event reserved for the future, but one that is already happening. The coming of Christ is the coming of the kingdom! Where Christ is, the kingdom is present. This is not to say that God's dominion in Christ is fully and everywhere present--obviously this is far from the case. Nor is it to suggest that there will be a steady historical development of the kingdom until finally it will be fully evolved on earth. The RCA confessions sound clearly the biblical doctrine of the return of Christ and the final judgment.28 The momentous divine actions will bring history to an end and initiate the transformation that results in what the New Testament calls the new creation. Nevertheless, to the degree that Christ's people participate in the Lord's life and mission, they participate in his kingdom and serve its purposes.
This brings us to the second divine sending described in the New Testament, the sending of the Spirit. There are, in fact, two "sendings" of the Spirit recorded on its pages. When Jesus read the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue at Nazareth and identified himself as the Spirit-anointed servant of God promised by the prophet, he referred to the divine gift given him at his baptism, the gift of the Spirit (Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). The Spirit is sent by the Father to guide and empower Jesus' ministry--to enable Jesus to fulfill God's purposes. When Christ's earthly mission is completed the Lord who has received the Spirit now becomes the agent of its sending. In Luke Jesus says to his disciples: "I am sending on you the gift promised by my Father; wait here in this city until you are armed with power from above" (Luke 24:49, Revised English Bible), and in John, also speaking to his followers, Jesus promises that "the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have told you." (John 14:26, Revised English Bible).29
It is remarkable that Jesus' followers engaged in no ministry immediately following his resurrection appearances. One might expect this glorious event to trigger a flurry of activity. But this did not happen. The New Testament presents the period between the resurrection and Jesus' ascension into heaven as a time of instruction and learning for the disciples. No proclamation of the good news, no formation of community, no works of benevolence are recorded. Not until Pentecost Day did the activities that characterize the New Testament church commence. The Holy Spirit then forms and empowers the community, and the mission of Jesus is transferred to the church. Or to say it more accurately, Jesus, by the Spirit, now continues his ministry through the newly formed community of faith. He is no longer bodily on earth, but is represented by a new body, the church (1 Cor. 12:12-27). As Christ was sent by the Father, and the Spirit was sent by Christ, now the triune God through the working of the Spirit sends the church. Christ's mission constitutes the church.
The ministry, the mission, of the church is the same as that of its Lord: the kingdom of God. The church through the power of the Spirit is sent to represent Christ's kingdom on earth and is called to become a sign and an agent of the kingdom--to show the kingdom in the life of the community of faith, and to effect its purposes through its ministry. Those joined to Christ are also called and empowered to undertake his mission--a mission that includes both the proclamation of the gospel to a sinful world and acts of justice, mercy, and peacemaking. Calling the sinner to repentance is vital kingdom work, but so is feeding the hungry, liberating the oppressed, and reconciling enemies.
The celebration of the Lord's Supper provides an excellent illustration of the church as sign and agent of the kingdom. Its basis is union with Christ. The Reformed understanding of the Supper teaches that the Holy Spirit draws us into communion with the ascended Jesus and with one another. Our communion with Christ is beautifully described by the Heidelberg Catechism, which teaches that we are "united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit dwelling both in Christ and in us that, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, always governed by one Spirit, as the members of our bodies are governed by one soul" (Q. 76). When the Lord's Supper is celebrated, we are related to the risen Jesus, as was Adam to Eve, flesh of flesh and bone of bone (Gen. 2:23). And the same Spirit weaves into one body those who are "in Christ," forming what the Apostles' Creed terms the communion of saints. As the Communion liturgy of the RCA states: "Since by his death, resurrection, and ascension Christ has obtained for us the life-giving Spirit who unites us all in one body, so are we to receive this Supper in true love, mindful of the communion of saints."30
The communion of saints, unlike other human associations, does not rise out of human affinity, but depends on Christ and the Spirit. This means that all those in Christ are welcome to the table--regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, and social status--regardless of the cultural divisions separating people. For those baptized in Christ "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). As diverse people gather at the table, black and white, young and old, men and women, an image of the kingdom is formed, for in God's kingdom all barriers dividing people will be broken down. A sign, a proclamation, of the kingdom appears--one where the signified unity is truly present. But if the matter ends there the work of the Spirit has been resisted, for Christians are called to effect what has been signified, to be agents of the kingdom. From the table believers are sent into the world--this is one aspect of the church's mission--to witness to Christ the reconciler and to oppose those powers that divide human beings on the basis of race, gender, and ethnicity. The baptized are sent from the table of reconciliation into the world as ministers of reconciliation (1 Cor. 5:18).
The richness of the Lord's Supper could provide other instances of the church as sign and agent of the kingdom. And, of course, it is not only in the sacrament of Holy Communion that we find these actions of the Spirit. They may be found in baptism, the preaching of the Word, prayer, praise, and myriad other activities of the church. Our concern here, however, is not to detail the relationship of the church to the kingdom, but to identify the role of the pastorate of elders, deacons and ministers of Word and sacrament in the mission of the church.
How then shall we understand the organization and function of the faithful consistory? Before addressing this question, let us summarize our conclusions to this point. The offices as presented by the theology, polity, and liturgies of the RCA are representative, i.e., and they represent Christ within the congregation in a way analogous to that of an ambassador representing his or her government. The three consistorial offices together, working in a complementary fashion, comprise the pastoral ministry of the church (the pastorate).Those who minister through the consistorial offices minister primarily to the community of faith they serve,while the ministry of the baptized people of God extends through the church into the world and carries the world back to the church as the scattered people of God return to the community of faith. As with the Messiah and the Spirit, the church is sent, sent by Christ in the power of the Spirit to embody, reveal, and enact the kingdom of God and is forged into the instrument Christ uses to effect his mission. The kingdom of God is Jesus' mission, and this realm is to be understood as nothing less than the promised new creation, already present where men, women and children are united to Christ by faith. To repeat the sentence that brought section one to its conclusion: "The faithful consistory, then, is one that gives itself to the spiritual work whereby Christ transforms his people so that they may become agents of his mission in the world--a people who in word and deed proclaim his kingdom."
These are among the elements that structure our understanding of the faithful consistory in the missional church and shape our thought concerning the organization and function of the offices. To defend a single, definitive, form of consistorial structure, or to insist that all consistories must work in the same way is to violate the Reformed understanding that the ministry of the church results from the Holy Spirit and is not an extension of the incarnation. The Holy Spirit communicates a single truth, Christ, in plural forms. The Spirit adapts the ministry of the church to receive and communicate the gifts of Christ according to the particularities of time and place. The consistory of a church in Brooklyn, New York, dedicated to the mission of Christ may be different in many ways from one serving Christ's mission with equal fidelity in Sioux City, Iowa. The nature of the Spirit's work yields plurality and variability.
Yet the faithful consistory in a missional church is also faithful to the Reformed understanding of the gospel and consequently will demonstrate common elements. We believe these include the following:
1. The call of Jesus Christ. The only proper basis for ordination and installation into an office of the church is the call of Jesus Christ. The call of Christ is a call from the church confirmed by an inner call. The recognition of gifts and abilities are of great importance, but they are not the basis of the conferring of an office; they rather serve as a confirmation of the Lord's call. Thus the selection of those for nomination to one of the offices is a matter of spiritual discernment and prayer.
2. The authority of Christ. The authority of the office derives from Christ and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. The Book of Church Order of the RCA states, "Christ, according to the New Testament, has appointed officers to govern the church under himself. Their authority to govern derives from him even though they are elected by the people."31 Those holding office must be men and women of deep spirituality, and the consistory must be a community of scriptural reflection, worship, and prayer so that those in leadership discern the mind of Christ. Those who are not constantly engaging Christ cannot engage Christ's mission. Moreover, such a high view of office can lead to abuses when officeholders are not humbly faithful to the Lord of the church.
3. Governance by servants. Church governance is provided by an assembly of those who serve in and through the three offices. Each of the offices has its set of responsibilities and tasks within the congregation, and thus each office brings a particular evangelical perspective to the deliberations attendant to the governance of the church. The teaching that the church is governed by those who serve through the offices is one of the great contributions of the Reformed reformation to the church. It is deeply rooted in the biblical teaching that only those who serve are fit to rule.
4. Missional understanding of the offices. The offices are essentially missional, instruments by which Christ transforms the people of God (regeneration and sanctification) and equips them for the ministry of the kingdom in the world (witness in word and deed). The polity and liturgies of the RCA should be revised to highlight the missional character of the offices and their responsibilities. How does each office individually and as part of the pastorate represent Christ in the community of faith so that the community pictures the kingdom? How does each office individually and as part of the pastorate represent Christ in the community of faith so that members of the community are prepared to be sent out as agents of the kingdom?
5. Kerygma: the office of minister of word and sacrament. The Greek word kerygma refers to the proclamation of the good news of God's promised salvation in Jesus Christ. It goes beyond preaching to include all that announces God's saving action. Through the office of the minister of Word and sacrament Jesus spiritually communicates himself through the preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the leading of the congregation in its liturgical worship. By the function of this office, working in concert with the other offices, the baptized people of God are drawn into a community that discloses the faith, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, and joy of the kingdom--they are formed into a preview of the new creation. By the function of this office, in concert with the other offices, the congregation is called to and prepared for the work of representing Christ and his kingdom in the world. Among the many responsibilities of this office, those of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, inviting men, women, and children to citizenship in it through faith and repentance, drawing them into the service of worship, and sending the people of God into the world as ambassadors of the kingdom are of paramount importance.
6. Koinonia: the office of elder. The words ordinarily used to translate the Greek term, koinonia,"fellowship" or "community," do not capture the richness of the biblical concept. Koinonia refers to a community woven together by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, a communion with Christ and fellow believers, which points to the fellowship of the kingdom. The traditional duties of the elder--oversight and discipline--when viewed in terms of the missional office, may be seen as responsibility for koinonia. Since koinonia depends on a continuing and dynamic relationship with Christ, the elder attends to sound teaching and discipline within the church. False doctrine threatens faith, and discipline is exercised when the relationship of a member of the congregation with Christ is compromised by sin. The elder takes responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the congregation in a missional church, ascertaining that its members are nurtured through Scripture, worship, the sacraments, and prayer.
7. Diakonia: the office of deacon. Here, too, the original Greek word, meaning "service" and giving us our English word "deacon," helps to identify the special qualities of this office. To speak of this office in general terms of compassion and material maintenance sells the office short, as indeed in many congregations the chief task of deacons seems to be finances and buildings and grounds. It is questionable in the light of the biblical notion of service whether either should be the exclusive responsibility of the board of deacons. Deacons should rather lead the people of God into servant ministry within the congregation as members learn to serve one another and beyond the congregation--as members engage in ministries of witness, justice, mercy, and reconciliation in the world. Deacons enlist Christians for the front-line ministry, recruiting and helping to equip men and women to be agents of the kingdom in the world. Since all Christians are called to be servants of Christ and one another, the deacon represents the most fundamental quality of Christian life; and when leading the congregation into diaconal ministry, teaches the meaning of the gospel no less than the minister of Word and sacrament and the elder.
8. The mutuality of the offices. Identifying missional church foci for each of the offices does not suggest that the office has only one function, nor does this mean that the responsibilities of one office are not also borne by the others. Each office participates in the others and serves their causes. The elder does not serve without the minister of the Word and neither without the deacon.32 The proclamation of the word of God (kerygma) draws men and women into community (koinonia), prepares them for ministry, and sends them in service into the world(diakonia). The elder's work of koinonia is itself a proclamation (kerygma) of unity in Christ and requires the willingness of the members of a congregation to serve one another (diakonia). The deacon's concern for service depends on a congregation unified in Christ (koinonia willing to respond to the Lord's mission, and thus proclaims the message of the kingdom (kerygma). Each office serves the purposes of the others, and together they form a pastorate that represents Christ, the original prophet who proclaims God's truth, the true elder who by the Spirit binds the faithful to himself and to one another, and the incarnate divine servant who surrendered his life in the service of those whom he loves.
9. The mission of the church. Through the offices Christ is represented to the community of faith, which is transformed to be transforming, so that each member according to his or her gifts and situation in life, is sent out by Christ in the power of the Spirit to proclaim the gospel, seek reconciliation, and engage servant ministry. Thus the baptized people of God represent Christ's kingdom and serve it according to their calling and to the best of their abilities until he comes again.
1 1997 Minutes of the General Synod, RCA.
2 1998 Minutes of the General Synod, RCA.
3 The responsibilities of the offices of elder and minister of word and sacrament, of course, extend beyond the local congregation to the classis, regional synod and general synod. At the present time, the responsibilities of the office of deacon are limited to the congregation.
4 The Book of Church Order (BCO) (New York: Reformed Church Press, 1999), Preamble.
5 Daniel J. Meeter, Meeting Each Other in Doctrine, Liturgy and Government: The Bicentennial of the Celebration of the Reformed Church in America (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), p. 2.
6 Ibid. p. 4.
7 While the RCA recognizes four offices of the church--minister of word and sacrament, elder, deacon, and professor of theology--the "fourth office" is not called for by the confessions. Since this paper's concern is the consistory of the local congregation, only the three offices associated with the pastoral ministry will be discussed here, and then only in relation to their place in the congregation.
8 BCO, Preamble.
10 This teaching should not be interpreted to mean that office holders have no accountability to the congregation. But in the Reformed understanding, that accountability is administered through the offices. For example, if members of a congregation do not believe their pastor is fulfilling his or her responsibilities, complaints are taken to the consistory, and possibly, through consistorial action, to the classis. The congregation does not deal directly with the pastor, but through bodies comprised by officeholders.
11 BCO, Preamble.
12 Paul R. Fries, "Office and Ordination in the Reformed Tradition," in An Invitation to Action, James E. Anderson and Joseph A. Burgess, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 94.
13 It is worth noting here that unlike Roman Catholic theology, which understands the ministerial office as anextension of Jesus' ministry which thus can be occupied by males alone, the Reformed principle of representation does not depend on gender.
14 BCO, Preamble.
15 John Calvin, father of Reformed theology, writes: "Now we must speak of the order by which the Lord willed his church to be governed. He alone should rule and reign in the church as well as have authority or pre-eminence in it, and this authority should be exercised and administered by his word alone. Nevertheless, because he does not dwell among us in visible presence (Matt. 26:11), we have said that he uses the ministry of men [sic] to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work--just as a workman uses a tool to do his task." John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), IV.3.1.
16 A sampling of commentaries on the Heidelberg Catechism suggests that commentators are not eager to deal with this difficult question and answer. Both Karl Barth and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. ignore the question altogether (in The Heidelberg Catechism Today and A Place to Stand respectively), while Fred H. Klooster, Andrew Kuyvenhoven and Donald Bruggink respond to it by providing a discussion of discipline, but without mention of what seems to be a reversal of divine-human initiative (in A Mighty Comfort, Comfort and Joy, andGuilt, Grace, and Gratitude respectively).
This essay attempts to avoid the use of gender-specific language to refer to God whenever possible. When describing certain actions of the trinity, however, this becomes impossible, and the traditional designations are employed.
17 Calvin, IV.3.2.
18 For significant works on the missional church from this period, see Hans Hoekendijk, The Church Inside Out,A.A. van Ruler, Theologie van het Apostolaat, and the classic by one of the great missiologists of the century, Hendrik Kraemer's The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. More recently, numerous books and articles have been written on the subject.
19 Liturgy and Confessions (New York: Reformed Church Press, 1990).
20 See the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 65, the Belgic Confession, Article 24, and the Canons of Dort, I.3. For the source of Calvin's designation, see note 13 above.
21 The Belgic Confession links the two in Article 24 concerning sanctification, which begins with a statement concerning regeneration: "We believe that this true faith, produced in us by the hearing of God's word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates us and makes us new creatures, causing us to live a new life and freeing us from the slavery of sin."
22 Note that this understanding of the distinctiveness of the office pertains to the place and function of office in the congregation. It is not intended to imply anything concerning the office of professor of theology, nor about those who exercise an office in extra-congregational settings.
23 1 Samuel 15:18, 20; Acts 12:25; 2 Corinthians 11:12; Galatians 2:8 in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
24 For the religious associations, see Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English(New York: Greenwich House, 1983), p. 408.
25 There are multiple references to Jesus as the sent one and the Father who sent him in chapters 3,5,6,7,8,12, 13,17 of the Gospel of John. See also 1 John 4:9-10, 14).
26 As is the case with the language the church developed to speak about the trinity, a term with less gender specificity than "the kingdom of God" is desirable, but, as is also the case with the trinity, difficult to find. The phrase "the realm of God" does not suggest the personal character of God's governance, and the phrase "the commonwealth of God" both lacks the personal dimension and is offensive to those from the third world for whom the word commonwealth expresses oppression.
27 Paul R. Fries, "Spirit, Kingdom, and Mission," Perspectives, September 1986, p. 4. The following discussion of the kingdom and mission is drawn from this article.
28 The Belgic Confession, written at a time of persecution, most elaborately and eloquently presents this doctrine. Here judgment is vindication for the faithful, a vindication that the author longs for (Article 37).
29 Other New Testament passages describe the sending of the Spirit as directly from God, without mention of the agency of Christ. For example, Galatians 4:6 states: "And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our heartsÉ." While not the agent of sending here, Christ is both the condition for the sending of the Spirit (4:4) and the reality that is sent ("the Spirit of his Son").
30 The RCA communion liturgy may be found in Worship in the Lord.
31 BCO, Preamble.
32 Liturgy and Psalms (Board of Education, Reformed Church Press), 1968, p. 109.