The French Confession of 1559 was put together by men associated with the National Synod at La Rochelle. Theodore Beza was one of the leading figures there. This confession is longer and more detailed than most of the earlier Reformed confessions, perhaps indicating the development of key debates after 30 years of Reformed theology and ecclesiology. The doctrine of the church, in particular, is treated over the course of at least nine articles. As we will see, among its interesting features are its bishop-like office of “superintendent” and its granting freedom for the churches to create special ordinances which vary from place to place.
In Article 29 of the French Confession, the true Church is said to have an “order established by our Lord Jesus Christ.” This includes the offices of “pastors, overseers, and deacons” and the regular assembling of the people of God. Article 31 states that governors of the church should ordinarily be elected by the people, though it grants an “exception” for extreme times when reform is necessary. At such time, the French confession says God might “raise men in an extraordinary manner to restore the Church…” (One is reminded of John Calvin’s view of prophets in the Reformation era.) Then article 32 mentions an office called “superintendent,” which is worth looking at more closely.
These “superintendents” appear to come from the prior class of church officers. They are also expected to be elected, but the French Confession then says that they may “devise among themselves what means should be adopted for the government of the whole body.” Thus it seems that these superintendents are elected superior officers who must create certain governing structures for the various congregations within their districts. To achieve this purpose, the superintendents are allowed some measure of freedom. “They should never depart from that which was ordained by our Lord Jesus Christ,” but the French Confession adds the following clause, “Which does not prevent there being some special ordinances in each place, as convenience may require” (Article 32 of the French Confession of Faith, 1559; in Cochrane, pg. 155).
So again we see a Reformed Confession claiming that there is a divine order instituted by Jesus Christ but also that there is an additional sort of sanctified human-law order which the church can create and alter as needed. Article 33 then adds some regulation to this freedom, stating that no manmade ordinances can “bind consciences.” Rather, their goal must be to maintain concord and hold all in obedience.
These special ordinances seem to have to do with discipline and polity. Article 33 mentions excommunication “with all its antecedents and consequences” as an example. And so the French Confession is saying that certain features of church discipline and government are not precisely prescribed by the Scriptures but are rather created by the officers of the church in order to fit the particular needs of their place and time. These are allowed so long as they are not elevated to the category of worship in and of itself or absolutely necessary moral laws.