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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




In this chapter some further explanations must be made in regard to the government of the church. In the preceding chapter the subject specially considered was the government of a particular church, after the idea of the church itself had been explained. In this chapter the government and discipline of the church is to be explained at some length. This leads to the question of the synods or councils of the church. In other words, the courts of the church are to be explained in an orderly way.

It is to be observed that the statements of the Standards upon this subject are of a somewhat general nature. The word synod means simply an assembly or convocation of persons in the interests of the church, and the word council indicates a deliberation or conference of those persons who are interested in the welfare of the body of Christ. But neither of these terms settles the question of the proper form which the government of the church should assume. Whether these synods and councils are to be Presbyterian, Episcopal, or Independent in their nature is not definitely decided by the use of these terms. At the same time, it is not to be forgotten that the corporate idea of the church which runs through the Confession cannot well be harmonized with the system of Independency, and the teaching of the Confession in regard to the officers of the church is not capable of being reconciled with the Episcopal system. The principles of the Confession are Presbyterian, but the details of the system are not wrought out with fulness of particulars. The idea of the church is essentially Presbyterian, and the teaching elders, ruling elders, and deacons are evidently officers of the Presbyterian system.

After what the Confession has to say upon the subject of synods and councils has been sketched, some explanations will be added in regard to the particular form which these synods and councils assume in the Presbyterian system, especially as represented by the church courts of generic Presbyterianism. The teaching of the Confession will be first set forth, and after that some things contained in the Form of Government will be added to make the exposition the more complete.

I. The Doctrine of the Standards.
The Confession is to be our sole guide in the explanations now to be made, as the Catechisms are silent upon these topics of ecclesiology. Several points are to be noted in order.

1. The Confession first indicates the end or purpose of synods or councils in the church. It says that for the better government and further edification of the church there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils. The idea here expressed evidently is that the government of single congregations separately by their officebearers is not all that is needed to secure the best edification of the church. In addition, it is necessary and wise for the officers of the separate societies of Christians to meet together, and to confer and devise concerning those things which may be for the welfare of the whole company of societies in any locality.

The Confession distinctly announces that the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and by reason of the power which Christ has given them for edification, and not for destruction, ought to appoint such assemblies, and to convene together in them as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church. This important teaching lodges in the officers of the church, the elders or bishops, overseers of particular societies or churches, power to call such synods or councils, and to deliberate and conclude all such matters as may be properly considered for the edification of the whole church in any given section. This principle of corporate action between the officers of the several particular churches in an assembly thus convened is clearly inconsistent with the Independent theory of church government, and is in entire harmony with the Presbyterian system. Indeed, it is one of the fundamental principles of Presbyterianism.

2. The functions of such assemblies are next stated in the Confession. These are stated at some length, and had better be set down in order in this exposition with some care, as they embody principles of prime importance in regard to the government and discipline of the church.

NOTE: By the "adopting act" of 1739, the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in North America expressly asserted that in regard to the civil magistrate and his relation to the church, it did not receive the passages relating to this point in the Confession in any such sense as to suppose that the civil magistrate has a controlling power over synods with respect to the exercise of their ministerial authority, or power to persecute any for their religion, or in any sense contrary to the Protestant succession to the throne in Great Britain.

The original form of the section in the Confession upon which this paragraph is founded was as follows: "As the magistrate may lawfully call a synod of ministers and other fit persons to consult and advise with about matters of religion, so, if magistrates be open enemies to the church, the ministers of Christ of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they with other fit persons upon delegation from their churches, may meet together in such assemblies." The revised form upon which the exposition is based does not allow the civil magistrate the power to call together ecclesiastical assemblies.

First, It belongs to these synods and councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience. In exercising this function, the officers of the church act in a ministerial capacity. This simply means that as the ministers of Christ, who are in no sense priests, they are to declare and apply the will of Christ, as given in his word, the Holy Scriptures being the rule in the case. This simple statement cuts at the very root of all hierarchical pretensions and prelatic assumptions. In exercising this function, synods and councils may form doctrinal creeds or confessions of faith, and they may also draw up a form of government for the church. In both of these matters, however, they are not to legislate as they please, but simply to expound and put in an orderly form what is contained in the sacred Scriptures. In like manner, when controversies arise in regard to doctrines of faith and cases of conscience as to matters of duty, these councils are to decide upon them, for the purity and edification of the whole body.

Secondly, These synods and councils are to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and the government of the church. These two important matters are to be attended to by these councils, to the end that there may be some order and general uniformity among the particular churches. Here, again, the rule by which the councils are to be guided in both cases above mentioned is the Holy Scriptures. The worship of God is to be in spirit and in truth, according to the word of God, and not will-worship, after the devices of men.

Thirdly, These councils of the church are to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and they are to determine the same in an authoritative way. This clearly implies a very important principle of Presbyterianism. It involves the right to appeal from a lower to a higher court. In the case of a member of the church who has been tried for some offence by the session of the particular church, if that member feels that justice has not been done him, he may appeal to the presbytery, and from the presbytery to the synod, and from the synod to the General Assembly, which is the court of last resort, and whose decisions are final in every case. The decisions of these courts, especially of the highest to which the appeal can be made, if they are consonant with the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission for two reasons: First, for their agreement with the word; and, Secondly, for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word. Here the direct teaching of the word, and the fact that the court is clothed with authority by the same word, unite to enforce the decisions of the church court, which is in harmony with the word of God.

The fallibility of such councils is distinctly confessed in the Standards. The Confession asserts that all synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err and many have erred. This being the case, the decisions of these synods are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but they are merely to be used as a help in both. This is a very brief statement. It was important when it was first drawn up, and it is quite as important at the present day, especially against the claim of infallibility made by the Romish church, and by the pope as its head. Since the apostles' day, when inspiration ceased, no council of the officers of the church has had given to it the gift of inspiration. Not enjoying this gift, it cannot claim to be infallible.

The church and her councils may enjoy, in a large measure, the indwelling and guidance of the Holy Spirit of promise, but he does not give absolute infallibility. Hence, the decisions of these councils may not always be in harmony with the Scriptures. This being the case, the decisions of such councils cannot be regarded as having the same authority as the word of God itself. Hence, the Romish church greatly errs in claiming infallibility, and in putting the decisions of the church above the word of Scripture. These decisions are merely to be regarded as useful guides both in matters of faith and practice, but in no case can they bind the consciences and conduct of men as do the teachings of the Holy Scripture. This view is in entire harmony with the doctrine of the Scripture already set forth in one of the early chapters of this discussion.

4. The last section in the Confession deals with a very difficult and perplexing question. This question has reference to the sphere of the action of the church, and its relation to the commonwealth within whose bounds it may be situated. The doctrine of the Standards is in itself quite clear, but when the attempt is made to apply this doctrine to particular cases, and at special junctures, very grave difficulties are almost sure to arise. The statement of the Confession is to the effect that synods and councils are to handle and conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical. This means that they must deal only with what is distinctly spiritual or religious in its nature, and pertains to the welfare and work of the church of Christ. This is the great doctrine of the spirituality of the church asserted from one point of view. This doctrine will be explained more fully when the question of the civil magistrate is discussed in the next chapter.

But the Confession goes on to say, further, that the councils of the church are not to meddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth. This teaches that, as a church court, no synod or council of the church should, as such, take any part in the affairs of civil government. They are not called on, as courts of the church of Jesus Christ, to take part in what is called the ordinary political affairs of the country. Of course, this does not mean that the members and officers of the church, as citizens, are not to take part in those public matters which belong to the duties of citizenship, or belong to the welfare of the country of which they are citizens. It is the undoubted duty of Christian people to exercise their civil rights, and discharge their duties as citizens. But it does not follow that any court of the church, as such, has any right to handle matters of a purely civil nature. It is quite right for the members and officers of the church to have their opinions upon any of the public questions which are debated in the country, and which, it may be, divide the political parties of the day, and no one ought to find fault with them for voting in accordance with their opinions. But a church court, as such, has, according to the teaching of the Confession, no right to deliberate and conclude any of those matters which are purely civil in their nature and belong entirely to the state, as, for example, the trade policy of the country, or the financial theory of the nation.

This statement seems very plain and simple, yet in it application practical difficulties constantly arise. These difficulties appear in connection with certain questions which are partly civil and partly religious in their nature. Such questions as education, marriage, the Sabbath, and temperance are illustrations of what is here meant. The first raises the question of religion in the public schools of the land, the second suggests the question about the sanctity of the marriage relation and its welfare for the state, the third has to do with one of the commandments, and the last relates to a great moral reform movement. The question here, How far should the church seek to bring her moral force in a corporate way to bear upon any legislation which may be proposed in regard to any of these topics, is a very serious practical question. It is evident that the church court should be exceedingly slow to meddle with those things on the civil side. The best thing is for the same members and officers of the church to act as citizens, and to seek thereby to bring their moral influence to bear upon the legislation in such a way as to secure the passage by the civil authorites of such laws as are for the welfare of the commonwealth. It is evident that there are practical difficulties here, and that much caution is needed. Christian citizens should not hand the affairs of the country over to those who are not Christians, but church courts should not deal with purely civil matters. The Christian, as a member of the church, acts in one sphere,and as a citizen he acts in another. In both he has duties, rights, privileges, and responsibilities, and he should be true and faithful in both relations.

The last clause in this section of the Confession introduces a peculiar qualification of the position just stated. The admission is made that the only way in which the church court may deal at all with civil matters is by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary, or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience. And, then, the church court is only to do this when invited by the civil magistrate, who is to take the initiative in the matter, especially in the latter case.

Here, then, are two ways in which the spiritual officers of the church may approach the civil magistrate in connection with the affairs of state. They may come to him by humble petition and they may give advice. The former action is taken on motion of the church court itself, and only in cases of extraordinary gravity and moment. The latter action is to be taken only when the civil authorities require the advice at the hands of the church. In the one case the representatives of Christ act, and the representatives of Caesar are to respond; in the other case the servants of Caesar act, and the representatives of Christ are to respond.

The real difficulty here is twofold: First, It is not easy to decide what are extraordinary cases justifying petition; and then where is the arbiter who is to decide upon such cases. Secondly, In the divided state of Christendom in any land especially in a country where there is no state church, the real difficulty is as to which branch of the church should the state look for the advice of which the Confession speaks. Theoretically, the principles laid down in this chapter of the Confession throughout are safe and sound; and in spite of the difficulties which attend their practical application, the utmost care should be taken to work them out and apply them as fully as possible in harmony with the word of God, and in the light of the varied and ever-varying conditions of the church and state in any given country. In this way many a conflict will be avoided.

II. The Presbyterian Idea of the Government of the Church will now be briefly Outlined.
Upon the basis of the important principles laid down in the Confession regarding the church and its polity, the Presbyterian system can be very properly explained. In general, Presbyterianism may be described as ecclesiastical republicanism, or representative church government. It essentially consists in government of the members of the church visible by Jesus Christ, its king and head, through the representatives whom they choose for that purpose, and to whom the people delegate the power which Christ has lodged in them as his body. Hence, Presbyterianism is representative or republican chusch government, in which the people, under Christ, govern themselves through the representatives they choose to be over them. The main elements of this system of church rule may be summed up under several particulars.

1. The idea of the church comes first. This has already, from the Confession, been quite fully explained. Another definition of the church visible is given in the Form of Government, and may be here set down. The visible church has for its members all those persons in every nation, together with their children, who make profession of the holy religion of Christ, and of submission to his laws. The fact that all the definitions given in the Standards include the children of the members of the visible church is worthy of notice, and it is in harmony with the teaching set forth in the chapter on baptism, where the relation of the infant seed of the members of the church to the church was carefully explained.

2. The members of the church may next be defined. The question of who are to be members of the visible church has been partly defined by what has just been said in the previous paragraph. All adults, male and female, who profess thetrue religion by professing faith in Christ, and promising obedience to the laws of Christ, are members of the church. In addition, as hinted above, the children of such persons are to be regarded as born in covenant relation to the visible church, and are entitled to pastoral care and oversight, as well as having a right to the privileges of the church. This was the relation of children in the Old Testament age, and the teaching of the Standards is to the effect that they have the same relation to the visible church under the gospel.

3. The officers of the church are to be described. Bearing in mind the important fact that Christ is the head of the church, it is to be observed that he has ordained that certain officers shall be chosen to teach, rule, and guide the members of the church. According to the Presbyterian polity, the ordinary and perpetual officers in the church are teaching elders, ruling elders, and deacons. The teaching elder is the minister of the word, and his special duty is to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, and also to rule in the house of God. The ruling elder is to serve in the office of government alone in the church. The special function of the deacon is to distribute the offerings of the faithful to the poor, and for pious uses. The teaching and ruling elders are both included under the New Testament bishop or presbyter, so that there are not distinct grades in the office of the gospel ministry. This is important in relation to all prelatic views in regard to the officers of the church.

4. The courts of the church require some explanation at this stage. From this point of view, Presbyterianism is a form of government by means of courts in gradation, one above the other in regular order, all of which may be regarded as presbyteries, being made up of teaching and ruling elders. These courts are the church session, which is over a particular congregation; the presbytery, which is over a number of church sessions in a given district; the synod, which is over a group of presbyteries in a wider area; and the General Assembly, which is over the whole church which may be in fellowship in a certain locality or country for the time being. Each of these courts has its jurisdiction, which is prescribed by the constitution of the church itself. These courts may now be briefly described in order.

First, The session is made up of a minister and ruling elders. Generally, it requires a minister and two ruling elders to make a session, but in certain cases one elder is considered sufficient. The session has general oversight of the affairs of the particular church whose members elected them as their spiritual representatives. They order the worship of the sanctuary, they receive and dismiss members, they deal with the erring members, and, in general, govern the church and administer its spiritual affairs.

Secondly, The presbytery is composed of a minister and a ruling elder from each church or pastoral charge. This is the typical court of the Presbyterian system, and by many is regarded as the unit of the system. The presbytery licenses preachers, ordains ministers, settles them in charges, and looses them from the pastoral care of churches. It also has the care of all the churches within its bounds, and takes special care of weak churches and of mission work within its bounds. It also deals with cases of heresy or improper conduct on the part of ministers, and guards the doctrinal purity of the teaching of the officers of the church. It also elects commissioners to the General Assembly, and in some cases to the synod, and, in general, it has charge of the welfare of the churches within its limits.

Thirdly, The synod is generally constituted in the same way as the presbytery, by one minister and one ruling elder from each pastoral charge. In some cases where the membership of the synod is large, the presbyteries elect certain representatives to make up the membership of the synod. The jurisdiction of the synod varies greatly in the different branches of Presbyterianism. It deals with appeal casesfrom presbyteries, it often has the oversight of colleges and theological seminaries, and it takes general charge of the work of the church in the presbyteries within its bounds.

Fourthly, The General Assembly, in most cases, is the supreme court in the Presbyterian Church, although some branches of that church make the synod the highest court and have no General Assembly at all. The General Assembly is formed by an equal number of teaching and ruling elders elected by presbyteries according to a prescribed proportion, which is sometimes larger and sometimes smaller. The Assembly hears and issues finally all cases of appeal or complaint, it in some cases has charge of educational institutions, it conducts Home and Foreign Mission work, it raises the means necessary to carry on the great general schemes of Christian activity in which the church is engaged, and makes recommendations to the court below in regard to certain matters. Each court reviews the records of the proceedings of the court below it, and in this way oversight is regularly exercised. Such is a mere outline of the gradation of courts in the Presbyterian Church.

It only remains to be added that the jurisdiction of these courts is only ministerial and declarative, and it relates to three things: First, The doctrines or precepts of Christ. Secondly, The order of the church. And, Thirdly, The exercise of discipline. All these courts are essentially one in their nature, constituted of the same elements, possessed inherently of the same kinds of rights and powers, and differing only as the constitution of the church may provide, when it prescribes the sphere of action and jurisdiction of each court. At this point the explanation of the Presbyterian form of church government must conclude, although many other things ought to be said about it. Enough has been said to give a general idea of that system whose deep and abiding principles are so fully exhibited in the Confession.

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