One Parish Does Not Make a Church

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 “classes” rather than dioceses, it did so mindful of the experience of the Roman Catholicism from which it came. Allan Janssen, one of the RCA’s experts on church order, states that “the gathering of churches in classes began with the French Reformed … and was imported into the Dutch church at the Synod of Wesel, 1568.”

“Classis”, singular for “classes”, 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 “the classis”.

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 Candidates’ 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 denomination’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.

About Rev. Dr. Hartmut Kramer-Mills

Hartmut Kramer-Mills, a native of Jena, Germany, began his theological education at Heidelberg University. After the Middle Exam in 1986 he received a scholarship from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches for McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. He graduated from McCormick with a Master of Divinity in 1988. He graduated from Marburg University in Germany with the Ecclesiastical Exam in 1990, and received a Dr. theol. from Greifswald University, Germany, in 1997. From 1990 to 1991 he was vicar at St. Wenzel in Naumburg, Germany. He was ordained minister of word and sacrament in 1993 through the Protestant Church of the Church Province of Saxony. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant pastor in Stoessen, Goerschen, and Rathewitz, Germany. At the same time he was lecturer for Church History at Erfurt College in Germany. From 1999 to 2000 he served the Spotswood Reformed Church in New Jersey as interim pastor. Since 2000 he and his wife serve the First Reformed Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey, as co-pastors.
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