Article 32: Of the Power of the Church in Establishing Ecclesiastical Laws and Administering Discipline
In taking up Article 32 of the Belgic Confession, we ought to recognize that it concludes a large section on the doctrine of the church in particular (art. 27–32), while leading into a discussion of the sacraments of the church (art. 33–35) and the relationship between the Christ’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this world (art. 36). It needs to be stressed that in terms of sheer volume (ten out of 37 articles), the doctrine of the church is a defining feature of who we are as Reformed people.
This is so often lost in our debates with the Arminians over the “Five Points, with non-denominational brothers and sisters over why we have creeds and confessions, and with Dispensationalists over our position on eschatology. In such a world as ours, with its detachment from true community and lack of true leadership, we need to emphasize our biblical and confessional identity as Christ’s spiritual kingdom while we sojourn here as pilgrims.
The reason for so much material on the Church is that the Church of Rome and its authority was on the one side while the Anabaptists and their denigration of the institutional church was on the other side of the Reformed. This is instructive for us as we continue to delve into this section of the Belgic Confession. In Article 32 the vital question of the authority of the Church is and taken up in contrast to both Rome and Anabaptism, as well as tyrannical and libertine churches in our day.
Canon Law vs. the Canon
Article 32 begins by balancing the Church’s authority in setting up order while stressing its limits in doing so, saying.
In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church, yet that they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted.
The Authority of the Church
The right and authority of the Church in establishing a church order is found in the fact that it is useful and beneficial for certain rules and regulations to be set up in order to maintain the body the church. In using the metaphor of a body, the Confession draws upon Scripture’s picture that the Church of Jesus Christ is made up of real people who come together as one (e.g., Romans 12:3–21; 1 Corinthinans 12:12–31).
All those who call upon the name of the Lord must come together under some structure and form in order for all to be edified. The biblical principle here is the necessity for all things to be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40). We say this in contrast to the Anabaptist teaching so prevalent in our day of non-denominational, mega-church, and emergent churches, in which the people are “led by the Spirit” or the whims and wishes of the pastor/CEO.
The Limitations of the Church
The Church is also limited in this right by the Word. The rulers of the church (the consistories made up of pastors and elders) must not depart from what Christ has instituted. The church at Colossae was beset with those who went beyond the bounds of the Word in setting up “human precepts and teachings” (Colossians 2:22), which bound the consciences of the faithful. In doing so, they created a “self-made religion,” or, as our Reformed forefathers called it, “will worship” (Colossians 2:23). We confess this limitation with Paul, in opposition to Rome and its Canon Law (corpus canonis juris).
As we have said before, Scripture does not say everything, yet what it says is sufficient. When we develop an article of church order, we look to direct teachings of Scripture, or we look to principles that may be deduced by “good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession, ch. I.6) from general principles. What is important is that these deduced rules and regulations must not contradict Scripture. To use Pauline language, we must see to it that we do not “go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).
In the history of the Reformation we see this principle of establishing a church order in John Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances, written in 1541 upon his return to Geneva. These regulations became a primary source for various regional and national church orders in France and the Netherlands, which were eventually summarized by Dutch delegates to the Synod of Dort (1618–19), which has passed down to us today in the Church Orders of all Reformed churches of Dutch origin.
This principle that the Church is authorized to set up basic rules and regulations for the well being of the people is then applied in two areas: worship and discipline. In the area of worship the Confession continues, as it says,
And therefore 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.
Here we come across one of the explicit rejection passages of the Belgic Confession (cf. arts. 12, 13, 14, 15, 34, 35, 36). In rejecting “human inventions…[in] the worship of God,” we confess what has come to be known as the “Regulative Principle” of worship.
Our Confession teaches this principle by way of negation: when we confess that we reject man’s laws in worship we are implying, therefore, that we accept only what Christ has instituted. This is one of the basic principles of who we are as Reformed churches. We also see this taught positively in our Heidelberg Catechism, which says that we are to worship God only as “he has commanded in his Word” (Q&A 96; cf. Church Order, art. 38). This was practically applied by our Reformed forefathers in their rejections of praying to Mary and the saints (cf. Belgic Confession, art. 26) and of bowing in adoration to the bread of the Eucharist, and therefore worshipping it (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 80), for example.
We also notice that our Confession gives us reasons for rejecting these practices. First, they are “human inventions.” As was referenced earlier, this means that they are “will worship,” that is, that they originate from the will of man and not the will of God. In the language of our Catechism, these practices show that we are trying to be wiser than God (Q&A 98).
The second reason is that these laws “bind the conscience.” They place burdens beyond the Word, which the people cannot in good conscience perform and obey. The Regulative Principle actually frees the conscience of the faithful to worship God in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We were bought by Christ to be freed from being slaves of men and their commandments (1 Corinthians 7:23; Galatians 5:1; Isaiah 29:13).
When the elders of the church abdicate their authority to insure that everything done in worship is commanded by God, the worship offered turns its focus upon the individual causing the conscientious worshiper to stumble. Examples abound in such things as altar calls, or, even closer to home, in having “Youth Sunday,” in which the young people help lead parts of the service as a way “to get them involved.” When we allow soloists into worship, it is a performance, no matter how well intentioned or biblical the words are. Worship is an offering of the people’s praise to the Lord, not the individual’s.
We see a beautiful example of the freedom of the churches to establish order in our Church Order, Article 37. There we read: “The Consistory shall call the congregation together for corporate worship…on each Lord’s Day.” This is the biblical commandment. Then we read, “Special services may be called…”
Worship services for the purpose of commemorating the saving acts of God in history such as Christmas (Incarnation), Good Friday (our Lord’s sacrifice), and Ascension (Christ’s return to heaven), are not essential to the life of the Church, although they may be beneficial. They are certainly within the bounds of the Word, although not mandatory services for the churches. What this illustrates for us is that those churches that desire to gather on these days may do so, while those that decide against are both able to live under one roof.
The second area in which the principle of the church’s authority to institute ordinances for the well being of the people is in the area of church discipline. This article of the Confession concludes, saying,
Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose, excommunication or church discipline is requisite, with all that pertains to it, according to the Word of God.
For the Reformers such as Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and John Calvin, church discipline was essential to the ordering, life, and health of Christ’s Church. This was ever so clear, as seen in the lamentable state of the Church all around them. In fact, this area of reform in the Church was so essential for Calvin that he willingly was exiled from Geneva for it in 1538.
These men argued that the Church as a spiritual kingdom must be able to censure its citizens, just as the civil government must punish those who transgressed its laws. Of course the civil magistrates saw this as a loss of their authority, but in fact, church discipline does not take away from civil punishment. As our Church Order says,
Since Christian discipline is spiritual in nature and exempts no one from trial or punishment by the civil authorities, so also besides civil punishment there is need of ecclesiastical censure, that God may be glorified, that the sinner may be reconciled with God, the church and his neighbor, and that offense may be removed from the church of Christ (art. 51).
Church discipline, as the third mark of the true Church, is essentially the application of the Word and Sacraments by the ministers and elders in the lives of the people of God. In our day and age, “discipline” has a negative connotation, but the word discipline means not only punishment for disobedience, but training unto maturity in the Christian life (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16–17; Hebrews 12:3–11).
The purpose of church discipline is manifold. First, it is for the glory of God. As in all things, “Whatever you do…[give] thanks to God the Father” (Colossians 3:17), so with church discipline. The elders “promote” the holy reputation of God through discipline (cf. Leviticus 10). Second, it is for the purity of church. As Paul says so poignantly in 1 Corinthians 5, the leaven within the church is to be purged. Third, it is for the peace of the church, as it “preserve[s] concord and unity” as offended and offending are brought together. As well, disrupting members are dealt with for the good of the whole body. Fourth, it is for the sanctification of the church. Discipline helps us stay obedient to God (Hebrews 12:3–11), but it also is the means by which the Holy Spirit restores offenders against His laws (1 Corinthians 5).
The areas in which the elders are to discipline the people are doctrine and life. Our “Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons” describes this, aptly, as “the supervision of the church,” as they oversee all that is done, under the headings of doctrine and life. The elders’ discipline is used positively by ensuring that the minister of the Word preaches the Word only, and by applying the Word through Bible study, catechism, and visitation. The negative aspect is, of course, if someone strays from the Word as expressed in our creeds and confessions (Romans 16:17; 1 Timothy 1:3; Titus 1:13, 3:10). The lives of God’s people are overseen in discipline as the elders know their flocks, visit them, care for them, get involved in their lives, and are diligent to promote godliness through the Word and their own example (Matthew 18:15–7; 2 Thessalonians 3:11–2; 1 Timothy 5:20; 2 Timothy 4:2).
In conclusion, we are reminded that the Scriptures (Galatians 4:26; Ephesians 5:25–32) and our Confession (art. 28) describe the Church as our spiritual mother, by that we are nourished and cared for during our earthly sojourn. Church discipline, then, is a blessing which God our Father has given to his Church as a means of sanctifying us and preparing us for entrance into his celestial kingdom.
Study/Application Questions for Article 32
1. Why is it necessary to have a structure for the church to live within? How would you explain to someone new to the Reformed Faith that this is not legalistic but edifying?
2. Give a general outline of the Church Order of your church. Why would it be beneficial for all the members of a local church to be able to do this?
3. Define the “Regulative Principle.” How does our understanding of worship differ from other traditions (e.g., Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, modern Evangelical)?
4. What are the benefits of godly church discipline in the local church?
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.