Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Church law: When does it become too restrictive?

I had two men at my house today who came to see me because they needed some advice. One of the men used to be a member of our congregation some years ago, before he moved to South Africa. They are presently members of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa, which was formerly known as the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa which was in reality the Reformed church reserved for Black members of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Hey, don’t blame me if you don’t understand any of this – I didn’t invent this and neither do I approve of it! 😉
In any case, their pastor had retired a few weeks ago and chances are that it will be nearly impossible for them to get a new fully ordained pastor due to the financial implications. The previous pastor’s salary had been subsidised heavily by another church but they had decided to stop the subsidy once he retired.
The problem which they are facing at present and which they wanted my advice on, was what they had to do concerning baptism and the serving of the communion. According to their church law only ordained ministers are allowed to serve the sacraments. The implication of this is that they have to ask their closest minister, who lives 80 kilometres (50 miles) away to come to their church on a specific Sunday. He however does not have his own transport, which means that they have to drive to his home and bring him back to their church and afterwards they have to drive him back to his home. At the rate at which the price of crude oil is climbing, this is becoming a very expensive exercise. What could they do?
When I came to Swaziland we were faced with the same issue. I was the only person allowed in our congregation to serve the sacraments. However, because we, at that stage, had five different “preaching posts” and it was obviously impossible to visit each of these posts every Sunday, we made use of “tentmakers” to preach at the places where I could not be on a specific Sunday. I however had to rotate so that I could visit the different preaching posts and also serve the sacraments there. It didn’t take me long to realise that there was something seriously wrong with the system. Within the Protestant tradition the Word of God is considered to be superior to the sacraments. But in practice exactly the opposite happened. Elders and at times even other church members were allowed to preach but they were not allowed to serve the sacraments. When the Swaziland Reformed Church came into existence (a story for another day) and we had the chance to write our own constitution, we decided, after a long discussion, that elders of the church would also be allowed to serve the sacraments. This decision freed my hands to work more constructively in the church. I was fortunate – I know of missionaries who have fifteen or more preaching posts for which they are responsible and in an attempt to serve the sacraments not less than four times per year at each place, they move around, Sunday after Sunday, serving the sacraments every single time that they visit a branch, often even at more than one place on a Sunday.
What did we conclude? Well, I couldn’t help them really, because they are restricted by their own constitution. A constitution is an extremely important document. But I have also seen and experienced how easily a constitution can strangle a church. One of my former colleagues used to say that a constitution is like a donkey: you ride it until it can’t go any further and then you dismount and proceed by foot! Somewhere we need to find a balance between having no rules at all and having so many rules and regulations that God’s work is restricted. Exactly where that balance is, is not always easy to determine.


Monday, March 31, 2008 - Posted by | Church, Indigenous church, Mission, Swaziland, Theology

1 Comment »

  1. Wow, thank for this commentary. It is amazing the impact of church polity on mission and visa versa. I will pray for this church, that God will give them wisdom and the God will bless them.

    Comment by wlh | Tuesday, April 1, 2008 | Reply

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