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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




With this chapter the passage is made from matters of doctrine and duty to questions concerning the polity and discipline of the church. For two or three chapters these questions will engage attention. In this chapter two related topics, which the Confession treats in separate chapters, and in different connections, are grouped together, and briefly explained.

The Shorter Catechism has nothing whatever to say in regard to the church, or its form of government. This is, perhaps, a serious defect in it, so far as instruction in the principles of church polity is concerned, especially from the Presbyterian point of view. The Larger Catechism defines the visible and invisible aspects of the church in a simple, clear way. It does this immediately after it has set forth the work of Christ, and before it unfolds the benefits of redemption. The Confession devotes a whole chapter to the church, and in others deals with the form and powers of the government of the church in a somewhat general way.

As was hinted in a previous chapter, the Standards speak with much less precision in regard to questions of church government than they do in reference to matters of doctrine and ethics. It is important to remember this in relation to Presbyterianism. The reason of this difference is mainly to be found in the fact that in the Westminster Assembly there was little difference of view in matters of doctrine, while in regard to questions of polity there was great diversity of opinion. All held more or less definitely the Calvinistic or Reformed system of doctrine, but they did by no means agree as to the form of church government which the Scriptures taught, and as to the proper functions of the church of Christ, and its relation to the civil magistrate. In the Assembly there were Episcopalians of various types, some being high churchmen and some Erastians. There was also a number of very influential Independents. The Presbyterians were also there, and while they argued very strongly for their views of the true polity of the church, as they understood it, it was not till the close of the Assembly almost, when numbers had left, that they were able to carry, to a certain extent, their views in the Assembly. But, after all, it is not well-defined Presbyterian polity that is set forth in the Standards. The general principles are there, but the details are not unfolded. This is, perhaps, just as well, for it leaves each branch of the Presbyterian family to work out the details in such a way as bests suits its special circumstances in harmony with the word of God. The Standards undoubtedly contain the fundamental principles of the Presbyterian system, and the only proper development of these principles is generic Presbyterianism, as it is hoped will be clearly seen in this exposition.

At this stage it may be well to observe that nearly every branch of Presbyterianism has drawn up a Form of Government, in which that particular form of polity is set forth more definitely, and in its full scriptural form and proportions. In the exposition to be given in this, and one or two other chapters, some of the contents of these forms of government and discipline will be incorporated, so as to make the discussion more complete. In doing this, however, care will be taken to keep these two factors so far separate that the reader will easily perceive what each, and especially the Standards, teaches.

I. The Church is First Considered.
In regard to the church, what the Confession and the Larger Catechism have to say about it will be set down first,and then in mere outline a sketch of the main factors or elements in the generic Presbyterian form of church polity and discipline which grows out of it will be given. At every point brevity is enforced, by reason of the limits of this exposition.

1. The invisible church, as it is called, ought to be first explained. This is the most profound view of the church of Christ which the Standards present. It is called invisible partly because we cannot tell absolutely in this life who are members of it, and partly because we do not find all the members of it on the earth at any given period of the history of the church. The Larger Catechism defines the invisible church to be the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head. This terse and comprehensive statement the Confession somewhat expands. It adds that the invisible church is catholic or universal, and that it is the spouse of Christ, and that it is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. The term catholic means universal, and has no reference to the Church of Home. Membership in this invisible phase of the church is in accordance with the purpose of God's electing love and grace, but it is only actually realized in the case of each individual through union with Christ the head. Only those who are united to Christ in effectual calling, and are truly regenerated by the Spirit, are members of this body. If they are in adult years when they become members, their personal faith will also exist, but the fundamental condition of membership for all, infants or adults, in this phase of the church is union with Christ. It is evident, also, that only those who are members of the invisible church are, or can be saved, so that the number of those finally saved shall agree with the great company of those who are members of that aspect of the church, just as the members of the invisible church agree with the innumerable company of those included in God's purpose of electing grace. And all the members of the invisible church, by reason of their union with Christ, enjoy communion with him here, and in glory with him hereafter. They also have fellowship with each other through the communion of saints.

2. The visible church is also to be explained. This is the aspect of the church which comes up chiefly for discussion in church polity. This phase of the church is doubtless called visible because its condition of membership, which is profession of faith in Christ its head, is open for observation, and because its members can be seen upon the earth at any given period. It is sometimes called the church militant since it is engaged in conflict and struggle from age to age in the world. The church triumphant will be finally found in heaven, when the church visible and militant has won all its victories on the earth, and the church invisible will also be complete in the heavenly state.

The Larger Catechism defines the visible church to be "a society made up of such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children." This is an admirable definition, and one cannot but wish that this definition, as well as that of the invisible church, had been given a place in the Shorter Catechism. The Confession says that the visible church is also catholic or universal under the gospel. This means that the visible church, now under the gospel age, is not confined to a single nation as it was in the Jewish dispensation, but includes all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children.

The conditions of membership in the visible church are credible profession of faith in Christ, and a life of obedience consistent with that profession. It is not absolutely necessary to be a member of this aspect of the church in order to be saved, and there may be some who are members of it who shall be finally among the lost. Still, for many urgent reasons, it is most necessary that all who are united with Christ, and are thus members of the invisible church, should profess his name before men by becoming members of the visible church.

From the definitions given of these two aspects of the church of Christ, it is not to be concluded that there are two distinct churches, the one visible and the other invisible. They are simply two different aspects or phases of the one body of Christ. The one views it from its inward side of regeneration and union with Christ, and the other regards it from its outward aspect of profession of faith in Christ, and union in a society. The former is the invisible church, and the latter is the visible.

The visible church is under God's special care, and is protected and preserved in all ages in spite of its foes. All its members enjoy the communion of saints, and the ordinary means of grace. This implies the offer of grace and salvation to all its members, through the ministry of the gospel, testifying that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and that none who will come unto him shall be rejected. The visible church thus becomes the instrument upon the earth by means of which the knowledge of the way of life and salvation is given to the world, and the gospel message brought to men, even to the end of the world.

This visible church is, by the Confession, said to be the same as the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and is the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. The force of the ordinary must be carefully noted here. It seems to emphasize the importance of membership in the visible church, and yet it is not to be held that such membership is absolutely essential to salvation. This is very carefully stated, and should be held fast.

3. The gifts of Christ to the visible church are to be considered at this stage. To the universal visible church, which God has instituted in the world, Christ has granted certain very important gifts. These are the gospel ministry for the preaching of the word, the oracles of God contained in the sacred Scriptures, the ordinances of his house, especially the sacraments and public worship. The purpose or end of these gifts is to gather sinners into the kingdom, and to make the saints meet for glory, on to the end of the world. Then it is added, with great propriety, that Christ does, by his own presence and Spirit in the church, make these gifts effectual to the salvation of those who are appointed thereunto. This brief paragraph will be expanded later on in another connection.

This phase of the church universal has been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible; and the particular churches into which the universal visible church may be divided and of which they are members, are more or less pure according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, the ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. Here there are three valuable tests of the purity of any branch of the church of Christ. The preaching of a pure gospel, the observance of the ordinances in their simplicity, and the spirituality of the worship in the church are the tests. The importance of these tests is evident.

The Confession further acknowledges that the purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error. Some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ at all, but synagogues of Satan. The name of the Romish church is not here mentioned, but there is little doubt that the reference is to that corrupt body. But in spite of this, the statement is added that there shall always be a church on the earth, to worship God according to his will. This church is founded upon the Rock of Ages, it is inhabited by the Spirit of power and grace, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

4. The head of the church is another important topic here to be understood. This doctrine is briefly but clearly stated in the Confession. It says that the Lord Jesus Christ is the alone head of the church. This statement brings us within sight of the kingly office of Christ, already expounded. He is the head of the church invisible, and all his people in union with him are members of his body. He is also king and head of the visible church, which is really the visible exponent of the invisible church in any given age. His law is supreme, and his will is law in all spiritual matters for the members of the visible church.

This implies two important things: First, It teaches that no mere man in any ecclesiastical position or office ought to assume to be the head of the church; and, hence, that the pope cannot rightly claim to be its head. The Confession adds that the pope may properly be identified with the anti-Christ of the Scriptures, who is that man of sin and son of perdition that exalts himself in the church against Christ, and even calls himself God. Secondly, It teaches that in no sense can any earthly civil ruler, as such, presume to be the church's head, or to exercise rule or authority therein. The headship of Christ over his church is not temporal, but entirely spiritual. Hence, no man dare take the place which belongs to Christ alone. This raises the question of the relation between the church and the state, to be treated more fully later on.

The question of the officers of the visible church is reserved for the next chapter; when the courts of the church and other kindred topics are to be explained. A few things, however, may be set down here in regard to the matter of the call to such office and ordination in that connection. Ordination, of course, presupposes a call to office in the church. This call is of God, by his Spirit and providence. This call implies three things: First, There is the inward testimony of the conscience of the man himself. Secondly, There is the manifest approbation of God's people exercising their right of election. And, Thirdly, There is the concurrence of the church court, according to the word of God. Ordination follows; and it is the authoritative admission of one duly called to an office in the church of God, accompanied with prayer and the laying on of hands, to which it is proper to add the giving of the right hand of fellowship. Ruling elders and deacons are ordained by sessions, and teaching elders and ministers are ordained by presbyteries. Synods and the General Assembly do not ordain.

II. The Censures of the Church is the Other Main Topic for this Chapter.
It relates to the matter of government and discipline chiefly. This is a topic upon which the Confession alone speaks. Its teaching is now to be set forth. In doing so, it will appear that it is with this chapter that the contents of the rules of discipline are to be connected. Into these matters this discussion cannot enter, but must content itself with a brief presentation of the general principles laid down in the Confession upon this practical matter.

1. The Confession first asserts that the Lord Jesus, as the king and head of his church, has therein appointed a government in the hands of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate. The former part of this chapter has made plain the meaning of this statement. The last brief clause of it is of very great importance, for it asserts the clear distinction between the government of Jesus Christ in the church, which is his spiritual kingdom, and the government of the civil magistrate in the state. The two spheres are distinct, though they sustain intimate relations with each other. This will be seen more fully in the next chapter, when the question of the civil magistrate and his functions in relation to the church are discussed.

2. To the officers of the church, into whose hands the government of the church is entrusted, Christ has committed the keys of the kingdom of heaven. By this power is to beunderstood the whole matter of government and discipline in the church. By virtue of this power the proper officers of the church have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by word in preaching and by censures in discipline, and to open it unto penitent sinners by the ministry of the word of the gospel and by absolution from censures, as occasion may require. This power of the keys is a very important one in the kingdom of heaven. Its proper use does not imply the doctrine of absolution, as Rome teaches and practices it. It is simply the divinely delegated power of government and discipline in the church. The statement "retain and remit sins," taken from Scripture, does not mean that the officers of the church can actually, as God alone can, pardon or refuse to pardon sins; but it denotes that these officers have power to admit or exclude persons from the visible church. Those whom they admit are thereby pronounced worthy of the place and privileges of those whose sins are pardoned, and those who are not admitted are merely judged not to be worthy of this place and privilege. Then, if those who are members of the church do not conduct themselves in propriety with their profession, the officers of the church have power to discipline and censure, as may be expedient, the erring members. This is the gist of what is meant by the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

3. The uses or ends of the power of church censures are next explained in the Confession. First, They are necessary for reclaiming and gaining erring brethren. In this respect church censures are unlike civil punishments, whose main end is penal rather than reformatory. Secondly, They are useful in deterring others from like offences, and thus are helpful to them in this respect. Thirdly, They also help to keep the church pure, by purging out the leaven which might infect the whole lump. Fourthly, These church censures serve to vindicate the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel. If men were allowed to profess to be the servants of Christ, and yet to disregard his law and bring shame upon the Christian profession, then the great name of Christ would be hopelessly dishonored. Finally, These censures prevent the wrath of God from coming upon the church. By reason of sin, and especially by profaning in any way the seals of the covenant exhibited in the sacrament by notorious offenders, the just wrath and displeasure of God might, indeed, fall upon the church. To save from this, the faithful use of the censures of the church is of much value. For the attainment of these important ends aright, the officers of the church are to proceed in a wise and careful manner, seeking always to graduate the censure in proportion to the gravity of the offence. The lowest form of censure is admonition, by which the offender is simply rebuked, exhorted, and warned, but not excluded from the privileges of church membership. The form of censure next in severity is suspension from the sacrament of the Lord's supper for a season. This does not sever the offender from the membership of the church, but it deprives him of the privilege of taking the sacrament of the supper till the suspension expires, or until repentance is made and restoration is granted. The third and most severe form of censure is excommunication from the church. This form of censure severs the offender entirely from the membership of the church, and by means of it he is cast out, and can only be restored after proper repentance, and renewal of his faith in Christ. These three forms of censure are to be graduated with conscientious care by the officers of the church, according to the nature of the offence and the demerit of the offender.

This chapter in the Confession is really the basis of the rules of discipline, according to which the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven implied in these censures is to be administered. If the offender is not satisfied with the sentence of any lower court he can appeal to a higher, and sofrom the session which has original jurisdiction in the case of members of the church, and from the presbytery which has jurisdiction over ministers, up to the synod and on to the General Assembly the case may go, in the interests of the offender, the purity of the church, and the honor of Christ.

This complete organization and gradation of courts is one of the features of the Presbyterian system which must ever commend it to thoughtful and practical minds. It secures corporate unity, orderly procedure, individual freedom, and justice to all sacred interests. Moreover, it provides for the harmonious balance and consistent operation of all these factors in such a way as to make Presbyterianism the symbol of law and liberty, of order and organization, wherever it is found true to its divine genius and faithful to its common-sense principles. chubch synods and councils.

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