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Christian Reformed Church polity reflects its secessionist history. The closer we get to the Reformed Church in America, the more subtle polity differences reveal themselves. In the RCA the classis (regional group of churches) has more clout. Church buildings are owned by the classis. Ministerial credentials are owned by the classis. The CRC was birthed by leaving the RCA, and that history reflects the a preference for the authority of the local council over the classis. We are suspicious of concentrated power and shy of leadership vested in individuals. There is a libertarian streak in our polity that finds cultural resonance the further we roam from ancestral Dutch clannishness.

While the RCA wrestles with how their polity impacts their politics around same sex marriage, the CRC wrestles with chaos at classis.

If you have a thick culture with broadly assumed common practice, you don’t need a lot of rules or enforcement mechanisms. This has been part of what has given CRC classes order. Diversity has replaced much common practice as the CRC has struggled to increase its evangelistic capacity and adapted to a business-oriented and therapeutic culture.

  • Classis meetings meetings need to be intelligible to elders who go only a handful of times.
  • Classis is expected to support the ministry of local churches rather than denominational administration.
  • Classis meetings are expected to educate, motivate, and inspire, not just move the polity and organizational machinery.

Classis is also the space in which two wobbling functionaries struggle to support local clergy and local councils. “Church visitors” and “regional pastors” are the classical fire brigade intended to address local conflicts and leadership problems. Church visitors and regional pastors are often semi-willing volunteer clergy whose services are sometimes begrudgingly levied from surrounding churches. Performance is spotty and outcomes occasionally tragic. Sometimes these firefighters don’t get the call until after the church is already consumed by fire. Sometimes those they wish to save testify more to being hosed than helped. There seems to be an increasing consensus the systems don’t work. We are far from a consensus about what to do about it.

The discomforts of chaos often prompt longings for positional leadership. Israel, weary of ad hoc judges, began to long for the office of king. The books of Judges and Samuel bookend the tensions. Wishing for bishops, like the other churches, has risen from musing to conversation.

There is no doubt that the CRC has always had bishops. They, like the judges, arose out of need and governed not from positional authority but from experience, influence, and outcomes. Also like the judges, they arise and disappear at uneven intervals, making some wonder if stability can be had by creating a space and a structure. And we hear Samuel’s warnings about kings that they too often become tyrants. Our secessionist instincts arise.

The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States and his popularity across the culture-war divide has demonstrated the power of a sacramental view of office-holding. The broad and often favorable attention given to the Pope enlivens some in the CRC, especially the young, to wonder if we can’t get into the game. Evangelical defections to Rome by the young mark the cultural current.

Where will these currents lead? This is another item for the pile of conversations the CRC needs to figure out how to have.

About the Author

Paul will be one of our regular writers for “As I Was Saying.” He is pastor of the Living Stones CRC in Sacramento, Calif. He regularly blogs at LeadingChurch.com.

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Correction - the classis does not own a church's property in the RCA.

Thirty years ago as a recent candidate seeking a call, there were time when I longed for a bishop/matchmaker.