************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 31-32 ************

By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman

This sermon was preached on September 13, 2020

Belgic Confession Articles 31 & 32
Acts 6:1-7
"Order in the Church"

We are looking at the good order of the church tonight. At the time the Confession was written, there were two extremes.

First, there was the many abuses that had crept into the Roman Catholic Church and perverted its order and discipline. Salvation, they were called indulgences, was up for sale. The rich bought church office or even multiple offices. Sin was not admonished or held in check; in fact, popes and bishops openly fathered illegitimate children and kept mistresses.

Second, some Anabaptists wanted nothing to do with church order, with rules and regulations, and ended up confusing freedom in Christ with license to do as they saw fit. They rebelled against every form of spiritual authority, had common-law marriages, refused to support local churches with tithes, and had self-proclaimed preachers and elders.

By means of the two articles in front of us this evening I want to consider three points: first, the ones keeping order; second, the means to keep order; third, the effects of keeping order.

I The Ones Keeping Order
A Article 31 lays out four helpful principles "we believe" about those who keep order in the church. Let me emphasize we aren't talking about what I think or want but what "we believe."

The first principle: office bearers "ought to be chosen by a legitimate election of the church." We see this in our Scripture reading from Acts 6. It was the congregation of believers, and not the apostles, who chose the seven deacons. In contrast to this, in the Roman Catholic Church and among extreme Anabaptists at the time the Confession was written, men forced themselves or were forced upon the churches.

Does this mean that those in church office serve at the discretion of the congregation? If they elect can they also unelect? Not at all! As said last week, those in church office are servants of God, not the congregation.

B The second principle: men are called by God to serve in church office.
So everyone must be careful
not to push one's self forward improperly,
but all must wait until called by God,
so that they be assured of their calling
and be certain and sure that it is
from the Lord.
When a Church Council announces the names of those who are nominated for church office, there is often much kidding about campaign speeches and managers. We only kid about that because it is improper for anyone to "run" for church office.
In one of the churches I served, a man always came to see me when it was time to make nominations for church office. He improperly campaigned to be a nominee.

"Hold it!" someone may say, "What about those verses which say it is a good thing to seek office?"
(1 Tim 3:1) Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. (cf 1 Pet 5:2)
How can someone be praised for wanting to serve in church office and yet is told not to "run" for that office? Isn't there a contradiction here? And what about those many men who want to serve, who are qualified to serve, yet are never nominated or elected to serve? Are these men wrong in wanting to serve?

It is helpful to distinguish here between an internal and external call. The internal call is a prompting from the Spirit giving certain men a desire to serve in church office. The external call is the call of the church that confirms the validity of the internal call. That's why the Confession speaks of "election of the church, with prayer in the name of the Lord." Election is done with prayer because what the congregation does is confirm God's call.

C The third principle: there is equality among ministers. Let me start off with a humorous illustration.
A lady called a church office and asked to speak to the pastor. She was informed the pastor was not available. She then asked for the associate pastor. She was informed he wasn't there either. She was asked if she would like to speak to the youth pastor. The caller replied, "No, I don't want to go that low," and hung up.
However, as the Belgic Confession takes pains to point out, there is no ranking among the clergy. They are equal to each other. None are before or after, above or below, another.
As for the ministers of the Word,
they all have the same power and authority,
no matter where they may be,
since they are all servants of Jesus Christ,
the only universal bishop,
and the only head of the church.

To this we can add that there is no ranking among any office-bearers. Ministers are not higher than elders or deacons or vice-versa. All the offices are equal in dignity and honor; they differ only in mandate and task. All are servants of Christ and no one has a position of greater importance than another.

The equality of the offices is a reaction to the Church of Rome. As you all know, the Church of Rome has a hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and -- at the top -- the pope. The Confession cannot accept this hierarchy of the clergy because Christ alone is the head of the church (Eph 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col 1:18; 2:10; etc.).

D The fourth principle: members are to "esteem" those in church office and "be at peace with them, without grumbling, quarreling, or fighting." Though the Confession does not mention the deacons here, their office is included. We have three proof texts to support this principle:
(1Th 5:12) Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.

(1Tim 5:17) The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

(Heb 13:17) Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Why? Why are we to esteem and cooperate with all those in church office? Not because they stand higher in God's sight than other believers -- for they don't! Not because they are holier, more valuable, or more gifted than other believers -- for they aren't! And ministers are not to be respected because they have a "higher calling" -- for all of us have a high calling from God to serve Him in all of life.

We are to esteem and cooperate with all those in church office "because of the work they do" (cf 1 Thess 5:13). Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. That work is to be prized. That work advances the Gospel, strengthens the church, and expands the kingdom.

II The Means to Keep Order
A Article 32 specifies the means to keep order in the church. We see five different principles "we also believe." This is not optional. It is part of our faith.

The first principle: the Bible is not enough. This may sound heretical but it isn't.
We also believe that
... it is useful and good
for those who govern the churches
to establish and set up
a certain order among themselves
for maintaining the body of the church ...

Why isn't the Bible enough? In the New Testament many of the details of church life are not spelled out. The Spirit of God allows for considerable latitude and encourages diversity so it remains silent on many questions of order. You don't hear a word about Seminary training, the calling of a minister, the keeping of minutes and financial records, weddings and funerals, Christmas and Easter worship services, and the many other matters of Reformed church order. In these and other areas the churches must set their own rules. In the United Reformed Churches these rules and regulations are to be found in the "Church Order."

Do you know why we have two worship services instead of just one (Art 37)? Why we have sermons on the Catechism or Belgic Confession (Art 40)? Why we ordinarily meet for worship on Christmas, Good Friday, Old Year's Day, and Thanksgiving Day (Art 37)? Because the Church Order tells us to!

B The second principle: our rules for the life and worship of the church cannot disagree with the Word of God. Says the Confession,
they ought always to guard against deviating
from what Christ, our only Master,
has ordained for us.

This second principle recognizes that the Head and King of the church is Christ. His will must be followed. What He says and commands always takes precedence over what man wants and desires. A church, any church, whose church order is in disobedience to Christ and His Word, is rebelling against His rule, His authority, His headship, His throne.

C The third principle: rules that regulate worship cannot bind and force our consciences in any way.

John Calvin's famous example is that of kneeling at public worship. Calvin thought it commendable but not obligatory. You do not force believers to their knees; you do not bind their consciences. So if a church has kneeling benches, those who wish to kneel have the freedom to do so. And those who don't feel free to kneel, have the liberty to stay sitting.

In one of the congregations I served this principle came to expression when we said the Apostles' Creed. One family thought it wrong for the congregation to say the Creed together. So when the rest of us recited it, they were given the freedom to quietly listen. We did not bind or force their conscience.

D The fourth principle: the rules of the church must promote healthy congregational life. Says the Confession:
So we accept only what is proper
to maintain harmony and unity
and to keep all in obedience
to God.
The goal is harmony, unity, obedience. If rules fail to do that, they need to be reexamined.

E The fifth principle: the kingdom of heaven must be opened to believers and closed to unbelievers. That is how we are to understand the reference to "excommunication" in the final paragraph.

People are to be called to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And with it comes the promise that as often as they accept the Gospel promise in true faith, God, because of what Christ has done, truly forgives all their sins.

And, people are to be warned that if they don't repent and believe they are excluded from the Kingdom of Christ.

In conclusion, I want to end with our last point: the effects of keeping order. When church order is properly applied, what is the result? Let me go back to what is said in Article 30 about the government of the church:
By this means
true religion is preserved;
true doctrine is able to take its course;
and evil men 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.
Our Bible reading states it a bit differently, but just as dramatic:
(Acts 6:7) So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Praise God, I say, praise God for order in the church.
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