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The Importance of the Book of Church Order

Gregory E. Reynolds

As a young ministerial candidate I was impressed with the late John Mitchell's exhortation to take the Book of Church Order seriously. He quoted (in italics) from the first paragraph of the Preface of the Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

It is our prayer that as this book is used in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the great King of the church, our Lord Jesus Christ, will use it in maintaining his Word as its supreme rule of faith and life. Although the standards of government, discipline, and worship are subordinate to the Word of God, they may not be neglected without resulting in serious impairment of the life of the Church. They have been adopted by the Church as part of its constitution. Moreover, they have been received as being based upon the Scriptures, and even the elements not drawn directly from the Word have been acknowledged as being in accordance with the general rules of the Word. Their design is not to take the place of the Word, but to provide effective means for the application of its teaching in the government, discipline, and worship of the Church.[1]

I was impressed because the remnants of biblicism—just give me the Bible, not confessions or books of church order—tempted me to view these tertiary standards as relatively unimportant. At the very least, I did not feel strongly bound by them. Especially poignant is the qualifying statement, "Although the standards of government, discipline, and worship are subordinate to the Word of God, they may not be neglected without resulting in serious impairment of the life of the Church" (emphasis added). Recently I heard a candidate for ordination answer a question about his adherence to some aspect of the present Directory for Public Worship by noting its subordination to the Bible. The implication was that, insofar as a given practice required by the Directory is determined by a minister or session to be biblical, it is binding.

Let me aver that the very reason we have a Book of Church Order is that some matters are agreed upon not to be left up to the discretion of individual ministers or sessions. Many things are, but not these, or else why would we call them standards, or part of our constitution? Put another way, there are some aspects of government and worship that we agree should not be left to local prudence because deviation from these principles and practices will result in "serious impairment of the life of the Church." This is why we are a confessional church—our Book of Church Oder is part of what we agree to confess together.

This brings me to the question of what is and what is not biblical in these standards, especially in areas where they mandate certain practices. Must all such practices be expressly mandated in Scripture? Well, yes and no. Some may be expressly mandated, like the preaching of the Word, or the plurality of elders. These are obviously binding. Others may be mandated by using the logic of good and necessary consequence, such as infant baptism or making a public profession. These too, although not as obvious, are as binding as those things expressly mandated.

But there is a third category that I think is especially useful in thinking about our tertiary standards. This category is often overlooked in our laudable effort to ground all doctrine and practice in the Bible. All three categories are covered in Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed (emphasis added).

Things like the use of Robert's Rules of Order and worship times would fall into this category of "circumstances" of our practice. These are to be ordered by natural law within the boundaries of the "general rules of the Word." These are "always to be observed." If the session calls the congregation to worship at 11:00 AM each Lord's Day, even though it may be inconvenient for some, it would be sinful to choose to arrive at a time of one's own choosing.

I use this obvious illustration to point up the importance of taking similar guidelines seriously as they are set forth in the BCO in general, and in the present and newly approved DPW in particular. Obviously in the case of some things not mandated, but suggested with varying degrees of emphasis, in these DPWs it is not necessarily sinful for a session to choose not to practice them. However, in what is mandated, the proper ordering of government, discipline, and worship is at stake. If there is something in these standards that is out of accord with the Word of God there is a proper procedure to amend them. Unlike our secondary standards they are frequently amended for various reasons, usually for clarification, but sometimes for correction.

So, not everything necessary to the ordering of church government and worship, according to WCF 6.1, must be expressly or by good and necessary consequence set forth in Scripture to be binding on the consciences of ministers and elders. There are matters that need to be agreed upon, even among those aspects of the BCO that are mandated, that are in the third category of circumstances determined by the "light of nature."

It has been argued that there is far too much detailed guidance in the new DPW, much of which, it is alleged, unnecessarily binds the consciences of church officers. While I might agree on some details of this allegation, I think there is a tendency among us, as part of a democratic society, to employ the concept of individual conscience as an excuse to avoid submitting to the consensus of the church. This is in no way meant to impugn the legitimate concerns that have been expressed in this debate over recent years. But it also needs to be kept in mind that the preface of the new DPW takes this into account by calling attention to its careful use of language, distinguishing between what is mandated and what is not mandated (in which three levels are distinguished).

My real concern here is for the former—what is mandated. The Directory for Public Worship has always been on a par with the Form of Government and the Book of Discipline, as reflected in our third ordination vow: "Do you approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?"[2] What was assumed in the old vow (as was argued by Westminster Theological Seminary church history professor Paul Woolley), prior to the revision of the Form of Government in 1979, was made explicit in the new FG by adding "worship" to government and discipline. But we have a history of not treating it so. I do not believe that among the mandated elements of the new DPW there are any significant new mandates that violate the regulative principle or the essential tenets of historic Presbyterianism. The problem is that we have for so long often failed to take the DPW seriously. Now the prospect of the new directory is causing us to reconsider some of our cherished practices or elements we have neglected. Since worship is where heaven and earth meet this rut is a good one to get out of. Let's get to know our new DPW, apply it to our worship, and amend it where needed.


[1] This paragraph has been part of our church order since at least the 7th General Assembly in 1940, when the three tertiary standards were bound in one volume.

[2] Note that the ordination vows are numbered in the order of their subordination to Scripture. The first vow is to an unamendable standard; the second vow to a difficult-to-amend standard; and the third vow to a more easily amendable standard.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online June-July 2010.

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