We live in an age when the church as institution has not much appeal. Former eras may have had their share of conflict between the local churches and the higher denominational levels. But in our time, this seems worse. The Reformed Church in America (RCA) is not exempt from this.
We have come used to seeing church members polemically criticize synod agendas and decisions, or question the justification of financial assessments that provide for various denominational levels. In addition, many regard service in one of the higher bodies a chore rather than a calling or a privilege. Denominationally speaking, we live in a difficult age.
It has not always been that way. When the Reformed Church organized itself in â€œclassesâ€ rather than dioceses, it did so mindful of the experience of the Roman Catholicism from which it came. Allan Janssen, one of the RCAâ€™s experts on church order, states that â€œthe gathering of churches in classes began with the French Reformed â€¦ and was imported into the Dutch church at the Synod of Wesel, 1568.â€
â€œClassisâ€, singular for â€œclassesâ€, is a Latin term originally referring to a fleet of ships that sails the ocean together. The image may be somewhat naive. Yet it illustrates an intentional concept. A Roman Catholic diocese consists of parish churches that are dependent on a cathedral. This is a hierarchical structure with a bishop at the top. A classis, by contrast, is less hierarchically organized. Its congregations do not center on a cathedral but send delegates to the classis assembly. Since then, the decisions that a bishop used to make were made by the group of elected ministers and elders that is called â€œthe classisâ€.
Historically, this was a great accomplishment. It provided for more democratic processes within the church, and it brought all the possible good results in the wake of these processes. In our denomination, people have more chance of owning church decisions, and the decisions themselves are often more reflective of the will of the people. For more than 400 years, these principles have worked in many denominations of the family of reformed churches, and we have never needed a bishop in order for us to function!
Knowing, however, that historic references will always suffer an aura of abstractness, I took the two accompanying pictures during the September meeting of our Classis of New Brunswick. Sometimes it helps to see the faces. One picture shows one of our classis commissions at work. These are small groups of elders and pastors that meet for specific purposes between classis meetings or in connection with a classis meeting. In our classis, there are, for example, commissions on Justice and Mercy, Church Order, Congregational & Pastoral Care, and Candidatesâ€™ Care.
The other picture shows classis in session as it receives a report by Rev. Paul Nulton on the scheduled preservation work in 2008 at our church. Pastor Paul coordinates our denominationâ€™s volunteer services in our region, and his work will help our congregation not only to save in our preservation project, but also to connect with other churches for the sake of this work. Ultimately, a classis is there to connect churches. Why? Because one parish does not make a church.