“…all things should be done decently and in order.”


Sunday— 9:30 AM Sunday School, 10:15 AM fellowship, 10:30 AM Worship Service

Oct. 15

This is the third sermon in a five-part sermon series looking at the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as outlined in the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), F-2.05. Two weeks ago we covered the Presbyterian insistence on the sovereignty of God, in and over, all things. Last Sunday we looked at “the election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation.” Today we cover the important theme of “covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God.”

When I think of order in the church, I am reminded of an incident in my ministry several years ago. I was pastor at Round Rock Presbyterian Church and I was invited to be a part of a Pastor’s Group that met twice a month for lunch, mutual support, and prayer. It was a phenomenal experience. The group was composed of mostly non-denominational, non-affiliated pastors whose bend was much more conservative and evangelical, even Pentecostal, than the one “frozen chosen” Presbyterian they had invited to the table.

This group had ground rules: no politics, no theological debates, no denominational judgments. The group’s focus was on our well-being as individuals and pastors. I was hosting the group at Round Rock Presbyterian Church one day when a young pastor showed up to the group who was just getting started with a new church development in east Round Rock. I could tell that he seemed uneasy to even be on the grounds of a Presbyterian Church, perhaps feeling he might get soiled from the contact. I was told months later that this young man had preached a sermon that Presbyterians needed to be hosed down on their way to hell for practicing infant baptism and for some of our stances on social justice issues.

Over the months as we met together twice a month, occasionally this young pastor would slip into value judgments about me or my denomination. Other colleagues at the table would silence him and remind him of our group pact to stay out of judgments and theological and political stances. This young pastor had a rock in his gizzard about Presbyterians though, and he only grudgingly was hospitable to me.

One day, after about a year and half of a cold shoulder from this young pastor, I got a phone call. It was the young pastor. His church was growing – faster than he anticipated it would. And with such growth was coming problems, problems that revolved around leadership, and congregational structure, and order in the congregation. He said to me, “Bill, don’t you Presbyterians have a Book of Order?” I said, “Yes we do, Steven.” And he said, “Mind if I borrow it?” I said, “Borrow it? I’ll be glad to give you a copy free of charge!” And that began a several month’s conversation between us about congregational life and leadership structure and order in the church.

My friend begrudgingly had to admit that Presbyterians, though in his opinion lacking in many areas, certainly have what it takes when it comes to church order. Presbyterians did not invent church order. We come by our desire for church order by carefully paying attention to Scripture. In our passage from 1 Corinthians today Paul has quite a problem on his hand. Someone has either written to Paul or sent emissaries to Paul from the Corinthian congregation complaining about a whole lot of hooping and holler’n going on when the Corinthians gather for worship. Members are speaking in tongues, sometimes simultaneously; prophets are prophesying away likely while tongues are being uttered. We can only imagine what a cacophonous, noisy, wild riot of a mess is going on as the Corinthians gather for worship.

To gain some reasonable measure of order, Paul responds to the Corinthian chaos by offering an order of worship: “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (14:26). And Paul gives two, overall, guidelines for assessing order in worship: “Let all things be done for building up” (14:26) … and “…all things should be done decently and in order” (14:40). Paul’s decent, orderly advice for building up the body of Christ at worship in Corinth is to offer an order of worship and to limit the number of members speaking in tongues and have them speak only one at a time; likewise, limit the number of prophets prophesying in worship and let them only prophesy one at a time.

Presbyterians love the Apostle Paul’s phrase: “decently and in order.” Our whole Book of Order is dedicated to doing things decently and in order. Even the name Presbyterian is a name of order. It comes from the Greek word “presbuteros” meaning “elder.” Our Presbyterian form of church order is built upon the office of elder, and the elders meeting in session, to consider and deliberate and order the church’s ministry.

Presbyterians value order in the church because we believe so wholeheartedly in “covenant life.” The church’s very existence is dependent on the covenant life we share with God in Jesus Christ. In the Bible, a covenant is an agreement between two parties in which each party brings something to the table to make the covenant work. Christ brings his blood to the table to mark us as a people of God and through the Holy Spirit Christ brings the power of his resurrection to the table to call us into a new creation, a new way of being in the world known as “church.” Our part of the covenant with Christ is to bring confession of Christ as Lord and gratitude to the table, gratitude for all that Christ has done for us as we strive to embody his justice, love, and mercy in the world – especially beginning with each other in the church. You and I are in covenant with Christ and in covenant with each other; we are obligated to each other in covenant life, an obligation Christ demands of the church: to love one another as I, Christ, have loved you. (see John 13:34-35)

Covenant life…this essential tenet of the Reformed faith characterizes Presbyterians as a people of God who are deeply and passionately concerned for the community of faith. In our Presbyterian ethos, the first person “I” is not emphasized. For example, you will rarely hear a Presbyterian say, “I found the Lord.” Or “I was saved on March 14, 1969.” American evangelicalism of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries focused almost exclusively on personal religious experience and personal, individual salvation. In doing so it pushed a major biblical understanding of the church off the table – the church as a community of faith.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are part of a body that transcends individual tongues or individual prophesies or individual focus. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Notice Paul’s emphasis: you are the body of Christ, you are members of it, the body of Christ, the church. Paul does not mean that we lose our individuality when we become Christian. We confess Jesus as Lord and Savior individually; we are baptized in Christ as individuals. But our confession of Christ and our baptism in Christ place us squarely within a new realm, a new existence characterized by covenant life. This covenant life is variously called in Scripture the people of God, the household of God, the body of Christ, the church – all of which are communal images, not individual images.

Thus the Reformed/Presbyterian emphasis of “covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God.” The body matters, the community matters, we are in covenant life together with God in Christ and each other enveloped by the Holy Spirit. As we live in covenant life together in the church, we have a guide for maintaining order – the Word of God, Jesus Christ as he is attested to in Scripture, is our rule for faith and life and order. The writer of 2 Timothy reminds young Timothy that there is a standard by which he must judge himself, his work, and the work of his church: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (3:16).

Order in the church flows from the inspired Word of God in Scripture that teaches us how to be Christ’s disciples; reproofs us when we are wrong; corrects us when we are errant; and trains us for righteousness, for doing what is right, and decent, and orderly so the church may be proficient in its mission (not drained of its focus), equipped for every good work, (not drained of its energy).

Let everything be done decently and in order, for building up the body of Christ, for proficiency in effort and equipment in mission, so the church truly becomes a living, breathing, thriving community of faith characterized by a “covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God.”