Why I Love My Book of Church Order
To most people, saying that you love a polity manual like the Book of Church Order (BCO) is like saying that you love your slide rule or your calculator. Functional, yes. But worthy of affection? I confess that, in my own experience, it wasn’t love at first sight. I have had to grow to love the BCO of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). But after almost 20 years of reading our BCO, nearly 13 of them as a minister, I have developed a genuine affection for this royal blue, spiral-bound manual.
How do I love the BCO? Let me count the ways.
First, our Book of Church Order lays out standards and procedures covering the gamut of the church’s life together. How does one go about establishing a new church? What are the duties of the local session (board of elders)? How does one examine a minister for ordination? What does one do when a minister wants to move from one congregation to another? What happens when someone raises an accusation against another person in the church? What may I do if I think that the elders have erred in a matter of theology or discipline?
Our BCO, like many other polity manuals, provides concise answers to such questions. The church should never be in the position of devising ad hoc standards and procedures to deal with the multitude of governance and disciplinary situations that routinely face her. Having agreed-upon rules helps to ensure consistency and equity on occasions when consistency and equity are most needed. When the church faces a stressful situation that threatens to fracture her often fragile unity, what a relief it is to have recourse to standards and procedures that are already in place, that we have previously agreed to follow, and therefore stand at a healthy remove from the particular situation before us. No set of rules, of course, can guarantee unity. But there is nothing like procedural anarchy to precipitate disunity in the church.
IT’S FULL OF OLD WISDOM
Second, our Book of Church Order is the fruit of the wisdom of generations of Presbyterian reflection and experience. The PCA’s BCO traces its ancestry to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1789), which is indebted to earlier Scottish Presbyterian reflection on the church’s government. The PCA’s Historical Center has made available a free resource that allows anyone to trace the descent of every section of the PCA’s BCO.
Of course, the antiquity of any given provision of the BCO does not make it right. Neither does the fact that a provision of our polity has enjoyed the consensus of the ages render it true. By the same token, we should not despise this heritage. The generations of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us have experienced the same kinds of trials and difficulties that we face in the church today. The rules that they have handed down to us were forged in the fires of trial and experience. To intentionally cut ourselves off from the biblical wisdom preserved in this heritage is to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Do we dare presume that wisdom has begun only with our own generation? We need the gifts of earlier generations of believers no less than we need the gifts of our own generation of believers. Each generation of the church has the privilege and responsibility to conserve the best of the past and to pass it on to the next generation.
IT’S UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
Third, our Book of Church Order is subject to Scripture. We do not print our BCO on golden plates but on three-ringed loose-leaf paper. We do this because virtually every year the church amends something. When the church becomes persuaded that some provision of the BCO is mistaken, we seek to perfect it in accordance with the light given us in the Bible. We often have vigorous and protracted debates along these lines in our presbyteries and at our General Assemblies. Some dismiss or even despair of such discussion. But I often find it heartening. After all, the church invests time and energy in these discussions because she cares about the authority of the Bible. She desires her corporate life to be conformed to the pattern that Jesus Christ, her Head and King, has given her in his Word.
To say that our BCO is subject to the Scripture does not mean that our BCO is a compilation of verses of Scripture strung together. It is to say that we intend our procedures and practices 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” (Westminster Confession of Faith, I.6). In light of this conviction, the earliest American Presbyterian Forms of Government included biblical proof-texts in support of their specific provisions. This commitment to the Scripture has animated Presbyterian polity from the beginning and, by God’s grace, continues in a number of Presbyterian bodies today.
So, that’s why I love our BCO—so much so that I think all Christians could come to appreciate, if not love, the BCO. The BCO, after all, seeks to realize biblical ideals for the church that all Christians share. All Christians desire unity in the church. We want the church to express the unity that is ours in Christ, yet we know this unity does not happen by accident. It is the Spirit-blessed outcome of believers’ efforts to apply the Word’s teaching about unity in the church.
And our BCO is intended to foster just that work. All Christians desire to obey the biblical command to do “all things … decently and in order” and “for building up” (1 Cor 14:40, 26). If order (not chaos) and edification (not tearing down) are pleasing to God, then we need to pursue order and edification in every department of the church’s life, including her government, discipline, and worship. That’s where the BCO has proven so beneficial to our denomination. And when unity, order, and edification prevail in the church, then love is constrained to praise Christ for these his mercies to his church. Why love the BCO? Because it’s a help to the love of Christ!