Decently and In Order

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Let’s begin with three selections:

“But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” – 1 Corinthians 14:40

“The minister preaches and teaches the Word of God, administers the sacraments, shares responsibility with the elders and deacons and members of the congregation for their mutual Christian growth, exercises Christian love and discipline in conjunction with the elders, and endeavors that everything in the church be done in a proper and orderly way.” – Excerpt from the Book of Church Order of the RCA

“Formal gatherings and exercises may make him uncomfortable and anxious due to his aversion to rules and order.” – Excerpt from my psychological assessment from the first year of seminary

Earlier this week I was cleaning and organizing my home office, I happened to find my psychological assessment from seminary in the back of a folder. This event happened less than a day after a Classis meeting that had a fair share of conversation surrounding the Book of Church Order. As I read the excerpt I shared with you, there was a quiet affirmation of that notion in my head. It is not that I am averse to structure or organization, I just always seem to question rules and order. From as early as I can remember I have always questioned tradition. I’m always wondering why we do it this way or that way. This was a struggle for me as I encountered the RCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) and the Liturgy book for the first time. It seemed so rigid and soul-less to me during those days at seminary.

During my first two and a half years as an ordained minister in the RCA, I have been to one General Synod in 2012, two Regional Synod meetings, plenty of Classis meetings, and have lead worship on a weekly basis. Throughout my experience I have grown to appreciate both the BCO and the Liturgy. I appreciate the time and effort that have gone into creating them and for the way that they provide structure for the ministry of the church. I have experienced how the BCO helps churches and classes to not be a chaotic mess; this is what I think Paul was getting at in 1 Corinthians. Yet, if we read that verse in its context I think we will see another important aspect of ministry.

The preceding verse says, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” But do this in an orderly fashion, do not haphazardly or flippantly engage in these activities. If everyone is speaking in tongues or prophesying at once then how will that benefit the church? The BCO and the Liturgy provide that same kind of structure for the ministry of the RCA. Yet, I wonder if at times those structures can be a hindrance to the moving of the Spirit? Can the BCO and Liturgy be elevated to such a level that they stymie the church instead of allowing it to live into its purpose? Is our desire to do everything decently and in order, as the King James puts it, a roadblock to the building of the kingdom?

I understand the need for order and structure within meetings, conferences, and even worship services to a certain extent. You do not want chaos to rule the day. However, ministry is messy at times and does not always lend itself to orderliness. Maybe it is the case that those structures we have in place help us to make sense of the madness and chaos that ministry can be. But does our need for order and structure remain in the realm of administration? Or does it bleed into our spiritual lives? Does it prevent us from seeing what God is doing, not only in our communities, but also in our own life? Are we overly obsessed with needing a nice and neat explanation for everything? Does our faith require all of our t’s to be crossed and our i’s to be dotted? Can we embrace the mysteries of our faith and allow God to move as God moves?

I’ve noticed a lack of creativity and a resistance to mystery in the many debates that exist within church communities these days. Humility is also severely lacking as no one wants to utter the shameful words, “I don’t know”. I believe our desire for order and structure prevents us really engaging with one another. Everyone has to be right and everyone claims to own the truth about God. Our theologies have to look pretty, all tied up perfect little bows. God boxes are built with one side claiming their box is better because it’s bigger and the other side claiming their box is better because it’s sturdier. All the while they are ignorant of the fact that they are both just holding boxes, limited in their understanding of what God is really up to.

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2 thoughts on “Decently and In Order

  1. Having spent over 60 years in two denominations that are very much ‘decently and in order’ oriented, I understand your perspective. But, it appears to me that many people misunderstand what that means. Jesus accused the Pharisees of that misunderstanding. Rules are not the focus. They are merely tools and standards to help us accomplish our ends.

    Many have misunderstood the Ten Commandments in the same way, and see them as a way of salvation while others want to throw them away as obsolete.

    Jesus reminded his followers that not even a tiny bit of them would disappear until all was accomplished… obviously, they must have purpose. But just as obvious is the ‘salvation by grace’ principle that Paul made so plain.

    Perhaps it takes many years to reach that point where we can really embrace the comfort of orderly expectations and to understand the freedom that brings. Likewise, perhaps it also takes many years to learn how such order doesn’t have to impede progress… one just has to know how to use the tools.

    The interstate road system created tremendous barriers in the daily lives of those farmers who found their property divided by two strips of concrete and a set of fences, but most of us bless the system for its efficiency.

    I hope our need for order bleeds into our spiritual life. I hope that what may appear to some as the madness of our ministry may begin to appear as the orderliness and predictability of God’s control. I hope, when the years have passed, that we can look back and see that what we perceived as chaos was in fact, God’s persistent care, and what we saw as barriers or road-blocks were the detour signs that He set up to guide us through the back roads of life where we needed to go on His mission.

    You are so right about a lack of creativity and a resistance to the mysteries of God. Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand creativity to be our own fabrication rather than God’s guidance to somewhere within His plan. Is a resistance to His mysteries our unwillingness to embrace His unchanging greatness and to admit that we will never understand Him or His plan?

    Perhaps our resistance to order and rules is really our own prideful assertion that our way is better and our choice is worth more than the wisdom and guidance of some who have gone before and experienced all and more than we will ever understand. Could it be that the disadvantages we see are so obvious because we focus on them and don’t see the good that is there if we only looked in another direction? (Don’t watch the author as he dots his i’s and crosses his t’s…. or places periods, semi-colons, and quotation marks. Instead, read the story more easily and with better comprehension because you understand his punctuation.)

    • Lowell,

      Thank you for your response to my thoughts. I know much thought and care has gone into crafting documents like the BCO. There is much wisdom contained in its pages.

      I believe we are on the same page in that I was critiquing that Pharisaic approach to rules and order.

      I believe we need structure but not as an end in itself. I believe this because God does not always work in ways that fit into the structure we have crafted. And I personally like that, Its hard sometimes but chaotic and messy parts of ministry are what make it great at times.

      We have been allowed to understand some of Gods structure but I believe there is so much more beyond our comprehension. And if we could drop our pride for a moment, releasing the need for nice and neat explanation, we might be pleasantly surprised at what God is doing.

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