Kerkverband : 'n gereformeerd–kerkregtelike studie
Du Plooy, Andries Le Roux
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The expression ecclesiastical fellowship (= kerkverband) is of special importance and particular significance in the reformed churches. It is also true that reformed theologians differ greatly about the exact meaning and precise scope of this concept. While it is a noticeable fact that the commonly used expression ecclesiastical fellowship does not occur in the New Testament, the word ecclesia is frequently used and of great importance in the New Testament. Our point of departure is the New Testament and consequently it is essential to analyse with great care the scope and meanings of the word ecclesia in the New Testament. I believe that the correct conception of ecclesiastical fellowship depends on, and is based upon, a pure view of the church. The question arises whether these two concepts, namely church and ecclesiastical fellowship do not imply a dualism. What is the exact relation between the two concepts? We know that the local church is an ecclesia instituta, but, can the same be conceived of a group or communio or combination of churches? This study accentuates the basic principles concerning the expressions church and ecclesiastical fellowship. It is our purpose to concentrate on the experience and practise of ecclesiastical fellowship among local churches in New Testament times. We also want to attempt to outline the application of these principles and directives through the ages, particularly in the history of church polity. In the first part of this study we concern ourselves with the principles relevant to our theme. We then go on to a historical survey, tracing the application of these principles through the ages. The approach is mainly thetical and not polemic. In using relevant facts from the New Testament, the history of revelation is always taken into account and every view or thesis is based on thorough exegesis. The concept church and the concept ecclesiastical fellowship as used in reformed church polity, are both rooted in the kingdom of God. We believe that Jesus Christ is King and Lord of all people and all things and we believe in the kingdom of God. This confession is the basis on which the church rests and it is also the prime factor that binds together churches all over the world. All true believers and all the local churches are joined together and linked to Christ as the Head of his church by their mutual confession and their mutual acceptance of the rule of Jesus Christ. It is evident from the meaning of the word ecclesia when used with reference to the history of our salvation that there is and must be a close relationship among God's people through the ages and all over the world. Christologically ecclesia implies that the church in New Testament times is one body, the body of Christ Himself. The image of one Head and one body so frequently used in the New Testament indicates that a true ecclesiastical fellowship is imperative. From the way in which the word church is used in the New Testament it is evident that there is a close relation between the church and the kingdom of God. Ecclesia in the New Testament denotes either the local or the universal church, and the unity in Christ of churches is assumed as a fact. The church has some essential characteristics - that it is a unity, that it is holy, catholic and apostolic and these characteristics are stated in the New Testament as indicatives and imperatives. This fact implies that to live in true fellowship is imperative to churches because the act of doing so is an expression of the essential nature and character of the church. It does not mean, however, that the local church is incomplete or dependent on other churches. The churches, as complete and autonomous units, are instructed to assist each other and use all their gifts collectively to build and strengthen the church of Jesus Christ. Ecclesiastical fellowship implies a specific way of living: like a close-knit family, the churches should live harmoniously together, assured of the love, of God, their Father, under the rule of Jesus Christ, Head of the church, and guided and by the Holy Spirit. Fellowship among churches should not give rise to the existence of a separate structure next to or over the local churches, but it should help all the churches to become examples of the true church of Christ. Therefore, churches should assist each other to guard the holiness and apostolic nature of the church by exercising discipline, and this can be done by counsel and joint action in major assemblies. The New Testament reveals much about the fellowship among churches in those times, and certain principles and directives can be deduced from these historical facts and applied in reformed church polity. Jesus Christ, as Head of his church, instituted offices and bestowed gifts on people 50 that there could come into existence a diaconological unity among churches. From this also grew a bibliological, confessional and dogmatological unity. Churches that subject themselves to, and confess to the authority of the Word of God, will experience bibliological, confessional and dogmatologlcal unity with each other - this relation among churches is known as ecclesiastical fellowship. Ecclesiastical fellowship was experienced fully in New Testament times; the ministry of the Word resulted in a permanent bond between churches and even sworn enemies became reconciled. Acts 15 and the history of the collection for the church in Jerusalem is of paramount importance. At this point in history much tension was aroused by the problems surrounding the issue whether the churches among the heathens should enter into a fellowship with the churches among the chosen people of God. Therefore, the meeting in Jerusalem was possible - it took place because there was, in spite of everything, fellowship among the churches, and consequently it took place in aid of the fellowship among churches. This meeting marks the beginning of the presbyterial church polity. It also demonstrates the fact that the universal church precedes the local church and a meeting or assembly such as this is the logical and "natural" outcome when churches assist each other. The conclusions arrived at this meeting, carry authority because the Word of God and the Holy Spirit led these people to arrive at their conclusions. The gathering of this collection is an example of visible and organized ecclesiastical fellowship, a relation that must and can function regardless of the fact that the people concerned belong to different nations and live in different countries. God Himself disposed this collection and the Holy Spirit guided those concerned to fulfil his will. When the Word is preached by one church and a new church originates, there is a permanent and visible bond between the two churches, as is evident from the history of this collection. Ecclesiastical fellowship is never optional, it is a commitment - God Himself imposed this through his apostle Paul on the churches and the churches obediently and voluntarily resigned themselves to God's will. The command to live in true fellowship must be obeyed, though it might require sacrifices and effective organization. There is only one fellowship of churches, and though it can be organized into bigger or smaller units, these units, such as minor or major assemblies exist in mutual dependence. In spite of the explicitly given principles and directives concerning the functioning and organization of churches in the New Testament, history has seen many deforming and reforming trends as far as the ecclesiastical fellowship of churches is concerned. We have a relatively sound knowledge of church life and organization during the period directly following New Testament times - owing to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. There was lively communication among these churches, they were closely and warmly bound together without giving up the autonomy of each separate church. In this period the churches modelled themselves on the churches described in the New Testament. The concept of ecclesiastical fellowship began to change, differing more and more from the models of the New Testament, when the bishops were allotted more monarchical authority and power and the conciliums acquired the status of independent structures exercising authority from without on the local churches. The misconception about the relation between the church and the kingdom of God that became evident in the early Roman Catholic Church, and the influence of the Roman law - which had a legalistic and an institusionalistic influence on the young church - brought about further changes. Consequently the church became one large visible institute, an institute ruled by a visible head, the pope, and the local churches as separate units as good as disappeared. Luther was the first person who succeeded in bringing about reforming changes, who openly tried to go back to the principles and models of the New Testament. However, he could not free the church from the curse of institutionalism - his reformation thus remained incomplete and inconclusive. At this point in history the development of strong national governments also influenced the church negatively. The governments acknowledged a church as the official church of a country and thus state churches (staatskerke) came into existence. In the place of one large visible church institute for the whole world, separate state churches for separate countries developed and this was the perfect background for Collegialism - a trend that spiritualized the church and saw the church as a free and equal brotherhood of individuals. The church was no longer seen as the body of Christ, the Head of the church, and the fellowship among churches disappeared almost completely. Calvin sought and founded the beginnings of the true Reformation, from which the reformed church polity grew. Reformed ecclesiology is based mainly on his confession, the doctrine of the visible and invisible church and the distinction between the universal and the local church. He gave specific directions for the practical organization to establish and maintain ecclesiastical fellowship. He consequently reverted to the principles given in the New Testament and systematized these directions in a Church Order. Thus the way was prepared for an orderly and organized method of practising the unity of the church in ecclesiastical fellowship. The basic principles of reformed church polity was first established in the church order of the French churches. In the Netherlands the reformed churches developed and employed the presbyterial church polity. These developments resulted in a true ecclesiastical fellowship which was not impeded by national or linguistic barriers. There were no state churches, but the separate local churches in each country formed a unity based on a sound and true fellowship. The church was once again threatened by a deforming trend when provincialism in the seven states of the Netherlands led the churches to over-emphasize their independence. Independentism was strengthened by the theological influence of Erastus and the Remonstrants. Voetius, the renowned reformed theologian of the Netherlands expanded and systematized reformed church polity in his writings during the seventeenth century. He took great care, however, to adhere strictly to the revelations and principles of the New Testament. The church in the Netherlands entered a period of intense polemic struggle which culminated in the conflict concerning the authority and the right to exercise discipline of major assemblies. The idea that an ecclesiastical fellowship somehow implies the existence of an inclusive institute - an institute manifested in the major assemblies - seems to have taken root again. The reformed churches in South Africa originate from and still adhere to the Calvinistic Reformation of the sixteenth century. The theological trends and controversies of the Netherlands have influenced these churches, as have world-wide trends such as the Liberal Theology, Pietism, Methodism, Collegialism and the many misconceptions about the relation between government and church. Church polity in South Africa has been shaped to a very great extent by the particular problems of the country. The fact that various ethnical groups live together in one country and a variety of other factors have contributed to the development of "national" churches and church bonds that exist independently next to each other. Churches were conditioned to accept this antiscriptural state of affairs - a state based on a misconception of what the church really is - when local churches first became part of a state church and later on part of national churches or families of churches which were each an independent ecclesia instituta. This is contrary to New Testament revelation and principles concerning the church and also contrary to reformed church polity. Therefore, all reformed churches must tirelessly endeavour to live up to the motto of the Reformation: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.
- Theology