RCA GOVERNMENT & STANDARDS COURSE
Although we believe ourselves to be creatures with free wills to act randomly and choose something new each moment, we actually live habitually, repeating the same actions over and over and over. We tend to get up at the same time each morning, eat from a rather limited menu that we have self-selected over time, sit in the same places in classes and sports arenas and church buildings time after time, and associate with roughly the same people day after day. There is something comforting and stabilizing in our routines.
Similarly in our societies: we expect our leaders to act in certain ways; we anticipate a repetition of holidays and the traditions by which we celebrate them; we believe particular values ought to shape our interactions with one another; and we trust in laws that regulate our common negotiation of commuter traffic, property rights, interpersonal behaviors, and economic systems. Habits and rituals make it possible for us to feel safe when we choose to do something new or different.
The doctrinal standards of the Reformed Church in America, and its common practices as outlined in the Book of Church Order, are designed to bring us together into that shared place of ritual, habit, consistency and mutual understanding across the congregations and cultures of our denomination. While we don’t all look like one another, or experience life in the same manner, when we express our shared identity in Christ we practice it through the common rituals established by generations of our forebears.
The Book of Church Order began as a manual for church leaders at the time of the Reformation. When the authority of human leaders in Rome and the rituals they established were challenged by Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and others, these leaders studied New Testament writings and early church history to recover a more biblical form of church structures and ministries. Under Calvin’s influence, the Belgic Confession established several key principles that have shaped the Book of Church Order and many other similar documents:
- Jesus Christ is the active head of the Christian Church.
- While the Christian Church has visible qualities and characteristics, it is not identical to the church structures that have beenestablished throughout the human race. The Reformers talked about the “invisible church” in which all true believers participate, and the “visible church” which tries to serve believers, but can sometimes engage in practices that are unhelpful or theologically incorrect, and may contain members that are not actually true Christians.
- Jesus’ active leadership of the church finds its shape in congregations that recognize spiritual gifts of leadership among their members, and appoint and ordain these to the leadership offices of Elders who oversee the spiritual health and direction of the church, Deacons who encourage social justice and mercy through the church, and Pastors who provide biblical teaching and training in the church.
- The leadership teams in these congregations are called Consistories (or Sessions), which are themselves in mutual accountability associations (Classes or Presbyteries) with the Consistories of other regional congregations, and together form covenanted commitments within denominational structures through representative assemblies (Synods or General Assemblies). This structure is known as the “Presbyterian” system of church polity, in distinction from “Episcopal” and “Congregational” systems.
- One significant emphasis of this church governing system is mutual accountability, expressed in various forms of church discipline.
- The goal of church government is spiritual vitality for both congregations and members, which, in turn, promotes evangelism and the transforming grace of Jesus expressed in neighborhoods.
Throughout church history, Christians have probed the nuances of these foundational testimonies. Influenced by cultural changes and challenges, a number of different families of theological reflection have emerged. Our approach at CLC lies within the Reformed tradition, built upon the expansive insights of John Calvin at the time of the Protestant Reformation, and summarized well in the Reformed Standards— the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Belhar Confession. Central to the common theological approach expressed through these testimonies are the following emphases:
- The distinction between “regeneration” (God’s one-time act accomplished solely through the work of Jesus) and “sanctification” (God’s on-going transformative activity taking place in partnership with redeemed persons and communities).
- The “Presbyterian” form of church structure, built around the primacy (but not independence) of the local congregation governed by Elders and Deacons who are called and elected from the membership because of their obvious spiritual gifts.
- Appreciation of the sacraments as two in number (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), each being a sign and seal of God’s redemptive love, but not actually transacting merit.
- Viewing the “Law of God” as not only normative for creation and as announcing human sinfulness, but also as guiding our redeemed response of sanctified living.
SESSION 1 – Overview & Introduction
Key Idea: The Reformed Church in America has a “Presbyterian” church governing polity. We identify four foundational offices, or leadership roles: minister of Word and sacrament, elder, deacon and general synod professor of theology. We identify and nurture four assemblies that serve as leadership teams and provide organizational continuity. These are the consistory, the classis, the regional synod, and the general synod. A consistory guides ministry life in each congregation. A classis brings representatives of the consistories in an extended neighborhood together to coordinate and promote combined ministry efforts. A regional synod helps a geographically-linked group of congregations, through their adjacent classes, to invest in mission activities that are larger than any one congregation would be able to do on its own. And the general synod provides a context in which the vision and initiatives and cares and concerns of the whole can be articulated and implemented.
SESSION 2 – Our Network: The Structural System
Key Idea: Following the designs found in Chapter 1 of the Book of Church Order, we engage in activities that bring the best out of the local congregation (Part I), we build bridges and commitments of neighborhood care and ministry investment (Part II), we establish networks of mission and hope (Part III), and we bind ourselves together in global dialogues, studies, commitments and ministry engagements in the name of Jesus Christ (Part IV).
SESSION 3 – Our Commitment to Care: Discipling through Discipline
Key Idea: Because of our compromised human character and the sinfulness that mars our human relationships, “discipleship” is a key element of Christian identity. To be a disciple of Jesus means to have a disciplined lifestyle that reflect our master. The Book of Church Order focuses on the key aspects of mutual church discipling in order to nurture health Christian congregations.
SESSION 4 – Using the Book of Church Order: Planning and Practice
Key Idea: The Book of Church Order is divided into three chapters, followed by an appendix. Chapter 1 contains the Government, Chapter 2 contains the Disciplinary and Judicial Procedures, and Chapter 3 contains the Bylaws and Special Rules of Order of the General Synod. Chapter 1 provides the materials related to the assemblies of the church, divided into four parts, each related to one of the organizing assemblies and their primary functions: Part I deals with the consistory; Part II, the classis; Part III, the regional synod; and Part IV, the general synod. Explanations are included to show how the mandates of the Book of Church Order can be applied in particular situations.
SESSION 5 – The Heritage of Creeds & Confessions: A Historical Introduction
Key Idea: Christianity entered a “religious” world where its key distinction was the unique person and work of Jesus. The Ecumenical Creeds emerged out of the church’s need to prepare new members for meaningful participation and baptism. The Apostles Creed focused on the unique life and work of Jesus. The Nicene Creed clarified the church’s understanding of Jesus after the “Trinitarian” and “Christological” controversies and debates. The Athanasian Creed summarized the church’s views regarding the Trinity and the Incarnation.
SESSION 6 – The Belgic Confession: Articulating a “Reformed” Identity
Key Idea: Written in a time of social upheaval and ecclesiastical crisis, the Belgic Confession emphasizes: (1) the primary authority of scripture, over church traditions; (2) two sacraments as signs and symbols of God’s completed grace for us, over seven sacraments seen as processing ongoing divine grace; and (3) church leadership as emerging locally, rather than a distant organizational hierarchy. In this way, the Belgic Confession established a “Reformed” community and theological approach.
SESSION 7 – The Heidelberg Catechism: Expressing Faith Warmly
Key Idea: The Heidelberg Catechism was intended to: (1) provide instruction in the basic Christian beliefs for new believers and young believers, while reinforcing these things in maturing believers; (2) Emphasize the personal experience and expression of faith (“comfort”); (3) nurture unity rather than division in the Christian church
SESSION 8 – Canons of Dort: What Does It Mean for God to Be God?
Key Idea: The Canons of Dort emerged out of a lengthy social and theological discussion about the challenge to understand the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, and summarize the biblical teachings about these things in the following manner:
- Our human situation is alienation from God that we cannot remedy (Total Depravity)
- God’s love is initiated by him and is not based on our merit (Unconditional Election)
- Jesus’ work in salvation is sufficient for all of humanity, but works only where there is faith (Limited Atonement)
- The Holy Spirit opens us to receiving God’s love (Irresistible Grace)
Initiated by God and carried along by God’s unfailing power, the church and its members will be brought to glory (Perseverance of the Saints).
SESSION 9 – The Belhar Confession: Addressing Society Theologically
Key Idea: The Belhar Confession clarifies the manner in which good biblical theology must produce life-giving social well- being, emphasizing the equality of all persons of all races and social groups before God.
SESSION 10 – Using the Creeds & Confessions: Discipleship Gifts
Key Idea: Reformed theology understands sin as relational rather than merely an accumulation of bad behaviors, believes the authority of Christ in the church is best seen through local gifted leadership nurturing strong communal life, identifies only two sacraments and explains them as symbolic of the relational grace of God toward us in Jesus, emphasizes both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of humankind in the process of salvation and sanctification, and identifies the social implications of the gospel.